Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pele on the Shore

This is a bit of a departure from my usual posts.  It's a piece of fiction, which is a first for me, and it's rather longer than my typical posts.  You are officially forewarned.

In August I got the chance to visit a good friend in Hawaii; she lives here in Brooklyn, but she was staying with her grandma on the Big Island for the summer.  I thought our week together would be lovely and scenic, but I was completely unprepared for the magic that would meet us there in that place.  Anyway, our week-long trip touring this little big island and the people we encountered on our journey inspired this story.  I hope you enjoy it.

Story by Sarah and JD
Written by Sarah
Photos by JD

It should have been a dark and stormy night, but it wasn’t.  In fact the night was clear and peaceful.  Or would have been without these dammed koki frogs’ incessant chirping echoing across the landscape.  It sounded as if every Hilo resident were receiving a text message at the same moment and continuously, the froggy notifications all layered on top of one another, announcing themselves into dawn.

I came down from Alaska for some much needed R and R; I couldn’t remember the last time I had taken a vacation from full-time detective work.  Alaska had been wearing on me.  My face was starting to look weather-worn and leathery, tanned from so many hours’ exposure to the elements.  I always thought of my hair as brown, but these days my reflection told the truth of it: it had been going white for months, even years.  Worse still, the left side of my neck had developed a semi-permanent cramp so painful it felt like Death himself was pinching me with the vice grip of his bony fingers.  For a couple of weeks I hadn’t been able to turn my head to the right without a searing pain streaking down my right side.  It was time for a break, and the Big Island had called my name.

So there I was settling into the warm August night when my cell phone perked up.  I had set it down on a table somewhere to my right, so I had to grope around with my hand to find it—either that or rotate my entire body.  I half hoped I would miss the call altogether, but my fingers stumbled across the phone on the fourth ring, and I answered.  The broad on the other end was more than a little frantic: she needed a private eye and she thought I was the man for the job.  I tried to explain to her that I was on break, off the clock, but something in her voice convinced me she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

I made my way to the local kava joint she’d described.  The atmosphere inside the place was mellow and it seemed clear that most of the patrons had been there for hours, enjoying one coconut shell after the next of the Hawaiian “root beer.”  Locals and tourists mingled, half of both groups wearing Hawaiian floral shirts, the tourists more easily identified by their deep-lobster hue.  The moment she walked through the door the bar fell silent.  Every eye turned to take her in; this was no ordinary dame.  She was a tall creature of beauty: a young woman with smooth bronze skin and black hair that flowed into eternity.  Her eyes glowed, embers in her flawless face; she was a goddess on earth.

I did a quick check to make certain my jaw wasn’t resting on my knees and stood to shake her hand.  It was only then that I noticed the distraught look etched about her face.

“Joe?” she asked, and I nodded in affirmation.  “My name is Paulani.  Thank you so much for meeting me at this late hour.  I didn’t know who else to turn to.”

“What can I do for you, Ma’am?”

She looked a bit abashed as she explained.  “Well you see, I’ve lost something.  And so far no one has been able to help me locate it.”

I assured her that I’ve found many an item, though the going might be slow here in Hawaii, as it was unfamiliar territory.  “What is it you’ve lost?”

“My invisible cow,” she told me, her tone as serious as the sunburn the haole sitting in the corner had acquired that day.  “She’s been lost for several weeks now, and could be anywhere on the island at this point.  I attempted to find her using all the traditional methods--I’m sure you’re familiar with these, so I won’t bore you with the details--but I’ve run out of ideas.  Joe, won’t you please find her for me?”

