The Offering

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The Offering

Eveline ran a hand over Javier’s forehead and kissed his cheek. She lay her head on his chest, listening to the steady beat of the machines doing their job. It wasn’t enough. Without a new heart, her best friend would die within two days.

“I feel like a vulture,” Javier had told her the previous evening, shortly before slipping into a coma. “You know, waiting for someone to die.” He slid yet another card out of its green envelope, opened it, and set it on the bedside table next to the others, which proclaimed “Get Well Soon” and “Happy 2024!” in bright letters.

“People die, especially now. It happens. At least you’re at the top of the waiting list.”

Javier had looked at her and raised one eyebrow in that way, which always made her catch her breath. He had a sixth sense for bullshit and always saw through her fake optimism.

Eveline sighed, raised her head from Javier’s chest, and stepped back. The room swirled and she collapsed into the chair behind her as her legs turned to jelly. Black spots grew and changed shape, her stomach clenched, and buzzing filled her ears. Gripping the armrests with ice-cold hands, she closed her eyes and shook her head, gasping for breath. Eveline couldn’t ignore these symptoms any longer—time for an IBT. She slowly rose and headed for the lab, supporting herself against the wall in the hallway.

“Are you all right, Dr. Collins?” The receptionist hurried from behind her desk to help.

Eveline forced a smile. “I’m fine. I just need some sleep. It was a long night.”

The receptionist nodded, her eyes radiating sympathy behind her glasses.

The hospital staff was used to seeing Eveline there on her days off. Javier had been assigned to Dr. Jones instead of her, and Eveline was glad for that. Her professionalism had its limits.

Eveline pushed open the door to the main lab and looked around, thanking the stars for the budget cuts that had emptied the hospital’s labs of employees. She could probably roll a whole cabinet out the door without anyone noticing. Until she got to the armed guards lurking outside the building, at least. She punched in the combination to the large safe that held the IBTs and various antidotes. The orderly stacks of blue and white tests filled the bottom half of the safe, and Eveline pocketed one.

She ducked into a changing room and pricked her finger. Despite the civil and world wars, the slew of new diseases resulting from chemical warfare, and the famine of 2019, which together had killed three quarters of the US population, education in science, the humanities, and philosophy continued underground. And despite the medieval quality of mainstream scientific education and the breakdown of the economy after the cutting of ties with Europe, dissident scientists had persisted and, with limited funding, created the Ishikawa-Barnes Test, a device that could diagnose nearly anything with one drop of blood. For many diseases, especially the newly engineered strains, the test could instantly estimate how much time you had—it usually wasn’t much. And against all odds, these tests were still available if you knew the right people.

The test beeped, and Eveline clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a shriek. She knew what the diagnosis meant—five injections of Solatriole within two hours or death, which would probably come by midnight according to the orange numbers flashing on the tiny LED screen. The PEP—Pharmaceutical Engineering Patriots—had concocted this disease in 2021 to covertly attack the Chinese, whom the regime referred to as “allies.” It targeted the central nervous system and shut it down within five to seven days. There was a vaccine, of course, but Eveline was allergic to it. She had taken the test just in time.

She rushed upstairs, holding the handrail to steady her shaking legs. She tore the foil off the syringe of antidote, aimed it at a vein—and froze. What if she didn’t take it? A curious impulse once informed her that she was a match for Javier—and this disease would not touch her heart. Hands trembling, she lowered the syringe and sank to the floor, sobs racking her body. She rolled onto her back and sucked in a breath, willing herself to focus. She wouldn’t have much time to decide.

Eveline rested her hand on her heart, feeling its rapid but strong beat. Her fingers brushed against something metallic. Her mother’s locket. She grasped it tightly as she thought about her family. Her father’s plane was shot down in combat. His death left her mother unable to afford chemo—this was before Eveline had graduated medical school—and she soon joined her husband. An anti-gay mob in white sheets had lynched her only brother. Eveline could still feel the sweaty hands of the men who held her down and forced her to watch. Her brother choked and clawed at the rope while laughter echoed around him. Javier was the only human being she had left, and losing him would finish her.

