Water-Child Jizo was first published in “Say…Are you Dead?” near Halloween of 2003.
It was inspired both by Angel Island off of San Francisco (where immigrants were quarantined) and the many statues of Jizo-sama Bodhisattva dedicated to caring for (among other things) aborted and stillborn babies in cemeteries all over Japan.
By K. Bird Lincoln
“My things!” Ume tried to escape the arm of a tall guard with yellow hair. The guard pushed her forward again toward the rocky shore and palm trees of Angel Island.
“What about my things?” she said again. This time the guard gripped her so tightly that Ume was sure his fingers would leave bruises. Tripping over the unsown hem of her brown, travel yukata, Ume stumbled onto the beach with the other women.
Ume could feel fear welling behind her eyes. She pinched herself on the arm. There was no way for these Americans to know her dirty secrets. She was being silly.
Several of the other women were sniffling quite loudly. It was embarrassing, really. Ume tried to ignore them. She looked at the red sun sinking behind a large, yellow building surrounded by wire.
“What’s going to happen to us?” said one woman.
“Is this a prison?”
The women’s voices made Ume queasy. She wished they would just be quiet. At the entrance to the yellow building stood a Chinese man with a clipboard. As each woman approached, he asked her questions in badly accented Japanese. Most women went inside. Sometimes, however, the man would look closely at a woman’s face and then send her down a short path bordered by trees with wilted-looking leaves.
When it was Ume’s turn, she stared down at the ground, suddenly ashamed of her unwashed hair.
“You here for Japanese husband, yes?” The man pushed the clipboard towards Ume. “You show me your name, here, show me.”
Ume had learned to write her name in the Romanji characters of America from a Christian convert on the boat. Now she looked down the list quickly, her cheeks hot, wishing it was all over and Saeki-san was here to take her to her new life.
“Here,” she said, pointing to her name on the list.
The Chinese man nodded and then motioned her towards the path. When Ume tried to go towards the yellow building, he stepped in front of her and pushed her towards the path.
“No, no. You poor, probably dirty. You go there,” he said in a loud voice.
Ume hurried down the path to the snickers of the women behind her. She was mortified. She didn’t look up until the path turned into a line of rocks leading toward a concrete building.
There were a few guards standing in the doorway of a smaller building next to it, and a few women milling around the yard.
The concrete building had a single, tall smokestack reminding her of a Kasoba. The recent memory of standing outside the Tochigi Kasoba after her father’s funeral imposed itself over the strange, American letters painted on the front.
She remembered how her mother’s hand trembled slightly in her own, and how pale everyone looked in their stiff, formal kimonos. At the Kasoba, no one had cried when her father’s body was shut into the oven. The laments only started outside when everyone saw the white smoke signaling the end of her father’s existence on this earth.
It was also the end of Ume’s existence. At least any existence she could imagine.
Ume couldn’t enter that building.
She turned to walk over the grass. Maybe no one would see her if she mingled with the other women.
A guard yelled something at her, and began to walk purposefully toward her. He had a long, metal rifle in his hands.
Ume walked faster, almost colliding with a woman wearing a strange dress made of checked material.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” said the woman in Japanese.
Ume seized the woman’s arm.
“What’s going to happen to me? Why do they want me to go to that Kasoba?”
The other woman laughed. “It’s not a Kasoba, stupid. It’s just the medical infirmary. They’re going to check you for hookworm.” Something in Ume’s expression must have touched the woman because now her voice became less derisive and she gently put a hand on Ume’s arm.
“It’s okay. It’s over quickly. They’ll take you to the bunkroom afterwards and I’ll introduce you to everyone. I am Hoshino Makiko.”
“My name is Ugajin Ume.”
Now the guard was there, gesturing for Ume to head back towards the concrete building. Ume decided to trust Makiko and headed back over the grass. Inside the building there were no ovens and no furnaces stoked with coal or ornate boxes to receive the bones. There was just a large room with white-clad Americans moving in all directions, their large arms and faces filling the room.
