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.
The ship dropped anchor in calm waters. As a welcoming procession edged down the rocky ridge leading to the beach, the ship’s winch lowered Ipo and Haru into a waiting outrigger canoe. Haru kept her eyes focused on the flowing black manes of the muscular Hawaiians paddling with strong, quick strokes. For generations, the nearby villagers had volunteered to row passengers ashore.
Suddenly, Haru grabbed Ipo’s arm. “The pain is back . . . I . . .” Another spasm ripped her gut — this one deeper and sharper than the previous one. The rites of delivery had begun. The onslaught of contractions was now tearing through Haru’s body.
Ipo twisted her headscarf into a sausage-size roll. “Bite down on this. I’ve birthed a dozen, Sweetheart, most of them by myself. We can do this together.”
The boat scraped sand. “A woman’s in labor!” yelled an oarsman, jumping into the calf-high surf. Onlookers surged forward. Such rare excitement was not to be missed, regardless of one’s state of decay.
Gasping for breath between bolts of pain, Haru watched a centipede of human hands clawing over the sides to pull the canoe across the wet sand. Strained faces — mangled and discolored, with missing parts — leaned in. Along with the Hawaiians, they pulled the canoe beyond the lapping wave line. The Hawaiian paddlers pushed aside the onlookers and lifted Haru from the canoe, easing her onto a bed of palm leaves that the women had laid out.
Prone and exhausted, Haru gazed up at the faces above her — some missing an eye or a nose, one with a mouth that looked more like a doughnut hole than a mouth. But each face was filled with kindness. Haru returned their compassion with as much love as her own eyes could register. Then her insides revolted. Her screams silenced everyone, even the seagulls.
Ipo pushed the shocked voyeurs aside. She shouted to the Hawaiians in her native tongue, “Hot water! I need hot water . . . now!” The giant men took off, running up the beach.
Ipo whispered in Haru’s ear. “I normally do my midwifery indoors. You won’t forget this one.”
Haru forced a smile. Oh, the pain. It was nothing like any of her previous births. Oh Buddha, make it quick, she thought. She did not hear Ipo’s soothing voice, but she felt the woman’s hands on her slippery thighs. Then came a rack of even worse pain.
“Push!” urged Ipo. “Push!” Haru felt hands grab her. She held tight. Her face contorted into a demonic grimace. She pushed, and pushed, and pushed. And then her body surged with relief and her face relaxed to an angelic repose. The pain stopped.
I hope it’s a girl, she told herself. Kenji has all his boys.
Lying prone atop the bed of palm leaves, Haru waited for her baby’s first cry. Her squinting gaze locked onto Ipo lightly spanking her baby under the cloudless blue sky.
There was no cry.
Fear filled Haru’s body and her heart pounded like a drum. The baby’s color was all wrong; it was bluish-gray. Ipo breathed gently into the newborn’s crinkled face. Haru mustered enough energy to pull herself up on her elbows. The baby was a boy. Ipo breathed into his tiny mouth again and again, but there was no response. Haru shook her head and tears rolled down her broad face. The baby’s head lolled lifelessly.
Haru couldn’t take her eyes off of the still form. Oh, Buddha, she cried to herself, why didn’t you take me instead? I am my baby’s killer as sure as if I had dashed him against the lava rocks of Mauna Kea.
A woman pushed her way forward. “Oh, Haru. . .”
It was Ume standing over her, shaking, and staring at the lifeless baby. She bent over. “Why didn’t you tell me? I . . . I killed your baby.”
Haru looked into Ume’s guilt-filled eyes. “No, no, no,” Haru said, thinking, I must not allow Ume to accept the blame that is mine alone. She grabbed her friend’s hand. “All I had to say when you told me you were pregnant was, ‘Me, too,’ and you would have understood.”
Exhausted, Haru closed her eyes. Kenji’s warning voice came back to her: “It’s too dangerous for a pregnant woman.” Even if he never accuses me, his heart will, and I will deserve his silent retribution.
Suddenly, she heard a haole voice. “You must be Haru . . .”
Haru opened her eyes. A Caucasian nun dressed in a white habit was peering down at her. She pointed at two Hawaiians holding a stretcher. “They will carry you to the staff infirmary.”
The nun slipped a comforting hand into Haru’s as she walked beside the stretcher-bearers as they made their way up the hill. Walking on the opposite side of the stretcher, Ume took Haru’s other hand in hers.
“How is your baby, Ume?” asked Haru.
Ume struggled to conceal the bitterness in her tone. “I’m told he is fine. But I haven’t seen him since he was born.”
Haru regretted having asked. She knew that babies were taken immediately from mothers stricken with Hansen disease and given to Hawaiian wet nurses until arrangements could be made to bring the baby out of the colony. Then the thought struck her. “I have milk.”
Feeling the eyes of the two women on her, the nun thought for several moments. It would be good for this woman to have a purpose. She tightened her grip on Haru’s hand. “Thank you. That would solve the feeding problem for the baby’s journey back to Kona.”
Haru bit her lip as she fought back her tears.
