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The sky above Diamond Head was a spray of gold as the sun seemed to rise up out of the crater itself. From atop its windy hill in Kalihiuka—“inland Kalihi”—Kapi'olani Home took in the sweeping view, from the grassy caldera of Diamond Head to the concrete craters of the new dry docks at Pearl Harbor. On a clear day, even the neighbor islands of Lana'i and Moloka'i could be seen straddling the horizon. The big, two-story plantation-style house on thirteen acres of trim lawn stood alongside the sisters’ convent and chapel. The Kalihi Valley was largely agricultural, and the Home was surrounded by acres of sprawling cow pastures, hog breeders, and backyard poultry farms whose hens nested in old orange crates and whose roosters announced Morning Mass as well as any church bell. On the other side of Kamehameha IV Road there were groves of big-leafed banana plants, tall and thick as trees, prodigal with hanging clusters of green and yellow fruit; taro patches filled with heart-shaped leaves like fields of valentines; and terraced rice paddies glistening in the morning sun.
As in most Catholic orphanages and schools, the Sisters of St. Francis required that the corridors remain quiet, orderly—places of silent contemplation, not to be desecrated with idle conversation. Other than this, there were only three major rules at Kapi'olani Home:
1. After breakfast no standing around talking but do your work quickly and well.
2. Do not throw your clothes on the floor nor rubbish in the yard.
3. Line up and march orderly.
Morning call sent the girls springing out of bed, into washrooms to scrub faces and comb hair, then dress. Filing quietly down corridors and into the dining hall, they went to their tables—ten girls at each one—and stood behind their chairs, joining with Sister Bonaventure in reciting the blessing:
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything. Amen.
This was followed by the scraping of sixty chairs on the floor as the girls seated themselves and ate a breakfast of poi, rice, eggs, and sausages. It was near the end of breakfast that a three-year-old girl—standing on tiptoes and peering out the dining room windows—made an exciting announcement:
As she ran delightedly out of the dining room, the other girls flocked to the windows. Yet another of Mr. Mendonca’s cows, having decided that the grass was, in fact, greener on the other side the fence, was grazing contentedly on their front lawn.
“Wow, look at the size of its whatzit!” said one girl.
“I believe she needs to be milked,” Sister Bonaventure noted calmly. “Now, girls, let’s all get back to our—”
Too late. What moments before had been a docile group of girls eating breakfast became a stampede out of the dining hall.
On the second floor, Sister Louisa, hearing the drumbeat of footfalls below, raced down the staircase to find a raging river of girls surging past her.
And far ahead of them all was a three-year-old with amber skin and almond eyes, crying out, “Cow! Cow! Big brown cow!” at the top of her voice.
“Ruth!” Louisa immediately broke into a run herself. “Come back!”
Ruth burst out the front door, down the porch steps, and went straight to the grazing heifer, which was completely oblivious to the fuss it had stirred up.
“Hi, cow!” Ruth welcomed it. “Hi!”
Ruth stood about three feet tall; the cow, perhaps a foot taller. Ruth reached up and gently stroked the side of its neck as it chewed. “Good cow,” she said, smiling. “You’re a good cow.”
As Sister Louisa rushed outside, she saw the child she had promised to protect petting an eight-hundred-pound Guernsey, whose right hoof, with one step, could have easily crushed the girl’s small foot.
“Ruth! Please! Step back!”
But Ruth’s attention was drawn to the cow’s swollen udder. And what were those things sticking out of it like big fat fingers?
Intrigued, Ruth reached up and took one of the cow’s teats in her hand—examining it, pulling it, squeezing it.
A stream of raw milk squirted out and into Ruth’s face.
The other girls exploded into laughter. Sister Louisa pulled Ruth away from the animal. Either due to the warm, yellowish milk on her face or the mocking peal of the girls’ laughter, Ruth began to cry.
“It’s all right, little one,” Louisa said, leading her away. “Let’s go inside and wash that off your face.”
The other girls clustered around the cow as the elderly Sister Helena arrived, frowning. “I do wish,” she said, “that Mr. Mendonca would keep his livestock away from our live girls.”
Eddie Kaohi, the Home’s young groundskeeper, ran up, rope in hand. “I’ll take her back where she belongs,” he said, lassoing the cow’s neck.
