Prologue The book The Thousand Birds of Sadako is based on the life of a girl who lived in Japan from 1943 to 1955.
Sadako lived in Hiroshima when American aviation dropped an atomic bomb over the city. He died ten years later due to radiation emitted by the bomb.
Thanks to her courage, Sadako became a heroine for all Japanese children. This is your story.
A lucky day
Sadako was born to run. His mother liked to say that Sadako knew how to run even before she could walk…
That morning of August 1954, in Japan, as soon as Sadako had just dressed, she started running for the street. The rising sun enhanced the coppery highlights of her black hair. No cloud darkened the blue sky. “That’s a good sign,” said Sadako, who was aware of the slightest omen.
Returning home, he saw that his brothers were still sleeping, lying on their little mattresses. Shaken Masahiro, the elder brother:
– Get up, lazy, it’s Peace Day!
Masahiro grunted and yawned. Like any fourteen-year-old, he liked to get up late. But hunger was already tightening, and from the kitchen came a delicious aroma of fish soup. Masahiro rose, followed by Mitsue and Eiji.
Sadako helped Eiji get dressed. Eiji was six but sometimes still lost a sock or underwear. Then, helped by her sister Mitsue, Sadako folded the mattresses and arranged them in the closet. Then he went into the kitchen like a whirlwind and said to his mother:
– Mom, I’m so impatient to go to the carnival! Could we have breakfast earlier?
Sadako’s mother was carefully slicing marinated radishes to serve with rice and soup. He gave her a stern look and scolded her:
– You’re eleven years old, my daughter. At your age you should no longer call this day of recollection “carnival”. Every year, on 6 August, we celebrate the memory of those who died when the atomic bomb was dropped on our city.
Mr. Sasaki came in the back door and seconded what his wife had said:
– It is true. You have to show respect. Your grandmother was killed that bad day.
– But I respect Grandma. I pray for her every morning. Only today I’m so happy…
The father interrupted her:
– By the way, it’s time for us to say our prayers.
The Sasaki family gathered around the small altar where her grandmother’s photograph was placed in a gilded frame. Sadako looked up at the ceiling and wondered if her grandmother’s spirit was hovering over them.
The father questioned her:
The girl bowed her head immediately. He danced with his toes as his father prayed aloud. Mr. Sasaki asked for the spirit of his ancestors to be at peace. He thanked the hair salon and the wonderful children he had. He prayed that leukemia, the so-called “bomb disease”, would not affect the family.
Many Japanese people were still dying from this disease, although the bomb had been dropped nine years earlier. The atmosphere had been saturated with radiation, and people, as if poisoned for the rest of their lives.
At breakfast, Sadako swallowed the soup and rice. Masahiro spoke of girls who looked like hungry dragons, but their sister didn’t even hear him. I was thinking about what had happened the year before: the crowd bathing, the music, the fireworks. I still tasted the cotton candy in my mouth.
She was the first to finish breakfast and almost turned the table as she got up. She was tall for her age and her long legs crossed her path.
“Come on, Mitsue, help me do the dishes so we can get out faster.”
After the clean, tidy kitchen, Sadako tied red ribbons to the ends of her braids and bounded around the front door.
The mother said to him, in a kind tone:
– Sadako, we only left at half past seven. Sit down and wait quietly that we are all ready.
Sadako sat on the mat. The parents were never in a hurry! Suddenly a velvety spider crossed the room. It was a good omen. Sadako was sure this was going to be a fantastic day. He placed the spider in his palm and carefully threw it away.
“Say what you say, the spiders never got lucky!” Said Masahiro.
– That’s what we’ll see! – Sadako answered him happily.
The Day of Peace
The Sasaki family set off. The day was hot and the streets were crowded with dust. Sadako ran to meet Chizuko, her best friend. They had known each other since kindergarten. Sadako felt that they would always be very good friends.
Chizuko motioned to her and approached, unhurriedly. Sadako sighed. If only her friend were faster.
– What a turtle! Hurry up or we’ll lose everything!
“Sadako, slow down from the heat,” her mother warned.
But the girls were already down the street. Mrs. Sasaki frowned.
– Sadako is always in such a hurry that she never stops to hear me.
“Have you ever seen her walk, could she run, walk lame, or jump?” Asked her husband, proud of his daughter, who could run so far and so fast.
At the entrance of Peace Park, people silently lined up in India. On the walls of the monument to the dead were photographs of the victims taken all over the devastated city. The atomic bomb, also called the “ball of light,” had turned Hiroshima into a desert.
Sadako refused to see those scary images. He crossed the building, squeezing Chizuko’s hand tightly.
“I remember the” ball of light, “Sadako murmured in her friend’s ear. The sky seemed lit by a thousand suns. The heat pierced me as if a thousand needles were stabbing at me!
– But you were just a baby! How can you remember? Asked Chizuko.
– Of course I remember! – Sadako insisted.
