Mrs. Haro and Miss Myrtle
                     Fiction by Carl Heintze

      At sunrise on a May morning in 1921 Miss Myrtle Wilbur walked out of
her Uncle Jim’s house near Lihue, Kauai, stretched her arms over her head,
swung them about several times as if she might be about to pitch a baseball, and
then removed a pack of cigarettes from her dress pocket and lit one.
      She blew smoke into the still morning air, watched it descend to the ground,
drew and blew another cloud and then walked barefoot through the grass.
      All this was a celebration.
      Miss Myrtle had returned from France the day before after a year and a
half spent as a nurse with the American Expeditionary Force.  Many things had
happened to her in that time.  The least important was that she had acquired a
taste for tobacco.  She could not decide what was the most important, probably,
she thought, coming back to the island where she had been born and where,
except for the war, she had spent most of her life.
      There were some other items on the list: seeing Paris for the first time, days
and nights of caring for wounded suffering men, a brief, incandescent, and
unsuccessful love affair with an Army doctor from Michigan, and a kaleidoscopic
view of America from a train window.
      She could not decide.  All she knew was that she was home again and she
could see the verdant mountains capped by clouds and watch the waving stalks
of sugar cane in the fields beyond the house.
      As she was thinking this, she saw a wagon coming down the red dirt road
from Lihue.  She raised her hand to shield her eyes against the sun.
      It was Lester Mineta, Uncle Jim’s foreman.  A small woman was seated
beside him on the seat.  Lester stopped in front of her, wrapped the wagon reins
around the wagon brake, and smiled, exposing a gold tooth.
      “Aloha, Miss Myrtle,” he said.
      “Morning, Lester,” Miss Myrtle said.
      “Mr. Jim say you need some help around the house.  I brought my sister-in-
law.  This is Mrs. Haro.”
      Miss Myrtle examined the figure on the wagon seat.  Mrs. Haro was small,
smaller than most Japanese, with straight black hair, a round face, expressionless
eyes and a smile that seemed permanently affixed to her face.  She was wearing a
bright print cotton dress at least a size too large.  Her hands were folded in her
lap.  As was polite in her culture, she did not look directly at Miss Myrtle.  
Instead she examined her hands.
      “Can she speak English?” Miss Myrtle said.
      “Some,” Lester said.  “What she can’t, I tell you.”
      Miss Myrtle dropped her cigarette in the grass.
      “I really don’t need any help,” she said.
      “Mr. Jim say you would say that.”
      Miss Myrtle turned to Mrs. Haro.
      “Can you cook?”
      Mrs. Haro nodded.
      “I’m sure you can sweep and clean.”
      Mrs. Haro nodded again.
      “I can do all those things, too.  Mr. Wilbur thinks I can’t or he thinks I
shouldn’t.”
      Mrs. Haro spoke for the first time.
      “I work hard,” she said.
      “I’m sure of that,” Miss Myrtle said.  “It’s just that I’m used to doing it
myself.”
      “Do hard work,” Mrs. Haro said.
      “Everybody works hard here.”
      “Oh, yes.”
      “How old are you?”
      “Pease?”
      “Do you know how old she is, Lester?”
      “Not for sure.  Maybe seventeen.  Maybe twenty.”
      “You sure she’s not younger?”
      “She’s married.  Married to my cousin Shig.  You know, she come from
Japan to be bride.”
      Then Miss Myrtle understood.  Mrs. Haro had come from Japan as part
of an arranged marriage.
      “She from my cousin’s village.  Have one baby boy already.”
      “She doesn’t look old enough.”
      “She have another baby.”
      “Soon?”
      “Not too soon.  Next year.”
      Miss Myrtle stood contemplating Mrs. Haro, the horse, wagon, and Lester.  
She did not really want anyone around the house, but she knew if she did not hire
Mrs. Haro, she would have to deal with Uncle Jim.  Like Miss Myrtle, Uncle Jim
was unmarried and probably would be the rest of his life.  Since her mother died,
there had been only the two of them in the big house.
      Miss Myrtle sighed.
      “All right,” she said.
      Mrs. Haro deftly lowered herself to the ground, approached Miss Myrtle,
made a formal bow, and took Miss Myrtle’s hand in both of hers, almost as if in
prayer.
      “You not be sorrow,” she said.

