Dead Horse Summer
By Sumiko Saulson
The things that frighten us most are those that remind us of our fragile existence and the terrible ways we can die; like the frozen grimaces on the face of a peat bog man or the ashen screams on the faces of a child found under Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii. Kilauea is the most dangerous volcano in the country according to the US Geological Service – yet thousands of tourists walk on it every day, as though nothing bad is ever going to happen there again. My father didn’t think anything bad would happen there in the summer of my twelfth year. We moved to Hawaii from Los Angeles, and after a brief stay with his mother on Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu, we moved to the Big Island, where he’d found cheap land for sale. He took us on a tour of the subdivision, driving us down the pitted and dusty, unpaved and rust colored roads made up of ground down red volcanic rock. The weight of his car bore down onto the already grooved dirt road, deepening the pair of tire tracks left by the vehicles that traveled this way before us.
It was during our first summer when I came across a pathetic festering corpse of a dead horse in Kalapana, on Black Sands Beach. It was lodged within the rough, onyx-colored sands made of lava rock. The sand had only arrived on these shores mere hundreds of years earlier; they were still sharp and rocky, not smoothed by erosion. My toes poked from rubber-heeled plastic thong sandals called zoris. Hard rocks protruded from the sands, and I smashed my heel painfully against one, causing me to shrink back away from it in pain, blood oozing out against hot skin.
I stumbled away from the rock and landed almost directly on the dead horse, partially hidden beneath a palm tree – the kind that grew out of the tide pools, and were bent sharply inland through some natural force. The crook of the low, bent palm hid the corpse until the last moment, and then I saw it. The water had come up over this dead horse several times, and receded, and what the low tide revealed now was skeletal, with a few places where the hide covered partially protruding bone. It didn’t smell. I had the sense that sea creatures had torn away at most of the flesh, leaving bone with flaps of leathery skin waving over it.
Although the horse’s life was gone, the bones were nonetheless reanimated with teeming life of the tidal pool: green slimy mold-like seaweed, plump brown seaweed, happy little hermit crabs in stolen shells with ambitions of making a new home here in the reclaimed corpse of this horse. The creatures were cranking away, creating this whole new aquatic ecosystem.
But I was only twelve, and unconcerned with the joys of the under denizens of this dead horse suburbia. My pre-teen mind would not absorb the entire ecological gestalt of this thing – in my mind, it was gross, disgusting, nastier than stepping in a pile of dookie. I was just a kid, not some teenager in the throes of an experimental philosophical phase where I was interested in examining the brevity of a jaunt with a livid life condescending into a sleepy death in a fantastic realm of either amazing or horrific possibility where even a horse might sleep with the fishes.
I threw death out the window, and instead turned and ran – screaming! Screaming, running, far, far away from the death of horses into the life of a safe public restroom with its comforting public showers.
I left behind pomegranate waving colors of sea stalks taking root in wet spots on yellowing bones in the red rocks covered in rusty blood into the cold concrete square encasings of cubicles, stalls, with closing casket doors but water… hot and cold water, descending in rainy rivulets from the faucet. Warm water and lily-scented shampoo poured over me, enveloping me, caressing me like love. They washed away hard little black pebbles stuck to my heel by hot gushes of blood, and terrible memories of a dead horse, all down the shower drain and back out to sea.
It is a motion the earth itself would repeat over the years, as the lava eventually poured over the beach, the showers, the streets and the houses, destroying them all. Five years later, the angry volcano came to wash it all away, burying the dead horse beach under fifty feet of lava.
A dead horse wouldn’t have angered Pele, for her battle was with Kamapua’a, the wind god, who looked like a man-pig. He was in love with her, and wouldn’t leave her alone. My aunt told me once when we were traveling from Hilo to Kailua-Kona over Saddle Road never to cross Saddle Road with any pork in the car, because it would anger Pele and she would cause the car to stall. We were to throw any ham sandwiches off to the side of the road as an offering to Pele.
My aunt by marriage is Hawaiian and Portuguese, and she was the one who told me about Ka wahine ‘ai honua, Pele, the earth-eating woman. She taught reverence of her heritage and her ancestors. Not all who lived in Kalapana in the time of my Dead Horse respected Pele. My dad is haole. That means stranger but is used for Caucasian. He and his friends grew marijuana, or pakalo. Back then the high quality weed of the area was known as “Puna Butter” because it tasted so smooth. My brother and I were called hapa – meaning half. We were called hapa-haole or hapa-papolo. Papolo, meaning purple, is the name of a plum – we had a tree of these small, very dark purple plums in our yard in Kalapana – they always splattered down on the hood of my daddy’s Lincoln Continential. Papolo was also the name for the color of the plum, and for African American people.
