A volcano has erupted on the bed of the Pacific. A giant head of molten lava is forcing its way through cracks in the ocean floor.
I wasn’t there when it happened, but that’s where I’m standing now, on Big Island, land formed by layer upon layer of lava, the newest land on earth.
You’re not here with me, but you’re taking my word for it, as I’m taking theirs.
When it cools, the glowing lava darkens, wrinkles and folds, its slightest motion arrested at every turn. This is what land looks like when it’s new, very old skin, the skin of an elephant or a whale.
I’m brand new to the islands, even newer than the lava.
One torrid first of July, in the time-honored tradition of all Ishmaels, I stuffed my bag, took to the friendly skies of whatever airline was left, and headed west to Hawaii, the furthest I could go on my frequent flyer bonus, abandoning my beloved city to its Doomsday budget, and hoping the Central Park Zoo would still be there when I got back.
I’m standing on a volcano, awaiting a solar eclipse, peering through a strip of mylar at the heavens. The volcano is Kilauea and Kilauea is the home of Pele,goddess of fire, a mainstay of the Hawaiian religion. I’m pretty religious myself. Being religious makes me exacting. At least, I expect complete quiet when I’m about to experience a galactic event.
“Your sun peep is better than ours,” whines Damion, a ten-year-old from St. Croix, plump as a dolphin pup and already tired of waiting. His mother, Carole, is a science teacher.
My religion prescribes tolerance of small boys, especially if they’re from the Virgin Islands. I’ve even managed one of my own.
“I got it at the Bishop Museum in Oahu,” I say, making my voice round and nice, the way my son would like it. “Want to trade?”
Carole is trim, spry, clean as a whistle, with straightcut short dark hair, nothing like the science teachers who once rebuked me as they patrolled the benches, their ample waistlines camouflaged by their lab coats.
Chemistry: the tart green flame of copper, the orange flare of sodium, the cerise of lithium, the papal blue of Bunsen burners. The periodic table always sets off peals of hysterical laughter. Chemistry: the burning threat of acid, the acquiescent solvency of crystals. Botany, now botany lacks drama. Plant drawing with dark green Venus pencils is as far as I get. I draw stinging nettles and scotch thistles.
Ashley is from Yorkshire, he’s new to the school. Ashley is my friend. Ashley doesn’t take science, but he carries my leather satchel under the trees and across the gravel from the dorms where we spend the night to the building where we spend the day. I’d rather carry it myself, but . . . At first I resist and then I succumb. Organic and inorganic, the chemistry text books on his left shoulder are a counterweight for the Milton and Chaucer on his right. Later, it’s not so funny. The roles switch and I’m carrying his.
After lights out, I hop into his red frame bed, identical to mine. Under the striped cotton spread, we clamp onto each other like a couple of young seals. Ashley chides me for being a prude in bed.
Prudish then, prudent now. Never mind the in-between. After ten hours as a hostage of high altitude, I need a bed of my own.
I skip Honolulu’s noirish Driftwood Hotel, lurking in the shadow of a towering condo, with its hints of trench coats and trilbies, nefarious goings-on and no hint whatsoever of the ocean from its windows. Oahu, one of a string of islands that make up Hawaii, is daubed with a concrete impasto of boxy construction. For the grand sum of one dollar, a city bus speeds me far from the hi-rises and honeymoon couples of Waikiki, honing their vacation skills, past the acres of pineapples and the barbed wire of military installations, and bears down on the north coast.
The landscape changes from the humdrum to the miraculous.
Smack into the sunset: clouds shaped like giant crocodiles face off across a pellucid orange sky. Come the most daring and precise colors as the light fades, vermilion with a dash of amethyst and citric yellow. Venus dangles like a huge diamond. The arc of the horizon is taut as a giant bow about to shoot a giant arrow.
At night, the pounding of the surf. During the day, my arms grapple with the waves, churning themselves into a lather over my head.
Although I’ve never taken vows of poverty, I sketch my itinerary in bold strokes, it has a pleasing economy of line. I accept an invitation from a long-time New York expatriate on another island
Half-way around the globe, mainland to island, island to island, my head is airy, I’m still reeling from the trauma of a 10,000 mile displacement. When I arrive on Kauai, it’s a national holiday, the unique bus isn’t running, cab fare blows my rations for two days. My drop-off point is the Dekko Gekko Cafe, decorous but unattended.
