From BAMBOO RIDGE Issue Number 17, December 1982 – February 1983, New Moon

Watching Fire
                    by Mary Wakayama

           Must have been '52. On New Year's Eve when Sparky Takahashi was maybe twelve, and I was nine, he set the canefield on fire at the H.S.P.A. That means the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association which is all gone from Makiki now. Finally.
          Spark had a lot of impetigo over his dark, skinny legs and arms. He sported one wild popeye and plenty of hair, short but thick. When the cane was blazing, something which the lane kids never expected since it was mostly green, he showed us he could run like hell.
          Siren and all, the police came right away to Makiki Court. It was off Makiki Street, in the lower valley, the little lane running down the middle of about a dozen plantation bungalows and winding up to one big, carved-up mansion in the back by the wooden garage shed. Our gang led the way, but the officers already knew where Spark lived. They rapped on the screen door of his house. Turned out they were the two heavy-set cops. One was tall, Chinese-Hawaiian, and the other short, with a Pilipino name, who always kept at least one eye open wide over all the neighborhood children.
          Sparky was scared, but he couldn't lie or run away easily since we were all hanging around the edge of the porch watching to see what would happen and if they were going to take him to the station to beat him up. We used to tease him, “Spock you laters,” and wink because of the name Sparky. But we said nothing about seeing him now. Nobody even wanted to lie for him, to say he wasn't the one setting off sky rockets over there, because he never let anybody touch his stuff, not even look at one of his small cherry bombs. We knew he had them when he showed off by guarding his bulging Hawaiian Air flight bag. He always acted cocky, but he was just like everybody else.
          I was thinking, “Good for you, Sparky. Now you gon' catch it.”
          Mr. Takahashi was holding him by the back of the neck. His voice was sighing and squeaking when he told the police, “I went find him under the bed. Whoa, bad egg, this one.”
          Mr. Takahashi was always calm, but what a thing to say about his own son. Maybe he thought they would let him off that way. Spark looked like a fish with the mouth open, body squirming, arms trying to flap away, so maybe he couldn't even hear what the grownups were saying.
          ”Take him station. Teach him one lesson,” Mr. Takahashi looked like a stern demon with bushy eyebrows. He had the eyes that bugged out, too. Even the new crowd in the lane, real outsiders who came to see what kind of accident it was, could tell right off it was a father-son case.
          But the old man was even more sharp. He acted like he was going to turn the boy over to Officer Kawelo, the easy cop. One time, quick, he made like he went shove Spark to him, but he aimed his body right through the two men's. Big guys, fumbling around, they couldn't catch what happened.
          ”Huh? Hold it right heah, boy.”
          Slippery Sparky went for the chance. Officer Calaro tried, but he could only hold on to the back pocket which got ripped off from the rest of the moving body. Down the steps, shoving Old Lady Machado one side, stepping on Dennis' baby sisters and pushing right through the neighbor's bushes, Spark took off. Before you could spit on the ground, we couldn't see him at all. He knew it would take too long for the slow fats to charge him. Plus he had the advantage at night.
          We jumped, whooping, off the railing and ran after our friend. “Spock you later. Good one!” He was a wild bugger, and we had a feeling he would show up down the stream. What a bimbo-chimpo. By now I was hoping he would make it.
           Officer Calaro put his finger into his khaki shirt collar to loosen the necktie. Calaro was angry at the father, grumbling to him, “You send him over tomorrow, yeh?” He gave all of us the real kukai stinkeye, as if we did something, and he smelled it, too.
           People started to go home, back to the partying. You could hear firecrackers from up and down Makiki Street and popping sounds from the little yards in the Court. Back in their Dodge cruiser, Kawelo and Calaro took off to someplace else, maybe a roadblock for drunks, but they were quiet about it. Mr. Takahashi was behind his screen door again looking in the direction of the burned-out section of cane across the street. Some Pilipino working men were still hosing down the part of the fence that had been burning. A fine rain from the cloudy sky helped out: piu, it was over. Everything looked like normal, except for the night which was smoking red with fumes and once in a while, the fiery streak of a sky rocket. Somebody up in Tantalus had some real good ones going.
We would find Spark later when things got slow. He was minor. New Year's was the big event, the thing we knew was coming from the time we smelled Christmas around the corner.
