Picture Bride | Part 1
Rurouni Kenshin was created by Watsuki
Nobuhiro, published by Shueisha in "Jump," and
produced by Sony Entertainment. All rights are theirs.
AN: Generally, I'm not a huge fan of writing AU pieces, but this idea lodged itself into my brain while I was doing my history reading and refused to let go. Also, I don't normally switch POV's in the middle of chapters. Right. Think of the first person as diary entries and the third person as narration. I think it works alright, but if it reads really awkwardly, just let me know, and I'll make sure to stick with either one or the other in subsequent chapters. Oh, and I'm not certain of some of the historical details/time-period atmosphere, but I'll try my best and hit the books one of these days to do some quality research ^_~.
My name is Kamiya Kaoru, and I was born in Tokyo in 1886, the year of the dog. It was a time of change in Japan, an era of rapid modernization unparalleled in our nation's history. In the few brief decades since the Meiji Restoration, railroads had cut boldly across the country, and steam-powered ships sailed in and out of our harbors carrying goods, people, and information across the Pacific. Men in western business suits rode up and down the streets, and in the schools, the government added English to the curriculum and told us we were the generation that would bring Japan proudly into the modern world. We were a Pacific power that would surpass Britain, China, and even the United States in the bright new century of hope and opportunity. We would peruse 'fukoku-kyohei' and become strong and prosperous in order to defend ourselves against the expansionist Western powers.
And yet, taxes rose steadily, and every year it seemed as though we had to get by on less and less. When I was ten, my mother, forced to work long hours at a tea processing factory in order to make ends meet, fell ill and passed away like a flower sinking slowly into water. Afterwards, it was just my father, grandfather, younger brother, and I living together above the shop with three small rooms and an ever-shrinking income. Still we stuck together, and for four years we managed to get by on hard work, the generosity of friends, and a little luck. Then, when I was 14, everything changed:
- - - - - - - - - -
"Is Father back yet?" She stood in the kitchen, arms buried up to the elbows in wet rice and damp strands of dark hair falling stubbornly into her eyes. Although she couldn't see her brother through the thin paper wall, she could easily guess his expression by the loud pounding of his footsteps on the stairs and his heavy hand against the shoji. He'd never been the subtle, gentle type, not even as a child.
"No, he's still down at the office." Yoshiro sighed loudly, his deep voice laden with both irritation and resignation. "I'll cook lunch, okay? Go down and help Grandpa with the shop…"
Kaoru, pouncing eagerly on any excuse to turn the kitchen over to someone else (even her brother whose culinary skills were, let's just say, not the most stellar in Tokyo), hurriedly rubbed her hands dry and was running down the hall past her brother before he had time to blink. "Thanks Nii-san… any idea when he'll be back?" She called, craning her neck around towards him as she skidded to a halt at the top of the stairs.
"He said to go ahead and eat without him," was the lackluster reply. It was the third day running that their Father had left early in the morning to visit the little government office down in the center of town, and it would be the third day that he wouldn't return until the sun was sinking low in the dark sky awash with blurred splashes of orange and purple.
There had been no discussion, no family consultation, no general forum for the planning the future. "I'm going to America," he'd announced one evening, eyes trained religiously on the small bowl of warm rice cupped in his hands. Calmly, as though he were merely commenting on the weather, he slid his chopsticks into the white mound. "Your father's going to be a dekaseginin (1)." It was said flatly without pride, without emotion, and he slowly chewed, chewed and swallowed.
And they, too, had stared downward, unable to meet his eyes, unwilling to believe what he'd told them, unwilling to accept the glaring reality of their family's debt. But in the end, they all knew that there was no other way. The failing shop was all they had; their family had long been separated from their ancestral lands.
"When will you leave?" Kaoru had been the first to speak, to break the pregnant silence, her voice soft and steady, betraying none of the emotion that fluttered tensely in her stomach. She clutched her fingers into tight fists under the table, ignoring the sting of fingernails digging into palms.
