Lehua Lily Ito

by Gae Rusk

“If you look closely you will see something, or someone, in the back row. Up there, third from the left. See it? Good.”

Turning to his audience, the lecturer asks, “Is it a blip on the negative? No. Is that a ghost? Maybe. The fact is, a girl in this high school class drowned off Maui four days before graduation.”

The audience murmurs uncertainly. To them, that gaspy blur in the back row doesn’t look natural, but it doesn’t look added on either. Before anyone can decide, the screen clicks dark then lights with another slide.

Lehua Lily Ito fingers li hing mui from a bag in her pocket, while on the screen glows a disorienting scene of – of what? She tilts to view the slide sideways.

“This is the Hanging Tree up off the Pali. In this shot, we are looking straight up the trunk toward the sky.”

When the speaker clicks the room to darkness, Lehua slips li hing mui between her lips. Another slide beams, lighting the entire wall behind the screen.

“This is the same shot taken at full moon. Look at the shadow on the right, about halfway up. See it?”

The audience follows his pointer, breaking into exclamations as they see a blob.

“And this,” he shutters to another, “is the same exact shot one night after full moon. Notice, there is no shadow.”

The audience agrees there is no shadow. The screen darkens and re-lights with the full moon shot. Lehua quickly spits sucked clean seed into a tissue and shoves it in another pocket, then, concentrating, she tries to find a hanging man somewhere up that tree. To her it looks like a shoyu stain.

While slide show and lecture continue, Lehua finishes off her pocketful of li hing mui, licking her fingers between images of vaporous figures in the rain, floating bibles and demented appliances. The last slide is one sent in by a Milwaukee tourist after returning home and developing vacation film. It is the only one that really catches Lehua’s interest: smoke rising from Kilauea crater does resemble a screaming woman, doesn’t it. Yes, it really does, agrees everyone at her table, everyone shuddering, a few tittering anxiously.

When lights come on, slide show over, the club president thanks this esteemed lecturer, thanks the program director for such an interesting guest, and thanks Lehua Lily Ito for yet another delicious menu. Everyone applauds happily.

Members begin rising and gathering their belongings. The lecturer looks up from his half-dismantled projector and speaks over their bustling. Some notice how bright are his eyes, how shiny when he says, “Remember, ladies, Pele walks at night.”

Members pause in their departures. He adds, “Just remember, that’s all. Do not ignore her, whatever you do.”

Lehua Lily Ito does not hear him say this, nor does she notice the awkward stirring his dramatic words cause, because she is busy discussing next meeting’s menu with the restaurant’s head chef. This is a conversation Lehua looks forward to after each meeting. So, perhaps they could venture into something more, well, exotic than sweet and sour pork, cake noodles and ginger squash. Maybe a touch of, say, Italian? Or French, for a change. Yes, perhaps a French menu.

Lehua contemplates the merits of veal versus chicken, then exclaims, “Why not have both!”

“Why not,” agrees the chef.

Lehua bustles over to thank the lecturer for such an interesting talk, yes indeed. And does he really believe all those stories himself, she inquires, not waiting for his answer but shaking his hand and moving on to the exit, the last to leave.

The lecturer rubs his palm against his slacks, trying to rid it of Lehua’s sticky imprint. He grimaces after the woman in the extra-large mu’umu’u, shaking his head and returning to his projector and his carefully stored slides.

Once inside her car, having arranged her mu’umu’u across her very full, very round ‘opu, Lehua sighs loudly. Another meeting successfully fed. Such a nice club she belongs to, yes, a very nice group. And a much more interesting lecture this time, not like last meeting, not at all, when she was so bored, and that packet of lemon peel hadn’t been in her purse after all but sat home instead on her kitchen counter.

Turning out of the parking lot, Lehua gently belches. Settling back for the drive home, she thinks perhaps a little snack before bed would be fun. Let’s see, isn’t there some manapua left over from yesterday? The baked kind that is crispy outside, not all fishbelly white like the steamed kind. Now that she thinks about it, she is sure there are a few left.

Thinking of this treat awaiting her, Lehua Lily presses the accelerator. Dwelling on the merits of manapua, Lehua does not notice a pedestrian standing in the middle of the road until it is almost too late. She does finally notice that pedestrian, but, when Lehua tries to brake, her slipper tangles into the hem of her mu’umu’u, and she gasps and desperately swerves and barely misses the woman.