Another man with yellow hair and tired eyes waved her behind a cloth screen. He said something to her in rapid-fire American, and then went away. Ume shivered in the cool air. What was she supposed to do? Why was she behind a screen?
Ume turned around and found a wooden chair in the corner. She sat down. Then she jumped out of her seat. A little man was impossibly perched on the top of the screen. He had a round, turgid belly and slitted eyes. A red bib and bonnet made his Buddha face look vulnerable. Ume gasped.
“Surprised to see me here, are you?” The Jizo crossed one dimpled leg over the other. “Well, I don’t usually make house calls.” His wide nostrils sniffed in distaste, “Or holding pen calls either. Yours is a special case, Ume.”
The man winked at her.
“Lord Jizo,” she said, but the little spirit disappeared. Ume froze, fearful someone had seen the visitation. If someone should tell Saeki-san, he would surely guess about… but no. She was being silly again.
Only the sinful would see Lord Jizo. Of course everyone saw- but tried not to see- his statue in front of Hachiman shrine back home. How many other women in her town left carefully wrapped bundles of flowers or toys there?
Ume only visited the protector-god once before getting on the boat to America. The cloud-covered moon had given a faint, grey light to the temple graveyard. Ume placed a wooden rattle stolen from her younger sister’s toybox and a few branches of plum blossom at Jizo’s feet. Noone saw her.
The man with the tired eyes entered the room. When he saw Ume, he made an exasperated face. Ume sat down on the chair again. The man put down his metal instrument and brought his hands close to Ume’s obi. She didn’t react until he started to actually untie it.
Ume stood up suddenly, knocking over the chair. “What are you doing?” Was she to be raped by this man? Ume crossed her arms protectively in front of her breasts. What had she gotten herself into? San Francisco seemed like a dream back home. Now it was turning into a nightmare.
Another man stepped around the screen. Ume sighed in relief. He was Japanese.
“The doctor wants you to undress so he can check you,” said the man.
Ume couldn’t reply. Undress? In front of this American stranger? What kind of woman did they think she was?
“Go on, it’s nothing. Just take your yukata off. It will be quick. If you don’t do it, they will send you back to Japan. Is that what you want?”
Go back to Japan? Go back to her desperate mother? Her three sisters who needed what food her mother could scrounge from her father’s relatives? Go back to Fujio-san and tell him everything? No, that was not a choice. Saeki-san was expecting her.
Tentatively, Ume put one hand to her shoulder, slowly folding back the coarsely woven material. The American doctor made an impatient gesture. Ume closed her eyes and tried to pretend she was in the hotel with Fujio-san. The doctor’s hands were cold, and his metal instrument chilled Ume to the bone. Ume held her breath and wished she were dead. Anything to be rid of this gray room and this American doctor’s roughened hands touching her skin. Even when it was over, Ume did not open her eyes until the man was gone.
When the guards finally accompanied her to another yellow building, Ume could barely see, her eyes were so blurry with tears. She was led into a dark, dank-smelling room crowded with rusted metal bunks stacked three beds high. Clothes were hung everywhere, but Ume was a little cheered to see they were Japanese yukata and kimono. She was afraid they would put her in a room with Chinese women.
Makiko came out from behind a bunk.
“Ume-san, you made it.”
Ume didn’t reply, she just collapsed into Makiko’s arms sobbing.
Ume saw her first American sunshine five days later when Makiko showed her the Jizo-shaped rock on the north side of Angel Island.
Ume didn’t want to go at first; this was a new country. There was no place in this new life for remembering a night filled with aching cramp, the blood- more black than red- coating a tiny sea-horse-shaped lump of flesh.
“You can’t leave everything behind,” Makiko had said. She gestured towards the red-stained linen Ume was washing in the filthy sink. “Your water-child is still tied to you. Believe me, you’ll feel better if you go with me today.”
How could Ume refuse without seeming callous? She couldn’t tell Makiko about Lord Jizo’s visitation.
