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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.

Kalakaua nodded, as if untroubled by this request. He waved to his physician--a tall, imposing fellow with muttonchops and military eyes--who propped him up again, while a happy Mr. Glass replaced the first wax cylinder with a fresh one.

"Now?" said the king.

"Whenever you're ready."

There was new life in Kalakaua's voice, new blood brought color to his face. "Aloha kaua," he said again, and then continued, speaking with an eloquence that seemed uncanny coming from such a frail and fevered body. Between the first and second takes something had shifted, as if that little rehearsal had cleared his mind, cleared his heart and set his spirit free. Glass was waving a hand back and forth, signaling "No! No!" as he mouthed the word "English!," shouting in silent pantomime. But the king ignored him. He was almost his old self, speaking the poetic Hawaiian he'd been schooled in from youth.

Had he never ascended to the throne, Kalakaua would have been famous as a musician and composer. He'd composed dozens of songs, some of which are still performed today, songs that were also poems filled with imagery and layers of meaning. The trained Hawaiian poets were skilled in telling stories, painting word pictures that could mean three or four things at once. A song in praise of seaweed swirling at the water's edge might also refer to your girlfriend's pubic hair, and at the same time mock the reputation of a rival chief.

From his sickbed the king was composing on the spot, speaking in a poetic code that would be understood by all his people back home, but was entirely lost upon Mr. Glass, who hailed from Maryland. It was lost on the attending physician, a career naval officer assigned to the USS Charleston, then anchored in San Francisco Bay. The king's chamberlain was on this day confined to separate quarters across the hall, fighting a fever of his own. And the chamberlain's assistant, his aide-de-camp, had heard a knocking at the door just as the king began to speak again. Having witnessed the first feeble message, he took this all to be a harmless exercise and so stepped out into the corridor.

The only one present who could follow the words being etched in wax that afternoon was my great-grandmother, under the covers, waiting for him to lie back down so she could place her hands upon his chest and upon his liver.

She practiced a form of passive massage whereby the hands and arms become conduits of soothing, healing heat. In years past it had been one of the games they played, as her hands touched first the pinched shoulder or the aching neck, then slid down to deal with other aches.

But on this day he craved her warmth alone, believing that the heat of her hands might counteract the heat of his fever. She believed this too. She knew every inch of his body, and her hands told her it was not too late, that this sickness could still be cured. On her, none of his poetry was lost.

He was speaking now of sea birds and the many colors of the sea and large canoes arriving from afar. They sail toward a wide river of orange lava pouring down a mountainside to spill into the coastal surge. The lava roars with the deep-throated voice of the fire goddess. Where it meets the water, billows of steam swell up like fog and cause the canoes to lose their way. These are large vessels with many sails and so heavily armed they are difficult to steer. One by one they founder on the reefs, while out of the cloud-white steam appears an outrigger canoe bearing a single paddler with arms so strong he seems to fly across the sea.

For two minutes he spoke like this, seeming to gain in volume and urgency, and would have gone on but the stylus, with a scratchy warning, had reached the end of the cylinder.

Mr. Glass clasped his hands in front of his vest, trying to contain his exasperation.

"I'm deeply indebted, Your Majesty. You have been most generous with your time . . . "

"Is it finished?"

"Yes. I only brought two cylinders."

"And what happened to my voice? Is it now inside the box?"

"It is here, embedded in these grooves."

"Ah. Well then, meet my companion, Nani Keala. We are both quite eager to hear what I sound like."

Glass adjusted the playback stylus, attached another flex hose, with ear tubes, and passed these to the king, who listened devoutly, inclining his head like a priest at prayer. He passed the tubes to my great-grandmother, who heard the distant, tinny syllables coming toward her as if from another part of the hotel--not at all the voice she'd just heard filling the room, and yet somehow it spoke the same words, made the same pictures. The faraway place it came from was not somewhere down the corridor. It was from another time. This was the Kalakaua of 10 years ago, the one she'd fallen for. Her eyes glistened with tears.

The king said, "What's the matter, Nani?"

"Everyone should hear this."

"Yes . . . yes, this is my hope. Mr. Glass, can you make it louder?"

"One day perhaps. Alas, not yet."

"No matter. I will take the cylinder with me."

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