by TK Kenyon
Inside the Two Frogs Hugging store, importers of Asian pseudo-antiquities, past the sunny front, beyond stacked wooden trinkets, carved chessboards, and Sino-modern media hutches tempting tourists to buy Chinese slave labor-produced Hawaiiana, Koloa fell in love with an antique Indonesian bed.
The headboard soared ten feet tall and almost as wide. The almost-ebony teak glowed as if it absorbed light and held it, as though holding its breath. The carving was the delicacy of thousands of curling ocean waves seen from space. Generations of servants’ hands had rubbed the finish golden in some places, pitch in others, but it was all as smooth as polymerized patchouli oil. Koloa thought she could smell cinnamon and opium smoke embedded in the wood fibers as she inhaled. It smelled like long, long life, a bed that could survive anything: floods, tidal waves, hurricanes, disease, revolution, or tornadoes.
“Don’t you love this bed, Sri-baby?” Koloa whispered as she inhaled. Her stone-heavy backpack thumped her spine. The skin under her eyes felt soggy, water-logged, and an ache pressed her chest like slow, unrelenting CPR. She murmured, “Venkat, it’s teak. That Buddha that you brought me from Nepal was teak.”
Wainani leaned in beside her and laid her pale hand on the headboard. “What’d you say?”
“Hmmm? Nothing.” Nothing to see here. Just practicing death magic. She extended one finger, and its reflection in the polished wood seemed like the bed was reaching back to her. Her fingertip and its mirror image converged at the glassy surface.
A tea-tinted card read $18,000.
Fanny, the store’s owner, wandered over to them and shook her blond, corn-rowed hair. The beads at the ends of her stubby braids clicked. She said, “This bed was rescued from certain destruction at the hands of Maoist and Islamic insurrectionists. We ship to the mainland. How long are you two girls going to be on-island?”
Koloa wiped her nose. She had tumbled off a wave that morning at Lumahai beach and was still sneezing sand-snot. “You have kama’aina discount?”
Fanny looked Koloa up and down and asked, “Did you just move to the islands?”
“Lived here all my life.” Save for seven years. She hitched up her heavy backpack.
Fanny hesitated and calculated. Koloa wasn’t a member of Fanny’s bourgeois clique. Koloa was beach riff-raff, Hawaiian flotsam that surfed and waited tables in lesser establishments and smoked pakalolo and chanted at the moon while mooching off welfare and socialized health care and decent, tax-paying citizens like Fanny. She said, “Ten percent.”
“Bull,” Wainani said. “Nobody give but only ten percent.”
Koloa said, “Give me twenty-five.”
Fanny shrugged. “I give you twenty-five percent for cash. No credit cards.”
“Deal,” Koloa said. As if she had a credit card. Koloa lived off the grid, which is a cybermodern way of saying in poverty reminiscent of the nineteenth century’s brutalized underclass. She touched the black teak wood, as smooth as fossilized bone. “I don’t have that much on me.”
Fanny’s head declined a notch, as if affirming a wager she’d made with herself. “Sure.”
Koloa asked, “How late you open tonight, Fanny?”
Fanny shrugged. “We’re closing early tonight, at seven. I have dinner plans with friends at Brenneke’s.”
How snooty of her to name-drop her hoity-toity shindig. Koloa said, “My bank isn’t open until tomorrow.”
Fanny nodded. “I’ll hold the bed until tomorrow morning.”
Koloa drove her van toward Kapa’a, where she and Wainani were planning to stop at a Laundromat that was known to not shoo away the unwashed poor trying to become less unwashed.
Wainani, riding shotgun in the van, said, “That was beautiful, beautiful! You play that Fanny suckah. She think you gonna buy that big, huge, rococo bed.”
Koloa hid a smile behind a wry smirk. Koloa had taught Wainani pidgin, a patois of Hawaiian, Japanese, and English, so she wouldn’t sound like a stuck-up haole tourist, but occasionally, Wainani’s privileged Californian childhood SAT tutoring erupted in her speech like verbal acne, rococo. Wainani’s California name had been Rebekah, which means tied or bound. Wainani means heavenly water.
Wainani said, “I bet she put sold sign on it. Now, the bed have sold sign and tourists not buy until bourgeoisie Fanny figure you not coming back.”
“No,” Koloa said and let the van meander to avoid a salt-water-filled pothole in the street. “She not put sign on da bed. She think we not go back because we trash.”
Wainani said, “Even so, it funny that Fanny think you gonna give her fifteen thousand dollars. Righteous.”
Koloa calculated. Her paycheck for two weeks was $500, paid in cash so no taxes, and she needed $120 for food, firewater, surfboard wax, shampoo, and cigarettes, if she lived on rice steamed in the rice cooker, perched on the dashboard and hooked up to the van’s cigarette lighter. One tank of gas for the van was $90. That left $390. Koloa said, “So I need fourteen thousand, six hundred, and ten dollars.”
