WTSS Excerpt: "Prologue: To the City of Angels" PDF Print E-mail

Excerpted from What the Scarecrow Said by Stewart David Ikeda


W

illiam Hiroshi Fujita was born to Japanese immigrant parents on January 2, 1897 on the mainland United States of America. Barely. He might have emerged on the 3,000-ton American steamer Pacific Angel sailing east between Japan and Hawaii, except for the foresight of his mother, Tamie, née Asakawa. If he were he as restless as his mother–and as disdainful of enclosed spaces–he might have tried to jump ship prematurely before they ever left port at Yokohama. But he would rarely be able to leap headfirst into anything: not love, not marriage, not business, and certainly not his first breath. In this, as in so many important life events, his steps were choreographed by his mother–that nineteen-year-old pioneer herself so determined to be Issei, "The First," the original Japanese American.

Aching and nauseous in her cramped berth on that New Year’s Eve voyage, when her water finally broke, Tamie demanded that her husband, Ichiro, get hold of himself long enough to bind her legs together. Although the fetus was what she called "over-ripe" at almost ten months, she felt confident he would bide the time patiently enough.

"I knew all along," she would tell her son, "that you’d be in no hurry. What were you brooding about in there?"

But she wanted to be certain; with some 24 hours to go before reaching California, she commanded Ichiro to tie her tighter, then tried to will herself into a breathing rock for the duration of her voyage.

"Does this...help with your pain?" asked Ichiro, who knew nothing of childbirth or any women’s matters, and who would certainly have disapproved of her intentions.

In fact, he would have wished his family to see his child’s birth, but the agencies at Yokohama were waging another week-long price war and the fare Ichiro had socked away for his own return trip to Los Angeles would now serve to transport them both. Fearing that the rates might shoot back up, and realizing that further delay would require him to pay out three fares, he had finally surrendered to Tamie’s insistence that they sail for America as soon as possible.

"Can you hear me?" He shuddered when she did not answer. Placing his scaly hands on her ankles as if handling the stems of crystal goblets, he tugged at the knot and turned away, pale with helplessness and worry.

Ichiro Fujita was a deceptively strong man, his upper body powerful as a bull’s above his bandy legs. As a teenager in Tokyo, he had once killed a ruffian twice his size when the drunken man and two smaller friends followed him into an alley and challenged him to a boxing match. Ichiro lost a front tooth but won the fight and sent the other two into fearful retreat. He hadn’t been sorry about pounding the life out of the man, but he hadn’t meant to do it, either. Ichiro well knew–and took pride in–his hidden strength, but he always touched Tamie as if his mere sneeze could break her in two. Her comfort was important to him, and he could not bear to imagine the agony childbirth might inflict on her fragile frame.

He was himself immune, he often said, to the exhaustion of hard work and to pain, though he was intimately familiar with both. He worked on a fishing wharf in Los Angeles, emptying ships of their smelly cargoes. For twenty dollars a week, he tiptoed among the great nets, discarded the seaweed and sludge, removed the fish to smaller mesh shoulder-sacks, and hauled them into a dockside warehouse where the women cleaned them. Ten hours a day of hidden hooks, dorsal spikes, scale armor, and slipping on the slimy deck had ruined his hands, so callused and bloated they seemed less hands than paws.

As Ichiro fumbled with the knots in the stockings he used to bind her, Tamie groaned, "Yes, yes that is better, that eases my pain," and Ichiro readily believed her. The coming son would prove, like the father, to be uncomfortable, almost formal, with most women. And gullible, too. After these nine months, Ichiro was still fond of his new wife, but the woman his uncle had arranged for him to marry was bright, vibrant, educated, and therefore bore some watching. Tamie ranked as the top graduate of Nippon Joshidai, the women’s university in Tokyo–an achievement conspicuous enough that for her graduation the Mayor of the city bestowed her with the gift of a not-inexpensive wall-hanging from his own home.

