Authors: Frances Itani
Tags: #General Fiction
For Frances Michiko
With much love
And for all of those whose memories
have been weighted with silence
Speak of a man and his shadow will turn up
lack outside. A solid blur of black. A wall of mountain behind. A man moving about out there would instinctively raise his hands to push his way through the dark
Inside, lumps and shadows cast by the kerosene lamp. Twigs of frost to be snapped off in the morning, suspended from the seams where wall and ceiling meet. The drone of First Father’s voice from his chair in a corner of the shack
I had heard the fates many times before, but he insisted that I pay attention when he picked up the palm-sized book with the red cover. He read back to front, top to bottom, starting with my older brother
“Hiroshi. You are number-one son, born in the year of the monkey. You are a strong boy and you will grow up to be a strong man. Because of your fate, you will be skilled at whatever you choose to do.”
He paused, and I waited for Hiroshi’s intake of breath
“But sometimes you will not finish what you set out to do, and this will make you angry with yourself. Remember that you should never marry a woman born in the year of the tiger.”
Hiroshi frowned, looked down at his already muscular arms and was momentarily quiet
“Bin,” said Father, because I was always second. “You are youngest, number-two son, born in the year of the tiger. A tiger may be stubborn, but can chase away ghosts and protect. If careful, a tiger is capable of amassing a fortune.”
My brother and sister perked up, knowing what was coming next
“But because your time of birth was at the cusp of the year of the rabbit”—he added this as if he’d sired a child who could not be helped—”you are destined to be melancholy, and you will weep over nonsensical things.”
Hiroshi and Keiko leaned back on the bench and hooted with laughter, as they always did. Father cleared his throat and ignored the interruption
I remained silent and glanced over at Mother, who was making
from egg and rice. The outer wrappings, rinsed cabbage leaves, had been stored since fall, salted, folded and packed in a jar. If a leaf tore, it was expertly repaired with a patch from another leaf. When the rice was tucked in—not a grain wasted—she rolled the bamboo mat, the
and sliced the
in bite-sized circles. She caught my glance and gave a quick nod that also meant, Pay attention to your father
Keiko’s fate was last to be told, though she was middle child. But she was a girl
“Keiko, you were born in the year of the rooster. You will be ambitious and work hard, but you must learn to trust. Even though you will want to tell people exactly what you think, you cannot be right all the time. Still, you will do well and you will earn respect.”
Keiko preened, with a frown. Her cheekbones flushed like matching purple bruises
Did this moment take place during the first winter of our internment, 1942? No, it had to be later, when I was older—the third year, perhaps. We were in the camp five winters in all. We were sitting as close to the
wood stove as we could position ourselves, bundled in layers of sweaters that had tumbled from Mother’s needles. Because new wool was scarce, she had unravelled sturdy fishermen’s sweaters so that she could reknit the coarse wool into smaller items. Pattern was of no concern, nor was colour. It was warmth that mattered. We were living in the mountains, after all, partway up the Fraser, the great river that defined our lives in the camp. We were inland, more than 150 miles from the river’s mouth and from the southern channels of the delta, where it spilled out into the Pacific, just north of the boundary with the United States
Even farther from us was the west coast of Vancouver Island and the house Father had built with the help of his brother, our uncle Kenji. It was a fisherman’s house, propped on massively thick stilts. Stilts that Father had sealed, by himself, to prevent rotting, and that defended our family when tidal waters swept up the bay and drifted in soundlessly over a thin strip of barnacled beach between house and shore. But all the while, hidden undercurrents had been making their own incursions with the tides, in and around and under the house. The house from which we had been forcibly removed, and that none of us, as it turned out, would ever see again
he call from my sister, Kay, comes in the evening. Second call in a week.
“He isn’t dying, Bin. I want to make that clear. He sits in his chair, facing the door, as if he expects someone to walk through. He asks for you every time I visit. I’ve driven to B.C. twice in the past six weeks—it’s a long drive from here. But he won’t budge from his place.”
“First Father?” I can’t resist, though I’m not proud of saying it like that.
“I wish you wouldn’t call him that.”
“That’s what he is.”
“You still have anger.” She says this softly, but impatience is there, underneath.
“Not about the same things. Anyway, I try not to hold on to it.”
I want to snap at her when she talks like this. I want to say,
Get angry yourself, why don’t you. You deserve to
“He’s old, Bin. Well, getting old. In his eighties, after all. I’d bring him here to Alberta if he’d agree to leave that tiny house of his.”
