SUMMER/AUTUMN 2015 / VOL 15 ISSUE 2
Books

Lepers

By Terry Coffman
 

The voyage across the Indian Ocean was uneventful. From Indonesia they caught a French freighter destined for Tahiti. During the weeks they sailed on the ocean, MacCumber regaled Maka and Sundar with stories about the heroes of Virginia and the brave Confederate men who fought at the battle of Gettysburg. When MacCumber told them about the Cherokee Indians, they were excited to learn people like them lived in America. MacCumber wrote that Sundar asked a funny question, "Are they Hindus or Muslims?"

My friend believed there was money remaining in his motherís estate, so he wired home for funds. He had been in India for eight years, much of the time secluded in the ashram of Gurdaspur or with the Sisters in Calcutta. He was out of touch with the world, and the world was out of touch with him. He was unaware of the stock market crash or even the beginnings of the Great Depression. World events did not exist in the ashram. 

Along with all the goods and materials being shipped to the Polynesian Islands were stacks of French newspapers. On the second day at sea he saw the headline Riot: Gandhi Survives Attack. The article described how four French nuns were killed along with several followers of Gandhi. An unknown assassin murdered Ramacharaka. 

MacCumber vomited. For days my friend was unable to get out of bed. He would not, or could not, eat or pray. It was Maka who brought Jonathan back to life. The boy curled up with him and would not leave his adopted fatherís side. 

They reached Papeete, Tahiti, on the 17th of June 1936. When the ship docked, MacCumber only had a few small bank notes in his pocket, most of the French francs being spent for the passage to the Polynesian island. He had hoped to be able to secure a place for them on the next American vessel sailing for the States, but without money this was no longer possible. Jonathan quickly grasped the dire circumstances in which he found himself; without money, he would have to find employment on the island.

With this realization, MacCumber went to register himself, Riji, and the children at the French immigration station. As Jonathan approached the small, whitewashed building, he noticed the many warehouses and bars surrounding the station. Dockhands and shady characters seemed to infest the area. As they entered the official building, Jonathan put his arms around Riji and the children. They stood in line waiting to present their papers. When it was their turn, a stern looking official greeted them. Jonathan described him as a man born to be a bureaucrat. The official began interrogating my friend and Jonathan realized he could not be honest regarding Riji and her boys. The Frenchman was impressed with Jonathanís American passport, commenting, "We donít get many Americans here and especially ones who speak French as fluently as you do, monsieur." 

Maybe it was my friendís language skills that bamboozled the official, as he told him in perfect French, "My wife and children are refugees from Viet Nam and their papers are being sent here from the French consulate in Hanoi." 

Riji lowered her head, and in her native language, whispered to her children to remain silent. They did not look like Southeast Asians. Their skin was dark, almost like a Negroís. They could not speak Vietnamese, or, for that matter, French. She prayed the immigration agent would not ask her a question. Instead, the official bent down and asked Sundar in French. "Petit Garson, vous pourrez profiter de nos plages, mais vous devez faire attention aux serpents et les rats." (Little man, you can enjoy our beaches, but you have to watch out for snakes and rats).

Sundar smiled; he didnít know how else to respond, he did not speak French. Jonathan began to sweat. Because Viet Nam, known in those days as Indochina, was a French colony, most Vietnamese could converse in French. My friend replied to the officer. "He is shy, but as you can see, he is happy about the beaches and not worried about snakes or rats. Cobras were common in Vietnam. My adopted children are used to snakes."

The immigration official stood up and reached out towards Maka. The child was covered head to toe in a shawl. Jonathan knew that if the man saw Makaís face he would deny the family entrance to Tahiti. MacCumber quickly blocked the Frenchmanís hand saying, "My boy is exhausted and sleeping, please, the sunlight will wake him. You know how it is with children, they cry at the slightest interruption."

According to Jonathan the agent responded by saying, "I just want to make sure you are not bringing a monkey to our island."

