Fiction / November 2012 (Issue 19)

The Bonsai Garden

by Dorothy Place

It was the earliest part of a spring morning when the earth seemed to hold its breath, before the birds began to broadcast their plans for the day, and the flowers looked to the sky, waiting to warm their dew-washed faces. Kenji lay awake, savouring the last moments before the sun filled the shaded window and filtered through his closed eyelids. It was his favourite time, the time when he was alone and could enter his memory world.

This morning, he returned to Japan, walking through his grandfather's field. The sharp edges of the rice plants scratched against his legs as he walked along the dykes. The standing water that nurtured the seedlings was almost gone now, and the plants were beginning to grow tall. Occasionally, one of the weakened dykes gave way, and his foot sank into the marshy soil. Wet clay clung to the sides of his zouri in larger and larger clumps, slowing his steps.

The rice kernels were beginning to form small, soft beads, each holding the promise of becoming plump, hardened grains so heavy that the long, graceful stalks would bend downward under their weight. As he leaned over, touching the swelling buds, he felt the warmth of the rising sun on his back. When he stood again, he could see the blue roof of his father's house—

"Kenji," Mrs. Matsuda's voice broke into his memory world. "Your breakfast is ready. Please come down."

He pushed back the covers, swung his legs over the side of the bed, made a little half-jump and pushed his feet into his zouri. Even though more than a month had passed since he came to live at the Matsudas' house, Kenji still missed sleeping on a futon. He was not comfortable under the fussiness of sheets and blankets. He longed for the simple act of rising, rolling up his bed and placing it in the wardrobe until night came again.

He dressed, descended the stairs and entered the kitchen, burdened with the feeling of shyness. "Good morning, Mrs. Matsuda," he murmured politely in his best English. He hoped he was pronouncing the words correctly.

"Kenji," Mrs. Matsuda reproached him and touched his cheek with her fingertips, "please call me mother. You are home now, and your father and I are happy to have our son with us again."

"Yes, ma'am." Kenji mumbled. He understood what she wanted, but he couldn't force himself to call her mother. To avoid her eyes, he stared at the breakfast table before him. He began counting the squares on the chequered cloth. Seven red and eight white across.

"Come now, I made breakfast just the way your aunt did when you lived in Japan."

Kenji winced when he heard the word "aunt." He didn't like it when Mrs. Matsuda referred to his mother as his aunt. He was just a small child when Mr. and Mrs. Matsuda, his birth mother and father had sent him to Japan to live with Mr. Matsuda's brother and wife as their adopted son. Now, eight years later and back in America, his birth parents were strangers to him. He already had a mother and father and they were in Japan. How could the Matsudas hope to become his parents again?

To make matters worse, how could he tell Mrs. Matsuda that she didn't cook the way his mother did? Much of the food served at the Matsuda household had the same name as the food he ate back home, but it tasted different. Mrs. Matsuda served eggs, all scrambled up, not like the eggs in the tamagoyaki his mother placed in his bento box for his school lunch. And even though there was always the familiar bowl of steamed rice on the table, Kenji had almost forgotten the sweet-sour taste that umeboshi gave to his meals.

He lost interest in counting the squares on the table cloth, so he sat quietly, waiting for Mrs. Matsuda to serve breakfast. It wasn't that he didn't like Mr. and Mrs. Matsuda. They were kind but more like mentors, people who were holding his hand while guiding him through his new life in America. But they were not his parents.

Mr. Matsuda entered the kitchen and ran his hand across Kenji's close-shaven head.

"Good morning, son."

"Good morning, sir."

Mr. Matsuda glanced at him sharply, and Kenji knew that he, like his wife, was wondering if Kenji would ever think of him again as his parent. But Mr. Matsuda overlooked Kenji's response and, without another word, turned the radio to the morning news.

Although Kenji couldn't understand English very well, he recognised the words "Japan" and "Japanese" and from the terse sound of the reporter's voice, he understood that the news was momentous. He feared that something was about to happen that might change his life once again. He wanted to ask Mr. Matsuda if his father in Japan could be affected by the news, but he remained silent. He was unable to refer to his father as uncle, and he certainly couldn't refer to his father by his first name. So he kept his fears to himself, but his concern for his parents crouched like an angry tiger in the back of his mind, forcing him to retreat further into his self-imposed solitude.

"Japan is beginning to push farther into French Indochina, "Mr. Matsuda said to his wife in English. "The United States has imposed an oil embargo."

"What does that mean?" asked Mrs. Matsuda.

"It means that we will no longer export oil to Japan."

Kenji struggled to follow the conversation. He stored the words "embargo" and "expansion" in his memory until later when he could search for them in his dictionary.

"How will Japan get the oil it needs?" Mrs. Matsuda asked. Kenji could see that something was wrong. She was rubbing her hands on her apron the way she did when she was upset. Kenji watched her hands push downward, waist to thigh, raise and then push downward again. It made him anxious.

"Is breakfast ready?" Mr. Matsuda asked his wife.

She went to the kitchen and returned with their food, first serving Mr. Matsuda, then Kenji.

"Without oil, Japan will have one more reason to continue its expansion into Southeast Asia. This will have a bad end," Mr. Matsuda predicted.

He picked up his chopsticks and began to eat. Mrs. Matsuda, standing by the table, wiped her hands on her apron again, reached for the empty rice bowl and went to the kitchen to refill it. Kenji concentrated on his food, careful not to look at Mr. Matsuda. He wanted his birth parents to think he wasn't listening, hoping that Mr. Matsuda would continue to explain what was happening, but his birth father ate in silence.

