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Careful, Mama Says

A two-minute stare-down with their father’s deathbed occurs. As though the thing will explain itself.

By Esumi Fujimoto
Fiction | Esumi Fujimoto, Fiction
November 10, 2018

Plastic 6: Esumi Fujimoto’s fiction sways in the wake of a passing, in the cataloging of old and contemporary silences.

The countertranslation below features translations of Esumi’s work by a fellow contributor to this folio. By making visible the multiple languages hiding in a mouth, and promoting translations that destabilize notions of mastery, countertranslation hopes to open possibilities of exchange beyond the frames of English and support a wider community of interpretation.


Careful, Mama Says

On the first Monday in May, Mrs. Tanaka’s daughters began to clean out their parents’ house. The old woman died in October, almost ten autumns after her husband, but Machiko lived in New Jersey and Yuriko complained that the cold weather would aggravate her arthritis and Yoko reminded her sisters that it was she who had taken care of Mama and Papa in their dying days and that, under no circumstances, would she do this alone. And so May it was.

Luckily for the three sisters, the American love of kitsch never grew on their mother, even sixty years after she returned to the country of her birth, even though she was a three time winner of the Santa Clara County Fair apple pie contest and Mrs. Johnson swore that Mama was the most American Oriental she’d ever known. Thus the family home was relatively free of tchotchkes, save for a set of porcelain hinaningyo sent by a faceless aunt in the faraway land their parents still called home, three paintings of various sensibility, and a collection of Happy Meal toys that Mama saved for her grandchildren, though they were all well into their adulthood by now. During the transcontinental flight from Newark to San Jose, Machiko took it upon herself to create an Excel spreadsheet listing what she could recall of the family’s belongings, an inventory of memories. She left the last column blank for each item’s disposition, a fate limited to one of five options: (1) donate, (2) trash, (3) Machiko, (4) Yoko, (5) Yuriko. The list was replete with the unremarkable emblems of a deeply pragmatic life: pots and pans, china from Sears circa 1964, the green velvet couch in the living room, a pair of white leather ottomans, her father’s prized John Deere lawn mower. Of course, like all daughters who never knew their mothers the way Janet Whiteford and Carol Johnson and Margie Russotto did, the Tanaka sisters quietly hoped to discover something precious during the weeklong posthumous cleanout: a hidden stack of cash, a bundle of forgotten love letters, a notebook filled with their mother’s confessions, written in indecipherable Japanese. But of course they found no such things. Nothing at all.

Nothing until Friday.

On Friday the sisters tackled the garage. The hardest work was behind them, countless hours of emptying cabinets and drawers, removing and refolding linens and towels along nearly permanent crease lines, carefully packing Papa’s suits—one black and one navy—still neatly pressed and draped in plastic, until two lifetimes were packed neatly into three dozen cardboard boxes. For the remaining furniture and larger, more valuable items, Machiko doled out a stack of pastel Post-It notes to her sisters: for Yoko, yellow, and for Yuriko, blue. She kept the pink ones for herself. Soon each room became a mosaic of pastels, territorial flags flapping gently from the green velvet couch, the leather ottomans, the dining table and chairs, the box filled with Sears china. They were still fighting over who would inherit the family butsudan and so it remained in the center of the living room, unmarked and unclaimed. Still, Yoko arrived at the house just after dawn every morning, placing three ripe mikan, thorns still protruding from green stems, upon the altar every morning. They weren’t yellow, but they were close enough.

The garage was barren except for their father’s 1984 Cadillac Eldorado, a shelf lined with jars of pickled plums dating back to the 1970s, and several dusts-covered cardboard boxes in the far left corner. The first hour was devoted solely to fighting over how to dispose of the aged umeboshi.

“Obviously we just throw it all out,” Yoko said.

“And then what? Let all those jars break and leak fermented plum juice everywhere? Imagine.”

“Imagine what?”

“Imagine the smell! The garbage truck just leaking it everywhere, stinking up the whole town.”

“That’s a good point. Just think about the neighbors. They’d probably talk about it for months.”

“The closest neighbor is two miles away, Machi,” Yoko muttered with a scowl, “Shows how long it’s been since you’ve been home.”