Jonathan told me that he was gripped with fear, but within a few seconds, the agent started laughing. He stamped MacCumberís passport and gave temporary visas to Riji and the children. My friend took a deep breath. The agent did not leaf through his passport. If he had, he would have found out that MacCumber had never set foot in Vietnam. Recovering his composure, MacCumber asked the immigration agent where he might go to inquire about finding a job. The official answered, "Are you looking for something in banking, a position as a lawyer or maybe you are seeking to buy a business?" Jonathan replied that he was thinking about something far less stressful, a job working outside would be his preference. The agent asked why my friend would want to work in this tropical heat. He made a smug statement that Jonathan didnít look like a laboring sort of man.

Jonathan began to formulate a lie that would be acceptable to the immigration official, but the French officer turned away to confront several sailors coming off the ship. They appeared to be drunk. There was a great deal of shouting, and, in the melee, the official waved MacCumber and his purported family on. They left the building and walked a short way along the dirt street.

A small Asian man stepped from the shadow of a nearby warehouse and approached my friend saying that he had overhead the conversation between Jonathan and the immigration agent and that he could be of assistance regarding work on the Island. The man suggested they move to a quieter location. He was Asian and spoke French, but not English. He led Jonathan to a nearby bridge under which small boats moved between the harbor and the city. He suggested Riji and the children sit along the bank so the children could watch the boats go by while he and my friend talked. He led Jonathan up the bridge. Laborers streamed across in both directions, their pushcarts filled with papaya, breadfruit, coconuts, Tahitian vanilla and hibiscus flowers. The Asian fellow guided Jonathan to the pedestrian walkway; as they strolled along he pointed out areas of the city and jungle and mountains as if he were a tour guide. At the highest point of the bridge, and out of earshot from passerbyís, he stopped and turned to Jonathan and said that Riji and her children were not Vietnamese. "The shape of their eyes is wrong," he said. "I am Laotian and come from a small village called Luang Nam. My mother was Vietnamese and my father Lao, so I know about the shape of an eye, the color of skin and the physical size of our people in Southeast Asia. You have lied to the authorities about your family."Jonathan asked if he was an official of some sort. The man laughed, then his face changed to seriousness. "While you were talking to the immigration agent, the wind caught the blanket that covered the childís face. Your wife was quick enough to cover your boy back up, but not before I saw the tip of his nose. It was black and his ear was missing. Your son is a leper."

It was at that moment that MacCumber thought all was lost, that they were about to be arrested and returned to India. Jonathan wrote that he was suspicious and frightened by the man. Was the manís motive nefarious, or was he an angel? I suppose the Asian fellow sensed panic in my friend. He told MacCumber that he was not a gendarme or informer. He introduced himself as Nguyen Van Cam and assured Jonathan that his conspiracy to fool the stupid Frenchman was safe.

Van Cam asked why MacCumber and his family had come to Tahiti. He wanted the truth. Jonathan sensed the man was not a threat to him, Riji, or the children. He also remembered the comment of Ramacharaka that most men want to help, not harm, and that if you trust, justice will prevail. My friend divulged most of the important details of his time with Gandhi and Sister Borgia; he also shared details of his journeys with Ramacharaka. He included Gandhiís battle with the snake, the cruelty of Rijiís husband, the knife fight and the escape from India.

Jonathan decided he would be in a better stead by telling van Cam that he had lived in Siam. Jonathan knew the place in Laos where Van Cam was from. The hill tribe people traveled between both Chiang Rai and Nam Ha in Laos. "I used to catch snakes there." Jonathan said. Van Cam took my friendís arm, pushed the sleeve up, and took a deep breath. The tattoo of Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, with its roots entwined with cobras, caused van Cam to fall to his knees. With tears in his eyes he said, "I know of you, you are the white farang cobra catcher. You are a legend. The hill people of my country tell many stories of your magic with the snake." Jonathan told his new-found friend he was not magic and no legend. He asked to remain anonymous. 

Van Cam said he would protect them. But to do so, he would require that his reputation as a cruel landowner be maintained. He warned that it would appear to others that, "I treat you as scum. The illusion," he said, "will keep you safe." 

