Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride — A Family Saga,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy takes 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 began 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.
Author Michael Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
As Uno rode away plotting, Haru walked over to the wagon loaded with her trunks. The wood-spindled wheels reminded her of buckboards she had seen in Western movies. She looked worriedly at the two replacement wheels tied to the underbelly with rawhide.
Sam moseyed over and began feeding the two mules some carrots, talking to them like a father coaxing his child to eat a new fruit. He smiled approvingly as Kame nuzzled the underchin of the animal on his left.
When all four of them — Sam, Kame, Kenji and Haru — had finally squeezed together into the front seat, Sam grabbed the reins, snapped the leather straps and hollered, “Duke, Prince, ikimasho!” The mules strained their harnesses and began the 17-mile trek that would rise 2,600 feet and deliver them to Waimea in the cloud-shrouded shadow of Mauna Kea.
At the top of the first plateau, Haru gazed at the rivers bubbling down black lava hills that overlooked lush valleys. This black and green canvas, not the crowded chaos of Honolulu, was the wild Hawai‘i she had imagined.
Sam pointed to a terraced valley. “We can thank the Chinese for our rice,” he said. “They arrived a generation before us, served their time, and bought land or opened shops.”
“Sugar cane!” shouted Kame, gazing far ahead. “The fields are so big, not at all like the small plots in my village.” As they got closer, she pointed to several empty rows of dry, yellow leaves.
“Those stalks were cut weeks ago, but next to them you have mature cane ready for cutting,” he explained. He gestured to his right, “You can see seedlings starting their eight-month cycle. With our always-constant tropical weather, there’s always a planting, always a harvest.”
“So much open land,” said Haru. “Was it always like this?”
Sam yanked on the reins. When the mules settled down, he swung his arm in an expansive arc. “When Captain Cook landed, sandalwood trees covered this land like bees on a honeycomb. By the time Parker jumped ship, most had been cut and sold to China traders. Parker asked Kamehameha, ‘What happens when the trees are gone?’ The King saw his point. That’s how Parker received the royal concession to shoot cows and sell smoked beef to the whaling ships.”
From over the next hill, Haru heard singing, as if the cane stalks had found their voice. As the buckboard stumbled along, the high-pitched sounds became clearer — they were Japanese lyrics. Then, among the towering cane, she saw women wearing cone-shaped hats, covered head to toe in a Hawaiian gingham-like fabric known as palaka. They were swinging their hoes to the rhythm of the singing. Further up, other women were pulling weeds from freshly broken earth and stuffing them into jute bags. Two women carried their babies on their back as they worked.
Haru turned to Sam. “I thought there was a shortage of women.”
“This is the Kell plantation. Like most, their bachelors outnumber the married, two to one.”
Haru listened to Sam’s use of various languages when speaking to the passengers of wagons they passed. “You are a man of many tongues,” she said to him.
“Well, three, if you include my broken Hawaiian,” laughed Sam. “But I can greet the Puerto Ricans in Spanish, the Azoreans in Portuguese and the Chinese in Cantonese.”
The mules picked up their pace as they climbed another hill. “It looks like the mules know something,” observed Haru.
“They do,” said Sam. “We’re approaching our way station. The steep part of our travel is behind us. Our paniolo will change the mules to horses.”
Just as he said it, the stubborn hill reached its zenith and smoothed off into a green table fading far away onto the slopes of Mauna Kea. Ahead, a small building broke the horizon. Behind it, Haru saw mules and horses separated into two corrals.
Minutes later, Sam pulled on the reins and stopped the wagon.
Behind the shack, paniolo were brushing down and feeding the animals. Sam waved at the cowboys and then pulled their wagon up for the exchange. Within minutes, they were back on the road and headed down the hill.
The orange sun began turning red and finally slid behind white-capped Mauna Kea as the wagon bounced the newlyweds into the township of Waimea. The low beat of the taiko drums brought smiles to the faces of the four travelers. Torchlights flickered in the distance.
“Smells like pig,” said Kame, grinning. “I feel like I’m back in Okinawa.”
“Must be a welcome lü‘au,” said Kenji.
A tall man with a Stetson trotted toward them on his horse. Sam pulled on the reins. Wellington Carter brought his steed to a halt in front of the buckboard.
“You can see that Waimea is eager to give you a warm welcome, Takayama-san,” he said. Carter then turned his focus to Sam. As was his way, he suggested rather than ordered. “But before we introduce the preacher to the townsfolk, you might want to show Kenji and Haru their new home and let them freshen up a bit. I sent Oba Ualani ahead with some food stock.”
Sam snapped his wrists on the reins and the horses resumed their steady gait.
“Oba Ualani?” asked Kame. “What kind of Japanese name is that? And, shouldn’t it be Ualani Oba?”
“She’s our first hapa,” said Sam.
“Hapa? You’re confusing me with these strange words,” said Kame.
“Hapa is a Hawaiian word meaning a part or fraction of something. Nowadays, hapa means people of mixed race,” explained Kenji.
Sam tugged the reins right to turn the horses down a tree-canopied road. “Ualani’s father came with the first Japanese contract workers in 1868. Most of them returned to Japan a year later because of ill treatment. However, Ualani’s father stuck it out and joined Parker Ranch after completing his contract. He married a Hawaiian woman, who died giving birth to Ualani.”
