CATTLE

Fall 2012: Issue 92

Spencer Kealamakia

It was my grandfather’s moist palm on my forehead that I felt when I woke in the dark. And, he was saying something, his breath on me, the scent of rot and saliva.

“Was nothing, boy. No worries.”

His calloused palm scraped my forehead as he ran his arthritic fingers through my hair. He grunted and moaned as he lowered himself to lay beside me on the quilt, squirmed as he took off his boots. In the air was the scent of liquor and sweat.

“No worries. No worries.”

He asked me what I’d seen in my sleep.

“I was dreaming about the cow I saw today,” I said. “Down in the boneyard. The mom cow and the baby.”

“Which one?”

“The one with the baby, where the baby is coming out.”

I heard him scratch his unshaven face.

He turned away. Breathed deeply and began to cough. He cleared his throat and wet his lips. Then, just the sound of the house, the wind brushing against the walls, stirring the grass in the yard, a nighttime sigh that rattled and soaked the window, rattled the door—I imagined what the boneyard looked like, out there in this dark. The bending blades of grass rippling under wind and rain that was now pouring into the hollow and filling it with the stuff that would make the animal bodies disappear with time.

In Waimea the rain is a mist that slants with the wind, and comes in sharp and stinging. That morning, when me and Mom arrived at my grandfather’s property, he told us that the weather was turning, pointed to the clouds coming from the east, and I could already feel bits of wet against my face making my nose itch. He had been sitting on the porch repairing a tarp when we greeted him, and when he stood to go inside, we followed.

January of 1959, I’d met my grandfather for the first time. I was thirteen. We’d made this trip so many times that year, me and Mom every other Saturday. The two-hour bus ride took us north, from Hilo, through every Hamakua sugar town—the Pacific to the east and sugar cane fields to the west. Passed over Honoka’a town as the road curved inland, taking us up into the Honoka’ia Forest, and when we came out the land and the sky opened up big and wide. Views of grassland and cattle replaced the stretch of cane and ocean. Men on horseback wearing flat-crowned hats with wide brims, in the old vaquero style, came alongside the bus, clicking their tongues and pulling on the reins of their horses, whose hooves clacked high, hollow sounds on the road as they trotted to and from town.

My grandfather lived a few miles south of Waimea town, out toward Mauna Kea, on the Pu’u Kapu Plain, on three hundred acres of land he’d gotten in a Department of Hawaiian Homelands lottery, back when it was run by the Federal Government: a ninety-nine-year lease with a 50 percent blood minimum requirement. He’d built a stilted, plantation-style house that sat on a hill near the center of the property. Red dirt in wind, rust-scarred roof, made the once white house tawny. Inside, quilts and blankets lay folded in the corner and a large chest containing clothes and keepsakes was set in another. The dining table was pushed against the wall, beneath the sill of the large picture window that looked out toward the western paddocks. Dusty brown, inside, and scents of lacquer, leather, and manure, the wood mustier when the rainy season came, mustiest that trip in December 1959, the last time I saw my grandfather alive. Me and Mom climbing the steps to the porch, following him through the doorway, smelling it—the lacquer first, the saddles and boots, the mildewed beams of the open ceiling—me and Mom put our bags down near the quilts. He folded the tarp he’d been repairing and placed it in the corner at the door.

Later, when we sat down to lunch, he asked, “Is he doing good in school?” and pointed at me with his chin from the other side of the dining table. At the center was a large pot of beef stew simmering on the portable gas burner. Mom filled my grandfather’s bowl, then mine, then hers, telling him, as she ladled, that I always did well in school.

“It’s that Ha’ole blood where he gets that from. The brains not from us,” he said.

Mom glared at him. She fidgeted with her napkin, wiping her palms over and over again. I imagine that she was searching for the perfect phrasing that would save her from an argument, as had happened during past visits. They were still unable to talk about my father, a marine from Idaho who had been stationed at Camp Tarawa during World War II.   

“That’s not true,” she said. “You’re a smart man.” She reminded him of all the work he’d done on his property, how he’d built it up from nothing.

“Not the same,” he said.

“But, you have Ha’ole blood, too,” I said. “Your last name is a Ha’ole name.”

