Shrines

Date
Text Rain Wright

Elizabeth drove from Hōnaunau to Hilo to find new art, to make shrines of feathers and paper. She needed something to fill a space left empty. Art bled into the place that still talked to her of England and her mother. Lenny came while she was gone. He came for the tree near the redwood Hōnaunau house she lived in with her children, her husband and her two white dogs. The house was built on Lenny’s land. He didn’t know the life in Hōnaunau house. He didn’t know that Elizabeth ran the Kirby vacuum against the yellow carpet, a remnant given to the family by an old friend, almost every morning while the children rushed to get ready for the two-room Seventh Day Adventist School house above Greenwell Park. Lenny didn’t know the garden where Elizabeth grew comfrey, mint, beats, radishes, turnips and long rows of lettuce and tangled vines of tomatoes. He didn’t know that Elizabeth had taken to grinding her own flour in a hand grinder that hung off the purple-painted front steps of the house. He didn’t know that she baked thin sliced tofu covered with Braggs and nutritional yeast. He didn’t know she made grits and collard greens. He didn’t know the old dog bowls that sat outside the front door. He didn’t know the stream that ran fast past the house during the winter when the rains came. Lenny didn’t know that Elizabeth had begun to paint—that she painted on stretched silk, using deep blues, dark greens, and luscious purples while listening to Rachmaninoff and smoking pakalolo. He didn’t know that Elizabeth wanted new art.

Lenny came while she was gone, driving up the thin dirt road near mile marker 108, across from the old barn that some neighbor’s daughter had been born in that led from Māmalahoa Highway up to the mango tree and the redwood house. The road went past the redwood house up to the thick dark wood of Lenny’s house. Lenny had a tree as well. Not a mango tree like the one that sat in Elizabeth’s yard, but an old, twisty thing pushed to the edge of the road—lost in the tangle of overgrown vines. A moss covered ship’s rope and anchor wrapped around the tree near the curve of the road where Lenny’s house sat. Elizabeth’s children climbed on the rope, sat on the anchor, and looked past the tree into the dark smell of the woods. And often they snuck up the road into Lenny’s house when he was gone—gone ’way on the cruise ship where he worked. They hunted when he was gone, searching in the spaces of the stillness of his house for pickles, for candy, for anything that exposed the quiet interior of the man who owned the land they lived on. They found a sunbathing lamp in a back empty bedroom, a thick leather belt hung over the door of the bedroom that had a bed, two leather slippers pushed under the large bed, and a sauna room filled with the smells of salt and old sweat. But they couldn’t find enough. They wanted a reason for the old rope and anchor that tangled around the tree in Lenny’s yard.

He came while Elizabeth built shrines in the art class in Hilo. She sat with Anabel, Sharona, Penelope and Gale—with the women of her art. She worked with the memories of her mother, from the thoughts that never quite left, and from the words of a letter that came in the mail. She worked with these as she shaped the shrine, as she molded, and a woman’s need filled, covered and sang in the room. When she glued the feathers against the sides of the shrines, she did not know that Lenny came for the mango tree. Instead, Elizabeth moved her mother’s lost voice into the spaces of the shrine. She placed the words for keeping into each movement of the feathers. One thousand white birds, she thought, and imagined them all taking flight with her mother’s voice as they left earth silently. No sounds, she thought, it had to be silent when her mother left. Adornment she added, but didn’t hear as the chainsaw came against the bark of the tree that grew over the house she lived in with her family.

Death was there with Elizabeth, and she needed the idea of shrines to take away the cover of death that drifted in the windows of Hōnaunau house. Elizabeth’s mother Constance Sarah Axe—neé, born, once-the-young-girl, once-the-beauty, Castle before Axe—had dropped down dead. Elizabeth couldn’t think of anything else but dead. She sat still for a moment in her art class and let this word settle in and run on repeat until it held no meaning, until she, the woman she knew as herself, held no meaning. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes to hear everything from a world she had known years before—a world that lived in the joints of her body, held onto the sound of trains, held onto the accent of her brother’s young voice, held onto the smell of their house in Dronfield—a world that came out on cold nights and in the presence of death. Dead, she thought, again. Dead mother. Dead, she said just loud enough to hear, dead. Her mother’s death was years after her father, Douglas Axe, who was born in Leicester, worked as a house painter, moved his family to Dronfield, owned a shoe store, lived in a house with his wife and two children, spent vacations in Cornwall, and died from arteries waxed in grease from heavy meats and sauce, died. Elizabeth knew that Constance Sarah never loved anyone after Douglas. Elizabeth knew a widower down the street had visited Constance Sarah a few times, maybe for tea, but Douglas was it—that love thing for Constance. Elizabeth placed this word—love—into the glue that held the shrine in place. There are other deaths. Elizabeth placed these in the grain of the fabric she ran against the edge of the paper and feather shrine, as well. But, but she did not know Lenny had come for the mango tree that grew against the old sky in Hōnaunau.

