Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Season of the Volcano

Usually I post poetry here. This time, a short story. I wrote it September 7, 2014, as lava threatened Pahoa.

It is the season of the volcano. Here on our island in the middle of the ocean, the lava has been flowing longer than you have been alive, and especially most of the years that you have lived. I know this because I have been here, but not for all of it. Like the lava, I have come and gone, and returned to stay. At least stay awhile, my feet up on the railing of our lanai, notebook on my lap. The air has the scent of frangipani, a word that rolls in the mouth like a lychee fruit before you bite through to the seed. 

It was after the World Trade Center disaster and before the collapse in real estate that this came to me. My friends had scattered about like messages let go in helium balloons. My oldest dearest friend, whose politics and religious leanings have veered sharply away from my own, but with whom I still share more memories and dreams than either of us could list, was the only one still living in the county where we grew up. Now one of the boys from high school has returned. So two friends in one place, but not then when I left.  Everyone else is in Charleston, South Carolina; Hartland, Wisconsin; Pacific Grove, California; Toronto, Canada; Sydney, Australia; Mwanza, Tanzania. That is for starts. Even my children are not rooted, even if this month they both live in Oakland California. This is what I decided: I would move to Hawaii, where I discovered as many friends move away as friends come to visit. Eventually, someone will move here from somewhere else, someone I already know. That is a prediction, not a promise.

It is said that Madam Pele decides who will stay and who will go on her island home. The people who tell this story are sometimes the ones who take it upon themselves to chase anyone away they don't want in their back yard, and sometimes anyone at all who has managed to hang on many years while watching others fly off the wheel around them.  There is no particular worthiness to those who stay. Take for example the couple who lived next door to us at Leleiwi, across from the ocean. They ran a bed and breakfast. You might suppose that a couple in the hospitality business would not be one more set of impossibly bad neighbors. But no, there was the man of the house chasing the neighborhood kids with his weed whacker, drawing blood and sending one ten year old to the hospital for stitches. You would think the parents would bring charges, but this is Hawaii, so they gave him the stink eye and stole the fish out of his pond. I was trying to like him despite all his bad press and the times he seemed to be deliberately taunting my dogs, but then he shoved me into traffic on Kalanianaole with his hands while accusing me of being a flower thief, and kept saying he would call the police.  I said please do, as I would love to tell them how you just pushed me in front of a car. He is still there. I am not still in his neighborhood, but I have survived years upon years on this island, taking whatever ill will was pushed my way and deflecting it like our mountains break up storms. I cannot dance hula, but the mele flows like the tides in the blood of my body. I belong here as much as any malahini, except of course Pele herself. 

One morning a few days ago my friend whose farm is near the border of the Wao Kele o Puna reserve put on a serious gas mask and loaded a pick up truck with her things. She didn't bother with everything, just the bed in which her children has been conceived and the two nightstands, about a third of her clothes, the dining room set and the old stove with the iron burner tops. The rest would either go to the lava or thieves, whoever came first. The chickens had been moved the week before, along with the pyramids that were their houses, in the same pickup truck, to the home of friends in Paradise Park. Some who had vowed to stay were already gone, overcome by the sulfur dioxide emissions that clouded the air and thoughts of Pele's hair, microscopic glass fragments riding in the plume of rancid toxic smoke. You breathe those in and probably get mesothelioma or some such vile lung condition from the particles that lodge in your tissue and irritate you to death. 

Here is what you find out. You think you will stay until the lava eats your home, or you will sit idly by while it flows past you, sparing you in your kipuka, to feed the birds, gather the eggs, and live out your life. Instead, in advance of the lava comes the cloud of everything you do not want in your life, the stink of something that will kill you if you do not move on. It is not that no one perishes in the lava flow - some still manage to walk out on a crust over a crack, and fall into the lava, or fail to heed the warnings to stay off the new lava shelf because they want a better view of lava cascading into the ocean, and fall into the lava. But these are few. The rest are ushered out by Pele's bad breath, at this time, for this flow. 

