Time for the weekly posting of LOM! I’m moving forward with the story though it is taking me some time. Hope you enjoy these offerings and I’ll let you know when the book is available for purchase! BTW, this is a little longer due to how short several of these micro-chapters are. So, there you go.
THEY GATHERED AROUND the wide pit cleared out in the center of the outdoor crematorium. There, the group of four priests lowered the coffin containing Aruka Ryūgawa onto the pyre stand. Shōtō stood motionless, his eyes never wavering from the coffin as the priests went about gathering the necessary materials for which to start the fire that would engulf the coffin and send the passenger within to her ancestors.
Not many were in attendance. Even though he’d brought her back to Hinohara, even though she was prepared for the afterlife in her old home, there were very few that remembered them. Or cared to.
Shōtō wanted to cry out but dared not. What few members of their family came, stood stoically nearby but it was the presence of Furimi standing coldly to the back of the service that alarmed him most. His mother had yet to be set aflame and already the Ministry had come for him.
Okasan, please stay with me. I’m not ready for you to go. A shiver ran up his spine and Shōtō couldn’t help but glance back as subtly as he knew how. Furimi glared at him. There was no nod. No expression of sympathy. It was a stoic look reserved for only those the demons came for.
Shōtō slowly turned back to the pyre which was growing into a raging inferno. The priests were chanting some traditional song of the monastery adding to the hypnotic effect of the dancing flames. Smoke billowed up and out into the sky that was dark and cloudy. Storm clouds ready to burst yet holding back. The makeshift walls surrounding them were bright for the fire. The murals adorning them seemed to push inward towards Shōtō who could only stare deep into the pyre remaining as still as he could. And there he remained until the fire had died down, and the charcoaled coffin lay smoldering.
One of his relatives approached after a time, an old man who was a brother to his grandfather. He said nothing but handed Shōtō a pair of chopsticks and motioned for him to follow. Together they joined the two other relatives already standing solemnly by the pyre remnants waiting for it to cool enough. Once the time had come, the group knelt down to sift through his mother’s ashes, searching for bits of bone to place in the urn. They started at the feet and worked their way upwards. After they were finished, Shōtō would lead the small procession to the family memorial where they would place the urn below the heavy stones in a small alcove where his father’s remains resided. It would be resealed. And Shōtō would be alone.
The task completed, and urn firmly in his slightly shaky hands, Shōtō started towards the entrance where Furimi stepped before him causing Shōtō to stop. Furimi stared intently at him for several long moments, his facial features betraying not even a hint as to his inner emotions. And Furimi bowed respectfully. He stepped aside then and after a hesitant pause, Shōtō continued onward.
A slight drizzle began before they reached the cemetary. The moments passed too fast despite the unbearable silence. There was no speaking. Only solemn respect. He came to the memorial. Placed the urn. The group bowed quietly as the crypt was sealed. And then the relatives left. Only Shōtō and Furimi remained, their gazes fixed on the plot.
Rain fell harder then as the storm clouds finally released their long held sorrow. Shōtō turned to find Furimi standing before him, umbrella spread out above his own head. Furimi handed Shōtō a folded envelope saying nothing. Shōtō took it and placed it in his coat pocket to keep it dry. He didn’t look at it. He already knew what was within. Furimi stood for a moment longer staring at Shōtō and then quietly turned and left.
Shōtō remained standing in the pouring rain staring out beyond the cemetery and wondering where he would be going next.
AN UNKNOWN CLIFF,
AN UNKNOWN ISLAND
THUNDER ROILED IN pent up rage and lightning lit up the tiny campsite at the edge of the cliff. Rain fell in sheets as Shōtō pulled the parachute around himself tighter. The fire drowned and any embers left fizzled completely out. Shōtō felt his tears fall then as he saw the water pouring over the stones that had contained the fire pit.
“Ohhhhhh kaaaaaaaaa saaaaannnn!” he screamed out and leaned slightly forward. His voice was barely a tiny buzz amidst the fury pounding the island.
