within the fires

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about someone forced out of their home.... view prompt

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Sad East Asian Historical Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

If I remember the date right, it was early September.

I think it was the ninth. It’s hard to tell—I didn’t feel like myself back then. I would often lose track of time. On that day, word came to me that we lost the war. I was walking alongside a cart of debris through the remains of our town, and two women spoke as if they were disappointed.

The great empire of Japan had surrendered.

Two of our cities were destroyed. Reduced to ash and rubble.

Even then, I could only think of you, and I cried.


- - -


Kyoka heard the drone of the planes before the ring of the bell.

“Air raid!” a man outside called. He swung a bell through the air, an echoing chime in the streets of Nagoya—the siren had broken down again. “Air raid! Get to the shelters! It’s an air raid!” A door slammed in a nearby home. Hurried footsteps followed. Kyoka rushed through her house, grabbing what she could as the drone grew louder.

“Kyo,” her brother said from behind her. She turned and took his arm, her pack in the other. “Do we have to go to the shelter again? I don’t like it there-”

“You’ll like it better than here, I can promise you that.”

She slid open the front door and stepped outside. Silver planes flew above, reflecting the midday sunlight, hundreds in the sky—a thundering roar as they passed overhead. Their fuselages split open at the bottom, and a steady stream of firebombs dropped.

They hit the ground and rolled like steel cans. Each erupted into flames seconds later. A bomb landed in front of them, and Kyoka stepped back. 

“I need you to stay close, Toru,” she said.

“You’re too fast! I’m going to trip.”

“Come here.” Kyoka reached down and grabbed him by the waist. “Up we go.”

A house exploded on their left, knocking her sideways. Fire broke through the wooden home, severing the support beams, a burning panel coming loose. A cat mewed as it scurried atop a fence beside them. Kyoka set her brother on her back and ran forward—Toru mumbled her name, refusing to look up.

The orange sky quickly blackened with smoke.

Firebombs continued to fall. Kyoka ran with a crowd through the streets, struggling to keep her balance as people bumped into her. A fire crew set up on her left, shouting, hoses of ivory water attempting to stop the spread of the inferno. 

A utility pole caught aflame and fell in the crowd’s direction.

“Kyo!”

She looked to her left, then ran down an alleyway. Cries pierced the air behind her. A car alarm rang further off. With her shoes tapping against stone, Kyoka ran until out of breath, then came to a stop at a clearing. She rested a hand against a tree.

“Kyo, Kyo, Kyo,” Toru mumbled over and over. He trembled, shaking like a reed in the wind. “I’m scared, Kyo. Are we safe now? Where’s mama? Is she safe too?”

“I bet you she got to the shelter as soon as it started. It’s close to her work.”

She set Toru down, and he clutched onto her right away.

“Kyo,” he said. “I lost my shoes when we were running. They fell off. I’m sorry-”

“It’s okay. I’ll buy you new ones the first chance I get.”

After a half-hour's rest, Kyoka hoisted Toru on her back and set out. Specks of ash in the breeze caught in her hair. Atop a hill, she stared down at the landscape of her city, now a wasteland. Nothing but ruins and loose fires for miles on end.

“Where is everything, Kyo? It’s all gone.”

“Yeah,” Kyoka said. “I…”

“Is our house still there?”

“I…don’t know. We can check tomorrow—it’s too dangerous right now.” Toru exhaled upon hearing her words. “Don’t you worry, okay? Dad flies a plane, too. He’s going to make them pay for all of this.”

The two camped out on the hill as the sun fell, giving way to night. Few stars made it through the smoke. Buildings crumbled further off, the noise carrying in the wind, and Kyoka watched in the distance as a man dug through the debris.

“I’m cold, Kyo,” Toru said. He chewed on a rice ball, dried out from being kept in her bag for so long. “And the ground isn’t fun to sleep on.”

“I know.”

“I wish we could go home.”

“Me too.”

“Can you read the letter from papa now?”