While my friend was fitting her boxes of clothing into the back of the truck I was out walking my dogs, thinking about her and the chickens. Here where I live on the island, the lava last ran more recently than it did through her farmland. It could run here, and so fast I would not be able to gather my china or crystal or more than an armload of clothes. If the lava runs here, it will come upon us like a hurricane, furious and unforgiving, faster than a freight train run amok down a mountain pass. This morning, there were six turkeys in the seeding grass, the morning sun shining through their red wattles. They stood still as a display in a museum, as my dogs were sniffing at the grass, ready to bound into them but for the leashes. I and the turkeys were equally unsafe, or safe, for so is the uncertainty of life and the steadiness of the hand upon the leash. My friend is doing what has to be done to keep herself safe. Only last week, we were talking.  She said she and her husband were trying to decide whether to wait it out. She talked about surviving in inhospitable lonely environments at earlier times. We were not yet talking the language of lava, but still caught up in the anticipation.

Back at my house at Puuanahulu with the dogs, I let them run wild, chasing what foolish Erckle's francolins wander through the land they consider their own. The dogs have this concept of their space, are permitting of few interlopers without raising an alarm if not banding into an army of two fully capable of heading off any living threat. I settled into the swinging chair, my favorite place outside other than the lanai. It is in the full shade of the jacaranda, not too far from the butterfly calling heliotrope with its fragrant purple flowers the monarchs find irresistible. In the distance the ultra marine blue ocean reposes, beneath the swells of green pastures rising and falling amidst waves of gold where the grasses have seeded and are turning their dry season colors. It must be mating season for the monarchs - they fly and flit into one another in twos and threes while a gentle makani shakes the feathery jacaranda tips. 

A Hawaiian woman dressed in a long white dress and kihei stamped with a red lehua flower tied at her left shoulder is walking along the street. At her side is a white dog. I expect at any moment my two mellow german shepherds will turn into fiendish hounds and do their best to terrorize the white dog. They are sacked out on the cool earth beneath the jacaranda, and show no signs of stirring. I wave to the woman, a neighbor I have not seen before. She lifts a hand in greeting and turns up the path toward me, past the ti plants and the heliotrope. A pair of butterflies flirt with each other directly around her head, forming for a few seconds a lei po'o of fluttery wings, and I am distracted from warning her about my dogs. But the beasts sleep on, Koko uttering a tremendous sigh, his lips vibrating before he settles into ever deeper dog sleep. The woman smiles and I gesture to the seat next to me on the swinging chair, and it groans as she fits herself in next to me as if we are old friends. Her white dog sniffs the faces of my sleeping dogs and gives Koele's snout a light lick before lying down right next to them. 

My new swing friend begins to talk story after our initial alohas, beginning with the days before the francolins were here in these parts, before the jacaranda, when the iliahi and koa forests covered the meadows before us. Jet black O'o with brilliant yellow tail feathers and fuzzy yellow epaulets nested in the trees. The 'alala thrived. I had never seen the Hawaiian crow, and had heard that it was nearing extinction with only a few birds being kept alive in captivity. And then as can happen here when the name is called, there appeared in the branches above us first one then two 'alala, and the woman next to me on the swing remarked that things are seldom as they seem and even less often as we are told. I asked her name and she told me Leilani. 

In the distance orangish red flashes of wings seeming too large to be butterflies darted in and out of the green understory.  "Akepa", Leilani remarked, inclining her head in the direction of my glance.  And then in the near distance, ʻakiapōlāʻau another bird I had never seen except in photographs joined the scene. When I came here to this island it was with the dream of contributing to the reforestation of the endemic woodlands, but the sandalwood and koa trees I personally planted did not thrive. But in my section of the rainforest, the bird population grew each year. Amakihi, i'iwi, apapane multiplied in abundance, their tiny nests coming down out of the ohia when there were rainstorms. Here living on borrowed land, I did not think often of the missing trees, and felt a sharp regret for having dropped the idea. 

