Cane Fire

Naoto Nakashima

[Note: In the Japanese text, sexual, vulgar, or violent content has been elided in several passges, whether by the author or the publisher, is not indicated.]


It was raining furiously. Electric poles stood tall to the right and left – dozens or hundreds, I couldn’t tell. We had been walking for a long time along the railroad track, stepping barefooted from tie to tie. The rain fell harder as we passed a gloomy grove of coconut trees. At a place where we could see a cane-covered hill on the left and the ocean on the right, the rain was beating down so loudly on the cane and water we could hardly hear each other’s voices. The wind blew stronger, and the wires overhead whined plaintively, like an animal. Submerged and waterlogged, the ties felt squishy in places. “Mama,” I called out helplessly; I was frightened even though my mother was holding my hand, and my raincoat covered me from head to toe. Whenever she heard me call, she gripped my hand more tightly and pulled me closer to her, comforting me loudly, as if addressing someone a hundred yards away. She was wearing a raincoat that made her look like a squid, with a pointed head. She carried my baby sister Yoshie on her back. A few feet ahead, tall in a thick overcoat and wearing a helmet-like hat with a wide brim, my father shouldered a heavy load that seemed almost too much for him to carry. Between my parents my older sister Marie walked with small steps, keeping her eyes trustingly on our rock-like father ahead while staying close to mother. She wanted to cling to mother’s right hand, but mother was holding a bulky hand-carry bag.

At last, we seemed to be nearing our destination, as father began talking more than before to encourage us onward. Mother had a hard time hearing him, so she questioned him whenever he said something. Then she announced, “We’re here.” “Is this Waiawa?” “Are we in Waiawa?” my older sister and I asked. Suddenly revived, we lifted our heads and began to look around. On the right was the ocean; on the left the cane fields faded away behind us, and rice paddies and kiawe trees began to appear. Here and there houses with white walls appeared dimly through the rain.

Soon we saw a house in the trees to our left. Father shouted something and stepped down quickly from the railroad tracks. He started to walk on a footpath between two rice paddies. On one side was an unkempt paddy, overgrown with kakai (a kind of reed); the paddy on the other side was well maintained. A couple of hundred yards ahead stood two big ‘ohai trees (monkey pods), their dense branches and leaves spreading like umbrellas. Below the trees was a long grayish house. From the direction we came, a steam whistle seemed to probe the darkness, and before long, a train rushed by, blowing bursts of steam to the left and right, as if gasping, and making the ground tremble.

We passed by a pigpen and a neglected area that looked as if it might have been a vegetable garden, then came upon a yard. When we arrived beneath the two ‘ohai trees which spread over the house, yard, kitchen, and half of the vacant back lot, raindrops fell like threads through the dense branches and leaves, and splashed all around, pock-marking the whole yard. Ten or so chickens, with no coop for shelter, were soaking wet beneath the kitchen eaves.

Nobody came out when we arrived at the house – a long building with three doors. The reed-thatched roof was warped and the flooring of the open corridor along the front had come off in places. A lamp shone in the middle room, providing a bit of light. The two other rooms, with their doors wide open, appeared as dark as caves, even though it was still early afternoon.

My father climbed up three low steps in front of the door on the right and put his heavy load down on the porch. Then he walked to the front of the lamp-lit room, hesitated a little, then called out, “Konnichi wa!”

Finally, someone appeared at the door, and my father said something as he was turning toward us. The woman came out and led him along the corridor to the place where he had left his load. Then she turned toward us as we stood in the yard. Her face flashed a quick, exaggerated grin, and she waved us in.

We stepped up to the corridor and were taking off our raincoats and beating off the water when a frowning old man, about sixty years old, replaced the woman. He saw that although we wore raincoats, we were dripping wet. The places where our hoods joined our raincoats and our shirt and kimono sleeves were soaked. We were barefooted, our pants rolled up and our kimono tucked up to our knees. The old man silently brought a bucket from the kitchen and placed it under the outer edge of the porch to catch the rainwater pouring off the roof like a bamboo screen.

“What a heavy rain!” he said to himself, looking up at the sky, then disappeared back into the lamp-lit room.

