portion of the artwork for Alicia Gifford's fiction

Alicia Gifford

It happens over the course of a week, a lightness that spreads from her shoulders, her arms, down her rib cage, her hips, thighs, calves, ankles, until only her head has any gravitas, and she has to walk carefully with her head squarely centered so she doesn’t keel over, top-heavy. Soon, the lightness affects her head, too, and then her toes only touch the ground half the time, and then none of the time, a hovercraft of a girl, and one morning, she wakes up flat on her back on the ceiling.

This as her mother takes to her deathbed. Now Millie has to strap on ankle and wrist weights to tend to her mother’s many needs. She sits by her mother’s bed and drowsily listens to the stories of her life, and tries not to think about Sweeney.

Technically, she’s the one that left. Millie’s mother is dying and needs Millie home with her, so Sweeney keeps the apartment they’ve shared for twenty-two months. He can afford the apartment because Millie’s best friend, Priscilla, is moving in with him. And she’ll pay half the rent, just like Millie did.

Right in front of Millie’s face: the flirting, the cleavage, the lingering pats on the fanny, those oh-so-innocent neck rubs. Let’s have another shot of tequila! Millie watching with her stupid good-natured grin pasted on. When Sweeney finally tells her that he wants to break up to live with Priscilla, it hits Millie like yesterday’s news. And that’s when she notices how light her shoulders are. How effortlessly they shrug.

* * *

In Hawaii, Big Island, above Kealakekua Bay, the fragrant white flowers on the coffee trees march along horizontal branches like a procession of frilly brides. Under the rocky topsoil, root-knot nematodes smack their equivalent of lips, dreaming of coffee roots. In the bay, Captain Cook’s obelisk gleams white in the tropical sun. His ancient cannon ball pocks the cliff above the clear, aquamarine waters through which the sunlight streams, forming bright trochoidal patterns on the ragged reef bench. Amidst the finger and cauliflower coral, two puffer fish wag their rears and mate.

* * *

Millie’s mother dies. It happens when Millie takes some time alone at a Starbucks to enjoy a soy latte and a novel about love. Millie knows that her mother loved her, but life had worn her out and love had become a luxury, like a solid gold pen brought out only to sign special documents. She kisses her mother’s cold hard cheek, something she couldn’t do while she was alive, and closes her frosty gray eyes. She sits quietly with her, weeping tears as heavy and bright as quicksilver.

Cremation is pre-paid, and the urn goes into the slot in the family crypt next to Millie’s father’s ashes and the ashes of a brother that Millie never knew. She inherits the small west-facing house perched in the Verdugo Hills, the Lladro porcelains, the blooming cacti in terra cotta pots. She takes off her weights in the house and floats from room to room, pushing off the walls and the ceiling, like she’s in outer space, feeling its vacuum. She looks out over the San Fernando Valley towards Hawaii. She went for a ten-day, three island tour on her honeymoon when she married Nathan. They didn’t consummate their marriage for a week, they were already sick of each other by the time they married, but she remembers Hawaii, its sensuous, breezy languor. She scratches her head and chunky flakes of scalp float a moment, suspended—then sink to the floor. She imagines the chomp-chomp-chomp of dust mites, gobbling her dead skin.

She needs to get away.

* * *

Kilauea oozes. Spits. Her secretions boil the sea. Mauna Loa growls like a wary dog. Pele yawns, shakes her head, and the ground rumbles, causing the roof of a five-star resort to collapse. After three hundred years, Hualalai volcano opens a sleepy eye and USGS geeks make notes, file documents, and drink coffee. They watch, arms folded, waiting for their shift to be over.

* * *

Millie’s mother was a shrewd investor and Millie inherits a diversified portfolio with assets close to a million. She decides to quit her job, lease the house, and move to Hawaii. She’s never been to Big Island, and Millie feels drawn to its violent geology, its newborn status on the planet. Brand-new land for a brand-new life! She researches coffee farms on the slopes of Mauna Loa, dreaming of steaming cups of Kona brew. She circles a number of them that are for sale and buys a one-way ticket to Kailua-Kona. She fashions colorful new sand-filled weight vests and belts, bracelets, and anklets using Hawaiian print fabrics and Malibu sand.

