Dog Days in the South Seas
[ WOW17.pdf ]
David Helmares pulled the large chunk of coral up hand over hand. The night fishing had been miserable and the early morning sun getting hotter by the minute. The oppressive humidity of February in the Nebula Archipelago reminded him of teaching summer school in East L.A. with no air conditioning. He remembered how, as soon as the final bell rang, he and his students would run out the door and within minutes he’d be on his escape route down the freeway to the beach. He smiled thinly to himself because now there was no escape on a dog day.
Across the channel he saw a set of four beautiful waves peeling along a distant reef. It occurred to him he was actually not much of a surfer anymore and that he could not surf the waves that were so beautiful and yet so out of reach. He had to be back in a few hours because he had to teach school all day, and he realized he might never get to surf them with his responsibilities as a father and navigator increasing all the time.
With a final heave the coral anchor came up on board and the outrigger began to drift through the channel. But instead of raising sail, David sat down and watched the perfect waves in the distance. He thought of the selfdiscipline he’d mastered as Taveka’s apprentice, and for the moment he purposefully ignored it. He emptied his mind of all he’d learned, and within seconds a wave of self-doubt washed through his mind when he thought of his life as being little more than a wandering drift rather than a well-chosen path.
He did not think of the sincerity of the Maruleans’ respect for him. He did not think of the trust he’d earned. He did not remind himself that that there was no reason to second guess Taveka’s faith in him. He did not let these thoughts enter his mind, because there was a reason to question himself deeply, and he knew exactly what it was.
He looked at a vision of surfing’s ultimate dream waves and knew no one had ever seen them through a surfer’s eyes . That fact prompted a single thought so insistent and invasive that he could no longer avoid where his mind was going. Maybe he couldn’t ride them right now, but those were his waves, and his alone. The thought flowed easily through him, and he felt comfortable for an instant until, just as it had at when he saw the flash in the sky at Ka’unua, a storm of black and selfish emotion flooded through him. The same rage filled him as he imagined surfers invading HIS world and polluting HIS waves with conflict. Familiar screams of anger began to well up in him, only to be swallowed in shame when he remembered he hadn’t told the elders about what happened when he saw the plane fly over Ka’unua.
He closed his eyes, and it was only when he could no longer see the waves did his mind begin to slowly clear and find new thoughts to heal itself. Acknowledgment. Confession. Forgiveness. Trust. Love. He stood up and opened his eyes. He would tell his wife about what happened at Ka’unua.
Then he would tell Taveka. And then he would tell the elders. He pulled on the sheet, and the mainsail began to rise up the mast. The fishing craft caught the trade wind immediately. David tied off the lines and quickly stepped back to the tiller to bring her around. He steered away from the reef and set his course.
“You’ve made a serious mistake, David,” said Luan, breastfeeding their daughter while David played quietly with their son, “When Kalala said to tell them everything, you didn’t. Instead you deceived her, and the elders, and my father. This just may change everything for us David, you know.”
“Except we love each other and we love these two.”
“Yes, except for that. But who knows, maybe I’ll be looking for daycare for them in Santa Monica if the elders decide you are not worthy of being our chief navigator. The elders don’t take things like this lightly, I can tell you. So get going, David, or you’ll be late for your students. And then after school you have to go see the principal.”
“I know, I’m in trouble again, just like I always was back in Los Angeles,” he said with a bit of a laugh.
“That’s right David, except this time it’s not a matter of paper work or policies. This is very serious, David,” she said, “And nothing to laugh about.”
“Why did you tell me today?”
“Because when I saw such perfect waves and realized no one else had ever seen them, I had the same selfish emotion run through me that I felt seeing that plane at Ka’unua.”
Taveka broke eye contact with David and looked out across the lagoon to the horizon where a bank of clouds was turning purple in the setting sun. The two men sat in the sand for another five minutes without a word passing between them. Then Taveka stood up.
“Your mistake was not in hiding what happened at Ka’unua. Your mistake was waiting for life to unfold and push you to reflect on it. As a navigator, you are always going to make mistakes. Only if you recognize them honestly can you adjust your course and get to your destination. The error lies in ignoring them in the hope they go away. Of course, David, they never do.”
