THE DAUGHTER OF THE ISLAND

 

The volcano called to Kamali every night.

Not actually of course, or the village elders would have tied stones around her waist and flung her in the lagoon to release any madness. But the volcano beckoned for Kamali in different, more subtle ways.

The volcano called to her through all the conchita myths told around the island, the whispers of the unnatural presence that lived on top of the merciless peak. Stories the aunties breathed life into around fire pits, of a powerful spirit banished to the crest, desperate for connection.

It was said that the spirit would grant any wish desired if only someone would come and relieve a bit of its loneliness. All the traveler had to do was successfully summit to the top of the volcano, offer some conversation, and they could have their heart’s desire—whether it be an endless supply of juicy mangosteen, without ever having to plant a single seed; or a collection of unsinkable canoes that could cross any ocean swell, lightning forking from the heavens or not; or even spending a whole dusk moon in the privacy lodge with whomever they chose—not that Kamali would ever think of tricking the handsome and strong Dagalo in such a fashion.

One might even wish for eternal prosperity for the island itself, bringing eddying bounty that would constantly lap at the sandy shores.

There was only one slight problem.

The volcano’s mountainous sides were impenetrable.

All along the drastic slopes were mischievous sinkholes, sporadic and hidden, that emptied into the forever abyss. There were Hunii bushes with thorns so poisonous they could kill just from the smell. Golo men stalked the shadows, scabbed and oozing, able to swallow any unsuspecting hunter into their disgusting ranks with a single, pustule-ridden touch. The rocks and pebbles flaunted hungry edges like bloodthirsty spears, and the treekind would strangle anything that dared stepped into their vine-span. And everything was pocked with gaping crevasses, so vast that they couldn’t have been bested even if Kamali borrowed the legs of a tutolo goat.

The aunties told warnings of feral fires with malice in their heart, that tracked wanderers down faster than they could run, and burned even the insides of bones. And there were patches of barabundi grass that didn’t know how hard to tug, pinning bodies down against its blue blades with the weight of the entire sky, crushing skin to papery dust.

Toro Silvani, the most talkative villager on the island, tried to climb the mountain once and came back on the first night without any fingers on his left hand, telling everything that in such forbidden place even the darkness bites.

Still the volcano called to Kamali.

It called to her through through a crackle of dim lights which danced around its rim, signaling for her.

Please, come, they begged of her. Please, we need each other. We are both so lonely.

Indeed the lights appeared lonely.

Hauntingly beautiful, the lights streaked through the cracks of the rock and spelled out Kamali’s dreams. Kamali could already read the temple scrolls better than most of the elders on the island, and in this type of reading, she blew everyone away.

But how would she get to the top of the volcano?

Kamali pondered this daily as she scraped her way up trees to harvest the green platanos. She mused this desire nightly as she wove fibers into netting for the hammocks that always needed repair.

After a hard day’s labor, Kamali often spent her relaxation time on her favorite white-sand beach, the volcano at her back so as not to steal her focus.

One day she sat with her toes in the gentle tide, the problem with the volcano fussing about in her mind. Playful guppies were nibbling at her toes when Dagalo showed up at her side. Fine figure standing firm, erect, and proud, Dagalo’s brown skin glistened in the winking light, as the sun kept retreating behind clouds, hiding until it grew curious once more.

“Hawi sugasu, Kamali,” Dagalo offered with a slight bow.

Dagalo was always so formal, and it made Kamali smile all the way from her lips to her heart. She cupped a hand over her eyes so she could count all the conch shells on his necklace this month—one shell for each boar he’d successfully trapped and killed. It wasn’t even nearing the dusk moon, and already his neck was weighed down with half a dozen conch. The elders had all grown doughy paunches on the efforts of Dagalo’s bow.

“Hawi sugasu to you too, Dagalo,” Kamali said, cupping a bit of water and tossing it up against his broad chest.

Dagalo rubbed the water into his skin, his motions slow and serene. He said nothing, only offered a quiet nod as he spread the wetness across himself.

“What brings you to this bit of sand,” Kamali asked with what she thought was an enticing laugh in her voice, hoping he might return this seduction with a bit of flattery. “When there is so much sand to choose from?”

“I came not for the sand, Kamali.” His green eyes darkened in color, changing from the hue of the canopy to the forest floor. “I came to ask you a single question.”

She nodded, biting her bottom lip. She wasn’t sure she was ready, especially with her heart’s quest left unfulfilled. The aunties gossiped of Dagalo’s desires of finally settling down and taking a wife, and Kamali’s heart pounded with uncertainty.

“Why do you stare at the volcano more than anyone else?” Dagalo’s tone seemed almost chiding, enough to break the lovely trance of the sunlight dancing across his broad nose.

“Do I?” Kamali asked innocently.

It was surprising, but she didn’t feel let down by the absence of a marriage proposal. Perhaps she was not as desperate for his affection as she had thought.

“During the watawa’ae feasts for the last five nights,” Dagalo continued. “Everyone else danced and laughed and feasted on roast boar. Yet you were off sitting alone, a turtle that is only shell. And your eyes never left the peak. I watched you for some time, and your eyes never left the peak.”

She gave him a playful grin. “I guess I wasn’t the only shell at the watawa’ae.”

Dagalo cracked his knuckles individually, one at a time, on each hand before he spoke again. “This is serious, Kamali. I am looking out for your best life.”

Kamali shrugged. “Dreams are serious too, Dagalo.”

“I find them wasteful. Let dreams be dreams, Kamali. Let life be life. There is so much for you here. You are so lovely, and so fertile. There is so much for you to taste and touch and make right here. We could be happy, Kamali. But my biggest fear is that we marry and have beautiful children that will grow tall and strong and still you will stare at the volcano. You will not see the faces of our family, mixed to reflect our love, like starlight off the waves, and they will not know connection to their mother. All because you will be stuck in some useless dream, unable to wake.”

