Songs From a Caged Bird

Karenna W.
Songs From a Caged Bird

“I searched her blank eyes for any sign of comfort. She told me that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where Aiko lives. Bombed the little island. I knew what she would say after that.”

December 4, 1941

I woke today to the sound of Takeo singing. Father believes that singing is a waste of time. Takeo is 14 years old and my eldest brother. Father believes that Takeo does not spend his time being productive; he should be doing “men’s work.”  Father tells me to do “women’s work”: “Emiko, clean the house, change Goro.” Father is a traditional man.

 

December 7, 1941 (Night after Pearl Harbor)

Even before I entered our house, I heard Father’s radio blaring through the thin, glass windows, muffling his loud, husky voice. I walked up the dirt path and entered the house as quietly as possible, turning the tarnished knob slowly, not letting a creak escape the door. I walked across our yellowing carpet and tiptoed up the wooden stairs into my bedroom. I quietly closed my door, placing my ear on it. All I could make out from the now muffled whispers in the kitchen was something about Aiko, my uncle. Mother was yelling, and Father was hushing her. I stepped away from the door and fell on my bed beside it. I covered my head with my pillow to muffle the noise. I could still hear the faint noise of my parent’s voices downstairs. What had happened? I stared at my molding ceiling above, trying to brush away the troubles surrounding me.

Before I knew it, I was lulled asleep by their hushed commotion. I awoke a few hours later to hear a sharp rapping on my door as dusk settled in outside my window. I rolled from my bed and opened my door to reveal Mother, her face red and eyes swollen. I was distraught with fear. I searched her blank eyes for any sign of comfort. She told me that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where Aiko lives. Bombed the little island. I knew what she would say after that.

 

December 9, 1941

I’m in a forest, surrounded by beautiful nature. I am lying on a bed of baby blue flowers. The flowers are huge, and their large petals brush against my face with the soft, warm breeze. The grass around me is gentle, and the trees around me luscious, tall. Birds chirp and frogs croak. I hear the slow trickle of a stream in the distance. I feel as though I am in a fairy tale forest, beauty surrounding me and comforting me in every way. Dew trickles from one of the pink flowers above me into my mouth; it’s sweet like honey. I smile, pushing the events of the past few days outside of my head. I am surrounded by warm, golden rays of sunlight and beautiful nature. I inhale the sweet air engulfing me and let my eyes close. I take in the gentle scent of the forest around me. My eyes flutter open again, but the forest is swirling away from me, disappearing into oblivion. I scream, but no noise leaves my lips. The molding roof in my bedroom takes the place of the pink, plump petals that were once above me. A soft cry in the room beside me takes the place of the birds and frogs frolicking together. I close my eyes again and try to find the forest, but it has been lost forever.

 

December 14, 1941

It has been a whole week since Aiko passed. Though I haven’t seen him in months, my life feels smaller without him. Everyone at school is blaming me for the attack, even though my family died in it. I am so angry at them. If only they knew. They chase me after school and call me names. My friends ignore me. Father lost his job at the butcher today. My headmistress asked Mother to stop coming to school to teach.  

 

January 23, 1941

Yesterday, I was listening to the radio. The man who was speaking explained how he knew that all Japanese people were a threat to fellow Americans. I knew he was joking. I thought he was joking. Takeo wasn’t laughing.

 

February 5, 1941

Today was my birthday, Mother gave me a corn husk doll, Father gave me a sewing kit, and Takeo gave me his old, rusted recorder.  

 

February 19, 1942 (Ex. Or 9066)

Today, when I walked to school, I saw a sign on a billboard outside of the air raid shelter.

In short, the sign told me that I had to be deported with my family to an “internment camp.” What the heck? This must be a nightmare. What is happening? What had I done? Who made up this horrible prank? I walked into the schoolyard, and the taunting resumed. I need to wake up from this wretched dream. Today, the kids threw pebbles at me and the other Japanese kids in the school yard. The only person who still talks to me at school is a boy named Ren. Ren is Japanese; the other boys and girls taunt him too.

 

March 27, 1942

Ren and I walk home together everyday. He lives only a block away from me. We sometimes walk in silence, but we usually talk about our families. School is even more painful. I tell Ren about Goro, and he tells me about his pet guinea pig. Ren has problems at home. He sometimes comes to school and keeps a cap on his head all day.