“Mahalo, Mr. Kaohi,” said Sister Helena. Then, with a sigh: “Girls, really. You’d think none of you had ever seen a cow before.”
“She’s cute,” said ten-year-old Addie as she swatted a fly away from the cow’s face. “She has the prettiest eyes!”
Sister Helena gazed into the heifer’s soulful brown eyes, her stern face softening. “Yes,” she allowed, “I suppose she does.”
* * *
In the bathroom Sister Louisa scrubbed Ruth’s face with soap and water and asked her, “So what have you learned today, Ruth?”
“Cows shoot milk.”
Louisa stifled a laugh. “That’s why only dairy farmers should touch a cow’s udder, not little girls who could get hurt.”
“They laughed at me,” Ruth said in a small voice. “Again.”
“Again? When have the girls laughed at you before?”
“When I showed ’em my gecko.”
Ah yes, the gecko. “Only because the gecko decided to run down the front of your dress.”
“Ran away. I loved it and it ran away!”
“I know.” Ruth loved every animal she had ever met. On a trip to the Honolulu Zoo, Ruth was enchanted by the monkeys, lions, swans, and Daisy, the African elephant. Sometimes Louisa thought the child would embrace a boa constrictor but for the welcome fact that there were no snakes in Hawai'i.
“An’ they yelled at Ollie,” Ruth lamented, “an’ scared him away too!”
“Ollie was the mouse?”
“Some of the younger girls were scared of Ollie,” Louisa explained gently. “That’s why they were yelling and—well, screaming.”
“He was so cute!”
“I thought so too.”
“They hate me,” Ruth declared.
“No, they don’t. They just don’t love animals the way you do.”
Ruth’s face flushed with shame. “One girl called me a bad name.”
Louisa straightened, concerned. “Who did?”
“What did she call you, Ruth?”
Ruth looked down and said quietly, “Hapa. She called me hapa.”
Louisa laughed with relief. “Ruth, that isn’t a bad word. It’s just a Hawaiian word. It means half.”
“Yes. Like if I gave you a cookie, then split it into two pieces and took away one piece, you’d have half of what I gave you.”
Ruth’s face wrinkled in confusion. “She called me a cookie?”
“Well, your papa was Japanese and your mama was Hawaiian, and so you’re half Japanese and half Hawaiian. Hapa. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the word.”
Ruth wasn’t so sure. It still sounded like Velma was calling her half a cookie, which anyone knew wasn’t as a good as a whole cookie.
“Can I meet my papa? And my mama?”
Louisa said softly, “I don’t know, Ruth. Maybe someday.”
Ruth considered that. “Sister Lu?”
“Can I have a pet worm?”
Louisa did her best to reply with the same gravity as Ruth’s question. “Well, you see, worms live underground. So if you wanted to have a pet worm, you’d have to live underground too. It’s dark and cold and wet down there. I really don’t think you’d like it.”
The sister tenderly straightened Ruth’s hair and said, “Let’s go to the playroom, all right?”
* * *
Due to public fear and prejudice, children of leprous parents were banned from attending public or private schools. But the Board of Education did, at least, provide the sisters with schoolroom equipment, and the Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Association had years ago established a kindergarten at Kapi'olani Home and assisted the order in its operation. Girls from six to fifteen were taught by Sister Valeria Gerdes, who gave lessons in arithmetic and English.
After classes, the older girls sewed shirts and dresses for inmates at Kalaupapa—some of them, perhaps unwittingly, for their own parents.
Saturdays were housekeeping days and Sundays were for Mass and Benediction, but they were holy in another way: they were visiting days for friends and family—'ohana, a word Ruth knew, even if she had no use for it.
Ruth would listen as a brass bell rang, announcing the arrival of a visitor, and young Sister Praxedes would enter the dormitory to inform Maile that her uncle had come to see her, or Freda that her cousins from Wai'anae had arrived, or Addie that her friends from Kaimuki were here. The girls would jump off their beds, thrilled, and rush out of the room.
No bell ever rang for Ruth.
Until, one day, it did.
Sister Praxedes came in unexpectedly that afternoon and told her, “Ruth, there’s a nice gentleman and lady here who want to meet you!”
Ruth, who knew no one outside the Home, could only think of one thing. She asked hopefully, “Are they my mama and papa?”
“They might be. They’re looking for a little girl to adopt. To make part of their family.”