My grandfather kept his eyes on his bowl. It was a different kind of thing, he said, blowing on a spoonful of stew, slurping at the broth until a single piece of beef remained. It was different, perhaps, because what little Ha’ole blood he did have he could trace back to nineteenth-century New England missionaries. Different, because his Ha’ole ancestors arrived here with a Bible in hand. My father arrived in military dress, carrying a rifle. It was a different kind of thing because, as my grandfather had once told me, my father had seduced my mother, who was too young and stupid to know any better. It was different because I did not meet the blood requirement for the lease, and could never take over the property.   

“We had to put one of the calves down yesterday. The leg broke when was going through the chute and couldn’t do nothing. Cost more money to fix,” my grandfather said.

I waited, but he said nothing more, nothing about the blood and all that, nothing about the noise, the huffing and bleating of the calves, only chewed and swallowed, saying it was a shame and a waste.

I had seen the cattle on branding days. I’d watched the ranchers gather the weaning paddock and drive them to the corral. They ran the calves down the chute and into the squeeze. Cut notches in the ears of the females and castrated the males. Tagged them. Pushed irons bearing my grandfather’s symbol into their hides that sent streams of smoke and a sulfurous stench into the air. The animals bellowed and fought and bled. It wasn’t often on a branding day that my grandfather needed his revolver. But, as he was saying now, through a mouthful of mushed beef, sometimes the calves fought too hard.

“It’s in the corral, still. Need take it down the boneyard today,” he said.

After lunch he cleared the table and took the dishes out to the catchment spigot to wash. I took off my shirt and lay down on the quilt in the corner. Later, my grandfather was back on the porch with the tarp in hand. He sat still, threading and pulling, threading and pulling, having a conversation with himself that took place at the edge of his lips. How his hands vibrated almost imperceptibly as he patched the hole in the canvas. How his elastic-like thumb bent back nearly ninety degrees, gripping the needle. He had the strangest fingers. Always when he spoke. When he’d say important things. How he’d put his hands out in front with the crooked fingers spread wide, kinking wildly at the joints. And curving the hands down toward each other, until the outside edges of the palms touched, he’d make a semicircle motion, as if shaping a bowl out of the air. A way to show what he was saying, perhaps, because he spoke so little.

When he’d finished repairing the tarp, he stood and snapped the dirt and dead grass from its folds, eyed the stitches. He said he was going out, wanted to take care of the dead calf before the weather worsened.

“Can I come, too?” I asked him.

“What for?”

“Help,” I said.

“You don’t know what to do.” He was at the door, slipping into an army green poncho. “Hey,” he called to Mom. “You want him out with the weather like this?”

Mom told me to stop bothering my grandfather. “He’s busy,” she said.

“I’m not bothering him,” I said.

She was at the dining table, her face made up, and she was dabbing plumeria oil on her neck. Her red mu’u mu’u lay across the back of the chair beside the umbrella.

“If he gets sick, not my fault,” my grandfather said. He pulled the hood of the poncho over his head and stepped out onto the porch. “Hurry up, then,” he said to me. “The weather is only getting worse.”

“Go,” Mom said.

Perdy would be waiting for her at the front gate. His property bordered my grandfather’s to the south. A squat and dusty old man, ugly even, Perdy had made it to midlife without marrying, and he intended for Mom to marry him. Mom and my grandfather hadn’t spoken since my birth, but it was at Perdy’s request, late in 1958, that Mom and me made that first trip to Waimea. It had been a little over a year since we received that first letter from my grandfather, asking her if she remembered Perdy, and would she like to meet with him.     

Go.

Mom always said that. When I was small I’d ask her to walk to the ocean at King’s Landing, a distance of several miles. “Go,” she’d say, never asking who I was going with, or what time I’d be back. Growing up, I’d known Mom to be a large woman, a slow woman, whose movements were slight, never more than needed. Once, just after the Andrade kid drowned in a cave upriver, I said I was going swimming up Wailuku.

“Go. Do what you like.”