It was Yuriko’s idea to pour the juice onto Papa’s eight-by-eight lawn, still immaculate and bright green even after months of neglect. So much for that. “The contractors are going to bulldoze this whole place anyhow,” she reasoned as she watered the grass with the pungent juice of another jar (’81). They dumped the pickled plums into a large garbage bag, hundreds of them quickly forming a flaccid mountain of preserved flesh. Pink and wrinkled like the carnage of a hundred castrations. Mama would have cried at the waste. The recycling bin filled with empty mason jars.

After lunch, a final task. “Just a quick sort through those boxes,” the eldest sister said. They drag their feet to the far left corner of the garage. Yuriko’s knees are acting up again, can’t you hear them creaking? Yoko waves a hand at her, wiping away the pain the same way Mama used to. “Just a quick look,” Machiko says. A collective sigh can be heard all the way in Gilroy. Each sister silently assumes responsibility for one of the boxes and reluctantly begins to wipe a thick layer of dust from stale flaps. Yoko is still hoping to discover a secret stash of money, picturing stacks of twenty notes, each neatly tied with string, but is woken abruptly from her daydream by a loud gasp.

“What is it?” she asks, slightly annoyed.

“I don’t know,” Yuriko says, holding up a small white plastic triangle to the light. She pushes her wireframe glasses up the bridge of her nose with a harsh nudge. “I don’t—what the hell are these?”

Yuriko brushes her thick bangs from her eyes just as she’s done for the last fifty years with no more grace. She turns the plastic triangle over with the other hand, rotating it counterclockwise, caressing each corner. Yoko and Machiko scoot over to their sister’s open box and peek inside: hundreds, maybe thousands of plastic triangles in various sizes and colors glare back at them. Yoko submerges both arms into the box, old plastic tickling her arms as she moves her hands from side to side in search of whatever must be hidden beneath. Machiko abandons the original treasure chest and frantically opens the other two boxes only to find more of the same. A thousand plastic triangles in shades of white, black, green, speckled with whole letters and fractions of indistinguishable logos. She scoops up a dozen with both hands, cradling her mother’s strange treasures, their wrinkled and rounded corners poking her palms in jest.

Another gasp. The elder sisters turn their heads back toward their younger sister.

“They’re bags,” Yuriko says, waving a wrinkled grocery bag emblazoned with “LUCKY’S” in red block letters. A small smile is unfolding across Yuriko’s face, widening her cheeks further, the wrinkles around her eyes tripling within seconds. Skeptical, Yoko picks a smaller, tightly folded green triangle with hints of blue on either side and pulls at the middle crease until it unravels, its rounded bottom bellowing outward, suspended by limp, neglected plastic handles: ALBERTSONS. Machiko pulls apart several black triangles embellished with gilded flowers, remnants of her father’s frequent trips to the local liquor store. They sit in the far left corner of the garage, plastic bags scattered across their laps, some drifting lazily across the concrete floor like a poor man’s deflated balloons.

“They’re fucking plastic bags,” Yoko says, seemingly to herself.

It shouldn’t be such a surprise. Mrs. Tanaka always prided herself in being prepared. She was a meticulous, thoughtful woman. So meticulous that she organized two decades’ worth of canned umeboshi in chronological order on the back shelf of the garage. So meticulous that she saved and mended and thus preserved every item of clothing she owned since the war. So meticulous that in her bedroom closet sat four jars, one for each child’s dried umbilical cord stump, saved for the occasional brewing of a special tea in the event of illness or injury. (Takashi’s umbilical cord stump, the only surviving connection to his mother, still sat lamely in its assigned jar. But Mama did not save his other personal effects. No, those were folded and packaged and hidden immediately after the one hundred day service. Quickly, quietly, efficiently and without a single tear. The Tanaka household would only know one kind of altar). But somehow the plastic bags seemed excessive, even for Mama.

That night, Machiko lies awake and turns over the plastic triangles in the palm of her mind. She fondles their corners, admires their consistency, their form, the edges folded so precisely that it took her sister nearly five minutes to unfold the first secret. But this was how her mother did everything. Remember how she reacted when they came to take Papa away? She was just as swift as the policemen who led her husband out of the tiny one room house, rapidly gathering all of the family’s most valuable possessions into a small pile and wrapping it in a plain indigo cloth, tying the corners into a tight knot at the top. She hid this precious bundle in the stove every night until they, too, were forced to leave. Forty-three nights. During which time she asked her eldest daughter (who was also the brightest, though she would never admit this to Machiko) to write a letter to President Roosevelt requesting Papa’s release. I write za retta mysehrufu, she said, but my Engrish no good. Machiko-chan betta. When, weeks later, there was still no sign of Papa except for the brief letter he penned to his wife from federal prison in Fort Missoula, Montana in which he told her he was fine and could she please say hi to the children and please remind Takashi to take care of his mother because he was now the man of the house, Mrs. Tanaka calmly asked her six year-old daughter to please write again. It seemed to Machiko that her mother was immune to sorrow, perhaps incapable of it. Reason, planning, and logic—these were the language of her emotions, the closest she ever came to tenderness.

