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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing February 2023
Stones, by Dirk van Nouhuys.
This is an excerpt from a novel I am currently working on exposing the history of San Jose, CA.
A bus carried them for hours through unfamiliar country. Her father was tense and alert. He doffed his fedora and held it in his lap. Franklin sat next to him stiff as well as if miming his father’s rectitude. Her mother slept fitfully, starting awake, looking about sadly and then nodding off. Kyo leaned next to her and woke when her mother stirred. Anne sat upright on her other side and wondered what they thought, as if knowing would still the chaos in the world. Their belongings mingled with those of the other Japanese Americans crowding the overhanging bins and heaping the isles, so that when they stopped and were ordered to disembark there was much clambering and shuffling. Her father paused them with a hand gesture so they emerged last when he could descend with more dignity. They exited into a chill wind blowing sand across an open area beside a barbered wire fence high enough to pause a leaping deer.
The land around the fence was dusty, devoid of plant life; in middle distance Anne could see neat groves of stunted trees; in the distance, mountains shone like photos in magazines. The steady and gusty wind carried away all smell. Japanese America families from scattered buses were scrambling everywhere while Caucasian men stood self-centered, some helmeted soldiers with rifles, others bureaucrats with clipboards responding to Japanese but checking their tags before they spoke. Dad stayed with the kids while Tomomi rushed off to talk with other women. She returned and went with dad to talk to one of the clip board bearers, leaving the kids alone by their bundles. Anne felt like one of the pacific islands where invasion was recounted on the radio. The parents hurried back and joined other families scampering to stake out a place in the barracks.
The barracks were about as welcoming as chicken coups. They were new buildings made of old wood hastily thrown up with single-board walls tar papered on the outside and floors raised a foot on concrete blocks. Each barrack had a single mess hall, an empty recreation room, a laundry room, a latrine divided for men and women, and living spaces, “apartments”, twenty by twenty feet divided by walls one plank thick. Each apartment had a door three steps up from the ground.
Water ran in the latrines, mess hall, laundry room, and from a tap on the steps to the door of each apartment. When they found a place, her father stood by the door perhaps claiming it or taking it as a vantage point to consider the possibility of community. Her mother sagged to the floor on her knees. The children stood beside her looking for what? — for how they were. There were two single beds and blankets. In the evening word spread among the new apartments that they were to eat the cafeteria of their barrack. Soldiers handed them hard biscuits, dry sausages, hard candy, and chocolate bars, and an officer explained that starting in a few days The War Relocation Authority would provide food and they would run the cafeteria themselves. They did not know whether to eat there or take the food “home”, but soldiers gestured with rifles for them to stay in the cafeteria. Afterward eating they retried, scattered and confused. Neither of the younger children had eaten a meal outside of their house before.
The next day, Tomomi talked with women in the families next to them. Everywhere there were families. Anne could never remember meeting anyone who was not there as part of a family. Men and women who had been living alone joined with their sister or uncle or a family from their town or work. The War Relocation Authority provided food and paid some of the women to prepare it in the cafeteria. Tomomi got one of those jobs. Anne’s father had brought his still and Tomomi brought him home scraps of fruit and a vessel to make brandy. For Anne the still was something warm because her father cared for it and it was a fragment of home; yet she knew, without putting it into words, that he would sometimes get drunk and fade or drop out.
Anne was six now. Disagreements chewed and flared among the Japanese Americans about cooperation with the War Relocation Authority. Some were accused of being spies for the army while others were accused of making life worse by refusing to cooperate. She did not understand the content of the disagreements but could sense the floating hostility and the sense of betrayal. One day when she was eating with her friends, she saw her father and another man in another part of the cafeteria stand and shout at one another. She heard the other man called her father a dog. Her father began punching the man in the chest with the flat of his hands. Was he drunk? The question tightened her stomach. The other man ran out of the cafeteria with her father raging after him, the two dodging tables to the door. Anne was ashamed but did not want to let her father down. She scrambled up from the bench where she and her friends had stopped eating and turned to watch the action. Then, hiding her face with her hand, she ran after them.
They ran down the stairs where the other man turned to face her shouting father. They began again, embracing, and fell rolling to the dusty ground kicking and biting each other like two cats. Tomomi ran with several men who began kicking them and dragged them apart. When he stood, Tomomi and a neighbour hustled him off to their space. Anne was afraid to go home and went to sit with her friends in the cafeteria, but they sat still around her and did not speak. When she returned to their “apartment” she found her dad asleep sprawled like a starfish on a random place on the floor. Her mother was sitting on one of the two chairs they had scrounged doing something on her lap that Anne was never able to remember while the younger children stood next to her not touching her, but looking into space as if at something their mother was gazing at rather than glancing that the work on her lap.
In a few weeks, the imprisoned citizens were not only allowed but required to pass through the barbed wire to work in vegetable gardens and even allowed to take hikes in the nearby area. Her dad had been working in the garden where his expertise was gratefully acknowledged. A stream ran by the gardens within sight of the watchtowers, it’s rocky shallows dry at this time of year and filled with river-rolled stones of many colors and textures. The watchtowers that guarded the camp were fabricated from the same cast off wood that built the barracks. The floors of the towers were level with the top of the barbed wire, a little like a life guard’s tower, but with thin, waist-high walls. At all hours, a soldier stood ready with a rifle. Access was by a ladder.