I checked the jaw-on-knees situation once more, waiting for a suitable response to come to me.  When none did, I found myself telling her I’d take the job and do my best not to let her down.  She wrapped her arms about my neck for the briefest of moments and said she’d be in contact.  And then she was gone.  I could still feel the warmth of her arms ablaze about my neck, sending chills down my spine and almost making me forget the incessant cramp that had plagued me of late.  Truth be told, though I hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to begin, I knew then and there that I’d search to the ends of the earth if it made this dame happy.  How hard could it be to find an invisible cow?
At dawn I set out for the south side of the island in my none too sturdy rent-a-Jeep.  As I drove, the lush jungle gave way to vast expanses of barren lava fields.  I considered the life of an invisible cow and where such a creature might go wandering given a bit of freedom.  I’d heard interesting things about the Kilauea volcano and figured an invisible cow might have heard the same.  It was as good a starting place as any.

I arrived at Kilauea’s crater and was approached by a park ranger, indicated by an official badge pinned to his Hawaiian shirt.  He remarked that I looked a little lost and asked if he could be of help.

Dubiously, I explained, “I’m looking for an invisible cow.  Have you seen one?  I don’t have an accurate description because the cow is…well, invisible.”

“Oh, sure,” he replied amiably.

Shocked, I asked when he had seen it.  “Now, let me think here.  Ah yes, I saw one five years ago.  Another three years ago.  Two of them together once seven years ago.  Now, that’s a rarity, two together.  And another four years ago.  None recently, though, I’m afraid.”

“I see.  Thank you for your help.”

“Oh yeah, no problem,” he replied.  “Enjoy your time here at Kilauea.  Pele was sure serious when she made this one.”  Noting my baffled expression, he continued.  “Ya know, Pele is the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes.  She’s responsible for the continual creation and destruction of the island.  It’s said that when we tick her off she lets us know by the eruption of one of her volcanoes.  She’s a serious lady, not to be trifled with.”

I peered past the park ranger into the volcano crater that lay before me, and I had no doubt that he was right.  If this here crater, miles wide, was created because this Pele dame was a little cranky, I hoped not to cross paths with her.  Plus, I reminded myself, I had an invisible cow to find.  The glow of Paulani’s eyes came to mind then, and I almost thought that I could see her peering out at me from across the crater.  With that image playing about my mind, I started off.

A fern-dominated rainforest perimetered the crater.  I noticed an area of crushed vegetation to the right of the trail.  I knew better than to turn my head in that direction, so I shuffled my whole self to the right for a better view.  A frightened cow, even an invisible one, could have stamped down the plants in this manner, so I foraged ahead into the jungle along this trampled path.  Around me launched ferns, and these were no dainty ferns; they were fern trees, Jurassic and enormous.  Violet fiddleheads unraveled and gave the distinct impression that come nightfall they would gladly feed on anyone foolish enough to still be walking among them.  I pressed on, thankful for the sunlight.  On and on I went with only the mosquitoes and moss to keep me company until the forest abruptly ended and I was spit out into the lava field that was Kilauea’s crater.

Behind me the forest had vanished, and in every direction there was only lava.  The landscape looked as if a city’s worth of asphalt had been dumped in this spot and then disrupted by a series of earthquakes.  Here smooth, there in a pile of its own rubble, the lava dominated.  I walked for an hour, for days; I walked across this lava field for a lifetime.  I didn’t see a single invisible cow, much less Paulani’s.  As I reached my third lifetime in the lava field, I began to feel fatigued and deciding to rest, I lied down.  Around my head gusts of steam escaped from underground vents and I could feel Pele below me, rumbling, watching, breathing.  In the depths of this place, she churned and waited.  I fell asleep to her rhythm.

As I descended into sleep I felt the nerves and muscles of my neck relax, and I could turn my head to the right.  It was here that I saw the invisible cow.

“Don’t mean to disturb you, but I’ve never seen something invisible,” I told the cow.

“Most people aren’t open to the idea,” she replied.  “There’s so much to be seen, if one cares to see it.”  This seemed logical enough, so I nodded.  “Joe,” she said kindly, “it’s time for you to get going.  Enjoy the ocean.”

