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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 83-92

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from Fire Horse Woman

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston


In late spring 1942, the biting wind of California's high desert blew harder than anyone could remember. Howling and tearing up sagebrush, it sent skeletal tumbleweeds cartwheeling like drunken clowns over the sandy flatlands. Churned-up dust gathered in clouds so thick they blotted out the noon sun, causing people to speculate about an unscheduled eclipse. Some explained that dark spring as the time when the Great Wind Gods of the Four Directions had met to display their wrath--or perhaps sorrow--at some mysterious event.

Were the Gods speaking to the ghosts of desert Indians who once populated the land? The Owens Valley Paiutes, driven out long before the Los Angeles Water District stole the river's water, were now scattered throughout the nation. Like windblown smoke, their villages disappeared from this elevated land so close to the sky, a land once alive with wild geese, deer, and elk, a rich land nurtured by the light of a constant sun--brilliant even in winter--and pure waters from the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Paiutes might have explained that the balance of power between Grandfather Mountain and Grandmother Valley had been corrupted when Los Angeles engineers carved canals in the earth, lined them with cement, and channeled life-giving waters to the south. They might have explained how Grandfather drew snow to the granite peaks of his shoulders and sent it as liquid crystal down his body, directing it to the valley floor, where Grandmother received it into her breasts. Trickling rivulets and gurgling creeks fanned out from her bosom, feeding the surrounding land.

What caused the Wind Gods to converge that spring? Was it exasperation at the condition of the ravaged land? Sorrow for the disappearance of its stewards, the Paiutes? Or could it have been a warning? An omen of things to come?

Coincidentally, something strange was happening in Owens Valley. Between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine, a hurriedly constructed compound of black tar-papered barracks rose in the parched desert. Surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, a square-mile area teemed with thousands of dark-headed bodies--people dressed in somber clothes, huddling in groups for protection from the raging wind. Soldiers with [End Page 83] rifles marched around the perimeter. The American flag fluttered at the camp's entrance. What was this mysterious encampment, which sprouted up suddenly in the barren valley?

Roaming aimlessly amid piles of suitcases, bundles, and boxes, the people waited to greet newcomers arriving in buses. Their faces were Asiatic, complexions ruddy brown, warm tan, and pale ivory. Almond-shaped eyes, some almost round and others thin and narrow, watered and turned red from the stinging sand. They looked Indian. Could these be the scattered Paiutes now returning to the homeland? Was the droning "Namu amida butsu," chanted by Buddhist devotees, an Indian incantation?

No. These were not Indians--although some genetic particle of the blood running through their veins may have coursed through those of Mongolian nomads who, eons ago, crossed the Aleutians from Asia and later migrated down the frozen tundra to the lush North American continent. These were Japanese Americans--immigrants--and their children and grandchildren. And Japan was at war with America.

Dressed in a dark-green kimono, salt-and-pepper hair swept up into a pompadour, a striking older woman stood alone, apart from the milling crowd. She faced west, towards Mount Williamson, her black onyx eyes glittering a liquid light that may have come from tears--or perhaps inspiration. Those steep peaks soaring toward heaven could have drawn from her the undisguised strength that set her apart from others. Or possibly, her eyes were simply looking west over the mountains and past the Central Valley, to the coastlands, and beyond them, to the Pacific Ocean and Japan, where she had lived until coming to America at the turn of the century.

Matsubara Sayo wondered if her life was to end in this desert. Years of surviving in America had given her an invincibility and a wisdom...