"With the next ship if I am able." And somehow, as if released by his words, the tableau unfroze, and suddenly questions came flowing forth like water rushing unhindered from a broken damn.
How long would he be away? Where would he be going? Would anyone else they knew be accompanying him? How much did Americans pay? What was he allowed to bring with him? Would he be able to write?
But there were no answers to the real question buried deep within everyone's heart: Would he be coming back?
- - - - - - - - - -
Father and Takani Isao, a close family friend, boarded the ship together side by side, the former staring vacantly out across the water, the latter smiling broadly back at us, his white teeth gleaming brightly underneath the high, beaming sun. I stood on the dock close beside Yoshiro, hands gripping the wooden railing until my knuckles turned white and my fingers ached, but I refused to take my eyes off of the two disappearing black specks drifting far away to a land I'd never seen and never dreamed I would.
And when at last the ship blurred into a dark smudge moving insensitively toward the far horizon, I shivered despite the sun's warmth, unsuccessfully fighting the tears that ran in two thin lines down my cheeks. I bowed my head, embarrassed, turning away from Yoshiro when he awkwardly moved to comfort me. Oh Nii-san, what would become of us?
He tugged restlessly at his gi, fingers revealing his nervousness even as his proud expression refused. In the past year he had grown taller than me by almost ten centimeters, and I stood silently in his shadow, lost and alone.
- - - - - - - - - -
"Any news from Father this week?" She sat by the window, the slanting late afternoon sunlight falling across the mending crumpled in her lap. In the kitchen, two rows of misshapen riceballs were lined up like soldiers beside the sink, and clean white laundry fluttered gently from lines sagging across the balcony.
"He just wrote last month." Yoshiro paused in the doorway, thin lips pressed together as he dispassionately surveyed the scene before him. He'd grown even more in the past two years, and his hair, cropped short, Western-style, accented the sharp angle of his jaw and the steep slant of his nose. "You're so impatient."
And as she continued to stare straight ahead, she suppressed a sigh and rubbed her tongue in irritation against the roof of her mouth. The sudden rift in the family had driven them apart like a wedge forced into a beam of wood, and she wondered how long it would be before Yoshiro, too, would get it into his head to run off and try his luck abroad. "I just care about Father," she replied softly, emphasizing each word with a slight pause. 'And I worry when he doesn't write,' she added silently in her mind. 'I worry that he won't return.'
"I'm going out for dinner. Keep out of trouble." And so he left, leaving the house empty and silent – the rippling of his footsteps lingering invisibly in the air.
She let the white fabric slide onto the floor, hands limply folded in her lap. 'Why does it have to be like this? Why can't we just be a family again?' And with the intent of making herself a cup of tea, she left the mending behind her and stepped into the hallway. There, halfway between herself and the stairs, like a lone snowflake illuminated against the sky, lay a thin envelope, roughly-handled and smeared with grease. Characters half-blurred by sweaty fingers flowed down the side, but there was no mistaking the writing.
- - - - - - - - - -
In San Francisco, Isao's shop is finally beginning to make money. It is right beside the Chinese laundry, and many mine laborers stop in to buy groceries when they pick up their shirts. Kaoru-chan, I hope you haven't been working too hard and are sill as sweet and beautiful as I remember. Enclosed is a photograph of a bright young man I have met here in America. His family, like ours, is from Tokyo, and he is working as Takani's assistant as he studies to become a minister. His name is Yukishiro Enishi, and he has been saving money for the past two years, and has purchased a ticket for passage to America. I have given my consent for your marriage.
Your loving Father
I could understand why my brother wanted to keep the news from me, why he was so angry at being left behind, but I felt betrayed, by both he and our father. It was ironic that I, who wanted nothing more than to stay, would be forced to go whereas Yoshiro, who would have given anything to leave, was forced to remain. But life itself seems at times to be intrinsically ironic, and neither of us had any choice in the matter. Whether I liked it or not, there was no choice but to travel to America at my father's bidding as any honorable daughter would for her family.
