Red Shoes in the Dust
The view from the front door was disheartening. Before him was a wide expanse of barren fields, with clumps of dirt barely holding up dry, shriveled, and stunted tuffs of alien plants. It reached to the curvature of the earth. The sky above was a bright clear blue, so intense it hurt the eyes. He had to shade them with his hands.
They had arrived last night on an old fisherman’s truck owned by a family friend who also was making his way to this desert called Alberta. The pungent smell of dead fish stayed with him a long time. How Takahashi-san found his way through the darkness was beyond him. He found comfort in knowing his father was up all night making sure they were safe. At some point, he cradled in his mother’s arms and fell asleep.
This was the first he saw his surroundings. So different.
He took a couple of steps down the rickety cracked stairs and heard a long sad wind whistling across the land. It kicked up a lot of ghostly dust. He felt the wind on his face and breathed in the faint, imagined scent of an obscure dark forest, flowing water, and majestic mountains. He was strangely homesick for their old miner’s shack some great distance away.
He and parents had been in Minto Camp since the war began four years ago. They actually hadn’t seen Dad for the first two, but they were eventually reunited. He wanted to ask him where he was, but Otousan didn’t want to talk. He asked his mother, but she was equally silent.
Others in the “camp” told him they were “Enemy Aliens” restricted to the area. He heard people could simply walk away, there were no guards, no obvious military presence, no barbed wire, but where were they to go? Nothing but wild forest and rock for miles around. They could go to nearby Lillooet, a small settlement about twenty miles away, but they were not welcome. He remembered the white men with rifles watching them as they travelled through on their way to Minto. They were not welcoming at all.
But this was war. He vaguely understood that since he looked like the enemy, he must be the enemy.
He yearned for life in Vancouver before it had all started. The sights and smells of Powell Street on a Saturday. All tussle and bustle filled his senses with the aroma of fresh baked pan, kneaded mochi and cooked fish. The voices of friends and strangers infused the air with friendship and reverie.
Haramatsu-san? How’s your ingrown toenail? I hope you’re getting better.
Are you coming to the otera tomorrow? The minister mentioned you by name. Big meeting.
Good saba at Union Fish. Just caught yesterday.
Even language school lessons, every day after English school and on Saturday mornings, were filled with friends and horseplay at weekend recess – even if the serious Kozai Sensei kept a watchful eye with a handy long pointer and barked loud curses at miscreants.
What he missed most was Powell Ground where the Asahi Baseball team played. He couldn’t afford the 15 cents to sit in the stands, so he stood or rather sat on the grass just beyond third base.
Boy, that Roy Yamamura could hit a bat a mile!
Even when he ventured out of the safety of Japanese signs, language, and friends and into the confines of downtown Vancouver, he was mesmerized by the array of stores and businesses, movie theaters with posters of Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, department stores with their displays of fashionable dresses, sleek suits, and fancy furniture. The mysterious restaurants and bars he heard rumors about were silent during the day, but came to life once the streetlights and neon came on. He once stayed out late into early evening and witnessed a wonderland magically appear. His part of town was perpetually in the dark at night. Add to that, the automobiles, among old-time wagons drawn by tired horses, mixed so noisily as if to say get out the way, the future is here. The blare of modern times.
He ignored the warnings of spies, Jap spies, and the growing war in Europe with Canadian soldiers “standing on guard for thee.” The whispers as he passed clumps of hakujin, white people, waiting for some subversive plot to unfold. Paranoia? On whose part? Could he steal secrets and pass them along to the Axis powers? Could he blow up a navy facility, an army recruitment centre, a government building? Could he? Would he? Wasn’t he a Canadian patriot?
He found solace and reassurance in a dime novel. The Nick Carter Weekly, especially the series Message in Dust, a murder mystery. Five cents per issue, every week. Or a book from the library, like The Invisible Man by HG Wells, a novel he never fully appreciated or understood but loved the idea of it. He sometimes wished he could be invisible.
The nearest town was ten miles away. A good afternoon’s walk and then there was the walk back. Here in Alberta, he was the enemy, a dirty Jap, isolated, imprisoned, and forgotten for safety’s sake.
The sky above with streaks of cloud began its press on him. The land squeezed to entomb him. A surge of electricity tingled his stomach and ran up his spine. He began to run, but to where? He had no idea, his legs just pumped with the adrenalin. This road must go somewhere. To where it led, he could not say. The fear drove him on and on. He sank into the void of kicked up dust within an empty horizon.
Sweat began to coat his brow and wet his armpits when he abruptly stopped. Not that his fear had dissipated, but twin flashes of light spiked his eyes, causing them to water instantly. His hands rubbed them clear. Gleaming red shoes on the road ahead blinded him momentarily. They were flat-heeled and fashionable in their out-of-place and strange splendor. Women’s shoes.
A young girl, a little taller than five feet, he guessed, in a yellow sundress and wide-brimmed straw hat, walked gingerly among the clumps of road dirt, dug up by some mechanical vehicle, no doubt.
Curls of long blond hair seeped out from under the hat to spill onto her shoulders. He then noticed her blue eyes and rosy cheeks, perfectly positioned on her face. The rest of her body smoothed down to those red shoes. Who is she? Where is she going? And why all dressed up? He questioned in his huffing and puffing.
He felt something stirring inside his curiosity. He could not approach her; he could not strike up a conversation. What would he say? He was the enemy after all. He didn’t want to frighten her. Luckily, she hadn’t seen him, though that bothered him somewhat. All of his twelve years conspired against him. He was incapable of thinking what to do. So he observed from afar.
He soon began to smile; it was a Saturday back home when shoppers hurried to the stores for the sales of high fashion clothes or everyday wear. Or Sunday mornings on Powell Street when the Hamasakis, the Kawamuras, the Satos paraded along the roads to go to church. Church! That was it. Is today Sunday? The flow of time meant nothing to him.
The shoes drew him back. The bright red shoes that seemed to dull with every footstep. Despite her care as she walked, dust rose in their wake and clouded the patent leather. Until the shoes were entirely covered and ruined. He felt sorry for her. He then blinked and she was gone, just like that.
He was alone, a tiny speck in a void. Anonymous and unknowable. He swooned with a swirling head and began to cry… quietly, not that anyone would notice. He had grown invisible on that lonely road to emptiness.
The red shoes in the dust had imprinted his memory that day. And they stayed with him until the flow of time ended.
Terry Watada is a well-published writer living in Canada. He has 3 novels, 5 poetry collections, and a short story collection in print.