Before she married Ben Toshi, the golf pro, Connie Nahiwa was a stunning beauty living in a ramshackle house with whitewashed walls. The house had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a cool shaded lanai with rusted metal lawn chairs that squeaked when you rocked back and forth. Small as it was, the kitchen had an electric range, a refrigerator with a huge coil on top, and a round table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The cabinets were fashioned out of sturdy plywood by Connie’s grandfather, and while they were rough-hewn and sometimes left splinters in her fingers, all the mis-matched dinnerware and the pots and pans, cups and glasses fit nicely into their dark interior. Connie lived there with her mother Suki and with her great-grandmother Mama Pa’ele. Pa’ele was a nickname that stuck with her because she was so dark-skinned that late at night when the house was unlighted and she sat shriveled and unmoving on the one soft chair on the lanai, she was totally invisible. No one knew how old Mama Pa’ele was, but one story that Connie heard when she was a child was that Mama Pa’ele had been a handmaiden to Liliuokalani when she was made Queen in 1891. At that time Mama Pa’ele was said to be as beautiful as a black sea pearl and sat on the back of a ceremonial sculpture of a dolphin in a fete honoring the elevation of the princess. If the story were true, then she would have to be more than one hundred years old. When Connie was growing up, Mama Pa’ele would sing songs to her in the evening, and she would make a palaoa palai pancake for breakfast. Sometimes she would grind macadamia nuts into the mix and then caramelize the residue from crushed sugarcane. Mama Pa’ele had no teeth at any time that Connie could remember, and as far as she knew she had never seen a doctor, but Mama Pa’ele used to say that the joy of eating would keep her well and that as long as she possessed that joy, she would stay in the world she loved, sitting on the lanai, squeaking her lawn chair, staring into the distance where strange automobiles thundered by under the shadow of the volcano. The lawn had overgrown long since, and even from the elevation of the lanai, it was not easy to see over the koa bushes and monkeypod trees that now sapped much of the view she had seen as a young woman. Grandfather had cut an old monkeypod tree to the ground long before Connie was born and he had fashioned a number of tools from it as well as a set of wooden plates and bowls, spoons and cutting boards, all of which still existed, and all of which saw good service throughout the year. For Mama Pa’ele, the monkeypod was a tree of trees. But in recent years, Mama Pa’ele had grown silent. She sat staring into space on her green lawn chair. Her dark hair, showing signs of gray, but nonetheless preternaturally black, became a rat’s nest over the years, and her grand-daughter Suki had given up trying to untangle it. Every so often, at an extreme of impatience, she would threaten to cut it off, and Mama Pa’ele would react with terror, and shrink back into the darkest corner she could find. Connie had boy friends who would ask to come to the house, but she would try to keep them away. She would meet boys at the movies or at the state park or down at the ABC, but it was rare that she would let boys come to her house. They would come and see Mama Pa’ele sitting, looking into a world that had disappeared, rattling an imperfect rhythm in her chair, so small as to be mistaken for the mythical menehune, those tiny people who had disappeared from the islands a thousand years ago.
When Connie was a freshman at the community college training to be a dental hygienist, she began dating a young haole boy with luscious blonde hair and radiant blue eyes. He had perfect teeth and fragrant breath. His name was Parker Straus and his father owned a small gift shop not far from the Butterfly Inn in Kurtistown. What she liked about him was his slow, rhythmic way of walking and the sudden explosion of laughter when she told him something funny. Parker had a ten year old car, a Mustang, with a special shift that he tried to explain to her, but her interest in cars was limited to their ability to get her where she wanted to go. Her personal problem with the Mustang was that the back seat was hardly large enough for them both, so their romantic evenings were limited to chaste necking in the darkest section of the local cinema-four. Parker had taken her out one April evening when they both had a break from their academic pressures and after seeing the late showing of Jurassic Park at the student center, they drove up Route 11 above Mountain View. They stopped in an old farmers’ road not far from the macadamia groves. The sky was clear. They could see the big dipper close to the horizon and the moon was such a sliver that the car was almost lost to view. They didn’t say much to each other, but leaned across their respective bucket seats and began kissing, his minty tongue deep in her mouth. After a few awkward moments, Connie insisted they get out of the car and just walk a few paces in the woods. Parker saw no point in that, but he took her hand into the seclusion of an orchard and kissed her. When Connie detected his enthusiasm she decided not to let the moment pass. He reached for her breast and she touched him inside his trousers, but somehow it was not the way she wanted their lovemaking to be. Parker was a sweet and decent boy and quite different from the boys she had dated in high school who were impatient, crude, and in some ways basically misogynistic. She felt him pulling her to the ground, but she resisted. “No, no,‛ she said. “Not on the ground here. Too hard, too dirty.‛ And the back seat of the Mustang was so small his feet would be out the window. So she decided to take him home. Suki spent the weekend up in Waimea with Connie’s sister Laura, who had just had her third baby and needed help. Mama Pa’ele would have gone to sleep long ago. Connie thought of the comfort of her own large bed. She was certainly not going to behave like a middle-schooler and let Parker take her on a stony bed of grass where she couldn’t see his body and where their discomfort would mean they’d have no time to savor their mutual delights. “We’re not that far,‛ she said. “No one’s home, and it will be much nicer.‛
Parker backed down the twisty road and headed to Connie’s house. He had never been in any of the old-fashioned Hawaiian houses that stood, like Connie’s, in an ancient stand of darkening trees. She warned him that it was a simple place, but she thought that in the dark, and under the circumstances, he was not likely to notice much by way of his surroundings.
