Christine poured herself a cup of coffee and picked up the newspaper. The headline jumped out at her: OSAKA MAN STABS 23 ON SCHOOL GROUNDS. A shudder rippled through her body. She glanced over at Emi and Koji, who were just dipping their spoons into their bowls of corn flakes, and slammed the paper face down on the table.
"What's wrong, Mommy?" Koji asked.
"Nothing, sweets. Just some bad news. In a place far away."
Her husband, Hideki, who was engrossed in his Japanese-language newspaper, grunted. He thought that Christine was overprotective. He didn't like the way she switched off the news as soon as something disturbing flashed on screen – tanks in the desert, the detritus after a tsunami, a house on fire. He didn't understand how sensitive Koji was, how he'd fret all day, tears pooling in his eyes. The nightmares. He was afraid to go down the hallway to the bathroom by himself. Whenever Christine took the little boy's hand and walked him to the toilet, her husband shook his head.
Now, she was tempted to ask him to tilt the paper away from her son, even though he wasn't looking at the photo of the bodies covered with sheets. He couldn't read the Chinese characters for "death" or "knife." Neither could Emi, who was less fearful, anyway. Christine wondered if her deafness shielded her somehow. Or maybe the cerebral palsy – maybe the part of her brain that registered fear had been damaged at birth.
She nibbled on a piece of toast and tried to think of other things. Emi's presentation, for example. She had to go up in front of all of the other deaf school kindergarteners and talk, well, sign, about her spring vacation. Christine had blown up digital photos of Emi sitting in Grandpa's boat with a fishing pole. There was another photo of Emi in a wagon being pulled by Koji in her parents' big backyard. In Japan, that much land would hold an entire neighborhood. She couldn't help thinking that the other mothers would be impressed.
After breakfast, she quickly filled the dishwasher and rounded up the children's bags and thermoses. Her husband carried Emi to the car and buckled her into her car seat. And then they were off.
The presentations were scheduled for the morning. The kids went straight to the Playroom and lined up their little chairs in rows. The first kid up was Naoki. He folded a beetle out of black origami paper, narrating all the while, then showed photos of a real stag beetle, clinging to a tree. He drew a net out of a paper bag and demonstrated how he'd caught the beetle. Lastly, he pulled a small terrarium out of the bag, and showed his classmates his new pet.
Everyone clapped. The other women leaned in toward Naoki's mother and congratulated her. "What a good job!" "He did it all by himself!" "His speech is so clear and easy to understand!"
Now it was Emi's turn. Christine's teacher scooched Emi, chair and all, to the front of the classroom. Christine knelt beside her, handing up the props and photos, one by one.
Emi pointed to a picture of an airplane. "Uh…uuuuh." She signed "airplane" and "Grandpa and Grandma" and "America."
Then the next picture, the boat. Here, Emi tugged on the orange life jacket they'd bought at K-Mart. Christine handed her a fishing pole they'd made together out of a chopstick and a piece of string with a magnet tied to the end. She tossed some paper fish affixed with paper clips onto the floor and Emi "caught" them.
Finally, Emi tacked the blown-up backyard photo to the white board.
"Amerika hiroi na!" Naoki blurted out. He waved his hand like an American flag, the sign for the country. Then he pointed his index finger and said,"Pow! Pow!"
Christine sighed. She was so sick of the stereotype of America as the land of guns. How was it that a four-year-old deaf kid had developed such an idea anyhow? Did his parents let him watch the news? Did his mother tell him that in America everyone packed heat? She glared at Naoki's mother, who wasn't even paying attention. The woman was whispering behind her hand to the mother sitting next to her.
She wanted to tell Naoki's mother that every time a toy gun found its way into her house, she threw it immediately into the trash. She was trying to teach Emi and Koji about peace and love.
Back when she'd been teaching, whenever the subject came up, she told her students that she'd never laid eyes on a hand gun and there hadn't been any pistols in her house. But the truth was, she'd grown up in a family of deer hunters.
Every November they'd convened – cousins, uncles and aunts – and gone out into the woods behind her grandmother's house. During the summer, Christine had loved to wander through those trees. She'd carved her initials – and those of whichever boy she liked at the time – into half a dozen trees with the Swiss Army knife that she still carried in her purse. She'd once come across a beaver building a dam in the pond out there. Another time, she'd stumbled upon a doe and her fawn. She'd looked straight into their big, brown eyes. During deer season, she avoided the woods. The men and boys – and sometimes her aunts – went out to their blinds where they'd wait until they were ready to shoot.
Christine had never joined them. She and her mother had stayed in the house reading novels and playing Scrabble. But sometimes she'd venture out to the barn and stared at the carcasses hanging from the beams. The blood made her stomach turn.
When hunting season was over, her father and brother stored their rifles in the back of the coat closet. Knowing those guns were there, and that her dad could shoot a six-point buck at 100 yards made her feel safe. She slept soundly, guarded.
She remembered waking one night to footsteps thudding on the lawn. The motion-sensitive light at the edge of the driveway had flashed on, and then a sliver of light under her door. She'd stumbled into the hallway, blinking against the glare, to find her dad reaching into the back of the coat closet.
"Go back to bed, Chrissie," he'd whispered.
She'd slipped back into her room and parted the curtains. She could see someone in dark clothes crouched by the bushes, and then, at the window, the silhouette of her dad's rifle. The prowler suddenly bolted off toward the road, and then there was the sound of an engine revving, fading, and then the closet door shutting, her father padding back to bed.
Sato-sensei, the head teacher at the deaf school kindergarten, announced that there would be a new drill. In addition to periodic earthquake and fire drills, the children would practice evading strangers. Although the mothers wouldn't be taking part in the drill, they were invited to watch from a second story window.