She smiled, reaching into her pack. Kyoka ran her thumb under the red seal and unfolded the beige note. After clearing her throat, she began.

“My two children.” Toru sat up and inched closer. “I hope this letter finds you in high spirits. I trust you have been well recently, and I am dearly grateful for your letters. I’ve read over them many times—your calligraphy has improved very much. Has Toru been learning too? I would like for you to teach him in your spare time.

“In order to destroy our enemy in the upcoming days, I will summon courage with all my might and fulfil the Imperial mandate. I will not retu…” Kyoka stopped. She stared at the words, then looked to Toru, who waited for her to continue.

“What did he say, Kyo?”

“He said he misses us, and he’ll be back soon. How about you get some rest now? It’s been a long day.” Toru nodded, rubbing his eyes. He wrapped himself in the blanket and rested his head on the grass. 

I need you to be strong, Kyoka; the letter had read. Please watch over Toru, and take care of yourself in the coming year. Until we meet again, my child.

After Toru had fallen asleep, quietly breathing in the night, Kyoka pressed her head into her arm, and sobbed. Dawn didn’t come without nightmares.

With little rest, she lifted Toru onto her back and made way for what remained of Nagoya. Men passed by with carts and dug out what they could from the wreckage. Lone children sat in the streets, dirt coating their faces.

“I don’t know where our house is anymore, Kyo.”

Kyoka looked around. Only a few homes remained standing. She turned away before Toru could notice the blackened bodies in a ditch. Making her way down the street, she found she lost her sense of direction, nothing the same as before.

“Kyo? Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I’m sure we can find somewhere else to stay for now.”

“But what do we do after?”

“I…” She sighed. “We’ll find mom, and go from there.”

The hours passed by, and Kyoka could not find her. Neither could she stomach telling Toru what had supposedly happened to those in the shelters, trapped in the heat. Without knowing how to proceed, she brought Toru to the beach.

They sat in the sand across from one another.

“Hey,” she said, tears warm in her eyes. Toru palmed wet sand into a dome. Waves washed up on shore, a calming noise, and seagulls cawed overhead. Her brother raised his head and smiled.

“Look at the castle I’m making, Kyo! Would you want to live in it?”

“I would,” she said. She wiped away the tears with her arm. “You’ve been very brave, you know that? And I need you to keep being brave. For me.” Toru nodded in reply to her words. “We will only have a little to eat tonight, but I will find something for us come morning.”

“Okay,” Toru said. He poked holes in the sandcastle with his fingers. “Look, a window. Why aren't you eating, Kyo? You didn't have anything this morning.”

“Don’t worry about me.” Kyoka dug into the sand around the castle. “It’s a moat,” she said, “and we’ll have alligators in the waters and archers on the walls. No one will ever take it over. Let's build another.”

Toru laughed as he pushed sand into a dome.

She savoured his smile, knowing it may not return.

As the days passed, food became scarce. Sirens sounded each night, echoing wails, and Kyoka held onto Toru as he shook in fear. They rested in an abandoned shed outside the city—the college that served as a relief shelter had fallen to a wave of bombs.

“Kyo,” Toru said. He nudged her awake. “My stomach is hurting really bad. Do you have anything to eat?”

“I…don’t.” She stood up, the shed’s floorboards creaking beneath her. The sun had just begun to set on the horizon—the planes would soon come. “I have a plan, though. I need you to stay here, alright? I’ll be back in an hour’s time.”

She took off to the part of town still-standing—buildings and homes untouched by the fires. The very second the air raid sirens started, she ran into the fray, against the flow of people, into the bombing zone. 

Kyoka dashed into a home. She found a closed pot in one, opened it, and shovelled the cooked rice within into her mouth. A building collapsed in flames nearby. She ran into the bedroom and pulled the blanket off a futon. 

With all the food she could find wrapped up in the blanket, she made for the door. The house creaked—a bomb had set the roof aflame. A beam snapped, fell, and broke against her head before she could step outside. Kyoka dropped to the floor, dazed.