Later, I knelt on the floor of my room packing my few possessions into a small, battered wooden trunk we had bought on sale at the used goods store down the street. Each item, so full of memories, smelled like the house, both fresh and poignant beneath my nose. And an hour later when at last I silently lowered the lid and rubbed my fingers back and forth across the rough surface, my throat constricted at the thought of all the memories that I would leave behind. There was the narrow, dusty street where I had lost my first tooth while chasing after Yoshiro. And there was the uneven patch at the far end of the porch where I had dropped the lantern and singed the polished wood. Father had made me replace the ruined boards myself… and I had never been so careless afterwards. These and more – they would be forever behind me.
- - - - - - - - - -
And then, almost before she realized it, the fateful day had arrived, and she was once more at the waterfront, cool winds whistling in her ears and tugging impatiently at her hair. Her stomach fluttered as she clutched the flimsy paper ticket harder, it was both hope and fear that etched themselves plainly across her features. Despite everything, there was no denying the assertion that America was the land of opportunity, the land of gold and riches, the New World where dreams could come true.
"You'll arrive in Angel Island just off of San Francisco California," Yoshiro muttered, dropping the small trunk on the ground beside his sister. "Tou-san and Takani-san will be waiting for you." He had been rambling non-stop since they left the shop, and his cheeks were flushed red from both the heavy afternoon heat and pure nervous energy. "There's nothing to worry about, and one day you'll come back…" His voice trailed off suddenly as he stumbled awkwardly upon the one topic they had carefully avoided ever since Kaoru had wordlessly handed him back the letter.
Standing like a statue on the dock, she stared down at the wooden slats beneath her zori, unable to meet his eyes, unable to say a word because she knew – she knew that anything she could have said would have been a lie. For every person who returned, a hundred others lived and died without ever seeing the gracefully sloping curves of Fuji-san again. For every soul that traversed the wide Pacific, only a handful sailed once again to the land of the rising sun. For every picture sent eastward with the name of its owner penned in graceful characters on the back, only those of round-faced, bouncing grandchildren found their way back in envelopes bearing American postage.
She reached over and took his hand in hers, squeezing the warm, sweaty fingers as tightly as she clenched her teeth together, blinking into the sun to keep the tears from falling. And as the ocean breeze floated across the dock wrapped itself around her shoulders, she swallowed hard and somehow found her voice again. "Take care of Grandpa." The whispered utterance hung between them, and in the fragile silence, she leaned forward until her head rested lightly against his shoulder, eyelashes catching on the fabric of his gi.
And then, before the realization sank in, before she could balk and deny her father the honor he deserved of having his daughter by his side, before she could turn her back on her destined future, she was staring haplessly at the disappearing Japanese coastline, not daring to breathe as her brother dissolved into a grey smudge of memory.
*end part 1*
(1) 'Dekaseginin' – laborers working temporarily in a foreign country. They migrated from Japan with the hope of earning money to pay their debts, to move into a higher social class, to strike it rich and return to Japan as 'kin'I kikyo' – wealthy persons. It began in 1868 when the Hawaiian consul general in Japan secretly recruited 148 Japanese contract laborers and ended almost 230 years of isolation and a forced ban on emigration. By 1894, some 30,000 Japanese had gone to the Hawaiian islands as government-sponsored contract laborers, and between 1885 and 1924, 380,000 Japanese emigrated to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.
This seems just a little fragmented, doesn't it? Oh well, I didn't mean it to be that way… it's been fun to write, though, because I can just sit down and type out a paragraph or two and then go back to the reading that I'm supposed to be doing for class. Ack! Let me know what you think [e.g. whether the idea is worth pursuing further]. I'm working on chapter two at this very moment.
- Mir (05.31.03)`