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January 1930-December 1938
The boy's breath steams in the gray winter light as he runs toward Ogonzan hill. Black school cap askew, uniform jacket flapping unbuttoned over a blue and white padded cotton kimono, his thin bare legs and feet flashing, he runs. The clacks of his wooden clogs echo off the houses and walls along the narrow rain-wet streets of Honura village.
Isamu spots them--Mama, his brother, Bunji, and sister, Akemi--beyond the houses on an exposed section of the trail that climbed through the pine and bamboo forests of Ogonzan hill. Before he can shout or wave, they disappear into the trees. Isamu runs harder. On either side of him, deep stone-lined gutters gurgle with clear water rushing downhill.
When Isamu comes to the bend between the last house and the edge of the forest, he gives two long hoots, cranks his arms, and runs puffing like a train around the curve. Slowing to catch his breath, he considers jumping off the tracks onto the secret fox trail that he and his friends had discovered. But this afternoon the bamboo groves look dark and spooky. In the cold still air he can hear water dripping like rain off the long thin leaves. Isamu shivers and decides to keep to the main path.
He catches up with his family just before they reach the cemetery. Three-year-old Akemi beams and puts out her arms. Isamu kneels. She climbs onto his back and wraps her chubby arms around his neck. Straightening and lifting her, Isamu speaks with the unself-conscious authority of a Japanese eldest son. "Hang on tight, Akemi, here we go." Six-year-old Bunji trotting at his side and Mama following closely, Isamu leads them up the steps through the terraced graveyard until they come to Grandfather and Grandmother's stone.
Three days of rain have washed the tall stone clean; nevertheless, they ladle water over it as they have always done. The children sweep away fallen leaves and bits of debris around the base. The boys dump out the two water cups and fill them with fresh water from a nearby cistern. Mama gives Akemi pine boughs to place in the cups, then lights sticks of incense, which the children carefully poke and stand in the wet sand and ashes of the incense bowl. Then they all put their hands together and bow.
Close behind them is a small temple dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The humble wooden structure has only one bare, unadorned room. Leaving their grandparents' stone and approaching the temple, the children see that today the temple doors are chained and locked shut. Mama gives each child a coin to drop in the offering box, and she lights sticks of incense for them to place in the temple's incense burner.
The children put their hands together, dip their heads, then immediately run to peek through cracks and knotholes in the unpainted wooden walls of Kannon-sama's temple. Akemi tugs at her big brother's jacket. "I want to see!" Isamu lifts her to a knothole. She moves her head from side to side, surveying the empty interior. Gray light falls through gaps in the roof, through cobwebs sagging from the beams, to the wooden floor carpeted with dust and shriveled leaves, where it glistens on the surface of several small rain puddles. Isamu lowers his sister to the ground. She gives a little sigh of disappointment. "No one home."
From the front of the temple, it is only a few steps across the clearing to Kannon-sama's bell. Four sturdy posts support a black tile roof. Under the shelter of the roof hangs a beautiful old bronze bell. One after the other Mama lifts Akemi then Bunji, helping them take hold of the rope and swing the suspended log against the side of the bell.
Isamu waits for his mother and takes his turn last. He loves ringing the bell. He loves the depth and age and purity of its voice. Especially today, his last full day in Honura village, he savors the bell's song. Eyes closed, Isamu lets the final reverberations soak into him like sumi ink into rice paper.
In the stillness left by the bell, Isamu becomes aware of a soft chattering. Looking down, he discovers the sound comes from his brother's teeth. Bunji is shivering like a wet puppy. Isamu removes his school cap and drops it crookedly onto Bunji's head. Then Isamu takes off his uniform jacket and holds it while Bunji slips his arms into the too-long sleeves. Isamu wraps and smooths the jacket over Bunji's chest, then together the two brothers close the brass buttons.
Isamu feels his mother's hand on his shoulder. He turns to look at her face and sees the bell and temple behind her.
"Isamu, you are nine years old and starting a great circle in your life. Someday you will return to close that circle and begin a new one. We will be waiting to welcome you home."
Isamu nods. But feeling the ache growing in his heart and wanting desperately not to break into tears, he points at Kannon-sama's temple. "Maybe you'll be here, but I bet that creaky old temple will have fallen down."