Kamali was left speechless.

 “I am here,” Dagalo said, opening his arms wide. “I will not kill if you try and mount me. The volcano will make so such promises.”

Kamali’s eyes returned to the water.

Dagalo sighed and walked away, the sand pressing tight beneath his heavy form. No masu sugaso or bow as he left. Kamali had been wrong about Dagalo’s unyielding formalities. It wasn’t the first time she heard such dissuasion from someone who claimed to care about her, and she knew it wouldn’t be the last.

But what choice did she have?

It took three days to recover from their conversation, and three nights staring up at the sparking rivulets cresting the volcano. What was sleep when weighed against the promises of wishes and dancing lights and stars and dreams?

Kamali would meet this magical spirit on top of the mountain.

She would get her heart’s desire.

Still, her determination didn’t solve the problem of how to actually achieve such a thing.

If only resolution was a substitute for practicality.

 

***

 

One day, as the hunters were carrying a tied and bound boar into the village circle—the creature limp on the pole, squeals absent, an arrow piercing its heart—Kamali knew what she could do. She dropped her basket of platanos and ran straight to the temple, the aunties yelling at her for spilling the fruit, especially after carelessly crushing one under her heel as she fled.  

“Hawi sugasu, elders,” Kamali said after rushing through the great golden doors. “Thank you for allowing me to be in your most wise and gracious presence. You honor the gods with your sacrifice and benevolence.”

Kamali bowed to the circle of men inside, each of them sitting on their decorative blankets and drinking the strong wine of the banyan tree. Their faces were flush with relaxation and mirth. They were being generous in their pours, the massive drinking gourds at the base of the conchita shrine nearly hollow. Most of the elders had remnants of boar from last nights watawa’ae feast in the grey, matted hair of their beards.

The elders did not return Kamali’s bow.

They never did.

“What do you want, Kamali?” Elder Zerusha groaned, topping off his cup until the brown liquid flirted with the rim. “We’re very busy at the moment.”

Kamali deepened her bow. “With your permission I would like to harvest some of the fibers from the father trees.”

“Those holy fibers are for bowstrings only,” Elder Bukas intoned, popping a zit on his chin and staring at the resulting white goop as if he were surprised. “Do you wish to be a hunter, Kamali? Those boars could eat you up in three bites. Two if they’re only gnawing on character.”

The elders laughed, a few cups of wine losing unintended conchita offerings to the dusty floor.

Kamali ignored Elder Bukas’ slight. Such casual cruelty was their right.

“Is it true the rubbery fibers are unbreakable?” Kamali asked. “That they can expand as big as they need to?”

Elder Zerusha nudged Elder Hundari with his elbow. “Sound familiar, you wrinkly scoundrel?”

“Maybe twenty years ago,” Elder Hundari chuckled, tugging the inappropriate portion of fabric on his loin cloth.

“Even with tender young Kamali in the room?” Elder Bukas asked, transferring the white zit gloop from his fingers to his holy robe. “Doesn’t make you feel potent again?”

“It’ll take more than Kamali’s weathered whetstone to sharpen the tusk on this old boar,” Hundari whined.

The elders all laughed.

“Please,” Kamali said, her confidence swiftly dying. “May I have permission to harvest the fibers? Overall, it will be in benefit of the island.”

This was not a lie. Kamali thought it might be like the callu violets.

All year long the callu violets remained dormant in their buds, hidden and safe and lonely. Finally, a single flower would be brave enough to peek out and blossom, opening itself to the world. Then, within a matter of days, all the callus would bloom and the island would fill with luscious smell and beautiful colors. Even the wind seemed to dance when the callus finally open.

It was as if the flowers needed to see one of their own succeed before they would be brave enough to do the same.

 “Dance for us, Kamali,” Elder Zerusha said, his expression darkening. “Dance for us and then ask again.”

“Please,” Kamali said, her head bowed. “I have never asked anything of the island before. I give tirelessly, and I would finally like to pursue my dream.”

“Why do you need the fibers for, Kamali?” Elder Jujanu squeaked, his voice shrill and unappetizing.

“I wish to go to the top of the volcano,” Kamali said. “I need the fibers to do so.”

The temple grew raucous with laughter, potent and mean.

“Do you wish to make a giant bow and shoot yourself to the top?” Elder Bukas joked, holding up one arm and plucking an imaginary string slung from his elbow.

“Imagine the impact when she smacks into the rocks!” Elder Bukas laughed, sniffing his fingers with a grimace.

Elder Hundari cupped his palms over his chest. “I’m not sure Kamali could get any flatter.”  

The temple erupted again, each barbed laugh slowing the beating of her heart.

“That is not how I will summit the mountain, wise elders,” Kamali said, some of their spilled wine sloshing towards her feet. “But I think I know of a way. It hasn’t been done before, but I believe it might work.”

“Dance for us Kamali,” Elder Zurash said again once, his voice severe this time. “Dance for us and there is a slight chance we might say yes.”

Kamali thought only on the volcano as she lowered her head and removed her sandals.

 

**

 

The first day at the father trees was brutal.

Kamali sweat through her thin shirt right away, which left it sticky and uncomfortable. The elders had agreed to let her harvest the fibers, but decided not to give her any of the proper tools with which to do so. Determined not to let another one of their slights stop her, Kamali had been reduced to ripping off the harsh bark by hand, strip by strip. It was tedious and her hands became blistered and sliced up. The bark was tough and steely, used to upkeep the roof of the temple, which could withstand all the hurricane winds. The bark cut her skin. It drew blood. It cracked away her fingernails.

But underneath the bark were the rubbery fibers.

