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.
Despite the late-January chill and the snappy breeze that filled the air, Haru continued reading the Advertiser under the thatched roof of the recently constructed gazebo, just steps outside her kitchen door. She let her wool shawl drop to the knotty pinewood bench as she soaked up the rays of the mid-morning sun basking on a rare cloudless day. Directly ahead, she gazed at her cherry trees’ pink ethereal petals dancing in full bloom. In a day or two, the petals would flutter to the ground like snowflakes. For now, however, they were a perfect complement to the glistening snow-covered peak of Mauna Kea towering over her garden.
Haru was enjoying her solitude when she heard the familiar tinkle of the mailman’s bicycle bell. She didn’t feel like breaking her reverie to greet Murphy and instead waited for the crunch of his retreating bicycle tires before refilling her coffee cup in the kitchen and scooping up the mail on the floor beneath the mail slot on the front door. There was a letter from Midori — probably responding to my letter regarding Ko, thought Haru.
She had written to Midori about her appreciation for Kenji’s “ofuro counsel” on the night of Ko’s unexpected arrival and about how, the next morning, she had told Ko “to stay a few days until a suitable arrangement can be made.” It was a topic that had not been discussed since then. Without being asked, Ko had taken over most of the household duties that Ualani, now in declining health, had once performed. Haru wasn’t sure what surprised her more: Ko’s work ethic, or the warmth she showed toward Ualani and Sachi. Within weeks, it seemed like she had been here a long time. The crow’s feet around her eyes had melted away and she was more relaxed in her new home. Haru knew battered wives needed time for their minds to heal, as well.
Haru retired to her “office” in the tatami mat room. While sliding the ivory letter opener along the edge of the envelope, she felt a prickle in the back of her neck, as if her brain was nagging her. Ko could be playing a role, simply manipulating her. Putting aside the thought, Haru pulled out the fine stationery bordered with plum blossom images, a reminder of Hiroshima’s proud horticultural heritage. Midori’s words warmed her.
“Kiyoshi and I are so proud of you, Haru-chan. In such cases, a battle rages in the human heart between revenge and forgiveness. The choice you have made speaks well of your character.”
Yet, later in the letter, Midori cautioned, “Do not let compassion blind you. An unmarried woman living in your home is a temptation that even the Buddha avoided.” This warning irritated Haru, not because of its judgment on Ko, but the lack of faith in the character of Midori’s own son. If there was one man who lived his life according to the ideals he preached, it was her husband. Even his stubbornness over the school curriculum was grounded in high principles.
Suddenly, the back door banged shut. Haru looked up to see a distressed look on Sachi’s face as she stood at the entrance to the room. Her words choked out, “Okäsan . . . It’s Obasan.” Saying nothing more, she turned and ran back to the cottage, assured Haru would follow her.
One look at Ualani’s drawn face and the bucket near her bed reeking of vomit sent a dreadful warning to Haru. Had it arrived in Waimea?
Ualani opened her eyes and managed a weary smile. “I’m sorry for this trouble.”
“Nonsense,” said Haru, feigning a cheerfulness she did not feel.
Reaching over, she placed her hand on Ualani’s head. Hot. Way too hot, thought Haru.
“It happened very suddenly,” Sachi added. “She felt tired this morning, then got a headache and the fever . . .”
Standing up and turning at the sound of footsteps, Haru watched Ko enter the room and wrinkle her nose at the smell. Ko briefly studied Ualani’s grey pallor and the perspiration on her brow. “The bluish tint. The high fever. The vomit. It’s the Spanish flu.”
Haru put her hand to her mouth. “I feared so. Was it last week we gave thanks that Waimea has been spared the scourge sweeping the world? I will go and get Dr. Tebbits.”
“No,” snapped Ko, before modulating her voice. “Everyone except me is exposed. I had a mild case last year. I’m immune. Quarantine is the only answer. Call the doctor. You need to close the nursery.” Then, pausing, she added, “Best I stay with Ualani.”
Aware that the epidemic had killed more people than the Great War, Haru trotted toward the house to telephone Dr. Tebbits. From his mission, Kenji had seen the running back and forth to the cottage and was now stepping through the front door. Haru brought him up-to-date while Doris, the switchboard operator, who always had the doctor’s schedule, made three calls before locating Dr. Tebbits at the Harvey residence.
Within 15 minutes, Dr. Tebbits drove up to their house. Haru was waiting on the porch. “Stay in the house,” he said as he walked toward the cottage carrying his black medical satchel. Tebbits tied a handkerchief around his face like a bank robber. Ko met him at the cottage door. “I already had the disease in Manchuria,” she said, leading him to Ualani’s bedroom.
Ualani awoke at the touch of Dr. Tebbits’ hand on her forehead. She smiled weakly. “It’s time. I’ve had a good life.” She closed her eyes, breathing shallowly.
Shortly thereafter, Tebbits, followed by Ko, walked over to the home and let themselves in by the kitchen door. Tebbits looked at the anxious couple.
“Ko was right. It’s the Spanish flu. The symptoms of normal flu and the pandemic are similar except that the Spanish flu acts faster and its victims have the blue pallor. Ualani is frail.”
The doctor’s next words cut into Haru’s heart. “I know you want to be with her, but you must protect yourself.”
Denying the diagnosis, Haru pleaded, “But I read that the healthier a person is, the more likely they will die. Half the dead were in the prime of their lives, between 20 and 40 years old. Ualani is . . . nobody knows how old, but at least 60.”
Tebbits’ voice lowered. “Yes, but you said half, Haru-san. In healthy people, the disease over-stimulates the immune system, which is what normally keeps us alive. It exhausts the body until there is nothing left to fight with. In Ualani’s case . . .” With that, he extended his arms as if to ask, “What can we do?”
“We’ve been so lucky,” said Haru. “The Spanish flu seemed to have bypassed Waimea.” What she really meant, however, was that it had bypassed her family. Haru felt a little feverish, but kept silent, thinking what she had was something like sympathy symptoms.
“Yes, until today,” said Tebbits. “With the soldiers coming back from the front, our luck has run out. This is the third case today.” Hearing the children’s squeals from the nursery, he said, “Let the children play outside until you can contact the mothers to pick them up.”
“Why did it start in Spain?” asked Ko.
“It didn’t,” explained Dr. Tebbits. “Because of news blackouts among the countries at war, no one knew the epidemic was killing more people than bullets. Since Spain stayed out of the war, they reported on the virulence of this flu as it crept south across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.”
“So it started in the trenches?” Haru asked, thinking of Sam’s gruesome stories.
“Not likely,” said Tebbits. “Some say Kansas, where it first appeared in America. But, for sure, the troops spread it. Like a typhoon’s surf, death came in waves.”
They had not noticed Sachi slipping into the room. Ko saw the girl first. In a soft voice, she admonished her, “You must stay in the cottage, Sachi.”
“Ualani is not breathing.”
Fear struck Haru. Sachi had spent the last 24 hours with Ualani? Would Sachi be next? Then herself? Then maybe Kenji and their children? My baby?
The next day, Waimea was shut down. Wellington Carter closed off Parker Ranch. The sugar plantations followed suit. Ko burned Ualani’s sheets and mattress and bleached her bedroom.
Haru’s fever was real. By the end of the day, she was sleeping in Ualani’s disinfected room. After Ualani’s quiet funeral service, Kenji, also stricken with fever, joined her. A day later, Ko announced, “The children are feverish.”
To be continued . . .