“What!” Wainani’s eyes snapped open from their torpid languor. “You not going to buy that bed, meshuggah!”
Revenge of Rebekah, in the specter of Yiddish pidgin. Koloa said, “I am not crazy.”
“You been drinkin’ so early in da morning? Smokin’ da pakalolo?”
“No, but speaking of pakalolo, maybe my parents got something to say on dis one.”
“They got da kine pakalolo,” Wainani said. “Better than Maui.”
Koloa parked right in front of the Laundromat so they could see their clothes in the machines to make sure no one stole them and see their van to make sure no one stole their other worldly possessions: CDs stacked on the floor, trinkets and canned food layered on shop shelves, and clothes stuffed under fold-down couches.
Undulations of flat blue and green spray paint marked the outside of the van and might look like a singing-whale Wyland mural to a severe myopic or a cock-eyed impressionist. Some previous owner had switched the D and F of the name FORD on the grill, so it read DORF. Koloa’s parents had given her the van when she had come home from the mainland and nodded solemnly, because they were wise, contented, Buddha sages when they were stoned on the pakalolo they grew on a small, secret plot in the wild Na Pali coast, marked off with barbed wire and signs printed with red handprints that read kapu, which means taboo but with superstitious, religious connotations of the fiery wrath of Pele the volcano goddess. Ancient temples are kapu. Burial grounds of the ali’i, the kings and queens and priests of the old days, are kapu. You don’t fuck with kapu. You were likely to get shot by pot farmers or meth lab technicians.
“Aloha,” Koloa said to her parents. AH-lo-hah. The rapid diminuendo of three syllables like a lava chunk careening down Mount Waia’aleale could not be confused with the perversion ah-LOW-haw! Aloha does not mean Hello-I-love-you-goodbye. It means Be with God, and it’s what you say on the occasion of meeting, loving, and leaving. Koloa let her heavy backpack thump the wooden porch and sat on the swing. Tradewinds lifted her hair around her face.
Koloa’s parents were big, big people, like dormant volcanoes. They overflowed their ratty rattan chairs, Buddhas of plenty, curvy cornucopia incarnate.
“Momma Pele, Kimo.” Koloa curled her body into the porch swing. “I need money.”
“Sure.” Her dad’s original name was Jim Bishop, but he changed it to Kimo Bishop when he joined the Hawaiian sovereignty movement in the eighties and added the Hindu prefix when he joined a Hindu temple a decade ago to make him Kimo Krishnabishop. He was hapa haole, part-white and part-Hawaiian. “How much you need?”
“Fourteen thousand, eight hundred dollars.”
“Ho, what you need that type of money for?” Her mom’s name was Pele, had always been Pele, though now she was known as Momma Pele, and she was a full-blood, Kamehameha-school Hawaiian. Even though she converted to Hinduism with Kimo, she did not wear a bindi, the decoration that Hindu married women wear between their eyes, because before the Hawaiian caste system was abolished, slaves had a dot tattooed on their forehead. Hawaiian slaves were like the untouchable caste in India, except that Hawaiian slaves could be killed as a human sacrifice for the gods if no one had broken the kapu laws and thus volunteered.
Wainani sat beside Koloa on the swing. Wainani said, “Koloa want to buy a huge bed from Two Frogs Hugging. It ten feet tall.”
“Where you put such a big bed?” Momma Pele asked. “In your van? Or you gonna finally build you a little house on the back lot? Or you think it time for us to shuffle off to join the aumakua so you can have the hale noa?” Her happy eyes crinkled at her own joke.
A sick shudder rattled Koloa’s stomach. “No, Momma. I don’t want your house. It is just beautiful, this bed. The wood, it is carved like falling snowflakes. It touch me, this bed. It make me happy to look at it.”
Her parents slid their eyes toward each other. “You happy to look at something that look like snow, ku’uipo?” Sweetheart.
“Yeah.” Koloa fidgeted with the papery tapa cloth antimacassar. Her breath rushed at the thought of snow, and storms, and such a huge lump of furniture that it needed a house around it.
“Let us go to temple,” Kimo said. “Pray to Lord Ganesha for guidance and money.”
Momma Pele cast her eyes down. Koloa knew that Momma would ask the Old Gods for help. She was ali’i, born of queens and kahuna priests, and could petition the akua gods. The akua are the powerful gods who can destroy on a caprice. Pele-honua-mea of the volcano, Manu the shark, and Kane the man-god are akua.
Koloa appreciated the effort, but the akua wouldn’t help her, not as long as she was practicing unihipili. Death sorcery was kapu.
Koloa, her parents, and Wainani sat in the shade outside the Kauai Hindu temple after Kimo and Momma Pele did darshan. Koloa and Wainani had waited outside while her parents prayed.
