For Ages
12 to 99

   Emma Karas was raised in Japan; it's the country she calls home. But when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Emma's family moves to a town outside Lowell, Massachusetts, to stay with Emma's grandmother while her mom undergoes treatment.

   Emma feels out of place in the United States.She begins to have migraines, and longs to be back in Japan. At her grandmother's urging, she volunteers in a long-term care center to help Zena, a patient with locked-in syndrome, write down her poems. There, Emma meets Samnang, another volunteer, who assists elderly Cambodian refugees. Weekly visits to the care center, Zena's poems, dance, and noodle soup bring Emma and Samnang closer, until Emma must make a painful choice: stay in Massachusetts, or return home early to Japan.

An Excerpt fromThe Language Inside

Chapter 1
third time it happens
I’m crossing the bridge
over a brown-green race of water
that slides through town
on my way to a long-term care center
to start volunteering
to get my courage up

peering over a rail
by a
Tow Zone
No Stopping
on Bridge
glimpsing shadows
below the river’s surface . . . 
but when I look up
the sign is halved--
one side blank
the other saying

I glance back at the water
that my grandma YiaYia says used to
power this town’s mills
which are now closed or reborn
as outlet malls, doctors’ offices
dance and art studios, clinics
and care centers like the one
I’m headed to
to work with a woman
who can’t move her legs
her arms
her head
and can’t even talk
but the water has a spot of darkness
and my blindness grows
to a black hole
and I begin
to panic

should I find this guy Sam
the other volunteer
from my high school
who’ll introduce me
to the recreational therapy director?
should I return to the bus stop
and try to get to YiaYia’s house?
I haven’t lived here long
I don’t have a cell phone yet
I don’t know if there’s a bus
to my grandmother’s neighborhood
and I have just twenty minutes
before my speech and thoughts
I go for Sam

I cross the bridge
turn right then left
walk up the paved pathway to
the Newall Center for Long Term Care
where standing by the entrance
is a guy whose face looks
half there
who says
I’m Sam Nang--you Emma?
I turn my head
pan his face with the half
of my vision that remains--
Asian, I realize
Japanese, I dare hope
though I know that’s doubtful
here in Massachusetts
I tell him yeah, but I’m sick

when he gets that I mean it
he says the lobby . . . 
and leads me inside to a waiting area
where I drop onto a chair
I feel in my bag
pull pills from a plastic case
and swallow two caplets with
the last swig of water
from my bottle
along the edge
of my blindness
flickers a crescent
of tiny triangles--
edged by
cuts of blue
my stomach turns
I close my eyes
try to slow my breathing
and feel the thud of Sam
sitting down beside me

I squint my eyes open
shade them with my hand
against too-bright lights
and tell him
my head
I can’t see
I need to go home
zigzags of light seem to
bolt from his jaw
I tell him YiaYia’s address
and phone number
I tell him
to tell her

he tries calling
but there’s no answer
now I’m breathing too fast
and as the numbness
starts creeping up my arm
I can’t help crying
okay, okay Sam says
I’ll call Chris
he’ll drive you home
I unwrap the scarf from around my neck
drape it over my head to hide in the dimness
wishing my grandmother had a cell phone she actually used
wishing my mother or father could come get me
wishing we’d never left Japan

under the scarf I let myself cry
missing my friends
from Kamakura
Madoka, Kako, Kenji, Shin
from Yokohama
Min, Grace, Yuta, Sophia
whispering their names
like a prayer
to get me out of here
a prayer to get me back there
where I know people
where I know my way around
where I know what to expect
where my body didn’t do this

Sam speaks softly
into his phone
stows it
then goes off
and has a conversation
I can’t quite hear
with a person
I can’t quite see
when he comes back he’s silent
just the lobby noise
surrounds us
after a while I feel him rise
and press a tissue
into my hand
I wipe my eyes
try to keep calm
try to keep the light out
just breathing
through the weave of the scarf
as we wait

finally Sam tugs my jacket
takes my arm
and leads me outside to a car
parked near the entrance
he speaks to the driver
pain slams my head
I can hear words
catch words
ride back leap
sock close
but I can’t connect the words
to make meaning
I start to get in the car
get out
throw up in some bushes
wipe my mouth with
another tissue from Sam
get in the car
lie down on the backseat
my head covered with my scarf
and a towel the driver hands me
then I close my eyes
and let myself be driven off
to who knows where
by two guys--
one I’ve just met
one I don’t know
at all

when the car stops
doors open
the crescent of triangles
my arm’s numb
half my face, too
my head bowling-ball heavy
I hear talk
outside the window
hear the driver say sleep
then it’s quiet
and I do

