Kites and Orchids
George S. Walker
"So safe a girl can fly it to school without the governess." - Nikola Tesla, before his tragic jetpack accident.
At least Tesla hadn't left a wife behind to mourn him. Leilani leafed through Kekoa's journal. She tried to blink back tears, but they dripped onto the pages, raising tiny welts of misery. The Hawaiian ahe blowing through the house refused to carry away her sadness.
She closed the journal and returned to her workshop next to the house. It smelled of burnt metal and vulcanized rubber. Long folds of colorful silk-asbestos weave draped from bamboo kite frames hung from the rafters. On her workbench lay the fused remains of the jetpack recovered by the Queen's Guard. The Queen had been overthrown decades ago. The Territory police refused to investigate Kekoa's death, but out of a communal sense of kokua, Leilani's relatives from the old Queen's Guard had come. Men climbed into the mouth of the Kilauea volcano, using ropes and grapples to recover what they could. Leilani had refused to view the charred remains of his body. She would not remember her husband that way.
The police had found his Ford Model A truck at the end of the volcano road, one kite and a jetpack secured in the truck bed, the other missing. Until the Queen's Guard had found it in the caldera with what was left of his body.
Why had he flown alone? She'd read the final pages of his journal, looking for clues. There was no hint that he'd decided to kill himself, as the police report concluded.
The next morning she brushed her long black hair, put an orchid in it, then went down to the sugar mill. She began handing out "Day of Action" leaflets to the workers entering the mill. The union had been Kekoa's passion, and she felt this was something she should do for him.
Ten minutes later, one of the haole American bosses came up to her. "What the hell are you doing here? Picketing is against the law."
The ahe from the fields blew against the leaflets in her hands, hiding the fact that her hands were shaking. "Giving out papers."
"Where's the guy who's usually here? Drunk in bed?"
"My husband is dead."
He seemed ready to say something, but the tears in her eyes stopped him. After a moment he said, "You have to leave. Otherwise I call the cops."
She made no move to leave, clutching her leaflets.
The boss shook his head and walked back to the mill. She continued handing out leaflets. The police didn't come. She ran out of leaflets. Most of the workers, Hawaiian, Filipino, or Japanese, couldn't read anyway.
She walked home alone through the sugar cane fields, into the streets of town, where tall palamas swayed in the ahe. Out past the Territory defense batteries, a zeppelin cruised above the ocean.
In the house, she opened Kekoa's journal again. When he was alive, he'd kept it locked, but the tiny lock was easy enough to jimmy. She was unwrapping his life backwards, day by day. He wrote in a messy script, the ink from his fountain pen blotted in places. Mostly he used initials instead of names. She knew some of them, but not all. L. was her, of course. A. was Mr. Anderson, the union lawyer. Kekoa spent part of his time at the union hall, some at the Territory courthouse or jail, and some in the fields.
A. talked of patience. He wants to postpone the Day of Action for six months. He's a good man, but why doesn't our cause burn in his veins?
And a few pages earlier, she found an entry about herself.
L. is sweet and kind and oh, so naive. To her the world is about tourists and luaus, kites and orchids. I love her dearly, but what did I expect from a girl whose family grew up in the palace?
That brought tears again, just when she thought she'd grown stronger. She closed the journal and made her way out to the workshop. This was where she worked her loom, weaving silk and asbestos into colorful patterns for kite fliers. That was how she'd apprenticed, but because she spent so much time with the fliers, she'd become an expert on jetpacks as well. The Tesla-engineered mechanisms were precision-built in Switzerland. The Swiss called them moteurs alcoolisees, because they ran on pure alcohol. Or here on the islands, 190 proof distilled cane or pineapple juice. As her stern anake said, "If all the alcohol from stills went into jetpacks, kites would blot out the sun."