Kamali peeled them out, kissing each one as she coiled it into her basket. The fibers came away as thin as grass, but long as her forearm. She stretched them without mercy, and as hard as she pulled, the fibers never broke. Kamali already had much practice with weaving, and she knew how well the strands would come together to become something glorious.

The fibers would take her to her dream.

The work took time and effort and patience. By the end of the day her arms were stained with streaks of red, and she had only layered the bottom of her basket with the fibers.

But Kamali was happy.

For the first time in a long time, Kamali was happy.

That night, the lights of the volcano proved happy as well.

 

***

 

Each day Kamali returned to the father trees, the work getting a little easier. Her fingers became calloused and tough, and her arms found a new strength she had not known existed. For a week straight she was at the father trees before sunrise, and still peeling at their trunks by the time the sun set. She rotated between all the trees so as not to diminish their bark to the point of disrespect.

When the dusk moon finally arrived she already had two baskets full of fibers.

It wasn’t nearly enough for her to put to use, but it didn’t matter.

What mattered was the Kamali had found a small piece of meaning in each strip.

And so she continued her work.

 

Every day, she plucked and scraped and agonized to get the bark away and get the fibers out. Kamali drew a varying crowd that jeered and leered and sometimes even through small stones, which bruised her ankles and got caught in her bristly hair.

“We need you gathering platanos!” the aunties would shout.

“Why do you skip the watawa’ae feast, Kamali!” the hunters would shout, spitting in her direction as she worked. “Do you think you’re better than the rest of the island! Are you too good for our wild boar!”

“We need you to weave and thatch!” the aunties would shout.

“You don’t deserve the fibers!” Toro Silvani would chuckle, waving around his fingerless hand. “You can’t handle the teeth of darkness!”

“You are wasting your time!”

“You’re wasting the fibers!”

“It’ll never work. You should do something useful for the island!”

“Selfish! Hawi swaygazi ku’tunasi vendawee, Kamali!”

That was unnecessary, Kamali thought, looking over her youthful body with a frown. Why say such a thing?

Still she carried on.

“You’re ruining them!” the aunties would shout. “Have some respect!”

“Dance for us Kamali! Dance for us or we will revoke our decree!”

“You’re doing it wrong!” the hunters growled. “Women always do it wrong!”

“You only think of yourself. We need platanos!”

“Dance for us! Take your shirt off, you will be less sweaty! We want to see your fibers!”

Laughter.

“Platanos, Kamali!”

“Hammocks, Kamali!”

“Selfish!”

“I don’t want you any longer! I never wanted you in the first place!”

That was from Dagalo.

It stung to hear, but it didn’t sting as badly as the bark did.

And so, Kamali knew she could get through his rejection as well.  

 

She kept returning to the father trees each morning before the sun rose, moving between them, learning the personalities of each tree. She learned to use pieces of the bark themselves to pry others loose, and found the spots on the trunk that relented the most, and kept to the sides of the trees that offered the most shade. The trunks groaned as she peeled, but sometimes they sounded like encouragement.

 

At night, no one wanted Kamali to set up her hammock next to theirs. And no one offered her any mangosteen, or guava, or platanos at mealtime, and Kamali was forced to lose more sleep so she could fend for herself and harvest her own food.

Most of the crops had been taken by the time Kamali got there, and sometimes she had to chew on platano husks to put her stomach at ease.   

She hardly remembered the greasy taste of boar.

Sometimes it felt like the father trees were the only family Kamali actually knew.

 

Eventually, after another dusk moon fading out, the trunks of the father trees began to relent their fibers a little easier, the bark falling away like dying petals in the conchita wind. Kamali wondered if she was getting more skilled, or if she was perhaps at last making an impression on the trees. She wondered if the looming plants had grown confident in her dream.

The crowds still gathered to try and put Kamali down, but less so every day.

The shouts grew more infrequent.

The barbs became a little less invasive.

And in that regard, Kamali grew even lonelier.

 

***

 

The next dusk moon arrived and Dagalo wore a record twelve conch shells around his neck, strutting around the island like the great Gulu Kia’we himself.

Kamali had filled five baskets with long, thin fibers.

The villagers pawed and fawned over the necklace of conch shells, claiming Dagalo to be the savior of the island, that even if the Golo men touched him, Dagalo would never change. The aunties wrote songs for him, long and beautiful, and the young unwed girls danced around the fire and gave Dagalo sips of sweet banyan wine straight from their palms.

 

That night someone pissed in Kamali’s baskets.

She washed them off in the sea and lost a few fibers to the hungry tide.

She didn’t have enough to start weaving, but she was getting closer.

The volcano continued to call.

 

***

 

By the next dusk moon, Kamali was ready to begin the next step.

She had grown strong from the unrelenting peeling and stripping of the bark. The muscles in her arms were sinewy and defined, her skin tanned deep and lovely, and the little paunch that once clung to her stomach had been sliced away by her uncompromising efforts.

Kamali looked at her reflection in the sea and thought she looked like a warrior.

She knew everyone else saw a disappointment. 

No one on the island would so much as talk to her anymore. Anytime she showed up on the sands, the beaches would clear, and anytime she approached the temple for her monthly wine the elders would bar the doors and laugh, spilling her allotted portion underneath and telling her to drink all she liked. The aunties all looked down at Kamali from a vantage point above their noses, and sometimes the hunters even pointed their arrows at Kamali’s forehead as she strutted by with her baskets of fibers. The hunters didn’t laugh. They only glared, finally tossing the arrows into the dirt in Kamali’s wake without any words to follow.

 

Kamali went back to her favorite white-sand beach with all of her baskets—Joju and Peawa’te practically racing back to the safety of the brush as she approached, sand stirred up by two pairs of frantic feet, their young hands still woven together—and sunk her toes back in the water. After a moment the guppies began their harmless nibbling, and she let out a forlorned sigh.

