First it was the names that went. Names of her neighbors, names of her grandchildren. Sometimes the names of her two daughters, her only son.
She knew their faces, of course. The daughter with the sharp eyes, always inspecting her, pressing her onward--always onward!--to the bathroom, the kitchen, anywhere that was away from the door, where she’d hesitated, no longer certain of her direction, or why.
The other daughter was pale-faced and forgiving. When she wandered lost among the tomato vines in her yard, it was this daughter who clasped her hands firmly in hers.
The son did not visit often. He called once a month. Who could blame him? His mother, who couldn’t be trusted with the baby. Who couldn’t be trusted with herself. Even as a boy he’d been prudent. Preserving himself against the world’s imperfections.
Then, one day, the streets began to go. The stark, narrow one, shortcut to the schoolyard where her children used to wait, fidgeting and hungry, racing at the sight of her. Then the route to the drugstore; the turn to the post office; the short leafy distance to the bakery with shelves of cinnamon bread she liked, lightly buttered, on rainy afternoons.
Her neighbors began finding her. Strolling up and down the road, peering into windows she recognized but could no longer place. Sometimes they found her at the bus stop considering the direction of her home, which was not on any bus route. Each time, the neighbors took her elbow--the younger ones kindly, the older ones angrily--all of them threatening to tell on her.
But how could she stay home? The sky shimmering outside her window, the trees like shadow puppets dancing on the lawn, the promise of her tomatoes plumping in the yard Edward had cleared for her, years ago, when they were both still young and had half the mortgage to pay. She couldn’t help it, her body yearning for the weight of the globes, warm under cool running water. There was no room for her daughters’ warnings or her neighbors’ pity. Her feet simply took her there, down the steps into her bright garden.
Her first tomato came to her in 1911, the year she turned thirteen, the year she first visited America. Small, yellow, pear-shaped: it was a gift from her father, plucked from the land that was to be her new summer home in California. The seeds were slimy, and the first time she bit the fruit, they splattered the soil, a dark phlegmy embarrassment. She hastily toed the spot, but her father, catching her, laughed. Watch out, everything root here.
She ended up potting that patch of soil and placing the terra-cotta by her bedroom window in the farmhouse that now held her summer things. Like her new frock, uncomfortably buxom beside her yukata, which waved like a happy kite when the breeze blew in from the rice paddy that belonged to her father’s cousin Bob. Bob, like her father, was an agronomist. Once known as Mitsuru, he was a reckless fox of a man, his many pockets jingling with ideas too modern for their hometown in Niigata, a rice farming region on the west coast of Japan. Her father, though, could never resist their allure, and Mitsuru, knowing this, often entangled him in regrettable schemes.
Bob left for California in 1906, and for over two years no one heard from him. But of course it was her father to whom Bob eventually wrote, telling him about the new strain of rice he was cultivating, sweet like home but suited to the California soil and climate. Her father leapt at the prospect. And though it would take a few seasons, the strain, a robust hybrid, would prove successful, surviving all the Land Acts and even the arsonists sent by the Asiatic Exclusion League, until Executive Order 9066 rounded up all the Bobs and transplanted them to Manzanar.
Yellow Pear, her father said, testing the shape of the language that would one day replace her own. That’s name.
The plant grew, despite the confines of the pot and window, and produced a single cluster of tomatoes that collected like dewdrops. It sat there enjoying the sun that dazzled the room every summer for three years until one afternoon an avalanche of books, loosed by an earthquake, battered its limbs and broke its spine.
Oh well, her father had laughed, squeezing his shoulders to his ears like his Americanized cousin. That’s life, huh!
Sometime in the fall the kind-faced daughter began staying with her. At first she stayed only on weekends, then during the week as well. This daughter was quiet. She did not disturb the house even when she washed dishes or folded laundry. While this daughter was around, TV was forbidden, so they sat in the kitchen with a pot of tea and talked about the new hiring the daughter was in charge of: gentle prattle that soon gave way to a gentle prodding of memory.
Remember when we went apple-picking and you got caught with your mouth full of Gala--or was it McIntosh?