From the highway, a gigantic ginkgo tree signals the turn-off to Juval’s plantation. Next to a corrugated iron shack, a thin, scantily clad child is grooming a beige and brown horse. She eyes me with shrewd disinterest.
I extend my hand. “Is your mother home?”
“You should have brought your kid,” she says reproachfully, “because I have another horse.”
It’s simple enough to step off the porch, strewn with bits and bridles, pungent with the odors of horse and leather, into the orchard. Simple but risky. The air’s humid, humming, fragrant from shrubs in bloom. I’m not prepared for this. Flowers have their own way of getting to you, of assaulting you with their fragility. Far from being a sensory emporium, this is floral black-mail.
In the Garden of Eden, everything is overripe and excessive. Avocado, citrus, and mango trees grow in crazed abandon. I stumble on discarded fruit, amply scattered in the knee-high grass, offering instant nourishment. Mangoes are coated with a poisonous resin, but who’s to know? I pick up one. Too late. Flaunting their brilliant plumage, the birds do not let on. High up in the branches, they perch or fly at their discretion, squawk, trill, or warble in any key from A to G, rehearse their coloratura. These birds should be singing at the Met. Powerfully equipped mosquitoes target every inch of exposed flesh.
A sun-bleached man in green shorts with a wizened face is raking mango leaves from the slope behind a single story house. He hands me a lighter and a short pipe, patiently relighting it when it goes out. Inhale deeply. Whatever was in the pipe takes over my endocrine system, what’s left of my bruised urban brain and neuro perceptors. I attempt light conversation of the kind most respected west of the Hudson.
“Hope this’ll keep those stingers away.”
“Yeah,” says the man, “there are enough of them. Put some garlic in your diet. That’ll keep them away.”
“It’ll keep everyone else away too. Mind you, folks here keep pretty much to themselves these days.”
By now I’m much more agreeable, hopefully a better person. At least, I agree with him.
I drift from room to room, looking for Juval. She must have forgotten which day I was coming. Mirrors, doilies, knickknacks: a high level of surface clutter, of self-referential domestic detail that I always want to close my eyes to.
Swinging in a hammock in the furthest corner of the furthest room, festooned in a fine-spun shroud, Juval is waspwaisted, wild-eyed, wild-haired, with trim knees and the spread toes of someone who goes barefoot a lot. There’s no glimmer of acknowledgment. Golden spiders shuttle assiduously from wall to wall, trailing their golden threads. I admire the intricacy of their labors, but tiny blades of misgiving begin to sprout like new grass between the granite slabs on my block.
Should I stay or should I go? High hopes of feeling comfortable enough to stay give way to reduced expectations. On the other hand, maybe this is a cry for help. Having often been in situations from which I couldn’t extricate myself single-handedly, I should at least attempt the honorable thing. I go for the direct tack.
“Juval, is there something I can do for you?”
My voice sounds high and thin like a bat squeak, as though it’s inaudible to her, or to anyone else.
“I brought you some advanced thoughts from New York. Magazines. The Times.”
Juval pays no heed. She continues crooning quietly to herself. This must be the latest in arachnoid therapy, a local specialty. I leave her to her choices and depart promptly for the Na Pali Coast in search of greater clarity.
Island weather is about as predictable as the moods of an alcoholic. A strong wind rears up from the north, bringing with it rain in torrents. When it stops, I follow the curl of the waves along the sand to the head of the trail.
The Na Pali Coast is Kauai’s great stroke of genius. Sheer cliffs, as though felled by an ax, plunge into the ocean. They’re capped by a dense tropical forest. Hundreds of feet below, the water sparkles with the brilliance of a million sapphires or emeralds.
For a while, I’m mesmerized by my new-found wealth.
An exceedingly steep and narrow trail winds up and down between the trees, crisscrossing rapid streams that make it perilous. It’s studded with multitudes of jagged stones that require negotiating, step by step, like a long and tedious argument, very much like life itself. The vegetation is fronded, shiny, with a leathery, almost reptilian texture. Clinging, knotted lianas entwine themselves around trunks and branches and complicate the appearance of the foliage. This time I get a frisson from the flowers, the exotic perfume goes to my head. My body’s in motion but it’s pure will that propels me, not any kind of musculature.