She scrambled for her supplies. Toru wouldn’t survive without them. A second beam swung down, jagged and sharp. It cut deep into her side. She cried out in pain, standing, struggling to find balance. She wrenched the beam from her impaled waist. Blood quickly stained her clothing. The heavy smoke made it hard to think.

She limped through the gathering firestorm on her way back.

At the shed, Toru ran up to her, eyes wide and worried.

“Kyo! You’re bleeding! I need to find you a doctor.”

“There’s no use,” she said. “We’re too far.” She collapsed beside him. The blanket came undone, the rice pot and cans of goods tumbling out. “I messed up, Toru.” Her breathing grew heavy. “Oh, I messed up. I’m sorry. I messed up badly. I’m really sorry. I didn’t know what to do and I was desperate and no one is helping us-”

“You’re not going to die,” Toru said, tears in his eyes. He clutched onto her. “Are you, Kyo?”

“I’m sorry, Toru. I only wanted to keep you safe, but the world made it so hard. I tried all I could.”

“Kyo…”

“I brought you,” she paused, her breathing slowing. Blood trickled from the gash on her waist. The cloth she’d tied around it had loosened. “I brought you food. You can eat, and I need you to find someone to help you, okay? Find an orphanage to take you in. Do you hear me?”

“I don’t want you to die.”

“I know,” she mumbled. “I know. You’ll have to be brave. For me. It'll be alright.”

Her vision faded at the edges. In the last few minutes of her life, the clock winding down, she held onto Toru. And when her grip weakened, he spent the night in her arms. 


- - -


It’s been a decade since then, and I still think of you all the time. I’m going to school again! I wish you could see me these days. I take the train every morning, and I’m learning a lot. An orphanage far away from our home did take me in, just like you told me.

This is only my first letter I’m writing, and I will bury it at your grave. I will visit you next year to write another. I’m sorry it took me so long, Kyoka.

Thank you for keeping me alive, and being so kind. 

I will forever miss you.

-Your brother, Toru.

March 15, 2022 18:56

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57 comments

I really enjoyed reading this story. So heartfelt. Kyoka is just trying to keep herself and Toru alive, minute by minute, day by day. Her care for her little brother is wonderful. As an older sister, I can see myself making the choices she makes - whatever it takes to keep my siblings alive, and safe. I liked when she engaged with him when he was building his sand castles, playing along with him, even though she now has to do everything their parents would have been doing for them, and more. The title fit very well! A few critiques: [If I c...

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Alex Sultan
04:53 Mar 19, 2022

Thank you, friend. I'm glad you could relate to the story - I have not written the sibling dynamic before, so it's good to hear I got it right. I do like the sandcastle part too. I didn't plan for it originally. Your changes are really good! I like the first line one a lot - admittedly, I was stuck on the first line, and your suggestion does fit the style I was going for. Thank you 🙂 As for brother's keeper, I've heard of it. The Korean war is a time period I do want to write on at some point when I've researched enough of it. Thanks for t...

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Janey El Napier
15:07 Mar 17, 2022

This is brilliant - I love the first line! I think I saw another comment mentioning it but it really reminds me of Grave of the Fireflies! I don't know if you've seen it but the setting and the sibling bond give the same overall gut wrenching vibe. It really is an amazing piece of writing and tore my heart out (in a good way haha). As far as I can remember, I've only ever read your fantasy pieces so it must take quite a skill to write stories in such different genres!

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Alex Sultan
05:30 Mar 19, 2022

Thanks for reading, friend. The story is very much inspired by Grave of the Fireflies - it is one of my favourite anti-war films - and it is the quality I strive to write at. I do write Fantasy a lot more, but it is nice to switch it up every now and then. I appreciate the kind words.

