When Sam was born he was chubby and round, with slits for eyes. We called him Baby Buddha. But as he's gotten older he's started to look less and less Asian. His hair has grown curly and brown with red highlights like his mother's. He actually has a bridge on his nose, something I didn't enjoy until I reached my teens. His face has grown longer, his eyes wider.
We're driving out to the country for the weekend, heading west into the fields of northern Illinois. All summer the sun has been punishing us, boiling the air. We're sealed in our car, with air conditioning keeping the heat at bay. We're going to visit Kate's grandparents, to collect their family histories. This weekend we're talking to her mother's side.
"Dee, they aren't getting any younger," Kate said over supper. "And when they're gone, well, you know."
"Then it's all gone," I said, thinking about my history and how I'd searched through books for it, how I'd never known my uncles and aunts, much less my grandparents.
Cars are becoming sparser, and suburban sprawl has surrendered to advancing grids of soybean and corn. Two-year-old Sam hates his car seat, so on long drives Kate usually sits in the back to entertain him. I twist the rearview so I can watch them. He's sleeping now with his thumb stuck loosely in his mouth, his tattered blanket nestled beneath his cheek. Kate smiles as she watches him, and I imagine she used to watch me the same way, before we both got tired all the time with working and writing and going to graduate school and everything. She catches me watching her, and wrinkles her nose, making a little pig snort. She's so beautiful, with her curly brown hair, and blue eyes, but so embarrassed when I look at her. She still imagines herself a frumpy farm girl.
"What's up, Dee?" she says.
"Guess," I say lewdly.
"I bet it is," she says as she punches the back of my shoulder.
We have routines.
"White woman, you're gonna pay and pay again for that remark."
"Says this yellow man, that's who!"
"Wait a minute," she mutters in disgust. "Are you telling me you're an Asian?"
"Yes, quite yella."
"Eeeww, and we've had children together?"
"That's what us Asians are best at," I say. "You do want to have ten more, don't you?"
Kate strokes Sam's head. "Look at him, David," she says.
I look at the boy dozens of people, even strangers, have remarked on. They compliment us as if his cuteness, or handsomeness, or exoticness, or brightness and laughter were caused by us. As if Kate and I planned it when we met in college. As if we'd whispered to each other in that experimental film class, huddled close in the darkness of that cramped room, a grainy film flickering on the wall, our faces inches apart, "Let's mate and have a pleasant and good-looking child. Let's mingle gene pools. Let's do it for the children."
I take my eyes off the road to grab another look at Sam. In some inexplicable way he's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. "We should have more," Kate whispers. "Shouldn't we?"
"Yeah," I say. "Let's." I wonder if our other kids would look like Sam. Then I wonder what his children would look like, and if he'd marry an Asian girl. Would he even consider it?
I turn off the highway and onto two-lane blacktop. We have an hour left to drive. We pass quiet silo towns connected by railroad tracks, farmhouses alone and silent in fields of green corn, and then we switch to rumbling, dusty, nameless gravel roads. I drive by sight; I know the roads by feel. They're smooth and rattling, with curves I can seize at full speed and others I have to slow down for.
I think about Sam and future kids and progeny, about parents and ancestors. I wonder about my mother and her visions. Did she see visions of the past or future? Was it some sort of ancestral memory?
She never shared them with anyone. I'd find her alone, in the kitchen, staring into space, shaking and sweating, with tears rolling down her face. When I was young, I'd ask her what was the matter, I'd tug her legs and pull on her skirt until she cleared her head and kneeled down to comfort me.
Later I just watched. I'd sit in a chair and see her head turning slowly as the visions moved across her sight. She'd look at a place that wasn't there and make sharp movements with her arms that looked like warnings, pleadings, praying, and frozen death. Then the sight would leave her. And she'd gaze at me, her shining, black hair falling to her shoulders, her wide, delicate face covered with sweat. I knew better than to ask why.
It wasn't until years later, after I graduated from college, that I began to have visions of my own. They weren't like my mother's. They didn't take over my being. Images I'd acquired from my grandfather's journal, which was passed to me when he died, they came to me like dreams.
