Sunday, July 1, 2018


Encumbered By Dragon Wings

Morning fog had settled around the house, tide at the flood, loud, insistent. Mugs in hand, the two women sat in the parlour before the bay window, Grace with her legs curled under her hips, Elizabeth with her legs outstretched, feet propped on the ottoman, the mission chairs turned to the room, their backs to the gloomy yard. Elizabeth insisted on many British spellings, and this was one of them. 'Parlor' without the 'u' seemed to lack some dignity. The word was from the Latin 'parlare', to speak; and Elizabeth rather preferred the definition that was rarely listed: a room in a convent used for conversation.
"He wants me to meet him in Papeete," Grace said.
"He wants what?" Elizabeth said. Her eyes had widened behind the lenses of her glasses. "How in the world ... "
"Rather simple really. All captains are required to carry satphones on their deliveries. Call anyone. Anywhere." Grace reached out and took the older woman's hand. "We have time yet, Bess. We'll finish the book."
The cool, damp air always carried such a distinct odor. That business about raindrops releasing smells from hitting the ground seemed just the least bit farfetched. Elizabeth thought rather that it was the sea air mixing with the smell of the vegetation on shore with a pinch of ozone if a storm were brewing.
Not to mention the Proustian effect: smells evoke memories. They, too, call. She turned to her friend, and said, "What, dear, is a satphone?"
A smile from Grace, a pat of the hand. "I'm sorry, Bess. Satellite telephone. Like GPS. Yes? Bounce signals off satellites."
"But Tahiti is just Option Number One. It could be New Zealand or Australia. Mon Capitaine's Grand Plan."
"Which is?" Elizabeth did not like that 'my captain' business, no matter how whimsical Grace voiced the phrase.
"He wants to sail right around the world; and do so on other people's boats, getting paid for the privilege."
"And that works how?"
They sipped tea. Gulls were circling the house. Prosaic coastal scene. Romantic novel. The heroine on the cliff waving her hanky farewell, farewell as the clipper makes sail and fades into the distance.
"Simple really. He makes his delivery to Papeete. Picks up another boat for Auckland or Sydney. Same again to South Africa. Right on around the watery planet. Easy peasy." Grace shrugged. "He's had the notion in his head for some time now."
The young woman placed her hands on the arms of the chair, circled her fingertips around the smooth, fine grain of the arms. "Tea time," she said, and made to stand.
"And you know how to sail, no doubt."
"I do. Jack lived on a battered old Wharram catamaran. Still a steady sailor, that boat."
Grace gave a shake of her head, a bit of smile. "Hawaii? Surfing?"
"Yes, yes. That Jack."
"That Jack. He lived on an old boat, Óle Wale." Standing, she said, "The name means nothing of value. Jack was anal about his possessions. He was very careful not to be owned by things he owned. Not even his boat. 'Only thing of value sits right in here,' he would say, and tap his chest with his stubby fingers."
"Some Jack, your Jack."
"That he was." A look, then, out the window.
Grace stood. "Five years ago now. Or nearly so. He was off to see friends on Lanai. Never arrived. No sign of Jack or Óle Wale."
Elizabeth turned her head, gazed out the window. "Doing what he loved is what they say, but that's just an empty euphemism to mask sorrow. And sorrow is a problem for the living," she said. "Dealing with grief. Always a problem about how one should proceed."
A rueful smile from Grace. "When I was first in Hawaii, after my parents had died, a counselor told me that grief was just another emotion, like anger or happiness, and learning to control one emotion helps to control them all."
"Preaching stoicism was he?"
"Doing his best. I was eight years old, and not nearly as wise as our young Ikkyu seemed to be. Or Mori for that matter. The counselor---an older Caucasian woman---struggled to elicit some response from me. It seems I had already learned to bury my emotions."
"There is that passage in Mori's manuscript ... the crux of the matter, I think."
"Where she is accosted by the carpenter?"
"Just after. She goes on to the temple."
"Yes, sitting on the veranda singing her song."

I sat quite still disregarding the pain from the bruise on my cheek. My hair still tousled, my thin faded, drab kimono still disheveled. Footsteps from the temple. I glanced quickly, but continued my song. I sang so softly, it surprised me that anyone might hear.

