“It’s great to be here, Ben. So, how’s the family?”
“Just fine, just fine. Hey, our boy’s ship is helping to guard the Western Pacific. He’s on a minesweeper – big one, the USS Penguin.” The proud father put down his glass and clasped his hands over his stomach complacently. “They say the Japs are mobilising, so everyone’s getting ready.”
His friend and former shipmate smiled. “That’s just what we need – men of his calibre, standing up for the good old US of A.”
“Isn’t it a pity the Abraham Lincoln is no longer in commission,” said Kate. “Wouldn’t it have been nice for Kim to have sailed in her.”
Ben looked at his friend and rolled his eyes. “She means Sam,” he said. “Kate always calls him Kim.”
“It’s just that it’s closer to his real name – he likes being called that.”
“Nonsense. You know, Jack, she and Suzie used to spoil him. It’s amazing he turned out as well as he did.” He turned to his wife, “Where is she, by the way?”
“Not feeling too well. She went to lie down. She’s feeling her age.”
“I always forget. She never looks any different, I guess she must be well over seventy.”
“Yes, remember when we first knew her? She seemed so much older and wiser.”
The two men sat watching a Californian winter sunset while Kate laid the table for dinner. She put the wireless on in the kitchen and was singing along until a news flash came.
She almost ran out to the men, and, incoherent with shock, relayed the news.
“Pearl Harbour! But that’s over four thousand miles from Japan – why start there for God’s sake?”
“Pacific Fleet. It’s a big base. Easy target,” said Jack.
“Ben, it’s real serious. Turn on the wireless.”
Thousands of men killed; hundreds of planes destroyed; dozens of ships sunk or damaged – it was appalling, and all-but-totally unexpected.
“It’ll be war, you see,” Ben and Jack agreed. Kate shuddered.
“Let’s not talk about it over dinner, it might upset her,” she said, “I’ll just go call her to table.”
The old lady stood on the threshold, shyly, seeing the visitor.
“Hey, Suzie! Come in, meet Jack – my old buddy from the Abe Lincoln, don’t you remember?”
She didn’t, of course, though she smiled and nodded. He lived on the East Coast. It had been years since his last visit.
“Good to see you again Miss Suzie,” he said, helping to push her chair in. “How have you been?”
“Very well, sir,” she said. “A little stiff perhaps. And you, sir?”
“Call me Jack, Miss Suzie – we’re old friends. I’m OK, just a little down at the moment. Ben and Kate have been so kind.”
She looked inquiringly at him, and he said, “My wife. She passed recently.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr Jack. So sorry,” and she touched his hand gently. He blinked and smiled at her.
“Thanks, Miss Suzie. It’s okay. I’m getting used to it.”
“It takes a long time. A long time… I will pray for you.”
He smiled again, “That’s very kind.”
What could have been an uncomfortable moment passed into friendly, quiet conversation. Kate watched Suzie. She never showed emotion, never. That little comment, almost unnoticed, meant something. A long time, she said. So long ago – forty years. Kate hadn’t forgotten either. And Ben? It was a tacitly taboo subject so she didn’t really know.
“Kate, that was just wonderful!”
“Why thank you, Jack. I’m glad you liked it. I confess, I practised it last week just to be sure it would come out all right.”
“Well, it surely did. Betty was a good cook, too. I miss that – I ought to learn.”
“You should, Jack. It’s fun, and it’s creative – and you get to eat it afterwards.”
Ben said, “Julie’s a good cook, too. She has to be with all those kids.”
“Are those photos of them?” Jack pointed to all the little frames on a small table nearby.
“That’s right, the grandchildren. All five of them. Someone should tell Julie to stop.”
Jack pointed to a large portrait standing on its own. “That must be Sam. Is he married yet?”
“That’s him. No, he says he’s never had the time, or never found the right girl. I don’t know. He’s getting on now – it might be too late.”
“Oh Ben, it’s never too late. He’s only forty-two. Maybe he’ll find a nice girl out there.”
“I’d like to see him try. He’s not like his father.” This was a little tactless in the circumstances, but Ben had had several whiskey sours before dinner. Kate avoided catching Suzie’s eye, and Jack, noticing the embarrassed silence, filled it with another question about the grandchildren and the moment passed.
“Shall we listen to the news? See what’s happening?” said Jack, later.
“Oh, God, yes. It’s been such a great evening, I almost forgot… switch it on, honey.”
Suzie’s silent presence was forgotten as they listened to the horrifying tale of disaster in the Pacific. They had lit only one table lamp, so she was able to slip out of the room, unnoticed and went to her room to pray.
She opened the cupboard and took from it the little shrine, so carefully preserved, that she had brought with her so many years ago. She lit the little lamp in front of the deity and bowed before it, chanting softly.
Then she rose and, going to the cupboard again, lifted out the box, also long-preserved and kept for the boy. She opened it and checked its contents. A fragile silk kimono, a little stained, wrapped in silver tissue paper; pressed flower petals in a little bowl; some small coins; a photograph of a girl; and a Tanto, with its ivory handle and sharp blade. Placing it before the shrine, she knelt and bowed again before restoring it to the cupboard.