When he finished eating, Kenji picked up his paper napkin and folded it into a crane. The paper was soft and bulky, but he managed to produce a reasonable semblance of the bird symbolising peace. He propped it against his tea cup, wondering if the news on the radio was the reason he was sent back to America.

Several days after his parents in Japan decided to return him to his birth parents, his father had taken him to the telegraph office. Since Kenji hadn't been given the reason for his impending return, he listened carefully as his father dictated the message to the telegrapher. He hoped that the message would offer a clue, but he only heard: "Kenji arrive. Stop. San Francisco. Stop. Akagi Maru. Stop. May 23, 1941. Stop."

Mr. Matsuda broke the silence. "Japan will be at war with the West. You wait and see."

Kenji continued to observe Mr. Matsuda from the corner of his eye, and wondered about the events that altered his birth father's life. Just before he left for America, his father told him that Mr. Matsuda had migrated from Japan to Hawaii when he was 16 and had worked in the cane fields for several years before travelling to the mainland. As the younger son, he had no inheritance rights. His intention was to remain in the West only as long as it took to save enough money to purchase land in Japan, but he never returned. Kenji felt resentment toward the circumstances that placed two brothers on either side of an enormous ocean and him in a situation in which he was unable to choose the side on which he wanted to live.

The characteristics that separated the two brothers were greater than the ocean that lay between them. His father looked older and the weathered lines on his face made him seem more serious. His interaction with others was conducted with politeness and formality. Mr. Matsuda was taller and laughed openly, easily chatting with the neighbours and friends. When Mr. Matsuda asked Kenji a question, it confused him. Mr. Matsuda was too direct.

As Kenji pondered the differences between his father and Mr. Matsuda, he could hear his two older brothers rudely bumping against the walls as they descended the stairs. They sounded like 100 lb. rice sacks being thrown into wagons at the warehouse on his grandfather's farm in Japan. As they entered the dining room, Ron, two years older than Kenji was punching his older brother, Harry, on his upper arm and laughing. Now 16, Harry was pushing Ron away with both hands. Harry yelled, "Ma, Ron is being a brat."

Kenji didn't understand the rough play between his brothers. He could never tell if they were angry. In Japan, boys like Harry who were in their teen years took care of their younger brothers, stepping in and solving disputes even when a teacher or parent was present. There was no punching and no wrestling on the floor. Kenji shrunk back in his seat, trying to be invisible, not wanting to be part of this strange, physical ritual.

"Good morning, Kenji Benji," Harry teased. "Fall out of bed again?"

Kenji bowed his head in shame. It embarrassed him when his brother mentioned that first night in America when he had fallen out of bed. It had been a terrifying experience, waking in the dark on the floor of a strange room. He was not hurt but in his bewilderment, he called out for his mother. His brothers called him a baby.

"Look at the birdie Kenji made," Ron teased as he picked up the crane and tried to make it fly. It fell to the floor.

"I thought birds could fly, Kenji. What's the matter with this one?"

Mrs. Matsuda intervened, redirecting her older sons' attention to the chores their father planned for that day.

"And why doesn't Kenji Benji have to do anything?" Harry complained. "He gets to sit around while we do all the work."

"He will help me in the house," Mrs. Matsuda said. "Now please eat. Your breakfast will get cold."

"Kenji Benji does girl's work," the younger son whispered. "He's a little sissy."

Kenji stored the word "sissy" in his memory along with "expansion" and "embargo," cautioning himself not to respond to the taunt. He was afraid of his older brothers. They were so outspoken. They looked Japanese, but they didn't act like the boys in his village at home, and they had no respect for his Japanese ways.

After breakfast, he left the table and walked onto the deck overlooking the backyard. The cool morning air made goose bumps on his arms. Breathe deeply, his father told him at times like this. Fill your lungs with air. Then you won't feel the cold.

Kenji stood still, closed his eyes and filled his lungs. He felt better. He walked over to the lounge chair, pulled it behind the trellis holding the wisteria vine and positioned it so that he could see the waterfall and hear the water singing its own song as it dropped from one concrete basin to another.

A Japanese maple tree stood over the falling water and shaded the moss-covered rocks, ferns and enkianthus shrubs from which clusters of small red bells hung beneath glossy, narrow leaves. Above the concrete basins, blue and orange dragonflies flew erratic patterns, stitching together the light and mist into a curtain that softened the morning light. A bamboo fence separated the backyard from Mr. Matsuda's bonsai garden. The sound of the waterfall took Kenji's mind off his troubles, and soon, the magic of the garden enveloped him, making him feel invisible and safe.

He wondered how Mrs. Matsuda felt when her husband suggested that they give their third son to Mr. Matsuda's childless brother and sister-in-law in Japan, the man and woman Kenji knew as his only mother and father. He tried to imagine what it must have been like when Mrs. Matsuda and his two older brothers had taken him to Japan. He was not yet two at the time.

He envisioned Mrs. Matsuda standing erect and stiff, her demeanour formal. Her face would have been tight and unsmiling, but no tears would have appeared on her cheeks. She came to Japan to fulfil her husband's family obligation, and she would behave in a way that didn't dishonour him. Kenji thought that she must have been holding his hand tightly, reluctant to let go.

She would have been telling his new mother things about him that she thought important. She would have said something like "Kenji drinks tea in the morning." She would have spoken in a matter-of-fact way, as though she was a government agent offering up a child for adoption. "And he goes to bed at seven. He hates to sleep alone, so it will be hard for him without brothers." He imagined that she talked quickly, filling the air with words so that she could hide her feelings and delay her departure. He knew that she would have tried to hide the sad feeling that was in her heart.

