I am American. We are all Americans. The year is 1942. A Japanese-American girl’s life is turned upside down by Executive Order 9066, and she must cope with a life confined to the barbed wire of an internment camp in the Arizona desert. There, she struggles to weigh her continued loyalty to her country (which has betrayed and ostracized everyone she loves) against a closely guarded family secret that could change the course of history.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
“The second generation Japanese can only be evacuated either as part of a total evacuation [or] on the ground that their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or even trust the citizen Japanese. This latter is the fact but I am afraid it will make a tremendous hole in our constitutional system to apply it.”
—Secretary of War Henry Stimson, personal diary, February 10, 1942
Uncle Mamoru told us to burn everything from home. It was never a home that I knew, so I suppose I didn’t mind so much. The few things I had—a book of poetry my father brought back from Yokohama when I was eight, a paper fan painted with cherry trees, a tiny porcelain cat with one paw raised—I wouldn’t have taken with me anyway. I never even understood as much of the poetry as I said I did to make Father happy. They took him and Pastor Katagawa and the editor of the community newsletter to a camp in New Mexico six weeks ago. He writes to us once a month about the weather.
Grandmother has much to burn. Her own books of poetry go into the woodstove first. Its heat pours wastefully into the balmy Los Angeles December. Next into the hungry flames go stacks of letters bound with twine. Some, etched with delicate characters rendered by a child’s hand, she used to teach me hiragana many years ago.
Her spotted hands hesitate over the last packet of letters. A drop of sweat from the fire’s heat courses down a path carved by others across her cheek. The dark characters on aged yellow paper could only be letters from my grandfather. The edge of a brittle photograph, their first introduction, peeks out from a thick envelope.
Her face is tranquil. The flames reach out from the stove, searching, angry, and her tired eyes lift, reflecting orange light. “Shh, shh,” she soothes, and raises one palm, flat and dry like paper, toward them. She breathes deeply, her thin chest rising and falling. The flames are soothed, and settle back into their metal house.
For a few more moments she just breathes, urging still, still. At last she throws her younger self into the stove and quickly picks up another item, casting it in after, as if to bury the memory of the last. But the next object, a box of hanafuda cards, stops her again. She extracts a small card from the carved container and tucks it into her belt without looking at it. The tendons in her hand are tight like the claws of a sparrow clenched around a morsel of bread. Then the box follows the letters, which are already blackened throughout and quickly melting to ash.
I have whittled my doll collection down to two. The one in my right hand I know I should keep, but the one in my left I love. Her blue-printed cotton dress, picked from a catalog to match her eyes, cost me three months of pennies earned by watering Mrs. Sakagawara’s small vegetable garden. I’m getting too big for dolls, but Natsu isn’t, so I will take one for her.
Grandmother is done with the stove, and she sees me deliberating. She calls me Aki-san, and now is not the time to remind her that I’m called Amy.
“Take that one; it has such beautiful hair,” she says in Japanese—totemo kirei desu—pointing to the long raven tresses of the right-hand doll. I wait until she has shuffled out of the kitchen to drop the doll into the donation box. She will goto the Salvation Army, though with her brown eyes and skin, even the poor girls will not want her now.
“You go on and go home to your mothers!” Valerie shrieks. She picks up the rock that has just skidded by my foot and hurls it back at the Williams boys. “Go on, get out of here! Go sign up if you want to kill Japs!” Valerie can do this because Irish girls have a fighting spirit, or so she says. I saw her father scold her once for kicking one of the Hatchfield boys, but she did not listen. I think she is magnificent.
The boys don’t really let up until Joe Liebowitz hears the commotion and marches over to Valerie’s side. They start to disperse before he even says anything.
“They’re a bunch of trash,” Joe says loudly. “They voted you Head of Hospitality for the class ship last month like everybody else. They’re just hateful because they can get away with it.” The fervor in his voice makes my stomach go watery.
“I still don’t understand,” Valerie says when the Williams boys are gone. “You were born here, weren’t you?”
“I’ve never even been to Japan,” I say. “My mother went once when she was a girl.”