She stood, pressing herself against the wall as the circles danced before her eyes again. The episode past, Eveline descended the stairs. There would be paperwork to fill out.

At 11:30 p.m., Eveline sat on the cot next to Javier’s bed and used her remaining energy to detach Javier’s monitor and clip it onto herself. Tears slid down her face. She should have told him years ago . . . There was no time for regrets. Eveline caressed Javier’s cheek and kissed his lips before lying down.

Images chased one another behind her eyelids as she floated into oblivion: Javier and Eveline laughing over bad coffee, dancing at a Botanical Dregs concert, feeding the swans at her childhood home.

The images darkened and dissolved as the monitor let out a shrill whine.

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Bus #149

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Bus #149

You lean out into the road as far as you dare. No bus in sight. You stamp your feet to keep warm as you contemplate the frosted pines across the street. Straining your eyes for movement, you spy a lone female blackbird plucking and swallowing berries from a hawthorn—you know she’s a female because she’s brown—and smile despite the worry that you will arrive late to your office in central Prague.

To your left, others wait for the bus, each a meter apart as usual. You’ve never understood this—they will all have to move forward when the bus comes. You are standing exactly where you know the back door will open. Brakes squeak as the bus materializes. Thanks to your foresight, you are first at the back door, and you hop into your favorite seat—just above the tire. It is too high for elderly or disabled people, so you probably won’t have to give it up. Plus, there’s a barrier behind you.

You pull out a book to avoid seeing the gum-chewing man across the aisle. His eager mastication makes you both anxious and queasy, and you imagine that one of your uncle’s cows has stood up on two legs, put on a pair of jeans and a stupid, poofy coat, and decided to take a bus tour. The book doesn’t help because you can still hear him. You raise your head and give him a pointed look. The offender stares back in glassy-eyed oblivion. You consider switching places, but sloth and stubbornness glue your butt to the seat.

You close your eyes and whisper, “I feel powerful, capable, confident, energetic, and on top of the world.” You repeat it three times. Your crunchy, yoga-teaching friend swears by it.

A mechanized female voice announces this stop and the next: “Koleje Strahov. Příští zastávka, Malovanka.”

A herd of college students swarm the bus and you thank the universe that you have a seat. Not only do you not have to stand, but neither will you be bumped by backpacks, purses, and other people’s rear ends. You press against the fogged-up window to avoid the teenage man-spreader with dog breath who has taken the next seat.

“Malovanka. Příští zastávka, Pod Královkou.”

The gum-smacker ambles off the bus to his urban pasture. Not that it matters much now, with the students telling inappropriate accounts of their weekend activities at top volume, listening to techno music on poor-quality earbuds, and munching on baguettes.

“Prašný most. Příští zastávka, Vítězné náměstí.”

You abandon your book to admire the castle. You always make sure you look at the castle when going this way. You reflect on how lucky you are to live in a place with a castle. Your high school boyfriend is probably playing video games in his mom’s basement at this moment, and the girls who called you “teacher’s pet” are working at Walmart—not that there’s anything wrong with working at Walmart, you check yourself, but you’d much rather share the bus with gum-smackers, chip-crunchers, and man-spreaders while you gaze at a gothic castle.

Photo from http://www.autobusy.org/linky/149.php

Words Unsaid

I wrote this last year. It is loosely autobiographical: the party happened, but we left immediately and there was no conversation. The thoughts are mine.

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Words Unsaid

I am late. Mother of the year. But when I found out about the preschool Christmas party for parents—and they specifically said “maminky”—it was too late to change my work schedule. So, I am the last mom here. The school is packed, and I don’t like crowds. I feel boxed-in. How long should I stay? Is half an hour enough to be polite? I have chocolate chip cookies. I put them down next to all the intricate Czech Christmas cookies.

Drinking that Coke Zero was a bad idea—caffeine always makes me nervous. So does skipping lunch. The teachers and children have prepared a program for us. All the children come out and line up, singing and playing instruments. Well, except for my kid. She immediately ran off and hid behind me. She doesn’t like crowds either.

I should talk to someone. My Czech is basic, but I don’t like forcing people to speak English with me. Do I look aloof? I’ve been told a few times that I look aloof. I’m not aloof; I’m uptight. I’d really prefer to talk to one of the teachers, but they’re swamped. The mom in the red shirt looks friendly; maybe I should go talk to her.

