Photo by VIKI EAGLE
War brought the planes and ships and men to the island, when Makåna was learning to be a woman. She was not Makåna then, or at least not in the way others would come to know her. Then, she was her mother's daughter, a barefoot teenager who saved her best white shoes for the back pew at Sunday mass. Then, she was a sunshine girl with a hibiscus behind her ear. She was her mother's herb collector. A salty-skinned girl who combed her hair with one hand and scribbled out English words in her primer with the other.
Then, the island was everything. But the island was also small and knowable, and Daddy was clever and new and from a faraway place where leaves fell from the trees and came back again in spring. Daddy was stationed on the island behind the chain-link fences of the base. On the weekend, he shared the back pew with the island's giggling, devout daughters, the dreaming brown girls who had been taught how to pray in three tongues.
Daddy's own tongue was a net, and Makåna traded her world for the uncertain excitement of a new one, far away.
It turned out Daddy and his land were remote and unyielding. Cold, too, and sometimes brutally so. There were no hibiscus for her hair, no salt on the wind, no company but the leaves and deer, the snakes in the hills. Daddy strode where he pleased, netting other women with his tongue. She knew of the other women, even guessed he had a child with one of them. Yet all the while Makåna did what she was told. She was quiet and still or else loud and flirtatious, if that's what he demanded, and though he tried and tried, she never bore him a child. She cooked the unusual meals he craved--collards and fryfish, dumplings and boiled chicken--or swept the yard and learned how to disappear. Bit by bit, leaf by leaf, she disappeared, until she was not sure of her own existence.
Not long after Daddy trapped her hard on the ground with his knees and pressed the blade of his hunting knife to her neck, she packed a few things and remembered a little bit of who she had been. She remembered that Daddy was not the same thing as an island. Back beyond the curtain of deep woods, far from the hill where Daddy had brought her, she made an island of herself and began to remember a magic she had forgotten was her own.
The girl's name was Melba, and Sid was the wandering boy. Melba's bloomers never made it past her knees, and while Sid whispered close to her ear, she could hear her Daddy scratching up on the hill. He can't see us, Sid whispered. His whisper was full of dried leaves in her ear—a kind sound but hollow and worn. He can't see us. The crunch of thorns around them. The damp was on her back, sticks in her hair.
Canman is what they called him. Sid. If Sid was ever his real name, though no one knew if it was short for anything. Sidney? Sidicious? He was just plain Sid, until he started hauling the cans.
No one seemed to know much of him, as if he came from nowhere. He showed up on the twisting back roads, green army duffle slung on a shoulder and the trees in his eyes. Walking. Never a car nor even a horse, which would have passed for all right. Folks used to see riders on the roads, saddled western on shod horses rambling up toward open pastures just for the view. It used to be like that in Appalachia and no one would have looked twice. Then came the asphalt, but even that was no real path to anywhere.
Canman walked the asphalt road back and forth from the town, filling his duffle with aluminum—bent cans still sloshing spoilt Milwaukee's Best or Budweiser, RC Cola or Cheerwine, and Sundrop, too, before they went to bottling in plastic. Canman would find them—dig them out of ditches, unearth them from moss hollows, pry them from rock crevices. Clink in the bag. Clink, clink until it was full. Canman clinked down the road, hauling cans a nickel on the pound.
It was on her rare trip to the store in the town on the other side of the hill when Makåna first passed him. He carried a heaviness on his shoulders that seemed more than the load of his green duffle. He raised his head to look at her and lowered it again, sullenly. They did not speak. He clanked along. The second time, she'd come upon him napping at the edge of a pasture, along the trail she took to a scribble of cold creek. Makåna bent over him, shifting a basket to her hip. She watched him longer than she intended to. His face was kind and sad. She looked over her shoulder as she slipped away, back into the woods, and he slept on, never knowing she was there.
Not long afterward, Canman found himself ambling up to Melba's place, asking after some water to fill his canteen. Her Daddy was up on the hill busting crustdirt. Canman knocked on the screen door. Melba let him in. He had the trees in his eyes.
Her Daddy was up on the hill, unknowing. Canman whispered to Melba, and his voice was the rustling of dry leaves, tickling her ear with his warm breath. She threw her head back and glimpsed the clouds rushing by, her pleasure too quick and fleeting.
He was gone by the time her Daddy loped down to the house, dust turned to mud on his sweating brow. Daddy didn't notice a thing, just as she expected. His mind had been addled long ago—by what Melba never knew. He worked at the rocky soil day in and out—almost furiously but with no emotion behind the movements and none on his face. He put food on the table, and didn't have one stitch of personality besides. Her mama had left her with him after Melba was born and had probably run off to someplace else more exciting.
What've you got on the stove for us, Melba? was all he asked. Dumplings? Fryfish?
Melba was rolling out dough when the waves came. Nausea like buttermilk turning on an empty stomach. Daddy was up on the hill raking roots when she set off for Makåna, three dollar bills folded in her apron. The twisting path was soft underfoot but choked with briars that ate at her bare arms and shins. Few knew of Makåna's house deep in the woods, beneath an oak dripping with Spanish moss, but Melba found herself descending the hill and looking for a path near the leaf-caked creek.
