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Seventeen Syllables — Hisaye Yamamoto

This is the title story from Hisaye Yamamoto‘s book. Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories (1988); it was first published in Partisan Review in 1949. This story, based on Yamamoto’s own mother’s experience, treats two themes that recur in her writing: the restricted lives of first-generation Japanese immigrant women and the conflicts of language and culture in their relationships with their American-born Nisei (second-generation) children.

Book “Seventeen Syllables” by Hisaye Yamamoto

The first Rosie knew that her mother had taken to writing poems was one evening when she finished one and read it aloud for her daughter’s approval. It was about cats, and Rosie pretended to understand it thoroughly and appreciate it no end, partly because she hesitated to disillusion her mother about the quantity and quality of Japanese she had learned in all the years now that she had been going to Japanese school every Saturday (and Wednesday, too, in the summer). Even so, her mother must have been skeptical about the depth of Rosie’s understanding, because she explained afterwards about the kind of poem she was trying to write.

See, Rosie, she said, it was a haiku, a poem in which she must pack all her meaning into seventeen syllables only which were divided into three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. In the one she had just read, she had tried to capture the charm of a kitten, as well as comment on the superstition that owning a cat of three colors meant good luck.

“Yes, yes, I understand. How utterly lovely,” Rosie said, and her mother, either satisfied or seeing through the deception and resigned, went back to composing.

The truth was that Rosie was lazy; English lay ready on the tongue but Japanese had to be searched for and examined, and even then put forth tentatively (probably to meet with laughter). It was so much easier to say yes, yes, even when one meant no, no. Besides, this was what was in her mind to say: I was looking through one of your magazines from Japan last night, Mother, and towards the back I found some haiku in English that delighted me. There was one that made me giggle off and on until I fell asleep —

It is morning, and lo!
I lie away, comme il faut,
sighing for some dough.

Now, how to reach her mother, how to communicate the melancholy song? Rosie knew formal Japanese by fits and starts, her mother had even less English, no French. It was much more possible to say yes, yes.

It developed that her mother was writing the haiku for a daily newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun, that was published in San Francisco. Los Angeles, to be sure, was closer to the farming community in which the Hayashi family lived and several Japanese vernaculars were printed there, but Rosie’s parents said they preferred the tone of the norther paper. Once a week, the Mainichi would have a section devoted to haiku, and her mother became an extravagant contributor, taking for herself the blossoming pen name, Ume Hanazono.

So Rosie and her father lived for awhile with two women, her mother and Ume Hanazono. Her mother (Tome Hayashi by name) kept house, cooked, washed, and, along with her husband and the Carrascos, the Mexican family hired for the harvest, did her ample share of picking tomatoes out in the sweltering fields and boxing them in tidy strata in the cool packing shed. Ume Hanazono, who came to life after the dinner dishes were done, was an earnest, muttering stranger who often neglected speaking when spoken to and stayed busy at the parlor table as late as midnight scribbling with pencil on scratch paper or carefully copying characters on good paper with her fat, pale green Parker.

The new interest had some repercussions on the household routine. Before, Rosie had been accustomed to her parents and herself taking their hot baths early and going to bed almost immedi ately afterwards, unless her parents challenged each other to a game of flower cards or unless company dropped in. Now if her father wanted to play cards, he had to resort to solitaire (at which he always cheated fearlessly), and if a group of friends came over, it was bound to contain someone who was also writing haiku, and the small assemblage would be split in two, her father entertaining the non-literary members and her mother comparing ecstatic notes with the visiting poet.

If they went out, it was more of the same thing. But Ume Hanazono’s life span, even for a poet’s, was very brief–perhaps three months at most.

One night they went over to see the Hayano family in the neighboring town to the west, an adventure both painful and attractive to Rosie. It was attractive because there were four Hayano girls, all lovely and each one named after a season of the year (Haru, Natsu, Aki, Fuyu), painful because something had been wrong with Mrs.

