Friday, November 28, 2014
Chapter One, Under the Silk Hibiscus
When a Japanese-American family is sent to an internment camp, torn from all they know, they each struggle with loss, betrayal, and anger, but hope is what ultimately gets them through.
Under the Silk Hibiscus
As an afternoon wind blew over the camp’s sagebrush terrain, I wiped dust from my face with a handkerchief that once belonged to Papa. Frustration, like the surrounding barbed wire fences, taunted me. At breakfast, something vile overcame me; I’d demanded to know if anyone knew about Papa. I targeted my aunt because she was the easiest to bully. As I continued insisting that she tell me what she knew, the families at the nearby tables lifted their faces from bowls of dry rice. Shut up, I could read from the older men’s and women’s expressions. We’re at war; this is no time for you to become hostile. Besides, you are only a child.
Since there had been no communication from Papa after that fateful day in February when two FBI agents entered our home in San Jose, I was certain he was dead. They had taken him away in handcuffs. “Spy,” the tall one with a crew cut had called him. “We know you are working with Japan’s military.”
As the memory of that day burned in my mind, I trudged toward the camp’s latrine, bucket in hand. Yesterday afternoon, Lucy had smiled at me; I’d nearly danced across the dirt road. Today, I felt almost as despairing as the day Mama, my aunt, my brothers, and I were told we had forty-eight hours to pack up for relocation.
“Relocation,” Mama had cried, the word obviously foreign to her. “We don’t need to go anywhere. We are happy here.”
But happiness had not been the point. Fear seemed to be. Was it the picture of Emperor Hirohito on our living room wall that made Caucasian men tremble? Did they think that Mama was sitting under her knitted grey shawl at the kitchen table, sending messages across the Pacific to the enemy?
My thoughts sprang, one bouncing off another. An army truck sped past toward the mess hall, creating a blanket of dust around the row of bleak barracks. The roar of its engine brought me back to reality, and I increased my pace. If I weren’t careful, I’d wind up like my ten-year-old brother, Tom, who seemed to live in his own world of poetry books and fantasies. Tom could get away with it on two accounts. One, he was only ten, and two, he’d had polio, so was lame in his right leg. But I, Nathan Mori, was able-bodied and must not dilly-dally. Dilly-dally, that had to be my aunt Kazuko’s favorite word. She used it as often as she could. When I’d set out with a bucket just moments earlier, she had called out, “Don’t dilly-dally.”
At the communal lavatories, I hoisted the metal bucket to the sink and watched it fill with water. I splashed some of the tepid liquid onto my forehead, cheeks, and nose. Using Papa’s handkerchief, I wiped my face again. Papa, where are you?
“How is your mother?” an elderly woman stopped to ask as I made my way back to our barracks. She was one of the few who wore a kimono. Today, she was dressed in a charcoal one, the color of Heart Mountain at dusk.
I wanted to give her a hug for showing concern, but that would probably set her off. She was the same woman who complained in the mess hall that we should have seaweed. How, she’d shouted, was she supposed to eat steamed rice without a piece of nori? Aunt Kazuko had warned me not to tell this woman too much about our family affairs because she was a busybody. She’d been known to spread gossip quicker than sagebrush blew over the campsite. However, after my outburst this morning, keeping our family concerns a secret was over. Everyone now knew that I was angry. What did I have to hide?
“Your mother?” the woman asked again. “I didn’t see her at breakfast or at lunch.”
I felt the weight of the bucket in my hands, almost as heavy as the thoughts of my mother. “She’s all right.”
It was a lie, and something told me that Mrs. Busybody knew it. For a second I thought she was going to accuse me of not telling the truth; it wouldn’t have been out of her character.
She shielded the sun from her face with a thin hand pocked with liver spots. “Well,” she said, and gave a deep sigh. “Well.” With a nod, as though she had just recalled what to say next, she added, “I think she needs ginger root. My grandmother swore it helped her when she was pregnant. Is she sleeping at night? She needs her sleep.”
I didn’t want to go into all the details of how Mama had spiked a fever and moaned last night, keeping all four of us in our living quarters awake until the sun broke through the dark Wyoming sky, its broadcast of a new day. Only then had she calmed and settled into sleep. “I can come over. I’ll have tea with your aunt.”
