I

The Skinhead’s Journal

THE SMELL OF RAIN filled the fresh forest air, long before the downpour; that unmistakable scent—young, light, and ethereal; a blissful aroma that could nonetheless herald a storm of massive destruction. I shuddered in the wind, even as a part of me celebrated the grim prospect. I looked up. A forest of towering trees spread into one another, swaying, brushing into, and then away from, each other; revealing parts of the sky. Thunderclouds had gathered slowly in a sinisterly swirl, like a black whirlpool. For sure, this was a thunderstorm.

My sight funneled down from the blackening sky onto my wooden house, perched on an old, sturdy banyan tree; its doorway and window spilling warm amber lights, a contrast to the ominous elements above and all around, amassing power, getting ready to unleash itself in full force. “You must hold up,” I said, as unbridled winds and earthshattering thunder threatened to pull my new home down. And the storm came. First, a pinch on my face, then several countless pinches, then slaps, and finally, everything came pounding at me. I wrapped myself in a rain poncho, the rainstorm hitting my head hard on the rubber hood. I sat on a fallen log, and just gazed at my tree house from below. You must hold up.

As if the thudding rain on my head in its constant drumming had a hypnotic spell on me, I soon began thinking about King Ahio III, my father, who passed away three weeks ago, one year after my mother died. And I thought about all the unchangeable realities of palace life with which I could not bring myself to agree. I could not agree with my only brother who had happily assumed the throne before the mourning period was over. No big deal. Everyone dies. He’d told me. You’re too weak and sentimental for your royal standing. He might be right, but it certainly didn’t mean that being “sentimental” was all that wrong either. I could not agree with the desperate manner with which my aunts and uncles constantly and endlessly pestered my father for this favor and that over meals while he tried to eat. That’s the price for being a king, my brother would say. I could not agree with all the backstabbing and self-serving schemes that happened everyday in this family. Such is reality—everyone using everyone else. What I could not agree, above all, was, from the outside the palace life which everyone watched in supplication, and at which they knelt with reverence worthy of deities, was, from the inside, anything but respectable. Such, too, is reality—everyone is hypocritical. In short, if my brother was correct, I could not agree with…reality. Which meant that I was not part of reality. I bet in all his eagerness to be the heir to my father’s kingship, he’d forgotten that Peace was one of the founding pillars on which our great Ahio dynasty was built, and that everything that occurred everyday in our royal family was anything but peaceful. The only solaces I’d found were rare, intimate moments with mother, even rarer with father (that’s the price for being a prince, I gathered); and that one place in Ahio Island: the woods. The deeper in the better. By and by I was taken with my loneliness in the forest, far and away from the madness of it all. Here, at least, I didn’t need to watch every single word I said, which, at many times were interpreted by my many uncles and aunts in the manner that suited their self-interests. When father passed on, I decided to forego my palatial existence for this lonely forest.

My thoughts came upon an abrupt end when I suddenly could not feel the splatters on my head, even as I could still hear the thudding sound of the raindrops. It felt like I was in a vacuum, tugged away from reality. A moment of panic, as I thought my head had gone sick with numbness, or I’d literally lost my head altogether. Then I saw a black pair of Wellington boots in the puddle, motionless beside my barefoot. Just above the boots, the soaked hem of a black dress bundled in a white hand. The black, wet dress gradually turned dry as my eyes climbed upward. A bespectacled, smiling face of a white man, about ten years older than I, glanced down at me; and above him, a black open umbrella that sheltered my head from the rain. The stranger switched his hands on the umbrella and his freed hand extended down toward me. “Father René Guillory,” said the man in the black dress—a black frock, now that the full picture was in view—his husky voice forcing itself against the splattering rain. “Missionary from Dartsouth. Just arrived two weeks.” Ha, one of those teeth-gritting preachers who’ve come from foreign lands to frighten us with the fires of hell, I thought. Never liked them any more than my evil-tongued aunts and uncles.

So as not to come across as inhospitable, I took his hand tentatively and offered one firm shake. “Pahi`umi`umi,” I reciprocated, trying not to sound overly hostile. This was a new name I’d given myself when I decided to leave the palace for the forest, with my thick and horrendously dry hay of a hair fully shaved; it means Razor. “Razor?” the priest sought. I wasn’t a bit impressed that he knew our language. All missionaries had learnt it before they came to proselytize at us. I looked away from his face, down, and nodded, once. “May I?” the priest pressed on, gesturing at the log on which I was seated. I shrugged: why not. The priest sat next to me, his umbrella now shared by two lone men in the drenched forest. Which felt incredibly awkward.

Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ your only savior? Do you want to be saved or be condemned to eternal flames in hell? I waited for his scripted pitch. But this priest said nothing. He just sat on the log, in the forest, in the downpour, amidst thunder and lightning strikes, with me, under an umbrella that was going to be torn apart by the winds any moment now. And, trailing after my line of sight, he just gazed at the tree house. Two men staring at the tree house over an hour or so; motionless, wordless. I was now hoping that he’d threaten me with the fire of hell, rather than this meaningless, awkward silence. Someone had better start a conversation, I thought. I did: “Why are you here?” “San Tommaso— Build a new school—” he replied, stretching the stressed arm that held the umbrella, up and then down. “I volunteered.” “I see—” I said, “What I meant was, why are you here?” my hand indicated at the forest. “Oh!” said he, “Exploring the island.” I was skeptical. “In the storm?” He shrugged. “In the storm,” he said. “Is this something to worry about?” he asked. I shrugged.

“Why are you here?” he continued, after a long pause. “Is this you?” he asked, cocking his head toward the tree house. I nodded. “Why aren’t you in there?” he pursued, his face showing bafflement at my odd preference to stay out in the storm. “Making sure it can withstand the elements before I move in,” I said.

“You live in the forest?” he said, his tone a mix of inquisitiveness and marvel.

For some reason I opened up. Maybe you’re not “one of those” of my scheming family. “I don’t like it very much with the pa—” I almost let slip my identity with the word, palace. “With the pa…rents’—” I made up an excuse: “You know, big family?” What followed was a genuine confession of my life, except with my identity withheld. “Really big family, Father. Too noisy for a recluse such as I. This big, fat aunt with this big, fake chortle—always clasped my cheeks when I was young. ‘So adorable!’ She would balloon her words in my face. Now that I’ve grown up? Still the same. I can turn the cheek for a murderer,” I borrowed a phrase from the priest’s scriptures, “but not this one! Noisy like hell!” The priest laughed.

“On evenings when I in my nascent temperament refused to eat my dinner”—I went on like he was a good friend already—“my old governess—maid (I tried to chew back the word ‘governess’)—would walk me to the beach. I was always attracted to the rows of huts by the sea, their windows spilling amber lights like gleaming eyes that served as windows to one’s tender soul, quaint and intimate.” I gestured at my warm-lit tree house. “Much like that.

“Those beach huts? Beauty! I would see this mother in her apron serving a steaming dish to the family, smiling—mothers always smiling as they serve—and, another one draping a bib across her child’s little chest. And this family sharing bread, and this happiness they carry on their faces? Beauty. And that family making jokes at dinner, laughing softly. Family dinner, as I know it, is supposed to be…familial. No? Not quite for my family. They fight. Gosh, they fight! I mean—” I threw punches in the rain with both hands—“Not like this. Which is, actually, far better than the mental fights they fight. Everyone seeking to please my father, to win his favor, and everything? Everyone trying to get the best deal or the bigger share of the cake? I mean, it’s family dinner! Politics, Father. Too much politics!

“It’s different here!” I exclaimed, releasing a deep sigh that felt as if those voiceless years in the palace came gushing forth, expressing my emotion so freely that I surprised even myself. And even more surprised that I could talk a blue streak with this stranger. With everything cooped up in the palace—where every single thing I said was scrutinized and turned from an innocent molehill into a ill-intending mount—which was why I hardly talked—perhaps it was no surprise after all, after all these years of suppression.

I guess the priest was waiting to see if I’d more to say, because he spoke only after a prolonged period of silence. “This forest is for you what this island is for me,” said he. “A retreat.” He laughed with a hint of sadness. Then let out a mix of chortle and sigh. And he said, “Too much noise out there.” Another long silence ensued.

And then, I thought he finally showed his true colors. “Do you believe in heaven and hell?” he said. “Ha!” I instantly rebutted, “I thought you are not ‘one of those.’” The priest looked befuddled. “Every missionary from foreign lands,” I said, “had come to threaten us with the fires of hell, no?” The priest gave in to a hearty laughter. “You bet we do!” he said.

The storm had simmered into light trickles ticking gently on my tree house. The priest rose from the fallen log and said to me: “Congratulations, Pahi`umi`umi— You withstood the test of storm.” I was truly delighted that my home in the forest was finally tried and ready for me. “Some hot tea, Father?” I invited the priest to my safe abode; something told me that he was different from others. He shrugged: why not. As we made our way to the rope ladder, he said—casting his arms wide at my tree house, which was sheen with rain, fresh, its window spilling amber light like the huts by the coast—“This is heaven!” He mimicked my word: “Beauty!” And then he said something that I would never forget even as I didn’t always match up: “Hermits like us should never forget”—he cleaned his glasses on the dry patch over his chest and put them back on, gazing at the tree house as if relishing it—“while solitude is a heavenly retreat, a paradise in the crazy world, isolation from this crazy world is”—he pushed his glasses up—“hell.”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents

either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events,

or locales is entirely coincidental.

NEXT:

Unpublished Manuscript (II):

Hilary’s Song

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