 

July 22, 1942

Today, some men came to our house: a tall, skinny one and a red-faced, chubby one. They knocked on the door, and Father told me and Takeo to get upstairs. We both fled upstairs, side by side, into my bedroom. I could hear the men downstairs slamming on the door and yelling at us to open up. I heard the front door creak open. Takeo and I pressed our ears against my door to listen in on the conversation. The men wouldn’t stop yelling. I pressed my eyes shut and tried to find the forest again. Takeo and I waited for what seemed like hours until I couldn’t take it any longer. I left my room and peeked down from the top of the stairway. I saw the men tell Father that we were to leave our house in four days and report to the town square where we would receive further instruction.

Louie growled at the men and started barking. Louie wanted them to leave. The tall man kicked Louie across the room. A scream erupted from my throat as I saw Louie’s limp body hit the mantlepiece. I heard a little whimper escape his mouth. He’s alive at least. Father turned around to see my head leave the stairway opening. The men exchanged glances of irritation, but pure fear was in Father’s eyes. I closed my door, ashamed.

 

July 23, 1942

Today, we packed up all of our belongings. Mother and Father are desperately trying to keep our house from getting seized by the government. We fear that will happen as soon as we leave. I cry myself to sleep. We have to leave Louie behind. Father says that we should shoot him, that Louie will starve to death alone here when we leave.

 

July 24, 1942

I am afraid about my future; what will happen to me when I get to the camps? Will I go to school, get food? Will I live with Mother and Father and Takeo? What will happen to Louie? I hope that tomorrow I will wake up, and this will all have just been a nightmare.

 

July 25, 1942

This was not a nightmare. I am still here.

 

July 26, 1942

I woke up this morning in fear of what was to come next. I live now in fear of what is happening. The train is hotter than anything I’ve ever experienced. I am quite certain that I’m in a cattle car. I am still in the “train” right now, but I have no idea where I am. I’m fingering the harmonica that Takeo gave me as I write. The train is dirty and crowded, and I can’t see Mother anywhere. The only thing I have of my past life are the clothes on my back, the harmonica in my hand, and the pitiful suitcase beneath my feet. Louie is at home, all alone. I wouldn’t let Father deprive him of his only chance of survival.

 

July 27, 1942

Today is the first day of camp. The guards put tags on us, like we are luggage or something, before marching us to makeshift living quarters. I am housed in a tiny barrack with Mother and Father and four other people who I don’t know. There’s a girl my age and her old parents. I don’t want to use the bathrooms; the toilets are in a communal place, and I have to wait in line to use them. I can’t believe the guards expect us to shower and use the bathroom with no partitions. The bathrooms were definitely not designed to accommodate modesty.

 

July 29, 1942

There is no school open at the camp yet, and the food is wretched. All I’ve had is canned wieners, rice, and beans. I haven’t made any friends yet. The guards keep telling us that this is for our protection. But why are their guns pointed inward?

 

August 1, 1942

Today, when I came home from school, our barrack was a mess. It appeared that someone had come in here and stolen our things. I looked through all of my bags; the very little money I had was gone, so were my sewing kit and sewing scissors. Mother and Father said it must have been the guards. How could they do this? Shouldn’t they go to jail? Then, I remembered: I am a prisoner. No one cares about what happens to me. At least I still have my harmonica.

 

August 3, 1942

Today, they finished building the school. Mother is going to ask for a job teaching there. Goro has some sort of sickness; I try to help, but I don’t know what to do. There is only one doctor who we know of here. He used to work in an office not far from the butchery where Father worked. His name is Mr. Hachiro, and he lives in the barrack three down from us.

 

August 7, 1942

Every night I play music on the harmonica for Goro. It’s rusty, and not much sound comes out, but it’s better than nothing, and Goro seems to enjoy it.

 

August 13, 1942

I am so scared for Goro. He never sleeps, always cries, and his body is always shaking. Goro looks like he’s lost at least five pounds since we came here. His eyes are starting to stick out of his head. But through all of the pain, I have made a friend. Her name is Marilyn. She is housed in my barrack. We go to school together. She lets me look at her magazines, and I help her with homework. Mother has started teaching at my school. She gets paid 50 cents a day. I heard her tell Father that the white teachers make seven dollars a day.

 

August 21, 1942

Today, Mr. Hachiro came to our barrack. He tried to help Goro, but Goro is so thin and sick. Mr. Hachiro has almost no medicine because he isn’t supplied any. I am scared for Goro. I try to push death out of my head.

 

August 23, 1942

Mr. Hachiro came back to our barrack again today. He held a silver thing that he calls a “stethoscope” to Goro’s chest. He said that Goro’s pulse slowed since he came last. Goro isn’t pumping blood fast enough. Mr. Hachiro held Goro in his arms. He asked me if I wanted to feel Goro’s pulse. I reached down touched his chest and felt his tiny heart pumping through his thin rib cage and the little, red collared shirt that Mother had bought at the store with two day’s pay. Goro wrapped his tiny hands around two of my fingers. He gazed into my eyes and formed a weak, thin smile on his chapped lips. I cradled him in my arms and patted his duckfluff hair. His grip on my hand weakened. I stroked his chest again. Suddenly, the beating stopped.