I wanted to ask her to come with me, but then the waves were crashing before me and the cow was nowhere to be seen.  I heard a “mooo” to my right and turned that way, causing my neck to clench up and spasm.  Cursing under my breath, I slowly straightened back around and read the sign before me: “South Point.”  I didn’t understand: last I knew I was sitting in a lava crater, and now the ocean was before me.  Had that been Paulani’s cow in my dream?

Gazing out into the horizon, it occurred to me that between where I stood and Antarctica only this ocean existed.  I felt Alaska pulling me from behind, and the snowy tundra of Antarctica pulling me forward, and so I plopped myself down to feel more securely fastened to this island and its southern-most tip.  The bluest waters I had ever seen swelled and dissipated all around me, beckoning the island to crumble and join their watery depths.
I knew I had to get out of here before those depths called to me, too.  Not sure how I’d got here in the first place, I wasn’t any more sure how to get out.  I wandered up the path, the ocean and its salty sirens at my back, and headed for the road.  I didn’t remember parking my rent-a-Jeep there, but here it was waiting for me.  I drove aimlessly, looking for a place where I might get a cup of coffee and some food in my belly.  A bit down the road I saw a sign for the Aloha Diner, and pulled into the dusty parking lot.

Inside the diner, I slid into a booth, the heavy floral fabric worn and cracked in places by years of use.  A waitress appeared.  “Here for some coffee, right?  And maybe a bite to eat?  No problem honey, hang tight.”  I opened my mouth to respond, but she was gone before I had a chance to speak.  That was fine just by me since I had enough to puzzle through for one moment.  For example, how long had it been since I met Paulani in that kava bar?  A day, a year?  And just exactly what sort of fool was I to think I could find an invisible cow?  Yet, the park ranger had seen them.  I was pretty sure I’d even spoken with Paulani’s cow today, I reminded myself.  Or had that been a dream?  It hadn’t seemed like a dream.  And further, what sort of a place goes from jungle to lava field to ocean in the same breath?  Certainly no place I’d ever seen.  This island was its own enigma, and I had a feeling that’s exactly the way this Pele dame liked it.

The waitress returned and unceremoniously set in front of me a cup of coffee and a plate with a few boiled potatoes.  Inspecting one of the slender potatoes, I was taken aback by its inside: it was violet.  “Excuse me, ma’am,” I called after her, “I think there’s something wrong with this potato.  It’s purple.”

She tilted her head and then smirked, laughing suddenly as if I had made a funny joke.  “I like those Japanese sweet potatoes, too,” she said.  “Purple as can be and just as delicious.”  Smiling at me, she disappeared back into the kitchen.

I drank my coffee and ate my purple sweet potatoes, sans salt, pepper, butter.  They were the perfect purple food.  The diner was mostly empty, a few folks peacefully eating meals.  The only exception to the quiet was a man exclaiming loudly into his cell phone while pacing up and down the aisle between the booths and barstools.  Strapped to the front of his chest in a carrier case was a baby who for all the world seemed content to be the second-hand recipient of the man’s overbearing phone conversation.  Every once in a while the man would stop mid-stride and say something even more emphatically, and then resume his walking once again.  I hunkered down and tried to make myself oblivious to his raucous prattle.  Eventually I realized that the man had finished his call.  I glanced up and saw that he was standing directly in front of my booth, his strapped-in progeny hanging, eyes fixed on me.

“Not from around here?” the man inquired.  The baby gurgled.

“No sir.  Just passing through.  Thought I’d try these fancy purple potatoes.”  Unbidden, he settled into the seat across from me, just barely enough room for himself and his kid to squeeze in.  It was clear he had something he wanted to tell me, and I had half a mind to ask if he’d be more comfortable calling my cell, but I thought better of it.

“Friend, whatever you’re looking for,” he started in, “you’re not going to find it here.”  The baby’s head bobbled up and down, as if in agreement.  “You should continue on, go Kona-side.”

“You may well be right,” I replied, “but how do you know what I’m looking for?”  It’s unlike me to solicit the help of others’ in my investigations, but nothing about the day seemed put together quite right, so I thought: what the hell.  “In fact,” I said to him, “what I’m trying to find can’t even be seen, so I’m not certain to know it even if I’ve found it.  Any advice there?” 

