*Image: “Spring,” Mixed Media by Iryna Lialko
The Grey House Didn’t Speak
By Rain Wright
No people remain to lift their hands in farewell. Home does not speak. It does not call out our names as we move up the steps onto the plane. It does not call out as if to say We have a long history, do not go. The redwood house—the one near the macadamia, the banana, and the mango trees—board by board had been taken down. It does not call to me. It does not remember me, the girl with the two white dogs, the same girl who knew the taste of the damp earth, who knew the sound of the mosquitoes near the field in Hōnaunau. It does not remind me of the birthdays, not even the birthday of gold-hoop earrings or the unicorn pendant necklace. It does not speak of my mother’s hands that pushed the old red vacuum along the yellow carpet almost every morning, spitting out more dust than it took in. My mother’s hands have become dust and bone in the funeral home’s oven; bone by bone they have been spread over the koa tree in Ocean View. Her hands are gone. That house does not call our names. It does not remember our feet against its floorboards. It does not remember the family pictures. It does not remember.
The dark road that runs by Keāhole Airport along the coast, by the white coral rocks, near the Kona Nightingales, and near the mouflan sheep—with their curled horns and quick feet—does not ask me to stay and look after memories of my friend Sina, who loved Bob Marley. It does not worry about losing memories of my mother, who wanted a chocolate-colored poodle. The mother who spoke of her English childhood—the grey, grey of the landscapes of Dronfield, the hedgerow, and the green fairy cake. It does not say Stay, or your friend Erika (who believed god lives in everything and everyone, even the trees) will leave again—taken by the car near Kamehameha III highway. It does not lull me into the rhythm of the night I rode in a black Toyota truck and closed my eyes. I closed them, thinking of Sina who scraped the bones of her face against the rough edge of the tar road—that dark road that took her—teeth, t-shirt, fingers, and face. It wanted all. I close them and remember that the same road took Erika.
No hands lift to wave again and again. We say goodbye to Nola near her silver car. She smiles a little and tells me I’m right to leave—I have to leave. She is wearing a green blouse and the small jade elephant necklace we gave her at Christmas. Her son has always looked a little like her, maybe the same nose or cheekbones. Years before, when I was still family, Nola said that their people came from French and Ottawa stock—and something about her great, great grandmother coming from a tribe and marrying a man in Sterling, Minnesota, who owned a bar and had a temper. They had nine children, and then she went insane. It was the Indian blood, Nola had said.
We have said goodbye to everyone who came to the airport to send us off. We move toward the plane.
The smell comes first. The movement of the engines pushes the wind just enough to carry the smell of exhaust, of day-baked tarmac and sweat. It coats my tongue with the memory of deceit. It isn’t soaked in notions of longing for rescue or forgiveness. Not like the scent he wore after showering with old bar soap when he returned home after days away. It says, You will leave this time. You won’t forget, forgive, return. No rain comes to wash away any last need to remain and listen, only late afternoon gusts of Kona heat, rising and descending from every direction.
The children stand silent. One wears a pink dress. They carry small toys in different colored backpacks. Impossibly beautiful. Impossibly small. The smell reaches me again. I think of the things we leave without knowing. The things my silenced-self says I could need again, but my insistent-self swears I won’t.
My children stand silent, fearful.
I watch my green ballet flats lift and descend as we move toward the plane. I’ve worn them once before, holding my oldest daughter’s hand as we cried. I wore them when I held her in my arms and watched the lights that flowed out beyond the highway. The lights she didn’t see when she said she didn’t want to live. When she asked, how did you ever love him? Now I wore them again.
I suck in my children’s fear and place it under my tongue. I’ve heard that if you place a pebble in your mouth, it will quench your thirst for a while.
Even in fear their skin covers their bones perfectly. I suck on the small pebble. I move toward the plane.
When we were young, so young, very young, he called just once, as Gabrielle grew. She kicked the walls of my stomach at the sound of his voice in my ear. The tan plastic receiver of the phone smelled of his young tongue, his young air, his young voice. I touched the edge of the white shirt that covered where Gabrielle moved and stretched in amniotic fluid. I sat on the yellow carpet under the stairs. My mother slept, my stepfather slept, my older brother slept in the dome room under the mango tree, my younger brother slept in the room under the stairs, my sisters slept, and my two white dogs slept. I saw the waters of Nāpo‘opo‘o far below, down beyond the jacaranda tree that bloomed purple in the daytime, down beyond the sloping hill. The waters lay under the moon. Gabrielle kicked and rolled against my stomach as he spoke.
“A party,” he said, and I breathed in the words and remembered kissing him. I remembered the smell of him—something like corn chips and faded Iron Maiden posters on a bedroom wall. “A little or a lot drunk,” he went on. Maybe he laughed. I knew the mixture of sweat and old beer woven into the cotton of his black t-shirts. I heard in his voice the blend of Old Mill Road and the End of the World where girls laughed and went into the woods to pee on black rocks. I knew those places where boys kissed on the necks of any girls that let them, or sucked on Marlboro cigarettes if they wouldn’t. I could hear the voices he heard, the music he listened to, and the jokes he recited as he leaned up against his old brown car, breathing in smoke and using his fingers to tear the rip of his old jeans further.