“Really?” Ruth said excitedly.
Most of the time, when a resident girl was adopted, she was taken by relatives or friends in what was called a hanai adoption. But occasionally a couple with no relation to anyone in the Home would come seeking a girl to adopt. Usually these were Native Hawaiians, who were less afraid of leprosy and less mindful of the stigma that attached itself to children of lepers.
Ruth had watched as other girls were chosen to meet potential parents, but now, for the first time, she was taken to the Home’s library where she was introduced to a man and woman, both Hawaiian. Ruth’s heart raced with a new feeling—hope—as the man smiled warmly at her.
“Such a pretty little wahine. What’s your name, keiki?” he asked, using the Hawaiian word for “child.”
“Ruth,” she answered, seeing kindness in his eyes.
“How old are you, Ruth?” the lady asked.
Ruth counted off three fingers on her hand. “T’ree?” she said uncertainly.
“Very good, Ruth,” Sister Praxedes said, then, to the couple: “Ruth is a very bright little girl.”
“Do you want a real home, Ruth, with a mama and a papa?” he asked.
“Oh yes!” Ruth cried out. “I do!”
The nice couple laughed and smiled, asked her a few more questions, then told her she was very sweet and thanked her for seeing them. Sister Praxedes escorted Ruth back to her dormitory and Ruth excitedly began wondering what her new home would be like, would she have brothers and sisters, would they have pets? She started planning which of her scant belongings she would pack first, until Sister Praxedes returned to tell her regretfully, “I’m so sorry, Ruth. They chose another girl.”
Crushed by the weight of her hopes, Ruth asked, “Din’t they like me?”
“They liked you fine, Ruth, it’s just—”
“’Cause I’m hapa?” she asked, forlorn.
“No no, not at all. These things are hard to understand, Ruth.”
She left, and Freda, a world-wise nine-year-old, said, “Same t’ing wen happen to me too. Sometimes they don’t choose nobody at all. Don’t let it get you down, yeah?”
Ruth nodded gratefully but felt no better.
Later, before lights out, Sister Lu came into the dorm, gave Ruth a hug, and assured her she would be chosen by someone, someday. “And meanwhile you have a home here and someone who loves you very much.”
The warmth of Sister’s embrace cast out the chill of rejection … for now.
Over the course of the next year, three more couples would ask to see Ruth. With each request her heart soared like a kite and after each rejection she was dashed to earth, convinced there was something lacking in her. She was hapa, half, incomplete. Half a cookie; who would want that? And eventually she learned a valuable lesson: she learned not to hope.
* * *
On Sunday evenings the parish priest would preside over the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and as the older girls sang prayers and devotions in the chapel, the youngest sat in a classroom, supervised by an older girl whose job was to read Bible stories to them. On the last Sunday night of October 1920—which also happened to be All Hallow’s Eve—that girl was Maile, who extinguished all the lights in the room save for a lone candle and regaled the little girls with a less devout tale about an obake that resided inside a koa tree. When the tree was cut down for lumber, the things made from it—a spear, a calabash, the handle of a knife—all contained a piece of the ghost, which was not at all happy at being dismembered and set about doing the same thing to everyone who owned a piece of that koa wood.
Ruth—now four years old—grew bored and quietly left the room. At first she intended to return to bed, but as she stood in the corridor she heard something that sounded like … whimpering? But not a human whimpering.
Curious, Ruth went into an empty classroom, stood on tiptoe at a window, and looked out.
It was dark and cloudy and the only light on the grounds came from the flicker of candles in the chapel. Ruth managed to push open the window an inch or two. Now she could tell that the whimpering was clearly coming from the side of the road—Meyers Street—bordering the convent.
Then she saw a shadow detach itself from the dark contours of a noni, mulberry, bush. It shuffled on four legs, low to the ground, until its hindquarters dropped and it sat there in the dimness.
It was a dog!
Ruth had seen dogs before—some of the local farmers owned them, and she even got to pet one once. Thrilled, she raced out of the classroom and out the back door. As she rounded the Home, she saw the dog sitting on the side of the road, whining plaintively.
She slowed down and approached it.
“Hi, dog,” she said softly. “Hi.”
It turned its head to her and its black eyes, ringed in amber, shone in the darkness.
Ruth got close enough to gently, cautiously, stroke its back. It didn’t object. “Good dog,” she said happily.
