Names have been changed: this is a story about what I learned from my interactions with someone, not about that person.
I’ve finally arrived on Hawai’i—the Big Island. A few hours drag by as my fellow travelers work their way through the line for arrivals to the island: presenting paperwork, receiving a post-arrival test, waiting for results. All clear. It’s off to pick up my rental and cross the island.
My car is a bold red Elantra with a bent license plate. Not the boxy, drab sedan from the rental agency’s site. Sweet. I pile a hefty traveling pack along with my normal backpack into the back seat and hit the road with the windows down and the radio playing whatever people with radios listen to these days. Pop songs interspersed with announcements from the Civil Defense Agency. It’s humid and hot but not sweltering. The road winds uphill through tightly packed houses, palm trees, and flowering bushes. Every car on the road looks like it was just driven off the lot. Dramatic billowing clouds float through the upper troposphere.
I take a left onto the highway, winding up a hill and out into an otherworldly landscape glowing under an afternoon sun—the road winds on, outcroppings of lava and dry grass under a painterly sky. A right and the road continues climbing, sky and land and lighting morphing as I drive on, encountering only a handful of cars traveling either direction. Golden light above as I crest the island’s saddle. The radio’s reception falters as the road weaves through valleys. Dense clouds crowd overhead and sudden, torrential rain threatens to overwhelm the windshield wipers. I slow down. The sun hasn’t set, but night has already fallen on the east side of the island.
I grip the steering wheel tightly, eyes straining against the growing dark and wall of water. Everything I thought I’d need for a month or three is sitting on the back seat. I’m alone. Just me, on this unfamiliar and wondrous island, driving to where my host’s friend will hopefully pick me up. Worries start to whisper, and I shoo them away, focusing on the road: I’ve traveled off the beaten path before. The rain eases as quickly as it arrived. The GPS guides me through Hilo. I nearly forget to refill the tank and have to double back. Trick-or-treaters walk along the sidewalk. I’m unsure if the sky is faintly glowing from a cloud-obscured sun or from light pollution.
It’s full-dark by the time I turn over the car at the rental counter in Hilo. I could have flown to this side, but the rental was more economical. And scenic. Minutes tick by as I wait near the Southwest counter. A man drunkenly stumbles off of a bench and hits the pavement before climbing into the truck that pulls up for him. A short while later, new arrivals trickle out into vehicles. My host’s friend had been in touch earlier via text, but I haven’t heard from her lately.
I don’t know much about my host. We’ve talked twice on the phone. She has 10 acres with some fruit trees that she’d like help pruning. Two weeks ago, I’d posted on Craigslist, offering to work 20 hours or so a week in exchange for a place to stay: I was especially interested in working on farms or gardens. Tilly lives in a container house and has a bad back. She has some people living in a second container on the property that she’s trying to get to leave. She eats a vegetarian diet. Aside from that, she’d told me I should bring some earplugs because the frogs are very loud. I’d packed everything I could think of that might be helpful: a variety of gloves, rain gear, a headlamp; I even picked up a tiny five-watt solar panel, just in case I ended up in a pinch somewhere and needed to charge my phone.
A tall woman with her white hair tied in a bun finally approaches me. This is Leslie, Tilly’s friend. She’s had a long, busy day, but she kindly ushers me back to a minivan, asking where I came from, how I connected with Tilly... A young woman named Jennifer welcomes me from the passenger seat, and Leslie offers me a tray with papayas, bananas, some trail mix, and a container with a slice of vegan pizza and some pasta once I’ve piled into the back seat. Jennifer and Leslie chatter back and forth and ask me occasional questions as we drive away from the airport. The night sky unleashes another torrent of rain. The van’s windows don’t roll up.
Jennifer leans over and wipes the steam from Leslie’s view with her shirt.
“It should be easy for you here,” Jennifer tells me. “You aren’t running from something like most the people who come here.”
“Well, I am running from Seattle’s weather,” I tell her after a moment’s thought. They laugh and the rain relentlessly soaks the sky and earth.
