Cinder and Ash
a story of loss and love
The smell of ash burrowed deep into his nose. The scent of a city on fire blew in the air and wrapped his body in hot cinders. All he knew was now falling to ash. In his hand, all that was left was the heart shaped pendant that belonged to her.
The pendant glinted gold in the enclosing fires, carrying with it the memory of the one Jirou loved. He held it tightly, waiting for her embrace, but it would never come again. The days spent alone would ache and weigh heavy on his heart. The nights would be long and unbearable without her touch. The world around Jirou was now falling, and yet the night sky glimmered with hundreds of constellations.
“Himari loved the night sky,” Jirou thought, longing for her. They both did, but now it left him empty. Without her by his side, he felt like a useless husk, deprived of all meaning. His mind became blurred and dulled. The joy the night sky once brought him had vanished, and now the only thing on his mind was ‘what if?’
“What if I had walked with her that afternoon, what if I was there, what if this was all my fault?” Jirou’s thoughts grew heavy, like a weight that pushed against his chest, holding him in place. He stood silently in the chaos until he felt like he would burst. “This was my fault!” he admitted to himself. He should have paid attention, he should have been there with her. If only he was by her side, he could have saved her. “Or ended up dead too.” His mind echoed bitterly, but what did it matter?! It was now in motion. The universe had spoken its nonsense of a plan. Now he was alone, and without her everything was turning to dust and blowing in the wind.
But it wasn’t his fault. It all happened too fast, and no matter how many times his mind fled to the past, no matter how many times he thought of everything that had already happened, it still would have ended the same. The planes would have still come, the bombs would have still fallen, and the fires would have still burned everything. That’s all it took, just a second with his back turned, and just like that, Himari slipped through his fingers like sand.
Jirou stared into a world at war as the remaining bombers fled over the mountains, leaving behind a trail of grief. From the burning hillside, he could see it all. The hatred for another country, the suffering of families, the pain of a culture despised by others. He felt all that and more flow through his blood in an instant. Jirou couldn’t understand, he didn’t want to understand!
“This is pointless!” he shouted "It’s all pointless!!” He could hear his words of frustration echoed into the distance before fading into stillness. He then felt his eyes overflow with emotions as tears rolled down his cheeks and fell to the ground.
He saw that everything from forest to city was now dissolved into flames, growing closer with every minute. Jirou was alone and afraid, but beneath his fear, he was angry and saddened by his loss. He felt his hatred rise like a wind that blew over his body with intensity, carrying him till he could no longer stand. His heart whimpered in silence as he faltered to the ground, crashing to his knees in utter defeat.
Jirou held the golden pendant in his palm and gently caressed it with his finger. Engraved on the surface were the words “forever and always.” The vows he and his beloved took earlier that spring were a promise he now felt was broken. He gasped for air as he wailed a long, sad sob, and pressed his head into the dirt. No matter how deeply he wished it, he couldn’t change the past.
Jirou’s body stilled itself and his sobs became stagnant as he thought back to earlier that day one last time, when she was still alive, still beautiful, and full of life. He felt that her death was somehow his fault, and he ran every detail through his mind, wondering what he could have done different. But even then, he knew that what happened was done, and she was now gone forever.
Himari had invited him to stroll through the town, to visit the shopping district, but Jirou was too caught up in his writing to go anywhere that day. As she pecked his cheek and left their home, heading down the road, he never thought it would be the last time he would feel her lips pressed against his face.
Later that day, a strange sensation of quiet had grown in the air. There was something wrong stirring in the sky above. A loud mechanical humming grew in the distance and kept growing until Jirou could no longer ignore it. Jirou stood up from his chair and stepped away from his desk. He walked towards the window with odd curiosity, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was making the strange sound. When Jirou peered out the window and saw where the humming came from, he froze with his eyes widened.
Smoking objects flew overhead and crashed-landed no less than three blocks away, with an erupting sound that shook the floorboards beneath Jirou’s feet, sending shockwaves up his spine. He could see plumes of smoke rising from the rooftops of his neighbor’s homes, glowing red with anger and looking like the fires of hell itself. Large bomber planes flew over head, and complete chaos followed as they released more explosives. The house shuttered fiercely, leaving little time for Jirou to react. Dishes fell from their cupboards and smashed against the floor. The power of the bombs impact was so immense, that it dug fist-sized rocks loose and pelted them through the glass panes of his windows, smashing everything delicate and precious in sight.
Jirou tried to hold his stance, but within seconds he found himself crumpled up on the floor, like an old ball of newspaper. He began to shake uncontrollably with fear, and his face contorted with pain as he felt a stinging sensation in his arms and legs. Pieces of glass and plaster had dug their way into his skin, leaving deep cuts and wounds.