We changed into dry clothes, entered the room and looked around. The gloomy room had an area of about twelve tatami mats; a goza (reed mat) was spread on the floor. Rainwater was dripping from the ceiling in three or four places. I walked over to mother, avoiding the dripping water. Yoshie, who had been quietly sleeping on my mother’s back, started to cry suddenly in her usual strong voice as soon as she was put down. “Ro-ro-ro-ro-ro-ro,” mother comforted her. She picked her up, put her on her lap, and placed her breast to Yoshie’s mouth. Yoshie stopped crying and started to nurse. My older sister was staring at them, but her mind seemed to be somewhere else.

“Isn’t this place gloomy?” she mumbled.

Ignoring her question, mother said, “Marie, please get the crackers from the Chinese suitcase.”

Father took some of what he brought with us out of a huge bag and slowly began to arrange things around the room. Hunched over and munching on a cracker, mother now and then let out a long, deep sigh; then, as if no longer conscious of her cracker-chewing, her eyes began to close and open, close and open. She offered a cracker to my father, but he didn’t even turn around; instead, repeatedly sweeping his hands as if to brush away cobwebs or dust, he continued to clean up the room.

From time to time, through the single wall, we could hear the jumbled voices of people excited by something going on in the next room. These strange sounds were followed by oppressive silences.

I stopped chewing my cracker and asked, “Mama, what’s going on in our neighbor’s room?”

“I don’t know,” she answered coldly. Then there was some noisy chatter, and the sound of people standing up.

“Can’t figure out why my luck was bad today.”

“I’m coming back again tomorrow.”

“What a downpour! Damn!”

They seemed to be leaving the room. I looked out the door and counted seventeen or eighteen men and women in raincoats, trooping across the yard without even turning around once. “Who are these people?” I asked softly, surprised to see such a big crowd leaving. No one heard me. Father was indifferent to what was going on outside. He was pounding nails into the walls with a hammer. Mother was trying to get Yoshie to sleep, so I was afraid to ask again more loudly.

Then my sister asked, “Papa, is this our home now?”

Father finally spoke: “Yes, it’s home.”

2.

The next day the sky was clear. For the first time, we saw that the neighborhood was brighter and more cheerful than we had thought the day before. On both sides of the gloomy building, the two ‘ohai trees were covered with dainty pale red flowers; sparrows, cheeping joyously, were building nests from dried grass gathered here and there; and sunlight falling through the branches and leaves painted beautiful spots on the ground. Our room had two windows. Outside of the small west-side window was an empty lot with weeds and various shrubs. Beyond this lot and a road was a gently rising hill covered with sugarcane. Outside the large north-side window, the road went from the yard uphill, between an empty lot and the neighbor’s house with its grove of papaya trees, then wound its way between sugarcane fields and the village. Halfway up the hill, on the side of an ‘ohai tree with a huge trunk was an old well. Through this window, we could also see half of the kitchen, which stood next to the house.

On the front side of the house, beyond the railroad track was Pearl Harbor, where gentle waves rolled endlessly across the water, pushed along by the breeze. To the left of the place where the numerous bays of Pearl Harbor became one expanse of water, we could see tall coconut palms and other kinds of trees. Across from where beautiful ships and sailboats came in and out was an island covered by nothing but sugarcane fields, lying flat, as if sleeping. People called that island “Mukojima.”

Now that our apartment looked more like a home, my father visited the scattered residences of Waiawa village to introduce himself and the family. My mother energetically tidied up the kitchen, completely recovered. The neighboring room was quiet for a long time this morning, so I went to peek into the room. Inside was an imposing bed that seemed too big for the room, and on it, the old man who brought out the bucket yesterday was lying on his back looking up and playing with a mechanical top on a string. When I saw him so unexpectedly enjoying the top alone, I walked boldly into the room. He wasn’t surprised at my sudden appearance and asked, “Were you able to sleep last night?” When I told him I slept well, he commented, as if talking to himself, “Well, I just thought you might have been a bit scared because you folks just got here.” A coffeepot was on the shichirin (charcoal brazier) next to the bed, and a package of bread had fallen onto the goza. From a dark corner, rats were coming and going. The old man stretched out his arm to offer me a slice of bread and asked about my age and then about the town where we had been living before we arrived. Then he said, “From now on, your father’s luck will change.” I learned the old man’s name was Yahei.

“Whose room is the other one?” I asked, full of curiosity. He grinned and said, “I’m not sure you need to know about what goes on in every room. But that one, nobody lives in that one. It used to be a storage room when a big Chinese family lived here.” He got up to show me the dark, narrow, windowless room. Along the walls on both sides of a cramped center aisle, boxes and bins of various shapes were piled up, and the room smelled strongly of grains and rice bran. Torn harnesses and broken wagon wheels dangled eerily from the walls. I felt happy that I got to know this old man Yahei.