Looking over her shoulder at the volcano, Kamali smiled.  

 

***

 

“What are you making Kamali?”

Kamali nearly dropped one of her fibers into the waves. She’d been working for hours with nothing other than the gentle splash of ocean at her toes, completely entranced. She didn’t hear anyone sneak up or expect any company.

Young Bawa was now sitting next to Kamali, one hand behind his back, staring into the basket. The eager boy already had a long fiber in his hand and was sniffing at the strip, a pleasant look on his face. To Kamali, the fibers smelled like roasting pineapple sprinkled with sugar cane, which the villagers ate only on the day after the dusk moon, but she knew they were rumored to smell differently to different villagers. The hunters reported the fibers to smell like the musk of the frightened boar, or sometimes a sungarro before its neck was broken and its feathers plucked.

“I’m weaving,” Kamali said.

“What are you weaving?” Bawa asked, a twitch on his thin lips.

“Something new.”

“A basket?” Bawa asked, completely sincere.

“No, sweet boy,” Kamali said, and then thought about it, thrusting out her bottom lip. “Well, sort of. It’s a basket for breath.”

“For breath?” Bawa asked, his jaw clenched. “I don’t understand, Kamali. How do you hold breath in a basket? Won’t it spill through?”

Kamali held up the fibers she was currently working on entwining. The work had been harder than she thought, as the rubbery strips didn’t cooperate like the fibers of the platano tree, instead springing to impossible angles and refusing to hold onto one another unless absolutely forced. Kamali had already been at the fruitless weaving for two days, and had little to show for her efforts. She had only woven a few patches which were splayed on the sand behind her, so as not to be disturbed by the waves.

The vessel was going to have to be quite big if it was going to carry Kamali up the volcano, and Kamali had gotten more and more dismayed as she realized the futility of her pursuit, and how long a proper weaving would take.

But now that Bawa was here, Kamali’s heart filled with joy at finally getting to share her idea, even if it was with a rather unexpected source. “You see. The fibers are stretchy and they can grow big as they need to. I figure if I make them tight enough—”

All of a sudden, Bawa whipped his hidden hand out from behind his back and tossed a red crab in Kamali’s hair. The annoyed crab grabbed hold tightly with its pincers, seemingly just as surprised and frantic as Kamali. In her surprise, Kamali dropped her handful of fibers, which got sucked away by the retreating waves. She frantically tried to brush away the crab without hurting it, which was now pinching her earlobe.

Bawa was already gone, more than one voice laughing amongst the brush.

 

*** 

 

A few days later, Bawa came back to the shore, announcing his presence as he stepped onto the sands. Once again he had his hands behind his back, and Kamali narrowed her eyes, searching for flailing red legs.  

“Hi, Kamali!”

Kamali sighed, her fibers still refusing to cooperate. She had half a mind to toss them into the waters and give up. “That was not a nice thing to do, Bawa. For me or for the crab.”

Bawa lowered his head. “I’m sorry, Kamali. Will you forgive me?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “You lost me some import things.”

“The hunters told me to do it,” Bawa said, sounding genuinely distraught. “They told me that if I threw that crab on you then they’d take me on the next hunt. But they lied. I’m sorry, Kamali.”

Kamali sighed, knowing how badly Bawa wanted to be a hunter, even though he was far too young and far too uncoordinated. The boy would sit around and watch the real hunters do everything—paint their faces, compare their scars, exchanged insults—always brushed aside like a whiny gnat. Even Dagalo didn’t have much patience for Bawa, always sending him off on impossible tasks like counting the number of brambles on certain game paths that the hunters weren’t even planning on using.

“What do you have there?” Kamali asked, gesturing to Bawa’s back. “An octopus this time?”

Bawa shook his head, revealing two flame rocks. He knocked them together, causing a little spark, which leapt up to his chin, causing him to flinch.

“I was thinking about your idea,” Bawa said. “I didn’t know if you know this, but the hunters always run their bowstrings through fire to make the fibers straight. Fire makes the fibers behave. I thought you might not know that, because you weren’t using any fire.”

Kamali looked up at the volcano, recalling the elders’ wicked laughter. She knew right away that what Bawa said must be true, and that the elders and hunters were purposefully withholding the knowledge. Beckoning the boy forward, Kamali was already scanning the shoreline for kindling.   

 

***

 

Indeed, the fire worked wonders.

Not only did the fibers give up their relentless squirming after a strong bath of flame, but there was an added effect Kamali had not expected, something so helpful that it reignited all of her resolve at once. She thought it might even be a sign from the volcano spirit, waiting impatiently for Kamali to succeed.

So what if the elders only wanted Kamali for dancing.

So what if the aunties considered her a traitor.

So what if the hunters would never take her for a bride.

Because Kamali found out that if she left the fibers over the flame for one minute they became straight. Two minutes and they would thin out. Three minutes and they started to melt together into one tough piece, as inseparable as the moon and the tide.

Kamali had been preparing to spend countless days grinding away at her mortal and pestle, smoothing hukunawi root into glue to stick between the gaps in the fibers, so her breath couldn’t escape. But now she didn’t have to do any of that. Kamali could straighten the fibers with the fire, weave them together, and then melt them into one solid piece.

Her vessel would be as air tight as the bottom of one of the conchita canoes.

And in this way, the volcano called to her yet again.

 

By the next dusk moon, something of a kinship had formed between Bawa and Kamali. Although the boy wouldn’t dare talk to her in public, he would slink onto the white sand beach when no one else was around, brining Kamali little gifts of food or hair ribbons. Making sure the coast was clear, he would lay his head in her lap as she wove the fibers together, the white foam of the ocean finding all the nooks in the boy’s rough hair and pooling in his ears. Kamali would weave and weave, the fire waiting patiently in the sand pit behind them, licking the edges of its cage, eager to explore.