Even as I heard my grandfather kickstart the Speed Twin outside, and the engine revved over the noise of the weather, the RPMs falling, idling, and then the return of the rattling window, the dripping from the awning, the rain striking the metal roof, Mom seemed no more, no less concerned. She sat at the dining table, holding the mirror out in front, so that when I waved from the doorway, she couldn’t see me. We’d meet her in the morning, as we always did, Sundays on the chapel steps.

On the back of the cycle the rain and wind hit us like hail. Fog was rolling in from the Saddle, limiting visibility to a few yards in every direction. We dipped and climbed over hills, through grass that was waist high in places and in others, where the cattle were grazing, mowed to the mud. We slowed for the puddles and paddock gates only. Then the speed again, and the pelting wind and rain. The engine beneath me numbing.

Near the corral my grandfather downshifted. Arms tight around his torso, I felt his body ease with the cut of the engine. We coasted, silently closing the distance between us and the carcass. It was a tiny thing, lying on its side. My grandfather unfolded the tarp and laid it over the mud, beside the calf. As I came closer I saw the wound at the center of its forehead, the brown-black blood coagulated around it. Like the other animals who didn’t live long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse, this calf was being taken to the boneyard, a hollow at the western edge of the property, to bloat and stink, to be infested with flies and worms.

I knew the boneyard well. Often I’d play there, alone, among the wasting animals. I wielded femurs against invisible armies and stomped on horned skulls half-buried in the soft soil. I’d be Eisenhower or Patton charging across the battlefield, stabbing the distended bellies until entrails spilled from the wound. Most often, I was William Holden, screaming, Kill the Japs! Kill ’em!, gunning down the enemy with a knotted guava branch. A shot taken to the chest and I’d fall face-first in the grass, grabbing and scratching at my shirt, gurgling, making what I thought were the sounds the dying make.

William Holden.

I remember the first time I saw him. It was in Sabrina. There he was, twenty feet tall on the Palace Theater screen, in Hilo. William Holden as David Larrabee, the playboy in sport jackets and straw hats. And, there was the exotic, redwood smell of the theater’s banisters and seats, a scent that, even in my old age, brings the scenes and music from that picture to mind. The smell also leaves me aching for a ghost.

See, I used to imagine my father to be just like David Larrabee, in looks and temperament. In the dark, on the upper deck of the Palace Theater, I saw my father to be a handsome man, clever-talking, a blond-haired, blue-eyed man with a warm face. I never knew much about him. Mom didn’t know much either. He shipped off and died on Iwo Jima without ever knowing about me.

If she talked about my father, Mom never said much. She always said she was telling everything she knew. That his name was William. That he had blond hair. I get the height and the olive eyes from him. But, the hands are my grandfather’s.

“Hold here,” my grandfather said, squatting beside the calf, the ends of the rope hanging limp from his hands.

I pushed against the knot with my palm and he finished tying it, looping and crossing the rope over the back of my hand, tightening the knot once I’d slipped my fingers out.

“Lift it.”

I lifted one side of the bundled calf as my grandfather further wrapped it with another piece of rope. He hitched it to the back of the cycle. We were going again, the engine rumbling low as we dragged the calf through the mud of the corral, down the hill, parting the tall grass of paddock five and six, down the side of the western hollow, into the boneyard. There, we unwrapped the calf and he folded up the tarp. A few yards away there was a freshly rotting animal lying on its side, whose outline I could barely make out through the fog.

“Where you going?” he said.

“To look.”

I approached the animal from the front. Its milky gray eyes watched me come closer. Tongue hung from the mouth. I tapped it with my shoe. The wet, distended belly and the stench. My body’s tiny convulsions. I lifted my shirt collar over my nose and still, the stench.

“Boy, we go already.”

As I circled the animal I saw something between its hind legs. A rust-colored thing, an organ maybe. But there were no wounds. I kicked at the grass around it, then pulled until I saw a pair of tiny hooves, hind legs that disappeared into the heifer. I had never seen anything like it.

“There’s a baby, too,” I yelled.

“It’s nothing, boy. No worries.”

      

Perhaps it was coincidence that my grandfather told me the story of Ikua Kaleohano that night, after waking me and asking what I’d seen in my sleep. Perhaps the telling of the story was a moment of grace. As we lay there in the dark, perhaps the story of the Kaleohano family represented the ideal, which, for the first time in his life, seemed possible.

