Cloud - © Martin Alexander

Somewhere Above the Clouds

From the archive: this piece first appeared in Issue 5 of the Asia Literary Review


IT WAS RAINING on the morning I was scheduled to die, a deluge that had begun in the late watches of the night. I had not slept, having spent the night thinking of the last time I had seen my father, six months before. I heard the rain riding in on the winds of the South China Sea, the sheaves of water thrashing across the rutted runway, hitting the rattan walls and the thatched roofs of the pilots' billets, so different from the gentle summer rains of my homeland.

     The monsoon should have already departed; yet the rains still came, day after day, the dark colourless skies lightened occasionally by a brief hour of tropical sunshine before the gloom closed in again.

     I went out to the veranda. Colonel Teruzen was already there, looking through the rain to the beach. Lightning threaded between the low-lying clouds and the sea, trying to stitch them together and seal off the world beyond. 'No flying this morning,' he said, his relief evident. I would live another day. I stood close to him, feeling the heat coming off his body.


He was fifty years old and I knew he would live out the war, and for that I was glad.

     The small aerodrome, formerly used by the RAF, was on Mersang Island, two miles off the east coast of Malaya. There was already an atmosphere of defeat when I arrived a month ago. The runway was built close to the beach, and the billets - now empty of pilots except for myself and Colonel Teruzen - were within walking distance of the wooden hangar. There were cracks along the edges of the runway, and the potholes had been filled in with sand taken from the beach. We often had to fill them in when the heavy rains gouged the sand away. 'No flying today,' I repeated softly. To my shame I too felt a small sense of relief. But stirred into that were also the increasing frustrations and uncertainties of waiting.

     It was especially hard for me. I had been assigned my duty over two months previously together with my squadron mates. We had flown our Nakamura JI fighters from the Naval airbase in Kyushu to Luzon. My plane developed engine problems soon after taking off, the control stick shuddering as it struggled to carry the 500-pound bomb beneath me. Fortunately the engine held together. These planes had not been constructed to carry such a load. They were shoddily built by that time, and our aviation fuel had been diluted so much that it was inevitable the engines would deteriorate. There had been accidents involving substandard planes, which had been kept out of the newspapers. Now I wondered if I would become another censored news item, my fall from the sky described heroically to soothe the public fearful of the imminent American invasion. I prayed that that would not happen, that my death would serve some purpose.

     I managed to keep the plane aloft until I landed in Luzon. The mechanic there had not been able to fix the problem, but I ignored his warnings not to fly. The group had to stay together. We left Luzon before dawn to evade being sighted by the Americans.

     Now I watched as my fellow pilots sped on, flying low to conserve fuel. They entered a shaft of morning sunlight breaking through the low monsoon clouds and for a minute or so my eyes followed them, glinting in the sky. I imagined them flying past the islands of the Philippines, each island growing smaller and smaller as they wandered further away from the main cluster of the archipelago, until there was only the sea beneath the pilots, green as algae, as they flew south to Malaya. And then they were gone, and I vowed I would catch up with them.

     I forced away the feeling of loss and examined my charts for the nearest landing strip, praying that the faltering engine would not stall. Forty minutes later I made a rough landing on the Bacolod base. It was made up of a collection of wooden huts surrounded by low mountain ranges, their peaks neatly severed by the low-lying storm clouds.

     The only movement or sign of life seemed to be a windsock fluttering madly in the wind, as though a bird had become entangled in it. The ground crew consisted of only a middle­ aged limping mechanic and his assistant. I described the fault in the engine. 'How long will it take for you to fix it?' I asked. 'We'll examine it once it's cooled down,' he said. 'But from what you said...' He shook his head.

     He sensed and understood my desperation. I wanted to die together with my squadron. We had gone through our aviation training and graduated together from the Imperial Naval Academy. I did not wish to be left behind.

     'There's an old Mitsubishi engine in our workshop,' he said. 'Perhaps I can salvage some parts from it. We'll try to be as quick as we can.'