The children were playing outside during their morning recess – digging in the sand, soaring on swings, scrambling over the jungle gym. Christine could see Emi down below, filling a plastic bucket with a small shovel. Everything was peaceful until a teacher disguised in a trench coat, stocking cap and sunglasses lunged into the play area. She reached into a pocket and pulled out a knife. No one noticed at first, then Naoki shrieked and pointed and another kid started to cry. They all ran to the teachers – all except for Emi, who couldn't run, couldn't even walk. If this were real, she would be the first victim. But Emi didn't look all that alarmed, at least not at first. Christine saw that she was curious. She watched the weirdly dressed teacher until her own teacher, Naka-sensei, swooped down and picked her up and carried her to the verandah where the others were huddled in fear.
Christine shook her head. They'd done nothing but scare the children. She remembered what her Sunday school teacher had said long ago about the devil: He wouldn't be some ugly red ogre with horns; he'd be handsome and friendly and he'd come bearing candy.
Christine envied the mothers at Koji's preschool who dropped their kids off and then went on to yoga classes or aromatherapy or jobs in climate-controlled offices. According to deaf school policy, the kindergartners' mothers were required to hang out at school while their kids were in class "in case something happened." Christine thought the rule was meant to throw the mothers together and force them to bond. Left to their own devices, they might fall into depression over their disabled children. They might be too ashamed to talk about their problems. They might try to hide their deaf kids and develop ulcers from accumulated stress.
So the mothers were stuck at school, and the teachers thought up little tasks to keep them busy. They had to clean the toilets on the second floor, pull weeds from the playground, sift pebbles from the soil before rice planting. It was like work, Christine thought – one of those menial minimum wage jobs she'd had in high school or college, yet she didn't get paid and she wasn't bonding.
The next big project would be designing and sewing costumes for the annual Culture Festival. Sato-sensei called a meeting to discuss the event.
The mothers knelt at a low table, with Sato-sensei at the head. Various photocopies were distributed – schedules, memos, diagrams.
"This year's theme is ninjas," Sato-sensei announced. "The children love ninjas."
The other mothers nodded, but Christine's jaw dropped. Ninjas went around hurling death stars. They carried knives. They killed people in the dark of night. How could they even think of putting these children onstage as killers when there were all these stabbings in the news? She'd read that in the United States, after Columbine, a child had been sent home from school for picking up a chicken drumstick and saying "bang bang."
Sato-sensei paused. "Yamada-san, is there something you want to say?"
Here was her chance. She had to speak out. She remembered how, a couple of years before, she'd convinced a teacher that the children shouldn't feed rice to the pigeons in the park. The rice, she'd explained, would absorb moisture in the birds' stomachs, swelling and killing them. That's why no one tossed rice at weddings in the States anymore. The teacher had been moved and they'd wound up feeding the pigeons bread crumbs instead.
"Well," she began, trying to arrange her thoughts in Japanese ,"ninjas killed people, right? And there was that guy in Osaka…"
Sato-sensei stared, uncomprehending.
"It just seems that with these problems of violence, maybe something more…peaceful would be better."
Sato-sensei nodded. "I see. Well, that's one opinion."
Obviously no one else felt the same. Down the table, someone snickered.
When the meeting was over, the other mothers began discussing costumes. Naoki's mother went off to the library to look for illustrations of ninja attire. Christine remained in place, her face red, her legs cramped, her lips pressed together. Why didn't they get it? How could they not care?
She was still angry two hours later when she pulled into the parking lot of Koji's school. He came running out of the gate as soon as he saw her, and she felt her spirits lift. So much energy! It was hard to believe he'd ever been a pound and a half baby struggling in an incubator. He handed his tote bag over to her, hugged her legs and then went spinning off to join his friends.
Then she looked into his bag. More memos, making her worry about the rain forests in Indonesia, and what was this? A tightly rolled newspaper insert, looped and taped at the end into a handle. Another saber, she thought with a sigh. Every morning when she brought Koji to school, she saw the boys parrying like Musketeers with their homemade swords. Once a kid had even pretended to slash her thigh. Koji'd told her before that his teacher helped make them.
That evening, after the kids were in bed, she brought up the matter of the ninjas with Hideki.
He sighed. "Ninjas weren't evil. They were just trying to protect their masters."
"But the weapons…"
He shook his head. "You think too much, Christine."
The next week, she brought her sewing machine to the deaf school. Up in the mother's room, she ran the yellow fabric under the needle. Real ninjas wore black, but the mothers had decided that more vivid colors would be better onstage.
At home, Emi folded death stars out of origami – something she had learned at school. She slid them between her palms, making them fly across the room.
After the costumes were finished, the mothers spent every spare minute making Christmas ornaments for the school bazaar, part of the Culture Festival. None of the Japanese mothers were Christian, but they all put up trees in December. Christine let her mind go blank as she sewed beads onto felt. She was determined not to care.
The morning of the event, she staked out folding chairs for herself and Koji in front of the stage. She'd brought along a camera and a video recorder. Hideki, was off coaching baseball; he would watch later.
She sat through the sixth graders' taiko drum performance, the high school girls' fashion show, and then the first little ninjas came onstage, flinging death stars into the audience, little cardboard daggers tucked into their sashes.
Finally, Emi came out in her walker. She twirled a long pink ribbon in spirals, her face alight with joy. She looked so fierce and confident up there in her ninja costume in front of all those people. She looked almost like she could take care of herself. Almost, but not quite. Christine felt a surge of love and pride. Tears stung her eyes.
She closed them for a moment and she saw her hand reaching for something sharp and shiny. She thought of all the things she would do to protect her children