Mama blinks, taken aback, then understanding her son's need for bravado, she smiles gently. "One of your ancestors built the first temple with his own hands. It will stand as long as Kannon-sama lives in it."
Akemi and Bunji turn to stare at the temple. Quickly Isamu knuckles the tears from his eyes. Akemi's voice chimes sweetly as crystalline bells in the still air. "Mama, I always look for her, but I never see her."
"She's in there right now."
Bunji shakes his head. "No, she's not. It's cold and dark and empty inside. And the doors are locked."
"Yes, but she didn't lock them."
Bunji grows agitated. "You're saying that Kannon-sama's in there right now?"
Akemi hides behind her mother and peeks timidly at Kannon-sama's temple.
"But how do you know?" demands Bunji. "How do you know she's in there?"
Suddenly Akemi lets go of Mama's hand and begins dancing in circles. "Oh, look! Look!"
"Ah, there . . ." says Mama. "The goddess has sent you a sign."
Open-mouthed, Isamu and Bunji stare at the locked temple and the last wisps curling from their incense. They look from their mother's knowing smile to the radiant wonder in Akemi's face as she laughs and twirls and lifts her tiny hands to catch the enormous snowflakes drifting silently down from the ash gray sky.
The following morning, Isamu kneels on the station platform and says good-bye to his little sister. Akemi sobs, locking her arms around his neck, refusing to let go. He hugs and gently pats her on the back. "I'll send you a letter from Hawaii."
"Yes. I'll put your name on it and write it just for you."
"But you always read to me. I can't read by myself."
"Mama will read it. I'll paint and draw you pictures."
"I can do that, too. I can make pictures. Of Mama and Bunji and me."
"Then Mama will teach you how to mail them. I'll be waiting." Isamu inhales deeply, wanting to absorb everything about this moment: the blade blue morning light; Akemi's wavering smile; the weight of his mother's hand on his head; the face of his younger brother, Bunji, awestruck in the damp wind washing over the platform as the snow-clad locomotive pulls in, all whistle, bell, and hissing steam; the smell of burning coal, hot iron, and grease; Akemi's icy hand in his; his own hand sizzling slick with sweat, cooked pink with fear and excitement; his heart hammering--leaving home, leaving home . . . Leaving Japan. Leaving Mama, Bunji, and Akemi. Leaving Honura village. Going to Hawaii with Papa. To live on the sugarcane plantation where the twins sleep in the cemetery on the grassy slope between the black volcano and the sudden cliffs, the wind-washed sky and the dream-dark sea.
The train rolls toward Tokyo, Yokohama Harbor, and the waiting ship. Father and son, Yasubei and Isamu, sit in the dining car. Yasubei slips his silver cigarette case from the pocket of his navy blue suit coat, tips his white panama hat to shade his eyes. The winter sun slanting through the window glints off his gold tie clip. Squinting through cigarette smoke, Yasubei sips sake and frowns at his son. At the boy's new white shirt dusted with rice-cracker crumbs, striped burgundy and navy tie askew, collar gaping around a scrawny neck. Yasubei focuses momentarily on Isamu's hair, shiny as a raven's wing, bangs and sides scissored to resemble an inverted bowl--Can't do a damn thing about those pink cheeks, but maybe a short haircut will make him look a little tougher. Yasubei searches for signs of himself, but in the boy's soft, moist mouth and big innocent puppy-dog eyes, all he can see is his fragile, long-suffering wife.
Yasubei sighs. "Your mother came to me as a twenty-one-year-old picture bride. She arrived in Honolulu on the same day the Titanic sank. An old Hawaiian woman told your mother it was a bad omen. That's why your mother moved back to Japan after you were born, and why she refuses to leave. She's hoping all her bad luck lies buried with the twins in Hawaii.
"Two babies lost. Ten years slaving in the cane fields until we saved enough to return to Honura village and build our house. But then I couldn't find work . . . well . . . none that I could stomach. So I returned alone to Hawaii and sent money home. I've worked my way up from field hand to assistant manager of the plantation store. But now no matter how hard I try, I can't climb any higher. Haole rules and laws block me.
"But you, Isamu, you were born in Hawaii. By birthright you're an American citizen. That makes you our family's winning lottery ticket. First you will go to school and master the English language. You will study hard and excel in all your subjects. After high school, you will go to university on the mainland."
"Yes, America. You will plant the Hamada family crest on American soil."
