Perle Besserman / Fiction, 2015

 

PERLE BESSERMAN

 
 
 
 

Akaka Falls

 

 

The Legend of Chief Pa’ao

The least beneficent of the islands, Hawai’i—or the “Big Island”—with its flaming volcanoes and icy storms, is perhaps also the most mysterious.  Dominated by the perpetual battle between the tempestuous fire goddess Pele and her equally combative icy sister Poliahu, it is a world born of divine and human strife, merciless toward those who would dare to settle on or near its sacred mountains.  Its tribal clashes and conflicts first embodied in the legend of the chief Pa’ao, a Tahitian high priest believed to have settled Hawai’i, continue to this very day in the form of culture wars as Western scientists face off against Native Hawaiians protesting the addition of a mammoth-sized telescope to the already existing protuberances sprouting like giant white mushrooms from the glistening snows blanketing Mauna Kea. 

As told by elders claiming direct descent from Pa’ao, the master navigator who led the voyage to Hawai’i across the sea by following the stars, the story of the island’s first settlers begins with a violent family quarrel.  In this version, Pa’ao’s older brother, the chief priest Lonopele, accuses Pa’ao’s son of stealing fish from the royal fishpond.  To prove his brother wrong, the outraged Pa’ao kills his son and rips open his stomach disclosing no sign of the boy’s supposed transgression.  The breach between the brothers widens to the point where  Pa’ao, feeling he can no longer remain, takes steps to migrate across the seas to a new land.  Preparing three large canoes and gathering a group of retainers to accompany him on the voyage, he decrees that the “sacred” canoes remain untouched by anyone without his permission.  Now it is the turn of his brother Lonopele’s son to transgress when, stealing out at dusk unaware that Pa’ao is watching, the boy touches the lead canoe.  Instantly, the vengeful Pa’ao kills his nephew and buries him in the sand under the canoe.  As flies begin buzzing around the corpse, Pa’ao hurriedly gathers his crew and launches the three canoes, unaware that in his haste, he’s left behind the aged astronomer-priest Makuakaumana.  Climbing a cliff high above the water, the old priest cries out but is told it’s too late; there is no more room in any of the canoes.  At this, the master stargazer Makuakaumana leaps from the cliff and miraculously lands in the stern of Pa’ao’s canoe to guide him across the ocean.   

Thus begins the voyage that brings Pa’ao and his retainers to the shores of the Big Island of Hawai’i, where he builds the first stone temple “heiau” establishing a chiefly lineage whose contentious beginnings still resonate throughout Pele’s sacred forbidding terrain.

 

***

Though they’d been married for twenty-five years and lived in Honolulu for fifteen, Hugh and Wanda hadn’t revisited the Big Island since their honeymoon at Volcano Lodge.  They were especially curious to see how the continuing lava flow had changed the landscape over the years, so when a well-timed invitation to spend a few days during the university’s winter break with Glen and Floriane on the Hamakua Coast arrived, they were quick to accept.  The two men, both geographers, had become friends after years of attending the same professional conferences.   The women had only met twice, while accompanying their partners to conference receptions, and, finding little in common, had made no effort to get to know each other despite the fact that both were living in Hawai’i.  Arguably, because inter-island travel was expensive, or because Wanda was older and a well-established violinist set in her ways, and the much younger Floriane was quirky and unsettled by her as yet untenured position in the ethnic studies department at the university, and even more so by her shifting commuter relationship with her fiancé Glen, who lived and worked thousands of miles away in Albuquerque and only visited her on holidays.

Coming as it did the day after a serious argument between Hugh and Wanda, in Honolulu, and Glen and Floriane’s coincidental blowout in Hilo (the first because of too little distance, the latter because of too much) the visit was bound to be fraught and in fact started on a testy note when Wanda found on arriving that she and Hugh would not be sleeping in a bed but on a hard, narrow air mattress on the floor, in a room directly fronting a busy highway, and sharing the only bathroom in the house with her hosts and the breakfast table in the kitchen with one neurotic oversized begging poodle and his beleaguered smaller dachshund companion.  Adding to the stress on her hypersensitive musician’s ear was the round-the-clock crowing of a nearby neighbor’s fighting cocks.

