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 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.
Author Michael Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
Haru entered the kitchen and immediately stooped in front of the stove. She opened the metal grating and blew softly on the glowing embers left from Ualani’s visit. Satisfied with a small flame, she tossed in dry twigs and brushwood. Recalling the frequent house fires in Amakusa and Hiroshima, she checked the side vents for escaping embers, not quite believing Ualani’s claim that a stove inside a kitchen with wooden cabinets and wood walls could be safe. She breathed easier at seeing only thin whiffs of smoke escaping.
So engrossed was Haru in the minutiae of her task that she failed to notice that she had an audience. She did now, however.
Kenji stood transfixed.
Haru managed a guileless smile. Before Kenji could see the blush rising from her neck, she quickly reached for the two empty pails to fetch water to heat for the bath. Kenji was thinking the same thing and their fingers brushed. Haru’s knees weakened and her heartbeat galloped.
“Let me get the water while you prepare the tea,” said Kenji in a throaty voice. Without waiting for an answer, he picked up the tin pails and rushed out the kitchen door.
Haru opened a tin of fresh green tea leaves and scooped a measure into the teapot’s mesh strainer. Oh, Odaishisama, she prayed silently, don’t let tonight be a repeat of our first night.
Kenji returned, the weight of the two pails of water straining his back.
Haru hovered over the teakettle. Silver sweat beads gathered strength on her forehead. Kenji’s hips bumped Haru’s as he placed the water pails on the roaring stove. The kettle shrieked. Kenji quickly picked it up off the grating. “Are you signaling the coyotes to visit?” he laughed as he handed the kettle to his wife.
“Hai,” Haru said, regretting she could not return a clever rejoinder. She gripped the kettle handle, tilted it over the teapot and let the water cascade slowly through the tea leaves so the scalding water would leech the full flavors. She worried Kenji would notice her trembling as she handed him his cup.
Kenji led her into the dining room, where he sat down at the table. At his nod, Haru joined him. He looked over his teacup into the adjoining room.
“I’m thinking we could convert the living room into a tatami mat room. Our parishioners would be more comfortable.”
“Could we find a chabu-dai?” Haru asked, referring to the short Japanese table. Relieved to have a mundane subject to discuss, she added, “And cushions to sit on?”
“Given that we Japanese are almost half of Waimea’s population, I am sure we can find one at the trading post Ualani mentioned,” said Kenji.
Haru raised the cup to her lips and enjoyed the aroma before sipping. “Go ahead and bathe while the water is warm, Otosan. I’ll prepare our bed. Call me when it’s my turn.”
“Why don’t you join me and scrub my back,” said Kenji.
A hot flush washed over Haru, this one more intense than anything she had ever experienced or imagined. She spoke barely above a whisper. “Hai, Otosan.” Struggling to control her emotions, she added, “Let me fetch fresh towels and our nemaki,” rising to get their cotton sleeping robes, which they used for pajamas.
Haru’s smile brightened Kenji’s eager eyes. He rose and walked toward the kitchen. “I’ll carry the water to the ofuro.”
Haru scurried to the bedroom. Her mind reignited the fantasy that had been building prior to that horrible honeymoon night. One of her students on the ship had presented her a copy of Japan’s nine-centuries-old romance novel, “The Tale of Genji.” Haru had savored the amorous passages between Prince Genji and his favorite concubine, Kiritsubo. She thought of Kiritsubo’s rendition of their first night together.
Minutes later, wearing her nemaki and carrying Kenji’s, she slipped her big toes into a pair of geta. A sharp breeze rustled the eucalyptus trees like a whisk swishing a cymbal complementing the drumbeat of her heart.
As Haru entered the open-air ofuro, she relaxed at seeing Kenji sitting on an isu, a fist-high stubby-legged stool, modestly facing the koa wood wall.
“Irrashai, Okasan,” he greeted while hand-sloshing water over his shoulders from one of the pails. Haru reached up and draped the towels and Kenji’s nemaki over the 5-foot-high side, where the roof would be if this were Japan instead of the tropics. Her shaky hands unfastened her sash. She took a deep breath and watched Kenji, still facing away from her, soaping his chest and underarms. She let her yukata fall down to her elbows, exposing the front of her torso to the open door breeze, accentuating her feeling of nakedness. The full moon gave her a chance to examine her figure. She liked what she saw. No blemishes. Did Kiritsubo have a body as flawless as mine? Haru wondered. Her expectations heightened as she marveled at her nipples crinkling into diminutive rose-colored buds. Her silky hair fluttered in the draft. Haru had not realized that she was holding her breath until she had to let it out. She took off her robe and prolonged the moment by folding it neatly and placing it atop Kenji’s nemaki.
She then squatted behind her husband. He reached behind and handed her a soaking wet tenugui, a paper-thin cotton washcloth. She lathered the cloth and scrubbed Kenji’s back. She had never seen a man’s “thing” and was too embarrassed to even consider peeking or to lather Kenji’s stomach and let her fingers slither down.