While I’m plagued by thirst and aching limbs, everyone else leaps along the trail from boulder to boulder, over sharp-edged rocks, agile, sure-footed as leprechauns. At the foot of the cliff and at the end of the trail, a river throws itself over huge boulders and out to sea. One slip and I’m out there with the tide.
Heavy storm clouds gather overhead. Am I going to make it before the clouds break and the trail turns to mush? Somehow I do and collapse on the beach. A red cardinal struts up to me jauntily, the ring doves eat out of my hand.
Staring at the vaporous blue dome of sky, where everything was dense and fractured, now everything seems light and smooth, and all that separates me from the next port of call, Big Island, and totality is a mere inter-island flight coupon. I rehearse the light-fingered arpeggio of escape in one fluid motion, clutching five pieces of coral as a talisman.
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out outside the Hilo airport. My boots survived the trail, even boots from the forever discount palaces of Lower Broadway. I launch into my most bouncy stride.
A yellow jeep is chugging down the highway, high on the haunches of its four-wheel drive. It’s the hot yellow ochre of gorse bushes in summer and of New York city taxi cabs, any season. I stick my thumb out with aplomb.
As the compact little vehicle sails right past me, must be vintage ’61, I note a look of woeful, barely contained amusement beneath finely arched eyebrows on the face of its driver.
I can run a mean hundred yards when I have to. Sibyl is physically imposing, all fuchsia and emerald and peachy apricot tones, a silk blouse draped over full breasts, a clinging skirt, slinky fabrics that maximize her anatomy, long strong legs, sandals and a rippling mane of waist-length hair. For all I care she could have been flat-chested and the color of boiled lobster as long as she stopped. The man she’d gone to meet at the airport wasn’t there, but I’m probably smaller and easier to handle.
Sympathy is the order of the day. It’s either that or walk.
We drive into Hilo and on south. Hilo, where it rains warm gentle rain ceaselessly because we are on the leeward, east side of the island where the moisture carried over the mountains by the wind is condensed into droplets of water, Hilo is a little turn of the century frontier town with beguiling storefronts, wind chimes and ginger ice cream, clamoring to be ransacked. Sybil knows all its secrets.
In Hilo, even when the sun is shining it rains. The jeep has plastic and maroon canvas doors that zip up. If you don’t tuck the flap in above the door, the rain finds its way in.
At Sibyl’s wooden ranch house outside Pahoa, rain and more rain. I peel off my wet clothes and plonk down my carpet bag in the library. Sibyl’s momentarily disappeared, I hope she hasn’t gone the way of my last hostess. Scan the bookshelves for company. Spiritualism and materialism hug each other for warmth, keep them both at bay. Astrology co-mingles with books on real estate, how to purchase property without putting any money down. Still not tempted. Hawaiian gods and goddesses bed down with I.F. Stone’s Trial of Socrates. Ah. Something I can sink my teeth into.
I prowl around like a cat with retracted claws. The house is U-shaped, with a central living area and sleeping wings to the left and right. Between them, an expanse of lawn, dotted with huge orange bell-shaped flowers. I head for the left wing, eyeing the long desk joyously, you mean I’ll be able to work? I stow everything away in closets and drawers as if to negate my presence, to remain invisible, in the manner of the perfect guest.
The shower curtain sparkles with the signs of the zodiac and I run the hot water to the beat of Sibyl’s hammer, doing repair work on the roof. I admire her self-sufficiency.
After the shower, aloe vera and fresh clothes. From the far end of the corridor, Sibyl’s voice sounds like Snuffleupagus, Big Bird’s best friend, her sentences all rolled together into one long drawn-out moan.
“See you’ve found yourself a desk and chair. Don’t knock yourself out. Where are you going to sleep?”
Through the window shades across the lawn, the master bedroom mounts a lavish display: Queen-sized bed and Oriental furnishings. Why does she ask? My knees buckle. I must have misheard. The ground’s softening under my feet, I take a deep breath.
“I’m going to sleep here,” I say staunchly, sending my eyes across the room to the celibate bed. “I’m a monk.” I immediately feel powerful pangs of hunger, as though the removal of one possibility had created another. On the desk, a brown paper bag with provisions left over from the hike gives me a way out. I brighten up.
“What if I fix us both a spot of dinner?”
In the kitchen, it’s not Nude Descending a Staircase, it’s Nude Putting Up Shelves at great velocity. The exertion sends Sibyl’s hair swishing across the curve of her derrière, there’s a faint odor of sandalwood about her. The iridescent shadow on her heavy-lidded eyes and some dangling amber earrings are all she’s wearing.