Because Maka was a leper, Van Cam quarantined the family to an area of the island surrounded by a high, sharp, wire fence. They would have to endure living in a crude hut secluded far from the other company workers. As MacCumber was white skinned and healthy, he could work as a grade one laborer in the fields. Only 10% of the workforce had such a designation. The special status provided respect from the other workers and would keep my friend and his family safe. 

Van Cam understood MacCumberís predicament, and the danger that could face his hidden tenants if discovered. Not only would my friend and his Indian family be hacked to pieces and burned, so would Van Cam and his family. 

Van Cam told MacCumber his reason for keeping the family safe. Long ago he had a vision that never left his memory. He said it was unlike any dream he had ever experienced before. He felt it was a premonition. In this dream there was a deformed child speaking to him. The boy had an aura of golden light emitting from his head. He told Van Cam that he was soon to come into the world. Van Cam asked where he was coming from and the strange child said, "From the Hall of Souls."

Van Cam said there was a Catholic priest on one side of the boy, and on the other, a Polynesian warrior. Bowls of fruit were laid out before him and an organ played angelic music. The childís eyes were the color of a peacockís blue feather. The boy beckoned Van Cam to come close, but he backed away from the smell of death. The boy reached for his hand and drew Van Cam close. The strange boy whispered into the manís ear, "Help me die." In his dream, Van Cam refused. 

Suddenly, the boyís voice came out of his own navel and changed its tone and pitch to that of an old man. "You must do this so that I can bring the next stage of enlightenment to humankind." Van Cam told the boy the world was wicked and there was no place for wisdom to reside. The voice said, "Just as the lotus can exist in muddy water without being soiled, so wisdom can exist in an impure world without becoming contaminated." Van Cam said the boy handed him a knife, opened his shirt and asked Van Cam to release his soul. At that point, the dream stopped. Van Cam told my friend, "A dream can end, but visions remain etched in the mind." 

Van Cam owned hundreds of acres of fertile land on which he grew vanilla beans. For almost three months my friend picked vanilla beans. It was backbreaking, heavy work that started before sunrise and ended at dusk. The Tahitian heat was almost unbearable and MacCumberís cream-colored skin blistered under the intense sunlight. Most days Jonathan picked vanilla and carried sacks weighing 100 pounds each from the growing fields to the wash station at the vanilla mill. He returned to his adopted family exhausted. 

Riji hid in the tar-papered hut with Sundar and Maka. Her job was to place the whole, raw beans in the burlap bags that Jonathan secretly brought home each night. In the morning, Riji poured the dayís crop on cutting boards. Using a dangerously sharp knife, she trimmed off the ends of the husks and sliced the remaining casings down the center. Next, she forced open the husks to expose the seeds inside. The children stuffed the aromatic seeds into wooden kegs. At the end of the day they gathered the discarded shells left on the floor and at dusk threw the refuse into a wheelbarrow for Jonathan to take outside and dump on a nearby coconut field.

The kegs crammed the hut, leaving only enough floor space for the family to lay out their grass sleeping mats. Meals were mostly fruit and served on top of one of the 40 barrels that shared the shack with the rats and the family. Jonathan said the intense odor was sickening; often Sundar and Riji would vomit violently from the smell. The children were not allowed outside to play, they could not make noise, nor do any of the things children love to do. Under cover of night Riji would empty the shit pot she kept inside for Maka and Sundar. She never hung the childrenís damp clothes on the line to dry. 

Jonathan had no idea how distressed the children were. Even though the children were often sick, Riji tried to hide their illness from Jonathan. My friend almost always returned from the mill late at night, long after Maka and Sundar had fallen asleep. Riji did her best to hide her childrenís woes and her own despair from MacCumber. The light of a single candle was not enough to reveal Rijiís bloodshot eyes or the childrenís tears. 

