In the courtroom, Ishmael Chambers watches Hatsue. He remembers their childhood friendship, thinking back to one particular day when they dug for clams together at South Beach, arguing about whether the different oceans were truly distinct, or whether they all blended into one another. Young Ishmael observed Young Hatsue’s body as his heart pounded; her beauty paralyzed him. He admitted to liking her. Hatsue didn’t respond, but Ishmael kissed her anyway. In this moment, Ishmael decided to love Hatsue forever, though her lack of response made him wonder whether “[the] kiss was wrong.” Even though Hatsue hadn’t responded to his hesitations about the kiss being wrong, Ishmael “felt certain” that their feelings were mutual.
Hatsue and Ishmael’s interactions continue to occur exclusively in nature, hinting at their inability to extend their relationship to the prejudiced, constraining world of humans. Even in retrospect, Ishmael’s memories of his budding romance with Hatsue are one-sided and subjective. His notion of truth is warped by his desire for Hatsue to return his love. Hatsue neither confirms nor denies that she loves Ishmael, yet he remains “certain” that she loves him back.
Young Ishmael anguished over Hatsue after their kiss as he worked odd jobs around town. He feared she had begun to avoid the beach so she didn’t have to see him. One night, he went to Hatsue’s house as dark fell and waited, in secret, for her to come outside. Hatsue emerged from her house to retrieve laundry drying on a line. Overjoyed at seeing Hatsue, Ishmael returned to her house all week. He observed “young strawberries growing on the plants around him.” The Imadas’ dog eventually discovered Ishmael and barked, which scared him out of returning to spy again.
Ishmael is completely obsessed with Hatsue. Unlike Hatsue, Ishmael is bolder about acting on his feelings. He goes so far as to embark on a nightly pilgrimage to her house out of the slightest hope that he might catch a glimpse of his love. In contrast, Hatsue remains unable even to comment on the truth of her feelings. In this distinction, Guterson sets up Ishmael’s impulse to act on feelings versus Hatsue’s drive to act on duty. The “young strawberries growing on plants” that surround Ishmael as he spies on Hatsue evoke the natural setting in which their intimate moments occur.
Ishmael and Hatsue worked together at the start of that strawberry season, but she continued to avoid him. Ishmael resolved to watch Hatsue work from a distance. Late one June afternoon, after a day of picking, Ishmael followed Hatsue as she left for home. It began to rain. As Hatsue approached the beach on Miller Bay, she took a shortcut through the cedar woods, and Ishmael followed her. Hatsue went inside a hollow tree that the two used to play in as children. Hatsue looked at Ishmael from inside the cedar tree, invited him in, and told him she knew he’d been following her. She explained that she often visited the hollow tree “to think.” Ishmael seemed to understand this; to him, “the inside of the tree felt private. He felt they would never be discovered here.”
Hatsue continues to conceal her emotions from Ishmael, which she accomplishes through avoiding him wherever possible. However, the couple’s meeting at the cedar tree marks a shift in their relationship. The natural world has always been the backdrop of their intimate exchanges, and the cedar tree is especially important. The cedar tree represents the absence of social prejudices and pressures, and it offers a glimmer of optimism for Ishmael: “the inside of the tree felt private. He felt they would never be discovered here.” Ishmael hopes that the tree’s seclusion will encourage Hatsue, for whom the tree is a safe place “to think,” to be more forthcoming about her feelings with him.
In the tree, Ishmael apologized for kissing Hatsue on the beach. Hatsue told him not to be sorry—she, herself, wasn’t sorry it happened. She asked him if he thought the kiss was wrong, and he responded that although he found nothing wrong with it, her parents and other people wouldn’t agree with him. Hatsue agreed; in fact, even their being alone together would be an issue, as Ishmael isn’t Japanese. Ishmael couldn’t see how this would matter. They lay down together in the hollow tree and began to kiss.
Immediately, the tree becomes a place where Hatsue and Ishmael can open up to one another to an extent that would never be possible in the human world, where Hatsue is so weighed down by her familial obligations. Still, Hatsue’s anxieties about obligation don’t leave her completely: she can’t help but feel guilty about seeing a white boy behind her family’s back.