She rubs the raw meat against her wart and looks into the setting sun. Her grandmother says if she counts to ten, the wart will disappear. So, she stares as hard as she can, all the time counting and praying for her wart to be gone. Green and blue spots begin to appear and she blinks rapidly to shake them loose. It never crosses her mind to question the wisdom of staring into the sunset or of rubbing a piece of sirloin on her hand. She knows that this is the truth and that tomorrow, when she wakes up, she will no longer have this ugly wart on her finger. She imagines the wart sinking beneath her skin as the sun sinks beneath the water and wonders what happens to warts and where do they go. Not really wanting to know the answers, she lets those questions float away.
She stops rubbing, kneeling down in the dirt of her backyard. She is directly in line with the sunset between the tall and slender papaya trees her grandpa had planted when they had first moved to this house. She must continue to stare at the sun as she digs a small hole. Grandmother says she must bury the meat, and when she’s done, she’s to turn and walk back to the house without looking back or it won’t work and she’ll still have the wart in the morning. She doesn’t want that to happen, so she digs diligently. The feel of the earth is soothing as her fingers pull out rocks, making room for her offering. As she walks back to the house, she wonders what would happen if she looks back. Would she turn to a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife? Her mother is waiting at the screen door.
“Did you look back?”
“Good, good. Dust off your jeans and go wash your hands in the laundry room before you come in my house.”
She walks around the yard to the laundry room, next to the garage, dusting herself off as she goes. She’s afraid to look anywhere but in front of her. She remembers the first time she saw the wart. She was playing Chase Master with the other kids at school. She was It and she was running, pumping her arms, her legs crossing the distances between predator and prey. As she reached out her hand to touch the pony-tailed girl in front of her, she spotted the tiny, white bump on the forefinger of her right hand. She marveled at its sudden alien appearance. She tried to recall if she’d missed it while brushing her teeth that morning. She was so distracted that she failed to touch the pony-tailed girl, who was able to evade her and make it to Safe, a set of monkey bars at the far end of the playground. She saw that almost everyone had made it back, but she couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything but the wart. She knew it was a wart. She’d read the fairytales of wart-nosed witches and she thought maybe she was destined to become one, but she didn’t want to eat children or poison princesses. Should she go to the nurse’s office? The bell rang and recess was over. Everybody laughed and told the pony-tailed girl they couldn’t believe she hadn’t been caught. Would anyone notice the fleshy growth on her finger? Would they make fun of her? She jabbed her hands into her pockets and thought of ways to hide it.
At first, she put a band aid on it, hoping everyone would think it was just a cut or a scratch, but band aids are expensive and she knows her mother will start to notice that they were running low. Then, it started to grow, and since she felt she could no longer use the family’s supply of band aids, she began to draw on it, anything to hide its strangeness. The wart became the hub of petals, sprouting in a ring, an eye on the wings of a monarch butterfly in flight, or hidden at the center of an ornamental cross. At night, when her hands had been washed clean, she’d stare at it. At eye-level, it looked like the top of Mauna Loa, smooth with touches of crusted snow. She felt its hard, but pliant peak. Pushing on it didn’t hurt. The only sensation she received was from her fingertips running across its summit. It was not smooth and it was not rough. She couldn’t really describe what she felt. It was not like any other part of her body. It was and was not her flesh. In the mornings, as she daydreamed of far off lands, she would again hide it all under dancing fairies, bloated mushrooms, smiling cats.
Then, one day over a dinner of leftover spaghetti, her mother noticed a strange symbol on her daughter’s hand, “What is that Lei?” She looked at where she had drawn an ankh after an inspirational section on Egyptian Mythology in class. She didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was just another cool way to cover up her wart. Now she sensed that drawing symbols of other religions may not have been such a smart idea and she was suddenly afraid. Her mother got up from the table, walked over to her, and lifted up the offending hand, “Is that Satanic? That better not be a symbol of Satan on your body!” She pulled Lei from the table and dragged her to the kitchen sink. “Wash that off right now!” Quickly, Lei did as she was told. She didn’t think it was a symbol of Satan but wasn’t going to argue with her mother about it, especially not with her pinching her arm the way she did when she didn’t want everyone to see how angry she was. “If I ever catch you drawing evil symbols on your body again, you are really going to get it!” As Lei was washing the black ink off her hand, her mother spotted it. “What the hell is that?”
She had a feeling her mother already knew what it was, so she wasn’t sure if she should answer. “I think it’s a wart.”
“Let me see,” she lifted her arm up to let her mother have a closer look.
“How long you’ve had it?”
“I don’t know. A couple of months?”
“You must have done something. What did you do?” She pulled hard on Lei’s arm. “You tell me, girl.” Lei didn’t think she had done anything to deserve this growing mound of foreign flesh on her finger, but what could she say to her mother? What could she do to quiet her anger?
“Maybe the Obake touched me when I didn’t clean my room? Or, maybe I got it from that girl with the ukus and dirty feet?” Her mother laughed at this, and Lei could feel that the moment had passed and she was safe.