I don’t think that my dad’s friends growing the marijuana awakened Pele, but I could be wrong. The marijuana plants attracted many loud helicopters that were part of the police drug enforcement program called “Green Harvest”. Maybe it was these copters, swarming over the top of the hillside like flies over a rotting guava that disturbed her? They were generating wind against the hillsides. Hawaii legend says that a huge battle over control of this area took place between Pele and Kamapua’a,. Maybe the helicopters made Pele think Kamapua’a was back to sexually harass her or try to pressure his way back into her favorite home?
Or maybe she was awakened by another thing: My dad and his friends hunted wild boars in the forests but they never left any pork for Pele. Maybe if they had, she wouldn’t have grown angry and taken back her land.
I remember a family that painted the lava rocks gold and sold them to tourists, knowing it was considered unlucky to remove them from the island. They lived high on Kilauea, much closer to Halema`uma`u crater, which was supposed to be Pele’s favorite home. Maybe they were the ones who made her angry. They lived in Royal Gardens Subdivision, which was one of the first places to be hit by the volcano in 1982, the same year we moved away to Hilo.
Pele consumed our old home in Kalapana Gardens in 1986, just six months after the last time we came over from Oahu to visit it. By the time I was back again in 1991, so many landmarks of my childhood were gone. I would never go back to visit the Queen’s Bath in Kalapana, a fresh water spring in a collapsed lava tube surrounded by high cliffs from which we used to jump. I remembered it being as big as an Olympic swimming pool and about eight feet deep, but I would never be able to go back there and dive in. I would never find out it would seem smaller because I grew four inches between the age of fourteen when I last swam there, and adulthood.
The half-dozen neighbors we visited in homes that dotted the sparsely spotted Kalapana Gardens subdivision live somewhere else now. The Star of the Sea Painted Church, where I once attended Catholic services with my friend Stacy, had been moved somewhere else to prevent its being swallowed by lava. It is far away from the long-gone beach, where people used to worship amongst the paintings of the famous and sainted father Damien of Molokai doing his work with the lepers. Two girls giggling outside of the church about the number of times the pastor had them stand up and sit back down again, are long grown. The past has been swept away from Kalapana, along with the landmarks of its remembrances.
The beach of my Dead Horse summer is gone. Pele gave us all an eviction notice. The thick jungle smells of wetland underbrush along the ten mile trip between Pahoa High School – where I attended seventh and eighth grade – and Kalapana Gardens continued for the first eight miles as we headed in. All of the lush greenery ended two miles from my old house on Duff Street now, and the lush smells of sunshine and overripe papaya disappeared giving way to lifeless odors of dust and tar. The ground itself was singed and blackened, and within the coal tar colored surface were rifts and breaks, like the top of an overcooked brownie. The whole area looked like it had been left in the oven too long. I knew then I would never again experience the smell of fresh banana nut bread in the little store at Kaimu.
Where I used to live, there is new coastline stretching out a mile and a half into the sea. We walked out on the rocky surface built of the stuff I once cut my heel on. From here on the roads were destroyed. Our car could not pass, so we walked. Pele’s scorched-earth policy removed all of the palm trees, killed all of the sand crabs, and replaced whatever I remembered with this rugged, uneven surface that cracked like a bleeding skin. The colors were all shades of dark gray and black. Only the clear blue sky with its all-too-high clouds far and away in the distance remained the same. We approached the higher elevations from another angle after we returned to the car: there, we would see hot lava still bursting forth from tubes like fireworks in the night sky, thick and red as blood, blood from the heel of a frightened little girl running.
It is a testimony to the lesson of the Dead Horse of my twelfth summer: the uncomfortable knowledge that old things have to die to make way for the new, even if we don’t want them to. The consumption of Kalapana by Pele continues to this day; and during the month of my fortieth birthday, in 2008 there was an explosion at Halema`uma`u crater. Pele finally completely decimated the Royal Gardens subdivision by taking its last house. She covered what remained of my early adolescence in her hair and her tears – balls and strings of lava – which were flung from Halema`uma`u for the first time since 1982. There are five volcanoes on the Island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island. There are five, but Kilauea is a favorite of Pele and tourists alike.
But by 2009, the US Geological Survey would know that America’s most active volcano was a lot more dangerous than she looked. While there was never a great city the likes of Pompeii to be covered with ash, there was evidence of giant rocks the size of baseballs flung in the air all the way to the shore. The things that frighten us most remind us of our fragile existence and the terrible ways we can die. They make us understand our insignificance.
Sumiko Saulson is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer. Her works include the reference 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction, novels Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, three graphic novels, and the short story collection Things That Go Bump in My Head. She writes for the Oakland Art Scene segment of the Examiner.com. She is a native Californian of African American and Russian-Jewish heritage.