He placed his long, bony fingers on the edges of the lid. The container looked like an egg with its top and bottom lopped off. It shone like one of those Hercules beetles you find in rotting ash trees. If you caught one, you could turn it this way and that, and it changed colors in the sunlight. The container would probably do that too, with its streaks of gold in the black lacquer.
Mr. Sasaki lifted the lid to reveal a green powder the color of the algae that spreads out on the water between the bald cypress trees in the lake. Setting down the lid, he dipped a long bamboo stick with a scoop end into the matcha powder and dropped two little mounds into a ceramic bowl. Then from the cast-iron kettle he poured steaming water over the powder. My nostrils filled with a smell of the lake in spring. He set a whisk that looked like straw hair standing on end into the bowl and whipped it back and forth, turning the liquid into a bright green froth.
We sat on bamboo mats. I’d never sat on a mat before. He picked up the bowl, spinning it twice in his palm then bowed from the waist and sipped.
“Now you,” he said, his words light and floaty in the humid winter air, only the slightest trace of accent in his voice.
I bowed and held my hands out. But he set the bowl on the floor, nodding for me to pick it up and spin it. As I touched it, warmth spread from my palms to my fingers.
“Drink,” he said. “Then wipe the edge with the cloth and hand it back to me.”
I did as he said. The green froth tickled my upper lip, tasting like grass, earthy and bitter. I wipe the bowl with neat cloth on the mat.
He sipped, and we passed it back and forth. He had to make adjustments to the ceremony in Texas, he said. When we had finished the bowl, he cleaned the implements, putting everything away in its proper place before inviting me to sit at the table. I was glad to be off the floor.
I cleared my throat. I came here to find out. He looked at me, his eyes wide with anticipation, like he thought a conversation with a teenage girl would be the most interesting thing he’d ever done.
“They say you made a lot of money from the pearls,” I said, instantly regretting starting that way. Everyone said I was too bold.
Mr. Sasaki’s eyes crinkled in laughter. He was eighty if he was a day, deep lines running this and way and that all over this face like the bottom of bald cypress roots, just as they go into the water.
“I did,” he said. “That’s how I bought this house.” He had a good-sized house right on the water where the Spanish moss swayed in the wind. “I sold the pearls to a big jeweler in New York. I met a tea merchant there. He sends me my tea. Where else could I find it here?” He swept his arms in the air. “And you? Your father also sold a pearl.”
“Yeah, but he only made three hundred dollars. It was enough to buy a truck. And made him happy enough to name me Pearl.” We both laughed.
“Pearls are a precious thing. In Japan, they are revered, as are the divers who find them. To be named Pearl is an honor.”
No one ever thought I was something special just because of my name, or for much else. From that day on, I thought there must a lot to learn from Mr. Sasaki, and I got better at making the tea myself over the next year, visiting him, hearing from him about how he stowed away on an American navy boat in Japan They didn’t kick him off, but made him a cook instead. And when the Admiral he worked for retired in New Orleans, Mr. Sasaki went too, making his way up to the Big Lake to fish.
We’ve long used mussels for bait around here, but Mr. Sasaki was the one who found the long pink pearl in his mussel. He was the one who showed the folks who’d grown up here how to look for mussels with your toes, wading into the lake and gripping those suckers in the muck. But it paid off, so even when the government built the dam in 1913 and killed the mussels, he’d already made a sackful of money and helped others to do the same. Then he went to cooking for the oil workers because he didn’t like to be idle, he told me. Everybody liked him, even though nobody’d ever met someone from the East. Well, more East than the piney woods of East Texas, that is.
Daddy always said I was an old soul, so I guess he wasn’t surprised when I preferred Mr. Sasaki’s company to the sweaty boys and caddy girls at my school.
Our town was as segregated as any other, maybe worse because we had oil and the highfalutin attitudes that went along with it. But somehow they looked past it with Mr. Sasaki, maybe on account of his quiet ways, maybe on account of there being no history there. But probably because he made them money.
We plugged along in our town, fishing, swimming, and for me and Mr. Sasaki, drinking tea while he told about the grand wonders of the wide world and I told him about smallness of mine. Things were happening in the rest of the world, and one day he couldn’t seem to smile at all. He was an American citizen now, but part of his heart was in Japan. In the cherry blossoms and the tea ceremonies and little sparks of life that feel like home. Now Japan had started on a dangerous path.