Connie went into the house first and made sure her mother was gone. A weak night-light illuminated the one bathroom, but otherwise the house was silent and dark. Parker came in and walked on tiptoe into Connie’s bedroom and sat on the bed. Connie went to the bathroom and came out to find him with his shirt off.
“Where are you?‛ he said softly.
She stretched out on the bed next to him and they began kissing and fondling one another. She had loosened her blouse so as not to lose any buttons but he still had trouble trying to undo her bra. He asked her to move so he could get a better purchase, but in moving she hurt his arm and he squealed. He struggled with the catch until she pulled his hand in front and guided him to the snap between the cups. Once the bra was off he touched her tentatively then kissed her breasts while she negotiated the zipper in his jeans. They twisted on the bed, he kicking his shoes off, she forcing his belt undone and then pulling his pants down while he shuffled his legs in an effort to free himself as if he were struggling with his clothes in a swimming pool. His mouth was on her left breast and his sex in her warm hand when they heard a soft gurgle that could not have come from outside the house. They stopped and heard their breathing close to each other’s ears. For a long moment they were statues. Not a sound. She squeezed her hand and he moaned very softly and drew in a breath and they heard the gurgle again. Connie sat up, now completely naked. Mama Pa’ele had to be asleep in her room. But she hadn’t checked to see. Now that her eyes were adjusted to the dark, she rose quickly and opened Mama Pa’ele’s door and stared inside. Her mother’s bed was, as she expected, quite empty. But so was Mama Pa’ele’s. Back in her room, Parker’s pasty body was almost aglow in the dark. Somewhat less visible, she looked around the room and was shocked to see very dimly that Mama Pa’ele was curled like a house-pet in her old brown camp chair deep in the corner of the room. Her eyes glistened slightly in the reflection of the night light as it shone on her bedroom door and into the room. Mama Pa’ele had been watching them all the time. “Put on your clothes,‛ she told Parker. But when he rose to meet her his erection was so profound that in the dark she let him enter her moistened vagina and she clutched at him as she caught her breath. They made love intensely standing up, hardly able to control their anxiety, and when they finished they fell slowly to the bed, separating after moments of sweaty groping.
