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.
Cuddling Ume’s sleeping baby boy, Haru stepped into the oblong visitors’ building. It’s like a prison, she thought to herself as she eyed the cubicles fronting parallel steel-mesh room dividers set a foot apart to prevent touching. The condemned, in various stages of decay, sat on one side while anxious relatives and friends trudged in, casting nervous glances as they searched for their loved ones. Haru spied Ume six cubicles down, half-waving her hand.
As soon as Haru sat down, Ume looked at the wall clock. “Time is precious. Tell me what happened, but make it quick.”
Haru gushed out the details of the horrible crossing at sea and ended by tearfully reliving the moment she realized her baby was stillborn. As she concluded, Ume’s baby stirred and then cried. Without pause, Haru opened her yukata and slipped the baby’s mouth to her breast.
Ume allowed herself a gentle, but sad smile. “I never even held my baby, Haru-chan.”
Unconsciously, Haru held the back of the baby’s neck more snuggly. “Oh, Ume-chan, I have gone on too long. You, too, have lost a baby and . . .” Haru couldn’t complete her sentence. “How do you manage?” she asked instead.
Ume allowed a small smile. “My new role as a kökua (helper) gives me purpose and helps me forget the life I left behind. I am practically a nurse.” Ume continued, “This is a different world with its own customs and rules. I am learning to embrace it and to forget about what cannot be reclaimed. Those who cling to the world they left behind die early, die miserably.”
She glanced again at the wall clock. “And my children? How are they?”
Haru forced a light tone as she manufactured warm-hearted stories about the children. Halfway through a story about the children picking up coffee cherries, Ume stole another furtive look at the wall clock. “Listen to me; we have only a short time left.”
Haru leaned into the wire mesh.
Looking at her baby, Ume began. “After the birth, the midwife raised my baby in the air to give me a look and then took him away.”
Haru looked into Ume’s misty eyes. She did not know what to say, so she said nothing.
Ume pressed her face against the mesh. Her fingers grabbed the laced wire like an eagle’s talons. “You must raise my baby, Haru-chan.”
Haru opened her mouth, but no words came out. She shook her head no, even as she held the baby to her breast more snugly.
“I’ve done nothing but worry about my three children since arriving here. Irie is not the fatherly type. He turned to drink the last week we were together. He was angry that I would not let him visit me. He had these wild ideas . . . he wanted to sell the coffee plantation and buy farmland above the colony here. He said that bringing me food and clothing would give his life a new purpose.” Ume touched the purple blotch on her neck — it had grown since Haru had last seen her. “But I knew better.”
“Oh, you stubborn fool!” Haru wanted to scream at Irie, but her eyes encouraged Ume to continue.
“Relatives visit us lepers — monthly, at first, then yearly, and then . . .” She let the words hang and turned her head, looking at the cages. “Everyone wonders if today’s good-bye will be the last good-bye.” Ume took a deep breath. “You will love the baby as your own, Haru. It’s not necessary to tell Irie or Kenji.” Then she gave Haru a knowing look. “I listened to your stories of Irie and the children.” She paused. “You know which home will give this child the better future.”
Haru adjusted the baby’s body. Her thoughts swirled. Ume is giving me an escape from my recklessness. More than that, she is atoning for her unwitting role in the death of my baby. A wrongly assumed guilt that does not absolve the truly guilty person — me. And it is true that Irie is raising his three children poorly. He needs a wife more than another child. This baby would thrive in my home.
“It would be a great comfort to me if you took the baby, Haru-chan.”
“If I keep the baby, Kenji will find out. He visits here.”
The baby’s suckling stopped. Without even thinking about it, Haru lifted the infant over her shoulder and patted him on the back while she gently rocked her shoulders.
“Haru,” said Ume, authoritatively, “our colony holds more secrets than all the shogun who ever ruled Japan.”
Haru lowered her eyes and gave a little shake of her head. “Among the patients, but, surely, Kenji talks to the doctors and the sisters.” She felt a soft burp on her shoulder.
“In the colony, we are one. I have already registered the burial of your baby as mine. I told the registrar he died in the night. He understood the need for this ruse.”
“But the baby was not kept by you,” said Haru as she felt the infant’s second burp.