Mrs. Tanaka visits her eldest daughter while she dreams. She is wearing her best white cotton dress, belted at the waist, hair the color of ink tied in a neat chignon at the nape of her neck. She greets her daughter from the porch and then walks slowly down the steps, pausing at the lemon tree. Then she disappears. Machiko wonders if Mama has already left; perhaps this was just a brief hello. She begins to smile wryly to herself, impressed with Mama’s teasing. And just then, just as a laugh catches in the back of her throat, Machiko suddenly feels a rush of cool water pouring over her feet. Tiny soap bubbles pop in between her toes. She pushes the urge to laugh down into the pit of her stomach. Her feet have always been ticklish, her Achilles heel. Machiko looks down at Mama, who is busy vigorously washing her feet with bare hands, scrubbing the soles of her feet the way she always scrubbed the bottom of her favorite cast iron skillet. She watches as the skin of her feet begins to slough away, blood coloring the soapy water cotton candy pink. Mama’s face frozen with no expression, as always.

“You feer betta after this,” Mama says.

“I’m not sick, Mama,” Machiko says as tears begin to fall freely down her cheeks.

“You want feer betta, Macchan? Risten to Mama.”

“Yes, Mama.”

Machiko wakes up abruptly at four o’clock, her cotton socks thrown astray on the carpeted hotel room floor. She reaches for her feet, grasping the arches tightly, taking a moment to congratulate herself for still being able to touch her toes at this age. They are smooth, supple, the familiar calluses on the balls of her feet now missing. A faint smell of lemon lingers in the air.


Takashi was visiting home when he died. It was the fall after he graduated from Cornell, that mysterious university his sisters spent hours trying to imagine, picturing palatial brick buildings and colonial columns and wide expanses of green as they fought over their brother’s letters. Even Papa was enamored by Cornell, particularly by the reactions which the name elicited from people like Mr. Russotto, people who had never paid their quiet neighbor any mind until Papa mentioned it in passing, watching as jaws dropped and eyes grew wide in disbelief before stammering congratulations followed. Papa, who was usually so self-conscious of his accent that he spoke English in scant two- to three-word sentences now bragged loudly to red-faced strangers at the market, at the agricultural supply store, at the Driscoll Sharecropper Association meetings, to anyone who was willing to listen, about his son who was away at university in New York, at Koh-neru.

A drunk driver hit the Volkswagen head-on at full speed on the 101. Machiko was sitting in the passenger seat. The car was totaled, her brother dead, but somehow Machiko emerged from the wreck with only a long scratch on her right arm that didn’t even scar. A waste, her parents’ faces seemed to say when they picked her up from the hospital that night, that she should be the one to survive. Machiko was the only reason Takashi had driven to San Jose at all. Months and months of letters detailing how lonely she was, how much she hated San Jose State, how she was on the verge of failing chemistry (and American history, and economics, and applied psychology), how she shuddered at the thought of disappointing Mama and Papa but resented them nonetheless because they didn’t understand her at all. She was barely eighteen. Big brother took all of this to heart. He wrote her countless letters filled with words of encouragement and advice. I’ll be home soon, he signed. And finally he was. On the first afternoon of his return he told Mama that he wanted to surprise his baby sister after her last class of the day. I think the surprise will do Macchan good, Takashi explained to his mother as he kissed her cheek in an absurdly American way. Mama nodded and smiled, though she had no knowledge of Machiko’s difficulty at school, of her burgeoning depression or the extent to which both had consumed her daughter’s life. Funny girl, she would say of Machiko’s sulking. We’ll be home for dinner, Taka assured his mother in English. Then, squeezing both shoulders gently, Matta ne.

It was a Friday night in June.

Mama made two apple pies to celebrate Takashi’s return. She left one on top of the stove and placed the other in the freezer, for later.