As she careens by, Lehua glimpses blonde hair and bare skin. She sees night-black hollows for eyes in a face all twisted up crazy right next to her window. Then she is past and moving away, the shriek of her tires the loudest sound in the night, much much too loud.

Managing somehow to untangle her foot and slow the car, finally Lehua grinds to a stop. She hangs on to the wheel, panting, a clenching sensation big in her chest at so nearly hitting someone. She twists in her seat to look through the rear window, hoping the woman will still be standing. Furious or not at Lehua Lily Ito, it doesn’t matter as long as she is still standing.

The street is empty. Lehua peers anxiously through darkness. No one is anywhere. Surely all that blonde hair would be visible even in shadows, but no, nothing. Wait! Is that – no, just a dog, thank god, a poi dog there on the curb, there where the woman should have been in the first place instead of smack in the middle of the street.

Lehua searches the shadows another few moments. Mystified, she eases up on the brake, and the car picks up speed. Before one block passes, she begins considering what she might want to drink with the manapua. Hhmmm. To drink, to drink, let’s see. Perhaps orange-lilikoi juice? Lehua smacks her lips, testing that choice. Yes, that tastes right, ice-cold orange-lilikoi will be perfect with baked manapua.

Then Lehua remembers that she and Niece drank all the orange-lilikoi the other night while watching those ‘Love Boat’ reruns. She guesses she could stop at Foodland on the way home, because, now that she’s thought of it, orange-lilikoi with manapua seems the only possible combination.

A quick detour takes her to Foodland’s parking lot, which stands empty. Lehua happily maneuvers into a stall right near the door. While peering into her purse to find her coupons and gathering her mu’umu’u away from her feet, Lehua swings open the car door.

It has always had a little spring to it. Tonight, in her haste, Lehua gives the car door an extra shove. It flies open and into someone standing there, sending that person with a crash against the side of Lehua’s car.

“Oh no!” exclaims Lehua Ito, looking up from digging through her purse. She peers over the open door, ready to apologize, ready to help, ready to do anything to make it right, but there is no one there.

Perplexed by this absence of anyone, Lehua stares at the steering wheel. She finally struggles out of the car, looks around the parking lot. Feeling spooked, feeling chicken skin flush her arms and legs and move up her neck and over her scalp, she sees no one, no where, so what did her door hit? She distinctly heard an oomph and felt a thud. Lehua ponders this with her brow wrinkled, but a car trying to park beside her interrupts Lehua’s confusion. She closes her door and goes on into Foodland to buy juice.

Ten minutes later, Lehua Lily Ito stands weighing the merits of two types of crackseed. There are a dozen items in her basket, plus plenty of juice, because she thinks as long as she is here she may as well pick up a few extras. Let’s see, salty plum or hot sweet mango? Is there some of each at home already? Still, there’s no such thing as too much crackseed, so maybe both? Yes, best get both and give one to Niece next time she’s over.

Smiling at this decision, Lehua turns around to drop the bags into her basket and finds an old woman standing there. How old! thinks Lehua, her whole body clenching.

This old woman stands so close, Lehua would have stepped on her if she’d backed up instead of turned. So close, her wrinkles look like canyons. That face, Sweet Jesus! Her eyes, Holy Mother of God! Lehua Ito clutches the crackseed to her quivering ‘opu. When one knobby finger reaches out and pokes at Lehua, she backs into the edge of a cold meat case.

The hag’s white hair moves in some unfelt wind blowing through Foodland. She speaks, her voice rattling like ‘ili’ili down a steep stream.

“Lehua is greedy,” she gravels, “Lehua grew greedy-greedy!”

Astoundingly, profoundly frightened that this creature knows her name, Lehua cringes backward up the front of the meat case. That bony finger pushes forward again like a spear going for Lehua’s heart, the woman’s voice now pohaku shattering down a pali as she cackles, “Lehua feed me poor me poor ME poor ME ME ME!”

Lehua is terrified by such madness reaching out to grab her, to eat her maybe, and smelling of mold and stale heat. With eyes screwed shut, she leans forward to shove the old woman aside, but her hands meet nothing.

