Kaitlin Yaeko Tredway '11
A selection from Our Hands in Our Laps, a novel in progress
Papa did not walk home from church with the rest of the family. Looking ahead, Kiku thought her brother, Riki, looked very distinguished in his Sunday jacket. One of Riki’s friends had wanted to take him for a soda down at the market after church, but he had declined politely. Kiku guessed that this had not just been a soda between friends, but that the girl Riki liked would have been there too. Nonetheless, he had said, “Not today. I have to walk my family home.” Riki strolled with Mama. Papa accompanied friends into town. Kiku shook her heard. The reversal of roles seemed odd.
She noticed that a lot of families were walking home without fathers this Sunday. Daughters chatted, their mother walking safely in their midst. Other boys, like Riki, walked with their mothers. The weight in Kiku’s hand grew heavier and heavier.
“Hana, stop dragging your feet.”
Her five-year old sister looked up, her thick, dark hair bouncing on either side of her head in pigtails. “I don’t want to walk. Riki usually carries me.”
“Riki is with Mama.”
“I don’t know.”
Hana stopped, tugging on Kiku’s hand. “My shoes are dirty.” Some mud was caked on the toes of her light shoes.
“That is why you must watch where you step.”
“Mama will be angry.”
Kiku guided her sister to the side of the road and crouched in front of her. She pulled a clean handkerchief from the cuff of her sleeve. Wetting a corner on her tongue, she lifted Hana’s foot and started to clean the shoe. “Now, let’s make a deal.” Hana, starting to lose her balance, laced her hands around the back of Kiku’s head. “You step carefully and keep your shoes clean. If you do, I’ll give you a piggy back ride from the last hill all the way home.” Hana nodded and eagerly lifted her other foot. “But you must have clean shoes, understand?” The sisters locked eyes and smiled. They were off again.
Hana walked so carefully that the walk took twice as long. But, eventually, they did reach that last hill. After Hana showed her spotless shoes, Kiku hoisted her sister onto her back. She burst into a sudden jog up the hill. Hana giggled as she was jolted up and down, letting her voice modulate with the rhythm of Kiku’s steps. Kiku paused at the top of the hill, despite Hana’s commands of, “Go! Go! Go!”
Far to the left was the Malloy farm. The hakugin family had two boys, both older than Kiku. They grew berries and leafy green vegetables. She could already see the leaves spreading wide in their fields.
A little ways up that road there was home, the Isobe farm. The farmhouse stood on the uppermost corner of the property. Its whitewash had grayed, but the walls still gleamed in the early afternoon sun. Spring flowers bloomed in her mother’s garden, which hugged the side of the house. She could see the clusters of violets and yellow daisies. The bathhouse stood a little apart from the house, the grass between the two buildings long and unmowed. To the right of the house stood the small barn and tool shed.
Lines of growing things stretched out in rows from the house to the road. It seemed as though the watermelon plants were assembled for duty, an army of green vines guarding her home. Close to the house, the thickness of the green shifted. Those were other vegetables – some beans and tomatoes in the family garden.
Abandoned at the far edge of the field stood the skeleton of a wagon. Papa would borrow the Malloy’s truck every year during harvest and hitch the wagon to the back bumper. The next morning, ha and Riki would load half the crop into the pickup, and the other half into the wagon. Then, he and Mama would to drive to market. He always entered the market with his shoulders set squarely to the road. In the off season, that cart lay forgotten, until Papa coaxed Kiku and Hana out of bed one morning with some drops of water on their faces. They would trek across the fields, while the air was still cool, to wash the cart and add a coat of paint. The year before, Papa had started to water the paint down. The wood now resembled parched bone.
Near the cart lay two halves of a barrel, each filled with chrysanthemums. Around the time of the cart washing, the flowers would be budding. Hana insisted on calling these “Kiku’s Chrysanthemums.” A late blooming plant, she kept them by the cart to add a little beauty to its resting place after long days of lugging watermelons. The barrels showed no signs of life. New stalks should be shooting up.
Hana’s repeated, “Go!” grew louder and more urgent. Kiku looked back to the road and said, “Hold on, Hana-chan!” The little arms circling her neck tightened. Kiku stretched her own arms out like wings and sped down the hill. She and Hana raced home, pursued only by the echoes of their own laughter.
Papa came home with three cardboard suitcases under his arm. “We have six days.” He said these words, resigned. He sounded exhausted. It was only one o’clock.
“Six days for what?” Hana asked cheerfully. She was playing on the kitchen floor with her stuffed sheep, Shiro. Kiku stood frozen in place at the sink, her sleeves rolled to her elbows. She had been rinsing rice for dinner. Mama, who had been snapping some early peas, paused too. Hana kept playing.