His Japanese mother must have remained silent, hiding her eagerness to hold her new son in her arms. When she finally spoke, she would have been polite, trying to heal the ache in Mrs. Matsuda's heart with compliments. "Such a fine boy," his mother might have said. "You have been a good parent, given so much of yourself to raise this fine son." She would have assured her sister-in-law that she would give her life to her son, and she would have bowed deeply, showing her respect for the woman who was giving her son away.

His mother told him that he cried when Mrs. Matsuda and his brothers returned to America and left him in Japan. Tears came to his eyes now. He cried for Mrs. Matsuda's eagerness to become his mother again, and for his mother in Japan who no longer had a son. He wept because he experienced for the first time the pain that the custom of giving children to childless relatives could bring to everyone, the ones giving and the ones receiving.

When he left his mother and father in Japan a month ago, he didn't cry because it would have brought his father displeasure. He would have broken the values under which his parents had shaped his person: courage, respect, honour and, above all, filial piety. While waiting to board the ship for America, his father had said to him, "Kenji, you must endure. That is the most important thing. You must endure."

Since he arrived in America, Kenji tried to fulfil his duty to Mr. and Mrs. Matsuda. But he missed his life in Japan, and just as the clouds pile up one upon another with suffocating force during the typhoon season, the realisation grew daily that his chances of returning to Japan were diminishing, stifling the hope that he would ever see his mother and father again.

Mrs. Matsuda came out on the deck, saw Kenji by the wisteria vine and placed a lawn chair next to the lounge on which Kenji lay. She placed her hand on his arm. He turned his face away, hoping that she wouldn't see his tears, but when she spoke, he knew by her words that she had seen his grief.

"Your brothers mean no harm. That's the way boys in America behave. They like to tease each other. Ron and Harry think they're funny, and they like to see who can say the funniest things."

Mrs. Matsuda spoke to Kenji in Japanese, but the language spoken in America was very different from that which was spoken in Japan. It sounded old-fashioned, stilted and he didn't understand some of the words and many of the phrases. Nevertheless, he listened politely, trying to interpret her words by the tone of her voice. He was too ashamed to admit he didn't understand.

Somewhere high in the Japanese maple, a squirrel chattered, announcing its claim to the tree and all beneath it. Although Kenji wanted to search for the squirrel in the branches of the tree, his eyes turned toward Mrs. Matsuda and remained obediently fixed on her face. The filtered sunlight played with her eyes, sometimes leaving them dark and mysterious, and then, without warning, turning them to a warm brown. He sat studying the face before him. It was a round, kindly face with soft cheeks from which her black hair had been combed severely back into a bun, forcing her high cheekbones to stand out as the most prominent feature. She wore a flowered dress, an apron and sandals with white socks neatly turned down at the ankle.

He thought back to the last time he saw his mother. She too had her hair combed back into a large bun, but instead of a dress, she wore a kimono adorned with her best obi. She wore white tabi and wooden geta on her tiny feet. As he boarded the ship, he looked back, and seeing her on the dock, noticed how much she looked like a beautiful doll. That last image of his mother was preserved in his heart as though she was a bijin, perfectly poised in the walls of her glass cabinet.

"Kenji," Mrs. Matsuda's voice broke into his thoughts. "Most Issei gave their children American names, you know. When you were born, your father and I gave you an American name but that changed when you went to live in Japan with your aunt and uncle."

Kenji listened, nodded, but said nothing. He knew Mrs. Matsuda was talking about the first immigrants that came to America from Japan and about his father, but he didn't know to whom Mrs. Matsuda was referring: Mr. Matsuda or his father in Japan.

"Maybe we should restore your American name before you enter school this fall," Mrs. Matsuda continued. "Your brothers have American names. It would be strange if you kept your Japanese name." She paused, to see if Kenji would respond.

He could tell by the pleading in her voice and her furrowed brow that Mrs. Matsuda wanted him to agree with what she was saying. He nodded.

Pleased, Mrs. Matsuda smiled broadly. "Good, Kenji," she said. "We'll register you in school this fall with your American birth name, Arthur." She patted his leg and rose to go. "Come in later, I'm making sticky rice for lunch, and you can taste it to see if I prepared it the way they do in Japan."

Alone once again, Kenji entered Mr. Matsuda's bonsai garden through the torii gate. The garden was covered by shade cloth that kept out the sun and helped retain the moisture even on the hottest valley days. Mr. Matsuda was a landscape gardener, specialising in Japanese gardens for his clients. But it was in the bonsai garden where his abilities as a horticulturist excelled.

The bonsai garden was Kenji's favourite place. Everything here reminded him of his home in Japan: the moist air that clung to his skin, the moss-covered stones, the small trees snuggling in their even smaller pots, bending slightly forward to greet him as he passed. It was in this garden that his homesickness receded for a time.

He walked along the benches on which rows of bonsai trees stood until he came to a grove of cryptomeria, eleven trees planted in the shape of a small forest. The trees were straight and tall and deep green. Kenji knew that at the end of the summer, the trees in the grove would put on their fall colour in preparation for the winter rain; they would turn rust and brown and enter a period of rest during the colder months. He looked closely at the soft needles and wondered how they knew when it was time to change. But the trees held their secret closely.

Kenji squatted before the grove and entered his memory world. He was small and walking through the cryptomeria forest with his father who was selecting the trees that would be sent to the mill. Kenji's feet sank into the spongy earth as they walked together. He watched as his father stopped to pin a marker on the trees ready to be harvested. The air, cleansed by the rain, smelled clean and was heavy with oxygen. His heart expanded, and he loved the world and everything in it.