Hayano ever since the birth of her first child. Rosie would sometimes watch Mrs. Hayano, reputed to have been the belle of her native village, making her way about a room, stooped, slowly shuffling, violently trembling (always trembling), and she would be reminded that this woman, in this same condition, had carried and given issue to three babies. She would look wonderingly at Mr. Hayano, handsome, tall, and strong, and she would look at her four pretty friends. But it was not a matter she could come to any decision about.

On this visit, however, Mrs. Hayano sat all evening in the rocker, as motionless and unobtrusive as it was possible for her to be, and Rosie found the greater part of the evening practically anaesthetic. Too, Rosie spent most of it in the girls’ room, because Haru, the garrulous one, said almost as soon as the bows and other greetings were over, “Oh, you must see my new coat!”

It was a pale plaid of grey, sand, and blue, with an enormous collar, and Rosie, seeing nothing special in it, said, “Gee, how nice.”

“Nice?” said Haru, indignantly. “Is that all you can say about it? It’s gorgeous! And so cheap, too. Only seventeen-ninety-eight, because it was a sale. The saleslady said it was twenty-five dollars regular.”

“Gee,” said Rosie. Natsu, who never said much and when she said anything said it shyly, Angered the coat covetously and Har pulled it away.

“Mine,” she said, putting it on. She minced in the aisle between the two large beds and smiled happily. “Let’s see how your mother likes it.”

She broke into the front room and the adult conversation and went to stand in front of Rosie’s mother, while the rest watched from the door. Rosie’s mother was properly envious. “May I inherit it when you’re through with it?”

Haru, pleased, giggled and said yes, she could, but Natsu reminded gravely from the door, “You promised me, Haru.”

Everyone laughed but Natsu, who shamefacedly retreated into the bedroom. Haru came in laughing, taking off the coat. “We were only kidding, Natsu,” she said. “Here, you try it on now.”

After Natsu buttoned herself into the coat, inspected herself solemnly in the bureau mirror, and reluctantly shed it, Rosie, Aki, and Fuyu got their turns, and Fuyu, who was eight, drowned in it while her sisters and Rosie doubled up in amusement. They all went into the front room later, because Haru’s mother quaveringly called to her to fix the tea and rice cakes and open a can of sliced peaches for everybody. Rosie noticed that her mother and Mr. Hayano were talking together at the little table -they were discussing a haiku that Mr. Hayano was planning to send to the Mainichi, while her father was sitting at one end of the sofa looking through a copy of Life, the new picture magazine. Occasionally, her father would comment on a photograph, holding it toward Mrs. Hayano and speaking to her as he always did–loudly, as though he thought someone such as she must surely be at least a trifle deaf also.

The five girls had their refreshments at the kitchen table, and it was while Rosie was showing the sisters her trick of swallowing peach slices without chewing (she chased each slippery crescent down with a swig of tea that her father brought his empty teacup and untouched saucer to the sink and said, “Come on, Rosie, we’re going home now.

“Already?” asked Rosie.

‘Work tomorrow,” he said.

He sounded irritated, and Rosie, puzzled, gulped one last yel-w slice and stood up to go, while the sisters began protesting, as as their wont.

We have to get up at five-thirty,” he told them, going into the ont room quickly, so that they did not have their usual chance to ang onto his hands and plead for an extension of time.

Rosie, following, saw that her mother and Mr. Hayano were sipping tea and still talking together, while Mrs. Hayano concentrated, quivering, on raising the handleless Japanese cup to her lips with both her hands and lowering it back to her lap. Her father, saying nothing, went out the door, onto the bright porch, and down the steps. Her mother looked up and asked, “Where is he going?”

“Where is he going?” Rosie said. “He said we were going home now.”

“Going home?” Her mother looked with embarrassment at Mr. Hayano and his absorbed wife and then forced a smile. “He must be tired,” she said.

Haru was not giving up yet. “May Rosie stay overnight?” she asked, and Natsu, Aki, and Fuyu came to reinforce their sister’s plea by helping her make a circle around Rosie’s mother. Rosie, for once having no desire to stay, was relieved when her mother, apologizing to the perturbed Mr. and Mrs. Hayano for her father’s abruptness at the same time, managed to shake her head no at the quartet, kindly but adamant, so that they broke their circle and let her go.

