Journeys to the Past

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2008

Annakai Hayakawa Geshlider

The floor creaked as Simon crept through his grandparents’ attic towards a large chest in the corner of the room that had caught his eye. In the dusty attic, cobwebs hung from the shelves and bookcases and a thick layer of dust blanketed the mildew-covered furniture. As he timidly tiptoed towards the chest, Simon felt an air of complete silence in the small room, a feeling that the whole world was waiting for him to discover what lay ahead. Carefully raising the key to the large brass lock that secured the maple-wood chest, Simon slowly turned it between his fingers. The key felt smooth and cool, and it fit perfectly in the keyhole. A satisfactory “click” sounded from the chest and he lifted the lid.

Inside it was filled with many magnificent treasures: loads and loads of books. His eyes feasted upon the sight and he immediately reached for one of the musty spines, caution instantly gone from his body. And it was only a few moments later when Simon realized that what lay before him were not normal books.

“Tuesday, December 23, 1986,” he read aloud into the dimly lit room. Once again he could almost feel the whole room listening to him. The ancient furniture, the peeling wallpaper covering the cracked walls, and even the spiders stopped weaving their webs to listen to Simon’s eloquent voice. Simon was good at reading aloud, and he knew it, for when he read aloud, he could nearly bring the words alive.

“Dear Diary” he continued to his audience.

“I know you aren’t much of a book, just a few old scraps bound together, but that was all I could find, just like everything is all I could find. When we are still hungry after dinner it is because those few scraps of meat and broken crackers were all I could find, and when we are cold at night it is because the small knit blanket was all I could find. That is the way we live, and I can’t do much to change it. Every day I try looking for an odd job or collecting coins on the busy sidewalks. The way it is is not easy, but the way it is is the way it is.”

Journeys to the Past giving a key

“Here, take this key as well. It may do you some good in unlocking those other worlds”

Simon paused for a moment. Deep sympathy filled his heart for the writer of the tattered diary He was so intrigued that he read on.

“My family and I may not have it well off, sleeping in the park, scavenging for scraps of food, begging for money on the streets. Yet every day it seems that I have my children to remind me that I can still be a happy man. In fact, when I think about it, I am happier than most men. I have my family, and whether we don’t have much to eat or not, we are still together. We have our own kind of riches.”

The end of the entry made Simon’s mind churn. Although he had not met the man, he felt that he already knew him very well. Simon tried to imagine his own family living that way. All his life he had lived in the same house with a roof over his head. His parents had cooked him meals and bought him things. He could never remember his family being desperate. The silence in the room urged Simon to think to himself, and inside he knew he had changed.

*          *          *

As he gently placed the dirty diary onto the floor beside him, Simon began to wonder why his grandparents had the chest in their attic. And how had they obtained the diary of the man? He had been exploring for good books around the house earlier that day when his grandpa had suggested that he look up in the attic. “Who knows what you’ll find up there,” he had told his grandson. “When your grandmother closed down the shop all the books came with us. Here, take this key as well. It may do you some good in unlocking those other worlds.”

Simon had taken the key from his grandpa’s wrinkled hand and thanked him. He didn’t question him on what he had been told. He knew it was up to him to find out what was up there. It was more fun that way. It was more fun for him to discover the chest himself, and whatever mysteries lay behind it and inside it. It’s up to me, he thought to himself as he reached into the chest and pulled out another book. As he was opening the front cover, he heard a soft knock on the attic door and in walked his grandma.

“Jonah told me he’d given you the key,” she said with a tiny smile on her lips and a subtle sparkle in her eyes. “And it’s about time we showed it to you,” she added. She walked over to where Simon was sitting on a corduroy cushion and seated herself next to him. “I see you’ve found Oscar’s diary,” she said, pointing to the one he had just been reading, which was lying open on the floor.

“You know him?” Simon asked incredulously.

“He’s a very good friend of mine,” his grandma told him. “This diary from when he was living on the streets became published as a book, with help from me and everyone else at the publishing house. And I’m the lucky owner of the original copy,” she informed him proudly.