I say dobrý den and introduce myself. I was right; she is friendly.

“This party is nice,” I continue. “They decorated well.” You doofus! Couldn’t you think of anything better to say?

“Yes, they did,” Red Shirt (Crap; I forgot her name already!) answers. “Is this your daughter?”

“Yes, this is Arvaneh.” I don’t know why I gave her a name that’s so difficult for Czechs.

It takes Red Shirt a few tries to get it right.

“And is that your son?” Call me Captain Obvious.

“Yes, this is Honza.”

“He looks like he’s having a good time. Does he like this school?”

“Yes, he’s made a lot of friends here. Does your daughter like it?”

“Yes, she does.” She is very reserved like me and hasn’t made any friends yet. I don’t know how to help her.

I decide to change the subject. Dale Carnegie says people love talking about themselves. “So, are you from here in Prague?”

“No, I was born in Moravia, but I came here for school and stayed because I found a job. Do you like Prague?”

“Yes, I like it a lot, but I get homesick. Especially in the winter!” I smile. This is true. But I also feel a lack of sensitivity here. But maybe that’s all big cities. Maybe it’s just everywhere now. And I’m afraid of going home in today’s socio-political climate, and where is “home?”

“What do you do here?” Red Shirt asks.

“I’m an English teacher now, but I’m trying to change careers—to some form of writing or editing.” I’m getting closer to 40 but still don’t feel like a real adult. You look like you have the adulting thing down, and you’re probably younger than me.

I don’t really want to talk about myself. “What do you do?” Probably an office job, surely something stable.

“I work at Raiffeisen Bank.” Bingo!

“And do you have other children?” I ask. I’m sure you’re a much better mom than me. You seem “grounded.”

“Yes, I have another boy; he’s seven years old now. Do you have any more?”

“No, just Arvaneh.” Even with just one, I’m afraid of screwing up. I don’t know much about kids. I had no experience with them before. All I have to offer her is love, and it’s not enough. I couldn’t even get her to take a bath last night and she watched Masha and the Bear for way too long, and I let her do it because I like hearing her laugh.

“So, what does Honza like to do?” I’m running out of things to ask. How long have we been talking?

“Oh, he’s into cars. And buses, planes, fire trucks, tractors. Typical boy stuff.” Oh really?

“Arvaneh likes tractors too. And animals. Do you like the Museum of Agriculture?” I lurk on their page looking for free events.

“We’ve only been once. But he sits on the tractors when we visit my parents in the country. He likes animals too; we have a dog.”

“Oh, what kind?”

Red Shirt mentions the name of a dog breed I don’t recognize and asks if we have any pets.

“No. I’d like to have a cat someday, but we can’t now. I’ve always had cats.” I pause. “Those cookies look good,” I say, and proceed to take a few for my plate. “Which ones did you make?”

“I made these.” She points to the Linzer cookies.

“Oh. They look pretty.” I can’t pinpoint the exact difference, but the ones I had in Germany were better. I never eat the Czech ones.

“Do you bake Christmas cookies?” she asks.

I prefer American sweets. ”No, I usually make a gingerbread cake for Christmas. Or pumpkin pie.”

“Pumpkin pie? What’s in it?”

“Well, it’s usually made with pumpkin puree—I use the Hokkaidos—sugar, eggs, milk, and lots of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove.” Actually, my recipe is vegan, but I’m not going to tell you that because you will think I’m being pretentious or condescending. “And we serve it with whipped cream.” I use the spray can. I know how silly it sounds to use that stuff on a vegan pie, but I really can’t be bothered to make coconut whipped cream. The minute they put coconut cream in a spray can, I’m on it!

“Sounds interesting. I only use pumpkin for soup.”

I smile and nod. Your lipstick is perfect. I wonder if that color would look good on me. I’ll look for it at DM next time.

”Oh, I’d like to talk to Arvaneh’s teacher while I’m here. It was nice meeting you!” You’re a nice person, but I’m out of things to say.

“You too, have a nice Christmas!”

