Beneath a Country Sky

By Angela Nishimoto

Chiyo, standing under the large banyan tree, flung her hands about her face, trying to keep the mosquitoes from alighting. Henry stood at a distance and gazed off down the unpaved road. He became aware of his wife’s irritation, so he turned and made his way back to her. She looked up at the threat of rain. Whether passing mauka showers or downpour, rain was always possible here on the windward side of O`ahu. He reached her just as she swatted a whining little beast, leaving a sooty smudge of mosquito remains centered on her forehead.

“So hot, yeah?” Chiyo held the front of her blouse and flapped it at her throat, open and closed, open and closed.

“Whew,” Henry responded. “You’ right, Chi . . . And when you’ right, you’ right.”

She fluttered her fingers in front of her face, her hands pale. “Whoo,” she blew, creating a small wind, the only wind, trying to shoo away the tiny pests.

Henry had gone up to the house past the mondo grass farm trying to find a phone, but no one was home. He’d seen only two big dogs. They had followed Henry back to the big old tree. Watching the stranded couple, the dogs settled themselves at a comfortable distance, panting and blinking in the eerie light from the angry sky. Dark clouds hung overhead like curtains above a stage at the opening of a play.

Chiyo didn’t care for dogs—or cats, either. Because she grew up on a farm, she was unsentimental about animals. In fact, any contact with fur or feathers made her want to scratch as if at a profound, deeply hidden irritation. She’d kept her eye on the dogs as they’d approached, dividing her attention between the dogs with their lolling tongues and knowing grins and the constant assaults of the mosquitoes. She stood, her head and shoulders forward, standing on the balls of her feet, revealing a customary defensiveness. Henry had, in fact, retraced his steps attempting to allay his mate’s uneasiness.

But now he could feel her question slowly taking shape—she always had questions in circumstances such as this. A creeping, familiar tension began to work its way into his gut.

After a thickening silence, she spoke. “Don’t you t’ink it would’ve been good to get da firs’ flat fixed? Jus’ in case dis happened?” Chiyo ran her hand through her silvery hair and nodded toward their car, crossing her arms over her chest.

Henry was relieved that it was out in the open. He turned his eyes towards their cherished Olds, listing to the side with an under-inflated spare on the left, and the opposite tire flat.

When he replied, unaccustomed anger inflected his voice. “Yeah. Somebody shoulda taken care of ‘em. And it shoulda been you. You had da flat—da firs’ one—last week. Plen’y time fo’ fix ‘em.”

“But what I going do? Wheah I going go?” She fanned at the whining insects. Two small welts reddened her left cheek; she had several bites on her hands and her arms seemed to sprout them, like chicken pox. The little beasts kept coming at her, relentless as the Furies.

“You coulda taken ‘em to Sears. Or Midas. Even da gas station. Triple-A put the spare on, yeah? You coulda asked da guy wheah he would recommend.”

With the patience of a veteran police officer, he stopped speaking and turned his eyes back to the road. He’d done his twenty-five years, saved and invested wisely, and had been enjoying the decades-long, comfortable retirement he had so carefully planned. He was a big man, six feet-two inches and more than two hundred pounds of him sweating in the humidity of this second Sunday in May. He was usually more patient, but lack of sleep was nibbling away at him.

*

The previous night, he had become aware of Chiyo standing over him, a pillow clutched to her belly, the wrinkled blue cotton appearing gray in the glow of the night-light. “Aii…” she sobbed, shoulders bowed, tears sliding over her cheekbones. He lay still, sighing to himself. Not again. Henry eased himself out of bed. He guided Chiyo back to her side of the double mattress, as she continued to moan, “Aii… Aii…” He soothed her and eventually got her back under the covers. She wept as he murmured to her and eventually gentled her into quiet. Henry sighed again, then got back into his side of their bed.

