SWEEP by Dana Brewer Harris

In the cemetery, Yuudai kisses me. He has hair as coarse as pine needles and broad shoulders that rake and haul and dig and plant. One arm wraps around me as we walk to the chapel where he drapes my panties across the velvet kneeler before his head sinks between my thighs. One day my stomach growls. One day after that, and the day after that until always, he brings a foil-lined bag packed tight with sea-foam colored bowls of fish and rice, and salty sheets of nori, or perhaps pickled cucumbers, thick toast, and eggs. We walk across the dead and say their names, and on the days I don’t come, I miss him.

I lay on a cold slab of earth and listen as he tells me how his grandparents, Hosojiro and Nishi, arrived in America, bought a sandy plot of land and grew strawberries and lavender until their loyalty was questioned and their land was taken and given to someone else. How they held hands inside the gates of Tule Lake for as long as they could, Nishi’s small hand snug inside her husband’s fist, until he left her in front of the medical center, and she watched the dust rise from the tips of his shoes as he went with the other men to another camp. He tells me how Nishi gave birth to his father under the bored eyes of a guard and how she felt the captive spirit of Tule Lake enter her baby’s body and make his life forever small. Years later, her grandson was born, and as he grew, she’d tell him, “Yuudai, you must be watchful, and grow strong in case the grandchildren of the guards grow up and come again to take us all away. We must stay together.” He tells me about his life, happy to wait until I am ready to share my own, and his generosity follows me through the day like an echo.

We leave the dead behind, their bony hands and the weight of the world on their chests and live our lives. Yuudai, steady and waiting, while I flow back and forth to him, the weft to his warp.

“Come to my house. I want you to meet someone,” he says. My head drops, as if he’d just removed several bones from my neck, so he adds, “Follow me. Leave when you want.” We drive, coupled like freight cars, down shaded roads toward the beach, to a small house with a blue door. He catches a few of my fingers and pulls me down the path.

I meet his older sister Mini and she reminds me of the best parts of anyone I’ve ever known. She laughs, cusses, and cooks. She pulls grainy photos from an old box that will never be misplaced and tells stories about a serious little brother who used to follow her everywhere. I push a little and she tells me about parents too old to climb the hill in the cemetery to light incense for the ancestors, and an ex-fiancé who decided a rich girl would suit him better. We are friends.

One day, the tea steeps and I sit at the dining table looking out the window at the ocean while Yuudai tells stories about his family and a continuity of life I cannot understand; how they held onto each other across oceans and barbed wire. I open my mouth a crack and say, “I’m still married and I’m not sure when I won’t be.” He pushes a little and the rest floats down like snow: cold, quiet, and inconvenient. A new mood folds over him as translucent and sticky as a membrane.

In the cemetery, Yuudai’s shovel rests in the bramble near a brutalist mausoleum. I find him inside, shot through by a reed of silver light, eating pork rinds and drinking beer, an old broom at his feet.

“You’ve been hard to find these past few weeks,” I say. “I have an hour or so. Maybe a little more.” Leathery and sweet, the smell of the vault swings between us and he cracks a rind between his teeth.

“When you’re here, where’s your family?” he asks.

“You mean my husband?” Yuudai’s let his hair grow long and it hangs heavy like a mitter curtain across his eyes. “As long as he’s not here, what does it matter?” He smooths his hair back and looks at me, eyes darker and wider than usual, his mouth tighter. The hope he had for me is thinning.

“Because it matters where your family is.” The beer cans fall as he stands and land with a bright tinkle. “And if you don’t care,” he says as he leaves, “you have the heart of a guard and you exist only to pull things apart.”

I want to run away but pick up the broom instead. I sweep until it’s dark, until I hear Yuudai’s truck grumbling toward the road. And then I open my mouth and sweep the cold, quiet inconvenience of it all through a small crack between my lips.

Photo by Ivan Radic , used and adapted under CC.