“Dömo, Okasan,” said Kenji in a voice suggesting she could stop.
Haru blushed, worrying he might turn around quickly, exposing their nakedness to each other. But he did not move. Still hunched down, she turned around 180 degrees and began splashing warm water from the bucket over her body and began soaping. She resolved to buy an oke, a shallow bowl used to scoop water from a bucket, to pour over the body. Trickling water bouncing on her back interrupted her thoughts. An electric arc swept over her body at the touch of soft fingertips squeezing a sudsy tenugui that began to slowly stroke her back.
“Dömo arigato, Otosan,” she murmured in a soft, constricted voice. She quickly forgot about her shopping list.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Kenji. “Bishop Imamura has given us a roadmap with his example.”
As Kenji’s hand rubbed her shoulders with the soapy cloth, Haru found it difficult to think about Bishop Imamura’s roadmap. She managed a “Hai, wakarimashita.”
Seconds after Kenji rinsed her back, he stood up. “It’s chilly,” he murmured as he briskly worked the towel over his body after first squeezing as much water out of it as he could. “I will be inside,” he said, donning his nemaki.
Haru breathed easier when she heard Kenji’s geta plop on the soft grass and then the kitchen door opening and closing. She took great care in washing every crevice of her body. Haru laughed out loud at the trees, thinking of Genji’s amusing first encounter with a general’s daughter.
Kenji walked into the bedroom hardening, lost in the images of Haru’s generous breasts, which he had gotten a peek at while soaping her back. He felt tense even as his confidence rose. He was certain her mood meant she had forgiven him for his first-night miscue. He twisted the metal knob of the oil lamps until the wicks gave off only the slightest glimmer. He pulled the quilt off the bed and slipped under the cotton sheet. His heart accelerated at the sound of the back door closing. When Haru’s moonlit silhouette crossed the bedroom threshold, he searched for the right words to let her know that tonight would be different. “Let us hope the great Buddha blesses us with a child tonight.”
Haru sat down on the vacant side of the bed, let her nemaki drop to her waist, sloughed it off, slid under the covers and rested her head on the pillow.
Kenji turned toward her. His tentative hand slipped around her waist.
Haru brushed his hand lightly as it slipped up along her belly. “Surely, he will.”
The back door slammed.
Haru bolted upright and the sheet dropped to her lap. Pale streams of dawn’s first light slashed through the shutters. She could hear the sound of two pails clanging against each other.
“Someone’s in the kitchen,” said Haru, looking at Kenji’s sleepy stare at her exposed breasts. Haru blushed and pulled up the sheet.
Kenji’s eyes widened. He pinched his forehead with his right thumb and index finger. “Oh, my head.” He fumbled for his nemaki, which had fallen to the floor. As he stood up, wincing from the pain from last night’s sake, he offered Haru a sheepish smile and hurried out of the bedroom.
Haru, slipping on her nemaki, traipsed behind him.
They heard the sound of “whish” upon entering the kitchen. Bent over, Ualani was holding a lit match in front of the open door of the oven. She lit the kindling grass under the dried twigs. Satisfied, Ualani stood up. She looked at Kenji’s disheveled hair and shook her head sadly. “Mr. Carter said to look after you. It’s a good thing I came by. You might have slept through the whole day.”
“Ualani . . .” said Haru, her tone more a question than a greeting.
“And good morning to you, too. It’s a Western breakfast this morning,” said Ualani, grabbing two eggs with her stubby fingers and cracking the shells together over a coconut calabash. She picked up two more with her other hand and repeated the process. Yellow yolk dripped from the shells without touching her fingers.
Her mouth half open, Haru stared at Ualani. She had wanted to cook this first breakfast for her husband. Unsure of what to say to this woman who had taken over her kitchen, the 18-year-old bride was dumbfounded and remained silent.
An imperial-faced Ualani wiped the bottom tips of the broken shells on the edge of the calabash and tossed them into a straw basket three feet away with the assurance of a tobacco-chewing paniolo who never misses a spittoon. Next, she picked up a cleaver and lifted it over clumps of onions, tomatoes and mushrooms. Holding it at its apex, she stared at Kenji.
“Are you going to stand there all morning or take a bath? And don’t think about waiting for hot water. You look like you need a cold slap in the face. When you get back, we’ll eat and I will tell you about that crazy Uno and his night of the Inari.” Expecting no argument and getting none, Ualani began chopping the vegetables in rhythm to music only she could hear.
Kenji would have been more amused if he weren’t so hung over. He reached for a water jug and poured himself a glass of relief.
“Let’s take our bath,” said Haru, grabbing two empty pails. Once out the door, she could hardly wait. “I like that old lady, but she’s doing my job.”
“Her words are sharp, but her toothless smile and twinkling eyes tell me another story. Ualani is playing a country character auditioning for a new purpose in life.”
“Wakarimasen,” said Haru with a puzzled look on her face.