Missed you, I thought he whispered. Absence—months without his voice. Many boys leave when the girl gets pregnant. I knew this.
When we were still young, very young, he saw Gabrielle for the first time when she was one month old. So this is her, he might have said. He might have pretended to like tea and drink it with my mother from the chipped Willow pattern blue-and-white teacup. He might have smiled at my stepfather, even as he saw only the color of his skin. Later, he asked if I minded having a black stepfather. I told him he was my dad, that’s how I saw him. Later, I closed my eyes and thought of my sister Solei’s beautiful dark eyes, and breathed in all that we were. We mingled—my sister and me. Not light, not dark, we are the same, we say. My stepfather, my father, my family. Later, he might have laughed as he told me, bullshit, and insisted no one wants a black father.
When we weren’t quite as young, he rode in my white jeep with a fifteen-year old girl. Just a ride, he said. Just a little or a lot drunk, he told me. I knew all his words. I had heard them before. They never changed.
Men shouldn’t leave when a woman gets pregnant—not twice. The first time may be excused because he was so young, but not the second time. What does it say about the woman who takes him back anyway, insisting children need a father?
When we were not quite as young, he saw Analiese for the first time when she was two weeks old. I’m here to get my tires from under the house, he might have said, looking at Analiese in a pink dress. Joking she was bald and toothless. I believed he could love her. When he moved back home, he rocked Analiese a few times in the pink rocking chair.
When Elleana was born, the sky was purple. He watched reruns of Star Trek on the small hospital TV. “Did you watch this as a kid?” he asked. “Oh, crap did you see that?” he said, briefly turning his head, looking toward me. “That was pretty awesome for an old show.” He smiled, then turned away again, and I counted the rhythms of my stomach, breathed through the sound of Captain Kirk speaking. I listened to the monitors beep, the rhythm of Elleana’s heartbeat in fluid, through the machine, scratching with every contraction as it came out of the machine. The nurse came and went, and came and went, and I breathed and saw the flashing lights of green and yellow on the small TV in the hospital room. The doctor entered the room. Star Trek was turned off by some nurse’s hand.
What’s that? he asked. Her head, I said, and he finally saw one of his daughters come out in a rush of fluid and blood. The sky was there, in the room, purple against purple. He said maybe we should call her Purple Sky, you know, for her Indian name. He filled out the birth certificate, stating he was Native American, and signed his name.
The nurse asked for proof of blood. She asked for his genealogy. Where is your Native blood? You have no proof, I told him. You don’t know where your blood comes from. You must put down what you know. They don’t take your word or old stories, not for a certificate—not in this world. I filled out the paper and signed it as I nursed our baby.
Three children and he was still a little or a lot drunk. What does that say about the woman who loved him? What does it say about him?
He remained a little or a lot drunk. He became a crying man with a glass pipe in his hand. Always crying that he saw his dead grandmother Gladys as he smoked crack under a bush at Pine Trees. Always crying, never home. A little or a lot high, he said. You’re just like a Puritan; it’s your problem, he insisted. You don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t understand, he laughed. Just stop a moment, he whispered. Just put your arms around me, he said, as I breathed in the smell of days and days away in his hair, and leaned into the rough feel of his unshaven face.
He said he spoke with the devil when he was away. He told me they talked. I believed him. He said maybe if he believed in something it would go away. I told him it might help. I believed in the darkness that ate against his insides. I saw it. I believed in his dark thing. I saw it live in the inside corners of his eyes. He had beautiful eyes, long-lashed and blue with some green. For years we argued about the color. He insisted they were hazel. I said hazel eyes meant green with some brown—his had none of that. He disagreed. Hazel is green with blue, he said. But that thing he spoke of with fear moved in and lived in him, right next to his pupils that dilated when he pulled out the glass pipe, the steel wool, and baking soda on his days away. I saw him shake and sweat with it.
Love me, he insisted. If you love me I can beat this. Don’t give away our family. You’re doing this. Not me, but you, he said. If you were a better kind of woman, I wouldn’t do this. He said all these words and then snuck out the front door as I slept, creeping away barefoot down Kuakini highway, beyond the bones of our dead pets. Away from the coffee trees that bloomed white, rows upon rows to make a field. Away from his black-and-white dog who hated children, away to find the thing that made him feel best.
Days and days of no food in the small grey house—no money, no him.
I took the girls. We sat in the small welfare office in Captain Cook—the office across the street from Greenwell Park and the Seventh Day Adventist School. I went to that school from third to eighth grade; a teacher told me I was the fastest runner, told me I was special. I saw the school outside the welfare office. It sat perched on the hill. We sat in the office. The pens on the counter had plastic flowers on them; some were yellow, but most were a deep pink. Elleana tried to grab the pen as I filled out the paper for food stamps. “Where is he?” the social worker asked. “I don’t know. He disappears,” I said. I kept my face down and wrote out my name, my children’s names, and our need for emergency food.
