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CALIFORNIA STORY Short Fiction

At the Palace Hotel

February 25, 2007|James D. Houston | Excerpted from "Bird of Another Heaven," a novel by James D. Houston, to be published next month by Knopf.

Four days before he died, the last king of Hawaii spoke into a recording machine while propped up on pillows in his suite at the Palace Hotel. There are two versions of what he said that afternoon and why he said it. The official version, released to papers and soon featured in ads by the Edison General Electric Co. to promote their new device, has been often quoted.

I heard the unofficial version from my grandmother, who heard it from her mother, who happened to be there at the time, a half-Hawaiian woman who in earlier years may have been the king's lover. How she came to be lying next to him in the Palace Hotel on that fateful afternoon has intrigued me for quite a while and is what now compels me to try and get this story told, and the story of her family, which is the story of my family too. Suffice to say that she was then 27, small and buxom, with an erect, aristocratic bearing. She had eyes blacker than obsidian, black hair that fell to cover half her legs, if she wore it loose, and a lifted edge to her upper lip that made the mouth a bit fuller. In the midst of her classic Polynesian features lurked a mystery that had long beguiled the king. Call it the Indian factor. Her father was from Hawaii. Her mother was from a California tribe based north of Sacramento. Coming of age when she did, in the later years of the 19th century, she'd learned to speak several languages. This too appealed to the king, since he saw himself as a cultivated man, a multilingual and pan-Pacific man. Maybe that accounts for some of the distance between him and his wife, Queen Kapiolani, who was a proud and elegant woman, also descended from a line of ruling chiefs. By choice, and as a point of honor in an island realm increasingly controlled by outsiders, the queen spoke only Hawaiian.

King David Kalakaua claimed to be the advocate for all things Hawaiian--the language, the music, the dance, the ancient arts of healing and chanting. Yet he was drawn, in a compulsive and sometimes destructive way, to all things foreign and Western and worldly and new. My great-grandmother, Nani Keala (a.k.a. Nancy Callahan), gave him some of both. As his sometime consort and also a member of the royal entourage, she had learned to dance his favorite dances and sing his favorite songs. In his eyes she was Hawaiian yet foreign, familiar yet exotic.

During his 17 years on the throne his detractors called him promiscuous and dissolute, a man whose addiction to the pleasures of the flesh left him incapable of ruling anything, let alone a mid-Pacific kingdom. In my view this was too harsh a judgment, given the way he'd been trained from youth. At his birth, as was the custom among high-born Hawaiians, a song was composed to celebrate his genitals, to give them a name, and to prophesy what feats they would accomplish later. With this as your infant lullaby (and it was only the first of dozens of songs about his private parts that he would hear at parties and festive occasions throughout his life), what else could anyone expect? As a man of chiefly lineage, it was an inherited duty to display his prowess and spread his seed, and this was a duty he had not shirked. But as of January 1891, as Kalakaua lay in his bed above the muffled flow of trolley cars and carriage traffic along Market Street in downtown San Francisco, those feats were far behind him.

He was 54 and pale, in failing health. His once-commanding eyes had lost their luster. One attending physician said he suffered from a malarial fever. Another said it was an affliction of the kidneys. If pressed, my grandmother would pass on what she once had heard from her mother, who told her that these symptoms had come on too suddenly, that the king's health had been tampered with--a theory that may or may not hold up, depending on whom you talk to. That great-grandmother of mine, I think she had a paranoid streak, which is not uncommon in the Hawaiian Islands. It made her susceptible to conspiracy theories of every type. On the other hand, she was there when these things happened.

The official version goes like this:

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