By Kei Ebata
It began with silence.
Silence fell unnaturally among the other ladies at the Red Cross Society when Alice dropped off socks that she’d knit to send to boys at the front. Awkward silence seized Edward’s family and acquaintance when she entered the room, until he moved to touch her arm, pulling her nearer him; and the topic would suddenly change to the weather, or gardening. And then there was the inexpressible shock of Pearl Harbour, and the growing fear.
It was one thing for a few politicians and prominent men to call all twenty thousand Japanese in British Columbia–Canadian-born and naturalized citizens, children and elderly—spies and traitors and to want them locked up or exiled or gotten rid of, in whatever manner. It was another thing when the only response to those calls was silence.
Alice was a connoisseur of silence. Years ago, Edward’s courtship had been conducted mostly in silence with both of them in the presence of many other students and mutual friends, their eyes and accidental touches drawing them ever nearer the forbidden other. In recent years, the eyes of her parents and sisters and their families told her everything in fleeting glances of shame and pain as they were given orders to report to detention centres to be split up and sent to different camps in the interior. Wordlessness kept her safe now when she sneaked away from Edward to buy shoyu in Chinatown, more so than the special letter of permission from the BC Security Commission that said Alice Hamilton was allowed to be in the protected area along the coast. She couldn’t speak Chinese, so opening her mouth in Wong’s grocery would be a dead giveaway of her identity.
Minced fresh ginger and garlic went into the saucepan with the shoyu. In spite of the rations, there was enough sugar in the kitchen and enough sherry in Edward’s caches that he hadn’t noticed her using a little to make teriyaki sauce the few times she’d done it.
In order to have the kitchen safely to herself, Alice had to set some long task for the maid in a far part of the house. Then she could work in peace and stand at the stove stirring her small secret, breathing in the sweet fragrance of sugar melting into the sauce and tasting bitter-sweet memory. She often thought of her parents.
A man with four daughters must either learn to see virtue and strength in women, or resign himself to the obliteration of his family in spirit as well as in name after his death. Alice’s father had sent her to university, shrugging off the disapproval and laughter of his friends saying, “She’ll care for me in my old age. Watch.” He waved his hand, dismissing them when they pointed out that his daughters were beautiful and would all find good husbands. It was true that Alice’s three younger sisters were noted beauties with long elegant calves and creamy skin carefully kept sheltered from the sun. But Alice’s father thought that Alice was sadly tall; and her mother considered her eyes too wide, her gaze too direct, and her hair too fine and limp for true beauty. They decided that drastic measures were necessary to secure her future.
When Alice went to her father before the end of the first term to say that she wanted to get married, she was surprised by how happy he was at first.
“An MRS is better than a B.A.,” he chuckled. “Who is it? That tall Kobayashi boy studying engineering? Or Mas Yamashita’s son?” There were only a few Japanese-Canadians studying at the university. He thought it would be easy for him to guess.
“He is studying engineering. His name is Edward Hamilton. The third,” she added in a whisper, as if that made it worse.
“No,” Alice’s father said then, turning his back on her. It was the last word he spoke to her for a year.
Edward’s parents threatened to disown him, but he called their bluff. He was an only son.
Alice’s mother begged her not to go through with it, telling her she might one day regret leaving everything familiar just to marry Edward.
“But I love him,” Alice replied. “You left your home and all your family and friends to come to Canada and marry Father, just because the matchmaker set it up. You might have regretted that, but it’s not the same.”
“No regret,” Alice’s mother said sadly. “But you lose things.”
“I’m only moving to a different neighbourhood, not a different country,” Alice tried to reassure her.
“Different,” her mother agreed, but it was the kind of agreement one voices to say a corpse at his funeral looks just as he did in life.
When Michael was born ten months after the wedding, Alice’s father started talking to her again. Edward’s family allowed him to give Michael a small silver cup that was one of their family heirlooms. And best of all, she had a strong, beautiful, and happy baby boy.
If Alice was truthful with herself–and the slowly simmering teriyaki sauce demanded it as a reminder of the mother who’d taught her how to cook, and how to tell the truth in words and in silence—she had to admit that Michael held a special place in her heart, separate from her younger children. It wasn’t that she loved him more, but she was grateful to him. His birth had caused all four of his grandparents to accept her marriage. Michael had given her back her family.
Alice felt everything she did for Michael was nothing in comparison.
She only made enough sauce to marinate a steak for Michael. Her other children, Eleanor, Victoria and George, had never developed a taste for it; and Alice would only be eating a small piece of Edward’s steak. He seldom appreciated more seasoning on his meat than salt and pepper. He certainly wouldn’t appreciate any teriyaki sauce now, when it would only lead him to realize how she’d deceived him.
Michael was tall and light-skinned. His hair and eyes were dark brown, but there was really nothing about him to show that his mother was Japanese. His thick black lashes, long straight nose, high cheekbones and thick lips didn’t give away his race under such light skin–—nly left the girls staring after him. Michael passed for white so well that Edward would have been frankly angry if he’d known that Alice had encouraged any foreign preferences in him.
Edward had conjured up the steaks from one of his contacts for the last supper before Michael shipped out, “to make sure the boy had some good food in him before he left.”
On that night, when Michael cut into the steak and put the first piece in his mouth, the delicate flavours unfolding on his tongue told him of his mother’s extra efforts; but all he could do to thank her was smile. It was all the thanks she needed.
Edward nearly burst with pride every time he saw his son in uniform. Alice never said anything, but Michael knew her and said everything he could to reassure her.
