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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My mother listened patiently. She let my father finish talking-crying, then got him in a chair and washed his face with a kitchen cloth. He was mumbling, looking down at his hands. I was afraid for him, and of him. He said the word children under his breath, and my little brother's name, but as far as I could tell he did not speak of me.

My father did not go to work the following morning. He stayed in his bed while we assembled downstairs and ate our gruel and rice-bran dumplings. After breakfast, my mother sent Grandfather to the bank, despite his sore legs, to tell the people there that Father was ill. I accompanied him through the streets to deliver our message.

Though we had all been affected by the war, and the network of trenches and water-filled ditches constructed in the event of an enemy firestorm now marked the city into grids, none of the buildings we passed had been destroyed. As we walked, my grandfather told me that even the enemy respected the beauty of some of our most ancient cities. Not even barbarians would consider destroying our lovely town. Trying to put me at ease, he told me that people of Japanese ancestry were living among the enemy, in distant America, where they had worked to convince their government to spare us. Naturally this knowledge did calm my anxiety, but I was agitated for another reason. What I had seen the previous night was with me still. I wondered if my grandfather knew about my father, and the real reason he was unable to represent us in the world that day.

The streets were already busy that morning. I watched the Miyajima streetcar make its slow crawl up from the harbor, where it always began its run, carrying the older men to their places of work, or housewives to their shopping. Work gangs from outlying communities assembled on street corners, waiting for their morning assignment. There was always more to be done in preparing our city for what might come, and not a morning went by when these work gangs did not collect on street corners in every district, focusing their attention on the tasks ahead. That day there were many soldiers in the streets and on the tram, and their presence further eased my nervousness. We knew they were our protectors, and I secretly understood my father's shame at not being permitted to be one of them on account of his leg, the consequence of a childhood affliction. It would have been a great honor for us. The fathers of many of the children in our neighborhood were away at the war, and at school these children were awarded a special status that I envied. The teachers told us that we were all able to contribute equally, whether at home or away at the war, but the daughters of soldiers were emboldened by the absence of their fathers.

On our route to my father's place of employment to deliver our deceitful message, an odd sensation crept over me. He might indeed be ill, I considered, but he suffered from a different sort of illness from the one we meant to suggest. I was not supposed to know this, of course. My mother was not aware I had heard what had passed between them the night before. But telling a lie--and to the bank! This seemed dangerous and exciting, and opened up for me a new world of unknown possibilities.

We turned left, then right onto the business street, where my father's bank was located. Many of these buildings had been here longer than my grandfather, which seemed an impossibly long time to me. Sometimes I liked to walk along this street--and others, in different neighborhoods--and imagine Grandfather here, as he might have appeared at my young age of six. He had spent the whole of his youth in Hiroshima and, in my mind, it was not difficult for me to create a picture of him as a boy. I used my little brother's small frame as a stand-in when I thought back to what it must have been like, in another century. My imagination simply drew his clear, youthful face and body over my grandfather's old, wrinkled one. I painted his portrait in my head, and a streetscape of what Hiroshima had looked like back then, without soldiers carrying rifles on every corner and blackout paper pasted over every pane of glass. I painted men who wore their dark robes like lords, and wealthy landowners and women costumed in traditional flame-colored kimonos, which had been replaced during the war years by the durable monpe pantaloons all women had taken to wearing.

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

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