‘Sharks in the Time of Saviors,’ by Kawai Strong Washburn: An Excerpt

Those nights. You’d come quiet to the side of our bed, still partially tangled in your sheets, swaying, with your hair smeared every direction, sniffling in your breath.

Mama, you’d say, it happened again.

I’d ask what you saw, and you’d start to talk in a spill of images—black fields cracked and empty, cane stalks shooting not from soil but from the chest, arms, eyes of me or your father or your brother or all of us, then a sound like the inside of a wasp hive—and while you talked your eyes were not your own, you were not behind them. You were only seven years old, and the things that were pouring out of you. But after a minute of talking this way you’d come back.

They’re just dreams, I’d tell you, and you’d ask what I was talking about. I’d try to repeat some interpretation of the nightmares—the cane, the reaping of your family, the hives—but you never remembered what you’d just been telling me. It was as if you’d just woken and found yourself in front of me while I told you someone else’s story. The nightmares happened every few months, then every few weeks, then every day.

The sugarcane plantation had been around since before we were born, our whole side of the island shagged with fields of cane, mauka to makai. I’m sure since the beginning people had been talking about the Final Harvest, but it seemed like it would never come: “Hamakua’s always hiring,” your father said, dismissing the rumors with a flap of his wrist. But then, so soon after your nightmares reached their daily cadence, along Mamane came the low of the cane-truck horns, that September afternoon in 1994, and your father was one of the drivers.

If I could be above our town, looking down, I would remember it this way: Into the town came the tractor trailers, many with the chain-link-style beds, empty loops like the ribs of neglected animals, swaying as they made their way past the Salvation Army, past the churches, past the empty storefronts that used to hawk bins of cheap plastic imports, past the high school across from the elementary school, past the football-baseball-soccer field. As the trucks passed, blowing their horns, people left the bank and grocery store and gathered in rows on the sidewalks, or the shoulders of the streets. Even those inside that didn’t come out must have heard the truck horns moaning, the air brakes bleating, the hymn of an industrial funeral. It was the sound of a new emptiness coming. Because they would never be in the fields again, the trucks were polished to a mirror-shine, none of the dirt of work on them, and for all the Filipino-Portuguese-Japanese-Chinese-Hawaiian families that lined the streets, the chrome threw back a slippery quicksilver reflection of their dark-brown faces and the new truth settling there.

We were in that crowd, me, Dean, Kaui, and you. Dean stood still and stiff like a little soldier. His hands were already so big at nine, and I remember the dry sheath of his palm wrapped around my hand. Kaui was drifting in between my legs, the breathy tickle of her hair against my thighs, a few fingers pressing after. You were at my other hand, and unlike the confusion and anger thrumming along Dean’s fingers, his stiff neck, unlike the four-year-old’s dreamy spin of apathy coming from Kaui, you seemed completely at peace.

Only now can I guess what you’d been dreaming about—whose was the death, our bodies or the sugarcane. In the end it didn’t matter. You’d seen the end coming before any of us. That was the second sign. There was a voice inside you, wasn’t there, a voice that was not yours, you were only the throat. The things it knew, and was trying to tell you—tell us—but we didn’t listen, not yet.

[ Return to the review of “Sharks in the Time of Saviors.” ]

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