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Asian American Fiction Drama

Jenny steadied herself with her left hand as she squatted among the rubble. With her right hand, she tried to push aside a slab of siding jammed against the remains of the patio table. She’d taken off her work gloves when the insurance agent stopped by, and then plunged back into the debris, forgetting where she’d set them. With shards of glass covering the ground, she moved cautiously. But she thought she’d seen a familiar bit of red ceramic among the jumble of splintered boards and branches. She kept pushing through bits and pieces.

One more heave. A brick clunked to the ground, and she saw the crimson handle of her favorite mug. “I’d rather be sleeping” was written in bubble letters on one side, a fat orange cartoon cat snoring on the other.  

Jenny pulled it from the debris and examined it. Not a scratch. She grasped the mug with both hands as though it still held tea, stood and surveyed her street. Unrecognizable. Boards and siding covered the ground along with roofing, tires, hunks of metal, branches and entire trees. Cars lay at odd angles, one sitting on its roof like an overturned turtle, another appearing to climb up the side of the house that was partially standing. Broken tree trunks pierced the sky. Police cars and ambulances flashed their lights, and maneuvered where they could. Jenny knew that her neighbor two doors down, Celina Bourg, had been taken to the hospital. The body of Celina’s husband, Joe, had been found two streets over. Old Mrs. Kaine was missing. Only three houses had survived, if you could call it that. The tornado had ripped Jenny’s and Peter’s modest ranch in half and sent the roof flying, but at least part of the living room was still standing. 

“How did you make it?” she whispered to the mug.

Just 12 hours earlier, she’d set the mug, still steaming with green tea, on the counter as she and Peter picked up their phones to read the emergency tornado alert. Still new to Texas, they’d looked at each other, unsure if “Take Shelter” meant that instant.

“Should we try out the tornado shelter?” Peter asked, shrugging and half-smiling. Jenny shrugged too.

“Maybe? Better safe than sorry, I guess.”

Jenny set the mug in a box with a few other salvageable items. She was glad it was still around. Her best friends Maeko and Yua had given it to her when she left Tokyo for Boston 20 years earlier, giggling in the irony. Jenny would never “rather be sleeping.” She had always lived up to her Japanese name, Isamu - one full of energy.

She pulled her hair into a ponytail and dabbed her face with a paper towel. Barely 10 am and already the sun was heavy and yellow, baking the landscape. Peter had left to organize a rental car and a hotel.

She picked her way around a chunk of concrete, a wayward shoe and more boards - so many boards - to the backyard where she stared at the garden shed tucked away behind the azaleas. The building and the plants looked untouched.  

Jenny shook her head, mystified by the whims of tornadoes, and pulled off the padlock they’d never bothered locking. The aroma of fertilizer, mulch and potting soil calmed her. She ran her hand over the shelves, looking for another pair of work gloves. As she maneuvered around two rakes and a shovel, she noticed an unfamiliar box taped shut. Forgetting about the gloves, she unwedged the box with her foot and jostled it out the door, knocking over the rakes and shovel. Her arms barely closed around the box, and she couldn’t see beyond it. She picked her way slowly to the one spot she’d cleared on the patio.

Jenny sat on the tile and ran a knife along the tape. The moment she opened the flaps and lifted out an earthenware vase with a wide mouth, she remembered packing the box five years earlier, and relegating it to their tiny storage locker in New York. She peered inside, and saw a stack of shallow black bowls and some smaller vases in iridescent pearls and blues. A leather pouch held a small set of pruning shears. In a burlap bag, she saw six kenzans, discs with dozens of small brass spikes protruding from the base, like the grass of a perfectly mowed lawn. She pulled the Sharpie she’d been using all morning from her back pocket and scribbled “IKEBANA” on the box and pushed it next to the “SAVED ITEMS” box.

