Jean Yamasaki Toyama
Republished with Permission from
“Bamboo Ridge: Celebrating 30 Years of Local Literature” (Spring 2007)

Mamoko slid the slender ink stick forward then backward making sure that her even strokes made no ripples in the jet black liquid in the shallow well of her ink stone, just like he had taught her. Energy forward had to be balanced with a gentle backward force. She tried to remember how this motion was to smooth out her own edges, the inner side of her so often criticized by her grandmother. The back and forth was to silken and soothe in preparation for the characters that were to flow from the tip of her brush. That’s what he taught her, wasn’t it? Writing had always had a calming effect on her, a means by which she stayed connected. Her calligraphy tools were among the few things brought from Japan that had any meaning. The black sumi, the stone suzuri and fude and, of course, the paper, her modest supply of paper, made by her sensei. She had been a good student, assured of a future as a teacher in spite of her grandmother’s misgivings. Her sensei had praised her. He urged her to write. Now thousands of miles away she read the words she had just written.

I dip my brush
into the ocean
I write your name
it tastes of blood.

Her fude ran swiftly up and down the handmade paper. For one final time she dipped her brush into the suzuri and let the excess ink spill from the tip of her brush into the well. She heard nothing, saw nothing but the strokes rising from the page.

After my bath
I see steam rise
from the skin
you touch no more
You said, don’t speak,
with your eyes
so I fell silent
and sang like the autumn
my legs against yours

No, this is bad, very bad. He would have denounced these images, railed against the rhythm. Too many syllables. Condemned the images. Foreign, absolutely strange. She brushed aside a flake of soot that fell from her hair onto the white paper. A black smear appeared. Soot from the sugar mill everywhere, she thought, as she noticed flakes on the floor she had just mopped. She felt a twisting inside.

“Not here,” Mamoko whispered as Tsuda grabbed her breast. “I don’t like the smell of the stink.” Tsuda held on to her. “What do you think I am?” she said as she pushed him away. Tsuda looked befuddled. She had pulled him into the shadows, now she pushed him away. He let go.

She saw him look at her when the whole camp had gathered to pound mochi for the New Year. Unlike the other women dark from toiling in the cane fields, she had just arrived, skin pale as her white muslin dress, attire which made her more striking. She came to marry Yamazaki, a suitable match according to her grandmother. She thought otherwise. But last year the Yamazaki patriarch had acted as go-between for her own mother’s belated marriage, a fortunate event for her family but not for Mamoko, the illegitimate daughter raised by a wary grandmother. Masaru was from the farming side of the family. He looked the peasant, not like Tsuda, handsome in an arrogant, less eager to please way.

As the sharp odor of uric acid penetrated her nostrils she smiled to herself at the small irony dictated by chance. She had waited for a chance to see Tsuda alone. Now they were in one of the dark stalls of an outhouse. “Masaru has to go to Lïhu‘e tonight. He won’t be coming home till tomorrow night. The lights will be out.”

That day was the first time she had addressed any words to Tsuda. There was no coyness in her voice. She wondered at her own directness. Perhaps her grandmother was right.

Marriage to Masaru Yamazaki was neither more nor less than she had expected. He acted awed by her education, her calligraphy, and her books. He seemed not bothered by her wayward past, but perhaps he did not know. The go-between may not have had to disclose everything; after all, her education and her status, however marred, were still higher than his. After her sensei had found another student to teach tanka and haiku, to fill another head with forbidden aspirations, Mamoko had come to her senses and her education would not go to waste. Her grandmother had been persuasive. There was no future for her in Japan. As Masaru became accustomed to her ways and she was able to maintain a measure of her self, she accepted her fate. Before long she became a kind of camp scrivener, writing homesick letters, arranging for brides, pleading for more time to pay debts. Not everyone was illiterate, but there were enough people needing her services to keep Mamoko and her husband in fresh eggs and vegetables. She performed her kindnesses like any good neighbor, but everyone knew that the small services required a similar gesture, if not in kind, certainly in value. So a dozen eggs would be acceptable for a letter to a future bride but some fish or a cut of pork was to be added for a petition to a magistrate. Mamoko’s poetry may have turned foreign, but her ability to calculate and keep accounts remained fiercely Japanese. She knew how to maintain the balance between dark and white just as she managed the spaces in her calligraphy. Too little here meant more there.

Before the evening sun had set, Mamoko walked to Mähä‘ulepü, where the edge of the cane fields met the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. A small jut of land broke into steep cliffs. A few months ago she had thought of jumping but according to her calculations that act would have been unbalanced. Instead, she now decided to throw her suzuri and brushes off into the blue waters. She even smashed her ink stick into shards. Her last poems had frightened her; she had lost control over her words.

Returning home she saw the soot-covered dirt around the bathhouse. Mamoko stopped and gazed beyond the cluster of houses into the sugarcane. The bright orange nasturtiums growing on the stone wall between the cane and the house stood out against the prickly green leaves. Last night Tsuda had slipped into her darkened bedroom as he often did during Masaru’s absence. He told her how beautiful she was, so different from the others, how he had wanted a bride but had no money to bring one over, how he had been amazed by her invitation. Mamoko listened, while the wheels of her internal abacus whirred.

Squatting down in front of the blazing bath fire, Mamoko clutched the precious calligraphy paper he had made for her. It was rolled up and tied with a red kimono cord. She carefully released the knot, and it unexpectedly unfurled onto the sooty dirt. A fine dust floated up. She let out one gasp and then without a glance crushed the first sheet of cursive writing into the flames. She didn’t read the words or even look at the graceful curve of characters in the white spaces. Her husband would be returning soon, and he would want to bathe.

Jean Yamasaki Toyama is a poet, scholar, translator and writer of fiction who was born and raised in Hawai‘i.


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