At Tamie’s request, that scroll hung now over the cabin’s only porthole. In its foreground, three fat men in scarlet robes squatted over a chart marked with colored spots; whether they were planning a building, devising a military strategy, or playing at some game of chance, the artist left unclear. To either side and behind the sturdy gray lean-to above them rose a wall of spiky orange-brown splashes like flames–wind-tossed rows of grain. Above this to the right unfurled two narrow tree branches, misty with white flowers, showering blue-black seeds upon the roof. Far into the horizon beyond these loomed an ash-colored mountain, silhouetted against the crimson and purple streamers of approaching dawn or falling dusk, encircled by a halo of clouds and a train of wheeling herons.

Tamie did not know the artist; she supposed that his unusual, somewhat European style made him unpopular. In Japan, paintings so shadowy, so busy and hectic, so determinedly off-balance were uncommon. Ichiro said the artist painted with no control, painted like diarrhea. It made his head hurt, he could focus on nothing; he suggested that the Tokyo Mayor pawned it off on her because he knew it was an inferior work.

In the throes of her labor, it comforted Tamie to focus as always on one particular spot, a minute shadow-figure visible only after studying the work up close. A bell-shaped shadow, capped by a round dot, sat atop the mountain crest–a ceremonial bell, or a temple, perhaps a disproportionately large person sitting cross-legged. Since she had first discovered the nearly invisible detail, her glance flew to it whenever she passed the artwork.

"That’s a mountain of gold," she told Ichiro once, just before they had been married. "That’s where I want to go."

"But it’s gray," Ichiro had corrected her.

But this is not what she meant. In Tokyo, a missionary’s wife once told her that "Gold Mountain" was, in the language of Chinese emigrants, synonymous with "America."

"How stupid the Chinese are!" Ichiro had grumbled. And from that moment on, he knew he must watch his new wife carefully.

And now, staring into this hopeful vision, its landscape rocked by the earthquake of her contractions and the ocean tides, Tamie whispered, "We are going to the mountain of gold."

"There is no mountain of gold," Ichiro replied, not wishing to upset her, but irritated. He knew; he had lived in Los Angeles. In that city, he had learned, there was only a mountain of fish to be unloaded.

"And that is my son sitting up there on top of the mountain."

"No," Ichiro said. "That is a mistake. That is the work of a sloppy artist."

Yet, the image eased Tamie in her delirium. That is where we are going, she mouthed the voiceless words to her quavering belly. We are going to the gold mountain!

So, even if William would have preferred to be a son of Japan, Tamie intended, on her peril, for her child to be born on the U.S. mainland–a Nisei, The Second. She could easily have delivered in Hawaii, but despite earnest American agitation, the island chain was yet a year or so away from annexation. At university, Tamie had heard about and studied the situation. For all she knew, Hawaii could have been taken as a territory during their voyage; so it appeared, passing Oahu and the new naval base at Pearl Harbor, where the view beyond the scroll was spotted with American flags. Nonetheless, it was surely better to be born in a state than a territory. The distance of extra travel was short compared to the distance already behind her.

Ichiro would have balked, had he understood her intention. Although he had already lived and worked in California for three and a half years, he did not expect to remain there forever. His trip back to Japan to collect his bride–arranged through a series of photographs and letters from his uncle–had convinced him. Family and old friends had been enraptured by his clothing, and the relative fortune and exotic stories he brought home with him. Oh, they thought, he had it made.

As with so many young male immigrants–of all nationalities–Ichiro had been pushed and pulled toward America by financial considerations and more than a bit of wanderlust. At that time, the still-minute Japanese population in Los Angeles enjoyed some popularity, not because that city had any particular fondness for Japanese nationals, but because Ichiro’s countrymen provided cheap labor preferable to the generally disliked Chinese. Nonetheless, Ichiro counted himself among those men known to U.S. immigration officials as "birds of passage," young adventure-seekers and fortune-hunters who had no intention of staying.