Finally, Parker reached around in the dark for his clothes and took them out into the kitchen. Connie went into the bathroom and washed herself and tried to think of something to say to Mama Pa’ele. What had she seen? Did she understand any of it? And how much noise had she made while Parker had held her bottom firmly to his body and brought her to the pitch she had longed for? When she came back into her room, she looked for Mama Pa’ele, but the camp chair was empty. Connie thought that it may have been a hallucination on her part, an impossible mistake, but Mama Pa’ele was definitely not in her room either. Parker spoke softly in the kitchen and while he spoke, Connie heard the rusty squeak of the lawn chair on the lanai. “What in God’s name was that?‛ he asked. “What did you see?‛ “This tiny dark thing, a dwarf or a gnome. It skittered through the kitchen and out there,‛ he said, pointing to the lanai. “What was it?‛ “Mama Pa’ele,‛ she said. “My great-grandmother.‛ “Lord, it was really a person?‛ “Yes, of course.‛ “Did she see us?‛ “She was right there in the corner near my closet. She was wide awake looking at us.‛ “How come you didn’t know she was there?‛
The next morning Connie waited for Mama Pa’ele to get up, but she slept late. Connie went down the road to get the newspaper and breakfast makings. Suki had run out of eggs and muffins. Left on her own, Mama Pa’ele would have had peanut butter and pocha berry jam on white bread, but when Connie was home in the morning she scrambled eggs and made toast. Mama Pa’ele’s days of making pancakes were long past, but her appetite never dimmed. Connie brewed some kona coffee in the percolator and sat down with the paper to read the want ads. She was interested in keeping track of job offerings in the dental line, just in case she might get a useful lead that would help after graduation. Mama Pa’ele got up around eleven and scurried into the bathroom, then back to her room and appeared at the table looking hopeful. Connie greeted her and looked at her closely. There was no telling what she saw or what she thought, so she did not quiz her or ask her whether she noticed she had brought a friend home. “You sleep okay?‛ she asked. Mama Pa’ele nodded once. “I’m making eggs.‛ Connie broke the eggs into the buttered fry pan and swirled them around with her fork. She toasted the bread in the oven, and put coffee in front of Mama Pa’ele. It might be possible that Mama Pa’ele had been asleep, even if her eyes were open. Perhaps she could not see in the dark. It was very unlikely that she heard anything. Usually Connie touched her arm before she began talking so as to get her attention and avoid having to repeat what she said. Because she rarely spoke, it almost went unnoticed that she communicated almost entirely in gesture and nod. Connie took care of Mama Pa’ele as she usually did on Sunday. They ate their three meals together and Mama Pa’ele sat on the lanai listening to an old Emerson radio playing Hawaiian surfing music while Connie studied for the following day’s courses. She saw Parker after school on Monday and listened to him tell her how weird it was to think someone was in the room with them. Connie told him that Mama Pa’ele had little or nothing to say at the best of times, and that she had indicated nothing that would suggest she had seen much of what went on. Basically, the only thing that worried Parker was that it might have been a little kinky. Suki had come back to work at the ABC and took over caring for Mama Pa’ele. Connie thought that if Mama Pa’ele had seen anything she would have told Suki and that Suki would surely bring it up. The best thing Connie could do was to keep quiet. She went to school all week long, staying late to study in the tiny library with other girls in her classes, and saving time for a quick dinner with Parker. On the weekend, when Suki went back to Laura’s with a bundle of supplies, Connie waited until dark and brought Parker home with her. She studied the house very carefully this time and warned Parker not to make noise. Suki was definitely gone and Mama Pa’ele was in her bed in the fetal position, a tiny bundle of sleeping flesh. Parker was more adept this time with Connie’s blouse and bra. He slipped out of his clothes quickly and silently knelt on the bed waiting with his arms out for her when she came from the bathroom. Connie slowed him down and helped him find the right way to touch her and when they actually made love it was much better than that first night. She was glad that Parker was such a quick study, and she felt very lucky to have chosen him over the other young men she could have had. His sweetness, his kindness, and even his essential shyness were not always the markers of a good lover. When they finished, Connie rolled on top of Parker and kissed him. Then, she looked around the room, checking carefully each corner to see that it was not only dark, but empty. Parker kissed her and stroked her belly and then her back and they held each other side by side until they slowly drifted to sleep.
Connie woke to feel Parker warming her thigh with his erection. It was hours later and the bed sheets had fallen to the floor. They found themselves again breathless and caught up in their excitement. When they were finished, Connie heard the soft, but distinct gurgle that told her Mama Pa’ele was in the room. She turned and saw her deep in the corner, the faint nightlight reflected from her eyes. She kissed Parker while pressing her hand gently on his free ear, hoping that he may not have heard the sound. She felt his hands enjoying her body and she held him close to her until he fell back to sleep. The room was empty in the morning, except for Parker, sleeping quietly beside her. Connie decided she wanted him there with her when it became light, despite the fact that he would see how simple and homespun her house was. With Parker she did not have to pretend, nor did she have to be ashamed. He was willing to take her as she was, and that was good enough for her. She got up first and went into the shower and waited for Parker to join her. They laughed a bit but restrained themselves and concentrated on washing and shampooing each other. When they were dressed they found Mama Pa’ele sitting in the kitchen with an impassive expression. A fresh pot of coffee was waiting for them. Connie made them all some breakfast. Parker nodded to Mama Pa’ele and said, “Good morning.‛ He looked at her with some curiosity at first, then saw a slow smile form on her lips. Mama Pa’ele met his eyes only for an instant, then looked down into her coffee. Parker looked over at Connie, who had seen it all.