There were no clues to be found in the jetpack recovered from the caldera. It was a barely recognizable ruin of fused metal. She looked at the other unit, the one found in the Model A. It as one of hers. Why had Kekoa taken two jetpacks and kites? Had he been expecting someone else? A woman? Maybe he committed suicide when she didn't show? Leilani's mind was trapped in a Mobius strip of guilt and grief.
The jetpack had fuel in it. Not much. Certainly not enough for an ascent up Kilauea. But it wasn't drained, either. She normally kept them empty when not in use. Either Kekoa had started to fill the tank and been interrupted, or he'd flown the pack and landed before using all the alcohol.
He hadn't left the key in the truck and hadn't left a suicide note. So it must have been an accident. Had his kite broken? No way to know, since it hadn't survived the lava in the caldera. Leilani might have nursed a broken kite to safety. Kekoa was a less experienced flier.
She was no detective. She didn't even know any policemen. When she'd gone to the stationhouse, she'd informed them she was a hoahanau, cousin of the Queen, to stress the importance of the matter.
"Those days are gone, queenie," said the desk sergeant. "Men from America run this territory."
So she'd marched back the next day with her union lawyer, Mr. Anderson. They'd listened to him and given him forms to fill out.
And still, nothing had come of it.
The case was closed for the police, but not for her. There was no journal entry for his last day. What had made him strap on a jetpack and fly into the mouth of Kilauea? Her relatives had no idea. She needed to talk to people who worked with Kekoa.
Leilani walked to the lawyer's office.
Because she had no appointment, Mr. Anderson made her wait in the outer room with his secretary for twenty minutes. Makamae smiled sympathetically before resuming her work. She sat at an American typewriter, typebars clacking against legal paper. The office looked expensive. Everything had come from America by steamer. Nothing was Hawaiian.
She'd tried to rehearse what she was going to say, but when Mr. Anderson called her into his office, the words came out in a jumble: all her frustration with the Territory and the mill and not knowing what had happened on Kekoa's last day. The lawyer listened from behind his great desk, his cravat held in place with a diamond stickpin. As she fought back tears, Mr. Anderson pulled the silk handkerchief from the pocket of his suit jacket to hand to her.
He listened for a long time, but finally looked at his gold pocket watch and held up his hand.
"Now, Leilani, there can't be anything harder for a woman than losing her husband. But cruel as it is, it's no fault of the Territory. I spoke at length with the police at the stationhouse and they assured me they'd looked at this case from every angle. Sometimes we can persuade the Territory that there's been an injustice. When the McBryde plantation underpaid their workers and Kekoa had me go to Territorial Court, I got back that money for him. But for an accident, there's no one to blame. Do you understand, Leilani?"
She forced herself to nod. It wasn't that she didn't understand. But she'd failed to persuade even a man sympathetic to her plight.
"You're still young," he said. "You need to move on with your life. It was an accident. A most unfortunate accident."
She neatly folded the handkerchief and laid it on a corner of his ornate desk. She stood, recovering her dignity. "I thank you for your time, Mr. Anderson."
He shook her hand cordially and Makamae escorted her out. Leilani shuffled back through town. In the distance, a column of steam rose from Kilauea. She missed Kekoa desperately.
At the house, she opened his journal again.
Bartered ration coupons with J. Damned unfair trade! Meat and cheese and other coupons in exchange for a single rubber goods coupon. But L. needs fuel line tubing to repair a jetpack. I would do anything for her.
It was a funny world, where silk and pineapples were abundant, and you had to bicker with dirigible companies for a bit of rubber as if it were platinum for a Tesla coil.
Met with A. about the McBryde plantation settlement. M. tried to flirt again. A. said the Territory ruled in the workers' favor. But he wonders if we'll ever see the money. So I went to the mill to demand it. A boss from McBryde, irate, told me arrangements would be made. I'm sure he was lying.
The lawyer had just told her he'd given the money to Kekoa. This journal entry was from a week ago. There was no later entry about the payment. Had it happened on his last day? If so, where was the money? At the union hall?
