TESELA

20 May Alofa (A Telesa Story)

It always started the same way. He was standing in his grandmother’s garden with the sun catching on jewelled tones of green, red and gold. This was his haven, a place of discovery and adventure. This was where, as a little boy, he investigated ant nests and watched the tuli bird build her nest. His grandparents didn’t like him to go out the front to the road by himself, especially not to the beckoning ocean but they trusted him to play in the back garden. He would help Mama do the weeding and gather the leaves and roots she needed to make her medicines. Sometimes Papa would take him to the workshop which was a world of difference from the lush living beauty of Mama’s garden. The workshop was steel, sparks and heat but it too had a life all its own. It resonated with energy and Daniel never tired of seeing his grandfather meld earth’s ore and elements into workable, usable things of power and strength. In both places, Daniel felt loved. In both places Daniel felt safe.

But not today. Because as he stood there the scene changed and in an instant the garden had become brown and lifeless and the stench of rotting vegetation filled the air. He was afraid. Where was Mama? He called her name and to his relief, she answered.

“Here son.”

He saw her then, sitting on a bench with her back to him. He walked to her, happiness lightening his steps. “Mama, I’ve missed you.”

She turned and horror stopped him in his tracks. Her face was grey and lifeless and there were hollow sockets where her eyes should be. She smiled and held out her arms to him. It was a grisly thing to see. “Come to me, let me hug you.”

“No,” he backed away, “What happened to you?”

Another voice spoke from the shadows, “How can you ask such a question? You did this to her.”

Daniel turned. It was his grandfather. Angry and accusing. “I told you to look after your grandmother. You were supposed to take care of her. Not get her killed.”

“No, I tried, really I did. I never meant for this to happen,” Daniel protested.

Another joined his grandfather. Leila. She put a soothing hand on Grandfather Tahi’s arm. “He’s right. It wasn’t his fault. It was mine. I brought this on your family.”

“This is the girl you have chosen to love? This bringer of fire and death?” said Grandfather as he shook loose from Leila’s grasp. Daniel had never seen him so angry before.

“Papa, it’s not like that. She’s not like that. Leila fought for us; she risked her life for me, for everyone.”

Leila nodded. “I love your son, more than life itself. He’s everything to me.”

Daniel went and took her hand, grateful for the warm reassurance of her. She leaned into him, raised her lips to his and her kiss was sweet and soft. He surrendered to it, wishing, hoping for the scene to change, for her love to transport them away from a garden of deadness.

But it never did. Instead her touch turned cold and she bit viciously at his lip before pulling away and erupting into peals of laughter. Daniel felt for the blood that gushed from his mouth. Confusion. “What did you do that for?”

It wasn’t Leila anymore. It was that young girl, the one called Ofa who had mocked him with his grandmother’s lifeless body. She stood there in the wasteland and jeered at him. “What’s the matter Daniel? You don’t like it rough?”

“You!” said Daniel. He turned to his grandfather. “This is the girl who killed Mama. She strangled her and then laughed like it was nothing.”

Grandfather shook his head at him with disappointment. “You are so easily distracted by a girl, that’s why you left your grandmother unprotected. That’s why you failed to honor your responsibility as the man of the family. You are no son of mine. You have brought nothing but shame and sadness to us. I wish the ocean had never brought you to us.”

Every word pierced Daniel with bitter pain. Ofa saw his distress and it only heightened her glee. More laughter. Daniel turned on her, “Shut up!”

Grandfather Tahi rebuked him. Again. “That’s no way to speak to a woman. That’s not how we taught raised you. Honor and respect women…don’t hurt them…”

“It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it Daniel?” Ofa taunted him. “You’ve got blood on your hands that all the oceans in the world will never wash off.”

Daniel’s rage built. And as it did, the unthinkable happened. Again. Without any thought, planning or intent. Again. Blood boiled, organs ruptured and cells burst. Ofa screamed. It was a sound of pure agony. Her flesh bubbled and collapsed in on itself in agonizing slow motion. Grandfather Tahi shouted at Daniel. “What are you doing to her? Stop this!”

“I can’t. It’s not me.”

“Then who is it?” demanded Grandfather.

