S H O R T S T O R Y ~ P A R T T W O
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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AMELIA, NOT speaking to Elena, washed the dresses with the fine white powdered soap that they saved for undergarments. Elena could feel how carefully her mother was going over every button shank, every eyelet. She used a horsehair brush against the grain of the velvet. Elena was waiting to be called over, for her mother at least to say thank you or let her touch the princess's clothing. Only the sound of Amelia's anxious motions filled the laundry. Elena comforted herself. She was the one with ukulele powers inside her hands, a containment of the titanic sweeping event enacted by her father when he brought a new kind of music to a new country -- it was under her fingers, within her, by surprise.
When she offered to iron Kaiulani's dresses and her mother declined, Elena was annoyed. Did her mother expect ukulele strains to get into the clothes without Elena's hands on them?
The servant pulled up in the carriage the next day, and Amelia gave her the dresses in packages tied up with white ribbons. Elena stayed in the back room, putting cream on her hands to soften them.
After she and her mother began their walk home that evening, they passed several young women forming a human pyramid, teasing one another as they tumbled over, and an old Hawaiian was doing a can-can number. He might have gone to the Barbary Coast and come scurrying home. The birds-of-paradise along the roadway pointed their beaks skyward, laughing.
"Mama," said Elena. "What's going on in Hawaii?"
Her mother looked at her, then away. Elena knew why. It was too much to think that lone acts of ironing, as innocent as playing a ukulele, could bring a giddiness to strangers.
But once she had allowed her ukulele powers to go into the world at large, that world began to report back to her what it was doing and seeing. She heard that the Portuguese were not alone in grumbling about Kalakaua being in the pocket of Claus Spreckels, the German sugar man, who was providing the king with huge personal loans and convincing him to arrange for more low-paid Japanese workers.
There was a rumor about the whites, some of them haoles and some the native-born sons of the missionaries, pressuring the king into redrafting the constitution, so that only property owners could vote. That would prevent many native Hawaiians from having a say in the government. The whites wanted America to annex the islands.
Her father came home at hours when neither she nor her mother were conscious, to sleep on the couch. Right under their noses, right under their eyes, he was turning into a memory.
Kaiulani's servant returned to the laundry one morning, and both Elena and her mother looked up eagerly. The royal account was going to be theirs!
"I am to deliver a message," said the servant.
Elena turned off her iron, and Amelia dried her hands on her apron. "Yes!" said Amelia. "I know the princess has many dresses, but we're never too overworked to -- "
"I am to say," said the servant, "that Princess Kaiulani is having nervous fits. She is so anxious that she went into her garden and uprooted some of the prettiest hibiscus plants, rare ones, before her father could stop her. I don't know why you would bring gladness to everyone else, and destruction to her."
"I don't think -- " began Amelia.
"I've heard that her governess is leaving her to get married," interrupted Elena. "That would explain the trouble."
"No matter what is going on in the life of the princess," said the servant, "your laundry was supposed to aid her. It did not. It has had the opposite effect. I fear the happiness in the streets must be short-lived. Likelike, the mother of the princess, is recommending that no one visit your store. I'm sorry." She lowered her voice. "I truly am sorry. I never believed the stories I was hearing. They seemed out of some fantasy."
"Which is what my daughter lives in," said Amelia, her hands shaking. "Just like her father. She's the one who should have done the work, and she didn't."
The servant and her mother were looking at Elena, who stared at her mother in helpless fury.
"Weren't you the one with the touch?" asked the servant.
"My daughter said that because she gets lazy about doing her work. Look at the pile of things behind her."
The servant peered at Elena. "You didn't want to help the princess?" she asked.
"You said you didn't believe what you were hearing," said Elena, her voice controlled.
"I'm here to deliver a message. I've done that. Now, if you'll excuse me." The servant headed back to the waiting carriage, but she turned at the door and said, "I do wish you well, myself. I wanted it to be true."
"Mother," said Elena, and was speechless. Her mother had returned to her ironing. For fear of bursting out screeching, Elena hid in the storeroom, and stared at the piles of unwashed clothes with loathing. There did not seem to be much of a point in cleaning them, not if business was going to fall off and die. She did not know why it had not occurred to her that her mother was jealous. The ukulele had given Frank a place at court, and it had bestowed wonder upon Elena, but it had granted nothing to Amelia. Nothing except grief that her husband was never around -- or was that its gift to her? Nothing more than she deserved!