Japan had signed a pact with Germany and Italy. Now, in my town, we didn’t seem to care much about what was going on in the rest of the world, but everyone knew Hitler was doing bad things in Europe. Mr. Sasaki had told me about the history of Japan; they even had women emperors. He said the one they had now though was a man and a bad one at that. He was ashamed that Hirohito allied with Hitler. And he was scared, but I couldn’t understand why.
Then we were having tea one day in early December. I had gotten really good at the whisking. Mr. Sasaki said the froth was light and airy like a cloud in a painting. He gave really nice compliments, and it always felt like he meant them.
I had just brought the bowl to my lips when the door flung open with a bang, swinging and hitting the wall. The sound startled me, and I dropped the bowl. It smashed, lime green tea seeping into the bamboo mat underneath me.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Sasaki,” I said.
He didn’t seem to hear me. He jumped up and stood rigid in front of the men in the doorway. The men. Men of my town. Men with power. The sheriff, his deputy, and the county judge who lived in the county seat two towns over. Their expressions were set, eyes hard. I stood beside Mr. Sasaki, feeling uneasy and like maybe my presence would stop them from doing whatever they had in their minds to do.
“The Japanese have bombed an American naval base in Hawaii,” the sheriff said, emotion pulling at his words.
I took Mr. Sasaki’s hand. The only time we had ever touched was if our fingers accidentally grazed during tea. But he gripped my hand right back then. I could feel the old bones and gnarled knuckles under my fingertips. The men, I noticed, saw me do it too, but they didn’t move to stop me.
“You should come with us,” said the judge.
I squeezed Mr. Sasaki’s hand tighter. If they were gonna take him, they were gonna take me, too.
“He hasn’t done anything,” I said, my voice unnaturally high. “We were just having tea. He’s an American now. He hasn’t done anything.”
All the law men turned to me. The deputy was my uncle. He took a step toward me.
“Now, Pearl, it’s for his own good.”
“That’s a lie, Uncle Bobby, and you know it.”
“They’re gonna be people out for him, Pearl. We can protect him.”
I’d seen how they’d protected citizens of my town, people that didn’t look like them. This town was built on the backs of our Black residents, always had been. Sharecroppers eking out a life while white fat cats sat on their porches drinking whiskey and chewing tobacco. They’d always acted better toward Mr. Sasaki, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t turn on him.
Mr. Sasaki squeezed my hand and then released it. Stepping forward, he said, “I’ll go with you.”
I grabbed his arm. “No! It’s not fair. Don’t go.”
He patted my hand. “Take care of my tea things. Clean up the spill. I’ll be ok.”
The law men parted to open the doorway, and Mr. Sasaki stepped through the opening. Uncle Bobby was the last to leave, turning to me.
“Get that cleaned up and get on home.”
His face softened. “I promise, he’s gonna be alright.” He closed the door, and I stood there, tears streaming my cheeks, helpless and hopeless.
We listened to the radio that night, and it was all over the news. Daddy said he thought people would start trying to hurt Japanese folks. That was all he said, and it put the fear in me.
I woke up early the next day and headed straight to the jailhouse. They kept him in there, but didn’t lock him up.
“I told you, it was for his protection,” Uncle Bobby said. “We thought maybe some folk woulda got a wild hair and come to make trouble. But it’s been real quiet.”
Mr. Sasaki was smiling, that smile he got when he was real content. It spread wide across, stretching out some wrinkles and squeezing others together. He sat at a table and played cards with the sheriff. It all seemed like a dream.
But a few days later, the big lawmen came from Dallas: the Feds. An order had come from Washington that they were to round up all Japanese. It didn’t matter that Mr. Sasaki was an American citizen. In fact, they said even people born here were enemies. I knew Mr. Sasaki loved Japan, but he had served in the U.S. Navy. He loved living here. He’d been here longer than he’d been in Japan. He said Japan was like his mother, but America was his wife, and a child must leave his home to make his family.
When the sheriff got word that the Feds were coming, they scuppered Mr. Sasaki off to the judge’s house. I wanted to go too, but Daddy said no. He let me stay at the jailhouse with Uncle Bobby, though. I sat on pins and needles in a chair in the corner.
Those big lawmen weren’t so big. One of them was real small, like his fancy trench coat swallowed him up. And by the way he talked, his mind was small too. Well, anyway, the sheriff said they couldn’t take Mr. Sasaki.
“It’s not your decision to make, sheriff,” the taller but rounder of the two Feds said.
“This is my town, and I say it is.”
“We’ll bring the full force of the Federal government down on your head if you don’t surrender the alien traitor.”
“He’s neither alien nor traitor.”
The Feds couldn’t do much but bluster they’d be back with reinforcements. As soon as they left, the sheriff flopped into a chair and wiped sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.
