Lullabies for Infant Prisoners

“Our Beans Grow Fat Upon the Storm” by Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi


It feels both true and a little misleading to say that Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi is a master of the fable. True because his work perfectly captures the dreamlike and uncanny quality we associate with fables. But it feels misleading because Araki-Kawaguchi’s stories are not about hypothetical evils and hypothetical worlds. He’s writing about the recent past, about the atrocities and horrors of Japanese internment. Perhaps a fable is what we’re left with when history’s narrative is deformed and its aftermath obscured.

“Our Beans Grow Fat Upon the Storm” is a story about men. We return to the Gila River internment camp that Araki-Kawaguchi brought so vividly to life in a previous issue of Recommended Reading with the story, “Six Notes of Cicada Song.” This time, we follow the enigmatic young musician Kane, who writes lullabies that are the only relief for the babies in the camp whose mysterious suffering is a constant presence in Gila. Araki, in a breathtaking passage, describes the endemic: “In his records, Hisaishi noted that Gila River internees had been so beleaguered by the sounds of wailing infants, that after camp life, even in solitude, their minds would produce an imaginary baby and its torments: whining, sniveling, blubbering.” Kane assists the parents and teaches the fathers to sing their babies to sleep, and for a time, in the camp, things are going well. But resentments, fanned by the preacher bent on preserving his authority within the camp, flare again, leading to an ending that is as startling as it is beautiful.

Perhaps a fable is what we’re left with when history’s narrative is deformed and its aftermath obscured.

That is perhaps the most wonderful thing about this story: its capacity for contradiction and its deep sense of empathy for even the most difficult characters. The reverend who instigates much of the story’s tension — and is in many ways a victim of the very power he is so desperate to hold within the community — is never painted with a single brush. And when we leave him, we almost don’t want to let him go. Part of Araki’s mastery, and what makes his characters so compelling, is that he possesses such deep reserves of compassion for the people he writes

It can seem sometimes that toxic masculinity is a meme or a trendy catch phrase. It can seem like we’re out of interesting or useful things to say about the ways in which systems of power fail us all as humans, men and women, robbing us of the full range of our experience or emotions. It can seem like we’ve heard it all before. But I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s just the easy story we tell ourselves about our contemporary moment to feel safe or perhaps to excuse ourselves from the task of trying to do more or be better. And I’m grateful to Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi for reminding us yet again that there is still something left to say.

Brandon Taylor
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading

Lullabies for Infant Prisoners

“Our Beans Grow Fat Upon the Storm”

by Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi

For Janet

In Gila River, a marriage of stifling heat, roaring winds, cheap windows, loose barrack planks and the formidable pollens of desert flowers kept the population of newborn babies thoroughly miserable.

In the years after 1945, epidemiologist, Shoko Hisaishi, recorded several cases of a condition he called “infant paracusia” or “infant paranoia” or “crybaby ears.” In his records, Hisaishi noted that Gila River internees had been so beleaguered by the sounds of wailing infants, that after camp life, even in solitude, their minds would produce an imaginary baby and its torments: whining, sniveling, blubbering. For some, the auditory hallucinations were subtle, the whimpers emerging faintly as if from behind a thin wall. For others, those counterfeit mewls were clear and emphatic, its sufferers given to throwing up their arms in exasperation or kicking chairs across the room. Furthermore, crybaby ears practically went arm and arm with other undesirable symptoms: weight loss, weight gain, insomnia, perturbation, compulsive thoughts of self-ear mutilation.

During the war, the siblings of Gila newborns could steal a few hours’ sleep at school or in church. But mothers of newborns were in a less fortunate position. The unrelenting shrieking and bawling transformed them into phantoms. It was said a Gila mother’s hair became uneven and tangled. Their eyes blackened. Their skin paled and looked warty. Their arms grew thin and sinewy. Their teeth grew pointed like a jackal’s teeth. All meals were eaten with ferocity. Gila mothers hunched over their food, heads swiveling from side to side, as though their cutlet or drumstick might spring back to life or be spirited away.