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21:36 Mar 16, 2022

Hi Alex, I dont have much time so I'll dive right in if thats ok? If I could remember the date, it was early September. - This line feels a bit odd. If the character cant remember the date then it wasn't early September? I'm not sure what it is trying to convey? I'd consider cutting it - or reworking the opening a bit to make this more meaningful. Maybe cut it and rework the following bit to tighten it up - maybe something like this: I think it was the ninth of September. It’s hard to tell—I didn’t feel like myself those days. Word cam...

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Alex Sultan
09:25 Mar 17, 2022

Thanks, Katharine. Don't worry about the comment being rushed - I appreciate you going through the story in such depth. I made a stack of changes based on your comment(I like the one on 'hulls' especially, which I missed myself when I wrote the piece) The repetition of 'aflame' is a good catch too, which I didn't notice. I narrowed it down to 2. All the best, friend 🙂

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Howard Seeley
01:37 Mar 16, 2022

A beautiful story, my friend. Can't wait to hear from you again.

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Alex Sultan
09:04 Mar 17, 2022

I appreciate the read, Howard. I think it is important to write anti-war stories, and I'm glad you read through it.

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00:06 Mar 16, 2022

Well written story covering an interesting part of history. Reminded me a lot of 'Grave of the Fireflies'. I did quite a bit of reading about Tokyo history, and also I remember 'Confessions of a Yakuza' had a chapter that covers that event, and you got the details right. Really short sentences with a lot of emotion and sensory details makes the action flow really well.

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Alex Sultan
08:25 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you, Scott. I appreciate the read. I've watched Grave of the Fireflies. It's one of my favourites that I will never watch more than once. I did draw inspiration from it, and I'm glad you know the movie and understand my source material. I'll have to check out 'Confessions of a Yakuza'. Thanks again.

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Felice Noelle
23:30 Mar 15, 2022

Alex: I agree that this is well-written and moving. I knew a woman who was a child in Nagasaki, who claimed that the survivors were so ashamed andapprehensive about spreading the effects of radiation and passing it on to their progeny, that they remained silent for many years. I'm curious, was the setting Tokyo during the horrible bombing prior to the two atomic bombs? I am so glad you shared this. If more of us faced some of these truths, maybe we'd be less inclined to moved towards mankind's destruction. My dad was in WWII, my husba...

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Alex Sultan
09:16 Mar 17, 2022

Hi Felice - I'm glad this story resonated with you. It does it take place during the Tokyo firebombings of WW2. An awful time. I think these anti-war stories are important for that matter, since, as you mentioned, more of us need to see the inside of what war does. I appreciate you sharing your comment.

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Dorsa S.
21:06 Mar 15, 2022

hey alex! first off, wonderful job with this. it is such a saddening piece; once i read the first few sentences, i knew i was going to be in for a tough one. it is such a beautiful and emotional execution of a sibling relationship - i haven't read a story like this in a while, so it is refreshing to see one like this. the way you had described the older to younger sibling dynamic between kyo and toru was well done - the eldest seeming morally obligated to protect the youngest is a trope i'm quite fond of. :) i am unsure if you want any note...

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Alex Sultan
08:01 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you for reading! Your notes are very helpful - I've edited them all in. You catch the small style things I don't really notice while writing, and I'm so glad you do. Your changes sound a lot better. This is one of my favourites, as well. I wanted to write something to best 'Zero' while still carrying a strong anti-war message, and I'd like to think I've done it with this one. I appreciate the kind words as always. friend 🙂

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잘못된 이름
15:46 Mar 25, 2022

one of my favourites of yours. i think it should have won.

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Alex Sultan
15:55 Mar 25, 2022

됐어 괜찮아, 항상 이길 수 없어요.

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Leslie Medberry
00:41 Mar 24, 2022

Thank you Alex, for honoring the yakeato generation, the generation of the ashes. I recently read the original story, A Grave of Fireflies, by Nosaka Akiyuki. There is a free PDF at us.archive.org. Very haunting

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Alex Sultan
01:51 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you for the link - I will definitely read it. When I watched the movie some time ago, it definitely impacted me. I appreciate the comment, Leslie.

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