And yet, Elena remembered being a child and her mother teaching her how to make strudel: How to use the backs of one's hands to stretch the dough that they draped over the table. This was to teach Elena patience. Whenever she tore the dough, her mother would tell her to slow down -- and she did, her hands like large turtles under the thin pale yellow sheets.
Hesitating to curse her own mother, no matter what she had done, Elena prayed silently that Likelike and Kaiulani should have music enter their hearts and beat so fast that their bodies exploded. How dare they complain about their laundry! How dare they insist upon magic, and condemn her for not providing it! Once made, her prayer could not be taken back. She prayed it again to prevent herself from directing anything against her mother.
During the failing days of the laundry, Frank brought his daughter to a party at the garden of Ainahau. He wore a linen suit, and was so formal with her that she did not recognize him.
"How is your mother, Elena?" he asked as they stood in a corner of the lawn, watching the people dressed in silks and the women in feather headdresses. There were many white men with white beards, like Archibald Cleghorn.
She was wearing the boots that pinched more than ever, now that she was doing the last of her growing. She wanted her father to introduce her to his new friends and not keep her off to the side. "You could find out for yourself, Daddy."
"I come home."
"When we're asleep."
He picked up his ukulele and tested the strings. Elena saw King Kalakaua and ran toward him. He might lift the ban on bringing clothes to the Vasconcellos Laundry! After all, he was the one in charge, not Likelike. When she got close enough to him to speak, though, she stared at him in dismay. He was drunk and very old, with gray in his beard.
"Your Highness?" she said, hating how timid she sounded. "Remember me? Ukulele's daughter?"
He was in red and gold, the royal colors, and was drinking from a tumbler. He splashed a little on her as he said, "Who? Whose daughter?" He stared over her head at the groups of men scattered throughout the garden. The breeze was light, but carrying muffled sounds.
Elena looked from him to her father, who was strolling through the gardens, playing his ukulele. But the music had become common enough to linger in the background and remain there, and no one was turning to applaud. Her father had made himself a jester, a minstrel; but better that than a luna in a cane field, better to be in a place where the trees and flowers had been brought in for their calming influence on a daughter. Before she ran out, Elena saw Kaiulani wearing a European-style dress with a sailor's collar and thick black stockings. Her black hair curled down to her shoulders, and she had on a white ginger lei, the kind worn by brides. She stood with some friends, but like the king, her Papa Moi, she seemed to be barely listening to them. She had a very old spirit.
Kaiulani spotted Elena and waved. Elena, thunderstruck, waved back. Hello, my friend, we're these children with old spirits and long histories and new music springing around us, and no idea of what to do with any of it.
I take back the curse I put on her, I take it back, I take it back, thought Elena as she ran from the party, not telling her father good-bye. If only she could have a second chance to iron Kaiulani's dress. She would have the ukulele powers make Kaiulani do handsprings.
Surely her prayer against the princess and Likelike, since it had been silent and haphazard, would not count.
Likelike died first. Not many servants knocked out their teeth in mourning, since Likelike had been so ill-tempered with many of them. The rumor arrived, while Elena and her mother sat in the laundry waiting for the occasional person to drift in, that the king had prayed her to death. Kalakaua himself, using his powers to kill someone in his own family! His own sister! The white people were not going to help him stay on the throne, and the sugar magnates were angling to control the constitution, and the king, so the story went, had to turn to the gods. They were demanding a sacrifice from the royal family, and he chose to doom his sister.
Likelike went sad but resigned to her bed, and caught a fever. Before dying, she blurted at Kaiulani that she would never be queen.
Elena fell sick herself. The king had not been acting alone with his bad prayers. No one knew that but her. She had cursed Likelike, and Kaiulani as well! That in one angry moment something could glide across her thoughts and assist in pulling down a family was awful beyond anything she had done.
I take it back, she prayed, I take it back. Every morning for two years when she awoke, she called back the powers of what she had wished.
When Kaiulani was sent off to school in England, Elena thought of warm things, so that the princess would not be chilled. She pictured Kaiulani in wool coats and mufflers, and the fervor of these prayers made Elena's body grow and her hands shrink to meet it. They were normal. As uneventfully as that. Now that they were in proportion to the rest of her, now that people seldom brought in anything for her or her mother to iron, her hands were so ordinary as to be repellent to her.