     I bowed to him. He stood to attention as someone came up behind me. I turned around and for the first time in two years I saw Colonel Teruzen again. For a moment I forgot everything, where I was, what I was doing here. He narrowed his eyes in slight amusement and I lifted a belated salute.

     'Lieutenant Nakamura,' he said. 'Kind of you to visit us.' 'Trouble with my plane, Sir,' I replied, still flustered. His voice was just as I had remembered it - deep and grave and very often ironic.

     He glanced at the plane behind me. Recognition clouded his eyes. 'You've been assigned to the tokko unit? '

     'I - all of us in my class - volunteered,' I said. 'What are you doing here? I heard you were in Tokyo? '

     'Doing a tour of our air bases in the Pacific,' he explained. 'Reporting to Admiral Onishi on the efficacy of sending all you young pilots to your deaths.'

     I had not expected the rasp of anger in his voice, but I sympathised with him. He had trained so many of us. '"A million hearts beating as one",' he quoted the suicide pilots' slogan, now corroded with his bitterness. 'Such a terrible waste.'

     'Where's everyone?' It was quiet. I heard only the occasional breeze rustling the trees in the jungle surrounding us and the waves running up the beach. My uniform was already wet and sour. 'The last batch of pilots left yesterday. A convoy of American warships had been spotted in the Sulu Sea,' he said. 'We're awaiting the next group - if there is one. Perhaps they'll be sending children soon.'

     'I'm here, aren't I?' I gave him a smile that faded away even before it spread across my face.

     'Come,' he said. 'I'll get you some breakfast. You can report to the CO of the base later. He's usually already drunk by this time.'

     I followed him to a low building 200 metres from the hangar. He led me into a room, bare except for a desk and a faded map of the Philippines pinned onto a wall. I bowed to a monochrome photograph of the Emperor as Colonel Teruzen watched, his hands folded across his chest.

     'Where are you headed?' he asked, pouring me a cup of tea from a dented thermos flask.

     'The south-east coast of Malaya,' I said.

     'Mersang Island?' I nodded.

     He frowned. 'I thought that had been abandoned.'

     'I don't know, Teruzen-san. I merely follow orders. That's what we've been taught.'

     He came closer to me. 'I've missed you,' he said. I remembered our last day together in Tokyo, two years before. I had made the decision to fulfil my duty, to put aside my own personal needs. I did not wish to be reminded of those days, gone the way of all tokko pilots now.

     'The war will be over soon,' I said. 'How is Haruko?'

     'She was killed in an air raid.'

     'I'm sorry.' I closed my eyes, remembering the intelligent and perceptive woman who had been his wife. For a long moment we stood like that, apart, and then I moved towards him and embraced him. I felt, for the first time since I had known him, his bitterness against all of our entangled duties.


The mechanic took five days to discover the fault and replace my engine, and another three days to fine tune it. I was torn between the need to rush him and the urge to prolong my stay. Teruzen took me hiking in the mist-covered hills and for long walks on the empty beach. There was no need to talk much now; we understood each other's shades of silences. There was a flare of intensity to everything we did. And for the first time since we'd met, so many years ago, I was rid of all futile, wasteful guilt. At night I would lie awake and feel his presence next to me, while a midnight rain washed over the base, stilling the cicadas, lifting the heat. He slept fitfully, disturbed by his own memories.

     He had aged. His hair, once  a light, ash  grey, was now completely white. There were more lines around his eyes, reminding me of the cracks around a bullet hole in the glass of a downed fighter plane's cockpit. He still moved with the elegance of a kyudoka, a quality he would never lose after thirty years of archery practice.

     I had met him at one of my father's parties. Teruzen had been the Naval Advisor sent to oversee the manufacture of the planes being built by my father. Japan had just taken Singapore and the war across Asia was going extremely well.

