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Song of the Exile




"... SOON THE 'IWA BIRD WILL FLY. HUGE MAMMAL WAVES WILL breach and boom. It will be Makahiki time. Autumn in my islands ..."

She sits up quickly in the dark, taking her body by surprise. Her fingers roam her face, a face once nearly flawless. She drags her knuckles down her cheeks.

Outside, electrified barbed wire hums. She feels such wrenching thirst, she sucks sweat coursing down her arm. Then carefully she rises, gliding like algae through humid air. She listens for the sea. For that is what she longs for--waves cataracting, corroding her to crystals. From somewhere, gurgling latrines. Even their sound is comforting.

A kerosene lamp is steered into the dark. Sunny watches as dreamily it floats, comes down. A soldier's hand, the hand of memory, places it on the floor, revealing a yeasty, torn mosquito net. Inside, a young girl on a narrow bed, so still she could be dead.

In watchtowers surrounding the women's compound--twenty Quonset huts, within each, forty women--guards yawn and stroke their rifles. One of them half dozes, dreamily composing an impeccable letter to his family in Osaka. "Mother, we are winning.... The Imperial Japanese Army will prevail!" He is growing thin.

In one hut a young girl, Kim, pulls her net aside. Burning with pain, she crawls into Sunny's narrow bed, into her arms, and sobs.

Sunny calms her, whispering, "Yes, cry a little, it will help you sleep."

"It's hardest when the sky turns light. I think of my family who I will never see again. I want to run outside, throw myself against the fence."

Sunny sighs, breathes in the smell of sewage, failing flesh. "Kim, be strong. Think of music, think of books--normal things we took for granted."

"I don't remember normal things." Kim scratches at her sordid legs, a girl of sixteen. "I don't remember life."

Sunny shakes her gently, feeling mostly bone. "Listen now. When the whistle blows for mustering, we'll stand up straight, eat whatever scraps they throw. No matter how filthy the water, we'll drink. With what is left we'll bathe. We'll do this for our bodies, so our bodies will know we still have hope for a future."

"What future?" Kim whispers. "Two years of this. I only want to die."

"Hush, and listen. Death would be too easy, don't you see?" Sunny sighs, begins to drift. "... In Paris now it would be cool. We would stroll the boulevards." Her voice turns dreamy. "We might even take a cab."

Kim looks up, asking softly, "Will the drivers be rude again?"

"Oh, yes. And my French is so bad. Maybe this night we would go to Chez L'Ami Louis."

"Oh! The food is rich, so excellent." Kim momentarily comes alive, for this is her favorite game. Imagining.

"What wine shall we order? The house Fleurie?"

"And patŽ. And oysters! Will you dip mine in horseradish, Sunny?"

"Of course. And I will scold you when you pocket the matches, such a tourist thing."

Her voice softens. She thinks of Keo, their time in Paris. Rocking in lush geometries of morning light, nothing between them but heartbeats. Then spinning under marble arches, through terraced parks, young and careless and exiled. Not seeing Paris collapsing around them, not seeing their lives were crumbling.

"How happy we were. Grabbing each moment, so alive."

"I have no such memories," Kim weeps. "I never shall."

"Of course you will! One day this will end. You will heal. Life will help you to forget."

"... Yes. Maybe life is waiting in Paris. Beauty and adventure. And shall we walk this evening down the Champs ElysŽes? Shop for the softest kid gloves? And cologne? Or maybe take a cafŽ and wait for Keo. I'll close my eyes, pretend I'm there, just looking on."

"Shh," Sunny whispers. "Soon it will be daylight. If they find us together, they'll beat us again."

She feels tears come: hunger, torture, incessant pain, the knowledge that she and this girl--all of them--are dying.

"Don't think so much. It will consume you. You will never survive."

"Survive. For what?" Kim's voice grows loud; girls sit up listening behind their nets. "You talk of life. How can we face life after this? How can we face ourselves?"

Sunny's voice turns urgent. "We must live. Or what have we suffered for? Will these years have been for nothing?"

Under her pillow is a makeshift map, drawn so she can remember where they are, where they were shipped to months ago. Here is the town of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, east of Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia. Here is the Pacific Ocean and, far to the northeast, Hawai'i. Honolulu, home. Farther out is the world, the great oceans. Far across the Atlantic, there is Paris. Yesterday. But, always, her mind snaps back to Rabaul.

Exhausted, weak beyond knowing, Kim sinks back on the filthy mattress, stale grains of rice matting her hair. "I want to sleep, I want to dream. Oh, take me back to Paris, shops, cabarets. Tell me again how you and Keo rode in a car with the top down...."