There was little remedy for a crabby baby in the desert. Parents who had their hands on whiskey or port or sherry claimed that a capful for the little one before bedtime or naptime was perfect medicine. But liquor was a rare and expensive commodity in camp. The more affordable and renewable solution was the music of Yoshikane Araki. It was said that the lullabies written by Kane, though he was a young, relatively inexperienced musician of seventeen, had the power to anesthetize the most difficult of babes. When Kane performed the lullaby himself, he could topple a rotund baby with a single verse. It was told that even if Kane’s performance did not strike the Gila baby unconscious on the spot, the music bewildered the babe into silence. Fathers became misty-eyed feeling their wailing infants turn to slumbering sacks of yams in their arms. Mothers who watched the portly heads of their toddlers dip beneath the currents of sleep sometimes threw their arms around Kane or kissed him.

“I am sorry Kane!” they would exclaim embarrassedly. “It is just that my son has clawed my face the past three weeks with every attempt to place him down!”

Parents who recreated Kane’s verses in their own mouths found the lullabies held their power over three or four weeks. These lullabies produced naps of up to two hours, which were so potent a parent could smack a mosquito from a baby’s forehead without waking them. And Kane’s lullabies cost only a dime. Arrangements were made through Kane’s mother, Kashi Araki, and Kane would arrive at a barrack door holding a guitar case and a little scroll of lyrics. Twenty or thirty minutes were spent instructing parents in the particularities of their melody, at which time of day it was appropriate to sing, which words to take a breath after, which words to say firmly, loudly, which gently, which to swish in the mouth prior to uttering.

“This word as a command,” Kane would say, “as though you are ordering an animal to leave the room.”

“Now this word at the end of exhalation,” Kane would say, “as though the bones of its syllables can hardly muster the strength to extinguish a candle.”

“Emphasize this word only in the morning,” Kane would say. “Saying this word will produce flavor like a ripened bulb of fruit in their mouth.”

Afterward, Kane packed his guitar away into its shell, collected payment and delicately pulled the barrack door behind him.

If parents could afford Kane’s daily service, it cost them a nickel per performance. After his studies, Kane walked from barrack to barrack, singing to red-faced infants and sedating them. Over time, Gila mothers themselves grew appetites for his music. It wasn’t uncommon for Kane’s lullaby to leave mother and child napping together in the midday heat, to leave mother with her head tipped back and her jaw plopped open for the snoring to thunder forth. The pleasure of a little beauty sleep erased any embarrassments. These mothers said their snores were sweet as honey and lavender upon their tongues.

However Kane’s music benefited the recoveries and moods of the women and children in Gila, it pricked at the anxieties of new fathers. In California, Kane had been a short, meaty adolescent with a feminine haircut. Around his neighborhood, his nickname was “Sister,” because upon hearing the treble in his voice, people would ask, “And just where is your brother Kane?” Peers pinched his cheeks, flicked his earlobes and set barking dogs on him. Even the nice ones tripped him a little and stole his cardboard inserts from his shoes. His music teachers thumped him on the back of the head if they supposed he had not been practicing.

But in Gila River, Kane was surfacing from his teenage years peering six inches over the brows of contemporaries and teachers, with shoulder and jugular muscles like a horse, fearsome hands rumored to be able to hold red-black coals without suffering burns, and a voice dropping as thick and sonorous as a December cloud.

The men of Butte and Canal were highly suspicious of this seventeen-year-old boy who appeared at the barrack door holding a guitar or ukulele. Whose presence set off the man’s entire family, rising and bowing and tearing-up with gratitude. Whose name aroused lip-smacking and moans of delight among young girls. Whose lyrics echoed in the mouths of recent brides. Whose music echoed in the roof beams and dark dreams above all their heads.

Of Kane, a few spiteful rumors began to circulate throughout camp. One strand of hearsay suggested Kane was a devious seducer of women.