In their younger days, Wanda and Hugh had lived in similarly casual circumstances, but after long years spent in university towns in a series of furnished rented flats surrounded by spurious neighbors, both had come to treasure the privacy and order of their settled life in a luxurious condo in a respectable building close enough to the city to enjoy its comforts and far enough from its ever increasing construction dust and noise.  What they hadn’t counted on here in the remote countryside of the still breathtakingly lovely Hamakua Coast, was the proliferation of strip malls and massive Walmarts displacing the quaint “mom and pop” stores they’d frequented as honeymooners.  Still more unsettling was Floriane’s warning against “the contaminated tap water,” and her refusal to drink, cook, or wash produce with it, resulting in a pantry overstocked with bottled water and canned and packaged foods and no fresh fruits and vegetables in the fridge.  When Hugh asked if she ever ate salads or hot meals, Floriane giggled, “I’m too lazy to cook . . . so I usually eat out or bring cooked food home after work.”

Accustomed to a diet of fresh organic food and Wanda’s excellent cooking, Hugh was visibly disappointed at the idea of eating out or living on takeaway for three days, but being a good sport, if a little “uptight” in Floriane’s opinion, he overcame the awkward moment by inviting his hosts to an expensive lunch at the Bay Restaurant and paying for the bread, breakfast rolls, cheese, and wine they bought afterward.

Glen, while warm and effusive, was a heavy drinker, who expected Hugh, if not the women, to keep up with him.  This had been easy enough at first, but as he’d gotten older, Hugh found his friend’s heavy drinking less to his liking, especially after the conference three years ago when his liver had started acting up and he’d been so dizzy and ill he thought he might pass out.  Something that had never happened since he was sixteen and had downed half a bottle of vodka on his older brother’s dare.  Hugh had learned to protect himself and humor Glen at the same time by interspersing large draughts of water between every glass of wine.  It had been six months since the last geographer’s conference, and Hugh had hoped that Glen’s smoking, if not his drinking, would have eased up a little.  He was concerned to see that both had only increased, though with apparently no visible effect, for Glen was as robust and healthy as ever, the only sign of his aging evident in his gray, increasingly thinning hair, which was newly cropped almost to the scalp.  Both were big men, Hugh, who’d once played competitive soccer, was six-four, standing only an inch taller than Glen, who continued to defy all the latest “baby boomer obsessions”—as he laughingly called them—with health and fitness.  For his part, Hugh subscribed to all of these, quitting smoking cold at forty, when he’d also—following Wanda’s example—stopped eating meat.  In this, at least, Glen appeared to be the odd man out, for in comparing lifestyles, the older couple appeared to have found an ally in Floriane, whose commitment to a strict vegan diet and daily strenuous cross fit training program, superseded even their own best efforts at working out and “eating healthy.”

It wasn’t until they were driving back to the house after a lunchtime discussion about animal rights that the already existing tensions around food threatened to flare up even further, with Floriane heatedly expressing her strong convictions favoring animals over humans and Wanda arguing against her narrow definition of rights.  An uneasy truce, brokered by Glen, briefly turned their attention away from the topic to the lovely view of Hilo Bay.  But the debate again threatened to surface as Floriane’s views were emphatically borne out back at the house, where, Wanda ruefully observed, the dogs ran the show and the humans were expected to accommodate them.  Removing her shoes on the porch before entering the kitchen, she’d almost been knocked over by the frenzied poodle and made no attempt to hide her annoyance when Floriane had done nothing to rein the dog in.  She was further upset on eliciting no sympathy from Hugh, who’d kept her from falling but rejected her whispered plea that they find a hotel and use her allergies as an excuse to leave as “absolutely out of the question.”  Claiming she badly needed a cup of tea, Wanda angrily stomped into the kitchen.  Rummaging around in the pantry and finding no tea among the neatly stacked bags of expensive coffee—though Hugh had informed Glen on the phone beforehand that he and Wanda only drank tea—she entered the makeshift guestroom red-faced and on the verge of tears.  Twice on the losing side in less than an hour, now even Hugh seemed to have turned against her.  After sulking a while, she came out of the bedroom to find Glen and Floriane gone and Hugh standing alone in the kitchen.  Wanda could tell from the grim expression on his face that he was annoyed.  Sure that it had something to do with Glen’s shabby treatment but not wanting to bait him about it, she remained silent.  The pricey wine, bread, cheese, and breakfast rolls he’d paid for were still sitting on the table.

“Where’d they go?”

“Out to the supermarket to shop for home supplies.”

“And we’re supposed to put these away?”

“Obviously.”  Hugh opened the fridge and put in the cheese.