"You could plant iliahi here, and in that land behind you," Leilani suggested. "If those trees came back here, the akepa and o'o would return as well." She waved at the friendly jacaranda under which we sat. "This tree does not belong here." She thumped the ground with her walking stick, stirring up a plume of dust that spread like smoke. She looked sharply aside at me, her black brown eyes taking ahold of my eyes such that I could not look anywhere else until she released me, doing so by looking back at the dusty cloud where she had tapped the earth. It persisted, like the plumes of steam escaping from the cracks in the lava at Volcano. She smiled and dragged her foot over the spot, and the smoky effect stopped abruptly. In that moment it came to me that I had drifted into a dream, into hypnogogia where images formed by my less conscious mind seemed real, and I willed myself to rise up out of the swing and fly like the birds in my dream. But nothing happened, and Leilani was still talking about where I might be able to find some young iliahi, two year old trees she thought, that would be just right. 

She assured me there would be more rain than usual in the season ahead. I asked if she lived in Puuanahulu and she laughed and said no, on Kilauea, but she felt like taking a walk. It was not likely she could have walked the hundred or more miles from Kilauea, across Mauna Kea, but she said she had. I offered her some juice and she said she preferred whiskey so I brought out the Glenmorangie and the Buffalo Trace bourbon and a couple of heavy glasses. She tried a little of each, and came back to the scotch. She became more insistent upon the tree planting. 

"Your friends on the other side of the island would be grateful if you distract me over here," she said, or something to that effect. I cannot recall her exact words. She all but came out and said that if I got the sandalwood trees, she would be back to help with the planting. She told me of a farmer who parked alongside the highway of a Saturday with seedling trees, as if he would be there the next day. She urged me to buy everything he had. "A hui hou" she said as she pushed herself off the swinging chair. "I will see you tomorrow after the morning rain. Do not forget the iliahi". Her white dog jumped to his feet, shook and trotted off next to her, as she lightly touched the ground with her stick. 

The whiskey while the sun was still in the sky had its effects, and I was languidly lying across the chair swing, now occupying as much of it as possible given that Koko had joined me, his butt pressed against the cushions and his head on my shoulder. Koele was lying beneath the swing. The clouds along the horizon had gathered a few friends and there was a golden glow about their edges. It was going to be the sort of sunset that you would drive down the road a bit to find that puka lani, a hole in the clouds where the light could shine through in many fingered rays.  

Two days later the lava had made a severe turn. It seemed likely it was going to bypass the Wao Kele o Puna reserve altogether. It was no longer pointing its fiery finger at the houses of Kaohe or Leilani Estates.  Seventeen iliahi trees is not much of a forest, but they are in the ground behind my house. I bought everything he had. Leilani strolled up with her white dog as I was digging the holes. She called me sister and showed me where she had already turned up the ground in anticipation of our project.  "While you were out getting the trees," she explained. And she chanted. Rain fell upon us as her rich voice covered the forest and joined with the birds. 

I do not like to use the word miracle, as it says something extraordinary happened. The truth of the everyday is that we all do small things, manini things that cause everything to shift. The world changes every day, every night. There is no connection between seventeen iliahi trees in Puuanahulu and a change in the lava flow at Kilauea. The truth of the story is a Hawaiian woman came by with her dog, stayed awhile, and talked story. We planted trees. The lava changed direction. That is all.


  1. Just what I needed today, mahalo nui loa

  2. This is wonderful to read. I enjoyed all of it, and perhaps especially these words at the end: "The truth of the story is a Hawaiian woman came by with her dog, stayed awhile, and talked story."

  3. Thank you so much, David and Tony. I was very shy about sharing this story. So very happy to see it is being read and bringing something good along with it. Aloha.

  4. Great story Gail! Life happens, things change, and the world continues to turn.

  5. Enjoyed reading this again. Keep writing!

  6. great story. you just never know...

  7. So wonderful. Thank you for showing me your blog. I will follow your words and stay in touch.