Moon Of Many Petals, by Cindy Rinne, Cholla Needles, 2017
There’s a tapestry on the book cover, made of abstract patterns of blue—also embedding a bird and a dark figurine. This last must be female by the contour of her hairdo, by the shape of the dress she wears under a cape. Is it a shawl? A blanket she has wrapped around herself, for protection? She bends slightly, in a pose we might decode as pensive. She has things in her mind, therefore things to say. Age unknown. We don’t know much yet of Natsumi.
Look inside. She comes back on the title page. She begins the five chapters composing Cindy Rinne’s new novel in verse. Each appearance is different, and a different patchwork surrounds the shadow-girl. Once, her body is all made of butterflies. Then she grows golden wings parsed with turquoise stones. Later, enrobed in tender lilac, she looks the other way. Sometimes she haunts the foreground, sometimes she disappears in the distance. Her shape always overlaps a list of names, like those found on memorial walls. These are printed on a screen inside the Manzanar Visitor Center. As they part the chapters—forming the backdrop of Natsumi’s metamorphoses—they shift in size. They come close, wishing to be individually spelled, learned, recalled. They recede exposing their vertiginous quantity, their frightening infinity.
Manzanar? If you just flip the pages, jewel tones, soft textures, dancing shapes of the images constellating the text—the author’s own fiber art—suggests whimsicality, maybe a children story. True, as this narrative of evacuation, exile, confinement, prison, is re-told by the lightest of testimonies—an embryo, then fetus. An un-born baby. The tale is related ab utero, a womb its vantage point.
When Mio is forced on a bus together with her husband, Takumi, she is a few weeks pregnant. We have already met the presence tugged inside her. “She” has told us about her parents’ home in Morro Bay, surrounded by the liveliness of the sea. She has spoken of many other things, travelling back in time and as far as Japan, visiting the grandmother whose namesake she’ll be, once borne—another Natsumi, still in Sendai, yet so close to the cluster of cells busy making themselves, they are one. Just as this bundle of tireless growth is one with Mio. The un-born girl experiences her mother’s distress, fear, disorientation, and loneliness.
Ash, wind, dust, make life in the Manzanar barracks harsh, even more for a pregnant body. Only a thin curtain splits the miniature room where two families coexist. Intimacy is erased and so is the language. The internees are prohibited of speaking Japanese. But the fetus witnesses Mother’s revolt, as Mio can’t resist lullabying the fruit of her womb with traditional songs, or reciting an ancient play Grandma loved.
Paper shades at the window can’t hide the barbed wire surrounding the flats—the wide, barren plain containing the camp. The sight loads Mio with anguish, with a sense of suffocation Natsumi can feel, though she is still entirely free. Actually she is freedom itself, as the microcosm of the womb coincides with the macrocosm. She is swallow, butterfly, flower, sakura petal. She is simultaneously past, present, future, whispering in her ancestors’ ears, carrying messages back and forth, sewing what has been with what will be, annihilating distances. Body/souls in the making have such awesome flexibility.
As she observes her mother’s and father’s suffering unravel, the un-born gently directs our eyes towards few crucial landmarks. Here are the four objects Mio was able to salvage and bring with her: a scrap of indigo silk hand-dyed by her husband, a love letter, a doll, an origami butterfly made by her own mother. Four things only, of good omen, grace, ritual significance. “Dream of paper, will not fly away”.
Mio paints a rose in watercolors, decorates with shells the dusty front yard, plants bulbs in spite of the horrible weather. As she secretly sings in the forbidden language—“my ears,” say Natsumi, “resonated in ancestral sounds”—she is building a nest, determined to “form a foundation” no matter how. Likewise, Father slips under the wire fence and steals down to the stream, catches fresh fish for the pregnant wife, builds a cradle. And the fetus, hungry for life, sucks in every parcel of strange, complex reality, spinning it in tendon and bone, nerve and blood. But—accessing past, present, future wisdom—she knows what we still don’t.
It's a tale of melancholy that Rinne has woven, carefully juxtaposing fragments of history. Yet she has captured such astonishing a vantage point, her words become luminous, almost melting the barbed wire they describe. We drink in the vibrancy of the pictures as if borrowing the unfiltered eye of the girl-in-progress. There is joy in her witnessing even pain. There is meekness in her endurance.
As her father remarks, she “would have done acts of kindness”, if--
“Would this had happened, if--
About the Author: Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Nonbinary, Coe, The Magnolia Review, and Lotus-eater.