Elizabeth wished she had slipped the ring on her finger before driving to art class. She was losing memories. She needed every small sign of her past. She knew this. She could not remember how her Grandmother Lydia Martha died, but she had. Elizabeth had one photo of Lydia Martha, a studio type black and white of an unsmiling large-eyed woman wearing black. She let her children look over the photograph on quiet days—days when the silence filled them all, and she knew they could hear the past with her. She let them see the photograph, hoping they would wonder about history. Hoping maybe they would hold the thick-papered photograph a little longer. Hoping maybe her children would lift the old photograph—lift and breathe—and press it against their nostrils for its smell. Hoping, maybe her children would silently wish for the scent of Lydia Martha’s fingers against young Constance Sarah’s cheek as they breathed in the photograph, the memories, and the lost words of Lydia Martha Castle.

Elizabeth hadn’t seen her mother in years. She left England at 19, lived in Greece below the Acropolis for a few years, got raped, traveled to Israel, and traveled to Turkey. In Turkey, she bought a multicolored ring on the long stone steps from a chauvinist Turkish salesman, who leered at her bare legs. In Turkey, she wore the ring and learned of whirling dervishes, a sight of spiritual ecstasy she chased. She chased ecstasy, always. She thought of all this as she built shrines.

Elizabeth thought of her maiden aunt. The aunt named Crystabel. Crystabel who was listed among the women of her dead. Elizabeth thought on the word maiden. She imagined every hand that ever ran against her body. She thought of the hands of young boys in England, the hands of boys in Greece, and the hands of men in New York. The hands of men in California. The hands of a husband in California. The hands of the men in-between, after the divorce—before happiness. She thought of the hands of her husband, Teddy. Elizabeth erased the fingermarks from her skin of every man, one breath, one touch, one caress at a time, so that she could stand with Crystabel in her maiden woman’s single-bed room. She stood as a shadow—transparent—near Crystabel as she undressed slowly, watching her aging body. Crystabel looked away quickly, slipping away from the image of age—of an old woman’s breasts, grayed pubic hair, blue light veins as they interact with blood in her legs, excrescence of thighs, and rounded stomach. Crystabel slipped into her comfortable nightgown, and Elizabeth watched as Crystabel lay down in between tight white sheets, never having known sex. Never knowing the turned-on-belly-deep-pant-of-breath-on-neck-not-caring-of-anything-but-passion of sex that touch brought. Elizabeth sat in the art class in Hilo and closed her eyes with Crystabel as she dreamt in her single bed. But Crystabel had died. Was it years before?

Constance Sarah had died. Elizabeth did not know the exact moment, feel, or looks of death. She left England years, millions of ages before. Why did she leave? The cold? The cold of another nature? Her own desires? The cold? The gray? She can’t remember. She left. They died. She built. She built a life away from her women, these women of death. A life these women could not know. They did not know the Elizabeth of Hōnaunau. Elizabeth thought of her mother’s voice and pressed more feathers into the shrine. Hold the words in place, hold, hold, she thought, because she knew the sound of a mother’s voice is something children miss when a mother dies. Children think of a mother’s hands as well, but the voice is missed most. Elizabeth searched for her mother’s sounds.

She heard the memory of her mother’s voice over the long phone wires as they stretched to England and the people she once knew. She thought of the words she spoke when she told her mother she was marrying Teddy, a black jazz musician from Detroit, who sang at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, who was distantly related to Aretha Franklin. Elizabeth believed she needed this relation, some resemblance of pedigree and history that the English still believed necessary. When Elizabeth spoke to her mother over those thin phone wires, she stopped and let the silence say something as her mother’s words failed to fill the gap between her ear pressed against the phone and her heart that still remembered the family of Dronfield. Elizabeth had waited on the phone line with her mother’s silence before telling her that she was eight months pregnant with Teddy’s daughter, who was to be born on May 15, by planned cesarean section. The cesarean had to be planned because she was forty. The baby had refused to turn head down. She hadn’t told her mother that her new daughter was to be named after the sun, a million ideas of suns and angels—Soleiange. She heard her mother tell her she was no spring chicken and took it enough like love, enough like a mother’s voice saying, be happy, love. She took it like love. She sat in art class and remembered Teddy’s voice on moon-covered evenings when his song reached across the sand and rocked and dipped the rich who visited the coast of the Big Island, but really sang only for her.

Elizabeth thought of her women, these women as she drove home along Hawai‘i Belt road, Māmalahoa Highway, route 11. The tree was killed when Elizabeth built shrines, before she reached home to Hōnaunau house. Lenny cut down the tree that grew above the tin roof, near the avocado tree and the papaya tree. Lenny cut the mango tree to save the tires of the white Cadillac he drove. He said the tree dropped too much fruit, and Teddy couldn’t say much. Lenny owned the land. When Lenny came for the tree, when Elizabeth was away, Teddy told his children to come away, come away from the tree. He couldn’t say much. That is what he said. Said again and again when Elizabeth came home weeping for her tree, for the exposed flesh of the land that sat bare without the overhanging branches. And, her children, those children she knew held quiet places that knew about death, hadn’t known the language that would have saved the mango. They said nothing when Lenny came for the tree.

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