2009 Short-Story Contest: Third Place Winner
Third-place winner: "Mama's Man"
Published: January 1, 2010
He la koa, he la he`e.
(There is a time to be brave, a time to flee.)
Through the screen door, 14-year-old Kaiulani looked up at the blood-red moon. It seemed to be caught in the distant kiawes. Then the trees' thorning branches quivered in the Kona wind and the moon slipped free.
She shifted her gaze to the banana trees in the backyard. Their long, dry stalks rustled. Her eyes narrowed.
Mama's not here," she shouted into the night. "Mama's not here."
Low clouds had drifted into the valley.
It began to rain.
She turned her attention to her little sister. Noni sat at the kitchen table, an empty cereal bowl in front of her. Kaiulani filled it with crumbled soda crackers and, from a kettle on the kerosene stove, poured hot water over them.
Noni waited until Kaiulani waved a hand over the bowl and said, "Poof! Animal crackers in your soup." Smiling, the younger girl began to eat.
Replacing the kettle, Kaiulani returned to the screen door of the old clapboard house. She watched the moon's reflection ripple across puddles forming in the dirt driveway. Glancing over at the banana clump again, Kaiulani froze.
A Mama's Man stood in front of it, holding up a lantern. Light from it made his wet clothes look like snakeskin.
"Hey there, girl," he called out to her. "Ain't you growed up now."
Wind moaned through a kamani tree beside the house.
Mama's Man moved across the backyard toward her.
Kaiulani reached up, hooked the screen door shut and closed the wooden one behind her. At Noni's side, she pushed away the bowl of crackers and picked up the child. Carrying her sister into the living room, Kaiulani set her down in a rattan chair by the front door.
"What are you doing?" Noni asked.
"Just do as I say." She pointed at Noni in the chair. "Stay right there."
In the kitchen, Kaiulani turned off the overhead light and tiptoed across the darkened room to the back door.
Mama's Man rattled its handle.
"Come on, girl," he pleaded. "Let me in."
Kaiulani backed up, then darted into the living room, pulled Noni out of her chair and eased open the front door.
"Noni, we're going to play hide-and-seek."
"Ssh, don't talk. Don't make a sound," Kaiulani whispered as they crept down the front porch steps. She guided Noni along the side of the house until they came to a hole in the latticework that enclosed the building's crawl space.
"Quick! Under the house,"Kaiulani said.
They squeezed through the narrow opening and scrambled into a far corner. Lying on the damp sandy soil, Kaiulani cradled Noni in her aurms and spoke softly to her.
"Noni, someone is looking for us. We don't want him to find us so we have to be very quiet. Do you understand?"
"Who is he?"
"One of Mama's men."
She felt Noni nod.
Swinging one arm above her, Kaiulani brushed away cobwebs clinging to them. She smelled the gunny sacks of kiawe beans leaning against the back steps. She and Noni had spent all week gathering the rancid yellow pods. They would sell the cattle feed for twenty-five cents a bag and put the money in a Bull Durham tin buried in the backyard. When she had saved enough money, Kaiulani meant to leave this place, and take Noni with her.
The stench under the house, like rotting breadfruit, burned Kaiulani's nose. She pulled the front of Noni's tee shirt over the lower part of her sister's face and hugged her close.
A splinter of light parted the darkness.
Kaiulani pressed Noni to the gounds. She rolled over onto her side and peered out through the latticework half-covered by huge 'ape plants. The elephant-ear-sized leaves flicked back and forth in the night wind.
Mama's Man squatted near the house. With his weight on the balls of his feet and elbows on his knees, the lantern hung between his legs.
Kaiulani held her breath and swallowed a scream rising in her throat.
Mama's Man stood, then walked around the house and stomped up the front steps.
Rolling back to Noni, Kaiulani wrapped her arms around her sister again. "Good girl, Noni," she whispered. "He can't find us. Just be quiet until he's gone."
They could hear Mama's Man walking around above them. Through the thick plank floor, they heard him calling them.
"Hey, little girls, where are you? Come on out. I'll play with you."
Kaiulani's heart thumped wildly. She breathed faster, trying to keep up with it.
More footfalls, then silence.
The rain stopped.
Without warning, a light appeared close to Kaiulani and Noni hidden in the dark.
Kneeling, Mama's Man held his lantern over his head and looked under the house. As they stared out at him, his voice slit open the night.
"Honey girls. Sweet, sweet honey girls." Moth-laden words, soft and feathery. "You're hiding under the house, aren't you?"
Kaiulani put a finger against her sister's lips. "Stay here," she whispered, "until I come back."
She crawled to the opening in the latticework and pulled herself through. Slipping on the wet grass, she raced to the dilapidated shed in the backyard. She snatched a machete hanging by the door and yelled at Mama's Man as he came around the corner of the house.
"Here's your honey girl, mister! Here's your sweet, sweet honey girls!"
Clutching his lantern, Mama's Man stumbled after Kaiulani as she ran for cover in the windbreak of ironwoods beyond the banana trees. Over the drumbeat of her heart, she heard him panting as he entered the grove behind her.
Ragged clouds, torn apart by the Kona wind, shrouded the moon. A pueo swooped by, the owl breaking the mantle of silence with its hug wings.
Kaiulani crouched in a thicket of giant ferns, the machete beside her. The thin fishbone-like spines of the hapu`u fronds had scratched her bare arms and legs as she burrowed through them.
Now, she watched and waited.
Holding his lantern high, Mama's Man appeared in a gap in the ironwoods. Low, rangy branches, whipped by the wind, thrashed the ground around him.
Kaiulani glanced down and raked her fingers through the slimy leaves around her until she found the wooden handle of the machete again. When she looked up, Mam's Man stood in front of the tangled mass of ferns. He set his lantern down and parted the stalks nearest her. At first, he didn't see her hunkered there. Then, the patch of clouds covering the moon blew away. Moonlight pushed down the darkness and lighted up the night.
Their eyes met.
Kaiulani felt the flatness of his stare, the nothingness of him. He looked like all the Mama's men she had ever seen. She inched back into the foliage, dragging the machete.
Mama's Man reached for her.
"Kaiulani?" Noni's voice echoed through the trees as she came toward them. "Kaiulani, where are you?"
Mama's Man straightened up and turned.
Noni halted, leaned forward and peered at him.
"Are you one of Mama's men?" she asked.
He nodded and stepped toward her.
Kaiulani sprang out of the ferns and rushed at him.
Mama's Man spun around.
"Run, Noni, run!" Kaiulani shouted. She stopped within striking distance of him, the machete raised over her head.
Mama's Man didn't move. Then, he expelled a thousand sighs in one whiskey breath. Shoulders sagging, he staggered off through the underbelly of the grove.
Noni ran to her sister's side.
"Don't worry, Noni," Kaiulani said as she dropped the machete. "That Mama's Man won't be back." She grasped the wire loop on top of the lantern with one hand.
Far off, a mudhen cried, the rare sound foreboding.
Kaiulani bent over and picked up the machete with her other hand.
--Posted Jan. 1, 2010