by dusty middleton
Collin hadn’t seen anyone since the first night he landed. He had encountered a few people that first night, though he realized now that they must have been ghosts.
The island, as far as he could tell, hadn’t seen another human in months. He had followed the rutted dirt road all the way down to the western shore, to the old military buildings that had been used in the past few decades as headquarters for civilian groups coming to work on the island.
He had approached those low buildings warily, watching closely for action, but had seen none.
The buildings, and the staging areas around them were empty.
Thick layers of dirt had blown in the wind across the walkways, piled in hallways and against low walls. Collin found paw prints of cats in those soft drifts, nothing else.
He had found supplies, canned foods, tools, water jugs… noted them in his head, and left them.
Collin had walked much of the island. There were large sections with signage warning of unexploded ordinance, and he had avoided walking through those valleys and areas.
Many days, during calm mornings with flat waters, he had thought about paddling to Maui for supplies. He had a ziplock bag with five hundred dollars left. But there was no real need. His main motivation, the real urge, had been to go look for a woman… and he knew that his scraggly camps weren’t going to impress any level-headed female… At least not yet. Besides his poor living situation, the idea of paddling across the channel still scared him.
His hands had healed. His shoulder muscles were ready. But if the wind decided to push strong, he knew he might be swept away, and that possibility terrified him.
Collin enjoyed walking to the highest point on the island and spending hours gazing off at the other islands, and the vastness of the horizon around him.
Time slipped into an easy pace. Collin ate sparingly. He worked on small projects. He had three ‘gardens’ that he watered and cared for daily. He collected food from the reef and the hillside. He slept through the heat of the day, watched the stars at night, and swam in the ocean when he woke each morning.
Mostly he was silent. Mostly his mind was still and clear. But sometimes while he worked his brain would start firing off conversations and debates. Collin might find himself talking aloud, arguing. Or sometimes, he’d find himself singing, songs of his childhood, songs he made up, or birdsongs from his old home above Waimanu.
Collin’s camp that first year was comfortable enough. He had built up food stores, water stores, and overall he was content and proud of his work, his ability to survive.
It was a cold and cloudless morning when things began to change.
Collin’s camp was muddy and damp. His supplies were at risk of molding. A dark week of wind, winter storm clouds and heavy rain was finally past, and Collin was happy to have a sunny day in front of him to move his body and cover some ground. He was excited to climb the mountain and take note of which plants were doing good after eight solid days of rain.
He spent an hour pulling damp supplies out into the sun and the soft breeze, and then he headed up the hill.
It was with utter amazement that afternoon that Collin spotted a figure standing at his usual spot on the highpoint of the mountain.
He had been hiking for almost three hours. And when he looked up and saw the silhouette of a person, he instinctively dropped down to one knee and went completely still.
For a moment he thought about retreating down the mountain and hiding, but for whatever reason his curiosity was more powerful than his flight instinct. He stared up at the human form, squinting, and he was quite sure, after a moment, that it was a woman.
It seemed, after a half minute there, frozen, staring up in concentration, that she was equally still, watching him. Though how Collin decided that he wasn’t sure, just a hunch, and he realized that he must look a bit silly kneeling in the dirt. He picked himself up and dusted off his one knee. He gave a small, awkward bow and a wave and continued slowly up the red brown slope.
Collin became slightly self-conscious. He had a thick beard. His hair was shaggy. His surf shorts tattered. He understood that he might look almost frightening to some. But his face held the soft smile of the simple and harmless. He approached quietly and respectfully.
The woman was watching his face with curiosity and a hint of confused amusement.
In the quick moments that they assessed each other, as he drew close, he knew that she had a quality that Collin couldn’t quite place. She was wrapped in a light blue cloak and she faced northeast into the wind.
Collin came to stand ten feet away from her, a bit downhill. He smiled in greeting, respecting the silence, and he turned to look out across the calm ocean to the other islands.
Haleakala, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea were covered in white. They were draped in snow.
Collin’s chest, his throat, his face, everything filled with emotion and wonder. The sight was simple and beautiful. It was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen. The air was so clear. The sun bright, but not overly hot. His jaw was soft, and when he finally was able to utter something, he turned to the woman, and she was gone.
His eyebrows raised. “Whoa,” was all that whispered from deep in his throat.
And at that same moment that he had registered her vanishing act, he saw that across the sloping hill the red dirt showed a layer of green, tiny green plants, tens of thousands of them popping from the surface of the cracked red earth.
Less than a minute later, still standing there in shock and disbelief, Collin’s ears picked up the unmistakable drone of an approaching helicopter.
It was a noise that he had dealt with for too many years. He held the foul sound in equal distaste to the mosquito’s whine in his ear when he was trying to sleep. And normally his instinct was to melt back into the shadows. Disappear into the underbrush. His habit was to never be seen by those in the sky. From where he stood, unfortunately, there was no substantial cover for a mile in any direction.
Collin’s feet felt immoveable. Somehow, he felt that the close encounter with the woman, be it Pele, Hiʻiaka, or Poliahu, the proximity of divinity was in some way a token, a free pass, for him to feel confident and strong in his place there. He was standing where he ought to be. This was his rightful home. Her smile had communicated that.
He felt himself, at that moment, the strongest since he had left the Big Island.
When the military helicopter, it looked like a bloated grasshopper, descended in an almost direct course for where he was standing, Collin began to wish that he was somewhere else, but he stood completely still. He clicked back into his hunting instincts from his teenage years, when he’ taught himself how to stalk and kill. He watched sideways, from the corners of his eyes as the helicopter settled down, pushing clouds of red dirt in every direction. He stood just like she had; with a proud, strong stance.
The propeller blades slowed, the noise of the motor softened, and after a few long minutes a door opened and a group climbed down from the helicopter. Some of them, the ones who weren’t wearing camouflage, started moving towards Collin.
He felt like he needed to sneeze. To wipe the dirt from his face and his arms. He almost grinned with the impulse to run down the hill. A crazy guy flopping and jumping and hooting away from the strangers. He imagined the scene. Them confused, him giggling like a kid. Collin pushed down that impulse. He kept a stern, straight face. He wanted to scold the helicopter group for kicking up so much soil, soil that needed to stay put if these little plants were ever going to have a chance.
Collin stood statue-still and waited there.
He tried to keep his heartbeat slow, his breathing soft, and the fear that these people were going to force him to leave the island, his home, his island… he realized right then, for maybe the first time, how much he had fallen in love with it.
Collin brought back the memory of the woman, the vision so fresh in his mind, gazing out peacefully at the snow covered mountains, and he knew, with calm certainty, that she was Poliahu. He held the wonder and magic of his encounter as a sort of shield against whoever these people were. These people, strangers in clean, colorful clothes, walking closer and closer.