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, which is now available as a printed softcover book, opens 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.
Sunny skies and the laughter of children lifted Haru as she and two other wives rinsed lettuce leaves at the water pump when Sachi came running toward her, out of breath. The front of her pale-green yukata was splattered with red splotches. “Setsu Kurume is puking blood!”
Haru stared at the blood spots and grimaced. She hoped it wasn’t what she thought it was: the Spanish flu. “Change into a fresh yukata after you go to the ofuro (bath house). Then boil the one you are wearing.” Haru looked at the two distressed wives. “I’m off to see Setsu.” On her second hurried step, she stopped abruptly. “Someone ask Sam to join me.”
By now, Haru knew the name of every family and where each was located. While most refugees slept in tents, the Kurumes were one of eight lucky families crammed inside the temple’s school annex. Not so lucky now — for them or for the other seven families.
After retrieving the medical kit Dr. Tebbits had given her, Haru dashed to the school annex, recalling the doctor’s admonishment when the pandemic returned to Honolulu shortly after the strike began. “If the flu attacks,” he said with the resignation of one who expected it would, “set up an isolation area immediately.”
“When I got sick the year the war ended, the disease left quickly,” said Haru.
“I remember,” said Tebbits. “It didn’t seem so at the time, but you and Kenji were fortunate. Your attack was mild.”
“Immunity,” said Haru, letting Tebbits know she remembered an earlier talk. “Why has it come back?”
“The strike restarted the killing — just as the Advertiser predicted,” Tebbits said, referring to a December front-page editorial demanding that owners and unions put the health of the community above their selfish interests. “The disease had pretty much run its course. But now all these strikers jammed together . . .” He let the thought hang.
Haru parted the hanging bed-sheet entrance to the Kurume space. Ignoring the stench, she knelt beside Setsu who managed a mute smile. The dripping mucus from her nostrils, along with the damp red stains around her ear canals and the bluish tint of her face, told Haru that Setsu would most likely be the camp’s first death. By instinct, Haru put her hand on Setsu’s forehead, felt the dry heat, and then reached into her first aid bag for a thermometer. While she waited the required five minutes for Setsu’s body temperature to register, she sponged the woman’s face with a damp cloth.
When Sam arrived a few minutes later, he took one look and shook his head.
“Sam, you know what must be done.”
“I will have the building cleared in an hour,” said Sam. “This will be our hospital.”
The nearest neighbor, overhearing the exchange, started to protest.
Sam pivoted, anger rising in his voice. “Even if you move now, it may be too late for some of you. I have seen this before. I survived my attack. Many of my comrades didn’t.”
The neighbor drew back as if Sam had pushed him.
Raising his voice so everyone could hear, Sam ordered, “Start packing. I will arrange for tents in the clearing behind the tree line. You will have to stay isolated for three days. We will bring food — you build your own latrine.”
He stepped back inside the Kurumes’ draped enclosure as Haru withdrew the thermometer from Setsu’s mouth. She held it up to the light from the window. “One hundred four point eight,” she said in a tone just above a whisper. Haru felt a tug on her apron. She looked down to find a young boy, his trousers slopped over his heels.
“Is Mommy going to die?”
Haru squatted and hugged the boy. “Can you go to the stream with a towel, soak it in the cool water and bring it to your mommy to keep her head cool?”
The boy nodded, picked up a towel and dashed off.
Haru looked at the forlorn face of Setsu’s husband, who had just entered.
The next evening, Setsu was buried; three days later, her husband followed her to the grave. Then the oldest child. A family from Setsu’s village took in the surviving children who were now immune.
By the third Friday of April, the strike was entering its third month. Haru’s camp started each day with morning exercises to the rousing slogans of “No fair pay, no work” and “We will never give up,” even as their stomachs and crying children gnawed at their resolve. Deep-pocketed owners hired scabs from California and Manila to bring sugar production to 60 percent of the prestrike level.