“Bobby, get over to the judge’s. We can’t hold them off forever.”
I dashed out after Uncle Bobby, sliding into the passenger seat of the police car. He looked at me as if I had appeared out of thin air.
“You can’t come, Pearl. Your Daddy’d kill me.”
“He won’t. Drive.”
He shook his head, but didn’t say anything else until we pulled up at the judge’s office at the county courthouse. “Mind your manners, Pearl.”
“Best behavior,” I said with a smile, though my insides churned.
We were shown into his office, possibly the biggest office I’d ever seen. Texas and American flags hung on big stands behind him. Heavy, dark furniture filled the room, and it smelled like old money.
Uncle Bobby explained the situation, the judge listening intently, his elbows on the burgundy leather-wrapped arms of his chair and his fingers steepled and resting on his mouth.
“Time for the big guns,” he said when Uncle Bobby finished.
I didn’t know what that meant, but I’d find out soon. Along with the rest of the town.
Uncle Bobby dropped me at old Jeb’s grocery in town, told me to head on back home. I picked up the few things I knew Mama needed and brought them to the counter. Jeb made a note in his ledger so we could settle at the end of the month when Daddy got paid. He set his pen down and put his hands flat on the counter.
“Don’t you worry, Pearl. This town won’t let anything happen to him.”
I stared at Jeb. He’d never said anything about Mr. Sasaki before, least of all to me. “Thank you, sir,” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“This town looks out for its own.”
I nodded and went home. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, sick with worry over Mr. Sasaki.
Daddy offered to take me out on the boat on the lake for some fishing, but I didn’t want to. Even Tuck, our old hound dog, seemed restless and uncertain.
A frantic knock on the door roused me, made Tuck yelp. Uncle Bobby didn’t wait for an answer and pushed the door open.
“Come on,” he said. I looked at Mama and Daddy. They didn’t say anything, and we all followed Uncle Bobby down to the jailhouse.
The main street was full of people. Everyone in the town must have been there. I caught sight of Mr. Sasaki on the porch of the jailhouse. He made a small bow in my direction, and I returned it. I shifted my attention to the big black car parked in front. The Feds stood with their arms limp at their sides, waiting like the rest of us.
A man stepped out of the big black car, his door opened by his Black driver. He was dressed like something from a magazine, fine looking suit, brimmed-edge hat, and skin so smooth it glowed in the soft December sunlight. With a smile, he pulled that expensive-looking hat off his head.
I went closer so I could hear him. The Feds took a step back.
“You’ll follow me inside, boys,” the fancy man said, his voice so low it vibrated.
To my surprise, they obliged and followed him inside the jailhouse, the sheriff, Uncle Bobby, and the judge following with Mr. Sasaki. I made to go too, but Daddy held me back.
“Who is that man?” I asked.
“Big Cappy Jones,” he replied, keeping his eye on the jailhouse door.
Everyone knew who Big Cappy Jones was, but I’d never seen him. He lived in the big plantation house on the other side of the Lake, the fancy side. He had dozens of sharecroppers working his land and calling him “Big Mister” like nothing had changed in eighty years. What he said around these parts went, no matter the color of your skin. Word was he knew everyone worth knowing, all the way up to the King of England.
The whole town stood in the street and on the sidewalk, the winter wind whipping around us like water around river stones. After awhile, the door opened. Big Cappy got in his car and drove away. The Feds didn’t say a word, but their hangdog expressions said enough. The sheriff and judge shook hands, and the judge got in his own car and left. Mr. Sasaki and Uncle Bobby came to us.
“They won’t bother him anymore,” Uncle Bobby said.
“Would you like to have some tea?” Mr. Sasaki asked. “All of you?”
Mama, Daddy, and Uncle Bobby all mumbled excuses about this and that. They liked Mr. Sasaki, but the thought of tea was a step too far. I was over the moon.
We sat on the mats, and Mr. Sasaki brought a bowl, one I had never seen before, to replace the one I had broken. It was just as beetle-shiny, but black with water and pearl divers painted in red all around it.
He didn’t offer for me to help, but performed every step himself, carefully and with a contented smile on his lips. At last he bowed, offering me the bowl.
No one bothered him throughout the long days of the war. Midway through, we could no longer get the powder, as supplies of matcha ran dry with the embargo. He grew herbs in a small garden and ground them up. We kept taking tea until he died, peacefully, in his bed, a year after the war ended. He left a note for me alongside all his tea things. It read only: Musume.
(Inspired by the true story of Sachihiko Ono Murata.)