Set in Hiroshima, Japan, during the closing months of World War II, In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow is the story of Micah Lund, a B-29 Bombardier hellbent on extracting revenge against the Japanese after his brother’s death on Guadalcanal, and Kiyomi Oshiro, a war widow, struggling to keep her young daughter, Ai, alive in a city where starving people line up for handouts of spoiled food.
In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow explores the bond between a mother and daughter that is stronger than death and the guilt of a man who comes face to face with the suffering he has caused. It is a tale of love in all of its extraordinary forms, forgiveness, and sacrifice against overwhelming odds.
A blend of historical fiction and magical realism, In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow gives readers a glimpse of Japanese culture and customs while bringing to life Japanese legends and mythological beings.
to what may I liken it?
To autumn fields
lit dimly in the dusk
by lightning flashes.
Four inches from falling. Four inches from dying. Lieutenant Micah Lund stood on the narrow ledge above the open bomb bay doors, the distant earth a blur of greens and browns. He clutched his parachute in his left hand while looking back at the narrow tunnel that connected the forward compartment of the B-29 to the bomb bay. He had just crawled through the passage, shoving his parachute before him. Where were his crewmates? They should have been right behind him. Black smoke poured out of the tunnel. An engine fire had spread through a wing and the big bomber would soon plunge to a flaming death. Micah coughed and rubbed his stinging, watering eyes. Mucus streamed onto his upper lip. His throat felt raw. He stared at the ground below. If the Nips captured him, they’d lop off his head for sure. Shit. Micah leaned toward the tunnel and shouted, “Come on!”
“Damn it,” Micah said. As he dipped his left shoulder under the strap of the parachute, a thunderous crack erupted throughout the bomb bay. The plane heaved over and Micah pitched into the opening. The fingers on his left hand caught the lip of a door. Steel sliced flesh. His blood painted the sky. Micah held on, legs kicking wildly behind him. He had to get back into the plane. Had to get his right arm under that strap. Heart exploding inside his chest, the sound of blood beating past his ears, Micah lunged forward. The B-29 groaned like a wounded beast and spiraled away, leaving him in space.
Micah clutched his parachute with all his strength while reaching to snag the dangling right strap. His stomach fell as if he were going down the big drop on a rollercoaster. Freezing air numbed his limbs. His fingers grazed the strap. A little farther. Almost there. A strong gust slammed into him. The parachute broke free and tumbled out of reach.
God no, not this.
His body surged upward. Something warm pressed against his side. Micah blinked in disbelief for he found himself in his mother’s arms. She was sitting in her rocking chair with a smile on her face. “Fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into.”
“How’s this possible?” Micah asked. “Are you real?”
“Don’t I look real?”
“Yes but …” Micah sighed. “I watched them bury you.”
“Aye. You did indeed. After the Japs killed your brother, my heart couldn’t take the strain. The Japs are evil, Micah. No place for ‘em in a civilized world.”
“I know,” he said. “I’ve been killing them, Mama. Killing them for what they did to you and Levi. But now …” Beneath him, the streets and buildings of Hiroshima came into view.
She stroked his cheek, her fingertips warm. “Close your eyes, Micah.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Can you save me, Mama?”
“I’m no miracle worker. I’m just the ghost of a sad Irish woman. But I can pray for ye, Micah. I’ll ask God to guide you through the darkness. Aye, this I can do. Now close your eyes and don’t be afraid.”
He buried his face against her shoulder. “Take me away from here. Please, Mama.” A chill swept over him and Micah opened his eyes to discover her gone. He continued to pick up speed, the ground rushing to meet him.
The fürin swayed in the morning breeze producing a gentle tinkling sound. Kiyomi Oshiro smiled at the glass wind bell. She would have waited until summer to hang the fürin, but Ai insisted they put it out early. For once, Kiyomi was glad she gave in to the whims of her eight-year-old daughter. The pleasant chiming took her mind off the war. Kiyomi draped the last of the family’s futons over the verandah railing. The white bedding sagged as if Yūrei, exhausted after a night of haunting. She held little hope that the futons would be fresh when she arrived home from the factory. Kiyomi covered her mouth to yawn and fought off the urge to rush back inside her in-laws house and stretch out in the cool shade of the upstairs storage room.
Yellow dust rose from Kakō-machi, where mobilized students worked to tear down houses and create firebreaks near the prefectural government offices. The sight sickened her, as did the dirty stench and taste of grit on her tongue. Two Kites flew in from the distant blue hills. The hunters fluttered over the city with cries of “Pi-yoroyoro, pi-yoroyoro.” The shadows of the Kites passed across the shōji paper and Kiyomi remembered an old proverb. Tōri-kage ga shōji to kyaku ga kuru: When the shadow of a bird falls upon the sliding paper door, guests will come.