I nodded, tried to smile, and said I had to go. As I took a step toward our barracks, the woman called out after me.
“You know, your father is not a spy.”
At her words, unexpected tears swarmed in my eyes. “Yes.” I drew a breath. “I know he isn’t.”
“He’s just in a camp. Like this one. No seaweed there either.”
Suddenly, I was aware that time had slipped, and I was late. The wrath of Aunt Kazuko was near, I could feel it. I hurried toward our barracks, allowing myself one last glance over the plains at the limestone mountain that emerged from behind the camp’s barbed wire fences. That was Heart Mountain, a strange name for a mountain by a camp that seemed so heartless. There were days I wished I could run to the mountain’s knobby peak and hide out until this war ended. But with looming guard towers strategically placed around the facility, there was no hope of that happening.
Once I stepped inside our family’s one-room unit, constructed of wood and insulated with tarpaper, my aunt rushed toward me like a military Jeep. “Where were you? I am dying here.” She had a robust face and stocky body to match, and I doubted she was anywhere near death.
At the lone table that stood in the middle of the room with cots to the left and right, Aunt Kazuko removed a glass and steadied it as I carefully poured water into it. This was a ritual we were familiar with, and no words were needed.
Aunt Kazuko carried the glass to Mama, who lay in one of the cots, a cotton sheet pulled over her protruding belly. As she helped Mama up, my aunt barked at me, “You need to go to hospital and tell them to come here. Your mother need medicine.”
I dismissed her choppy orders, spoken in a language she had not quite mastered. Yesterday, I made a trip to the hospital and, after waiting for fifteen minutes, a nurse came to my aid. She followed me to our barracks to check on Mama. She probed and asked a few questions while Aunt Kazuko and I stood around Mama’s bedside, trying not to appear anxious. The nurse told me that the baby would be here any minute now and to make Mama as comfortable as I could. She’s going to be fine, I said to myself, recalling the nurse’s words from yesterday.
Lifting a wobbly chair, I placed it closer to my mother’s bed. I smiled at her, remembering how she used to button my sweater on winter mornings and, with a playful smile, tell me that I was her favorite son named Nathan. “Hey, Mama.”
With Aunt Kazuko supporting her, Mama took a few sips of water before easing onto the uneven mattress filled with hay. She gave a weak smile. “Nathan,” she breathed. “My favorite Nathan.”
Aunt Kazuko moved to the table, poured her own glass of water and nibbled on a sugar cookie, one she had stowed away in her sleeve after dinner last night. She was always hiding morsels of food. If anyone ever wanted a late night snack, digging through my aunt’s sleeves would be a good move. I was grateful that my aunt gave me some time alone with Mama. Usually, she was flittering about, interjecting her worries. I took Mama’s hand in mine, noting the slender fingers, the simple gold ring that signified her union with Papa. Papa, who was somewhere, but had not been heard from in over six months.
Stroking Mama’s palm, I wished. It is a scary thing to wish when you know the wish can’t come true.
Nevertheless, I wished that she could play the piano like she used to. It seemed that no matter what was going on in my life, when Mama played Chopin or Beethoven, the world was a tranquil place. I was about to form a prayer of asking. In my opinion, people usually pray on one of two occasions—to ask for something or to thank God for something. I had no time to offer up a prayer of asking because my mother interrupted my thoughts.
“You work too hard.” She spoke as though the words sapped all her energy. I wanted to hear her voice, yet at the same time, I wanted her to rest and not tire herself by talking.
“Are you too warm?” Before she could nod yes, I picked up a silver and red silk fan that rested against the top of her leather suitcase under the foot of her cot. Opening it, the scent of sandalwood permeated the air. I moved it across her pale face. The breeze from it fluttered strands of hair into her eyes.
I brushed the black strands, smoothing them with my fingers over her scalp. I’d seen my father do this once and was captivated by what an act of sacrifice it was. He had taken time, time away from the business, time away from a game of chess—his love—to spend time with my mother and do something for her. The thought of that scene made it hard to swallow.
I needed to get a grip, as Ken, my seventeen-year-old brother always told me. Recently I’d been plagued with too many tears. “I ask God to give you some time for fun,” Mama said, pausing between each word. “You need fun.”