Startled, Lehua squeaks and cringes uncontrollably, unbalancing herself, falling off the edge of the meat case and against her cart, sliding to the floor as it rolls away down the crackseed aisle.

She should have fallen smack on top of that madwoman. At the thought, Lehua shudders violently. The crazy elder should have broken her fall. Lehua sobs in air, eyes still closed, afraid to look. But, when Lehua Lily Ito, now a tumbled mu’umu’u on Foodland’s floor, does open dilated eyes, there is no old woman. There is no old woman anywhere.

How did she disappear so fast? wonders Lehua, while being helped up by a group of concerned employees. When questioned, they had seen no one. When questioned, the cashier at the register had seen no old woman like Mrs. Ito described. A shaken Lehua buys her groceries and accepts the box boy’s help to her car. She locks all her doors.

“How did she know my name?” whispers Lehua while she winds up the side of Punchbowl to her home. “How could she know that? Who was she that she should know my name?”

Lehua turns into her driveway near the top of Punchbowl, the very last house before the street continues over the rim of that extinct volcano and on into a national cemetery inside its crater. Her headlights arc across the lawn, highlighting an ‘Ohi‘a tree planted there by her father. Braking, the motor still running, Lehua recalls its planting was right after her wedding to George ‘Ohi‘a Ito.

Her father said the offering of this tree was to ask Pele’s blessing upon their marriage. Its planting was to ask Pele’s mercy upon this Lehua and this ‘Ohi‘a, who were a twentieth century couple and not the same ’Ohi’a and Lehua whose trysting angered Pele so long ago, in the days before chanting, in the eons before hula and maybe even before trees.

Lehua remembers she and George joked that wedding day about their names, saying they were fated for each other since prehistory, and everyone laughed except Lehua’s father. Lehua’s father continued working the yard’s lepopele around the sapling.

At this moment sitting in the driveway, Lehua recalls one of Tutu’s childhood friends attended the wedding and the planting afterward: Auntie Maile, ancient even then. Could that awful woman in Foodland be Auntie Maile? If still alive, she would be well over a hundred years old. Maybe. Maybe that explains how she knew Lehua’s name.

Lehua hesitates, then makes herself turn off the headlights and plunge the ‘Ohi‘alehua and the entire yard into darkness. She struggles with the groceries, bracing the bags and her purse against her ‘opu. Unnerved by her thoughts, Lehua half runs to the kitchen door, a bouncing, billowing mu’umu’u.

Shoving the door open, she flicks on the lights with her shoulder and anxiously surveys the kitchen. Her eyes rest a moment at the corner table with its chair turned to the angle George always placed it. Lehua plops the bags on the counter and begins putting away their contents as she battles a sudden sharpness behind her eyes, she who hasn’t cried in exactly four years because George is dead, George is gone, George ‘Ohi’a Ito is no more.

Holding on to the edge of the sink, Lehua turns her face from side to side as her knuckles turn white and ache from the intensity of her grip. Spying the cookie jar on the counter, Lehua grabs it and reaches in with shaking fingers for a handful of almond shortbreads. She carries her cookies to the table where she sits on George’s old chair. The cookies help, so she has more.

It isn’t until later, not until three manapuas are brought to a toasty state and icy orange-lilikoi sits on the table by the new rice cooker Niece gave her – it isn’t until then that a dog starts scratching at the kitchen door. Scratching and whining at the kitchen door.

Lehua Lily rises from the table with crumbs drifting off her chin. She peeks out the window nearest the door, turning on the porch light, illuminating a poi dog all white and scrawny. Lehua calls, “Shoo! Shoo!” but the dog increases its scratching and its singularly forlorn whine, a dismal sound of hunger and abandonment, and Lehua considers how best to rid herself of the dog without opening the door.

This makes her lock the door. Niece is always scolding her to lock her doors, but Lehua never does.

Crossing back to the table, she picks up a manapua and begins to munch it. She returns to the window by the locked door, enjoying another large bite and humming her secret little eating melody. This time, the dog looks up when Lehua peeks out. When it spies the manapua, its tongue grows leathery and lolling, its whine grows more insistent.

Frozen, manapua halfway to her open mouth, Lehua stares at the muzzle pointing up at her: something is wrong. Something is wrong, wrong, WRONG!

