By Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai’i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy will take readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond.
The novel begins with 12-year-old Haru-chan, fleeing her home in Amakusa, Kyüshü for Hiroshima, where she becomes the picture bride of a Buddhist priest in Hawai‘i.
Mike Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan. “Picture Bride,” in serialized form, can now be read in every issue of the Herald.
PART ONE: FLIGHT
Hiroshima, Japan – October 1904
Haru reached into the fold of her yukata for Fumiyo’s letter and stepped through the gate into the silence of the compound. Her wary eyes fluttered left and right. Weather-beaten stupas, stone statues of the many Buddha manifestations, and dollhouse-sized wooden shrines garnished with offerings of rice wrapped in seaweed, dried plums, wilted vegetables and earth-colored clay thimbles of sake contoured the pebble path. Copses of well-trimmed azalea bushes, squat bonsai trees and deer-sized granite boulders enhanced the garden’s tranquility, but not for a girl only moments away from hearing her fate.
Twisted white prayer papers flowered the drooping branches of a sakaki evergreen tree beside a small Shinto shrine set back in an alcove. Haru recalled what the woman at the public bath had said. Still, she was baffled, as most Shinto shrines had long abandoned Buddhist temples.
Ignoring a baby-faced monk whisking leaves to corner piles, Haru took in the ancient temple, glorying in its broad timber the color of weathered leather, looking every bit a religious testimony that had withstood five centuries of earthquakes and the devastating fires that often followed. This must be the golden hall, the kondo. Even in her distressed state, Haru felt a sense of calming awe.
A little to the right, recessed and separated by three rows of cherry trees, stood a two-story house. This must be her destination, Haru thought to herself. She turned to the soft crunching sounds of zori approaching her from behind and found a young man holding a whisk broom.
“Are you lost?” he asked.
Haru handed him Fumiyo’s letter. He studied the addressee’s name and bowed low. Haru jerked a quick bow. No one had ever bowed to her.
“Follow me,” said the monk, leading Haru up wooden steps and across a wide porch to a shoji door whose stained paper panels showed signs of aging. The monk hoisted a brass mallet off a wooden peg and struck the side of a long tubular bell, creating a sharp musical clang whose reverberation lingered.
A short woman wearing a grey house kimono slid open the door. Her black hair, laced with grey strands, hung straight to her shoulders. Shallow wrinkles lined a narrow face. Her stern eyes softened when she spotted the waif in front of her. She smiled without opening her mouth. The woman took the letter from the monk and, after reading the first page, asked, “Are you Haru?”
“Hai.” Haru bowed low three times.
“I am Midori, Fumiyo’s sister. Come in.”
Haru shed her zori. Her eyes widened as she glanced inside. There was wood everywhere. Polished mahogany floors. On the far side of the room, open shoji panels revealed a stout clay oven crowned with a rice pot. Moving her eyes left, she admired the series of closed shoji screens the color of wheat thistle. To her right, built-in cabinets filled an entire wall from floor to ceiling.
Haru’s eyes came to rest on the irori, the sunken, square, earthen hearth, in the middle of the room. Overhead, an iron kettle hung from a pothook attached to an iron rod, encased in a hollow bamboo tube that stopped an arm’s length above simmering coals. Red cushions were squared around the hearth.
Haru savored the sweet air. She had spent most of her life breathing in soot in her low-roofed home that had no chimney. Here, a slit in the lofty thatched roof kept the air pleasant. Oh, to live in a home like this!
“Haru-san,” said Midori, a little louder the second time to catch the enthralled girl. She gestured to the irori hearth. “Let’s have some tea.”
Haru padded across the floor and hunched down across from her host. By habit, she leaned over and added to the fire twigs that were stacked on the side.
Midori tried to calm the nervous girl with polite questions about her passage while she poured tea and offered a small plate of rice crackers.
“The boat made me sick,” admitted Haru. She then devoured a cracker in a single bite.
Midori returned her gaze to the letter. Her eyes moistened. “Wait here.” She rose and walked over to the shoji panel nearest the front of the house, gently pushed it aside and disappeared.
Alone, Haru realized she had left her sad bundle at the front door. She tiptoed across the floor to retrieve it. The sounds of an argument floated from behind the closed shoji door as she neared the front door. Haru hung back at the sound of her name. She clutched her chest when she heard a harsh male voice.
“Yes, let her stay for a day or two. But even the Buddha did not adopt young girls.”
“But she needs a home . . .” Midori pleaded. “We have room. All our sons have left. Let her stay for a month and then decide.”
The gruff voice answered, “Okasan, our temple supports an orphanage. Send her there.”
Haru fought back a wave of nausea. She back-pedaled to the smoldering hearth, returned to her hunched position on the cushion and closed her eyes. She imagined holding her precious little cat Susano and listening to the Machiyamaguichi River slipping into the sea. She did not hear the soft steps enter the room, nor smell the gentle odors of fresh green tea.