Sunlight blasted off the alabaster marble temple, ricocheted among the thousands of naked, dancing deities carved on the exterior, and tangled itself in the leaves of the mango and ginger trees above them. Inland, the mountain prominence shaped like King Kong’s head jabbed the sky. On the other side, the Pacific crashed like Kanaloa, the akua god of the ocean, was clawing across the land to chew up the foreign gods’ temple and spit it all the way back to India.
Kimo had a bright idea about how Koloa could raise the money, quick. He said, “I meditate upon Om, the sound of all the universe, about how all things come together, about how the prodigal daughter return from the mainland to live simple life, houseless, walking free on the lava and surfing the waves.” His chubby hands fluttered like hula. “It come to me: Koloa love the island, and the island love her back. The land give her what she need.”
Kimo rested his pudgy hands upon his great belly and continued, “We got one bumper crop of pakalolo this year, child of mine,” Kimo continued. “If we only sell it to the free-living beach bums and friends in the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement and Underground Resistance, we make enough for us, just like always. But you have new friend, this Fanny of Two Frogs store, and she and her rich friends pay top dollar for da kine pakalolo.”
“Kimo,” Koloa said. “I don’t know if she even smoke-ah da pakalolo.”
“Nonsense,” said Kimo. “Everybody smoke-ah da pakalolo.”
On the way back to the car, Momma Pele caught Koloa’s bony arm in her cushiony fingers. “You didn’t take darshan again today, ku’uipo?”
“I don’t think I’m up to it.”
“It been years.” Her voice dropped to an asthmatic wheeze. “You want go see Mother Mary?”
“No, Momma. I can’t.” Even remembering the Virgin Mary and the Pieta in the local Catholic church stung her eyes like ocean water.
“Then we dance to the Old Gods.”
“Momma Pele, there is no use.”
“You never had kaku’ai done. You practicing unihipili, aren’t you?”
“No,” Koloa lied.
“I am ali’i, from long line of kahuna. I know these things. They need a kaku’ai.”
“No, Momma. I just don’t sleep very well. I need to sleep, and I can sleep in that bed.”
“Our aumakua, they know what best. I saw a gecko lizard in the daylight, one of our aumakua incarnated, and it made me shiver for you. Meet me at the heiau up the Na Pali coast at midnight tomorrow, full moon. Bring the bones you using for unihipili.”
“I told you, Momma. I’m not practicing death magic.”
Momma Pele blinked her eyes in her padded face. “They are lapu, hungry ghosts. You don’t want them to be hungry, do you?”
“They aren’t lapu.” Koloa felt like her guts were falling out of her and coiling on the ground, a mass of sickness. “They’re resting. Or being reincarnated. Or something, but not lapu.”
Momma Pele nodded her gargantuan head. Her chin poked into the fat on her neck. “It be time to give them their kaku’ai. Midnight, tomorrow.”
Later, Wainani leaned back in the passenger side chair of the van as Koloa drove north toward Lumahai Beach. The sun faded over the mountains on their right. Left, the Pacific darkened as though a million nervous squids had inked.
Wainani asked, “You going to the heiau up Na Pali coast tomorrow with Momma Pele?”
Koloa said, “No.”
Wainani shook her head. “Bad karma, to blow off your Momma who do you a blessing.”
“It’s not a blessing. It’s a kaku’ai. What do you even know about kaku’ai, Rebekah?”
Wainani glanced over at Koloa. Her accent became blond, vanilla California. “Your mother just wants to help.”
“They want me to be the way I used to be, and it too late.”
“Where you going to put that big, big bed, Koloa? You going to build a place on Kimo and Momma Pele’s land?”
If Koloa lived in a house, the walls and ceilings would stare back at her when she couldn’t close her eyes in the night. Walls are walls and ceilings are ceilings; it doesn’t matter whether they are in Hawaii or Iowa or anywhere. Walls and ceilings had surrounded Venkat and Sridhar in Iowa, kept out the howling snow but not the tornado. “I don’t want a house.”
“Not have to be a house. Could be a grass shack. Maybe you sell that pakalolo and use the money to build a shack. Then it really be a grass shack.”
“I don’t want a house.”
Wainani squirmed under her seat belt. “There not much room in this van, here. That big bed, if you cram it in here, you be sleeping in a corner. No room for houseguests.”
“There’s always room for you, Wainani.”
“Oh, now that there’re camping fees, it’s Wainani again,” she said lightly. “But seriously, if this is some way to tell me you need your van back, then I appreciate the hospitality, lo, these past deuce of years, but I can go. No need to buy big, slave-produced bed to push me out of da van.”
“That’s not it. We make it fit, and we will fit, too, and the van will be a beautiful place. It be nirvana, this van. We catch da kine waves and then drift off to sleep in the beautiful van.”