The Buddhist priests and the mayor gave speeches, and then someone released hundreds of white doves, which circled around the temple of Genbaku. For Sadako, these doves symbolized the souls of the dead rising free in the sky. As soon as the ceremonies were over, Sadako referred the family to the lady who sold cotton candy. The treat still knew better than last year. The day passed quickly, as always! Sadako looked at everything on the shelves and smelled the delicious food. There were stores that sold everything from soy cakes to crickets.
It would be all perfect if you didn’t have to come across people with whitish scars. They had been so burned by the bomb that they hardly looked human anymore. Sadako couldn’t help but look away from the first one who approached her.
The noise of the crowd increased as night fell. As the glow of the last firework faded into the sky, the crowd headed for the Ohta River with paper lanterns in their hands. Mr. Sasaki had been careful to light the candles inside the six lanterns, one for each family member. The lanterns bore the names of family members killed by the “ball of light.” Sadako chose to put her grandmother’s name on her own. When all the flames lit the shore, each laid his lantern on the river, which would lead them to the sea, as if they were thousands of fireflies floating in the dark waters.
That night Sadako was slow to fall asleep. He tried to remember everything that had happened during the day. After all, Masahiro was wrong. The next day, Sadako would tell his brother that the spider had given him luck.
The Secret of Sadako
In early fall, Sadako received such good news that she could hardly wait to tell her family. When he got home, he took off his shoes and opened the door with a loud noise.
– I arrived!
Mrs. Sasaki was preparing dinner in the kitchen.
“You won’t believe what I have to say to you!” Guess what!
– So many wonderful things are happening in your life, Sadako. I give up.
– Do you remember the rush to the school party? I was chosen by Turma Bambu to be part of the relay team.
Sadako danced in the kitchen and turned the folder around.
– If we win, I will be selected to be part of the high school team!
It’s what Sadako wanted most in life.
At dinner, Mr. Sasaki talked at length about family pride and honor. Even Masahiro was thrilled. Sadako, too excited to swallow anything, smiled raptly.
From that moment on, I only thought of the relay race. I trained every day and sometimes even came home running. One day, Masahiro timed it with his father’s big clock, and Sadako’s time surprised everyone. “Who knows,” I dreamed, “if I become the best runner in school?”
The big day has finally come. A crowd of parents, family, and friends attended the races. Sadako was so nervous that she feared her legs would not obey him. His teammates suddenly seemed smaller and less strong than their opponents. The girl confided her fears to her mother, who reassured her:
“It’s only natural that you’re afraid, daughter.” But do not worry. When you are on the track, you will feel strong again.
The time has come for the test.
“Do your best,” Mr. Sasaki said, taking her daughter’s hand. – We are very proud of you.
Thanks to his parents’ tender encouragement, Sadako felt less afraid. It doesn’t matter if I win or lose; my family likes me, he thought.
When they gave the starting signal, Sadako concentrated. As soon as they gave her the testimony, she ran to her breath. At the end of the race, her heart ached from beating so much. Sadako felt bad. He was dizzy and hardly heard the announcement of his team’s victory. Around her, the whole Bamboo Gang applauded and screamed with joy. He shook his head once or twice and the discomfort dissipated.
Sadako spent the winter trying to improve her time. If I wanted to join the high school team I had to train every day. Sometimes, after running a lot, I felt dizzy, but decided not to tell anyone about it. He tried to convince himself that all was well, and that the dizziness would disappear as quickly as it had appeared. But it did not improve. Full of fear, she hid this secret from everyone, including her best friend, Chizuko.
On New Year’s Eve, Sadako asked that her discomfort disappear as if by magic. Everything would be perfect if I didn’t have to carry that burden. At midnight, comfortably covered with a feather duvet, he heard the temple bells. It was said that with every buzz, the demons of the coming year were cast out to make way for the new year. Sadako repeated his wish twelve times.
The next morning, as usual, the Sasaki family joined the crowd to honor the dead. Mrs. Sasaki was very elegant in her silk kimono with flower prints. He promised to Sadako:
– When I can, I will offer you a beautiful kimono. A girl your age should always have one in the wardrobe.
Sadako politely thanked him, but at that moment having a kimono was the least of his concerns. I was obsessed with racing and the high school team. In the midst of so many happy people, he managed for a moment to forget his terrible secret. The joy of that winter day drove away her uneasiness. Returning home, he made a run with his older brother and beat him. Mrs. Sasaki hung over the door the prosperity symbols that would protect the house throughout the year. A year that started so well would hardly end badly.
A secret unveiled
For several weeks the prayers and signs of good omen seemed to work. Sadako felt good and ran farther and farther and faster.
But his dream ended on a cold and cruel February day. Sadako was running in the school playground when she suddenly began to see everything around and fell to the ground. A teacher rushed to help her.
“I think … I think I’m a little tired,” Sadako said in a weak voice.
When he tried to get up, his legs trembled and gave way. The teacher asked Mitsue to go home and warn Mr Sasaki.
He immediately closed the hair salon and took his daughter to the Red Cross hospital. Upon entering the hospital, Sadako was very afraid. Part of the building was reserved for people suffering from bomb disease.
