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Silk

Chapter Three—Neko-chan

Nozomi chased her black cat through the fields of Wakamatsu Colony in Gold Hill. She still was not allowed to bring the cat inside of their home. “Kitanai,” her mother said, pushing Neko-chan out with the ends of a straw broom.

Even though Nozomi was only seven, she was given a list of chores to do on the colony. Wash and clean dishes from meals. Help her mother with the laundry. Change the linens on the beds regularly and keep her eye out for bedbugs and cockroaches.

Other than babies, there were no other children in Wakamatsu. Nozomi’s skin became dark and then cracked in the sun.

Earlier this year, she watched the Veerkamp children walk to a schoolhouse carrying chalkboard slates. She wanted to join them and one day followed behind. Through a side window she spied the blonde and redheaded students sit in rows in front of their teacher. No one said that she couldn’t go in, but she instinctively knew. School was not for her.

One day Nozomi was outside sitting on the porch, bored and lonely, when something black darted from one tree to another. Was it those strange American squirrels?

Nozomi went up to investigate and there playing with an old pinecone was a black kitten. He didn’t seem to mind that he was alone without another feline playmate. The pinecone was enough of a diversion for him.

“Where did you come from?” Nozomi said in Japanese.

The cat stopped what he was doing to gaze at Nozomi with his pale green eyes.

“You understand Nihongo?” Nozomi asked. “I’m going to call you Neko-chan.”

From the time Nozomi met Neko-chan, her life changed. No longer were the days dreary as her parents went off to tend tea plants. Neko-chan made the most tedious tasks playful and fun. Even her father noticed that Nozomi was smiling more than usual.

A week later, her father announced that he would be accompanying a carpenter and Schnell-sama to an exhibition in San Francisco to show off their plants. It was important and their future depended on its success. “I can trust you to be a good girl,” he said to Nozomi before he left. Nozomi nodded. It was difficult for her to be obedient at times, but she would try her best in his absence.

Her mother had gone to do some farm work while Nozomi stayed behind at the house to sweep the floors and hang up laundry. She was so devoted to her tasks that she forgot about Neko-chan. Where was he?

She left the sheet on the wash line and in the distance saw two strangers with scraggly beards resting under a tree with knapsacks. One of them had Neko-chan in his hands.

She didn’t know that much English, but she knew a few words. One was “no,” and she bellowed it out loud and clear. “Noooooo!”

The taller one held out the cat high, out of Nozomi’s reach. “Who are you, China Girl?” he said in English.

His companion pushed down on Nozomi’s head until it hurt for her to move. “It’s those people from Japan. You know, the ones who are trying to make silk out here. I saved a news clipping about them.”

“Silk? In Coloma? Never going to work over here.”

“And tea, too.”

Nozomi didn’t have the energy to fight back and sat on the ground, tears filling her eyes.

“These folks don’t look like they could grow weeds.”

The shorter man shrugged. “I remember how the Irish killed off some Chinese over some land rights issues a while back.”

“Now you can’t give away this land.”

The two men looked down at Nozomi. “She doesn’t understand a word we’re saying.”

“Do you think that they have anything of value?”

“Maybe the Prussian who brought him.” The short one pulled out a newspaper clipping from his pocket. “Schnell. John Henry. Traded arms in Japan. Maybe he has some guns.”

The man who was holding Neko-chan bent towards Nozomi. “Where does Schnell live?”

When she didn’t respond, his companion knelt down and bared his rotten teeth. “Shh-neeeell.”

Nozomi shook her head and covered her face. She had no idea what these hakujin men were saying. All she wanted was her Neko-chan.

The two men set up camp under the tree. The taller one had created a pouch with a bandana where he kept Neko-chan captive.

Nozomi wanted to run to tell her mother, but what would that do? Mother would be elated that the “dirty creature” was finally gone.

“Two hakujin men are staying in the colony,” she finally told her mother over a dinner of stir-fried vegetables and chicken.

“Yes, they told Saito-san that they will be leaving the first thing in the morning.” Like the rest of the colonists, Mother had been fooled. Nozomi, on the other hand, kept her eye on the two men, even after the sun had set and the full moon appeared.

Mother was already in bed snoring when Nozomi saw the men creep up towards the Schnell home. They began looking through the windows. The colonists had no locks on their doors. Up to now, there was no reason to secure their homes.

Nozomi didn’t care that much about the Schnells or even their nursemaid, Okei. Neko-chan was foremost on her mind. Neko-chan was being practically smothered in that bandana around the man’s neck. Nozomi saw the kitten helplessly flail around. This would not do at all.

Nozomi’s feet moved swiftly across the dirt path. “Let Neko-chan go!” she screamed and tore at the man’s bandana. The cat leapt out, his claws outstretched and pulled at the man’s beard. He then bellowed, awakening all the female occupants of the house. Half of them began to shriek while the babies began to cry.

The two men ran from the house and now the oil lamps in every one of the homes had been turned on.

Nozomi’s mother had awakened, alarmed that her daughter was not in her bed.

Neko-chan was in Nozomi’s full embrace on the porch of the Schnell home.

“What happened?” the colonists asked the Schnells and Okei, who had spent the night there to take care of the babies.

“It was Neko-chan,” Nozomi exclaimed, snuggling the cat. “He’s our great protector.”

To be continued...

 

(Author’s Note: The nonfiction sources used for this fictional creation included Daniel A. Métraux’s The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America, Discover Nikkei articles, and Gary Noy’s Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues.)

 

© 2020 Naomi Hirahara

california fiction issei naomi hirahara Wakamatsu Colony

About this series

Not much is known about the women of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, including Jou Schnell, the Japanese wife of the colony’s founder John Henry Schnell. Silk is a fictional account which imagines what life may have been for these women and men in 1869–1871.

Author’s Note: The nonfiction sources used for this fictional creation included Daniel A. Métraux’s The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America, Discover Nikkei articles, and Gary Noy’s Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues.

Read Chapter One >>