* * *

In Kailua-Kona, in the manmade saltwater pool fed by the ocean, a sea turtle has surfed in on a rogue wave and now is stranded. It can’t make it over the lava rock edge, and without enough sustenance, it will slowly starve. Posted signs warn humans to keep ten feet away from sea turtles. The turtle swims in the saltwater pool, nibbling on the scarce algae that cling to the pool walls, dreaming of verdant limu pastures and benthic delights. She longs to bask on the littoral, feel the sun hot on her hard shellback. Humpback whales breach, dolphins spin, moray eels gnash their jaws and grin madly in coral reef caves. Wild pigs have nightmares of luaus and pork sandwiches. Sweet dreams of fallen papayas.

* * *

Millie steps off the plane and the moisture-laden trades are heady with the scent of plumeria. Masses of vermillion and magenta bougainvillea tumble loosely over chunky black lava rock to greet her. Aloha, she says out loud to no one. She buys three orchid leis and drapes them around her neck, fresh and cool against her skin. As she drives south to Kona in her rented jeep she sees the water spouts of distant whales. She swallows, emits a shaky sigh. She’s rented a lovely oceanfront condominium on Alii Drive, in front of the saltwater pool. Her new life.

* * *

Priscilla has found Sweeney tiresome after a month of living with him. She hates his guitar playing and the spoony songs he writes. She sends Millie a sympathy card when her mother dies but it comes back with Return to Sender scrawled in Millie’s handwriting. She misses Millie, their long, decadent dinners where they’d talk and gorge themselves, drink too much, and stagger to their cars, satisfied as only girls can be after a night out together. She misses Millie’s attentive listening and common sense. Priscilla has always been impulsive, bright about some things, but not much sense. She wishes she could talk to her friend about the dilemma she’s in with Sweeney, but even Priscilla sees the convoluted logic in that.

* * *

At night Millie hears the surf crash. It fills the saltwater pool, overflowing it, refreshing the water. Small fish swim around in the pool, trapped like the sea turtle. The turtle thinks about the place of her birth, the internal mandate to get back there. She dreams of round, white, leathery eggs. She dreams of sea grasses, chewy, green, delicious.

Millie buys the first coffee farm she sees on the slopes of Mauna Loa. It is in bad shape, a rotting, unlivable farm house, choking guinea grass, feral cats, wild pigs, mostly dying coffee trees infested with root-knot nematode. They will all have to be replaced with a resistant rootstock. The guinea grass will need to be hacked down. Gallons of Round-up will have to be sprayed. An irrigation system. She is enthusiastic, hopeful, but also lonesome. She misses the hot, fierce sex with Sweeney, her knees folding just thinking of it, his grudging tenderness and sweet corny music. She misses the self-indulgent girls’ nights out with Priscilla, their gabfests. She misses her mother, her dreamy reminiscences of youth and love, the soporific huskiness of her voice.

Millie’s marriage to Nathan lasted three years. The infatuation burned out before they married, but after Millie had the one-carat diamond solitaire. It burned out after the tangerine bridesmaids’ dresses had been bought, after the wild-rice-stuffed Cornish game hens had been selected, after the engraved but informally worded invitations had gone out.

She’d become pregnant in the first heat of love. They were young and ambitious then. They smoked cigarettes and drank scotch, went to underground films and took LSD for kicks. They saw pregnancy as a romantic disaster, and they made arrangements to take care of it. Quick. Efficient. Clean. Nathan was tender and bought her flowers, and they were glad to get it behind them. She’s always thought she’d be a mother to someone someday, but now, she feels the weariness of her ovaries, the winding down of her clock. Now, she’d settle for some adventure, something audacious to bubble the juices, what juices are left.

The Hawaiian sunset streaks rose gold and scarlet across the molten ocean. Here she is in paradise. The turtle raises its head from the pool water as if to watch. As if to yearn. Fifteen miles away, steam hisses from an ancient vent on Hualalai.

