Don’t miss the exclusive conversation between Angela Davis-Gardner and Jennifer Egan at the back of the book.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Oh, the bitter fragrance
of these flowers
spreads in my heart like poison.
Unchanged is the room
Where our love blossomed.
But the chill of death is here.
My picture…. (He lifts a photograph from the table)
She has thought of me.
Madame Butterfly, Act I
Kate imagined how odd they must appear to people who strolled past them on deck, casting covert glances their way: a blond, blue-eyed man and woman sitting in silence, on the man’s lap a child with a Japanese face and light hair. All three of them motionless, staring out at the sea like revenants, the boy immobile as a statue, clutching a multicolored string ball.
She drew her blanket more tightly about her shoulders. She should say something. They would look less strange in conversation.
“How can it be so cold in May?” she asked, trying to smile.
“The black current,” Frank said. “Kuro – kuroshiwo.” He made a snaking motion with one hand. “It’s a mysterious, shifting current that runs along the coast of Japan and then out to sea. We should be leaving it soon.”
She gazed out at the gray water, the dark line of Japan receding, then at the boy. Yesterday they had carried him kicking and biting to the hotel but he hadn’t made a sound since recovering from the sedation. The doctor said he was in profound shock – how much did the doctor know about the circumstances? she wondered. Poor child. She looked at him, his small hands gripping the ball as if his life depended on it.
“What shall we call him?” she said. They were to sit at the captain’s table tonight, and hadn’t discussed how to introduce the boy. “He can’t remain Benjamin. It would be a clear signal to the world that he’s your child. Everyone knows you were named for Benjamin Franklin.”
Frank said nothing. He was uncomfortable, of course, she thought, racked with guilt, but they had to discuss this bizarre situation; it was his responsibility, after all.
God help me, she prayed silently. She must remember that he had married her and not that awful woman.
“It would be one thing if he looked completely Japanese,” she said. “Remember your promise.” The condition under which she’d agreed to take the boy home with them was that no one would know his parentage. “Frank?”
“Yes, darling.” He looked at her. Today his eyes were grey, but they could be blue or blue-green depending on the surroundings and his mood. From looking at the sea so many years, he’d told her. He reached beneath the blankets to take her gloved hand. “I agree – anything you say.”
“What about a simple Japanese name? Surely he has one. Ask him.”
Frank spoke to the boy in halting Japanese.
“Benji,” the boy said. It was the first word he had spoken.
“You could give him a Japanese name,” Kate said.
“It would make life harder for him in America to have a Japanese name.”
“Well – an American name then.”
They considered William, David, Michael, then settled on Tom, one syllable, easy for the boy to learn.
“What do you think, Tom?” Frank said, giving the boy a little shake. “Anata -- anata namae wa Tom, desu ne?”
The boy turned, holding up his ball so that it blocked his view of Frank’s face. “Watashi wa Benji!” he screamed. He rolled off Frank’s lap and went flying down the deck. Frank took off after him; Kate unfurled her blankets and followed.
She found Frank at the back of the ship, gazing frantically about. The deck was empty, the boy nowhere in sight.
Perhaps he had leapt overboard. Anything was possible; he was in a state of lunacy. She scanned the wide fan of wake behind the ship.
“Here he is,” Frank yelled. He had found him squatting behind a large spool of rope. The boy was sucking on his ball, his eyes closed.
Frank lifted him out. “Benji it will have to be, for the time being,” he said.
“He shouldn’t get his way with tantrums,” she whispered, glancing at a couple walking past. The woman, wrapped in fur, stared at them avidly; the man tipped his hat with a slight, superior smile. “He’ll be spoiled beyond salvation.”
“It’s not just a tantrum,” Frank said. “Remember what happened to this boy.”
“I’m not likely to forget.” She made her way back down the deck to the cabin.
Later that afternoon the ship began to roll, rising high, slapping down hard. Kate lay in her berth, dizzy and nauseated. The cabin was claustrophobic and the motion relentless; she felt as if the pitching of the ship and her nausea and the voyage were never going to end, that she would be mired in this torment forever.
Frank opened the door to the cabin, leading the boy by the hand. “I’ve been mulling it over,” he said, leaning down to peer at her. “What’s the matter darling? Seasick?”
“ I’m so sorry. Do you feel like hearing my idea about the name?”
She nodded. Frank and the boy were going up and down in her vision. The boy was staring at her with those black eyes. She shifted her gaze to the left and fixed on the sink.
“We must call him Benji, because eventually he’s going to let slip that was his name. So I thought I could tell people this: the priest at a church, where we can say we found him, called him Benji after me, having no other choice at hand, and by the time we came to fetch him, the name had stuck. He simply had no other name that we were aware of. What do you think?”
“Fine,” Kate said, closing her eyes.
“Sleep if you can, darling. The boy and I are going back up on deck – I’ll see if I can make a sailor out of him.”
The door closed.
“Benji,” she said. The name was bitter in her mouth.
The name was the least of it. There was the shock of learning about Frank’s vulgar liaison – and then – after the tragedy – suddenly having his child to raise.
But he was just an innocent child, she reminded herself. None of this was his doing. He couldn’t help it that he had a mother so cruel as to butcher herself before his very eyes.
The American consul Sharpless—who had insisted that the boy was Frank’s – told them that as a mixed-race child he would be unadoptable. He would live on the streets, prey to disease and criminals. Frank said he would feel guilty all his life, if he left the child to such a fate. He begged Kate to forgive him, and to consider what he knew to be a heavy burden.