He pushed away the tinny, whining voice that scratched at the inner recesses of his ear. He’d prided himself on the integrity he’d managed to maintain in what seemed an ocean of indigo corruption, the Honolulu Police Department. Abuse of power, everyday brutality, dereliction of duty—on the worst days, he’d felt like little more than a spoke in a wheel of venality that took some influence from the Old World Orient, and some part that was native to the islands. But though he despised all such transgressions, there was no law he wouldn’t bend to protect his wife. He loved the woman he’d married, it was that simple and that final; he would never violate the sanctity of their vows by exposing her to any kind of jeopardy. My deares’ girl, my innocent, he reassured himself, struggling towards sleep.

His wife’s even breathing and the low hum of the air conditioner were the only sounds as he drifted back into the comforting fold of slumber, a thread of connection floating just beyond his understanding. Somet’ing…

*

He crossed his arms as he thought about what he was missing right now, as they stood in the sweltering heat. Chiyo had insisted on a ride in the country and he had assented, believing that any married woman had the right to call the shots on Mother’s Day. Still, he was resentful. He played chess every afternoon in Waikiki, `ewa of the Gold Coast. A piece planted here, a pawn carefully selected and moved after much deliberation. Glancing up, he might see Japanese or Mainland honeymooners, or laughing young people leaping to spike a hanging volleyball, or red-burnt tourists walking with rented longboards. After refreshing himself with the sights and sounds and smells of Kalakaua Avenue, he’d be reabsorbed into the business at hand. One queen moved? One rook? Then, after many moves, maybe many hours—check . . . mate. You nevah know, he thought. It would be over and the outcome would be so definite, so clear—like black and white, right and wrong. For Henry, the final result, blessedly unambiguous, was like the victory of clarity in the world. Fait’, hope, an’ clarity, he mused. More than companionship or competition, it was his yearning for certainty that drew Henry, day after day, back to the beach.

Chiyo’s snappish response brought him back to the valley. “But how I would know wheah fo’ go? All kine people cheat, yeah? Can’t trust people, now’days. Yeah?”

*

As a girl in Hilo, Chiyo had been known for her talent at the quick kill of non-laying hens.   Her sharp little eyes would gleam during the pursuit and execution when she caught it in one smooth movement, and wrung its neck. But the glitter of her eyes had dulled over the grind of the twenty years she had cared for her mother, as Mrs. Shinoki’s mind and stringy little body deteriorated. Her long-anticipated death finally came on a humid, breezeless Hilo morning. Chiyo had fluffed the pillows on her mother’s bed, her mind on the chores that lay before her, seeing, in her moment of clarity, the pattern of her life, dutiful motions, chores repeated over and over—to the end of her days. She hardly knew what she was doing or even who she was in that moment of despair.

Mrs. Shinoki’s inane smile had suddenly filled her with blinding rage. Chiyo tightly clutched the blue-cased pillow to her belly for a suspended eternity that measured her life into two parts, before and after. She acted. It was over before she understood what had happened, the ending of the ordeal that had eaten away at her life. In the aftershock, she shook with the rhythm of the blood that pounded through her veins still, after so many years.

Chiyo’s move to Honolulu and marriage to Henry Hawks effectively put the Big Island chapter of her life behind her. It had been too late for children, but Chiyo filled her days, months, years, volunteering at local botanical gardens. She showered her love on green, growing things. Bonsai especially put her into an uncharacteristic tranquility, as she amputated a stem or bound a twig. Responding to the conscious attention she inflicted upon them, the twisted plants presented her with the sustenance of cool, green silences. As she wise-cracked to her new acquaintances, Plants nevah talk back.

Henry couldn’t know how often Chiyo thought about food and the mysteries of eating. When cooking chicken long rice, one of his favorites, she might sometimes lose a little piece of her own flesh to the pot, as she grated ginger and chopped onion. As a girl cooking for her family, she’d invariably lose some skin on the cutting board, the knives were so sharp. Her family never knew how much of Chiyo went into the big cast iron pan as she stir-fried homegrown vegetables and meats.