She took Kekoa's death certificate to the bank. But as Kekoa's bank ledger showed, there'd been no deposit. He must have taken the money to the union. She could have dropped the matter then, but this was something she wanted to do for Kekoa. She went to the union hall.
"We never saw no money," said the union chief, shaking his head. "And we won't never."
No one at the union hall had talked to Kekoa on his last day. But that's when he must have received the money. Why hadn't he told them? Why hadn't he told her? She'd have to ask Mr. Anderson when the money had changed hands.
But Mr. Anderson wasn't at his office.
"He's at the courthouse for the rest of the day," said his secretary. "Could I help?"
Leilani remembered the journal entry about M. trying to flirt with Kekoa. M. must be Makamae. "No," she said coolly.
"I'm sorry about your husband," said the secretary.
Leilani shrugged, turning toward the door.
"Did you know he came here that last day?" said Makamae.
That turned Leilani's head. "What?"
"He came for the money," said the secretary.
"What do you know about it?" asked Leilani.
"The McBryde settlement."
"Yes. What happened to it?"
The secretary's eyes widened. "Didn't he give it to the union?"
Makamae's brow creased in worry.
"What happened when he came here?" asked Leilani.
Makamae looked down at her typewriter. "You'll have to ask Mr. Anderson."
"He's not here. What happened?"
"Well, they both left."
"No. Kekoa, then an hour later, Mr. Anderson. He said he was going kiting."
Puzzle pieces snapped into place. She remembered the other kite and jetpack found in the truck, the pack's alcohol tank nearly empty. "I need to see for myself."
"I'm going kiting. To the summit of Kilauea."
"But Leilani, the Territorial police said it was an accident."
"They never went up to Kilauea. Only the Queen's Guard did, and only at my insistence."
"You're going alone?"
"You shouldn't, not in your state. I've seen you crying."
Leilani's cheeks burned. "I have to know."
Makamae looked at the stack of papers by her typewriter, then at the grandfather clock. "Let me come with you."
Leilani shook her head. "This isn't your problem."
"But it is! Something happened. This is something I should do for Kekoa."
Leilani felt a swell of anger at that. She didn't want strangers doing things for Kekoa. Not now, when it was too late.
"Have you even flown before?"
"A few times."
"Likely not to the mouth of Kilauea."
"But I feel responsible. What about the money? I need to know what happened after we gave it to him. Please."
Leilani looked at the grandfather clock, torn by indecision. "All right. I'll load the truck and drive to the base of Kilauea at three p.m. Come alone, understood?"
Makamae nodded gratefully.
She walked home, imagining what had happened to Kekoa. It must cost a fortune to maintain an American lifestyle on the islands. Where did it come from? If Mr. Anderson had invited Kekoa to take a celebration ride up to Kilauea... She shuddered.
In her workshop, she fueled two jetpacks with alcohol and lugged them to the bed of the Model A. Then she tied down two kites. One was hers, a bright pattern of purple and yellow silk interwoven with asbestos. The other was a drab olive color that looked like it had come from the U.S. Army, but hadn't.
More and more, she regretted telling Makamae she could come along. The secretary would only be in the way. What could she find that Leilani couldn't? Frankly, there was probably nothing to find anyway. She decided to drive off before Makamae arrived.
But as she was backing the truck away from the workshop, Makamae arrived.
"You're early," she said, as Makamae opened the passenger door of the truck.
"I wasn't sure you had a clock."
What a condescending thing to say! Of course she had a clock, though not as fancy as the lawyer's.
Leilani shifted gears and set out through the plantation toward the mauna looming ahead.
Makamae had changed out of her stylish mu'umu'u into a blouse and high-waisted trousers. They were much finer than the work clothes Leilani wore. Mr. Anderson had high fashion standards for his employee.
"This is probably a waste of your time," murmured Leilani.
"But you want to know, and so do I."
"I don't think there will be anything there."
