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Excerpt from "Running from Moloka'i"


     Keahi began to be late for school.  He no longer brushed against me as he walked past my desk.  John Makahehi could not convince him to go fishing. His talk of being a carpenter ended. I felt helpless.

     After staying late at school one day, I came around the corner of the verandah and saw Ali`i tied to a post. His head was down. His reins hung along his mane as if he had stood there, unmoving, all day.  In the shadows stood Keahi. When had he grown thin? I walked to him. His hair did not have the luster it had in the sun. His face had the same look as the day recently when Tūtū asked him to play a song on his gourd whistle. Halfway through the song, Keahi had quit. He had stood with the gourd whistle in his hand, looking toward the pali. He leaned to one side, the way Daniel Livingstone does when he is looking for a fight. 

     “Mele.” A hard voice. “You remember kanaka at dock?  Who get shot by sailor?” 

     I nodded, wanting to ask if he would talk to Dr. Netten.

     “Sailor, he get arrested for shooting kanaka, all right. But haole judge will think about what to do. Maybe nothing.” His eyes matched his voice—ice. “What your haole papa think about that?”

     His words stung. “You leave my father out of this.”

     But a barb had snagged him and already set. “Your papa only wants to get rid of lep--”

     I pushed him away, feeling the slap of his words. “What is it? Tell me!” I pleaded. 

     Keahi looked at his feet. When he raised his eyes, I saw again the boy I did not know. 

     And then my world changed.

     His fingers moved to the top of his shirt. They trembled like those of an old man.  He unbuttoned the top button…then the next…and the next.  I swallowed, watching his hands. In one tug, he yanked his shirt away from his left shoulder. 

     I drew back. Every word I had ever known melted into this word:  No.  I could not stop shaking my head, unable to take my eyes from the patch of redness on his shoulder. 

     “No, Keahi.  Don’t tell me what this is.” Air rushed in and out of my lungs at the same time. 

     Bitter tears filled his eyes. “You know what it is, Mele.  The ma`i Pākē has found Keahi, too.” 

     Still, I shook my head in disbelief.  Not Keahi—he was too young, too strong. “It can be anything!” I said.  “Papa has said it himself.  So often it is something else—not the disease at all!”     “I am telling you, Mele!  I know.” He stood like a dying tree, everything falling downward. 

    “It is nothing,” I pleaded.

    “It is everything!  You saw Peter Kohala; you know what it does.  My life is pau.” 

    In his look I saw his dreams ruined, his hope destroyed.  Kalina was right:  the haoles don’t have to condemn us, we do it to ourselves. The only hope was to have him examined.  But by whom?  Not Papa! Whatever else happened, Papa could not find out.  

     “Let Kalina examine you,” I said. “If she’s not sure, we’ll take you to Mānoa Valley…I’ll come every day…In time the mark will go away, and you can come out. Please!” There was no reasoning with him. The Board of Health did not even know of his symptoms, and already he had a hunted look. He was not even on Moloka`i, and already he was devoured by fear and despair.

       “How long,” I asked, “have you had this?”

       His answer shocked me. “Since I was a little keiki.”

       “That can’t be!”

       “It comes, it goes.” His voice was raspy now. “But it always comes back.” 

       A memory returned to me. As little children at the beach one day, Keahi and I were curled into Tūtū’s lap, listening to waves lap at the shore. I had seen a red mark. Like this one. On his same shoulder, too, but lighter. When I reached out, Keahi had inched his shoulder away and dropped his eyes.  Tūtū ran her fingers through his long black hair, lifted it, and quietly let his hair cover the mark. Had Tūtū known all along?  Was this why she prayed every night to Jesus, “Keep my Keahi safe, too.”?

       I never felt as empty as when I rode up Nu`uanu Avenue alone. Keahi had refused to even ride partway home with me. Miki clopped with her head down as we moved along the quiet dullness of gray-white fences with pickets closing in on gardens. We passed a woman throwing dead flowers in the corner of her yard.  I stopped in front of the huge Afong house and watched their daughters running in circles on the verandah, each pretending to run away from the man they would marry. But all I wanted was to run toward Keahi. My mind flew from insisting that Keahi was wrong to the horror that he might be right.   

       Miki pulled toward the old path along the base of the ridge. At the grove of papaya trees, I stared at the stump full of axe marks, with the rain of fear pouring down my cheeks. I blinked, realizing what I knew all along:  most at risk were Hawaiian males. Keahi had been in danger since birth. How naïve of me, thinking I could walk out of my world and into the world of Peter Kohala, bearing a gift to a man ravished by something I never thought would touch my own life—not like this.  I felt stupidly blind. 

       I rode on, not even leaning away as Miki brushed close to an `ōhi`a tree and branches scratched across my leg. I looked at a tear in my dress, felt nothing. The valley seemed empty, the air heavy. The folding ridges pressed against me like a ribcage—I was wandering in the belly of a whale.

       If I felt this frightened, how did Keahi feel? 

       On the trunk of a tree was a green line. I watched the gecko, its sides pumping in and out with life. The gecko turned its head as if looking for danger. Then it rushed into a long dark hollow. Even the gecko has a place to hide, I thought. Even the fish finds a cool shelf in which to escape. Miki turned her head as if making sure I was still there, but I did not reach out to pet her. I felt the first drop of slow rain, the kind of rain when you have time to look at the circle of lonely wetness on your hand before the next drop lands across the trail. It is said that such a rain denotes the presence of a god. 

       If a god was with me, I felt no such presence. 

       Miki turned toward the gully leading down to the stream; I hardly cared as her footing slipped among the scree. All around us, vines hung down from dark canopied trees. Stones were everywhere, holding everything down. As we followed the stream, the water seemed to whisper the same words students at school had been thinking.  Though most of us were checked at home, we leaned toward the mirror in the washroom, studied any unusual spot on our skin.  We knew what the health authorities were looking for, and they were coming to Royal School the next day.  Every student would be examined. 

       I closed my eyes.  “Take me home, Miki.”  

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