Late that afternoon, seventeen or eighteen people came across the yard again. I saw two or three children among them. Since yesterday, I had been thinking of asking about these people, but earlier I was too preoccupied with getting to know Yahei and forgot to ask him. I regretted not remembering, but it was too late. Ten or so people went into Yahei’s room, but today, unlike yesterday, they shut the door tightly behind them. Yahei didn’t come out. I was impatient to find out what was going on in that room, but my mother forbid me to go near there. That made my curiosity stronger. When my father came home from visiting the neighbors, my mother and he talked softly with each other. “Miné ,” he called me with a stern look on his face. “You have to start going to school from tomorrow. I hear that about ten or so children from this village go to school.”

While he was saying this, a girl’s face appeared from behind the kitchen. I pretended not to see her and stared up sulkily at the ‘ohai tree. Suddenly, a sparrow’s nest came tumbling down from the tree. Inside the hat-sized nest were three featherless baby sparrows, their eyes still closed, but their yellow beaks wide open, cheeping. I was going to pick them up. Just then the girl grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t. They’re dirty.” I looked at her and then at the sparrows. “Don’t hurt living things, Miné ,” my mother said as she passed by, watching us. The girl let go of my hand. “Here, Miné ,” she said, putting a dried ‘opihi (abalone) in my hand. I was still drawn to the nest, but I took the ‘opihi and using a small knife, which she also handed to me, whittled off thin slices and began eating them. “How do you know my name?” I asked. “Didn’t your mama call you that?” she replied. She took a wide, rose-colored ribbon out of her skirt pocket and tied it around her hair. “My name is Kawahara Yukino,” she said, stealing a glance at me from the corner of her eyes and smiling. “Will you be living here for a while?” she asked. “I don’t know.” “This house used to be spooky, but it seems better now that you folks came,” she said. Then, as if suddenly excited: “In the bushes behind the house there are plenty of dragonflies!” She invited me to go with her.

When we came back with some red dragonflies shining in the sunset, the sparrow babies had disappeared, and the nest was empty. “Mama, where are the sparrows?” I asked anxiously. “I don’t know.” I saw a black cat dash across the yard to hide in the neighbor’s house and threw the handful of dragonflies at Yukino. “It’s your fault,” I said angrily. “Mama, the sparrows were eaten by the cat, weren’t they?” I whined.

Just then, a girl I hadn’t seen before, about my sister’s age, went into the kitchen. Her clothes looked shabby. I wondered who in the world this fair-skinned girl might be. My eyes followed her as she walked past me with a faint smile. “That is a girl [onna] from Mukojima,” Yukino said, as if somehow contemptuous of her. Of course, I didn’t know why Yukino felt that way and wasn’t interested in finding out. I continued to watch as the girl as she entered the middle room and grew even more curious about what was going on in there.

All of a sudden someone kicked open the door, and the people inside began arguing. Then came the sounds of things being thrown about, screams, and women crying. My father rushed to the door and I started to follow him, but my mother grabbed my arm and scolded me: “Abunai! It’s dangerous! Don’t go there!”

The room slowly quieted down, and the door was closed again. The fair-skinned girl, along with two or three other young girls, loitered in the dusky yard, looking very pale.

I couldn’t find Yukino anywhere.

Finally, three or four people with bandages around their heads and their clothing torn came out of the room and left in the same direction the group had gone yesterday. The woman who had shown my father our room yesterday urged the fair-skinned girl girl to leave with the others. The woman greeted my mother in passing with an exaggerated bow and left with the group. Soon she came back by herself and went into Yahei’s room for a while, then came into our room. Under the lamplight, she appeared fortyish, with tangled hair and a long slender neck; her face looked youthful, but mean and tough. An inch-long scar shone on her chin. When she grinned broadly, her gold teeth glittered maliciously. She sat on the floor in her kanaka dress, with her legs folded on the side, whispering to my father.

Looking at us gathered under the lamp, my father smiled vaguely and answered the woman. “My business in Waipahu failed. Besides, I have these children.”

“Well, that’s why I’m asking you to play with us,” the woman pressed him.

“But I’m no good at that sort of things, you see,” my father replied, with an evasive smile. He got up and walked outside to the kitchen.

