King Hoto-Matua had a dream about a far off land. He took his people left Hiva and came to Rapa Nui in a double hulled canoe. They lived in isolation for over 1,000 years. Somewhere in there, they carved tons of volcanic rock into the forms of men, moving them across the island to finish them, give them eyes and features and top knots, to stand them, with their backs to the ocean, over the graves of their leaders. Slavery led to revolution, dynastic rule peaked and disappeared, religion changed, populations rose and dropped. The moai fell and the men they were carved for, forgotten.
There is a shop with petite white tables and dainty chairs, it sits on a rocky little peninsula that protects the bay. Some of the black lava rock has been scooped away, forming a shallow, hook-shaped, harbor that curves around a line of colorful boats. Seven of them tug at the dock, their sterns tied to a rope running across the open end of the hook. They are maybe 15 feet long, wooden, open to the sky and fitted with a large outboard engine. The fisherman glide into the harbor with the waves, riding just behind the crest to bring their catch in. They gut the fish on the boats and toss it over the side. We’ve been told this attracts sea turtles.
In the shop with the white tables, they make fresh gelato every morning and every day they have different flavors. Cherimoya, fresa (strawberry), Baileys, pera (pear), kiwi mandarina, Snickers, limon, Nutella. We buy a cone and walk past the little tables to a bench in front of a small moai that has been resurrected. It is the third day we’ve come here to sit in the shadow of the moai and search the clear blue of the harbor for sea turtles. I squint as the light bounces across the water for a moment but I’m distracted by the shadow and the sweet, tart, custard flavor of the cherimoya. It’s my favorite.
I lick my wrist where gelato has melted and run along the edge of the leaf tattooed there. There are only two spaces on my arm that haven’t been tattooed, where ink hasn’t been meticulously laid under my skin. One is my elbow, which I intend to leave blank. The other is right below that, on the back of my forearm. It’s a little oval maybe 3 inches by 2 inches, full of possibilities.
I’m back in a white bathroom with a beige rug. I turn the shower on and let it run, heating up the tiles behind the little plastic bench so that when he sits down and leans back, the wall will be warm. I choose a clean pair of socks, pants, undershirt and a short sleeved button up shirt, laying them out on the bed. He looks them over and nods his approval. I pull a fresh Depends out of his closet and add it to the waiting clothes as he shuffles his walker into the bathroom. His knuckles are swollen, making his fingers clumsy and he struggles with the buttons on his shirt. I undo them. Thick white eyebrows are knitted into a frown over cloudy blue eyes. He rubs at the side of a nose that droops on the end, there’s a slight crook in the bridge from a long healed break. He’s quiet today, resting his hands loosely in his lap as he stares through me. We go through the routine of standing up and sitting down and standing up. Removing shoes, socks, pants, I put them in a plastic bag, tying it shut to keep the urine off the floor. I’ll wash them later. We walk to the shower and the water has warmed the seat, the wall. I hand him his washcloth and soap and step back, washing his dentures as I wait.
The bathroom fills with clouds of steam and he tells me about his farm. He has a special knack for stories, it’s rare here. I sometimes wonder if they’re true, but decide it doesn’t really matter. When he’s ready, I wash his hair. I wince as I open the door and the steam escapes. The warm air of his room seems chilly as I help him pull the thin white t-shirt on over his head, arms first. Depends, pants, socks. I comb his thinning hair, parting it carefully on the side, like he wore it in the photos on the plain laminate dresser. He is in his Navy uniform, his ears shorter and his grin full of mischief. The lines formed at the edge of his eyes are the kind that will disappear as soon as he relaxes his face. His photo sits next to one of his wife, already waiting for him on the other side. She looks luminous in black and white.
“I need to go home.” He tells me. I ask him questions, about his life, about his kids, gently trying to distract him. Tonight he answers them. We have a little time before we walk to dinner so I sit in the chair across from his bed, the one with the button that raises the seat and pushes you to your feet. A figure on his bicep peeks out from below the sleeve of his shirt.
“What’s that?” I ask him smiling. His face lightens in a grin, he raises his sleeve with thick fingers and shows me.
“Poor old girl.” He says and chuckles ruefully. She was once a pinup girl, lovely and young, like him. One arm holds a feather or maybe a sword over her head, her proportions are still lovely. It’s easy to imagine a provocative expression on her smudged face. Sometimes he waggles around in a one armed chicken dance to make her shimmy as the loosened skin on his arm sways. Today he just drops his sleeve and laughs.
The other bicep has a heart, the name indistinguishable. I privately decide it says “Lula”, which is what I secretly have named the pin-up. I love her a little bit. Sometimes, on the bad days, the days when his confusion is thicker, suffocating, when he knows something is wrong but not what… on the days when it takes 30 minutes to convince him to put on pants for dinner, when it takes even longer to soothe him after his daughter has left, visibly upset… on those days I love Lula the most. She shakes her foot loose of his sleeve, reminding me that he was once young. Maybe he was wild, drinking and carousing with his Navy buddies. Maybe he wanted to impress a girl or his friends. Maybe he was calm and quiet and wanted a tattoo for an entirely different reason. Maybe… who knows? But certainly he wasn’t always this version of himself, fragile and lost in his own room. He had a life, even if he cannot remember it. Sometimes he jokes and tells stories but sometimes Lula is all that’s left. She’s the only reminder of that other person who used his body before passing it on, slightly worn, to the young father, the businessman, the grandpa, the Christian, to all of the iterations of him.
The cherimoya has given way to kiwi mandarina and another run away drop nearly makes it to the pale oval of plain skin. I sigh and look into the crispy shell, the gelato is nearly gone. A dog with more than a little German Shepherd in him is lying at our feet, politely watching the ocean. I look down at him and he immediately looks up, his brown eyes huge, he thumps his tail once. I pass him the cone and he takes it so carefully, gently between his teeth, as if he’s trying not to spook me. He turns his head away from my hand, slowly, laying it on the ground before devouring it.
My fingers are sticky but it’s ok. You aren’t allowed to touch the moai. You aren’t allowed to run your fingers over the curve of the nose or the socket of an eye, carved and shaped a thousand years ago by someone who’s name is long lost. I look at my fingertips, arms crossed, they rest on the hands of watercolor clock, obscuring the permanent time. The rock that stands here isn’t the same as the rock they touched, generations and generations before me. My thumb brushes the line of a tentacle on the inside of my bicep, slightly raised. Their rock was several layers ago, worn away by an ocean flavored wind and rain that hadn’t spent itself on the sea. There’s a daffodil in bloom and a bud that will never open, shooting up from my wrist. I wonder who they were supposed to remind us of.
I swipe at my arm with the napkin. I wonder if Easter Island would fit in the oval. I wonder if it, did if the same mixture of pride and embarrassment would wage war when I smiled at it. I wonder what it would remind me of, what it’s supposed to remind me of.
We still haven’t seen any turtles but we have one more day and a lot more flavors of gelato.