S H O R T S T O R Y
THE REMAINS OF PRINCESS KAIULANI'S GARDEN
b y k a t h e r i n e v a z ~ t h e a z o r e s
NOTE TO READERS: This story is in two parts.
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"MY STOMACH is singing!" said King Kalakaua.
The children lined up along the wooden wall sensed their stomachs singing also -- they always did, when Frank Vasconcellos played his musical instruments, especially his braguinha -- but they were afraid to move. For one thing, their mothers had warned them that not so long ago, if the shadow of a commoner fell across the path of a king, the offender would be killed. Times were changing in Hawaii, but it was still a good idea not to make Kalakaua wrathful. Elena, Frank Vasconcellos's daughter, tried to catch the eye of her mother, Amelia, but she was sitting up very straight. A royal retinue was in their house, visitors were in attendance, and she could not allow herself to uncoil toward the music. It was a shame. Her mother wanted so absolutely to do the right things that would allow her to belong to Hawaii before she died, without stopping to think that such a rigidness ensured that she never would. Pinned to Amelia's dress was a camellia as white as her hair, and it did not flutter to the music; she would not allow it.
Elena did not think the king looked prone to wrath. He was wearing gold medals on a white suit that people said he had bought in London on a triumphal sweep across the world. They said that the cloth had been woven by naked women who had shaved their heads and bodies so as not to get a single stray hair on the material. Kalakaua looked like a messenger from the sun. Everyone was both afraid to look away from the king and afraid to look directly at him. Just the way they behaved toward the sun out in the sugarcane fields. Only her father, filling the room with the high sweet sounds that made it possible to think of motion in this heat, was in his work pants, the denims that someone far away in San Francisco had invented for the gold miners. Friends thought he was arrogant to wear something associated with gold. Even Elena's mother thought so.
The king had heard about the marvelous new instrument that the Portuguese had brought to his country and wanted to hear it for himself. He was tired of the instruments made of gourds and pebbles. Frank had completed his sugar contract the previous year and decided he wanted to make more than ten dollars a month, and was now one of Oahu's best braguinha makers and players. He also made the rajão, the fiddle that the workers in the taro patches liked. After arrangements were made for a concert, Kalakaua and his attendants had arrived in a lacquered carriage at the house of Frank, Amelia, and Elena Vasconcellos on the slopes of the Punchbowl.
A sharp point stabbed the back of her neck. She had ironed her dress so well that the loose threads were sticking her. Her high-buttoned shoes were pinching, and she was sorry that she had brought them all the way from the Azores. She had had three months on the Priscilla to fling them overboard. They were useless in Hawaii. Besides, it took a long time to button them, because her hands were too large for the rest of her. They were the result, everyone said, of having parents who married old. It was as if her mother and father had had many large dreams at their wedding but not enough strength to do more than give them to a single part of their offspring. Elena's hands hung down like huge pincers attached to a tiny lobster. In a strange way, she missed the old days when she had to fight all the time, her hands in enormous hard fists, to stop her friends from laughing at her. Now they ignored her because she and her parents were not coming back to sugar.
Flé, flé, flé!
Flá, flá, flá!...
Frank was singing nonsense as his fingers plucked the braguinha. The king loved the music with its meaningless words. He leapt to his feet and danced around the room, a strange cross between a waltz and something like a hula. Elena caught her mother looking aside, embarrassed. It was rumored that the king had had over one hundred hulas composed at his birth in honor of his penis. Elena had overheard some old women gossiping about it one day, and they scolded her for listening in. But how was having ears her fault?
Her father's music filled Elena with such wonderful sorrow.
"Flay, flay, flay!" shouted Kalakaua.
Frank, too, was jumping around the room, with the instrument cradled in his arms.