"Did you know that Mr. Anderson has a pistol? An American Colt."
"A gun?" She imagined Kekoa shot out of the sky like a wild goose. Her hands tightened on the wheel as the car bumped over ruts in the road.
"We might find spent shells."
Climbing the volcano road, she downshifted. The motor growled up the incline. The road eventually petered out in a box canyon littered with volcanic cinders. She pulled to a stop and set the brake. The sky was overcast. Not the best kiting weather, but as she told tourists, "Anytime it's not pouring is good for flying."
While Leilani untied the kites and jetpacks, Makamae took off her stylish hat and laid it on the seat of the truck.
As she had for so many tourists, Leilani helped Makamae strap on her jetpack. She pumped to pressurize the tank on Makamae's chest and checked the hoses leading to the catalyst coils of the twin jets on her back. Then she unwound the electric cable from the Tesla igniter and handed her the control grip.
"I'm sure you've done this many times," Makamae said.
Leilani nodded, then went to fetch the army-green kite.
She adjusted and tightened the bamboo kite frame to Makamae. "Now remember, you balance here. Even if your jetpack fails, the kite will ride you down."
Leilani strapped on her own jetpack and kite, then looked up at Kilauea, steam and smoke rising from the summit. "I'll start first. Do what I do. If you have any doubts, cut power and sail down."
The jetpack was heavy with the full tank. She loped forward like an awkward Dodo bird. When she squeezed the handgrip for the Tesla igniter, the catalytic jets screamed, lifting her up by her shoulders. She held onto the balance bar of the kite as the jetpack flew her out of the little canyon and up Kilauea's flank.
After a minute, she glanced over her shoulder.
Makamae was airborne, following. The roar of the jetpack made it impossible to hear anything else as she climbed. She knew where Kekoa would have flown: a ledge on the rim that fliers called the Balcony. She'd flown there many times with Kekoa. It was a difficult landing spot, and she smiled, fondly remembering the first time she'd taken Kekoa. He'd botched the landing and she had to grab him before he fell off the ledge. They'd tumbled, scratched and bruised but both laughing. He'd kissed her.
The hot backwash of the jets whipped the fabric of her trousers against her legs. She jetted over barren, rocky terrain. Glancing at the pressure gauge on the tank, she saw her fuel was half-gone. Most tourists didn't fly this high; they kited along the coast, watching for a great nai'a or kohala breaching in the waves.
She crested the summit and cut power, gliding toward the Balcony. The mouth of Kilauea stretched out below her, a hellish wasteland. Lava glowed through cracks in the caldera's crust. Venting steam drifted over the floor.
She could hear Makamae's jetpack behind her, but her own flight was silent now. The fabric of the kite rippled and snapped with the wind. She steered toward the Balcony, unfolding air from the silk to control her descent. She landed with legs flexed, then jogged to slow herself as she bunched up silk to keep from blowing off the ledge.
She turned to see the secretary approaching, jets still on, coming in too fast. She finally cut her jets, struggling with the kite's balance bar. Leilani stepped to the side of the Balcony to give her room to soar for another pass. But she came down like a fledgling fallen from its nest. Too fast, she was going to land and then fall from the Balcony. Leilani sprinted forward, catching her just before she staggered over the edge. They both fell to the rocky ground just short of the cliff.
"You saved me," Makamae panted, struggling to her feet.
As Leilani helped her gather the kite silk, the secretary surveyed her blouse and trousers, frowning as she touched torn fabric at her knee.
"A seamstress can..." Leilani offered.
"No, it's ruined," Makamae said. "New York clothing isn't like one of your homemade kites, to simply patch and think no one will notice."
"That's what Kekoa said."
"Whenever I told him he could have chosen better, that he still could, he said he'd married a princess. But you're not. You're just a royal cousin who thinks growing up in a palace makes you better than anyone else."
Where did the secretary's anger come from? "Why are you..."