"Do you know why this tree is being sent to the mill?" Kenji's father asked him.

Before he could answer, his father continued. "Because even though it has suffered the insults of strong winds, rain and snow, it has grown strong and true; it will produce the most perfect planks for market. Like the tree, that is our duty, also. To be strong and true."

Kenji knew his father was giving him a lesson, one that he was expected to remember because his father never sent out words as noisy missals to fill any silence that might occur. He wasn't sure how the lesson applied to his life, so he tucked the words away and felt wiser and stronger because they now belonged to him. His father began walking again, and Kenji had to move quickly to match his pace. On that day, he vowed he would grow straight and strong, like the cryptomeria trees.

The back lawn sprinkler system came on and startled Kenji; he was once more in front of the miniature grove in Mr. Matsuda's bonsai garden. He imagined that he had grown small so that he could walk among the trees planted in the delicate bonsai pot, look up through the canopy and walk over a covering of soft needles as dense as the ones in the forest he and his father had travelled so long ago. He renewed his promise to grow straight and strong, to carry out his duty to his family and country. But now, he was in America, not Japan. Which was his family? Which was his country? Where did his duty lie?

That night, when Mr. Matsuda returned from work, Kenji followed him into the bonsai garden. He watched quietly while Mr. Matsuda inspected each tree for insects and followed him around the rows of benches as he rolled out the hose. "Would you like to water the trees?" Mr. Matsuda asked. Kenji heart thumped with a small bit of joy, and he solemnly nodded.

Mr. Matsuda handed him the hose and turned on the faucet. "Gently now," he advised. "Water slowly, like rain falling from the sky, wetting the leaves and then soaking into the earth."

At first, Kenji felt awkward. In a few places, he washed some of the soil off the top of the pots. When this happened, Mr. Matsuda took Kenji's wrist and pointed the end of the nozzle toward the sky. "Pretend it's raining," he said again. "Let the water fall gently on the trees."

As Kenji watered, he watched the droplets slide over the leaves and penetrate the earth around the roots. He imagined he was among the trees and felt his body welcoming the rain; his arms reaching out as limbs on the trees reach, his pores opening as the stomata on the leaves. Kenji didn't want to stop watering because he could see a look of deep affection on Mr. Matsuda's face. He is like my father, Kenji thought. He wants to teach me to become a good man.

After the bonsai had been watered and Mr. Matsuda had wound the hose around the caddy, he and Kenji stood looking at the trees. The droplets of water clung to the leaves, reflecting the rays of the late afternoon sun. The green colours had deepened, making the trees look more vital, happier with life. As they stood looking over the garden, the water on the benches began to evaporate, filling the dry valley air with a sweetened wet smell. Kenji took a deep breath, replacing the hot, dry air in his lungs with the evening's moisture. And so, the summer days passed, and Kenji met Mr. Matsuda at the torii gate each evening, so they could water the trees together.

When Kenji had arrived the previous spring, Mr. Matsuda had pencilled a black mark on the pantry door designating his height. The mark was next to those he had made for Ron and Harry. At the time, Kenji was dismayed because he was so much shorter than his brothers. But when Mr. Matsuda measured the boys on September 1st, Kenji was happy to see that he had grown closer to the height of his two older brothers.

"Arthur," Mrs. Matsuda said pointing to the mark showing his height, "you will soon be as tall as Ron and Harry." He could tell by her voice that she was pleased, and he was glad he had brought her some joy. He smiled but turned his head so she couldn't see. It wouldn't be proper for him to show his emotion.

When they had gathered for dinner that evening, Mrs. Matsuda announced that the next day would be a shopping day. "I can see," she said to her husband, "that the boys have grown."

Mr. Matsuda nodded, smiling at his three sons. "Yes," he said. "Before we know it, they will be men.

"Not Kenji Benji," said Harry. "He's always going to be squat." The boys snickered. Kenji didn't know what "squat" meant, but he knew his brothers were making fun of him. He put the word in his memory.

"Ron and Harry, please call Kenji by his birth name: Arthur," Mrs. Matsuda reminded her two older sons. "That's his real name, you know. It's the name your father and I gave him when he was born." Mrs. Matsuda continued to speak softly to her older sons. She chose her words carefully. "We are registering him at school as Arthur Matsuda. From now on, we will call him by that name so everyone will know he is your brother."

Ron and Harry stared at their plates. Kenji knew that, since his arrival, everything had changed for them. Ron now slept in the bedroom with his older brother; their clothing and possessions were crowded into one small closet and chest. An extra place was set at the table, and their mother often prepared meals to suit their little brother's taste. They complained that while they continued to live under the strict rules set by their parents, those same rules were sometimes set aside for the new arrival. When the three boys were together, resentment filled the room.

Kenji felt the tension but didn't understand it. It was different in Japan. Children were taught that their behaviour reflected on their family and the community. It was important to conform to the expectations of both. In America, it was different. His brothers openly expressed their complaints. Kenji was bewildered by their behaviour.

"And Ron," Mrs. Matsuda continued, "you and Arthur will be in the same school this year. It is up to you to protect him, help him adjust to his new surroundings."

As Mrs. Matsuda went to the kitchen, Harry pointed at Ron and mouthed "ha! ha! ha!" Ron punched his older brother on the shoulder. This time he wasn't smiling. Mr. Matsuda spoke, cautioning them with his voice, "It's time to eat now."