The listeners tensed. Kalakaua kept coming close to crashing into the buffet table lit with kukui nut-oil lamps, and covered with an offering of sweets, doves made of pulled sugar, tarts, pumpkin jellies, banana pies, the orange-flavored strips of fried dough called coscarões, candied papaya, and flans. Elena thought her mother was going to collapse. She had gotten up at midnight to begin the final round of baking, saying that since the hour hurt, the food would taste better. Elena dug her fingernails into her palms, the size of grapefruits, to stop from giggling. She looked over at her best friend, Madelena, whom she had met on the Priscilla when it was dawning on them that they were leaving the Azores forever. Madelena smiled back. Elena hoped this meant they would visit later. Sometimes she was not sure about Madelena. Ever since her father had decided that the Portuguese should follow the example of the Asians who were pushing their children out of the fields toward the trade life in Honolulu, Madelena had not been coming around as much. No one had, until the arrival of the king today.
"Auwe! Bloody hell!" he shouted. He bumped into the table, and two of the attendants carrying the huge feather standards, the kahilis, rushed over to grab the dishes falling off the edge. They caught them without dipping the kahilis. Elena was the only one to applaud their skill. Kalakaua turned to grin at her. Frank kept playing. She felt everyone staring, and after holding her head up and smiling a moment, then seeing that Madelena was frowning and so was Amelia, she looked at the floor, and at her uncomfortable shoes, and at her hands that were too awkward to fold neatly in her lap.
Her stomach would not sing again until later, when everyone was huddling near one end of the buffet table, holding a treat on a crisply ironed serviette but feeling too nervous to eat anything, and she abandoned her friends to walk over to Kalakaua. His presence was so immense that she was not afraid of him; her hands had taught her how to be fearless about dimensions in flesh. He was descended from the Polynesian gods and wanted to be the emperor of what the natives were beginning to call Oceania. He was eating a coconut tart. A strand was trapped in his black beard. Her stomach began a mild melody that picked up in tempo as the king took the tissue paper from beneath the tart, its edges cut in a fringe by Amelia at dawn that morning, and held it out toward the attendant.
"You look like my little niece, Kaiulani," said Kalakaua.
The attendant, reading the king's mind, pinned the square of fringed tissue paper onto Elena's dress, so that it looked like a funny paper medal.
I'm not Portuguese, she thought, not any more. I'm Hawaiian.
She reached over to the buffet table and pulled a square out from under another one of the tarts. It looked very small in the center of her palm. An attendant took it from her and hesitated. Kalakaua nodded, and the attendant pinned it onto him, next to his gold medals. Elena and the king laughed, and her stomach sang, "Enjoy your moment with the king! You have lost Madelena!"
It was true. Not long after the party, Kalakaua ordered three dozen braguinhas from Frank, asking him to bring them to the Iolani Palace.
When he returned home, he threw his moldy cap in the air. "I'm rich! I'm rich!" he shouted.
Amelia looked up from her darning. "What does that make me?"
"The wife of a rich man!" Frank shouted. "What you've always wanted! You may applaud!"
Elena disliked how her mother bit threads off with her teeth. Everything, it seemed, connected to her claim that it was all well and good for her husband to be able to race about, forgetting to act his age; she had been pregnant at age forty-three, when her husband had been forty-nine, and now she was physically a mess, it was too much to stand and walk the ten paces to get the scissors when she did the mending. Better to use her teeth, before she no longer owned them.
Elena sometimes cringed in her clothes, from imagining her mother's spittle dried into the cloth. That was why she ironed everything so firmly.
"They loved me!" said her father, taking gold coins out of his pocket.
Elena put two of the coins over her eyes, to feel how round and cold they were, until her mother snatched them off and said that was a bad omen; that was how the dead had their eyes closed.
Often after that the king requested that Frank come play at royal parties, and because he was small and vigorous, the Hawaiians called him the Jumping Flea, or ukulele. It then turned into the name of the braguinha.
"Well, if it isn't the princess!" Madelena yelled one morning at Elena.
The tissue medal was starting to melt off Elena's dress. She had hoped to wear it every day for the rest of her life.
