Running from Moloka'i
UNDER THE CHINESE LANTERNS
When I was a keiki, a little child, I lived in a house that changed colors. Most of the time our house was white, the color of the ship that brought Papa to the islands when he was a boy. But as soon as Papa left the house—as soon as he straightened his vest and picked up his satchel, as soon as he harnessed Hoku and the buggy rounded the ohia trees that clumped like a secret where our road starts down the valley—our house turned brown. I do not mean the brown of warm bread pulled from Mama’s cook stove. I mean the barefoot brown the missionaries were never able to get rid of. No matter how hard they tried.
On one of those long-ago mornings, when Papa had left and the house was brown as a calabash, I was in our garden weeding the beans. Mama and her sister Kalina had lifted their holoku dresses, waded into the water, and were working in the taro patch. I overheard them talking.
“He needs to be moved.” Aunty Kalina’s voice was low.
I stayed quiet behind the stalks of ripening beans.
Mama stood up and shook water from her hands. She dried them on her dress. “So soon?” she asked.
I inched closer.
Aunty Kalina squinted toward the cliffs at the upper end of our valley. She pulled the back of a hand across her forehead.
“We can’t let them find him,” she said.
I stepped back.
That same evening was sweet as mint in hanging pots, and warm, so Papa and I had moved from the parlor to the lanai, the outdoor terrace of brick, to do my lessons. Mama and my grandma Tutu sat at a short wooden table mixing herbs for a dye. They left for Papa and me the place I loved to sit: the stuffed jute sofa. Finally, Papa said the words I had waited all day to hear.
“It’s time to hang the Chinese Lanterns.”
Standing on a crate, Papa lifted a lantern to the lower branches of the banyan tree in the center of our lanai. I wrapped around the leg of his trousers the way wisteria clings to a fence, thinking I was holding him up.
When we finished, Papa lifted me up and we walked back and forth admiring our work: the Chinese lanterns hung in twinkling strands from the porch to the banyan tree. For each little piece of shining light, I made a wish. On one light, I wished grandma Tutu’s eyesight would return. On another, I wished never to lose the peacock feather given to me by a man. I did not know his real name, but I called him Manu, for the o’o bird.
The brightest light of all was near the porch. On this light I simply giggled and said, “Keahi,”--the name of a boy who lived at the lower end of our valley. When our families had picnics at the beach together, he raced along the shore pretending to be the white stallion that ran wild on the big island. But he always ended up next to me in Tutu’s lap. My wish? I would never be far from the sound of Keahi’s laughter.
Many of my lessons with Papa were about other lands. I imagined elegant arches in England where the queen sat having tea; magical China where Moon Bears sat under mulberry trees scratching their tummies and stroking the crescent moon across their necks. At other times, Papa wrote stories about our island of Oahu. Slowly, so I could read along with him, he ran his finger under the words, always in English. I sat beside him and leaned into the hospital smell of his white cotton shirt; he leaned into the light of the oil lamp.
From the moment I found a torn corner of a map blown into our pasture, I had been pestering Papa to make a drawing of our valley. Even at my age, Papa encouraged me to be strong and ask for what I wanted.
“I was born in this valley!” I exclaimed, wiping a spot of dirt from the map. It is said that when the sun shines on Nu’uanu Valley, the whole island is sunny--I liked to think that was true of the whole world.
“That’s right,” said Papa. “Tutu gathered up herbs that were drying on the kitchen table and out you came. Splash, plop, right into my arms!”
Mama tells the story differently. I was born between seasons, she said, in the early morning when turtle clouds hung low in the sky, and a breathy fog whispered through the tulip trees. Tutu named me “Mele,” Hawaiian for “song.”
Papa brought a piece of butcher paper and smoothed it on a wooden plank laid across his lap.
“Here we go,” he said. “A map for my girl of a hundred questions. And she will be worse when she soon turns six!”
I wiggled closer.
“Where should I start?”
I looked up, past the Chinese lanterns to the place where I knew the ridge on our side of the valley came closest to our house. But all I saw were faint lines of sleepy gray. When I looked back, he had drawn two long wiggly lines, one on each side of the paper.