I hardly knew my grandfather and only met him once, after my family moved to America when I was two. It was a year before I found the time to read his writing. I was a senior in college at the time, and Kate had deserted me for the weekend to visit her sister in Iowa. My fellow droogs cavorted across the border in Madison, recapturing their lost childhoods. Searching for something, anything, to do other than study for classes, I finally reached for the journal. Fortunately it was written in English. Unfortunately it was dull, filled with the sort of facts you find in government documents and family histories. But one passage caught my eye. Writing about his father, my grandfather said, "Lapu Isidro had many large scars on his body and a withered right hand. When he was a boy, the American soldiers came in their train. They destroyed his village (1899)."
That was it, as if such destruction were as routine as a birthday or a baptism or wedding. I headed to the college library, hoping to fill in some of the blanks.
When I got there I discovered the Filipino-American war. I read of betrayal and butchery on both sides, of guerrilla warfare and reprisals. But that first day, I didn't find what I was looking for. I continued to hunt through various libraries and bookstores in town, but the blanks remained empty. Then, years later, I happened upon a young American soldier's account of actions he participated in along the coastal provinces north of Manila. I was in a dusty used book store, and I stood there between walls of books, reading things I didn't want to believe.
"December 9, 1899: A scouting party led by Lt. Andrew Bingham of our 31st Kansas Volunteers was butchered. The bodies were mutilated by bolo cuts. Penises were removed and stuffed into mouths. The head of Lt. Bingham was discovered wrapped in cloth and burning. Thaddeus, I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger. This land will be the death of my soul. These men are not men to me, Thaddeus. They are dark skinned niggers and black rabbits. We do not kill men. We go on goo-goo hunts. This land consumes me. I long to be home with you and Mother and Father, once again.
"December 11, 1899: We boarded a train carrying our company to the area where the scouting party was found. We were led by Major Frederick Noonan. We rode north in the dark morning... "
I look in the rearview. Now Kate's asleep, her head resting on Sam's car seat. They have the same openmouthed expression. And I wonder if Sam will keep anything of mine, if he will have my snorting laugh, or my way of sauntering when I walk, or my midwestern twang. Every day he looks more and more like Kate. It's not his fault. I twist the mirror so I can see the road pulling away behind us. I think of the visions I began to see after I found the histories, and I wonder what was worse: the visions my mother suffered through or the ones I gave myself.
The visions come to me when I'm standing in front of the bathroom mirror, scrubbing my Asian face that doesn't match the midwestern white boy I am inside; when sitting, slouched on the swaying and crowded morning train, feeling my Asianness surrounding me, a wall made of stereotypes of what I am and what I believe and what I'm supposed to look, sound, and smell like; when I stand in the darkness of my bedroom, listening to the rustle of my wife and son, as they roll over, tasting their mouths in their sleep; and when I'm driving in a quiet car, along roads I know like the features of Sam's little face or the soft curve of Kate's back. I open my eyes, and see what grandfather described.
It's 1899, and the military train coughs slowly through the clear, moonlit night. It creeps toward the coastal village, where thatched huts on stilts line both sides of the track. The train never stops here, but the village hopes someday it will. The fertile sea shimmers in the near distance, carrying the smell of fish and salt through the tropical air. Low, rounded mountains frame the sea. Clouds of engine steam dissipate quickly in the humidity, as the train pushes closer to the sleeping village of my great-grandfather, Lapu Isidro.
Lapu sleeps with his parents and sisters in a house on stilts. The night is warm. They rest without sheets on reed mats beneath clouds of pale mosquito netting. Under the bamboo floor the pigs grunt and complain in their pen. Lapu is ten—skinny, barefoot, and deeply tanned. He wears threadbare shorts and a shirt. On Sundays he adds a clean, bleached shirt made of softened burlap and a pair of battered shoes that overwhelm his small feet. His family, for as far back as they can remember, for centuries, have attended Sunday service in the Spanish church in the next village. But now the Spanish have been driven away by the revolution and only the Filipino priests remain.
Lapu's family and others farm rice in ponds full of silt and mud. Lapu spends the day bent over, knee deep in water, planting young rice seedlings as the tropical sun beats through his reed hat, making him lightheaded. He spins the hand crank that supplies the ponds with freshwater from a nearby stream, pumping his skinny arms in dizzy circles.