"Princess! Princess!" shouted some of the old women, when they passed her on the slopes of the Punchbowl that led to the road into town.
"Princess? Not with those hands! She should be a handmaiden!"
Elena could not fight old women. Like her mother, they were too mysterious. A certain class of them -- not many, but enough to constitute a minor phenomenon -- possessed a knowledge that made them quite starched: They were the ones who had married when young and suddenly, without explanation, returned to their childhood homes during the week after their wedding, to live alone past the deaths of their parents and into old age. It was understood that this was not to be commented upon. Two of these women lived here on the hillsides, and though Elena had left the Azores when she was nine, she remembered a few of them there, too. What a shame, to have elegant weddings, and then to pretend that the whole event had never occurred. Elena truly did not understand people. Why couldn't anyone say what had happened to these women? Why couldn't they be friendly to a king? What good did it do to be lunas, standing in the field ordering other people around and ending up being hated as much as if they had quit the fields entirely?
"No! The handmaiden!"
"She looks like little Kaiulani, the little niece!"
The taunts, and the boys saying endless crude things, made Elena's hands swell up, until they were half again as big.
When Frank had first started making braguinhas, Elena and Amelia did the cooking and running of errands, to give him the time he needed. But now, with people from the court and elsewhere wanting ukuleles, new work needed to be done. Elena liked the idea of her family being ukulele people. She would be content never again to go out under the sun where any other human beings were.
She discovered, to her shock, that her hands were incapable of plucking the strings. She had no talent for it. When she begged her father to make her an apprentice, she found that she had no skill with building ukuleles either. He and her mother said it was not something for a girl to bother about, anyway. But it did bother her. She lacked the thing inside, whatever it was, that gave life to music, and she could not teach herself how to fit the frets and strings together. What was she to do with herself? Boys only noticed her to ridicule her hands. She had a long nose and small eyes. She was too short and had no breasts to speak of, even though she was fifteen. The theory that her father's earning some money might make her more attractive did not appear to be working; those hideous hands stayed in the way. And Frank was spending his new income on Honolulu's society parties as fast as he made it.
On one of the rare nights he was home for dinner, he asked Elena, "What're you good at?" They were eating poi and grilled pork.
"She doesn't need to be good at anything," said Amelia.
"Let me hear that from her," said Frank, drinking his champagne. Sometimes he let Elena pour a tablespoon into her glass of water. Amelia was starting to listen to the missionaries and thought champagne was the worst kind of devilry, being light-colored and pretty. She was mad that money was being spent on things that did not last. Elena knew that her father let her drink his champagne because he loved her, but he was too old to do more than look forward to an unrigorous ending to his own life. That included situating these women in his house somewhere amenable to them, leaving him to float away on the strains of the string music that had completed his reasons for being.
"Excuse me, your highness," said Amelia.
Frank laughed. His refusal to jump into a fight with her was going to exasperate his wife into an early grave.
"I don't know," said Elena. The poi was what the Hawaiians called two-finger, because its thickness required that many fingers to scoop it up. She watched it solidifying.
"Think," he said. "Everyone I talk to about marrying you off says you have crazy ideas."
"It's you. You're the one with the crazy ideas," said Amelia, not looking at her daughter. "Elena is neat and clean. Boys nowadays have these absurd glamorous ideas. She does the best with what she has."
"They're those hands she's got on her."
It seemed to Elena that her mother was quieting him more from her own wretchedness about having a daughter with bloated hands, and not because Elena might be upset.
"Everyone is good at something. Can she bake? What's she good at?" said Frank.
Elena was accustomed to them speaking as if she were invisible, and did not blush. They were only saying what everyone knew. "Why are you asking me this? I can dance," she said.
They turned to look at her.
"No daughter of mine is going to learn the dances they do around here. They won't let you, anyhow," said Frank.
"Amen," said Amelia.
"Think again," said Frank.