     There was an immediate comprehension and acknowledgment between us that night after I bowed to him and looked into his eyes. I lingered as my father spoke with him and introduced him to the other industrialists. At the end of the night he asked me to meet him again and I agreed. He visited regularly to discuss the production and engineering details of the planes with my father, and often stayed the night. I was sixteen years old and all around me were exhortations to join the forces to protect our homeland. It was easy to get caught up in the hysteria, to be willingly seduced by the newspaper reports of the heroic fighter pilots. Every high school student in Japan wanted to be a navy pilot.

     I completed my preparatory aviation training and applied to the Imperial Naval Academy where he taught. There was nothing in our daily interaction to indicate that Teruzen and I were anything other than a sensei and his student. That was also the period when I met Haruko, his wife of ten years. She was in her thirties, her soft cheerful beauty in stark contrast to her austere-looking husband. I knew then that I would have to end the relationship between Teruzen and me.

     After my graduation, and before receiving my assignment, Teruzen took me to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the spirits of fallen warriors were housed and worshipped. Japan was losing the war by then and we began to hear of Vice­ Admiral Takijiro Onishi's unprecedented and desperate plans to defend our country.

     And there, in the holy silence of the shrine's courtyard, I gathered my resolve and told him that I could not see him again.

     He closed his eyes, as though in prayer to the dead, but I saw sorrow drift across his face, faint as the wisps of incense floating past us on a current of breeze.

     'Then promise me we'll meet again here, at the shrine, after the war,' he said. I agreed, but I knew it would not happen. The war had brought us together, but once it ended everything would change again. He would have Haruko to return to. I bowed to him and walked out of the shrine, alone.


Ten days after I made the emergency landing on Bacolod, the plane was once again ready to fly. I wondered if the mechanic had realised what was happening and had used his skills to delay the completion of the repairs.

     When I thanked him, he looked at me, and then at Teruzen walking towards us. 'If I had had the courage, I would have damaged the engine beyond repair,' the mechanic said. 'There have been too many wasteful deaths.'

     I bowed to him. 'If I'd had the courage, I would have asked you to do it.' We smiled with sadness at each other. Before he left, he said, 'I have to work on the colonel's plane. I'll say a prayer for you at Yasukuni Shrine, someday.'

     Teruzen knocked on the plane's fuselage. The metal sounded thin and brittle as a swallow's bones. 'I advised your father on their construction,' he said. 'But these are not what we wanted to build. They are a travesty, a dishonour to your family name and our nation.'

     'I know, Teruzen-san,' I replied. 'My father built some of the best planes during the early days of the war. But we ran out of materials. We ran out of spirit.'

     'That's not true,' Teruzen said. He held my shoulders. 'We never ran out of spirit. What you are about to do is the living embodiment of that spirit.'

     I pulled out a sheet of paper from my battered flying suit.

     'My father gave this to me,' I said. 'It's an English poem.'

     He glanced at it and returned it to me. 'I don't need to read it. I know it by heart.'

     'I would like to hear it in your voice,' I said. 'Please.'

     ' "I know that I shall meet my fate, somewhere among the clouds above..."' he began, and I closed my eyes and listened to him, hearing the resigned anger in his voice as he came to the last line. I knew then that, unlike our last parting, I would not try to forget him again.

     I opened my eyes when he finished, and I saw the shine of tears in his eyes. 'I was a fool, wasn't I, that day at Yasukuni?' I said. 'All that wasted time.'

     He nodded. 'But so was I, to agree to your request.'

     'And yet we did the right thing, of that I'm certain,' I said. The morning was overcast, windless and scented with dew.

    I followed his gaze to a pair of herons lifting up from the edge of the jungle, as weightless as mist. We watched as they rose higher and higher, before fading  into a screen of soft rain between the valleys, heading for a haven that would never be revealed to me. In Teruzen's eyes I saw the same yearning I felt when I watched those birds. I knew what he wanted of me, but would never voice out loud.

     I shook my head sadly. 'I can't,' I said.

     He lowered his eyes. 'Of course. I understand.' We touched the cold metal of the plane, as though to convince ourselves that once again I was making the correct choice.