The woman stood up, too, but didn’t follow him. Instead, she seemed to have gone into Yahei’s room. It was almost nine o’clock, and I decided to go to sleep. While I was changing into my night clothes by the north-side window I noticed my father and the woman – her name was Toyo – sitting side by side on the steps to a small narrow room in the lamp-lit kitchen, discussing something. I could see them through the wooden latticework above the stove.

 

3.

Those same seventeen or eighteen people came almost every day. Some days two or three more showed up later in the evening. When it rained, they sometimes got together in the daytime, but generally they arrived in the late afternoon and stayed in the room until nine or ten o’clock at night; sometimes they stayed even later, until after midnight, partying merrily, apparently drunk on saké.

One evening, I walked down to the shore, toward where these people seemed to have come from. I found a long single-plank pier hidden in the shore grass, away from the river mouth where some boats floated near a freight depot. An old gasoline boat was tied to the pier. In it were ten or so children, including the fair-skinned girl I had seen earlier. “Where are your mama and papa?” I asked.

The girl, who was holding a little girl on her lap, pointed her finger toward our ‘ohai trees and said, “Asoko. Over there.” (I later found out she was fourteen years old, and her name was Miyako.)

“What do they do?”

Miyako stiffened her body nervously and said, “There. Sugar cane. Hana, hana. (work),” motioning toward the water with her chin. From where we were Mukojima lay across the water facing the Waipi‘o Peninsula, where the haoles had built some vacation houses.

After this exchange, she busied herself with humoring the children, then got out of the boat and strolled out on the single plank of the pier. From where I was crouching and looking up, this teenaged girl appeared to be an adult.

The little children still in the boat became silent and stared blankly at me with their mouths half-opened, some with sleepy eyes and others with the look that children have after they cry.

“Don’t you folks go to school?”

“We used to before —,” Miyako answered from the far end of the pier.

“Why aren’t you going now?”

She didn’t answer my question, but I noticed a sadness in her expression. A few strands of her hair softly fluttered in the breeze over her white forehead.

When I got up to leave, Miyako asked, “Where is your sister?”

“A maid, on the Peninsula.”

She looked down and said nothing more.

 

Several days after we settled into our new home, my sister started to work as a live-in maid for a haole family on the Peninsula. There were only a few months of school left and she she didn’t care about finishing the term. Following my father’s orders, I started going to school in Pearl City everyday, proudly wearing my brand new necktie. Every morning, Yukino, who was my classmate, came calling for me, and we walked to school together. After school she showed me around the village. Having grown up in the town of Waipahu, I found village life fresh and exciting. She taught me how to climb mango trees and how to catch crabs along the shore, where a salty breeze blew off the ocean. Then she taught me how to swim in the cold river, and to be resourceful in stealing ripe yellow bananas from the farm upstream, near the source of the river. Once we were both hired to chase sparrows in the rice paddies. Yukino gradually began to show me ………………. , which made me start to think that she was strange. The following night Yukino ………………., ……………….., and she whispered softly to me that when she listened to records of Japanese songs her body would ………………. When I told my older sister what Yukino said, her eyes got big, and she commented, “Oh dear, that Yukino is a ‘no-good girl’!”

In the week after we moved here, the sagging house and the overgrown rice paddies were little by little put into order. My father had yet to start any kind of business. Instead he cut bushes in the empty lot behind our room and built a fence around it, replaced the water in the small reservoir, repaired the pigpen, and planted some banana trees. I was awakened each morning by roosters announcing the day. They flapped their wings in the high perch my father had built for them in the ‘ohai tree; then they flew down and landed in front of the newly-built chicken coop. The area around the house looked much brighter.

But those people from Mukojima continued to come almost everyday.

One evening, I passed the middle room on my way to the storeroom to check if the papayas buried in the rice bran had ripened yet. The door was half open. I was startled by the intense scene in the room – like a scene from The Banquet of the Goddess (a picture book I saw a long time ago). A crowd of men, bare to the waist and almost spilling out of the room, were sitting in a packed circle, under a single lamp, their eyes glaring and their foreheads shining. Among the men, along with three or four other women, was Toyo, whom we also called Mukojima no Onna – Woman from Mukojima.

“Odd!” a voice rang out. A pair of dice rolled from a rice bowl.

“Okay. I’m ready…….……. !”

“Again, two moons …….…….?”