Rosie’s father looked ahead into the windshield as the two joined him. “I’m sorry,” her mother said. “You must be tired.” Her father, stepping on the starter, said nothing. “You know how I get when it’s haiku,” she continued, “I forget what time it is.” He only grunted.

As they rode homeward silently, Rosie, sitting between, felt a rush of hate for both-for her mother for begging, for her father for denying her mother. I wish this old Ford would crash, right now, she thought, then immediately, no, no, I wish my father would laugh, but it was too late: already the vision had passed through her mind of the green pick-up crumpled in the dark against one of the mighty eucalyptus trees they were just riding past, of the three contorted, bleeding bodies, one of them hers.

Rosie ran between two patches of tomatoes, her heart working more rambunctiously than she had ever known it to. How lucky it was that Aunt Taka and Uncle Gimpachi had come tonight, though, how very lucky. Otherwise she might not have really kept her half-promise to meet Jesus Carrasco. Jesus was going to be a senior in September at the same school she went to, and his parents were the ones helping with the tomatoes this year. She and Jesus, who hardly remembered seeing each other at Cleveland High where there were so many other people and two whole grades between them, had become great friends this summer — he always had a joke for her when he periodically drove the loaded pick-up up from the fields to the shed where she was usually sorting while her mother and father did the packing, and they laughed a great deal together over infinitesimal repartee during the afternoon break for chilled watermelon or ice cream in the shade of the shed.

What she enjoyed most was racing him to see which could fish picking a double row first. He, who could work faster, would tease her by slowing down until she thought she would surely him this time, then speeding up furiously to leave her seven sprawling vines behind. Once he had made her screech hideously crossing over, while her back was turned, to place atop the tomato in her green-stained bucket a truly monstrous, pale green worm had looked more like an infant snake). And it was when they have finished a contest this morning, after she had pantingly pointed green finger at the immature tomatoes evident in the lugs at the end of his row and he had returned the accusation (with justice), that I had startlingly brought up the matter of their possibly meeting our side the range of both their parents’ dubious eyes.

“What for?” she had asked.

“I’ve got a secret I want to tell you,” he said.

“Tell me now,” she demanded.

“It won’t be ready till tonight,” he said.

She laughed. “Tell me tomorrow then.”

“It’ll be gone tomorrow,” he threatened.

“Well, for seven hakes, what is it?” she had asked, more than twice, and when he had suggested that the packing shed would be an appropriate place to find out, she had cautiously answered maybe. She had not been certain she was going to keep the appointment until the arrival of mother’s sister and her husband. Their coming seemed a sort of signal of permission, of grace, and she had definitely made up her mind to lie and leave as she was bowing them welcome.

So as soon as everyone appeared settled back for the evening, she announced loudly that she was going to the privy outside, “I’m going to the benjo!” and slipped out the door. And now that she was actually on her way, her heart pumped in such an undisciplined way that she could hear it with her ears. It’s because I’m running, she told herself, slowing to a walk. The shed was up ahead, one more patch away, in the middle of the fields. Its bulk, looming in the dimness, took on a sinisterness that was funny when Rosie reminded herself that it was only a wooden frame with a canvas roof and three canvas walls that made a slapping noise on breezy days.

Jesus was sitting on the narrow plank that was the sorting platform and she went around to the other side and jumped backwards to seat herself on the rim of a packing stand. “Well, tell me,” she said without greeting, thinking her voice sounded reassuringly familiar.

“I saw you coming out the door,” Jesus said. “I heard you running part of the way, too.”

“Uh-huh,” Rosie said. “Now tell me the secret.”

“I was afraid you wouldn’t come.” he said.

Rosie delved around on the chicken-wire bottom of the stall for number two tomatoes, ripe, which she was sitting beside, and came up with a left-over that felt edible. She bit into it and began sucking out the pulp and seeds. “I’m here,” she pointed out.

“Rosie, are you sorry you came?”

“Sorry? What for?” she said. “You said you were going to tell me something.

