Death Valley


First Person

Hiroshige, New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji, 1857. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

My grandfather Midori wanted to return, after death, to the desert. He wanted his ashes scattered in Death Valley. On November 9, 1996, we gathered on a hill on the road to Stovepipe Wells. Midori’s ashes traveled, in a clear cellophane bag in a wooden box, by car from Denver, North Carolina, to the airport in Charlotte, by plane to Las Vegas, and by car to Death Valley.

We chose a hill and walked up. I had the feeling we had gathered as strangers, that each of us was walking alone. That with Midori’s death we had been particularized by our relationships with him, each of us compelled by what we shared with him, what we did not share with each other. We each found a rock that reminded us of Midori. We built a monument. The monument amounted to a prototypical effigy. The sun was high. My grandmother June was wearing a white turtleneck and jeans. There was a purple cactus with luminous spines. Midori’s ashes were gray, a puzzle cut into a trillion pieces. June scattered his ashes with a spoon. Scattered is not the right word. June dressed the rocks with Midori’s ashes. She planted his ashes, while walking in a circle around them. She released them.


My aunt Risa read a letter. She sat beside the monument. The letter was addressed directly to Midori. Plaintive, almost pleading. Her voice shook. She was the only person who spoke. She became a child. The nakedness of her becoming a child amplified our lack of courage, our silence. We might have thought our emotions were bound up in silent observance and not, as they were, petrifying. I felt embarrassed. I thought I was embarrassed by Risa becoming a child, but I was actually embarrassed by my inability to grieve. To speak plainly, uninhibitedly, to Midori. That I was, in the company of my family, my grandfather’s ashes, and the magnanimous indifference of the desert, self-conscious. I wanted to join Risa in childhood. But I could not get there. I was even more childish than a child. My childhood had not yet been consummated by the sensation of having been left. I was stunted, with no way yet to move on.


Fifteen years later, November 2011, we returned. On the way to the hill, my sister Kelly and I gave June a camera and told her to take a picture of anything she wanted to remember. Despite being married to a photographer, she rarely, if ever, took pictures, rarely, if ever, touched Midori’s cameras. We were standing on the front porch of a jerky shack in Beatty, Nevada. We showed her how to take a picture. We wanted to see what she was seeing, what she found interesting, in the desert, where Midori was. Where, she said, she would join him.

She held the camera in her lap. We turned into Death Valley. We drove toward the dunes. The landscape looked familiar. Its familiarity was an illusion, a ruse. What looked familiar, to our desert-less eyes, was repetition. We might have thought we were driving against it. We were being enfolded, were already part of it.


When someone chooses the site of their burial, the place where they want their ashes to be scattered (dressed, planted, released), are they imagining the relationship that will form between the place and their family? Within and beyond the desires of the dead, the living set down the order, the rituals, of death, and follow it, or not. They are deferential until, unable to bear the desires of the dead any longer, or forgetting them, or thinking, mistakenly, that they are not being watched, they become defiant.

Following Midori to the site of his desire was to follow him nowhere. The desert was the end. Or the opening onto a new existence, on this side of which we were halted. Not being dead, we did not know that. We were proud, arrogant, yet stricken, suddenly, with uncertainty.


A memorial exists in the present, must exist and be attended to and maintained in the present, therefore must constantly be renewed. In the intervening years, the hill moved. There was disagreement. Risa and my uncle Sano scrambled up two different hills. (My father was not with us. Did his absence constitute a third, maybe even the most accurate hill?) We walked June up several hills. She held on to us as if we were leading her to a baptismal spring. Then we walked her back down. Rested among the straw-colored brush. Our inability to find the hill, and the monument, was, to me, consoling. It reinforced not only the privacy of death but the privacy of memorialization. I did not say that out loud. June was eighty-five. Her feet were killing her. What is the relationship between a woman nearing the end of her life and a pile of rocks in the desert meant to mark the memory of her dead husband?


The phone rang. June was out. Midori answered the phone. Hello? It’s your daughter. Who? Tell Mom I’ll be there on Friday. When? Write it down. The doorbell rang. Midori looked at the phone. The phone was on a small table with a bowl of glass eggs next to a porcelain doll.


Midori pretended he did not know who we were. Kelly and I held the phone to our ears, and he would say, Nice to meet you, and we laughed. A better game would have been if he had said, I know exactly who you are, and I am going to tell you, in which he would tell us exactly who we were and who we were going to be, even describing where we would die, what we would be wearing, who we would be with, the weather, the hour, the minute, the expression on our faces.


Kelly and I were in the garden. Midori pointed at the mountain across the valley from where he and June lived in El Cajon, California—where they lived before moving to North Carolina—and said: See that mountain? Close your eyes. Count to fifty. When you reach forty-nine, open your eyes. I will be standing on the top of the mountain, waving at you. Then he disappeared. We counted to fifty but could not stand it past thirty. Everything on the mountain was Midori. Every shadow, every cloud passing.


Soon, you will not see a mountain. You will not see, on the face of the mountain, the shadow of a gargantuan spider. You will not see the shadow of the gargantuan spider rushing down the face of the mountain.


A wooden eagle hung on the garage wall. The eagle held a stars-and-stripes sash in its talons. The garage had white carpet. That’s how clean the streets are, June said.

I remember the sun. Glassy, white. I remember a red tomato in the garden. I remember a shirtless man with a rope over his shoulder, a bee hovering above a pink flower, a tall desert landscape with sandstone buttes, a snakelike map inside a circle, a young woman holding a basket on her head.

Midori’s ability to cross the valley and climb the mountain in the distance was possible, permissible, because everything in the desert was, to us, completely new and unknown. We took its magic for granted.