These were the materials of Japanese flower arranging, an art mastered by her great-grandmother, her grandmother and her mother. But not by Jenny. She remembered afternoons as a child, kneeling next to her grandmother, mesmerized by the sweep of her arm and the drape of her kimono sleeve as she held first one stem and then another to the light. Ikebana was nothing like Western flower arranging. As much a meditation as it was art, ikebana was based on the principles of minimalism, harmony, balance, nature and silence - ideas that felt foreign and ancient to Jenny. Still, she had loved those afternoons with her grandmother - her Baba - and was mesmerized by the process. As a child, Jenny was sure her grandmother possessed some sort of magic. She started with the humblest of flowers, twigs and leaves, but wove them into masterpieces that won praise even from the staunchest of Tokyo’s critics. Jenny had made a few half-hearted attempts while still living in Japan, but she couldn’t cast the spell she saw from her grandmother. Then there was school, boys, shopping. And then university, career, America.

Jenny smiled at the box before turning to the debris surrounding her. Baba never pushed….but she had never given up either. Year after year, she sent Jenny vases, shears and kenzans. Each one was carefully stacked, packaged and stowed away among the things Jenny would never use, but couldn’t let go.

The next day, bulldozers and dump trucks rolled onto the tornado-ravaged street. Jenny stood with Peter on their front lawn, and watched the machines rumble and squeal, as they pushed debris into heaps.

As the afternoon waned, Jenny sat on a lawn chair with a clipboard, making notes for the insurance company. But the numbers swam in front of her. Setting down her pen, she rubbed her eyes and slumped in the chair, arms and legs heavy with exhaustion. She let her gaze drift past a bulldozer to the fields and barns that stretched along the horizon, noticing a splotch of pink against the sun-baked browns and yellows of the Texas summer.

“Break time,” she said and made her way across the backyard, a little way down the next street and through the neighbor’s yard until she found herself surrounded by hundreds of pink and lavender wildflowers. The petals were layered one atop another, surrounding the stalk and coming together in a cone shape, where they swayed and bent with the wind. Jenny caught one petal between her thumb and forefinger, surprised by the softness. As she touched the flower, she felt her chest loosen and she sighed, realizing she hadn’t really breathed in days. She recognized the blossoms as “obedient plant”, but had always preferred their other name, “false dragonhead”. She looked back over her shoulder at the destruction, and felt a longing to bring a piece of the peaceful field home. She knelt and used her Leatherman to cut three stems near the ground. 

She cradled the flowers like a baby, feeling a lightness carry her back through the neighbor’s yard and across the street. Squeezing between the jagged boards of the broken fence, she felt the branch of a mesquite tree grab her hair, and she stopped, trying to untangle it without dropping the flowers. As she pushed the branch away, she paused, seeing an elegance in the angles and a grace in the leaves which draped from them. She clipped a few branches and continued home, her thoughts on the ikebana box. 

The trucks were still working when she arrived, and she cleared an area in the living room.  Although the roof and two walls had been ripped away, Jenny longed for a moment of normalcy in her home, something to remind her of life just days earlier. She carried the ikebana box into the room and contemplated it.

“This is stupid, Jenny. You have a lot to do,” she whispered. Yet, she couldn’t push away her grandmother’s voice. She heard the rich, gentle murmur that always seemed to bathe any space with light.

First, lay out your materials.

Jenny knelt on the floor and, one by one, placed the false dragonheads and mesquite branches before her as though they were glass. She lifted the wide-mouthed vase from the box and set it next to the pruning shears and one kenzan. Phone in one hand, she Googled “ikebana first step” but then heard her Baba again.

Pick that which is most dramatic….to you.

Jenny reached for the largest stem and examined it.

The form of the flowers is found, not planned.

She snipped a few leaves from the base and tried to drive it onto the kenzan, which sat amid water in the vase.

When you struggle, cut your stem at an angle.

Jenny lowered the stalk into the water and clipped the end as she’d seen her Baba do. This time, the stem stood easily. She sat back and studied it, bending the flower just another degree to bring light to the petals. 

With more certainty, she reached for the next dragonhead and then the next.

Arrange your branches only after you have placed the Shin, the Soe and the Hikae.

She added a mesquite branch. And another.  

