Nikau Wi Neera
The sun rose, and Obisan was still breathing. Old newspaper flowered on the ground, wilting underfoot. Minidoka War Relocation Center was waking up, and Hikaru could hear his grandfather’s protests as the granite-faced young men woke him from his usual fitful sleep. Lapwings and mountain bluebirds flew sorties and tittered past each other in mock-dogfights, neither willing to make contact. Hikaru was sure there was a saying about waking before the birds, but his only basis for that thought was his mother, who was known for her ability to make up uncannily convincing proverbs in order to persuade her children to do their chores. He had been awake for about an hour now, too tired to sleep in and already anxious about what the Nisei would dream up for today’s Family Correspondence. He rose, and left his compartment without breakfast. Hikaru liked to walk next to the wire fence, as it gave him a view down the valley of the river, twisting like the malicious serpent for which it was named. It was hot, which Hikaru supposed was normal for this climate, but being four thousand metres above sea level gave the air an unusual quality, as if thin but firm. Solid.
Hikaru dropped the twig he had been dragging across the complaining steel of the fence and walked past the concrete of his Shinkyo, as the Americans insisted on calling them. The term ‘new home’ was ironic; there was nothing of the Japanese concept of ‘home’ in Minidoka. Little privacy. Total loss of tradition. American men who were barely more than children caring for their treasured Issei; treating them somehow like both patients and criminals. The internees were constantly told that they would leave soon. Inside the living compartment (Hikaru tried not to think cell) Obisan was taking his breakfast, looking like an old Yakusugi tree forced into the body of a frail Bonsai. Hunched over the skewed plywood table, he greeted Hikaru with a nod and returned to his food. The compartment smelled of damp, but not the kind that would infest sea-level dwellings. The damp in Minidoka was everywhere; insidious, claustrophobic and strangely dry, and it had made its way into Hikaru’s clothes within days of arriving. His family’s part of the barrack-like housing unit was small, open-plan, and somehow continually managed to look old, despite being purpose-built for the Relocation.
For Hikaru, the event of moving in itself was not important. To him, it seemed that one day he was there, and now he was here. The here-ness with which he was currently faced was a mountainside community of Japanese Americans, most Citizens by Right of Birth, moved due to being a Military Hazard at a time where Danger of Invasion was Great. Hikaru wasn’t sure how he felt about being a Military Hazard, but the man at the gate had told him he wasn’t under individual suspicion. Hikaru had no understanding of the term ‘discrimination’, but he thought it sounded like something he would quite like to be; any effort to dis-criminate him was welcome, as far as he was concerned. He made his way back to his building, where he knew his mother would not be waiting.
After breakfast Hikaru left his compartment to go to his assigned job. It wasn’t really a job –the internees weren’t prisoners – but after his continued pleading with the camp guard to give him something, anything to do which would break the boredom that seemed an immutable fact of life in Minidoka, he had been assigned the rather mundane task of sweeping leaves near the fenceline. He had a suspicion that the camp guard had given him this job more out of exasperation than benevolence. Nonetheless, Hikaru went through the solemn ritual of putting on his caretaker’s cap and equipping himself with his rake every Tuesday through Friday, and heading down to the fenceline he would take note of all the leaves he could sweep on the way there rather than near the actual fence, but he never complained.
It was one of those days where you could sense what was going to happen before it did; the dry weather and still trees seemed to lend a clairvoyant quality to the inhabitants of the camp. Old women would ask if your mother needed anything a day before she got sick, and Obisan packed away his Shogi board before the camp guard called an inspection. It was in this way that Hikaru knew that something was going to be down by the fence, before he was even within the distance of hearing the low buzz made by the electricity which had killed a couple of pheasants before the guards had the voltage lowered. The dry autumn air seemed to hide like a coy lover before admitting to itself that it was a breeze, one which always blew Hikaru’s hair the way he didn’t like it and flung blue jays across the clear sky as they protested heartily. Like lonely octogenarians, fir trees groaned and crackled as they dropped their leaves down to the fence, grudgingly giving Hikaru a reason to hang around below them. And when Hikaru saw the couple, he somehow already knew that they were going to be there, his eyes greeting them with the same familiarity as they would rest upon Obisan, or perhaps Chi, his dog.