He remained that way in what seemed to be an eternity of hell blasted storm.
“YOU GROSS PATHETIC little piglets! Your presence here is a mockery to the emperor! The least you miserable bedwetters can do is run yourselves to death!”
Shōtō ran as hard as he could next to his fellow recruits, the instructor berating them every step of the way.
“I’ve had more ferocity out of a fart!”
Shōtō leapt over a series of obstacles and tossed himself to the ground as he ran towards barbed wire covering a mud pit. Mud splattered onto his face as he inched forward through the muck and grime and tried to ignore the planes flying overhead and the barbed wire scratching at his back. A sudden explosion erupted in front of Shōtō’s face and he flinched and cursed.
“Damnit!” he reached out, flailing in the mud, working as hard as he ever worked trying to push forward, fearful of what might be coming for him from above.
His hand wrapped around a long object and a hissed filled his ears.
LATE MARCH 1945
AN UNKNOWN ISLAND
THE CREATURE STRUCK out at Shōtō and he let go of its tail in a panic. The lizard like creature clawed out at him, its webbed feet nearly slashing him in its efforts to escape. Its body was furry but also long like a short snake. Shōtō growled and made to grab after it again but it disappeared beneath a stone jutting out of the swampy water Shōtō was hunting for his dinner within.
“Curse the spirits!” Shōtō slammed a fist into the murky water that rose only as high as his thigh as he knelt on his knees.
He stood hesitantly, working his way sideways through a copse of stone and rotten timber and pulled himself up on top of the rocky formation he’d been crawling through when he’d spotted the weird looking reptile. At least, he assumed it was some sort of reptile. The way things had been going on the island for the last month, he wasn’t entirely certain he hadn’t been hallucinating half of his experiences.
Shōtō came to his full height and stared out over the marsh he was in the center of. It was at the base of the cliff rise he’d been camping on top of for nearly a month now. It was wide and ran to the edge of the Pacific Ocean pounding at the shoreline some distance away. There wasn’t even a beach there. The marshes just sort of collided into the water and vanished into the flowing salt waters rolling in and out every day. Yet, the foliage was as thick at the shore as it was at its center. Strange plants of a multitude of varieties that Shōtō couldn’t even begin to identity outside of saying they had spikes here and thin flowers there that were sometimes white. Sometimes yellow. Almost all looking less than bright but always all looking more than hearty. If not a little poisonous. But the animals that lurked within the marshy depths were tasty and only a little bit gamey. He would have preferred some fish (he’d fashioned a fishing pole, after all), but there didn’t seem to be any biting anywhere near his campsite or within the marsh itself.
The day is still young… he considered frowning and cracking his back as he placed his hands on his lower lumbar. Perhaps I will head over to the head of the marsh, investigate the river’s delta. See what is lurking there. He stared back at where the marsh met the river some half mile away. The river itself wasn’t so bad. It left the wooded interior of the island a mile further beyond. Yet, he’d avoided going anywhere near any of the forest. There was something in there, he felt it, and he was wary of that unseen force. Every night it crept up his bones and made his flesh stand on end. The marsh had more than enough edible roots (even if the flowers looked poisonous), but the forest wasn’t something he was willing to take any further chances on.
The river, though… he sighed. It might have some fishing spots. Maybe. He walked down the decline of the stone formation he was on. It flowed downward and into the marsh. It didn’t rise high above the muddy waters, but it did offer enough of a reprieve that he could breath when hunting. Oh shit!
Shōtō turned away from the river he was staring at, and raced across the marsh, his knees nearly plowing into his chest. Behind him a dozen feet away was that lizard like creature jetting across the surface of the marsh, a frill wide around its neck and a hissing roar coming from its throat. He managed to make it to a higher rising stone formation, scaled it, and then pulled his knife from its sheath. He looked back just as the creature darted beneath the water once more.