“Not everyone can run around and play,” I wanted to say, but I was sure if I said it, she’d accuse me of being too hard on my older brother. Ken felt life should be a playground and neither work nor household chores seemed to get in the way of him doing what he wanted.
She winced and closed her eyes. “Nathan,” she said after a moment. “I want you to make a promise.”
I leaned in closer as her dark eyes looked intently into mine. “The watch . . . You keep it safe.”
Immediately my view shifted from her face to beneath her cot. Inside her leather suitcase was the family heirloom, the gold and diamond pocket watch my grandparents had brought over on the freighter from Hiroshima. Of course, I knew of its importance, of the story that was behind that expensive piece of craftsmanship. I’d heard Papa tell how a member of nobility had requested a local craftsman to design the watch. When my grandfather saved the nobleman’s daughter from a raging river, the watch had been presented to him in appreciation for his act of valor. It had been in the Mori family ever since. Mama gasped for air, coughing. “Nobu?”
I sat straight. It was seldom that she called me by my Japanese name. “I will,” I vowed, recalling the Boy Scout promises I once held important. “I’ll keep it safe.”
Moistening her lips, she closed her eyes. “Good,” she whispered as the sun vacated the sky, casting shadows through the window onto her blanket. “Good. I know I can count on you.”
After dinner, Ken, Tom, and I walked from the mess hall over to the Yokota’s barracks which was parallel to ours, just across the dusty dirt road. Ken matched Tom’s slower pace—slower than most due to Tom’s right leg brace. The two conversed about baseball, recalling a game some of the boys had played at the camp when we’d first arrived. I hadn’t played or watched as I’d been searching for spare pillows for Mama so that she could sit comfortably in her cot during the day. She liked having pillows propped around her back and belly.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen you get a home run,” Tom said to Ken.
“Just call me Babe Ruth.” Ken laughed.
“I bet you were beat after that. I know I’d have been. That was a lot of running.”
“Ah, when you’re that happy, you don’t feel tired.”
I lagged behind, feeling a little sick, as the noodles and chicken I had just eaten thickened and soured in my stomach. The searchlights scoured the camp, I watched their beams and then looked beyond them over the barbed wire fence toward Heart Mountain. The mountain seemed close, like if I reached out, I could touch it, but I knew it was miles away.
At the entrance to the Yokota’s barracks, Ken paused and turned toward me. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Nah. Can’t,” I mumbled. Of course I wanted to hear Fusou Yokota sing. To my ears, her Japanese name of Fusou had to be one of the most beautiful names. And it matched everything else about her. Ken argued that Fusou wasn’t that great of a name. “It’s just a name. Nothing else.” What did he know anyway? I bet he’d never taken the time to repeat it several times in a silent room and watched how that name filled every dark corner with light. He didn’t know how it sounded as it pushed over his lips like a puff of air. He called her by her American name, Lucy, which was not nearly as special. In fact, everybody called her Lucy. Even she went by Lucy.
That evening, although I wanted to join my brothers, I rushed into our barracks to check on Mama. Someone had to be responsible. I hoped that the bowl of rice I had for her was still warm enough for her to enjoy. I entered our living quarters and shut the front door.
Seated next to Mama, Aunt Kazuko removed an object from her pocket. As I drew nearer to her and to Mama’s cot, I saw that it was a small sugar cookie. “I need a little pep,” my aunt confessed as she chewed. “Dinner was too small. A little pep for pep-me-up.”
Mama groaned. “Kazuko, you will turn into a cookie.”
I laughed. Ever since she’d been bedridden, Mama had been uncomfortable, but when her words showed that she still had her
humor intact, I knew that she couldn’t be suffering too much. I handed her the bowl of rice as my aunt scurried around the barracks for a pair of chopsticks.
Wanting to hear Lucy, I opened the wooden front door. Immediately, dust flew into our quarters, burning my eyes.
“You always forget to open slow,” my aunt chided. “Slow is best way.”
I also knew that quiet was best way, but now was not the time to pick a fight with my aunt.
Aunt Kazuko complained about not having shampoo that she liked. “My hair is like dried shrimp when I use that green stuff.”
“You should head over to the salon,” said Mama, referring to the hairdresser two barracks down who cut hair for fifteen cents. “She might have some better shampoo.”