“Yeah, maybe the Obake did touch you when you didn’t clean your room. How many times I told you not to hide stuff under the bed? You know the Obake loves to live under messy beds.” Lei nodded at her mother’s wisdom. She would definitely clean under her bed. But in the back of her mind, she didn’t think that the wart was caused by a messy bed.
As Lei continued to wash her hands at the laundry room sink, trying to remove the dirt from beneath her fingernails, she thought again of her mother’s original theory of how the wart came to be. Unfortunately, the wart slowly grew, each day, conquering the smooth back of her finger, spreading towards each of her knuckles, and no matter how much she kept her room clean, it didn’t stop. Drawings could no longer hide its growth and the kids began to tease her as kids are wont to do. “Pop it! It looks like a big zit! Did you uff a frog? You look like you going have a baby out your finger that thing’s so big!” She didn’t think their taunts were so great, which is probably why she wasn’t hurt by them. She was sad because no one would eat lunch with her or play with her because they were afraid they were going to catch it. Who really wants to have warts all over their body? Sometimes, in frustration, she’d rush the worst kid, the one that teased her about uffing a frog and she’d hold her hand right next to his face and dare him to say it one more time. In those moments, she felt its power. She knew that the kids were afraid. She knew that they thought the warts were contagious, but until she’d stopped drawing on her hand, she’d played and eaten with all of these kids and not a single one had gotten a wart from her. She loved to see the fear in their eyes when she came near them. It didn’t make up for being teased and laughed at, but it helped to ease the pain a little.
Once, at church, she learned about Job. She listened to the Sunday school teacher, a haole girl from Utah, talking about how God wanted to prove to Satan that his servant, Job, a very wealthy man, would never renounce God, no matter what happened to him. Satan told him that the moment Job lost his money he would immediately stop loving him. God told Satan he could do whatever he wanted, so Satan had all of Job’s animals stolen and his servants slaughtered. Then, he had all of Job’s children killed. Did Job give up on God? No. Satan told God that if he hurt Job, Job would definitely curse him, and God said do what you want, so Satan covered Job in sores and Job cursed the day he was born, but did not curse God. Everyone blamed Job. They believed he was being punished for some kind of wickedness. Through it all, not once did Job curse God. As a reward for his unwavering faith, God gave him twice as much wealth and many sons and daughters.
Lei had never considered the possibility that God could actually let Satan test the faithfulness of his servants, hurting them or their families. That just didn’t seem fair. No one said anything to her about her wart at church, even though it was on display for everyone to see as she picked up the sacrament of water and bread during her Ward’s time in the chapel. Not even the other kids. She did wonder if her Sunday school teacher was trying to tell her something. She didn’t really consider herself a servant of God and maybe this is why God was letting her be punished. She never really thought much about God.
She imagines he’s a really tall haole with a long white beard, wearing really white robes, floating in the clouds above. Is she being taught a lesson? She’s not sure what that lesson could be and she doesn’t talk to anyone about it, especially her Sunday school teacher. Lei smiles at the end of the story as the class sings “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree.” It’s a fun song, but Lei begins to wonder why they sing it. There are no apricot trees in Hawaii and what does popcorn have to do with God?
Lei loves to sing. It’s one of the only reasons she doesn’t mind church. She reads the hymnal as the Bishop drones on, trying to guess what songs are going to be sung next. They never sing in Hawaiian, but she doesn’t mind. Most of the songs were originally in English, anyway. Her favorite is “How Great Thou Art.” It reminds her of a love song. Not the kind of sappy love song on the radio like “Endless Love,” but a true love song. Not that she knows what true love is, but she imagines it to be something pure and golden and light. She thinks about Job in this instance and realizes that love may not be what she imagines, but this thought is gone in an instant as the first notes of “How Great Thou Art” carries across the chapel from the organ’s pipes, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.” She notices that most people don’t really know the melody of the first verse and the voices are subdued, but when her favorite part comes, she can feel the rising voices like the waves at high tide crashing against the walls and splashing back against her, “Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art. Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art!” As the words pour out of her, she feels something inside of her opening up and moving out of her, flowing with the notes into the wave of sound around her. As each wave pushes its way to the wall, another forms behind it, a continuous flow vibrating through her whole being and she can hear at the very top of all that sound, even higher notes reaching to the ceiling. She wonders if that’s what God sounds like. At these moments, she forgets about the wart on her finger, the malicious teasing, the playground power struggles, the weird looks from her mother, and she swoops and dives in and out until the last powerful chord crescendos and all is silent. She sits but feels disconnected as her insides soar. Then the bishop drones on, firmly settling her back inside her body.
Drying her hands on her jeans, she remembers that feeling and wonders if she could feel like that all the time. She doesn’t think that it’s a good thing. If you feel like that all the time, how could you tell the difference between how you should feel versus how you do feel? She wishes that singing could remove her wart, but she knows that is foolish, as she’s been singing every Sunday since she could remember and every Sunday since her wart came to be, yet nothing has changed. At least she doesn’t think anything has changed. So, she decides that as beautiful as her singing is, this is neither the cause nor the solution to her problem. No matter how much she wishes it to be, she knows this to be the truth.
