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By Alan Brennert
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2003 Alan Brennert
All rights reserved.
Later, when memory was all she had to sustain her, she would come to cherish it: Old Honolulu as it was then, as it would never be again. To a visitor it must have seemed a lush garden of fanciful hybrids: a Florentine-style palace shaded by banyan and monkeypod trees; wooden storefronts flourishing on dusty streets, cuttings from America's Old West; tall New England church steeples blooming above the palm and coconut groves. To a visitor it must have seemed at once exotic and familiar; to five-year-old Rachel it was a playground, and it was home.
Certain things stood out in memory, she couldn't say why: the weight and feel of a five-cent hapa'umi coin in her pocket; the taste of cold Tahiti lemonade on a hot day; palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brothers played among the rice paddies and fishponds of Waikiki. She remembered taking a swim, much to her mother's dismay, in the broad canals of Kapi'olani Park; she could still feel the mossy bottom, the slippery stones beneath her feet. She remembered riding the trolley cars with her sister up King Street — the two of them squeezed in amidst passengers carrying everything from squid to pigs, chickens to Chinese laundry — mules and horses exuberantly defecating as they dragged the tram along in their wake. Rachel's eyes popped at the size of the turds, longer than her arm, and she giggled when the trolley's wheels squished them underneath.
But most of all, most clearly of all, she remembered Steamer Day — because that was when her father came home.
"Is today Steamer Day?"
"No." Rachel's mother handed her a freshly cooked taro root. "Here. Peel."
Rachel nimbly stripped off the soft purple skin, taking care not to bruise the stem itself, and looked hopefully at her mother. "Is tomorrow Steamer Day?"
Dorothy Kalama, stern-faced at the best of times, shot her daughter an exasperated look. "How do I know? I'm standing lookout on Koko Head, that's where you think I am?" With a stone pestle she pounded a slice of peeled taro into a smooth hard paste, then shrugged. "Could be another week, anyway, before he comes."
"Oh, no, Mama." They'd received a letter from Papa exactly five weeks ago, mailed in Samoa, informing them he'd be leaving for home in a month; and Rachel knew for a fact that the crossing took no more than a week. "Two thousand, two hundred and ninety miles from Samoa to Honolulu," she announced proudly.
Her mother regarded her skeptically. "You know how big is a mile?"
Rachel thought a moment, her round chubby face sober in reflection, then stretched her arms as wide as she could. Dorothy laughed, but before she could respond there was an explosion of boy-noise from outside.
"I hate you! Go 'way!"
"You go 'way!"
Rachel's brothers, Benjamin and James — Kimo to everyone but Mama, who disapproved of all but Christian names — roughhoused their way up the front steps and into the house. The sparsely furnished wood-frame home was nearly one large open room: living and dining areas on one side, stove, sink, and cupboards on the other; a tiny corridor led to a triad of tiny bedrooms. Pummeling each other with pulled punches, the boys skidded across a big mat woven from pandanus leaves, Kimo's legs briefly akimbo, like a wishbone in mid-wish.
"You're a big bully!" Ben accused Kimo.
"You're a big baby!" Kimo accused Ben.
Dorothy scooped up two wet handfuls of taro skin and lobbed them at her sons. In moments the boys were sputtering out damp strips of purple taro as Dorothy stood before them, hands on hips, brown eyes blazing righteously.
"What's wrong with you! Fighting on the Sabbath! Now clean your faces and get ready for church, or else!"
"Kimo started it!"
"God don't care who started it! All He cares about is that somebody's making trouble on His day!"
"But, Mama —"
Dorothy hefted another handful of taro skin, and as if by kahuna sorcery the boys vanished without another cross word into their shared bedroom.
"I'm done, Mama." Rachel handed the peeled taro to her mother, who eyed it approvingly. "Well now," Dorothy said, face softening, "that's a good job you did." She cut the taro into smaller pieces, pounded them into paste, then added just the right amount of water to it. "You want to mix?" she asked Rachel, whose small hands dove eagerly into the smooth paste and kneaded it — with a little help from her mother — until, wondrously, it was no longer mere taro but delicious poi.
"Mama, these shoes are too tight!" Rachel's sister Sarah, two years older, thumped into the room in a white cotton dress with black stockings, affecting a hobble as she pointed at her black leather buttontop shoes. "I can't feel my toes." She saw Rachel's fingers sticky with poi and reflexively made a sour face. "That looks lumpy."
Dorothy gave her a scowl. "Your head's lumpy. Rachel did a fine job, didn't she?" She tousled Rachel's long black hair; Rachel beamed and shot Sarah a look that said ha! Dorothy turned back to Sarah. "No sandals in church. Guess your toes just gonna fall off. And go get your hat!" Her hobble miraculously healed, Sarah sprinted away, though not without a parting grimace at her sister, who was enthusiastically licking the poi off her fingers.