“There not be room,” Wainani said. “It elementary physics. Certainly you of all people understand the physics. Unless this van exists in one of your closed space-like loops, this van not going to fit you, me, and that huge bed.”
Brenneke’s is a pretentious café in Princeville, the pretentious part of Kauai. Well-heeled tourists go there, where dinner can cost you an arm and a leg.
Fanny sat in a corner booth in a cluster of barefoot, well-heeled locals, drinking.
Koloa traipsed over to the group. A couple of folks were Ginger Blossom Hut customers. The guy sitting on Fanny’s right ordered a double latte with a depth charge, cream and no-calorie sweetener, and a cheese Danish, every morning. The teeny-tiny Chinese woman on Fanny’s right liked a drilled coconut once a week. The others were mysteries.
Koloa thumped her grimy backpack on the floor, pulled up a chair, and sat down. “Hi, folks. Just saw Fanny sitting here and stopped by to say hello.”
A few people looked nervous, like Fanny might have a dyke stalker, but Fanny looked bored and said, “This lady is buying that big Indonesian bed from me.”
Mr. Double-Latte said, “Well that’s nice, isn’t it? Have you eaten, Miss . . . ?”
“Koloa. Yeah, I already ate. Thought I might have a drink.” She parceled out a twenty-dollar bill to the waitress, a better class of wait-staff than herself, and rationalized that if the pakalolo ploy didn’t pay off, she didn’t have enough money to buy the bed, so the twenty didn’t matter. “One Jack and Coke, mahalo.” MA-ha-lo.
The waitress jinked one groomed eyebrow. “Be right back with that.”
Mr. Double Latte started, “So what do you do?”
Probably none of the big shots remembered her from the Ginger Blossom Hut. She was out of her element. “I have a little business,” Koloa lied. “Selling stuff to tourists.”
“Oh?” the tanned-leather woman asked. “I’m Josie. I own Sand Babies, kids’ clothes.”
“I’m Mireille,” said the miniscule, coconut-sucking Chinese woman who looked like a midget vole. Her accent was mostly Midwestern. “I own Instructions, the learning center in Princeville.” Their slogan was: Don’t you wish kids came with Instructions?
Koloa was stumped at how to mention to these nice, rich folks that she was dealing drugs.
The next guy had such bad skin that it looked like popcorn had been injected under his skin, then popped. “I’m Johan Dodson, chief of police for Kauai County.”
“Oh. That’s nice.” She should just leave.
Koloa’s Jack and Coke hovered at the level of her eyes, occluding the popcorn-mutilated cop, then descended to rest in front of her. The waitress said, “Your change,” and handed her two bucks back from her twenty. Ah, she’d gotten the kama’aina discount.
“Thanks,” Koloa said. She sipped the stiff drink. She didn’t want to drink it too fast, not with the Head Fuzz watching her get in her van and drive away. The last thing she needed was to be pulled over for DUI and then busted for intent to sell.
“So what do you sell?” asked Johan the cop, and his loose skin slid on the sibilant sss’s.
“Grass . . . skirts. Shells. Tourist crap,” Koloa said. “I sell it out of my van.”
They all frowned. Jane Austen was less concerned with dowries and allowances and estates and carriages than they were, these bourgeois island gentry.
Koloa continued, “I like not being tied down, not worrying about whether this piece of real estate is going to get hit by a tsunami or a hurricane.”
They all nodded like a row of bobble-head dolls.
Josie said, “Iniki wiped us out. The shop was closed for a year.” Iniki, which means a strong, stabbing wind, was the Class Five hurricane that hit Kauai while Koloa was in Iowa, which she’d watched in horror on television and prayed to all the gods for her parents’ lives as the eye wall slammed the west shore and razored the island in half.
The popcorn-faced cop nodded. “No tourists after Iniki. I hid in my neighbor’s wine cellar, praying to the old gods and the new ones. Where were you during Iniki, Koloa?”
“Off-island,” she said.
“Oh, lucky you,” Josie said.
Koloa’s heart sucked itself in. “Yeah.”
“I thought you’d lived here all your life.” Fanny said. “That’s what you said in the store.”
“I went to undergrad and grad school in Iowa.”
Mireille, the overpaid teacher, said, “One of our kids went to Iowa for wrestling last year.”
They all nodded again.
As a college graduate, Koloa had established her bone fides and was now above suspicion of being a beach bum.
Josie, just making conversation, asked, “So why did you come back? Homesick?”
Koloa stared into the effervescing black depth of the Jack and Coke. Just like a fact. Nonchalant. In her head, she said, The Hawaiian state fish is the humuhumunukunukua’pua’a, which means the-fish-with-a-nose-like-a-pig. With the same inflection, her mouth said, “My husband and two-year-old son were killed in a tornado in Iowa, when our house collapsed.”