Increasingly worried that someone would discover the leper child, Van Cam covertly engaged George Martin, the American State Department official on the island, to devise a get-away plan for MacCumber, Riji and her children. Van Cam told MacCumber about the meeting, saying, "We must get the boy safely off the island." Jonathan concurred. 

Martin met Jonathan at an obscure location that Van Cam used for clandestine activities. The first question the American officer asked my friend was if he possessed a certificate of marriage to Riji.

Jonathan told him they were not wedded, that Riji had been married to a recently deceased Indian physician from Calcutta. He explained how brutal Rijiís husband was, how he disowned Maka and burned Riji by throwing scalding hot cooking oil on her.

"Did you kill him?"

"Of course not. I was her teacher. I fell in love with her and the children. Iím not Hindu, so we could not marry. If we had not fled India there would have been little hope for her or the children."

George Martin told MacCumber his options were limited. The law was clear, an American citizen and a foreign national must be legally married before the spouse can enter the United States. Martin told my friend that he and Riji would have to lie on the passport applications. 

"You can be the truthful man you say you are, but if you donít lie to the bureaucrats, Riji and her children are doomed. Tell a lie, and Satan will rejoice."

My friend told the American official, "If Satan exists, then let him celebrate into the night. God is love, it is love that compels me."

"What I have to do is not sinful to God."

Martin thought for a moment, and then replied. "I am Catholic; my church would not agree with your interpretation, but I donít always concur with my religion."

Mac replied. "I was once a Catholic, now I am a Buddhist. We worship the same God. The difference is that my religion is not so presumptuous as to interpret what is in Godís mind." 

He said he would prepare and approve the necessary documents for MacCumber and his family to leave Tahiti. However, because of Makaís health, they would not be admitted to the United States. Instead, arrangements would be made for them to go to the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. If Rijiís son was cured, the governor there could approve the familyís is return to Jonathanís home state of Virginia. 

Because Martin had been an admiral in the US Navy and was the American official on the island, he was able to arrange a Navy ship, cruising its way through the Pacific, to divert to Tahiti. From there the ship sailed on to its base in Hawaii with Riji, Jonathan and the two children aboard.

For the entire voyage Maka and his mother stayed confined in their small room below deck. While the commander of the warship knew of Makaís disease, he could not confide in the first mate or his most trusted lieutenant. If Rijiís son had been discovered as a leper, the shipís commander most likely would have been forced by the crew to turn portside and return to Tahiti, or worse, set anchor in the waters near an uninhabited atoll island and put ashore with the entire family. 

Jonathan brought the boy and his mother meals each day. He taught the Maka to use a typewriter and showed him how to play the penny whistle. Surprisingly, in spite of his missing digits, Maka was able to master both. But still, the days were long, sometimes unbearably long. The only way Maka could view the sea was from the tiny sealed shut steel encased glass porthole window. All that was visible was the moon, the stars and the sun. Occasionally, he caught a short glimpse of a seagull; once he was lucky to spot what he thought was a whale. But most days it was just green seas under grey skies and the ocean spray sliding down the glass window of the porthole.

Maka filled his day with prayers and looking out the porthole. The sea was his mantra. Riji took away his boredom by reading to him. His favorite books were Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. Maka believed the place where they were going, called Molokai, was an island where his family could all live together like the Swiss Family Robinsons. He imagined, that on this island, he would find acceptance, and maybe even a miracle that would cure him.

Sundar entertained himself by befriending the commander of the ship. Commander Jack Don taught the boy how to read charts and use a sextant. Sundar was allowed to sit on the seats of the big guns and pretend he was shooting down enemy planes. For a boy, it was an adventure. Sometimes heíd go down into the heat of the engine room and help the firemen shovel coal into the huge furnaces creating the steam that made the pistons roar.