Remember the time at the movies when you got up to use the bathroom and ended up in the exact seat you’d left, but in a different theater, next to a different family, without realizing it?
Of course she did not remember these stories, which nudged a darkness but did not illuminate it. What flared in her were childhood images. Like the time her father took her ice-skating on the lake behind the house in Niigata. She was six then, enamored of her skates, which smelled of new leather and not the usual musk of her brother’s feet.
Hot sun on her shivery back. She remembered the glint of the ice, her slashing blades, her fear of sliced fingers. Her skates skipped: the surprise of hard ice on her back and her father’s swishing blades crisscrossing so close to her face she could taste the metal slicing her breath.
Two years later she did rip open her face. A deep curve from her left ear to her chin. An unbelievably clean wound for such a messy incident. Grabbing the leg of a sleeping dog! But how could she have known? The dog was a friend. So fortunate the scar had followed her jawline. So fortunate she had a pretty face, astonishingly hard to ruin. Naughty girl.
Only one girl ever asked about her scar. This girl was fair-haired and fair-skinned and spoke with a foreign accent. New to Niigata, she was prickly, her turbulent face flashing at the sound of her name, which no one could pronounce. Mar. Joh. Ree! One day Marjorie sat next to her. Parting her hair, she inspected her face and, just like that, asked about it. What could she say to enchant this girl? She leaned into her ear--so pale she could see the blue and red lattice as delicate as the crazing in her family’s finest Imari china--and whispered that it was her father who’d done it. Flayed open her face with ice skates.
She never forgot Marjorie, or the lie, and became ill when her cherished friend transferred to another school in another part of the country, where her diplomatic father was reassigned.
Years later she believed she saw her, though who could be sure? It was 1919, and they were women now, on an entirely different continent, in an entirely different hemisphere, far from the classroom in Niigata. It was a glorious day, the California sun invigorating the streets, and as she lifted her face in spontaneous praise of its vitality, she caught another face doing the same. Marjorie! Her mouth shaped the name no longer so difficult to pronounce. But the woman only lowered her gaze and hurried off, the fair crowd swallowing her up.
The first time she was hospitalized was three years ago, in 1978, the year Robert announced his engagement. Robert, her son. She was admitted for pneumonia but diagnosed with cirrhosis on top of a bad case of the flu. The cirrhosis was a shock; she was a proper woman. When the doctors asked after her medications, she produced her modest list. Nobody could have suspected that the prescription she’d dutifully filled had been treating a healthy heart but destroying her liver.
Six months later she was admitted again. Fainting on the way to the market. She was treated for a concussion but diagnosed with malnutrition; she was prescribed a four-day stay that dribbled into two weeks.
At first her children worried. Then they were angry. They blamed each other, then blamed her. When, finally, they realized she hadn’t uttered a word for days, they called in more doctors, more men who touched and probed her, first with words, then with beeping objects, finally turning to her children to inquire after her daily functioning, her history of diagnosed depression, neither of which they knew anything about.
The test results came back inconclusive, but one thing was certain: her brain had changed; age had worn holes in it, siphoning her ability to cope with a world that had become complicated with a tangle of things she couldn’t or shouldn’t do. For months, perhaps years, she’d been losing herself, her body and thoughts, even her feelings, no longer hers to command or own.
But of course her children were a worry. Like the sharp-eyed one, still unmarried at fifty-two. Some days, when she thought about this daughter, she was glad of the house Edward had left them. Other days she couldn’t place this face, this sharp pair of eyes, which she mistook as belonging to the nurse who asked brisk, disgraceful questions to expose her. One day, quite without warning, she sharpened her own eyes and said, Marjorie, Marjorie-Keiko, you’ll never bring home a husband, will you?
She received her second tomato in 1920. Six weeks pregnant and wild with fever, she’d even frightened Edward, who’d cursed the June heat, unaware that it was an entirely different fire that was stoking her furnace. As always, the Exclusion League was fanning the national passions, igniting the resentment of even their own neighbors--Edward’s family friends!--who spat in her direction behind his back and hurled rocks at their windows when he was out. She almost cost herself and Edward his heir, flying out to confront the vandal who, luckily, turned out to be a lone, unarmed boy of barely fifteen. Then it was over: a new Alien Land Law passed, shuttering all the remaining Japanese-run farms in the region.