No one nodded. They’d all frozen like Hawaiians in an Iowa ice storm, when ice encapsulates cars and skeleton trees and the whole world like poured, frozen glass.
Koloa said, “My parents live here, so I moved back.”
Josie fiddled with the stem of her wine glass. The popcorn-faced cop ate a naked shrimp off his plate. Fanny’s eyebrows raised, and she said, “Oh.”
An absurd pride lifted Koloa’s chin at not screaming or crying but merely saying that Venkat and Sri were dead. That was the first time that it had been conversation, not allusion, not heartbreak and hyperventilating. It was sadder, in its own way, that Venkat and Sridhar could somehow be mere conversation, small talk, instead of the world falling down.
It was wrong, too, that their absence could be coolly noted, but making a scene like she was trying to gather pity was wrong and so was denial of Venkat and Sri-baby’s lives by not mentioning them. There was no middle ground. All was holy and sacred and kapu.
She should reassure these people that they didn’t have to feel bad for her. But they should. But she didn’t want them to. Koloa asked, “So where were you during Iniki, Fanny?”
“Hunkered down in the elementary school hurricane shelter.”
Mireille, the mini-vole schoolteacher, said, “Us, too.”
Josie said, “We rode it out in the house. We didn’t want to go to a shelter because of the dogs. The shelters weren’t taking dogs.”
Koloa nodded and swallowed a lumpy gulp of her drink. “Must have been bad.”
Josie shook her head. “Not so bad.”
Johan the cop asked Koloa, “So, your parents ride it out okay?”
“Yeah. A little house damage.”
They all nodded.
Koloa sucked the last of the Jack and Coke from the bottom of the glass. “Well, gotta go. Nice meeting you. Enjoy your supper.” She walked out of the clean, well-lit café into the balmy night. The parking lot was lit by two streetlights. The ocean growled from across the road and down the hill, and the fishy salt spray brushed Koloa’s cheeks.
Clip-clops clattered after her. Koloa turned.
Mireille, the midget-vole teacher-owner of Instructions, had run after her. Mireille said, “Look, I’m sorry about that.”
Koloa shrugged. “You guys didn’t know. You don’t know me.”
“You work at the Ginger Blossom Hut, right?”
Koloa’s head froze before she nodded. Mireille did like her drilled coconut every week.
Mireille said, “I’m having a party. Do you know where I could get some pakalolo?”
Koloa wanted to walk away from this puffed-up schoolteacher who thought that everyone who worked at the Ginger Blossom Hut must be a drug addict, but they all pretty much were, and Koloa did have a two-kilo mini-bale of pakalolo from Kimo and Momma Pele’s da kine bumper crop, so Koloa said, “How much you looking to spend?”
A few minutes of haggling later, Koloa and Mireille wrestled and squashed the tapa-wrapped package into the trunk of Mireille’s sensible Nissan in the glow of the parking lot lights.
Johan the popcorn-faced cop waved to them as he walked over to his squad car. “You drive carefully now. Aloha.” AH-lo-ha.
Go with God.
After they had showered at the beach showers, Koloa and Wainani counted the money. The hundred-dollar bills surfed on the van’s blue shag carpeting.
“You could save some for repairs in case something happen to the van,” Wainani said.
“Yes,” Koloa said.
“You could get that mole on your back looked at.”
“You could feed steak to everyone on da beach for a year. All those people, Kali and her retarded son Ron, mumbly old man Remo, Dysart and her baby, all of them.”
“You could pour a foundation and build a house on your parents’ land. Take out a mortgage on the rest.”
Koloa nodded again. Her neck was getting sore from the nodding. “Um-hmmm.”
“You going to buy that big, teak bed, ain’t you? It made by Chinese slaves.”
“It’s an antique,” Koloa pointed out.
“You got a king-size mattress to go in it?”
“I can’t believe you going to buy it.” Wainani stood up, slung back the van’s side door, and stepped onto the darkening beach. In the distance, around her skinny silhouette, pinprick campfires cooked meat and onions. “My mother would buy something like that, except that she’d buy some minimalist Swedish modern piece of shit in New York that cost $20,000, and then she’d have told everybody what it cost and what a great deal it was. She could have funded a dozen charities with how much she spent on furniture, and it isn’t any more comfortable than the Ikea stuff in my dorm room at Stanford. She could have fed all these guys for the rest of their lives, but they’re out there, hungry.”
“Don’t go,” Koloa said.
“Come on, Koloa. There is no possible way that that bed will fit in this van. I’ll find somewhere else to sleep. Maybe Lim will share his tent.”
“Lim will expect you to screw him. You got condoms?”