Driving out of Death Valley, we crossed a fox. Low and sleek, it drifted across the road. Our headlights caught its eyes. It paused, turned its head. Its eyes were green. It had the face of an old man. Who had not aged. It continued into the brush, at the pace of a body in total sympathy with its surroundings. I thought of the foxes in Hiroshige’s woodblock print, the foxes convening at the base of the enoki trees, arriving in a procession winding deep into the distance—bright, the brightness of full moons cast on rocks on a beach, each fox illuminated by a single flame (kitsunebi, foxfire), each flame an attendant, lighting their way.

Foxes, in Japanese mythology, can turn into humans, in some cases by means of climbing into their bodies. They are often portrayed as tricksters. Sometimes vengeful, especially when their territories or private acts—weddings, in particular—have been trespassed. But they can also be benevolent. It is determined, in large part, by the behavior of humans, how they impose themselves on nature and, posthumously, on each other.


Familiarity inspires affection—a crush, infatuation. What of the affection that is formed by being drawn into relation with a person or place, a landscape, that remains wholly unfamiliar? Midori was watching. To see if we could find him, hoping we would not.


My first published work was a short story about my grandparents. I wrote it my senior year of college. My workshop professor, the novelist Sheila Kohler, encouraged me to submit it for an award. It was fiction but ended up winning for nonfiction. It was called “Lighthouse.” In the story, I visit my grandparents on the coast of Oregon (where they never lived). One morning, Midori goes to the beach to take pictures of a lighthouse. He does not return. June and I look for him. We enter the redwoods leading down to the ocean and find him passed out on the path, camera around his neck. We struggle him up the path and back home.

“Lighthouse” was one of several stories I wrote about Midori, all of which had him wandering in the wilderness. My preferred method was to create a landscape in which Midori—an old man, a child—was free to do nothing, was free, like an actor without a script, to improvise. The freedom, however, was mine, imagined, and not entirely without manipulation. I was enthralled, even as I was frightened, by Midori’s dementia—the ways he lived in several times and places at once, the ways he withdrew or was withdrawn from us, his personality, his body, his breath, each moment, the ways I imagined the devouring of one’s brain might look like from within. That is what and how I wanted to write.

In this story, while Midori recovered in bed, I took his film to be developed. I wanted to see his lighthouses. Every photograph was of my grandmother—reading a book, standing at the kitchen sink with her back to the camera, sitting at the table with her elbows on a straw place mat and her face in her hands, watering her tomato plants, standing in the driveway with her work gloves … pictures of my grandmother in mundane poses, always off-center, halos of light around her head or her hands, blurred-out backgrounds, foregrounds, lines radiating out from her eyes, her expressions minimal and relaxed, lacking self-consciousness.


We stayed in a motel in Lone Pine. In the morning we were going to the ruins of Manzanar, the concentration camp where 10,046 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were incarcerated. I thought of Midori’s first wife, about whom very little was known, and about whom no one said anything. She was incarcerated in Manzanar. She and Midori had separated not long before, in December 1941. She was named in Midori’s FBI file: Margaret Ichino.

June and I shared a room. I asked her questions across the brown carpet. My questions were the same ones I always asked. But the stories she told—which she had told, and which I had heard, many times—were transformed, somehow different. She looked, in bed, with the blankets pulled up to her chin, much younger, a teenager. She told stories, answered my questions, as if she was dreaming. As if the stories were from a life she had not yet lived. Her stories were prophecies, visions.

She listened to Midori’s stories for forty years. His stories were acts of burnishing the parts of his experience he wanted to share, to pass on. They were abridged, incomplete. Acts of negation, refusal. His stories included very little, if anything, about the village of his birth or his dead grandfather or Yumi Taguchi, being left by his mother in Nakanose, three weeks on a steamship in the Pacific, meeting his father for the first time, growing up in Seattle, being the only alien in a family of citizens, Margaret Ichino, the hatred that forced him out of California, his incarceration in Missoula. His memory began to deteriorate.

After Midori died, June began writing her recollection of Midori’s life. Her blue and green journals cover the late 1800s through the late 1960s, with holes between events so enormous they become events greater than the events June remembers. She wrote in cursive. Her letters lean, virtuous and stubborn, as if into a wind, as if they might fall forward or begin levitating. Then she stopped writing. But now, in Lone Pine, fresh from Death Valley and with the afterimage of the foxfire on the ceiling, the stories were set in motion again. They returned to their purest form, behind and beyond which the experience of June’s life with Midori was protected—from the future, my questions. Was peace being made with the fragments? Was she finally alone, free to reorder her memory?

I fell asleep watching the ceiling fan, the blades turning slowly enough for the space between them to inflate a flower of illuminated rays inside its languorous shadow.


The next morning, Kelly and I looked at the pictures June had taken with the camera we gave her. She had only taken one: Kelly and me, standing outside the jerky shack in Beatty, Nevada.


Brandon and Kelly Shimoda, Beatty, Nevada, 2011. Photo: June Shimoda.


Brandon Shimoda is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The Desert (Song Cave, 2018) and Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions, 2016), which received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. His writings on Japanese American incarceration have appeared in/on the Asian American Literary Review, Densho, Hyperallergic, The Margins, and The New Inquiry, and he has given talks on the subject at the University of Arizona, Columbia University, Fairhaven College, and the International Center of Photography. He is also the coeditor, with Thom Donovan, of To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader (Nightboat Books, 2014). Born in the San Fernando Valley, California, he lives, for now, in Tucson, Arizona.

From The Grave on the Wall, by Brandon Shimoda, out now from City Lights Publishers. Copyright 2019 by Brandon Shimoda. Reprinted with permission of City Lights Publishers.