Why She Left Us


Chapter One, Hold Your Breath, 1946


Eric’s heart is going to burst. His heart is holding all his breath. Except, his cheeks are holding some, and more floats across his eyes. The cars outside keep passing, vague and dizzy through the parlor window. Eric’s head is light now.

He has to let it go.

His breath breaks out, pulling his lungs with it until he can gobble another one. He presses his small hands to his mouth to contain it this time. Last night, when he lay in bed, he chose this spot on the otherwise slumped-over couch; it was the best place to watch the moving picture outside the heavy curtains. Now, his nose near the glass, he is close enough to feel the street sounds zoom through him.

Eric is looking for a new car.

Mama’s profile flickers through the doorway, tossed clothing hanging over the basket on her hip as she slips down the hall. Eric sees the smooth bun of gray hair she has twisted against her neck, wrapped in a thick, blue ribbon. The ribbon confirms everything he knows about the day. She, too, is expecting something, though she’s still in her housedress and isn’t quite ready. He freezes, straight and tingling, hoping she will pass, and knowing he’s never been that lucky. She doesn’t even pause to drop the laundry basket as she steps into the room.

“What are you doing in here?” Her palm swings in a wide wing to slap his mouth. “Get off that couch.”

The slap misses his mouth and tears his hand away; it tears his feet off the ledge and his body follows, his shoulders hunching while the rest of him stands still. “Waiting for my mother,” he says.

Mama sways toward him again, but doesn’t strike. “Who said. . .” Her voice trips, her thought unfinished. In a peek, Eric sees she looks pale. The lines in her face stand out strangely, like little rivers on a map, and his dizziness returns once more. It’s not a bright light in his head this time, more like worms, like Mama’s wrinkles, and they tickle as they make their way to his stomach.

As time stretches this unexpected moment, Mama kneels in front of him and places the laundry basket at her side with some effort. Their faces are at the same level, peeking over the top of the sill. They are close enough to touch, but he doesn’t expect it; they never do. Eric watches, indirectly, as the light turns silver in one of her black eyes.

“Your mother?” she asks finally, taking the hand she slapped to rub it lightly between her own.

“Jack says I have a different mother. Last night. He said she’s coming here today.” Slowly, so she won’t notice, Eric parts his lips and draws a new breath to hold.

Mama withdraws–he can feel it–until she is far from him, far even from her own stroking hands. Sadness pulls at her singsong syllables when she finally speaks. “What were you doing, Eric?”

“Jack…my mother–” Eric bursts, another wish released. “I asked Jack if my mother was coming to live here. He said, “Hold your breath.”‘

Mama leaves Eric by the window and calls for his Uncle Jack. He can sense her anger in the quiet that crushes her words. In other houses on the block, Eric knows, arguments Scatter with yells and the crash of objects into walls, but Japanese is different. Not a language to be shouted. Maybe the words fly apart and lose their meaning, he doesn’t know for sure.

As Mama and Jack begin to fight, Eric finds his little sister, Mariko. He tucks her thumb into his fist and leads her onto the scrawny patch of grass between their house and the street. Cars whoosh by on black pavement. Eric expects to see army trucks and jeeps, even after a year of living outside the internment camp, but these cars are low and shiny. They look like bubbles, with half-mustaches over their spoked, skinny wheels, and they drive too fast to see inside. Eric’s world is smaller now that they moved to Los Angeles. There are so many bright and painted houses and no prairie that runs forever through the barbed wire.

His house is a good change though, with everything, even the toilets, right there inside. There’s a kitchen with flowers on the walls and two magic boxes: a hot one, called an oven, and one that’s icy cold. The floors are made of wood stripes so smooth and clean he can lay on them. They don’t hurt the way the brick floors at camp did. More than anything, he loves his new floors.

Under the tree, Mariko grabs the swing Jack made for Eric one day when he was in a good mood and could remember Eric’s name. Her first jump up misses. “Help me, Eric.”

“Jump higher. You’re knocking the seat away.”

His sister’s impossibly round eyes examine the wood plank, then she smiles. “Please?”

“All right.” He wonders why he always gives in to her. “But don’t get dirty. Our mother is coming.”

Mariko yanks her head toward the house looking for Mama. “Not.” She is pleased with the wiggle she’s made with the swing and shakes the ropes to broaden it. “Swing me.”

Eric sighs. “Mama will push you later,” he says. She is not yet four–too young to understand that her mother was missing and has been found. He didn’t know either, not at first, until Jack pointed out that Mama was an old lady, as old as a grandmother, which was what she really was. Eric’s grandmother. But it was the words¬†old lady¬†that stuck and reminded him that Mama had always been too busy for anything he wanted to do. Like last month, when she wouldn’t help him make something for sharing time at school. She gave him her Bible–a book filled with tiny drawings of faces and shaking leaves, stickmen and falling boxes. He made up an entire story using just the first page, but Mrs. Morris, his first-grade teacher, stopped him before he was partway through. She told him the drawings were Japanese characters; he was horrified, suddenly Japanese again when he was trying so hard to be American. He wished she’d take back the words, let him sit down gracefully, but as each second passed, he was standing there. In front of the blackboard, in front of the class, with each tick on the smiling clock, still unable to read the book.