     I could not let any doubt weaken me now. I bowed to him.

     'Sayonara, Teruzen-sensei.'

     He let out a heavy breath. 'I'll let your father know I met you here,' he said, as I climbed into the plane.

    I stopped adjusting myself in the seat, wondering what to say. 'He'll be happy to hear that,' I said. He caught the note in my voice and saw the look in my face, but I closed the canopy before he could ask me anything more.

     The engine misfired a few times before catching, and the wind blew the black smoke away. The rumbling of the engine was rough and uneven. As I opened the throttle I said a prayer that the plane would take me  all the way to the shores of Malaya.

     The plane began to move, encumbered by the bomb hang­ing underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth. I almost ran out of runway before the plane grudgingly raised its nose and took flight. I made a circle once around the airfield, watching Teruzen standing at the side of the runway. As I lifted higher and higher away, the tears I had been holding back began to flow without restraint.


I had never seen monsoon clouds stacked so high and dark, and I knew I was in trouble when the heavy raindrops, hard as bullets, began to splatter onto my windscreen. I felt an uncom­fortable sensation that I was being followed, and I twisted around to look back at the skies behind me, wondering if an American fighter had seen me and was toying with me. The skies were empty, but the feeling would not leave me. I was one hour away from my destination, but visibility was reduced to zero. I felt some consolation that if I could not see anything, then neither could I be seen.

     The plane rocked from the cross-currents of wind and water, eating up more fuel to stay aloft. I did not have enough power to climb out of the storm clouds. I had to keep my present course, and hope I would not fly into a mountain. I checked the charts every few minutes, and the demands on my con­centration kept me from thinking about Teruzen and my father.

     I saw a faint twinkling of lights below me and examined my charts again. I felt relief I had arrived at the island. I approached the runway, but the configuration of lights below signalled that the conditions for landing were impossible.

     But there was no other option for me. First I had to make sure I survived the landing. I flew on and found a clearing a mile away. I flew low over it and released the unarmed bomb, hoping it would land on something soft in the darkness. The plane jerked up, freed of that awful weight, and rose into the air.

     I returned to the airfield, trying not to lose sight of it in the flood of falling water. I thought I had made a good landing when the wheels jarred onto earth again, but there was a rush of water from the tarmac and a moment later I hit a series of potholes. The plane spun across the airfield. I heard the undercarriage snap like bamboo in a typhoon, sending the plane askew. My head slammed into the glass, and I lost consciousness.


I woke up in a room which I took to be the base's Spartan clinic. Teruzen was there, looking out through the windows to the beach. I could hear the sound of waves. I made no noise, but he turned around and said, 'How are you feeling?'

     I tried to sit up and recoiled from the pain. 'You've fractured two of your ribs. The medical officer has done whatever he could, which isn't much at all. They're running desperately short of supplies.'

     'My plane?'

     'The ground crew is trying to see if it can be salvaged,' he said.

     I felt a renewed sense of failure. 'You were right behind me, all the way from Bacolod,' I said, remembering the feeling that I was being followed.

     He nodded, and brought a glass of tepid water to my lips. I finished it in one swallow and he dried my mouth with his handkerchief.

     'You managed to land in one piece, unlike me,' I said.

     'Ah, but that is to be expected. I was your teacher, after all.'

     'Is there anyone from my group still here?'

     Teruzen gave a fond smile. 'Lieutenant Kenji. His engine developed a fault on the morning - five days ago - he was supposed to fly. He was quite speechless when he saw me.' He let out a sigh. 'The fault has been fixed and he has received his orders. He will fly tomorrow.'

     'He's younger than I am,' I said. 'I should go first.'

     'You're in no shape to pilot a plane, Masahiro,' he snapped.

     'You shouldn't have come, Teruzen-san,' I said. 'You've disobeyed your orders.'

     'What happened to your father?'

    His question, like a well-timed thrust from a katana, caught me without any means of evasion. But what was the point of avoiding his question now? It was, as the Irish poet had written, a waste of breath, the years that had gone past, the years to come. There was only this present moment to live in. And so I told Teruzen about my father.