Leslie tells me that Tilly is “a bit of a princess.” She needs things done just so. I learn that all three of them have different health issues, but they don’t share any specifics aside from mentioning unfamiliar medications. It sounds like Jennifer is in a similar situation to mine, helping Leslie in exchange for a place to stay. The rain comes and goes as we make our way through little towns, a constant chorus of frog calls providing a soundtrack for our journey. We turn onto a dirt road. It’s rough and narrow, overgrown in places. The minivan crawls along, juddering over rocks and drainage ditches.
We finally pull up at a pair of shipping container houses spaced well apart with a roof constructed across them, creating a large carport. Leslie tells me I can call her if I need anything before I climb out of the car. Dogs are barking somewhere nearby. A small, stooped woman comes out in a nightgown and ushers me inside. The inside of the container is narrow but finished to look quite like a normal home. My room is at the end nearest the driveway.
“Is that all you’ve brought? I set these bins out. I thought you might want somewhere to set your luggage.”
Tilly’s eyes are small but attentive, her skin wrinkled with age. She moves with small, careful steps, and her shoulders, neck, and back stiffly move as one. Long, slightly wavy white hair hangs neatly to her shoulders. Her voice is soft, light and ever-so-slightly tremulous: grandmotherly.
A twin bed rests against the far wall, flanked by large tupperware bins. I unload, then sit at the small table and dig into Leslie’s welcome platter while Tilly tells me more about herself and her place. The property is completely off-grid: we’ll have to go fire up the generator because there hasn’t been much sun today and the batteries are low. She thinks the panels need to be cleaned, and the man who did the gutters should have done that but he didn’t. Tilly is a matriarch with more than thirty children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren combined. Her husband is on the mainland, but he has a condition and needs to stay there to receive proper care. Her molars are gone, so she can only eat food that’s been ground to a paste. There’s a woman, Marisol, who sometimes brings her groceries and helps prepare her food, but the last time Tilly tried to call her, her phone was out of minutes. She isn’t sure when she’ll be by next.
“My phone… it keeps doing these weird things,” Tilly says as I’m working my way though a delightful slice of cauliflower pizza.
She offers me the phone, explaining that a bunch of weird icons have shown up on her screen and her voicemail says it always has a message, even when it doesn’t. A cursory look through the menus reveals nothing obvious, and I hand the device back apologetically. My technological know-how won’t be coming to the rescue at this moment.
Eventually, I ask how to eat the papaya from Leslie’s welcome platter. Tilly’s face lights up, and she shows me, carefully cutting it in two, scooping out the seeds, and removing a bruised patch. Papaya was one of her favorite foods, but it’s too sweet for her to eat now.
After I’ve settled in a bit more and unpacked some of my things, Tilly tells me she needs to go out and fire up the generator. She has a very good flashlight, but it hasn’t been working well—it flickers out all the time while she’s outside. I offer to bring my headlamp along. I might as well learn how to operate the generator now. I realize that Tilly changed while I was unpacking. She’s now wearing a long cotton shirt that ends at mid-thigh. She leads me outside, and I realize that a large oblong section of the shirt has been cut out, leaving from her shoulders to the top of her butt exposed. An eighty-year-old woman’s ass crack ranks high on the list of things I was not expecting to see within twenty-four hours of arriving on Hawai’i. But I digress.
I follow along, watching the path closely and lighting the way. We duck under laundry-lines, and she stops near the end of the container where several five-gallon buckets have been tucked under the house. She pulls one out and sticks a nearby garden fork into the muck that half fills it.
“These are my compost buckets, but they,” she glances at the other container, “put plastic bags in it. I told them not to, but…” She sighs, then her voice brightens. “You could get the plastic out.”
“Okay, I brought some gloves that should be perfect for that.”
“Oh, you can probably just use this,” she says, leaning the fork back against the container before continuing on.
She steps over a large PVC drainage pipe and turns down a narrow, overgrown path next to a large water-catchment tank. Everything is wet from the rain. The calls of coqui frogs fill the night air. We approach a derelict minivan. The back hatch is open and a generator that has seen better days rests inside.