Between my broken Czech and the teacher’s broken English, we manage to have a conversation. I kill enough time that I feel comfortable saying a general na shledanou and leaving. The nervous energy has built up inside me and the walk home will do me good. If my daughter wasn’t with me, I would run. But I’m glad I went. Those people are nice—it’s me that’s the problem.

 

Photo courtesy of RitaE on Pixabay

The Familiars (excerpt)

Again, I’ve been neglecting my own work due to ghostwriting projects. I am working on a braided essay of my own, but I will want to pitch that somewhere when it’s finished. Here is an excerpt from a piece I might do more with in the future.

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The Familiars (excerpt)

The most intriguing room of the house for Mina and me was the attic, with its ramshackle, gabled ceiling, its lead window, round like a porthole, its hoard of treasures enticing us from within square, rectangular, and round boxes and lurking, ghostlike, under once-white, moth-eaten sheets. As we opened box after box, dust specks sparkled like tiny bits of silver in the light from the window. It coated our bodies and heads, even our tongues, like stale icing sugar, and caused explosions of sneezes that startled moths out from the crevices.

We found a rough, wooden box packed with gold, silver, and bronze coins with unfamiliar engravings, some of them even with holes in the middle, flaking letters written in strange characters, stiff, ruffled dresses, capes, and men’s vests, all black, some of them moldy and some in pristine condition, brittle marionettes, the strings long ago eaten by mice, blue and green glass bottles that smelled a bit like licorice, and a cold, steel revolver.

And then we spied the chest, ensconced in the corner. It was golden and ruby-red, shining, untouched by the dust that blanketed everything else. A faint, almost imperceptible, hum tickled our ears and drew us into its orbit. The clasp gave me an electric shock as I touched it and I jumped back. Then Mina reached for it and, after some forcing, managed to snap it open. The lid of the chest sprang back on its own. Mina and I hovered over the open chest, our breath merging with the now-clearer hum.

Inside rested a bee. Its body looked like an emerald and was the size of a lemon. Its legs and antennae were black glass. Its wings were miniature stained-glass windows. “So beautiful,” Mina whispered, and her hand drifted over it and touched its head. It burst like a confetti popper into hundreds of live bees, which escaped between her fingers, over our heads, and out the door. Mina and I exchanged a glance—I think I screamed—and we rushed through the door after them, nearly tripping each other on the threshold.

From the Ashes

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From the Ashes (excerpt from my short story)

Zora felt the hot pressure flood behind her eyes again and willed the images away. The taxi would arrive soon and there was no time to redo her makeup.

The sound of a news broadcast caught Zora’s attention as she waited in the lobby. “His life is pretty well ruined.” The TV screen displayed the curly-headed and chinless face of Brock Turner, round eyes staring blankly into the camera. “Those who say, ‘Oh, he’s not really being punished,’ it seems to me, are missing the point.” Zora frowned and dug her short fingernails into the underside of her arm and shuddered as the action awoke a stray memory of other fingers clutching that same arm. A flash of yellow from outside pulled her back and she hurried out the door.

As the taxi crawled through the traffic toward Midtown Atlanta, Zora gazed out the windows, taking in her surroundings. She filed each image away like a keepsake in her mind, inwardly preparing answers to questions no one would care enough to ask her. Zora saw glossy-leafed magnolias in full bloom, the silver of ultra-modern condominiums, banks, and hotels, red stone churches, a wall plastered with concert posters – one of them depicting a woman in chains…

Zora willed herself to stay focused, and looked out the other window. “I’ll see you later tonight,” she whispered to herself as the car glided past the Fox theatre.

Cut and Dried

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Cut and Dried (excerpt from the beginning)

I opened my body to the sun one morning. Warm, emerald life pulsed through me and the morning dew dried on my skin. In our birthplace, we are cared for every day. Humans in hats make sure we have enough water and that there are no green insects devouring our flesh. My only worry is that I often hear sharp cries as our comrades down the line are severed and taken. This cold, silver “snip” invades my dreams at night, shivering me until the sun caresses me awake.