“Dammit! Go ahead, give it a try!”

“Even!”

“Odd!”

“God-do Da-mu! Mitsu! I lost. …….…….!”

“Okay, …….! …….…….…….…….…….…….––––”

One of the woman  ……….…….…….…….…….……., leaning on one hand.

The crowd seemed to grow more agitated and excited. Yahei, who sat next to Mukojima no Onna, seemed to be deep in thought, with his arms crossed on his chest. This must be the gambling Yukino told me about. Terrified, yet drawn in, I inched toward the door, as if being sucked into the room. Then Yahei saw me. Looking angry, he got up and came over to me, put ten cents in my palm and folded my fingers over it. “Don’t come around here,” he scolded.

Finally, I knew the secret of why these people came here almost every day since we had arrived. But how could this secret activity be so important that they neglected their jobs and their children’s schooling? Why did they come all the way across the water from Mukojima to spend their time doing this?

4.

By the side of the well, my mother was having a long talk with Mrs. Tasaka, who raised chickens.

“Well, you know, these parents don’t think of their children’s education. Look at them. They come here to gamble, and go back to Mukojima, where …….…….…….…….…….  ” Mrs. Tasaka lowered her voice so I couldn’t hear. Then she continued: “It must be difficult – married couples and bachelors all living in the same small rooms.” I couldn’t hear my mother’s response.

“Right, right, they all gamble like that,” Mrs. Tasaka said. “Once, I can’t remember when, there was a fight in the bathroom in the middle of the night. I heard a person got .…….…….…….…….  but it happened in Mukojima camp, so no one knows what exactly took place.”

Suddenly, I heard Yukino’s father’s gun go off and pellets rained down on the kitchen’s corrugated iron roof. I was eating dinner by myself inside the kitchen. “Mama, Mr. Kawahara is shooting his rifle in this direction again. He shouldn’t do that,” I said.

The two women stopped talking. Then they started to talk about something else. Yahei came out to wash his face. Lately, he seemed to be getting up earlier in the morning. Toyo stayed overnight occasionally, but usually went back to Mukojima. It was rumored that Toyo used to be Yahei’s wahine. After this relationship started, the Mukojima group held their gambling activities here in order to escape detection. If they gambled at the camp, the plantation police would have found them out; if they came here, it would seem as if they were out working somewhere.

One day, Yahei took me along with him into the cane field. The cane was beginning to mature, with tassels opening up here and there, glossy-looking, like bird feathers. We walked along a ditch over which the cane was leaning from both sides; after about two miles, we came to an open area. There was a large hollow formed in the side of a hill rising up from the place where we came out of the cane. Surprised, I stood there staring at the hollow, but Yahei said nothing and kept on walking up. There was a low hut, like a pigpen, in the shade of a single guava tree growing in the red-dirt of the open area, which seemed to be scooped out of the side of a hill, like a tilted Chinese bowl. “I sometimes come here to sleep,” said Yahei. He was absent from his room occasionally and returned at strange hours. He must have come here at those times, I thought. The tree was covered with green guavas. Inside the shack was nothing but a pillow and a goza. The sunlight brightened the inside. “I like coming to this place. I can stay here all day. It feels so good to just lie on my back and look up at the blue sky. At night, the sky is full of stars. I can’t tell you how many times I felt like I was falling up into the sky. Rabbits, pheasants, mongooses visit me. I don’t think anybody in the village knows about my hut —.”

I climbed up a little to the edge of the gradual slope to look around.  Beyond the waves of cane leaves, I could see the ocean spread out below.

“There, Mukojima — ,” I said absentmindedly.

“Huh? Mukojima?” He glanced toward it but quickly turned his eyes away, and his usual morose expression returned.

“Uncle, is gambling bad?” A while ago when I asked him why those people were always in his room, he half-muttered something that he didn’t want me to hear. “Children shouldn’t know about such things.”

But this time he answered, “Yes, it’s no good.”

“Why does Uncle do it then?” Yahei made a face as if he suddenly had a toothache and flapped his hand back and forth on its wrist repeatedly.

I didn’t understand what he meant and looked again at the water. There I saw a gasoline boat coming in our direction bobbing up and down on the white-capped waves. Yahei must have seen it, too. He said to himself, “I wish that boat capsizes and they all get thrown into the water. That damn troop of centipedes ….”

Then the two of us went back down.

5.

