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 overcame her fatigue. She rose from her futon, folded it and placed it in the cabinet. Then she bounded out of the bedroom and scurried to the kitchen.
It was empty.
She dropped a piece of fresh charcoal on the cooking fire and washed the vegetables on the wooden side-counter. With that task done, she hauled the nearly empty water bucket outside, found the well and pumped until the water sloshed over the rim of the bucket.
Back in the house, Haru spotted a wicker basket with dirty clothes in it. She carried it outside and washed the laundry next to the well. She then cleaned the kitchen as though it had always been her job.
At sunset, she returned to her room and fell into an exhausted sleep. She woke again around midnight, needing to relieve herself, and found a tray of rice, vegetables and fish outside her door. Haru devoured the food and fell back into a more restful sleep.
The next morning, she awoke early and prepared the morning rice and boiled the water for tea. A surprised Midori entered the kitchen. After the exchange of greetings, Haru spoke quickly, “I hope the rice is soft enough.”
Midori lifted the lid from the rice cooker and dipped the wooden scoop into the steaming pot. She brought some of the hot rice to her lips and smiled. “Perfect. Your mother trained you well, Haru. Is that miso soup I smell? Let me drop in a dash of katsuobushi, the dried tuna shavings my husband can’t do without.”
Midori glanced at the two tables Haru had set by the hearth. “Please bring a third table to the irori.”
Haru could not hold back her grateful smile.
Just then, Kiyoshi entered the room. He noticed the three low tables, grunted his good morning greeting, “Ohayo gozaimasu,” and sat down. Midori’s efforts to start a morning conversation were acknowledged with gruff responses as he ate his morning meal.
Finished, he rose from the irori, bowed slightly and, by habit, recited, “Gochisösama deshita,” the traditional Japanese expression of gratitude after one has finished eating.
Kiyoshi glanced at his wife. “The rice was delicious this morning, a little softer.”
Midori hesitated. Kiyoshi stared. He expected his wife to acknowledge the rare compliment with a “Thank you,” or, more likely, “It is nothing.”
“Honorable husband, Haru woke early and prepared the rice.”
Kiyoshi looked at Haru. She could feel his stare pierce though her and wished he hadn’t said anything about the rice.
“Maybe you cooked it a little longer,” he said after an unbearable pause. Kiyoshi stiffened his back and marched out of the room.
Haru gave a prayer of thanks to Odaishi-sama that nothing was said about an orphanage. But neither did they say that she could stay. In a home decorated with Buddhist calligraphy, Haru decided to put her trust in him and her favorite saint.
“I will clean the kitchen, Obasan,” she said, smiling at Midori.
“Haru,” said Midori during breakfast on the seventh day after her arrival, “we must enroll you in school.”
Haru raised her hand to her mouth, backed away from the table and bowed low three times. She could not hold back her tears.
Kiyoshi looked away. Midori moved over to Haru and put her hand under the young girl’s chin. “We appreciate your help, Haru-chan.”
Haru broke into goosebumps when she heard Midori add “chan” to her name — a term of endearment.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Haru was awoken by the sound of the cannon from the castle. The anticipated battle between the Russian and Japanese fleets must have taken place . . . and we won, thought Haru.
It was May 28,1905, a date she and all Japanese would etch in their memories.
The bell. We must ring our bell first. Haru dashed out of the house, not even bothering to change out of her nightclothes. She ignored her sandals at the front door and sprinted across the pebbled compound to the bell tower. She knew the Shinto government doubted the loyalty of the Buddhist priests, whom they accused of plotting to regain the influence they once had under the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Inside the bell tower, she grabbed the thick bell rope. A maze of pulleys, chains and sprockets were connected and powered by the rope in her hands. Haru squeezed the cord, took a deep breath, held tight and pulled, simultaneously bending her knees to draw down the ropes more with her legs than her arms. Her shoulder muscles strained as the mallet drew away from the 2-ton bell. Then she let go. The rope shot out of her hands. She heard the rustle of the spinning sprockets as the mallet rushed to impact. Hiroshima’s most distinctive temple bell reverberated with authority, answering the roar of the cannon.
In seconds, other bells followed. But all of Hiroshima had heard the Fudoin’s bell first.
Haru dashed back to the temple, where she found Kiyoshi standing on the front porch. His broad shoulders framed his red robes. The morning sun glinted off his shaved head and the glasses that sat low on his flat nose. He smiled as Haru trotted up the stairs two steps at a time.
“You have brought great honor to our temple this morning, Haru-chan.”
Haru beamed at the warm smile above her. It was months since she had last seen his scowls. She had won over Kiyoshi with her desire to serve and her progress in school. Midori had long ago begun treating her more like a daughter than a servant.