Finally, after almost a month at sea, the USS Oklahoma set anchor in Waipahu Bay at the navel station on the Island of Oahu. The crew completed all the necessary steps to secure the ship, and a half hour later the sailors scrambled down the gangplank heading for the bars, girlfriends or, comfortable bed at the navel base. Alone on deck, MacCumber and Sundar watched as the crew quickly disappeared. Once it was safe for Commander Jack, as Sundar called him, to go below and bring Maka and his mother up from where they had hid for twenty-nine days, the commander wished them good luck and handed my friend fifty crisp dollar bills. Jonathan thanked him for the money and all the kindness the commander had shown to his family. Jonathan gathered the few possessions they had, lifted Maka into his motherís arms and then took Sundarís hand and the four stowaways descended the long steel walkway that led to the wharf. The Commander followed behind them. They were about to embark on a new life. Soon they would be under the protection of the American leper colony, but as MacCumber and his family approached the exit gate near where the ship had docked, two marines blocked their way. They snapped the bolts of their rifles and crossed their weapons to bar the family from setting foot on shore and ordered them to return to the ship. Commander Don stepped up and ordered the shore patrolmen to stand down. They complied. MacCumber and his family, plus the officer, proceeded to a small docking area where a patrol boat was waiting to take them to the leper colony. The patrol boat lieutenant told Jonathanís family to sit on the steel deck at the stern of his vessel. The officer handed MacCumber wool blankets and ordered him to wrap the children in them. The commander of the war ship saluted the lieutenant and, in an instant, the loud rumble of the boatís engines kicked in. The boat moved away from the dock, turned towards the bay and roared towards open waters.

That night, under the cover of darkness, the patrol boat landed at Kaunakakai on the island of Molokai. The family was hurried off the vessel. A truck was waiting for them. A large, bronze-skinned Hawaiian man told them to lie down on the bed of the truck. He covered the family with a tarp, telling them to make sure to stay put and not make a sound. The truck and its cargo of quarantined passengers traveled inland. MacCumber could tell from the shifting of gears and the sliding of their bodies across the truck bed that they were climbing upwards into the mountains. After an hour or so the truck stopped. MacCumber could hear the driver talking with someone, but he could not make out what they were saying. When the conversation stopped, he heard footsteps heading for the back of the truck. Without warning, the tarp was thrown back. The abrupt rush of daylight awoke Rijikari and the children.

MacCumber looked around to see a dense tropical forest wrapped in fog. There was a man standing nearby holding the reins of four mules. The Hawaiian pointed a revolver at Jonathan and demanded money. He flicked his wrist and pointed his weapon toward the man who was holding the reins of the pack animals. The so-called rescuer snarled and said, "You owe me a ransom for your freedom. I want money and I want it now! If you donít pay, I shoot the children and then behead your wife. After that, I cut your balls off and toss you over the edge of this cliff. The choice is yours, itís either a brutal death up here or you can rot with the rest of the mongrels below. Either way, youíre going to die." 

MacCumber reached in his pocket and pulled out all the money he had. Suddenly Maka began to cough violently and the Hawaiian stiffened with fear. As Maka shook, the wool cover fell to the ground, revealing his corroded face. Looking away, the driver spat on the ground. He grabbed the money and turned to open the door of the truck, saying to the mule master, "Take these fools to their graveyard!" 

The mule man motioned for MacCumberís family to join him. He helped them climb up onto the mules. "Aloha, my name is Robert, I am the only one allowed to travel back and forth between the colony and the Puunana Mountains. We will follow the wild-goat trails to the leper colony in Kalawao. It is a treacherous journey; so donít dismount the mules. They are surefooted. You are not!"

As they approached the edge of the cliff, MacCumber could see a great abyss. At the bottom of what must have been a thousand foot drop was a large valley. In the distance he could see a lighthouse and the endless sea beyond. They began their descent along a gorge teeming with flowering orchids. Black and brown goats danced on the crags beside them. The valley was a natural prison, surrounded on three sides by sea cliffs draped in lush tropical vegetation. The plain of the valley stretched from the volcanic headland to the foaming Pacific Ocean. Only a skilled mountaineer who knew the goat trails could climb the treacherous crags. A crippled leper would never be able to drag his deformed body from the valley below.

The mules were sure-footed, their guide as nimble as the goats that jumped over the rocks of the mountain cliffs. MacCumber asked him about the colony and the famous priest who resided there...Father Damien. 