      Miss Myrtle was not “sorrow” for six months.  Then Mrs. Haro gave birth
to her second son and for two weeks was not at the big house.  Miss Myrtle was
required to do all the cooking, cleaning, and serving.  She found it to be far more
tiring than she remembered.  So when Mrs. Haro returned one day in December,
she said, “Mrs. Haro, you don’t know how much I’ve missed you.”
      “Oh, yes,” Mrs. Haro said.  “I sorrow, too.”
      “Is the baby all right?”
      “Oh, yes.  Nice boy.”
      “What’s his name?”
      “James—Jim—same as Mr. Jim.”
      “How nice.  Have you told Uncle Jim?”
      Mrs. Haro smiled.  “He like it.  He say be sure not from him.”  
      Mrs. Haro laughed.  It was the first time Miss Myrtle had seen her laugh.  
The expression broke as suddenly on her face as sunshine after an island shower,
and Miss Myrtle found that she was laughing, too.
      Then she said, “We have lots of work to do.”
      “Yes,” Mrs. Haro said.   But she did not move.
      “What’s wrong?”
      Mrs. Haro looked down at her shoes.  Then she said, “Long way.”
      “What’s a long way?” Miss Myrtle said.
      “Long way from Lester’s house to this house.”
      “I know.”
      “Not my house.  Lester’s house.”
      “I know that.”
      “Oh, yes.  Lester, his wife, Lester’s children, my husband, my children.  
We all live there.”
      “Yes.”
      “Bery crowded.”
      “I suppose, but I don’t see…”
      “Mr. Jim say we can have house here.”
      “He didn’t say anything to me.”
      “Lester tell me.”
      Mrs. Haro half turned and pointed off to the north.  “House there.”
      “You mean the old tool shed.”
      Mrs. Haro bobbed her head up and down several times quickly.  “Oh,
yes.  Shig, he make house.”
      “Well, I’ll talk to Uncle Jim about it.”
      “Oh, yes,” Mrs. Haro said.  “Mr. Jim say okay.”

      Uncle Jim’s office was not in the main house, but in a small yellow shack
he had built on the plantation when he first bought it.  He had lived in it for
several years before the main house was finished, when there was almost
nothing on the plantation except red dirt, scrub brush and a few pandanas.  In
those days the shack looked out across open land to Nawiliwili harbor and the
sea.  Now trees hid this view, but the shack remained.  Uncle Jim no longer
lived in it, but he still used it as his office.
      There he sat alone at a small wooden work table piled with papers.  
When he was tired, he napped on a black leather couch he had bought from
a Lihue lawyer.  Sometimes he tied his horse outside the little building at a
hitching rail.  When people came to the plantation, they could almost always
find him there, peering at his papers through steel-rimmed spectacles.  He
always sat with his back to the door, but he also always seemed to sense
anyone’s approach.
      This happened with Miss Myrtle.
      “Hi, Myrtle,” he said, without turning around.
      “I guess you know why I’m here,” Miss Myrtle said.
      At this, Uncle Jim slowly swiveled his chair around and pushed his glasses
up on his forehead.
      “Shed’s not being used,” he said.
      “I know that.”
      “Then what’s wrong with them moving in?”
      “Lester doesn’t live here.  No one else that works here lives here.”
      “We do.”
      “Uncle Jim!”
      “Well, I guess we’ll just have to try it out and see how it works,” he said.
      He swiveled back to his desk, pulled his glasses down to cover his eyes,
and said nothing more.  
      Miss Myrtle waited for something else, but nothing was forthcoming, so
she stormed back to the big house, slamming the wooden door to Uncle Jim’s
office behind her.