She waved to her first child from the porch, her only son. The one who left her for New York because his tuition was paid for by the important school he had been accepted to, the school she had never heard of, the school some white American teacher at Live Oak High School told him to apply to. The son who said he would become a doctor. To make you proud.

She waved goodbye to her only son from the porch as he waved back at her, disappearing down the county road, a cloud of black smoke trailing from the exhaust.

Later, as they drove home in the pick-up truck, her husband, still refusing to look at her, asked one question: “Why would you ever let him drive to San Jose alone at night?”

It was a silly question, almost comical, for it was Takashi who had moved three thousand miles away from home, it was Takashi who learned to drive his father’s tractor when he turned fifteen, and it was Takashi who had loved to take long drives by himself, across distances far longer and in cars far less reliable. And it was the intoxicated farmer who drove on the wrong side of the road at nearly eighty miles per hour who had killed their only son, not the night sky.

It was a silly question but Mrs. Tanaka could come up with no answer. She sat beside her only husband and ignored his sobs while she clutched a blue handkerchief with both hands, unable to offer it to him, unable to offer him anything, unable to go back in time and tell Takashi not to go, suspended indefinitely in her husband’s sorrow. It was her first and final act of carelessness.


Old Man Tanaka was always quiet. He treated language as though it were rationed food in a time of famine or war, using it sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. But after Takashi died, he was practically mute. For the first year after his son’s death, he did not look at his eldest daughter. He could not look at her. Instead he kept to a strict routine. He rose at dawn and headed to the fields without eating breakfast, where he feigned oversight of the migrant laborers who were now responsible for harvesting the rows of strawberries. He watched them bend down and reach, bend down and reach, round red jewels in gloved hands, round red berries filling trays and trays and trays. He watched them sit periodically and share from open packages of unfamiliar cookies. He said nothing when the newest worker harvested an entire tray of berries the color of watermelon meat. They should be the color of blood. Unripe, unsuitable. But he said nothing at all. He went on long evening drives down the county roads after dusk, though he would never drive on the 101 again, and he would never, ever go to San Jose. He returned home and ate dinner in silence and waited for his wife to announce that his bath has been poured and ask if he would like to take it now. Any hours he has not managed to occupy are spent sitting in the tufted armchair in the living room nursing a coffee cup filled with whiskey, staring at the butsudan on which there now sits a framed portrait of his only son, fresh mikan and mochi sitting atop the red lacquer kuge. An offering to the dead.

He didn’t cry. At least, not in front of his daughters. Not in front of his wife. Only when he was alone, only when he had three coffee cups of whiskey and no longer recognized himself.

Even though the year of their father’s silence is the loudest memory of all three childhoods, the sisters never speak of it, even now. Even though Yoko is standing in his former bedroom staring at the hospital bed in which he laid for the last year of his life, where she spent hours turning him, feeding him, bathing him. This stupid fucking bed. How could they forget about this monstrosity?

“So what are we supposed to do with this thing?” she asks her sisters.

“I guess we throw it out?” Yuriko says meekly.

“Okay, sure. We’re just going to leave a hospital grade bed on the side of the road. Machi?”

“I’m sure there’s somewhere where we can donate it, like, to the Salvation Army? Gee, it’s really big though isn’t it? Not even sure how anyone would get it out of this room.”

They stand in the doorway, hands perched on sagging hips, shadows of their mother. A two-minute stare-down with their father’s deathbed occurs. As though the thing will explain itself.

Yoko can’t even recall when he moved from the marital bed to this thing, or when exactly it arrived, who delivered it and wrestled it into her brother’s former bedroom. It was the only room in the house that could fit a bed so big, empty for the last twenty years except for the wicker chair her mother left in the corner, all of her brother’s belongings and accomplishments hidden in boxes.

Papa softened in his last year. Maybe the dementia made him forget to guard his emotions at all costs. Or maybe he no longer cared. He often reached out to touch his daughter’s face as she fed him spoonfuls of rice porridge, saving the pink ume for last, staring at her from cloudy, cataract-ridden eyes as though he was seeing her again for the first time. He smiled whenever Mama entered the room, sometimes clapping his hands like an eager child. He asked after Machiko often. Mama and Yoko took turns washing and combing his hair, putting his hearing aids in each morning even though they knew that the one thing he still remembered was how to turn those things off. And then, when Mama could no longer stand long enough to wipe his mouth during meals or pat his head before bed, Yoko took her place, allowing her father to call her by her mother’s name, to touch her hand softly in between bites, to kiss her fingertips.