At midmorning, Haru introduced a newcomer to a garden detail. “This is Abe-san. He’s had a little trouble with the Honolulu police.”
Not exactly inaccurate, thought the man in the tattered shirt. The police are certainly looking for an excuse to arrest me.
Knowing the last thing anyone wanted was another mouth to feed, Haru added, “Abe–san has brought two 50-pound bags of rice with him.”
The scruffily dressed man wore thick-rimmed spectacles. No one noticed that his eyeglasses were clear, lacking any magnification. The rim of his tattered bowler was tilted onto his eyebrows. His four-day beard set him apart from the clean-shaven campsite squatters. No one made the connection between this beaten-down laborer and the big event scheduled for that evening.
The man picked up an idle hoe and began loosening the earth around tomato plants. While his defiant face had appeared frequently in the Japanese press, his photos always showed him dressed in a black suit, white shirt and narrow black tie. The man loved his Shakespeare, particularly “Henry V.” Hoeing with the strikers, he imagined himself on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, traipsing around his camp in a tradesman’s foul attire to listen to the temper of his soldiers.
He glanced at his sweat-stained leather-band watch. “I’m hungry. When do we get lunch?”
“Are you fat guys from Honolulu still getting three meals a day?” a worker laughed in an accusative voice.
A squat man, weeding among the tomatoes, added, “My children are missing their school and sweet cakes.”
“No school in this camp?” the man asked, knowing full well that when the pandemic struck, the school board forbade the children of strikers from attending school.
“That’s our school,” said the squat man in a derisive tone, pointing to where kids formed little circles around the fruit trees.
A man scooping weeds into a wheelbarrow stood up. “At least you have your children.” No one asked what he meant. The Spanish flu had killed 18 camp squatters, mostly younger adults, but a few children, as well. He eyed the newcomer.
“We were told our fat-cat business people would support us. But we have a morsel of meat only once every two days while our big-shot union leaders eat and drink at Honolulu’s best restaurants with money meant for our stomachs.”
The newcomer tightened his grip around the handle of his hoe. He regretted the time the steering committee had eaten at Honolulu’s best sushi restaurant. Someone had alerted the Advertiser. Pafko and a photographer had rushed to the Chiba-ken. The picture of Tsutsumi smoking a cigar with his tie askew and bottle of Jim Beam in front of him made the front page. It was the only time the union committee had dined well, thought Tsutsumi, but even once was one time too many.
Tsutsumi moved from group to group the rest of the afternoon.
“I remember 1909. We had big dreams then. What happened? We crawled back to work, broke after winning a few minor concessions to give our union leaders face.”
“How long can we hold out?”
“Ichiro Matsui left in the middle of the night yesterday. He told his younger brother he would be getting $3 a day working in Hilo. They had a fight. His brother stayed, but I wonder if the older Matsui isn’t the smart one.”
Tsutsumi moseyed over to Haru’s kitchen door that was shooting out heat. Inside, Haru was scooping out the last of the floured vegetables from a boiling tempura vat.
“I’ve heard enough,” said Tsutsumi, brusquely. “I know what to say tonight. Can you pick me up at the Tebbits clinic in two hours?” After he explained why he needed a ride, he shuffled down the street. Once out of sight, he dropped his stumblebum character and strode with purpose.
Standing at her living room window, Haru studied Tsutsumi until he disappeared. Something about the man nagged at her. While she admired his organizational skills, she regretted that the face of the cane workers union had never swung a machete and was an outsider who had arrived in the Islands just three years ago. Was he a man who saw the plight of the workers and was moved to help them, or did he see a chance to make a name for himself? He had arrived as a low-paid schoolteacher and was now the owner of a thriving newspaper and the paid leader of the union. She thought of the great-grandparents of the rapacious sugar barons who had come to Hawai‘i in gingham broadcloth to introduce the word of their God and ended up owning the island while decimating the Hawaiian population.