The man held out his left index finger and the baby gripped it.  With his right hand the man absentmindedly stroked the child’s head, back to front, following the slight silken hair that grew there.  “This is about a woman, yeah?  Friend, no one sits in a diner like this with a look on his face like you have unless a woman is involved.  And of course you can’t see it.”

Nonplussed, I stared blankly at him.

“Tell me this: did you decide yet whether you love her?”  He smiled broadly and opened his mouth as if to continue, but his phone rang.  The baby shrugged at me sympathetically as the man answered his cell and proceeded to carry on vigorously about wind speeds and generators.  It seemed that was my cue to leave, so I slapped some money on the table and slid myself out of the booth, out the door, and back to my Jeep.

I found a seaside shack down the road and rented a room for the night.  Groggily I thought about what the guy had said.  I was in search of a cow, not a woman.  Yet it was true that Paulani hadn’t been far from my thoughts since the moment I’d laid eyes on her, and every bit of this island brought her to mind.  Did I love her?  How the hell was I supposed to know?  Knowing that seemed more difficult than spotting an invisible cow.  My thoughts slowed and ran into one another, indistinct.  I slept a dreamless sleep.

The next day I continued driving around the island toward Kona.  The sky was so blue it was cliché, but I’d never met a cliché I’d liked half as much.  I pulled over to take in the view.  Sitting on the hood of my Jeep I watched the clouds.  The right side of my neck twanged at me, helping me decide that the clouds above and to the left were the best ones to watch anyway.  Normal clouds move in a single direction across the sky, or sit lazily, but these clouds swirled about one another in the sky in every direction at once.  They play and dance like giddy lovers.

Realizing I had just thought that, I rolled my eyes at myself, and knew it was past time to carry on my way.

Back on the road, the vegetation became increasingly sparse and the road became bumpy and bumpier.  I tried to navigate the potholes and lava mini-craters, but the road got so bumpy it made crunchy peanut butter seem smooth.  I was convinced pieces of the Jeep were being ripped from the underside by the road, but no sooner had I thought this than a zebra on the side of the road caught my eye.  It watched me drive by, unconcerned.  What is this place?  Had I stumbled into a wilderness petting zoo?  I shook my head in disbelief, only then to see a donkey and next a long-horned cow.  The road jostled me along, and by the time I crossed paths with the bison I wasn’t even surprised.  I didn’t feel like anything could surprise me at this point: not a unicorn, not even an invisible cow.

The road eventually mellowed out somewhat, much to my neck and the Jeep’s relief.  Since my brush with near-death-by-bump had passed, I got a chance to remember that I was no closer to finding Paulani’s cow than I had been back in that kava joint.  Near Kona I thought I’d sort out my thoughts and take the moment to stretch my legs.  I wound my way down toward the shore and parked, took my shoes off, cuffed my pants and walked along the beach in the direction of nothing in particular.  In the distance I saw what looked like a man and his pet headed my way.  As they approached I saw that the man’s pet was a sea turtle and he was talking excitedly to it.  The man was barefoot, wearing hot pink stretch pants and a loose tank top.  His hair was a dingy blond mop that bounced about wildly as he gesticulated.
The pair neared where I stood and the man greeted me with the enthusiasm of a long-lost friend.  “Hello!  How are you?”  Eyebrows raised, I made to respond, when the sea turtle chimed in.

“Don’t be rude, Troy,” the turtle chastised.  Can’t you see the poor man is looking for something and has gotten himself lost?  Sir, how might we be of service?”  I stared at the turtle, mouth agape.  At this point I wasn’t sure whether I was more surprised that the turtle could talk, or that I would still be surprised at a talking turtle here on Pele’s crazy island.  Not to mention the fact that I seemed to have an “I’m lost and looking for something” tattoo on my forehead that was invisible only to me.