“Does it matter? We buried a baby. You lost your baby for the sake of a leper. We have paid a debt. All will honor it.”
A soft bell rang at the end of the building.
Haru sensed the baby had dozed off and gently slid him back on her bosom.
“It’s the two-minute signal. You must save my baby, Haru. You are a woman of God. I am your friend. I am begging you to do this for me. Can you deny a condemned woman her only wish?”
Haru paused, frozen in time. This baby felt so much like her own. This way, there would be no lifetime condemnation, silent or otherwise, from Kenji. Ume was giving her a reprieve from her own stubbornness, but in exchange for a life of deceit — a secret she would take to her grave.
Another soft bell rang.
If only she had more time . . . Haru heard the murmurs of good-byes and the sound of chairs scraping the floor as their occupants got up to leave. Her mouth, close enough to almost taste the wire that separated her from Ume, found strength. “I will raise him as my own. Kenji asked that his next son be named Kenta. I will tell Kenta of his brave auntie whom I was visiting the day he was born.”
The sharp ringing of the bell startled Haru. Ume stood abruptly, bowed and hurried away.
Haru hugged her baby. When the last person had left the room, she stood up and slowly walked out the door, wondering whether she had made the right decision, but knowing there was no turning back.
Four days later, the infirmary doctor deemed Haru fit to travel. Since the next colony ship would not arrive for another week, Haru was told, “You must take the mule trail up the sea cliff. The owner of the mule ranch charges $2 to drive you across Moloka‘i to the harbor.” The freckle-faced nun sent a telegram to Waimea, advising Kenji of Haru’s travel schedule.
Earlier telegrams had informed Kenji of the birth of his son and the death of Irie’s. Haru knew that Kenji would spare her the burden of telling Irie that his baby had not lived. The first of many deceits, thought Haru, who was assuaged by the fact that her baby, as she now thought of Kenta, had a better future. So does my marriage, Haru thought to herself.
With the baby bundled to her back, Haru walked with the red-haired nun to the base of the trail to meet her taxi.
“You have to love your mule,” said the gentle Hawaiian who brought down visitors and supplies on the backs of his sturdy animals.
“He’s so big, more like a small elephant without a trunk,” said Haru.
The Hawaiian allowed himself an indulgent smile. “You’ll see why we breed ’em big; they have to carry you almost straight up 2,000 feet.”
Haru arched her neck. There’s no space for a person on foot, let alone a mule, she worried.
“Ikimasho,” grinned the Hawaiian in Japanese, “Let’s go.” He helped Haru get mounted. “As we climb, it’s better you not look straight down,” he added while adjusting her stirrups.
Minutes later, Haru’s mule was plodding upward, slow step by slow step. Gentle breezes rustled her hair. Low-hanging layers of spidery foliage protected Haru and sleeping Kenta from the sun. Haru admired how the mule used his front feet to find purchase, push off his hind feet, and strain his chest and front thigh muscles to hoist himself up the next chiseled step. Then her mule paused and repeated the process. Each hundred feet or so, a heartbeat-accelerating 90-degree turn slowed the rhythm. The zigzag view alternated between calm, azure seas to the north and a panoramic view of the colony’s white buildings to the south.
At the ninth turn, the trail turned narrow and muddy. Haru’s left leg dragged against the mountain wall. She heard a sucking sound each time the mule lifted a hoof. Curiosity overcame her guide’s proscription and she looked straight down. Haru inhaled sharply. The mule’s right hoof was half on, half off the edge. Like a gambler’s compulsion to keep rolling the dice, Haru could not take her eyes off of the hoofs. She let out a gasp when the mule’s right front leg stumbled. The mule stopped, steadied itself and resumed its steady pace.
Ahead, the Hawaiian on his mule turned around, grinning.
Haru let out a relieved laugh and shouted, “I LOVE my mule!”
At the top of the cliff, the Hawaiian drove Haru to Moloka‘i’s commercial harbor in time to catch the ferry to Lahaina, Maui, where, after a night on shore, she would take another ship to Kailua. The boat rode the gentle swells into the soft breezes. The baby slept peacefully, oblivious to the admiring glances from his fellow passengers. Sitting on one of a dozen scattered deck chairs, Haru feigned a warm smile to the well-wishers, all the while agonizing over why she could not have had this balmy weather while sailing to Moloka‘i. Not only have I lost my baby, but I also have entered a life of deceit with Kenji, she thought to herself.