She was young, plain-looking but calmly elegant. He appeared older, shyly resting a hand around the waist of his companion whilst nervously fingering his hat with the other. Neither of them was looking at the other, and they walked curiously out of step for a couple of their kind. The limit of their interaction was the man’s pointing to apparently notable terrain features: the mountains, the river, a certain copse of trees. Hikaru supposed he was a geographer of some kind. The girl seemed to share Hikaru’s puzzlement about the significance of the various landmarks she was being shown. Nonetheless, she smiled and laughed in a beautifully indulgent way and leant her head onto her partner’s shoulder. Hikaru saw the man look at her with some degree of surprise, obviously quite unused to people finding his banal observations to be worthy of such a wonderful laugh. But after his initial shock at her attention, he smiled self-consciously and, placing his hat atop his short-cropped hair, he led her around an old oak grove and out of Hikaru’s sight. They did not look at the camp.
He had only watched the couple for a matter of minutes, but he had unconsciously come to a stop and leant his rake against the side of a guard tower. Hikaru retraced their path with his eyes, and wondered where they could have come from. He had not known there to be visitors to the Minidoka ranges before. It was not that the hills were unpleasant – indeed, they gave the most lovely view Hikaru had ever seen from confinement – but to his knowledge there was no settlement for many kilometers and the camp staff always left the facility when seeing their families or girlfriends back at home. He wondered also where they had gone. In fact, after pondering this a while, he wondered if he really had seen them at all; if his brain was insisting on providing stimuli for his fatigued psyche with no qualms about the reality of that which it showed him. Hikaru wondered this as he picked up his rake and begun sweeping, for the first time a little half-heartedly.
Evening bought Shogi, Obisan’s breath rattling the pieces. Hikaru lost as usual, but for once he didn’t pretend to care. He felt Obisan’s suspicious eyes follow him as he rose from his chair and moped to his room. Mother had left for bed in the late afternoon, and the only sound in the Shinkyo came from Obisan shuffling around, coughing, and packing up the board. In his bed, Hikaru thought. He thought about the fence. He thought about the leaves. Most of all he thought about Obisan’s cough, and whether his lungs really would clear, as the sharp-nosed young doctor said they would. But Hikaru also thought about the couple. Looking back, he could not readily recall any significant feature about the two – at least, not a physical one. The impression that they had left on him might have come from their walk, stuttering and irregular. Or from their hesitant conversation and the swift, shy smiles they passed back and forth, hoping the other had seen. Or perhaps it was from the girl’s laugh, resonant and sweet with the harmonic of joy and overtones of trust that leapt through the sky, across the valley and up to Hikaru on the fence.
Maybe it was just their presence; so sure of itself and certain that it was meant to be and that it belonged, a splash of colour in a dry, earthy valley.
Whatever it was, Hikaru was thankful, and curiously melancholy. Fifty seconds had turned into an age filled with fascination and longing. He chastised himself for the effect he had allowed the couple to have on him. But still he stowed away the memory in a part of his mind that had remained cobwebbed and unused for so long; the place where he held the memory of Chi as a puppy, or walks with Obisan by the trains, or talks with Mother before her accident. Beauty in so soft a way, unknown in the barren Minidoka hills, caught Hikaru’s thoughts in a gust of consciousness which grew into a maelstrom of imagination; a whirlwind of indescribable emotion for something he was not even sure he had seen.
A door closed, and Obisan lay down for bed. In the next room, Hikaru was asleep. He did not hear the closing of the door, just as he did not hear the young camp guard slip in through the back gate to the barracks and silently make his way to his bed, already dreaming of the next walk. Hikaru also did not hear, kilometres away, the girl settle into her desk by the window, pen in hand to record the thoughts of the earth and dust that she had so elegantly stirred that afternoon. He heard none of this, because back at Minidoka the power shut off at nine thirty-six and he had a job to do, tomorrow.
Nikau Wi Neera is an 18-year-old composer and hedgehog enthusiast. He was the winner of the 2017 Pikihuia award for the Best Short Story Written by a School Student in English, and composed the score for the 2017 documentary The Common Touch.