She had gone to the Oura church to pray about her decision and afterwards went to the cliff where the 17th century Christians had leapt to their deaths rather than abandon their faith. It had been a blazingly beautiful day, the sea a smooth blue cover above their graves. If those souls could give up their lives for Christ, she could make the modest sacrifice of finding room for this boy in their home.
Frank had covered her face with kisses. She would be glad, he predicted, that they would have help on the farm until they had boys of their own.
Kate shifted from her back to her side and stared down at the steel floor. She felt as queasy now as she had that month of her pregnancy, not long after they were married. When she lost the baby Frank had been so dashed it was almost unbearable, and there had been no sign of another these two years. Maybe her sickness now was not just from the motion of the boat. Perhaps she was with child again.
The ship rose, a high, slow climb, then fell with a shudder. Their large trunk slid across the floor, Frank’s shaving mug fell from the sink and shattered.
She thought of that woman lying in blood, and the child beside her, restrained by the maid from throwing himself on his mother’s body. God was calling on her to enlarge her soul. She would learn to care for him as if he were one of her own children, and she would help him to forget.
Galena Gazette, June 1, 1895
Plum River, Illinois. There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community as Lt. Frank Pinkerton (son of Elmer who died last year) and his wife Katherine have settled in at the Pinkerton farm. As if the presence of the refined Mrs. Pinkerton – the daughter of Galena’s late missionary pastor Reverend Timothy Lewis-- were not excitement enough, this Christian couple have brought with them, to rear as nearly their own as possible, a Japanese orphan boy rescued from the lowly society of Nagasky Japan. In his sermon Sunday last, Pastor Marshall Pollock called upon his flock to excite in their breasts all the human compassion of which they are capable, and to extend every possible kindness and instruction to this heathen child in our midst.
Benji was given new clothes, scratchy pants that ended below his knees and a shirt with a long row of white circles he was supposed to push through holes. There were stiff heavy shoes to wear outside and inside. When he tried to leave them by the door everyone laughed and Blue Eyes made him put them back on.
Papa-san said this was a farm where they grew good things to eat but the food made Benji sick, the big pieces of red meat, the hill of white mush with a thick brown soup running over the top, and the little green things that ran away from the stabber he had to use. Blue Eyes said he couldn’t use the chopsticks he found in his trunk.
Outside everything was too wide and stretched looking. When he saw the river he understood that he was in the kappa world. He had been bad and the kappas had brought him here. He had never seen a kappa but Suzuki had said they were green with long arms and a shallow dish of water on their heads. Unless you knocked the water out of the dish they were very strong. Once when he swam in a river in Nagasaki and went down deep to get a rock, Suzuki told him never to do that again. The kappas hid in rivers and they could reach inside your bottom and pull your liver out. Even if you weren’t in the river but you were naughty the kappas could take you there when you were asleep and carry you under the water to their world. Two times he hadn’t come when Mama called and once he had kept a frog in his bed to scare her. Then Mama was lying on the floor with her eyes shut and she wouldn’t wake up. Suzuki said she would never wake up, that the red on the floor was her life coming out of her breast but he would see her again some day in the Land of Spirits and he should pray for her. Sohe was a bad boy. Suzuki said it was an accident, but he knew the kappas had killed her because he was bad and then they had brought him to this place. That’s why this strange talking sounded like voices through water.
He squatted near the river and looked down at it to see the kappas. The water ran fast and carried sticks and leaves and once he saw a fish. There was a long-legged bug on top of the water. He poked it with a stick. It could be a kappa in another form. Animals could take other shapes and fool you, Suzuki said, foxes and badgers and birds.
He liked the funny birds here. Chicken. Papa-san made him say it in kappa language. It was his job to feed the chickens inside their fence. He put corn in the shallow dish and scattered it around him in a circle for them to pick up. They made funny noises, especially the one with the red mushrooms on his head, and he felt sorry for them because of their ugly feet they couldn’t help and the loose necks that went back and forth too much. Their feathers were pretty but hard. Papa said some day they would have babies, little soft ones, and he could have one for his own. He always gave the chickens clean water after their food and Papa said he was a good boy to take care of them so well.
In Benji’s room was a bed where he was supposed to stay all night. He was not to pull off the covers and sleep on the floor, but he did, when he could stay awake until the house was quiet. The floor was hard beneath the sheets and thin quilts, but as he fell asleep there, holding the string ball Mama had made for him, it was easier to pretend that he was at home and that when morning came Mama’s voice would wake him. Breakfast would be waiting at the low table that looked out on the garden and there would be miso soup with bits of mushroom he had helped Mama find in the woods, and rice with dried seaweed. This would be in the Land of the Spirits, but it would look just like home.
One night when he had a bad dream he pulled his trunk out from under the bed. It was dark but his hands knew where everything was. The ivory chopsticks with the foxes on the end, the lacquer rice bowl, the kite with the samurai on it. At the bottom was his winter sleeping kimono. He took off the itchy nightshirt and put on the kimono and lay back down. The kimono was soft with thick padding and the silk lining reminded him of Mama. His skin began to feel warm and when he went to sleep this time he had a good dream. He woke up in the morning before Blue Eyes came in and put everything back into the chest except the kimono, which he folded and slid beneath the mattress where it would be easy to find in the dark.
They went once a week to a place Papa-san said was a temple but it was not quiet and didn’t smell like incense. He had to sit on a hard bench with a lot of other people around and the girls in front of him turned and looked quick at him and laughed. On the platform was a big ugly man who talked loud and waved his arms around until his face was red. Papa said this was the priest, who was very interested in Benji. Some day the priest would come to eat with them and Benji should learn many new words so he could talk to him. Benji said he didn’t want to learn kappa language but Papa frowned and said he must so he could get along in this world.