A few minutes later, Sadako was admitted: a nurse took a radiograph of her lungs and drew blood for analysis. Dr. Numata examined his back and asked several questions. Three other doctors also came to examine her. One of them shook his head and ran a hand through his hair.
Sadako’s whole family went to visit her. The parents spoke to the doctor in a low voice. Suddenly, Mrs. Sasaki exclaimed:
– A leukemia! It can not be!
As soon as he heard that terrifying word, Sadako covered his ears. How could she suffer from the disease if the bomb didn’t even touch him? A nurse, Mrs. Yasunaga, accompanied her to her room and gave her a kind of cotton kimono. As soon as Sadako lay down, the family entered the room.
Mrs. Sasaki hugged her daughter.
“You have to stay here for a while,” I told him, in a voice that strove to be cheerful. – I’ll come see you every night.
“We … we come after school,” Masahiro promised.
Startled, Mitsue and Eiji nodded.
“Is it true that I have bomb disease?” Asked Sadako to his father.
Mr Sasaki’s gaze clouded but reassured his daughter:
“Doctors want to do extra tests, that’s all!” I think you’ll have to stay here two or three weeks.
Two or three weeks! But that was an eternity. They would no longer accept her in high school. Worse yet, I could no longer be part of the relay team. With a lump in his throat, Sadako held back the tears.
Mrs. Sasaki shook the pillows and adjusted the cover. The father coughed.
– Do you need … do you need anything?
Sadako shook his head. What she needed was to return home. But when? You feel a knot in your stomach. He heard that many of the internees never returned home.
Mrs. Yasunaga said that Sadako had to rest and that the time for the visits was over. After everyone left, the girl stuck her face in the pillow and wept. She had never felt so lonely and unhappy in her life.
The golden crane
The next morning, Sadako woke up slowly. She tried to hear the usual noises of the house: her mother preparing breakfast… but only the new and different sounds of the hospital came to her ears. He sighed deeply. She had wished so much that the day before had been a bad dream. But the arrival of Mrs. Yasunaga forced her to face reality. It came to give her the first injection.
“Injections are part of life in the hospital,” crooked the nurse. – You gotta get used to it.
“I want to be good … so I can go home.”
In the afternoon, Sadako received his first visit: Chizuko. The friend smiled mysteriously and had something hidden behind her back.
“Close your eyes,” Chizuko said. Sadako obeyed promptly. Her friend put some sheets of paper and a pair of scissors on the bed.
– You can open them now.
– Which is?
Chizuko was smiling. She was very happy with the surprise she had just given her friend.
“I thought a lot about what would make you feel better,” he said proudly. – Look!
He cut a large square of gold paper and, after folding it a few times, showed the magnificent bird he had made: it was a crane.
– But how can I improve with an origami? Asked Sadako, puzzled.
“Don’t you remember the legend of the cranes?” Asked Chizuko. – They say they live a thousand years. If a sick person makes a thousand, the gods will hear their prayers and heal them.
She handed the crane to her friend.
– I offer you the first one.
Sadako’s eyes filled with tears. Chizuko was so kind to offer her this talisman, so she did not believe in omens. Sadako took the golden crane and formulated a wish. He felt a strange sensation the moment he touched the bird: it must be a good sign!
– Thank you, Chizuko. I will never be separated from her.
Sadako tried to make a bird, but it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Chizuko explained the difficult parts to her. On the bedside table, next to the golden crane, Sadako placed the first ten birds he made. They weren’t all perfect, but for starters…
“Nine hundred and ninety more to go,” said Sadako.
She felt good about the talisman crane beside her. In a few weeks, he would have certainly made a thousand. By then she would be ready to return home.
That afternoon Masahiro brought him homework from the school. When he saw all the origami, he exclaimed:
“But these birds are taking up too much space.” Let me hang them on the ceiling.
“Do you promise to hang everything I do?”
– Very well! Said Sadako, his eyes glowing with mischief. “Then you’ll have to hang a thousand!”
– Thousand? You’re kidding, I hope, ”muttered his brother.
Sadako told him the legend of the thousand cranes. Masahiro scratched his head.
“You fooled me,” he said, grimacing. “But I will keep my promise.”
He asked the nurse for wire and tacks and hung the first birds. The golden crane was still on the bedside table. When Mrs. Sasaki arrived, accompanied by Mitsue and Eiji, the three were surprised to see the birds on the ceiling. The mother remembered an old poem:
Colored paper Birds came flying In our house.
Mitsue and Eiji liked the golden bird better. The mother chose the smallest, made of green paper with pink umbrellas.
– I choose this one because the little ones are the hardest to make.
After the visits left, the patients felt very alone in the hospital. To keep busy and optimistic, Sadako made a few more birds.
Eleven… I’ll get well soon…
Twelve… I’ll get well soon…
It continues… Eleanor Coerr Les mille oiseaux de Sadako Toulouse, Éditions Milan, 2003 (Translation and adaptation)