Paris, Sunny thinks. We were so innocent. Not understanding trains were already leaving stations, streets were darkening with blood. She sighs, begins again, dreamily, and as she talks, girls struggle from their beds, move down the aisle, brushing her mosquito net. Some so thin, their movements seem delicate, some so young they are children, ghosts weaving through a scrim. Wanting only to listen and dream, they sit with arms entwined, heads bowed against each other. "... I remember, French women were so chic, and arrogant, always rushing off to rendezvous. I tried to imitate them, to be caustic and quick. It was not in my nature...."

"And did you paint your nails each day?"

"And did you drink champagne?"

She smiles wearily. "Oh, yes. Sometimes we danced all night. Then stood on little bridges, waiting for the sun."

Kim curls against her, like a child. "Tell us again about your sweetheart. Was he always kind?"

Sunny weeps a little, and they wait.

"He was an island man, very kind. And shy. A musician, have I mentioned? So gifted, he played in famous cities. New Orleans. Paris. He was known."

Girls shudder and sigh, as if her words are talismans, miracles that will transport them, save their lives.

"Keo was not my first, but he was my only. I thought I chose

him, now I see I was the chosen. It's so nice when someone reaches for you. Try to imagine. A young man, not terribly handsome, not very tall. Dark, very dark, and proud. Even at home in Honolulu, he always stood apart...."





Kalihi Lane, west of downtown Honolulu. A lane so narrow he could reach out his arms, almost touch bushes on either side. A world remote, unspoken for, so modest there was the temptation to hate it. There was the fear this was all he would know.

Wood-frame bungalows going to termites, their porch steps scalloped by generations. Each separated by wire fences snaked with chenille plants, crown flowers, golden trumpet vines. The heavy scent of ginger, plumeria. Each day he left this lane with the breath of an animal running. And each night he returned.

Some nights he felt the lane reach out to him, beautiful in moonlight. In every yard, chicken coops, orchids rioting in lard cans, blue sobs of jacaranda. And mango trees drooping with lianas, shell ginger hanging like pink jewels. Overhead, scraggly palms stretched back and forth across the lane, forming a feathery vaulted ceiling like a long primeval foyer leading him into a forest of shy and friendly tribes.

Sometimes he stood very still and listened. Mr. Kimuro snoring on his left answered the piping snores of Mr. Silva on the right. Mary Chang's phone rang, and across the lane Dodie Manlapit sat up in bed. He heard the sea, he heard its call. He laid his hand against a tree. I have not lived. At lane's end, he stepped into a tiny yard, a carless garage, climbed the steps of a bungalow, and quietly removed his shoes.

On a stool in the hallway his mother, Leilani, already astride the day. Husky-armed, mocha skin unwrinkled, face flawless as a child's, she sat gabbing on the phone with Aunty Silky, who worked the six-to-six shift at Palama Women's Prison.

"... listen, girlie, was scarlet fever, no cholera, dat took her, so much coming at us in dose days. She nevah sat up. Just blink and die. Dat's when some buggah stole her crystal necklace. And whatchoo t'ink? Last year Milky Carmelita show up fo' Pansy's wedding wearing dem same damn crystals! 'Auwøe! I near went die. Wait--here come my son, da midnight owl."

He stood in cool drafts, drinking guava from the bottle, then closed the Frigidaire and kissed his mother's head in passing. Sprawled in his tiny room, younger brother Jonah, his walls a grid of baseball mitts and rowing paddles. Malia, his sister, in her room, snoring in a chair, eerie white face mask, head helmeted with pleated metal meant to train her curly hair.

In their shared room, older brother DeSoto, on leave from his ship in the merchant marine. Keo pulled off his waiter's shirt and trousers, hung them carefully, and crawled into the bottom bunk. Listening to the faltering tenor of his brother's snores, he covered his face with a pillow, steeped in the distillate of envy and frustration.

He's crossed the Pacific seven times. Seen Antarctica. Known women in Java. Manila. I've never been off this rock. Just a guy who carries trays...

HE COULD HAVE BEEN BORN BLIND, SIGHT SEEMED SO WASTED on him. As a child, he fingered everything, not trusting what his eyes beheld. Then, for years he walked with his nose up like a dog, relying on smell. When he was ten, his ears became his eyes, his head always turned, an ear thrust forward, sounding out life. Folks thought he was simpleminded.

In 1921, when he was eleven, Kamaka 'Ukulele and Guitar Works opened on South King Street. Keo ran errands after school, fetching tea and Luckies for the workmen. One of them was deaf, a Filipino with his own unique method of determining perfect resonance in constructing an 'ukulele.