I am told that we’re often portrayed as the paramours of nightingales, but I have never seen one. The only birds that come here are pigeons and they, no devotees of beauty, ignore us. The bee is a much more likely candidate, although he doesn’t sing well. Bees are pleasant company and gentle as they take what they need, but afterward they just fly off, tipsy, buzzing their goodbyes as they return to their queen.

The Adventures of Lofa

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The Adventures of Lofa

Wishes are dangerous things. To long for something that wasn’t destined for you can be a powerful push to do something daring, creative, or even heroic. It can also consume and destroy you. What, then, can a wish do that has built up over 623 years?

One day, over 700 years ago in a land that we now call Tonga, a young artist and shaman named Papahie felt bored. She took her tools and a large stone and headed for the beach. There, she began carving a chimera – a hybrid of her favorite local animals. A few weeks later, this creature emerged from the dark stone with the body and long, forked tail of a tropicbird, the wings of a fruit bat, the long, scaly neck of a gecko, and a humanoid face like a tiki. On impulse, Papahie gave her creation the eyes of her favorite warrior and whispered his name, Lofa, which means “storm bird.” Being of a mischievous nature, Papahie cast a spell: after a period roughly corresponding to 623 years by our calendar, the one-foot-tall chimera would come to life. Then, she hid him in a niche in the cave now known as ‘Ana Hulu, or “Hulu Cave.”

Time passed over Lofa as a medley of people passed through ‘Ana Hulu. Well-hidden behind a cluster of stalactites, Lofa saw all: secret meetings related to love, trade, or local politics, British adventurers, children swimming, students reading literature together (which Lofa loved), birds and bats flying through and exchanging news, and occasionally, honeymooners whispering endearments, unconscious of the immobile listener above them. Lofa saw and heard, Lofa learned, and above all, Lofa wished. Listening to the explorers and tourists, Lofa longed to see the sun and explore the island that everyone described as so beautiful. Listening to the lovers, Lofa wished to love and be loved. Listening to the schemers, Lofa desired to meet the king – and maybe a beautiful princess too. But Lofa’s greatest wish came from listening to the farmers: Periodically, a tropical cyclone, Afa, destroyed homes and crops and caused water to rush into places it shouldn’t go. The farmers were powerless against Afa because he came from far across the sea, from the sky. “The farmers can’t fight Afa because they are tied to the ground,” thought Lofa. “I will be able to fly, and I have the face of a god and the eyes of a warrior. When I finally come to life, I will fight and kill Afa. Just think how the king will reward me!”

At long last, the day came. As the first rays of the sun entered the cave and reflected off the still, blue water below, Lofa felt warmth creeping through his stone body. His lips tingled as he tentatively moved them for the first time. He felt his tail grow pliant and his wings thaw. He stretched his wings to their full extent, feeling the heat surge through the awakened muscles. Lofa’s stomach became soft and, looking down, he saw that it was covered in fine white feathers. He blinked his warrior eyes and filled his lungs with the humid air.

Eager, he threw himself from the ledge. Lofa’s heart skipped a beat as the water rushed up to meet him, but he saved himself just in time with a powerful flap of his bat wings. Intoxicated by the circulation of his own blood, Lofa soared through the mouth of the cave and into the full sunlight. Lofa blinked hard and crashed into a palm tree, surprising a banded iguana that skittered down the trunk. Lofa managed to fasten himself to the tree with the claws at the top of his wings and hung there, heart racing. He opened his eyes slowly and looked around. To one side, Lofa saw blue sky and blue sea stretched to infinity. Below him was a sandy beach, caressed by the waves. Further on were trees in so many dazzling shades of green – palm trees like the one he still clung to, as well as shorter shrubs and fruit trees. Lofa forgot his newfound breath as he took it all in.

An unfamiliar sensation in his stomach compelled him to seek out another palm tree, one with large green ovals hanging from it. Instinctively, Lofa knocked down one of the orbs, which broke open as it hit a rock, exposing white fruit inside and splashing out water. Lofa flew down to investigate. He shivered with delight as the warm, sweet water hit his tongue and flowed down his throat. He used his claws to tear off pieces of the white meat and ate. He sat on the beach next to the broken fruit and felt the warm sea breeze ruffle his silky feathers. The rhythmic sound of the waves would have sent Lofa to sleep, but he was too excited to sleep. The sound of footsteps startled him, and he flew up into a tree.