“Here, let me help.”  Wanda placed the bags of bread and rolls in an empty wicker basket she found behind several bottles of vitamins on the counter.  The carton filled with wine bottles was still standing where Glen had left it on the counter opposite.  “Do any of these need to be refrigerated, you think?”

“No, they’re all reds.  Just leave them there.  We’ll be opening them soon.”

“There are nine bottles!  Do you think we’ll drink them all?”

Hugh gave her a wry grin. “With Glen?  Have any doubts?”

Seeing an opening, Wanda remarked, “Looks like it’s gonna be a do-it-yourself visit.”

Hugh put his arm around her.  “I said we didn’t want to impose, but he insisted we stay here in the house with them.  You’d think he’d at least mention that there was only one bathroom or that they don’t cook and we’re expected to pay for the food.  If I’d known, I would have booked us into a hotel.”

“Give me a hug,” Wanda snuggled up against his chest, satisfied that the tide had finally turned in her favor.

The drinking started at five.  After the first bottle of wine had emptied and a new one opened, Glen and Hugh, allowing themselves a break from the serious academic façade they’d worn for months, were now laughing and ribbing each other, even getting silly.  At one point, Glen asked Hugh to accompany him outside so he could smoke, and, except for the occasional scratching of the dogs’ nails against the hardwood floor, the house grew quiet.  Left on their own, Floriane and Wanda pulled their chairs closer and, what began as an awkward attempt at mending hurt feelings blossomed from a superficial exchange of complaints about the high cost of living in Hawai’i into a genuine discussion of the cultural and political isolation of “haoles”—whites like themselves, who hadn’t been born or brought up on the islands and were therefore never fully accepted by the population of Asians, Hawaiians, Filipinos, and multiracial residents identifying themselves as “local.”

That the only exception to the rule was made for “haoles” of Portuguese extraction had always struck Wanda as odd despite Hugh’s scholarly historical explanations for her own marginalization as a blond, blue-eyed woman of Northern Italian ancestry.   Sharing her thoughts with Floriane after a glass of wine left Wanda feeling vulnerable yet strangely relieved, as the bitter cloak of reserve she’d assumed since moving to Hawai’i dissolved.   Over the years, the once magical promise of the islands had paradoxically estranged her from the almost surreal loveliness of it all.  The golden light, the green brilliance of the mountains, the utter darkness of the night sky, rather than bring her in closer, had only fed her resentment against an onslaught of continuing professional obstacles, starting with her difficulties in attracting and keeping private students; and later on when, after struggling to fit into the small community of classical musicians, she was finally invited to play with a moderately successful all-male, multiracial chamber group of professors from the university’s music department—but never asked to join the faculty as more than an adjunct teaching occasional courses as the need arose—which wasn’t often.  Second fiddle wasn’t exactly a familiar position to be in for someone of Wanda’s status.  On graduating from New York’s Mannes School of Music, a combination of talent and luck had gained her early entry into the music world.  Unlike most of her peers, she’d never had to claw her way to a successful career, letting her credentials—a prime position with the Pittsburgh Symphony and a number of highly praised East Coast chamber groups—speak for her.  All this had ended after Hugh was lured to Hawai’i from Pittsburgh by the offer of a full professorship with a reduced teaching load and a sizeable salary increase, and Wanda, riding blind, decided to follow him.

Yes, the wine had undoubtedly loosened her tongue, allowing her to share feelings she hadn’t even fully admitted to herself with a woman she hardly knew and didn’t like very much.  Or perhaps it was a genuine moment of sympathy for Floriane, a single white woman living alone in a dangerous area reputed for its break-ins and assaults, on a ghost-haunted island of natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions of mythical proportions—that prompted Wanda’s admission of cultural isolation, her sense of being “home, yet never at home.”  Though she’d learned to cautiously blunt these feelings until now, something about Floriane’s vulnerability—her quiet acquiescence in the face of Glen’s cavalier attitude toward her, coupled with his open distaste for Hawai’i—Wanda didn’t hold back.

