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.
Death followed Micah Lund like an ever-present shadow.
It hovered in briefing rooms and Quonset huts in the form of empty chairs and bunks. It lingered in the conversations of men tired of fighting a war. Death even invaded his sleep where, night after night, he dreamed of his brother, Levi, killed on Guadalcanal, and his mother, who died of a heart attack soon after.
Micah pressed against the hard bombardier’s seat in the forward dome of the B-29 and sighed. Through the bomber’s Plexiglas nose, the sapphire water of the Philippine Sea brushed past as if paint applied to canvas. Sunlight glistening upon the swells cast silver sparks. The surrounding beauty failed to improve his sullen mood. He had seen too many friends plummeting through the Japanese night sky toward an uncertain fate, toward a wave of fire rolling across bombed cities.
Behind him, Commander Adams nosed the giant plane upward. “How are we looking on those engine temperatures?” his voice crackled over the interphone.
The flight engineer responded. “Number four is a little hot, but holding at two-thirty.”
The atmosphere inside the plane changed the closer they drew near Honshu. Joking and small talk stopped. Skin tightened over weary faces. The dark outline of an island appeared in the distance. Micah picked up his interphone. “Commander, we’re approaching Shikoku.”
“I see it. Everyone at battle stations.”
As the plane passed Shikoku, the gray shape of Honshu arose from the sea. Heavy smoke blanketed the shore on the starboard side.
“Take a good look boys,” Commander Adams said. “That’s Osaka burning. The 499th paid them a visit last night.” He swung the aircraft to port. Below, lay the Seto Inland Sea, the passage dividing Honshu from Shikoku and Kyushu, and connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan. Tiny islands with sandy beaches dappled the route. “We’re coming up on Hiroshima. Are you ready to enter the data into the bombsight, Lieutenant Lund?”
“Yes, Sir,” Micah responded. He went to work setting the values for speed, altitude, temperature, and barometric pressure. When he had finished, Micah consulted his book of mathematical tables to synchronize the sight and aircraft speed. He paused as a nagging thought took hold and picked up his interphone. “Hey, Commander, why are we on a public relations mission for the Army? Aren’t we supposed to be dropping bombs on the enemy instead of leaflets warning them to run away?”
“The leaflets will make their factory workers flee and hurt war production.”
“Killing their factory workers will end war production.”
Commander Adams smiled. “You really hate the Japs, don’t you?”
“After what they did to my family? Hate doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.”
Hiroshima appeared ahead. Located on the broad, flat delta of the Ota River, the fan-shaped city stretched across six islands formed by seven estuarial rivers that branched out from the Ota. Green rolling hills surrounded the city. Whenever he’d flown over Hiroshima, Micah was reminded of Bellingham. An odd yellow haze hovered over the Nakajima-Honmachi district like a desert sky after a sandstorm.
Puffs of gray smoke burst beneath the plane. “We’ve got flak, but it’s coming in low,” Commander Adams said. “Switching over to bombardier control.”
Micah leaned over the bombsight eyepiece. Near the bank of the Motoyasu River, the green copper dome of the Industrial Promotion Hall glinted in the sun. He adjusted the mirror that measured the changing approach angle until locating the T-shaped Aioi Bridge. A shudder tore through the bomber.
The shrill voice of the flight engineer exploded over the interphone. “The prop windmilled on number four!”
“Are we going to abort?” Micah asked.
“No,” Commander Adams replied. “Stay on target.”
“I can’t guarantee accuracy on three engines.”
“To hell with accuracy,” Adams said. “We’re dropping leaflets.”
The bomb bay doors opened with a metallic yawn. If his calculations were right, the bombs would release the instant the plane passed through a predetermined point above the bridge. The bomber lurched upward as the ordnance released. “Bombs away!” Micah said. He jerked around to follow the bombs progress. At the precise moment, the detonating cord blew the bombs apart. Millions of leaflets scattered across the sky like wind-blown confetti. He picked up his interphone to report the leaflets successful distribution and his nostrils twitched at the smell of something burning. Flint gray smoke filtered through the cabin.