“Oh, they left the battery on. They must have left it on. There used to be a remote. You could just turn it on from inside…”
She checks the tank.
“They must have run it out of fuel.”
She picks up a new-looking gas can from next to the generator and pours in a few glugs after a brief struggle with the no-spill mechanism.
“Well, I guess we’ll just see how long it runs. We’ll have to go get some gas tomorrow. There’s a station toward Mountainview. That’s where she said she got gas. The last time she brought back this one. She said there was something wrong with the other one. I don’t know why… I liked that one better,” she says, gesturing to a badly sun-faded gas can in the grass beside the car.
She shows me how to operate the choke, then pushes the starter. The generator struggles and whines but eventually turns over and fires up. As we walk back to the house, Tilly catches her foot on a thorny vine across the path. She tries to keep walking but eventually just stops, hobbled.
“These stickers are really bad. If that flashlight worked, I could have seen...”
I untangle her feet, and we head inside. It isn’t long before the powerful rumbling of the generator grows strained, then heaves a few times before falling entirely silent. Out of gas. I offer to turn the battery off. It’s warm and wet and the coqui’s calls are constant. Back inside, I talk with Tilly a little about the work she’d like done. She doesn’t have a weedwhacker, but Leslie has a very nice battery-operated one; she’ll have to ask her who makes it and where she got it. I put out some oatmeal, brush my teeth, and spend a short while unpacking. Right before I call it a night, Tilly comes over to my open door.
“This may sound a little strange, but I wanted to say, it’s so nice to see someone without a mask. Not being able to see people’s faces…”
“That doesn’t sound strange at all to me. These are just… really weird times. I’ll see you in the morning” I say, thinking about my day spent traveling, watching everyone’s nervous eyes dart from person to person in the airport, on the airplane, and in the airport again.
Reception is poor in my room, but I do have a signal out here. Tilly hadn’t mentioned being totally off-grid and relying entirely on her phone for internet before I’d arrived. I shouldn’t need to work online for at least a week or two, so I have time to figure something out.
I wake before dawn. Someone is walking around outside. A deep, rough voice says something I can’t quite make out. Out the window in the pre-dawn light, I can see tall grass and some short, rounded trees. It’s dense jungle after that. Tilly is awake in the narrow corridor that serves as a kitchen.
“I hope I didn’t wake you up, moving around out here” she says.
“Oh, not at all, I sleep like a rock.”
She explains that because of her condition, she has to wake up about four hours after she goes to sleep and eat something. I honestly hadn’t heard a thing, though. It was a long day. I go outside right after breakfast, eager to actually see the place. Everything is lush. Bright green day geckos with their blue-rimmed eyes and red-blotched backs crawl over a defunct solar panel leaning against the outside of the container. Strange insects buzz and chirrup from every direction. The sky is cloudy but bright, and the air is warm.
After a few moments spent absorbing the magical atmosphere, I approach the compost buckets. Small clouds of fruit flies buzz around them. The smell is putrid. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but we had a compost heap, and it didn’t look or smell like this. I pick up the garden fork and try to extract a bag from the bucket of slime and fruit rinds. It tears and slides off. Gloves it is.
The compost buckets seem to be high-end maggot factories more than anything else. Once I disturb the buckets, the small clouds of flies become swarms. I spend a very unpleasant and long twenty minutes or so extracting a small pile of bags. The stench almost makes me gag once. While I’m bent over the buckets working, I catch glimpses of the people living in the other container—their legs, more specifically. The owner of the rough voice from earlier tells his dogs to shut up whenever they start barking.
Eventually, I wash the slime off my gloves, go inside, and let Tilly know that the buckets have been dealt with. I suggest that maybe I should work on the overgrown path to the generator since she often has to go out to it in the dark. She agrees, saying that she found a weedwacker that’s supposed to be very good on Craigslist—since it’s gas-powered, she won’t have to worry about the batteries running out. She wrote to them, but they haven’t responded yet. Maybe I could clear out some of the cane grass along the trail, though. The best thing to do if I can’t cut it is to just dig it out. She shows me where she has a few tools under a cover outside. Most of them are rusty or broken or both. Oh, and she has a machete. She pulls an old machete from under the kitchen shelf. The entire blade is rusted and flaking. But maybe I can just grind it sharp on one of the concrete blocks outside. Skeptical but willing to give most anything a shot, I take the relic outside and try to grind it. It’s about as effective as I expected.