Tonight Lapu sleeps, and in his dream he fishes the quiet river mouth with his smiling father. As they haul the sticky nets into the canoe and toss the wriggling fish in a pile at the end of the boat, they pity the servile rice growers, the slaves of the earth and seasons. In his dream, Lapu is a bare-chested fisherman and the river and sea give him food and freedom. He admires his father's muscled back, not bent from years in the rice fields. His father stands, throwing his long, black hair back as he drops the last of the netting into the boat. He smiles at Lapu, then dives powerfully into the water. Lapu scans the river for his father of the dream, but cannot see him. Lapu waits, but he doesn't surface. The sky grows dark, filled with greenish and purple clouds, and winds begin to howl. Still his father doesn't surface.
"Tatay! Tatay!" he shouts.
Crimson lightning shatters the dream sky.
The military train shrieks to a stop outside the village, and ten American soldiers leap off a barricaded flatbed in front of the engine. They're dressed in rumpled, dark blue shirts and khaki pants, waists encircled by ammunition belts, and wearing cowboy hats dark with bands of sweat. Their beards and mustaches are coarse. A soldier leads each group, holding aloft a torch that flames yellow and orange. On either side, soldiers grip their bayoneted rifles, moving in a V. They hunch slightly as they scan the dark village and trees for snipers or waiting bolo men. Aguinaldo's nigger bandits fight dirty. They ambush and butcher American troops, then disappear into jungle, mountains, and villages. They will not be civilized. They won't stand still to be shot.
The soldiers reach the first stilted huts, halt, glance about suspiciously, then peer back at the train.
Lapu shouts and cries into the boiling water that has swallowed his father. A heavy rain has opened the sky and pelts him with large drops. He stands as the winds buffet the boat, ready to leap in and join his father. Lapu falls to a sitting position as his father's head bobs to the surface beside the boat. His father is smiling slyly as the waves toss him up and down. His black hair is plastered to his dark face and wide nose. "Why are you crying?"
"Tatay, I thought you were dead."
His father laughs. "Lapu, you were named for a brave chief, the man who killed Magellan and drove the Spanish away."
The boy cries.
"Where is your courage, Lapu? Where is your courage to command the water, wind, and sky?"
A gunshot splinters the still night. Lapu sits up quickly, and through the pale netting recognizes his father standing by the window. This is his real father, gaunt and tenuous, making unsure jerky movements. Lapu shivers and wonders if the explosion was real.
At the edge of the village, a young man named Rosendo sits slumped against a pole that supports his family's hut. His eyes stare blankly at the soldiers, his mouth open in surprise. The top of his shattered head gapes at the sky. Behind him, pigs shriek in fear at the smell of blood. A skinny volunteer named Will stands close, his rifle raised, locked in his grip. Another named Chubby Perley steps forward and knocks Rosendo over with a kick. "Nigga boy," he says, "you one lucky goo-goo." Rosendo's pale and crimson brain tips from his skull into the dirt. Chubby Perley pulls Will back as a command is shouted from the train.
On both sides of the track the soldiers withdraw a few paces and kneel, forming a protective circle around the soldiers carrying the torches, rifles pointing outward, waiting nervously.
On the flatbed, Major Frederick Noonan appears in the lamplight. His blue uniform is immaculate. He raises his gloved hand and behind him soldiers scamper about, twisting the coupling on hoses, tapping the gauges on kerosene tanks that once held water. They move to the first huts. The two men with torches stretch to ignite the thatch walls. The flames sputter then flare with loud exhalations, and the men grin, their faces touched by the dancing light and heat. Another shouted command from the flatbed, and the volunteers quickly retreat to the tracks, where they wait alongside the train.
Major Noonan moves to the front of the flatbed, as Rosendo's frightened and confused parents begin crawling down the ladder from their burning home. Noonan stands on the sandbags, and takes off his blue, piped hat.
"31st Kansas Volunteers!" he shouts.
"Sir!" the troops answer.
"Civilize these niggers!"