“Can they ever be undone?”
“No. You can only change course.”
“What about forgiveness?”
“As opposed to what, guilt? Guilt has no currency with a navigator. It is not a truly human emotion. It is a violent act to induce it in others, expect it from others, or inflict it upon yourself. Guilt is not the same as conscience. We Maruleans understand the difference.
“David, every man has something inside him that he’d rather forget, but if he’s lucky he never will because it will often be what keeps him honest. I was wondering what that would be for you, and now you’ve told me. You have it in you to be selfish, arrogant, and maybe even violent. That’s not unusual, but in your case, the question is all in the name of what? Some momentary pleasure?”
“I never thought of ‘localism’ in surfing using those terms, but - - -“
“But what? You know better than to use that word with me. What are you really saying, David?”
“I never thought of surfers and their selfishness as being anything more than common immaturity. After what happened at Ka’unua, I began to wonder if there is something more insidious about it, something deeper. Then after seeing perfect waves this morning, it was triggered all over again. Even after all I’ve learned from you, it is still there.”
“David, you’re a history teacher. What do you think was the most violent confrontation ever between human beings?”
“I don’t know, Taveka, that’s a pretty big question. Maybe the rape of Nanking by Japanese soldiers?”
David had struck a never, but Taveka’s face revealed nothing.
“No. Think about surfing, David, think about selfishness, about invaders, about what do you call them, locals? Think, David. “I know. The Battle of Stalingrad.”
“The German invaders trying destroy the Russians fighting for their homeland.”
“And what made it unique?”
“Hand-to-hand savagery that lasted for months. They fought over a concrete wall, a room, a courtyard, and the frozen dead were stacked like cordwood. Hitler challenged the pride of the German army by shaming them into a battle they could not win. Stalin gave orders that there would be no retreat, and the Russian soldiers were followed into battle by blocking squads. If any of the front line troops turned and tried to retreat, they were shot by their own countrymen.”
“And why did this battle take place?”
“Okay, I see your point. So am I Adolph Hitle r or Josef Stalin?”
“Neither, because you’ve never murdered another human being.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I would know if you had.”
“Because, as the cliché goes, it takes one to know one.”
David was now very uncomfortable. During his years of training to become a navigator, he had been put through wringers by his mentor, and he had always emerged with the nonsense squeezed out of him and feeling better for the experience. He was not sure that would happen this time.
“So many people around the world like to think of Polynesia as a paradise, a place for exotic, romantic adventure. They easily forget the fratricide, infanticide, internecine warfare, and human sacrifice which not long ago were as much a part of Polynesia as palm trees and lagoons full of colorful fish. David, there is a thread that ties every human being to every other human being. It is the ability to commit murder or destroy in another any part of their essential human spirit.
“David, when you saw those waves, and when you saw that plane, and when you didn’t tell us everything about your experience at Ka’unua, you were being tied up by that thread running through you. You failed a test of character in your own eyes. David, there are much more telling tests of the soul. You did not have that thread become a steel cable. That’s the real test, David, the test most difficult to pass, because that’s what happens when murder makes sense. It may never happen to you, but it happened to me, and I failed that test.”
Taveka was silent for several very long minutes. David lost track of the time, his mind empty except for Taveka’s words. Then the chief navigator of the Marulean sea people spoke again.
“I killed a man once, and then I killed again, and then again. It was during the war, they were the enemy, but it was not combat. It was murder. You have not crossed that threshold, and you probably never will. Yet your character is flawed in a way that has shocked you. David, there is no way to alleviate that. You must carry it with you, as I have done. And that is conscience. For you it is but a common thread of humanity. But for me it is a woven steel mesh net from which I’ll never escape because nobody knows what I did but me.
“So here we are, two brothers in deceit, each with something inside him that would blow our worlds apart in the light of day. I’ve kept my secret to myself, David, and I suggest you do the same. The elders don’t need to know what happened at Ka’unua because you will remember it every time you see a perfect wave. Every time you see what you’ve always dreamed of, you will remember the curse of your one failure . I know what I am talking about, David, because it happens to me every time I see a little boy.”
