by Jan Walker
O`ahu, January 2000
A soft silver moment crosses the sand on Kailua Beach as sun burns through clouds at the horizon. Turquoise swaths slash the azure sea, a rose blush dusts the sky. I’m running at water’s edge, aware of sharp sand and chilly water, and a sense of Dad beside me, reassuring me that leaving my mainland home, moving to Kailua to care for Aunt Meg, is the right choice for this tangled time in my life.
My head turns, as though by Dad’s hand, to view the Ko`olau Mountains, veiled in morning haze, where he’s conjured an image of the Rain Shelter in Lyon Arboretum. Dad’s never been to these islands, never seen that shelter, but there it hovers as he says, in my head, Go there, Eve. Go now.
Off I dash, from beach to Meg’s bungalow, from Windward to Leeward, over the Pali that cuts through the Ko`olaus toward Honolulu, away from Aunt Meg, who will be waiting for me to bring her some good Sorensen Swedish coffee. She established that expectation yesterday afternoon when I arrived and found my way to the independent living facility where she moved on New Year’s Day.
She told me to settle in the bungalow next to her Kailua home, to do her bidding from there. I intend to do just that, but there’s urgency in Dad’s voice, reason enough to leave Meg waiting.
She will be angry; I will be contrite. She will keep at me until I tell her about Dad communicating with me from beyond. She’ll remind me that she’s always believed in spirits getting messages to those of us willing to hear. I will tell her she’s right and try to leave it at that, but Dad has something else planned. A journey to discovery, he says, or maybe that’s just me remembering what he said to me at least once every day we had time together.
This journey will be different, more challenging than searching for mushrooms in the woods or geoducks on Puget Sound’s minus tides. This will be a complex journey with Meg front and center, meddling all the way.
Lyon Arboretum, high in the Manoa Valley, is damp from mist not yet heavy enough to be called rain. Palm fronds around the Rain Shelter click like distant castanets, showering me with droplets, christening me for whatever Dad has in mind. Today, January 6, 2000, is his seventy-fifth birthday, though age no longer matters. I open a notebook, pen poised to record whatever he says. He knows I’ve always taken notes, a practice he taught me. Write it down . . . it helps you remember.
A barking dog appears, making it hard to hear my dad’s voice. The barking deepens to growls as the dog stands on his hind legs to perform a dance of sorts. I swoosh my hands and order him to go away. He pins back his ears, shimmies around my hands and plants his front paws on my white tee shirt, leaving paw prints on the downward slope of my breasts. Before I sort out whether to brush off the mud or wait for it to dry, he’s behind me, front feet on my back for a second before dropping to all fours and leaping from shelter to marked trail head, a distance that seems too far even for his rather long legs.
Follow him, Dad’s voice says, and I do.
The dog led me past palms and ginger and ti, and plants I couldn’t name, into the mystical darkness of the arboretum’s Fern Valley. He had short white hair with sepia markings that somehow blended with the valley understory. He darted past tree ferns, some twenty feet high with trunks two feet through, and ducked under species that grew nearer the ground. Jack fruits and bread fruits sent their twisted roots across paths no longer maintained. He jumped; I stumbled. Now and then he waited or turned back and barked an order to hurry. I faltered at a turn in the trail, not quite able to keep up. He came back for me, led me out of the forest’s dark chilly maze onto an open grassy knoll above Manoa Valley.
I’d been there before during one of my annual trips to visit Aunt Meg, and breathed deeply in relief at recognizing the scene, though my legs and arms trembled. Lush vines climbed tree trunks and crept along branches. Blossoms of shell ginger dangled like earrings against their dark green leaf-blade throats. Mist curtains clung to the far hillside, waiting for a breeze to carry them down past Diamond Head to the open sea.
The dog wagged his tail, not side-to-side but straight out, curled up, straight out again, like a human might beckon with a finger. He cocked his head and disappeared down a leafy slope into a ravine. I followed, clutching sturdy plant stems to keep from slipping. He made word-like sounds, “Eeeve,” my name drawn out the way Dad had called when he wanted to show me something.
I pushed aside elephant’s ear leaves to find the dog standing by a man prone on the ravine floor. The man’s eyes were open, showing only white. I dropped to my knees, my face just above his, feeling for a breath, my fingers on his wrist, seeking a pulse.