One night when she and Amelia were alone at home, her mother said, while washing the dishes and handing them to Elena to dry, "How nice to see your problem is gone, darling."
"Gone?" said Elena. Her mother had never called her darling before. How distasteful, to be loved because she was no longer a freak. "I'll tell you what's gone, Mama" she said, continuing to dry her mother's dinner plate, "and that's Daddy. Don't you care?"
Her mother did not pause in scrubbing another plate. "No, I don't," she said. "If I care, he wins."
"He wins what?"
"I don't expect you to understand. "
"I might surprise you. Maybe I'll surprise you the way I did our old customers."
"Don't start with that nonsense." She slammed a plate hard onto Elena's hand.
"Ouch. I don't know why you have to be so mean, Mama?"
"You don't have to worry about us getting divorced. I'll never give him a divorce! Never! You understand me?" She was facing her daughter, and shouting. "All I wanted was not to be one of those old spinsters! Those awful women! You want to be one of them? Do you?" She shattered a dish on the floor, and Elena understood that her mother was doing it to cover the crashing sound of the thought in her head: Elena was nothing but the thing had and done, so that her mother would not be one of those pathetic ladies who married, and discovered what love involved, and returned home to die. Elena was her mother's proof that she was not a lonely woman, that she had signed herself out of that grim club.
The king went for his first sleigh ride at the insistence of the mayor of Omaha, and caught a cold that lasted for the duration of his train trip across America.
Late into the rule of Kalakaua, Elena and her mother opened a new laundry and did moderately well. No wonderful stories, however, were reported about what they washed and ironed. Frank came by occasionally to give them money for their rent, and a divorce was never mentioned.
The king died in 1891, at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, forced out by whites who made him sign the Bayonet Constitution, which gave them the upper hand in the rules of state.
In 1897, Kaiulani took to her bed with a headache in Paris, electing not to attend a bazaar. That afternoon, a booth at the bazaar caught fire, a ceiling collapsed, and 117 people died. Her chronic illness had spared her.
She was coming home to Hawaii. Though a provisional government led by missionaries' children and sugar plantation owners had kicked out the royal family, Kaiulani would return to her garden and either rule from there or wait until this latest uproar dissipated. With her aunt, Queen Liliuokalani, deposed and out of the way, Kaiulani was first in line for the throne.
Elena thought this over with profound relief while leaning on the counter of the laundry and pictured Kaiulani lying wan in bed but smiling at the manner fate had chosen to spare her. Her hair would blow in the breeze as she rolled through the streets of Honolulu in her phaeton, to the welcoming cries of the crowd.
Elena would go to her, wave at a respectful distance, and say, Your eyes met mine, do you remember, in your garden, when neither of us understood what the adults were doing. Let me help you continue the ways of your father. Let my hands wash music into whatever wraps around you.
This did not happen for the princess, nor for Elena.
Kaiulani returned to Hawaii and was forced to while away her time at Ainahau. History could permeate the air as soundly as music. The Americans were moving in, and the kingdom seemed permanently pried away from the royal inheritors. Elena thought of Kaiulani and her retinue of peacocks watching the gardeners tending her trees, hoping that some upset would clear the path to the throne for her.
Frank continued to play at society parties, and Elena and her mother saw him infrequently. On one occasion they spotted him through the open doorway of a bar, surrounded by women. One had her arm draped over him. The others were clapping as he strummed a ukulele. Amelia stared toward him. He did not see her or Elena out on the sidewalk.
"Mama, let's go," said Elena, tugging her mother's arm.
Her mother's face went soft and white as cotton.
Her mother ran, her head down, pushing through the crowd. She bumped into people, who shoved her back.
"Mama!" called Elena.
Her mother was wearing a loose Mother Hubbard, and as she ran she stumbled forward, her toe hitting a tuft of grass thrusting itself through the sidewalk, and she fell and hit her head on the pavement.
"Mama, Jesus, Mama," said Elena, turning her mother over and seeing blood seep from her crown. She cradled her mother's head and screamed for help. That fast it had come, this accident so long in the making.
She prayed that her hands would grow hideously large again. If they had at one time made cloth breathe life into strangers, then it was reasonable to expect that large hands, if pressed against her mother's head, would cause life to flow into it. That was what took place, as Elena wished it. Her hands grew, she held her mother's head with them, and Amelia stayed alive. She brought tea to her mother, and ran the laundry by herself, and when her father brought flowers, Elena asked him to leave and take his useless flowers with him. She lay the big palms of both hands onto her mother's head when she had headaches, and they left her quickly, although she had become odd and daft and so relaxed that she scarcely knew who she was.