“So, when do they expect us at the palace?”

“In three days, so we should probably leave soon. Are you ready?”

Lofa’s ears had pricked up at the word “palace,” and he silently followed the travelers. For two days they walked through tropical forest and farmland, Lofa tailing them from above and sampling new fruits along the way. Once, when the two travelers stopped to rest, Lofa saw a flock of birds with feathers and forked tails like his sitting in a banana tree. He rushed to go introduce himself. Upon hearing Lofa’s strange voice and the flap of his bat wings, however, the group started up at once in fright, flapping and squawking in a shower of white feathers in their hurry to get away. As the cacophony died away, Lofa shook off the flurry of feathers that weren’t his. “Am I really so scary?” he thought. Seeing a pool of water in the middle of the path, he alighted and looked at his reflection. “I look different from them, but my wings are stronger and more versatile, my neck is more flexible, and my mouth is more useful than their beaks. I do wish I had some friends, though.” He then flew to catch up with the travelers, who had continued with their journey.

When the large, white building came into view on the third day, the two travelers stopped to refresh themselves while Lofa flew on into the royal gardens and settled himself into a dense tree and waited to see the king – for any kind of action, really, to help him visualize all he’d heard about the royal family and life at court. It all turned out to be surprisingly mundane for Lofa, aside from the lush fruit trees and the princesses, who spent their mornings and evenings in the garden, walking, reading, and talking. “If I could marry a princess, I would make life at court much more interesting. And maybe the king would give me an army to fight Afa,” Lofa mused. Lofa watched the princesses over several days and set his eye on the one who seemed to be the sweetest and most thoughtful – a plump young woman with dimples in her golden cheeks and hibiscus flowers in her shiny hair.

One day when the princess was alone in the garden, Lofa summoned up all his courage and, in his strongest voice, repeated a line he’d heard from the lips of a lover in the cave: “Life is the flower for which love is the honey!”

The princess started and looked around. “Who’s there?”

Lofa glided down to a ledge right in front of her and bowed. “My princess, I am Lofa, the storm bird.”

The princess stared at him, wide-eyed, for a few seconds, then let out a piercing scream that brought several men running from the palace. Seeing Lofa and his unusual shape, they let out a shout and came at Lofa with their clubs and spears – and a net. The princess, meanwhile, had recovered her composure. “Don’t hurt him! He’s not dangerous; he didn’t mean any harm!” The men ignored her and continued to chase Lofa around the garden until Lofa flew through a break in their ranks and up, over the stone wall. Lofa flew until he was out of sight of the palace, along the beach.

“Birds are afraid of me. Humans are afraid of me. Where can I find someone to talk to?” Lofa nestled himself into a tree while he caught his breath, his heart throbbing from both the exertion and the rejection. He looked absently out to sea. “When I kill Afa, all people and animals will respect me. But I have to wait for him to show himself.” Lofa settled into a troubled sleep.

Lofa was awakened by a commotion in the next tree. He opened his eyes and observed a group of flying fox bats feasting on ripe bananas. “I am part bat,” said Lofa to himself, extending one wing and admiring it; “Maybe my home is with the bats. But I should take care not to frighten them.” Lofa glided to a spot on the trunk below the bats and waited for them to notice him.

“What are you waiting for?” called the bat closest to him. “Come up and eat with us!” Lofa clambered up the tree and took a piece of banana. The other bats peered at him over their lunch.

“Why is your face so different from ours,” asked one bat. “And how is it that you have wings like us but feathers instead of fur?”

“My shaman made me that way. She combined all her favorite animals in me.”

The bats appeared satisfied by this answer and went back to eating their bananas. “You can’t open thick-skinned fruits with those flat teeth of yours,” said the first bat. “Do you want me to open a breadfruit for you?”

For the first time in his life, Lofa was touched. “That’s very kind of you, but I like the bananas better.”