Jirou was terrified and injured, but even then, he couldn’t help but worry for Himari more than himself. He knew that she must be going through this as well, and knowing that she would have to experience this devastation alone and unprotected stung more than any wound he could ever endure. He wished he could pull himself from the floor and go to her side, but it was hopeless. Each time Jirou tried to lift himself from the ground, the vibration from the bombs falling would knock him down again. Unable to move himself from the spot he had fallen to, he reluctantly waited, and hoped for it all to eventually pass.
The bombing felt like an eternity, but as quickly as it had happened, the erupting shakes slowed and soon stopped. He laid still, listening for the plane’s humm, but thankfully they too had vanished. Turning on his side and looking around the house, Jirou could see the extensive damage that had been done. But he had no time to be concerned about the state of his home, not when the love of his life was somewhere out there. He needed to find her.
He uncrumpled himself from the floor and rushed to the entrance, feeling his heart pound in his chest with adrenaline. He opened the warped wooden door, and his body recoiled as he was met with the unkindly smell of sulfur and smoke that thickly scented the area. Black soot and ash blew in the wind, coating the surrounding houses and streets like snow. Quickly scanning the sky, Jirou could see no hint of the bombers, but instead, was taken aback by several thick towers of smoke that rose from the city and coiled high into the atmosphere, spitting hot glowing embers down onto the rooftops.
Everywhere he looked, fires were starting that quickly grew. The sight of the destruction was horrid, and even more so when Jirou realized that one of the biggest plumes of smoke was near the shopping district where Himari was. Jirou’s face grew pale as he stood frozen in place, feeling a deep fear that he had never experienced before.
“How could this be happening?” He said to himself in disbelief.
He suddenly bounded from the door-way and down the soot covered street, his eyes locked on the bellows of smoking ash. He knew it was a bad idea to go towards the smoke, but he didn’t care. All he knew was that he had too.
It took Jirou a long time to finally reach the shopping district, but as he turned the corner he suddenly halted, and his jaw fell open. Hundreds of people lined the streets, attempting to organize themselves amidst the chaos. There were piles of bricks and wooden beams from collapsed buildings that laid across the ground, blocking what was left of the road. Sirens rang loudly in the distance, along with the sounds of fire crackling, which Jirou realized, must be coming from the tower of smoke that was now half a mile away. The smoke lay thicker in amongst the shops, and it was harder to breathe. Shopkeepers were fighting frantically to save their belongings from burning up in flames, as cinder fell onto the rooftops of their establishments. Others were struggling to excavate fallen rubble, desperately trying to save trapped friends or family, and screaming children cried out with sobbing faces for their lost parents, as flames and ash rained down around them.
There was still no sign of Himari anywhere. He called out her name as loudly as he could while he frantically moved through the road, pushing against the opposing flow of people and climbing over large slabs of walls. He stopped multiple strangers, asking each person if they had seen the young woman he was so desperate to find. But all of them shook their heads, as they were too frightened or shocked to answer his question.
It was hard to believe that something like this could actually happen. Within minutes everything was turned upside down, and so many people were now homeless, lost, or dead. This whole part of the city was completely ruined, and there was no sense for anyone to try and stay here any longer. Jirou felt pity for those who had no choice but to stay, searching for friends or relatives that most likely had perished in the bombing. The realization quickly dawned on him, that he was in a very similar situation as those who chose to linger: he was desperate to find his wife, but didn’t know where to look.
He paused, holding in a sharp breath. Everything that was unfolding in front of him was just too much to hold, and made him feel like a small and pitiful bug about to be squashed. He had come all this way and he knew he couldn’t stop now, but at the same time, he was starting to feel hopeless. The sun now hung low in the sky, and it had been many hours since he had last seen Himari. With all the devastation around him, he began to question if she was still alive. He shook his head, trying to push that thought out of his mind, but it wouldn’t leave him alone and began to tower over him like a dark shadow.
He fell to his knees, feeling like he had failed as a husband. His head sank onto his chest and he began to weep silently. Alone and lost in the darkness of his thoughts, he hardly noticed any of the strangers pushing past him. Suddenly, in the midst of his sobs, a faint but familiar voice broke through to him. Jirou thought for a moment that he had lost his mind, but there it was again, clear as day. He raised his head and stood, looking over the crowd of people, searching for the voice that was calling his name. His eyes darted from person to person, honing in on the sound, and then stopped when he finally found it. Standing on a heap of crumbled buildings at the end of the street, with her hands cupped around her mouth, calling out to him, was Himari.