Amongst the din of the mess hall, it was familiar to hear a husband cry out, “Do not let him into your barrack! He uses his music to anesthetize your baby while he has his way with your wife!”

Another thread of rumors suggested Kane hid a jar of ether in his guitar case and used it to drug newborn babies.

“Can you believe we pay him a nickel a day to dope our babies and turn them to drooling morons?” was a common husband-cry.

“Kane is becoming rich from our desperation. I mean, just how expensive is a little ether and a rag?”

These were the rumors of men, wildly emotional and unsubstantiated, and which therefore gathered fire and velocity as they traveled from mouth to outraged mouth. Anguished letters were sometimes posted to the Araki barrack door. These were always anonymous and cowardly, threatening that Kane would be publicly belted or caned if he was discovered making a cuckold of camp men. Occasionally, a drunken husband would wander into the Araki barrack to harass or intimidate Kane in person, the husband poking his finger into Kane’s chest or vomiting at the foot of his cot. But these encounters were typically followed by weeping apologies and compensations, a man’s entire family appearing before the Araki barrack to acknowledge the failures of the husband, and entreating Kane to return to his services.

In a recreation barrack, in the southeast corner of Butte Camp, a men’s movement aimed at countering Kane Araki’s lullabies was shepherded by the Reverend Jun Miyoshi. Reverend Miyoshi was a short, proud man with a teenaged wife and a daughter who was becoming a camp toddler. Miyoshi was a gifted speaker, scholar and a writer. He and his wife, Viola, were both trained pianists. He purchased space within the Gila News-Courier and self-published several of his sermons in order to improve upon the virtues of the internees in surrounding barracks. Miyoshi held strong opinions about parenting and believed children required self-control and discipline above all other qualities.

“Your babies simply want their father’s attention,” Miyoshi said to a gathering of Butte men in their recreation barracks. “Wailing is their only leverage. It is their sole method for communicating that desire. So when you hear them cry, you must turn your backs to them until they stop. Do not look them in the eyes. Turn on your radio or hum to yourself. Or leave the room. In this way they will learn sour behaviors bring them nothing. Give them your attention only when you want.”

In regard to anxieties circulating around Kane Araki, Miyoshi advised that new fathers in Gila form a collective where they could write, rehearse and trade from their own archive of lullabies. A string of articles penned by Reverend Miyoshi began to appear in the Courier on the theory of lullabies. A selection from his first treatise read:

Lullabies should be succinct, repetitive and plain in their message. There should be animals in lullabies. Those animals should have jobs. The animals should be diligent workers, either producing milk or plowing a field of potatoes or disposing of tin cans and table scraps. They should be creatures of faith. They should respect their animal-fathers, mothers, gods and forests. Their forest should be kept tidy. Lullabies should reaffirm the power of God and the security of the family. Lullabies should motivate the child to be clean, kind, polite, well-spoken and respectful of their elders.

Miyoshi held a series of lullaby-writing workshops in recreation barracks throughout Canal and Butte Camp. At first he said he would not charge, but in later sessions he passed the church’s collection plate. At first these workshops were spirited and well-attended. To fathers, Miyoshi promised the weight of more dimes and nickels in their pockets and the satisfaction of greater authority in their homes. He promised the lips of their wives and children would soon forget the name of Kane Araki.

But within a month, new fathers lost their enthusiasm. Miyoshi not only ran his workshops like a grade-school classroom, but he had the tendency to evangelize with his instruction. He openly criticized fathers he had not seen in attendance of his Sunday service. He condescended to those who did not pick up on his biblical references. When he wasn’t attempting to convert Buddhist fathers, he was separating them from Methodist fathers and tasking them with cleaning the barrack where they gathered.

Few fathers had experience with songwriting or performance. Rather than encourage fathers to devise original melodies, Miyoshi suggested taking popular hymns and inserting personal lyrics. Rather than consider their own lullaby narratives, Miyoshi encouraged fathers use lambs and angels as characters and to think of plots where children received severe punishments for stealing or fibbing.