The fire hoses send bursts of kerosene into the flames, quickly spreading the blaze from hut to hut. Rosendo's parents are ripped in half by rifle and machine-gun fire, as they stumble toward the train. Other villagers begin to pour from their homes, some writhing, some screaming from fiery doorways and windows or falling bloody and punctured from ladders. Kerosene fumes and the acrid, choking smell of burning thatch and flesh and powder soak the air, as black smoke rises high above the village and is carried out to sea. The popping, and rasping of weapons. The salty scent of blood. Half the village roars in flame.
From beneath the fiery collapse of her home, Theresita emerges scorched and staggering, her clothes and long black hair burned away, her skin oozing, one breast ripped away by a burning timber. She moves through the smoke toward the soldiers like an apparition. Their white faces and uniforms are familiar. She has sold fruits to them in the next village, and they have flirted with her, rubbing their rough faces against her hands, giving her trinkets and fish from cans. Perhaps they will stop the fires, stop the end of the world.
Young George races down the track with a whoop, in pursuit of running Emilio. He passes Theresita, who crumples an instant later. A shot from the flatbed brings Emilio down, and George rushes forward, sinking his bayonet into Emilio's naked stomach. The blade makes a slurping sound as if it were being pushed into a sack full of water, and the Filipino's eyes and tongue protrude. The volunteer jerks his blade out and begins to fire round after round into the dying man's body, raising his rifle to his cheek each time.
As Lapu stares at the ceiling, wondering about the peculiar smells and sounds of this strange dream, the walls and roof ignite, burning yellow and white, as bright as day. In the window, his father lurches backward with a bright crimson toothy hole where his face had been. Lapu's four-year-old sisters hiccup in fear as they try to tear their way through mosquito netting. His mother clutches at the girls, her eyes round with fear and her mouth gaping, as pieces of burning roof begin to float down, drizzling like rain. Then the floor and she, his limp father, and his hiccuping sisters are heaved upward, then disappear. Lapu crawls to the hole, looking down for them as the rain of fire broils patches of sticky red-and-white blisters into his back. The bamboo gives way beneath him, and he falls, landing heavily in burning debris. Before he succumbs to oblivion he lifts his right hand, and in the dancing flames sees a thick bamboo stake driven through the palm. I'm dreaming, he tells himself. But inches away he smells burning flesh. And he can't tell if it's pig or sibling or mother or father.
"Don't crash, Dee," Kate says as she squeezes between the bucket seats on her way back to the passenger side. I realize we're near her grandparents' house. My mind feels muddy and slow, but as expected, I have my right hand waiting to cup her buns when she sits. She pinches my arm. "I'm just a piece of meat to you!"
"Yeah," I say. "White meat."
Kate turns up the air conditioner, chilling our naked legs. Visions and smells of burning thatch reverberate in tiny waves through my mind, dissipating. Clouds of hot summer dust hide the road behind us. Then we're there. At a small, white farmhouse nestled in a pocket of fields tall with emerald corn and bushy soybean.
Grandpa Sanderson stands in the front yard. I wave at him and wonder how he can stand the heat. I recall that he's probably spent most of his life outdoors—farming, fishing, and hunting down in the woods across the fields. I know more about him than I do about all my grandparents combined. He takes his time, walking to the gravel drive, hunched over and plodding with long steps like a camel. His faded overalls hang rumpled and stiff over his gray T-shirt. He grins, and the huge gaps in his tobacco chewing teeth are as dark as Halloween putty.
Sam slaps his palm on his window, squealing frantically, reedy and high. "Gampa, Gampa!" Kate twists the rearview and touches her hair. She opens her door, and the heat rushes in. Grandpa Sanderson knocks on my window. I open my door and he has to step back a pace. The dusty sweetness of a freshly mowed lawn fills the air. Stepping out I glance up at him, see his smiling blue eyes, then look at the wall of corn fencing in the far side of the yard. In the country, glancing is alright; looking someone in the eye for too long is considered rude.
"You going to let my great-grandson on outta there?" His voice is almost as high, reedy and jumbled as Sam's. There's a sweet and sour tobacco smell about him.
I take the rough and callused hand he offers and squeeze it. "Only if yer thinkin' a' keepin' him," I say, unconsciously pulling out my old, central Illinois drawl. I open Sam's door and he jumps into grandpa's arms, then ignores him. He shoves his thumb in his mouth and looks everywhere but at the man cuddling him and smooching at his cheeks. Two-year-olds are like that. At least Sam is.