“Come on, bastard! You want some of me! Well, I want some of you! Come on!” He waited, knife held out before him, point straight up in a manner more fitting to gut a towering maniac than slash at a creature coming at the feet. However, the animal was gone yet again. This time it didn’t seem to show any effort to reemerge. Shōtō lowered his blade and sighed. “And here I thought dinner was coming to me. There’s a thought. Just make a call and the locals will bring the meal to your home. Should make that a business plan. Make a mint.”
He shook his head and then sat down on the relatively flat stone top of the rocky formation a few dozen feet from his previous position. The marsh had dozens of these rocky outcroppings just sticking up out of the murk. They were mostly dry now due to the hot sun burning down from the clear, hazy skies above. There wasn’t a cloud in sight and the seas were as calm as he’d seen them since arriving. He laid back onto the stone and crossed his arms over his chest.
The Americans are probably at Okinawa by now. Maybe in the imperial city itself. Has the emperor surrendered? Or does he really mean to see every last nihonjin in their grave? Shōtō scowled. It is far better to be lost in the swamps of an island, scavenging for food in the marshes, than fighting the inevitable self-destruction our glorious leaders seem hellbent on bringing us. Curse all of you and your ancestors!
He stared into the nothing of the above for a long time before taking a deep breath and hearing his stomach growl in discontent. Wish I could just absorb sunlight for food. Like a plant. They had the right idea of it. Exhaustion and hunger ate its way through him. He spread his arms out wide and started making propeller sounds with his mouth. “I want to fly…” he muttered.
“What was that, filth dog?” the drill sergeant in his mind intoned and stared down at Shōtō in that menacing way of his.
Shōtō wanted to laugh. Here he was, staring into the light blue skies. And all he could see was his former drill sergeant glaring back at him from the past. As if he knew this was always going to be Shōtō’s final resting place. Like he knew what was going on in Shōtō’s head when he’d made his fateful decision.
“I… I was saying that I wanted to fly, master drill sergeant!” he’d nearly shouted. A smile crossed Shōtō’s face as he laid there looking up into the past. His drill sergeant had always insisted on being called ‘master’. He wondered if the man was still there teaching new recruits how to kneel before their betters. If the new recruits didn’t comply with his wishes, they got a severe flogging. Shōtō had found himself more than a few times at the end of the lash.
The drill sergeant in Shōtō’s mind walked to a window that looked out onto the bootcamp grounds, his back straight and his hands clasped behind his back. He looked out onto the courtyard and cleared his throat in a slow, methodical manner.
“And what makes you think you’re qualified to be a pilot, dog? What do you hope to get out of it, filth?”
Shōtō smirked, “Because I was made to fly… fly far away from this place. Maybe seek asylum aboard an American ship. Because word has it that the Americans take their prisoners alive.”
“What was that?”
“I said I was made to fly, master drill sergeant!” Shōtō stood stiffly and shouted.
His mind shifted back to the truth of the moment though amnesty had been his intention all along. He wasn’t a warrior. But when he saw the planes and pilot recruitment posters, he knew he had an out and what better way than to surrender to the American fleet?
The drill sergeant turned to Shōtō, looked to him suspiciously. He wondered if the man had heard his thoughts somehow, or knew of his plans. He wouldn’t have put it past him. Drill sergeant Mako was aware of all too much that went on in the bootcamp. Once, there’d been this recruit. An Eiji Kobayashi. He’d been convinced by his father to join the imperial ranks. Shōtō had known him for the briefest time. He was a young man. Seventeen. And very pleasant to be around. His skin was fair, his hair jet black, and his eyes the eyes of a poet. In fact, he’d written many haiku’s that had gotten Shōtō feeling nostalgic for a forgotten age. Well, that young man hadn’t had the stomach for war and had determined he’d run away and hide out in the Aokigahar Forest just to the north of Mount Fuji (and a little west, now that Shōtō thought about it). From what Eiji had heard, very few people wanted to go anywhere near it considering it haunted.
His belief was that, “No one would follow me there, Shōtō. I can just wait out the war there. Live off the land. My grandfather taught me much about living outdoors. He did it for decades, you know? Before he was convinced by a brother to return home. I bet I could do it, don’t you?”