Outside the barbed wire, the leaves were a desultory brown, not the rich oranges and auburns of Tochigi mountain. Ume felt pity for the scraggy trees, whose leaves drooped instead of dancing in the light sea breeze. After the long hike around the sun-dusted hill forming the middle of the island, Ume was disappointed to find that the rock itself looked nothing like the tubby Jizo at Hachiman-shrine. Jizo was supposed to have a compassionate face. The eyes wind and rain had shaped into the round head reminded her of the crotchety old man selling rice cakes in front of the hotel where she trysted with Fujio-san. Every time Ume walked by, she was sure that old man somehow knew she was meeting a married man.
Some other internee had made a crude jacket of red cloth for the Jizo. Ume didn’t know the name of the bell-shaped purple flowers wilting away on the makeshift altar. She opened her mouth to ask Makiko, but her friend had already begun to pray.
With trembling fingers, Ume set the tiny bag of rice Makiko had carefully hoarded from last night’s supper at the Jizo’s feet. Her two claps sounded impossibly sharp. When she bent her head in prayer the sun finally seeped through the layers of her yukata to reach her skin. She was warm! Warm like she had never been on the ship or on this fog-laden forsaken island.
The salty smell of the sea was a nostalgic tang in her nostrils. Ume wondered for the thousandth time if becoming a mail bride was the right choice to escape her regrets. The tang deepened into a salty copper taste on her tongue. Her arms curled involuntarily around her stomach, mimicking the way Fujio-sans’ arms had held her safe so many times before. Her belly grew warm and her arms heavy with the sensation.
Ume looked down into her baby’s eyes. Tightly folded eyelids squinted back at her, eyes born from the mingling of her love’s blood with her. The tiny fingers curled reflexively around her callused finger, and the face crinkled up in frustration. Ume rocked back on her heels to hug the baby even closer.
“It’s all right, Okasan has you little one. Don’t fret.” The words sounded hollow.
“It’s time to go back.” Makiko was staring down at her. She reached out a hand to Ume and pulled her up. Then, with a tsk tsk sound she rubbed one thumb under Ume’s left eye.
“No tears. No regrets,” she told Ume firmly. It was something the mail brides said daily. Today it didn’t succeed in banishing the lingering coldness in Ume’s middle.
“No regrets,” Ume said. She felt weak and limp. The chill had crept back under the folds of her yukata, and she was sure she was getting pneumonia. The watery rice and burnt vegetables at the cafeteria were giving her diarrhea. She hated to use the open bathrooms in the common room. All the women pretended they couldn’t see each other doing their business, but at the same time were mortified to sit side-by-side on the unsanitary porcelain seats. Did Americans think they were animals? Why couldn’t they have decent squatting toilets so at least flesh wouldn’t have to touch the place where the Chinese and Indian women had sat. The forest was clean, at least.
“Wait a moment,” said Ume as they started back toward the barracks. Makiko nodded once and turned around so Ume could have some privacy. Ume pulled back the branch of an oak tree and stepped carefully into the brush.
She hitched up her yukata and started to squat.
“Hello again. I see you’ve made yourself right at home.” The voice came from a low-hanging branch of the oak tree. It was Lord Jizo again. “Thank you for the prayers and flowers.”
Ume stood up, trying to smooth down her tattered hem.
“Lord Jizo. I didn’t expect to find you here.”
“I don’t know why,” said the pot-bellied figure. “You were just talking to me a moment ago.”
Ume was not in the mood to mince words with the spirit. “Why are you following me? Shouldn’t you be busy fulfilling your caretaker duties?”
Jizo jumped down, landing nimbly, then squatting in a formal posture. “I’m not following you, Ume.” He rolled to his feet, and came very close to her. One, pudgy finger slowly moved down until it was level with her groin. “You brought me here. Your water-child is still tied to you.”
Ume felt the unmistakable trickle of blood in her private linens. It had been a month since the procedure, but she was still bleeding.