Further along, laurels grew thick and gnarled like vines. A copperhead lay across the way, stiff as a stick but flicking its tongue. Melba cupped her belly though it was flat as ever and asked the snake's permission to pass. It slunk off beneath the termite log, soundlessly. Melba followed the footpath by the creek and called out when she saw the shack. I knew you were coming, Makåna said, smiling.
Melba unfolded the bills and held them out in offering. Makåna lingered on Melba's face before shuffling through a burlap curtain and returning with a jellyjar and spoon. You look like your Daddy, Makåna said, stirring the thick mixture. Melba squinted and parted her lips, then hesitated. She met Makåna's gaze as she took spoonful and swallowed it down. It smelled of bark and stinkbug. Three days, said Makåna. Just you wait.
Melba waited three days but nothing happened, and her belly swelled anyway. For six months, Makåna dreams were of the baby's face. His eyes were open—eyes like burst spring, and he was whispering. What, she couldn't hear.
And for six months Melba sucked on jam biscuits and marrow bones, fatback and shell peas. As the weeks passed, she swelled all over. She cut rhubarb and plucked buckets of blackberries for pies. She dug wild onion and chewed them with mint, squeezed pails of milk from the cow and drank it until it dripped from her chin.
Three months early the pains came. Melba was snapping beans on the steps, the bowl between her knees. Her Daddy was high on the slope mining molehills. It happened all at once, a great rush and wave. The sensation of water breaking, but the beans were dry as crunching leaves. A crashing sound of waves, then a flood of water that fled her body but was nowhere to be seen nor felt. The beans lay like green fingers in the bowl.
Melba rolled from the steps, holding her knees, hollering inside and out.
She lay on her back and pushed and rocked, hearing the baby whispering louder and louder. She must have been ripped from seam to hem when at long last, the great relief came. Melba sweat in the dirt and heaved. She sat up to gather him to her, to see what she and the wandering stranger had made. But the baby was nowhere. Nor was there blood, or any other sign but her own pain and soreness. The whispering had left her and moved into the trees. The leaves shook. Makåna, they whispered. No wind, but still the leaves shook.
Moss clings to oak branches like ghost hair. The laurels have grown ever more into themselves, the copperheads and cottonmouths wound like springs in the boughs. This lushness a familiar barrier. When the earth coils up to protect itself.
Oceans away, on her own island—on Guåhan—they knew her mother as a makåna, a healer. Here in the tangle of trees whose leaves dissolve and are reborn, she has taken Makåna for her name.
She spins wet moss between her fingers. Brown water drips into the bowl in her lap. She is collecting it there, for the boy to drink. Moss water and mushrooms are enough. He doesn't need more than that, with the exception of her care. Nåna, he calls her. Mother.
It's true. It was she who brought the boy into the world, she with the foresight for cultivation. Not the whitegirl from up the rocky slope. Knock-kneed Melba with the dim Daddy scraping himself into dust? No, no.
Makåna was the one who sent whispers to Daddy's ears, across the hills in bird beaks and tree leaves. She sent the whispers that lapped at him and breathed her sorrow into his ear, softly at first and then relentlessly—an endless ache of sorrow washing over him in waves. Her whispers urged him to break the blanched earth he brought her to, to suffer that land and never tire. Makåna remembered the buck knife and how it felt on her neck, like a nasty promise on the verge of its telling, how she felt the pressure of it there long after Daddy had rolled off her, disgust and anger and a small bit fear in his eyes.
Makåna sent whispers to Melba in the brambles, to Canman where he walked the asphalt road, lugging his burden. She would not return to her island of memory, long since changed from before her eager flight across the ocean. Times when she imagined it, she would recognize the allure of a glorious homecoming as another false trick of her own reckoning and would decide to remain, instead, where she had landed, where she had marooned her own self. No, she would not return.
And so she is here.
The boy has yet to grow past seven, and there are times Makåna thinks about what went wrong. Too much bark in that spoonful? Too little leaf? The medicine in this place so unlike that of her island. The girl could also be to blame.
How will the boy care for her when he is grown, if he never grows? Makåna must not doubt herself. She knows what she's doing. She always knows. If he never grows, he will always need her. That is something, too.
The boy looks like he is half made of smoke. Perching on the roof in the late night, playing with snails. When she tucks the blanket under his chin in the chill morning, he smiles up at her with tiny milk teeth. They will never fall out, the teeth, but they will be always on the verge. Forever seven. She can't give him a thing but moss water and soft mushrooms. Yet he finds the snails.
Sometimes, she wonders what will happen to him when she dies.
Lately he's been calling the snails to him. She thinks it's so. She never had the taste for them, yet they keep coming. She can hear their sluggish sliding from a mile away—an almost imperceptible friction, the flat-bellied ooze and inch over leaf litter and root tangle, over pebble foot and birch bracken. The smoky glass of the shack glistens with snailfoot. Up and up to the roof they are compelled, up to the pale hands of the boy.
The bark and leaf were her best guesses. If blame were to choose, it would point a finger at the whitegirl, at Daddy, at the loneliness of all things. She will tell the boy all of this, before her own slide into the other world. She will tell him of her careful cultivation, her intentions. She will say this is no place our kind will ever know how to belong. She will say if only we were home. She will say when love cannot be found, make it.
He will never grow old enough to understand.