“I will, I will,” Jesus said, but his voice contained disappointment, and Rosie fleetingly felt the older of the two, realizing a brand-new power which vanished without category under her recognition.

“I have to go back in a minute,” she said. “My aunt and uncle are here from Wintersburg. I told them I was going to the privy.” Jesus laughed. “You funny thing,” he said. “You slay me!”

“Just because you have a bathroom inside,” Rosie said. “Come on, tell me.”

Chuckling, Jesus came around to lean on the stand facing her. They still could not see each other very clearly, but Rosie noticed that Jesus became very sober again as he took the hollow tomato from her hand and dropped it back into the stall. When he took hold of her empty hand, she could find no words to protest; her vocabulary had become distressingly constricted and she thought desperately that all that remained intact now was yes and no and oh, ant even these few sounds would not easily come out. Thus, kissed by Jesus, Rosie fell for the first time entirely victim to a helplessness delectable beyond speech. But the terrible, beautiful sensation lasted no more than a second, and the reality of Jesus’ lips and tongue and teeth and hands made her pull away with such strength that she nearly tumbled.

Rosie stopped running as she approached the lights from the windows of home. How long since she had left? She could not guess, but gasping yet, she went to the privy in back and locked herself in. Her own breathing deafened her in the dark, close space, and she sat and waited until she could hear at last the nightly calling of the frogs and crickets. Even then, all she could think to say was oh, my, and the pressure of Jesus’ face against her face would not leave.

No one had missed her in the parlor, however, and Rosie walked in and through quickly, announcing that she was next going to take a bath. “Your father’s in the bathhouse,” her mother said, and Rosie, in her room, recalled that she had not seen him when she entered. There had been only Aunt Taka and Uncle Gimpachi with her mother at the table, drinking tea. She got her robe and straw sandals and crossed the parlor again to go outside. Her mother was telling them about the haiku competition in the Mainichi and the poem she had entered.

Rosie met her father coming out of the bathhouse. “Are you through, Father?” she asked. “I was going to ask you to scrub my back.”

“Scrub your own back,” he said shortly, going toward the main house.

“What have I done now?” she yelled after him. She suddenly felt like doing a lot of yelling. But he did not answer, and she went into the bathhouse. Turning on the dangling light, she removed her denims and T-shirt and threw them in the big carton for dirty clothes standing next to the washing machine. Her other things she took with her into the bath compartment to wash after her bath. After she had scooped a basin of hot water from the square wooden tub, she sat on the grey cement of the floor and soaped herself at exaggerated leisure, singing “Red Sails in the Sunset” at the top of her voice and using da-da-da where she suspected her words. Then, standing up, still singing, for she was possessed by the notion that any attempt now to analyze would result in spoilage and she believed that the larger her volume the less she would be able to hear herself think, she obtained more hot water and poured it on until she was free of lather. Only then did she allow herself to step into the steaming vat, one leg first, then the remainder of her body inch by inch until the water no longer stung and she could move around at will.

She took a long time soaking, afterwards remembering to g around outside to stoke the embers of the tin-lined fireplace beneath the tub and to throw on a few more sticks so that the water might keep its heat for her mother, and when she finally returned to to the parlor, she found her mother still talking haiku with her aunt ant uncle, the three of them on another round of tea. Her father was nowhere in sight.

At Japanese school the next day (Wednesday, it was), Rosie was grave and giddy by turns. Preoccupied at her desk in the row for students on Book Eight, she made up for it at recess by performing wild mimicry for the benefit of her friend Chizuko. She held her nose and whined a witticism or two in what she considered was the manner of Fred Allen; she assumed intoxication and a British accent to go over the climax of the Rudy Vallee recording of the pub conversation about William Ewart Gladstone; she was the child Shirley Temple piping, “On the Good Ship Lollipop”; she was the gentleman soprano of the Four Inkspots trilling, “If I Didn’t Care.” And she felt reasonably satisfied when Chizuko wept and gasped, “Oh, Rosie, you ought to be in the movies!”

