From “Bananaheart and Other Short Stories”
Published with Permission
My mother enjoys telling my young daughters scary stories about the plantation days. The girls always ask to hear about the Coffin Lady. Mama sits down by the kitchen table, her face busy thinking. Her childhood and O-Baban, her own mother, are ready to be called back. Mama pours us our sodas, passing out mochi-crunch or candy. Then she wipes her glasses, she has cataracts now, and clears her throat.
A long time ago, when O-Baban was still new in the camp, she used to be the midwife for Union Mill Camp, outside of Kapa‘au town. O-Baban was young and pretty, yeah? But she had to do too much backache labor, because she was stuck with the housemaid work for Greenwoods and for the whole Sam Wells place, too. Also early in the morning she had to cook for all the single men down at Camp. Plus she had two or three kids, but I wasn’t born yet.
She knew all the people living around there at the time, must have been 1890s, 1900. Those days Kohala was important like a small Hilo town. Union Mill was so dry and brown, though. Not like now. Not like when you folks went. In fact no more Union Mill now, right?
One family over there was not too lucky no matter how you look at it. When everybody was real poor, they were so poor people felt hurt even to look at them. Not just ricebag clothes like O-Baban them, this family’s came boro-boro falling apart and too junk for rags. There were shame, too. What was the name? Kaneyama, Tanegawa, Kurokawa? The lady was always sick, even from the day she got to Hawaii. Ten years later on, when she already had four children, the haole doctor found out she had tuberculosis. Her husband was working that time as a stevedore at the docks in Honolulu, because Kohala-side had no cash money.
When she found out she was going to die, because those days there was no hope if you were poor and had T.B., she cried and cried. All the four children cried, too. All the camp ladies who heard about it cried and cried with her. Pitiful, you know. But they were careful not to touch her or her clothes or her kids. The others would move far away if she even coughed.
Quickly somebody wrote a letter to her husband for her, because the poor thing could not write at all, not English, not Japanese. And no telephone, right? The letter was in Japanese writing, but the neighbor’s son tried out the English school lettering he was learning. So the outside of the envelope had on it, “Go to Home” in big, neat pencil letters. O-Baban took it to the plantation office. She always remembered those English words from looking so long at that message while she took care of sending it to Honolulu. She use to practice when we were small; wrote it in the dirt or the air, Go to Home, Go to Home, while she told all us about the lady dying.
The mother. So young to know that she would be gone soon. And she looked at the little faces, the children so young to lose the mother’s love. They hugged each other tight and cried until they would have drowned in each other’s tears. But O-Baban said to the missus, “You have to hold on, yeah? You have to be strong for the children until your man comes back.” So O-Baban cried some more with them until she had to leave their shack. Later on she told us she would never forget how the lady looked: j’like a little girl herself, j’like somebody who got hit with a stick for no reason by nobody you could see. She was surprised and sorrowful, but she didn’t want to let go of those children. No, they sat together holding onto hands, legs, arms, necks, so skinny — those days they had only can evaporated milk, you know. Nobody had vitamins, only rice, rice, rice — all one heap of sad, bony children and the small lady blowing her nose on one rag.
So they waited. But in those days the boat between the islands never did run on time, and anyway only four times a month, maybe. So it could be the mister missed a boat or never had the money right away or didn’t get the letter in time or what. Nobody found out. He got back in time for her funeral.
The camp was taking it hard; yet plantation days people pulled together when the time came for whatever it was they needed to do. All the folks took care of the ceremony. The church people made the service just the right way, and the neighbors took care the kids, because no more outside family, right? They were all walking to the graveyard with the casket, just a plain wooden box, slowly moving under the hot sun. Nothing around but burned out, chopped down canefields, miles and miles of nothing. Was pretty near the old Kohala town temple, yeah, but they were so sad, all those people, because it was so unfortunate, that they had to take their time, step by step, remembering all the sorrow.
Well, the husband comes running up the steps of the temple and far away he sees the line of all those friends; everybody was there, and the coffin that they were dragging with ropes, and he faints. Right there. After all, he had to rush from the harbor at Kawaihae, jump in a jitney all the way to Union Mill and then down his house place. And when he saw nobody anywhere, empty, empty, all gone, he knew right away she was make-die-dead. All pau. He knew where to find the people. He knew where she would be.
He got up hard on wobbly legs. He rushed to the road towards the hateful box.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he waved, yelled and screamed at uncle them til they all spotted him running from far down the dirt road, kicking up dust.
A big man. Strong, after all, he could do stevedore work, you know. Throwing huge boxes around. He could match the Kanaka boys, not like the other short Japanese fieldworkers, even the steady, hard workers. But that’s how lots of those old men use to be those days. Try look at all the old photos Mrs. Hamada’s house. The big box. Some were sumo wrestlers, giants. How they could find enough to eat, I don’t know. Some other ones liked to do cowboy work, heavy labor and low, low pay. Paid in beef. You would never know how strong and big they use to be with muscles all over, when you see them old and hunching down. J’like the grandpas sitting around at Ala Moana Center nowadays. But these are just the sons. The first old ones were tough guys, hard-headed though. Pa‘akikï. They had to be.
They saw him. His children came running back when they heard the commotion. But they didn’t touch him. No, it was out of respect and fear. They stayed back, hanging around and watching up at his face. They were so sad to see him too late.
He gripped the box crying, choking up with sadness. And then he went force them to pry up the thing. He was one hard one, a mean big man, aching so bad that nobody would argue. They must have thought he was pupule already, anyway.
He was looking down at his wife’s dead body. Now he cried. Tears were rolling off in two wet paths. And everyone who saw him felt pitiful and cried at the uselessness of the waste. Pohö.
He talked to his woman. He kept saying, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. I didn’t know. Couldn’t get home. I’m too late.” Over and over.
And then he reached for her cold body, so they had to try to pull him back while he pushed them off with the other arm. She was dressed so nice and neat. Pretty looking at the end.
“Give me a sign that you hear me, let me know you understand,” he was shouting into her face, into her ear as if she could hear him. Her body was almost pulled out, because he had to struggle against all the neighbors holding on to him, begging him to stop.
That’s when it happened. She gushed out blood. Her jaw fell slack open, and it spread out all over her face and the front of the man. Soft red-black. Everyone backed off. But he was satisfied. She heard him. Stopped the tears. He put her down carefully and said a prayer kneeling on the ground with his head against the coffin: trembling, moaning, coughing, but not angry, not bitter now.
Our O-Baban said everybody left that family alone for a long time after the burial. The oldest girl was in charge until they all grew up. They wen’ hänai the baby brother with one Hawaiian family up in Waimea. Died already, but used to live in Makiki, longtime carpenter. That’s the man who use to come see O-Baban when she was sick. He said he wanted her to guide him after she died, the way his mother would always come home to visit his father in dreams.
“Baba, are you going to watch us, too?” My girls exchange looks and delighted shivers. They each look away as if lost in a long-forgotten landscape, but they always remember to ask the question.
“Sure, I’m going to do that for you folks later on.” My mother looks around at our faces, notices that we are all paying attention properly.
“I will always watch everything that you do. So that you will do the right thing. And I can show you how to come home when you get lost.” She looks so tired now.
“What if we don’t listen?” says the little one. She giggles.
“Then I will choke you.” My mother doesn’t smile.
There is a long silence for us all. I change the subject. But I watch her gentle face knowing she’ll keep her promise.
We are very lucky.