“Picture Bride” — A Family Saga

“Picture Bride” — A Family Saga

Historical Fiction by Michael G. Malaghan

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.

52.

Haru awoke to the sounds of clinking porcelain. She looked at her watch: 7:33! She was embarrassed for having slept so late. Aromas of warm rice and yaki sakana, grilled fish, whetted her appetite.

She slipped out the side door for the outhouse. Once in the privy, she smiled upon seeing the new Sears and Roebuck catalogue perched on a rough-hewn wooden shelf. As she leafed through the children’s clothing section, she wondered if the mail order company realized the importance of its relatively soft pages.

Returning to the house, she entered the dirt-floor kitchen, where she found Ume bending over the open grill. “Good morning, Ume,” she said with a smile, then offered an apology for her tardiness. “Your futon is too comfortable.” Haru’s eyes roamed around the kitchen, taking in the wall and ceiling, blackened by soot, and the dusty Coleman stove with its empty glass kerosene cylinder.

Ume caught her appraisal. “‘Mr. Modern insisted on buying me a kerosene stove to impress the neighbors. But with all the kindling wood from our pruned coffee trees, why would any coffee grower buy kerosene?”

Wondering about the urgent tone of Ume’s note, Haru didn’t think a womanizer would buy his wife the latest kitchen appliance. Or is it a guilty-conscience gift? What did men who chase other women have in common besides the urge? Money, opportunity and the time to pursue them. Dismissing the thought and a bit ashamed by the unfounded speculation, Haru concentrated on the two breakfast bentö on the table.

“Where are the children?”

“They’re at a friend’s house, and Irie has gone into town.”

As Ume prattled on about her children, Haru wanted to snap, “Why did you ask me to come?” Speculating some great shame was holding Ume back, Haru fell in step and bragged about her boys.

Ume finished her second cup of coffee. “Let’s take a walk. Beside the kitchen door, Ume retrieved a slop bucket containing tangerine peels, eggs shells and chicken bones. She added fish tidbits from their breakfast plates, while Haru scraped the rice bowls into the bucket. Ume picked two floppy hats off a row of pegs, handed one to Haru and opened the screen door.

Outside, a family of snorting pigs scattered the chickens as they rushed to Ume, who held the pail high until she reached their wooden trough. She tipped the slop bucket upside down, shaking out the scraps and then hung the pail on a branch.

“This way,” said Ume, leading Haru through a grove of coffee trees three times her height.

Haru followed. She looked up at the tree branches and spotted a smattering of kernels waiting to drop. Although the harvest season started in August, Haru knew the coffee berries matured at various times throughout the fall and into the winter. She felt the pressure to break the disquieting silence.

“You’ve come a long way since you and Irie lived in a one-room cottage.” Remembering that Irie got his land at a good price because most of the coffee trees in place were at the end of their 25-year life cycle, she added, “You struggled digging out old trees and planting replacement seedlings those early years.”

Ume nodded. “When the haoles started their sharecropping scheme, Filipinos and Puerto Ricans gave it a try and quit.” She gazed up at the treetops. “Only us crazy Japanese were fussy enough to grow this stubborn crop.”

“At least you were working for yourselves.”

“So we told ourselves each night we fell asleep exhausted. I felt guilty when I got pregnant. I knew Irie would have to do part of my work.” Ume stooped to pick up two brown cherries, as coffee pods are called. “The war broke out a few months before our replacements trees’ first harvest. We got a good price and it drove us on. We’d wake up before dawn, sling baskets loaded with empty burlaps bags over our shoulders and march with our children into the fields. I carried one on my back; the other two had soup cans strung around their necks so they could pick up loose cherries off of the ground.”

Although Haru had heard it all before, she did not interrupt.

Ume rubbed the two cherries in her hand like worry beads. “We had to harvest six times in 1914, but our quality was the best. Our extravagance that year was buying a mule to carry the burlap bags to the side of the road twice a day. “Oh, that Momo was so stubborn.” Ume smiled at the memory. “A truck from the Captain Cook Coffee Company picked up the bags along the road at the end of each day for processing. Twice a month, we held back two bags and I would ride Momo to Kimura’s store in Hölualoa to exchange them for supplies. The trip took most of the day, but I was happy to have a break from harvesting.”

Ume turned into a clearing with a matrix of sheds, some holding machinery.

Haru’s eyebrows rose. “Last time I visited, this land was a garden of lumber and crates.”

For the first time since her arrival, Haru saw a genuine smile on Ume’s face. “This is the first year that we don’t have to give away half our profits. Most coffee countries, like Brazil, use the easy method to process coffee. Just let the coffee cherries dry in the sun and then remove the cracked shell afterwards. The richness of the Kona coffee results from a two-step wet process. But now we process everything ourselves, except the roasting.”

Ume strolled over to an open-air shed. Haru peered at the confusion of conveyer belts, pulleys and metal machinery. She walked to the nearest machine with a steel-strutted grater. “The handle sticking out looks like a rough version of the grill of my car.”

Ume raised her hand with the coffee cherries between her thumb and forefinger. “This grinder scrapes the leathery pulp off the bean.” She dropped the pair of cherries atop the grinder’s wheel and gave it a spin. Two slimy, de-pulped white beans dropped to the bottom. Ume picked one up. “All the wet beans go up there.” She pointed to a giant wooden tub. “The beans are soaked in water overnight to eat away the slime.”

Ume strolled over to an adjacent squat platform covered with half a corrugated roof on rollers. “After the tub is drained, the wet beans are released into this chute.” Ume stopped to let Haru see where the chute connected the bottom of the elevated wooden tub to the platform as wide as a single-lane road and three times as long as its width. “Come on up.”

All the coffee beans were covered under a rolling arched roof cover acting as a giant umbrella. Ume started pushing the sheet metal awning toward the other end to expose the beans to the morning sun. Without being asked, Haru grabbed the other side and pushed. When the cover had been rolled to the end of the drying platform, a mound of damp coffee beans was left exposed to the morning sun. Ume grabbed a wooden rake and spread them out. “Later today, we will separate the beans from the chaff, grade them by size and sack them.”

Rather than being exulted by their accomplishment, Ume slumped her shoulders and then stopped abruptly. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Haru-chan . . .”

Ume took off her hat with her left hand, tilted her head left and pulled back her hair with her right hand. “Look . . .”

To be continued…

As a new retiree who was free to dream, Michael G. Malaghan attended a Maui Writers Conference presentation on historical novels. It left him with a deep desire to meld his interests in history and writing. After attending the premiere of historian Tom Coffman’s 2007 documentary, “The First Battle,” which detailed how Hawai‘i’s Japanese community avoided mass internment by preparing for that expected consequence three years before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Mike decided to tell the entire Japanese immigrant experience in historical novel form. His trilogy will take readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during the World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond. Mike was born in the Midwest and raised in Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida and volunteered for the Peace Corps after college. In his business life he was president of a Walt Disney licensee, marketing English language learning materials in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea. Mike and his wife Tomoko, a native of Tochigi Prefecture, are worldwide travelers and adventurers. They split their time between homes in Waikiki and Winter Park, Fla., and also spend nearly a month every year visiting with Tomoko’s parents in Japan, where Mike also conducts workshops for his former company.

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