The air smelled of earth and life, not death. I know the difference and knew even then that keeping the man alive would matter more to me than to him. Death haunts me, not just death that ends life but death that ends hopes and dreams.
The dog stayed near as I unbuttoned the man’s shirt collar and placed two fingers on his carotid artery. Though his skin was cold, there was a definite throb. Heart attack? Stroke? Shock? I needed to think. Lift him? Turn him on his side?
Calm down, Eve. Concentrate on his pulse point. Dad’s voice came through so clear he could have been crouched beside us. The man’s pulse was weak, but steady, a rhythm that kept count with the curling and straightening of the dog’s tail.
“Breathe,” I said to the man in my commanding teacher’s voice. “Do you hear me? Your dog brought me to you. We want you to keep breathing.”
I opened a second button on the man’s shirt, unfastened his cuffs and loosened his belt. His right hand was swollen, his left cold and clammy. His nails were bluish. His skin remained tented when pinched. Dehydration. That much was clear. His ankles looked swollen; his left foot rested at an odd angle. His back could be broken.
“Stay here while I call for help,” I said more to the dog than the man, certain it could understand, and scrambled up the slope, using plant stems as climbing ropes, yelling “Help” until my throat felt shredded and my voice grew faint.
The dog barked my name once more, calling me back, his head tilted, questioning.
“Right,” I said, as though he’d spoken. “You go for help.”
He straightened his head and disappeared into the tangled vines.
The man made a sound. Not a word; not a death rattle.
“Water? You want water? Yes, you need water.” I scanned the area for a bottle or flask. He had neither. Mine remained at the Rain Shelter with my notebook and pen. The earth around him felt dry, though the leaves on the slope were wet. Water lay caught in their throats.
I plucked a ginger leaf, shook droplets into the trough of its midvein and carried it to the man. One drop on his lips. Two. His tongue found them. He was alive, trying to live. I gathered more water from leaves that seemed to be reaching out toward him.
Cover him with branches, Dad said, conjuring images of cedar and fir bows abundant at our Puget Sound home. The image morphed into ferns. Their stems were thick, tough to break; their juices smelled like a nether world, life and decay at once. The odor stung my nostrils as I wove a fern blanket and covered it with elephant’s ear leaves large enough to make me a wrap skirt.
The man groaned. One pupil came back from hiding. He was an older man, perhaps Dad’s age, with Hawaiian features and thick white hair. His left arm moved a bit, his hand opened, his fingers touched the ferns.
I took his hand, calloused from physical work, to guide the ferns to his mouth. “Chew on these. Suck them for moisture while I collect more water droplets.”
Mists formed near his head and took on shape. Two shapes like tornadoes pirouetting in the understory.
“Are you Menehunes? Can you hear me?”
The shapes whirled. Hawai`i’s little people, I hoped, come to help one of their own. Legends said Menehunes came only at night. It was dark in the ravine.
“Please, if you can hear me, help this man.”
The forms moved closer, dipped over him. Oh, God, they could be Night Marchers, here to carry him off to death. The man groaned.
“Don’t go with them if they’re here to take you away,” I said. Don’t let them spirit you away. We’re here to help you. Your dog, my dad and me.”
The twirling mists swayed close to the man’s head. One brushed my hand and squeezed my fingers. A message from my dad? A chimera?
The dog returned, barking a message. When he quieted, I heard another sound, a human voice.
“Here. Down here.” I struggled to be heard, though I needn’t have worried. That long-legged, whip-tailed dog led the human right to us. A man, dressed in the traditional arboretum gardener’s dirt-stained navy coveralls, a short man who looked like a giant standing above us on the ravine’s slope.
“Ah, bruddah,” he said, gesturing, talking too fast, saying something that sounded like “Forest Man.”
“Go for help. Blankets, something for a broken arm and leg. Plant stakes, tree branches.”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” he said, and left us alone in the green-dark silence. The two mists reappeared and hovered around Forest Man. I stretched out beside him to add more warmth, placed my hand on his and watched the swaying shapes, wondering if they existed, or if I, too, suffered dehydration or an over-active imagination.
“Help is on the way,” I whispered to Forest Man. “The gardener went for help. We’re going to get you out of here.”