She clutches the curtain, panicking when the dog’s eyes go shiny and flat. Lehua squeaks in horror when it begins to rear up, to reach up to the window with its long claws – No! Paws, surely paws! Lehua leaps away, stumbling backward across the kitchen, dropping the manapua onto the linoleum floor.

The table stops her. She leans on it, sputtering, eyes bulging. She waits like that for a long time, because it is a long time before Lehua decides the dog is gone and she is safe again. She tells herself the poi dog went somewhere else to eat tonight, because it finally realized she isn’t going to open the door and feed it, no matter if it starves and dies right there.

After cleaning up the soiled manapua and tossing it away, Lehua sits again on George’s chair. She pours herself a glass of juice and reaches for another manapua, staring into space with her brow wrinkled, questioning her sanity if not her vision. The baked manapua unerringly finds her mouth while Lehua contemplates the kitchen cabinets. She looks hard at nothing in an effort to grasp the events of this evening, making no sense of anything because it is all so inexplicable, all of it, all the while chewing and swallowing.

Occupied with this effort, it isn’t until Lehua Lily Ito bites down on the last of the manapua that she realizes it is no longer manapua. Biting down instead on what is suddenly something like pumice that crunches in her mouth and breaks off her teeth and lacerates her palate – this is what informs her that what she is eating is no longer pork hash manapua.

Lehua’s eyes opaque with perplexion, and she sags against the table. Then, when pain completes its clamoring circuit from mouth to brain to mouth, Lehua spasms and gags: a mistake, with ‘a’a and blood and broken teeth rolling on the back of her tongue, moving like something alive.

She claps her hands over her mouth, praying for help for rescue for relief for belief that this is not real, not true. The kitchen walls turn shiny green like wet olivine while Lehua struggles to stay upright, to find a remedy, to locate a solution, to stop the horrible moaning sound she is making so she can think again.

Using one hand to hold her chin on her face, Lehua Lily Ito wildly reaches for the glass of orange-lilikoi and gets it somehow to her ruined mouth, hoping to swill out broken teeth and fiery blood. Juice splashes on the table.

So, it isn’t until this juice is in her poor destroyed mouth that Lehua realizes it is no longer juice. No longer juice, it is something else, something suddenly thick as earth and hot hot hot. It is something that sears her throat shut so fast she can’t even scream.

And then, when it is really too late, much much too late indeed, the heat melts through its own mess and flows through Lehua’s throat and tubes down to her very still, very round ‘opu.

Dawn comes. Niece comes. She pulls into the driveway and parks behind Auntie Lehua’s car, thinking, At least Auntie is home, even if she wouldn’t answer her phone last night. That old phone is probably broken, hopefully broken, better broken than Auntie suddenly going deaf. Best to check.

Especially after Uncle’s lonely death in the garage from that stroke or whatever it was. She shudders remembering the panicked expression frozen on Uncle’s dead face.

Niece climbs out of the car, straightening her mu’umu’u, shutting the door. As she faces the house, she catches movement in the yard just at the corner of her vision. She turns and peers into shadows.

There, under the ‘ohi‘a tree, crouches a poi dog. Such pests, these dogs. Niece takes a step toward it, making shooing motions, but the dog continues to root among lehua blossoms lying around the base of the tree. Niece calls, “Scat!”

Ignoring her, the dog positions itself and defecates upon the pile of lehua blossoms. Niece picks up a stick and throws it at the dog, but it misses and clatters against the tree trunk. The dog shakes itself then stares at Niece.

There is something about it, something very strange about the poi dog, that makes Niece step back against her car.

Continuing to stare another moment with its thick tongue hanging out and its eyes like hot rocks, the dog finally turns and, well, this is the point that Niece isn’t really sure what happens. Maybe she blinks or something, or maybe a breeze stirs the early morning shadows, but it is then that the dog sort of vanishes.

Niece stares at that spot under the ‘ohi‘a tree. This does not make sense, but the dog is gone, poof, no where in the yard.

She finally shrugs, thinking her eyes are playing tricks on her, maybe she needs glasses. Niece turns and heads toward Auntie’s kitchen door, deciding she’ll make Auntie some taro pancakes for breakfast. Maybe there is some of that coco syrup left from last weekend, and why in heaven’s name is Auntie Lehua’s door locked?

© Copyright 2003-5. All content by Gae Rusk. All rights reserved.