At night Millie bolts awake, realizing that the turtle is trapped. Starving! She’s desperate to save the creature, as if her own life were at stake. She can hardly wait until morning to head down to the saltwater pool, sleeping fitfully. At first light, she heads down to the pool and climbs in. The turtle is heavy but no one will help her. Tourists gawk and kama’aina look away. The reptile opens and closes its jaws. It bats her with its flippers. Millie pushes and shoves. It takes hours and she is exhausted but she finally gets the slippery beast up to the lip of the pool, and then, one last push. The turtle tucks into its carapace and clatters onto the rocks, onto its back, but the next wave rights it, and it quickly swims over to a patch of limu and ravenously starts munching, dazed and blinking. Millie pulls a lounge chair to a shady spot, and falls into a deep, numb sleep.

A new fissure opens on Kilauea, a curtain of lava leaps and spurts, oozes seaward. Mauna Loa shudders, bulges. Hualalai belches, once, twice, coming fully awake. Vog levels become rancorous. At the USGS lab, geeks wake up from their naps and bug their eyes at the hysterical instrument needles, graphs, monitors, buzzers, the incomprehensible data. Within minutes, televisions all over Big Island, on Oahu and Maui and Kauai and in Los Angeles and New York City, Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, and Beijing show earnest newscasters leaning forward in their chairs to report the unthinkable: Triple simultaneous volcanic eruptions.

* * *

Back on the mainland, Priscilla and Sweeney bicker and slap at each other. They scuffle on the floor and call each other asshole. She smashes his guitar and he tells her she’s an irrational moron. They get distracted by the breaking news of the volcanic eruptions, for they both have secretly kept tabs on Millie, and they both know she’s in Hawaii on Big Island, though neither one knows that the other one knows. Their lives have been tainted with guilt and regret. Both wish that things were as they used to be. They cross their fingers and hope.

* * *

The ways of Pele are encoded into pelagic reptilian DNA, and the turtle knows it’s time. She will return to the French Frigate Shoals where the boys are, her birthplace. She looks forward to lazy copulation and the laborious toddle to shore. She doesn’t have a concept of hatchlings, only eggs. Laying them. Burying them. Leaving them.

* * *

As magma shifts and Richter scales jitter, sunbathers and snorkelers, mai tai drinkers and surfers, lei makers, and coffee processors raise their heads to the plumes rising skyward. Fountains of lava open up on the steep western flank of Mauna Loa, and the glowing molten rock moves swiftly, igniting the lush vegetation. The ground shakes violently beneath Millie’s slumbering form on the lounge chair. She pulls out of her weary oblivion, and looks around.

Helicopter blades whack the air, sulfurous fumes blitz throats and eyes, cars clog the highway and people wander dazed in the streets wondering what to do. To the harbor, someone yells, and there’s movement in that direction. There’s a cruise ship docked, but even as the words swirl in the billowing fumes, the ship chugs out to sea, full speed ahead. A shirtless, sun-ravaged man with blond dreadlocks sits on a curb and plays the ukulele. The lava gains momentum and new fissures and vents open on Hualalai, half a mile away. She can see the spurt like an arterial rupture in the earth’s aorta. She yelps when she sees an incandescent river creeping from the mauka side to the makai side of the highway, straight at her condominium complex. People are grabbing boogie boards and snorkel gear and swimming out to sea. She grabs a long length of plastic-sheathed wire cable that’s coiled poolside, the one they use to tie up the lounge chairs at night. The hungry turtle is still munching on the limu-covered rocks. Millie runs down to it and whips the cable around the turtle’s carapace, forming a harness with a long leash. And she drops her weights, one by one. Up, up, she drifts, up, tossed by the tumult of island breezes that mix with the hot winds rushing from the mountain. She holds onto the leash, wrapping it around her waist, and looks back at the steaming, apocalyptic scene behind her. The turtle senses that it’s time to go and takes to the sea, north by northwest, reptilian beacon homed onto the shoals, pulling Millie like a kite. It swims sure, it swims fast, and Millie streams behind, airborne, horizontal, with lips drawn and gums bared and looking forward now, only forward.

First appeared in Hobart (print edition).

Alicia Gifford’s Comments

I wrote this after visiting my friends who own a coffee farm on the Big Island. I was fascinated by the process of growing coffee and the subsequent processing of the harvested beans, as well as the history of Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook, the volcanoes, and the sea turtles, which were everywhere. My friends also have a saltwater pool fed by ocean waves in front of their residence that often has small fish trapped in it. The story’s setting is a straight rip-off of that Hawaii trip. The character of Millie and her situation are pure fiction.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 44 | Fall 2014