In the cold month of December we could use a little paradise--here is an excerpt from my YA novel (available in digital format, eBook from Amazon, Nook, Smashwords, y'all!).
Christmas in Captivity
Christmas Day arrived—my second in the Philippines, my first in captivity. It came without store-bought presents, without Papa, Julie, or mother. Mother mostly lay in bed except for when I took her by the hand and led her to the shower, the toilet, or to meals. She had hardly spoken a word since her outburst about the wedding album. As I looked into her vacant face, I often wondered what she thought about. Was she thinking of Papa? Without Papa she was missing her other half, the part of her that said she fixed good meals, thanked her for being a good wife, held her hand, and smoothed her hair at the dinner table. It was hard watching her crumble a little bit more each day.
I busied myself making Christmas presents for the girls from materials available inside the camp. I made Daisy and Mae their own little tin cups from condensed-milk cans. First I rounded the rough edges of the tops by heating the tins over our cook fire and pounding the edges with a rock. Next I soldered handles to the cups and with a nail engraved their names.
Mugs were essential to camp life. Into our mugs went caraboa milk or hot soup for the children, thin coffee or hot water for the adults. Everyone’s original cutlery and plates had broken long ago. Internees fashioned their own cups out of coconut husks or tin. The coconut husks tended to be a little uneven, thus tipping the hot soup. Tin rusted after long-term exposure to hot liquids. We were constantly replacing cups and bowls.
I though long and hard about what to give Mother. She didn’t need a new cup or bowl. I knew what she wanted, and I couldn’t get it for her. It was Papa, far away in Manila. How could I get Papa? I wished there was some way to surprise her with the one thing she needed most.
Christmas morning after roll call, before we all dispersed to open presents and prepare a special meal, I approached Mr. Yano. I knew he had the authority to punish me for approaching without permission, but it was a chance I had to take. With his hand he could slap me, spank my bottom in public, or send me away in a truck.
“Mr. Yano, please, sir.”
I fell down flat, prostrate before him. I heard Ann mutter, “Oh, my goodness, what is she doing?”
My extreme act of submission surprised and apparently pleased Mr. Yano. He gave me permission to stand. “What is it you want?”
“I am here with my mother from Ohio.” I wanted him to know we were a friendly people. “My father is at the Santo Tomás internment camp. My mother and I wish to transfer to that camp to be with him.”
Mr. Yano smiled a broad, open grin. His white teeth flashed. “No need for this. War over soon and you will all be together.”
Just like in a game of musical chairs, I was left standing without one. I reproved myself—I had nothing to give.
Before lunch, I took Mother for her shower. “Mother,” I said, squeezing an old rag out on her back. The gray soap film slid down her bony spine. “Won’t it be great when we see Papa again? He’s at Santo Tomás,” I reminded her. She flinched slightly; the nerves in her neck tightened up. I guided her back to our room, where I dressed her and tied her shoes.
Daisy came into the room shouting, “Santa Claus has been here after all.” She waved an old mended sock in the air. Inside her stocking was the tin cup I had made for her and a gift from Mrs. Urs—cardboard stars decorated with green wrapping paper with the words Merry Christmas in cursive gold lettering. Frank had carved the girls darling little rings from caraboa bones.
“Merry Christmas, Louise.” Ann came up behind me to give me a hug.
A lump stuck in my throat. “There us nothing for me. What I want can’t fit into a stocking. It isn’t here.” I broke down crying.
“You’re a very brave girl. You’re doing the best you can taking care of your mama. Louise, I know our heavenly Father will provide for you. He will bring you out of here. There will be an answer, and deliverance will come.”
“Oh, how can you be so sure?” I pulled away and went outside to sit down on the verandah.
Ann followed me outdoors and sat on the steps beside me. “Let me tell you a little story. A Christmas story.
“My people were poor; I didn’t expect much at Christmas. My father was a preacher. He liked to tell people about the year of Jubilee. You know what that is, Louise?”
“I think so. Isn’t that in the Old Testament? When slaves were freed and their debts forgiven?”
“That’s right. A time when the poor would have plenty. My daddy rarely ever got paid in money. Always with a sack of something. A sack of pecans, a bushel of apples. People brought these things when they could. It’d make me so mad. I always wished they’d bring us something really good.”
I understood her there.
Ann was lost, telling her story. When talking about home, her Southern accent came out with every word.
“I remember one night. Seems I was your age and always starving. You can only get so far on bread, pecans, apples, and other people’s handouts. One night a man came with a lantern, telling Daddy to come down to the Gulf. We didn’t live too far from the Gulf, where the warm waters come up from Mexico. Daddy took me with him, since I was the oldest. By the time we got to the shore, we couldn’t see the water, there were so many people. Dead of night and a hundred people standing at the water’s edge holding lanterns, like fireflies up and down the coast. I came closer and saw folks were scooping up fish. Something about the moon and warm waters had messed up the fishes’ sense of direction. A freak of nature. They were actually swimming into our nets! You could put your hand down and they’d come up just like a stray dog to be petted.
“My pa called it a Jubilee. Folks around us were almost spent—no jobs, no work, no food. Nothing to hope for. Then this harvest came in. All night long folks were cooking the fish over open fires or salting them and laying them out on logs to dry. Some took them home and pickled them. It was one night and then no more. We lived off those fish for six months, and I suppose other families did the same. It sustained us through the hard times.
“I always remember how God gave to us at just the right time. In the year of Jubilee he will provide. Keep this in mind. Be strong for your mama. She isn’t like you. She can’t remember a time of harvest right now.”
I thanked Ann for her story. I wasn’t sure about the Jubilee, but one thing I knew: If by some miracle or luck the tide actually ever came in, I’d have the misfortune to be drowned.
|American children and other civilians held at Santo Tomas Internment Camp by Japanese forces for over three years are photographed having a meal|