In seventy years so little has changed. Then, the gate was taller than the tallest person, electrified, eager to shock to the death. Looming over the fence were eight high-standing towers with armed guards with submachine guns who looked down upon the people as though they could be, should be shot for amusement’s sake. They were at one with the enemy across the Pacific Ocean, many decided. They had to be. They were traitors. They were spies. How else can we separate the good ones from the bad ones? How else can we know the loyal ones from the conspirators? We must round them up like cattle and pen them here where they’re safe from us and us from them.
Above the barracks, higher than the gates, beyond the guard towers, were the mountains. Always the mountains. They encompassed everything within their distance—one vast, jagged, granite wall stretching toward the heavens from the deepest valley in the Americas, cascading Vs flecked with icy snow, unmistakable even through the wintry clouds. The mountains were everything everywhere. If the gates, the guard towers, and the armed military police weren’t enough to remind you that you were a prisoner here, the mountains shouted your helplessness. You are here, the mountains said, and we will trap you here forever.
I remember when the bus stopped in Manzanar near the guard station, a lonely shack at the edge of the camp, one window on either side, misshapen rocks slapped together with mortar, a pagoda-style roof. The guards spoke to the bus driver and barked directions as though the people inside were orange-clad prisoners linked by irons, but they were only families—fathers, mothers, children, grandparents. I remember the anxiety in those inside the gate, their quick-scanning eyes wide as they drew as close to the barbed-wire fence as they dared, searching those on the other side for missing family or friends. I remember the fear in those outside as they stepped off the bus and shivered in the bitter desert cold. Their reaching hands grabbed family members and they stared without seeing the nighttime landscape of brush and tumbleweed that promised blinding dust storms, the horizon flat until the mountains. Always the mountains. The people from the buses were herded inside, shouted at, tagged and numbered. Already they were losing themselves. When the gate slammed and locked behind them they looked toward the outside as though they would never be free again.
So, yes, I have been here before. I have walked this arid wilderness. I have heard the sand blow a maddened howl in the night. I have seen the white-glow moonlight reflect the saw-toothed horizon. Through it all, the mountains have remained the same. After all, what is seventy years to a mountain range that has watched millennia pass away? Now, the gates are taller since they guess we can jump anything less. Now, the gates have silver coating, the electricity and barbs deemed no longer necessary since they guess the barbs cannot pierce our preternatural skin and the electricity will do nothing. Now, the military police carry guns with silver bullets, which we secretly laugh at. Now, I am the one who has been carted away, considered too unpredictable to be out among polite society. Yet the barracks, the mess halls, the natural barrier of the mountains between us and everyone else in the world…so much of it is the same. There are nights when I cannot make the distinction between then, when I was here from compassion, and now, when I am the one encaged. But do not worry for me, my love. Now, with this silver-coated gate and these imposing mountains between us, I am reminded all too strongly how I cannot be without you. Soon, Sarah. I will hold you in my arms soon. Be patient this little longer, my love, and I will return to you. I will.
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