“Don’t get pregnant, Wainani. It’s hard even when you have a home. Your body feels like it’s dying for the last three months, telling you that it can’t support a six-pound parasite and it has to get it out of you somehow. And when you go to work, you can’t bear to leave them, and when you come home, you dread leaving again, and you’re so afraid that you’re going to do something wrong that will screw them up forever. And you fear going to work and you fear doing something when you’re home and you fear not doing enough and you fear doing too much and you fear all the wrong things. And then it turns out that you missed so much with all that fear and what you should have feared, you didn’t even think about. And breastfeeding hurts.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Wainani gathered her things, sleeping bag, clothes, soap, frayed toothbrush, and efficiently packed them into her camping backpack. She climbed out of the van, smiled sadly at Koloa, and left the sliding door open as she padded across the sand to Lim’s cooking fire and tent.
The houseless folk on the beach looked like menehune crouched around their campfires.
“I never told you about menehune,” Koloa said. She cradled her backpack in her arms and talked aloud, into the van. “The menehune were Hawaiian leprechauns, Sri-baby, and they built the fish ponds that we used in the old days to farm fish, before Captain Cook came. The fish ponds were just there, in the rocks, so we said that the menehune built them. But menehune aren’t just little helpers, they’re pranksters, too. When your car keys are missing, the menehune took them. Or when anything bad happens, the menehune must be playing tricks on you.”
Her whispers slid between the cans of garbanzo beans and 25-pound bag of jasmine rice, crept between the CDs of Indian classical percussion music, Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement music, and old rock, and filtered into the pages of the library books under the couch.
“Bad things have to be explained, you know. Your grandma and grandpa in India would say that it is fate, that your karma from past lives makes bad things happen, or that you were born under a bad star. Disaster means bad star. But we Hawaiians say that the menehune are playing tricks, or that your aumakua are punishing you, or that you broke kapu.”
She rocked the backpack in her arms.
“But those are all legends, Sri-baby. They’re not real. Don’t be scared.”
The next morning, Koloa dropped Wainani off at the Ginger Blossom Hut and waited outside Two Frogs Hugging until it opened. The hundred dollar bills lumped heavy in her pocket.
Fanny arrived at ten-thirty. “Hi,” Fanny said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“I’m here for the bed.”
“Indeed. Come in and we’ll ring it up. I’ll throw in delivery,” Fanny glanced at her out of the corner of her eye, “if you’ll tell me where to drop it off.”
“Thanks,” Koloa said. “I’ll take it with me.”
The disassembled bed stood in the glowing corner of the store. Sunlight ricocheted under the varnish, swimming in the wood like flashing fish schools in the deeps off Lumahai beach.
It caught Koloa under the sternum all over again. She had almost not shown up this morning, enticed by Wainani’s description of charitable steak distributed to the houseless.
The Dorf van sat in the parking lot, a husk eviscerated of seats, shelves, and possessions.
Koloa and two of Fanny’s men shoved the headboard into the van diagonally. The footboard and sideboards, wrapped in Styrofoam sheets, rested below it. Teak boards hung out the back of the van. They packed the wood with foam rubber so the engine’s vibrations wouldn’t jiggle the wood and scratch it, and bungee-corded the doors so it wouldn’t fall out.
When Koloa sat in the driver’s seat, the rear-view mirror reflected teak and foam rubber.
Her backpack, beside her on the floor, rolled heavily on the blue shag carpeting when she turned corners. She asked aloud, “What should I do, Sri-baby and Venkat? Where should I go?”
In the dark, near midnight, Koloa found the seam in the foliage that marked the trailhead leading to the heiau. She had slept for a few hours curled in the driver’s seat of the van.
From her backpack, Koloa pulled out a flat, green ti leaf and secured it with a rock on the first step of the trail to appease the gods.
The akua are the all-powerful deities, but the aumakua are equivalent to guardian angels. They are ancestors. Family is not bound by life and death. The aumakua reside in Po, which means eternity, where the land, sea, and sky are one and time is no more.
At death, not all souls make the leap to Po. Souls who were not accepted as aumakua because they broke kapu or were not properly sent off are doomed to wander as ghosts, lapu, eating spiders, butterflies, and moths. The Hawaiian word for Hell means hungry.
Souls can also be retained in this world by unihipili, death sorcery. Unihipili is easy. Keeping a bit of bone or blood and talking to it is enough to turn your loved ones into lapu.
Thirty years ago, Koloa’s friend Makai’s family kept a shrine to his father who had been killed in Vietnam. Makai’s mother had his father’s dog tags, helmet, and bloody shirt, and she talked to them and slept with them in her bed.
Koloa’s grandmother had had a stillborn, mummified baby sitting just inside her door. When her grandmother died when Koloa was five, they’d buried the baby with her.
The urn weighed heavily in Koloa’s backpack and oscillated with each step as she hiked the trail to the heiau. Golden dragons danced over the vase. The lid was taped shut with duct tape. Two shirts, shredded in places, rusty in others, cushioned the urn as it jostled and ground against the vertebrae in Koloa’s spine.