Twenty days had passed since we arrived. And, every day, every night gambling went on next door. The secretive silences, the disappointed sighs, and the wild excitement continued all night long. Their laughter indicated there was something more than gambling going on. I could hear drunken voices, and quarrels frequently broke out. I heard someone ……………….  his hanafuda (playing cards) partner with a jackknife. We couldn’t fall asleep anymore until late at night.

But the area around our home was now quite neat and clean. Weeds had been cleared from the rice paddy and new green rice plants were sprouting. Between the rice paddy and the vegetable garden was a pigpen where another white pig had been added. Growing in the field next to the yard were papaya saplings, and two fat leaves appeared wherever watermelon and eggplant seeds had been planted.

In the vacant back lot, weeds still grew around the barbwire fence and half the lot was uncleared. My father’s work had stopped there.

My sister came home from the Peninsula every Sunday. She told us about Mrs. Tarkington and her family, their daughter Miss Tarkington, and all sorts of rumors she heard from the other maids. Her report always ended with a comment on the cheerful atmosphere of the Peninsula.

My little sister Yoshie still cried a lot in her loud voice, but she became attached to Miyako from Mukojima, who started carrying her around in her arms.

I continued to go to school with Yukino, and we played together when we came home. I made a lot of friends, but Yukino was my best friend (even though her father kept on shooting buckshot toward our house to chase away the sparrows).

Yukino never ran out of things to teach me. She made us a little house from ‘ohai branches covered with small flowers and taught me how to play the harmonica. She and I played house and pretended we were married. My sister Marie once caught us playing husband and wife. Our faces turned bright red, but Marie saved us from further embarrassment by saying nothing about it. One afternoon on the way home from writing grafitti at Waiawa Station, we stopped in the yard of Auntie Pele, who lived opposite of the Tasakas. Auntie Pele wasn’t home, so we stood there underneath a tall coconut tree, looking up and waiting for a coconut to fall. When we started to head back laughing, someone came walking toward us in the dusk, alone, singing cheerfully. It was Auntie Pele coming home from a day of fishing, with a huge sack of fish on her back.

6.

Yahei began to get up with us early in the morning. He stopped cooking his meals on the shichirin in his room and ate breakfast with us in the kitchen instead. When he saw my mother folks go barefooted into the vegetable garden, he tucked up his kimono and came barefooted to talk with them. He seemed happy looking at the vegetables and plants spouting there. My father was determined to find a new source of water. Under a paper lantern hanging from a branch above, he had begun to dig another well near the old well by the ‘ohai tree next to the kitchen. The well was already forty-five feet deep. Yahei enjoyed sitting on the trunk of the thick ‘ohai tree and watching the progress of the digging. After an hour or so of watching and talking, he got up and left for his hut. He was going there a lot now. I was the only one who knew about it; not even the people from Mukojima knew where he went.

Now that Yahei was missing so often, Mukojima no Onna was always coming around looking for him. When she couldn’t find him, she would berate the docile, well-mannered Miyako for no reason. Besides watching the children, Miyako sometimes helped my mother with the house chores. Once when Yahei unexpectedly showed up, an argument erupted in the gambling den among him, Mukojima no Onna, and Mr. Yamada. Mr. Yamada was a leader of the Mukojima camp, and people said that he was now the woman’s lover.

One afternoon, after I came home from school, I went to Yahei’s room and found him lying on his bed playing with his mechanical top, just like on the morning after we moved here. He had a scary look on his face and sighed deeply now and then.

When he saw me, he pulled me to his side and asked, “Are you enjoying school, Miné ?”

“Yes, I like it. I’ve made more friends; and this morning I got a hundred on my spelling test!”

“Do you like your new home?” he asked. I noticed Yahei’s unshaven beard, salted with white hair.

“Uncle,” I asked, “do you want me to shave your beard?” I went to get a new kind of razor (a safety razor) and holding onto his head, I soaped his chin, and began shaving it. Then we continued talking.

“Hmmmm,” I answered him. “I feel like there is still something spooky about this place, but I feel like it’s slowly going away, so it’s okay now.”

Yahei nodded off for a little while, then suddenly opened his eyes and said, “You were saying you’ve really gotten used to this house, is that right?”

“Un. Yes.”

He closed his eyes and smiled. “Soon, it will be even more wonderful,” he muttered, then fell into a deep sleep. At that moment, he looked as if he had not had a good sleep for many, many years, but was now sleeping so deeply, I wondered if he would ever get up again. His face looked completely at peace. His head was on my lap and he was snoring deeply. I placed his head quietly back on the pillow and left the room.