After dinner, Mr. Matsuda and Kenji went to the bonsai garden, so Mr. Matsuda could teach his son to wire the bonsai.

"Remember," Mr. Matsuda said, "you begin by anchoring the wire on the trunk, using one wire for two branches. Watch."

Mr. Matsuda cut a length of wire from the coil and began to demonstrate. "Take one end of the wire and wind it upward to reach the branch above … and the lower part of the wire wind downward so you can reach a branch below." Mr. Matsuda's calloused fingers worked swiftly, his thumb and forefinger guiding the wire, his other fingers pushing aside the leaves and smaller branches so that they would not be caught in the wire and crushed.

"It is important to wire firmly but not too tightly. You must give the branches room to grow. Here, you try it." He held out a piece of wire.

Kenji took the wire and wound it once around the trunk of the tree. He concentrated on the task, careful to follow Mr. Matsuda's instructions. His jaw tightened with concentration as he manoeuvred to keep the wire at the correct angle and to maintain the proper distance between the wire and the bark of the tree. When he had completed the first two branches, Mr. Matsuda cut another piece of wire and handed it to him.

"Do the next two branches. Be careful not to cross the wires. You must plan ahead."

Kenji wired with confidence. He could see that Mr. Matsuda was surprised how quickly he learnt. As Kenji worked, Mr. Matsuda talked to him about his name. "Kenji," he said, "from now on we will call you Arthur. Did you understand what your mother was saying?"

Kenji, whose English had improved over the summer, nodded. It was still easier to nod and remain silent then to confront the problem of how to address Mr. Matsuda. Although his deep yearnings for his Japanese home became less acute as the summer progressed, he continued to be conflicted over the problem of two sets of parents. He rarely talked about Japan and never expressed dissatisfaction with his life. But he couldn't call the Matsudas mother and father.

After Kenji finished wiring the tree, Mr. Matsuda pulled it over and set it squarely in front of him. "This is the front of the tree, Kenji. You see, there are more branches in the back. That gives the tree depth. It creates an illusion that the tree is larger. Can you see that?"

Kenji nodded.

"Now we'll set the branches." He took Kenji's hands in his and began to twist the branches. Kenji's hands responded to his movements, bending and twisting until each branch was in its proper place. When they finished, Mr. Matsuda said, "Always place the branches so that they are sloping downward. We want the tree to look old; its limbs must appear to be heavy with age, just like an old person."

Kenji nodded again. The downward slope of the limbs did make the tree look older, as though it had lived many years and was tired of carrying the burden of its heavy limbs.

"Now the top, Kenji," Mr. Matsuda said. "The top must be placed slightly forward so that it looks as though the tree is greeting the person approaching it."

Kenji looked at his work with pride. "Tree friendly," he beamed.

The lead story in the next morning's news was the closure of the Panama Canal to Japanese ships. When he heard the word "Japanese," Kenji quickly looked at Mr. Matsuda, who gave no indication that he heard the news. Receiving no clues, Keni stored the words "Panama Canal" in his mind.

After breakfast, Kenji followed Mr. Matsuda to the garage and helped him load his tools onto the truck. He hoped that Mr. Matsuda would comment on the news, but they worked silently. When the truck was packed, Mr. Matsuda climbed in and drove off without remembering to rub his hand over Kenji's shaved head. Kenji decided that the morning news wasn't good, that war might be imminent. He went into the bonsai garden, sat on the stool Mr. Matsuda used when he pruned the trees and entered into his memory world.

That morning, he turned his mind away from his worries about his parents and the growing animosity between American and Japan and brought back a time that filled him with happiness. It was when he and his mother had travelled to Kyoto to visit the Emperor's summer home. It was an unusual spring, when the cherry trees were both fully blossomed and covered with snow. For the trip from their village to Kyoto, his mother packed a box filled with rice, salad and unagi, Kenji's favourite food.

"Kenji," his mother had called to him that morning. "Dress warmly. It will be cold in the mountains of Kyoto."

They walked together to the train station, he carrying the bento box and his mother her parasol. She walked with quick, tiny steps, her geta making a dull thump each time her foot struck the pavement. The vendor from whom his mother purchased fish greeted her as they passed. The fish were carefully arranged in neat piles on the cart and surrounded with ice. The wet smell of the fish reminded him of the air at the water's edge, where fisherman came each evening to relax, gossip with their friends and catch their dinner. The sun on the metallic colours of the fish scales made them look like piles of small rainbows, and their open mouths seemed ready to call out to passing customers, pleading with them to take them home. Their eyes followed Kenji as he passed by.

"Where are you going in such a hurry?" the vendor called out to them.

"Kyoto. I'm taking Kenji to the summer palace." His mother hurried past without waiting to hear if the vendor had anything else to say. She didn't want to miss the train.

"I'll save the best fish for you. Don't forget to stop when you return tonight," the fish vendor called after them.

The train station was filled with passengers waiting for their respective trains. His mother held his arm tightly. She found the platform for the train to Kyoto and edged to the front of the crowd, hoping to find seats for her son and herself. As the train entered the station, men began boarding as it slowed to a stop, blocking the doorways as they pushed onto the train. Exiting passengers pushed their way out, squeezing between the bodies of those entering. When he and his mother finally boarded the train, there was only one seat left. Mrs. Matsuda sat, holding the lunch box and her parasol while Kenji, feeling very grown up, stood beside her, bending so he could watch the station pass as the train inched its way down the track.

At Kyoto, they hired a rickshaw to take them to the palace. It was pulled by a man who expertly navigated among the other vehicles. Kenji stared at the muscles on the man's legs, which were like twisted ropes, and the sweat on his back as he bent low to the task.