Troy gripped my shoulders, his hair jolting back and forth as he exclaimed, “Excuse my insensitivity.  Of course you’re upset.”  He then placed a hand on my cheek, holding it there for a beat, our faces now only six or seven inches apart.  He removed his hand and I looked down at the sea turtle to ask whether they’d seen any invisible cows recently.  Both Troy and the turtle took a deep breath in and began jabbering at once.  There were enough words for at least five people coming from just the two of them and they both shook animatedly with each new syllable.  From what I could make out, they had seen at least one invisible cow in the past week, or maybe month, and it had not been friendly to them: something about flying cow patties.

After I’d gleaned as much as I thought I could from their high-speed verbal volley, I finally interjected, “Which way did it go?”

Miraculously, they both stopped momentarily and then agreed in unison: “Counter-clockwise,” to which I think I twitched a little in confusion.  “You know,” the turtle explained slowly as if to a very young child, “the opposite way that the hands on a clock go…counter-clockwise?”

While I understand the concept of counter-clockwise, from where and towards what were not clear to me.  What was clear to me was that I wasn’t likely to get any more clarity from the likes of these fellows.  I thanked them and continued along the beach, listening to the boisterous laughter of the two companions in my retreat.

I set myself down on a large lava boulder and stared out into the waves crashing toward me.  Pondering my newest lead, I figured that counter-clockwise from here would be back down toward South Point.  But I’d just come from there and wasn’t keen on retracing my steps just yet.  And what if this dung-chucking invisible cow wasn’t even Paulani’s?  The ranger said he’d seen two together once, which meant that at least two of the creatures inhabited the island.

I let my eyelids close for a moment and listened to the surf, wishing I could speak its salty language.  In spite of--or perhaps because of--all its inexplicable mystery, the Big Island was starting to grow on me.
Just then I heard something to my right coming my direction.  Remembering to be gentle with my neck, I shifted my whole body to the right and squinted, peering into the distance.  In the dusk, a woman was walking toward me; strong with flowing hair, I could have sworn it was Paulani.  As she got nearer, though, the woman’s shape shifted into than of an old woman, gray hair and spindly brown arms.  Nonetheless, she walked with surprising confidence and grace, as if she were born of the sand.

She continued toward me until she was close enough to touch.  We stared at one another for several long moments; it was relaxed and comfortable, with none of the apprehension or anxiety that comes with spending an awkward silence with a stranger.  She smelled of earth and ash, soil and fire.  Reaching her left hand out, she cupped my neck.  I braced myself for the complaint my strained nerves would surely give, but her hand was heated and relaxed the muscles of my neck, releasing the tension they had been storing.  I turned my head to the right, without pain.  She nodded at me in acknowledgment.

“Joe,” she said, her wizened hand still on my neck, “did I ever tell you that you have the most beautiful blue eyes?  They sparkle like the ocean, like ice crystals I’ve only ever imagined.”  She moved her hand up and began toying with my hair, wrapping one of my curls tightly about her smallest finger.  Still caressing my hair, she moved her wrinkled face near my ear and whispered, “What is it that you want to ask me?”

“I…” I started, but didn’t know where to go with it.  She waited patiently as I formed my thought.  While she waited I felt myself growing old with her, our bodies becoming timeless, unto the ends of the earth.  Then just as suddenly we traveled back in time once again and became youths together, and I remembered the clouds from earlier in the day, how they danced together.  Finally, I opened my mouth to speak and we returned to our proper selves.  “I don’t understand this island,” I said.  “And why would Pele want to keep destroying such a beautiful place?  Who’s that vindictive?”

She smiled at me knowingly then, and all the years of the world were in her face.  “Pele doesn’t want to destroy the island.  She wants it to live forever.  The ocean, as beautiful as it is, eats away at the land every moment of every day.  Only Pele’s volcanic offerings can create the new earth that allows Hawaii to live.  Only her destruction can bring life.”  She disentangled her hand from my hair, cupped my face in her hands, and kissed me lightly on my chin.  And with that she left, continuing her stroll along the shore.  I watched her go, feeling both fulfilled and painfully alone.