      Within a week Mr. and Mrs. Haro, their two babies, and all their
possessions—which proved minimal—arrived on the property in two wagons.
Within another week the old shed had been converted into four rooms: two of
them bedrooms, the third a kind of living room, and the fourth the kitchen.
      Thereafter every afternoon at three-thirty Mrs. Haro padded across the
grass from the big house kitchen to Uncle Jim’s office bearing a pot filled with
coffee and a plate on which rested six rice cookies just out of the oven.
      When they arrived Uncle Jim stopped what he was doing, ceremoniously
poured a cup of coffee into a white china cup, and examined it carefully.
      Then he always said, “Mrs. Haro, what have you done?”
      And invariably, as Mrs. Haro looked down at her shoes modestly, he
carefully bit off a piece of cookie and sipped the coffee.
      Then he would say, “You spoil me, Mrs. Haro.  You’re making me into
a stuffed pig.”
      If Miss Myrtle were there, she would snort in derision, but that never
seemed to bother either Uncle Jim or Mrs. Haro.  Mrs. Haro would smile with
delight, lift her eyes, and walk noiselessly back to the kitchen in the big house.
      She never served Miss Myrtle anything even when Miss Myrtle worked
on her papers at her desk in a room at the big house.  It was a room far larger
than Uncle Jim’s, and it held the only telephone in the house.  Miss Myrtle spent
large amounts of time on the telephone, scribbling notes on pieces of papers as
she talked.
      One afternoon not many weeks later Mrs. Haro came and stood silently
before Miss Myrtle’s desk until she had finished her telephone call.  Then she
said, “Miss Myrtle, you take bath?”
      “Certainly,” Miss Myrtle said.  “Every day.”
      “Japanese bath?”
      “No.  American bath.”
      “You take Japanese bath.  You come.  Tonight I show.”
      “No thank you.”
      “Japanese bath better.  You have tub.”
      “I thought you were giving the bath.”
      “Oh, yes.  No tub.  You have tub.  I see.  There.”
      Mrs. Haro pointed out the window at a large abandoned sugar kettle on
the edge of the lawn.
      “You mean that metal tank.” Miss Myrtle said.
      Mrs. Haro nodded vigorously.
      “Make good bath.”
      “It needs cleaning up.  It’s all rusty.”
      “Oh, yes.  Very good.  Shig clean.  You come.  We all have bath.”
      Miss Myrtle did not come for a bath, but after supper she walked from
the big house across the lawn through the trees to the Haro house, or rather
the former tool shed.  There she found Mrs. Haro and her husband, chest
deep in steaming hot water, holding the two babies.
      “Bery nice,” Mrs. Haro said.
      “Yes, yes, very nice, very nice,” Miss Myrtle said.  Then she threw up her
arms and walked back to the big house.

      Much of Miss Myrtle’s telephoning had to do with the island’s health or
lack of it because she continued to nurse.  She organized clinics, she looked at
babies, she rode north and south to see the sick.  In time she persuaded Uncle
Jim to set aside some of the money from the plantation to build a small hospital
in Lihue, and she brought doctors and other nurses from Honolulu to staff it.
      One day she came from her office into the kitchen to tell Mrs. Haro that
two of the Honolulu doctors were coming to dinner.
      Mrs. Haro banged a metal pot lid back into place and tapped on the
wood stove with her large metal spoon.
      “You no tell me.  Why you no tell me yesterday.  I go Lihue.  I buy.  If
you tell me, I buy enough.  You no tell me.  Now not enough.”
      “I didn’t know about it yesterday,” Miss Myrtle said.
      “What I give them?” Mrs. Haro said.  She moved about the kitchen
banging pots and pans into place, stirring things, glaring into mixing bowls.  
      “What I give them?  Rice?  I got plenty rice.  They eat rice.”
      “If that’s all you have,” Miss Myrtle said.
      “Rice,” Mrs. Haro muttered.  “Plenty rice.  No bread.  Rice.”
      Miss Myrtle had never seen Mrs. Haro so angry.  She stepped back out
of the kitchen into the hallway.  Mrs. Haro took no notice.  Miss Myrtle went
back to her office.
      That night when the doctors came they were served rolls, a chocolate
cake, and a large smile by Mrs. Haro.  And after that Miss Myrtle always
asked Mrs. Haro before she invited anyone to dinner.

      When the war came Uncle Jim grew depressed and, in time, ill.  Doctors
at the hospital said his blood pressure was too high.  They told him not to
work so hard.  Then one afternoon in his office he slipped and fell.  After that
Miss Myrtle made him move his desk into the big house’s living room.  He
grumbled about this and about how much of his work she was doing.  
Sometimes in the afternoon he would walk to his former office as if by so
doing, he might recover what had once been his life.
      Now Mrs. Haro stayed in the kitchen and Uncle Jim came there and
sat for his afternoon coffee and cookies.  He and Mrs. Haro talked.  Miss
Myrtle was not sure what they talked about, but they seemed to have much to
say to one another.
      From her desk she could hear their voices rising and falling in the quiet
afternoons.  Their conversations became a part of almost every afternoon, a
kind of soft background to the sound of the wind in the palms.  Thus, when
one afternoon she heard a sharp noise, she looked to see Mrs. Haro standing
in her office doorway, a look of fear on her face.
      “Mr. Jim.  He fall,” she said.  “He fall off.”
      Miss Myrtle ran to the kitchen.  She felt for a pulse, but there was none
and she knew she would never find one.

      Uncle Jim was buried near Hanalei on a hot windy afternoon in the
cemetery beside the mission church his mother and father had built.  He was
buried under a white stone that bore only his name.
      Miss Myrtle stood by the graveside.  Mrs. Haro and Shig stood a little
farther away, not touching one another, silent and dry-eyed.
      Miss Myrtle found she missed Uncle Jim more than she had expected.  
She missed him most in afternoons when she had heard his voice from the
kitchen.  Sometimes on warm sunny days she would cross the lawn and go
to his old office and sit down at his desk and smoke a cigarette and find she
was staring out at the mountains for many minutes, thinking of nothing.