After a moment, Kiku began to rinse the rice again. Mama left the room. Papa followed. She could hear them speaking in rushed Japanese. Kiku had translated the notice for her parents before church. They had passed many notices on signposts. The bold, black letters of the sign floated behind her eyes, affixed like a label. “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” That was her, and her family. She remembered the other words on the notice: evacuation, temporary residence, toilet articles, bedding and linens, sufficient knives, forks, and spoons, essential personal effects, departure. They were leaving.
Early next day, Papa went to the Civil Control Station to register the family and receive further instructions. Riki insisted on accompanying him. Kiku did not go to school that day; she was a junior in high school. As the oldest daughter, she stayed home to help Mama. Hana kept close to Kiku, scurrying to hide when it was clear that she might be made to do chores. She was just glad her older sister was home. Hana did not go to school at all. The previous fall, she had attended class for a couple of days, but always returned home in tears. Mama, Papa, and Kiku had spoken to the teacher; she told them Hana did not participate in any of the class activities. She did not speak to the other children easily. If she did, the other child usually cried.
When Kiku had translated the teacher’s words, Mama and Papa’s faces had flushed with embarrassment. “There must be a mistake,” Mama had said in Japanese. “Tell that young lady that Hana is a good girl.” Kiku did.
“Please assure your mother that I understand. I know Hana is not a bad child. I just need you all to be aware of what is happening as well. If we all work to help her, I’m sure we can solve this.”
Papa had said nothing at the school and did not speak until they were home. He stood above Mama and Kiku on the porch step. “Hana will not return to school until she can learn to behave.”
Mama took a breath, as if to argue, but then she silenced herself. Kiku, however, was not as quick to respect her father’s decision. “Papa, the teacher said she would help Hana.”
“We can help your sister here.”
“But”—She thought maybe she had communicated the teacher’s intentions poorly.
Her father’s eyes flashed as he interrupted her. “My decision is final. Do not embarrass yourself, Kiku. You do not understand.” She still didn’t. Hana remained home from school. Kiku hoped Papa would let Hana try school again this coming fall. Kiku would be entering her senior year, and she did not want to be worrying about Hana all the time.
She thought about all this as she cleaned the mirror by the front door. It was small, about the width of her hands if she placed them side-by-side, and framed by a simple bamboo trim. Her mama had brought this to America from Japan. Kiku studied her own face in it, wondering which of her ancestors she looked most like. The square-ness of her cheeks and jaw line resembled her father, the Isobe family. The skin stretching between her cheeks was pulled into a slender slope with a rather wide base – her mother’s nose. She was thankful that she did not wear glasses. The bridge of her nose was very flat. The glasses would constantly slip down her nose. She smiled, blinking rapidly. Her eyelashes were short and dark. Her upper lip got very narrow when she smiled. She hated those things about her face. But she thought she had a rather nice complexion, her skin a soft bronze from the sun. She also thought she had shapely, brown eyes. She looked at herself for a moment more. “Mama, are you going to bring your mirror?”
Her mother answered, “Just clean, Kiku. I will not leave this place a mess.”
“But the mirror, Mama?”
“We’ll decide later, when Papa and Riki return.”
Kiku didn’t press the matter. Mama would not talk about packing, only cleaning. Kiku guessed that cleaning the entire house was both a way of somehow making this right, and of beginning to say goodbye to every nook and cranny. All flat surfaces had to be dusted with a damp cloth, and then wiped with a solution of rice vinegar and water. The sweet pungeance of the vinegar permeated the air and remained until their departure.
Mama scrubbed every dish in the cabinet, even the ones that were already clean. After that, she arranged a set of dishes and utensils for each of them: knife, fork, spoon, plate, bowl, and cup. She then set aside some extras of each, just in case there was room in the suitcases. She also laid the wooden cutting board out. She would make room for that. Kiku helped Mama put all the dishes away, and then they moved into the bedroom. It was one big room with five beds. Mama and Papa slept on the bed nearest the door. Then Riki. Then Hana and Kiku. The little one did not want her own bed yet. Kiku and Mama stripped all the linens from the beds. Mama sent Kiku to get the extras from the linen closet, and to find her sister. Hana had avoided housework long enough.
Kiku didn’t have to look far for Hana. She found her hiding at the bottom of the closet. It was so narrow a space that even a girl as little as Hana had to scrunch to fit. Kiku knelt opposite her.