Chapter 2
The Afterwards
when I wake
it’s dusk
I lie not moving
on the car seat
turn onto my back
and wait
sit up
testing my head
my vision

the car has been pulled
into YiaYia’s driveway
her back porch light is on
when I’m sure the worst
is really over
I get out
walk gingerly to the house
taking soft

from the porch I can see
my grandmother, the man and Sam
all seated in the living room around
the coffee table with emptied glasses
and a plate of rice cracker packets
that my father brought for Toby and me
his last visit from New York
at the kitchen sink
I rinse my mouth
wash my face
with paper towels
then join them
easing slowly into
one of YiaYia’s armchairs
I’m Emma I say
resting my head
solidly on the chairback
nice to meet you
and everyone laughs

the man, Chris
Sam Nang’s uncle
stands, says his wife
gets migraines, too
you taking anything for them? he asks
and I tell him the name of the pills
YiaYia’s doctor gave me for
whenever the blindness hits
same as Beth he says
but I threw them up I say
that you did he says
and he and Sam smile
talk to Beth sometime Chris says
she’ll tell you ways to avoid attacks--
sleep patterns, exercise . . . 
it’s good you slept
that’s best

soon they’re leaving
but I can’t rise from where
I’m curled in the armchair
my head all aching and fuzzy
and full of the afterwards
but now that I’m not half blind
I can see that Chris’s clothes are
spattered with paint and stain
and I can see that Sam is
and Asian
but Chris is not

I’m curious
but say nothing
remembering those girls
in the first meeting for Model UN
how when I asked
anyone here speak Japanese?
one rolled her eyes and said
Asian doesn’t mean Japanese, you know
and when I tried to say
of course not, I know that
I’m from Japan, is all . . . 
another girl looked me up and down and said
yeah, sure, white girl
then a guy across the room whispered
Japan--I thought she was glowing!
and everyone laughed

YiaYia walks Chris and Sam to the door
thanks them, returns, says
well, never a dull moment!
as she lays a fleece blanket over me
I come home to drop the groceries off
before going to the Newall Center to pick you up
and I find those two lounging on the porch steps--
I thought they’d broken in!
turns out they’d been sitting there
over an hour
they seem nice I say
yes she says
definitely your angels for today
I think I saw the boy
at the Newall Center once or twice
when I was there for your Papou
I ask
have you heard from Mom and Dad?
did Mom call?

YiaYia eyes me
I try to read her face
but I don’t know
this grandmother well
we usually stay in Vermont
with Mom’s mother and father
near our cousins up there
when we come back summers
not here with Dad’s mother
YiaYia sizes up my state
curled in the armchair
then she picks up the empty glasses
did she call? I ask again
YiaYia puts down the glasses
comes to sit on the chair arm
leans close to me
and whispers
no, but I imagine she’s doing just fine
so don’t stress about it

I’m not stressing! I say
where’s Toby?
she rises and arranges a basket
of patchwork coasters
at a friend’s for dinner
which doesn’t seem fair
because right now
I just want someone
from my lived-in-Japan family

not YiaYia
who seems to think migraines can be controlled
just by flicking a brain switch
some thoughts on
some thoughts off
who wants me to be active and involved
who was the one to introduce me to
the Newall Center where my Papou
spent two years before he died
who when she heard they needed
a new volunteer poetry helper
piped right up with
my granddaughter writes poems!
meaning those verse scribbles
I’d write on her birthday cards

she thinks everything will be fine
if I just join groups
she thinks everything will be fine
if I just meet more Americans
and she thinks everything
will be fine in Japan
that it’s better we’re not there now
during the recovery
and she thinks
everything will be fine
in our family
but I think
she has a strange idea
of what’s fine

I think she doesn’t know
how much it hurt to leave
how much it felt like
abandoning Japan
and I think she doesn’t know
how strange it is to live
without our father
and I think she doesn’t
know what my mother is feeling
about having her breast lopped off
and I think she doesn’t
know what it’s like to be the daughter
wondering do I carry those genes, too?
my migraines started
three days after our move

my mother says I need
a strict routine
YiaYia sews me a lavender pillow
and says to avoid chocolate
my father emails me articles
one of an exhibit of paintings
by migraine sufferers that show
the dark hole of blindness
and the crescent
of zigzagging
just like mine