“How’d you meet the guy? Oscar, I mean.”

His grandma began to weave her tale.

“While I was on my way to the subway station to visit your grandfather some twenty years ago, I saw a man alongside the sidewalk who was trying to sharpen a stubby pencil on the concrete. In his other hand he was holding a small book. I was in a hurry to see Jonah after he’d had his surgery, but I was also interested in the man and offered to help him.

“Once I’d sharpened the pencil for him with my Swiss army knife, the one that you own now, Simon,” she added, “and emptied my pockets of quarters, the man and I exchanged names and conversation. He told me about how he’d been writing in a diary that he’d made himself. I told him about a friend of mine who was looking for someone to clean his supermarket, and for good pay, too. By the time I’d finished, the smile stretching across his face was so big, I could count every one of his teeth.”

Journeys to the Past reading a journal

Deep sympathy filled his heart for the writer of the tattered diary

Simon liked the way his grandma told stories, how she spoke different people’s voices and how her face and hands moved with the story. At times her voice was compelling or grim; at others it was enticing and pleasant. It made Simon feel good to think how his grandma had helped Oscar so much.

The two of them spent the rest of the evening poring over the huge collection of diaries and journals in the chest. Some of them had been given to his grandma by people she had met, but most of them she had found or bought. There were around fifteen books in the chest, and together they spent hour after hour reading them and discovering the lives of their authors.

*          *          *

There was a small journal in the chest that was covered in a thin layer of faded blue fabric. Simon fished it out from underneath the others and handed it to his grandma. “This is one of the older ones,” she told him, and it was not hard to tell. Inside the yellowing pages were wrinkled and stained, and they were thin and delicate like the wings of a butterfly.

“I bought this one a couple of years ago after it had been found in Topaz, Arizona, where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. I haven’t read it in a while, but if I remember correctly, the author is a ten-year-old girl who lived there. Go on, you read it,” his grandma said as she handed him the book. Beginning at the first entry Simon began to read aloud once again, except this time he had a person before him of flesh and blood to hear his clear voice resonate throughout the room.

“April 14, 1942,” he spoke firmly.

“Today we were loaded into buses and driven deep into the dusty dry desert. We rode for at least five hours before I nodded off to sleep in my seat, and when we arrived the sun was just setting. Tachi’s first breath of air sent him coughing and gasping for breath, and I have a feeling it’s not going to be too good for his asthma up here. Sand blew everywhere, and the area was very barren except for the blocks of barracks where we were to sleep and the mess halls where we were to eat. When the buses drove away, my family and all the other families from the busload were left standing in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There was not even a tree in sight.

“Once we found our assigned barrack, we worked together with some other families in our block to set up our blankets and cooking stoves. We also stuffed some straw into the cracks in the walls, which helped to keep out the drafts at night, but not much.

“April 15, 1942.

“The next morning we lined up outside the mess hall to eat breakfast. It was early in the morning and I was still sleepy after staying up most of the night waiting in line with Tachi because he had to use the bathroom. It had been cold and dark and slow, and I wished they’d built more toilets so there wouldn’t be such a long wait. And here I was, having to wait in line once again. Hunger gnawed at my stomach because I hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday morning. I also missed my parents. Otousan and Okaasan had gone to eat at another block’s mess hall with a family that they’d known from Los Angeles. We almost always eat breakfast together. I tried not to think about them and focused on entertaining Tachi with goofy faces so he wouldn’t become impatient.

“When we finally got our breakfast, which wasn’t much of a breakfast at all, we found a table with some other kids who invited us to sit with them. I poked at my bowl of chewy rice with gooey pineapple slices on top. I tried a bit, just in case it tasted better than it looked, but it was so revolting in my mouth that I had to force myself to swallow it. I desperately wished for some soy sauce instead of canned pineapples.

