Easter Island – October 2016
Come back to me.
A shift in pressure as the plane descends through the clouds. I catch a glimpse of the island. Is that a cloud moai over the wing?
The Time has come.
I have come in search of a lost spirit. She is eight years old, a halo of blonde hair cut into a Toni Tennille bob. She wears a long, deep purple dress that her mother made. Her feet are bare. For forty years, she has roamed among the stately monoliths.
Come back to me.
My favorite television show is In Search Of. It stars Mr. Spock from Star Trek. It’s about mysteries like the Loch Ness monster, haunted castles, and UFOs. My favorite episode is about Easter Island. At St. Anthony’s school, I draw the stone heads for a Religion class assignment. The heads are my science research project. I say that they were carved by outer space people. I don’t even care if anyone laughs. The Teacher or the other kids. But they don’t. They are afraid to now, after what happened.
March 10, 1977
I had a dream about the heads on Easter Island. Me and my friend were going to Easter Island. When we got there we didn’t expect a city. Then we go, do you know where the heads are? They go, yes, but they are guarded by ugly creatures. So what. We’ll bring weapons. Many men had took the most powerful guns on this whole island but they never returned, so nobody would dare go there. Thanks for telling us. You can stay at my place for tonight before your trip home. The End.
A pre-dawn symphony awakens me. Vigorous crows and indignant clucks. I smile to myself as the performance grows more impassioned with the sunrise. It’s funny to be back in the Pacific islands after a ten-year absence. I once called two rocks in this vast region “home” – Guam and New Caledonia. Yet Easter Island had somehow fallen off my travel radar. The Time was not right back then.
I glance at my phone. Only twenty minutes have passed. It seems like more than an hour. That’s Island Time. Languid, elongated. It feels like I’ve been on this voyage for ages, but I’ve only just arrived.
The evening before I left on this journey, I found the In Search Of episode on YouTube. It was called, “The Easter Island Massacre.” Shadowy film tones and melodramatic music. Leonard Nimoy in a turtleneck and blazer. His presence as aloof and regal as the moai. The vague, sensational theories seem silly today, but to a young child in the 1970s, they were mesmerizing.
I gather myself together and walk down the path to Tahai, ten minutes from the guesthouse. It is a must-see place for sunsets, so now it is empty. The rangers haven’t yet arrived. Here is the only moai that has restored eyes. I stare into them.
She was here, but has moved on. I feel a pull to the right. The dirt road continues, so I follow it. I’ve got all day in Hanga Roa. The rental car is reserved for tomorrow and the day after. A wild horse passes me with a snort. A solitary moai comes into view. This one is named Kioe.
I sit on the grass and watch the clouds dance behind him. A soft light emanates from his body. It shifts and whirls like a transparent aurora. I stare at it, transfixed. This has never happened before. I’m a feeler, not a seer. For a few moments, the world floats away. I am enveloped in a strange, soft emptiness. An instant of panic. What if I don’t come back? But it passes. Do I even care if I do, anymore? Then, in his eyes, a glimmer of awareness.
I catch my breath. “Can you see me?” I whisper. You know why I’ve come.
A young woman steps into view. “Hola.” She strolls around the Ahu taking photos. Her boyfriend appears. His voice grows harsh as she ignores the signs and steps onto the altar. Kioe is not important enough for a ranger. She shrugs. I stand up, brush myself off, and wander towards the village, passing Tahai, where wild horses have gathered.
The Teacher stands at the front of the class. What do you want to be when you grow up?
The other kids stand up and say doctor, teacher, and other normal things. One girl says she wants to lie on the couch all day, eat candy, and watch soap operas. I want to be an archeologist and go to Easter Island. I can even spell the word archeologist.
The Teacher’s knife-slash smile. Cold light in her eyes. Very good, Julie. My stomach turns. I want to think that she likes me now, but I know it’s because she’s afraid I’ll tell my counselor about what she did. About the time when she took me in the office and everything went black.
Are you still seeing your lady friend?