"Well," said Elena, sensing that she had to answer quickly, but that her reply would haunt her. It was a shame that some gift out of the ukulele would not fit into her grasp. "Well, I like to iron. Yes. I'm good at ironing."
"Ironing is a very fine thing for a girl to know," said Amelia, clearing the plates as a signal that Frank should not open another bottle.
Even Amelia agreed that opening a laundry on Beef Street was a fair venture. It was not far from the dry goods store owned by Archibald Cleghorn, the father of Princess Kaiulani, who was in line for the throne. It was also a means of channeling some of the ukulele money before Frank spent it. Elena forgot about her vow never to yearn for places where there were other people. She often lingered on the sidewalk, hoping to glimpse Cleghorn, who had built the Ainahau estate with three lily ponds for his daughter, the future queen. Eight kinds of mango trees, and teak, cinnamon, and soap trees were on the grounds, where peacocks wandered and shook their heads with their antherlike crowns when twelve-year-old Kaiulani called to them. Fourteen varieties of hibiscus and a huge banyan grew on Ainahau. But Mr. Cleghorn did not show up at his dry goods place, any more than Elena's father came by the laundry. It was what he had built for his wife and daughter, and he was elsewhere with his ukulele.
Not far off from the laundry was the ocean, the color of limes. Elena had no time to go there, and was content to come off the hillside in the morning, alongside her mother, and head into the flat part of town, where the carriages went by with a clattering that set off the other music stored tightly in her head. Her mother never said much to her. Her mother would be sixty in two years, and she walked and talked slowly, as if expecting Elena to use her hands to lift off the burden weighing on her shoulders. When Elena did try to talk to her, it was plain that nothing delighted Amelia. To be in Hawaii, to have traveled to a new life, to have work in town, and yet to be so sour!
Elena was determined to be everything her mother was not. Washing clothing invigorated Elena; she got to hide her hands in the tanks of water when she chatted with customers. She had no trouble lifting the heavy baskets, and hardly needed the scrub brushes of torn coconut leaves that hung near the tanks. Her fingers knew how to manipulate the material. She tried to move the clothes through the water in a rhythm that suggested the sounds of a stream, in case Archibald Cleghorn, or his wife Likelike, or his daughter Kaiulani might be strolling past. But despite being the daughter of Ukulele, she could not force the water into a rhythm.
"Stop splashing," her mother would say.
"Have you finished the order for the Andersons?"
"I just have to tie up the package, Mama."
"Then do it. You don't have time to splash." She would open the spigots on the wall that directed steam onto white sheets.
Elena would move her hands through the water a beat more. "Is Daddy having dinner with us tonight?"
"How should I know? When you finish with the package, here's a dress to iron." Her mother would throw something at her.
One thing Elena adored, utterly, was ironing, which she did very seriously, using the tip of the iron to trace every embroidered edge or seam, following the curve of every stitched border. The size of her hands made it easy to hold the iron upright, a metal ballerina on point. Not even her mother ironed as thoughtfully. Elena went so far as to iron the internal patterns in lace and the monograms on handkerchiefs, almost thread by thread, and she tended to the inner seams of jackets, if they could be reached by lifting the lining. She could not say what was so compelling about ironing. It was a metallic strength that made something clean and new. It was soothing, how easily power or hidden beauty could be stamped somewhere, into cloth, into a person.
That was the reason she loved the story her father once told her about Likelike, Kaiulani's mother, who hid flowers inside her piled-up hair so that everyone would think the scent was issuing directly from her. Elena tried to arrange a gardenia in her own hair in the Likelike style, but her knuckles kept knocking into each other. She came out of the storeroom, where she had been attempting to fix her hair according to her reflection made by a sheet of metal, and asked her mother for help.
"You want me to what?" her mother said, suds from the brown soap coating her arms. She pushed up her glasses and left suds on her cheek.
Elena squirmed. "You heard me."
"We have sixteen orders to finish, and you want me to play with your hair?"