Jenny wrinkled her nose as she evaluated her work. It felt barren. She scanned the yard, her eye falling on the azaleas. She cut a mound of leaf-encrusted branches and jammed them into the kenzan, filling in the bare spots. But that didn’t look right either. 

Her grandmother whispered.

Leave space between the branches for the breeze. Allow the flowers to breathe.

Jenny pulled out the azaleas. Yes. Better.

Feel the energy, and you will know where to place the next element.

She covered the base of the kenzan with the mesquite leaves.  

Now stand. Walk around your arrangement. Study it from all angles. Look for depth.

Jenny let her gaze move from the vase, and up the stems and branches as her grandmother had taught her. It was the formal way of appreciating ikebana.

A sense of balance is essential.

Jenny clipped another leaf and bent a blossom at a deeper angle. She let out a breath she hadn’t even realized she was holding. It was done. 

The pink and green blooms stretched upward and outward, their grace contrasting with the angled branches twisting around it. In the mesquite leaves, Jenny saw a vibrant green that was scarce around central Texas in the summer. She brushed her hand against a leaf, which seemed to give her a jaunty wave.

Jenny’s phone rang - a loud, old-fashioned jangle - and she jumped. She’d turned the volume up to hear over the bulldozers and trucks.

She touched the Facetime icon and her Baba’s broad face filled the screen.

“My Isamu! I have been so worried. Your mother told me the storm destroyed your home. How are you, my granddaughter?”

Jenny smiled and switched to Japanese.

“Baba! I am so happy to see you. All is well. We are fine. Look …”

She turned the phone to her ikebana arrangement, which had picked just that moment to glow in the late afternoon sun.

“Baba, the wildflowers are beautiful this year.”

March 26, 2023 13:02

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7 comments

Russell Mickler
17:06 Apr 04, 2023

Hi Kristin - I liked the description of the devistation at the beginning of the piece, and setting the overall tone of the story. The gradual introduction of Japanese themes - in a Texas setting, no less - was a suprise. The reflection on her grandmother was both visually nice and emotive; connecting the grandmother to later in the story was also an artful stroke. Good story telling, really. The story had a good resonance for me. The connection to our elders, there when we need them, seems very aligned with Japanese traditions. Well don...

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Kristin Neubauer
11:55 Apr 05, 2023

Thank you so much, Russell! I am interested in your comments because I did wonder - especially for this prompt - if I took too long to introduce the Japanese element. But it felt right, and I was running out of time to tinker with it. I really appreciate you taking the time to read it and think about it and share your thoughts. It's so helpful as I keep learning about writing!

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Russell Mickler
12:45 Apr 05, 2023

Absolutely welcome, Kristin - it was a great piece! R

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Karel Fontaine
10:35 Apr 03, 2023

Beautifully told, Kristin. It has a simple poignancy: the chaos of the tornado aftermath and the serenity of the wildflower patch being co-mingled through a neglected artform and a bond so deep and telepathic. "Baba never pushed….but she had never given up either. Year after year, she sent Jenny vases, shears and kenzans. Each one was carefully stacked, packaged and stowed away among the things Jenny would never use, but couldn’t let go." and again: "“This is stupid, Jenny. You have a lot to do,” she whispered. Yet, she couldn’t push away ...

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Kristin Neubauer
13:07 Apr 04, 2023

Thank you so much, Karel! It means so much that you took the time to read and let me know what you liked....and that the appearance of Baba worked for you. I enjoyed weaving her into Jenny's Americanized and tornado-ravaged world. I have many friends who try to hang onto threads of their ancestral culture through their grandparents, and it always struck me as such a lovely and layered connection. I appreciate your thoughts and words!

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Geir Westrul
16:01 Apr 02, 2023

Wonderful story. I particularly loved the interspersing of Baba's whispered/remembered instructions with the simple, in-the-moment actions of flower arranging, in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Very poignant.

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Kristin Neubauer
12:18 Apr 04, 2023

Thank you so much, Geir! I really appreciate your kind words, and hearing what worked for you in the story. It is so helpful as I keep working on my writing.

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