Her father came after her at noon, bringing her sandwiches of minced ham and two nectarines to eat while she rode, so that she could pitch right into the sorting when they got home. The lugs were piling up, he said, and the ripe tomatoes in them would probably have to be taken to the cannery tomorrow if they were not ready for the produce haulers tonight. “This heat’s not doing them any good. And we’ve got no time for a break today.”

It was hot, probably the hottest day of the year, and Rosie’s blouse stuck damply to her back even under the protection of the canvas. But she worked as efficiently as a flawless machine and kept the stalls heaped, with one part of her mind listening in to the parental murmuring about the heat and the tomatoes and with another part planning the exact words she would say to Jesus when he drove up with the first load of the afternoon. But when at last she saw that the pick-up was coming, her hands went berserk and the tomatoes started falling in the wrong stalls, and her father said,

“Hey, hey! Rosie, watch what you’re doing!”

“Well, I have to go to the benjo,” she said, hiding panic.

“Go in the weeds over there,” he said, only half-joking.

“Oh, Father!” she protested.

“Oh, go on home,” her mother said. “We’ll make out for In the awhile.”

In the privy Rosie peered through a knothole toward the fields, watching as much as she could of Jesus. Happily she thought she saw him look in the direction of the house from time to time before he finished unloading and went back toward the patch where his mother and father worked. As she was heading for the shed, a very presentable black car purred up the dirt driveway to the house and its driver motioned to her. Was this the Hayashi home, he wanted to know. She nodded. Was she a Hayashi? Yes, she said, thinking that he was a good-looking man. He got out of the car with a huge, flat package and she saw that he warmly wore a business suit. “I have something here for your mother then,” he said, in a more elegant Japanese than she was used to.

She told him where her mother was and he came along with her, patting his face with an immaculate white handkerchief and saying something about the coolness of San Francisco. To her surprised mother and father, he bowed and introduced himself as, among other things, the haiku editor of the Mainichi Shimbun, saying that since he had been coming as far as Los Angeles anyway, he had decided to bring her the first prize she had won in the recent contest.

“First prize?” her mother echoed, believing and not believing, pleased and overwhelmed. Handed the package with a bow, she bobbed her head up and down numerous times to express her utter gratitude.

“It is nothing much,” he added, “but I hope it will serve as a en of our great appreciation for your contributions and our great admiration of your considerable talent.”

“I am not worthy,” she said, falling easily into his style. “It is who should make some sign of my humble thanks for being permitted to contribute.”

“No, no, to the contrary,” he said, bowing again.

But Rosie’s mother insisted, and then saying that she knew she was being unorthodox, she asked if she might open the package because her curiosity was so great. Certainly she might. In fact, he would like her reaction to it, for personally, it was one of his favorite Hiroshiges.

Rosie thought it was a pleasant picture, which looked to have been sketched with delicate quickness. There were pink clouds, containing some graceful calligraphy, and a sea that was a pale blue except at the edges, containing four sampans with indications of people in them. Pines edged the water and on the far-off beach there was a cluster of thatched huts towered over by pine-dotted mountains of grey and blue. The frame was scalloped and gilt.

After Rosie’s mother pronounced it without peer and somewhat prodded her father into nodding agreement, she said Mr. Ku-roda must at least have a cup of tea after coming all this way, and although Mr. Kuroda did not want to impose, he soon agreed that a cup of tea would be refreshing and went along with her to the house, carrying the picture for her.

“Ha, your mother’s crazy!” Rosie’s father said, and Rosie laughed uneasily as she resumed judgment on the tomatoes. She had emptied six lugs when he broke into an imaginary conversation with Jesus to tell her to go and remind her mother of the tomatoes, and she went slowly.

Mr. Kuroda was in his shirtsleeves expounding some haiku theory as he munched a rice cake, and her mother was rapt. Abashed in the great man’s presence, Rosie stood next to her mother’s chair until her mother looked up inquiringly, and then she started to whisper the message, but her mother pushed her gently away and reproached, “You are not being very polite to our guest.”

“Father says the tomatoes…” Rosie said aloud, smiling foolishly.

“Tell him I shall only be a minute,” her mother said, speaking the language of Mr. Kuroda.