“I consecrated her to you at Hachiman shrine-” she said, but Lord Jizo was already gone.
“Ume!” It was Makiko. “Are you done yet? We’re going to miss lunch.”
The sun was almost straight above their heads when Ume and Makiko finally got to the top of the steps leading down to the women’s yard. Ume was squinting against the glare, so that she almost walked into a spider’s web woven impossibly from a bush on one side of the road to the wooden post of the stairs.
How could the spider have spun a web that far? It looked so fragile, like a breeze could put to waste the incredible feat the hard working spider had accomplished.
Ume suddenly felt like that spider: she was stretched impossibly thin with her heart in Japan and her body here on Angel Island. It would only take a careless person to rip her in two.
Ume spent lunch and dinner half expecting Lord Jizo to appear again. It was almost disappointing when she climbed into her bunk underneath Makiko at lights-out. The heavy breathing of the other women only made her feel more alone. Ume buried her face in the folded towel she used as a pillow, trying to find some lingering scent from home.
Ume’s eyes were wide open in the darkness, but she couldn’t see the source of the sound.
She felt her way to the door in a sudden, desperate hunger, her hands scrambling and clutching at the cold metal. Her, own dear love needed her. Her daughter, Fujio-san’s daughter, the curse that banished her to America was calling her.
A sputtering candle lit the stairs going up to the bathroom. The flickering light made shadows that danced in harsh judgment of her.
“I’m coming,” Ume whispered. In the far corner of the long room, the tattered curtain hiding the one and only shower stall moved slightly. Ume walked slowly towards it.
_Wa wa wa wa_
The repetitive cry was not a hunger or sleep cry, but the sound of a distressed baby, abandoned and alone. Ume felt herself begin to bleed again.
When she reached the curtain, she did not hesitate. She pulled back the fabric and knelt on the moldy floor. On the little bench was her baby. The dark eyes, showing hardly any white, stared back at her from a smooth-fleshed face. She was making little rooting gestures with her lips, and Ume’s breasts began to leak fluid in sympathetic response.
Ume didn’t dare touch her. She hated her so fiercely for tearing her away from her home and Fujio-san. Although deep in her heart she knew an affair with a married man was doomed from the start, it was this baby’s coming into existence so soon after her father’s death that killed all other options for her. Ume’s fingers curled into a choking gesture, and she reached for the thin, vulnerable neck.
“Now, now, Ume. You don’t really want to do that.” Lord Jizo perched on the curtain rod, his eyes round and stern this time. “She is already dead. Your old aunty saw to that back in Utsunomiya.”
For once, Ume didn’t care what the spirit said or did. She had to stop that crying. She was going to bleed to death. Her trembling fingers closed around her daughter’s neck.
“Ume,” said Lord Jizo in warning, but he needn’t have bothered. As soon as her fingers touched the warm, fragile skin, Ume could no longer resist the urge to hold her daughter to her breast. She rocked, as one does when grief is too difficult to bear, as if the movement could trick the body into releasing its storages of pain.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry that I hate you,” she whispered into the baby’s sweet neck. “I’m going to have Saeki’s children, and they will never know their sister.”
Lord Jizo, somehow taller than Ume now, folded the pair in his comforting arms. “It’s okay now. Let me have her, she has to join the other children.”
Ume looked into his eyes and saw row upon row of tiny faces reflected there. Each face bore the wrinkles of old men, but the wide-staring eyes were blank. There was overwhelming sadness, and there was darkness, and there was Lord Jizo’s warm presence. She opened her arms. Jizo pulled her daughter away with a quick jerk that sent a tide of fire across Ume’s abdomen, like muscles long-clenched slowly coming to painful awareness.
And she cried. When she stopped crying, there was only silence with her in the squalid room. Ume crept back down the stairs and settled herself back in the bunk. She tried to remember what Saeki looked like in his picture. Maybe their children would be beautiful. Maybe this time, she would know how to love them.