She was like the food that had sustained her family, her life eaten up, time spent as a servant to her obligations. Digging in the garden, crumbling the humus through her still-supple fingers, she’d brood on the origin of compost, the living things that died and decayed, their remains feeding the hungry earth, which in turn fed Chiyo and all the rest of the knowing—and unknowing—world.

*

But she stood under the old tree, also known as a strangler fig, waving her hands at the mosquitoes hungry for the blood that would nourish the seeding of their next generation. She mumbled and muttered, her skin on her face pulled tight and shiny in the heat.

The dogs, one dark and the other a dirty white, stirred themselves and sat up, ears cocked. Their tongues jumped as they panted in the heat. The ghostly pale one circled around for several turns, then sat again. Its face was long and mournful; it whined and waved its tail. After several minutes, Henry and Chiyo perked up at the sight of a big red truck bumping along the road, heading towards them. Henry forgot the pangs in his belly. They waved as the vehicle made its tortuous way around the ruts and stones in the road, slowly approaching the old tree. Henry could discern some kind of loud music. The noise of the truck banging and bumping along the road served as counterpoint to lyrics reverberating from its speakers: “…need a place called Hell….” The dogs’ pink tongues beating at the still air seemed to keep tempo with the point-counterpoint of the truck and music. Henry’s gut burned; he wondered if his ulcer was acting up again. The pain began to pound inside him to the same driving rhythm as the truck neared.

The antique Ford was in mint condition, candy apple red and detailed with BAPTISTA streaming in fiery, cursive curlicues along its sides. The reflective tint on the windows hid the interior from view. Henry positioned himself in the center of the road, sensing the truck’s commitment to its own internal rhythms.   It stopped about a foot before him. Pain continued to thrum through Henry, even after the raucous music abruptly terminated and the driver’s window rolled down. A head poked out of the window, a head with orange hair. The violent color assaulted Henry’s tired old eyes.

The man looked at Henry, who cleared his throat and raised his voice over the throb of the engine: “You can help us? We’ stuck.”   The orange head didn’t move or respond. Then it disappeared back into the vehicle. The window went back up. After a long moment, the engine went silent. Another pause, then, finally, the man got out of the truck.

Henry noted the buzz-cut crown, the ponytail that hung to the man’s okole and the vaguely Polynesian tattoos circling his upper arms and lower legs. Henry also noticed the unfocused nature of his gaze. Still the man didn’t speak. His eyes were turned towards Henry, but he didn’t acknowledge Chiyo at all. She’d remained under the tree and seemed to be making herself as small as she could. Good girl, thought Henry. Stay quiet. Some kinda nut—proba’ly one druggie. But he’s all we got.

“You can take us to one phone?” The man stood there, his purple palaka shorts as loud as he was silent. Henry decided to wait. He’s the only guy we’ seen for almost two hours along this godfo’saken road. He’s not going run me ovah. I can just stand heah too. Henry stretched his lips in a smile and nodded at the man—who stood there, swaying slightly now. Henry didn’t look at Chiyo, but he could sense her apprehension. Be patient, he thought, be patient. The sweat poured down Henry’s forehead and he reached slowly and pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket. He unfolded it carefully, and mopped his face. He smiled again at Bruddah Baptista and refolded his handkerchief. Henry slowly rubbed the cloth under his chin, ran it over the back of his neck, then stuck it carefully back into his pocket. “Hot day, yeah?” Henry remarked.

Bruddah Baptista stood silent. Henry blinked and breathed in and out, the pain pounding through his body. It was stiflingly hot.

The orange-headed fellow turned abruptly and opened the door of the truck. Henry’s heart sank to his throbbing stomach as the man disappeared into the vehicle. Henry tensed, alert for the sound of the engine gunning.

Then Bruddah Baptista reappeared slowly from the bowels of the truck with a cell-phone. The burning in Henry’s gut subsided a bit.

Nearly an hour later, in the stillness of the empty roadside, Henry remarked, “Bruddah Baptista was pretty strange, yeah? But he helped, at least.”