The sky was almost completely dark. Venus and Mars were visible, as were the brighter stars of the Southern sky. A bare rustle of a breeze came across the lagoon. Taveka’s words hung in the thick, damp air. There was no wind to blow them away.
But David was blown away. He opened his mouth and a question formed on his lips, but he was quickly silenced by Taveka.
“I know what you are thinking, David. You want to know what happened during the war. You want to know more about who I am, as if that will somehow help you when I’m gone.”
“Yes, Taveka. I want to know what happened because it seems to be very important.”
“For you it will never be important. You have your own memories to haunt you, the ghosts of your past you wish would go away. You don’t need to meet mine.”
The two men were now almost invisible to each other except for the faint glow from the warm lights of the village coming through the palm trees.
“Tell me, David, have you ever witnessed a death?”
“No, I haven’t. I saw corpses in El Salvador, and I’ve been to funerals and read eulogies.”
“Well, there is nothing I can tell you about it. Nobody can tell anyone about death, I think. You will see mine before long, and it will be partly due to you. You are part of what will kill me, David, because I could not ready myself for Ka’unua until my successor had been identified.”
He paused and saw the tears behind David’s downcast eyes.
“Strange, is it not? That an enlightened people, as we Maruleans like to think of ourselves, would have an important tradition dependent on the thread that binds all humans together? For you it takes the form of rage about waves. For us, it is death at the hands of another.”
Taveka patted the necklace beneath his shirt.
“The chain of navigators is that thread. I will die because of your actions, because you successfully proved yourself worthy. All your self-discipline, all your courage, all your dedication, and in the end I will die because of it. So what does that tell you about guilt?”
Taveka waited for David’s true spirit to come through, and his heart was gladdened when it did.
“Fuggedaboutit!” David laughed ruefully at the old New York saying.
“Right!” exclaimed Taveka with a huge smile, “You will not be a stronger man if guilt is your response to your failing. Conscience does not thrive on guilt. It can only become stronger with love. David, if you are to be the navigator our people need, you will need strength beyond your imagination. You will find it, as I have, if you do not shy away from your failings. Conscience quickens your resolve and steels your determination if it is driven by love, not guilt.”
“Surprising words from a murderer,” said David without thinking.
“Ah, your soul speaks again! Good! You really are the man to succeed me, David,” said Taveka, rising to his feet.
“And as for me being a murderer, understand that what you are aware of from this conversation about what I did in the war has nothing to do with Luan’s mother dying at her birth. Yet I was also the cause of her death, David. Had we not conceived a child, she would not have died, and when I lost her I breathed the poison of guilt until it almost suffocated me. But God gave me a child to love, and that was my way out of the trap of guilt that could have killed me. But as for the blood on my hands from the war, I keep it close to my heart to this very day because it keeps me honest.”
David was ready to stand up, but the sight of Taveka’s profile kept him on his haunches . A half moon was above the navigator in the deepening blue of a clear night sky. For a moment Helmares saw his mentor as a man possessing a wisdom that has been sought be people from time immemorial.
“Taveka, I wish there was a way to share all your knowledge with the rest of the world.”
The mentor turned, looked at his apprentice and could barely keep from laughing at the words.
“Well, David, that is very nice of you, and thanks for the compliment. But I had my fill of the outside world during the war, and it is hard enough just to hold on to my own path, and be who I am to my people, without trying to be a guide for total strangers. I’ve done that once with you, and that’s been more than enough for one old man to handle, thank you!”
Helmares laughed. “Yes, I guess you are right, Taveka.”
The Marulean navigator put his arm around the Californian surfer.
“Of course, the idea of going on tour like some kind of traveling mystic does have some appeal,” he said with a hearty laugh, “if it’s all expenses paid! Problem is, I’ve got a more important destination in my immediate future now that you are chief navigator. So the world will have to somehow survive without me. Speaking of surviving, did you catch any fish last night? And what are my grandchildren going to eat for dinner?”