His back still turned to me, he began to cough again, though it was much worse this time. I could feel his body convulsing beside me, clenching and releasing. He swallowed what had been loosened in his throat. I heard his lips part.

“The Kaleohano family . . .” he said.

“Who?” I said.

He had told me many stories, always in the dark, late, and only after drinking. He’d wake me to talk and slur through stories about all the beautiful women he’d been with, or a dead friend that he missed—most were dead—or a time when his father gave him lickens. If I fell asleep he’d nudge me so he could continue. He talked about the burial caves in Kawaihai. The haunted forest down Mud Lane. But mostly, he talked about families. Who was from which family. About so-and-so, who had married into another family. The tempers of families, the looks of others.

“The Kaleohano family, from Kona side. You know them, yeah? You Hilo, boy, so you don’t know. They the ones get one hundred acres up Hualalai. They get fifty or sixty head Hereford pipi.”

He paused. Wanted me to say something.

“You know, one of the boys plays ball for Konawaena. Real fast.”

He waited. Groaned.

“Get one story about the Kaleohanos. Long time ago had one guy named Ikua Kaleohano. He was the one first got that one hundred acres. How he got the money, who knows? Ikua had one wife and one baby on the way, but both the baby and the wife went make during the birth. Ikua, this guy, his heart was broken. That’s what the old-timers say. He came real religious after that, the kind where you pray every day, and every time you talk to the guy, all he like do is talk about God. He still worked the land. Started laying fence lines. Bought couple head cattle. The whole time he was praying. They said he was praying for his wife and his baby and he was praying for himself too, that could fix his heart.

“You try ask the old-timers about Ikua. They going tell you he was a little bit crazy. People stopped talking to him, they stopped seeing him. He never came down Waimea side anymore. For years and years nobody saw him. Then, he started coming town again. He was going around telling people he had one new son. Could describe the boy and all. From his ehu-color hair all the way down to the big toe, which was long and skinny. Ikua was telling everybody that the boy was one miracle from God, ’cause he was praying so long. The people said to him, Ikua, you get one baby but no wife, no woman, how can?

“He said he met one woman one night, up on his property. She had dark skin and gray hair, he said. She stayed with him. He said she went fix his heart. She had his baby, too. New baby. The next day she was gone, disappeared.”

My grandfather nudged me with his shoulder and asked if I was still awake, ’cause he didn’t want to be talking to no one.

“Is that real?” I asked.

“Plenty people think was one lie, but how can? Where the baby came from, then? Some people think was Pele. Me, I don’t know.”

“Where’s the boy? Is he still alive?”

“He grew up. Took over the land when Ikua went make, short time later. He too, went make in his thirties. Thrown from a mule on the trail down to Honokane’iki. All the Kaleohanos come from that line. Real talented family, the Kaleohanos. Good ranchers. I think people believe the story more now after they seen how special that family is.”

My grandfather ran his hand through my hair once more. Overhead, the roof rattled, the window, too. The rain had picked up and its patter against the house was like radio static. Then, all at once, the noise stopped, as if the weather were between breaths. I fell asleep to the sound of my grandfather snoring.

      

He died later that month.

He would not be there when we moved into Perdy’s house a few weeks later. He would not see the wedding. He would never know that after years of trying Mom and Perdy could not have children. He would not have to watch his property pieced and parceled to new ranchers.

When we found his body it was face-down near the corral, bloated and stiff, the purple skin blistering. Flies crowded around the open sores and crawled along the flaking skin of the lips, in and out of the mouth. The face was unrecognizable. I remember thinking this wasn’t anyone I knew. Wasn’t anyone. Just something my grandfather had left behind. When I saw the rigid, bent wrists and the curling fingers only then did I feel afraid. Mom wouldn’t look. She covered her face and started toward the house.

Later that day, I wrapped what was left of my grandfather in the tarp and dragged the bundle out of the corral and up the hill. I leaned back and pulled, pushed with my legs, squatted low to push off again. I was facing the western paddocks as I dragged his body along the ridge of a hill, toward the house, as I strained and sweated to pull it over rocks and dirt, through thick grass. The western paddocks lay stretched out before me, the boneyard in the shadow of the hollow.