But in the end, Old Man Tanaka managed to escape through the fog. His voice returned, too, until the pneumonia silenced him for good. Just in those last few weeks. Right when Yoko was starting to love her father the way daughters are supposed to—tenderly, quietly, like a first love. Papa carried on in Japanese, sometimes for hours, sometimes all alone. Mumbling, grumbling, barking. He had a permanent scowl on his face. More than once he begged Yoko to let him die. He shouted his disappointments: no legacy, a lifetime of work with nothing to show for it, silly girls, silly girls, silly girls. The family died with Takashi anyway, he would say, his face folding into a frown, choking sobs rising from the back of his throat. No tears ever fell. It seemed that his body was too tired to produce anything more than breath, anger, and excrement. During these often incoherent diatribes, Yoko wanted to remind him that Takashi would never have come home to take care of him, would never have wiped his bottom and removed his soiled linens, would never spoon-feed him applesauce and sneak him cookies behind Mama’s back, would never bathe him with a warm washcloth and gently powder his groin to prevent a nasty rash from developing. But she didn’t. Instead she would pat her father’s wrinkled hand and nod and bring him hot miso soup and feed it to him while he shook his head in disbelief. Shocked by his lifetime of bad luck or at the realization that he had already forgotten what he was so mad about, Yoko could never tell.

Only Yuriko was home on the day Papa finally spoke again. Machiko was living in New York City, working for some Japanese bank after quitting San Jose State for good, and Yoko was working late at the only proper job she would ever have as the only waitress at the only diner in all of Coyote. It was dinnertime, and Mama laid out the equally portioned plates before them, no plate in sight for herself. Fried chicken cutlets with a scoop of white rice, a lonely slice of tomato sitting atop two pieces of lettuce. She put a gold-rimmed teacup at each place setting, then turned toward the whistling tea kettle, quickly turning the stove off and grabbing the brass kettle’s handle with an old dish towel. Mama reached over Papa’s shoulder and lifted his teacup, filling it to the brim with hot barley tea, so hot it was still bubbling. She did not warn Papa that the tea was hot, perhaps because she assumed that he could see this with his own two eyes, or because she was used to living in silence, or maybe because she secretly hoped that the old man would scald his useless tongue. If it was the latter, she got her wish. Mama reached for Yuriko’s cup, the kettle poised at an angle, ready to spill its contents into the empty cup when Papa let out a loud yelp. At first, Yuriko thought the German Shepherd had gotten into it with a raccoon again, and turned her head toward the window. But then she heard the sound of the chair clattering to the floor as her father rose from the table. His teacup was overturned on the table, angry steam rising from a puddle of brown liquid.

“You dumb woman!” he screamed in Japanese.

Mama straightened herself, the kettle in one hand and her daughter’s empty cup in the other. She looked him dead in the eyes but said nothing, as though she knew what was coming next.

Then Papa slapped her once across the face. Mama fell back slightly but caught her balance before hitting the floor, bracing herself by the elbow on the nearby countertop. It was not the first time he hit her, nor would it be the last. But it was certainly the loudest.

“Careless!” he screamed. And then, just as quickly as he unraveled, Papa collected himself. He returned the chair to its rightful position and began to eat his meal without ever looking up. Yuriko heard him whisper something under his breath as he clasped his hands together. She watched him shovel a heaping forkful of rice into his mouth without so much as a grimace on his face.

Mama placed the teakettle and cup on the counter and quickly excused herself. When she emerged from the bathroom five minutes later, a red handprint painted on her left cheek, she resumed right where she left off. She picked up the empty teacup and filled it with hot barley tea.

“Careful,” Mama said as she put the cup next to Yuriko, “It’s hot.” Yuriko caught Mama casting a glance in her father’s direction. For a moment, she thought she saw Papa’s eyes move toward her mother, but she was never quite sure.