Hundreds of rickshaws packed the streets, many were like the one in which he was riding, a two-passenger vehicle with a canopy to protect them from the weather. One rickshaw had a noodle shop set on a platform in the back instead of passenger seats, and others carried boxes piled higher than the driver's head. Some men bicycled carts full of fresh fruits and vegetables or long lengths of pipe that extended beyond the driver in front and past the back end of the platform. Crowds of pedestrians warily dodged in and out of the rickshaws and the occasional automobile, calling to the drivers to let them stream by. The scene made Kenji's head ache as he tried to cram all the activity into his brain, so he could tell his father about his trip that evening.

At the palace gate, his mother paid the entrance fee, and they walked into the Emperor's world. A mild breeze had begun to melt the snow, causing the blossoms to break loose and slowly drift downward, replacing the snow on the walkways and shrubs with light pink petals. Women slid in and out of the curtains of falling blossoms like colourful ghosts playing tricks on the eyes of the visitors; bold designs on their parasols first appeared, then disappeared, as the falling petals rested briefly on them before being whisked away by the low hanging branches of the cherry trees. The soft voices of the visitors were punctuated by the sound of their footsteps, and the women's kimonos whispered as the women leaned toward each other, pointing to one or another scene through the branches of the cherry trees, their shoulders carrying mantles of blossoms.

The next day, Mrs. Matsuda accompanied Kenji to school. Ron walked ahead with his friends, not looking back. Kenji knew his brother was ashamed of him and that he didn't want anyone to know they were related. He didn't care because he was too preoccupied by the cumbersome feeling of his new shoes. Accustomed to wearing zouri, even in the coldest weather, the weight of a shoe that fully enclosed his foot was cumbersome and difficult to manoeuvre. As he walked, he lifted each foot higher than necessary for fear that he would drag his toes along the sidewalk and spoil the shine on his shoes.

When they arrived at the classroom, the teacher was standing by the blackboard, writing the date in the upper left corner. He was surprised to see that the teacher was a woman. Some students were sitting at their desks while others wandered about. All were talking and laughing. It looked chaotic, so unlike the school he attended in Japan where strict discipline guided the students' behaviour from the time they entered until they departed. To his relief, he counted six other Japanese children.

A bell rang and Mrs. Matsuda whispered, "Time to go in, Arthur. Be good and mind the teacher."

As the students settled in their seats, the teacher turned from the blackboard and saw Kenji and his mother. She walked over and asked if this was the new boy, Arthur Matsuda. Mrs. Matsuda nodded yes and began to back away.

"Hello, I'm your teacher, Mrs. James." She put her hand on Kenji's shoulder, gave him a welcoming smile and led him to a seat in the back of the room. "Allen," she said to another Nisei boy, "please get the books we use from the cupboard and give them to Arthur."

Kenji had never had a female teacher before, or one who smiled at a student. As he looked around the room, he saw many strange things: colourful pictures of castles and mountains, a fish tank and green plants on the window ledge, shelves full of coloured paper, boxes of pencils and more books than he had ever seen in one place. Above it all was an American flag, a constant reminder that he was no longer in Japan.

The teacher rapped on her desk for attention and began to call roll. When she came to his name, he stood, bowed deeply and said in his best English, "Aaltor Matsuda present." All the children laughed, and Kenji vowed he would never speak in the classroom again.

At dinner that night, Ron and Harry were full of stories about school, about their friends and teachers. Harry, in his junior year at school, was preparing to take the pretest for university entrance exams. He told his parents that he and his best friend had decided on Cal Poly.

"And you, Arthur, how was your day?" Mrs. Matsuda asked.

Harry turned toward Kenji. "Well, how was it?"

Kenji looked around the table. He felt like the fish in the tank at school, trapped and unable to call for help. How could he tell the Matsudas that the entire class laughed at him, that he understood very little of what anyone said and that no one spoke to him the entire day, not even the other Nisei? How could he tell them that he just sat all day looking at his books, trying to read words that were meaningless? How could he tell them that it had been a miserable day, or how much he wanted to return to the familiarity of school in Japan? He simply said, "Teacher nice to students."

After dinner, Mr. Matsuda suggested that Kenji accompany him to the bonsai garden. The sun had hidden behind the neighbour's tree and sections of the garden were tucked away in darkening shadows. The air warned of the changing season, bringing a chill and dampness that had been absent during the past summer months. Kenji picked up a snail that had found its way onto one of the benches. Unwilling to kill it, he threw it over the fence, leaving its fate to another chance encounter.

"Fall is the time to repot the bonsai," Mr. Matsuda said as he put on his apron. He selected a maple tree from the bonsai benches and placed it on his work table. Then, he motioned to Kenji to follow him into the potting shed. "Here, son, take this bucket of soil. Carry it out to the table." Mr. Matsuda put his bonsai tools in the pockets of his apron and followed Kenji, carrying a bag of wire.

At first, they worked in silence. Mr. Matsuda shook the plants until the soil fell away, and then sent Kenji over to the water faucet to remove all the soil. When he brought the plant back to the bench, Mr. Matsuda began prune the roots.

"Arthur," he turned to Kenji. "Look at the roots. See the little white tips?"

Kenji nodded yes.

"That tells us that the plant is healthy. Can you see that?"

Kenji nodded yes again. He thought the roots looked like the Ota River separating itself into hundreds of tributaries as it entered the harbour at Hiroshima. He fingered the roots, letting them drift, like water across his palm.