"All in da fingahs," he said, gently tap-tapping, sensing by his nerve ends vibrations of the sound box.

He covered Keo's ears, placed his fingers on the box of a pineapple-shaped 'ukulele, then strummed. He did the same thing on a standard guitar-shaped 'ukulele, so Keo could feel the difference: more mellow sounds of the pineapple uke because of the internal volume of the box.

"Human ears not always accurate," he said. "Sometime ears in fingah tips."

When he was twelve, the deaf man gave him his first 'ukulele, selling it for five dollars. Keo sat in the dark and stroked the thing, listening with his fingers. Sound came to him then, pouring into him like light. Within weeks he could play any song heard once. But when he tried to go beyond himself, attempting wild variations on island songs, "Palolo," "Leilehua," "Hawai'ian Cowboy," his playing was blundering and crude.

Keo did not know how to be moderate, to gently coax his instrument so it would hum and glow. Instead, he corrupted its sounds into whining exhalations of stunned wood, playing so hard calluses grew on his fingers. There was no one to guide him, to mesh his wild cogs, no one to help him articulate.

At fifteen, finding a worn-out radio, he rewired it and taped the crumbling shell. Each night, staring at distempered walls, listening to truculent snores of his brother, Keo twisted dials until he heard a crackly reception from the mainland. Choral groups. Concertos. Music called "classical." Listening, he felt a keen, prehensile yearning of his heart toward music he couldn't comprehend. Currents passed through him, so strong his body smelled like something scorched.

From 'ukulele and guitar it seemed a slow-motion glide to piano. Sometimes he slipped into the Y, where bands entertained the armed forces. The crowd was mostly white, a few Negro soldiers on the side. Keo edged his way toward the bandstand, trying to observe musicians, how they held their instruments, how they controlled their breathing. Because he was civilian and local, MPs always shoved him outside.

One night he stepped into a room of punching bags, moldy leather gloves. Rank odor of sweat and sawdust. Something massive in the corner caught his eye. That was how he discovered the Baldwin. He pulled off the filthy canvas, opened the creaking lid, and wiped the keys. After that, several times a week he slipped into that room and sat at the piano.

At first he didn't care how it sounded, only cared how keys resonated to his touch. The thing was out of tune, strings mildewed, felt hammers hung with insects. Still he got so he could play almost recognizable songs, anything heard once. He played dregs of Bach and didn't know it. Rachmaninoff. Ellington and Basie. He played hour after hour, then dragged himself off to wait tables at the Royal Hawai'ian Hotel. On his day off, he played the Baldwin straight through the night and into the next afternoon. He didn't know what he was doing. Such a torrent poured out of him, his nose bled.

Each night after waiting tables he joined the band in the Royal Hawai'ian's Monarch Room, strumming 'ukulele, fox-trotting with rich, lonely tourists. He was striking rather than handsome, but his dark, mahogany skin seemed backlit, his impeccable presence was like something charged, and women were drawn to him.

Keo learned to tell by their perfume which woman would thrust her hips against him, wanting sex. Imperceptibly he would move her across the floor to Tiger Punu, who women couldn't get enough of, or Chick Daniels, matinŽe-idol handsome, first 'ukulele in the Monarch Room. Or one of the other "golden men" whose names had the ring of rampant health: Surf Hanohano, Turkey Love, Blue Makua, Krash Kapakahi, the Kahanamoku brothers.

Long-limbed, muscled, they strode Waikiki sands like laughing, bronzed gods. Beachboys in the daytime--teaching swimming, surfing, paddling--serenaders at night, the "golden men" had even been immortalized in Hollywood films, so that rich white women came seeking them out. At dawn they left women slumbering in their Royal suites and drove home, exhausted, in rusty pickups. In working-class Kalihi, Palama, and Iwilei, they sat in tiny kitchens, counting their tips.

Keo stood apart from his friends. White women scared him. He imagined beneath that pale sensuality lay ravening appetite. As if they'd come to collect scalps. He had no desire for them. Lately he had no thoughts of women at all. His blood accumulated in the wrong places. All he wanted was the piano, his fingers on the keys.

One day while he sat at the Baldwin, a USO volunteer entered the room. Blond and pale, she stood behind him listening. Next time, she brought a Victrola and records. "Avalon." "When We're Alone." Keo copied each song almost note for note. Sometimes she hummed songs while he followed, stalking melody and tempo. Then he would play each composition start to finish.