“Are you all right, Mama Pa’ele?‛ she asked. Mama Pa’ele nodded and took a piece of toast from the plate Connie offered her. When the breakfast eggs came, she hovered eagerly over her plate. Connie wanted to ask Mama Pa’ele whether she had seen them making love, but asking such a question was completely ridiculous. How could she ask her great-grandmother such a thing? It was always possible that she saw nothing. No one knew how good her eyesight was nowadays, and if it was as defective as her hearing, then perhaps there was no reason for her to ask any questions at all of Mama Pa’ele. Parker and Connie sat over their coffee after Mama Pa’ele went out on the lanai and began rocking in the lawn chair. “I think she likes you,‛ Connie said. “She’s so tiny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone that tiny. Like the Menehune who built the wall in Kauai. You ever think of that?‛ “That’s what my grandfather called her sometimes. Maybe that’s what she is. She’s never been very big, but she’s even got smaller since I was little.‛ “You get the feeling you could pick her up and have her sit on your hand.‛ “Not quite. But she is small.‛ “She doesn’t talk at all.‛ “No. But she knows what she wants and knows how to make herself understood. She used to sing and talk when I was little. She told me stories about Pele and other gods and goddesses all the time. And she used to take me down to the park and then walk along the beach and we’d sing songs back and forth. These days I don’t know what she thinks. I don’t know what she imagines.‛ “She hasn’t told your mother?‛ “No. I’m sure my mother would say something.‛ “But it’s weird. I don’t know.‛ Mama Pa’ele turned on her Emerson radio and listened to music and took her food at the table with Suki and sometimes with Connie throughout the rest of the semester. On the weekends Suki apologized for having to be with Laura and the babies, but it was clear that Laura needed the help. Her husband, Kekepana, worked a late shift during the week and on weekends tried to get some rest. With all the children under foot, that was no easy task. Suki got along well with Kekepana and she simply doted on her grandchildren. Connie brought Parker home on the weekends. They usually waited until after a film, or after they had done their schoolwork, and came in on Friday night when it was dark and Mama Pa’ele was asleep. They would creep into Connie’s bedroom and make love and have breakfast in the morning with Mama Pa’ele. Parker said they should lock the bedroom door, but since there was no lock and since it opened outward instead of inward, they could not block the door. So they took their chances. Some evenings, they were completely undisturbed. But there were also evenings when Connie would wake in the darkness and know that Mama Pa’ele was in the room with them. She made hardly a sound, but it was clear that she had entered some time in the night and that she sat waiting in the dark, sometimes silent, sometimes gurgling softly. Connie wanted to know what she thought of what they were doing, but she had no way of asking. It was always possible that Mama Pa’ele just came in to have their company. In her own room she slept with Suki, so it was not unreasonable to think that she may have awakened at night and felt lonely. Perhaps she noticed nothing of what was going on at all. However, Connie suspected that she must have understood exactly what they were doing. Maybe she liked watching them. “She must know what we’re doing,‛ Parker said to her one weekend.
“Not necessarily.‛ “Why, because she never did it?‛ “Because she may be a little blind.‛ “She smiled at me again this morning. At least I think it was a smile. She’s got so many wrinkles you can’t be sure.‛ “It was a smile. She likes you.‛ “Well . . . .‛ “I mean it. You can tell when she likes someone. She was really sweet to me when I was little.‛ “She’s the little one now. And so dark. Does it hurt your feelings if I call her very dark?‛
“She’s the black pearl. She’s always been the black pearl.‛ “Because she’s so black?‛ “Because she’s so beautiful.‛
Near the end of the term, Connie had made a remarkable lover out of Parker. She experienced orgasm every night they made love, and sometimes they even came together. Parker seemed not to see Mama Pa’ele when she came silently into her corner and watched them. She was never there in the morning when the light came up, and Connie was unaware of just how many hours Mama Pa’ele would spend in her bedroom. Each weekend morning Mama Pa’ele had the coffee ready in the percolator, and each morning she enjoyed breakfast with her and Parker. She appeared to take a keen interest in their conversation, even when Parker and Connie discussed academic matters that were quite foreign to her. They had become a curious little family.