That night, she dreamt of falling overboard with her baby and trying to catch him before they both hit the water. Her nightmare of swimming after the baby, bobbing up and down in the rough seas, but never being able catch up to him ended with her waking up at the sound of her own voice, yelling, “Help!” Haru shook her head, as if avoiding a wasp. Her insides ached, reminding her that no amount of denial would resurrect her baby. She blinked at the sun’s last rays filtering through the shutters. When she tried to orient herself to the white-walled surroundings, she realized she was not alone.
“Your sleep is troubled, sister,” said a Hawaiian woman sitting nearby, holding a baby to her open breast. She rose, lifted the baby and handed it to Haru. “Nursing the baby should be soothing.”
Haru tenderly cradled the infant in her arms and fumbled to find the opening to her nemaki (sleep clothes). As she wondered how they had changed her clothes, she brought the baby to her breast. The tiny lips latched on easily and began to suckle. Tears trickled down Haru’s cheeks.
The Hawaiian woman took off her lei and placed it around Haru’s neck. “I lost my first-born . . . a little girl. We always wonder why the Lord takes them and what their lives might have been like.” She kissed Haru on her wet cheek and left. “I will get the nurse,” she said.
As Haru watched the woman leave, she whispered to herself, “Yes, but you did not kill your baby.”
* * *
The rays of the midmorning sun streaked through scattered angel-wing clouds, brightening row after row of Kalaupapa’s white crosses. A cherub-looking nun, her freckled face solemn and strands of red hair stealing out from under her white habit, pushed Haru, seated in a wheelchair, into the whitewashed chapel.
More than a hundred mourners crowded into the church Father Damien had built atop the cliff overlooking a marshmallow-capped sea. As a courtesy to Kenji’s pastoral visits, two dozen Japanese residents, many whose faces were covered with blackened gauze and bearing misshapen limbs, were accorded seating in the front-row pews. At the church door, Haru insisted on walking. “You must not touch anyone,” the nun reminded Haru, holding her steady as they walked to the front row. The nun positioned herself between Haru and Ume. To Haru’s happy surprise, Ipo sat on the other side of Ume.
Directly across the aisle, Haru noticed a not-quite-teenage girl blessed with silky hair that flowed down to her waist. She wore a clean but faded blue yukata that was much too short. Between two misshapen ears, her beautiful unmarred face offered a perfect-tooth smile. Haru smiled back, wondering how many suitors would have been wooing her in a few years were she disease-free. Did she think about that, too? The girl kept her hands folded inside her sleeves. Haru surmised it was to hide her stumps.
Haru accepted the Dutch priest’s offer to deliver an ecumenical prayer. Upon closing his homily, he nodded at a middle-aged Japanese man in a black suit whose left trouser-leg had been spliced open to make room for his overgrown flesh. Only a few blotches, which, in ordinary circumstances, would have passed as sunspots, marred his handsome face. His eyes shone clear. He rose and with surprising vigor, shuffled to the altar. Haru’s chest swelled with gratitude as he chanted a Buddhist mantra in Japanese — the same one Haru had heard Kenji intone under similar circumstances.
An off-key piano started the strands of “Amazing Grace,” which everyone joined in singing. In Kalaupapa, surmised Haru, one gets a lot of practice singing at funerals. When, at the start of the third chorus, the pianist pounded the keys with a drummer’s intensity, the congregation recognized the cue and began filing out the side door. They marched past the white-granite slab covering the grave of Father Damien on their way to a thicket of palm trees at the back of the groomed cemetery. Aided by the freckle-faced nun and Ipo, Haru forced herself to keep pace. Six tiny crosses, placed painfully close to each other, fronted the swaying palms. Someone produced a chair for Haru, but she refused to sit at her son’s burial.
At the end of the procession, Haru watched the man who had just delivered the chant walk by solemnly, cradling her son, swaddled in white cloth, in his arms. At the grave, together with the priest, they placed two wide lengths of blue silk under the baby’s body and lowered the infant into his final resting place, dropping the shimmering silk strips into the tiny grave. As they shoveled the nearby mound of damp earth over the infant, a young Hawaiian blew mournfully into a conch shell.
The adolescent girl in the too-short yukata had positioned herself at the front of the grave. Haru noticed that her eyes were full of purpose and anticipation. As the wind stole the last notes of the melancholy wail of the conch, the girl bowed to Haru. From her blue cotton yukata sleeve, she withdrew a carved stone Jizo, the benign-smiling deity portrayed as a shaven-headed monk.
A fuzzy darkness clouded Haru’s vision. Thinking the statue must have been a parting gift from the girl’s mother, Haru grabbed Ipo to keep her balance. Jizo was the protector of a child’s health. When the Jizo could not fulfill his role in this world, the statue was often placed on the tomb of a baby so he could look after their soul in the nether world. Haru was anguished and grateful when the girl squatted down and placed her prized possession at the grave’s apex. Then she stood and bowed over the grave.
Haru tried to take a step toward the girl.
The nun gripped her hand like a vise. “You can thank her in the visitors’ room tomorrow when you visit with Ume.” With that, she slowly walked Haru back to her wheelchair.
To be continued . . .