As she walks back to the kitchen’s screen door, she recalls the luau they went to for her cousin’s wedding. She wanted to hide her wart, but the band aids were too small now, and she couldn’t draw on her hand. She asked her mother what she should do. “No worries. No one’s going to notice.” Except right off the bat, everyone started making fun of her. The aunties just laughed and told her she better clean herself better or it’s going to spread all over her body and grow like taro along her arm and up to her neck. Lei didn’t really believe them. She bathed twice a day. And, what did they know about bathing? She could see taro growing all over their necks, too. She didn’t say anything to them. She knew better. The uncles just drank their beers and laughed along. The other kids called her hamajang girl, and told everyone to stay away from her before she bachi them and give them all warts. She sat in the corner near the stage and sang along to the band, playing “He Aloha Mele,” a love song about stars and brown eyes, and wished she didn’t have that stupid wart. Her grandmother saw her sitting by herself and called her over. Lei loved the smell of her grandmother. It was soft and sweet like gardenia after the rain.
“What’s wrong?” She asked her wrinkled hands brushing Lei’s hair away from her face.
“Nothing, I just want to sit by myself.” She didn’t really want to bother anyone with her problems.
“You know that’s not true.” Lei nodded but did not say anything. “Do you know what our ancestors called a wart?”
“‘Ilikona, or hard skin. Do you know why you have an ‘ilikona on your finger?”
Lei shook her head, “I don’t know why. I thought it was because I didn’t clean under my bed, or that I caught it from someone at school. Then, I thought maybe I was being punished for something bad I did, but I couldn’t think of what I had done wrong. I just think it is because it is, you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Sometimes, tita, our bodies show us what our minds cannot. Do you know what your body is trying to tell you?”
“That I have a big ugly wart?” Her eyes crinkled as her lips spread into a smile.
“You are so kolohe, sometimes. Yes, you have a big ugly wart, but why do you think you have a big ugly wart?” Lei wanted to tell her she had already thought about all of this, and she didn’t think that she needed to do it all over again. “Yes, yes. You think you know everything. Your mind can play tricks on you. Just think about when you first saw your wart. What were you doing?”
She thought about the game of Chase Master she had been playing that day she saw the wart for the first time. She had been running behind the pony-tailed girl and she was thinking about how much fun it would be to pull on her hair rather than touching her shoulder, and the more she thought about that, the more she began to realize that the pony-tailed girl wasn’t the only person she had really wanted to hurt. She had really wanted to slam that kid’s face into the ground who kept teasing her about uffing the frog, and she really didn’t have kind thoughts about her Sunday school teacher, either. And when she was singing in church, she really wanted to shove a hymnal into the bishop’s mouth to shut him up, wishing that church was all about singing and less about preaching, She didn’t think she had thought about anything when she was singing along to the band, but she realized, at that moment, she had been dreaming of all the ways she was going to get those other kids.
“I was playing.” She said as these thoughts sped past.
“I see.” And, maybe she did. “Let me tell you a story.” And, Lei listened. “Once, there was a man, who was full of ideas of how people should be and how everyone would be happier if they just listened to what he had to say. Now, not everyone wanted to listen, but the man didn’t care if they did. This bothered them, so they decided that maybe he had something to say after all. He told them that love is unconditional. Now, no one believed this. You can’t get something for nothing, they said. And, he said that is not true. Love is easy. It’s who you love that can be hard. If a man hurts you, do you love him? Of course not, they answered. And, he said that is not true. You must love that man even more because he does not understand that love is easy. Do you punish this man who hurt you? Of course you do, they answered. And, he said that is not true. You must not punish this man but love him for his flaws, and with your love, teach him to love. And they told him he was crazy. Why would we do that? He will never learn they told him. And, he said that is not true. He will learn that to hurt others is to hurt himself and to love others is to love himself. They did not believe him or understand. But he never gave up, and even on the day he died, he professed his love for all, never wavering as they nailed him to the cross on a lonely hill.” Lei let the words wash over her, soothing that hidden spot she could now see.
“I see, Tutu.” And, Lei learned how to get rid of the wart on her finger.
She enters the kitchen, walking past her mother, who thankfully says nothing. She closes her bedroom door and kneels beside her bed. She knows she should thank God for everything, and that she shouldn’t ask for anything, but she does so anyway, “Dear Heavenly Father, please forgive me and please take my wart away.” As her forehead presses hard into her clasped hands, she dreams of waking up free.
Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a writer born and raised in Hawaii. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with an MFA in Fiction. She then moved to Japan to teach English as an Assistant Language Teacher, where she continues to do so. Her work has appeared in Issue 5 of the Guide to Kulchur Creative Journal and will appear in the Fall 2015 issue of The Jet Fuel Review.