"The orders will still be here. In the time we're taking to talk about it, we could have finished, Mama. I have the gardenia. We can tear it in half, and you can have part of it."
Her mother leaned over the wash tank and roared with laughter. "Where do you get your ideas? A gardenia in your hair! Ooo, you are a princess."
"I guess I get my good ideas from Daddy. I sure don't get them from you."
Elena did not back away as her mother came over and slapped her. The stinging on her face remained as she picked up a washboard and slopped a man's shirt over it, moving the shirt hard, as if trying to grate it. She did not glance up at her mother, who was moving on to the next task. The floor where her mother stood was spotless. What a shabby way to live! With little jobs lined up like shells that a person had to shatter with gunfire, one by one! Elena closed her eyes. Her skin throbbed. Her hands were pale from being so much in water, but they were not shrinking. They were puffing up, like dead creatures.
She heard a ukulele playing out on Beef Street.
Come in here, she ordered the sounds. Come in here, and wrap yourself around my hands. My fat dead hands. I'm Ukulele's daughter. I deserve some of what that instrument can do and some of its good fortune.
She waited, scrubbing the shirt.
"Help me pour this out, Elena" said her mother, holding up a pail of dirty water, and another task interceded.
But the next day, she recognized the shirt she had been scrubbing. A man came into the laundry wearing it and said, "Did you wash and iron this?"
"Thank you! Thank you! You know, I've had a chest cold for a week, and the moment I put this shirt on, I was cured!" he said.
Amelia looked up from her ironing board. "That's nice," she said curtly.
"Yes, it is!" he said. He grasped Elena's hands, and though she tried to pull them away, he would not let go. He did not seem to notice how huge they were.
"Thank you," she said, as the man backed out of the laundry, so that he could gaze at her the entire time he retreated.
"Well, what was that about?" asked her mother.
"I'm not sure," said Elena, but within a week, the people in Honolulu, and out on the sugar and pineapple fields, and encircling the Punchbowl's slopes, were comparing stories about the Vasconcellos Laundry. One old lady put on a skirt ironed by Elena, and could do cartwheels. She did them down the center of Emma Street. A man claimed that when he unwrapped his shirts and inhaled their fragrance, his sinuses cleared and were lined with what he swore was a scent of gardenias. When people wiped their foreheads with a Vasconcellos-ironed handkerchief, their headaches left them. A priest who had sent in his collars to be starched preached the best sermon of his life. People heading for the beaches and sharing their talk-stories would suddenly burst into song and execute some dance steps, which startled them, until they remembered that they were carrying towels that had been sent to the Vasconcellos Laundry.
Throughout the air, excitement was stretched like a string.
Elena kept her hands in the water, and neither she nor her mother knew that the one incident with the shirt had grown into a commotion until the morning that a servant from Ainahau came in and said that her mistress, Kaiulani, had heard about the laundress who made the cloth she touched more lively, the cloth that was causing all this singing and dancing in Honolulu, and she wanted to try it. The servant explained that Kaiulani was a sickly young girl, and any service rendered on her behalf would be appreciated. She spent much of her time out in her garden, hoping the air and her flowers would give her strength, but she needed some extra help.
The servant looked first at Elena and then at Amelia, and said, "Which of you has the touch?"
"What insanity -- " Amelia began, but paused. The woman did seem to be from the royal family. An impressive carriage waited on Beef Street.
Elena paused, and glanced at her mother.
"It's my mother," said Elena. Giving her mother the credit was unrehearsed, and as startling to her as it was to Amelia. Elena was gratified to see that in some far recess of her heart, when called upon, she wanted her mother to shine. A momentary pleasure crossed Amelia's face.
"Yes, " she said.
The servant handed over some cotton dresses with elaborate trims, and a velvet one with bows.
"They'll be ready tomorrow," said Amelia.
The servant said she looked forward to Kaiulani's dancing in her garden.
THIS IS THE END OF PART ONE
CLICK HERE TO LINK TO PART TWO
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