It was a half-mile's walk to Kaumakapili Church, made even longer by the necessity of shoes, and Dorothy did not fail to remind her children — she never failed to remind them — how fortunate they were to worship at such a beautiful new church, opened just three years before. Its twin wooden spires — "the better to find God," the king had declared upon their completion — towered like huge javelins above their nearest neighbors. The spires were mirrored in the waters of nearby Nu'uanu Stream, and to the devout it might appear as though they were pointing not just at heaven but, defiantly, at hell as well, as though challenging Satan in his own domain.
As Dorothy joined with the congregation in singing "Rock of Ages," her children sat, in varying degrees of piety, in Sabbath School. In her kindergarten class Rachel drew Bible scenes with colored crayons, then listened attentively to her teacher, Mr. MacReedy, a veteran of the American Civil War with silvered hair and a shuffle in his walk courtesy of a round of grapeshot to his right foot.
"'And in the fourth watch of the night,'" Mr. MacReedy recited from the Book of Matthew, "'Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they —'"
He saw that Rachel's hand was bobbing in the air. "Yes? Rachel?"
Soberly, Rachel asked, "Which sea?"
Her teacher blinked. "What?"
"Which sea did he walk on?"
"Ah ... well ..." He scanned the page, vexedly. "It don't say."
"Was it the Pacific?"
"No, I reckon it wasn't."
"It don't matter, child. What's important is that he was walking on the sea, not which particular sea it was."
"Oh." Rachel was disappointed. "I just wondered."
Mr. MacReedy continued, telling them of how Jesus bade Peter to walk onto the water with him; how He then went to a new land; and how, "when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased; And besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made whole.
"'Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came out of —'"
Rachel's hand shot up again.
Her teacher sighed. "Yes, Rachel," he said wearily.
"Where's Tyre? And — Sidon?"
Mr. MacReedy took off his reading glasses.
"They were cities. Someplace in the Holy Land. And before you ask, 'Canaan' was an old name for Palestine, or parts of it, anyway. That good enough for you, child?"
Rachel nodded. Her teacher replaced his glasses and continued chronicling Jesus' sojourn. "'And Jesus departed thence, and came nigh unto the sea of Galilee ...'"
Mr. MacReedy paused, peered over his glasses at Rachel and said, "I would infer, if anyone's interested, that this is the selfsame sea the Lord walked on a bit earlier."
After church came Rachel's favorite part of the day, when Mama stopped at Love's Bakery on Nu'uanu Avenue to buy fresh milk bread, baked that morning. Love's was a cathedral of sugar, a holy place of sweets and starches: pound cake, seedcake, biscuits, Jenny Lind cake, soda crackers, cupcakes. Sometimes the owner, Fanny Love, was there to greet customers; sometimes it was her eldest son James, who with a wink and a smile would slip Rachel a cookie or a slice of nutcake and announce, "You're the twenty-eighth customer today; here's your prize!"
Sometimes Mama would buy day-old bread rather than fresh, or as now, try to haggle some leftover New Year's cake for a few pennies less. Even at her age Rachel understood money was often a problem in her family, and though she rarely wanted for anything of substance she knew Mama worked hard to stretch out the money Papa left her; particularly now, eight months after they last saw him.
That night, as every night, Mama stood by Rachel's bedside and made sure she said her prayers, and Rachel never failed to add one of her own: that God help Papa come safely across the sea, and soon.
* * *
Honolulu Harbor was a forest of ship's masts huddled within encircling coral reefs, a narrow channel threading through the reefs and out to open sea. Unlike picturesque Waikiki to the east — a bright crescent of sand in the lee of majestic Le'ahi, or "Diamond Head" as the haoles, the white foreigners, had rechristened it — the harbor was an unglamorous collection of cattle wharves, trading companies, saloons, and the occasional brothel. On any given day there might be up to a hundred ships anchored here: barks, schooners, brigantines, cruisers, and more and more, steamers — their squat metal smokestacks proliferating among the wooden masts, an advance guard of the new century. Yet the arrival of a steamship was still exciting enough that whenever one was seen riding the horizon, CLOSED signs sprang up in store windows across the city and men, women, and children thronged toward the harbor to greet the incoming ship.
Rachel, perched on her mother's shoulders, peered over the heads of the crowd surging around them and thrilled to the sight of the SS Mariposa steaming toward port. A pilot boat met the steamer and guided it through the channel; then as the ships drew closer to shore the Royal Hawaiian Band, which was gathered at pier's end, struck up the national anthem, "Hawai'i Pono'i," composed by King Kalakaua himself.
As the Mariposa eased into its berth beside a mountain of black coal, Rachel caught sight of a sailor tossing a thick hawser off the deck and onto the dock. He was a stocky Hawaiian in his young thirties, his thick muscled arms tanned by the blistering sun of even lower latitudes. "Papa!" she yelled, waving, but Papa was too busy helping tie up the ship to notice. It was only after all the passengers had disembarked and the cargo was on its way out of the ship's hold that Rachel at last saw her father walk down the gangway, a duffel bag in one hand, a big weathered suitcase in the other.