Once I was informed that my assignment to the tokko units had been approved, I travelled home to the old forested suburbs ofUgawa-cho. Tokyo had been badly bombed by the Americans, but I was gladdened to see the old maple-lined streets of my youth untouched. The leaves still remaining on them were red, perhaps stained by the sadness of war, preparing to surrender themselves to winter.

     I pulled the cord hanging by the wooden gatepost, imagin­ing I could hear the bell tinkling deep inside the house. A few minutes later I heard the bolt being drawn back.

     I covered my shock when I saw my father. Kanno had never been a robust man, but now he appeared angular and bony, his eyes haunted. He was dressed in his old grey yukata, which now seemed too large for him, loose as wind moving through trees.

     'Punctual, as always,' he said.

     I bowed to him, happy to see him again. For a long moment we merely looked at one another, feeling like strangers. I then did something I had never done before: I embraced him, and it felt as though he had been waiting for this, too. He returned my hug and stroked my head, whispering my name over and over again. Finally, he leaned back and smiled at me. There seemed to me, despite the undisguised joy in our meeting, a tension in the air.

     I examined Kanno more closely. He still moved with his customary quickness, but now it seemed to be galvanised by nervous energy and not his usual sense of dynamic purpose. We had tea on the veranda, looking at the garden. It was something we used to do often, and I was soothed but also saddened by the memories.

     I didn't know how to broach the subject of my new assign­ment. For a while we spoke only of those days before the war, but like a crane circling over the patch of ground it wanted to alight upon, Kanno gradually brought us back to the present again. To my surprise he himself raised the subject of Vice-Ad­miral Onishi's tokko programme.

     'I've been asked to build more planes for the war,'  Kanno said. 'It would not matter if they were of inferior quality, as long as they flew. They wanted them as fast as we could produce them.'  He snorted with disgust.

     'It's the Emperor's  wish,' I said. 'The  planes  would  help defend ourselves against the Americans.' These words, which I had heard so often on the radio, sounded empty to me now.

     'We'll lose the war. But what does it matter? We've already lost everything else - our honour, our value for life.'

     Kanno had raised me since my mother's death and he knew immediately when I looked into his eyes the reason for my visit. He shook his head and to my horror I saw he was crying, soundlessly, his eyes wide open as though he knew that closing them would not seal his tears inside. He was the head of one of the largest zaibatsu in the country and one of the Emperor's most trusted advisors, and now to see him like this shocked me. I knew then we would lose the war.


I stayed for five days, and we never mentioned the war again. On my last morning when I woke I sensed an unusual stillness in the house. I went through the house to look for Kanno.

     'Where are the servants?' I found him in the garden gazing at the koi pond, now empty of any fish. He was dressed completely in white.

     'I've sent them away,' he said.

     His tone, more than his words, frightened me. I understood then why he was dressed in white and what he was about to do. The realisation made my voice sound like a rusted shovel digging into ice. 'Don't, oto-san,' I said.

     He stood up and held out his hand to me. I took it, feeling the remembered sensation of solidity in him, as though his arm were part of an ancient tree growing on a steep cliff, rooted for eternity to the core of the earth. Then he let go and followed a path to the back of the house. I hurried after him, calling to him, but he did not stop or look back.

     I came to the courtyard, where a kore sansui garden had been laid out. The gravel had been raked and a clean reed mat was placed in the middle of a rectangle of white sand. Two of our family katana were placed in front of it, one sword longer than the other. A tray containing a small sake pot and a cup lay on the mat.

     'Don't do this,' I said. My voice was shaking, but Kanno was calm and purposeful as a ship entering a safe harbour after sailing through a storm out at sea.

     He knelt on the mat and poured a cup of rice wine. 'Why?' I asked, feeling as though I was training in my fighter plane again, the oxygen sucked from my lungs, about to black out from going against the invisible forces that tethered the sky to the earth.