“I’ll show them,” he whispered in her ear. “I’ll show them they were wrong about Obaasan and Ojiisan and everyone. I’ll fight for all my cousins, who’d be beside me if they could—you know it.”
Alice did know it—knew the shameful burn of being labelled an “enemy alien” even though she couldn’t conceive of a traitorous thought worse than wishing her seventeen-year-old son hadn’t volunteered, with his father’s support. She knew the only reason that she and her children weren’t in a camp somewhere in the mountains with the rest of her family was because of Edward and his influence. She knew that Michael was right. His cousins felt doubly shamed: first from the label and all that came with it, and second from the prohibition against allowing Japanese Canadians to enlist so that they could prove their loyalty.
Alice didn’t say anything when Michael left; and she was silent again when the final telegram arrived only a few months later, informing them that Private Michael Edward Hamilton had been killed in action. It was the day after the newspapers reported that Germany was announcing the death of Hitler. Edward read it slowly. For the first time in their lives, she saw tears pooling in the corners of his pale blue eyes. She saw the line of blood appear across his fingers as he folded the paper and it cut him. She watched his legs buckle underneath him, watched him fall tearing his tie loose, watched him raise his hands to cover his face as an inhuman cry filled her ears.
She wished she were a demon at that moment—one of the demons that her mother had told her about. She would have claws and teeth, too terrifying to look upon; and she would lash out at Edward with whips and salt water. She would teach him about pain.
Alice didn’t realize that she wasn’t breathing until George ran up to her, followed by Victoria. The impact of his body flung against Alice, his arms around her waist, startled her into inhaling. Victoria’s wide, dark brown eyes met Alice’s for only a second before she, too, threw her long, thin arms around her mother.
Alice laid her hands on their heads, stroking their dark brown hair and thin backs. She gently pulled them up the stairs and tucked them into Victoria’s bed together, both of them crying quietly. Edward remained in the front hall, on the floor.
Alice went to the kitchen, filled a kettle with water and set it on the stove to boil. She stood in front of the kitchen sink and stared out the window into nothingness. She thought of Michael’s smile to her with that first bite of steak in his mouth. Her father’s smile, wide lips closed and stretched over his teeth. The pain suddenly doubled her over. She thought that if not for the other children, she would choose to die herself. She could feel every beat of her heart as a throbbing ache in her chest. She was conscious of every breath. She had to concentrate to keep the air moving in and out of her body. She braced herself upright against the counter and waited for the kettle to boil.
She did not speak until Eleanor came in, unsuspecting that the world had ended during her usual shift of volunteer work at the hospital after school.
“Michael is dead,” Alice said, tasting the bitterness of unshed tears in her mouth as she opened it for the first time since the telegram had arrived.
Eleanor’s school books fell to the floor as she replicated her father’s graceless drop. Alice said nothing more, merely pulled Eleanor up, helped her up the stairs, and tucked her into Victoria’s bed alongside her siblings.
The tears streaming down Eleanor’s face started Victoria and George crying again. Alice hushed them gently, without words, touching their hair. She went downstairs and made an herbal tea to put them to sleep. She’d been using it herself regularly since Michael had been sent overseas. Now she filled four cups and carried them on a tray to Victoria’s room.
Eleanor stood at the top of the stairs. “Where is Father?” she asked Alice.
“Leave him be,” Alice replied shortly. Eleanor was already in shock, so had no reaction to the harshness of her mother’s voice. She was easily steered back into Victoria’s bedroom.
“It’s bitter,” George complained at his first sip of the tea.
“Drink. It will help you to sleep,” Alice ordered.
George was tall for a boy of eight, but she somehow managed to arrange him on her lap, sitting on the edge of Victoria’s bed with the two girls behind them. Alice rocked slightly, holding George carefully in her arms as he drank his tea. None of them spoke. Alice was grateful for the silence. When George was finished, she tucked him into the bed between his sisters and retreated across the room to sit in the window-seat. The children were asleep before she finished sipping her own cold, bitter tea.
In the middle of the night, Edward woke her, picking her up. She moved to push him away, but there was no strength in the gesture. He seemed to ignore it; but after tucking her into their bed he didn’t try to touch her again, even when he finally laid down beside her.
It was Alice who invited his arms to hold her when she turned towards him to press her body alongside his much larger frame and laid her cheek against his chest. They lay still, listening for the beat of each other’s heart a moment before Alice whimpered involuntarily; and Edward’s hold on her tightened almost to bruising. But the only thing Alice felt now was rage.
“I hate you,” she hissed, her hands clutching the sides of Edward’s ribs, as if to claw out the very heart of the one who was so happy to see their child in uniform, so sure that volunteering to go fight a war was the right thing to do.
His arms only tightened more, and his breath stopped in his chest.
Their lives together flashed through Alice’s mind as she wished that he would simply finish crushing her in his arms, and she welcomed such a death. She’d already given up everything for this man. Now even the child she couldn’t raise in her own language and religion and culture was a sacrifice—another boy who’d given his life for his country, leaving hardly any evidence of his loves, tastes, kindnesses, and motivations.
Edward’s whole body shook with some violent emotion, then his arms loosened a little. “I didn’t start this war,” he whispered.
But he was the one who started crying.
The hands that started as claws at his ribs flattened and softened to braces holding his body as he shuddered with tears. Alice wanted to say something, but couldn’t find any of the right words hidden in the vast silences surrounding her. In the end, all she could do was cry with him.
Kei Ebata is a mixed-race yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese Canadian) who studied post-Confederation Canadian intellectual history at the University of Manitoba. She currently lives in Ottawa, works in international development, and writes (mostly) speculative fiction on the weekends.