Toby doesn’t say anything
after my migraines
just asks if I want a bath
to feel like I’m home in Japan
but Toby’s not here now
so in the armchair I
pull the scarf over my head
and hide inside
YiaYia sighs
pats my arm
picks up the glasses
and goes into the kitchen

Chapter 3
I was at the international school
where I’d transferred for grade 9
from Japanese school
I was in English class
when it started
a tremor
that grew
Mr. Hays had taught in Japan
only two years so I shouted at him
and at Ryan and Keizo
who were playing tough
“surfing” the quake
get under the desks!
this isn’t normal!

the building rattled
shelves, books, cupboards clattered
stuff crashed and fell
I thought the walls would give
I thought the windows would shatter
and I was glad
I’d worn my boots
they’d keep me warm
if the school collapsed
on and on
the building
while under the desks
we clutched hands
Sophia on one side of me
Yohei on the other
with the principal’s voice on the loudspeaker
now it’s slowing, wait, here’s another tremble
stay calm, stay calm, it will be over soon
but it seemed like forever
later as we waited
in our classrooms
aftershocks jolting
power came on
network was up
but cell phones
were down
from a school computer
I blast-emailed Mom, Dad, Toby, Madoka
YiaYia, Gram, Gramps, cousins--
big quake, I’m at school, everyone here okay
not knowing who would see my message
or when
trains were stopped
people were stuck
I couldn’t get back to Kamakura
and finally was dismissed
to walk with Juulia to her house

where I translated Japanese TV news
for them while her mother followed
Finnish and English news online
and where we watched in disbelief
as tsunami waves engulfed
the Pacific coast of Tohoku
I tried calling Madoka in Kamakura
whose grandparents, cousins
aunts and uncles
all live up north in Miyagi
near the sea
I sat on Juulia’s sofa
stone still
holding my head
hoping those relatives had all

near midnight I reached
Mom and Toby in Kamakura
their power and heat finally on
Dad staying the night in Tokyo
and right away I asked
but Mom said no
Madoka’s family
hadn’t heard any news
seeing those waves blast away
seaside towns that looked like ours
towns that could have been ours
towns I’ve visited
with Madoka . . . 
I hardly slept
all night
I rose
when I finally heard
someone else up at dawn
and joined Juulia’s father
in stunned silence
in front of the TV

midday on the day after
Mom came by car to get me
and back in Kamakura
I went straight to Madoka’s house
to help them try to make contact
to help them wait for news
Dad got home that second night
by train, bus, walking
and on the third day we learned
that Madoka’s grandparents
her cousins were safe

but later we learned
the first floor of her grandparents’ house
was ruined
one cousin’s school
was gone
one uncle’s fishing boat
was gone
one uncle’s factory
was gone
one aunt’s sister
was gone
one uncle’s wife
was gone
and the list
of gone
went on
and on

Chapter 4
in late April, Dad and I
Madoka and her father
packed a van full of supplies
cleanup gear and two used bicycles
and drove north to Miyagi
at her grandparents’ house
the waterline
was above my head

a car stood on its nose
between the kitchen wall
and a neighbor’s wall
another had bashed down a shed
and four were crumpled
against a broken utility pole
the garden was littered
with splintered chairs, a drum
shredded mats, plastic crates, clothes
a urinal and dresser drawers
trees crusted with mud
were hung with trash
tangled in string
and weighted with dead fish

Madoka’s Jiichan, her grandfather
pried open the door to his house
and we peered inside to furniture
heaped, overturned
reeking and stuck
in oily salty sludge
but at least they still had a house--
a couple streets away
the waterline hit two stories
and beyond that
all the way to the sea . . . 
there was only rubble

we dressed in rainsuits and boots
helmets, masks and goggles
and worked our way inside
shoveling muck into bags
lugging bags out
Madoka and I were a team
taking turns bag-holding
picking out rotting fish
removing broken glass
teams of men hauled out
soaked tatami mats
and ruined appliances
we shoveled sludge from floors
then from under floors
from behind the toilet
from inside kitchen cabinets
we salvaged
dishes, pots and pans
jewelry, photos, unopened bottles of sake

we discarded
furniture, futons, clothes, books, shoes, papers
phones, place mats, curtains, stuffed animals
during lunch or breaks