Authors: Jennifer Maruno
Michiko, Ted and Sadie entered the large weather-beaten building of the General Store. It was warm inside and smelled of old paper and wood. A long wooden counter extended across the entire back wall. To one side was a wicket. Behind it, a tall, bony woman in a navy dress with a starched lace collar waited on a customer. A couple waited their turn. They glanced up and turned their backs on Michiko, her aunt and uncle.
“We have to have the right coupons,” Sadie said,
stopping to fish through her purse. “As if finding the money isn't enough.” She pulled out a sheet of perforated stamps and handed it to Michiko.
Michiko bent the first row over along the perforation.
“No!” exclaimed her aunt. “We have to tear them off in front of the store clerk.” She took the page back. “We have to make sure we follow the rules.”
Michiko's eyes widened. If anyone was famous for breaking rules, it was Sadie.
Michiko wandered down the aisles. She examined the contents of the shelves in the first aisle, reading the labels aloud. The bright red boxes of soda crackers caught her eye. She remembered having them in her cupboard at home. Below them was a small assortment of canned goods. She looked for canned peaches, her favourite. Then she stopped suddenly. Tacked to the shelf was a small hand-printed sign. “
When the Japs give in
,” was the first line; “
We'll have more tin
,” was the second.
Michiko looked around. She removed the thumbtack, folded the cardboard in half and slipped it into her coat pocket. She stuck the thumbtack back into the wood.
The bell over the door jingled, giving Michiko a start. She walked to the top of the aisle.
The postmistress handed the woman a brown box tied with string. “Looks like your daughter's winter boots have arrived,” she said. Her scrawny neck throbbed like a lizard.
“She'll be pleased,” the woman responded. “I ordered the white ones with fur trim.”
The postmistress nodded in approval. Then looking past Ted, she spoke to the woman who had just come in. “May I help you?”
The woman spoke up. “I believe this gentleman was ahead of me.”
The postmistress sniffed and held her fingers to her throat as she turned to Ted. “Name and address, please,” she asked, her voice full of vinegar.
Ted gave her the information. She examined the contents of one of the cubby holes behind her, pulled out a thin brown envelope and slid it through the space below the wicket.
“Thank you,” Ted said. The postmistress looked past him. Ted did not move away from the wicket. “I need three stamps as well,” he told her and slapped his money on the counter.
Michiko moved to where Sadie was completing her purchases. The woman helping her was smiling pleasantly.
“Can I help you too?” she asked Michiko.
“I want to buy some seeds,” Michiko said.
“The planting season is over,” the woman responded. “All of our packets are sold.”
“I just wanted to plant some flowers,” Michiko said.
“Ahh, I see.” The woman said. She reached beneath the counter and pulled out a small catalogue. She pushed it towards Michiko. “You can order them,” she explained.
Michiko pulled the catalogue towards her. “Thanks,” she said quietly.
“Wait a minute,” the woman told her. “There will be
other things you'll need.” She looked at Michiko and winked. “If it's a big garden, you may need a tractor.”
Michiko looked up at Sadie in surprise. Her aunt gave a wide grin.
The woman returned with a second catalogue. This one was much thicker. A broad band of brown paper kept it taut. “I don't know a girl who doesn't enjoy the Eaton's catalogue.”
That night, Michiko sat down at the kitchen table to investigate her catalogues. Something crackled in her pocket. Michiko pulled out the sign from the store and read it again. She creased the cardboard along the fold. Then she tore it. She folded it and tore it again. She kept on folding and tearing until it was a handful of ragged confetti. Then she threw the pieces onto the fire.
She opened the seed catalogue and glanced through the flower section. There were daisies, sweet William, and yarrow. There weren't any snapdragons or lilies. It looked as if her plan to surprise her mother wouldn't be possible.
Michiko flipped through a selection of peas. Imagine planting peas with the name “Content”, she thought. She shoved the seed catalogue aside. She broke the brown paper seal and opened the second catalogue.
The first thing she recognized was the upright-style table toaster they'd used at home.