That afternoon, the people from Mukojima showed up again. Mukojima no Onna didn’t find Yahei in his room again, so she came over and blamed my family for his frequent absences. She bared her upper body as she did when they gambled and began yelling at my parents. My parents insisted that they didn’t know where Yahei was. When the half-naked Mukojima no Onna turned her back to us, I was stunned to see a vibrant, wild, red and blue snake tattooed into her entire back. Whenever her arms and back moved, the huge snake seemed to come alive, slithering.

“Leave them alone! Leave them alone!” the other gamblers yelled as they came out of the next room. But they were quickly silenced by her vicious look and stayed back, even Mr. Yamada.

“Well, don’t interfere. You don’t know what will happen!” she warned.

Then they all went into the gambling room. It was frightening to see the change in her attitude toward us since the time she visited our room to ask my father to join them in gambling. My mother looked sad and lost; my father said nothing and went back to digging the well. The hole was nearly seventy feet deep.

7.

When Yahei didn’t return the following day, my parents got worried. Perhaps he had gone off somewhere in a hurry because of an emergency. Mrs. Tasaka and Yukino’s father started to search for him everywhere. I went alone to see if he was at his hut at the back of the hill. I was sure he was there, but surprisingly, he wasn’t. I decided to tell my father and the villagers about his hideout. They all set out for the hut, but they didn’t find him there either. They split up and searched the cane fields around the area, but he was nowhere to be found.

That afternoon, as usual, the Mukojima gang came again, led by Toyo. As they marched in, they looked furious, and when they found that Yahei was not there again, they began to menace my father with their cane knives, pistols, and jackknives. But what good was it to threaten him with their knives and other weapons? He couldn’t tell them anything because he didn’t know anything.

They went into Yahei’s room and started gambling again. The voices from the room were for some reason much more intense than usual, and it sounded as if they had started fighting already. My mother suggested to my father that perhaps we should move somewhere else.

My father was quiet for a while, then said forcefully, “No matter what’s happening in that room, we’ve got to stay!”

“I understand —.” My mother looked at us and sighed.

That night the gamblers left around midnight. Around twenty of them piled pell-mell out of Yahei’s room and went into the kitchen where they took down some wine and food from the cupboards, devoured everything, got drunk, then went home.

 

About two hours later, at around 2 a.m., as we were just falling asleep, an unfamiliar steam whistle went off. Soon, more whistles, strong and weak, sounded one after another. From here and there, dogs began howling eerily. I thought I was dreaming. Then I heard my father suddenly push aside his futon and get up. After he went outside, he shouted, “Fire!”

He went to Yahei’s room, but no one responded from there. We heard him say, “There’s a big cane fire on Mukojima – they’re in trouble.”

“What!” My mother got up. I got up too and rushed outside. I could see the whole island burning. The fire was reflected in the ocean, creating a terrifying scene. The loud crackling of the green cane burning filled the air. Sparks blew up in the wind and ash floated down everywhere, even reaching our faintly illuminated yard. Sirens could still be heard coming from the mill and steam ships. Soon the villagers were up and came into our yard.

One of them said, “I came outside to relieve myself, and the sky over Mukojima was red. But it’s too early in the season to burn cane for harvesting, so I thought it was strange. Then I heard the mill’s steam whistle go off and realized it was an unexpected fire. If that’s the case, the camp may burn down because they haven’t cut the cane around it yet.”

Hearing this, the villagers started to panic. My father quietly prepared to go. The villagers told him that he was being reckless, that he should at least wait till daylight. They tried to persuade him not to go, but he put on his jacket and helmet and, with a lantern in his hand, set out toward the shore. At the river mouth, he took a boat used for fowling and rowed to Mukojima alone.

The fire burned until morning. Over the whole area, smoke rose from the smoldering embers. The green of yesterday’s Mukojima was reduced mostly to charred fields.

My father returned. The villagers who had been anxious about him setting out alone were all happy to see him. However, when they found out that no one returned in the boat with him and that he hadn’t been able to rescue anyone from Mukojima, they fell silent. My father walked back to our house exhausted, his face and clothing blackened with ash. In the kitchen he told the circumstances of his frightful rescue attempt. Scattered on the kitchen floor were the four or five bottles of wine emptied by the people from Mukojima the night before.