I feign a complete lack of surprise—after all, this is her house—and continue to delve into the icebox.
Sibyl marvels that I work up the leftovers, hers and mine, miso, rice noodles, and half an avocado into a meal. She dons a ceremonious, brocade robe for the occasion.
Over dinner the empress wants to talk, and she wants to talk about men. Since she’s so eager to hold forth and I’m so eager to hold back—there’s nothing to report—we’re perfect dinner companions. I program myself to make murmurs of assent, mmhmmm, and condolence, ahhah, at intervals.
Astrologers are apt to sound soothing and prophetic, and Sibyl’s voice drones on like a train rumbling through the night. It’s hard to live up to your religion. Pretty soon I’m left behind at one of the stations.
After we eat, I pour out the ginseng tea from a vast teapot into tiny cups.
Cascading frenetically from boulder to boulder, the stream carves a bed for itself out of the mountain and finally plunges onto the kitchen floor as a waterfall.
“Watch how you pour that tea,” says Sibyl, jumping out of the way. “Are you blanking out? Water’s not my element.”
Three brief hours later, we’re on the move again. A field of dull, craggy shards of lava stretches to the horizon, dead and desolate.
Sibyl’s yellow jeep is parked at the edge of the road on the edge of the field. She’s wearing a hot yellow jumpsuit that matches the color of the jeep because today, the day of totality, my camera is loaded. The yellow makes a strike against the even grey of the sky and the dark grey of the earth.
Above the horizon, the sun is hiding like a shy prima donna behind a thick blanket of cloud, as static as an entrenched bureaucracy that will not be dislodged.
Waiting for totality is not at all like waiting for the garbage to be picked up on your block or waiting for the mail to be delivered in your building. A celestial event doesn’t know how to be late. Not in or out of time, it’s a measure of time itself.
It’s 5:00 AM. Will we see it or won’t we? Predictions abound. The word on the street is that we won’t. I’m optimistic for the sake of it. We’re all staring at the same patch of sky. Sibyl the psychic, the dealer in tarot cards, is staring. Carole the science teacher from St. Croix and her sullen boy Damion are staring. I’m with an astrologer and a physicist, staring at a place where the sun should be. Makes perfect sense.
Everyone has his objects of worship. The Hawaiians have the volcano. I have mine. The astronomers have the sun. Today, it’s theirs with its spots and flares. They possess it with their calculations and correlations in a way that I don’t, others don’t. Isn’t knowledge a form of ownership? A pure form. Of course, worship is not what scientists call what they do.
“How come the moon gets to hide the sun,” asks the boy. “So small a thing as the moon, so big a thing as the sun.”
“The moon,” Carole informs Sibyl inside the yellow jeep, “doesn’t spin on its axis. It always presents the same side of itself to the earth.”
“That’s a good tip to pick up from the moon,” I say flatly.
“Not to show anyone your dark side.”
“Oh, I think it’s all right! If you have one.”
“Would the eclipse be happening if we weren’t here?” the boy quizzes his mother.
“Things don’t happen because you’re watching,” Carole is quick on the draw, but he knows she’s wrong.
The birds stop their chirping. A deep hush falls over the lava field. We don’t see it but we feel the cooling of the temperature and the light fail all around. The giant shadow of the moon sweeps the earth into the blackness of a second night. The background loses definition, the foreground loses detail. What a pass! It puts all other passes to shame.
The moon’s speeding on its orbit, the galaxy’s back to normal. The roosters are crowing again.
At a hotel in Hilo, there’s a party for the eclipse. A woman I meet at the Health Club shows me the phoenix rising out of the ashes on her business card. Humanistic astrology. Owns a palm tree forest on the side. Once in the car, it’s my turn to unmask myself. I’m ambushed by her questions, a hive of bees swarms about my head. Oh, I can’t give her the civil answers she expects. I’m no longer shielded by the traveler’s alibi, anonymity. My inner sanctum is threatened. My face turns green, I’m exposed.
“Did the drive make you sick?” the woman asks, concerned. She laughs an extraordinary laugh.
For the time being, nothing makes any difference. If only I could lie down. I wish to disappear totally from this place.
I open the door a mite and peek out. The street’s deserted because everyone in Hilo’s at the party.