Floriane responded saying that, as a small, dark-skinned, dark-eyed woman with dark long hair, she’d almost “passed” for Portuguese among those of her students who didn’t take her for Jewish.  “Some of my students have never met a Jew, yet they’re notoriously anti-Semitic.  It doesn’t seem to help when I tell them I’m the daughter of a devout Hungarian Catholic mother and an Irish-Italian father,” she said, smiling.  Then, surprising Wanda, who’d been on the verge of launching her own list of snubs, Floriane leaned over and whispered, “I think I’m drunk.”  Seeing her almost topple to the floor from her chair, Wanda moved in closer and propped her up gently.  It was already hard enough to hear what Floriane was saying, she spoke in such a low voice, and so quickly, swallowing words back into her throat as if she were holding back a secret or feared she’d divulged too much of it already.  Now, Wanda noticed, Floriane was indeed quite drunk, slurring whole sentences as she moved from subject to subject.  Maybe she was at least partly Jewish, there’d always been hints in the family, particularly on her mother’s side, questions about why they’d left Hungary during the thirties to come to America and then moved back in the fifties.  None of it making sense, but somehow evoking Wanda’s real interest in the young woman who’d put her off before.  Floriane had been drinking quickly, keeping up with Glen—glass for glass—Wanda counted three glasses to the one and a half she herself had been sipping slowly so as to stave off the sleeplessness she knew would follow if she didn’t limit herself to two glasses of wine at most.

The door opened and, trailing a cloud of cigarette smoke, Glen and Hugh returned. As if on cue, Floriane abruptly got up from her chair and stumbled into the bathroom, where Wanda thought she heard her being sick but couldn’t be sure, for the big poodle, his snout lifted toward the ceiling, was howling, then suddenly interrupting himself to vomit on the floor in front of the bathroom door.

As Wanda headed toward the kitchen looking for paper towels to clean up the dog’s mess, she almost bumped into Floriane, who, at that moment, had emerged from the bathroom.  Running past her into the bedroom without bothering to close the door, Floriane flung herself on the bed still in her clothes.

Glen was in the middle of topping up his wine glass when he noticed Wanda standing alone in the foyer.

“She’s passed out,” he said matter-of-factly.

 

***

Pele the “Earth-Eating Woman”      

Famed for her bad temper and shunned for seducing the husband of her elder sister, the water goddess Namaka-o-Kaha’i, Pele the fire goddess proved so troublesome to her family that she was finally exiled from Tahiti by her father, the god Ku-waha-ilo.  Voyaging across the sea in a sacred canoe provided by her favorite brother, the shark god Kamohoali’i, Pele stopped first at the northernmost island of Kauai before continuing south to Oahu, Molokai, and Maui, and finally stopping at the Big Island of Hawai’i, where she established her permanent home on its three volcanoes, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea.  The last island in the chain not only provided her refuge but also promised an end to her nasty quarrels with the female goddesses of the other islands for either seducing their husbands or digging fire pits in her attempts to snatch ownership of their domains.  Pele dug her last fire pit, known as the crater Halemaumau, at the summit of Kilauea volcano, which remains active to this day.  Called the “Navel of the World” by the ancient Hawaiians, Pele is believed to be living there still.  Stories of seeing her walking the roads of the Big Island with her white dog, either in the form of an ugly old crone or a beautiful young woman, are told by residents and tourists alike.  Regardless of whether they believe in Pele’s actual existence or regard her as a mythical figure, the stories are always the same.  When she appears in the guise of an ugly old crone, she begs everyone she meets for food or drink.  Those who comply are spared her wrath.  Those who ignore her pleas face fiery punishment, losing their homes and fields and possessions to the flames ignited by the lava overflowing the cauldron in her Kilauea kitchen. 

Thus it is no surprise that those who are both respectful and wary of her power leave regular gifts of food and beverages at the crater’s base.

Pele is so fearsome that even the other Hawaiian goddesses dwelling on the snow-covered peaks of Mauna Kea fled after run-ins with her.  The only one remaining is the powerful snow goddess Poliahu, best known for challenging Pele to a sled race.  One day, manifesting as a group of girls, Poliahu and her goddess friends had descended from the slopes of Mauna Kea and were sledding on a nearby hillside on the Hamakua coast when Pele appeared in the guise of a beautiful young woman.  Not recognizing her hated rival, Poliahu invited Pele to join the race, and was only alerted to the danger she was in when Pele unleashed a firestorm from within the depths of Mauna Loa.  Poliahu barely escaped the flames by tossing her white robe over the volcano’s peak, countering Pele’s fire with a violent snowstorm.  The thunderous battle pitching fire against ice shook the mountain from its peak to its base as cascading lava instantly turned to hardened rock, creating entirely new swaths of land as it tumbled toward the ocean.  Even now, the battle between the goddesses of fire and ice continues: Pele still threatens to incinerate everything in her path, while Poliahu’s snow-covered mountains transform her rival’s scorching rivers of lava into verdant streams.