My aunt finished her cookie and wiped stray crumbs from her lap.
“I need hair color, too,” she said and then explained in her native tongue about how her roots were looking grey.
We were forbidden to speak Japanese inside the camp. All the signs reminded us of this. Yet, there was something comforting about hearing the language of my people spoken. There were words for which English had no equivalence like gambare and gaman, words of encouragement and endurance.
Suddenly, my aunt stopped talking. From across the camp we heard the sweet voice of Lucy. Tonight she was singing about God watching over us.
“Go on,” Mama said to me as my aunt lifted a bite of rice on wooden chopsticks to Mama’s mouth.
“Go on what?”
She chewed the rice, swallowed and then shifted in her bed, her large belly protruding underneath the sheet. With a weak gesture, she brushed back hair from her forehead. “Go over to her house.”
My whole being lurched into one word: YES! Yes, I would head over there, yes, I had Mama’s blessing and yes, yes, again, yes, this would be my chance to get Fusou Lucy Yokota to notice me.
Inside the Yokota’s living quarters, men, women, and children were seated on mats on the floor. To the left of the stove hung a rope with an assortment of garments on it—a man’s shirt, a woman’s skirt, a hand towel, and a blouse.
Lucy stood near the table; cots had been pushed to the walls to make room for the crowd. I found a spot on the floor crammed between Tom and my classmate and friend from San Jose, Charles. Lucy had finished one song and was preparing to sing another. I was just in time! Charles’s elbow accidently jerked into my side, but I didn’t care. Pain didn’t matter, I was in the presence of Lucy!
All conversation stopped as Lucy nodded at the gathered group, the cue that she was about to sing. Her song was one I had never heard before, something about a lost canary finding sanctuary in a hollow log.
We were confined to a camp, away from all we knew, many of us separated from family members, but to hear her voice, that soprano timbre that was distinctly hers, made the smile stay on my face during her entire song.
When she finished, we clapped. A man in the front, with a boy on his lap, asked if she could sing a song in Japanese for his son, one about
Ken rose to his feet, stepped over seated bodies, and moved toward Lucy. He poured water into a cup from a metal bucket that sat on a birch table, a table identical to the one we had in our unit. Gently, he handed it to her.
Why couldn’t I have done that? The answer was simple—that thought never crossed my mind. Whenever I saw Lucy, all I could think of was how pretty she was, how I couldn’t wait to hear her sing, and how I hoped that she’d look at me. I couldn’t think about actually doing something more.
She thanked him, her lips then pressed into a tiny smile. Ken winked at her and then slipped back to where he had been
Why couldn’t I be more like my older brother? I’d prayed to be, feeling that it must be all right to ask God to make a person more suave. After all, the Bible said somewhere that God opens His hands and satisfies all His creation with their desires. Ever since we’d come to camp, Lucy had been my desire.
When I drifted off to sleep that night, the sound of Aunt Kazuko’s snores penetrating my thoughts, I wondered how I could get Lucy to notice me. Dreaming about her was easy; it was the actual communicating that left me in a quandary.
In August, after we first arrived at camp, I saw her walking on the road, the wind in her long hair, a pensive look on her face. I decided I could do it and summoned the courage to speak to her. I’d seen her at the assembly center in Santa Anita, but had never said a word to her during our months there. Here was my chance! Standing in her path, I waited for her to approach me. She stopped, cocked her head to the side and said, “Hello.”
My throat was as dry as the summer air. “Uh . . .” She waited, a smile on her lips.
I’d almost forgotten what I’d wanted to say.
Looking me in the eyes, she asked, “You’re Ken’s brother, aren’t you?”
Borrowing strength from somewhere, I blurted, “Why do you want to be called Lucy?”
For a moment, her hand toyed with the silver barrette behind her ear. I was afraid that she wasn’t going to answer. “We are Americans,” she said at last. “Fusou is the old name for Japan. I can’t be associated with Japan now.”
“But you can still use that name,” I protested. “Your mother and father gave it to you. It’s . . . it suits you.”
The smile she flashed made my heart quiver. How could one person cause another to feel such . . . such tenderness toward her and affection? I swallowed and kicked a rock with my shoe, just for something to do, just because I didn’t want to be caught staring at her.
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