“You heard Sam say that Ualani has a hut on the ranch and does a few household chores from time to time. Her predawn arrival tells me that instead of living out her days on Carter’s charity, she sees us as her last chance to contribute, to be important to someone.” Kenji paused at the ofuro. “I need to make a stop first,” he said, heading towards the outhouse. “Think about it . . .”
Haru carried the two pails to the water pump, thinking more about her first lovemaking than Ualani. Whatever demons had grabbed Kenji that horrible first evening had been exorcised, she thought. Last night was like a chapter from “The Tale of the Genji.”
Lost in thought, she finished a quick bath. She didn’t hear Kenji’s footsteps until he entered the ofuro’s small confines. Putting on her nemaki as Kenji sat on the stool to bathe, Haru’s thoughts returned to Ualani.
Yes, I can see Kenji’s point, she thought. More importantly, I don’t want to start our third day of marriage with an argument. She tied the sash of her nemaki. “I can use cooking and laundry time to start English classes.”
“And you would have more time to write letters, recruiting picture brides,” said Kenji, obviously pleased that he had prevailed.
“I believe we have adopted a mother.”
“More like she has adopted us,” said Haru, thinking Kenji had his heart in the right place. She thought back to last night. Children. No Midori to help her. Maybe Ualani is a gift from Buddha.
As they shook off their geta at the back door, Kenji put his hand on Haru’s shoulder for balance. She turned and smiled. His throat thickening with each measured word, Kenji said, “My mother made a good choice.” He opened the screened door and walked in, ahead of Haru.
The aroma of fresh coffee beckoned from the living room table. While Haru had taken a liking to the drink in Yokohama, she would have appreciated Ualani asking if they preferred tea, but she smiled and dropped in two teaspoons of sugar.
“Delicious, Obasan,” said Kenji, shoving a forkful of omelet into his mouth.
Ualani dropped her entertainment persona. Her face turned serious and her eyes locked onto Kenji’s.
“You have a big problem. The Odaisan — that self-appointed priest means to run you out of Waimea.”
“You mean the little man with the face of a mongoose?” asked Haru. “We saw him when we landed. Sam told us about him.”
“Humph,” grunted Ualani. “Did Sam tell you Uno drives out evil spirits, tricks mothers to give him his young daughters as ‘a ko lites’ and has a wicked hold on his followers?” Ualani nodded at her perplexed breakfast companions. “I didn’t think so. Uno’s the king around here. An evil king. Now you come along to steal his little kingdom. I’m not so good at reading and writing. I speak three languages, none of them good. But I know what’s going on. People talk in front of me like I’m a tree stump. You didn’t even notice me last night.”
Haru and Kenji exchanged guilty looks.
“I was that bundle of rags under the big eucalyptus tree. I saw Uno’s whore dressed like a ninja. Some ninja. I was the invisible one. She buzzed around whispering to people. I listened. Here’s what those two shamans are planning tonight.”
Ualani gave her two bewildered hosts a rundown on the planned “festivities.” She ended by saying, “The poor girl who’s supposed to be possessed by the devil fox is Sachi. She’s always been a strange one, with odd parents. They live by themselves outside of town with their pigs. She’s only about 13 years old. If you ask me, she is just having a difficult time becoming a woman, if you know what I mean.”
By the time Ualani finished her cautionary tale, the coffee had turned tepid.
“What can we do?” asked Haru.
“What do I know? I can make an omelet, skin a rabbit and use a charcoal iron without spilling ashes. Your husband’s the priest.”
“That’s right,” said Kenji. “However, I have no fear. He’s only an uneducated shaman.”
Haru was not so sanguine. Only weeks ago, the uncle of her shipmate, Ko, had raised such a fuss that she had to leave the country. She put her fingers under her chin and leaned forward.
“Obasan,” she said, her voice turning soft and conspiratorial. “Can anyone go to Uno’s . . .” She paused to search for the right word, “. . . shaman show?”
“Tell me more about Uno’s animals and how he manages them.” An idea started ricocheting around her head.
Kenji rose. “Don’t worry yourself about Uno. I’m getting dressed.”
When Haru pressed Ualani to tell her about “Uno’s white fox,” the talk soon digressed to pets. When they found common ground on their love of cats, Haru decided to broach an earlier subject that nagged at her even though she had given in to Kenji. She mentally took a deep breath.
“Breakfast was wonderful,” she said, pointing to her empty plate. “Lunch is my turn. I hope you like it as much as I enjoyed your breakfast.” When Ualani’s compliant “Hai” passed Haru’s test, she said, “Why don’t you take one of the children’s room for your bedroom.”
For the first time in years, the old woman was at a loss for words. After a long pause, she rose. “We need more fire wood.” Ualani U-turned uncertainly, waddled through the kitchen and banged the back door on her way out.
Catching the emotive moment, Haru stood up to follow. But Kenji, entering the dining room dressed in a suit, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “She needs to be alone, Okasan. Ualani wouldn’t want you to see her tears of relief and joy. You will not forget this day.”
To be continued . . .