One day he found the piano tuned and polished. He sat down, bewildered. While he played, the woman locked the door, spread something on the floor, and asked him to make love to her. She said she had never "done it" with a native. She was thirty and divorced. He was nineteen. She said once, just once, for the experience.

He watched his dark, swollen penis enter her, like entering a pale flute-edged conch, blue veins spidering her thighs. When he came, he thought his brain had burst, his skull detached and sizzling. He would die insane, stuck inside a haole.* (*Haole--meaning "white, Caucasian"--is pronounced how-lee. A Hawai'ian-English glossary is provided in the back of the book.) He screamed, struggled to pull out of her, but she did something with her hand and he was hard again. They were there five hours, moaning and bleating. He didn't even know her name. He never went back. By then it didn't matter; he played soundless chords on any surface, kitchen tables, his busing tray, sideways on his bedroom wall. His fingers drummed incessantly. MOONLIGHT ON WET FANGS. DOBERMANS FLINGING THEMSELVES against a fence trying to get at him. Keo snarled, sending them into spasms. Inside the fence, dew turned lawns an orient of pearls. A tin heiress's Indo-Persian fortress on the sea past Diamond Head.

To build the house more than two hundred men had labored a year laying the foundation, excavating five acres of lava.

It had been like watching the construction of the pyramids--hovering dust clouds, hammering sun, age-old calligraphy of heaving dark men. The actual house had taken several years, and during that time the heiress refused to build toilets for local laborers. They were forced to relieve themselves in the wreckage where they worked, wearing urine-soaked kerchiefs on their faces so they wouldn't choke on dust. She named her fortress Wahi Pana, legendary place. Locals called it Wahi Køukae, place for excreting.

Keo watched limos slide through her gates. Lights igniting the main house, several bands. All he had to do was give the guards his name: she was expecting her "golden men" from the Royal. He looked down at his toe-pinch leather shoes, knife-pleated trousers. He looked across the lawns. He had no business here. What he needed wasn't here. He turned away, remembering his mother, earlier, ironing his pants.

"Why you going dere? Dat rich wahine eat you boys alive, toss you out when she get bored."

His sister, Malia, had argued in her studied, drawing-room English. "Mama, that's how it is with haole. The trick is, while they're using us, to use them."

Malia, becoming so chic she no longer fit. She had begun to sound like someone not local but not quite white. Someone stuck in between.

Their mother, Leilani, stopped ironing and stared at her.

"Girlie, you talk to me like dat again, I put dis iron smack on yo' behind. You coming too high maka-maka."

Malia leaned back as if struck. "But you're the one said pau Pidgin in this house. No more talking like køanaka. You said learn 'proper' English."

Leilani shook her head. "True. But bumbye you coming too good fo' us."

Malia's voice turned soft and weary. She held out scabby arms. "Mama, look at this. Rash from cheap-starch uniforms. Chambermaid all day at the Moana. At night, dancing hapa-haole tourist hula for the same folks whose toilets I scrub at noon. Why shouldn't I have airs? I earned them."

Malia, golden-skinned, verging on voluptuous. Polynesian features gathered into something just short of beautiful. Only daughter, born between the first two sons, she was "cursed" with drive and cunning. Her drawers full of French perfumes thieved from hotel guests. Designer labels snipped from hats and dresses, resewn into hers.

She was a fraud, but Keo loved her deeply. Something in his sister calmed him down.

"I'm proud of you," he told her. "You going be somebody."

"You." She pushed him away. "One day you talk Pidgin, next day 'proper' English. Cunfunnit, make up your mind!"

He smiled. In his youth he'd pushed himself, learning "proper" English. Even without university degrees, Leilani vowed, her kids would sound educated, look educated, wear real leather shoes instead of flapping, rubber slippers. Still, Keo always slid back to Pidgin; it kept him in touch with himself.

Now he turned off Kalakaua Avenue, strolling the sands past the Royal. Farther down stood the U.S. Army installation, Fort DeRussy. He moved up near the open dance floor of the officers' club, watching couples move in circles. The Negro military band played moony renditions of "Body and Soul," "You Are Too Beautiful," their eyes tragic with boredom. One of the Negroes suddenly stood and pointed his horn at the ceiling, making it sob. Couples stopped dancing and listened.

The song was still recognizable, but he played it like someone shaking his skin loose, he was so tired of the world. He didn't bob or sway, just stood apart in ancient grooves. Then at some crucial point the horn turned on the player, the song and his wild talent grappled. He blew it slow, then fast, blew it so it screamed, then crooned. It cursed, then turned docile and familiar. He must have felt too naked. The song eventually won out, flowed into easy rhythms so couples moved round the floor again.

