The Real Girl

I was the tiny child taken straight to hospital in Dublin. I was the tiny child with drugs, concentrated rays, no hair, enduring the looking, poking, prodding, needles and thumb-pricks. I was the tiny child bloated on maintenance drugs.

I was the bigger child playing at nursing toys in old shoes boxes:

‘Dolly, here’s your catheter.’

I was the bigger child howling and hearing:

‘Sorry, we couldn’t get a vein.’

I was the bigger child with them thinking I couldn’t grasp what they were saying:

‘Maybe she won’t have babies.’

I was the bigger child with the all-clear.

I was the school-aged child when we left the ghost of my sickness and emigrated. That’s when I met myself. It was in a book I found in Biggera Waters State School library as the Irish fish-out-of-water kid in Australia in the nineties.

I met myself and her name was Sadako, a Japanese girl who was two when Hiroshima was decimated and who developed Leukaemia a decade later. I read the book cover to cover in the back of my parents’ car, lit only by street-lamps as they drove from the Gold Coast to Brisbane. In the poor light I battled every page, fighting for her/me to survive. I saw the hospital bed with everyone buzzing around; I knew that life.

I had my granny with her prayers, surely Sadako’s mission of folding paper cranes would work.  A thousand and you could make a wish! Imagine a child wishing to live. My nine-year-old self wished for her as though she were me, knowing that I had won my battle. But Sadako grew weaker and a thousand was too many. My hope collapsed. In killing her, part of me was lost too. So much of  the story was real, but she wasn’t a real girl. I couldn’t allow her to be, she was too close to me. Didn’t real girls get to live? I closed the paperback quietly and cried in the darkness in the back of the car.

Time dragged me along, making me bury that book, that moment and that me. I carried the lost memory of Sadako with me back to Ireland from Australia years later because every image of Japan I saw hooked itself onto the aesthetic that intrigued teenage and adult me: pictures of stacked castles, Miyasaki’s animated films, kimonos, Hiroshige prints, cherry blossoms, samurai, tamagotchi and the bright lights of the Tokyo cityscape.

My curiosity about Nippon kept mounting and in Spring 2015, I went to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) for myself. The most significant day of the trip started with a bullet train from Kyoto and boat ride to Miyajima—a warm island paradise of beach, temples, wild deer and the Floating Gate Shrine. Some hours later I took in the Genbaku Domu in Hiroshima, the skeleton of the bomb drop site. Walking along the river not far from the dome, families and friends were having picnics under cherry blossom trees.

The island and the city were so close yet joltingly at odds: heaven and hell on earth. The A-Bomb Dome and the proximity of the relaxed citizens at leisure compounded the polarity. Passing the Children’s Peace Monument, I’d had my fill of starkness.

I had “prepared” myself for visiting the city by watching the BBC documentary about Hiroshima narrated by John Hurt. As I followed the line of other A-bomb Museum visitors around the start of the exhibition, I had to look away from human models with their skin peeling off. I couldn’t understand how the other tourists could walk around it all and not turn a hair. The city before and after, the dead schoolboy’s torn clothes, the shadow on the step, the physics of the bomb itself. Thousands incinerated in seconds. How could anyone? I felt sick.

In the single-file trot around the horror, I stopped, forcing people to negotiate around me. There were photos and a small pair of zori (traditional shoes). There were cranes in a glass case and a blurb about a girl athlete who felt her legs weaken before she was hospitalised. Across thousands of kilometres and more than two decades, I stared through the glass and met Sadako and my own reflection. The buried nine-year-old clutching the book in the back of the car awoke and shook my adult body with the shock: the girl that was me was real.

I was openly weeping then at pre-teen Sadako smiling out of a black and white photo in her first kimono. She was pre-teen Sadako, happy in her new expensive robes and honoured to be coming of age. She was pre-teen Sadako, while she could still walk. The triad of grief hit me: for Sadako and all the other children who perished because of the bomb, for the death of this girl I had absorbed into myself as it hit me then, again, in my thirties, and for the innocence of my child self who championed for the life of the girl before she was real. I was bracing my nine-year-old self from the impact of the past returned—now overlaid with a new finality.

There was more to see, but I was fixed to the floor staring at the display about her short life. I spoke to Sadako. I spoke to us at all of our shared stages, to the adulthood and old age she never had, to my present self and to my old age:

‘We were little girls with cancer in our blood. I met you in a book when I was you and you were me. You stayed trapped in childhood and I rose from the steel framed bed, emerging from the flames with new hair. Then, as time and space twisted on, there you were, a real girl, this time through the glass. What killed you cured me. Radiation measured and radiation blasted. We are different, we are the same. I heard your wish, you’ve lived in me.’


‘Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes’ published by Eleanor Coerr (1977).


Bayveen O’Connell lives in Dublin and is inspired by travel and dark things. She’s had short stories and flash published in The Bohemyth, Nilvx, Rag Queen Periodical, Train Lit Mag, Molotov Cocktail and Tales from the Forest.


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