***

The next day was slated for hiking.  Floriane joined them in the kitchen looking yellowish and bleary-eyed and begging for coffee, and Glen, showing no sign of the previous night’s indulgence, handed her a freshly brewed cup.  Hugh had found two stray teabags of Darjeeling stuffed into a back corner of the pantry, and he and Wanda were drinking it standing so as to avoid the dogs, who were still begging for the last of the sweet breakfast rolls the couple were hurriedly devouring.

“Are you sure you’re up for hiking today?”  Wanda asked Floriane, before Glen could answer for her—which he did nonetheless.

“Oh, she’s okay.  She’s always a little shaky after drinking too much and passing out, but she gets better as the day goes on.”  He patted Floriane on the head; she nodded, smiling wanly.

Hugh suggested he drive his rental car, as he needed to put on some mileage and it didn’t do any good standing in the driveway.  Wanda agreed.  She knew how much he loved driving, and it had been so long since he’d driven any meaningful distance on Oahu, and here was his chance to get out on the open road and really move.  She wished he’d let Glen know how much he hated being crammed into the back seats of cars.  But when Floriane stepped forward surprising everyone by insisting she’d be driving the Jeep because she knew the roads best, Hugh desisted.  If it had been Wanda insisting on driving, he’d have been grumpy and complained until she gave in, but Floriane was adamant, and in charge, so there was no use getting into yet another argument.  Never mind that she and Glen started fighting almost as soon as they were out on the road: over missed directions, driving too fast, or tailgating and slamming on the brakes as she approached the cars in front of her . . . really going at it until, finally, Floriane had had enough.  Announcing a “pit stop,” she pulled, tires screeching, into the parking lot of the Parker Ranch Mall.  Then tossing the car keys to Glen, she marched off without so much as a word.  Shrugging his shoulders, Glen followed after her.

Wanda and Hugh were taken aback when entering the mall a few minutes later, they met their hosts walking arm in arm in the opposite direction.

“We both need another caffeine fix, so we’re going to the Starbucks, there, right outside the door, on the corner,” Glen called over his shoulder.  Floriane didn’t even turn to acknowledge them.

Unnerved by Floriane’s rebuff, Wanda said, “You think she blames us for not taking up for her in the car?  He was pretty nasty about her driving.”

“Whatever it is, it’s none of our business,” Hugh steered her through the fake mockup of Parker Ranch into a Food Court packed with tourists.

After lunch and a quick restroom visit, they left the mall and walked over to Starbucks.  The line was long, and Glen and Floriane were still awaiting their lattes, so Hugh suggested they meet outside.  Wanda’s lactose intolerance was acting up; she could already feel a stomachache coming on.  She should have skipped that slice of pizza but except for the two sweet rolls and the cup of stale Darjeeling tea, she’d had nothing to eat since breakfast three hours ago.  She drank the last of her bottled water, and now even the smell of coffee, which she usually liked, was nauseating, so she was grateful when Hugh found a nearby bench, sat her down, and handed her the rest of his half full water bottle.

The coffee had obviously helped patch things up even further between their quarrelsome hosts, for, when Hugh and Wanda reached the car, Glen was already behind the wheel and Floriane was leaning over from the passenger seat and massaging his neck.   The remainder of the trip appeared to have been salvaged. They were almost there and Floriane was in the middle of describing the beautiful black sand beach awaiting them at the end of the hiking trail when the Jeep was, unexpectedly, flagged to a stop by a hard-hatted worker in an orange vest.  Glen rolled down the window and the man, a small, genial Japanese, leaned in to inform him that the bridge to the trail had been closed due to flooding and he couldn’t drive any further.  He was sorry, but bridge and road repairs had only just begun, and would probably go on for at least a week.  Everyone in the car grew silent.  Glen thanked the man, who again said how sorry he was; he’d been turning hikers away since early that morning.  Then directing Glen in a U-Turn on the narrow road, he waved and called “Aloha” as they drove away.

***

The Legend of the god Akaka

Two ancient Hawaiian akua (gods), the handsome warrior Akaka, and his cousin Kiha, the god of fish, lived by a waterfall near the village of Honomu.  As in so many legends, this story, too, involves a family quarrel: what is unusual here, though, is that we aren’t told the reason for the quarrel, only that Kiha offended Akaka in some way and was punished by having to jump over the waterfall.  Kiha’s leap was unsuccessful and he was instantly killed.  When his body landed in the pool at the base of the waterfall, it was transformed into the large rock that still occupies its center.  The legend goes on to describe a more elaborate, but similar, fate awaiting Akaka, who was known as much for his womanizing as for his good looks.