Ai emerged from the doma in her socks. She carried her geta in one hand, her canvas emergency supply bag in the other hand. Before Kiyomi could scold her, Ai spun around and shouted into the house, “Ittemairimasu! I am going.”
Kiyomi folded her arms over her chest when Ai faced her with a sheepish grin. “So sorry, Mama.”
“Let me guess. You’re running late because of your grandparents?”
Blood rushed into Ai’s cheeks, turning them a soft pink. Kiyomi couldn’t help but smile as she stared into the dark, trusting, eyes of her daughter. She longed to reach out and pull Ai against her. To feel her heartbeat and warm breath. To smell the flowery scent of her velvet hair. To hold on forever. “Do you intend to spend the day in your socks?”
“Please forgive my mistake.” Ai dropped the geta onto the verandah with a thud, reached down to slip them on, then straightened like a soldier coming to attention. “I’m ready.”
“I will see.” Kiyomi’s jaw clenched as she inspected her daughter. Ai should be wearing a sailor suit to school, like she did as a child, not baggy gray monpe and wooden clogs. The war turned them all into peasants. She brushed a hand over the maigo-fuda attached to Ai’s sash, the small wooden plate engraved with Ai’s name and address to help authorities find Kiyomi in case they became separated during an air raid. “Do you have your first-aid supplies?”
Ai held up her emergency bag. “Packed and ready.”
“And your padded hood?”
Ai gazed at her sandals. “At school.”
“You forgot to bring it home? What would happen if Mister B returned to drop bombs? Your head needs protection.”
“Please forgive my carelessness.” Ai looked up, her eyes seeking compassion.
“You’re apologizing a great deal this morning. Don’t fail to remember your hood again.” She held out her hand. “Come along.”
Kiyomi unlatched the side gate and led Ai onto Tenjin-machi Road. They walked hand-in-hand along the quiet street, past houses and small shops. Cramped buildings formed a narrow passage, their somber wooden walls and black tiled roofs adding to the wartime melancholy.
“I had a nightmare last night,” Ai announced, as if inspired by her surroundings to open up.
Kiyomi studied her daughter’s face and detected a trace of fear in the widening of Ai’s eyes. “The same dream as before?”
Ai squeezed her hand and nodded. “Someone chases me through the dark house.”
Their geta tapped on the street, the sound echoing off the latticed windows.
Kiyomi gave Ai a reassuring smile. “When I was your age, I too suffered nightmares. My Uncle Hideo, told me evil spirits cause bad dreams. He said whenever I awakened from a bad dream, I should ask Baku, the eater of nightmares, to devour the dream. This will turn the nightmare into a good omen.”
“Is that true?”
“You must try to find out.”
“All right. I’ll try, Mama.”
They turned onto Nakajima-Hondori Street in the direction of Motoyanagi-machi and the Honkawa River. The street once bustled with traffic coming from the Old Sanyo Highway. Shoppers had crowded the many businesses. Now, kamban fanned and snapped in front of empty buildings, the shop signs advertising what had once been Hiroshima. They passed the shuttered Yano Shoe Store, Sawamura Print Store, and Ōmoto Lacquerware. Kiyomi paused outside the closed Tada Book Store, recalling the many hours spent browsing through books. Mr. Tada smuggled her a copy of The Makioka Sisters before government censors forced the novel off the market a second time.
Mr. Hamai swept the sidewalk outside his barbershop. His was one of the few businesses to survive the war cuts. He smiled at their approach. A diminutive man with a round bald head and rolling belly, Mr. Hamai reminded her of a happy Buddha. Where did he obtain his food? No doubt, Mr. Hamai had connections at the black market.
Kiyomi stopped in front of him, flattened her hands against her hips and bowed. “Ohayō gozaimasu.” Ai followed her lead.
Mr. Hamai brought the broom to his chest and bowed. “Good morning to you, Kiyomi-san, and Ai-chan, and what a fine day it is.”
“How is business?”
“Ah, business is most favorable. Thank you for asking, Kiyomi-san.”
“Good day,” Kiyomi said and bowed again before walking past.
Ai leaned close and whispered, “Why is Mr. Hamai’s shop still open when so many have closed?”
“Stores cannot stay in business if they have no products to sell. Men still need haircuts.”
An army truck rumbled along the street, tires stirring up dust. Soldiers with tired faces and soiled uniforms stood in the back. They looked nothing like the proud men who once marched through the streets of the city toward Ujina Harbor and war—cheered on by admiring crowds waving rising sun flags.