“Does Natalie have to go, too?” Valerie asks, her brow scrunching. “She’s so little.”
“Who would watch her?” I ask, and they nod reluctantly.
“It’s damn hypocrisy,” Joe swears, the set of his jaw daring us to reprimand him for cursing. “Bob Williams is all bought into it because of his union. My dad says they’ve been stirring up this bunk since ’23.”
“My cousin tried to sign up with the army,” I offer—or, rather, it escapes from me—“but they wouldn’t take him.” Ben, my tall, strong cousin who used to carry me on his shoulders. The memory of his stony face streaked with tears that his eyes would not admit were there fills me with an uncontrollable ache, like falling. My hands grow hot and red, but before I can “shh, shh” them, I feel Joe’s eyes on me, and the heat goes to my cheeks.
Silence lands between the three of us, and then Valerie says, “I’ll leave you two to it.” Her saucy wink makes me smile in spite of myself, like it’s meant to. She gives me a hug, so tight that I can’t breathe, but it’s something else that stings my eyes with sudden water. She is also blinking when she finally pulls away, but her smile is big and Irish, and I love her so much it lands on me like the world.
Then there’s Joe. He looks at the ground and neither of us can think of anything to say.
“I hope you don’t forget about me,” I venture at last.
“We’ll see you back here soon,” he promises, but I see the way he looks after Valerie, not yet out of sight. I don’t blame him. “We’ll write, me and Valerie at least. I’ll make sure.”
My cheeks have cooled down, the strange, vivid heat dying away, and my gumption with it. Joe looks like he wants to say something else, but I say a goodbye that isn’t goodbye and turn off down the street in a hurry. After three steps I stop, instinctively feeling like my hands are too empty, then remembering that there’s no reason to bring home schoolbooks.
At the edge of town, the paved road turns to dirt, and the sun blasts down upon my shoulders. It isn’t full summer sun yet, but it’s hot enough that I’m sweating after the first mile, halfway home. Usually Uncle Mamoru can pick me up from the dirt road, but now there is too much to do. I wonder how much hotter the sun in Arizona will be—I have never seen a desert. Even though I’m sweating, I want the sun to pour into me, flood through my arms and face, burn away everything. Maybe I will burn to nothing. Maybe I will become a skeleton walking down the dry road and everything will just be sun and dirt and horizon.
I close my eyes and keep walking into the red sea of nothing, sensing the sunlight through my eyelids. The ground seems to swerve, first in one direction and then the other, and only the scuff of my feet on the dirt reminds me that I’m still in the world at all.
“We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. . . . We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown man. . . . If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we ’dnever miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.”
—Austin E. Anson, Managing Secretary, Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, Saturday Evening Post, May 9, 1942
My uncle’s packing tables are loaded with strawberries, more than I’ve ever seen in one place, even before a county fair. People from all around the area are passing through and picking up baskets or taking the berries away in bowls or plates, or wrapped in linen towels.
Ben toils for his parents under the sun, bringing in more bushels for the neighbors to pick over. Two weeks ago, before the evacuation order, the Shimata Farm’s bank account was frozen, so there’s no use selling the early harvest. The berries move like the arms of fireworks through the neighboring farm communities, like a last fleeting wish for goodwill that burns out fast and confused.
As he sets down the last bushel, Ben shakes sweat out of his short-cropped hair, brushes it back with a muscular hand. Grandmother compliments the strawberries, and Ben gives her a double handful from the top of the bushel with a respectful bow and a smile. She bites one, pausing to exclaim over its flavor, and finishes it slowly, savoring it.
Ben’s thoughts are written in his intelligent eyes. I know them from my own. He watches my grandmother, scrutinizing, as if to ask: What is it that is so dangerous about these people? Where did we come from, to be so tainted? What is so poisonous about this place we never knew? Aren’t we American?
Grandmother was born in a fishing village north of Shizuoka. Even some of our neighbors think that she’s a foreign national, but she got her citizenship in 1923, right before they passed the Oriental Exclusion Act. Two years ago, they made her report to the town hall. She came back with her fingertips black from the Custodial Detention Index. Days after the ink was gone, she would rub her hands against her woolen housecoat when she thought no one was looking.