Mr. Matsuda placed some soil in the pot, and Kenji held the tree in an upright position while Mr. Matsuda secured it with wire and surrounded it with soil. When the tree was firmly seated, he sat on his pruning stool. Kenji squatted next to him.

"Arthur, you are like one of the bonsai trees. You have been uprooted from the soil that once nourished you, and like the bonsai tree, you were sent to live in another place. You are suffering because you have been placed in new and unfamiliar soil; you haven't taken root yet."

Kenji looked away, down the row of trees. He noticed that the details of each tree disappeared as the sunlight faded and that the trees cast long shadows, belying their small stature. He wasn't quite sure what Mr. Matsuda was trying to say, but from the softness in his voice, Kenji understood that Mr. Matsuda knew he had had a miserable day.

"Your mother and I are trying to help you sink your roots into new soil, help you feel as though you belong in our home, belong in America. It's not as easy to transplant a boy from one country to another as it is to transplant a little maple from an old pot to a new one. But we're trying. You're struggling, but we're struggling too." The two sat in silence.

Kenji kept staring into the distance. The sun had fallen below the horizon, the air become much cooler, the birds gone to roost. Kenji bent over and drew the Japanese characters for sayanora in the decomposed granite walk with the toe of his zouri. He stood back, studied it and wondered why he had written that word for goodbye.

Mr. Matsuda began to speak again. "Just like a bonsai tree, it takes a long time for a boy to grow and take shape. You are young, Arthur. You have time. You will become a man and then you can make your own choices. But for now, you and I must work together, just as we do in the garden. I will nurture you just as I do the trees, provide the soil and tend to your roots. Do you understand?"

Kenji rubbed the character for goodbye out of the decomposed granite with his foot and turned toward Mr. Matsuda. He bowed and whispered, "I understand."

After that night in the bonsai garden, Kenji began to feel that he, like the snail he had thrown over the fence, had been given an opportunity to make a new life. Kenji could feel a new closeness to Mr. Matsuda, and for the first time since leaving Japan, he believed someone understood how he felt.

Several weeks after the repotting lesson in the bonsai garden, Mr. Matsuda entered the dining room at breakfast and turned on the radio. The international situation was so unstable that even Ron and Harry listened to the news. On that morning, the Matsudas learnt that General Hideki Tojo had replaced Fumimaro Konoe, the Japanese Prime Minister.

"What does that mean?" Mrs. Matsuda asked. They looked to Mr. Matsuda for an answer. Mrs. Matsuda began to rub her hands on her apron and fear lay in the pit of Kenji's stomach.

"I'm afraid that Japan has moved from a civilian government to one that is controlled by the military." Mr. Matsuda cleared his throat and took a sip of tea.

"Will there be a war with Japan?"

"We must wait and see."

"What will happen to us?"

Mr. Matsuda shrugged.

They ate breakfast in silence. Kenji knew that war meant he would not see his parents in Japan for a long time, if ever again.

For several months, life went on without interruption. The boys went to school and Mrs. Matsuda cared for the home and family. Each night, Mr. Matsuda and Kenji met in the bonsai garden. Even the onset of the war on December 7 didn't immediately disrupt their outward lives. Mr. Matsuda's customers continued to employ him, and except for news about the relocation of Japanese families in some areas along the California coast, the residents of the Asian community in which they lived went about their lives.

One evening about six months after the war had started, Mr. Matsuda didn't come home for dinner at the usual time. Mrs. Matsuda sent the boys to their rooms to do homework while she covered the food and placed it in the oven. Kenji lingered in the kitchen. Mrs. Matsuda was worried, and he wanted to know the reason. As she turned from the oven, she saw him standing by the kitchen door.

"Arthur, don't you have any homework tonight?"

"Yes, ma'am." He turned to leave the kitchen, but Mrs. Matsuda stopped him.

"How was school, Arthur? Do you want to talk to me about something?"

"No, ma'am."

Mrs. Matsuda took his arm and led him into the dining room. They sat at the table.

"The teacher tells me you're a very good boy in school. Your father and I are pleased."

Kenji looked away. He was not accustomed to being praised. He stared at the glass cabinet that held the dishware Mrs. Matsuda collected. Kenji favoured the six-sided tea cup and its saucer decorated with two women in kimonos accompanied by two children. The lake, the blooming cherry trees and the mountains in the distance reminded him of the day he and his mother had visited Kyoto.

"Your teacher said you study very hard and are making good progress with your English." Mrs. Matsuda spoke urgently, trying to engage her son.

Kenji looked down at the floor. This was a six-tatami mat room, much bigger than any of the rooms in my father's house. Everything is so big in this country. The people are big. The houses are big. Even the chairs are big. And Japan is so small. How can Japan hope to wage a war against America?

"It is important that our sons succeed in school and that the teachers think well of them," Mrs. Matsuda continued.

Kenji nodded again. "I understand."

"Now go and do your homework. Your father will be home soon."

Mr. Matsuda came into the kitchen through the garage door just as Kenji was about to leave the dining room.

"Toya," he called to his wife. "Where are you?"

"Here. Arthur and I are in the dining room."

When Mr. Matsuda entered the room, Kenji could see that he was breathing deeply, as though he had been running. Seeing her husband was distressed, Mrs. Matsuda said to Kenji, "Go upstairs now and do your homework. Dinner will be ready soon."

"No," Mr. Matsuda intervened in a voice that was unusually loud for him. "Arthur, stay here. Toya, where are Ron and Harry?"