For several weeks, Lofa flew with the bats, eating fruit with them and sleeping upside down, sharpening his senses, and learning to follow his intuition. The bats were a close-knit community that took care of everyone and accepted Lofa with open wings. Each day upon waking, the bats hung in a circle and those that had dreamed shared what they had seen. Lofa was astonished to find that a number of the bats’ dreams came true. “It’s our gift,” one bat explained. “We’ve always had it. That’s why shamans sometimes kept us near them, and it’s probably why your shaman made you part bat. It’s too bad there are no shamans left on the island.”

But Lofa could not be completely easy despite his idyllic surroundings and good company. Didn’t he have a mission to fulfill? Lofa decided to broach the subject with Peka, the unofficial leader of the bat community. Lofa unburdened himself to Peka, laying out his wishes and intentions, and proposed that the bats join him in fighting Afa. Peka listened attentively without interrupting, but then sighed and shook his furry head. “We bats are dreamers, not fighters. If it’s for anyone to fight Afa – which I doubt – it’s not for us. Stay here with us. Don’t concern yourself with Afa. When he comes we store food and take shelter in the caves.”

Lofa’s wish was too strong to abandon, so he said a sad goodbye to the bats, promising to return to them after he had killed Afa. Despite his love for his bat brothers and sisters, however, Lofa felt a twinge of contempt for their cowardice.

Lofa looked out over the sea, wondering when Afa would come and who would help him fight such a powerful adversary. He flew out over the water and settled on a coral reef. He nodded to a couple of turtles who swam past. Lofa had tried to strike up a friendship with the turtles before, but their reptile brains worked slowly and he had quickly become exasperated with them.

Lofa was yanked out of his reverie by a splash of water against his stomach. He glanced down to see a silver tail disappear beneath the waves, to be replaced in a moment by a laughing silver face. “You looked so sad; I had to snap you out of it!”

Lofa couldn’t help smiling back. “Is that how you normally make friends?”

“Well, I don’t have any friends who are… what are you exactly?”

“I don’t know. I guess I can be called a chimera. My name is Lofa.”

“I’m Makelesi.” She raised her pectoral fin and Lofa touched it with the tip of his wing. “So, why are you so sad?”

Makelesi looked at him with such frank sincerity that Lofa poured his heart out to her. Being a fish, she of course couldn’t give him advice on fighting Afa, but she was sympathetic and told him she hoped he would find his army. They talked for the whole afternoon and Lofa promised to visit her again the next day. The days followed each other punctuated by his afternoon chats with Makelesi and, after a few weeks, Lofa found himself madly in love.

This was a precarious situation. Lofa wasn’t afraid of fighting Afa, but he was terrified of telling Makelesi that he loved her. Lofa kept his secret for several days as he pondered what he should do. Carve their names into a coconut? Bring her a necklace of frangipani? Recite some poetry by moonlight? In the end, Lofa’s impulsive nature upset all his romantic and increasingly complex plans. One beautiful day, Lofa was sunning himself on the coral reef as Makelesi swam around him. He was, naturally, thinking of his predicament and when Makelesi asked him a question about dinner he blurted out, “How do I love thee!”

Makelesi looked at him in surprise and Lofa wished he could turn himself back into a statue. After an eternity, Makelesi replied, “I love you too,” and, jumping halfway out of the water, managed to kiss Lofa’s lips.

Lofa couldn’t suppress a laugh of relief. “I was sure you’d be angry with me. I though you would slap me with your tail!”

“Why would I be angry?”

Lofa touched her cheek with his wing, then paused. “But… what are we going to do now?”

“About what?”

“Well, can you live outside water?”

“I’ve never tried it.” Makelesi jumped out and landed on the coral next to Lofa. A second later she gasped for breath and started flopping around frantically until Lofa pushed her back into the water.

“No, that’s not going to work,” he said as she caught her breath. “Let’s try it the other way.” He plunged into the sea and came up a few seconds later, spluttering and choking, and paddling with his wings. He scrambled to get back onto the reef, with a strong nudge from Makelesi’s nose.

“Oh, why didn’t my shaman give me gills?” Lofa lamented, sprawling on the reef. “She gave me something from every other animal! Now how are we going to live together?”

Tears ran down Makelesi’s face and mingled with the salty sea. “It’s hopeless,” she sobbed. “We can never be together!” And she disappeared into the waves.