“Perhaps there is a child who likes stealing blackberries from his neighbor’s yard,” Miyoshi would say, “and then he trips and falls into the brambles and gets his eyes gouged.”

“Perhaps you sing of a child who lies to an angel about saying his nightly prayers,” Miyoshi would say, “and the angel responds by stealing the child’s tongue. Or perhaps the angel poaches their remaining baby teeth!”

Most deflating of all, the collective archive of amateur lullabies did little to soothe the infants and toddlers of Gila River. Kane’s back catalogue sustained some families for a period, but when his visits lessened, spells of hot weather sucked the calm like moisture from all the mouths of babes. Grief blubbered out into the Gila nights. Grief echoed through alleyways between barracks. Mothers again began to lose their hair and their nerve. Whatever hair disappeared from their heads sprouted from peculiar crevices in their bodies. The tiny trumpets of their ears. The creases of their palms. Whatever object was nearest, chewing tobacco, a candy bar, candles, Dixie Peach pomade, mouthwash, was hurled toward a husband’s head along with the edict to visit the barrack of Kashi Araki and arrange for Kane’s visits to resume. In due course, Kane was called upon to replace the reverend at the lullaby-writing workshops, and he accepted, despite the notion that any teaching success would run counter to his business. Kane charged a nickel to be paid at the completion of a husband’s first lullaby. Even Miyoshi attended as a participant.

“I have only one rule for what I show you,” Kane said. “Before giving your lullaby to your child, you first should offer it to your wife. Or deliver a single verse to your eldest child and watch how they fare under its sway. Lullabies can be powerful medicine.”

“The secret to my lullabies,” Kane said, “is I extend to my audience a melody so simple, so repeatable, they can carry it with them into their dreams. This way, even after you have set your children down in their cribs, or beside you in your beds, the lullaby sustains itself in their ear, in the ear of their dream even, and it soothes them.”

And then he sang, “Baby go down in the desert, o baby go down in the desert. Baby go down in the desert. Baby follow desert to their dream to their ocean.”

“Do you know the origin of the first lullaby?” Kane asked. “It was contained in the mind of a stone dreaming of the river moving overhead.”

And then Kane sang, “Poor as you are my heart, o poor as you are my heart. Poor as you are my heart don’t grieve here on earth. Don’t grieve here on earth. Too much love. Too much joy. Don’t grieve here on earth.”

For the husbands who claimed they possessed minds wholly uncreative, wholly unmusical, wholly incapable of constructing original melodies, Kane instructed them to walk in circles around the Butte Camp baseball diamond and hum to themselves until boredom struck them.

“Boredom is your ally,” Kane said. “Hum a song you enjoy. Hum a song you know in your bones. Hum until the boredom changes the flavor of the melody in your mouth. Hum while it contorts itself, teaches itself new tricks to excite you. Keep humming. After an evening or two you will be humming a thing that is entirely new. When it happens, hold your child in your mind. As the new melody develops, imagine your child sleeping heavily. Imagine your mouth is a loom and you are wrapping them like a cocoon in your yarn. Imagine their child-mouth is a mirror to your mouth. A baby imitates every song that passes from your lips. Place your melody on the lips of the baby in your imagination.”

“The lyrical content is of little consequence,” Kane said. “You can sing about a donkey or a grandmother who lost her shoe. But if you have placed yourself and your daughter or son in the lullaby at the moment of its inception, if the lullaby grew flesh and sense and feeling in response to your imaginings, the real work is complete.”

The troubles began almost immediately after Gila husbands completed and performed their first lullabies. In his eagerness to measure his first composition, Eddie Honda sang for an hour while rocking his daughter and tranquilized the baby for a period of three days. After the first evening, Jean Honda flew at him in a panic and nearly beat him senseless with a hairbrush.

“The baby snores but she will not eat!” she exclaimed. “She will not open her eyes. What have you done?!”