I start digging out the cane grass. It’s slow going, and I’m extremely glad I brought a pair of leather gloves. Red rashes and hives blot my arms and legs. Apparently, my childhood allergies never sorted themselves out. I’m disappointed but not surprised to find that my body is just as reactive to the outdoors of Hawai’i as to those of eastern Washington. At least I packed anti-itch cream. Tilly comes outside after a while. It’s time to go into town.
“First, we’ll have to check the transmission fluid. The transmission is cracked, so we need to check that before we go anywhere.”
I follow her to her vehicle and am surprised when we stop in front of a minivan I had taken for a derelict yard ornament, not unlike the generator’s shelter.
“It’s old, but it does exactly what I need.”
We spend the next 15 minutes preparing to go. She shows me the precise manner in which the broken sliding door and back hatch must be opened and closed: very gently. The window on the sliding door feels like it’s about to fall off as I gently press it closed. The front windows don’t appear to work. The entire back of the van is occupied by a bare mattress for reasons that Tilly doesn’t volunteer. The passenger door can only be opened by reaching through the window and popping the inside handle.
I fetch the gas cans. The old one has a visible crack on the upper plastic, but the inner liner appears to be intact. I bring it out and show Tilly the crack.
“This is probably why they wouldn’t fill it.”
“Oh, well… it doesn’t look like it’s all the way through. Let’s bring that one too.”
Tilly stacks no less than three pads and pillows onto her seat, explaining that this is the only way she can sit in the car to drive because of her back. She climbs atop the pile, carefully positioning herself, and we head out down a long unpaved road and past dense jungle that threatens to reclaim the road. Every so often, an open field runs along the road. As we pass each driveway, she tells me a little about the people living there. The man next door is strange, but she doesn’t elaborate on how exactly. One man grows flowers on his property, but he lives in a house further down the road. The car crawls along as Tilly babies the cracked transmission. She explains that there’s some other issue; she’s afraid to drive too far in her car because it could break down. Marisol’s husband worked on her car recently and fixed some things, but he found an issue with a belt. She also needs to renew her tabs: people had told her that with covid going on, she didn’t need to get them, but she’s not sure that’s still true.
“It’s good to live out here. You can’t come out here without purpose,” she tells me as we approach a narrow paved road.
“I wanted to put some wild ginger in your room. It smells so nice. Oh, here. Cut one off.”
She pulls the car to the side of the deserted road. Large white flowers stand out against a thick, gleaming emerald backdrop of leaves. I climb out and cut off a stem with the knife she offers me. The flowers and leaves have a healthy population of bugs and slugs, and the scent is pungently floral. Not something I particularly enjoy. I place it in the empty yogurt container Tilly supplied. She had talked about wild ginger at least three times since my arrival last night, and I appreciate that she thought I’d like it.
The road is a drive-thru botanical garden. Birds of paradise and countless more flowers and plants I can’t identify crowd the single lane of asphalt. We eventually approach the main highway. Traffic is slow and light. Tilly talks again about how she isn’t sure where the gas station is. A mile or less down the road, we turn into a large parking lot. This is a market that has good cabbage, she tells me. She’ll also pick up some avocados because Marisol didn’t bring any last time and she loves avocados. They’re one of her favorite foods.
“It’s so crowded! Where will I park?”
She eventually pulls into one of a few open spaces and spends a minute or two fixing her hair. I can’t help thinking of her obscenely open-backed nightshirt as I stand outside and look around the parking lot. There are several seedlings in pots sitting under a lean-to next to one of the buildings.
“I’m glad that you’re patient,” Tilly tells me as she emerges from the minivan.
A moment later:
“OH! I forgot to bring a mask!”
I offer to grab groceries for her if she tells me what she needs.
“Well, I need to look at what they have.”
