Note by the Author: In the mid 1800’s, a colony of outcasts was created, destination for those diagnosed with the Hansen’s disease known as leprosy, those sent to a desolate peninsula called Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The place has a dark and tragic history. Many died there. Some were tossed overboard to swim to shore or die Many were abandoned. Those sent there, their own homelands stolen so that the wealthy islanders could claim them, were quarantined, castigated, and suffered in often inhuman ways. The colony with its very few survivors exists still to this day. It is now designated as a national park. In modern times, those who first cruelly condemned AIDS patients and hoped they could simply disappear— imagined such a fate for them.
She was a hunter. She came from so far away. There were quasi angels where she came from, some so old their bleached wings were broken. And churches, so old they smelled of used prayers. She wanted them. The prayers. The breaths of those who’d prayed them.
At first, there had been those times when islands seemed to her like newly drowned souls, submerged stones, only their faces sometimes piercing the waves and calling her into their oceans. Come, and then let go. Embrace. She could never capture them.
The settlement was nested below sloped mountain folds of moss-colored underworld velvet. The rest of the island was grayed with the steps of old death and almost no laughter. Patients sent there—never returned.
On the promontory called Kalaupapa was a jagged black rock pile located in cemetery B. She’d once been allowed on this island with the elders who massaged and touched its remaining lepers. The disease had a different name now, but they knew who they were. After a century of isolations, faces and hands twisted, fingers and feet stubbed or clawed, their eyes said I’m a survivor, love me if you dare. Her hands shook when she first touched them. A bone-dry landscape surrounded them, where spirits walked at dawn and at dusk. She wanted something they had, too. Something that had no name.
It was the season of mating for the barking wild deer who spotted the brush. Between overgrown palms and shedding ironwoods, people there nodded with each high-pitched yelp. These creatures would have offspring in a place where there were no children. A single buck stood large and protected by his does, his markings trembling over hard breaths. In the shadows, she watched his fear of being seen.
She was out walking again. Each time she passed cemetery B where a mass of the once-upon-lepers lay as nothing but quiet bones, a night-sea climbed in her. She turned to stare at the same pile of sharp black stones again. I know nothing, she wanted to say. I’m here to massage the unfeeling limbs of the living, but I— What she could touch were ankles swollen around scabs, fingers and feet re-formed as hooves with ingrown nails bitten by angry mouths. Beauty and ugliness had no mirrors, here. She removed her sandals and walked closer to the stones. Nerveless hands and old curses lived here.
I want to go home. She knew they’d wept on these dirt roads. Inside the stones, she believed a male voice was humming to her, as to a wife who once left him there, forbidden to return. Aloha, my darling. And a high surf broke in her for God’s shape-shifters. A lighthouse beacon cast its long eye for the lost. And wind waited with the mating deer.
In a mute grove, she found that grotto where lovers had once upon held one another, in silences, or whispered goodbye as quietly as fingertips. Tree roots were gnarled as their bodies. Aloha, my darling.
Her own breath formed the same words. She’d said that, here. Now she fingered two small pebbles in her pocket, ocean-smoothed. Clicked them together, just to make one real sound.
... je t’aime ...
A spirit’s touch against her cheek. That’s all. With a short and broken hand. Her own hands burned. Hunters, underneath an inferno of stars.
One of the elders now stood beside her. But no one had been there, a moment before. Come home, he said, flatly.
If I could tear it out from between my breasts, home—I mean—I would—
Instead, she departed on the morning boat like all the other foreigners. She’d taken—stolen—only their story.
And the next year, still a middle-aged hunter, she abandoned the statues and old churches of France once again, and she traveled to a different island. The farthest one she could find.
Here, the decapitating and bruise-purple sea that had hurt them all, that had swallowed their babies and mothers and wives and hands, had paused. Was full-bellied. Had plenty of new lovers. And its fish were all fat and bloated and fed.
Come, darling, it's all over. Promise.
A tall and firm-footed girl had listened to the animals, returning. To the breeze, sweet as if nothing else had happened. One of the few left and alive, she’d outdistanced the water. And later, she’d made her way down past the broken dishes and mirrors and twisted columns and walls and pieces of pieces. She’d seen the shoes abandoned. The jasmine-scented prayers.
But she'd never seen—a woman who was this color. She wanted to smell her. Taste her. Steal her. Maybe kill her. Surely, she belonged to the ocean. Surely she was a servant of the fish.
The girl had skirted the edges of shadows cast by ruined things, and the sun returned with suffocating heat. When it was dark, she crawled inside the tent where the bleached body lay, its eyes still shut.
A woman—there. The girl fingered the dust where those sandals at the entry had walked.
Word had traveled quickly amongst the survivors. The stranger hadn’t risen from her sheet and mosquito net inside that tent, not for two days, not for three, not for four. And the girl continued to hide in cracks and shades. To finger dust. To fear and to want.
And when her stranger was unceremoniously moved by the survivors—it was to offer her to the hungry sea.
One devil, conquered, they believed. In case there were more to come.
But the girl had a different idea from the rest. She climbed to the copper-colored roof of the only building that had survived the tidal wave. And there, shouting, she showed her truer color to the wasteful sky. Stole its colors. Wore them. Then she demanded bleached wings, and she pretended.
I could love again, she thought. I could be her.
And for awhile…there were no more hunters. Once upon.
Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York city, often lives and writes now in Paris. She is the author of Before the Drought (Glass Lyre Press, 2017) a finalist for the National Poetry Series, Between Soul & Stone, But a Passage in Wilderness, (Sheep Meadow Press,) and Beautiful Soon Enough (Fiction Collective Two.) She is a past recipient of the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her work has appeared internationally, in Plume, Poetry International, New Letters, The Kenyon Review, and many other journals.