A Knob of Toromiro

By Joseph Occhipinti

N.FINAL.webot even the constant ocean breeze could sweep clean the toppled stone cylinder where Te-Tau stood. With the back of his knuckles, the old fisherman wiped the red soil that clung to his gray-speckled dreadlocks. To the east, facing the rest of the island, he looked upon a sky laden with haze. Only the top of a great statue could be seen in the early morning light—a great bulging nose and disinterested, coral-white eyes floating atop a smoldering miasma of spoiled earth.

Te-Tau came here every morning, to take in the mana of the early day. On this slanted stone he took his first breaths of air; felt the rush of alien coldness on wet, infant skin. Here, from the body of his mother he was taken by his father’s hands, which raised him skyward as a blessing to the navel of the world. The moai’s eyes looked outward—toward where the ocean gave way to sky, and as always, Te-Tau stared with him.

The moon, plump with orange haze, drew an undulating line across the dark waters. To the west the sky was turning pale blue, signaling it was time to move on. Walking down along the slope of scoriaceous stone, the old man prepared himself for the day, all the while looking along the shoreline for driftwood. He carried the obsidian ax by the back of the glass blade, letting the wooden handle trail along the sand. Through his fingers the black striations of obsidian reflected hints of emerald green light.

The stands of palms were slender ghosts, and only the memories of an old man swayed in the breeze. The sack slung over his shoulder looked deceptively full. He had not bothered to bundle up the strings of dried seaweed he had gathered. The world was dying: its bounty all but gone. His children’s bellies would not be satisfied today.

Among strewed reeds that lined the beach, the leathery shell of a sea turtle lay in the sand like the shed skin of a spirit. His foot turned the carapace over, searching for something . . . anything. The old man felt eyes on him, like the heat from the sun burning his shoulders. Perhaps, Te-Tau thought as he waded into the salty water, it was Makemake himself who watched him.

The old man looked up at the feathery clouds coloring the horizon violet and red. It was not hard to see the soaring creatures of the sky and imagine their long wings. They were the sentinels of the Creator, keeping their eyes on him at the behest of their god, the god of birds and life.

“I have salted my life with dignity, Makemake. Honored you, Creator. Where has it brought me? I cannot feed my family. My children suffer.” His voice was thin: thin as legs that parted the water like sticks.

“What do you want of me, Great One? I do what I must.” With both hands Te-Tau raised his ax, then let his curved fingers slowly slip down the hilt as he walked out of the water.

Te-Tau knew the three sides of the island better than most, like where a grove of mulberry trees remained, cradled within a steep wash. Ahead he could see the white spray of breaking waves on the rocks, where a flaccid stream met the ocean. He followed it inland.

Each turn along the streambed brought the hope of finding a standing tree. Yet there were none . . . no soft, broad leaves; no full, red blossoms. Where once soft grass grew from wet clay, only cracked patches of sunbaked earth remained. Te-Tau settled behind a familiar boulder to shelter from the midmorning sun.

On this spot, not days ago, he had found a toromiro tree with silky gray shoots and pear-shaped serrated leaves. In his need, he had given little thought to felling the young shoots. It was no simple matter to have severed them, not when there was so little left of beauty. Te-Tau let his sack fall to the ground. The world was colored with collapse. The soil on his cheeks made the white of his eyes glimmer. He was a part of it, this ending.

Te-Tau dropped to his knees and began scraping the scorched clay with the blunt end of the black glass ax. His sack, stuffed with feathered seaweed, threatened to roll away in the steady breeze. Under the scrutiny of the sun, he dug around what remained of the woody stems and reached the large, knobby roots. He turned his ax’s sharp side and severed them from the earth. There is always more, part of him thought as he placed the roots in his sack. It felt heavy. The wind could not take it now.

The precious strands of soft, liquid-sweetened fiber would be his gift to his children. The knobs of toromiro wood reminded him of the palms he once climbed as a boy, the heavy coconuts he would sever and let fall, and the muffled thump they made when they cratered the sand. Te-Tau headed farther inland, over the ridge, toward what remained of his parched village. He did not follow the switchbacks, heading straight up the slope.

Without the green grass, the earth crumbled as he climbed, making the way difficult. Part of him realized his mistake, but it was of no matter. The old man wanted to reach his family. Without caution, he began to stumble, falling on his hands and knees until they could bear no more. Behind him the sun was a white orb of blame and anger.

The hill crested onto a battered road, scarred by the trunks of trees that once rolled the stone gods to their seaside perches. Waves of heat crested over the barren landscape making the world waver, as if it wanted to be no more. His vision blurred, the world spun and in the tunnel of his eyes he saw the living trees, filled with broad, green fronds; plump with coconuts. Songbirds twittered and scattered among the palm canopy. Te-Tau paused and swept the back of his hand over his brow. Why did Makemake punish him with such memories?

The child’s spidery form was a dark silhouette climbing down one of the slender trees. Te-Tau could see the long feathers that adorned his hair. The old man dropped to his knees; or was he already on his knees? He bowed until the crease of his forehead rested on the parched soil, taking in the burn of the sun.

Te-Tau obeyed the god of birds and life, and his soul lifted skyward. He looked down upon the world of his flesh one last time and saw the shreds of his skin around the coil of his body. The sky was breath and the stars spoke as brothers speak.

The weight he carried now was a circle of stone that lay on his head. With eyes that would never close again, Te-Tau looked outward at the ocean. Of mana and stone, he too now waited for renewal.

 

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Joseph Occhipinti has been an instructor at several colleges and, in addition to teaching, currently co-owns a used bookstore. He has traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad. Particularly, he spent one year living in South America, where coming to know the people who live on the margins of modernity broadened his imagination considerably as a writer.

He received his master’s degree in geography, and has studied creative writing with Tony Earley, Dr. Phil Terman, and Christina Garcia. In 2012, he attended the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival and ReaderCon. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Bluestem, GryphonwoodThe HelixPerihelion Science Fiction, and the anthology Twisted Tails VII: Irreverent.


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