The trail was steep. Koloa’s flashlight beam glanced off rocks and caught in the lush foliage. The full moon cast gray shimmers over the trail.
Koloa climbed slowly. Her breath caught in her side. Someone superstitious would be getting anxious about now, walking on wobbling rocks in the thick black air cut only by the flashlight beam and misted by pale moonlight. Shadowed stones would become the open mouths of hungry lapu, warning you of your fate should you die while breaking kapu. The ocean surf chewing the coastline two hundred yards straight down sounds like aumakua sighing, warning you that hiking a trail along a rain-eroded cliff at night is dangerous. The whole island, Kauai, oldest sister of the Hawaiian islands, inundated with gods and incarnations, tells you to turn back from this hike, to quit breaking kapu, to build a house for yourself and forgo eking out a subsistence existence on a beach in a van where any hurricane could toss you into the sea.
Momma Pele was sitting on a rock at the heiau, reading by the glaring, hissing light of a Coleman lantern. She was an extension of the island, like a pyramid of flat, round stones, balancing. “You late,” Momma Pele said.
“You’re not even out of breath,” Koloa panted.
“I climbed up hours ago,” Momma Pele said. “Only a fool hike that trail in the dark.”
“Right.” Koloa set down the backpack. It thumped on the gray rock, and Koloa winced, hoping the urn hadn’t cracked.
Momma set aside her book. The lantern light spilled on the hero and heroine on the cover, clinching. Momma Pele asked, “You got the bones you using for unihipili in there?”
“I’m not doing the kaku’ai. Venkat and Sri-keiki were Hindu. They’re probably merged into the great Brahman uberspirit and waiting to reincarnate. They aren’t lapu.”
“You holding their bones and blood?”
“They were cremated.”
“Oh, ku’uipo. You shouldn’t have burned them up. Their bones should be buried, safe.”
“Venkat didn’t want to be buried in the ground.”
“What did he want, Koloa?” White lantern light illuminated the right side of Momma Pele’s plush flesh. Her eyes were wide open, sincere, not crinkled in sarcasm.
Koloa’s breath turned to stone in her chest. “Himalayas. He wanted his ashes to be sprinkled in the Himalayas. He said the Ganges was dirty.”
“Why you not go there, then, and take him where he wants to be?”
All her answers led back to unihipili. “Because I only had money enough for one plane ticket, so I came home.”
“Because death magic would not work in Iowa or India,” Momma Pele said, “Here, you could work unihipili and keep Venkat and Sridhar with you. But ku’uipo, you make them lapu.”
“There’s no such thing as lapu.”
“They are hungry, sweetheart. Can’t you let them become aumakua? They can join our ancestors. They won’t be lonely. They won’t be hungry.” Momma rocked back, shifting her bulk.
“Lapu don’t exist. It’s just a story to frighten people into not breaking kapu to keep social order, so the ali’i could persecute the other classes and profit from their labor.” She was arguing like a petulant child intent on misbehaving.
“You are ali’i,” Momma Pele said. “And because you are ali’i, you can practice unihipili. If there are no lapu, if there are no aumakua, why not let their ashes go?”
“People keep ashes.” Admitting that she talked to the ashes was admitting to practicing unihipili. Admitting that she loved them was incriminating herself that she was practicing unihipili. Everything normal and good was death sorcery and kapu.
Momma said, “They must have their kaku’ai.”
“They were Hindu. Is Kimo going to have a kaku’ai, now that he’s Hindu?”
“Of course. Hinduism just a phase he going through. Kimo, he Hawaiian.”
“That’s just wrong.”
“No, sweetheart. All our ancestors are aumakua. If you practice unihipili, then you cannot have kaku’ai, because you are breaking kapu, and you will be lapu. It has been long enough. Time to stop breaking kapu and let them go. They are hungry.”
Koloa’s heart dangled and yanked. “If they are lapu, then I want to be a lapu with them.”
Momma Pele said, “Ho, you eat nothing but rice and bananas and whatever they have left over at that Ginger Blossom Hut. You have barely skin on your skeleton. You wander, have no home. You already are lapu. Better to eat, to have a home, than to be a hungry ghost. Let them go, Koloa. Build a house and sleep in that bed. Eat. It hurts me to see you turning into lapu.”
Momma Pele stood, like the island itself was rumbling up and over to Koloa. “You are my keiki, like Sridhar-baby was yours. You are dying because you are hungry and becoming lapu before my eyes. To save you, I do kaku’ai for Sri-keiki and Venkat. Let them join the aumakua. The aumakua are family.” Momma Pele stood in front of Koloa. “Let me do their kaku’ai.”
Yeah, guilt, the knockout punch of motherly debate.