           Now I can remember how much I ran around in those old baby days. I was whatever the day was. I marked the pace with my whole body, breathing in and out to step up a good chase from sunup to day's end. I was in a hurry to taste it all. I flicked our house radio from the Cherry Blossom Hour to Boston Blackie to Tropic Melodies, dancing by myself to every lively voice and tune. And I waited for New Year's with unbearable patience.
           Best of all was seeing my mother's husband drunk under the bed. He would always hide there. I could count on him. The patter of firecrackers drove him wild as he headed for cover, remembering the flying war bullets that haunted his brain. I watched her beat him with a wire hanger.
          ”Stand up like a man!”
          I watched him turn into a screaming child. She would be crying, too. At those times I disappeared into the closet, walls, furniture. I was completely still, just a camera waiting. A skinny girl with big eyes.
          When I had enough of them I made the spin into escape, back to the Court and the action around me. New Year's Eve was when I could count on a rhythm to meet my own, to swirl me on my way. The night was fast.
          The sound of firecrackers whizzed and rip-popped through the air.
          ”Look up!”
          Just before disintegration there was still the last colorful image frozen in watery aerial action, trailing fancy tails and shrieking whistles. Occasional rapid fire popping just down our street made me take notice of the ground. All the small animals, down to the last nervous mongoose, were suddenly burrowed in, hidden somewhere tight. They shuddered to the rattattat of a tiny string of crackers, followed by the boom thunder of an explosion in a garbage can. Smoke was heavy everywhere, hiding the excited scurries of movement in the night air. Familiar people, who looked like strangers, dark figures in milky darkness, moved wildly. They danced around flames on the cement. Fluorescent colors flashed, and gold was molten in redflame. Night jewels decorated our patches of grass while the whole edgy town reveled crazily.
          Somebody's father, a big guy, shimmied up to string a long rope into a telephone pole eyelet hook. Small children, jumping up and down in excitement beneath him, willed the entire setup. The firecrackers hung down six feet in a braid that almost reached the sidewalk. One of the younger uncles held out a burning match. Instantly everyone cleared away.
          ”Ha-ha. Only kidding.” He flicked the flaring sliver into the gutter.
          This string was saved for the main attraction, ready for the moment it would become the midnight marker.
          So much going on! I couldn't stand waiting. I hopped in a tight circle, hugging myself, waiting for the final explosion of the whole night fabric, when the crackling roar would erupt through the entire island. Light, color, noise, voices, and feeling would surge through all the living and even ripple out to touch some ideas that we thought were gone. Time was still. Everything melded into the general breathless waiting in the midst of so much sound. Even I was forced to anchor myself to quietness.
           I spotted a cockroach. 11:57 p.m. Driven into frenzy by the constant din, it zigzagged around my feet, going for the telephone pole where the chunky line dangled. The roach was shaped like an overburdened Dodge, rocking back and forth, bent for somewhere out of the exploding light. It stopped short just in front of the pole. A quivering roach drunk with noise.
           Leaping, I stepped on it. Crunch, slide. It was no longer afraid. But I shrieked and fell backwards, catching myself and racing up to our porch steps. I saw Raylene's uncle's hand reach out to set the long fuse on fire.
           “Covah up your ears,” she screeched at me.
          1952 left us in a roar, “Happy New Yeah!” The adults continued drinking, feeling good. Somebody shot off a gun, “Wheehah!” Voices were singing. Radios tuned up louder. The lane was violently alive, a distillation of our vibrance.
          I saw it in red, yellow and black: the rocky new beginning. Pachi-pachi-pachi echoed on through the rest of the dark hours into the morning.
           When everyone thought we were asleep we met by our marble ring in the dirt next to Spark's wash house. Some of the kids couldn't escape their families or their need to sleep. So three of us got set to search the stream to find Spark.
           Lee and David were older and expected another boy, Wyn Silva, not me. They were not happy about letting me stay.
           “Okay. You, girl. Go home now. Beat it. Go sleep.”
           “Lemme see, too. Come on . . . Otherwise I-going-to-tell.”
           I tailed them as we ran to the garbage pit in the back of all the sheds and apartments. There was an open space and a barbed wire fence before the hillside slouched down to the stream.