Parker seemed content, seemed to have adapted to this odd arrangement until one night the week before final exams, when Mama Pa’ele grew discontented with her seat in the dark and clambered into the bed with them while they were naked and asleep. They had made love in many rich and different ways, and Connie was reveling in a wildly erotic dream involving coition on the wing, the way she imagined the golden mamo birds might do it. “Jesus,‛ Parker said, turning suddenly and waking her. “What?‛ “Look,‛ he said, pushing back at her. He pushed so hard, she rolled off the bed onto their shoes on the floor. Connie tried to get up, but Parker was out of the bed and stepping over her on his way into the kitchen before she could rise on one knee. When she got up she saw Mama Pa’ele dark against the sheets curled into a fetal position the way she often slept. She was snoring very quietly, oblivious to Parker’s shock.
Connie went into the kitchen and heard Parker pulling on his clothes. “Parker, where are you going?‛ “I can’t deal with this,‛ he said, anxiety raising the timbre of his voice. “She’s right there curled up next to me. Jesus.‛ She stood next to him in her nakedness and kissed him, but felt his reluctance. “I gotta go.‛ “Will I see you?‛ Parker nodded vaguely and was out on the lanai moving quickly to the Mustang. She could barely see him among the trees but watched the lights of his car swivel down the drive and onto the road and away. She felt a sense of loss that she knew was permanent. She had lost a lovely young man. Connie spent the rest of the night tossing in Suki’s bed. There was no reason to wake Mama Pa’ele. She had gone into her bedroom to put a cover over her tiny body, then tried to go back to sleep herself. She got through her exams with very good results. She saw Parker several times, but they did not share a meal or a serious talk. Parker made it clear in several ways that he could not continue their relationship. “You’re great,‛ he said, “but I gotta get my head together. I mean, something is weird if you know what I mean. I gotta concentrate on what I gotta concentrate on, so I’ll see ya.‛ There was no point in pressing the issue. Connie did not want to talk about Mama Pa’ele with Parker. She really had nothing to say. Mama Pa’ele had climbed into their bed much the way a frightened or lonely child might climb into her parents’ bed, seeking comfort and love. Parker found all this terribly strange and unnatural, but Connie had somehow come to terms with it and thought that in some cultures this might have been the most natural and loving way for people to behave. Connie had studied some anthropology and was willing to think about such things in more open ways than she imagined Parker could. And after all, Mama Pa’ele was her flesh and blood, the woman who sang to her when she was little and took her to the beach and pointed out the whales as they breeched in preparation for mating. For her last semester at the community college, Connie spent her weekends alone in her room at night. For a few weeks after Parker left, Mama Pa’ele climbed into her bed on a Saturday night. But soon, she remained in her own room. Connie used the monkeypod salad dishes to make interesting salads with deviled eggs on the weekend, and Mama Pa’ele rubbed the soft wood with her fingers as if molding it into a convenient form. And near the end of Connie’s last semester, Mama Pa’ele’s appetite began to wither. She watched Connie with a sad, touching expression. When she went out on the lanai the metal lawn chair no longer squeaked. All Connie could hear while she studied was the soft susurrus of the monkeypod trees. Her last semester was her best, and after she put on her bright blue academic cap and gown and received her certificate, she found a good job with Dr. Kagawa in downtown Hilo. When Mama Pa’ele died, Connie thought of calling Parker to tell him about the funeral, but she decided he would not come. By that time she had gotten over Parker and knew he was not really for her. Despite their eagerness and their success as lovers, she did not love him and he did not love her. It had been the first true romance for both of them, and she knew they had been good for each other. But it was over, and Connie needed to look ahead and find a man who would really make her happy. She thought about that when she was given the assignment of cleaning Ben Toshi’s teeth the week before he went to Maui for the Mercedes Open. Suki made the arrangements for Mama Pa’ele’s funeral, which took place on a Tuesday morning in a light rain. Mama Pa’ele was buried in a child’s black and gold casket with gilt handles and a crucifix in mother of pearl on the lid.
It was very beautiful.