“Is that the pali, the cliffs?” I asked, pointing to the bottom of the butcher paper.
“No, that’s where Honolulu would be. The pali is the other way. The top of the valley is at the top of the paper.” Across the top he scribbled the jagged pali, where treacherous cliffs dropped straight down to the other side of the island. To me, the lines looked like shark’s teeth. Next came trees marching along the ridges.
“Why are there ridges in one place, but not another place?” I asked.
“A question you would ask,” he said. “Maybe the land started out wanting to be a ridge, but then changed its mind and decided to be a valley. And in between, it was a little confused.”
That satisfied me. Papa would never be confused!
Below the ridges he scribbled a row of tiny elbows. I was glad for a chance to show Papa what Mama had taught me.
“The ravines!” I explained proudly. “Where the bird catchers hang their snares.”
“Kawili manu.” Without looking up, Mama reminded me of the Hawaiian name for the bird catchers. “Hawaiian girl ought to know her own language.” She and Tutu were making a gourd whistle for Keahi’s sixth birthday. Mama cut the tip end of a tiny gourd to make a blowing hole. Then she carved three small holes along one side. Tutu worked on the stain, mixing water and bruised herbs in a small calabash.
“I’m a bad artist, you know. You can’t expect too much,” said Papa. He winked at me.
“But you’re a good doctor!” I sat up tall, feeling proud of him. “You are going to cure all the Hawaiians of all the foreign diseases. I am sure of it!”
Papa glanced at Mama. She looked away.
Papa’s pencil moved again. He drew Nu’uanu Road going up the middle of the paper. Half-way up the paper, our two-story house appeared as if by magic. He did not draw Nu’uanu stream where Keahi and I played, or the barn or pasture. But I knew they were there. I touched the paper.
Something was missing.
I leaned forward in the light of the oil lamp and studied the map intently. I ran my finger along the butcher paper. Past the drawing of our house. Along Nu’uanu Road. It did not seem right--that is what Tutu said. Who would bury their bones? Who would sing the songs? I touched the drawing where the valley began to narrow. Was that the place? Maybe farther up the valley.
“Now draw the people,” I said.
He drew Mama, Tutu, himself, and me, all standing in front of our clapboard house. My brother Poki’i was not yet born. Above us was the small window of my bedroom. I shook my head.
“No, Papa. The other people. The people hiding. Draw them, too.”
The gourd whistle slipped from Mama’s hand, making a tiny hollow sound on the bricks. Tutu took a quick breath.
“What people hiding?” he asked.
I took the pencil from Papa and made stick drawings of people. One was part-way up a ridge. Another in a ravine. When I overheard Aunty Kalina talk about them she never said where they were, or who they were. But I sensed that she knew these things.
On each stick figure I drew a sad face. Then lines to show tears running down. I drew hands, then hesitated. I turned the pencil around.
Then I erased the fingers.
Papa looked at me like he had just stumbled on a rock he had not seen.
“The lepers!” I said. “The ones hiding in the hills!”
Back and forth he looked, from one stick figure to another. He turned to look at Mama, but she was leaning over to reach for Keahi’s gourd whistle. Tutu pulled the bottom of her holoku dress into her lap, crushing its hem--her way of holding her breath.
I dug my bare toes into the hiding coolness of mossy bricks, not understanding why the air was stll, why the fragrant smells of the evening were gone, why everyone was quiet. Mama dipped her broad thumb into the mixture of herbs and scooped the stain into the tiny gourd. She slowly rubbed the colored mixture into the design she had cut on the outside of Keahi’s gourd whistle: a fish hook with waves on both sides.
“Don’t you worry, Mele,” she said. Her voice was soft as cream.
After that night on the lanai, when I asked Mama about Moloka’i, her answer was always the same. “The dry eyes of your papa, the wet eyes of your mama.” When I asked Aunty Kalina about the peninsula where the lepers were sent, she only said, “They never come back.”
As a keiki, I believed with all my heart that my father could fix anything. After all, he was white, he was a doctor and he was my father. But what does a child of five know? When I was fifteen and Keahi had turned sixteen, I learned that I was wrong.