House of Many Gods
WAI'ANAE COAST, 1964
Morning, the air astonishingly clear. The sky so unblemished and wide, there is divinity in the light. Sun and heat already strong, the shapes of all things are revealed. Old roosters crowing, shopkeepers yawning, rolling back iron window grilles. The absolute poise of women with blood-leaping grace walking dusty roads to market.
In shanty houses, in rumpled beds, the piping cries of humans waking. A dozing father's muscular, copper-colored arm falls from a bed to the floor. An infant crawls across the floor, picks up the father's hand, and drools. The hand scoops up the child, cupping it like a well-loved toy. It lifts the child up to the day. Here is the still life. The sudden, static poem of being.
Down no-name roads, children stare from windows of abandoned, oxidizing buses, like little clusters of roe. Fresh from sleep, their faces are lovely to behold. Some windows have curtains, there is even a tilting mailbox near the road. A boy appears in a doorway, shaking out a sleeping mat. He rubs his eyes and stares as if in deep remembrance. An old man waters his taro patch, whispering to heart-shaped leaves that it is morning.
Life is not weary of these folks. They have held on to ancient rhythms in this world that was bequeathed to them . . .
This was the wild place, the untutored place, where the Grand* Tutu of the coast, the rugged Waianae Mountains, watched over the generations. Here, thirty miles west of Honolulu, were the rough tribes of Waianae, native clans that spawned outcasts and felons. Yet their towns had names like lullabies--Maili, Nanakuli, Lualualei--until up past Makaha and Makua the coastal road ran out, coming to a blunt point like a shark's snout.
And there was history here, many-layered legends. A reverence for the old ways, the good ways. Each town was set apart by a valley, by plains of weedy, rust-red dirt dotted with patches of taro fields and herds of sharp-ribbed cattle. The soil was coarse and punishing; it was unforgiving and bit back. Still, old tutu men and women planted their taro at Mahealani Hoku, the full moon. And when they harvested the taro, underneath was good. And slogging in the lo'i, the taro mud, was good. Good for arteries and circulation. Good for hoof-thick fingernails.
And they ocean-fished by the dark moon when plankton came, bringing the big fish. And they gave back to the sea what was not needed. And they rested and worshipped according to moon phases. Living by the old Hawaiian moon calendar, honoring their gods, they prayed that theirs would be a good death. That their bones would not lie bleaching in the sun.
Here too, among steep ridges in valley recesses were ancient ruins, sacred heiau, prayer-towers, and sacrificial altars. Here in caves hidden by volcanic rocks, in bags of rotting nets, eyeless skulls watched the land to see what kapu would be broken. And what the gods would do. In ancient days the coast had been a place of refuge for warriors weakened in battles. Here they had hid, tending their wounds, regathering their strength. Here, at night, across the valleys folks still heard those warriors marching back across the land to battle. Some mornings there were giant footsteps.
Seaward, the Wai'anae Coast was untouched and magnificent, its beaches great strands of soft, white powder. Yet only the boldest strangers ventured there. Last holdout of pure-blood Hawaiians, it was the skill of Wai'anae to keep outsiders out. Dark, husky local boys stalked foolhardy tourists at beach parks, vandalizing their rented cars. They ambushed soldiers venturing out from military bases. Sultry girls tossed back their hair, breathing self-esteem, hips swaying insolently as they strode by on crumbling rubber slippers.
Homestead youngsters raised on Welfare, their lives were circumscribed by landlessness, poor education, drugs. Outsiders saw in them the criminal intent, the wish to self-destruct, not looking deeper where hunger for beauty lay. Not hearing the suck and lisp of dreams, despair, then resignation. Yet here was tribal confidence, a sense of deeply rooted blood, of elders standing behind them for now, for good, for always. And the youngsters grew insolent and fearless. Even hardened surfers from Honolulu, out to catch the waves at Yokohama Bay, showed respect. They did not enter the sacred Kaneana Caves. They left the coast before moonrise.
In the town of Nanakuli, off the coastal highway, a house stood halfway up Keola Road, a sprawling Homestead house that vaguely resembled a shipwreck listing to the left. Generations earlier, it had been a house of pride, of people vivid with ambition. Then life, and neglect, had made the house seem very old. But scandals made it new again, embellishing its history.