“But he won’t,” I say. “And since Mother died, he insists on living alone—or so you keep telling me.”
“You’ve never seen his house, because you refuse to visit Kamloops. In summer it’s stifling, take my word for it. Another month or so, and it’ll be scorching there.”
“Why doesn’t he go to the coast before the weather changes?”
“He won’t. Not even with his own brother, though Uncle Kenji has offered to drive him, countless times. Father just sits there staring at the door, or out the window at dry mountains.” She pauses and adds, “He needs to see you.”
I choose to ignore this and remain silent for a moment.
He made his choices
, I’m thinking.
More than half a century ago. His needs are not my concern
I feel Kay bracing herself, ready to argue or persuade.
“As a matter of fact,” I tell her suddenly, “I’ve decided to travel—west—to British Columbia. As far as the Fraser, to the camp. Well, there is no camp, but whatever is there now.”
This announcement surprises me as much as it does her. There’s a longer pause and I wonder, foolishly, if she has hung up.
“I won’t be in your part of the country for several days, of course.” I’m making this up, now, as I speak. “I’ll be leaving in the morning, but I probably won’t reach Edmonton for a week—more or less. I have things to do along the way.”
Basil has been listening and pads by in the hall, his nails clattering against hardwood. He tilts his shaggy head at an angle, enough to ensure that his expression of reproach has been noticed. Nose to floor, long ears dragging the dust, he disappears into the kitchen. I’m certain he does this—the ear-dragging part—on purpose.
“What things?” Kay, as usual, has recovered quickly.
“Work things.” I’ve never liked explaining myself, not even to my wife, Lena. “I’ll phone when I get close.”
“You’re driving. All this way. By yourself.”
I hear a long sigh and have a sudden image of Kay standing at a picture window in her Alberta home, looking out at a disc of sun hovering over flat, golden plain. No, there will be nothing golden this time of year in Edmonton. Last summer, when she moved from one neighbourhood to another, she wrote to say that her new house is close to the ravine and the University of Alberta—where she has worked as a counsellor for many years. For all I know, she might be staring into the depths of a crevasse, or at rows of houses, or at spring snow melting in a parking lot. After the enforced years in the camp, Kay has always hated the mountains. She feels squeezed between them every time she drives to B.C., says the mountains press in on her lungs until she’s short of breath. Maybe now that her children are grown and on their own, she’s finally found a place where she can breathe deeply, no dips or peaks to interrupt her view. A place where she can retire in a year or two, in peace. Her husband, Hugh, has already retired, and Kay has told me that he loves having his time to himself now. He has all sorts of projects going, though she’s never said what kind of projects these are.
Basil reappears, having circled kitchen, laundry, dining room. His face looks up in innocence, but something is drooping from his jaw. He drags it across the floor and, without stopping, plops it at my feet and carries on. I watch his low-slung body disappear, sixty pounds of Basset Griffon, the Grand version. He’s predominantly white, with a mix of grey, black and apricot markings, the apricot showing through from a thick undercoat. He circles again, this time reversing direction. He’s been sticking his nose in the dirty laundry again, probably feeling ignored. Loping his way through an existential dog nightmare, perhaps.
“I’ll be alone,” I say into the phone. And now it’s Kay’s turn to be silent.
Who else would be with me? Lena has been dead more than five months. Greg returned to his studies on the East Coast and is back to living his own life. He left a week after the funeral, in mid-November. He was home again at Christmas, and we managed to get through muted festivities at Lena’s sister’s place in Montreal. Greg flew to Ottawa first, and we travelled together by train to Montreal. Neither of us wanted to drive because the roads were hazardous, covered in snow and ice.
Once in Montreal, we did our best to keep well-meaning relatives at bay—or were surrounded. One and the same, perhaps. There were always people around, people in every room. Was that by accident, or was Lena’s family orchestrating our grief as well as their own? When I think of those few days, I remember chairs crowded around the kitchen table, lineups for bathrooms in the morning, music turned up a little louder than necessary. I particularly remember the Sanctus of Berlioz’s
, only the Sanctus, a solo tenor voice. It was a blend of pain and beauty, and I felt that the tenor, after singing, could only go offstage and weep. As for the answering women’s choir, they were intent on bringing solace from afar. The women sang as if something clear and important had to be said. Perhaps that is when something I was holding back fell away. Perhaps that is when I began to allow myself to grieve.