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.
With a worried look on his face, the shaman strode off into the underbrush. The priest’s wife bothered him, for she had not turned her eyes away from his stare. She seemed the strong, confident type — the kind of woman he feared other women would gather around. She was a danger. He also made note of that meddling paniolo Sam and the short, fat woman, most likely a picture bride. Would this new Buddhist mission be recruiting more of them? Another threat.
As Uno tramped angrily through the shrubbery, he recalled his own arrival in Hawai‘i in 1885 with the first group of Japanese immigrants following King Kaläkaua’s visit to Japan.
His journey to Waimea had begun unintentionally when his village priest picked him, a pious farm boy, for seminary training in Hiroshima. Uno soon discovered the unsavory side of the Meiji commitment to make Hiroshima a major port. He squandered his student allowance on gambling and dropped out of school and joined a yakuza gang to pay off his gambling debts. But even at that, he could not keep away from the bones. When he met a labor recruiter from Hawai‘i, he quickly signed up. Worried the yakuza would learn his whereabouts, he volunteered for the remotest plantation available: Waimea.
Uno left the bush trail to find his horse grazing where he had left him tethered. It would take him two hours of hard riding to reach Waimea. He had much to remember and to prepare. As the horse broke into a trot, Uno retreated in memory to his first cane-working days. His back was soon crisscrossed with welts from the luna’s whip. Each night, he went to sleep fantasizing cruel ways of killing his Portuguese overseer.
Then the life-altering dream. He was rolling the dice at his favorite gambling house in Hiroshima, but strangely, with Shika, the wife of one of his fellow cane workers, who looked over his shoulder like a yakuza moll. A man of superstitions, Uno interpreted his dream as a life-changing force. That morning, he had reached under his bed for some kava root, the Polynesian stimulant that the missionaries thought they had eradicated. He bit off a large chunk, chewed it into paste, spit the wad into a bowl, added a little water, and drank the potion all in one gulp. His face had turned ashen by the time he reported at first bell.
“What’s wrong with you?” the luna demanded.
Uno swayed unsteadily, his words slurred. “I vomited most of the night. But . . . I can still go to the fields.”
The luna spat. “You’ll be worthless. Stay here, but you lose two days’ pay.”
Uno watched the luna mount his horse while the field hands piled onto mule-drawn carts.
Except for Shika.
She steadfastly refused to join her husband as a $9-a-month field hand. Instead, she laundered clothes for the bachelors. Although Shika earned less money, she maintained her beauty. More than once, Uno was convinced that she favored him with a sly smile, and when he dropped off or picked up his laundry, their banter bordered on the risqué.
Within an hour, the kava nausea had turned into a buzz, raising Uno’s confidence. He strode down to the stream, where Shika was washing clothes. Looking up at the sound of footsteps, she gave him a saucy smile. “So much work for 10 cents a bundle,” said Uno, rattling coins in his hand. “And you, such a pretty woman.”
Shika did not take much persuading to accept his offer of 20 cents for a tumble along a secluded riverside copse. After sharing a cigarette, Uno said, “I’ve seen how the luna watches you. I could arrange a pillow session where you would earn 50 cents.”
Shika’s raunchy smile was all the answer Uno needed.
That evening, he told the luna, “I am well,” and then waited out the verbal abuse. He then explained Shika’s availability for a dollar. The luna’s licentious grin sealed the arrangement. Then Uno explained how vigorous enforcement of the no-gambling rule was not only bad for morale, but was missing a profit opportunity. After settling on his cut for allowing dice, the overseer gave Uno the easy jobs — feeding the mules, counting inventory, passing out the new tools. Uno ingratiated himself with his co-workers. He covered when someone needed a rest, smoothed over sick time with the luna and advanced a worker’s salary at the rate of a dime a week for each dollar advanced. He supplied kava cheaply to avoid charges of gouging and inviting competition.
A plantation worker’s death launched Uno’s life vocation. When mourners bemoaned the lack of a priest, one worker said, “Why not Uno? He has seminary training.” Uno accepted the charge in the humblest manner he could contrive.
While Japanese tradition favored Buddhism for funerals, leaving marriages and house blessings for the Shintö priests, Uno remembered enough prayers to satisfy the mourners. A week later, he conducted “marriages” for three Japanese men who had taken Hawaiian wives. Uno was soon performing priestly functions for all plantations with a Japanese workforce within a day’s ride of Waimea. By the time his labor contract had been satisfied, he was well ensconced as the odaisan, the revered comforter who used incantations to the spirit world, along with rare herbs to heal the sick. Shika had long left her husband to support Uno’s ministry as his consort.
He found commonality between Shintö animism and Hawai‘i’s ancient polytheism, which was still clandestinely practiced, despite Christian minister boasts that they had expunged heathen practices. He borrowed superstitions from the latter when it suited his ecclesiastic machinations.
Mimicking his village’s Shintö tradition, Uno dedicated his Waimea shrine to Inari, the kami, or god, of rice who relied on kitsune messengers — shape-shifting foxes — to communicate with the faithful. Worshippers deposited sake, rice or soybean curd at the base of fox statues to improve the odds of having their prayers vigorously pressed. Uno’s favorite manifestation of the kitsune was the byakko — the white-furred kitsune who could fly and grew nine additional tails. Uno became obsessed with obtaining a white fox. He imagined his followers prostrating themselves to the kitsune. Uno promised $300 to a trading ship’s bursar if could bring back a white fox. In nine months, he had his fox.
The arrival of this exotic creature created a sensation. Within weeks, pilgrims as far away as Hilo visited Uno’s shrine. They dropped quarters at the offering table, bought overpriced incense and paid to sleep near the caged white fox. His local followers tripled.
At age 50, Uno reveled in the fear and respect he engendered. Now all was at risk.
Uno’s horse broke into a run for the last mile. Turning off the main road, it galloped down the path lined with life-sized wooden foxes Uno himself had carved over the decades and slowed to a trot as it passed under the faded cherry-painted torii — the traditional Shintö gate of two columns bridged with a double set of horizontal rails. Uno surveyed his compound and was not pleased. His thatched Hawaiian-style hale pyramiding to the sky cried out for new reeds on the roof. Earlier, he had ridden past the home for the Buddhist priest. It was large, Western-style and brand new — a gift from that Parker haole and an insult to Uno’s decades of dedication.
The ever-faithful Shika stepped forward as Uno dismounted. Without a word, she handed him a bowl of kava. Uno brought the calabash to his lips and slowly allowed the bitter brown juice to slide down his throat.
“They have arrived?”
Uno’s face twisted into an angry gargoyle. “Yes.”
He ambled over to the wooden and wire-mesh cage that housed his aging white fox. He dropped to his haunches, picking up a cane stalk and knife from a basket next to the cage. He whittled away the green bark, then opened the cage door and held out the stalk. When the fox came forward, he grabbed the animal’s neck and gently pulled him out of his cage. Uno placed the fox on his lap and watched him suck on the stalk.
“Sit,” Uno instructed Shika, who had brought him a refilled calabash. “Share the kava with me.” Uno closed his eyes and drifted into a private world of memories.
Hours later, the thunder of loud taiko drums awoke him. A welcome party in the central park tonight, he guessed.
While petting the white fox sleeping on his lap, Uno leaned over and whispered into a tattered furry ear. “You have served me well, kogitsune. You have one more mission before you meet your ancestors.”
Shika opened her eyes.
“The gods have spoken to me,” said Uno. “They have told me what to do.” His words bespoke purpose and menace. He finished by saying, “When night falls, go to the park, float like a butterfly and spread the message.”
To be continued . . .