That he was prohibited from becoming an American posed no problem for Ichiro. That the City of Angels should segregate yellows from whites in its daily affairs seemed only natural to him: A tourist must not expect to impose himself on the lives of the natives. That coloreds had only limited access to recreational areas, for example, affected him as no more than a petty annoyance–his hard work allowed little enough time for soft diversions. That he could not, by law, love or wed a hakujin woman only codified the laws of common sense. Ichiro had his adventure and found his temporary country as hospitable as could reasonably be expected. Still, Ichiro had assured his family, he looked forward to enjoying a leisurely, civilized, Japanese life when he’d finished his adventure in California. America was no place to be an old man. To slave and drink and slave and drink through ten-hour days took a hard toll on the body and spirit. This was, he concluded, a young man’s pursuit.

Like most of the wharf crew, Ichiro was an immoderate after-work drinker, and at the dock’s bar he often challenged coworkers to test his hardiness. For the price of a drink, all comers were invited to throw him their best, punching him squarely in the chest. To elicit a grunt–or better, to knock down Ichiro Fujita–was a feat always talked up the next day around the wharf. Most often, the tit-for-tat contest ended with Ichiro slamming the wind out of his opponent. He would call to the barkeep to mix up "the usual," reach over the prone and breathless man, slip the wallet from a back pocket, and extract from its folds the cost of the powerful concoction known locally as the Ichi-Bomb.

As a matter of principle, Ichiro never drank anything that was drinkable (except sake, which was expensive and not easy to come by). He wanted to invent a drink so terrible–a brew to be named after him, like a Tom Collins or Rob Roy–that only the manliest of men could stomach it. Perhaps the foul cigars he smoked had deadened his taste buds–as the calluses of his bear-paw hands deadened his touch, as his ever-present cologne of fishiness deadened his sense of smell. For, he daily adjusted the Ichi-Bomb’s proportions for increased potency. At base, the drink consisted of rye, vodka, a syrupy cherry liqueur, Peppermint Schnapps, and a shot of beer for the lightest carbonated tingle. In consolation to the fellow he just pounded, Ichiro sometimes sprang for an extra glass (with the defeated man’s money), claiming the Ichi-Bomb could restore breath to a corpse.

Yet, there were two things that could unman the Little Bull. First, despite his vocation, Ichiro was no seaman; he was a poor swimmer and all his fortitude melted away when he actually sailed. The second, more fearful thing was women–their minds, their fragile bodies, their genitalia in particular–and his wife most of all. Ichiro had visited–and would continue to visit his whole short life–many paid women, but these were less daunting, for Ichiro was comforted by the professional detachment of these encounters. Often, the kind of woman who would lower herself to sleep with him for payment was also, like him, no stranger to dank smells, strong drink, and the facts of brute strength.

The discovery that Tamie shared the same qualities, equipment, and appetites as those women unsettled the newlywed Ichiro. To his vague but powerful sensibilities regarding women, no connection could be made between a wife and a lover; visiting a paid woman was like admiring a ferocious animal at the zoo, one he never dreamed could appear in his home. Pregnancy, menstruation, soapy clots of hair in the bathtub–these would forever lay ruin to the otherwise invulnerable stomach of the Ichi-Bomb’s inventor.

For 24 hours, Ichiro wiped the perspiration from Tamie’s forehead. Wet and pale, she gasped and heaved like a fish. A nauseating panic arose in him. He thought to call someone, perhaps the ship’s doctor, but Tamie carried no passport, and Ichiro did not trust the American officials. A ship’s officer had assured him before embarking that paying the fare would preclude the need for a passport; even the U.S. Customs man who had boarded briefly that morning asked only to examine his luggage. Still, Ichiro was not stupid–he opted for caution and patience.

Tamie’s tremors grew increasingly violent until Ichiro became quite frightened. As the ship’s steam whistle sounded, he ran to the window to shove aside the Tokyo Mayor’s wall-hanging and saw the gray wharf buildings approaching. The docks sparkled with strewn confetti and streamers and empties from the New Year’s celebrations. Announcing their arrival, he turned to see Tamie tearing weakly at her bonds.

He ran to his wife and fumbled with the knots, cursing his clumsiness. She gripped his hair and pulled him to his knees so he began tearing at the bindings with his teeth. First her ankles popped apart, then her knees, then her thighs. He ran to the door and called for the captain, a doctor, anybody. Now, as the ship slipped into its berth, the crew was busy preparing the gangplank and the decks began to fill with celebrating passengers.