And then Kamali would burn away.

 

***

 

At last the vessel was ready.

Bawa hadn’t shown up yet, and Kamali looked over her work for any flaws. She prodded at the fibers, searching for any possible escape for her breath, and to the best of her knowledge it was perfect. Tempering the fibers over the fire had left the whole thing neatly patched together, like a round, rubbery sail. The vessel was about as large as one of the elder’s large drinking gourds, just as smooth and sleek, and Kamali laughed, knowing she was about to fill her creation with something far more precious than banyan wine.

There was still plenty of work to do, but Kamali felt happy.

Hope began to crack her turtle shell.

“Hawi sugasu, volcano,” Kamali whispered, bowing to the top of the mountain. “Hawa sugasu, spirit.”

It was almost certainly her imagination, just a trick of the rising sun, but the rim of the volcano spoke back with a quick blink of light along its rim. Thank you Kamali, for for staying the course. I’ve been so lonely. True warriors are rewarded for strength.

The volcano was always so polite. It made Kamali’s smile stretch from her lips down into her heart.

She held the vessel’s lips to her own and began to breathe.

A dozen breaths later, ladled from the deepest places she could grasp, and the vessel began to stretch. The fibers held tight, no air leaking anywhere, and the material yawned outward, expanding just slightly.

Everything held.

That’s enough for now, Kamali thought, more exhausted than she’d even been in her life, even after entire days of clawing away at the bark of the father trees. Just a little rest, and I’ll breathe more later.

She tied off her vessel with strong rope of the loogondi vine and curled up next to her beach fire, drifting up and away into sleep.

 

***   

For days at a time, all Kamali did was breathe and dream.

Pushing air into the vessel was harder work then she ever thought, secret breaths coming from the ancient caves and hidden chambers in her body. They came from places of passion she never knew existed, but always hoped were inside. Sometimes she was in control, but other times, as soon as her lips hit the vessel, she was thrust aside like a whiny gnat, not involved in the passage of the mighty air. Some breathing came from emotions she was afraid of, others from that which she clung to with desperation, like a mother holding a sick child teetering from fever. Ten breaths came from rage. Three from jealousy. Five from lust. Twenty from loneliness. A sixth breath from a more shameful lust, which she would have been mortified to have to discuss. A dozen breaths from the tenderness of her childhood, all of which had been forsaken for a kind of armor as hard as coconut shells, the innocence and wonder of the island stifled and forgotten.

And the fibers held.

And Kamali bled.

And Kamali slept.

Three breaths that would have been terrible questions asked of future lover, sweat drying on naked backs. Three breaths from scratches along a spine that did match Kamali’s fingernails.

Four breaths that would have been moans of pleasure, two of them faked.

Five breaths of conchita laughter.

And the fibers held.

And Kamali bled.

And Kamali slept.

Kamali had to supplement her breathing with frequent periods of rest, regaining her strength. All she did was bleed her sacred air and desperately recover. Afterwards she had no energy left to even leave the beach, none to even string up a hammock, so she slept right on the sands, a feast for the gnats and mosquitos.  

Kamali began to waste away.

The muscles that were once proudly strung across her arms and torso were the first to go, fading down to skin and bones. Her cheeks sunk and turned hollow. Her once luscious hair grew thin and began to fall out, stolen by the tide, streaking through the waters like reedy eels.

But the vessel held. And it expanded, now the size of a reef shark.

Kamali didn’t so much as speak anymore, saving everything inside her for the vessel. Bawa got frightened of her haggard appearance and pale skin and her sudden silence and he stopped coming to the white sand beach. No head pressed against her lap as she worked, and in this way Kamali felt lonelier than ever before.

Still Kamali breathed.

And Kamali was not happy, but she knew she would be when it was all over.

Word spread to every corner of the village of Kamali’s peril, and those that once showed up to ridicule her and throw stones at her now came to pity her. They looked over the vessel she’d created and some grumbled their admiration—how could they not? It was now the size of a canoe—but most of them just offered their wisdom, council, and concern.

“Kamali, come dance the healing steps at the watawa’ae,” the aunties said, their arms full of platanos, spilling the fruit next to her fire. “Your dream was fine and all, but you are a shadow of your former self. You have lost your way. Come dance the healing steps and forget all of this.”

And Kamali breathed.

“Come dance for us, Kamali,” Elder Zurash said. “Defiling the father trees wasn’t entirely in vain, but to make things fair you will come dance for us and we will give you all the boar you could possibly eat! You don’t even look like a woman anymore. Where are your curves?”

And Kamali breathed.

“We brought you boar, Kamali,” the hunters would say, keeping their distance, as they would if they encountered a lone Golo man wandering the forest. “You made good use of the fire, but you made poor use of your breath. We saved you the face and belly of the boar, the tastiest parts!”

“We forgive you, Kamali, just give up, it’s too risky!”

“We forgive you, Kamali. Who’s going to clean your bones off the beach when you die? We don’t want to have to touch your bones. Think of all the crabs and gulls! They will feast like never before! They will leave your bones to bleach in the sun.”

“We forgive you, Kamali. We’ll find you an easier job on the island if that will get you to stop. You can gather flowers. You can pick the prettiest ones!”

“We forgive you, Kamali. Just come home.”

And Kamali breathed.

And the volcano called to Kamali each night.

How could I forgive you, the volcano called across its rim in a flurry of lights. How could I forgive you if you never even tried to come home?

And so Kamali pushed herself. She pushed herself as hard as she could.