She stirs her coffee, and sucks on the plastic spoon until her fat lips turn white. Then she pulls it out of her mouth and shakes it in the air. What do you talk about?
The other kids stare at me. Eyes filled with disgust. I squirm. She no longer lets them be mean to me, but I don’t like it when they remember that I’m here and that there’s something wrong with me. I am too sensitive. Everyone says this word like it’s a disease. The Teacher was only trying to help me. But I am hopeless.
I turn away and stare out the window of the three-room rural schoolhouse, past the fields and barns. And I am There, walking along the windswept cliffs, weaving in and out of the stone heads, alone. Safe. Safe from them all.
Rain in the Pacific islands sometimes comes in the form of momentary cloudbursts. Sometimes it’s a constant mist. I arrive at Anakena as the ranger station opens. Clouds encircle the beach, leaving a circular patch of sunlight. A French-speaking guide explains to a couple that the moai face inland to watch over the people. They are representations of the ancestors and were believed to be infused with a powerful spiritual magic called mana.
It would be fascinating to hear detailed history, but the thought of being around people, here, is unbearable. I have work to do and I will not be disturbed. She has already come and gone. I take the road towards Tongariki. Something tells me that I will find her there. The rich green slopes of Poike are obscured by rain. Wild horses dart in and out of the road. No other cars pass. It’s as if I’ve got the entire island to myself.
A herd of wild horses has blocked the road. The pale green cliffs of the Rano Raraku crater rise in the distance. I come to a halt. The horses disperse, tossing their manes and shooting me haughty looks. Two males kick and bite each other, twirling around in a vicious dance. Two females approach the car. One of them rubs her head on the hood. A mischievous spark lights up her eyes.
I burst out laughing and roll down the window. “Aw, you just want love.”
She licks the hood as I continue to talk to her. A soft snort. Teeth appear. She tries to gnaw on the metal. The steely eyes of the rental car lady arise.
“Woah! That’s enough.” I tap my foot on the gas and nudge the horse out of the way. There’s no car insurance on Easter Island. All damage has to be paid for by the renter. “Goodbye, sweetheart,” I say as I drive away.
It only takes a few minutes to get to Tongariki, but by the time I arrive, it is pouring rain. I pull into the small parking lot and shut off the car. A minibus parks next to me. The door slides open. Tourists tumble out. Rain ponchos and selfie sticks. I recognize a few from the Lan flight from Santiago. With only one flight in and out per day, it’s bound to happen. The driver of the minibus on the other side leers at me. When I glance at him, he smirks. I sigh and start the car. It’s only early afternoon. It only takes thirty minutes to drive here from Hanga Roa. Be patient. Have faith in Later.
Hating yourself is not something that comes naturally. It’s something that must be systematically taught. Not everyone has the fortune of finding such an enthusiastic and dedicated teacher. For some, it starts from birth, with parents who never should have been. For others, it’s teachers and peers. Sometimes it comes later, with toxic lovers and friends. But those are usually the result of earlier trauma. The seed of self-loathing must be planted deep within a fertile mind. You can cut back the stalks, but unless you dig way down to the root, they just keep growing back.
There is no shortage of gurus, coaches, whatevers. Systems©, Methods©, Secrets©. Each one proclaiming louder than the next that they can, for a price, help us be the best we can be.
As if we’re not already.
It’s funny how most of those self-proclaimed enlightened ones can’t seem to manage their own personal lives. So much easier to tell others how they should be, rather than look in the mirror. The Teacher claimed that she only wanted to help me. Her shrill voice has echoed, for too long, in my memory: What is wrong with you, Julie? Huh? There were so many things. I was left-handed. That started it all. I had odd thoughts, daydreamed, never raised my hand to be called upon. I did not work to the best of my ability.
The Teacher was fired after that school year. No one spoke about why, but a couple of years later the school secretary told my mother about what happened. She had witnessed the abuse and had been too afraid to step in. One of my oldest friends had also witnessed the Teacher beating me, and still blames herself for not saying anything. I would never blame a little kid for not standing up to that monster. Besides, by that time, the psychological damage had already been done.
