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.
Uno stood on the granite outcrop overlooking the pine-planked roof of the fox’s cage. The reverberations of the drums echoed deep within his body. Uno aimed his kava-glazed eyes at the angry black clouds broiling around Mauna Kea. Kona winds buffeted his cheeks and bent the surrounding palm trees. He turned to savor the sight of his four female drummers, dressed in white smocks. Two kava-entranced acolytes on each side of a 6-foot-high war drum faced each other. They swung their fur-tipped mallets in rhythmic sequence. Drenched in sweat, their cotton-cloth smocks clung to their curves and their oiled calves glistened.
Uno crossed his arms in a violent downward movement and the pounding ceased. The girls snapped their drumsticks across their chests like rifles at parade rest.
A crack of lightning split the sky, illuminating Mauna Kea and brightening the two larger-than-life stone gargoyles guarding the entrance to Uno’s shrine.
Seconds later, thunder bounced off the mountainside. More Pele-type lightning bolts flashed overhead, threatening a heavy downpour that would drench the shrine. Then, as if Uno ordered it, the incessant trade winds chased away the storm. The setting sun shot golden arrows between rifts in the clouds, brightening the moist air with a fleeting rainbow. Soon, only a purple ribbon on the horizon remained of the sunset and crystal-clear skies showed off a full moon blooming in the twilight. Thousands of admiring stars twinkled. Surely the sky’s rage was a message from the gods. Uno nodded to his drummers. They resumed their drumming at a slow, commanding cadence.
Uno wrapped his spiny arms around his body as if suddenly cold. In an hour, no one in Waimea would doubt his power. Tonight, he would emasculate the Buddhist intruder before he could establish his ministry. He wondered how many months would pass before the slumped-shouldered priest would return to O‘ahu.
Uno’s eyes dropped, searching for his companion of many years. The patchy-furred fox caught his gaze and whimpered. Uno crawled down from the boulder. Shika handed him a cup of tawny liquid. He entered the cage and cradled Fushimi in his arms. Tilting the cup, he fed him milk laced with kava. Uno’s voice soothed, “You have served me well, old friend. But you must make one last sacrifice tonight. You have lived a long life. Your blood will serve a great purpose. This evening, I will become an ikibotoke, a living saint, the most powerful form of the odaisan — the one who challenges the spirit of the fox, the one who controls good and evil.”
Fushimi fell asleep in his master’s arms.
Uno’s eyes moistened as he set the fox down on a bed of tired straw. He duck-walked out of the cage, straightened up, and filed past the row of sculptured foxes, stopping short of the torii gate. He liked what he saw. Food sellers were firing caldrons, hanging strips of beef jerky and chopping vegetables at their booths that flanked the pathway to the shrine. Volunteers dug fresh latrine ditches in the woods, then cut long branches and stuck them in the ground fronting the ditches to provide a modicum of privacy. Shouts sprung from two groups of men squatting in circles, tossing dice. A few toddlers scampered about like swirling snowflakes. Three of their mothers played kitsune ken, similar to the fist-pumping game of rock, paper, scissors — only the players acted out symbols for fox, hunter and headman.
Amidst this gathering, a child pointed to the watchful Uno. Others turned. A hush descended on the crowd as the early arrivals spotted the shaman. The food sellers put down their ladles and the gamblers picked up their dice. Toddlers scampered behind their mother’s kimono.
Uno, a crooked smile on his face, looked at no one. Admiration is comforting, but fear works wonders. With that thought, he retreated to Fushimi’s replacement, an all-white terrier except for one eye looped in black fur. The breed excelled at vermin control by killing raccoons, opossums and, most important to Uno, the red fox that was a constant nuisance to plantations.
Uno looked around, searching for Shika, who stepped out from behind the cage. She was there, always as faithful as the fox.
“Get the girl.”
Uno did not tell Shika why he had bought the terrier. But she had guessed, and now she knew. The white fox had served its purpose. Same as me, Shika worried as she cut across the compound to the acolytes’ sleeping quarters, where the possessed girl waited.
This morning, she had stared into the mirror and studied the tight wrinkles around her eyes, the furrows in her forehead, the slackness in her neck’s skin, the droop of her nose. Once she had boasted firm, apple-round breasts like the acolytes. Now, they drooped.
She had whispered to selected men the night before that the acolytes were going to be given as brides tonight. For years, the girls had come to stay for a year or two, then moved on to matrimony. They had relieved her of Uno’s rough advances. Now she dreaded that one of the comely acolytes would be asked to stay.
Tonight’s ceremony would end the career of the white fox in stunning fashion, foretelling her own future, she speculated. Shika pushed this foreboding thought out her mind as she spotted the girl’s parents hovering in front of their daughter’s door. She heard moaning, like that of a wounded animal, coming from inside the room. The disheveled parents glanced up at her, their eyes frightened. Shika nodded. The parents bowed, and as if commanded, quickly turned to the door.
Sachi’s father knocked on her door.
The girl barked.
Sachi had spent most of the day growling in her upstairs bedroom over her family’s butcher shop. Having grown up in this room, she was immune to the stench of butchered pigs and their offal emanating from the Big Island’s first concrete floor pens behind the house.
Only the experienced hands of a midwife had saved Sachi from strangulation during a breech birth. The buttocks-first delivery was a bloody affair. When the sac broke, the umbilical cord twisted around the baby’s neck and compressed. The midwife squeezed her hands deep inside and maneuvered the baby’s arms and head to extract it. The baby’s head was misshapen, its skin tinted bluish-grey. The midwife spanked the infant to no avail. She then breathed gently into the newborn’s mouth. On the third and last attempt to force air into the baby’s lungs, it squawked shallowly.
