Chapter 30: The Crippled Wife

Deborah Kapule’s lush grounds beside the rapid Wailua River were planted with banana and coconut, colorful flowers and vines. Her consort, Oliver Chapin, was far lighter than any other native Libby had yet seen. This soft-spoken, graceful man led them to a hut filled with a huge bed covered in tapa cloth. There Libby lay down, grateful for this expansive comfort after her meager cot in Koloa.

Light filtered through the high-pitched thatch and played on the patterned cloth and the gurgling baby’s face. Libby closed her eyes. A pleasant hum filled the air. What kind of religion excommunicates a woman who has been kind to missionaries and lost two husbands? The native people took many wives and husbands, especially the royalty. And Deborah, despite all her troubles, was of royal blood. Yet Reverend Bingham and all the missionaries insisted that the natives conform to Christian principles. The natives bowed and seemed to accept, but soon they wandered off and did what they liked. Libby snickered in the semi-dark.

After a few moments, she gathered the baby and went to look for Jim. There he was standing beside tall Deborah, looking like a youth next to her huge height. Like the young man who had suddenly kissed her in sun and snow: “Libby, will you marry me?” Such shyness. But after months on the Islands, he had returned full of confidence and sat bragging at her parents’ table: “There will be a silk plantation. My father has subscribed a handsome sum.”

Libby remembered trilling, “James will be a Somebody!”

“And what will that make youuuu?” Maria had mocked.

A nobody, Libby answered now as she watched Deborah fasten a beautiful cloth of red and gold feathers about Jim’s loins. He looked guiltily in Libby’s direction like a little boy caught in some forbidden escapade. Hiding a smile, Libby bowed and wandered off.

Deborah’s plantation was a beautiful mix of wild and cultivated. Small stands of thin-trunked trees gave way to cut grass and water courses gurgling in graceful curves. Following a low wall, Libby came upon a small hut about the size of a large, upended wheelbarrow with a straw roof.

Bending to look inside, she made out a tiny woman whose legs were crumpled under her. Bits of light fell through the thatch, and made the woman’s eyes glitter. In her lap lay a small dog suckling at the woman’s breasts. Libby was horrified. The woman stroked the dog’s ears out to the tips, and let them fall. The rhythm of the strokes mimicked the dog’s sucking.

Libby held herself still and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. The woman’s face was scarred as if from some injury. Suddenly she began shouting. At this moment, Oliver appeared in the grove, calling out a word over and over as he bowed to Libby, “My wife,” he said softly and knelt beside the hut, speaking to the woman in many-syllable Hawaiian words.

Libby’s baby in her arms began to wail. Instantly her chest was bathed with milk. “I must feed him,” she cried and began hurrying back to the hut. Pushing aside the tapa cloth, she nestled on the bed beside the bawling infant, and gave him her overfull breast.

As the baby suckled, Libby gazed upward into the dark. Flakes of light shone through the high thatch. Libby began to nod in the droning warmth. She had no idea that she’d been sleeping until she opened her eyes and found Jim beside her, staring up into the peaked roof. “Who was that woman in the little hut,” she whispered. “The one with the crippled legs?”

“Oliver’s wife,” he said. “I knew her before, when she wasn’t crippled.” He turned to look at her, his eyes gleaming with tiny sparkles of light coming through the thatch. “We used to fish with others, using big, circular nets.” He touched her cheek. “You won’t believe this, Libby, but the people could train the bigger sharks to let people ride them.”

Instantly Libby was alert. “I know it sounds dangerous,” he continued, “but if young men fed the sharks first, the sharks would let the men mount them. Then the sharks and their riders chased little fish into our big nets.” Jim’s voice was clear, yet far away, as if his memory hovered a long way off.

Libby studied his profile with its small nose, high forehead and scrub of beard. He was staring into the tall roof, as if he’d forgotten she was there. “One day,” he said finally, “Oliver and other villagers were fishing. They invited me to help lift and spread their circular net, and pull it through the water.” He paused as Libby studied his profile with its soft beard. He was staring into the thatch with its pattern of palm fronds. “While we fished, we moved in a circle and chanted and shook the net. We were singing, ‘Come into our net, oh big fish, little fish, come into our net.’ Oliver’s wife was with us, walking and chanting.”

Ideas like little fish flickered through Libby’s thoughts. “Throw your baby into the water, and it will become our shark brother,” the native bearer had joked. Sharks and fishes, and the warmth of Jim’s body beside her—she closed her eyes and heard him saying, “The shark riders came very close to us and suddenly a huge shark lunged. There was screaming and frenzied splashing.” Libby opened her eyes in horror.

“Somehow they made the shark let go, and carried her out, her legs dangling, covered with blood. She would have bled to death, except an old man poured some powder over her legs to stop the bleeding. He bound the legs with tapa cloth.” Jim’s eyes were focused on the past. “After that, her legs were crumpled. She could not move them, and she had lost the power of speech.” Jim rested his hand on Libby’s thigh. His eyes, above soft mouth and bristle of beard, caught gleams of light. When he sensed she was watching him, his features sharpened, and his gaze slid away.

“You knew her before,” Libby stated softly, adjusting the baby between them.

Jim drew his hand across his mouth and nodded. “Yes. She was young and guileless. There was a bond between us.” He gave a soft laugh. “We were both under the protection of stronger, more knowing people.” There were strange depths to his eyes.

“Deborah and Oliver?” Libby breathed.

“Yes. She and I stood under their outstretched arms like little shoots protected from the sun.” There was a wistful look on his face.

Libby took his hand and touched his knuckles to her lips. “Her wounds must have struck you very hard,” she said.

He nodded and sat up. “In a week, we all will attend her brother and cousin’s graduation at Makana Mountain. They are now hula masters.”

“She will go?” Libby could not imagine the crumpled body sustaining a journey on horseback.

“She will ride in a traveling hut, with walkers on each side of the horse to balance it.” Jim was sitting on the edge of the bed. Now he turned and smiled. “You will like her traveling hut, like a doll’s house made of palm, with one room for her.” It was as if he gently put aside the things of the past and assumed the attitude of a kind but older brother. Libby felt an unexpected sadness, as if she’d glimpsed a part of him that she could never have guessed before, a part that was innocent and full of sudden exhilaration and sharp pain. A part that might not come again.