Pinoy at the Coming World

by Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo

Waialua Plantation, 1919

I thought, when I left the fields
and hauling cane and hoeing out the furrows
for this job of counting and writing and palaver
in the rough, sing-song English of the store,
I had it made and could scheme a little,
put away something, so long as I made
the balance at the end of the day
and nobody squawked to the bosses
that I cheated or sassed them.
And I shamed no one, reading the paper
or some cowboy dime-novel like a haole
showing off my literacy as they shuffled into the store
dressed in their grimed khakis,
cuff and gloves sticky with juice,
and nettled head to toe with cane fiber.
I could speak Ilocano like a king or a muleteer,
a Visayan pidgin, a Portuguese,
a Chinese, and a Puerto Rican.
Simple words for service.
But for jokes, for talk story,
we used the English—chop suey at first—
then, year by year, even better,
smooth as love between old partners.
And the insults—bayow, salabit, bagoong!—
no matter if affectionate or joshing,
never entered my speech again
from the day I left the ditches,
tied on the apron, and stepped behind this counter.
No more ‘manong,’ no more ‘rat-eater’ or ‘fish-brain.’
No more garbage-talk to anybody.
How I see it, we all pull a load,
glory across the same river.
So, when I brought the wife in and the babies
start to coming—American citizens every one,
born, not smuggled here—I had every reason to figure,
‘Pinoy, no worry, you going to the top.’

Even when the strike came and the black market
started to cut me out, I wasn't surprised.
The union had told me to stay on,
keep open even though they picketed.
When they needed cigarettes, sugar, or coffee,
when they needed box matches to light
torches at the labor rally,
they still came to me, calling from the back door,
and I sold in secret, out of pity,
and, for the plantation, at a profit.
Nobody lost. And I had the good will,
fish or vegetables or papayas whenever anyone had extra.
They came to the back, just as during the strike,
handing things through the door in old rice sacks
and smiling, bowing if they were Japanese,
and running off down the street past the Cook pines
without much to say, bowing each time they glanced back,
framed in the green monkey-tails of the trees.

But none of us was ready for the flu that hit,
first the Mainland and all the reports of dead
on newspapers wrapped around the canned meats I stocked—
drawings of mourners joining hands in long processions
following a single cow draped in white,
a black parade on an unholy day—
then here at Pearl by cargo and troop ship,
through the military and workers at the docks,
finally to all of us here on the plantations,
diggers and lunas and storekeepers all alike,
sick with it, some of us writhing on the beaches,
sleeping naked and in the running wash from the waves,
shivering, trying to cool our fevers down.

My boys were worse with it at first,
all of them groaning like diseased cattle,
helpless and open-eyed all through the night.
But they slipped the worst punch
and came back strong, eating soup
and fruits and putting the weight back on.

The oldest even went back to school
and took over for us behind the counter
times when my wife left to nurse the sick
and I boarded the stage for Honolulu,
hoping to fetch medicines from the wholesalers
and maybe a vaccine from the doctors at Pearl.

But it's my youngest now that has it bad,
so weak in years English is her only tongue,
fevers all the time and a mask of sweat
always on her face. It's worse because
she doesn't groan or call out or say anything much,
only cries and coughs and rasps in her breathing
like a dull saw cutting through rotten wood.
We pray, bathe her face and neck and arms
in a cheesecloth soaked in witch hazel
we took from the store, light a few candles,
and call on the saints and the Immaculate Mother
to cure her and to ease her pain.

But I know it's near her time
and that no faith doctor or traveling hilot,
our village healers expert in herbs and massage,
will bring her back from this final sickness.

I wish only, now, that she'll be delivered somehow,
know, for a moment at least,
that the choir she might hear
from inside the church at the end of the street
singing its requiem for our plantation dead
is only an echo, remnant of some other,
initial song of praise
recommending us to the coming world
for which we ourselves are shadowy forecast.

Last night, when waiting was all there was to do,
I dressed myself in khakis again
and a pair of work boots so new
the laces were still full of wax
and soles like iron against the soft heels of my feet.
I closed up and walked past
the mill and the raw sugar bins,
by the union hall used for a morgue
and past the locomotive bedded down for the night.
I wanted to walk completely off plantation grounds
and get all the way out of town to where
sugar cane can't grow and no moon or stars
rose over pineapple fields. I wanted to get up
on a ridge someplace where kings
and their holy men might have sacrificed
or buried, in secret, some intruder's
unholy bones. I wanted rain to fall
and streams to churn and waterfalls, as they fell
from the Pali across mossy stone, to glow
with the homely, yellow light of mourning, our candles
lit for souls unwinding in their shrouds
and shrieking off the cliff-coasts of these islands.
I wanted the roar from the sea, from falling water,
and from the wind over mounds and stones
to be the echo of my own grief, keening within,
making pure my heart for the death I know is to come.

Last updated September 09, 2022