© by Kitty Hughes
First Place - Non-Fiction
"The women couldn't write," our guide says, pointing to the blank walls on their side of the barracks; but here and there we can see a stray mark, perhaps a name or sign of a name. And on the other side, a scholar chiseled a poem carefully in longing and bitterness. "We know he was an educated man," our guide says, "because he composed in classical Chinese."
On their side, the women and children slept and waited, lying on beds stacked in bunks of three across the room. They hung their laundered clothes to dry on long lines strung above their beds in longing and bitterness.
Walls a dull gray, or perhaps once white now grayed with age. Oak trees and Toyon, names and trees they wouldn't know, struck by sunshine filtered through meshed window wire.
The walls of the bathrooms, you can see them still, are lined with white tile -- white, the color of death. "Don't go there alone, there are ghosts in the bathrooms," the women told the children, "they will leach our souls from us.” And every day until dark they sat on the bunk beds, sewing, folding laundry, listening for any sound that might bring hope, fearing the interrogators with their questions to trick you, the unspoken ridicule for long braids and unfathomable eyes.
I hear the women talking. “Even the light streaming in the window, filtered through the trees we cannot touch, is their light, fixing us in this dead place."
We can bear longing and bitterness, even the fear and ridicule, but not the wait, not knowing or believing they will release us. One wrote a poem with her life, now chiseled in the memory of this place.
"Don't go to the bathrooms -- there are ghosts there,” our guide tells us: "I’ll tell you how that got started. A woman was to marry in San Francisco, to marry here was something almost unheard of; she brought her wedding dress from China, expecting to wed in Chinatown."
And after waiting, interrogations, waiting, interrogations, they found her hanging by a strip of clothesline, head bent down over the makeshift noose fashioned across the curtain rod in the shower stall.
"There are many stories of women committing suicide in this bathroom," says our guide, "not able to stand the wait."
Hair hanging down, blue-black, glistening, over her wedding dress, red silk, embroidered for the happy occasion. In the tiled bathroom, white, the color of death. A poem that chills in this gray place.
And this is Angel Island, ghost island, where stories are told in shower stalls, whole volumes etched into the air that envelops you in this one monument.
"The women had no education. They wrote no poetry," our guide tells us.
"Except one,” I think-- “at least that one.”
Coming up the path from the Immigration Station, the wind makes a loud rustle in the Eucalyptus trees. Standing apart on the hill, the trees appear to be guarding the compound. Leaves scrape against each other like so many angry spirits clinging to the branches.
Series of ghosts all leave their traces here, and to whom does the island belong -- to those pink-faced cherubs from Tiburon, on a barbecue jaunt with their parents; to those kept unwillingly on this island: the Chinese, or the Japanese and Germans detained here in World War II; to the warden's daughter who said it was a wonderful place to grow up; to the Native American tribes who settled here before everyone else; to the Spanish explorer who named it; to the ferry boat’s load of tourists; to what untold future visitors; or to the red-dressed ghost who wrote the poetry for this place?
That one follows me home, across the Bay, jade green today, etched with a frothy white edge. There she is: hovering on the water, watching the rocking boat.