When Rosie carried the reply to her father, he did not seem to hear and she said again, “Mother says she’ll be back in a minute.”

“All right, all right,” he nodded, and they worked again in si-lence. But suddenly, her father uttered an incredible noise, exactly like the cork of a bottle popping, and the next Rosie knew, he was stalking angrily toward the house, almost running in fact, and she chased after him crying, “Father! Father! What are you going to do?”

He stopped long enough to order her back to the shed. “Never mind!” he shouted. “Get on with the sorting!”

And from the place in the fields where she stood, frightened and vacillating, Rosie saw her father enter the house. Soon Mr. Kuroda came out alone, putting on his coat. Mr. Kuroda got into his car and backed out down the driveway onto the highway. Next her father emerged, also alone, something in his arms (it was the picture, she realized), and, going over to the bathhouse woodpile, he threw the picture on the ground and picked up the axe. Smashing the picture, glass and all (she heard the explosion faintly), he reached over for the kerosene that was used to encourage the bath fire and poured it over the wreckage. I am dreaming, Rosie said to herself, I am dreaming, but her father, having made sure that his act of cremation was irrevocable, was even then returning to the fields.

Rosie ran past him and toward the house. What had become of her mother? She burst into the parlor and found her mother at the back window watching the dying fire. They watched together until there remained only a feeble smoke under the blazing sun. Her mother was very calm.

“Do you know why I married your father?” she said without turning.

“No,” said Rosie. It was the most frightening question she had ever been called upon to answer. Don’t tell me now, she wanted to say, tell me tomorrow, tell me next week, don’t tell me today. But she knew she would be told now, that the telling would combine with the other violence of the hot afternoon to level her life, her world to the very ground.

It was like a story out of the magazines illustrated in sepia, which she had consumed so greedily for a period until the information had somehow reached her that those wretchedly unhappy autobiographies, offered to her as the testimonials of living men and women, were largely inventions: Her mother, at nineteen, had come to America and married her father as an alternative to suicide.

At eighteen she had been in love with the first son of one of the well-to-do families in her village. The two had met whenever and wherever they could, secretly, because it would not have done for his family to see him favor her — her father had no money; he was a drunkard and a gambler besides. She had learned she was with child; an excellent match had already been arranged for her lover.

Despised by her family, she had given premature birth to a stillborn son, who would be seventeen now. Her family did not turn her out, but she could no longer project herself in any direction without refreshing in them the memory of her indiscretion. She wrote to Aunt Taka, her favorite sister in America, threatening to kill herself if Aunt Taka would not send for her. Aunt Taka hastily arranged a marriage with a young man of whom she knew, but lately arrived from Japan, a young man of simple mind, it was said, but of kindly heart. The young man was never told why his unseen betrothed was so eager to hasten the day of meeting.

The story was told perfectly, with neither groping for words nor untoward passion. It was as though her mother had memorized it by heart, reciting it to herself so many times over that its nagging vileness had long since gone.

“I had a brother then?” Rosie asked, for this was what seemed to matter now; she would think about the other later, she assured herself, pushing back the illumination which threatened all that darkness that had hitherto been merely mysterious or even glamorous. “A half-brother?”


“I would have liked a brother,” she said.

Suddenly, her mother knelt on the floor and took her by t wrists. “Rosie,” she said urgently. “Promise me you will never marry!” Shocked more by the request than the revelation, Rosie stared at her mother’s face. Jesus, Jesus, she called silently, not certain whether she was invoking the help of the son of the Carrascos or of God, until there returned sweetly the memory of Jesus’ hand, how it had touched her and where. Still her mother waited for an answer, holding her wrists so tightly that her hands were go in numb. She tried to pull free. Promise, her mother whispered fiercely, promise. Yes, yes, I promise, Rosie said. But for an instant she turned away, and her mother, hearing the familiar glib agreement, release her. Oh you, you, you, her eyes and twisted mouth said, you fool Rosie, covering her face, began at last to cry, and the embrace and consoling hand came much later than she expected.

Source: Seventeen Syllables in PDF.