Within a few weeks, Sachi’s head almost recovered its normal shape. But not quite. She never showed a sparkle in her eyes. She spoke slowly, often dropping d’s, t’s and k’s in the last syllable of a word. She could not keep up in school and her classmates often mocked her, as children will.
At first, Sachi’s mother hoped her love would bring her slow-witted first-born to functional normalcy. But as the disparity between Sachi and other children continued to grow, her mother grew to resent her burden. When Sachi wandered off into the lava fields, her mother fantasized about how much better life would be if Sachi fell down into a gorge. And now this kitsune possession absurdity was making her the object of ghoulish curiosity.
On the other hand, Sachi’s father treasured his daughter. While not given to hugging his wife, he showered embraces on Sachi, pinched her cheeks playfully, tussled her hair and rewarded her smiles with bits of rock candy. Sachi shadowed him everywhere. He appreciated her company and her help with feeding the pigs. As she grew older, her intelligence was sufficient enough to work the cash register. Customers grew fond of her gentle demeanor. Knowing her love of animals, some brought her a kitten or a puppy — animals to care for that would never be subject to the hiss of a cleaver.
No one had told Sachi about the bloody event that announces womanhood. She refused to leave her room during the three-day ordeal. Her mother placed rice outside her door, and only when she had left would Sachi take the rice inside. She sang over and over the few songs she remembered from her brief but humiliating school days.
When her period ended, she left her room, went to the water pump and washed herself until her groin was raw. And then she began walking on all fours. She stopped talking and started grunting. After a few days, her parents recognized that certain grunts had meaning. They deciphered some as “yes,” “no” and “I’m hungry.” But they could not understand others, which frustrated the child, who barked or whimpered in response.
Her parents asked Uno for help.
At the shrine, the steady drumbeats stopped and the buzz of the crowd at the entrance silenced. Then, a single, four-mallet drum strike boomed, signaling permission to enter the tree-shrouded path leading to the shrine. The believers hustled, eager for front-row seats. The curious ambled, hoping for circus-type entertainment. Holding up the rear, the tipsy paniolo shuffled and wisecracked. The parade queued at the front of the shrine, where each climbed six steps to the outside portico, pulled the bell rope, listened to the clang, bowed and clapped their hands in the proscribed manner. Shika presented each worshiper with a thimble-sized sake cup filled to the brim.
The congregation sat down, forming a semicircle around the fox cage and the adjacent shrine too small to hold tonight’s crowd. Between the audience and the shrine, six male volunteers, adorned in ceremonial yukata and displaying headbands inked with Shinto phrases, sat cross-legged on a raised bamboo platform. Each stirred a kava vat. A stack of coconut calabashes lay next to each man. A pair of waist-high taiko drums flanked the stage. A short time later, four freshly oiled acolytes marched in, holding their drumsticks high, like a sword ready to attack, and froze into striking positions next to a drum. Immediately, the kava stirrers rose to light a phalanx of Hawaiian-style torches planted between the drummers and the platform. Then, under the torches’ wind-driven dancing lights, the white-smocked girls struck their drums in a slow, soft cadence.
Uno watched it all through the glass eyes of a larger-than-life fox mask, implanted into the shrine’s frontage at just the right height for him to stand and gaze. The crowd must wait — build expectation. The trick was not to have them wait until they were angry.
Now, he thought. He shook his brown robes and stepped sideways to the entrance, where the long strands of dangling beads hung from the doorway. Taking a deep breath, he parted the beads and stuck out his shaven head. As if prompted, the crowd gasped. The stern-faced Uno waited for the congregation to quiet. He then parted the beads, stepped outside and raised his hands to the stars. The drum strokes quickened.
Directly below, the men stopped stirring the kava. In choreographed unison, they grabbed a calabash, arched it above their heads, held the position for a heartbeat and then dipped the gourd into the kava bowls. The tallest server rose. Holding his calabash reverently, he ascended in slow, measured steps to Uno. Simultaneously, another male attendant drew a giant conch shell to his mouth and stirred the air with a haunting timbre, eclipsing softened drumbeats. The ascending attendant stopped in front of Uno and bowed to the waist with outstretched arms, presenting the kava chalice to his master.
Uno raised the calabash to the sky, tilted it backwards and let the thick, brown liquid cascade into his mouth until the kava dripped over the corners of his lips. He closed his mouth and swallowed in small gulps. Then, to the last chords of the conch trumpeter, he swept his arms toward the crowd like Moses delivering the commandants.
At the ritual cue, Uno’s flock rose and stepped forward like Catholics approaching the altar to take the Eucharist. While the drummers maintained their soft cadence, each communicant took a generous swallow, and then handed the calabash to his neighbor. When the last person in line drank the kava, Uno eased into the shadows.
Entering from the same shadows, adorned neck to toe in a white mu‘umu‘u, came Shika with the terrier in tow. She held tightly to its leash, restraining the dog’s effort to rush the fox cage. Murmurs rose from the stunned crowd. Dogs, the enemy of the kitsune, were never allowed near an Inari shrine. The excited crowd had not had time to digest the shock when Uno reappeared with Sachi on all fours. He had outfitted her in a blue blouse and trousers like a canefield worker. He led the crawling girl up onto the platform.
The terrier barked. Sachi howled. The fox whimpered from his cage. Uno raised his hands to the stars. The wind billowed his wide sleeves. His eyes roamed his audience until they quieted. Feeling his power swell, he opened his mouth to speak.
Then his face froze, morphed from glowing bronze to tarnished silver. His eyes, widening in dismay, riveted on three stragglers poised underneath the torii.
The congregation’s bodies twisted. Their kava-buzzing heads swiveled as their eyes labored to follow Uno’s stunned gaze.
To be continued . . .