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June 04, 1995|Mari Sunaida | Mari Sunaida is a Los Angeles writer, performer, producer, director and co-president of Pacific Asian American Women Writers West. She is currently working on a new play, "Scenes from an Interracial Marriage." "The Sacramento River Delta has always interested me," Sunaida says, "epecially the isolated communities of Japanese and Chinese. I wanted to evoke it in an earlier time, and write about a woman's experience there."

The temperature in the Sacramento River Delta had been over a hundred degrees for 12 days in a row, and the nights hadn't been much cooler. Brown fruit, decaying fish and black earth filled the hot, still August air with rancid odors. It was as if each day was rolled up into a soggy woolen blanket and hung for a few hours in the night sky, to be let down the next morning heavier and smellier than before. There was no escaping the fierce heat, and in the afternoons when it was hottest, Tora Hayashi could actually see the atmosphere of it, the waves of phantom flames dancing across the roof of the cramped, four-room, half-log, half-frame house.

The house was old, the color of dried bones. The paint had worn off long before 1910, the year Tora and her husband had moved in. The secondhand furniture inside was shabby and faded. Peat dust spewed through the well-worn slabs at times, clumping on the baseboards and settling into cupboards and closets. Tora had been feeling sluggish all day and had dozed off in the broken-down rocking chair while nursing the baby. A man's voice at the back door startled her awake. A sharp pain streaked through her right breast. Such a greedy drinker, she thought, pulling the baby's head out of her blouse as she beat her shoulder with the heel of her palm to loosen the stiffness. Squinting up at the dark outline of a man in a straw hat who hunched in the doorway with one hand raised above his head and the other framed around his eyes, she sensed him catch sight of her. In the crisscross of mesh she couldn't make out the expression on his face, but all at once she had the suspicion that he was peering at her open bodice. Instinctively, she lowered the gauze over the baby's face and covered her exposed breast.

"Who is it?" she called out, surprised by the edge in her voice. The angle of the man's rounded body in the half-open kitchen door, with the blazing light streaming out around him, reminded her of the plum sapling, bent from the scorching rays of the sun, just outside the bedroom window. She had brought the seed from Japan and had planted it when she was first married. Its once tender leaves were now shriveled into brown balls along the lower branches, and near the stunted top, one spindly limb stretched out. To Tora, it looked to be shaking its fist at the sun. Shifting low in the rocker, she ignored the sharp jabs from the broken spindles and moved the baby into a sitting position on her lap. How she disliked that chair. If only she could lay on soft tatami again! She waved the thought away, knowing it would only take root in her mind and fester if she let it, knowing it was useless to call up anything that reminded her of Japan.

"Is this the Hayashi place?" the man repeated, pausing between each word as if the moisture-charged heat of his new surroundings somehow intoxicated him.

"Yes, just a moment, please." Swiftly buttoning her blouse, Tora ducked into the small bedroom off the kitchen and lowered the baby into his crib. She had a clear view of the man through a chink in the log portion of the wall that divided the two rooms. He waited on the top step, a slender, boyish-looking man about her age, no more than 27 or 28. She watched him take off his hat and nod stoically, fanning himself around the face.

"My name is Hara. Mr. Kami asked me to come and see you." The mention of Kami immediately put Tora on guard. She waited a moment, expecting him to continue, and when he fell silent she wondered what to do. As a rule she didn't invite people inside when she was alone with the baby, and although this man Hara looked harmless enough, he was still a stranger. If her husband had been home, chances are he would have asked the man to come in, a small courtesy he often extended to fellow countrymen passing through their area.

"I'm sorry to have to disturb you like this, but it will only take a moment." Reassured by the tone of obeisance in his voice, she probed tentatively, "What did Mr. Kami have to say?"

Hara did not answer. He rubbed a handkerchief across his forehead, folded it and wiped the back of his neck. His silence made Tora even more fearful about the reason for his visit. Tying on a bib apron, she squatted beside the crib, made faces and crooned. She turned the baby over on his stomach and patted him gently, letting her mind drift to the events of the summer before.

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