Band taking a break, the man strolled out on the sand, sweat pouring down his face.

Keo approached. "Say. You were great."

"Naw. Great don't reach this far. Not on this fuckin' rock." He turned, peered close, saw Keo was local. "Oh, man, I'm sorry. Thought you was one of the boys from the base."

Keo laughed softly. "I don't mind. Is that a clarinet?"

The soldier looked him up and down. "You sure don't know nothing. That's a tenor sax."

He walked back to the bandstand, returning with the horn, the thing shimmering and furtive like a weapon. Keo touched its big primordial mouth.

"That part don't mean much," the Negro said. "Up here"--he danced the valves with his fingers--"is where you make it happen."

He saw the reverence with which Keo stroked the thing, the way he listened. "You like music? You play?"

"Uke, guitar ... piano."

"What you play on piano?"

"Anything. All I gotta do is hear it once."

"Read music?"

"I don't need to," Keo said.

"Hey! You pretty hip for a cat can't tell clarinet from sax. This I gotta see."

He went back to the bandstand, leaned down to the drummer, and motioned for Keo to wait in the shadows. An hour later they packed up their instruments.

"We're jamming back of Pony's Billiards, off Hotel Street. Just 'dark' boys. Want to sit in?"

Keo stepped back. "I'm not a pro. I've never played with strangers."

They laughed good-naturedly. "Let's see how good you listen. I'm Dew. This here's Handyman."

In that way he became a camp rat, following Dew's band from base to base on weekends--Fort DeRussy, Schofield Barracks, Tripler Air Base--and afterwards, all-night jam sessions in back rooms of billiard parlors and bars. Still, he couldn't screw up the nerve to play with them, awed by their dark, obverse nobility, the ferocious investitures of their sounds.

"So this is jazz."

"Jazz, ragtime--it's all just torching," Dew explained.

He grew to love their slang, their names, even their coloring--a wash of blacks, mahoganies, tans, jaunty yellows, not unlike Hawai'ians. He studied the massed residue of sweat caught in smoky lamplight, washing down dark faces like wet jewels, as one man stood and blew his horn in the softest, most elegant way. Telling of lost dreams, lost realms, misguided innocence and honor. Another took the drums apart, took songs apart with deafening crashes and wallops sliding into tom-tom rhythms, crazy cymbal flourishes, then put them together again with brushes, gentle splishes and splashes.

Keo pounded tables, wanting to scream, wanting to tell them what it meant being there, being with them, forever freed from silence. They teased him, wanting him to play. He wasn't ready, knew he wasn't good enough. Still, his love of rhythm and tempo, and syncopation, his inability to express it, endeared him to them. They adopted him, took him to taxi dance halls where Filipino bands mixed Latin rhythms with big-band sounds. He still couldn't read music, had no way to practise or improvise. He slept with the radio to his ear, absorbing all he could get, even in dreams.

One day six husky Hawai'ians staggered up Kalihi Lane, a lidless upright Steinway missing keys balanced between them. His father, Timoteo, had found it in the dump behind Shirashi Mortuary, where he was head janitor and coffin repairman. That night after work, Keo stood gaping. Warped hammers hung with leis, sprung wires taped haphazardly, its dark, squat front reminiscent of a bulldog with missing teeth.

He bought manuals and tools, repairing it one key, one felt hammer at a time. His hands took on the smell of glue and lacquer. Neighbors heard the nightly whine of planing, wood shavings curling in air like flimsy locks. His mother sat frowning at the black mass uglifying her garage.

"Why you need dis? Why you no just listen radio? Good kine music on 'Hawai'i Calls.'"

He was patient. "Mama. I'm going to be a serious musician. Not some joker playing 'Hukilau' for tourists."

Sawdust settled on her cheeks. "Then why you no play music of kahiko, ancestors? Real Hawai'ian kine, wit' gourds, skin drums."

"I'm going to play jazz."

"What kine music dat?"

He wanted to say it was like confession, and doing penance, a way of playing that exhausted each man's genius and dementia. He wanted to say that after jazz, all other music would be dead.

Some nights, brother Jonah passing him pliers, a wire cutter, he worked on the Steinway till dawn. Then he walked down to the ocean. And he drank the sea he swam in, nourished and submerged. For that quiet time, nothing mattered. He had his dream. He had the sea. Wet peaks that soothed him, time untying him with salty hands. 

Excerpted from Song of the Exile © Copyright 2012 by Kiana Davenport. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine. All rights reserved.

Song of the Exile
by by Kiana Davenport

  • paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345434943
  • ISBN-13: 9780345434944