“I dunno,” Chiyo responded. “He was scary, yeah? I didn’t like him.”

Henry had seen a large Igloo and a three-pronged spear sliding around in the lined bed of the truck as it had shuddered by. The small fish impaled on the spear had stared at him, its mouth open. The booming of the speakers had receded as the truck jostled and bounced itself deeper into the valley. Henry retained the image of the fish on the spear sliding around, jumping when the truck bounced, eyes forever open under the lowering gray sky.

Shortly after the Ford had departed, Chiyo started fretting again. Henry stopped counting the red eruptions marking up her flesh. For some reason, the bugs didn’t bite him; they seemed to have it in for his wife, though.

*

After an eternity, the dogs stirred again, eyes and ears alert. “Here he comes,” Henry murmured. “Finally.”

Chiyo didn’t respond. He realized that her muttering had died some time ago and her vexation had fed a sullen silence. He paid her no mind, relieved that this doomed day might even yet be redeemed. It was getting darker, the clouds overhead seeming to gather themselves into more than just the brooding, black humidity of the last few hours. Impossibly, it was even hotter now than it had been before.

Henry felt giddy at the prospect of rescue. An opponent had once mistakenly believed he’d checkmated Henry, not having noticed his black queen stationed a clear five diagonal squares away, drawing a bead on the just-positioned white knight, the intended agent of the king’s execution. Such spectacular deliverance was rare in these matches, and the feeling had remained with Henry as a token of some unknowable force. As the tow truck chugged up the long incline, Henry’s spirits rose at the thought of leaving this hellhole. The white dog stood and barked, then sat down again. The dogs’ tails waved gently.

Henry looked at the clenched face of the man behind the steering wheel, and groaned inwardly.

Chiyo squinted myopically. “He look like one Japanee boy,” she said. Her voice trailed off as the man slammed the door of the red and white truck and stomped towards them. Henry moved forward, Chiyo a step or two behind him. Henry read the embroidered badge over the driver’s heart: J. Kurisu.

“Wha’s da problem?” Kurisu growled, clipboard and pen in his oil-blackened hands.

Henry noted the jumping muscle in the man’s cheek. Oh, God. The squawking of the truck’s radio was distant, an intrusion of the temporal world in this place out of time. Henry said, “Da tire stay flat. And da spare stay on da car already.”

They looked at the Olds, with the rear tire flat to the rim. Chiyo looked wistful. Henry stood four-square, gathering himself. Kurisu stared narrowly at their faithful old car and grimaced, his small, even features contorted.

“It’s hot, yeah?” Chiyo offered a tentative smile.

Good, thought Henry. Be nice. “We need one tow. Now.” Henry was glad he could turn on his cop voice.

The man pivoted and stalked back to the truck with the gaily painted trios: AAA. Henry gave a nod at Chiyo’s questioning look, as Kurisu threw his clipboard onto the front seat through the window, and returned to the Olds. Henry watched him pacing around it by the side of the one-lane road. Kurisu finally spat, “You gotta move ‘em.”

“Wha’?” Chiyo asked. “Move da car?”

“Fo’ what?” Henry demanded.

“Turn ‘em around so I can hook ‘em up.”

“Hook ‘em up?” Chiyo inquired.

“Front wheel drive!” Kurisu snarled.

Chiyo blinked. “But the back tire stay flat—” She stopped when Henry shook his head at her.

Kurisu didn’t even glance at her, stomping back to the truck.

Henry fished his keys out of his pocket and moved slowly to the Olds. Okay, Boy. If that’s the way you wanna play. He could have squashed him like a bug. Just hol’ on, he told himself, ‘til we get da car to da shop.

Henry heaved his bulk into the car, started it up, then slowly pulled onto the graveled road, the flat blumping, blumping, the rim making a shuddering, metallic crunching sound with each revolution.