Late on the first day on which he worked in the garden after the fight, the guards were changing. Furukawa walked cautiously toward a solder waiting at the foot of the ladder while his comrade descended. As Furukawa approached, the soldier hefted his rifle but did not lower it. The garden workers and the guards were quietly growing used to one another.
Furukawa respected an armed man, especially when an unarmed man approached him. “Excuse me sir,” Furukawa said, “Sir, may I ask you a question?”
“I ‘spose so.”
“May I go to the creek bed.”
The soldier narrowed his eyes, “The creek bed? Why’s that?”
“To gather stones.”
“What do you want stones for?” The guard going off duty had reached the ground and stepped beside him.
“To make a garden by my door to the barracks,” he said. “These are classic garden stones.”
Furukawa wanted to say, ‘in Japan,’ but of course he didn’t.
The soldier looked at his tag, then the soldiers turned their backs to him and spoke together quietly. They turned back to him.
“We’ll have to ask headquarters,” the first said. “Ask again tomorrow.”
The next day the soldier came to him in the garden and said, “They say it’s OK to take stones form the river bed.”
After that, each time he went to the garden he came back with as many stones as he could carry. They were round or oval, shaped by the creek’s winter rush from the mountains. Their color varied but their texture was the same. They ranged from a few inches to a foot in diameter and varied in color. Some were flattened like rounded stepping stones. At first he piled them in a pyramid by the door to their section of the barracks. In the evening he would sit on the ramshackle steps and survey the stones as if they were an emerging world. Anne believed he told Tomomi things he did not tell the children. What are you doing?” she asked. “Ishi no ue nimo san’nen,” (three years on a stone.) he replied with a Japanese proverb. No, he continued, “I’m going to lay out a garden. It will bring peace.” She asked him if he was building a tower. “No,” he looked at her thoughtfully. His thoughtful look was as warm to her as acknowledgment.
“Can I help?”
“You don’t have to; you can still play.”
“But I want to help.”
Her father handed her a stone.
Anne went to school with her siblings where they had started to play in groups with their age mates and sit at lunch where they spoke in English. In school it was, she later recalled, where she had begun to think in English, starting with the numbers when they did arithmetic. More and more she sat with her friends even at dinner as the camp turned into a kind of town, a kind of ambivalent dream of an American town. It was not forbidden to speak Japanese, but it was forbidden to write it.
In the afternoon and weekends for a time every day Anne carried stones for her father. Before he settled on the spot for each stone he drew a with a brush and ink a Japanese character on the underside. She could not read them. She carried each in her two hands before her with her shoulders bent to the weight. He would point for her to reset them fractions of an inch, lift them again and put them down again in the loose, dry soil.
At first the garden had no plants. The stones took over access to the steps and the door to their measure of the barrack. Now they guided the family and visitors on a curving path. Beside it her father daily raked another path to look like water. They laid small circles of stones beside the path at irregular intervals. In some he raked the grainy soil. The heap of stones he had brought first still stood but content changed as more stones were placed, and her father brought others from the creek bed. He told her it was a mountain.
He built a screen of broken lumber and reeds gathered from the stream bank that half concealed their steps and the lower half of their door. Gradually her father found and selected small flowering plants and succulents and planted them in the unraked circles beside the path. Anne got the job of watering them with water carried from the public showers in an old Crisco can. Other gardens materialized before other doorways. Men would come and congratulate, and compare their work and exchange ideas, and plants and rocks, walking thoughtfully from the common road to the screen and back again.
One day the garden builders formed a group and visited each garden. They gathered in Furukawa’s first and spent the afternoon walking the camp comparing notes, admiring arrangement, and granting praise to each man’s work. Anne did not go with them, but she felt his pride. In the evening they returned to Furukawa’s where they went into his ‘apartment’ and partied. Tomomi hustled the children off to the spaces of friends. Furukawa had stopped drinking when he laid the last stone of the path, but, when Anne came home, she found him sprawled on the floor and her mother lying in their bed with her face to the thin wall. Anne’s pride stuttered.
Her friends from school and dinner did not always understand why their fathers made the gardens. It was the girls who wondered; the boys were too busy playing baseball. One day Anne asked him what the garden was for.
“It is our peace,” he said.
© Dirk van Nouhuys
Dirk is a native of Berkeley, California. He writes short stories, some experimental forms, and occasionally verse, but mostly novels, which have been published as excerpts or serially. About 100 items of fiction and a few poems have appeared in literary or general magazines. He has a BA from Stanford in creative writing and an MA from Columbia in contemporary literature. He worked for decades as a tech writer and manager for SRI’S Augmentation Research Center, Apple, Sun, and others. This century he devotes full time to fiction. He occasionally publishes translations and photography. http://www.wandd.com/about_me.html