I dragged myself from the beach then, and went to find somewhere to crash for the night.  I grabbed a burger at a local fast food place and checked myself into a dimly lit roadside motel.  I was out before my head hit the pillow.

The next morning I arose early and continued on my way.  Detouring from the far north side of the island, I opted to take the mountainous Saddle Road, which cut back across to the Hilo side.
Driving in my Jeep from west to east, I ascended into the mountains, and the arid climate of Kona fell away behind me, replaced by a cool and heavy fog.  A yellow road sign kept appearing: “Hill Blocks View.”  No kidding, I thought.  But in places it was actually quite difficult to see and I thought to myself, man this hill really is blocking my view.  And then I chuckled in spite of myself: hill blocks view.  I continued past Mauna Kea and watched as the grassy hills reached up to kiss the expanse of sky, the two forever reaching out to one another.  At one point pine trees towered from the ground on my left, and at the same moment a man-sized cactus squatted on the right hand side of the road.  Evergreens and cacti, allied here in this one spot…only in Hawaii.

Back in Hilo, I did something I’d rarely done before in my career: I admitted that I was momentarily stalled in my investigation.  I phoned Paulani using the number she’d given me, and asked her to meet me.  She gave me intricate directions to a set of tidal pools near Hilo.  I drove to where she had instructed, parked the Jeep, and headed off in the direction she’d indicated.  As I walked the path, the ocean lay to my left, surrounded on the island side by masses of lava boulders.  To my right was an Iron Tree forest, and in front of me the path suddenly gave way to a freshwater stream.  Following Paulani’s directions, I carried on through the stream, immersing myself at first to my calves, then thighs, and eventually it splashed about my waist as I trekked forth.  Not another living soul was in sight; it was only this winding watery pathway and me.

Eventually I arrived at the collection of tide pools.  Hardened lava protected from the ever-persistent crash of the sea’s waves, splashing happily without rest.  Settling onto one of the lava expanses, I noted the clarity of the water, as if it weren’t even there.  Just below the water’s invisible surface lived a collection of spiny sea urchins.  They stared back at me, apparently as amused to see me as I was them.
I was so wrapped up in my sea urchin tête-à-tête that I never heard Paulani approach; she was simply standing beside me.  If I thought I had remembered her beauty, I was mistaken.  The woman before me was radiant beyond my wildest dreams, emanating warmth and fire.  I stood to greet her, not really sure what else a man in my position should do.

“Ma’am,” I began, “I’m devastated to say that I don’t know my next step.  I’ve been all over this island, and I haven’t been able to track down your invisible cow.  I’m not sure what to make of it.”

She laughed suddenly and said, “Don’t be silly, Joe.  My cow returned to me yesterday; she’s right here.”  With that, Paulani casually motioned to her left, at nothing.  But, at that moment, as if to dissuade my disbelief, a distinctly content “MOOOOO” emerged precisely from that apparently empty location.  I smiled, knowing that owner and invisible cow had indeed been reunited.  “More importantly, what did you think of this Big Island of ours?”

I thought for a moment, realizing suddenly that this was the important question, and my answer would be everything.  “You know, Ma’am, I can’t truly explain it, but I think I’m in love…with the island, that is.  I’m not rightly sure I can go back home to Alaska, I think this might be it for me.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but I think this island stole my heart, Paulani.  Do you mind if I call you that?”

“Actually, call me by my given name.  Pele,” she said with a sly smile.  My chin dropped to my knees once again, but I knew in fact that this was her, standing here before me.  “Joe, that was all I ever wanted, for you to know this place, to know me.  I wanted you to see it and experience its magic.  And yes, maybe to love it.”  With that she placed her mouth firmly on mine and laid a smoldering kiss on me.  And then she smiled at me, and turned to go.  As I watched her disappear into the distance, I could hear a faint but happy “moooo” following behind her.