Excerpt from The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ash Garden

by Dennis Bock

The Ash Garden
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 281 pages
    Jan 2003, 272 pages

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Chapter 1

We had very little in the days when the war was still far away, in the remote place I imagined all wars lived when I was a girl. When it finally came to our city in August 1945 it consumed what little we had left, and years later, when there was nothing left at all, I was forced to journey to America to begin my surgeries. Of course, when I was a child it had seemed to me that what we'd had in those early days was sufficient. All but the barest necessities had been taken from us, but we didn't know any better. I often thought of the war as some great famished beast that ate away at the heart of my people. But my family was no different from any other family in the Asaminami district, the area of the city we lived in, and my brother and I never missed what we'd never had. I do not know if our parents and grandfather felt the same way.

In what might seem a rare gift in the legacy of my family's suffering, my mother and father were lucky enough to die at the same instant, which, for me, is a slight but not insignificant consolation. Neither had to endure the other's death, or the death of my little brother, who followed them not long after. I was left with only my grandfather to take care of me, a scarred and disfigured girl of six with only half a face; and my grandfather had only me to take care of him. Ten years later, when Grandfather fell ill with tuberculosis and finally joined the rest of my departed family, I was in the process of getting a version of my face back, at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. Before I left for America he had made me promise I would not, no matter the circumstance, return to him before the surgeons had completed their work and I was again his beautiful granddaughter. I kept that last promise, and as a consequence he died alone. But slowly my face--or at least a version of it--was restored to me, just as he had always said it would be.

As I have said, my brother and I did not feel the sacrifice as my parents or grandfather might have. We knew nothing different from what we were living through then. It had been like that all our lives, it seemed. The drone of high-flying airplanes, the piercing song the sirens played when a fire -- or bombing -- drill was staged, the general absence of men in civilian dress, blackout paper covering every window, nothing to eat but rice and bean-paste soup and cabbage. These things did not occur to me as anything special. We knew nothing but war. Planes trolled the skies above our heads. Sirens woke us most mornings. The trenches we'd constructed to contain the spread of fire split neighborhoods into sections. That men must wear uniforms seemed so normal that a young man seen wearing slacks and jacket and fedora looked wildly eccentric to my eyes. Similarly, my father stood out conspicuously. He had not been allowed to join the army. He had been forced to stay home.

The fear I heard in my mother's voice, too, was unexceptional, as were the attempts she made to mask it with reassuring pronouncements and stern, even confident instructions. Outside the home she obeyed my father, as tradition dictated. But inside, where it counted most, I learned, it was the other way around. When action was to be taken, or caution to be exercised, it was my mother who decided which action or cautionary measure. It was she who protected me and my brother, and cared for our grandfather when his breathing became weak or his rheumatism became unbearable, and it was she who tended to my father when he came home disoriented late at night (I didn't know what drunkenness was then), which he did more frequently as the war drew on.

One night I heard my father admit to my mother that he had brought shame to his family and to himself by failing to gain entry to the war. After hearing a loud noise, I'd risen from the mattress I shared with Mitsuo and watched my father cry into my mother's arms, as I stood there at the top of the stairs, hidden in shadow. He insisted that he had been condemned to live out his days branded a coward and a pacifist, a word which was new to me. Pitiful tears streamed down his face. My mother cradled his head and smoothed his cheeks as he pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, as if trying to staunch the flow of tears. I wondered if I would be capable of this same tenderness my mother showed. I had never seen my father in this state. But I saw from how she held him in her arms that it was not unknown to her, and that this was something the grown-up world had suddenly, just then, thrust upon me.

Copyright 2001 by Dennis Bock. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Knopf.

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