     'Life is fair, is it not?' he said. 'I built the planes which sent other people's sons to their deaths. So it has to be balanced out; my son must die, too.' He looked steadily at me. 'Understand that I am not compelling you to disobey your orders. I accept that you must carry out your duty. In turn, you must accept what I am about to do.' He sat unmoving for a while, and I hoped he would never move again. 'So this is how it will end, the great Nakamura family.'

     He picked up the shorter sword and unsheathed it. The reflection of the morning sun on the blade made me turn away. I restrained his arm and he said, so softly, the way always he did when I was a child and he wanted to wake me from sleep, 'Masahiro.'

     I flinched; the hurt and pain in his voice wounded me more than if he had raised his voice at me. 'I haven't slept much since the first planes were delivered. It'll be good to sleep peacefully again. I'm so exhausted, my son.'

     I let go of his arm. 'I understand, father.'

     He stroked my hand. 'I wanted to see you one last time and now I have. What more can I ask for? Do not stay. Go.'

     I shook my head. 'No, I'm your son, and I will be with you.' Kanno nodded, his faint smile disappearing. He held  the blade in his right hand and opened his robe. He breathed slowly, as though savouring each breath, letting it seep into the very tips of his body. There was silence in the garden, even the birds were gone, perhaps frightened away forever by the bomb­ ings. In his eyes I saw the love he held for me. It took everything I had in me not to rise up and stop him. I was shivering from the effort.

     Kanno spoke softly, reciting a Basho haiku he  had once taught me, his voice like a stream of wind through a field of ripened wheat. 'Summer grasses, all that remains I of soldiers' dreams.'

     I stood next to him and held up the longer sword, ready to cut down in case his pain became too great to bear, in case he hesitated.

     Kanno never wavered; he cut across his abdomen, and the splash of blood on the gravel was a shout in the tranquillity of the garden.


Teruzen and I were the earliest people on the runway. We were silent as we watched Lieutenant Kenji and the commanding officer of the base walk towards us. A tray of porcelain cups and a bottle of sake lay on a table before us. I remembered the many ceremonies I had attended during the early days of the tokko program. Each time we had drunk a cup of sake with every one of the pilots and bowed to them, before they climbed into their planes. Looking back, I suppose many of us already knew the war was lost, but the battle still had to be fought. There was no other honourable way.

     Lieutenant Kenji had wrapped a hachimaki around his head. The white headscarf was painted with the rising sun on it, as though he had been shot in the middle of his forehead.

     I poured  us sake and we  bowed  in  the direction  of the Emperor. Teruzen drank his immediately and did not bow. 'Have a good flight,' I said to the last of my squadron mates. 'You won't have long to wait,' he comforted me. 'See you in Yasukuni.'

     He bowed to us once and then climbed into his plane. I kept waving to him until he was lost from sight and was never seen again. No one would ever know if he had succeeded in striking a blow against the Americans. I was the last pilot left now.

     Teruzen lifted his arm and flung his sake cup in an arc high up into the sky. He threw it so far that we did not hear it shatter when it fell back to earth.


We spent the days under an attap-roofed hut on the beach a few miles from the base. On clearer days I could see the faint outline of Tioman to the south, that mythical island which the local people said had been transformed from a princess from China sailing the seas in times long forgotten. Teruzen and I talked about visiting it, but the seas were too rough. The winds were fierce, making a spirited effort to extend the monsoon's dominion. The skies were continuously grey, throwing down hard sheets of rain. I was recovering faster than Teruzen would have liked, but he never again raised the matter of the aban­donment of my duty.

     Three weeks after Lieutenant Kenji's departure, I was in­ formed that the mechanic was unable to salvage my plane. I saw the suppressed light in Teruzen's eyes when he told me the news. It was early dawn and the skies were clearing. We were sitting on the beach. The tide was out, revealing the patterns of sand on the seabed, as though a gardener had been raking them. It reminded me of my father's garden and the last time I had been with him.