Forest Man moved his head and tried to speak. The pupil of one eye looked directly at me. He made a guttural sound and closed both eyes.
I spoke to him in a whisper, my mouth near his ear like I’d talked to Dad the last hour he lived. “One of your arms is injured. One ankle. We’ll take you out on a stretcher. Help is coming. Your dog brought one man who has gone to bring others.”
Forest Man moved his head. “Unnh.”
Dad’s voice in my head told me to keep talking. About what? About dogs, Dad’s voice said, and so I did, whispering an inane story in Forest Man’s left ear.
“My dad always had dogs. The last one was black, smaller than yours. We called her Cindy.” I paused, swallowing the rest of that sorry story. The dog is dead, my ex-husband is living with a woman named Cindy.
“Arm,” Forest Man said, on a long breath that warmed my face.
“Your arm hurts? Your right arm?” His eyelids worked like a nod. I lay my hand on it to hold it steady. “We’ll make a splint when help comes.” Another blink. “Did you fall?” Two blinks. “When help gets here, we’ll make supports for your arm and legs. The vegetation will provide splints and braces.” This time his eyes stayed closed. I dripped water on his lips and counted my heartbeats until his eyes opened again. Fifty. Not so many given my heart rate at that moment.
“Tell me your name.”
“Nooo,” he said, his voice drifting off as though a breeze carried it away.
“Okay. It’s okay. Listen . . . an engine. Help is near.”
The mists stopped whirling. The sound grew louder. Exhaust fumes floated our way, overwhelming the smell of twisted and broken ferns. The engine coughed and went silent. Voices of varying timbre floated down. The gardener appeared at the top of the incline with two other men and one woman. The dog wasn’t with them.
The men descended the slope in leaps; the woman clutched leaves and crept down. They overfilled the small ravine, leaving no room for me to get up without stepping on Forest Man.
I named off his injuries, speaking to their pant legs above work boots planted like tree roots next to my head. “Right arm swollen, likely broken . . . left ankle twisted . . . dehydrated. His dog led me to him.”
Furrowed brows and puzzled eyes looked down at me. One man, sensing my dilemma, lifted me to my feet.
“What have you done with his dog?” I asked. “I think he’d like his dog. It saved his life.”
“Oh, no! It’s Doctor Kala`i.” The woman fell to her knees alongside Forest Man. Two men scrambled back up through the bush, down again with boards, blankets and ropes.
Kala`i? I recognized the name but couldn’t think why.
“Doctor, can you hear me?” the woman said. “It’s Anna Lee, I’ve come to help.”
“Right arm, left leg?” a male voice asked.
“Yes, correct. But please check all his limbs.”
They worked to stabilize Forest Man’s neck and back, taped one arm and one leg on boards, wrapped him in a blanket and eased him onto a canvas tarp. Coverall Man, the gardener who’d first found us, made knots in ropes. The woman comforted while the two new men spoke sentences in single words and performed first-aid. In the distance, a siren sounded.
“Go meet ‘em,” the man who lifted me out of the way said. “They’ll have a stretcher.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.” Coverall Man scrambled up through the dense vegetation.
At that moment, the hovering mists, apparently seen by only me, dissolved at Forest Man’s feet. Spirits returning to his body? Why two? Could one spirit belong to Forest Man, the other to my dad? Could Dad’s voice in my head be more than my need to keep him near?
“We need to find his dog.” No one answered, or even glanced at me. Perhaps they didn’t hear my raspy voice over the sputtering engine. The exhaust-laden air made me cough; the cough made my eyes water. Forest Man groaned. Rain drops plip-plopped on the forest canopy.
“It’s a good rain shelter, this dense forest,” I whispered. “It helped keep him dry, at least a bit. It provided him with a drink.” My entire body shook from strange thoughts circulating. My dad had been here with Forest man. I’d caught a glimpse of his blue eyes. But what happened to the dog that brought me here?
The youngest rescuer, the one who had lifted me to my feet and set me aside, now looked at my heaving chest and the dog’s perfect paw-prints I’d failed to brush away. “Nice tee shirt,” he said, and left with the others.
Jan Walker, a Pacific Northwest writer, is the author of 7 novels and 5 works of nonfiction related to prison education. One novel and one work of nonfiction were named “Washington Reads” books by the state librarian.