Why didn’t you tell me? My mother asked.
I tried, but you wouldn’t listen.
Both of my parents bore the scars of Catholic school. Just be thankful you don’t have the nuns, they had said. My father, especially, suffered terrible humiliation under those blue-robed tyrants. He was also left-handed, and they forced him to write right-handed. He was poor. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was crazy. They made fun of his clothes, and how his mother pinned his hair back with barrettes because she couldn’t be bothered to cut his hair.
If I’d had the nuns, year after year, I wouldn’t have made it this far.
It is late afternoon at Tongariki. The mist has lifted and coalesced into a shroud. It hovers over the landscape, a barrier between the worlds. The only person present is the ranger. She sits on the stone wall, lifts a hand in greeting, and then goes back to staring at her smart phone. Fifteen moai rise before me. I sit on a rain-sodden rock and lift my eyes to theirs. Auroras appear, undulating around them. A silent, incandescent vibration. A flicker of white, a giggle. She is here.
Forty years gone. Without her.
Come back to me.
Of all the people who were cruel to you, you were the worst. Five years ago, these words blasted into my consciousness. At another sacred place on the day of elevens. The details of that event will never be for public consumption. It was meant for my spirit only.
Sounds are transported in the breeze. Distant waves, the whinny of excited horses. The ranger has begun to sing. Gentle words in Spanish. A wistful melody.
You can come out now. It’s safe. I won’t hurt you anymore.
She steps into view, pauses, and then runs towards me. I throw my arms open wide and gather her up. I love you. Teardrops soak her blonde hair. I cradle her in my lap. Her face morphs, matures. The awkward pre-teen with the unruly Blondie hair becomes the raging, defiant teenager. Eyes ringed with black eyeliner. Fierce spark of determination. She’s going to show them all.
And you did. I love you.
Twenty. Awake in a strange bed. A familiar, despised face. He only drugged and took advantage of her. She needs to get over it. It’s her own fault anyway for not seeing the signs. Why can’t she get over it? And then so many years stumbling along. Days spent curled up on the floor. Catatonic. Defeated eyes staring up from a hospital bed. Spirit gone, gone, gone. She can’t even succeed at killing herself.
I love you.
Twenty-four. Fresh out of the abyss. Blonde hair cut off. Acne scars. Starting over. Soon to be transformed again. There she is dancing on a stage. Seven-inch platforms, sequins, crushed velvet, satin. Fulfilling a sordid destiny.
You were just trying to stay alive. I love you.
Twenty-seven. Forehead against windowpane. Spring rain symphony. What now. What now. The heartbreak doesn’t exist, because there was no love. It was just a twisted game. All of it imagined.
Your heart was pure. I love you.
It all speeds up. Thirties, forties. Blazing a path across the planet. Trying to outrun herself. Fine lines appear. World-weary eyes. Circumnavigation blues.
Look how awesome you were, you are. How worthy. How beautiful. I love you.
I won’t hurt you anymore.
Psychopaths and egotists are merely obstacles to be dodged. They are not entitled to contemplation. I did nothing to deserve them.
Be gone. All of you.
I stand before the Fifteen, reverent and resolute. The shroud of mist has dissipated. Blue sky revealed. Thank you for watching over her. I take her by the hand and lead her away.
She seeps back into me as the remaining days pass. Look, here’s Rano Raraku, where the moai were forged. Here is the crater of Rano Kau. Every morning and evening, we bathe in Kioe’s glow.
You never dared to dream that you would see the mystery, but here you are. You did it. I’m so proud of you.
Departure time arrives. I am ready. The plane ascends. I turn to the right, look past three turned heads, out the window. A collective ahhhh of shared wonder fills the cabin as the moai of Tahai appear. And just beyond: solitary Kioe. My heart bursts free and soars. Thank you for watching over me. I turn forward, close my eyes, and fly away.