“I… uh, I’ll see if they have any masks.” I’d left my spares at the house.
A young woman is working the small but well-stocked market. The nearest place that might have masks is the gas station up the road. I relay this information to Tilly.
“Well, I… I guess I’ll go inside and see if they kick me out.”
I’m surprised, given the clearly posted notices about the police-enforced ordinance, but I also don’t feel comfortable arguing with the person who is giving me a place to stay. I trail a few steps behind her as she goes in and rifles through the vegetables, picking out numerous avocados along with some greens and carrots. The store’s clerk doesn’t comment. The small space is empty. Tilly asks me if I like pineapple and picks one out for us, then leaves me with her debit card, and I take the items to the counter to pay.
Out in the car, Tilly tells me that the market is a lot bigger than it used to be. Before it was just one building—now it’s two. She continues up the road, turning into Mountain View Village and missing the gas station. She frets that now she’ll have to make a left turn: she tries to avoid them. But she manages and makes it to the gas station. I immediately go inside and buy a mask for my host. We fill up the gas cans, and I load them into the car. We’re driving back down the hill when a sign advertising bee pollen catches Tilly’s eye. She stops in the middle of the highway, cars patiently waiting behind her while she ponders for about fifteen seconds before deciding to turn into the park where the stand is. No one honks. We stop at a public spring behind the park and fill two gallon jugs with water.
“What’s bee pollen for?” I ask, genuinely curious.
“Well, when you get to be my age… it’s good for you.” She doesn’t offer much of an actual explanation, but she seems fixated on it. She tells me that she doesn’t have any cash on her. I offer to go check the price—it’s thirty dollars for an eight-ounce bag. Unable to tell if that’s a screaming deal or highway robbery, I obediently relay the information to my host. Tilly is aghast: Island Naturals has it much cheaper. Regardless, she wanders over to look at the stand and exchange a few words with the man running it, as though her disbelief will somehow earn her a discount. It doesn’t.
Our next stop is the post office. I go inside and locate her P.O. Box. Tilly is surprised when I return empty-handed: she was expecting some things. She suggests that I pick up anything I really need from the general store next door. She’s had enough driving for today and wants to head back. I quickly walk the aisles and grab a jar of peanut butter and some bread. I have a few bananas from Leslie’s welcome platter that I can use in place of jam and the abundance of snacks and nuts that I packed along. There are also a few tubs of cooked staples in the fridge that Tilly offered to me.
During our drive, assorted topics come up. She begins to talk about the different groups of people on the island, and I cringe internally, suspicious of where this conversation may be headed.
“The Filipinos, most of them work very hard. And I hate to say this…” she pauses for a moment, almost as though she might actually hate to say it, “but the Native Hawaiians, most of them, well… it’s like they just want to enjoy life. I don’t understand it. I could never do that.”
I don’t engage, and the conversation quickly diverts to other topics. Eventually, I ask Tilly which things I should focus on around the property; there’s obviously more to do than I can get done during my stay, especially given the tools I have to work with.
“Pruning the trees would be good.”
There are about twenty of them around the property, and they’ve all been neglected for years.
“Which trees should I focus on?”
“Hmm… the avocados. Well, maybe we can get Marisol’s husband to bring his chainsaw and just cut the tops off of them. The trees are too tall.”
“That might be a little difficult to do safely, but I’ll go ahead and start on the lower branches. Is there anything I need to know? I read a bit, but I’ve never pruned a tree.”
“Well, just don’t cut any of the branches that have fruit on them. You can cut anything else.”
On the way back, the smell of gas reaches us in the front seats. The old can is leaking, but only a little. There isn’t much we can do but keep driving. I ask about a ladder for cleaning the solar panels, and she tells me it’s on the far side of the other container. I’ll have to do that while the other people are gone. The other people’s car is gone by the time we pull up.
I hunt around for the ladder and eventually find it resting on top of a dog pen inside the small, fenced yard. There are five dogs, three of them in a 4’x8’ pen and two in large dog carriers. They bark at me for a few minutes before quieting down, watching me attentively as they fidget and shift in their small enclosures.