“Makelesi, wait!” But she didn’t come back.

She wasn’t there the next afternoon either. On top of that, he had overheard a farmer that morning saying that Afa was sure to come soon, and Lofa still had no idea how to fight him. He wished he had Makelesi’s sympathetic ear. “After I kill Afa, maybe I can find a shaman who can help us be together,” he thought. Lofa flew up, higher and higher, trying to clear his head and come up with a plan. Faintly in the distance, he spotted a small island.

“Well, it can’t hurt to investigate,” he thought. “Maybe there is someone or something there that can help me.” However, the distance was greater than he had anticipated, and Lofa barely made it before dropping to the beach in exhaustion.

Lofa awoke to find a young woman sitting beside him. To his surprise, he looked up into eyes that were exactly like his own. The woman smiled. “You were made by a shaman. We shamans are not welcome on the big island, so we live here. My name is Papahie.” She was, in fact, a descendant of the shaman Papahie who had made him.

“Shamans!” exclaimed Lofa. “I need your help. Afa is coming and I don’t know how to kill him, and I’m in love with Makelesi but I can’t breathe underwater and she can’t live out of it!”

Papahie laughed, placing her hand on Lofa’s back. “One thing at a time! Yes, Afa is coming soon, but you can’t kill him. Afa is wind, rain, and lightning. He comes from nature; he can’t die.”

“But I must kill him! Afa destroys the bats’ fruit trees, and the farmers’ fields, and the houses, and he dumps water in places where it shouldn’t be!”

“He destroys our trees, crops, and homes too. But I don’t think we can stop him. I’ll tell you what: I’ll call a meeting of the shamans tonight. You can come too, and if there’s a way to fight Afa, we will come up with a plan.”

At the meeting, Lofa was introduced to the other shamans, and he told them his greatest wish. The shamans listened to Lofa, then exchanged ideas in low voices. At the end, Hyvah, the eldest shaman, addressed Lofa: “Papahie is right. Afa cannot be killed. But if we all work together, we may be able to protect our islands. When Afa comes, we will change our shapes and go meet him. If we can, we will push him back to where he came from.”

The shamans spent the next few days preparing for battle. On the last day, when the inky clouds made the sky look like night at midday, Papahie bathed Lofa in vaiola to protect him, and then the other shamans sprinkled it over themselves. Hyvah intoned some words and slowly began to transform until she had the body of a great dragon, bat wings like Lofa’s, but bigger and stronger, and long claws at the ends of her arms. Her face remained her own. Hyvah inhaled and then blew out a tremendous column of air that bent the trunks of the palm trees. The other shamans followed Hyvah’s lead until they were all dragons.

“We will fly to meet Afa,” said Hyvah, “and we will all blow at the same time. If we blow our hardest, it might just be enough to make Afa change direction and miss these islands.” And they all ascended.

Lofa and the shamans flew for nearly an hour, Lofa resting periodically on Papahie’s back, before Afa came into view. At that point the wind from Afa was so strong that it was hard for the shamans to keep on course. “Just a bit further,” called Hyvah. A few minutes later she called for the others to line up on either side of her. “Ready…now!”

The shamans exhaled with so much force that Afa stopped moving forward. The shamans advanced, pushing Afa back. It was working! But one by one, the shamans weakened and ran out of breath. As they paused to inhale, Afa attacked with such force that he scattered the dragons. With a great effort, they regrouped and exhaled again. However, their energy was half-spent and they were unable to push with the same power as before.

Lofa had been clinging to Papahie to avoid being separated from the group, but now he saw his chance to attack. He let go of Papahie and flapped his wings as strongly as he could to advance.

“For king and country!” He cried and, extending his claws, charged at Afa.

Lofa had no time to realize his mistake before Afa snatched him from the air, twisted him in a fierce spiral, and hurled his broken body down to the crashing waves below. The moment Lofa’s battered head slipped beneath the surface, Lofa turned back into stone and sank instantly, all the way to the ocean floor.

The next day, when Afa had gone and the ocean had become tranquil again, a silver tail pushed Lofa’s body upright onto its stone feet against a wall of coral. Tearful eyes gazed into his unblinking ones and a silver fin caressed his face.