The town itself was like that, constantly renewed, rewritten by its tragedies. There were shootings. Whirl-kick karate death gangs. Marijuana farmers were hauled off to Halawa Prison, while girls gave birth in high-school johns. But there was Nanakuli magic, too. Wild-pig hunting with uncles, their boar-hounds singing up jade mountains. And torch-fishing nights--elders chanting, bronzed muscles flashing, strained by dripping haunches of full nets. In tin-roofed Quonset huts, and ancient wooden shacks, women sang at rusty stoves, their shadows epic on the walls.
He leaned from his window, looking out at a bloodred valley, the color so beloved and worshipped by the ancients. A silent man, an empty room, only the white rectangle of a bed. He was Noah, and he had come home from combat in Korea without the will to speak. He did not, in fact, remember that war. When folks mentioned it, he shrugged, sure that they were making it up. This was his life now, leaning from his window, the windowsill grown shiny from the years of his forearms.
Having dismissed the past, he was acutely aware of the present, watching the comings and goings of his family, the neighbors, the progression of their small town, Nanakuli, slung like a hammock between mountain and sea. Knowing he watched them, folks behaved a little better. Sometimes while he dozed, children tiptoed close and left things on his windowsill. A mango, a green apple. He woke and leaned down, watching how the apple focused the glow of afternoon.
Since his niece had departed, he did not really sleep. He listened for the cries of little Ana, her abandoned child. He had watched the mother go, driving off with her arm waving out the window of Nanakuli's only taxi. A graceful arm, a careless arm, looking severed from the elbow. She never looked back. Her face was already looking toward the sea, already going makai and makai and makai, out into the world where life, real life, awaited her.
She was leaving behind intractable red dust, valleys that seized up and swallowed livestock, forests of mean kiawe trees whose barbed-wire thorns could skin a human clean. She was leaving, she said, a place of hopelessness, a coast of broken, thrown-away lives.
Noah heard a voice call softly in the dusk, like someone calling in a dream. "Mama . . . Mama . . ."
The child she left behind. Sometimes in the shock of early morning, he heard her chattering to herself. He rose, looked out the window where she was leashed by a harness to a wire clothesline. For hours she played alone in the gritty yard, building a little house with scraps of linoleum, then tidying each cranny.
In the heat of her chores, the child ran up and down the clothesline so it seemed to hum and sing as if she were a note running up and down a scale. After several hours, her hands grimy, her face bearded with dirt, she would grow lonely and would scream, which started the boar-hounds barking. She would scream until someone ran from the house and picked her up.
One day she screamed and no one came. Her screams grew so piercing, a young goat tethered to a tree fainted out of terror. Finally, Noah left his room, walked outside, removed the harness from the child, and pumped it with his shotgun, watching it leap and dance around the yard. Then he took Ana in his arms, humming while she slept. After that folks paid more attention, holding her more often. She grew up feeling loved, but quiet, a pensive child who sat alone like an old woman tired of talking.
There were so many elders in the house, for years she could not keep them straight. Fight-full uncles and great-uncles smelling of tobacco and gun bluing. Big-breasted aunties and great-aunties whose hands reeked of Fels Naphtha. At dusk they gathered on the løanai in competitive fugues of storytelling, and often they talked about her mother. Ana sat in the shadows and listened and, sensing her nearby, they fell silent, or sent her off to her cousins.
For years, she thought that sleeping alone was what people did when they were contagious, for she and her cousins grew up sharing beds; sleeping head to toe--husky boys with bronzed shoulders, and girls with names like Rosie, Ginger, Jade, one girl named Seaweed. Girls whose mothers were all headstrong beauties, famous up and down the Wai'anae coast--Emma, Nani, Ava, Mapuana, and for a while there had been Ana's mother, Anahola.
Along with its tempestuous women, the big house was famous for its damaged men. Ana's great-grandfather had come home from World War I with his nose shot off. Doctors had built him a metal nose which he removed each night before he slept. Folks said that's why his wife had gone insane, lying under his empty face. Great-uncle Ben, his son, came home from World War II without an arm. Ben's younger brother, Noah, returned from Korea silent as a grub.