     Listening to Teruzen, I allowed myself a brief moment for all the possibilities which were now opened to me, the life that I could now have. I remembered the herons we had seen, flying off to some unreachable sanctuary.

      'I'll have to find another plane,' I said.

     'You fool,' he said, raising his voice. 'Don't you understand? You and I - we have been given a second chance at what we once threw away. We are no longer bound by duty to anyone.' 

       'Of course I understand,' I said, feeling the tension of the past month breaking out from me. 'You're asking me to be a coward, to abandon what I pledged to do when I joined up to protect our home.'

       'Yes, that is what I am asking you to do,' he said. 'There is nothing you can do now, can't you see that?'

     'You're saying that I should place my own needs before my duty, before anyone else,' I replied. 'You're asking me to be completely selfish.'

     'No,' his voice faltered, and then continued more firmly, 'I am not asking you to be selfish at all. I am asking that you put my needs first.'

     I stared at him, realising now how much I meant to him. 'Where would we go?'

     He looked out to the emptied sea. 'We don't have to go anywhere,' he whispered. 'This island would be good enough, wouldn't it? To live out our days here, far from the rest of the world.'

     I leaned against him, seeing his dream and letting myself be seduced by it. A house on this beach, and time eternal.

     'I can't,' I said. I stood up, trying to find a way to explain to him. 'If l don't carry out my orders, then my father's death was in vain. He accepted that I had to fly, and if I failed in doing that, then what was the point of his death?' I stopped. And then I said, 'That is why I am asking you to let me have your plane. The bomb carriage from mine can be attached to it.'

     I watched in sorrow as Teruzen's face aged before me, looking so similar to Kanno's before he died that I felt as though the war had ruptured the structure of time itself. I touched his arm. 'You knew my fate, from the first day you trained me to fly. Nothing can change it.'

     And for the first time since I had known him, he broke apart. His eyes filled with a terrible pain. 'I should not have followed you here,' he said. I heard the spreading fissures in his voice, widening into cracks. 'I was so selfish, to want to see you for the last time, to spend with you all the time you had left.'

     I went down beside him, and he leaned against me as I tried to comfort him.


Teruzen flew a two-seater Nakamura K14, one of my father's earlier planes, which I had never flown before. He spent a day instructing me while the plane was modified to carry the bomb. Once, while he was explaining something to me, I caught his eye and said, 'I feel like I'm in your beginners' class again.'

     He stopped, but his face was expressionless. He had not spoken much to me after that day on the beach, except to discuss the workings of his plane.

     The skies that evening were beginning to clear, and after a sparse dinner Teruzen said, 'I want to take you out into the night sky and fly with you one more time.'

     'I would be honoured,' I replied.

     I took the controls while he sat behind me. I understood why my father had been ashamed of the substandard planes he had been forced to build later in the war. Teruzen's plane felt powerful and smooth after my own. I remembered our first flight together at the academy in the training plane, and a great sadness overtook me.

     We went above the clouds, where the last rays of the sun still reddened the sky, and we flew on as beneath us the earth rotated into night. Soon the stars appeared and I said, 'I remember once when I was flying night patrol. I had this urge to keep on flying, to always remain safe in the darkness of night, because dawn always brought the departures of more of my fellow pilots.'

     'That would be wonderful, to remain  forever in flight,' he said, his voice soft bur clear.

     'I'm grateful that you understand what I have to do,' I said. I felt his hand grip my shoulder in reply, and I reached out and held it. There may have been a million hearts beating together, but up here, tonight, all I could hear and feel were his and mine, in harmony.


The monsoon was over. My new orders came a week later from the CO of the airbase, on the afternoon of 5 August 1945. A battleship had been sighted off Borneo. I would leave at dawn the next day.

     After the farewell dinner given by the few remaining staff of the base, Teruzen  and I took a last walk on the beach. We walked until the base was lost from view, hidden behind a curve in the shoreline. Teruzen was, to my surprise, calm and resigned, offering tips and suggestions on how to get the best out of the plane. I touched his shoulder and said, 'No more talk of the war,' and he nodded.