"Upstairs doing their homework." Mrs. Matsuda turned to Kenji and motioned for him to remain at the table.

Mr. Matsuda walked to the stairs and called to the boys. "Ron, Harry, come down."

Once everyone was seated, Mrs. Matsuda turned toward the kitchen.

"No, Toya," Mr. Matsuda said. "Sit with us."

He drew out a piece of folded paper, flattened it with his hand and laid it on the table before him. Although Kenji was on the opposite side of the table, he could read the upside down writing at the top of the page. It said "attention" in large, bold letters.

"What's that?" Mrs. Matsuda asked. She picked up the paper napkin by her plate, tore off a small piece and began wadding it into a ball between the palms of her hands.

"It is a directive to all Japanese. It has been posted on every telephone and light pole in our neighbourhood."

"What does it say?"

"On May 23rd or May 24th, the head of every Japanese family must report to the library to register."

"What does it mean? To register? Register for what?"

"Tonight after work, many of us met at Hiro Yamamoto's house to discuss this situation. Hiro said we're being given a choice to voluntarily move from California and live somewhere outside the state or be sent to relocation camps."

Everyone at the table sat in silence. Harry was the first to speak.

"Does that mean we won't have to go to school anymore?"

Tears slid down Mrs. Matsuda's face. She took the torn paper napkin and dried her cheeks.

Mr. Matsuda stared at her. They could hear the oven ticking as the heat-expanded metal began to contract. The once familiar sound was now ominous. Mr. Matsuda couldn't answer his son's question. He looked at Harry and shrugged his shoulders.

Mr. Matsuda registered on the 23rd and came home with the news. The Japanese families in their neighbourhood were being sent to the men's gym at the local college where they would live until the final relocation took place.

"When do we leave?" Mrs. Matsuda asked.

"In ten days."

"Ten days?" Ron and Harry looked at each other and started to talk, both at once. Mr. Matsuda silenced them by raising his hand.

"Yes. All we can take is what each person can carry. We have to leave behind anything too big for one person to transport."

"What will happen to the things we leave behind?" Mrs. Matsuda asked.

"If we cannot find anyone to care for them, we can register them with the authorities."

"Can we trust the authorities?"

"I don't know."

"How long will we be gone?"

"I don't know. Until the war is over, I suppose."

The next ten days passed quickly. Mr. Matsuda remained at home to help select and package the things they would take with them. They carefully went through their possessions and chose what they thought were absolute necessities. Clothing, sheets, blankets and towels were packed first. Then another box was filled with soap, cleaning materials and personal toiletries, another with kitchen items, rice, dried fish, soy beans and snacks for the boys.

Mr. Matsuda packed as many of his small gardening tools as he could into a small carton, along with rope, hammer, nails and a tiny saw. In the end, they had enough clothing for two or three days and one set of bed linens for each. The boys took a few board games and their soccer ball. There were two suitcases or boxes for each to carry.

On the morning of the day they were to be transported to the assembly location, the Matsuda family carried their possessions to the sidewalk. Kenji could see the street was lined with their neighbour's possessions and that their neighbours were standing beside them, waiting for the trucks to come to take them away. The whispers of the waiting families were punctuated by an occasional child's voice or the thud of boxes being piled one upon another. No cars passed. No children rode by on bicycles. Mrs. Matsuda stood by the family's possessions, trying to think if there was anything she had forgotten. Ron and Harry were nearby talking to their friends.

Mr. Matsuda walked back into the house and out into the yard. Kenji followed. Mr. Matsuda had turned off the waterfall earlier in the day, and the dragon flies had left their playground. The only sound in the yard was the chattering squirrel, still warning intruders not to enter its domain. The lawn chairs were gone, given to their neighbours, and the lawn, unmowed that week, was ragged. Without the cool mist rising from the waterfall, the yard felt hot and dry. How quickly things turn from peaceful to forlorn, Kenji thought.

He followed Mr. Matsuda into the bonsai garden. As they walked along the rows of bonsai, the morning breeze spread rumours of a coming spring—the discreet scent of tiny buds on the quince, the rising pitch in the pines and the already fading ume blooms filled the air. Kenji realised that he wouldn't see the fullness of the bonsai garden this spring and that, in their absence, no one would care for the trees.

His eyes swept over the garden as he tried to fill his memory with how it looked that day. He wanted to promise the trees that he would come back to take care of them, but he knew that he would never see them again. They would all die. Even worse, he might never know the joy of working with Mr. Matsuda on the trees again. "Sayanora," he whispered.

Kenji looked up and saw that Mr. Matsuda standing in the path ahead, waiting for him. The lines formed around Mr. Matsuda's mouth by easy laughter had deepened and his face was sad. His sagging shoulders made him look like old and defeated. What would happen to the family without Mr. Matsuda to guide them?

Kenji struggled to find words that would comfort his birth father, but he couldn't think of anything that would bring him hope. As they stood silently, Kenji retreated from the scene of despair into his memory world, once again going back to the day in the cryptomeria forest, a happier time when he felt he loved the earth and everything in it.

As he relived the day in the forest, the words "endure," "duty" and "serve" came back to him. At this terrifying moment, he understood that they had been given to him by his father to help him survive the ordeals he would encounter. This was the moment for which his father had prepared him.

Some day he would return to Japan to see his parents; perhaps he would once again live in the country he loved. But for now, he clearly saw where his duty lay. As he walked toward Mr. Matsuda, he looked up into his face and smiled. Then he took Mr. Matsuda's arm and led him toward the torii gate. As they left the bonsai garden behind, Kenji said, "Come Father, it's time to go."

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.