Before Daniel could reply, Ofa transformed back into Leila. Now it was his beloved whose blood curdled and steamed. “Daniel please, stop. It’s me…”

Daniel rushed to her but it was too late. Nothing he did or said or thought could stop it. Leila gave one more agonized scream and then she was a congealing mass of flesh and bones at his feet. “No!” He dropped to his knees, face in his hands. “I can’t stop it. Take it away please. Take the power away.”

The universe wasn’t listening because now it was his grandfather who screamed and shuddered as the wrath of vasa loloa shredded his insides. And all Daniel could do was watch as his Gift extinguished his grandfather’s life until he was left alone in a rotting garden with the haggard creature that was his grandmother.

She stood over him and her cackle was knowing, her words scathing. “I told you my son. I warned you to stay away from her. She brought out the ocean in you. All your life I tried to make you rise above it, be a different man but I should have known you could never escape your fate. Vasa Loloa are cold, cruel and heartless. See what you have done? This is what you will bring to all those foolish enough to love you…”

“What should I do?” Daniel appealed to the woman she once was. “How can I fix this?”

“You can’t,” said Grandmother. “Ofa was right. There’s blood on your hands that all the oceans in the world can’t wash them clean…”

So much blood on your hands…no ocean can wash them clean…

******************************************************

“Daniel!” Leila’s sharp tone jerked him awake. “Daniel!”

There was sand beneath his feet and a soft breeze on his face, the rush of surf against his legs. Where am I? He looked around. He was on the beach in front of their villa under a moonlit sky, standing knee-deep in the water. Leila was beside him, tugging at his arm. “Come back, please.”

He allowed himself to be led out of the water. “What happened?”

“You were sleepwalking. I woke up and you weren’t there. Came looking and found you out here, like this.”

He looked into her eyes that spoke of her concern and in a rush; his dream came back to him. Leila, dying, because of him. His grandparent’s accusations and disappointment in him. It’s not real. This is real. You and Leila. Together. Creating a future together, one day, one night at a time…this is real.

A welcome rush of relief and he crushed her to him with a hungry intensity, kissing her face, her lips, the base of her throat. Her touch, her scent, her taste, her warmth – all a reminder that the horror of his dreams had no place here, not when he was with the woman he loved. Leila moaned softly and gave herself to his fierce embrace. Not for the first time on their week together on this remote island, Daniel was glad a lavalava was a flimsy piece of clothing and easily removed. In a heartbeat, there was nothing between them and he was drawing her down to join him on the sand.

Which is then Leila pulled away. “No way.” She stood up, grabbed her lavalava and wrapped it around her hips, sarong-style. Arms folded across her bare chest, she glared at him.

Daniel sat up, puzzled. “What’s wrong?” He had to smile. Leila – naked in the moonlight – was so beautiful that it ached to look at her. Even when she was giving him that stern look…especially when she was giving him that #AngryGirl face.

“Don’t you give me that smile Daniel Tahi!” she warned.

“What smile?”

“That one. The one that says, come here so I can kiss you all over. Just stop it. We aren’t doing this now.”

He laughed and leaned back a little to flex and fake-stretch his broad arms. Her breath caught as her gaze travelled the length of his body drenched in starlight and she bit at her lip.

Ha, yes! It was the reaction he was looking for. “We aren’t?” he asked, with what he hoped was a smouldering look that was full of promise.

But she wasn’t giving in to delicious promises. Not right now anyway. Instead she heaved a huge sigh and flopped down on the sand in front of him, taking his hands in hers. “While there’s nothing I’d rather do more than bury our issues in mindless sex, we need to talk.”

“Hey, it wouldn’t be mindless. I guarantee lots and lots of careful thought would go into my every move,” he rebuked teasingly as he leant forward to kiss her frown away and whisper, “every touch, every taste, every…”

Leila steeled herself against the silken filaments of fire that he always managed to spark in her, and pulled away. “Stop it. I mean it. This is important.”

He looked at her serious expression and gave up trying to distract her. For now anyway. “Let’s talk. Go ahead.”

Now that she had his attention, she seemed unsure where to begin. “This can’t go on. You’re not sleeping well, the dreams…and now this? What if I hadn’t come after you? Walking in your sleep out here is dangerous.”