"He died long ago. My father knew him. He was a great man, died of leprosy himself. He built the church, the school and most of the leper cottages. He was the only white man who would touch the lepers. The other priests and doctors were afraid of the disease. They would leave the medicines on the lepersí porches so they would not have to enter their houses. In the old days, when the doctors would treat a leperís sores, they would use a stick or cane to remove the bandages."

The mule master stopped for a moment at one of the many switchbacks to clean the mud from his boots. As they began to move downward again, he continued, "The white landowners and island officials brought the lepers here almost eighty years ago. They were rounded up from the other islands at gunpoint and brought to Molokai. The captains of the ships were afraid to land on the island so they forced the lepers into the surf to swim ashore. Only half of the poor souls made it to land." 

"In Damienís day, there were four hundred lepers living here. Now there are less than 200. Over time the American government sent people here from all across the states. Sadly, many were not infected with leprosy and simply had the pox, or other skin ailments, and inexperienced doctors removed them from their homes, sending them here. They lost everything, including their freedom, because of fear and ignorance." 

"If you ask the people on the Big Island what they think about the colony, they will tell you itís not such a bad place because the missionaries take care of the lepers. The lepers have plenty of food and live in nice white houses on the beach. I believe no matter how good it sounds, the lepers have lost their freedom and it is a horrible injustice to be imprisoned when they have not committed a crime."

MacCumber replied, "India has lived with the disease for over two thousand years, and the lepers are not forced to live separately from the general population." 

The mule driver nodded and went on to explain, "Crooked white foreigners wanted the rich soil for their sugar and pineapple plantations. The bastards stole the Hawaiiansí land. Sometimes the people traded their property for a keg of rum. All that land, and the native people never received a dollar for it, and if thatís not bad enough, the white landowners then employed them to work on the estates for slave wages. The landlords also brought workers in from China; it was through them that the sickness came. The white preachers who brought their God to Hawaii said the disease was because the people were living in sin, that God was punishing them for making love freely. The new settlers and politicians supported the zealots because it made it easy to steal land from islanders." 

"The lepers on Molokai didnít sin. Iíll tell you who the evil ones were. They were the men who brought the rum and the coolie workers, those puritan fanatics who subverted the word of the Almighty. God wants man to eliminate the lepersí suffering, not eliminate the lepers."

"In the old days, long before the thieving landowners spoiled the waters and cut down the papayas, the Hawaiians lived off the fish in the lagoons, and the fruit in the trees, and the taro patches. They were a peaceful and caring people. They worshipped a benevolent god and the people lived in harmony with the earth and its creator. Why do white men spoil the earth and destroy the native people? Donít they have enough? Why do they need more?" 

After 5 hours of perilous descent, they reached the bottom of the cliff and stood on the floor of the valley. MacCumber looked up and saw they had traversed an almost sheer drop of over a thousand feet. He counted more than twenty switchbacks, five waterfalls, thirty goats and a myriad of caves. 

As they approached the village, children came out of the cottages to see Robert and the tall white man with his three companions. They were fascinated to see the dark skinned Indian family. The MacCumbers were directed to a small church where they met a priest. Once inside, MacCumber explained their plight. The clergyman agreed to accept Rijiís son into the community, but he said the rest of the family could not stay. Apologizing, the priest explained, "You see, my son, the colony can only afford to support those who have the disease. While we believe it would be better to have families together, the government says no. The cost of subsidies to family members free of the disease is too expensive." 

MacCumber knew Riji would never consent to leaving Maka. It would be too painful for her to bear. MacCumber pleadingly asked the priest, "Is there any kind of work we could do that would allow us to stay? My wife is very talented and good with children. I am strong and can work in the fields. I can help with construction, or even teach."

"Well, sir, with a good Irish sounding name like MacCumber, may I assume you are Catholic?" MacCumber was Scottish. Scotts by nature are not deceptive, but with pragmatic ease wrought from his experience in Tahiti, MacCumber lied by assuring him that he was. "We can use a teacher. Last year Mister Dutton, who ran the school, passed away. I am willing to give you a try if youíre up to the challenge." 