"You're just an ornery little thing, aren't you?" grandpa wheezes.
Kate walks around the car. "Not as ornery as an old man I know," she says, then hugs the both of them, pecking a kiss on grandpa's wrinkled, pale cheek. I wonder, again how he can stay so pale and unburned while spending most of his time outdoors.
When Kate and I were first dating, I couldn't understand a thing the old man said. I'd attend family gatherings and sit in his warm, plaid living room with the rest of the men, talking about man stuff: farming, cars, and all the American sports. The women would be clattering about the kitchen and dining room, having much more fun. And Grandpa Sanderson would lean over and talk to me with his friendly, airy speech, sounding like oxygen was whooshing out of the balloons of his lungs. I'd nod and smile. Me, probably the only Asian he'd ever talked to, pretending I understood.
He could have been asking me if I really ate dogs, and if I'd seen his missing coon dog, Socrates (pronounced So-crates). That dog could climb trees. Smart too.
I'd nod. Smile. Yep, good tasting dog. Damn good dog!
He could have been asking me if I was going to make his granddaughter and great-grandchildren eat dogs.
Sure. Yeah. Can't beat it.
Grandpa plops Sam on the ground. "Ya likin' Chicago, then?" I let his words sink in for a minute. It's the only way I can understand them. My subconscious is smarter than my conscious when it comes to translating his wheeze.
"Yeah, I'm liking it. Feel pretty comfortable there." I look at him, making sure I'm on the right track.
He nods and kicks a bug off his work boot.
"All kinds of Asians in Chicago," I add.
Kate strokes Sam's hair. Sam prances in place, self-consciously sticking his tongue out at us. "Dee, you don't even know any Asians," Kate teases.
"Yeah, but I could if I wanted to. Wait a minute, I know an Asian at grad school. She's, I think a—"
"Ain't never been to Chicago. Seen Chicago on TV," Grandpa says.
"It's nice," I say, "Lots to do."
Grandpa tugs on Kate's skirt and she pulls away laughing. "Where's the rest a' your skirt girl? Someone done cut off the bottom off your skirt."
Grandma Sanderson pushes open the screen door. Every time I see her, she seems to be getting shorter and happier, if that's possible. "Come on up here and give yer grandma a kiss, Kate," she calls. "Hi, David. Sam, can you give grandma a kiss?"
For the next couple hours we sweat in the living room. Kate and I sit on the plaid sofa, behind a low coffee table covered with boxes of old papers and photos. The window fan blows hot afternoon air on us. The whirling air smells like sour tobacco juice and dust. The grandparents rock in lounge chairs on either side of the room. Now and then Grandpa leans over and spits brown saliva into a white plastic cup. They talk, and Kate and I ask questions as Sam amuses himself with dusty old toys and a speckled, arthritic coon dog too achy to chase him. The tape recorder spins. I jot notes on yellow legal pad, feeling like a historian. We pore over a yellowing sketch of a family tree shaped like the oak outside, wide and plump. I wonder what my family tree would be shaped like.
"When were you born? What was your father's full name? Your grandfather's occupation? What's your earliest memory? What was the effect of the First World War on the family? World War II? What was the feeling about Germans? About Japanese? When did your family acquire a car? How did you keep food fresh before refrigeration?" We record. We flip the tape over when it runs out.
We examine photographs. Some people wave and grin, others stare blankly. One man stands in a studio in a Civil War uniform. Others are dressed in the uniforms of other wars—Korea, Vietnam. There's one smiling young man who wears a slouchy uniform, boots, and a cowboy hat. At his side is a large caliber rifle. The uniform of a volunteer. I flip it over. There's no date and no name, but it has the look of a photo taken around the turn of the century. Could be an Indian fighter. Could be the Spanish-American War. Could be...
"Who's this?" I finally ask.
Kate glances at the photo, then looks at me sharply. She doesn't say anything. She's heard me complain before about a forgotten war and the forgotten deaths of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, of ruined crops and starvation, and imperialism, and the betrayal of a sovereign nation. About the deaths of certain Filipinos. Deaths close to home. I'd read her the excerpts from my grandfather's journal, shown her pictures in books of young Americans dressed like cowboys, holding rifles in the Philippines.