In any attempt to refine the potency of his first lullaby, Kingo Furukawa sang to himself for two hours and lulled himself unconscious in the center of the Butte baseball diamond. Because he had been walking at midday, Furukawa sustained severe sunburns and had to be rubbed down in the medical barracks with lidocaine and antibiotic ointments.

Harry Masatani, Henri Shimomi and Jerry Kashiwagi all attempted to conceive of lullabies that would produce mild amnesia in their new Gila babies so they might forget how to cry. But what occurred instead was the three new fathers appeared to lose a cerebral constellation of words and concepts. What were their babies’ names again? What was the purpose of a nipple? Why were fathers also endowed with smaller, ineffective nipples? What was the folding pattern for a diaper? Was a diaper for a baby? Or did it serve some other purpose? Was it a sort of hat?

Uproar was arising from every faction. Mothers complained of strange maladies subduing their babies. Masako Kunishige claimed that at the sound of her husband’s lullaby, her son’s posture sometimes froze, spread-eagled, as though he was snagged by an invisible spider’s web. Joyce Ota claimed her husband’s lullaby had caused her daughter’s cries to drop so far in pitch her babbling voice resembled that of her grandfather’s.

Terue Yoshihara, the block manager who oversaw the Araki clan, paid multiple visits to Kashi Araki to complain that Gila fathers were running amok with lullaby magic passed on through her son. Yoshihara threatened the Arakis with expulsion from their barrack in central Canal Camp to a barrack on the southeastern fringe.

“And the ticks, scorpions and rattlesnakes are abundant there,” Yoshihara said. “Let us see how Kane manages to soothe them with his lullabies.”

Reverend Jun Miyoshi continued to be Kane’s fiercest critic. He paced the center of the Methodist Church, slapping the wooden pews and working his parishioners into a frenzy.

“This was Kane’s plan all along!” Miyoshi exclaimed. “I should have known he was teaching us a dark magic. And now it has infiltrated our homes! It has infected our children! He has your children possessed!”

In response to the hysteria, Kane announced he wanted to hold one final workshop. He stated that all the parents who had witnessed extreme phenomena as the result of a lullaby should attend since he would be presenting them with every lullaby remedy he knew. He would stay as long as there were questions or concerns. Kashi promised a full spread of nuts, dried fruit and beverages. The workshop was also free of charge. Word spread quickly and Kashi even took out a column inch in the Courier to publicize its time and whereabouts.

On the day of Kane’s final workshop, over a hundred fathers from Canal and Butte were in attendance. Jun Miyoshi was there along with Terue Yoshihara, Eddie Honda, the blistered Kingo Furukawa. The Masatani, Shimomi and Kashiwagi families. The Otas and the Kunishiges. Husbands piled into the recreation barracks from the back and took seats near a makeshift stage where Kane sat with his guitar.

“I will give the boy five minutes,” Kingo Furukawa said. “After that his hide will be made an example for all camp troublemakers.”

“All the Arakis should be made to pay,” Eddie Honda said. “They let a devil walk among us!”

“Come closer,” Kane said to the crowd that had gathered. “Can everyone hear me? If you cannot hear me, you will need to move closer.”

Men packed in so tightly that a listener could feel the heat and smell the breath of his neighbor beside him.

And then Kane said, “The first remedy is the song for fathers.”

And then Kane sang, “A goodnight to fathers. A thousand fathers beneath the wild water. A thousand hands grip the January milkweed. A thousand fleas devour the oxblood. Our beans grow fat upon the storm. A goodnight to fathers. A thousand fathers. A star grows its beard of fire.”

Kane’s pronunciation of the word “storm” struck many as peculiar. The word seemed to shake in his teeth and reverberate. Many fathers looked up into the rafters of the recreation barrack or ran their knuckles down their cheeks. Though they understood the impossibility, it’d felt to many like drops of icy water had struck the sides of their faces. At the end of the word “storm,” the fathers of Gila River closed their eyes in unison. It was as if clouds overhead were filling their heads with water, and growing unmanageably heavy, those heads had to be rested upon the dusty barrack floorboards. And by the time the “fire” passed through Kane’s throat, all the grown men in attendance had slumped against one another or upon the ground and fallen into a dreamless asleep.