The roof appears lightly built, but the extension ladder is in passable condition. I lean it against the gutter and make adjustments, trying to level it. Tilly comes over and starts advising me on the best way to position it from the other side of the fence. She tells me that she can’t hold it steady. I politely ignore her and focus on what I’m doing: if I injure myself, no one is going to be able to help me.
I creep up the ladder. I am afraid of heights that I can fall from. The gutter flexes slightly under the ladder’s weight. Eventually, I reach the sloped sheet metal roof. The solar panels are far out of reach. I would have to climb up top and walk over to them. That’s enough for now, I decide, crawling back down. The panels weren’t visibly dirty, but I couldn’t get a very good look at them.
Afterwards, I put that ladder away and start some pruning down the driveway where some of the avocado trees are located. It’s slow going with the tools at hand: a broken-handled pair of rusty shears that aren’t flush and a pole-saw that I unbolt from its pole when I need a hand saw. I make it through a few trees, and the tiny mosquitoes make it through a teaspoon or so of my blood, leaving huge welts wherever they bite. Ahh, the joys of an over-excitable immune system.
Tilly’s door is closed when I come inside for water or to dodge the frequent rain showers. I feel like I’m sweating constantly and have to drink far more than I’m used to. I spend the rest of the afternoon pruning. My mind starts mulling over my trip so far, and I’m unsure of how to feel. Some things about Tilly aren’t sitting well with me. The whole experience has been much weirder than I expected, and I like to think I’m fairly open-minded. It’s certainly difficult to get anything done without the tools for the job. But, I did agree to come out and help her, and she’s giving me a place to stay. I could probably get a lot done in a week. She did wait a week for me to get here, after all.
I know that I won’t be staying here long, though. I won’t learn much in this place, and a lot of little things about this frail, elderly woman are bothering me.
Toward evening, while I’m sitting out a bout of rain in my room, Tilly emerges from the far end of the container.
“I’m sorry, I just needed to rest after all of that.”
“It’s fine, I’ve just been out pruning.”
“Did you do anything else?”
“No, there are a lot of trees.”
“I understand it must be frustrating, not really having the tools you need…”
“It’s okay, as long as you understand I won’t be able to get things done as quickly. And, I don’t want to go up the ladder without someone to hold it. I don’t want to get myself killed out here.”
“Oh, well, I was impressed that you went up the ladder at all. That was very brave of you. I tried calling the solar man to see if he could clean it, but they’re busy for months. Maybe Marisol’s husband can hold it for you while he’s out here. He’s supposed to come work on my car eventually. Gosh, I don’t know when she’ll be out here. I haven’t been able to get ahold of her. She’s so well-meaning, but… I never know when she’ll be out here. I think she has problems scheduling things…”
I eat some leftover rice and garbanzos along with some greens and pineapple for dinner while we charge the house batteries off the generator. The generator didn’t want to start, but we eventually kicked it over. Tilly starts playing videos about pruning mango trees from youtube on her phone—there’s a horribly neglected mango tree out back that I might tackle in the next day or two. I take a shower and turn in early. I have a dozen or so mosquito bites to complement my hive-covered arms and legs. My internal clock is still on Seattle time, and I’m exhausted. I tell myself I’ll work on figuring out my next host tomorrow night.
“It’s so strange,” Tilly says as I’m headed for my room, “most people come here to go to the beaches and relax, but not you.”
Everything I wore yesterday is still damp, so I pull on fresh clothes. At least my pants will dry out quickly, I hope. I only have two pairs. I go out to eat my oatmeal.
“Is that enough?” Tilly asks, eyeing my small portion of soaked oats.
I assure her that it is. I also have plenty of fruit and other snacks.
“So, I was wondering… why isn’t your husband with you?” she asks while I’m eating. She shuts the window over the sink that faces into the carport.
I explain that he’s still working full time and that since I was the one who was interested in Hawai’i, I’d decided to come down first and see how I liked it. Maybe he would come down eventually.
“Well, I was thinking… If I can get them out of here, you and your husband could live in the other container.”
“Let’s see how things go. I appreciate the offer, though.”