“You’re to help me with the laundry.” Hana crawled out and made no fuss. “Is something bothering you?” Hana shook her head. “But you hate this chore.” Hana shrugged. She started to walk away but Kiku caught her by the waist. It was unusual for her sister not to make a fuss. She didn’t question Hana again, just fixed her with a concerned look. But Hana said that she was fine, just feeling helpful. She would not say anything more.
They were still scrubbing and rinsing sheets on the porch when Papa and Riki returned. Neither looked pleased, and it seemed to Kiku that her father looked more exhausted than he had the previous afternoon. Riki carried a manila envelope. Mama dried her hands on her skirt. Papa stared at the ground, Riki at the sky. Hana made swirls in the soapy water. Kiku looked from face to face. No one spoke.
Kiku noticed a new line in her brother’s forehead. It ran above his eyebrows and, at times, seemed to come to a sharp point above his nose. He hid his anger and confusion, and the emotion just etched itself deeper in his forehead.
Papa slid his hat off, revealing his balding head. Kiku had not noticed the size of the shiny patch before. It seemed to weigh on Papa, forcing his chin and shoulders down. Papa was shrinking, but his bald spot was growing. Finally, he cleared his throat. He had everyone’s attention, but only Kiku looked at him. “I sold the farm to the Malloys. Got a good price since the crop is already planted. Looks to be a fine year for watermelon, too.” Silence fell over the family again.
Hana wailed. She sobbed and screamed and breathed at a high pitch. Then, she took off, pushing the wash bin as she went. Kiku steadied the tipping bin, watching Hana run into the house. Quicker than Kiku expected, both Mama and Papa followed her. The door closed and muffled the sounds of the pursuit and Hana’s tantrum.
Kiku turned her gaze back to her brother, who was still staring at the sky. The sun glistened off the veins that were straining in his neck. She tried to return to her chores, dunking the sheets into the soapy water. She always splashed a lot of water when she did. One of her splashes landed on Riki’s shoe.
“Cut it out,” he snapped, his silence broken. Glaring at his sister, he shook the water off his foot. “Be more careful.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” Her comeback was weak. Even though she was seventeen, her brother could still make her feel so small. She resumed the washing again, mindful of how much she splashed. She strained to hear murmurs of the conversation inside. Hana had stopped wailing, at least.
Riki sank onto the porch step with an exhaustion reminiscent of Papa. He laced his fingers behind his tanned neck, and let the weight of his arms drag his head closer and closer to his knees. The rhythm of Kiku’s washing slowed until, eventually, she stopped. Her hands were soapy and wet. She approached her brother, sat beside him, and dried her hands on the bottom of his shirt. She heard him snort as he shook his head a little. It was easy to picture his smirking face. Still, he did not sit up.
“It’s that bad?” she asked, staring out across the field.
“We knew it would be,” he answered. “Since Pearl Harbor, we knew.”
“Why are they moving us?”
He looked at her as though she was stupid. “We’re the enemy, Kiku.”
“No, we’re not.”
He laughed derisively. “We’re at war.” His laughter stopped and he staed out over the farm. “I thought this would someday be my farm.” With that, Riki stood and went into the fields. He walked up and down the rows of watermelon plants with no particular destination. He walked that way for the rest of the afternoon.
As Kiku finished the laundry, she thought about Riki and the farm. When he was sixteen, he had dropped out of high school to work with Papa on the farm full time. The family could not afford to pay more workers. As the oldest, Riki knew it was his job to help support the family. He had taken on the responsibility willingly. That had been six years ago.
By the time she hung the last sheet on the line, she was exhausted. At a certain point she had become too tired to think anymore. If she had the energy to, she might have thought about what Riki had said about being at war, and not the farm. Perhaps, she thought, it was better not to think about any of it, but to do as she was told, help all she could, and be strong for her family.
When she went inside, it seemed that Mama and Papa were still talking in the bedroom. They had not emerged all afternoon. With them in there, Riki outside, and Hana somewhere, it seemed that it was up to Kiku to make dinner. She sighed and swatted her cheeks a few times to wake herself up.
She set the rice cooking and found some fish in the icebox. She fried the fish in the cast iron skillet and made a salad with some early bitter greens and strawberries from the Malloys. She only called for dinner when the table was entirely set, when the food was steaming, and when she could not wait any longer to eat. One by one, her family entered the kitchen, surprised both by the aromas, and a smiling Kiku. Mama and Papa took their places at the table, and Hana waited until Kiku fetched the crate she used as a booster. Then, she scrambled into her seat. When Riki came in and saw them all around the table, he scoffed.