Daniel tried to soothe her. “Hey, it’s alright. I was awake,” he lied. “I wanted to go for a swim and didn’t like to wake you. My insomnia has been ruining your sleep as well. I didn’t think you’d notice if I slipped out for a quick walk and swim.”

She didn’t believe him. “I called your name over and over again and you didn’t answer. I was afraid for you.”

Her admission made him feel guilty. For having nightmares of dead people and dead gardens. For lying about them. He leaned forward to kiss her. A sweet, soft, lingering caress that spoke of the depth of his love for her. “I’m sorry. I won’t leave again without telling you where I’m going. Deal?”

She nodded and smiled but he could tell she still wasn’t appeased. “Daniel, we’ve never really talked …oh, about lots of things. I feel like neither of us wanted to think about what happened that day with Pele and I’m fine with it – because that’s our past and all I want is to live our future together.” She gave him a pleading look and he smiled encouragingly, so she kept going. “We had Mama’s funeral and you had your operations and all that physio,” her fingers danced lightly over his scarred chest and then up to his face. “Then we rushed into a wedding and now here we are.”

Daniel didn’t like where this was headed. “Are you regretting us? Getting married? Because I didn’t mean to rush you. I thought this is what you wanted.

She groaned, frustrated. “No, this is going all wrong.” A deep breath. “This, us, together – is exactly what I want. The last few days here with you have been the most amazing time, I didn’t know it could be like this. Our wedding was magical and I didn’t think I could be any happier. Then…” she stopped.

“Then?” he prompted.

“Well, let’s just say, I was wrong. It got a whole lot happier. The past few days…and nights…and mornings…and afternoons…and all that stuff,” she waved vaguely, with awkward shyness, “You make me a whole lot happier than I ever thought possible.”

“Why Leila, are you trying to tell me I’m the most amazing lover you’ve ever had?” Daniel teased.

She did that thug-girl-blush thing that wasn’t a blush and swatted him. “You’re the only lover I’ve ever had, you egg. So hmm…I really can’t say, not without some comparative experiences,” she teased back.

Just the thought of her with someone else set his insides on edge with blue-razed fire. A growl as he gently tackled her and had her lying on the sand. She was laughing and fearless. “How can we be sure you’re shamaaaaahzing unless I try a few others?”

“There will be no other ‘comparative experiences’ Ms Folger-Tahi.” There was no more play in his eyes. “This is it, you…me. And the rest of our lives. Together.”

Again they kissed and again, she pulled away – this time, to gaze into his eyes. “Daniel, I know what’s been bothering you. “

“You do?” He shifted so he was sitting on the sand beside her. Wary.

Leila nodded. “Yes.” And to his horror, her eyes filled with tears and she choked on misery. Before he could speak, she continued. “No, don’t say anything. And don’t try to make me feel any better. I did this to you and I’m so sorry.”

“Did what?” asked Daniel.

But Leila was on a roll of desolate confession now and couldn’t be stopped.

“You’re supposed to be vasa loloa and have all of this,” she waved at the ocean, “at your beck and call. It would speak to your soul, sing to heart, it helped define you – and because of me, it’s all gone now. I know you miss it. I know you’re hurting. I feel your pain every night when I watch you toss and turn caught in a nightmare and I’m so incredibly sorry I took that away from you. I’ve been thinking what we could do to try and fix it and I figure we should go back to Niuatoputapu. There must be some vasa loloa left there somewhere. Someone, anyone who can tell us how to get your Gift back. And if not, there are other vasa loloa on other Pacific islands. I won’t rest until we find them and get answers for what happened to you and how to fix it.”

She wept openly now, bitter wracking sobs that Daniel hadn’t seen since that long ago night when he had first found her by their midnight pool. And just like he did that first night, he took her in his arms, savouring the sweet perfection of her in his arms. He carried her easily, up the beach and on to the deck that flanked their villa where he sat on a bench with her cradled in his lap.

“Listen to me very carefully because every word I say – is true and from the heart. From that place that could never lie to you, could never hide anything from you, or betray you,” he said.

She looked up at him and he paused to kiss the diamond tears on her cheek. “You’re wrong. I’m not sad I have no vasa loloa gift anymore. And that’s not what’s been troubling me. It’s the exact opposite. I never want to speak with the ocean’s power again. Ever.”