The strawberries are sweet and wild like meadow grass; sweeter than they’ve ever been. Sweeter, I think, than they will ever be again.
In the shade of the entryway, it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust, during which everything seems normal. Then the piles of things strewn everywhere come into focus—neat little collections of what we will take tomorrow, and the scattered remains of everything else.
Atop Grandmother’s pile is a photograph of my mother, taken just a couple of months before she died giving birth to what would have been my little brother. Boys, Grandmother says, have never had good luck in the Sugawa family. Too much fire in them. Too much anger. My brother burned up my mother before he was even born.
“Onee-san.” Natsu appears in the hallway—well, I call her Natsu, before remembering to call her Natalie. She staggers into the entryway, laboring under the weight of a large brown teddy bear.
“You can’t take that, Natsu. It’s too big,” I tell her, and lift it from her arms. She flails after it, and I scoop her up in my other arm and balance her against my hip. She’s almost too big to do this anymore, but being picked up calms her down. “Too big. See?” I use the bear’s paw to point at the size of the existing piles. Her face screws up with frustration, growing pink with heat, but loosens when I hand the bear back to her. I set her down so she can toddle back into our room.
Grandmother has heard me come in and calls something from the back room about dinner preparations. I yell that I’m going to take a bath. After checking that Natsu is well occupied with her remaining toys, I go out the side door and cross the yard to the bathhouse.
My clothes are stiff with sweat in places and still smell of strawberries in others. I almost drop them into the laundry basket, then remember to set them aside instead. The furnace is already stoked and the wood-slatted floor is wet from an earlier bath. A few yanks on the stiff spigot start hot water flowing into the large wooden tub. While it fills, I dump several ladlefuls over my head. Our soap smells of English flowers—Pears Soap all the way from England, one of Grandmother’s few indulgences—and the familiar scent fills the bathhouse as I scrub down.
The tub is almost halfway full. More ladles of hot water send streams of soap rushing off my body, little rivers disappearing beneath the floor slats. Something in me pulls loose with them—a thousand worries coursing down and vanishing somewhere unknown.
Steam curls off of the still surface of the tub’s water after I twist the spigot shut. Heat folds itself around me as I step in and settle myself down onto the bottom, soft little waves lapping at my shoulders. Wrapped in the embrace of the water’s heat and the heady smell of the aged wood, with only the darkness and an occasional calm chirp of a cricket outside, it’s as if—for this one moment—nothing is actually wrong.
But so much is wrong. And the illusion that everything might be okay lets all the wrongs in.
Joe Liebowitz. Valerie. Ben. Natsu. Grandmother’s fitful hands, wrapped in flame.
My skin burns first. It starts low, under the water, but then it’s rushing up into my face, down to my hands. I thrash in the water, trying to shake it out, but there’s nowhere for it to go. My palms, under the water, are red as ripe tomatoes, strawberry red, blood red.
White light blooms behind my eyes, and just as it dims, there’s a crash, a phenomenal crash, the loudest noise I’ve ever heard, then a long rushing hiss.
Everything is dark for a split second. Then Grandmother is there, wrapping me in a towel. Night air streams in from the furnace wall, where there is no furnace. My skin is still aflame, stinging wherever the soft cloth touches it.
Her dark eyes are intense, pensive. “You have to be careful” is all she says. “I have told you about your temper.”
Later she tells Uncle Mamoru that the furnace got blocked up and burned me with the hot water before it busted. He is very sympathetic and says he’ll fix it for us right away, but she tells him not to worry.
The rows of faces on the train bleed into one another: dark hair and small, worried eyes that stare into nowhere. I have never seen so many Japanese in one place before. At home there was one other Japanese girl in my class, Martha Taniguchi. Her father was a dentist who drove her to school in a Ford Super Deluxe. They lived in town in a nice house, further from my life than Joe or Valerie. But now, because of our last names, we are the same.