The priest stood in the doorway, listening. My lyric surprised him. It went:

The fair lady who rolls up her window is blind.
She sits deep within, and knits her moth eyebrows.
One sees only the traces of her tears,
but knows not who she is hating.

The priest waited until I stopped. I knew several verses; but most often I would just repeat one or two. Over and over. When I sat quiet, he approached me, knelt. He turned his head to one side, then the other. I thought he would try to console me. Tears ran down my cheeks. But he merely sighed, and said, How is it, child, that you become so encumbered by dragon wings?

Grace unfolded her legs, gazed across the yard.
"And so, was that it? Had you grown some dragon wings?" Elizabeth asked.
"Like Mori, I knew not who---or what---I was hating. Not then."
"And now?"
"And now?" Grace folded her hands in her lap. "Hate," she said, " slowly becomes superfluous. If one is the least bit reflective. Yes?"
"And if one has the habit of reflection; age offers many opportunities for practice."
Grace entwined her fingers. A boat came slowly around the far point just beyond the breakers, the captain feathering his bow against the push of the swell, two crewmen hanging over the gunwale scanning the water, gulls flitting about the cranes, swooping over the stern, the wake kicking up white water.
She and Jack, sitting just beyond the break. Somewhere on the North Shore. Could be anywhere on the North Shore. Or nowhere. Swells roll in, sets of four or five, but none big enough to trip over the reef and break. She lay prone on her board; Jack sits with knees cradled in his arms. Trades softly blowing. Gulls mewling. Sun rolling to the western horizon.
"Enough," Jack says.
"Think so," I answer.
"Not a question."
I look at him, right leg crooked out awkwardly; he sits serenely, complacently.
"What then?" I ask.
"Enough," he says. "Hawaiian fellow say, lawa. Means strong. Sufficient." He grins. "That you, cupcake."
"Me?" I sit up, swinging legs around to straddle the board.
"'Me?'", he mimics. "No more inaina aku"
"Who's pissed off? Me?"
"No more." He lays out on the board, paddles. "Little bigger swell, bit of break. In we go," he says, laughing.
Elizabeth reached out and touched Grace's arm.
"Odd," the young woman said. "There really isn't a word for 'hate' in Hawaiian. Jack cobbled some beach slang together. Inaina aku."
"Pissed off," Elizabeth said.
Grace laughed. "Leave it to you. Yes. Pissed off. Really pissed off," Grace said.
"Happens to the best of us. Emotion hard to manage. Comes from our old brain, I'm told. Survival thing."
"Of course." Grace stretched and stood. "And as one gets older?"
"Sometimes I think we just lose interest. Too busy trying to keep the systems functioning. Becomes a major project just to walk downstairs." Elizabeth got purchase on the arms of the chair and pushed herself up. "Salad for lunch?" she said.
"I made pico de gallo. Remember?" The young woman cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. "And corn bread? With an extra dollop of honey?"
Elizabeth looked blank, then sighed. She slowly raised a hand and tapped her forehead with its heel. A shrug of her shoulders. "As I was saying ..."
Grace took her hand. "All systems go, Bessie dear. No worries."
"Humph. You say."
"I say."
"And Bessie was a cow's name. Some company's mascot, she was. Before your time, I suspect."
A laugh from Grace. "Ever hear of Eagle Brand Condensed Milk?" she said. "A staple for kids growing up in Hawaii."
"Eagle Brand ... And?"
"A Borden product. Their mascot was a cow whose name was Elsie, not Bessie."
"That's the one. Big brown eyes. They had a real cow, too. Did parades and such. Fell out of the back of a truck."
Laughing now, sidling through the doorway.
"What you dredge up."
"Not just me, dear. 'We.'" Elizabeth patted Grace's hand, then entwined her arm in the crook of Grace's elbow. "Definitely we." She leaned her head against the young woman's shoulder. The kitchen was still warm from the cooling oven; and Elizabeth caught the sweet scent of cilantro and tomato, the earthy tang of the corn meal. "Umm," she said.

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