The Boy Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine
In a few hours he and the girl and their mother would wake up and go to the Civil Control Station at the First Congregational Church on Channing Way. Then they would pin their identification numbers to their collars and grab their suitcases and climb up onto the bus and go to wherever it was they had to go.
All summer long they had lived in the old horse stalls in the stables behind the racetrack. In the morning they had washed their faces in the long tin troughs and at night they had slept on mattresses stuffed with straw…On their first night there her brother had plucked the stiff horse hairs out of the freshly white-washed walls and run his fingers along the toothmarks on top of the double Dutch door where the wood was soft and worn.
“I forgot my umbrella. I thought I brought it but I didn’t.”
His mother gave him an orange. “You can’t remember everything,” she said.
“And even when you can you shouldn’t,” said the girl.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said her mother.
“You didn’t,” said the girl.
“We’ll find you another umbrella when we get off the train,” said his mother.
“We’re never getting off this train,” said the girl.
“We are,” said her mother. “Tomorrow.”
She pulled back the shade…and saw a herd of wild mustangs galloping across the desert…The dark bodies of the horses were drifting and turning in the moonlight and wherever they went they left behind great billowing clouds of dust as proof their passage. The girl lifted the shade and pulled her brother to the window and pressed his face gently to the glass and when he saw the mustangs…he let out a low moan that sounded like a cry of pain but was not. He watched the horses as they galloped toward the mountains and he said, very softly, “They are going away.” Then a soldier with a flashlight and a broom came walking down the aisle. The girl let the shade fall back against the glass and told the boy to return to his seat.
At Topaz the bus stopped. The girl looked out the window and saw hundreds of tar-paper barracks sitting beneath the hot sun. She saw telephone poles and barbed-wire fences. She saw soldiers. And everything she saw she saw through a cloud of fine white dust that had once been the bed of an ancient salt lake. The boy began to cough and the girl untied her scarf and shoved it into his hand and told him to hold it over his nose and mouth. He pressed the scarf to his face and took the girl’s hand and together they stepped out of the bus and into the blinding white glare of the desert.
For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable.
Whenever the boy walked past the shadow of a guard tower he pulled his cap down low over his head and tried not to say the word. But sometimes it slipped out anyway, Hirohito, Hirohito, Hirohito. He said it quietly. Quickly. He whispered it.
One evening as the boy’s mother was hauling a bucket of water from the washroom she ran into her former housekeeper, Mrs. Ueno. “When she saw me she grabbed the bucket right out of my hands and insisted upon carrying it home for me…I tried to tell her that she no longer worked for me. ‘Mrs. Ueno,’ I said, ‘here we’re all equal,’ but of course she wouldn’t listen. When we got back to the barracks she set the bucket down by the front door and then she bowed and hurried off into the darkness. I didn’t even get a chance to thank her.”
In the dream there was always a beautiful wooden door. The beautiful wooden door was very small—the size of a pillow, say, or an encyclopedia. Behind the small but beautiful wooden door there was a second door, and behind the second door there was a picture of the Emperor, which no one was allowed to see. For the Emperor was holy and divine. A god.
“I lost an earring on the train. Did I ever tell you that?”
He shook his head…
“What did it look like?”
“It looked like a pearl,” she said. “It was a pearl.”
“Maybe it rolled behind the seat.”
“Or maybe,” she said, “it’s just gone. Sometimes things disappear and there’s not getting the back. That’s just how it is…I had no business wearing those earrings in the first place,” she said after a while. “No business at all.”
She’d been in America for almost twenty years now. But she did not want to cause any trouble—“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”—or be labeled disloyal. She did not want to be sent back to Japan. “There’s no future for us there. We’re here. Your father’s here. The most important thing is that we stay together.”…
Loyalty. Disloyalty. Allegiance. Obedience.
“Words,” she said, “it’s all just words.”
Years later the boy would recall standing beside his mother at the service, wondering just what kind of flower it was the man had seen.
A rose? A tulip? A daffodil?
And if he had plucked it. Then what?
He imagined exploding ships, clouds of black smoke, hundreds of B-29s falling down in flames from the sky.
Several days later, the street signs appeared. Suddenly there was an Elm Street, a Willow Street, a Cottonwood way… “It doesn’t look like we’ll be leaving here any time soon,” said the boy’s mother.
“At least we know where we are,” said the girl.
We put down our things and ran from one room to the next shouting, “Fire! Help! Wolf!” simply because we could.
Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates…We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!
And when our mother pushed us gently, but firmly, from behind, and whispered, Go to him, all we could do was stare down at our shoes, unable to move. Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place. That’s not him, we said to our mother, That’s not him, but our mother no longer seemed to hear us…He got down on his knees and he took us into his arms and over and over again, he uttered our names, but still we could not be sure it was him.