Before anyone could speak, Kiku reprimanded him. “This is still our home. We are still a family. We can still all enjoy dinner, so wash your hands and sit down.” He looked ready to give Kiku a piece of his mind but Papa chimed in.
“She’s right. Go wash your hands.” Riki could not argue with his father.
The next few days passed in a parade of different chores and tasks, interrupted only by the requisite medical examination. At dawn each day, Riki and Papa rose as usual. They spent the morning tending to the watermelons, repairing a weak spot in the fence, grooming the horses, and all other sorts of tasks. Work on the farm did not stop, even if life was changing.
Room by room, the house was cleaned to Mama’s satisfaction. Clothes were washed, and mended, if need be. The moth holes in the wool sweaters were patched. Little by little, the suitcases filled up. The clothing and the sheets were packed in tight. Small, breakable objects and utensils were tucked in those folds for safekeeping. Mama kept saying: “All of us go together, not all of this.” Bring the whole family, not the whole house. Still, the mirror by the front door made it into Mama’s bag.
As she was packing, Kiku could trick herself into believing this was just a vacation. Her family had never been on a vacation, so she had always imagined packing a bag for some adventure. She would describe it like this whenever Hana started to get upset. Her sister’s face would brighten as Kiku talked about breaks from school, no chores, and games all day.
Papa’s face never brightened. Kiku kept trying to make him smile, but her hugs or jokes only elicited a barely audible grunt.
It was their last night in the house. Tomorrow, they would walk to the Civil Control Station to await transportation. Everyone was somber, even Kiku. Two of the three suitcases sat waiting by the front door. Kiku and Hana’s lay open on their bed. Mama was still packing her own leather bag with all the extras. Riki refused to bring anything but clothes.
As the sun started to set, Kiku realized that she hadn’t seen Papa since lunchtime. Hana was helping Mama with dinner, so she was free to search. Riki, who was on the front porch again, hadn’t seen him. He wasn’t in the house, or the empty barn. The Malloys had moved the horses over to their own barn the day before. The only two places left to look were the bathhouse or the tool shed. Kiku opted for the latter.
Papa stood in the fading light, hands clenched behind his back, staring at his tool bench in absolute stillness. She wondered if he had been standing there all afternoon. It wouldn’t surprise her if he had. She waited a few moments before walking in and touching him lightly on the shoulder. He jumped, clearly startled, and she couldn’t help but laugh a little. He looked so surprised.
Resting a hand on his heart, he said, “What is it, Kiku-chan?”
“Dinner will be ready soon.
He nodded and looked back at his tool bench. ‘There is no knowing if I will need those.” A whole assortment of tools lay out. Pliers, wire cutters, saws, trowels, hammers, screwdrivers — on that bench, Papa had all he needed to fix anything that was broken. Different kinds of nails and tacks were sorted into glass jars. Kiku looked from the tools to Papa’s face. She suddenly understood what leaving here would mean for him.
He had built the bathhouse with those tools, had used them to fix a broken plow. Most of her memories included Papa and his tools. She realized that, somehow, these instruments made him a farmer, made him Papa. What would he be without these? How would he fix what was broken?
After surveying the tools, Kiku selected the hammer and a hand trowel. She also grabbed one of the jars with nails, and added a couple different sizes. “Leave those alone.”
Kiku turned back to her father. “There’s some room in my suitcase.” She smiled at him, and he did not argue. He considered her with a tenderness that she had not seen recently.
“Come, let’s go in for dinner.” As they left the tool shed, he put one arm around her and hugged her tight. He kept a tight hold on her as they walked to the house. She leaned her head on his shoulder, the tools and nails safe in her arms.
It was morning. Kiku stood in the center of the bedroom, just breathing. If she drew this place into herself, remembered it in her bones, then she could recreate it, wherever life happened to take her family. The coils of the mattress squealed as she laid herself upon it. This would be the last time the bed cradled her, the last time she would rest blanketed by the scent of hay and thistle. She started singing, “I walk with my shadow and talk with my echo, but where is the one I love?” As she sang to herself, she began a silent prayer. Jesus, please keep my family safe and together. Please grant me peace as I leave this place.
“Kiku, are you ready?” Riki’s voice cut through her meditative good-bye. “Is Hana with you? I can’t find her.”
“Goodbye, bed,” she whispered, patting the bare mattress. “Goodbye, room.” She tried not to look over her shoulder as she left. “I’ll find her.”
She set her suitcase beside the others. All three cardboard suitcases stood, full, in a row. “Hana... I have Shiro. He’s lonely. He wants to find you.” Hana had named her sheep when she was very small. Shiro means “white.” Kiku held the stuffed sheep out in front of her, stepping quietly down the hallway. She guessed Hana was hiding in the linen closet again.