It was a scruffy, medium-sized mutt with matted, light brown fur—but to Ruth it was the most beautiful dog she had ever seen. As she petted it, it stopped whimpering, rubbing its wet nose against her arm. She scratched under its chin, its head tipped up and its mouth opened in a smile.
As she stroked its side she could feel its bony ribs.
“You hungry?” she asked. “I’ll get some food. You stay here, okay?” When she got up and moved away the dog started to follow, but she put up a hand and said, as loudly as she dared, “No! Stay here. I’ll be back.”
The dog stopped, sat. “Good doggie!” she whispered, then ran back into the Home, down the corridor, and into the kitchen.
Maria Nunes, the Home’s Portuguese cook, was washing the last of the supper dishes when Ruth burst in and announced, “I’m hungry!”
Maria had to smile at the urgency in the little girl’s voice. “Didn’t you finish your supper tonight?”
“I did. But I’m still hungry.”
“Well…” Maria went to the big icebox and opened it. “We got a little Sunday ham left over … I can make you a sandwich, you like?”
“Oh yes. Thank you!” Ruth said.
A minute later, Ruth accepted the fat sandwich, thanked Maria again, and rushed out of the kitchen. She worried that the dog might have left, but when she emerged from the Home, he—he seemed like a “he”—was still sitting patiently where she had left him.
“Good dog!” She tore off a chunk of sandwich and offered it on the palm of her hand. His tongue ladled it up and into his mouth, and Ruth giggled at the pleasant tickle of it on her skin. She tore off another chunk and he wolfed that down too, then another, until the sandwich was gone and he was licking the last crumbs of bread from her palm.
She was petting him when she suddenly heard the sound of a door opening, followed by footsteps. She turned quickly. Benediction was over, and the sisters and older girls were leaving the chapel.
Skittish, the dog sprang to his feet and ran away down the road.
Ruth watched, disappointed, as he seemed to melt away into the darkness; but her palm was still wet from his tongue, a nice feeling.
Before anyone could see her, she hurried back into the Home. She went to bed thinking happily of her new friend.
All day she stole glances out the windows, but there was no sign of the dog. At dinner she was careful not to eat all of her chicken and mashed potatoes, but squirreled away the remainder into her napkin and stuffed it into the pocket of her dress.
At bedtime Ruth hid the napkin under her blanket as she changed into her pajamas, then slid under the covers. When the air became heavy with the rhythmic breathing of sleeping girls, Ruth took the napkin filled with food and went into the washroom. Above a toilet stall was a single window, lit faintly by moonlight. Ruth climbed onto the toilet seat, then up onto the back of the toilet, and quietly pushed up the window as high as she could.
She heard a familiar whimper. Eagerly she climbed up onto the windowsill, swung her legs over the edge, and jumped out, landing in the garden below. She hurried around the building to find her new friend waiting patiently for her on the side of the road.
As soon as he saw her, his tail began happily thumping the ground.
He gulped down the chicken and potatoes while Ruth stroked his back: “Good doggie.” When his slobbery tongue darted out to lick her face, she giggled. Finally he rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. Ruth nestled beside him, face to face, draping an arm across his torso. Their chests touched and she felt the comforting warmth of his body. She felt his heart beating, and for a moment it felt as though their heartbeats were one and the same. Because they were the same. He was alone. She was alone. They needed each other.
And he needed a name. She’d been thinking of one and now whispered it into his ear, which twitched noncommittally at the suggestion. Ruth closed her eyes, enjoying the softness of his fur, their shared contentment. She wanted to stay like this, warm and loved, forever.
In minutes she was asleep.
Suddenly an earthquake threw her dreams into disarray. She woke to find that the upheaval was the dog bolting upright beside her. She looked up and saw Sister Lu gazing worriedly down at her. “Ruth, what—”
The dog fled into the night. She told herself that was all right—he came back before, didn’t he?
Sister Lu squatted down beside her. “Are you all right, Ruth? Are you cold?”
Ruth just shook her head.
“No,” she said. “He kept me warm.”
* * *
Louisa stood before Sister Helena, summoning every ounce of persuasion as she pled Ruth’s case: “Mr. Kaohi rounded the dog up; it appears to be a stray. We’ve checked with all the neighbors and no one knows him. He’s malnourished, mangy—”
“But retains all his working parts,” Sister Helena noted wryly.