     'Tell me what you'll do after this is all over,' I said. I wanted to look into a part of his life that I would never be able to share.

     'I'll probably be tried as a war criminal,' he said.

     I shook my head. 'Tell me what you'll do,' I said again.

     He looked at me, understanding me. He gazed out at the sea. 'I'll come back here, to this island, and build a house ... there,' he pointed to a spot beneath a row of curved coconut trees. 'Live out the remainder of my life here. Perhaps open a small kyudo school. I'll take a boat out every morning to watch the sunrise on the ocean.'

     'It will be a good life,' I assured him. 'I'll think of you every day,' he said.

     I did not want to waste any time with sleep, but eventually he said, 'You must get some rest; you'll need your reactions to be sharp when you fly.'

     'I want to be here tonight, on this beach where one day you'll build your house. Let's not go back to the base.'

     'Of course,' he said. I lay back on the cool damp sand, the stars above seemingly close enough to grasp. 'Go to sleep. I'll wake you when it's time.'

     I took his hand and held it, not letting it go even when I drifted off.


He was gone when I woke. The sun was already rising, and I knew it would be almost eight. I cursed myself for sleeping late as I ran back to the base. I had just reached the end of the runway when I saw the plane standing outside the hangar, the engine already running.

     I stopped to catch my breath and then took off towards it at a trot. There was no time now, the battleship would be within range soon.

      The plane began to move. I stood still, unable to believe it.

     I heard the throttle open up and then the plane began to taxi to the start of the runway. I saw Teruzen's face through the canopy and pushed every ounce of energy into my legs to catch up with him. 'No, no, no,' I cried in gasps.

     The plane came to a stop and for a long moment he stared into my eyes. He blinked once and gave me a smile. A hand came up, his palm open, as though he could touch me through the distance. I was still shaking my head, and I knew I was shouting at him, even though at that moment I could hear nothing at all, except a million and two hearts all beating at the same time.

     He lowered his hand and the plane began rolling forward. I changed my direction and tried to intercept it halfway down the runway. For a minute I was running side by side with it and I thought I could reach him and stop him, but then the plane rose off the tarmac and even though I stretched out every fibre of my being, I grasped only its tailwind.

     I stumbled and then got up again, following Teruzen's path as he made a circle around the airfield. Our eyes found each other one last time and he nodded to me. And at the end of the circle he veered off into the sun.

     And it was at that moment that the light in the sky changed colour, turning completely white, blinding me, before break­ing up into streaks of red and magenta and purple. I would only find out later that the Americans had dropped their first atomic bomb on Japan, and even though I should not have been able to see the effects of it, I know I did. At that instant, as Teruzen flew off in my place to meet the ship, the war for all intents and purposes was over.


And so it came to be that I was the cherry blossom that never fell to earth, saved by the order of a silent Emperor given voice by defeat. I was twenty-two-years old when the Second World War ended and Emperor Hirohito gave the first electronic broadcast ever made by a Divine Being to his people, exhorting them to accept defeat and to 'endure the unendurable'.

      How correct he was. I endured.

    Now I am an old man, older than Teruzen was when he died. I have returned to the island of Mersang and built the house Teruzen had always wanted for us. And this time I was never going to leave again.

     I never went to the Yasukuni Shrine, or to the Kagoshima War Museum, where I was told I could see and touch some of the planes used by the tokko pilots. To me, this house, on this island half an earth's turn away from Japan was the only place Teruzen's spirit and myself could ever find solace in.

     And every morning, just before dawn, I went out to sea in a boat to wait for the sun to rise, searching for the exact spot where I had last seen Teruzen's plane fly past, before it disap­peared. And as the light of the early sun flooded the world, I would stare straight into it. For those few seconds before I was forced to turn away, before the pain brought tears to my eyes, I could almost see a plane, returning home again from the deepest, brightest heart of the light, somewhere above the clouds.

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