I’m a very old man now. Nearly all who were important to me are gone, leaving before me to find out if everything "they" said was true. But I’ve always been a stubborn old coot. I suspect it’s all a pack of shit designed to keep some kind of order in society. I’m in no hurry to check out my theory, though, so I’m sticking around. The downside of this, of course, is that there’s no one left to debate the subject with. Not anyone who gives a rat’s ass what I have to say, anyway.
But I do have my stuff. All these years, I’ve been hauling around the stuff that has meaning for me, adding to it as new things come along. My kids called it “Pa’s junk,” and I know they were dreading the day when I was gone and they’d have to go through it all. I guess Fate relieved them of that worry by hustling them off before the old man.
Now that all my friends and family have left me behind, the things I’ve collected through these many years are my friends. We share many memories, and we frequently sit together, as very old friends do, and reminisce.
My best friend is this pack of papers, bound together by an odd homemade rope, woven of cloth strips and twine. The papers are beautiful, pink and green, yellow and blue, printed with an ink I have never seen before or since. I’ve been told that the paper is called Katazome-shi paper, and that it was printed using stencils and an ancient Japanese technique. How it came to be isn’t important, though. It’s how it came to me that matters.
Her name was Chiyoko and she may have been the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Well, I call her a woman, but she was really just a girl, probably no more that 17 or 18. I was just a young buck myself in those days, and she was like a rare exotic bird to me.
But I get ahead of myself.
I was working at the US Immigration Station on Angel Island. I was with the Quarantine Station run by the US Public Health Service. The station was separated from the main processing facility, and we were responsible for treating any immigrant passengers suspected of illness, whether they were sick or not.
Chiyoko had arrived with her family. Later that year, Japanese immigration all but stopped with the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act. Had her family waited even a few months, they would have no doubt been turned away at our border. But arrive they did, on a ship that was infected with small pox.
All the passengers were off-loaded, and the ship was fumigated with sulphur. As the passengers stepped of the bus at the Quarantine Station, the docs examined them, and then they were separated: the obviously sick this way, those showing no symptoms that way. (Yeah, in later years, I saw the parallels.) We scrubbed them down with carbolic soap and gave them overalls to wear. They looked like the prisoners that they would be for the next two weeks. Their clothing and baggage were sent through large metal cylinders where it was disinfected with steam under pressure. They lived in barracks while with us, and the barracks were fumigated every morning.
The whole process was horrible. We tried to be humane, but the passengers were still terrified, and who could blame them? It was like a meat processing plant! Very few had any English at all, what little they did have was so basic as to be useless in communicating with the others. Some were crying; some were shocked into terrified silence. Chiyoko was one of the latter. Her parents had been infected with small pox, and so were shuttled off to a different quarantine barracks than she. She was essentially alone.
One day shortly after she had arrived, I was working in Chiyoko’s barracks and found her in tears. She had just been told that her parents had died of small pox. Now she was literally alone, and in a foreign country. She sat clutching a bundle of papers, which were soggy and stinking of ammonia and formaldehyde from the disinfecting process. Holding the bundle like an infant, she rocked back and forth, sobbing her eyes out. It broke my heart. I gathered her in my arms, and awkwardly patted her back while murmuring what I hoped were soothing sounds to her.
Chiyoko never got sick. She had somehow escaped the small pox infection that claimed so many from the ship that brought her to the United States. I sat with her every day, bringing photographs of places in the US to show her, and I told her about them. I never really knew if she understood, but she seemed to enjoy my visits. And I certainly enjoyed looking at her.
Once I realized that Chiyoko would be released, I set about finding somewhere for her to go. Through my church, I was put in touch with a Japanese immigrant community in San Francisco, and a couple there offered to take Chiyoko in. They would meet her at the disembarkation point.
Before she boarded the ferry that would take her to the mainland, Chiyoko turned to me, and shyly gave me a hug, whispering, “arigato.”
I never saw her again.
Many years later, there was a knock on my door. An elderly woman was standing on my doorstep, holding a bundle. Handing it carefully to me, she identified herself as Mary Jackson, and told me that Chiyoko was her daughter-in-law. Her son, who was a seaman aboard the Arizona, had been killed at Pearl Harbor, and Chiyoko had come back to San Francisco to live with her. Soon after arriving back in San Francisco, Chiyoko was one of thousands identified as being "totally unassimilable," and she was relocated to the Manzanar War Relocation Camp. It must have seemed very familiar to her. Mrs. Jackson argued that Chiyoko had been married to an American, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. After a year of living in the internment camp, Chiyoko fell ill with pneumonia and died.
Before she was taken away, Mrs. Jackson told me, Chiyoko had told her about the first American friend she had after arriving in the United States. She had copied my name from my name tag, and kept it all these years. She asked her mother-in-law to find me, give me the bundle she’d just handed me, and to tell me, “Arigato.”
After she left, I gingerly unwrapped the delicate tissue surrounding the bundle. Inside, I found the papers I remembered from Angel Island, brittle with age and still smelling slightly of ammonia and formaldehyde.
“Arigato, Chiyoko,” I whispered.
To read more stories and poems about the photo above, visit Magpie Tales.
This is also my submission to the Tenth Daughter of Memory.