Shōtō could only nod hesitantly, “I suppose that does sound right. However, how do you think you can do this without anyone discovering you are gone?”
“Once I’m gone, will it matter?”
“Maybe not…” he had to confess.
Eijisan left only a few nights later. Shōtō never saw him again. But, not even that next weekend, drill sergeant Mako brought all the new recruits together (Shōtō was heading into his final weeks by this point) and made sure they were completely at attention.
“A young recruit has attempted to flee his duties to our great nation of Nihon. Can you believe this?” he looked around to all of those gathered.
They were all stiff, panic in their eyes. “No, drill sergeant!”
“Of course, you cannot! Why anyone would abandon their responsibilities to the emperor, to our great land, is beyond me! Well, this young man, Kobayashi Eijisan, has been reprimanded to the highest order of the land. There, he will be tried for his crimes and made an example.” Drill Sergeant Mako smiled. “Of course, it is asked of me by the War Ministry to extend this offer. If any of you wish to depart and no longer serve your emperor, all you have to do is ask. Does any wish to leave? You’ll be granted your request. No dishonor at all.”
No one stepped forward. But all shouted including himself, “No, drill sergeant!”
Drill sergeant Mako smiled. “Excellent!”
No one ever did discover how drill sergeant Mako discovered Eiji’s plan. It was surmised that maybe the army had discovered him sneaking out. However, a rumor went around that suggested Eiji had been found just along the outskirts of Tōkyō. That they had, in fact, been waiting for him. And when he showed up, they shot him dead. Shōtō was inclined to believe these rumors as not even one news report had suggested Eiji Kobayashi, disgraced son of Hino Kobayashi, had been captured or even attempted to flee. In fact, no one ever heard anything about Eiji Kobayashi again. And this convinced Shōtō there could only be one way out of this ‘voluntary army’ he’d found himself within.
Regardless, Drill Sergeant Mako never said anything more about the matter. Not even when staring down Shōtō in that way of his where he seemed to know every thought a man might be having.
“Ryūgawasan, you are not the battle-hardened sort. Your spirit… well, it is one of peace. And a man of peace is hardly ever the sort to lead a war. Wouldn’t you say?”
“Master Drill Sergeant?”
The drill sergeant’s features soften. “Sometimes… I wonder why they even extend this privilege of serving the emperor to those in the country sides. It makes matters… tumultuous. Oh, sure, I know you live in Tōkyō. Now. But I am aware of where you were born and raised. And I am aware of your father’s service to our great Nippon. You do him honor even being here. But, still, you are not made for this. And it makes me wonder, Shōtōsan… It makes me wonder.”
A distant look came to the drill sergeant as he looked back out of the window behind his desk, his back once more to Shōtō.
“I am ready to do this,” Shōtō insisted, panic etching itself across his heart. “They are accepting army recruits into the—”
“Do you know what they are planning?” Drill Sergeant Mako abruptly said not turning around.
“Planning, Master Drill Sergeant?”
“Never mind. Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Yes, master drill sergeant! More than anything, sir!”
Shōtō’s voice was eager, loud, full of passion. The smile on Shōtō’s face, where he lay looking up into the sky seeing this past play out before his eyes, diminished as the next words his drill sergeant spoke settled onto his heart as if a heavy stone.
Drill sergeant Mako turned towards him, his expression one of dire resolve. “Very well. It will be done. I hope you succeed in your mission, Shōtōsan. Whatever it may be.”
Drill sergeant Mako bowed in respect and Shōtō did the same.