The confusion on her face further cemented his inner knife attack of guilt that he hadn’t been honest about his nightmares with her before this. He took a deep breath and then relayed everything. He told her what he hadn’t told anyone. He, Daniel Tahi, was a murderer. He had killed three women and they had died in excruciating pain. He had caused their agony, their blood was on his hands, poisoning his conscience and destroying his peace of mind.

“They were so young. The leader was just a kid, she looked about the same age as Teuila. She laughed about killing Mama ‘accidentally’ and I was so angry, I didn’t think… There wasn’t even a body left afterwards. Just a big mess of stuff on the ground that used to be a person. I did that.”

“Oh Daniel, it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t mean to.”

“That doesn’t change what I did. Because of me those women died. And because of me, Mama’s gone too.” There was a chasm of grief in him. “I should have made her get on that plane. I should have done more to keep her safe.”

Leila’s words tip-toed into the heavy silence that lay between them. “If there’s one thing I know for certain about your grandmother – is that no-one could make her do anything. Not even her beloved son. You couldn’t make her go to New Zealand, especially when she knew Tavake and the Tangaloa Covenant were in town. Your grandmother loved you more than anything and she would never let you stand alone. Do you think she would want you to be drowning in this pain and guilt right now?”

Daniel knew Leila was making sense. He knew it with his rational, logical being but it didn’t change how he felt. “Mama never wanted me to be vasa loloa. One of the reasons they left their homeland was to get me away from the Tongan birthplace of the curse I carried. Her and Papa had so many hopes and dreams for me. Engineer, international rugby player…”

“And you can still be all those things. And more. You will still be those things.” A deep breath. “I know what it’s like to carry a burden of guilt Daniel. I’m the one who Pele possessed. I’m the reason why the Tangaloa Covenant came to Samoa, why everything happened the way it did. When you were in the hospital those first few days, I couldn’t see how I could possibly have a chance at happiness because of all the horrors I had caused. But Keahi made me understand that all the bloodshed and destruction wasn’t my fault. Not all of it anyway. That may have been my body and even my fanua afi Gift – but I didn’t want those things to happen, I didn’t plan them. That wasn’t my intention at all. It was the same thing with you. You were hurt, angry. The most important person in your life had been murdered. You didn’t plan to kill those women. You had no intention of doing what you did. Does that make sense?”

Daniel’s expression was grim. “Keahi?”

Leila made a face. “Oh honestly! Is that the only word you got out of everything I just said? Didn’t you hear all the other insightful, deep and meaningful counsel I just gave you?” She was exasperated. “I’m sorry I brought him up but Keahi helped me see a path through the darkness I was lost in. Right after talking to him, I went and organized my hospital bed marriage proposal.” She nudged his shoulder. “You know, that incredibly romantic one with flowers and candles and everything?”

Daniel didn’t like hearing ‘Keahi’ and ‘marriage proposal’ in the same sentence – but he was sitting there in the moonlight with his very new, very beautiful wife – so he figured he could let that unpleasant issue go. “In my head, I know that blast of power was unplanned. I didn’t even know vasa loloa could do that to people. Tavake never said. But still, the fact remains that I killed those women.”

“I understand. And it’s going to take time for that guilt to fade. Just please, don’t let it consume you. Don’t let it stop you from enjoying the present. And living for the future. Our future,” said Leila.

“So this doesn’t change the way you feel about me?” asked Daniel, hesitant and almost afraid to hear her answer. “You’re not…disappointed in me?”

Leila’s eyes widened in disbelief. “No. Of course not. I only wish you had been comfortable enough to share this with me sooner. If anything, this makes me love you even more.”

“It does?” asked Daniel.

“Yes. Sometimes, you are so good, so morally strong and rich in integrity, that it overwhelms me and I’m afraid I will never be worthy of the love you offer me. Every time you let me see your hurts, fears and doubts, even your mistakes, those little pieces of vulnerability – you are entrusting me with your true heart. With all of you. And I feel like, just maybe, you need me as much as I need you. That I can be your strength and refuge – just as you are mine.”

She spoke peace to his troubled soul and he welcomed it. “You are,” whispered Daniel. “My strength, my refuge.”

They held each other. And the night sky was a worshipful hymn of adoration that resounded over a sacred ocean of black pearl and shimmering mystery.

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