A voice from up the aisle, an old woman scolding in Japanese. I assume it is my grandmother; I straighten up before realizing it is not—the third time this has happened just this morning. A boy Natsu’s age is crying about having left his new umbrella at home. The other children mostly leave me alone—my burns have healed, but left scars in misshapen stripes—so the ride is otherwise quiet.
Natsu stares, riveted, out the window, looking for Red Indians or wild horses. It is more country than we have ever seen. They are taking us to a place called Gila River, Arizona. I am grateful that the thought of horses, for a time, has made her forget Shinji the teddy bear.
Natsu does get her real desert, with rattlesnakes and circling birds, but no wild horses. There are Indians, and they own this land, but they don’t want us here any more than the people of Los Angeles did.
Now it is July and the summer is deep. The air itself feels like water, so heavy with sun, soaking our barbed-wire village, but it tastes of dust and dry sorrow. At night we shake out our blankets, checking for scorpions. The boys, Ben among them, set up demonstrations in the public square, marching with the American flag to show their loyalty.
Each day is like the other. A young woman who had been studying to be a pharmacist is tasked with setting up the elementary school. Later they bring in a woman from the outside to teach.
The camp takes shape around us. Someone brings in a newspaper from Phoenix reporting that the Gila River War Relocation Center is the fifth largest city in Arizona. Poston, the other Arizona camp, is the third.
There are so many things to do, problems to solve, that it’s easy to forget what things were like at home. In the beginning I think of Joe and Valerie often. They do write, like they promised, but their letters become harder to answer as our lives drift apart like continents. I don’t really know what home is anymore. At first, with the water shortages and the rattlesnakes, we were just grateful when we got to move from one of the ironing rooms to real barracks. Our address is Block B-4, Butte Camp, Rivers, AZ.
The boys continue their demonstrations. The girls participate, too, on holidays. Then one day the army recruiters arrive.
The farms that we left behind in California now live again in Gila River, converted from some of the Indians’ alfalfa fields. We have cattle and chickens and cucumbers, surviving on once-stubborn loam, baking in the desert. Uncle Mamoru’s strawberries are from another life, from a dream. This is waking.
I work in the packing shed after school every Wednesday. The shed isn’t refrigerated, but it’s cooler than most other places, including the barracks, and I don’t mind the packing.
The war’s getting worse, heating up, which was why they made the four-four-two in the first place. But we’re proud of them anyway, proud as hell. Ben and his friends give us a reason to stand up straight again, to pick cucumbers and sing in the Thanksgiving talent show and ride the produce truck into Phoenix with a day pass. The stories of their heroism are a priceless gift, and as long as we don’t think of home, at least there is the quiet affirmation that we are what we claimed. A hope that maybe they will believe us now.
I’m sorting castor beans into wooden crates when Yukio, my new friend from school, runs in, knocking right into my table. A scolding command to watch out dies on my lips when I see her stricken expression. What comes out of her mouth is a terrible sound that echoes in my head long after it is gone, echoes even after her anguished shout: “They got Ben!” The handful of beans falls from my hands, which start burning, and suddenly won’t work.
I had almost forgotten the furnace, convinced myself that it really had busted. But now, as the familiar racing thoughts set upon me, I remember.
It comes upon me faster this time, and I can’t stop it. The thunderclap is louder than before, the light brighter, and the destruction wider than a water heater—but smaller, far smaller, than it could be, than the fire inside me could demand. The flash of heat on my skin is worse, too: white blisters bubble up along my arms just before everything goes dark. There is only enough room for a few stray regrets.
Pastor Katagawa’s words come to me unbidden: none of this is real. All life is a dream.
“ ‘Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.’ ”
—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Trinity Test, Socorro, New Mexico, July 16, 1945
Voices over my head. Behind me.
I am, but I immediately regret it. Everything hurts.
The wooden walls of the room slowly come into focus, along with a face—a girl, young and pretty, her hair red like a sunset. The sight of her pale skin and eyes sends a pulse of shock through me. For a moment I’m quite sure that I am dead, but then I remember there isn’t supposed to be pain after death.
The pretty young nurse is adjusting a bandage dislodged by my waking movement. Her mother is the schoolteacher, one of very few hakujin—white people—at the camp.