I finish my breakfast and begin preparing for another round of pruning.
“I wanted to ask about your diet,” Tilly says. “Why did you become vegan?”
I shrug. “It just made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We were pretty much vegan on the boat anyway.” When I had originally talked to Tilly on the phone, she had said that she thought it would be nice to have someone on a similar diet around.
“Oh, well, I’m vegan because of this book,” she tells me as I start pulling on my socks. “It’s called Ministry of Healing, and it was written a hundred years ago, but you’d think it was written today with what’s in it. You see, it talks about God’s natural laws. When everything was created… is something wrong?”
My face feels warm, and the base of my tongue is stiff in my mouth. There’s tension in my cheeks. Normally it would pass, but Tilly was perceptive enough to catch the discomfort in my eyes.
“Well, Tilly, I…” It’s hard to talk in situations like these. It feels like a million eyes are staring as my eyes disobediently begin to water. But I force the words out. “I was raised Christian, but… that isn’t part of my life right now. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t… try to share those things with me.”
“Oh, it looks like that’s caused you a lot of pain,” Tilly says. “My daughter is going through a similar thing.”
I feel some of the tension evaporate. I’m so used to people not noticing, not understanding. Maybe that isn’t normal. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky.
Tilly opens the book and shows it to me: she starts reading it to me, starts telling me about God’s natural laws and how people are sick because they don’t follow them. She tells me about how her husband's being stuck on the mainland needing treatment is his own doing: he knew better. It's as though I had said nothing. As though she didn’t understand what her daughter was going through at all. I swallow my frustration and duck outside as soon as the opportunity presents itself. It’s time to go prune some trees.
The trees are pleasant enough. They sit there, overgrown, patiently waiting for me to remove the countless unproductive and twisting branches that have accumulated over the years. I’d never pruned a tree before coming here, but it’s quite enjoyable. I try to piece together where all the branches start and end and visualize what the tree could look like after certain ones have been removed. How can I let more light into the center of the tree? And so on. The fire ants are much less pleasant.
I’ve been more or less covered in bites and hives since I got here, so I ignore the burning sensation. It’s probably just another rash. My pants are tucked into my boots, anyway. When the prickling, itching, and stinging is still going strong ten minutes later, I decide to check it out in case it’s a real problem. I go back into the container and sit on my bed, pulling up my pant legs. Several very tiny, very angry red ants have somehow worked themselves up into my pants and are going to town on my legs. Ouch. I track down and remove as many of them as I can and apply some itch cream.
“Taking a break?” Tilly asks, emerging from her room at the far end.
“Just some fire ants. I think I got them.”
I return outside and get back to work. I text Tilly to let her know where I’m working, in case she needs something. Even going down the three steps to the fridge in the carport requires a concerted effort for her. She doesn’t have a chair at the table that functions as her dining room across from the kitchen—she has a stool that she kneels on to eat.
Eventually, a piercing “Yoohoo!” comes from the direction of the container. Tilly emerges into the backyard a moment later, and I invite her to check my work on the trees that I’ve done so far. She approaches the tangelo tree, a sickly thing that she’s said should probably just be bulldozed—she’s said a few times that she really should have a dozer come in and knock down the jungly areas that are encroaching on the trees. She circles it, and I realize she’s counting the fruits to make sure I haven’t clipped any off. The tangelo only had three pieces of fruit. Satisfied that I haven’t removed any of the fruit, she makes a few further recommendations for removing branches and disappears back into the container.
The rest of the trees have too many fruit to count, so I dutifully collect any that I accidentally remove along with the overgrown branches and chuck them into the jungle. As I work on a very pretty variegated Eureka lemon, I overhear whatever Tilly is listening to or watching on her phone: very impassioned voices reach my ears; key words like “repentance” and “sin” manage to distinguish themselves from the rest of the conversation or sermon or whatever it is exactly that she’s tuned into. After a few minutes of this, I play some poppy flamboyant music on my phone, just loud enough to drown it out.
I eventually retreat inside as another rain shower begins.
“More fire ants?” Tilly asks.
“It started raining.”