Jirou could barely believe it, and for a moment he thought it wasn’t real, but it was. The two of them locked eyes from across the crowd, and a sense of relief fell over them both, as they exchanged warm smiles. He had missed Himari so much, and began grinning, feeling overjoyed to see her again. In the dim light her eyes were a gentle green, that shone brightly like crystals, and her cheeks were the most beautiful shade of rose Jirou had ever seen. He beckoned her to come toward him with a wave of his hand, and she nodded. Jirou’s face brightened, and his chest felt so light and airy. He knew that everything was going to be alright.
He watched Himari with excitement as she slowly descended down the heap of rubble. She had only made it halfway before she was interrupted by the quiet hum of planes. A slight hush fell over the shopping district as everyone in the crowd turned to look up at the sky and towards the plumes of smoke, from which the sound came from. The humming grew louder and closer. Groups of people stared, following the planes with wide eyes as the bombers neared, anticipating what would happen next. As those who watched grew quieter, the sound of cries and whimpers from children became more noticeable, echoing throughout the street.
Jirou could see Himari watching the planes as well, with suspense frozen to her face. Just then, without warning, the planes dove, releasing a second wave of bombs down onto the district. People cried out in terror as the bombers flew over head, buzzing ferociously. Himari turned her attention over to Jirou, with panic in her eyes and tears forming. Suddenly, a bomb crashed into a department building, erupting into a flash of white light, right behind the mound Himari stood upon.
Jirou was instantly blinded, and the shock from the explosion was so intense, that it forced him back, knocking him to the ground and sending him into a daze. Laying on the ground, his thoughts went numb and his vision faded in and out. A ringing pierced his ears like a never-ending note, that didn’t fit in with the blobbed shapes that surrounded him.
After a minute, Jirou started to phase back into reality, trying to piece together what had happened. He rolled over, and dug his hands and knees into the soot covered ground. His head spun, and the weight of it hanging from his neck, made it feel like it would fall off. He could taste metal in his mouth, but was confused by the blood pouring down his face and dripping onto his hand. He shakily touched his nose, realizing it had been broken, he was so numb that he couldn’t feel the pain, but even that slowly started to set in, and an intense pulsating throb saturated his nerves. The ringing in his ears then faded, and was replaced with the sounds of screams and loud bangs that roared from all directions, and far in the distance.
“Bombs are falling,” he thought hazily, not processing the meaning behind those words “Bombs are falling?!” Suddenly, Jirou remembered, and all his senses snapped back into focus, revealing the mayhem that was being displayed in front of him.
The planes had fled to the lower districts in the city, and were blowing up the heavily populated sections. They were far enough away that the ground stayed still, but close enough that Jirou could hear the explosions. People laid sprawled across the ground, just as dazed and confused as he was, and one by one they began crawling or spitting up blood. People who weren’t caught in the blast, erupted, pushing and shoving each other, running in all directions and screaming with high pitched voices, abandoning the district. Only a handful chose to stay, rushing to the sides of those laying defenseless on the ground. Jirou pushed himself up and forced himself to his feet, wobbling, and tried to balance himself on in his numb limbs. He searched with his eyes for the mound, that he quickly realised was now buried beneath the department building, and was catching fire. Jirou steadied his body, and began frantically pushing his way through the dispersing mob, careful not to be knocked to the ground and trampled. Eventually the crowd lessened, and Jirou was able to reach the edge of the explosion site. The remainders of walls, beams and pillars lined the street, crowding closely together like a tightly knit web. The ground was littered with bodies, and blood pooled in the cracks of the cobble stones. Some of the victims were still alive, giving Jirou hope and strength to push on.
“She has to be alive,'' he thought, “she has to be!” He bit hard on his lip as he pushed aside brick after brick, lifting metal pipes, and rifling through wooden boards, ignoring the pain in his fingertips, refusing to give up on her.
Smoke grew thicker around him as the fire encroached closer. Jirou lungs burned as he breathed through his mouth, his nose was clogged with blood and his eyes began to sting. He quickly jerked his head to the side, coughing and rubbing his face on his sleeve until the burning sensation stopped. Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, he caught a glint of gold shining from a pile of broken lumber. He hopped over a lantern post that laid between him and the rubble. As he neared, he saw the reflected light that danced off of a neckless, that hung from a nail on a charred red door. He grabbed the heart shaped pendant, and on closer inspection he knew it was Himari’s. Jirou pocketed the pendant, eyeing the pile of wood with worry. He pulled burnt boards out of the way, and then lifted the door up and over, reveling a woman who had been run through by a steel pipe.