The vessel stretched and creaked, but it held, capturing every sacred breath she could give, everything wonderful and lifting that Kamali kept inside. She breathed out poems. She breathed out the first tropical rain of the conchita summer. She breathed out her only flower, the flower that should have been given to Dagalo. She breathed out Dagalo. She breathed out the eyes of children she would never have, their faces reflective of the woman she might once have become. She breathed out all the empty years of her life, all the time that could have been filled with joy and ease and beauty.

The vessel was now the size of a hut, and it was beginning to tug upward.

And finally Kamali had nothing left to give.

Still she breathed.

 

***

 

And then things on the island shifted unexpectedly.

The night the vessel was ready to be cut loose became cause for celebration across the entire island. Minds changed as quickly as the clouds after a conchita storm. Kamali’s vessel had grown to the size of the temple, bulbous and looming, the whole thing anchored to the largest boulder on the beach. It was only held down by the efforts of a dozen strong loogondi vines, but even those were beginning to whine. The vessel itself tugged skyward, eager to get be its way, to scale the volcano and prove the whole village wrong. The fibers held tight, even as the vessel hummed and buzzed with all the heavy breath stewing inside. Kamali knew if she opened the lips she would chance all of her efforts and pain spilling out, so there was to be no more breathing. There were to be no more excuses.

Tonight she would join the spirit at the peak.

Kamali looked around, confused by all the delighted faces.

It seemed like the entire village had showed up to the white sand beach to take part in Kamali’s journey. Instead of stones, they carried flowers, and little foldings of platano leaves that must have taken hours to shape; the flat green leaves artfully creased to look like gulls and bellbirds. The aunties scattered their creations about the beach, and flocks of winged green surrounded Kamali to wish her well. The elders brought their most sacred banyan wine and were secretly doling out small portions to the children of the island, their faces were bright with misadventure. The hunters had managed to track down and kill one of the emperor boars, whose tusks could be hollowed out and played as a horn, the sound so ferocious that it could be heard across nearly the whole island. The gigantic beast was already skinned and roasting over a spit, drips of fat stirring the flames, crackling with the promise of grease and the taste of celebration.

The whole village was chanting.

“Kamali, bring us good fortune! Kamali, bring us good tidings!”

Over and over they bellowed, some of them even going so far as to get on their knees and bow down to the vessel, their knees pressed into the sands. Most of the village had dismissed the volcano spirit long ago, viewing her as a looming presence only to be gently admired, like the fiery stars in the sky: fine to whisper about, but too distant to be of any help or any danger. They couldn’t roast boar over the stars. The stars held no threat of burning their huts to ash.

But now attitudes were changing.

Kamali might have found a way to reach the unreachable, and the village had sprouted a euphoric fear, their foreheads slick with anticipation.

“Kamali make us proud! We believe in you! Bring us good tidings!”

“Kamali you are a favorite daughter of the island! Always the daughter of the island!”

“Kamali, you are the conchita wind itself!”

Even Toro Silvani beamed from ear to ear, licking honey off his stump of wrist. The only person who didn’t seem enthralled with the idea of Kamali receiving her heart’s desire was Dagalo, who sat on the stout log sectioning off luku’wai portion of the lagoon, the water lapping at his knees. Fifteen conch shells weighed down his neck—the most Kamali had ever counted—all threaded and shined, but for once no one had gathered at the shore to admire his victorious burden.

Instead all eyes were on the vessel, and the volcano.

The dusk moon was glowing bright, but Kamali was still huddled beneath the shadow of the floating sphere, not wanting to be seen by the villagers. She looked at her arms and saw that they were now no sturdier than two twigs of driftwood. Her hair was as willowy as dandelion fuzz. She explored her face with her fingertips and found her cheeks to be as sunken as the forever abyss blocking the slopes of the mountain. She had poured out her life into the vessel, finding only the dregs of emptiness at the bottom of the gourd.

But it had been worth it. She had created something beautiful and new.

She would get her heart’s desire.

The volcano was frantic in its calling to Kamali, the lights at the peak whipping back the darkness that crawled up its slopes.

Kamali stepped onto the visible portion of the beach and the whole crowd cheered. They didn’t seem to notice her withered form or horrible posture, instead staring at her with admiration, expectation, and even some jealousy. Bawa looked at Kamali with only regret, his youthful form sunken into the back of the crowd.

Immediately, Elder Bukas waddled up to Kamali, holding out the sacred spear which the aunties used to ward away evil spirits before the watawa’ae feasts.

“Hawi sugasu, Kamali. For you to take on your journey skyward!” Elder Bukas intoned in a rather self-important voice, making sure the onlookers could see the extent of his rotund paunch. “The spirit of the village will always serve as your guide! Never forget your roots and your family. We raised you, Kamali. We are responsible for your success.”

It took Kamali a few clears of her throat to get words to spill out once again, as it had been so long since she’d talked. Her tongue had dusted over with neglect.

“I don’t need to dance for it?” she spat.

Normally spite wasn’t in Kamali’s nature, but after such a lonesome struggle, devious weeds had nevertheless sprouted in her garden. Actually, the garden felt like it was more weeds than flowers at this point, and Kamali felt that perhaps even some Hunii bushes had prickled together at her center, poisoned barbs sharp and eager and deadly.  

Elder Bukas only smiled, handing over the spear. He did not meet her eyes, however. “You’ve never needed to dance for anything, Kamali. You are a favorite daughter of the island. Now bring us good tidings from the volcano spirit.”

Kamali’s knuckles paled as she gripped the spear, forcing out a nod.

Elder Zerusha was next, slinking up with a posture of supplication. He held out a wristlet charm, dense with shiny shells and seaglass from the lagoon, painted with the sacred colors of conchita dye. “We always believed in you, Kamali. We had this made the first day you came to us and asked about the father trees. We always knew you would be the first of us to reach the spirit. You passed our tests. And now this charm will keep you safe on your journey. Never forget who gave you the gift of the father trees.”