The next day MacCumber was introduced to five boys and eight girls, all of different ages. Each child was a sad caricature of a human being. Some had hands that were more like claws. Most of them had foul breath and their bodies exuded the putrid odor of rotting flesh. He saw a young man whose ear hung to his shoulder and flapped in the breeze like Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of the Hindus.

For six months MacCumber lived among the lepers. Makaís health was deteriorating daily. MacCumber and Riji watched in horror as his body wasted away. The doctor told them it was only a question of time before theyíd lose the boy. Infection settled into his lungs. MacCumber had witnessed death before, but he was not prepared to watch a child die.

As his fever raged, MacCumber could see fear in the young boyís eyes. Maka knew something was coming for him, but what? The boy knew nothing of death; he had never witnessed it. When he looked at MacCumber there was intensity in his stare, a pleading for help, but my friend was unable to fend off the unrelenting onslaught of death.

In the final hours of his agony, quietness settled over the boy. Maka began his passage with a smile. He squeezed his motherís hand. He looked at MacCumber and whispered, "Remember Ayutthaya. Remember the serpent. Remember the bees. They are all waiting for you. It is time for you to go home." 

Jonathan was stunned. At first, my friend did not believe what he heard. Was it a trick of MacCumberís mind, or was it the soul of Avalokite?vara, the bodhisattva of compassion who had come to carry the soul of Maka to Nirvana, and for one last precious moment revealed the path my friend should take.

There was a service for Maka in the church Father Damien had built. The mysterious harmonic pitch of the lepersí voices rose over the valley. Their voices merged to create a mixture of low base humming sounds combined with high pitch wailing. MacCumber watched two lepers playing the organ. With only one thumb and eight working fingers between them they touched the keys with four hands working as two.

The next morning MacCumber awakened to whispering in his mind. Not a voice, not a sound; it was the vibration of knowingness that told him to climb the sea cliff with the bundle of letters from the princess of Siam. 

As he held each one of Kaewís letters close to his chest, the shadows of seagulls fell across his face. He thought about throwing the envelopes into the wind, letting each one flutter into the bay where they might drift to Lanai or Maui, maybe even back to India, or all the way down to Siam. Could the seabirds capture them and return her words to Ayutthaya? 

It may have been the humidity or the perspiration on his fingertips that caused the flap of one of the envelopes to peel back. His thumb caressed the edge of the writing paper and gently eased the vellum from the cream-colored shroud of the envelope. Each finely crafted serif formed words that fell from the smooth paper surface into his wounded heart.

Jonathan, 

I am waiting for you under the lemon tree. A monk comes each day and brings me a bowl of rice and sweet water. He smiles, smells of lemongrass, and says few words. The monk tells me that one does not need to climb the mountain to see into the valley. 

All things to be seen, he says, can be found in a simple shared bowl of rice. Jonathan, if you look into the rice bowl, you will find me and all those you have ever loved.

Kaew

In his last letter from the leper colony, Jonathan wrote, "I am leaving Molokai. Riji has chosen to remain behind. My heart is shattered. Riji will not leave Maka alone on this isolated island. She believes she has to remain here to watch over his grave. If I were a decent man I would not leave." 

MacCumber was captured in an impossible quandary. Riji asked Jonathan to take Sundar back to Virginia with him, knowing that she might never again set eyes on her precious son. She would not see Sundar grow into manhood, never meet his future wife or ever be the grandmother who would rock her grandchildren to sleep.

Mac fantasized that someday he would return to Molokai, but deep inside he knew better. He kissed her. It was a last kiss, the kind that has nothing to do with physical presence. It was a goodbye kiss, a caress of lips and deep love. The kind of kiss a man gives his wife and his first newborn child. A kiss of happiness... A kiss of sadness... A kiss of dreams for what had been...A kiss for what could have been...A kiss always remembered.


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