Fire and Water

by James C. Clar


“Molten stone stirred the Hawaiians’ earth. Stone was everywhere: stone of sensual porosity and textures... cindery stone... The great heiau, temples, were fashioned of hundreds of thousands of carefully placed stones. They stood, platforms of magnificence, in long-ago suns — and many still stand, lost in the thickets of today.” — Ed Sheehan

From the moment Tom and Sally Kincaid landed in Kahalui, Maui, Tom at least was struck by the sometimes subtle, sometimes violent contrasts that typified Hawaii. Neither the lush tropical beauty nor the sere, almost lunar landscapes that could be found within minutes of each other corresponded to anything he had experienced back home in New York. Natural splendor competed with the tacky and the tawdry at almost every turn as well.

It may have been the jet-lag, but Tom was convinced that something far more powerful contributed to his initial disorientation. He may not have been able to articulate it precisely, but he sensed at some level that it was the result of the way the land was both ancient and, at the same time, young and chaotic as the first day of creation.

The couple took almost no time to settle in, however. From snorkeling at Molokini to watching the sun rise from the rim of Haleakala Crater they did it all. If asked, however, Sally might very well have admitted that the long walks along the sandy beach at night in the moonlight were her favorite. Although they were celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary, it felt like a second honeymoon to Sally.

For his part, Tom was glad that they had waited to take this “trip of a lifetime.” In their late forties, he felt that they were still young enough to enjoy themselves but old enough now to truly appreciate what they were experiencing. His uneasiness passed quickly in the warm sunshine and soft breezes and Tom found himself becoming curiously in tune with the land, the people and the climate of this remarkable place.

The Kincaid’s next stop was Oahu and the commercial juggernaut that is Waikiki. Despite the crowds and the noise, both Tom and Sally quickly fell in love with the hustle and bustle; a hustle and bustle that, inexplicably, had a softer, more relaxed side than anything New York could offer.

Their love affair with Waikiki and, indeed, the city of Honolulu was such that when Tom suggested they book a one-day, “fly-drive” excursion to the Big Island to view the Aloha State’s only active volcano, Sally was less than enthusiastic. She was concerned about squandering any of what little time they had remaining in the big, cosmopolitan city that nevertheless managed to maintain a small-town feel. A little gentle persuading in the form of a promised trip to Tiffany’s upon their return to Oahu did the trick, however.

Their trip to the Island of Hawaii was magnificent. The only negative was the fact that the entire process took them nearly fifteen hours: from their 5:00 a.m. pick-up at their hotel to their return that same evening around 8:00 pm. Neither could remember ever being so tired. They fell into bed and were asleep immediately.

Around 2:00 a.m., Tom was awakened by the sound of Sally’s labored breathing. “Sally, are you O.K.?” he whispered anxiously as he reached over to check on her. Almost simultaneously he noticed that the sheets were soaked in perspiration and that Sally’s skin felt like she was on fire.

Unable to rouse her, he called the front desk and reported that his wife was in need of a doctor. About forty minutes later, Sally Kincaid was taken by ambulance to the hospital in downtown Honolulu. The Kincaid’s dream vacation had turned into a nightmare.

In the waiting room of the Emergency at Queen’s Medical Center, Tom paced like a caged animal. He was beside himself. If something happened to Sally, he wouldn’t know what to do. The couple never had time for children and, apart from their jobs, their lives revolved around one another.

The doctors had been out to speak with Tom two or three times. The news was not good. Sally was running an outrageously high fever. Its cause was a mystery. So far, neither intravenous antibiotics nor immersion in cold water brought any relief. Sally was still unresponsive. Tom had been allowed in to see his wife only once since she had been admitted.

At 9:30 a.m. Tom was still pacing. He reached into his pocket for some change to buy a soda from one of the vending machines that lined the far wall of the waiting room. He was still wearing the clothes he had on yesterday for their trip to the Big Island.

Instead of spare change, however, what he discovered was a small piece of rough, jet-black rock about the size of a quarter only thicker. It was lava. Tom remembered picking it up as he and Sally wandered the trails around Halemaumau. He had meant to toss it away but must have forgotten.

Suddenly he recalled the words of the park ranger at the Jaggar Museum about the curse of Pele on all who removed lava from the site. He had snickered at the legend and, later, had sneered openly at the mounds of flower petals, candy bars and whiskey bottles left as offerings to the fire goddess at various places overlooking the Kilauea caldera.