Taiko drummers marching up her porch steps shattered her thoughts. Haru waved when they spotted her through the window. She watched them set down their waist-high drums, assume their feet-apart stance and begin their ritual. The slow cadence reminded Haru of distant drumbeats from so long ago — drumbeats from Hiroshima Harbor that could be heard all the way up to the Takayama Temple on the hill. Their slow, steady, military tempo had signaled an arriving or departing warship.
Haru snapped out of her memories and returned to the present. “I’d better visit the ofuro and change into a clean kimono . . .”
As dusk fell, Haru gazed in amazement at the size of the crowd. By her estimate, more than two thousand people — strikers, family members, Japanese paniolo (cowboys) and supporters — had jammed into the dead-end street facing the Takayama compound. She inhaled the charcoal fumes infused with the scent of roasting pigs from the glowing cooking fires being stoked. Those pigs would feed the crowd as sunlight gave way to night.
The taiko drummers returned after a break. A string of candle-lit lanterns hung on Haru’s porch behind them. Now, they stood astride the drumheads, their feet at a 90-degree angle like a baseball batter facing a pitcher. They whirled their bachi drumsticks like a dervish spinner. Their relentless 60 beats a minute was once a rallying call for soldiers to charge. Today’s summons, thought Haru, was not much different. She picked up the car keys.
As the tempo increased to 90 beats a minute, Haru maneuvered the slow-crawling Ford through the throngs and out onto the road. Half a mile away, she could still hear the drummers — they had increased their cadence to 120 beats a minute.
Fifteen minutes later, she turned back onto the gravel road leading to her home.
“Now,” ordered Tsutsumi. As previously coached, Haru pressed on the horn in a burst of three long blasts.
The drummers accelerated the tempo to 150 beats a minute. Sweat glistened on their torsos, accentuating the definition of their rippling muscles.
The crowd cleared the way for the car. They shouted greetings as they recognized Haru and Tsutsumi, now dressed in a black suit and tie. They took no notice of the man slouched in the back seat, almost hidden, his coolie hat hanging low across his forehead.
The Ford eased into the driveway and came to a stop next to the porch.
The drummers’ spinning arms wheeled the pace to an incredible 210 beats per minute. Sweat beads rained on the enthralled front-row spectators. The mesmerized crowd stamped their feet and shouted encouragement.
As Haru and Tsutsumi emerged from the car, Kenji rushed over to greet them. While he opened one of the rear car doors, the eyes of the crowd were trained on Tsutsumi walking onto the porch. He clapped his aimed hands at the drummers.
The drummers’ swirling arms gave the illusion of being four instead of just two. The tempo increased to an impossible 240 beats a minute, which they sustained for 10 seconds and then stopped. The drummers, chests heaving, bowed to a frenzied crowd, waving their arms and yelling, “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!”
Men who had been chosen in advance shouted, “Tsutsumi! Tsutsumi!”
The crowd picked up the chant. They clapped in rhythm to their shouts. Tsutsumi strode to where his leather, waist-high megaphone had been placed. Instead of picking up the megaphone, he turned away from the crowd. He held his head rigid. The crowd followed his steely stare to Haru and Kenji leading an unsteady man with a coolie hat up the stairs.
The eyes of those closest to the stairs widened when the man’s facial scars came into focus.
“Tamatsuke!” someone shouted.
A hush descended as Tamatsuke completed his torturous assent up the five steps. He forced his body to take an erect posture behind the overhanging lanterns. Taking off his hat, he turned his head slowly into the light. The crowd gasped in horror, and then in anger.
Someone in the crowd shouted, “Oki Tama, banzai!” and everyone there seemed to instantly sense that this name — oki, meaning “big” or “giant,” and tama, meaning “precious jewels” — fit the newly hardened man who was forever scarred. The crowd picked up the chant “Oki Tama!” From that moment on, Fujimoto would be known by his macho moniker.
To be continued . . .