 

August 29, 1942

Today was Goro’s funeral. We all cried throughout the whole time. We ordered a cross after he died, and Father scratched his name.

      Goro Amori  

       September 9, 1939 – August 23, 1942

      Loving son and brother

     Death by natural causes

     Rest in peace, you will find a better place

We buried him in the dingy camp graveyard. I stroked his little, red shirt as he disappeared into his coffin. Covered with dirt. I folded his clothing and placed it next to his grave, and I left him a card with only three words. Goodbye Goro. Sometimes, life hurts more than death.

 

September 21, 1942

I want to get out of here. The camp is so hot, and there are mosquitos everywhere. I can’t stand school. I barely learn anything with the overfilled classrooms. The food is wretched, and I think it’s all from cans. Mother cries every night for Goro. I want to cry, but I try to be brave. Father never smiles anymore. Takeo seems to have grown up into the “man” Father wanted him to be. He never sings anymore, and his eyes look emotionless. Something about him has changed. Our barrack feels so vacant without Goro. I could never sleep with his cries at night, but now I yearn for nothing more than to hear them. In my dreams, I live life before camp and see Goro smile as he wraps his chubby arms around me. I tried to play my harmonica again today. It’s the first time I picked it up without Goro as my audience. The recorder is so rusted, that all that escaped from the instrument was one, lone note.

 

September 29, 1942

Camp is becoming more bearable. I’ve made more friends at school, and I’ve started playing soccer with the other kids in the afternoons. But the guards frighten me. They look at us like animals, like the enemy.

I wonder if Louie is still alive. My eyes tear up as I think of him starving, whimpering. What if he’s dead? If I were him, I’d have no will to survive. I could never survive alone.

 

December 5, 1942

I awoke tonight to hear gunshots. When I peeked through the torn cloth covering the barrack window, I saw four soldiers holding guns and aiming them at a crowd. I heard screams ring out, and two men fell in front of my eyes. The shots continued to ring out. I saw three shirts soil with blood. I squinted my eyes shut; I couldn’t bear to watch. Finally, all the noise stopped. Guards shot in the air. At least ten men lay wounded. I didn’t know if they were injured or dead.

 

December 25, 1942

Christmas has come. The young children performed a show in the little theatre attached to my school. It was an adorable performance and reminded me of when I performed in the musical A White Christmas in the first grade. I couldn’t help imagining Goro on stage dancing with the other little kids. He would have had so much fun. We exchanged gifts in the mess hall today. Mother gave me a magazine she bought at the camp store. Father gave me a pocketknife. I was shocked. It was not a gift that I would ever expect from him. It wasn’t “ladylike.” Today, we received larger rations for the holiday. We went to pray in the little church, just a barrack with a cross. School was closed. But other than that, not much was different than a regular day.

 

February 5, 1943

My birthday has come. Neither Father nor Mother remembered. At least Takeo did, but he had nothing to give me.

 

April 12, 1943

I haven’t written in months. I feel no hope anymore that I will leave here. I have friends, a family, the bare necessities, but I want freedom.

 

April 26, 1943

The other children seem to enjoy camp much more than I do. They laugh and dance and run around. I try to smile. Mother says people will like me more if I do.

 

May 30, 1943

Before today, I never knew what job Father had at camp. He never talked about it. I overheard Father telling Mother that all he does is boil food in the back of the camp kitchen. He hates his job. So much for the “men’s work” he always wanted Takeo to do.

 

June 12, 1943

Today, I was listening to the radio in our barrack after dinner in the mess hall. Mother, Father, and Takeo were at the camp store buying soap. The man on the radio explained to listeners how Roosevelt’s decision to intern the Japanese allowed “loyal” Americans to be safe from Japanese criminals, and how we were “a threat to national security.”

My lips flared, and I slammed my fist on the table. Goro had died here as a three year old, and he was a “threat to national security”? I couldn’t listen to this! How could Mother let me listen to this! I ran to my bunk, grabbed the pocketknife from under my pillow, and smashed the radio into as many pieces as I could. The glass buttons broke and shattered. I let out a gratifying sigh of relief, my hand covered in my own blood and shattered glass.

 

June 13, 1943

What had I been thinking yesterday? As soon as Mother came home, she saw what I had done and slapped me across the face. Mother told me that I will come back to the barrack every day straight after school for one month. No soccer. No friends. Mother wants me to find a job at the camp to pay for the radio. She didn’t even notice the blood on the floor.