Still, the days of hunger and the fear of Sandakan were never far from her mind. A walk along the Hiroshima harbor reminded her of what might have been. Girls her age, their mouths painted with lipstick, dressed in dark cotton kimono and low-hanging tenugui scarves to hide their eyes and shame loitered in front of shabby establishments with blinking pink signs touting their services.
Kiyoshi pointed to the gate. “Get dressed and join the celebration. Bring back the news of our victory, Haru-chan.”
In minutes, she joined a crowd of university students marching toward the harbor, chanting, “Long live the Emperor! Long live Admiral Tögö! Banzai!”
At the wharf, Haru paid 5 sen for the one-page newspaper. Her command of the kanji characters was a work in progress, but she could read enough to understand that every one of Russia’s eight battleships had been sunk in the Battle of the Tsushima Straits.
She remembered Kiyoshi’s charge: “Bring back the news of our victory, Haru-chan.” Kiyoshi had used “chan” after her name.
Haru eased her way to the outer ring of the crowd, turned and sprinted home. She found Kiyoshi sipping green tea and reading an ancient Buddhist scroll in his library. Haru handed him the Yomiuri Shimbun’s one-page “extra.”
Kiyoshi glanced up at her with a sadness Haru had never seen. She was surprised by the low tone of his voice.
“For the first time since Genghis Khan, the yellow race has defeated the white race.”
Haru nodded. Despite being disturbed by the anxious face, she said, “Ah, so deshita.” Tomorrow at school, she would ask her teacher about Genghis Khan. She looked into Kiyoshi’s sad eyes. “You look so sad on such a glorious day, Ojisama.”
“Come. Let’s go to the irori,” he said. In all the excitement, we have not eaten.”
As Haru and Kiyoshi entered the irori, they found that Midori had already placed rice bowls, miso soup and broiled fish on the small tables.
Kiyoshi took his seat and began speaking when Haru joined them. “If you remember . . . you had asked me if our oldest son serving as chaplain in Manchuria could find your brother.”
Kiyoshi reached into his yukata kimono and pulled out a white envelope. The oblong block in the upper corner was black, the symbol of a message of death.
Haru took in a sharp breath. “No!”
“Your brother died a hero’s death at the Battle of the Yalu River. My son’s letter arrived after you left for the harbor. Inside, there was a smaller envelope from your brother’s commanding officer. It is addressed to you.”
Haru lifted her hand to her mouth. “I hardly knew my brother. I was so young when he left.”
“But if he had survived the war and returned to Hiroshima, you would have had a family,” said Midori.
“I would have had a brother, but my family is here.”
Haru’s read of the exchanged glances between Midori and Kiyoshi suggested something more amiss. Midori’s eyes dropped to the unopened envelope addressed to Haru from her brother’s commanding officer.
Haru studied the envelope. Her gut tightened. “This letter . . . why is it not addressed to my parents? Don’t soldiers have to show their family registration card when entering the army?”
Kiyoshi cleared his throat again. “Haru, we should have told you sooner. Shortly after you arrived, I received a letter from my sister. The bodies of your parents were found floating in the sea. A fishing boat had gone missing a few days earlier. The authorities believe your parents . . . perhaps borrowed the boat and had an accident.”
Haru had never displayed anger in her patrons’ home. Until now.
“Obasama, I have gone to bed every night talking to my parents! I have been writing them letters. Now I know why they did not answer!”
“It is my fault,” said Kiyoshi. “You had just escaped the brothel and been smuggled away from the only home you knew. We were worried what you would do if we told you your parents had died. You might have blamed yourself.”
“It is my fault. My father feared — no, hated the sea. Only the greatest hunger would have driven them to try fishing. If I had gone to Sandakan, they would have had money to eat.”
Haru rose abruptly, threw the unopened letter on the floor and ran to her room.
Midori got up to follow, but Kiyoshi stopped her. “Give her time alone.”
“Only a few minutes, Otosan,” she said. “If we were worried about her committing seppuku before, we should be even more worried now. Suppose she finds out her parents did not go fishing?”
“Who would tell her? No one knows for sure. They were found floating. No one saw them enter the ocean.”
Midori fidgeted, waiting as long as she could. “I’d better go to her room.”
As Midori rose, she heard the soft shuffle of footsteps drawing closer. Haru entered the library and prostrated herself three times.
“You gave me shelter when you could have sent me away. The great Buddha’s kindness shows through your actions. I apologize for my anger. You did what you thought was best.”
Her eyes glistening, Midori slid over to Haru. Haru leaned into her shoulder. Midori put her arm around Haru’s head and gave it a slight hug. “The great Buddha has sent us the daughter we never had.”
Kiyoshi picked up the smaller white envelope from the commanding officer of Haru’s brother, opened it and scanned the few lines of beautifully written calligraphy. He then handed it to her.
“Read the letter, Haru. The Emperor has invited you to Tökyö.”
To be continued in the Oct. 3, 2014, edition . . .