Did he know? Just like he always knew, did he know? Why did he let me go if he suspected then? Did he know it would backfire so spectacularly as well? Shōtō sighed and placed his hands behind his head. The warm hazy sun was over the island beaming its warmth onto him as he thought back to the bootcamp for pilots. There, he’d been warmly welcomed. Too warmly, now that he thought about it. At the time, he’d had no idea that the fallback plan building was kamikaze maneuvers. He should have suspected, of course. But he was more determined than ever to figure out a way to surrender to the Americans. For nearly a year, he trained in every flight scenario. Towards the end, though, the training was becoming more focused on the taking off part than the landing. That’s when he learned about the ultimate agenda of the battle tactics in play. His time there had mostly been in homeland defense. But in learning of these tactics (and also discovering that the war was not going well for the land of the rising sun. The emperor’s territory was diminishing by the day as the American’s pushed across the Pacific towards Nihon) he formulated a new plan. He’d make the kamikaze missions work for him instead.
Though he knew he’d only get the one shot.
There was a great honor in being chosen to be a kamikaze pilot. He knew several pilots who were more than eager to strike out at the American fleets. To demonstrate the promise that every Nihonjin would fight to the very last person. Shōtō doubted it would come to that. He really suspected that a surrender was in the future. But something told him he needed to get out of the way first before it happened. Something was drawing him out to the ocean and away from Nihon. At least, temporarily.
When ‘volunteers’ were asked for, Shōtō eagerly stepped forward. The mission was simple. Oh, it was simple for the others as well. Fly out off the aircraft carriers, zip down towards the American fleets, and crash into their vessels. But Shōtō had other ideas. He’d make like he was going to crash and then…
THE PHILIPPINE ISLAND CHAINS
JUST NORTH IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN
EARLY MARCH 1945
THE FLEET HAD been sent out to engage the American fleets crossing the Philippines that were determined to reclaim that chain of territory. It was figured (spoken of in hushed whispers, even) that the Americans would use that as the final push up towards Okinawa and into Nihon proper. The War Ministry was determined that that would not happen.
Shōtō recalled standing by a railing looking out into the ocean. The seas were roughing up, growling in rage. The skies far out on the horizon line were looking dark and foreboding. His heart was racing and his gut was filled with nervous trepidation.
This is it. This is your only chance. If you don’t pull this off, you’re as good as dead. Shōtō laughed to himself. Maybe that would be for the better, then. Better to die fighting to survive than bending the knee to capitulate. Why do so many desire to be warlords, leaders, and gods? Is it not well enough to just live?
“What are you laughing at?”
Shōtō turned to see Kazuo Ito standing just to the rear of him. He hadn’t heard the young man walk up and almost laughed seeing the perplexed expression on Kazuo’s face. Shōtō waved a hand through the air.
“Just eager to get this done and over with. This war has dragged on for far too long.”
“You sound as if you really aren’t happy to be serving the Emperor…”
Shōtō looked at the earnest young man and offered up a shallow smile. “How could I not be? We will soon be taking the fight directly to the Americans. And our sacrifice will be Nihon’s glory. Our names will go down as the martyrs for a great nation staving off the evil will of a spreading empire.”
Kazuo smiled then. “Yes! I am so ready to give my life for my Emperor! For my nation! We will show these heathens that ours is the only way! I await you in the air, brother!”
Shōtō nodded as the young man walked away, smiling mirthfully at what he assumed was a great honor. Shōtō on the other hand wanted to puke over the side of the railing and stab Kazuo in the throat.
Such blind idolatry! The human race is doomed, I swear…
There wasn’t much more time for reflection on such notions as the horn sounded alerting all pilots to get to their planes. Shōtō took in a deep breath and prepared to put his plan into motion. One way or another, he was leaving Nihon forever. And he was either joining his mother in Ne-no-kuni or living on as a prisoner of the Americans. Either way, he felt a little bit of peace flowing over his body.
Shōtō made his way up to the flight deck and entered his Zero. Many of his colleagues had dual pilot seats. One for the main pilot, one for the co-pilot who was also gunner. Shōtō had managed to get a single seat fighter making it even easier for his plan to come to fruition or disaster. The aircraft carrier’s flight deck sloped forward towards an incline that lifted off and up into the air. Several planes before him were already taxiing forward as he brought his own propellers to full speed. There were Zeros and Tsuguris.