Kamali looked at the charm, eyes narrowing. From the consistency of dried sea foam on the inside of the shell, Kamali could tell that this charm had been fashioned recently, perhaps only in the last few days. Still, she took the gift and offered a nod of thanks. 

Elder Hundari was next, and Kamali grimaced.

Elder Hundari slid through the sands and offered a small sack of boroboro nuts. Kamali noticed the nuts were still in the shell and elder hadn’t even made an effort to crack them and make meat inside easier to harvest.

“You’ve always been like a daughter to me, Kamali,” he said, not meeting Kamali’s eyes. “Bring us good tidings. And don’t forget who took care of you all of those years.”

Kamali could still feel Elder Hundari’s hands groping her flower spots, the ones that should have been seeded by Dagalo. Kamali wanted to remember all of the places her mind had visited while the old man got his fill in the back of the temple, but she had unfortunately breathed out those comforts into the vessel. Now Kamali could recall everything vividly, no layers of soft imagination dulling the edges. Elder Hundari had done it all done under the guise of protection touches, warding off evil and madness, but Kamali could feel each of her petals slowly being plucked away.

Kamali grit her teeth and nodded, accepting the bag.

“Yes, daughter,” she said, venom dripping off her tongue. “Daughter of the island.”

Elder Hundari slunk away, leaving a heavy trail in the white sand, his footprints taunting.

Others made gifts as well, too many for Kamali to possibly carry on her journey.

A woven blanket: “I’ve always believed in you, Kamali. Bring me good tidings!”

Salted fish: “You owe me now, Kamali. This is good fish.”

A fine piece of black volcano glass: “My best find, Kamali. You’re welcome. I trade you for good tidings from the spirit.”

A net made of thin rope: “To filter the air of madness. Remember what I did for you, Kamali. Tell the spirit to remember what I did for you.”

Bawa was last to offer a gift. He skittered up to her and threw a dead crab at her feet, tears streaming along his cheeks as he rushed off and waded into the lagoon.

Kamali looked at the crab, the creature’s legs broken and eschew and its shell a pale shade of red.

The vessel tugged at the boulder, sand crunching beneath the stone.

The volcano called.

Kamali could feel a cough settling in her chest, a distant rumble that was approaching fast, and she knew she must be getting on her way. Filling the vessel had left her entirely vulnerable and she knew she didn’t have much time.

She thanked all the villagers for their gifts—not meeting their eyes as she did so—and tied one of the loogondi vines around her waist. Then she used the sacred spear to cut away the other bindings, the vessel getting more eager with each severed vine. Kamali could hear each of her breaths swirling above her inside the vessel, whispering a language of their own, all tucked in and sheltered by the fibers. She never knew how much life she once held inside.

At last the finally vine was cut and the vessel rose.

Kamali gasped as she was tugged into the air, the white sand retreating beneath her feet. She felt a swell of exhilaration as the vessel tilted the right direction. She was worried that she might fly the wrong way or too high and get tangled in the fires of the stars, but the breaths nudged the fibers in the direction of the volcano, at the perfect slope. The vine dug in tight around her bony waist, but the cool air caressed the sunburned skin on her face, and her chest filled with purpose and meaning and hope.

And in that was Kamali was happy.

She looked down and saw Dagalo stepping onto the beach, the conch shells clacking around his neck. He’d rubbed some water from the lagoon on his chest, his brown skin glistening in the flashing light of the volcano, the streaks frantic and bright. Kamali held one hand to her chest and then waved it down towards Dagalo, letting her final petal fall to the white sands. She would bring him good tidings. She would lead the whole village to their dreams, just like the cullu violets, starting with Dagalo.

Dagalo did not wave back.

Instead, he took his bow off his back and fired an arrow.

The arrow jumped through the air faster than Kamali’s eyes could follow, effortlessly piercing the vessel, shredding through the fibers and hissing out of the top, launching skyward. Two wounds burst open and the entirety of Kamali’s breaths escaped the vessel as desperate screams. The fibers forgot about being tempered by the fire, every piece twisting and wrenching and tearing apart by the mighty eruption, all of Kamali’s desperate efforts ruined and wasted in a heartbeat, all of the precious essence fading into the night.

Flailing helplessly, Kamali dropped to the white sands within a storm of black fibers, collapsing in a painful heap. Her ears went deaf, so she couldn’t hear the sickening crack in her arm, and her vision went black so she couldn’t watch the white bone break through the skin. The powdery sand clouded her entire being and she sputtered and spat, wheezing as she tried to make sense of what had happened.

Everything settled. The pain in her arm was furious. The pain in her heart was even more so.

Kamali began to weep.

Stunned, the villagers mulled about the edges of the beach. The aunties were the first to begin muttering to themselves, shaking their heads and stomping on the leafy foldings of birds. The elders were next, their hushed conversations hinting at derision. They drained the rest of their sacred wine as they discussed Kamali’s ineptitudes. The hunters were last, hunger returning to their eyes as they saw Kamali sprawled weak and broken.

Then the villagers began to call out, their faces boiling with anger.

“It never would have worked anyway.”

“That’s what she gets for trying.”

“Masa nagasalow Kamali hundari trasimi.”

That was unnecessary, thought Kamali through the pain.

“She was a fool.”

“She was too greedy.”

“She was too weak.”

“She was too selfish.”

“Praise to Dagalo for putting her in her place.”

“Dagalo is a true son of the island.”

“Dagalo always brings us good tidings!”

“That emperor boar. That was Dagalo. It’s always Dagalo.”

“Kamali is nothing like the conchita wind. Kamali is shit.”