I’m about to go, but I don’t. I don’t, because, all at once, the night takes over. From out of nowhere, out of the crowd: a dancer. Transfixed, I watch the fleet glide of his body across the dance floor, gliding to a halt. Lithe and limber, his feet firmly anchored in wide shoes, now he dances like a clown. Smooth rippling of shoulders, supple twisting of the head, slender articulate hands, coaxing nothings out of the air, giving shape to motion.
The magic of chemistry restores the color, brings a flush to my face.
There’s no film left in the camera, but I click the shutter anyway. I’m an impostor. The flash bulb flashes, irradiating him in a blue light as I frame and reframe him, turning this way and that. The camera does the rest.
When he sits down on a hard wooden chair at the back of the dance floor I send signals to my legs to move and go sit, well, not right next but as close as I dare. The age gap yawns between us like the jaws of a hippopotamus but, man-woman-child that I am, I feel violent and timid at the same time, ageless and genderless though I’m not. Of course, no one’s asking me to feel anything. Speech is what’s called for in such situations. He’s mopping his face with his handkerchief. I won’t hide. I’ll say the first thing that comes into my head.
“Oh, I like the way you dance so much,” is what I say, moving one chair closer.
“That’s good,” he says, not in the last bit put out, “because I’m a dancer.”
Nathan is narrow and lean as a sapling, with the sweet natural grace of someone totally at ease in his skin, his body radiating with the glow of a wordly sexuality. He gives me the all-clear. With him, I’ll be able to do, be, anything I want.
He lets his arm loop around the chair as though I were a friend of his already. His shirt is flapping like a sail over his chest, white and soaking wet.
“I can tell.”
“No, really a professional dancer. I dance with a dance company here on the Big Island.”
Nathan lives in the tiny town of Volcano, on the side of a volcano.
“I live on a volcano too,” I proclaim, not to be outdone.
“Oh yeah?” he says with great good humor. “How’s that? I thought you lived in New York.”
“I do live in New York. See, Wall Street is built on an old stump of volcano, and then a mile to the north there’s Central Park and a clump of skyscrapers on another stub of volcano.”
Nathan looks intently at the map that I’ve drawn him on the back of the rising phoenix and makes a face.
“I wish I could go there.”
“I can see you there right now.” He smiles, then makes a solemn announcement.
“I can’t buy you a real drink, ‘cause I’m under age.”
“Are you 19?”
“Oh yes,” he says, stretching his back and his neck over the chair in one smooth continuous arc. “What would you like?”
“Fresh pineapple juice.”
“You’re funny. This is Hawaii, remember? They export all the pineapples to the mainland.”
When he comes back with canned grapefruit, it’s a different story.
“I have to move out of my parents’ house, but I’m too young to sign a lease,” he sighs.
“Tough,” I commiserate, “That’s ridiculous.”
“Oh, I’m not 19 at all. I only said that because you asked me. I’m 17.”
I do some quick mental arithmetic that I keep to myself. The disc jockey spins “Electric Slide.” Nathan’s legs, stretched out for miles in front of him, are angling for action. His shoulders tense and his dark eyes flash with his own internal current. Everyone is moving in the same direction. He stands up straight as an arrow in front of me.
“Let’s get out there and boogie.”
The distinctive Stolichnaya log flashes on my retina, but I know that’s out of the question as an assist.
I tilt my head reflectively like a bird listening for a worm under the ground and rub the soles of my boots against the floorboards. Uncooperative, they stick as though coated with rubber cement.
“I’m wearing the wrong shoes.”
“Nonsense,” he laughs. “Your shoes are fine. You’re making excuses.” It’s a nice, clear-sounding laugh with a ring to it, like cow bells in the Alps. He grabs both my hands firmly, irresistibly.
“Come on, it’s not often I get to dance with a New Yorker.”
I’m won over, I let him unglue me from the chair, I’m torpedoed into dance mode. With its amazing power, the music loosens, bends, and shakes the slack out of my body like wind rustling the palm branches. I let him choreograph as much as he wants. We create an oasis, an eddy of movement around each other, we enter a world of rhythm, silence and gesture, a world of our own. We close the place down. What about tomorrow? I don’t need to pierce Nathan’s mystery, I don’t have to put this understanding to a practical test. I need neither retreat nor advance.
—Liza Béar is a writer who lives and works in New York.