 

July 21,1943

I am in the forest again, surrounded by plump, pink petals, delicate wildlife, beautiful vegetation. The sweet air floods my nostrils again. I inhale and smile. I walk towards the trickling stream and wash my face with the sweet water. I look up at the blue sky; beautiful clouds peek out from the tall, lush vegetation. I walk across a pattern of stones in the river, the stones glistening with fresh water. Suddenly, my legs give way. I slip on the stones and into the river waterfall. I scream, louder than ever. But I am silent and alone. I grab onto a stone to not fall down the waterfall. The water surrounding me flushes red. I scream again. Silently. My pain is unheard. The sky clouds black, the birds around me vanish. The trees rustle slightly in the wind. My grip loosens, and I fall… grabbing at the thin, sweet air.

Suddenly, I wake up, surrounded by silent darkness and a pool of cold sweat.

 

September 1, 1943

I have been looking for almost three months for a way to pay for the radio. I can’t find a way, and I have broken our only connection to the outside world.

 

December 12, 1943

I am a prisoner in this camp. I’ve forgotten the taste of freedom.

 

February 3, 1944

Takeo has a job now. He’s been working for almost a month. He works as an assistant to Mr. Hachiro in the infirmary barrack. Takeo’s eyes have turned from emotionless to stone cold. He has seen too much pain. I heard from Marilyn that many men die every week in the infirmary. I can’t imagine my once singing, loving Takeo witnessing death.

 

April 1944

I received my first letter from outside of camp today. Someone had read it before I had. The letter was from Ren. I hadn’t thought about him since before I came to the camps, and a part of that made me feel guilty. He had always been there for me, and I had forgotten him in return.

 

November 1944

Memories of my old life before camps keep flooding back to me, as Ren writes me letters about how much fun we used to have. I was nine years old when I first came to camp, now I am almost twelve. Nearly three years have passed, but it feels like a lifetime. Memories before camp are becoming so distant, I can scarcely remember what our house looked like anymore. I have many friends now through soccer and school, but I miss the rest of my family. I think every day about what they might be doing. I have grown up more in these three years than all the other years in my life.

 

August 21, 1945

Ren sends me letters every time he can. I have replied whenever I get stamps, but it doesn’t seem like he’s getting all my letters.

August 11, 1945

Dear Emiko,

I am writing to you from the Minidoka Internment camp, in Idaho. Since I came to this camp years ago, I have been trying to contact you. I haven’t been able to find where you are interned because I don’t know anyone who lives in your camp. I have sent letters to you for months, but it seems you haven’t received any of them. How are you doing? How is the weather? We have a mosquito infestation and really hot weather. Because it’s a desert! A real desert! I’m not in the same barrack as my family, but I see them every day. My mom works at the beauty shop, and my dad works on the irrigation project with my older brother. I miss you so much, especially walking home from school with you.

I made honor roll this month at the school because I helped repair the schoolhouse and improved my grades. My older brother made the baseball team. I tried out, but I wasn’t good enough. But I’ll survive.

The stamp prices are wild at the camp store. I’m guessing they’re expensive for you too, so I enclosed a few stamps for you in here so you can send me a letter back (if you can.) You don’t even have to write me back, I just need a sign that you are getting my letters and being happy.

Yours forever,

Ren 🙂

How did Ren end up in Idaho? We went to the same school. If only he knew how I cry a little inside thinking of all the memories we had and thinking of what could have been if I hadn’t forgotten him.

 

November 20, 1945

I woke up in the morning with the usual dread that carries with me at camp, but today, a little glimmer of sunlight peeked through the curtain in my barrack window.

When I came home from school with Marilyn today, we sat in my barrack on my cot reading a comic book. The book she had chosen for us to read tonight was Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel can turn instantly from a child to an adult, and she can fly. Marilyn was talking to me, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking about flying away from here. I was still thinking about flying away when I heard the doorknob turn, and Takeo entered from work. Something about his face looked less flushed, his expression more emotional than usual. His eyes had a warmth that I hadn’t seen in years.

He told me that we would leave the camps tomorrow, to pack our bags and get ready. One of the guards had made an announcement when Takeo walked to work. I yelled with joy; I had never felt so alive. I jumped up and hugged Marilyn and Takeo, and a smile broke out on Takeo’s face. His eyes sparkled; I hadn’t seen that in years. Finally, I’ll be free, happy again, I’ll see my friends, my family, Ren, Louie… ? If only Goro was here to see this, he would be six years old now. My eyes welled with bittersweet emotion. Mother cried with joy, and Father swept me up into his arms. After all we’d been through, freedom was finally here.