When Kate came to see if she was all right, Suzie was sitting quietly with hands folded in her lap, patient as ever, meditating.
“Are you going to bed, Suzie? … That’s all right, don’t worry. Good night, sleep well,” she said, withdrawing and closing the door again.
“She’s gone to bed,” she reported, returning to the two men. “Does anyone want to play cards – or should we keep listening for news?”
The following morning, the men went out to play golf, while the women prepared lunch and performed other domestic tasks. Kate put the wireless on and sat listening. The attack on Pearl Harbour had apparently crowded out the news of other Japanese attacks on the Philippines and Guam. These were now being reported though not in detail. Guam…
Suzie glided in with raised eyebrows, “Miss Kate?”
“Suzie, where is Kim’s ship based? It is Guam, isn’t it?”
Kate was white, “They’ve attacked Guam, too.”
Suzie cried out then and bent over in embarrassment to contain her outburst.
The men returned a little subdued, having heard the news at the golf club, and lunch was a quiet meal. They clung to the wireless all day, waiting for news. Jack took Kate aside and said, “I ought to leave you, Kate – you’ll want to be alone, just family.”
“Oh, no Jack, please stay. We’re sharing your loss – if we… if anything happens to Kim… please stay.”
“All right, if you’re sure. Try to keep calm, Kate.”
“Having you here, will help – really it will.”
“Where’s Suzie?” he asked. “I’m a little concerned about her – she looked kind of desperate at lunch.”
“You’re very observant. It’s very difficult to tell. She doesn’t show her feelings at all.”
“She’s close to your son?”
“Very. Like a second mother … I’m a poor third.”
“Oh, no. He wouldn’t be what he is without you and Ben.”
“But Suzie most of all. I think he feels very torn – it’ll be terrible for him now. Fighting his own people.”
“He’s also fighting for his own people, don’t forget.”
“That’s what I mean. Torn.”
Jack’s concern reminded Kate that she hadn’t seen Suzie for a while. She knocked on Suzie’s door, “Suzie? Are you okay?”
The door opened, and the small, calm figure stood there, quite contained. “I am all right, Miss Kate. Did you want me?”
“We’re all so worried about Kim – I wanted to be sure you weren’t worrying all on your own.”
The old lady smiled diffidently. “Thank you, you are very kind. I will stay in my room, if you please.”
When the news came, a few days later, that his ship had been hit and he was missing, it was Kate who wept. Wept for him bitterly; wept for her forty years as a poor third in a young man’s life; wept for Suzie; but, somehow, not for Ben.
The forty-year old tragedy had come full circle. For the second time confronted with something he had no resources to deal with, Ben was stunned. Jack comforted him and Kate as best he could. Suzie kept to her room.
Jack and Kate prepared the meals together, speaking only when necessary. Ben ate his in silence. Suzie ate in her darkened room, lit only by the light of the little lamp in front of the shrine.
Kim’s body would not be coming home. Lost at sea.
Jack stayed for the memorial service at the local church. It was attended by all their neighbours and a lot of friends, some of whom came back to the house for the funeral wake. Suzie hadn’t wanted to come. She stayed behind and instead spent the morning praying and meditating. She also made other preparations.
On the return of the mourners, Suzie was quietly in evidence in the background, and when they all left, she quietly melted away, leaving Kate, Ben and Jack sitting looking out at a wintry sky, talking desultorily.
When it grew quite dark, they lit lamps, drew the drapes and, because the US was now at war, listened to the wireless. There never was much sound from Suzie’s room, but Kate listening for the faint sound of soft chanting could hear nothing. She stood up abruptly, just a little concerned.
She knocked. There was no answer – perhaps she was asleep. She turned the handle and opened the door. The lamp was still alight in front of the shrine. The little deity stared out over a small pile of coins and a photograph. Suzie lay on the bed, dressed in the stained kimono, covered in old dried flower petals. On her breast, the point of its blade pointing towards her face, the Tanto.
Ben looked up as Kate ran into the room.
“What is it, hon?”
“Suzuki… it’s Suzuki…”
The two men stared down at the body, the flickering flame of the lamp giving it a life-like colour and movement.
“Heart attack? What’s that she’s wearing?” whispered Jack.
Ben sank to his knees, his face in his hands. “… Butterfly’s wedding dress. It’s the kimono...” He was weeping now, “…and the flowers ... And the … oh my God … it was her father’s ... Butterfly killed herself with it – I didn’t know Suzie still had it.”
“Suzuki. We’ll use her proper name, now, shall we? Let’s pray for her.”
Kate entered, holding the framed portrait of Kanashimi – Sorrow – Captain Sam K. Pinkerton, late of the American Navy. She knelt and placed it next to that of his mother, Madame Butterfly, Cho-Cho San, in front of the shrine. Then she joined her husband and his friend in a prayer of their own faith, but not speaking it out loud – the oddly powerful little deity before them kept them silent.