At the former Matoya Clothes Store, Kiyomi steered Ai into the alley that led to her school. A group of shouting boys used glass balls from the tops of Ramune bottles to play marbles. She assumed they awaited their evacuation orders. The alley swallowed the light and a chill moved through Kiyomi as she ruminated on Ai’s question. Typically, Ai never asked questions about the war, as if avoiding the subject would make it go away.
The sky opened at the end of the alley. Warm sunlight greeted them. To their left, a cemetery stood in silent repose, black headstones absorbing the morning light. To their right, young life celebrated a new day on the playground of the Nakajima National School. Children’s laughter and shouting filled the air. The two-story wooden structure fanned out into an L shape with the asphalt and dirt playground in the center. A section of the playground had been converted to a victory garden. The playground appeared larger with the children grades three and above evacuated to the Shōhōji Temple in Mirasaka-chō. Boys sheathed in air-raid hoods resembled miniature samurai warriors as they wrestled. Other boys spun tops or shot marbles. Girls played oranges and lemons, janken, or stood watching the boys and chatting.
Ai pulled back.
“What is it?” Kiyomi asked.
Ai’s focus wandered to the playground, then back to her. Questions moved across her black eyes.
“Is something wrong?”
Ai moved her lips from side to side. “Norio bragged about his father. He said he’s a war hero.”
“Hai. I believe he’s a naval commander.”
“And my father?”
Kiyomi wavered. She hated lying to her daughter but her in-laws had insisted this was the best course of action. “He vanished while fighting in China. Why ask now? We’ve spoken of this already.”
Ai kicked a rock, sending it on a chattering journey. “Was Jikan my real father?”
A flutter traveled through Kiyomi’s stomach as if a hundred butterflies took flight. She had anticipated this day would come, only … not this soon. She feigned ignorance. “I don’t understand your question.”
“I heard Baa-baa and Ojiisan talking. They said my father came from Tokyo.”
Kiyomi forced a smile. “Hai. We met before the war.”
“You were married?”
“We never married.”
Kiyomi jerked on Ai’s arm to get her moving. “We’ll have this conversation another day.”
“Did you love him?”
Kiyomi remembered the warmth of his lips in the darkness of Hibiya Park. A muscular hand working under her blouse, soft fingers climbing her ribcage. Months later she stood alone on the Ryōgoku Bridge beneath a full moon. A dagger in her hand shimmered in the darkness as a voice inside her head steered her away from the unseen world.
“He was a good man,” Kiyomi lied for the second time that morning. She motioned with her chin at the silver moon necklace around Ai’s neck. “He gave me that.”
Ai fingered the tiny moon resting at the base of her neck. The necklace had always been her most prized possession. “You loved each other?”
Kiyomi sighed as her daughter’s repeated questions weighed on her. This wasn’t the time to have such a discussion.
As they neared the school, Ai changed her strategy. “Baa-baa says you’re possessed by a worm.”
Kiyomi blinked. “A worm?”
“Hai. The worm of depression.”
Kiyomi choked back laughter. “The worm of depression? Nonsense. I can never be sad as long as I have you for a daughter.”
Ai’s smile faded. “Mama, will the war ever end? I want to go to the horse market.”
“The horse market? In Shiraichi?”
“Why do you want to go there?”
“To eat the cotton candy.”
“Cotton candy, eh?” Kiyomi grinned at her daughter’s innocence. “We must be patient, my love. We fight for the Emperor. The Emperor alone decides when the war will end.”
“Miya says the Americans will be here soon.”
Kiyomi stopped and looked around to make certain no one listened. She moved before Ai and brought her face close to her daughter’s face. “Never repeat that to anyone. Listen to only half of a person’s talk. The mouth is the gate of misfortune.”
“I understand, Mama.”
At the edge of the schoolyard, Ai raised the flap on her emergency supply bag. “What did you pack in my bento box?”
“What would you like me to pack?”
Ai tapped a finger against her lips. “How about tendon?”
“I see. So, I must travel to the ocean and catch shrimp, then hike into the hills to find wild vegetables.”
“That would be most agreeable.”
Kiyomi’s hands fell to her sides. “How about a rice ball?”
A veil of disappointment moved across Ai’s face. “Again?”
“Better than having the worm of depression?”
Ai smiled and bowed. “Sayōnara, Mama.”
Although customary to leave a child with a bow, Kiyomi leaned down to kiss Ai on her cheek. “Sayōnara, my love.”
As Ai melted into the crowd of children, Kiyomi thought of the cherry trees that grew along the banks of the Honkawa River. She pictured the blossoms, falling like pink snowflakes to settle upon the placid water, and remembered how they floated out to the welcoming arms of the sea.