 

November 21, 1945

Today, we left on the train from camp. I didn’t even care that I was riding in a cattle car anymore. Joy bubbled inside me. I could taste sweet freedom again.

I sat next to Mr. Hachiro on the train ride back, the man who tried to save Goro. A child across from me was wailing. Tears of bittersweet emotion rolled down my round cheeks. I wish my baby brother was here to share this moment with me.

 

November 23, 1945

We arrived back at home today; our neighbors had offered to pick us up from the train station. The house was the same, muddy grey color as it had always been, but the paint was peeling and chipping. The windows were shattered. I held my breath as Father touched the door. It fell straight through the frame with just his light touch; the door was molding around the edges. I walked up the stairs holding Takeo’s hand. I was too scared to see what was to come. I sealed my eyes shut and walked up the stairs into my room. There wasn’t one item that hadn’t been swept from my room except for an old box of broken toys in my closet. I gasped. I was heartbroken and astonished. The memories of my old life had been stripped clean.

I burst into tears as I walked into Goro’s little bedroom. The walls that Father and I had spent a whole day painting baby blue were now a faded grey. The toy chest that was bright and well worn had vanished. A few toys remained in a small basket next to his empty, splintering crib, the only reminder of my loving little brother. I fell to my knees and put my face in my hands. I remember when I pulled Goro around the house in that basket. I would grab his chubby hands, he would laugh, and I would smile. I reached up to stroke his crib; I saw him flicker there for just a moment. I reached out to grab him, but he slipped through my hands, a mirage. I shut my eyes. His crib will remain empty forever.

 

November 26, 1945

We were so fortunate that our house didn’t become government property. Our neighbors somehow prevented it from happening. Our house is the only memory of what we have left. Everything is gone. Vanished. Whether Louie died, was saved, or ran away, it is up to imagination. I remember scampering around with Louie in the backyard, climbing up trees just to tease him. I close my eyes and still feel the sharp bark scraping my legs. In my mind, I hear Louie’s paws scratching on the carpet in the kitchen and his gentle whimper as he begs for scraps.  The house’s barren, skeletal walls remind me of what this vacant space used to be.

 

November 29, 1945

Our neighbors seem happy to have us back. But something about them looks so changed, so empty, the way that Takeo’s eyes used to look just a week ago.

 

December 17, 1945

Mother was able to get her job back teaching at my elementary school. We are so fortunate to have an income. We sleep in potato sacks on the floor of our rooms since the furniture was taken. The rest of our family hasn’t been so lucky. Most of them have been banished from any occupation.

 

January 1, 1946

I was cooking with Mother in the kitchen today. The last time I cooked here was five years ago. So much has changed, even in a room as simple as our kitchen. Before the war, I would watch Mother make soba with vegetables and beef galore, I would play with Louie and Goro on the floor, and we would beg Mother for extra scraps of food. A tear rolled down my cheek into the limp carrots boiling in the dented stove pot. I could hear the single drop of water fall in the large bowl. Silence is not always a virtue.

 

January 7, 1946

Takeo and Father are desperate to find work somewhere, anywhere.

 

February 21, 1946

Today was a day of celebration in our household, one of the happiest days since we arrived back home. Both Father and Takeo got jobs at the Post Office today. I pray that soon we will have furniture again.

The kids in our neighborhood who aren’t Japanese are so lucky. They never went to camps; they have completely normal lives. While we were suffering, they were living lives of luxury and joy. They had plenty of food every day, while we lived on boiled wieners and burnt bread. The war barely affected them as far as I’m concerned. I come home to a potato sack, while they come home to warm beds.

 

February 24, 1946

Today, as I prepared for school, I saw a boy who looked so familiar leaning against the school house. Ren? We ran towards each other, like a Hollywood film cliché. We held in a long embrace. It was nice to put a face to the letters I had been receiving for the past two years. He walked me home that day. The security of seeing my only friend before the war was more than I could ever ask for.

 

February 28, 1946

I sat on my floor doing my daily homework assignments, staring at the deep darkness of the night sky from my small window. A sliver of moonlight peeked in through the uncovered glass.

I heard beautiful music from the other side of my bedroom’s thin wall. Mother must have turned the record player on. As I strained my ears further, I recognized the music as Takeo’s voice. Tears of joy sprung from my eyes. It must have been five years since I heard him sing. The memories of Father’s gruff voice telling him off and Goro’s chubby hands clapping for him flooded my memory. A smile broke on my face. Hope had returned to my household. Comforting joy and warmth enveloped me, and I let the soft music lull me to sleep.   

 

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