The backpack at Koloa’s feet held the urn with their ashes. She’d clung to them so many nights after Wainani went to sleep on the other couch in the van, and she’d whispered to them, told Venkat about Hawaii and Pacific politics and new developments in physics, and told Sri-baby how the stars fused hydrogen into helium and made photons of light and heat and the stories about Kane and Pele, and told them both that she was going to sleep now, but she would see them again soon, as soon as she could, as soon as she was hungry enough to join them.
She should let Momma Pele do the kaku’ai. At least Momma Pele would feel better. And she’d told Sri-baby and Venkat pretty much everything that she’d meant to. There was always something else, but she’d told them a lot. Koloa bent, picked up the stone-weight backpack, and handed it to Momma Pele.
“This is them?”
Momma opened the bag. “An urn, for their bones, yes.” She shook out their shirts, cut down the middle in the emergency room, rusty. “This is their blood, isn’t it?”
“You do the unihipili right, blood and bones, don’t you?” Momma Pele shook her head. “You must believe hard, to keep these, to come home, to practice death sorcery so hard.” Harsh lantern light touched Momma Pele’s plump cheek as her face rounded into gentle smiles.
Momma Pele sang in the old language, all vowels, and handed the urn and the shirts to Koloa. She danced, spry and light on her feet, and entreated Koloa to dance with her.
Koloa danced. Her feet moved in the familiar kawele, the four-step sideways vamp. The dance was about the long voyage that her people had made ages ago in enormous outrigger canoes from Tahiti to Hawaii, guided by stars and their aumakua ancestors. Her knees popped out in an ‘uwehe. Her hands dipped and soared in the ki’i kuhi, telling the story. This was no graceful tourist hula hapa haole performed at a commercial luau. Koloa’s movements were strong and spare, told of struggle and hardship, starvation and power. She whirled hard and tossed her arms.
Venkat had sung “Head-and-Shoulders, Knees-and-Toes” with Sri-baby, danced it with him. Sri-baby’s head bobbled in his effort to keep up. Venkat laughed so hard, he sat on their soft carpet in the townhouse. Sri-baby crawled over and laid on Venkat’s stomach as he laughed.
Koloa didn’t want to be without them finally and forever, but she threw the urn and the shirts over the edge of the rocks into the sea below and clung to the rocks with her fingers and toes, willing herself to stay on the rock and not scramble after them into the dark to get them and bring them back. The heiau is a jumping off point for Po, and Venkat and Sridhar soared to join the aumakua. She couldn’t hear the crack of the urn on the rocks over the growling, clawing surf, so far below in the night.
Her name, Koloa, means free, and she wasn’t, but Sri-baby and Venkat were.
Koloa and Momma Pele waited until morning, when the sun rose out of the sea. It was suicide to hike that trail in the dark.
Momma Pele asked, “What you going to do with that big bed you got, Koloa?”
“I don’t know, Momma. It too big for the van. I thought about cutting it down to fit, to line the inside, behind the shelves and couches.”
“It lived too long to cut it apart, sweetheart. No, I think you got to build it a house.” Her mother wrapped her cushiony arm around her. “Our aumakua must have given you strong soul. I could not stand my baby to be a lapu or to dance kaku’ai for my baby. I couldn’t stand it, my Koloa-keiki.”
Koloa picked up her empty backpack, as flaccid as loose skin.
Koloa had thought that she could carry Sri and Venkat forever, like when Sri-baby had insisted “Up! Up!” and held out his stringy arms to be lifted and toted around on her hip. It was a relief to not carry the ashes anymore, but to have them all around her. They were all in the wind now, a part of the carbon cycle of the island. In every breath, Koloa could inhale a little of them. In every wave, Koloa could ride beside them. They belonged to the island now, not to her alone. She felt generous, letting them go to Po and the aumakua, to not be hungry anymore, and to eat.
After TK Kenyon graduated from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an M.F.A. in fiction (Truman Capote Fellow), she took the weekend off and started her Ph.D. in molecular virology. Her research culminated in a model that explains why chickenpox is worse if you get it as an adult than if you get it as a child and caused a near-riot among the herpesvirus cognoscenti. She did a stint as a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease at the University of Pennsylvania, studying Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other maladies. She has published five scholarly papers and numerous non-fiction pieces. Seven of her literary short fiction pieces have been placed in small journals, such as Monacacy Valley Review and the Banyan Review (2003), one won the Alsop Review Summer Fiction Contest, and some were featured in Big Muddy (Winter, 2005), New York Stories (Jan/Feb. 2005), and American Short Fiction (Summer, 2006). Two literary/mainstream novels, Rabid and Callous, were published by Kunati Book Publishers (a traditional, boutique, literary publisher that died in the Great Recession) and will soon be reissued by Malachite Publishing.