There Himari was, motionless on the ground. Bits of debris clung to her clothes and ash stained her neck. The heaviness that filled Jirou was unbearable, and something broke inside him. The pain and grief that took over when he saw her, overcame all his senses. He knelt to her side, scooping her up and holding her tightly in his arms. She was still warm, but her skin had turned a pale blue, and blood splattered her yellow dress. She was still beautiful though, but her pale skin, pink lips, and long-dark hair looked out of place in amongst the crumbling buildings and endless fires. She looked as if she had fallen asleep, peaceful and pretty, but he knew it was over. He knew that she would never wake again and smile at him with her blush-colored cheeks. He embraced her deeply, touching his forehead to hers. Emotions welled up from deep inside his chest and he began to shake, feeling his heart falter as tears rolled down his cheeks. He kissed Himari’s face and stoked her hair. He had been too late, and was unable to save her, and now he would forever be denied her. He wished he could stay and hold her a little longer, but time was unfavorable, as flames shot up in front of him, threatening to burn him alive along with the remaining buildings. Jirou knew this was where they would have to part. He tried to fight back his tears, but couldn’t stop the river that already flooded his face. Reluctantly, he laid her down, whispering “I love you,” into her ear, and then left her there, for he knew he hadn’t the strength left to carry her body.
Everything seemed like a blur as he stumbled back down the burning streets. He went in no particular direction, and everything smelt of hot coals. He wandered endlessly, tripping on lose debris, faltering from side to side. Any sound around him was muffled to his ears, and the surrounding cityscape and people he encountered blended together like one big haze. It all seemed so surreal. His hands shook and he could barely keep his footing. It was as if his feet weren’t even attached to his body, effortlessly carrying him throughout the city, to who knew where.
He couldn’t remember how he made it out, everything seemed like one long blur. But when reality had set back in, all his emotions began to suffocate him. Jirou balled his hands into tight fists, feeling like he was going to drop into an angry fit, but then stopped. He turned, realizing that he had unconsciously been walking for a long time, and was now in the outskirts of the city, high on a forested hillside, looking out from a tiny bluff. From the slope he could see the last of the sunlight go over the mountains, and the city glowed bright red. For a moment it seemed that Jirou was safe, but he soon saw that the fire had spread to the upper woods, and had surrounded him. There was nowhere left to go, and no place to hide. He was trapped, standing over the edge, watching the flames envelop everything that he had known. His heart pounded in his chest as the fear and panic set in. He glanced around, looking for an escape route, but there were none. Wondering what to do, Jirou placed his hand into his pocket, and pulled out the golden heart shaped pendant. He looked at it with love, and grief, wondering why life was so cruel. He was beyond exhausted, and pain seeped through his body. Everything he cared about was now gone for good. The only thing he knew he could do in that moment, was wait, and that’s what he did.
His mind settled back into the present, and when he had finished revisiting his memories, running though everything that had led him to this moment, he paused, taking in a deep breath. Maybe Himari’s death wasn’t his fault, and there wasn’t anything he could have changed or done better. The planes would have still come, the bombs would have still fallen, and he would have still lost in the end.
The city was now completely engulfed in flames, and the crackling of the fire grew louder as it neared the foot of the hill he sat upon. Jirou felt tears forming in his eyes. He then looked up, staring at the many constellations one last time, and once his tears fell and the blurriness left his eyes, he wished he had done so more often. He came to realize that this was it. He would leave this planet tonight, with all those stars as his witnesses. There was no escaping what was about to happen. His time had come. He did not fight it. He was, in a sense, relieved. The days spent alone would ache and weigh heavy on his heart, anyway. The nights would be long and unbearable, too. He no longer had a choice, but if he did, he would choose to cross the universe to reunite with the beautiful, pale girl he fell in love with. He would choose to spend an eternity with her, and never let her go again. He would choose to spend every precious moment with her and hold her close, gazing at all the night skies they possibly could.
Now the flames were closer than ever before, and heat radiated from all directions. The smoke grew thick and coiled around his arms, beckoning to him, while the embers threw themselves at his feet. The scent of ash and cinders was strong, bringing with them a gentle glow that comforted his soul. He never thought the end would be so peaceful, and even though everything moved so fast, it was perfectly still.
As he readied himself to meet the end, he thought of Himari, but did not feel pain or loss. Instead, he thought of all the joy she had filled his life with, and the love they had shared together. Suddenly in the distance, he saw a flicker of light. He saw a figure arranged in an array of orange and reds, fading and reappearing. He could sense the kind and gentle openness coming from it, as it moved through the flames. Then he noticed its eyes, glowing and shining like green crystals. Its eyes were just like hers, warm and welcoming, and at that moment Jirou knew it was her. Relieved and overcome, he willingly approached and lovingly clasped her fiery hands. They embraced each other as everything around them burnt. Not long after, they vanished in flames and smoke, leaving nothing behind, except for the golden heart-shaped pendant engraved ‘forever and always.’