           The stream divided us from the places where haoles would care to live. They lived up in the bungalows at Punahou Cliffs and at Arcadia, which was home for a governor. I was in awe of that vast lawn. The mysteries of a manicured lotus pond and a weathered barn structure could lure me across the stream. People on that side had cocktail parties in slow motion and drank to the sound of tinkling ice and bubbling laughter. Some of them spread out beach towels to sunbathe by the hour. I had seen this myself, passing very near and silent in the glittering water.
           As soon as we were there standing above the water on the stone embankment, Lee made the owl sounds which would alert Spark to us. There was no answer.
          We knew he was hiding in the tunnel.
          Lee said I had to go first since I had the flashlight.
          ”But David already took 'um, and I wearing only slippahs.”
           I looked down at my feet, too scared to face the command to retreat. They decided they needed me then. David pushed the light back to me. The two of them made me walk ahead, instructing me to play the beam on the ground and the sliding dirt of the rocky slope. We held on to the roots of the big banyan at the edge of the canal. It guided us down.
           Once we were next to the water, the mouth of the tunnel gaped darkly ahead. The arch wasn't higher than 10 feet, but we had seen mountain water gushing through it, flooding it completely in a short time, and I had been warned to stay away from the bums and escaped convicts that were sure to be hiding in there. My own eyes had seen whiskey bottles dis¬carded on ledges within the recesses of the first part of the tunnel. I never went further. The others were sure the tunnel would come out in Waikiki past Pawaa Theater. Raylene used to insist it would lead to the ocean at the end of the canal.
           My nose told me it was a place of decay which waste water itself could not wash away. I believed my mother who said it was filled with rat piss. My hesitating feet were saying the no that my mouth could not. Or maybe I just didn't talk much in those days. Quietly I had edged back until the three of us were walking side by side. I wasn't going first.
           The mossy slime on the concrete flooring which carried the stream bottom away from Makiki was troublesome to walk on. The color under the flashlight's moving arc changed from green to brown. Reddish parts of it, which made the tunnel sides look bloody, seemed to be rusty scum water from metal feeder pipes leading out of the dirty culvert walls.
          That night there wasn't much real water at all, just the little that lapped in from the stream at our back and tugged us in, further and further. The slow, oozing water licked at our feet. I began to feel closed in and looked backwards often to make sure the opening was still there. Forward, the light showed more orange grayness from the walls lined at their sides by debris of every kind. Silt gathered in places where sickly weeds grew.
          We could hear the faint sounds of a trickling waterfall some¬where deeper ahead. Where we were had a hollow quiet.
           “Whaddat?” David stopped. Lee moved wildly, ready to run backwards.
           I froze, holding the light the way a statue would point a torch.
           A rat skittered away on a ledge above our heads. I saw fierce red eyes which stayed suspended in my mind like the skyrockets a few hours before. David whistled through his teeth in disgust. He did it again louder. And then we thought we heard Sparky answer us. A half¬whistle, maybe a wheeze.
           We ran toward the sound, carefully avoiding hunks of bent metal, a rotten ironing board, broken bottles, and suspicious clumps of obscure rubbish. We passed too near an almost ¬forgotten and deep crevice which held the unspoken rumor of polio-water, the illness our mothers forever threatened us with.
           “Ovah heah!” Lee yelled into the darkness.
           “Heah, heah . . .” bounced off the tunnel in echoes. For a long time we moved nearer and nearer the outfall's patter. The light marked a hump in the wall.
          When we saw him up in the niche, he looked like somebody else.
           I flashed the beam directly on the crouching figure. Suddenly someone next to it moved up jerkily, half-awake. “Anuddah guy. Two.” He leered confusedly into the light, his head cocked at a strange angle.
           “Damn pilute. You piss drunk.” David hissed scornfully. It was his brother, Larry, and Larry's side-kick, the high school boy with a mustache. They had been drinking beer in their hiding place.
           When Larry realized who we were, accusing him with our light, he pelted us with beer bottles. He was furious but a junk shot. I dodged. He missed me, too. In panic I dropped the flashlight. There was no time to feel for it, to regret the licking I would get for losing it.