Sam slowed the horses. “Ualani has had a hard life. She was widowed twice; both of her husbands were paniolo, and none of her children survived past two years. Carter gives her an allowance and a one-room cabin in exchange for her doing housekeeping chores.”
“Here we are,” said Sam, pulling on the reins of the horses. To the right, a freshly painted wooden structure glowed golden in the last light of the sun. Newly planted ferns surrounded the house set on wooden pillars that raised the structure an arm’s length off the ground. Flickering light glimmered through the windowpanes.
Haru covered her mouth in disbelief. Giving Sam a tentative look, she spoke barely above a whisper. “This gorgeous house can’t be ours.”
“Mr. Carter wanted you to be comfortable.”
Sam led Haru and Kenji up the stairs to a porch just big enough for the four wicker chairs to overlook a spacious scrub grass yard.
“Hmm, I wonder how they found that so fast,” said Sam, pointing to a Buddhist bell the size of a pineapple that hung at eye level just left of the front door. Kame stuck her hand inside the bell and slapped the clangor. She tittered at Haru and then tried the doorknob, which turned without resistance. Kame pulled the door open and was just about to step inside when she remembered at the last moment to step back and allow Kenji and Haru to enter their home first.
Removing her shoes, Haru stepped into the living room. Her eyes scanned the Western-style dining table and hardback chairs. Haru wondered how long it would take for her to get used to this type of furniture. “This is so much . . .” she said, her voice full of appreciation.
Sam pointed outside through the dining room window. “From the back door, you can see the top of the well pump sticking out from a wooden enclosure so you can bathe. Mr. Carter ordered an ofuro (soaking bathtub) to be built next to it.” Sam then pointed at a tall shed. “Further back is your outhouse.”
A moving silhouette the size of a baby bear emerged from the shadows behind the house and stepped up to the back door. All eyes turned to the adjoining kitchen, where a wicker lamp glowed on a utility bench next to the back entrance. The door banged open.
“Irasshaimase . . .” squeaked the voice of a woman with a toothless smile in an accent that was anything but Japanese. Impossibly short and wide with a face the color and texture of a walnut, she stepped into the yellow glow of the oil lamp, revealing eyes that twinkled. Grey hairs sprouted from under a blue-checkered scarf. A shapeless mu‘umu‘u, ruffled at the neck and hem, gave her the appearance of a stuffed animal.
“Irasshaimase,” she greeted once again as she waddled into the room, moving her legs sideways as much as forward. She sniffed the air and shook her head in resigned sadness. “I told that Carter,” she said in rough Japanese, “you would stink like three-day-old fish. It’s a good thing I told the carpenters to build a proper ofuro today. You will have to bring hot water from the kitchen until we can plate the bottom of the ofuro with tin and place it on top of bricks so we can heat the water with wood underneath.”
“You have to excuse Oba Ualani’s manners,” said Sam, mirth enveloping his voice. “She’s not used to genteel people.”
“Which of you is the preacher’s wife?” asked Ualani.
Haru nodded. “This is Kame, Sam’s wife. I’m Haru.”
“It’s about time,” said Ualani. She looked approvingly at Kame’s hips. “Our land is lonely for wives and children. Don’t wait to start a family.” To Haru she said, “Better show you the kitchen. And then you can bathe.” She turned her gaze back to Sam. “Well, don’t just stand there. Get a move on. Bring in the baggage.”
Haru held back a laugh as she watched Kenji follow Sam to the buckboard. Ualani led her and Kame into the narrow kitchen. Haru’s eyes radiated worry as she took in the strange, nickel-colored iron stove resting on squat legs.
Ualani took no notice. “This is the new cast iron Bridge Beach stove. Only Mr. Carter has one like it. Four burners.”
“Same idea as in Japan, except we use clay instead of iron,” said Haru.
Ualani pulled down on the handle, releasing the latch, and opened the iron door under the burners. “That’s where you put the wood?” said Haru in a half-statement, half-question tone.
“Yes, and see the slanted vents on all sides? Those let air in, but keep embers from escaping,” said Ualani.
“Come here!” shouted Kame, whose curiosity had led her to inspect the bedroom.
Sam and Kenji were entering the front door, each carrying a side of Haru’s chest. They eased it down and followed the parade to Kame’s voice. She was lying on a quilt-covered wood-frame bed whose stubby legs drew the mattress close to the ground.
“Can you believe this? A gaijin bed!” She sat up and bounced twice on the spring mattress.
“Our ranch cottage will have a Western-style bed, too,” said Sam, “but not as fancy.”
“Do you mean we will have a house with a room just for sleeping?” asked Kame.
Sam nodded, allowing a little pride to sneak into his smile.
“Maybe we should start bathing while our husbands finish unloading so we can join our welcome lü‘au,” said Haru, hoping she pronounced the word correctly.
“Listen to those taiko drums,” said Kame. “There must be dancing. Let’s take a bath.”
An immovable ninja shadow in black field clothes blended in among the koa, palm and bamboo tree trunks behind the house. She listened as Haru and Kame bathed. The more they laughed, the more tightly twisted her face became. The evil in her eyes would have sent children crying to their mother’s skirt. Only after the two couples pulled away on their buckboard did she slither into the night.
To be continued…