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.
Haru squeezed the steering wheel. I must be seeing a ghost, she thought to herself. The woman’s cheeks were thinner, and her eyes weren’t as bright. But none of those changes could erase the memory of that face. The last time she had seen that face, it was twisted in anger as they wrestled on the street, fighting for the purse of stolen coins hanging from the girl’s neck.
She hadn’t thought of Ko for years. The last time was on her fifth wedding anniversary, when, after a sake-fueled retelling of her last day in Hiroshima, she told Kenji, “I can thank Ko’s conniving for my unintended happiness. She brought me to you.”
Ko stood up and smoothed the wrinkles from the front of her yellow silk kimono embroidered with sakura blossoms. Her hollow eyes and unkempt hair did not match her elegant kimono.
Haru got out of the car and turned to her boys, “You two go and play. I have some business to take care of.” With stoic eyes, she walked toward the porch. “Ko-san? Can it really be you?”
“Hai, Haru-san. The guilty one has returned to apologize.” Ko’s eyes misted as if on cue. “The gods have punished me for my crime, and rightly so.”
“Come,” said Haru, leading the way. Ko must be desperate to bet on her still being the girl who repairs the wings of fallen birds, she surmised.
Ko’s eyes tightened as she adjusted to the subdued light filtering through the lace curtains. She surveyed the room. “We have similar tastes, Haru-chan. Our house was Western in architecture, but we had Chinese furniture. More ornate, but too big and uncomfortable.”
Haru smiled inwardly at Ko’s use of chan, the word of endearment so easily uttered during their attic séances. “Let me prepare tea, Ko-san,” said Haru more formally, thinking two could play the game of using honorifics to send a message.
Haru ushered Ko to the dining table. Sitting down, Haru reached over to her ever-ready tea set. She opened the tin of green leaves, shook some atop the teapot’s strainer, unscrewed the thermos and slowly poured hot water over the tea leaves. Silently, she filled two teacups and handed one to her guest. Ko lifted her cup to her lips, hesitated, and set it back down without taking a sip.
“So many times, I started to write you an apology. I could never find the right words. I wanted to beg forgiveness, but felt I didn’t deserve it. I was so, so wrong.”
Haru drank her tea without expression and let the silence linger while she replayed the images of that awful day. The missing coins from her China doll bank, the barefoot pursuit from the temple, the public wrestling match. And then, the late-night visit from Fujita, the police captain, and that smug Shintö priest. “So you came all the way from Manchuria to apologize?”
Ko sniffled. “Yes. No. I mean, yes. I’m here to apologize, but I came to Hawai‘i to escape my punishment.” She took a handkerchief from her kimono sleeve and dabbed her eyes. “You remember I married a soldier. What I didn’t know was that the Manchurian railroad promised extra land to our Russian war veterans with Japanese wives. Oh, what a fine house we had, servants at my call, exquisite food. But soon I found out that the prettiest serving girl was what the Chinese call the ‘sha tai tai,’ the minor wife. When I complained, my husband beat me.” Tears fell into Ko’s teacup, creating perfect little ripples of sorrow. “At first, the girl slept in the servant quarters, where my husband would visit her. After my second miscarriage, he told me, ‘Since we have no use for the children’s room, you can sleep there.’ Eventually, all pretense was dropped, and I became a tenant in my own home.”
Haru sat silently, coldly evaluating her guest. Even if Ko had embellished this story, her hard face and her eyes’ spider web lines told of tough times. For the first time since Ko’s arrival, Haru’s voice softened. “How is it that you came to Hawai‘i?”
“A year ago, my husband’s manly appetites became . . . more aggressive. One evening, he and his concubine forced me to . . . to . . .” Ko cleared her throat so as not to say the unspeakable. “By that time, opium had made its way into the house. I felt certain that my husband or that sha tai tai would kill me. I could see it in their calculating eyes. One night, when I saw them exchange dark glances, I knew my time was short. That night, I made the opium very strong. Whatever plans they might have had for me were lost in the haze of the pipe.
“Years earlier, I had started stashing away small bits of my household money. At midnight, I left home, pulled my trunks in a rickshaw to the railroad station and took the early morning train to Lushin. There, I booked immediate sea passage to Yokohama, where I paid a Yakuza gang to provide paperwork showing I was traveling to Honolulu on a machine-buying trip for my husband’s farm. With Hawai‘i’s shortage of Japanese women, finding a new husband seemed possible. Once in Honolulu, I visited the Hongwanji Temple. They told me where you were posted.”
Before Haru could respond, the front door banged in Kenji’s familiar way. As Kenji entered the dining room, he nodded and smiled at Ko. “I heard we had a visitor, so I rushed over as soon as I finished my class.”
“This is Ko, a classmate of mine from Hiroshima,” said Haru.
Kenji’s expression froze.
“Yes, I am that Ko. Whatever you heard about me is probably true. I came to beg for your wife’s forgiveness.”
A slow smile softened Kenji’s features. “Forgiveness is the path to peace,” he said, his meaningful glance traveling to the small Buddhist altar at the far end of the dining room.
Ko smiled, too, a bit of triumph in her eyes. “You have such a lovely home here. I hope I am not imposing.”
“Not at all,” said Kenji.
Haru’s eyes turned to Kenji and forced an impassive expression. She had planned to send Ko on her way after their tea was finished. But now Kenji had made that impossible. Ever since the plate smashing argument, she had made an extra effort to avoid conflict. Hiding her frustration under the umbrella of a gracious demeanor, she added, “Of course, you must spend the night with us, Ko. We will sort out a permanent solution to your situation in the morning.”
After a cursory walk-through of her home, Haru, with her fist clenched, walked Ko over to her nursery. She fought an urge to tell her, “You understand you MUST leave in the morning.” Instead, she waved to the mothers congregating under the banyan tree to wait for their children.
To be continued . . .