           Then we were racing again, back to the tunnel entrance, hoping in cold perspiration to avoid the dark traps along the way. David's brother's fury followed us in echoes. We could hear bottles hitting the tunnel walls and the echoing of the hits and the glass falling like rain.
          It was a long run.
           My heart felt alive again when I finally saw the opening and passed through it immediately to scramble up the dirt hillside in murky, mottled moonlight. There was air. The banyan roots felt like a lifeline. The heaving relief of coming up lightened me, the last one out.
           It was when we reached over the top of the wall, when our muddy feet touched the ground on the other side, that we heard the laughter. Spark was cackling at us from his nest high in the tree. He thought we were funny. He tilted his head back as he brayed and coughed and howled at us. He couldn't stop.
           I was still puffing and too ready to bolt for home. I couldn't figure it out fast. .
           “Eh, jaggass, come on down heah,” Lee shouted, ready to fight him.
           Spark laughed even more, sputtering and heehawing.
           Looking for him, I saw his bent silhouette above the tree's crotch; his head up higher looked trapped by the branches. He began to make his way down.
           I was thinking. He played a joke on us. He made me scared. My anger flooded over me, and my voice found its way out, pushing past tightly held in tears and the fearful caution which kept me silent.
           I spluttered, “I goin' squash you, good for nothing lolo.”
           When I went for him to obliterate him with my flailing hands and arms and feet, Lee and David had to drag me back, still choking angry. They had watched Spark's useless foot come down first. It was wrapped up in a bloody t-shirt.
          Standing painfully Spark had to straighten his left side slowly. While in the tunnel he stepped on a hidden jag of glass.
He spoke to me. “Joking, okay?” And his eyes were looking into me. I had never seen myself that way before, reflected in someone's eyes.
I looked small and hopeless.
          Somehow I got home, tearfully running away from those miserable boys and sleeping long into the first day of the New Year, forgetting the endless tunnel and the gashed foot, the fires and the anger.
          Spark's punishment, my licking, Lee and David, the whole Court disintegrated slowly until years later I could not remember that they were once part of me.
          In '74 I was digging in my 10' x 10' Makiki Park garden. Crouched down, dripping with sweat, I found out how the earth casually resists the would-be farmer's hand. No longer the H.S.P.A. headquarters, the ground was city property now. In the middle of softening the soil I had stepped on a sharp spear of growing sugar cane. It was still sending out stray shoots in the desperate way of a crop that has been banished from its former field.
           The stomach of my foot ached. When I hopped over to a water faucet, I saw the Pilipino man. I opened up the spigot to bathe the sore foot and watched with interest as the stranger swung a pick axe against the brick wall of an old laboratory.
           Like a few other structures the remnant had already been emptied and abandoned, but the three walls, two of them wooden, maintained their old H.S.P.A. form. Bit by bit the heavy wall was crumbling, chink echoing after thump, with every blow .
           The hardy old goat did not let up. His face glistened with moisture. All of the energy of his being concentrated on tearing down the wall. As he flailed and hacked, he grunted and swore continuously. He stopped to sing a verse of The Star-Spangled Banner. Was he insane? Stone-drunk? He looked like somebody's grandfather with all his shirt buttons neatly fastened. I was too embarrassed to stick around or reveal my fascination. I returned to my plot and heard him laughing joyously to himself.
          When noontime arrived he was still at work. The sun set him afire with its glowing heat.
           When I picked up my weeder and hose, ready to go home for the sweltering afternoon, only half the red wall was broken down. My discouraged eye found his face and scanned the unfinished work once more.
          ”Those bricks are for the garden?” I asked him and pointed at the rubble at his feet and then waved toward our plots. Some gardeners set up little boundaries and stepping stones in their areas.
          The man got up from his squatting rest, straightening himself full length, his back to the glare.
          He shook his head and wiped the sweat off his face with a handkerchief. He blew his nose.
          When he was done he looked directly at me and smiled kindly.           ”It is just time for this building to come down. I used to work in this place here as a laborer.”
          He turned away and continued to bring the wall down. His action made me remember Makiki Court.
          ”No . . . can . . . help . . .” He released a word with each flashing whack and laughed again.

* * * * *

Bio: Unfortunately, there is no biographical information included on Mary Wakayama in the About the Contributors section of the issue.

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