A tall, thin man in a loose-fitting wool suit approaches the cot, and I lift my head just a little. A cigarette dangles from his right hand, leaving a ribbon of smoke as he walks. There is another man, uniformed, very official, in the back of the room, and a third, clearly his assistant, beside him with a clipboard. I have never seen so many hakujin in one room at Gila River before.
The assistant says something I can’t quite hear and the second man shakes his head vehemently. As the man with the cigarette comes closer, I can make out his face: dark circles, and his suit is too big for him not because it is poorly made, but because he is thin, hollow-cheeked—almost a ghost. He kneels by the cot. His face reminds me of the canyons we saw from the train when the windows weren’t blocked.
He looks at the uniformed man as if expecting him to say something, then back at me. The cigarette flies, as if of its own volition, to his pursed lips, and he takes a long drag; the sudden, brilliant bloom of its ember stirs my aching veins. The smoke dances briefly in a halo about his head.
“I’m Dr. Oppenheimer,” he says. I get the impression his voice is usually much louder, but has been lowered for my benefit, as if his words themselves will be weights on my raw skin. “This here is Brigadier General Leslie Groves.” He gestures to the man behind him, trailing smoke. The man maybe nods—I can’t quite see—but I sense that I’m supposed to be impressed. “We need your help.”
I’d like to speak with my grandmother, I want to say. The polite responses queue up behind my lips. Please bring her here.
“This thing you do,” the smoking doctor says, “it isn’t unnatural. A little boy helped us, too, so we already know the effects.”
How old was he?, I want to ask. I try to remember the day they rushed my mother to the hospital. I was five. What have you done with my brother?Heat flares in my hands, crawling up my arms.
“Nurse!” Doctor Oppenheimer barks, standing and turning away. The red-haired nurse rushes forward, making soothing noises. She soaks a strip of linen in a bucket of water and drapes it over my forehead. The cool is a shock, and I fight to breathe steadily.
“We’ve been looking for them for two years,” General Groves says to the thin doctor from across the room. The general is muttering, a big man’s version of a low whisper, but I can hear him quite clearly. “Now isn’t the time for cold feet, damn it.” He turns on the assistant, who almost shrinks away. “And you. Is your data ready?”
The assistant’s voice is softer, and though I twist toward him despite the clucking of the nurse, I can only make out scattered words. “. . . Analysts have . . . multiplied the recorded effect by the maximum load . . . capable of sustaining before . . . results are quite satisfactory . . .”
The doctor nods and fills his chest with a deep breath. He comes back to the side of my cot and the nurse backs away again.
“This thing,” he says. “We can do it already, scientifically.” He looks at me with guarded seriousness, as if I won’t understand. “My people have it figured out. They’re great scientists. It’s just a matter of time.” Then his serious eyes are hard, glancing quickly, agitatedly, at me, then away. He takes another draw on the cigarette, blows another trail of smoke that drifts and dissipates. “But time is what we don’t have. You have the opportunity to save millions of American lives. Soldiers’ lives.” He leans in close. “This is your chance,” he says, “to prove your patriotism.”
“And her sister’s, too,” the general says. His voice is a smooth, reassuring baritone—not what I’d expect from his bleak expression.
The doctor draws again on his cigarette. The fire makes its little roar, consuming the last of the tobacco, smoking fitfully.
“We all have difficult decisions here,” he says, and his hollow eyes are on me with what sympathy he has, and what urgency. “These times of war are terrible. But we have our obligations to the greater good, to the great men and women of this country.”
Great men, like Ben. Like Joe. Oh, Joe.
“We calculate ninety-seven percent odds that the younger one has the ability as well,” the assistant adds.
In my mind, Natsu is clutching Maisie, my blonde-haired doll. I remember her hands growing hot, her face pink, the electricity that pulsed between us when I took Shinji from her arms. I think of us high above the world, and we are falling onto a place we have never known, and the light is blinding, the world is burning.
“She does,” I say. The heads all turn toward me.
I am an American. We are Americans.
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“At the Foot of the Lighthouse” copyright © 2012 Erin Hoffman
Art copyright © 2012 Scott Bakal