      In 1944, when the war was almost over, Mrs. Haro’s older son, Hiroshi,
was killed in Italy.  
      Because the telegram came first to the big house Miss Myrtle carried it
to the Haros’ cottage and read it aloud to them.  When she was done, Mrs.
Haro screamed and fell on the bed.  Miss Myrtle sat beside her, stroking her
back until she was quiet.  Then she cradled her in her arms as if she were a child.
      Shig sat as silent as a stone in a corner of the room, his face unmarked by
emotion.  That night, however, after she had gone to bed Miss Myrtle heard
him crying great long, loud sobs.  She put her head under her pillow to drown
them out.


      It was a night and a day before Mrs. Haro, her face set and expressionless,
walked across the lawn to the big house again.  She said nothing, but went into
the kitchen.  She said nothing all that day, only cooked and washed and baked.
      Miss Myrtle listened to her movements and then, prompted by the
reassuring and ordinary sounds, picked up the telephone and began to call.  The
two women worked together but in different rooms all during that day into the
afternoon.
      At last Mrs. Haro came into Miss Myrtle’s office.  She was carrying a
coffee pot and a plate of cookies.  She said nothing, but set the plate down on
the desk and poured a cup of coffee, letting it run slowly and carefully into the
cup.
      Miss Myrtle picked up the cup and sipped it and then she said, “Thank
you, Mrs. Haro.  Won’t you have some, too?”
      Mrs. Haro smiled and bobbed her head toward the coffee pot.  “I fix for
you.”
      “I’m very grateful.”
      “Bery welcome,” Mrs. Haro said.
      “I really want you to sit down and have some coffee,” Miss Myrtle said.
      Mrs. Haro looked at her hands for a moment.  Then carefully she slid
into the chair next to Miss Myrtle’s desk.
      Miss Myrtle went into the kitchen, came back with a cup, poured it full of
coffee, and then set it before Mrs. Haro.
      Mrs. Haro smiled, picked it up, took a sip, and then put it back on the
desk.  “Bery good,” she said.  “Bery good.”
      Miss Myrtle smiled and took a sip of her coffee, too.
      The two sat silently for a long time, listening to the sound of the wind in
the palms.  
       Then Miss Myrtle said, “You know, Mrs. Haro, it just struck me that I
don’t know your first name.  All these years I’ve never called you anything
but Mrs. Haro.”
      “Mioshi,” Mrs. Haro said.
      “Mioshi, what a lovely name,” Miss Myrtle said.
      The two women sipped their coffee without speaking, nibbling on the rice
cookies Mrs. Haro had baked and listening to the sound of Uncle Jim’s old
Seth Thomas clock as its brass pendulum swung back and forth marking the
seconds, minutes, and hours.  
      It was a pleasant soothing sound, a measure of that infinitely slow passage
that did not seem to be one.  The clock ticked and the wind rustled the leaves
and on the stove a pot hissed quietly as it simmered, never boiling enough to
make Mrs. Haro get up and tend to it.
      The sun streamed through the window and sunlight and shadow moved
slowly across the floor as the day advanced without ever seeming to stir so
much as a mote of dust.
      The two women sat in silence until they became a part of the suspension
of time, sat as they would sit in the pleasure of one another’s company, as
they would sit each afternoon for thirty-five years of afternoons in the green
silence of the island that was their home and which, in all that time and in all
the time beyond their deaths, they never left.

                          ____________________________

Carl Heintze is the author of a dozen published nonfiction books for young
people and several prize-winning short stories and is a columnist for the Silicon
Valley Community Newspapers of San Jose, California.  Heintze grew up in
Napa, California; attended Stanford University and the Graduate School of
Journalism; and was a Sloan-Rockefeller Advanced Science Writing Fellow at
Columbia.

On “Mrs. Haro and Miss Myrtle”:
This is my fifth published story.  Three of the previously published stories
are also from a collection called
Islanders, as yet unpublished as a book.  
All of these stories relate to the island of Kauai, where I have made an
annual pilgrimage with my wife for the past twenty-five years and which
I think of as my second home.  This story was inspired by a tour we once
made to Grove Farm Plantation, the home of George Wilcox, which has
been preserved much as it was when he was alive.

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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 1, Number 2
(Fall 2006)

Copyright © 2006
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