Kate stares at the side of my face and takes the photo. She hands the photo to grandma who frowns squinting at it. "I can't—I don't recognize him, Kate. Dad? Must be your side."
Kate takes it and sits on the armrest of Grandpa Sanderson's lounger. He looks closely at it, then back at me. "Nope," he says. Then he swats at Kate's rear as she walks back to the sofa.
Kate laughs. "He can't let a kid go by his chair unteased."
I pick up another photo, an old ocean liner. Kate quietly buries the unidentified soldier beneath a pile of yellowed correspondence.
Later, grandpa and I stand outside in the garden out back. The sun is low and orange, the oppressive heat has finally released its hold. A slight breeze rustles the corn in the fields. The leaves of the sweet corn in the garden mimic the sound. Grandpa stoops to the dark earth, pulling up a few small carrots. The garden smells like liquid flowers and fertility—like Kate used to smell before we got used to each other.
When we were first married, I could have identified her from three feet away and blindfolded. She smelled like earth and soap and sex. When we couldn't see each other, I used to take a shirt that she'd worn and breathe through it before going to sleep at night. She'd do the same with one of mine. I remember her saying, "You smell like someone I'd marry."
And I'd bury my nose in her shoulder and murmur, "You smell as fertile as the Tennessee Valley."
She'd push me away. "Let's hope not, Dee. Fertility is, well, you know... dangerous."
Grandpa Sanderson holds a bunch of carrots up to me. "Come on, won't bite cha."
I take them by the bushy greens, holding them at arm's length. They're wide and squat, like nothing you see in a grocery. Grandpa keeps pulling bunches out and handing them back to me. "Got enough there, Dave?"
I heft them. "Yeah, sure, I think."
Grandpa pushes himself up from the ground and slowly creaks to his feet. "Cabbage is ready. Like cabbage? Nice stew." He steps over a few rows and pulls a large pocket knife out of his overalls. "Which one ya want?"
"I don't know how to cook cabbage," I say, following him.
He kneels, wheezing over his shoulder, "Boil the sucker up. Just boil it or fry it with some pork fat." He pushes the plant's dark outer leaves away and hacks at the stem of the pale center with his knife. Rising, he quickly tosses it to me. I drop the carrots and catch it. It oozes with liquid, soaking the front of my T-shirt.
A giggle escapes me. "This sucker's heavy."
"Better'n the store-bought garbage," he says. He spits a stream of juice between the rows.
Standing there holding the head of cabbage in my arms, I feel its size and weight, probably close to that of a human head. Then I blurt, "You knew the soldier in that picture, didn't you?"
He glances down at me then looks out at the corn and darkening sun. "Farming was never good enough for my uncle. Wanted to see the world. Joined up. Died over there."
"Where?" I murmur.
"Where you're from," he says. He turns and walks to the house, and I watch his long, field-eating strides, feeling a lump coming to my throat. Nearing the back door, he points at a metal bucket filled with water. "Wash the carrots in that. Don't need to wash the cabbage."
"Thanks," I manage to call, before the screen door slams behind him.
Then the cabbage feels like a baby in my arms. A head, then a baby, then a head again. I drop it, and stand there in the garden. In the cooling dusk, I can hear murmuring through the open windows. I can hear Sam's laugh as somebody picks him up and tickles him. I hear Grandma Sanderson's high, crackling giggle. I hear Kate's cheerful scolding. And I feel like I'm a part of it all. Like there's this quiet voice saying, "You belong here, to somebody, to us." And I want it. I want it more than anything. To stop caring about being Asian and different. Then I see my mother, standing in her kitchen, crying. And I know what shook her. It wasn't her own memories of the Japanese and World War II. She could handle that. It was the memories she was born with, the ancestral memories.
She saw the family murdered in burning houses and open fields. She saw no escape and no forgiveness, and that was all. That was as far as her vision could take her.
I see something gentle and relentless, soft and slow and sure. Beyond visions, and resting in certainty. I am the new addition in a long line of good country folk. My Asianness will be added in, and then added to, until this new land accepts me by making me slowly, comfortably, disappear.v