In time, Papa returned to his old self. At least, enough to tell Yuriko that her boyfriend was nice but ugly and so she should not marry him. Enough to write to Machiko and ask of her life in New York City and inquire when she was planning on returning home. (Never). He even smiled on Yoko’s wedding day as he walked her down the aisle of the Methodist Church of Morgan Hill wearing his fine black suit, surrounded by red roses. Her groom was a Japanese man who preferred to be called Freddie, a request Papa found particularly offensive. At Papa’s command, they were the only family in Santa Clara County who had not adopted English names after the war. “What does a person have without his name?” Papa said when his children cried and begged, throwing themselves at his feet. “Please, Daddy,” Yoko had said, “just call me Mary.” But he refused, silently, of course, never averting his gaze from the newspaper before him.

And yet, on Yoko’s wedding day, when Papa gave his daughter away to Freddie, he smiled generously. The family name was already dead. What was one less daughter?


Mama visits Machiko again on Sunday. This time she is better at hiding but Machiko recognizes the smell of sour umeboshi on her breath as she whispers into her ear in that familiar, staccato Japanese. “You’re so forgetful, Macchan,” she chides, “You forgot the cabinet above the sink.” Mama washes her daughter’s feet for the last time, pouring cold water over her ankles, rubbing the palms of her hands violently against the soles of Machiko’s feet. When she wakes up in the morning, she will scrub her tongue with her toothbrush three times but the taste of sour plum will linger at the back of her throat and her lips will stay an alarming shade of pink.

She drives to the house before the sun has a chance to creep over the barren hills. It’s too early even for Yoko. Those kitchen cabinets were Yuriko’s responsibility, but Machiko supervised the whole job herself while she emptied what was left in the refrigerator, pocketing an old bar of Ghirardelli for later. She watched Yuriko scour each cabinet with bare hands, dust falling onto her still-black hair, shaking her head frantically back and forth after each cupboard, a gray cloud swirling about her head.

But Mama never forgot a thing.

The family house is empty except for the hospital bed, the family altar, and three cardboard boxes filled with plastic grocery bags. The moving company took care of everything else, an oversized taxi service for a lifetime’s worth of stuff, destinations written on color-coded Post-It notes. Mama would have appreciated that at least.

Machiko slips off her orthopedic sneakers quickly, instinctively, even though the house is scheduled for demolition next week. The stepladder was packed away with the dining table and chairs and so Machiko hoists herself onto the linoleum counter, gripping the edge of the sink with her toes, apologizing to her mother both for her poor manners and her lack of a pedicure. She sweeps her hand blindly across the floor of the cabinet but finds nothing except a thick layer of dust. Again the other way, still nothing. But Mama’s breath is hot on her ear. You’re so forgetful, Machiko. Machiko raises herself on her tiptoes, grabbing onto the edge of the cabinet with one hand for leverage before jumping a quarter-inch off of the edge of the sink, simultaneously thrusting her arm to the very back of the cabinet. Her fingertips brush a sharp corner and she repeats this acrobatic act, defying gravity, this time knocking the little wooden box close enough to the edge of the cabinet so that she is able to grab it with one hand. It is no bigger than six inches in diameter, and Machiko tucks it into her left armpit before leaping to the floor, the extra flesh on her thighs jiggling cruelly as she sticks her landing.

The California sun streams in through the kitchen window, drenching the empty space in a flood of warm light. Machiko raises an arm over her eyes and then lowers herself to the floor, resting her back against the cabinets, folding her legs beneath her so that she is sitting on her feet, seiza style. Arthritis hasn’t come for her yet. A vertical line of complicated Chinese characters is painted on one side of the wooden box in black ink, but Machiko cannot decipher them, her reading comprehension sufficient only for determining which sauce to buy for somen versus udon and deciphering between chocolate- and azuki bean-filled pastries—the important things. She clutches the box between her hands, clutches all of the unknown and wished-for treasures of her childhood. She lifts the lid hesitantly and is disappointed to find only a small red lacquer bowl sitting in a nest of black silk. Casting the box to the side, Machiko holds the bowl with both hands, an empty bowl of alms. She brushes her thumb across the painted petals of a gilded chrysanthemum, its vines wrapping around the bowl’s circumference and crawling into the black interior where it is entangled with several rogue maple leaves.

Mama was right: Machiko is so forgetful. So forgetful that she did not remember the way her mother used to remind her ungrateful children that their poor farmer father had once received a special gift from the Emperor himself. The gift was so precious, however, that none of the children had ever been allowed to see it, and over time the story became immortalized in the great family mythography. Just one of Mama’s handmade Aesop fables, told every few years in response to the cruel eye rolling of her children at their exhausted, sullen father, still dirty from a long day’s work, as if to say: Our poverty is not our lack of greatness. Your Papa helped build the Imperial Palace and the Emperor of Japan thanked him for it. Don’t you forget it. But the Tanaka children were Americans, after all; they had to see something to believe it.