Kiku edged Shiro’s nose into the closet and pushed the door open. It was empty. “Hana! Hana... Shiro’s crying.” She began to baaa tentatively, poking her head into some of Hana’s other known hiding places. She could not be found.
Kiku asked her brother, “Have you checked the bathhouse yet?”
“Yes, it’s empty.” She nodded and, Shiro still in hand, headed towards the front door. “Where are you going?”
Hana had never hidden in the barn before. But, the family had also never moved before. Kiku remembered that, once, Hana had said that the barn felt the most like home because home smelled like hay, and so did the barn. The barn door creaked more than her mattress had. “Hana? Hana, if you’re here, answer me.” There was silence.
“Is that Shiro?” The voice came from one of the stalls.
Kiku smiled, spying her sister’s silouhette through the wooden slats. “Of course it is. Come out here.”
Sighing, she entered the stall and handed the sheep to Hana. “Come now. We have to go.”
“I’m not leaving.” She buried her face in Shiro’s cotton back. “You won’t leave without me, so I’m not going. Then we can all stay.”
“Hana... we must leave.” Kiku held her sister’s head to her chest. “If you stay here, I would be very lonely. What should I do without you, hm?”
“Stay with me.” The words were a little muffled by the sheep and the shirt. “They can’t leave if we both stay.”
“Mama would be very sad to not have you. Who would help her with the dishes?”
“I have other chores, Hana-chan. You must help Mama with the dishes. Who will Papa read to at night if you stay here?”
“Riki has read by himself for a long time now. He would have no one to throw in the air. If you stay here, who would make me laugh if I wake up a little sad?” Hana couldn’t answer. Kiku let her little sister sit quietly for a few more moments, before standing and offering her hands. “Up, up, up. We need to go.” She smiled upon feeling the small hands in hers. She swung Hana’s hand a little as they left their barn. “I’m glad you decided to come.”
Hana looked up at her with wide eyes. “Where will home be now?”
Forcing a smile, Kiku echoed her mother. “You know what Mama says: home is where your family is.”
Everyone was dressed in his or her Sunday best for the evacuation. Kiku had heard some people refer to it as “Evacuation Day.” She thought this made the whole event sound like a holiday.
They were only walking to the church in the next town over, a half hour stroll at other times, but each step felt long. The Isobes walked in a row of five, Hana in the very middle. She held Kiku and her Mama’s hands. Everyone, except Hana, carried a suitcase. Each of them wore a tag pinned to their shirt—even Hana. It was the family number assigned to the Isobes by the War Relocation Authority. It appeared on all their paper work. All of their bags were labeled with it.
At the Civil Control Station, they were identified by this number, not their name. They left their baggage with a receptionist. Then, an Army man directed them to a bus. Riki translated the instructions into Japanese for Mama and Papa. When the soldier heard how quickly Riki translated, he asked Riki to stay with him on the platform. “I’m hving a hard time communicating with some of the older folk. I could use someone like you.”
“I won’t leave my family,” Riki retorted. “And why would I want to make your job any easier?”
Even though Papa could not understand Riki’s conversation, he could hear the tone of disrespect in his son’s voice. He demanded that Riki explain what the officer wanted. Riki did, after a stubborn pause. When he had finished, Papa bowed to the officer and said in hesitant, broken English, “My son help you now. I sorry for him behavior. Go.”
Riki froze, staring furiously at his father. They did not say anything else. After a while, Papa nodded almost imperceptibly, and Riki turned and followed to soldier. Mama protested, but Papa soothed her. Riki would be fine.
Kiku saw very few smiles that day. She knew that the sight of all these Japanese Americans in their Sunday best with sad and grey faces would never leave her memory. This day marked the death of their former lives. She wanted to cry.
Kiku let Hana sit in her lap so that she could look out the window. “I’ve never been on a bus before,” she whispered, awe in her voice, as they pulled away from the curb.
“See? What did I tell you? This will be an adventure,” Kiku responded, trying to convince herself of just that. But, she didn’t know where they were going. She didn’t know how long she would be there. No one knew. With Hana perched happily on her lap, face pressed to the window, Kiku felt hidden enough to let a few tears fall. She did not want anyone to see. Mama and Papa sat across the aisle, stone-faced. Some of the other women were crying, but, of the Isobes, only Kiku openly mourned the loss of home.
About the Author: Catholicism, the Japanese American Internment, James Joyce, and Icarus have chosen Kaitee; she will probably write about them for the rest of her life.