Cherokee Purple: the fruits were large, the color of bruises. When she tried one, she was surprised to find it sweet, nothing at all like blood.
Four years later America closed its ports to all Asian immigrants, special cases pending. When Edward brought the news, she expected his usual tirade, but all that came was the angry thwack of the newspaper striking his open palm. The sound itself was startling, but it was the snap in it that flipped her heart, uncovering a coil of fear that had been fattening there. After all, with the borders officially closed, she’d ceased to be Edward’s romantic commitment and become instead his permanent liability. For the first time she found herself cursing her father, his optimism that had let him leave her, his then fifteen-year-old daughter, here. Of course, it was still 1913 then; they’d assumed he’d return as usual, if not the following summer then the one after.
But the world turned out to be tired of the usual, and in retrospect it was only hopeful ignorance that had allowed them to stand on the pier that final morning, her father becoming in his gray suit, she unbecoming in her frock, cut and sewn to complement Edward’s cream jacket. The ship, Hikari, sleek and modern, was admitting passengers, and her father, a lover of technology, paused to admire it.
The sea was calm, polished to a high gleam, and so was her father when he turned to offer his hand, first to Bob, then to Edward, then finally to her, pulling her in at the last moment to squeeze her shoulders, once, twice, before scissoring his legs and severing himself from them. Was she disappointed? Of course she was. But what words, what gestures, could they have exchanged? The horn bellowed; the passengers waved and shouted. Like her father, she corralled her face. The horn bellowed again, and soon the ramps lifted; water began rippling along the ship’s keel, and a sick feeling pushed into her chest, propelling her arms into a wave. She waved and waved, two frantic flags. But his face, a rapidly diminishing button, never changed, his eyes transmitting nothing, not to her, not to Edward, who had kept his hand firmly around her waist.
In the winter the sharp-eyed daughter began staying with her. This daughter stayed in the living room even when the wind howled and the cold drifted in through the picture window.
Sometimes the daughters’ visits overlapped, and their voices rose to bitter, accusatory shouts before dropping again to apologetic whispers, the faithful picture window reflecting the shoulders of the two women resigned to an unpleasant but necessary collaboration. Once in a while, one or the other stormed out, slamming the door and paralyzing the house. On these nights she prayed for deliverance, summoning her father, mother, and brothers--and even Edward, who was annoyingly swift to respond. One by one, they gathered atop a mountain whose gentle peak, neon with green grass, beckoned to her, and in time she understood that this was her destination too. This landscape, canopied by a giant mushroom cloud, binding them together.
Only once did Edward turn his back on her. Edward the chivalrous. He was halfway up the drive with the morning papers when he froze, a slightly paunchy statue who pivoted the next moment to the compost pile, unaware of her shape in the picture window.
Minutes later, they met in the house, and before she could utter a greeting he pivoted for a second time, unhooking his coat and leaving without breakfast. Of course she went to investigate. Sprinkled with yesterday’s scraps, the newspaper was wet but whole, and it still took her some time to find the article so tiny she might’ve missed it anyway in her afternoon skim between housekeeping and dinner. hiroshima maidens arrive for free treatment. The story, seven lines total, praised the spirit of American charity, magnanimous enough to welcome the “grateful girls, survivors of the world’s first atomic blast.”
She broke five plates that afternoon, her furious hands dropping his heirloom china in purposeful succession: two for the silenced girls; two for the phrasing (grateful!); and one for her outrage at Edward, who hadn’t bothered to shred the shameful report.
Over the weeks, more newspapers turned up in that corner of the yard as the maidens were treated and displayed. Then, four years later, she found a page carefully splayed on the dining table. japan’s first miss universe. She read the feature, the headline large enough that she would never have missed it, and fed strips of it to the rotting pile.