“Daijoubu desu, child.” Midori’s caressing voiced assured her that everything was fine. “Join my husband and me for tea.”
Haru followed Midori into a study. A brown-robed priest with a stern face sat behind a short-legged lacquered table that glistened in the early afternoon sun streaking through the open shutters. Haru bowed low, kneeled and bowed again until the tip of her forehead touched the tatami mat. She sat back on her haunches and kept her eyes down. Haru tensed in the silence. From the corner of her eye, she watched the priest scan Fumiyo’s letter. She sensed that his deepening frown meant he wished the letter contained a better message on second reading. He broke the silence with questions about her family, her schooling and the details of her last day at home in Amakusa, Kyüshü. Gently to be sure, but Haru imagined this to be how police interrogations work.
When the questions ended, Haru looked at Midori. “I am thankful for your sister, who helped me escape, and your nephew, Shigenobu-san, who surely risked his career protecting me and arranging passage to Hiroshima.” She shuddered. “This would have been my first day in Sandakan.”
“You can stay in my oldest son’s room until we settle your final arrangements,” said Kiyoshi.
Relieved that nothing had been said about an orphanage, Haru asked, “Your oldest son?”
Rather than answer, Kiyoshi excused himself. Left alone with Midori, Haru relaxed.
“You must be hungry. Let’s talk in the daidokoro,” said Midori. “I have some udon soup. Hiroshima has the best noodles in Japan.”
At the kitchen entrance, Haru fitted her feet into a pair of wooden geta slippers and stepped down onto the hard dirt floor, the doma.
This amazing day continued for Haru as she examined Midori’s kitchen, which was as big as her family’s entire home. There were three side-by-side clay ovens, a wooden sink and a large bucket of water along the back wall. On the left side, she spotted the only other wood item in the fire-resistant kitchen, the Mizuya tansu — the food and condiment chest — with various size compartments behind sliding panels. A half-empty rice bag leaned against the cabinet.
At the middle oven, Midori lifted the lid off a percolating iron pot. A rush of rich, savory scents filled the room. Midori ladled the thick and steaming noodle soup into a generous-sized china bowl. “Take this to the irori,” she coaxed.
Midori retrieved a photo album from the living room cabinet and joined Haru at the hearth. She turned the heavy pages until she found a picture of a serious-looking soldier. “Our oldest son serves the Emperor as a chaplain in Manchuria.”
Haru wondered why no one ever smiled in photographs, even brides. She slurped her soup to express her appreciation for the delicious lunch. “I have a brother whose last letter promised he was joining the army to serve in Manchuria.”
Midori turned the page. “This is Kenji, our second son.”
A handsome face, thought Haru, as she studied the full-length picture of the young man dressed in a brown robe and standing beside a palm tree. Surprised, Haru looked up at Midori with a puzzled look on her face.
“Our second son is in Hawai‘i. The bishop wrote to my otosan asking for a priest. Kenji volunteered. He has the spirit of adventure.”
Haru’s eyes returned to the picture of Kenji. He had straight back hair. His eyebrows were thick, one slightly higher than the other. His eyes were wide-set and his chin was a little pointed. Almost a smile.
“Is it true the weather is always good?”
“Kenji writes that the tropical weather fables are true. Few typhoons or earthquakes,” Midori added, a reference to the bane of all Japanese.
Haru waited to hear more about this strange place called Hawai‘i.
“I had two daughters,” Midori said instead. “Both died shortly after childbirth.”
Such a big house and no children to fill it, Haru thought.
“Come,” said Midori. “I will take you to your room.”
Haru marveled. A room only for sleeping . . .
Midori unfolded a futon. “Take a rest, child,” she said, and then left.
Haru took off her yukata and lay down on her futon, prepared to descend into a deep sleep. But she could not quiet her thoughts. She replayed the welcome interview in her mind, searching for clues that might reveal her future. What little Haru knew about an orphanage frightened her. Bad food, and not much of it. And, mean house mistresses. Children her age rented to factories for 12-hour workdays.
Haru tried to distract herself from this speculation and lull herself to sleep by replaying her father’s favorite bedtime story of how of Hideyoshi, a poor commoner, rose to become Japan’s second Shogun.
Hideyoshi had been a sewing needle peddler when the first shogun, Nobunaga, invited him to join his retinue. The next morning, a chilly one at that, Hideyoshi spotted his lord’s sandals outside his sleeping quarters. He picked them up and warmed them inside his yukata. When the shogun stepped outside, Hideyoshi ran to give him the sandals. Soon the shogun was assigning him dirty jobs no one else wanted. Eventually, the shogun gave him soldiers to command. When Nobunaga was killed, Hideyoshi caught the murderer and become the next shogun.
A thought struck Haru. What would Hideyoshi be doing in her circumstances? For sure, he would not be taking a nap!
To be continued . . .