“Set the cowl flaps on number three and pull the fire extinguisher,” Commander Adams ordered. “If the fire reaches the wing spar we’re dead!”
Micah eyed his parachute resting at his feet. If their plane went down, certain death awaited through beheading, torture, or starvation. He would rather die on his own terms. But now that he faced the real possibility of dying, he found his courage fleeting.
The plane continued north over the Chugoku Mountains. Commander Adams spoke into his interphone. “I’m going to turn around. If we keep heading northwest we’ll reach the Sea of Japan. The Navy doesn’t operate rescue subs in that area. Our only chance is to come about. If we make the Pacific, a sub or PBY might find us.”
Micah coughed as the smoke intensified. His eyes watered and ached. Commander Adams completed the turn and once again they were headed toward Hiroshima—the last place Micah wanted to see. A cracking noise carried from the burning wing. The commander’s knuckles whitened over the control yoke. Micah snatched his parachute off the floorboard. Smoke obscured everything behind the flight engineer’s table.
“We’re not going to make the Pacific. Sound the alarm bell,” Commander Adams instructed. “Prepare to bail out.”
Three short rings carried through the cabin followed by Commander Adams contacting each crewman in the forward and rear compartments to obtain acknowledgment of the order. “Lower the front landing gear.” Commander Adams coughed and pointed at Micah. “As soon as the landing gear is down, you get your ass out of this plane. Don’t expect a warm welcome.”
The front landing gear lowered with a grinding sound. After moving a few inches, the doors froze. “Son of a bitch,” Commander Adams said. “The fire must have affected the hydraulics. I want everyone to follow Micah out the bomb bay.”
“We can’t squeeze through the connecting tunnel with our parachutes on,” Micah said.
“Take off the parachute until you enter the bomb bay, then put it back on.”
Micah clutched his parachute in one hand and crawled along the floor in the direction of the forward bomb bay. He hacked after breathing in smoke. His vision turned fuzzy. Mucus streamed onto his upper lip. He inched across the floor through billowing smoke, shifting to his right at the lower gun turret. “You still here, Blevins?” Micah asked passing the navigator’s table.
He bumped into the bulkhead and ran his hands along the steel wall, searching for the hatch that led to the unpressurized bomb bay. A blast of cold air washed over his face when he opened the hatch. Micah shoved his parachute into the tunnel and slipped in behind it. He wiggled through on his stomach, emerging in the bomb bay. The world began to spin and he closed his eyes. When his vertigo passed, Micah lowered onto the narrow ledge that surrounded the doors. Wind roared up inside the plane, threatening to suck him outside. He hesitated, his attention drawn to smoke pouring through the tunnel. Where were his crewmates? They should have been right behind him.
As Micah 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 lunged at the bomb bay door and 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.
The ground rushed at him in a blur of green and brown. The sky shimmered like asphalt in summer heat. Micah clawed at passing clouds as if they could somehow save him. Beneath him, the buildings of Hiroshima spread toward sheltering hills. Blue rivers stitched together the islands of the city like threads in a quit. Overhead, the blazing sun dimmed and a curtain of darkness closed over 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.
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: 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, “I am going.”
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, slipped them on, then straightened like a soldier coming to attention. “I’m ready.”
Kiyomi’s jaw clenched as she inspected her daughter. Ai should be wearing a sailor suit to school, not baggy gray monpe and wooden clogs. The war turned them all into peasants. She brushed a hand over the small wooden plate attached to Ai’s sash, 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.” 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.
“The same dream as before?”
Ai 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.
Kiyomi stopped in front of him and bowed. “Good morning, Mr. Hamai.”
Mr. Hamai brought the broom to his chest and bowed. “Good morning, Kiyomi-san, and Ai-chan, and what a fine day it is.”
“How is business?”
“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 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. 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. 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 drifted to the playground, then back to her. Questions moved across her black eyes.
“Is something wrong?”
“Norio bragged about his father. He said he’s a war hero.”
“Hai. 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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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. “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.