Makamae looked over the edge, at the caldera hundreds of feet below. "Kekoa brought me here the first time. He had to catch me the same way, and I was in his arms." She hugged her arms around herself.
"What?" Leilani's throat tightened. "When?"
Leilani's mouth hung open and the secretary laughed at her expression. It was not a pleasant laugh.
"No, unfortunately only once. The day he died."
Leilani's heart felt like it was tearing apart. "What happened to Kekoa?"
"He said no. Too many times no. I told him I wouldn't give him the McBryde settlement till he brought me up here. And then he could stop saying no."
Leilani felt her brain was stuck in low gear, sluggish as a zeppelin while American biplanes buzzed around it. Clearly Makamae had been after her husband. But what about Mr. Anderson? And his gun?
"Kekoa would have been happier with me," said Makamae. "We could have shared that money, traveled to America. He said no. How could he say no?"
"What did you do?!" Leilani cried.
"I put the money in my bank. Maybe not the smartest thing. Mr. Anderson would turn me in if he found out. And you, princess, you ask too many questions."
Makamae was facing away, and now she whirled on Leilani. She had a pahi in her hand, a pig-gutting blade. She lunged.
Leilani jumped back, but the blade slashed a rubber hose of the fuel tank on her chest. Alcohol under pressure sprayed over her shirt. She screamed as she staggered backward over the edge of the cliff, falling from the Balcony.
In that moment of panic, she almost squeezed the handgrip, triggering the Tesla igniter. Just in time, she remembered her shirt soaked with alcohol. And with the hose slashed, the jetpack was dead weight. Tumbling through the air, she yanked the Fire Emergency cord on the jetpack harness, shrugging out of it. It fell away and she fought for control of the kite. Air unfurled the silk, billowing as it righted her. She leaned on the balance bar, swerving away from the cliff, out toward the center of Kilauea.
Then came the vengeful shriek of Makamae's jetpack.
Leilani gasped for breath, wishing she could go faster. She was gaining lateral speed at the expense of altitude. With the alcohol evaporating, her chest felt like she'd climbed into an icebox. Glancing over her shoulder, she was blind to where the secretary was because of silk blocking the view above her. She gasped for breath, trying to think.
She aimed for the center of the caldera where glowing lava sent columns of smoke and steam billowing skyward. That might hide her for a bit, buy her time. Her only hope was that Makamae would run out of fuel before catching up to her. Just kite-to-kite, the advantage was Leilani's. The secretary wouldn't understand thermals well enough to kite up over the rim.
Leilani reached one of the steam columns. Smoke and sulfur stung her eyes, blinding her, but she caught the thermal, spiraling upward like a leaf in a chimney. As the alcohol on her shirt evaporated, the air in the column warmed like a cooking pit. The jetpack screamed past, missing her. She kept her eyes closed, wheezing hot air as she flew by feel. She could hear Makamae's jetpack re-approach below and blinked long enough to see the olive green kite.
She had to avoid her till Makamae ran out of fuel.
But then what? Even if Makamae couldn't kite out of Kilauea, she'd hike out. Eventually she'd make it back to town, where she'd tell more lies to Mr. Anderson.
Lies about Kekoa.
Fear turned to fury. Leilani banked out of the column, blinking to clear her eyes. The secretary was below, jets full on, climbing. She couldn't see Leilani because of her kite.
Leilani furled silk, releasing air, dropping. Aiming her descent, she plunged feet-first into the secretary's kite, slamming into Makamae's back. She kicked hard, felt her foot catch a fuel hose beneath the fabric and kicked again.
With a whoosh, alcohol exploded, flames flaring out from all sides beneath the fabric. Makamae screamed. Leilani pushed up away from her, catching air in her kite.
The secretary's kite crumpled, spinning toward the lava like a moth singed by a candle.
Leilani rode her kite upward, the ahe of the thermal carrying her away from the pyre of Kilauea.
Living, that was something she would do for Kekoa.