Their cousin, Tito, a champion swimmer, had been a diver for the U. S. Navy. Deep saturation dives, day after day, year after year, until nitrogen bubbles trapped in his bone marrow turned his bones to rotting crochet. Now wheelchair-bound, he had become a poker master. There were other families, other vets. And sometimes they all came together, remembering war with fierce lyrics and metaphoric dazzle, as if peacetime were the nightmare.
Once a year on Veterans Day, folks came from up and down the coast, bringing baskets of food. They sat watching the veteran sons, and sons of sons, like people at a zoo. The damaged men would drink too much, strip off their clothes, and rave and dance with savage grace, while light hung in the space of a missing limb. Their mutilations glowed. Then they would wrestle their boar-hounds to the ground, play pitch and catch with great-grandpa's bronzed nose till everyone went home.
Of all her cousins in that house, Rosie, five years older, grew to be Ana's favorite. Smart and feisty with sightly darker skin, the girl gave Ana a feeling of security, a deep sense of okayness. Rosie's mother was Ava, and she was the one Ana kept her eye on. The woman had grown up wanting to be an Olympic swimmer, but then she turned beautiful and the dance halls found her. Folks said she looked like Lena Horne. Slow-hipped, honey-colored, each night Ava and her sisters dressed for the Filipino dance halls, rice-powdering their cheeks and arms to make them pale, puckering and rouging their perfect lips.
Sometimes an aunty mentioned Ana's mother, Anahola, how she had loved dressing up and going to the dance halls. How she had stood alone, measuring the men who never measured up. She hardly remembered the woman's face, but often in sleep Ana climbed behind her mother's eyes. She slipped into her skin. She glided with handsome mix-bloods at the dance halls, legs wrapped around thighs that ruddered her round the floor.
One night Ava turned to her, grinning in a twisted way. "Poor little bastard. Your mama didn't want you."
One-armed Ben took her aside. "You got one loko 'ino mouth. Every time you open it, you swallow yo' damn brain. Nevah use dat word again."
Remembering what Ava had said, on her seventh birthday Ana walked into the kitchen full of elders. "Am I still a bastard?"
They cried out and scooped her in their arms. Great-aunty Pua took her on her lap while she mixed poi in a tub of pounded taro.
"Listen, child, anybody call you that again, you tell them pa'a ke waha! Keep the mouth shut. You our precious punahele. You going to be somebody, going make this family proud."
"If I'm so much, how come my mama left?"
Pua looked up at her sisters. "Your mama's on a voyage. One day when she's pau, then she come home."
Ana watched Pua add water to the tub, watched her squeeze the pounded taro, watched the poi ooze through her aunty's thick brown fingers. She listened as Pua instructed, telling her the secret to two-finger poi--not too thin, not too thick--knowing how much water, how much to squeeze.
"You squeeze too much, poi comes watery and runs away."
While she talked, the poi made sucking sounds, swallowing her hands and wrists. "Your mama's a little bit like poi, not always easy to hold on to. Have to let her go her way."
There were nights when all the aunties brought their men home, and the house bulged and rocked with human drama. In the mornings while they slept, Ana and her cousins slicked mulberry juice on their lips, turning them a ghoulish blue. They scraped green mold from the walls and smeared it on their eyelids, then pinned plumeria in their hair and slow-danced in couples like the grown-ups.
Rosie's father came, a handsome Filipino. He closed the door to Ava's room. Their singing bedsprings, call and response of human moans. Then, the sound of him slapping her, a series of screams, Ben aiming his pig-hunting rifle, the drummer running down the road. Ava stood in the doorway flicking ashes, throwing off perfumes.
One day for no reason, she hit Rosie so hard, the girl flipped sideways, landing on her head. Her eyes rolled back, showing white, a trick that took Ana's breath. That night it was quiet, Ana was careful where she looked. Then Noah silently appeared, walked up to the chair Ava sat in, lifted her and the chair over his head, and threw them both across the room. Ava just lay there, her cheekbone's shadow on the floor.
Ben stood over her. "You going end up Kaneohe State Hospital, like Grandma."
Gradually, her face began to change. It grew bloated, blister-tight. She threw Rosie headfirst through a window. She slammed the girl's head with an iron skillet. One day she held Rosie's hand over open flames until Ben pinned her to a wall. Ana found Rosie hiding out behind the goat pen, and they slept wrapped together in a blanket. Through the years they grew so close, they could just look at each other and feel safe.