Or have I?
Except for a daily mesh-wire visit with Ume and meals with the staff, Haru’s recuperation had been solitary, unless you count the time she spent with baby Kenta. And, except for her short walks to the beach to regain her strength, she spent endless hours in bed, overcome with guilt, staring at the white walls. As if viewing a film on a continuous loop, Haru kept replaying the scenes that led to the loss of her baby: the angry flight to Ume’s home, the next day’s rash pledge to retrieve the baby, and her repeated refusals to heed Kenji’s warnings about the sea passage until he acquiesced to avoid another family confrontation. So many times, so many times, she could have backed out of the trip.
Consumed by so many “what might have beens,” Haru had failed to grasp how Ume had wrapped the gift of her baby inside an unchallenged codicil: Kenji must never know. Haru had been so relieved by the chance to escape the prospect of her good marriage collapsing into ruin that she bought into the dual conspiracy as if they were one. She could have, but had not said, “I will raise your baby, but I must tell Kenji. He and I will keep it a secret.” Instead, she had fixated on envisioning Kenji’s wrath the moment he learned that his warning about the rough seas had induced the loss of his son. She had latched onto Ume’s guilt-racked “the end justifies the means” secrecy scenario, not only as the right decision, but also as the only one possible for both mother and child.
But was it?
Now back from Ume’s haunting world, the notion burrowed into Haru that she could unbundle the two choices Ume had braided together — to take or not to take the baby and to tell or not to tell Kenji. The first choice had been made. Then she had a flash of insight. Haven’t I used the same “the end justifying the means” as a self-serving rationale to embrace Ume’s pleas to take the baby as mine because he has a better future with me than with Irie? A much better future.
She snuggled Kenta tighter. The first choice was settled. What about the second choice? Shouldn’t I tell Kenji the truth? He is a compassionate man who reminded me of the virtue of forgiveness when I wanted to throw out Ko. Surely, he would accept the baby and eventually forgive me.
Or would he?
If I reveal Kenta’s true parentage, would Kenji demand I give up the baby? Maybe initially, but on reflection, he would recognize that the interests of the child are paramount. Given the choice between our loving home and Irie’s, what choice is there?
But would it play out that way moments after Kenji learned that my stubbornness had killed our own baby?
Haru rocked Kenta while imagining variations of confessing in her mind. “Irie is Kenta’s father. Our baby died on the beach.” None ended well. She recalled her advice to troubled women who carried children of uncertain fatherhood. “It’s not necessary to compound one problem with another. The surge of relief you imagine by confessing is not like when a dentist punctures an abscess. In one, your tooth heals; in the other, the marriage seldom recovers. Confess to Buddha. He always forgives. Seldom do husbands.” Haru thought of how most who followed her advice maintained a happy marriage. Those who confessed regretted that decision.
But none of the women had hid the death of her baby and substituted it with another.
Oh dear Buddha, let me clear my conscience and receive Kenji’s approbation for my full disclosure. Despite the desperate prayer, Haru couldn’t expunge the perils of confession. Her tortured mind thought of how, instead of only her leading a life of deceit, they both would have to put up a false front.
Switching to thoughts of their comfortable lovemaking, Haru worried how an unforgiving Kenji would grow to hate that manly urge driving him to make love to a woman he regretted marrying and could no longer trust. Kenji, unforgiving? Probably not. But, what if?
Haru slept little that night, regurgitating the same history, rehearsing all sorts of scenarios and envisioning all manner of repercussions for telling or not telling Kenji. This inner battle repeated the next day as she dozed intermittently as the boat made its way to Kailua.
The blast of the ship’s horn announced its entrance into Kailua harbor, ending Haru’s ruminations. She rose and looked toward the shore. Kenji stood on the shore, smiling and waving. The guilt overwhelmed her. If she didn’t tell Kenji now, she would think about it and feel the urge to confess every day of her life. The burden would be too much for her to bear. Even if Kenji insisted that they must give up the baby, it would be better than worrying that the truth might be exposed tomorrow . . .
To be continued . . .