She looked at the picture of a young woman modelling a dress. It had square shoulders and a smatter of glittering sequins across the neckline.
This is Aunt Sadie's kind of dress
, Michiko thought. Then she corrected herself. “This is the kind of dress she used to
wear.” Gone were her aunt's bright red lipstick and her delicate flower smell.
Her eyes fell on the picture of the silver bracelet with five small bells. Beside it, there was a bracelet with a four-leaf clover, a musical note and a star. “And who isn't wearing bracelets by the armful these days?” was written below. “I'm not,” Michiko said aloud.
A pearl necklace with a filigree clasp made her think of her mother's tears.
Michiko flipped to another section. There was a dollhouse with a removable roof and a family of dolls. She read the description of the drumming bear. “Wind his key, and his head moves side to side. Both arms beat the drum vigorously.”
Just like my toy monkey. The one I had to leave behind
. She closed her eyes. Michiko remembered the toys on her bedroom shelf at home. She remembered her birthday presents. Then she turned the page.
Princess Minnehaha was ten and a half inches tall. She wore a beaded tunic, and sticking out of her bandeau was a small feather. For only one dollar, Michiko could buy the very person she was pretending to be.
In bed that night, Michiko listened to the household sounds that were now part of her life. She heard the clank of the aluminum kettle and the hiss of water dropping on the hot iron plate. Michiko closed her eyes to the thud of a log dropping in the great iron stove. A terrible heaviness formed around her heart. The sound of an owl screeching in the forest added to the awful feeling growing in her heart. She was beginning to think they would never be going back.
Ouch,” Michiko complained. “You're pulling too tight.”
“I'm almost done,” her aunt said. “Sit still. Once it's braided, you can sit in the sun and let it dry.”
Sadie stood back to study her handiwork. She lifted the ends of the two braids and sat them on top of her niece's head. “Maybe we should cut them off,” she suggested.
Michiko stared up at her aunt in horror. “My braids?” she wailed. Both hands flew to the top of her head.
“No,” she stated firmly. “Father wouldn't like, that.”
“I'm sure he would still recognize you,” Sadie said with a smile.
Michiko had wondered about cutting her braids, but they were an important part of her secret identity. None of the other children at school seemed to care if she was Japanese, but it mattered to George. His dislike of Japanese people was intense, and he wasn't ashamed to let people know it.
Every now and then, she stuck a feather in one of her braids to make Clarence laugh.
After the fishing trip, she and Clarence had become friends. Sometimes they searched for gold nuggets along the creek bed. Even though the mountain water was ice cold, Clarence panned in it, believing, one day, it would bring them gold.
Michiko taught Clarence how to make paper boats. They used the pages from George's pamphlet and launched the Yellow Belly Fleet. They pretended each boat would return with a nugget of gold on board.
One afternoon they lay on their backs in the orchard munching early apples. They watched the sky. All about them was the humming of lazy bees.
“Look,” Michiko said, pointing to a fat rolling cloud, “that's the shape of a peach.”
“I hate peaches,” Clarence said.
“How can you hate peaches?” Michiko asked in surprise.
“You don't know?” he responded. Clarence tugged at a golden red curl. “George calls me Peach Boy all the time.”
Clarence's hair and pale skin reminded Michiko of a peach as well.
“That's a compliment,” she told him.
“How can it be a compliment?” Clarence complained as he rolled over on to his stomach.
That day, Michiko had told Clarence the story of Momo-Taro, the boy born from a peach.
Michiko shook her braids now and stopped daydreaming. “I've got to get going,” she told her aunt. “I'm meeting Clarence. We're picking blueberries.”
Bert was taking a load of pickers up to the mountains. For each pail picked and delivered, he credited them with twenty-five cents, which he recorded in his little black book. Clarence had told her that at the end of the picking season last year, he had amassed the small fortune of five dollars. Instead of having them walk five miles to his farm, Mrs. Morrison had persuaded Bert to pick them up at the bridge.