“When I got to Mukojima, rescuers had not arrived yet from Waipahu via the sugar company’s private tracks. In fact, nobody had come, perhaps because people didn’t know that anyone was living on Mukojima. As I approached the shore, the heat of the fire was so intense, I couldn’t get close. Finally, I landed at a place where the flames hadn’t reached. I followed the embankment of an irrigation ditch that Yahei had told me about a while ago. The sky overhead, above the tall cane, was completely red. I thought I had entered from a place somewhat away from the fire, but the whole place was enveloped in the terrifying force of the fire, as if a mountain of firecrackers were exploding in flames. I felt more dead than alive. Sparks and ash fell continuously over me – it was a terrifying experience.

“After following the irrigation ditch for a while, I got to place where the fire wasn’t encircling me. I breathed a sigh of relief. Just as I reached the rim of the reservoir, I could see a line of flames spreading in all directions on the other side, and the whole area, illuminated by the fire, was completely scorched. The camp had disappeared. For some reason, perhaps because of the direction of the wind, this side of the reservoir toward the ocean had not burned. From the reservoir, I walked five or six hundred yards to where the camp used to be, but all that was left was a kiawe tree, its branches and leaves burned. I held up the lamp to look around. Amid the smoldering remnants of the camp, dead bodies were scattered about, all charred so black I couldn’t identify anyone. Before I left, I checked to see if anyone was still alive, but they had all died in the fire. The saddest sight was the bodies of three children lying on the ground, half-burnt, a few feet away from the camp. It seems as if they desperately wanted to be saved, their bodies stretched out in the direction of the shore where their gasoline boat was tied up. Anyway, it was as if everyone had been in deep sleep, unaware that a fire had broken out because they were all exhausted from staying up so late gambling and drinking. One puzzling thing I noticed was a fresh set of footprints going into the camp ahead of me.”

As we listened to my father’s story, we were astonished and saddened. “But how on earth did the fire start?” We talked about the possibilities.

8.

About noon, four or five police officers in plain clothes came riding on horseback up to our house, cracking their whips in a show of force. They demanded that the gamblers come out. My father and the others who happened to be present pointed to the scorched Mukojima and said that the gamblers had all died in the fire.

“What? Burned?” the native officers said in disbelief. We offered them some wine and explained what had happened. Then they mounted their horses and left.

Yahei came back unexpectedly that same afternoon. My mother and father were happy to see him. With sad looks, they told him about the fire the night before. He didn’t seem particularly mournful, as he stared blankly in the direction of Mukojima. Then after stroking my head once, he quietly went outside. We thought he looked so blank because he was overwhelmed by the news of the fire, so we decided to leave him alone for a while, but after an hour I hiked up to his hut to look for him. It had been torn down, and Yahei was nowhere to be found.

About ten days after the fire, we got a surprising visit from Miyako. She was wearing a brand new dress. Her left arm had been seriously burned. We asked her where she came from and she told us that she had been at the Waipahu plantation hospital, but had no recollection of anything that happened before that.

The villagers had a long discussion about what caused the fire. Some said it was the fault of the old woman who heated the water for the bathhouse at the camp; in the past, she had repeatedly started accidental fires. Others concluded that it was some sort of arson.

Whatever the cause, everyone was overjoyed to see Miyako. She ended up living with us and wanted to do what my older sister Marie was doing, so she found a job on the Peninsula.

One day, my father took three of us, Miyako, Yukino, and me, to Mukojima. We picked flowers blooming around the reservoir and paid our respects to those who died in the fire. New houses were going up on the ruins of the old camp, and light green leaves were sprouting from the blackened branches of the kiawe tree.

Still tied to the shore, the old gasoline boat, no longer used, was filled with water and listing to one side.

9.

One day, some men came to our house again on horseback, cracking whips. As we crouched beside our newly dug well, we wondered what kind of business brought these police officers back. But it was a group of young cowboys bringing five splendid cows.

“Hello!”

“Hello!”

The empty back lot became a pasture. Every morning, my father delivered fresh milk around the village in his wagon with a high seat.

Yahei’s room became our playground.

--April 1935


(Translated from Japanese by Masako Ikeda and Dennis Kawaharada. From Hawaii Monogatari. Naoto Nakashima. Tokyo, Japan: 1936. 203-241. Translation published in Bamboo Ridge, Summer 2005.)