“Oh. Here, you can watch this.” She almost immediately starts playing another youtube video about mango trees. Afterwards, she’s taken by another thought:
“It would be nice if you could get rid of that raised bed in the back. Well, it was supposed to be a raised bed, but…” She trails off.
“Do you have a crowbar? Maybe a hammer?” The ‘bed’ in question is rotted, but it isn’t literally falling apart yet.
She searches around for a while. Eventually, she finds a stub hammer and suggests I use the rusty hatchet. Like so many other things, she used to have a hammer, but then she helplessly sighs. She also suggests I cut the six-foot-tall cane grass in the backyard with a well-rusted weed cutter (a double-sided blade on a stick that is duller than most butter knives I’ve used). And no, it can’t be sharpened on the cement blocks, either.
I return to pruning for a while, coming back to the container when I hear a car roll up. This is Marisol. She says little and disappears into the house to help Tilly with her food and whatever other tasks she might attend to. Back out in the yard pruning, I hear a “Yoohoo!” from the container. Tilly must be trying to get my attention. I return inside, but she isn’t there. Marisol is running the juicer, and that’s about all that can be heard. There’s another “yoohoo!” then another. The sound is coming from the bathroom. Marisol turns off the juicer, and Tilly tells us that the propane has run out. Her shower is cold.
We switch the tank, and Marisol finishes in the kitchen, washes the dishes, and tells Tilly that she’ll be going now before driving off. I go back to pruning and then knock apart the planter with the rusty hatchet and stub hammer. Darkness sets in. The nights are beautiful here; the darkness, complete and soothing. The Milky Way—where I can see it through the heavy clouds—glows softly, studded with its millions of stars. I’m soaked head to foot and, unsurprisingly, covered in bug bites.
“I was standing in the shower for ten minutes and she didn’t hear me.” Tilly’s voice is higher pitched and more tremulous. “Oh! She didn’t grind the rice!” She picks up a pot of rice sitting amongst some dishes on a shelf. “I asked her to grind the rice. She knew about it. I think she has ADD or something… She left so fast I didn’t even get to tell her what I needed…”
I get changed and have some quinoa and garbanzos from the fridge: Marisol juiced all of the greens.
“I heard back from the lawyer,” Tilly tells me after shutting the window over the sink. She tells me that it will probably be a long and difficult process, but she should be able to get the people out of the other container. She tells me that they were supposed to be taking care of the property, but they hadn’t. In fact, they’d known the last person who lived in it that she and finally gotten rid of and had put on such a show about how they would take care of it. She tells me that they even weedwack the driveway to make it look like they’re taking care of things.
“But have you seen them do anything while you’ve been here?”
“See! You can be a witness. They don’t do a thing around here.”
She continues on, suggesting that maybe I could take the car to the hardware store and pick up some of the tools I need.
“I feel like you’re the answer to my prayers,” she tells me as I eat a slice of pineapple from the fridge, unsure of how to respond. My mind is paging through my backup host options and sorting out the logistics of extracting myself from this rapidly intensifying situation.
I excuse myself to my room after dinner and start firing off emails on my phone’s spotty connection. This is interrupted by a twenty-minute-long fight with the failing generator that has mysteriously vanished two or three gallons of gas in the last twenty-four hours.
When I close the door to go to bed, I repack as many of my things as possible and set an alarm for five the next morning. I have a lead on a place to stay for at least the next few nights if I can get myself across the island. I feel a little bad about not staying for at least a week, but I came to Hawai’i to explore the island and see if I wanted to live here, not to solve all of Tilly Lewell’s problems.
I sleep poorly, wake to darkness, and finish packing. I triple-check that everything in my room made it into my bags: I will not be returning here.
“Oh, you’re going out?” Tilly asks, standing in the narrow corridor of the kitchen as I step out with one backpack over my back and the other in my hand.
“Tilly, I need to go. This isn’t where I need to be,” I tell her as I kneel down and start putting the food I’d stored on the shelves into a bag.
“But… what will I do without you?” she asks, bewilderment filling her frail voice.
And then after a few moments, "Was... did I do something?"