“Dance for us, Kamali. That’s the only thing you’re good for.”

“How is she going to gather platanos with her arm like that? She’s selfish!”

“So selfish! We have to weave for her!”

“Selfish.”

“She’s no daughter of the island. She’s daughter of the Golo Men.”

Laughter.

Mean laughter.

“What a fool she is. And weak. A turtle with no shell at all.”

The last one was Dagalo. He was looming over Kamali, puffed up with pride, knocking his conch shells against one another. Each thunk made her ears want to bleed.

Kamali nursed her ruined arm against her chest, looking at all the twisted fibers littering her sides. They were so lonely, having together once tasted something magnificent, but now unable to even bear each other’s touch.

The crowd began to sneer.

One by one the villagers walked up to Kamali, stepping through the the wreckage, and took back their gifts. They did not speak to Kamali. They did not meet her eyes. They did not offer their sympathies.

Instead, they took the gifts over to Dagalo and placed them at his feet, bowing to the great hunter, doting on him. The young unwed women began to massage his shoulders and touch his bow.

“You saved us from evil, Dagalo.”

“You saved us from madness.”

“Hawa sulu entwasi. Ili we’wearasu perundis.”

“He’s always known what was best for the island.”

“As much wine as you’d like, my boy. Than banyan gourds will flow like the sea for your brave deed.”

“Let us dance for you, Dagalo.”

“Let us dance for you.”

When no one else was looking Bawa pulled aside his loin cloth and pissed on the shredded fibers at Kamali’s side and then ran away, wading into the lagoon.

Kamali ignored all of this.

Kamali was once again caught in the lights.

The volcano still called.

 

***  

It took a full year to get everything ready.

During her long bout of healing, Kamali had salvaged what she could and took all the fibers to the forbidden caves, all the way on the far side of the island. From there she could no longer hear the laughter of the village, she could no longer smell the sweet mangosteen roasting at the watawa’ae feasts; she could no longer witness the beauty of the callu violets as they opened as one.

But Kamali finally had what she was missing the last time she made her vessel.

Secrecy. 

She had stolen one of the village canoes in the dead of night and sunk it to the bottom of the lagoon, leaving everyone to think that she had rowed away to find another island, one that might welcome a failure such as herself.

Then she began to stalk the shadows, trying to recover some of her lost breath. She managed to find a shred of memory here, a velvety patch of desire there, but mostly the breaths had drifted somewhere unreachable, somewhere they did no one any good.

The hunters almost discovered Kamali’s hiding places once or twice, but Kamali learned to cover her tracks. She learned to listen better than the hunters ever did. She learned to track and kill the boars herself. She learned about the dark, solitary side of the island, the hidden pools of trickling water that tasted of secrets, the forbidden plants with the sap that oozed like treachery, and in this way Kamali felt less lonely than before.

She healed quickly and began to change.

She lost the taste for companionship and instead talked to herself, learning how deep the emptiness inside of her traveled. Hidden away in a secret cave in her chest was the forever abyss and Kamali made herself be braver than ever before, diving into the terrible space, searching for answers. She had more breath inside her than she realized, breath of a different sort. Breath that had been waiting so long.

And so the vessel expanded.

Kamali breathed.

Kamali slept.

Kamali breathed.

Kamali was beginning to feel a different sort of happiness.

The volcano called to her, deeper and more furious than ever. Its lights had changed colors and meaning. Once bright, they were now subdued, yet throbbing. Kamali would lie with her ear to the stone, listening to the rumbles, finally beginning to understand her heart’s desire.

Each night Kamali took the vessel out of the caves—she slept in a different one each night, just to make sure no one found her—and checked the strength of the rise. The vessel yanked and struggled, but it wasn’t quite strong enough to take flight. 

And so Kamali breathed even deeper, pulling from places she would never dare to visit again.

Finally, the vessel was once again strong enough to rise.

Kamali took it out of the cave, one loogondi vine wrapped tightly around her waist, digging tight, and she began her slow and arduous journey. Kamali made her way towards the peak. She rose over the mischievous sinkholes, sporadic and hidden, that emptied into the forever abyss. But Kamali understood the forever abyss now, and to her the drop no longer looked like fear, it looked like her past finally coming to rest. Kamali gathered the scent of of the Hunii bushes with thorns so poisonous they could kill just from the smell, but they didn’t kill, they filled her chest with something much better than even the roasted mangosteen at the watawa’ae feasts. She waved to the Golo men who stalked the shadows, and they waved back. She felt tickle of warm heat from the feral fires with malice in their hearts, and saved their warmth for later, wishing she could roll around in them and laugh and laugh and laugh. Mean laughter. She floated over the patches of barabundi grass that didn’t know how hard to tug, but instead of crushing her skin to papery dust, the grass pushed the vessel towards the stars, lifting her higher and straighter up the mountain. 

Toro Silvani had been wrong.

 The darkness didn’t bite. The darkness kissed. The darkness sang.

At last, Kamali reached the top of the volcano, the vessel slowing down on its own accord. She cut herself loose and landed gently on the stone, her feet dismounting on the outcrop without any sound. She stared past her legs, watching the light dance between her toes, introducing the spirit who approached.

“Hawi sugasu, Kamali.”

Kamali bowed. She hadn’t spoken that whole year, but her words had no trouble coming this time. “Hawi sugasu, sprit.”

They stared at each other in silence for what felt like a lifetime.

They stared and they understood one another.

“I have been so lonely, Kamali.”

“So have I,” Kamali said.

“Are you ready to have your heart’s desire?”

The silence stretched onward.

The lights in the rock began to shine like never before.

Kamali nodded. “I am ready.”

And so they locked hands and together stepped into the heart of the volcano.

And the island began to shake.