“The boy, Yoshi, and the two girls, Anne and Sachiko, and I talked about what was going on. Tachi is too young to care, and he just chewed on his plastic fork.

“I hate being behind barbed wire,’ Sachiko said. ‘And there’s always a guard watching us. We didn’t even do anything wrong.’ The government thinks we’re communicating with Japan, but we are Americans too!’ I said, a little too loudly, and Tachi stopped chewing his fork to look up at me. I began to get madder and madder as I thought about how unfair it all was. We had to sleep in tiny rooms, eat uncooked food, and have guards watching us all the time. ‘We’ll see you tomorrow,’ I told the other kids and I grabbed Tachi’s hand and stepped out into the scorching hot sun. It pounded down on my back and burned my face. We are people too! I kept saying over and over again in my mind. And by the time we reached our barrack, we were both covered from head to toe in dust.”

Simon’s mind floated back into the present as he finished reading the entry He had been reading for so long that both he and his grandma could almost feel the heat and the dust from the desert. They were both silenced for a few minutes as they thought about what the girl’s past had been like. Simon’s grandma ended the silence when she suggested, “I think you should read the next entry I have to know what happens.”

So as they plunged into the hot, dry past Simon’s voice shaped the story once again.

“April 16, 1942.

“When Otousan and Okaasan returned home yesterday they brought with them some seeds that their friends had given them. ‘We are going to start a garden,’ Otousan announced. Tachi and I were overjoyed. It was just what we needed, right outside our barrack. Some other families in our block helped us to loosen up the soil, which was very hard work. The desert ground was packed down so hard that we spent all morning soaking it with water and upturning it with shovels. When it was finally loose enough to plant the seeds, Anne, Yoshi, Sachiko, Tachi and I got to dig little holes with our fingers and drop the seeds in. We then covered the holes with earth and watered our garden some more.

Journeys to the Past military base

We are people too! I kept saying over and over again in my mind

“Every day we are going to take turns watering the garden. First me, then Sachiko, Yoshi, Anne, and then Tachi, because he’s littlest. Then we start over again. The grownups help us sometimes, but we do most of the work.

“Now we have something to look forward to and something to be excited about. Someday soon little sprouts will pop up and we will tend to them until they are full grown. The garden helps us forget about where we are and how bad it is, and it provides us with a small flame of happiness in the dark world. As the tiny seeds grow, so will that flame.”

The end of the entry left Simon and his grandma deep in happiness and thought for the girl and her family in the internment camp. They had both been enchanted by the stories from her journal. We know her now, yet she’s never met us, Simon thought to himself. He wondered if the girl had ever imagined that her journal would one day be read by others than herself.

*          *          *

“It’s getting late,” Simon’s grandma told him. But we still have time for one more.” She sorted through the chest and pulled out a large red hardcover book that was still in very good condition. It had gold lining down the side which read “Property of Gladys Ferguson.” On the inside the pages were filled with loopy marks from a ballpoint pen.

“June 10, 1995,” Simon read with slight difficulty because the entry was written in longhand and he found it tricky to decipher the curvy, loopy lettering.

“Today’s my birthday, my ninetieth, and since it’s a round, whole number, everyone flew down from Michigan to feed me cake and flood me with presents. I’m not much of the party sort, being an old bag of bones and all, but it was enjoyable to spend time with my family. I may have been living for ninety years, but I’ve been blessed with the ability to still hold a fountain pen. Some say you can live life twice by writing in a journal: you can relive your experiences reading over them. Yes sir, I think I could kill some time writing in this little blank book.”

Simon closed the journal and placed it back in the chest. He was lost in thought. “She’s quite a character, isn’t she?” his grandma laughed, but Simon wasn’t listening.

Live life twice, he thought to himself. Then he knew what he wanted to do. He would write in a journal so that he could know everything and learn everything. But most of all, he thought, he wanted to learn about himself.

Journeys to the Past Annakai Hayakawa Geshlider

Annakai Hayakawa Geshlider, 12
San Francisco, California

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