And now, here it was, her father’s greatness, sitting in the palms of her hands.

(The family myth was true: Old Man Tanaka once used the same brown hands that would later pluck thousands of strawberries from their vines, one by one, to rebuild the Imperial Palace after the earthquake of ’23. He was a domestic migrant laborer and worked only for a few months before being thanked and dismissed, a small amount of money earned for many hours of physical labor, a small lacquer bowl as a gift. But the gift must have meant something to the young man for he carried it with him on his last voyage on the lumber ship, knowing full well he was getting off in Seattle and never looking back. He kept it even during those painful first years during his tenure in the canneries. He must have had it, too, in that tiny one room house in Washington. He most certainly did not bring it with him to the Montana prison, for the police officers that whisked him off barely allowed him to pull on his pants. That was Mama’s work).

Machiko walks to the porch that her father built. She sits atop one of the cardboard boxes containing her mother’s plastic jewels, holding the wooden box in her lap. She’ll wait on the porch until her sisters arrive. Some stranger from Morgan Hill saw their ad in the classifieds and said he’ll come to take the hospital bed at noon; he didn’t specify how he planned on doing it and they didn’t ask. “Just let him take the damn thing,” Yuriko said. Now it’s just the family altar and these four boxes.

Machiko admires her father’s lawn, the eight-by-eight patch of grass that he mowed proudly, chugging along on his big John Deere lawn mower every Sunday. A good American man. She is squinting her eyes, studying the yellow patch already forming in the center of the lawn, right where they poured the first batch of fermented plum juice, when Yuriko’s car rumbles down the gravel driveway. She watches her sisters hobble out of the old Camry, just as beat up as the car, finally looking older than twenty-five, their hair permed into requisite cliché, their skin as wrinkled as umeboshi but certainly not as pink. Yoko reaches into the backseat of the car and begins to pile fresh dimpled mikan into the crook of her elbow, green stems sticking out haphazardly, a leaf visible here and there. Wearing the same black wayfarers she’s owned since the ‘60s, Yoko looks like a hipster thief in the midst of a heist. As she begins to ascend the porch steps, several orange gems tumble from her arms. Yuriko scrambles to chase an escapee, the little fruit bouncing eagerly down the steps and onto the lawn. Several more fall and roll in various directions, causing her youngest sister to short circuit, spinning around in circles, reaching for three oranges at once. Machiko suppresses a laugh and then, placing her father’s treasure beside the cardboard boxes, stretches her arms out toward her sister in offering.

“Hand me one of those fucking bags,” Yoko says with a laugh.




Mrs. Tanaka visits her eldest daughter while she dreams. She is wearing her best white cotton dress, belted at the waist, hair the color of ink tied in a neat chignon at the nape of her neck. She greets her daughter from the porch and then walks slowly down the steps, pausing at the lemon tree. Then she disappears.

Pá Tanaka ma kaou khouâm fán loúk sâo kok laou. Naï phan nán, laou saï kapông pha fáii si khao mi sáii hát èou tô laou mäk thi sout, phôm sî nâm mük mouân vaí piéng bâ. Laou eûn thaam loúk sâo thî you deun baan, lèou ngang lông huàn kông pai yüt yün you kong tôn maak nâo. Lang jak nán laou koh dai àntathaan háii paï.


Listen to Nay Saysourinho’s countertranslation here


I speak Laotian fluently, but can barely write it. I was mostly educated in French. To translate the excerpt, I improvised a phonetic system with French diacritical marks in an attempt to convey the tonal shifts of my mother tongue. I have also opted for the syllable “ou” instead of the English “oo”, out of habit. My own surname retains this spelling, a reminder that Laos was once colonized by France.

It is difficult to translate anything into Laotian. Unlike Thai (its closest relative), Laotian has evolved at a slower pace and its vocabulary remains limited. It is also a melodic language. In the process of this exercise, I recorded myself reciting the translated excerpt several times just to pin down its rhythm. I chose this passage because it is the kind of story I heard all the time while growing up: family members casually strolling through your dreams. These appearances were as valued and cherished as the real people.

一Nay Saysourinho