When Akaka’s loving and faithful wife was away visiting her parents, he would use the time to dally with his beautiful young mistresses, Lehua, who lived on the north side of the gulch, and Maile, who lived on the south side.  One day, Akaka was just leaving Lehua’s hut, when he saw his wife returning unexpectedly.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to see Maile, he quickly made his way to her hut on the south side of the gulch. 

Detecting the sweet grassy smell of his bark cloth skirt, Akaka’s wife followed after her husband calling him to come home.  To evade her, Akaka left Maile’s hut by the back door and, with his trusty dog at his side, fled until he reached a large rock projecting over the falls.  Shamed and regretful for his infidelity, Akaka quickly threw himself into the waterfall and was impaled when he landed on his cousin Kiha’s grave at the center of the pool below.  His dog hesitated at the top of the waterfall and was instantly turned to stone.  Akaka’s wife, who had rushed to his side in the hope of stopping him, was likewise transformed into a large rock at the crest of the falls.  Hearing of their lover’s death, Lehua and Maile wept so copiously that they were transformed into twin waterfalls located slightly further down in the Akaka Falls gulch.  Tradition has it that placing a maile flower lei around the large rock at the crest of Akaka Falls or tapping it with a lehua flower branch will bring rain.  Some say that if you listen closely you’ll hear the lamentations of Akaka’s wife and mistresses echoing in the roar of the waterfalls.

 

***

With hours to spare before their flight and a free day to themselves, Hugh and Wanda decided to visit Akaka Falls.  At eight in the morning of their last day on the Big Island, they stored their suitcases in the trunk of the car before exchanging hugs in the driveway with their hosts and speeding off.   Wanda wasn’t putting on an act when she invited Floriane to visit her in Honolulu any time; it was easy to be generous knowing the dogs and the crowing cocks and the shameless brawling of her hosts were being left behind to become one of the many misadventures she and Hugh would laugh at for having taken so seriously.

“We won’t be coming back here again soon,” she announced as they pulled into a parking space fronting the diner Glen had recommended for breakfast.

“No, we won’t,” Hugh turned to her grinning at the thought of the omelet with hash browns and buttered rye toast and the pot of freshly brewed Earl Grey awaiting him with no excuses to Floriane’s prohibitions against eating “animal products.”

Following the cheerful waitress with the long koa wood earrings to a booth, Wanda, too, found herself grinning—not in anticipation of her first hot breakfast—but because she was relieved to be liberated from . . . from what, exactly?  From having to apologize for the way she lived, ate, talked, drank or couldn’t relate to Floriane’s dogs?  Or was it Glen’s self-centered drunkenness and Hugh’s enabling that she’d resented, using the dogs as an excuse to avoid acknowledging that it was their smug male entitlement that had bothered her?

“I’m really looking forward to Akaka Falls today.  It’s not that far, and we haven’t been there in a long time.”  Hugh finished his second cup of tea and the waitress brought him a fresh jug.

“Me too.  It’s an easy hike,” Wanda agreed, albeit with exaggerated enthusiasm.  He was so at ease, why burden him by complaining.

The waitress placed the bill on the table between them. “No rush.  Anytime you’re ready.”

As they left the diner, Wanda saw a crowd of people waiting outside for a table but walked right past them without so much as a twinge of her usual reflexive guilt for dawdling. The breakfast was good, but not that good, she wanted to tell them—nothing like the breakfasts she’d been served as a girl growing up in Chicago by a cook named Mary who came in three times a week and made buckwheat pancakes especially for her, and freshly baked blueberry muffins, as a reward for completing her violin practice before going out to play in the afternoon.  Surprisingly, despite the indulgences Wanda came to expect as a “musically gifted child,” she’d remained unspoiled.  Yet here, on the Big Island, it was as if all the punishments she’d averted in the past had finally caught up with her.  Though for what sin or crime she may have committed in thought or deed—she had no idea.  Floriane had unfairly judged her for lacking empathy toward animals.  As a girl, and even now, as a fifty-year-old woman with allergies to just about everything, Wanda was still rescuing the occasional stray dog or cat that crossed her path and caring for it until she could find it a good home.  Proof that the “warm-hearted girl” her father had praised for sharing her room not only with stray animals, but with the refugee children her mother brought home to lunch who ended up staying for months, hadn’t hardened with age.