"I'll try, Papa."
"Isamu, you are the eldest son of a samurai family. We speak once, then live or die according to our word. Understand?"
The boy nods solemnly. "I will do it."
"Good. As the final expression of my destiny, I will throw you like a spear . . . all the way to the American mainland."
Isamu beams, sits tall, puffs out his chest, eager, proud, ready.
In yokohama they check into a small inn. The owners know Yasubei well--each time he returns home for a visit, he stays with them. Passing through inbound from Hawaii last month, Yasubei had posted flyers on the announcement board outside the inn and at shops, restaurants, and bars in the neighborhood. The innkeeper tells Yasubei, "Lots of fish in your net!"
Yasubei lights a cigarette. "Any keepers?"
The innkeeper shrugs and smiles politely.
In the morning after a breakfast of miso soup, broiled sole, pickled radish, and rice gruel, Isamu peeks outside at a line of men extending down the street and around the corner. He sits at a table next to his father while the men shuffle forward to be interviewed. By lunchtime Yasubei has signed twenty new workers for the sugarcane plantation. The next day they board a ship called the Taiyo Maru and steam out of Tokyo Bay. Two weeks later they exit Customs in Honolulu and catch an interisland ferry to Hilo, where Yasubei, swaggering like a samurai warlord, leads his ragtag army down the gangplank.
"Aloha!" Exposing crooked tobacco-dyed teeth in a hard tanned face, Papa's best friend, Kojiro, waves from the shade of a flatbed truck parked on the Hilo docks. "Hey, Yasubei, you brought your boy? Welcome to the Big Island."
Yasubei's work gang begins loading supplies onto Kojiro's truck. The new field hands, grateful to be on solid ground, glad to flex the sea-
stiffness from their bodies, work eagerly, bare arms glistening with sweat.
Isamu, all knobby joints and twig limbs, dances around them like a colt among draft horses. Isamu, spinning in a cloud of loud voices, laughter, tobacco smoke, and body odor, bouncing on his toes, wanting to help and trying to get out of the way, trips and sprawls facedown at his father's feet.
Yasubei glares, reaches down with one big hand, grabs the boy by the belt, shakes off the dust, sets him on his feet. "That's it. Everyone in back."
The men jostle past Isamu, toss their suitcases and cloth-wrapped bundles over the boy's head and scramble aboard the flatbed.
"Isamu, in front."
Sitting between Kojiro and Papa, Isamu can barely see over the dashboard.
Yasubei removes his panama hat and wipes his brow. He loosens his tie and unbuttons his collar. Kojiro turns the key. The engine roars, backfires. A rasp of gears, a neck-jerking lurch, and they're off.
Kojiro drives through Hilo, leaves the town behind. Over the truck rattle and engine noise, Kojiro and Papa shout the latest news, gossip, and dirty jokes. They laugh and hawk and spit out the windows. Isamu hugs the moment to his heart, thinking he is learning a great secret: This is how men live when they're away from women.
Isamu is both thrilled and intimidated by Papa and Kojiro's powerful voices and crude language. Reinforced and amplified by the growling jouncing truck, the energy emanating from the two men seems edged and volatile as the vanity of drunken samurai. Isamu peeks at his father. Yasubei snaps open his ornately engraved silver cigarette case, lights two cigarettes, gives one to Isamu to pass to Kojiro. From Papa's hand, rough as tree bark, Isamu lifts the cigarette, and Kojiro snaps it away with callused crab-claw fingers, leaving Isamu pondering the silky softness of his own small hands.
Inhaling deeply, reveling in the tobacco smoke and humid wind pouring through the wide-open windows, Isamu stares out at the vegetation, dense as a tunnel around the winding road. Amid enormous leaves, black branches curl like snakes in the shadows. Strange flowers glow in shafts of sunlight.
Then the truck rolls out of the jungle onto a vast tilting landscape of sugarcane rippling like green fur under the stroking hands of the wind. They pass beneath a lacework of timber supporting an aqueduct two hundred feet above the road. Isamu bumps his head against the dashboard as he cranes his neck to marvel at it. Papa's voice deepens with pride. "The Awaopi'o high flume. Kojiro and I helped build it."
Kojiro leaves the main road, climbs through the cane toward the immense cloud-capped volcano. They rumble by a graveyard.