There was no sign of Clarence when Michiko arrived, but she knew he would emerge suddenly from one of the fields. Michiko thought he was brave to walk the tracks. It frightened her to hear he walked the trestle that spanned the creek.
“Aren't you worried about a train coming?” she'd asked.
“Nah,” he'd scoffed. “My old man's a railway man. I know all the schedules.”
The familiar green pick-up truck turned the corner and rumbled across the wooden planks. Bert steered with one hand while the other dangled out of the window. “Get in the back,” he barked as he stopped. Several Japanese women wearing floppy hats tied under the chin stared at her. Their fingers showed through holes cut in lengths of old socks.
Michiko didn't join them. She looked up and down the road.
“I ain't waiting around all day,” Bert snapped. “You coming or not?”
There was no sign of Clarence. Michiko was in no hurry to experience another ride hanging on to loose,
rattling boards. Besides, she wouldn't go without Clarence. She shook her head.
Bert snorted and drove off.
Michiko decided Clarence must have forgotten and headed back home.
When she reached the orchard, someone came running full pelt down the lane. Michiko lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. The sun caught the runner's bright red hair. Why was Clarence coming from this direction?
He arrived, panting. He wrapped his arms about his waist and bent over.
“The truck already left,” Michiko told him. “Didn't you see it go by?”
“Bears,” was the only word he could get out. He put both hands on his knees and breathed in deeply.
“What did you say?”
Clarence pointed down the road. “Bears,” he repeated. He continued to pant. “I came out of the field and almost fell over them. They were in the ditch.”
Clarence nodded. “They don't usually come this close to town.” His face was bright red.
“What are they doing?”
“They're feeding off those berry bushes by the road.” Finally he stood up straight. “I had to back away and run along the tracks.”
“Take me to see them,” Michiko pleaded. “I've only seen bears in the zoo.”
“You'll have to be real quiet,” Clarence warned. “You don't mess with bears.”
They walked down the road in silence. Suddenly Clarence stopped and stuck out his arm to prevent her from going further. Two young bears wrestled in the tall grass at the verge of a small hill. One wore a magnificent honey blonde coat. It had a dark face and dark ears. The other was plain brown. They stopped rolling and batted at the shrubbery about them using their clawed paws. “Don't make any sudden movements,” Clarence cautioned. He took her arm and pulled her to an outcrop of quartz. “Let's get behind these rocks.”
The bushes drooped with berries. Michiko could see their little pink tongues dart in and out as they tasted the dark fruit.
Would her tongue turn blue like theirs had?
Then the brown one turned his attention to a rock. He used his paw to heave it out of the ground. He nosed about the hollow.
“What are you two doing?” came a voice from behind them. It was George. Michiko and Clarence were so engrossed that he had ridden up unheard.
Clarence put a finger to his lip. “Sshh,” he whispered. “We're bear-watching.”
George stood beside his bike. He looked across the road. “They're just a couple of cubs,” he scoffed.
“Babies are never far from their mothers,” Michiko told him. She was thinking of Hiro.
“She's right,” said Clarence. “I wouldn't argue with a Kootenay. They know all about bears.” He winked.
Just then a large silvertip grizzly ambled out of the trees, and the three of them gasped. George lowered his bike and got behind the rock.
The cubs must have picked up his scent. They looked to their mother, but she paid no attention. They moved out of the ditch closer to her. The mother bear touched noses with one of the cubs. The other tried to climb onto her back.
“Hey, look,” said George as he pointed at the two figures emerging from the forest.
Michiko peered over the rock. She recognized them at once. One was Tadoshi, the old carpenter who worked with her Uncle Ted. The other was Geechan. They had become fast friends and often walked and talked together.
The men approached the clump of berry bushes and stopped. The bears were behind the bushes in the meadow.
, Michiko wished desperately,
“They're Japs,” George remarked.
“How do you know that?” Clarence asked.
“Look at their skin,” he whispered. “It's like a lemon colour.” He rubbed his hands in glee. “Wait until they get closer,” he said. “You'll see how their eyes slant towards their nose. If they scream, we'll get to see their big buck teeth.”