During those hours the men slept, Kane and the Gila mothers and grandmothers gathered every guitar and ukulele from every barrack in camp, including Kane’s and smashed them upon the rock-hard earth. The shattered wood was gathered into a mountain at the center of Butte Camp, splashed with gasoline, and set ablaze.

And then in the light of the fire, Kane said to the Gila mothers and grandmothers,

“Your husbands will awaken soon. When they do, they will be unable speak. They will remember their lives clearly. They will dress and eat and work and love their families unperturbed. But the part of them that builds words is stunned. You can sing to your husbands, and they will be able to repeat what you sing. If you speak to them, they may repeat what you say. But moments later, all their words will elude them. Their words will seem to them like memories just out of reach.”

And then Kane said, “When the war is finished and we can leave camp, this spell will fade. But while we live here in Gila, these men will wield no more power through their voices or songs. It was wrong of me to try and teach them.”

“But what of my husband?” Viola Miyoshi asked of Reverend Jun. “Without his voice, he won’t be able to write or sermonize any longer. What will become of our Methodist Church?”

“It is time for a mother or a grandmother to be our reverend,” Kane said. “When God sees fit, your husband’s language will be restored. In the meantime, read to Reverend Jun from his journals and articles. Read him his work so that he will be comforted. Sing to him from his hymnal so that he will be fulfilled.”

It was said that even in the decade after the war, Reverend Miyoshi did not regain fluent use of his tongue. It was not until his sixties that he was able to return to his ministry. But in the years between 1942 and 1945, the language of Jun’s daughter, Rina Miyoshi, swelled like an unmapped ocean. There were dozens of utterances that Rina used to ask for bread or cereal. Dozens more for cheese or milk or salt or rice porridge. For apple or for melon or a finger dipped in molasses. For a globe of fried mochi glazed in butter, shoyu and sugar. Rina found a thousand words that meant she was cold or hungry or upset or delighted. In the Miyoshi family barrack, Reverend Jun could be observed for hours sitting upon the floor with his daughter, echoing, reclaiming language. And then moments later, only the ghost-heat of any word remained in his mouth. Only the most recent posture of his tongue.

It was through Rina that Jun realized the ocean of human language began as something vast and rapidly evolving. And later it would be supplanted by a second ocean, an ocean that was narrow and static by comparison. Every utterance he repeated back to her. If he could have communicated to his wife to record them somehow, he would have. If Rina’s primordial language could’ve been rendered to paper, as music or as text, he would have tried.

He repeated the dozens of baby words that meant love, but were all a slightly different version of love. They were versions of love that were made a little bit new. Some of these versions he sang to her. Just moments after he sang them, he could not recall their pronunciations. For years, this was the condition of Jun’s voice. It was as if he could see a phrase drawn into a shoreline, and then moments later, a surge of white water dragged its impression away.

He tried to keep the feeling of the words in his cheeks, his throat, his lungs, his blood, his marrow, for he knew of no other place he might later recover them. All the excited versions of love, daughter and father spoke together those years in their small, hot barrack. He planted them in his skin and in his hair. He attempted to bend one behind his ear. This one tucked into his arm. This one clutched in the wax paper of his sandwich. This one beneath the paperweight on his desk.

“Where can I keep this one?” he thought to himself. “Is there a place in this barrack to save this one? Where will this one survive?”

By 1945, Jun understood that daily, Rina was shedding her language. And there would be a morning his daughter would say the English or Japanese word and then everything, a forgotten ocean of language, would be lost. He tried without success to keep the dozens her words that stood for different iterations of joy, wonder, spirit, love. All the pronunciations that his daughter would leave behind along her way.

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