He returned. Every four days, every five days, every six days, every seven days—longer and longer away—he returned. Sometimes it was a month, a month away.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered when he returned, taking out the gun Kolu had given him. The dark-handled gun he kept in the outside shed with his tools. I never held the gun, but I imagined it would feel heavy. I imagined the handle would be smooth. I have never wrapped my finger against the trigger of a gun, but I imagined it would be warm somehow, not cold. “This is what I will have to do if you leave,” he said. He didn’t point the gun. He held it flat in the palm of his hand.
He called. I tasted his fear through the receiver of the office phone. How does fear relive itself? He hadn’t been home. It was good when he was gone. I knew his voice, every breath and hum of his vocal cords, vibrating against the receiver. He was there at the house. He had come home while I was at work. He would joke sometimes, saying, “Honey, I’m home,” pushing open the door like we expected him. I listened to his voice say he was going to take Gabrielle to the emergency room. She was mine. He hadn’t wanted her. She had always been mine. No child of mine should know the white curtains of the emergency room. Not my child.
He had been playing around with Gabrielle, he said quickly, not allowing my words to overtake his. She had hit her head on the bar in the kitchen, or maybe the windowsill. He couldn’t remember, he was all shook up, he said, and let his voice change to that of a shaken-up man.
You don’t breathe when you’re scared, and you don’t want to listen but you do.
I’d known he could hurt our children, even when he said, I love my children, I love my children. I had warned them not to go with him—to call me if he came home, to warn me if he was near. I had to work for a few hours—just a few, I told them. I had to tell them about drugs. I had to tell them about him. I’m just a few miles down the road, I said. I have to work.
He was taking her to the emergency room, he said again. Silence, silence. I wore a coral sweater and black pants. I left the office door open as I moved to my car. I can’t remember my car. I can’t remember the color. I close my eyes and need to see my foot pressed to the gas pedal. I need to know I made it to the hospital. In some world, I didn’t. In some world, I remained forever locked in that moving colorless car trying to reach my child. She was bleeding and overreacting, he said, but he would take her up to the hospital just in case. My car moved.
He didn’t look up as I walked by him in the emergency waiting room. Analiese and Elleana watched the TV, their faces bright in flickering greens and yellows. They are mine, I thought. I always took care of them; they are not children for emergency rooms. They are not. He looked down at a magazine. He wouldn’t talk. Analiese pointed to the room where Gabrielle was. She said Gabrielle’s blood fell on school books. Gabrielle was doing her homework, Analiese said. I hurried to the room.
Everyone is smaller on a table under lights, behind curtains and doctors. Mom, dad didn’t mean to, Gabrielle whispered. I saw it in her eyes: that terrible bit of darkness, right in the center. It was growing. Maybe I threaded it there, passed it on directly, squeezed it in through her small warm pale umbilical cord. The darkness in her eyes told me to wait until the doctor was gone to ask questions.
I looked at the metal instruments and thought about the bodies that had been on the table before my daughter. I looked at her. I wouldn’t look away. I watched the doctor as he ran the needle in and out of her skin. She was so small. Seven stiches. He didn’t mean to, mom. He didn’t mean to, she cried, just loud enough for me to hear, but not loud enough to reach the doctor’s ears. Oh, my daughter. Oh, my daughter. Oh, my daughter. You are me, crying out for him to be good, to be kind, to be someone different. You are me, lying on that table taking away his blame and tying it around your own neck. Oh, my daughter.
Wee Beastie, the cat, was lost in the move. We left him behind. My mind followed him through the coffee field that bloomed white, row upon row; past the thin spider webs laced from branch to branch—the same web from which I lifted the orange butterfly. Or had it been two butterflies? The butterflies multiply in memory until they cover the small grey house. Until they cover the star fruit tree. Until they cover the roses. Until they cover the night blooming jasmine that I planted outside the bedroom window. Until they cover the dirt-layered remains of every cat killed crossing Kuakini highway. Until they cover little Millie-dog’s white bones. Until they cover the lychee tree. The tree that my children called the family tree and wrote their names on in tall pointed letters, with blue paint. The butterflies multiply until I move with them on some strangely brilliant orange cloud like the taste of Tang. The Tang my mother let us eat when we first moved to Hawai‘i and lived in a small tent at Kolekole Beach Park. When we lived homeless under the tent roof, protected by tent walls. She told us that astronauts drank it on the moon. The moon, that same grey shade as the small house my children learned to walk in, to run in, to fear in.
I did not jump over the rock wall and follow Wee Beastie when he was frightened away. I did not go past the spider webs. I did not call his name loudly enough. I did not find him. Elleana cried for him. He was my cat, she whispered. I loved him.
I took her words and placed them beneath my tongue.
The noise comes second, the feel of it. The wind does not carry it. The sound of the engines overtake the wind, the heat, and the movement of people, deafening the voices. I make my children walk in front. I watch them take each step up into the plane. The plane moves silently on thick black wheels, removing sound from our hollowed ears that hear nothing but every missing word of the grey house. The world quiets and stills. I watch my children.as Kona sinks from view, out the round plane window. I roll the pebble beneath my tongue.