Henry Kalama, a happy grin on his broad friendly face, hefted his suitcase as though he were about to throw it. "'Ey! Little girl! Catch!"
Rachel giggled. Henry ran up and Dorothy gave him a reproachful look: "Good-for-nothing rascal, where you been the last eight months?" And she kissed him with a ferocity that quite belied her words.
"Papa!" Rachel was jumping up and down, and now Henry scooped her up in his big arms. "'Ey, there she is. There's my baby!" He kissed her on the cheek and Rachel wrapped her arms around his thick neck. "I missed you, little girl," he said in a tone so gentle it made Dorothy want to cry. Then he looked at his wife and added, with exaggerated afterthought, "Oh. You, too."
"Yeah, yeah, same to you, no-good." But she didn't object when Henry kissed her again, still holding Rachel in one arm, the five-year-old making an Eee-uu face. Dorothy lifted her husband's duffel bag with one hand, slipped the other around his waist, and the three of them started through the crowd, a winch's chain chattering above them as it yanked an enormous crate into the air.
"You sell the other keiki?" Henry asked, noting the absence of his older children.
"In school. Rachel oughtta be, but —"
"Where'd you go this time, Papa?"
"Oh, all over. One ship went to Japan and China, this one stopped in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa ..."
"We got your letter from Samoa!"
On short notice Dorothy organized a feast to celebrate Henry's return. Dorothy's brother Will brought twenty pounds of fresh skipjack tuna he'd caught in his nets that morning; Henry's sister Florence made her best haupia pudding, rich with coconut cream; and Rachel helped her mother and Aunt Flo wrap ti leaves around the fresh beef and pork Papa bought at Tinker's Market, the first meat they had seen in weeks.
Friends and family crowded into the Kalama home that night, laughing and eating, singing and talking story. Rachel sat, as she often did at such gatherings, on the lap of her tall, rangy Uncle Pono — Papa's older brother, Kapono Kalama, a plantation worker in Waimanalo. "'Ey, there's my favorite niece!" he would say, hoisting her into his arms. "You married yet?" Rachel soberly shook her head. "Why not?" Pono shot back. "Good-looking girl like you? You gonna be an old maid, you wait much longer!" When Rachel did her best not to laugh at his teasing, Pono resorted to tickling — and as she curled up like a snail in his lap, giggling uncontrollably, he'd say, "See, pretty funny after all, eh?"
Later, Henry's brood gathered round as he handed out the presents he never neglected to bring home from faraway ports. They were modest gifts, befitting a seaman's wages, but Papa had uncommonly good taste and always chose something to charm and delight them. Dorothy was presented with a pretty string necklace beaded with dozens of small, imperfectly shaped pearls, each plucked from the ocean floor by native divers in Rarotonga. Sarah was thrilled to receive a pair of silver earrings from New Zealand, though the silver in them probably wouldn't have filled a tooth. Kimo got a box of Chinese puzzles; Ben, a picture book from Tokyo, and another from Hong Kong.
Rachel knew what Papa had brought her, of course. What he always brought her: a doll from one of the countries he'd visited. Already she had a sakura-ningyö, a "cherry doll" from Japan; a pair of Mission Dolls from China; and a rag baby from America, purchased on Papa's last trip to San Francisco. What would it be this time? Rachel could hardly contain herself as Papa pulled the last gift box from his suitcase.
"And this one's for Rachel," he said, "from Japan."
Rachel was crestfallen. She already had a Japanese doll! Had Papa forgotten? Trying not to betray her disappointment, she tore the lid off the box, stripping away the tissue paper enfolding the doll. ...
That is, assuming it was a doll. Rachel stared in confusion at the contents of the box, which appeared to be ... an egg. A large wooden egg, no neck, a fat body, a bundled scarf and winter clothes painted on — Humpty Dumpty, but with a woman's face. Hilda Dumpty?
Rachel was surprised at how heavy it was, and entranced by its odd appearance. "What is it?" she asked.
Her father scolded, "But you're not done opening the present!" He pointed at the egg. "Hold the bottom with one hand, the head with the other. Then pull."
Rachel did as she was told — then jumped as the egg popped apart, and a second egg fell out! This smaller one resembled a man with a painted-on farmer's outfit; but when Rachel began examining it her father wagged a finger: "Still not finished!" Rachel pulled apart the second doll to discover yet a third one, a young girl-egg this time.
Everyone laughed at the expression on Rachel's face as she kept finding littler and littler dolls growing younger and younger, seven in all — the last an infant in painted-on swaddling, made of solid wood.
"They call 'em matryoshka," Papa explained. "Nesting dolls. From Russia."
Excerpted from Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. Copyright © 2003 Alan Brennert. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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