The spectacular birth of little William–a dry birth, and bloody–was assisted only by the most unlikely and unprepared of midwives. Squatting between her knees like a baseball catcher, Ichiro stared at the opening–it seemed to gasp, breathe, and finally gape, like a tear in her young downy skin, like the angry cleft of a peach. The ship pounded against the wood and steel walls of the dock. On the deck above them, someone ignited a cluster of firecrackers and the passengers erupted into cheering. William wrenched Tamie with the severity of quintuplets as she squeezed him out into his swooning father’s rough palms. Catching hold of the slippery child, Ichiro gasped against an upsurge of bile, swallowing at the air like a man drowning. Fearing that nausea would overwhelm him, he could not force open his tight-sealed lips to call out when the purser knocked at the door. Tamie cried out, however, and the purser burst in to see her howling, her body arched back taut like a bowed saw blade, and to see Ichiro crouched below her, drenched purplish-brown down to the elbows, his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s.

The purser gagged in horror, mistaking the miracle of life beginning for the atrocity of a brutal, cannibalistic murder. The mountainous young man’s terror propelled him across the cabin, where he noticed the squirming infant only as he smashed the father’s face with a fist as brick-like as Ichiro’s own. The first connection was adequate to break Ichiro’s left jaw, but he managed to pull his second punch as the new father toppled backward, his body reflexively curling around his child.

A boy? Ichiro thought, as his head pounded into the floorboards. In the panic and swirl of the moment, his last conscious sensation was one of awe. The round yellowish mass, squirming, draped in the fuzz-like vernix–he had a vision of the legendary Momotaro, the warrior-boy miraculously born of a huge peach, fulfillment of his parents’ dreams, savior of his people.

"Please," Ichiro prayed, drowning into black, "be a boy."

When he came to some time later, the purser stood hovering above him, just as Ichiro himself had to the many dockworkers he’d vanquished.

"Stay there," the man ordered, though Ichiro had no intentions of trying to rise yet. Another man had joined them and stood hunched over Tamie, grumbling, gingerly removing from between her legs what looked to Ichiro like a blood-soaked, deflated party balloon. A shrill whine sounded. Ichiro tried to speak, but his jaw allowed for only a clipped, unintelligible moan.

The purser frowned, then asked loudly, "Speakie no English?" Tamie groaned.

Bakatare! Ichiro wanted to say, but he could only blink at the idiotic purser.

"Jesus H. Christ, Ed, keep it down!" the other man hissed without turning from his patient. "He’s Japanese, not deaf, you idiot!" He wrapped a small bag of ice in a towel, laid it across Tamie’s abdomen, whispered, "You’ll be just fine, Ma’am," and then stepped across the cabin with his doctor’s bag to examine her husband, placing a hand on the jaw. "It’s broke, all right."

Ichiro glared up at the purser, who, although averting his eyes as if shamed, seemed impressed with himself. "Wit hab ta be da face ?" Ichiro tried. "I tink wu hoe me a trink."

"Yeah, Japanese," the purser said, nodding.

"Don’t try to talk," the doctor warned Ichiro, leaning close to add, "Papa."

Ichiro sighed and remained quiet as the doctor began to wrap his jaw closed with gauze. Before he could tie the knot, however, Ichiro pulled the doctor to him and tried a last time: "Pweenish ?"

"Yes, you saw it," the doctor chuckled. "It’s a boy."

This was the story Billy Fujita heard his whole young life–the only version his parents would admit to–usually wielded against him whenever Ichiro complained of the boy’s complacency, sensitivity, or thoughtfulness–his boring-ness. "It’s not my fault," Ichiro would say. "I started you out right–with a bang bang bang!" And always, the story ended in the same thrilling way: with the celebrations and firecrackers sounding above for the bawling new Fujita below. "And that," his father would conclude, beaming, "it the story of how we had you." But Billy, the Nisei, the American, always giggled to his mother, because he knew how his Pop was had, too.


 
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