Almost without conscious thought, Tom bolted from the waiting room and followed the signs to the hospital gift shop. He bought a small padded mailer and a book of stamps. With the help of the elderly Filipino volunteer at the information desk, he was able to obtain the address for the visitor’s center at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Frantically, he placed the small stone in the mailer, sealed it, affixed far more postage than was necessary and deposited the package in the nearest mail box.

When he returned to the emergency he was greeted by one of Sally’s doctors.

“Mr. Kincaid, we’ve been looking for you. I figured you hadn’t gone far so I waited. Your wife’s fever has broken. It’s a miracle, really. I was honestly afraid that we might lose her.

“You know, sometimes we forget that, in many ways, Hawaii has more in common with the East than it does with the West. Who knows what kind of exotic and, in this case, mercifully short-lived virus she may have picked up. In any event, she’s awake and asking for you. Bear in mind that your wife’s been through hell these past few hours. She’s still very weak.”

Tom couldn’t believe what he had just heard. There were tears in his eyes as he followed the doctor to Sally’s cubicle. Sally’s recovery had to be coincidental. It simply couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that he had begun the process by means of which that damn piece of lava would end up back where it belonged.

Or could it? Part of Tom felt like someone had lifted the veil and that, for the first time, he was seeing things as they really were. There were indeed elemental forces at work in the universe and they were not to be trifled with.

Back at home on the East Coast, those forces were buried, hidden by layers of “civilization” generations deep. Here in Hawaii, however, where destruction and creation proceeded apace, they were right beneath the surface. The seductive, tropical plumage that those powers wore belied their ferocity and inexorability.

Tom Kincaid spent the rest of the day at his wife’s bedside. By 5:00 pm. she had recovered to the point where he felt comfortable returning to their hotel. He showered, went out for something to eat and returned to his room to try and get at least a few hours sleep before returning to the hospital the next morning.

As Tom was straightening up his and Sally’s things from their hurried departure the night before, he began to feel lightheaded, almost dizzy. He reached out to steady himself against a chair. On the back of the chair hung the light blue blouse that Sally had worn during their trip to the Big Island. Tom felt something hard in the pocket of the garment. Digging his fingers into the small opening he pulled out a small piece of lava rock.

Tom Kincaid threw open the door of his room and ran into the hallway. Feeling weaker and weaker with each passing second he made it to the elevator and down to the main floor of the hotel. He rushed through the lobby and out to the crowded street. It was a beautiful evening. The trade winds had picked up and there was a scent of ginger in the air. Tom didn’t notice. He was staggering now like a drunk.

People were looking at him as if he were crazy. He wasn’t crazy. He was the only one who knew the truth. All of our presumed safety and security, our faith in science and technology, were a sham, a façade. Scratch the surface, and chaos lay underneath it all. That’s what he had sensed his first few days in the islands.

In his delirium he noticed a sign stating “beach access.” He turned down a path to his right. He was determined to reach the water and throw the rock Sally had picked up into the ocean. Earth, air, fire and water... weren’t those the spirits worshipped by the ancients? It all made a certain sense. Consigning the rock to the water had to be, Tom reasoned, the next best thing to returning it to the primordial fire that had given it birth.

Tom reached the water’s edge. The moon overhead bathed the gentle surf at his feet with a soft yellow glow. He could hear the palm trees that grew along the beach rustling dryly overhead. He shifted his weight and, with what little strength he had left, flung the rock out into the water.

The lava hit the water well out of sight. Tom felt immediately that balance had been restored, that harmony had returned to the cosmos. Without really being conscious of what he was doing he made his way back to his room, collapsed on his bed, and fell asleep. He didn’t even take off his shoes which were still wet and sandy from the beach.

The Kincaids returned to New York four days later. Sally, who had recovered almost as quickly as she had been stricken, was insistent that they immediately plan a return trip to Hawaii. She was anxious to make up for the time that had been lost due to her mysterious illness.

Tom was not so sure. He had decided not to share with his wife the nature of his discovery. Why burden her with the truth. People were always commenting on what a rough and tumble place New York was; they didn’t have a clue! At least in New York, what you saw was what you got. Tom knew of a place that was even tougher.


Copyright © 2008 by James C. Clar

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