“That can always be fixed.” Louisa always felt intimidated by Sister Helena, even though the sister wore her authority gently. “He is a sweet dog, and looks like he could use a home. And Ruth—Ruth needs something like this. Something she can care for. And you must admit, she was very resourceful in finding something for Only to eat.”
“‘He has a name?” Sister Helena asked. Then, realizing what she had just heard: “‘Only’?”
“That’s what Ruth calls him.”
Sister Helena could not help but be moved. “Is that how she sees herself too?”
“In a way, they’re all onlies here,” Louisa said quietly.
Sister Helena sighed. “Sister, I simply can’t establish the precedent of an individual child owning a dog. What if another stray shows up? What if a cat has kittens on our doorstep?”
“He could be the Home’s mascot,” Louisa suggested, “belonging to all the girls, not any one. I’m told that even at Kalaupapa, there was a kind of mascot at Bishop Home. I believe he was called ‘Denis the pig’ and he used to sun himself in the front yard.”
Sister Helena rolled her eyes. “‘Denis’ was actually a huge boar—so huge, according to Mother Marianne, God rest her soul, that he sunned himself wherever he pleased.
“Sister, we don’t know anything about this animal. He could have rabies. He could bite one of the girls. I can’t risk that. I’m sorry. Truly I am.”
“This will be … very hard on Ruth,” Louisa said.
“She’s only four. She won’t even remember this dog in two years.”
Louisa had run out of arguments. “Thank you, Sister. May I—allow Ruth to say goodbye to him?”
“I think that would only make things worse, don’t you?”
Louisa nodded her obeisance without actually agreeing, then went to crush Ruth’s fondest desire.
* * *
Ruth didn’t understand why Only had to leave. But she knew he would be back—as indeed he was the very next evening. Ruth had hidden half of her fish and rice from supper in a handkerchief and lay in bed expectantly until she heard the familiar whimper outside. She jumped out of bed, hurried into the corridor and toward the back door—
When she heard Sister Lu say “Ruth,” she froze on the spot.
The sister squatted in front of her. She held out her hand. “Give me the food,” she said gently.
“But he’s hungry!”
“He’ll find someone else to feed him. Dogs usually do.”
“But he’s my dog!”
“No he’s not. I’m sorry, Ruth. Give me the food.”
Ruth slowly handed her the soggy bundle.
“Thank you. Now go back to bed.”
“Can’t I go look at him?”
“It’s better you didn’t.”
Louisa escorted Ruth back to her bed, where Ruth immediately buried her head in a pillow and refused to acknowledge the sister’s “good night.”
Ruth listened for an hour to the dog’s whines, all the while sobbing to herself. Finally it stopped, and Ruth fell into a troubled sleep.
Supper the next day was Portuguese bean soup, and the only thing Ruth could abscond with was a piece of cornbread. She stuffed it into her pocket, not caring that it began to crumble almost immediately. No matter: Sister Bonaventure, alert to the situation, confiscated the bread at the door.
Later that evening, the dog’s cries returned. Not caring whether she woke anyone up, Ruth ran out of the dorm and into the classroom from which she had first seen her friend. She looked out the window.
Only sat on the side of the road, whimpering. She gazed at him—his light brown fur painted black by the night, the amber circles in his eyes flashing briefly as he turned his head. Ruth listened helplessly to his cries, feeling a grief and sorrow and anger unlike anything she had ever known. But she cherished every second she could still see him, until finally his cries stopped, his silhouette merged with that of the noni bush, and he was gone.
The next night there was only silence outside, and that—that was so much worse. Ruth cried into her pillow until she found another use for it and began punching it furiously, bam bam bam, then holding it by the ends and smashing it against the wall again and again.
Suddenly Sister Louisa was there, taking the pillow away from her. “Ruth, stop, please,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I hate you!” Ruth screamed at her. “Go away!”
There was such hurt and venom in her voice that it brought tears to Louisa’s eyes. She dropped the pillow on the bed. Ruth snapped it up, threw it at the head of the bed, then dove into it, sobbing.
Louisa left, a dagger in her heart—no worse, she knew, than the one in Ruth’s—and desecrated the silence of the corridors with her own sobs.
Copyright © 2019 by Alan Brennert.