Kurisu expanded with gratification, apparently savoring the moment. Henry fought his anger, his face hot and damp. Kurisu’s small, white teeth gleamed in his unshaven face. His little eyes glinted, the circles beneath them standing out starkly against his pale skin. Henry took a deep breath, then backed the car off the road back onto the crooked shoulder, with the nose pointing their way out of the valley. The Olds groaned as Henry got out.

Kurisu jacked up the rear of the car. His cursing was audible.

“How come he stay—” Chiyo whispered nervously.

“He’s gonna put wheels under da back. So he can tow ‘em.”

She appeared strange to Henry, as if he were seeing her from far away. The sweat poured down the sides of his face, his shirt sticky and wet against his back. He took a shuddering breath. Chiyo clasped her hands tightly over her large belly, her blue-gray cotton blouse wrinkly. Henry undid the top button of his shirt. He couldn’t see the man’s face. His clothes were oil-stained and rumpled on his small, neat frame, but apparently Kurisu didn’t perspire.

Henry slumped, hand on his chest.

Chiyo cried out. “Henry! You all right?”

“Kinda hard fo’ breathe,” he wheezed. “It’s okay.” The dogs whined from a great distance. One of them started to bark.

Kurisu jerked a dolly over to the Olds, ignoring them, and rolled his upper body under the rear of the big, blue car. He banged his wrench somewhere under the rear, the clanging reverberating in that still stretch of road near the big old strangler fig. Chiyo put her hand on Henry’s shoulder and drew her face up near his as he closed his eyes. The air thickened perceptibly, the barking of the dogs echoing in syncopation with the clanging of metal on metal and the burning throb in Henry’s chest and gut.

Whoo . . . Whoo. . .” Chiyo blew on Henry’s reddened face, fanning him with her hands. The mosquitoes hovered thickly, their whining hysterical. The dogs howled. Henry staggered backwards and Chiyo lost her balance.

The Olds moved beneath their combined weight, crashing. Kurisu’s cries soared over the static of the radio. They had somehow kicked the jack over and the spare tire on the car had dropped like an ancient burden onto Kurisu’s head. His arms and legs flapped and jerked.

“Omigod!” Henry fumbled for his keys and stumbled into the driver’s seat. Under his weight, the car rolled over the man’s body, which flapped reflexively, then stilled. Henry got out and looked. The arms reached straight out to the sides, palms up, the oil-stained fingers curling. The legs lay straight and parallel, the body stretched out on the crushed dolly. Henry noted with a strange clarity that Kurisu’s shoes bore the victorious wings of Nike. A thin ooze of viscous red moved slowly from under the car, pooling at the side of the still form.

Chiyo’s eyes were wide, her mouth pulled open. “Ai!” she whispered, the whisper loud in the stillness. “Ai!” She stood very still, raising a hand to cover her mouth.

Henry stared at his wife for a long time in the thickening silence.

With an enormous effort, he shook his head, trying to clear it. Clarity, he thought. He drew a breath and slowly, painfully, collected himself. Clarity. Henry swallowed.

He finally moved over and squatted, reached out and took a flaccid wrist into his hand. “No pulse,” he said, his voice with only the slightest quaver.

A small breeze stirred and, finally, it began to rain, huge drops splashing from that low, grieving country sky, first a few, then more and more, the water coming down in sheets until, in a minute, they were drenched through and through. Henry watched the small red puddle dilute clearly to pink, then bleeding into the voracious earth.

How ev’ryt’ing change, Henry thought. On’y takes a few moves. Den you can’t be sure of anyt’ing again… Nevah.

He guided his weeping mate to the haven of the big tow truck and helped her in, after gently rubbing away the sooty mark from her forehead with his thumb and smoothing back her dripping hair—as if she were a child. He slid in beside her on the driver’s side, placing the clipboard behind the seat. The radio squawked like a bird, finally free, free, the signal moving out of this world into the infinite space of absolution.

 

Angela Nishimoto teaches botany and biology at Leeward Community College. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, Andrew McCullough.

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