When Amelia was better and able to walk by herself, Elena wished her big hands gone, but they would not go. She soaked them for hours in the hottest water she could stand, but they stayed with her, even when she cried and pleaded for them to vanish.
Please, please, she prayed every night. They'll make me an old maid. If they don't shrink, I will never be able to be Hawaiian and step out naked to greet the dawn after my wedding night.
Tragedy struck during Elena's pleadings with her hands. Kaiulani, at the age of twenty-three, caught cold during a rainstorm and died. Something as dull as being rained upon! For lack of a warm garment, a line had ended. There were no more heirs to the throne. Elena grieved that her curse should be summoned up, but she was also afraid to cry out that it had actually been intended for her mother. That curse had been so offhanded, during a small, private moment -- and for it to come to this!
It chilled her that there was no act, no matter how furtive, that did not impose itself upon the enormous backdrop of events. If anyone attempted to hide, then history would come in and envelop the smallest person in the smallest corner.
While feeding her mother her cereal, Elena realized that the curse had been much smarter than she could imagine. It knew that she had not meant to bring harm to Kaiulani or Likelike, but to her mother. Therefore here her mother was, alive but disabled by a fall. She was as easily enamored as a child. She drummed her hands on the tabletop when Elena cut up a banana. Amelia never had to comb her hair or sweep floors or worry. She did not have to feel like a woman petrified of the future.
Caring for her elderly mother was a full-time job, and even if Elena had normal hands, it was unlikely that she would find a husband. She would be her mother -- or rather her mother as her mother would have continued -- growing old in a panic.
Elena hung a portrait of Kaiulani in the halls.
"Pretty girl! Pretty girl!" sang Amelia. "Amen!"
"That's Kaiulani, Mama," she said.
Elena would keep Kaiulani nearby, as a reminder that one could have a whole life planned out, a job assigned from birth, a garden with imported trees, and there was still no guessing how fast the earth could change, how indistinct the most familiar people could grow, how casually a curse or rebellion could fester, how a rainstorm or a fall or quirk of birth could scramble history, how untidily power could grow in one's grasp, though it might vibrate prettily as a string concerto.
Hardly more than a decade later, Elena put her mother in a wheelchair and went out to see the tearing up of the gardens of Ainahau to make room for a hotel. The peacocks had been sold and some of the salvageable plants given away for low prices at an auction. The legislature had decided that royal tokens were no longer of much interest, not since the United States had made Hawaii a territory. Archibald Cleghorn had died, and though he had worked to dedicate the garden for public use, the legislature voted against its upkeep.
Elena tucked a blanket up higher, near her mother's chin. She ironed everything, including blankets, to fill her days, hoping some of the ukulele power would return.
"Nurse," said her mother. "What are they doing? Let's go home!"
"I'd like to watch," said Elena. "It's a place where a princess used to live. I thought one day we would live in a place like that. You and I would have a garden that was like that one over there. Because Daddy seemed to be making lots of money. He brought a new kind of music here. And for a while, my hands did amazing things."
"Not so nice, actually, Mama." The breeze was lifting the palm leaves on the trees as men with pickaxes headed into the estate to pull up what remained of the garden. A wrecking ball was set up near the house.
"O! What's that noise?"
"They're taking down the house, Mama. No one lives there anymore."
"No, no," said Amelia. "Not that noise! Not that noise! I'm hearing something else!"
Elena sighed, and could picture Kaiulani observing the end of her history, and Hawaii's history. If only she could turn her gaze upon Elena with her infirmed mother, to see that the story of the ukulele family, a history that had begun not long ago as an adjunct to royal dreams, was also at something of an end. Now the strings were invisible, and the garden would be tossed here and there, so that even the ghosts would not find it.
"Are you hearing a ukulele, Mama?" she asked. "A braguinha? Is it your stomach singing?"
"Shh! Shh, nurse!" said her mother. "Lord Almighty! Listen!"
That is what I shall do, thought Elena. I shall hold up my burdensome hands, and the moment I identify the song on the wind, it will pass on, leaving me to listen for the next one.
The harmony behind each of those songs will be constant. It will be: Plant no gardens; plant no gardens. A trousseau has no merit. Every plan is cursed, the heedless way we live now.
This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
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