The buckwheat pancakes had induced a Proustian rush of childhood memories: of winter snowstorms, and sledding in Lincoln Park until her nose tingled and her violin-playing fingers, snuggled in their mittens, grew stiff with cold.  But why was she thinking of snow here, in the tropical heat, gazing silently out the car window as Hugh took the scenic route to the falls through a jungle of lush ferns and tall palms, the steep, rocky ocean front visible beyond.  At least this small piece of land, admired as much for its stubborn resistance to development as for its tangled wildness, still remained intact.  How could she possibly be homesick here . . . for snow, which she’d sworn she never wanted to see again as long as she lived?       

They arrived at Akaka Falls to find the parking lot half empty, though there was a sizable queue at the trailhead, where a pretty young park ranger informed them that, as residents of Hawai’i, they didn’t have to pay the entrance fee.  Hugh had already opened his wallet and was fishing for his credit card.  Seeing it was taking longer than it should have for him to find it, Wanda suggested they sit down on the bus stop bench in the shade where he could take his time looking for it.

Hugh searched through every pocket in his wallet before moving on to the pockets of his cargo shorts.  Then he asked Wanda to look in her bag, just in case he’d given the credit card to her to hold for him.  When nothing turned up there, they retraced the purchases he’d made over the past two days: all of them in cash, Hugh assured her.  He didn’t remember taking his credit card out even once.  They went over the possibilities several times: he might have left it on the counter or could have been pick-pocketed at the crowded cashier line in the organic market where he’d bought the food and wine two nights ago.  Did she remember the name of the market?  She did. Good thing she had her cell phone with her (Hugh hated carrying his on vacation and had left it at home).  Wanda Googled the market and found the phone number.  Yes, the cashier remembered Hugh (he’d bought nine bottles of wine, after all) but on checking found that he’d paid in cash.  Next was the new artisan bakery where he’d bought the bread and sweet breakfast rolls.  There, the owner recalled Floriane and Glen introducing him to their friends from Honolulu, adding he was certain that Hugh had paid—but also in cash.  Hugh had that screwed up forehead look on his face that made Wanda, who was trying to remain calm, start to panic.

“Let’s go over it again,” she said, as much to herself as to Hugh and the pretty park ranger who’d finished with the tourists at the entrance gate and approached them to see if she could help.

“I’m almost certain I paid for everything in cash,” Hugh said.

“Almost . . . how about the first day, that big, expensive lunch at the Bay Restaurant?  You must have used your credit card then.  Do you remember signing the bill and getting the card back?”

A new group of tourists was gathering at the entrance gate and the ranger returned to her post.  “I’ll be here if you need me.  But don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll turn up,” she waved reassuringly.

Wanda thanked her, but Hugh was too busy recounting the past days’ expenses to notice that she’d gone.  Wanda could tell that he’d surrendered to losing his credit card and dreaded the prospect of notifying the bank and cancelling it.  He’d already lived that nightmare last year, in Rome, when the ATM he was using on the busy Via Veneto had been hacked in broad daylight by a gang of Bulgarian identity thieves—according to the bank—forcing him to cancel their entire summer travel itinerary and start from scratch.  Desperate to avoid a repeat of that awful intrusion on Hugh’s painstakingly planned Italian journey, Wanda called the Bay Restaurant.  As she waited for someone to pick up the phone, she glanced at her watch and noticed that it was already three-fifteen.  The park would be closing at four.  The sun was no longer overhead, but a single ray had landed on a clump of foliage just beyond the gate.  Looking closer, she saw the clear outlines of a slender white orchid shaped like a dragonfly.  How could a place so heartbreakingly beautiful be so treacherous, she wondered.  Then she recalled having read that, in Hawaiian, the word “Akaka” meant a “split,” “rent,” crack,” “cleft,” “fissure” or “separation,” that the islands themselves had been wrenched from the sea and pulled apart by cataclysms from which even the gods were not exempt.

 

 

unnamed (1)Perle Besserman is recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award, past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem and Pushcart Prize-nominee. She’s the author of the autobiographical novel Pilgrimage (Houghton Mifflin). Her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, and Bamboo Ridge, among others. For more info, visit perlebesserman.net.

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