Everything we have left to halt the Americans, yes? Shōtō shook his head and drew his goggles down as it was his turn to push his Zero down the flight deck and up into the skies. His plane lifted off and he felt the thrum of the engine to the fore and the wracking hull shimmering under the buffeting winds of the Pacific. He rose higher still into the mostly clear day, the storms still far on the horizon. He followed his colleagues, dozens of planes flying through the skies and staying fairly low to the ocean surface. The breadth of the Pacific Ocean was all that he could see all the way to every horizon. It was an abyss surrounding him on every side. He took in a deep breath and followed his colleagues towards his fate.
The constant drone of the propeller blades filled the cockpit as Shōtō looked all around. Then his gaze fell on the horizon line before them. It was growing closer. And darker too. Then, Shōtō saw the advance Nihon fleet fast approaching the American fleets. A vast armada of ships on both sides firing nonstop towards one another. Aircraft of the Americans were buzzing the Nihonjin fleets. And Shōtō took in a deep breath. They weren’t to be fighting those warplanes. Theirs was to zip over them all and make their destination the warships across the battlefield of ocean. Ships were sinking. Crafts were plunging into the depths. Fires somehow raged along the surface. Thick, black smoke filled the skies. And their flight was heading straight into the thick of it.
“Engage! Engage! Engage! Let the Americans know their days have come!” the voice came from the radio.
Answering voices hailed the order with great enthusiasm. Shōtō didn’t bother responding. Only guided his plane in with the rest of them. The air filled with booming thunder. Only, it wasn’t the weather. It was the cannon fire of warships trying to blow them all out of the skies before they could deliver their lethal payloads. Engines whined in protest as each plane dove for their intended targets. Shōtō could even hear the engines of his cohorts planes through the thick canopy surrounding him as he pushed his own Zero into a dive. Explosions of artillery littered the air all around his vessel shaking his plane violently. Within moments, several of his fellow pilots had crashed into the decks of several warships. Fire blossomed upwards into an inferno of fiery clouds. His plane rattled even being a hundred feet away as he made his own target a warship only a few hundred feet away. One of his colleagues had the same idea and plowed into the deck. Soldiers went flying by his canopy as they attempted to fire back from turrets on the ship’s surface.
Shōtō pulled up just a split second before being too late to avoid collision and zoomed by at an angle the side of the seafaring vessel. He turned his plane nearly vertically onto its starboard side and flew by at three hundred miles an hour. Salt water cascaded upward as it was drawn by the wake of his Zero’s thrust between two warships. He tilted back upwards to his normal horizontal position and then vertically to the portside to avoid hitting the other warship as he pulled up looking for an American aircraft carrier. If he was successful, he could crash onto its flight deck and surrender with a minimal of damage.
He spotted a carrier group to the rear of the current battlefield and made for it. However, before he got far, an American Corsair was hot on his tail, its cannons firing ferociously all around him. Somehow, Shōtō managed to evade those shots as they plunged into the ocean surface and pulled up and over the American fleet.
“Damnit! Let me surrender!” Shōtō deked left, then right, the American right on his tail.
There was no way to angle towards the carriers so Shōtō peeled off hoping to lose the Corsair pilot somewhere out over deep sea. Only, the American pilot refused to let up and somehow found himself flying into the storm brewing far too close now. Before he knew it, Shōtō was flying into an island chain, had his tail shot off by the Corsair pilot, and by all the gods and spirits above, around, and below, was able to belly land his craft along the outer edge of the forest inhabiting the interior of the island. Rain had hindered his ability to see much but upon crashing, he’d had no choice but to evacuate his plane. The fire was growing larger along the hull and the rain wasn’t doing much to put it out. Leaping out he felt the need to grab a blanket from within his aircraft and start beating at the flames in time to the pounding waters of the storm. He’d thought it’d been put completely out. But then the next day when he came out of the forest perimeters (where he’d sought some semblance of shelter) he found his plane was trying to reignite. That’d been an experience he didn’t care to retread.
Thanks for reading and come back next week for the next installment of Left of Midnight!
~Timothy S Purvis