Loloa Fononga:
The Long Journey

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

Lee sat in the middle of the canoe paddling, first one side, then the other.  He felt power in the muscles across his shoulders and he reveled in the new strength he seemed to have gained in the nearly two weeks he had been here.  He was surprised how dark he had become, too.  And how comfortable he was in the local men’s wear, he thought sardonically.  He wondered what the men on the boat would think if they saw him now and he paused in his cadence. 

“You lost count again, Lee,” La’ani said with a soft laugh. She was just behind him, her paddle had been flashing in time with his.  They were just beyond the reef and the canoe rose and fell rhythmically with the swelling waves of the ocean.  The sea was getting heavy.  A storm would be arriving soon, but not before sunset, he guessed.  Still time for a short dive.  “What dire thoughts caused you to falter?” she asked lightly, when he didn’t take up the paddle again. 

“I was just wondering what the men would think if they saw me now,” he replied softly. 

She laughed.  “I can have Teva take a picture and you can show it to them when you return.”

Lee had not told her anything about the past month and a half of his life.  It was time.  He owed it to her to not think that he had come simply on her account.  For a moment he wondered just what she would think of him for ‘using’ her like that.   He decided to come completely clean.  “I won’t be going back,” he said quietly, his paddle lying forgotten across his legs. 

There was a pause.  “What?”  La’ani was incredulous.  Lee could have said almost anything else but this.  She remembered his almost worshipful consideration of his ‘Gray Lady.’ She had thought of her feelings of the night before; her realization of how much she cared for this man and yet how little she could compete with his ‘mistress.’  Now?  Now she knew what it was that had seemed different about Lee, had made her think there was some underlying sadness, depression or problem.  During the past twelve days she had only striven to enjoy his presence, and hope her own presence was giving him some happiness in return.   Now she simply wanted to find out what was going on.  “Why not?”

“Because I was relieved of command.”  The pain in his voice was overwhelming and almost broke her heart. 

La’ani was flabbergasted.  Another statement that seemed unconceivable.  “But why?”

There was a pause.  “I was deemed unfit.  I didn’t pass my physical.”

It was as though something had been torn from his soul.  “But you seemed fit to me when you came here.”  La’ani put her paddle down and reached forward.  She gently laid her hand on his arm.  He turned to face her.   “Why would they think you were not fit to be captain?  And who?  Admiral Nelson?”  Even as she asked the last, she knew that her guess wasn’t right.  Even so, Lee had said absolutely nothing about the recent past since he had arrived.  His answers to her questions, she realized now, had been evasive or generic.  Lee had totally immersed himself in life here, fishing, climbing the mountain, exploring, swimming and diving.  When he wasn’t out with the men, Teva and Na’alu, who ironically had become his staunchest ally to those who mistrusted this ‘stranger,’ he was with her.  They usually ate quiet meals together, although his appetite fluctuated with his mood.  Sometimes they simply strolled on the beach or sat watching the stars.  Would he continue to be content to do so?   She didn’t think so.  La’ani longed to tell him how much she loved him.  For as much as she had been irritated that he had not seen fit to contact her more than the one time since he had left before, La’ani also realized that her heart had been drawn to him from the first time she had met him. 

And now he had been cut off from his “love.”  Her emotions felt in turmoil, writhing like the waves during a typhoon.  But she said nothing of that, knowing that Lee needed to get his own feelings out.  From how long it had taken him to tell her just this brief little bit, she knew how hard that would be.   When they had been together, he had plied her with questions about what was going on with her life and about the culture, language and history of her people.  He had become somewhat fluent in her language by now.     

Briefly, La’ani wondered if his loss of command had to do with what had happened on the island during his imprisonment, but she would not pry, even as she hadn’t before Lee’s revelation.  

“The admiral?” he asked, bringing her back.  “No, not Admiral Nelson.  Although he didn’t seem able to stop it from happening.”  He paused and frowned.  “Well, I guess that’s not a fair statement, either.  I don’t think he knew before I did.”  His brow furrowed in thought.  A lot of protocol had been sidelined, he thought. 

La’ani waited for a moment before responding.  “But who would say such a thing?” she prompted. 

Who indeed, he thought, but he couldn’t lay all his problems on her lap, burdening her with things like this.  It would be like dumping on Meeka.   He shook his head.  “I’ll figure it out later,” he said.  “You don’t need all my baggage.”

She only took a second to figure out what he probably meant by that idiom, then she felt a flare of anger.  He thought she was a child!   He had been treating her like he was her brother or father.   Grabbing his paddle and jerking it out of his hand, she snapped, “Why not, Lee Crane?  Why can’t you tell me what’s going on?  Isn’t that what people who care for one another do for each other?  Or is it because you think I’m too young?”  She looked every inch a queen as she glared fiercely at him. 

Lee was taken aback and sat speechless for a moment. 

“You have been treating me like some kind of little sister,” she continued.  “And that’s fine, but just be aware, I am not a child, Lee.  I am an adult, almost twenty years old.  Treat me like one.  Give me the same consideration you would to any of your other adult friends.”

Almost twenty?  She was honestly nineteen? he thought.  Many times as they had sat together and talked, Lee had been struck by how mature she seemed and it was at those times that the desire to take her in his arms had surged hotly in his veins.  He had only squelched those feelings by reminding himself that this was a child young enough to be his daughter.  And now he realized that while she was only a little more than half his age….  He was jerked back by the heat of her next words. 

“Don’t treat me like I can’t handle the rotten, vicious things in life,” she went on.  “You know what’s happened here.  You know how horrible things have been.” 

Tears began flowing down her cheeks and Lee reached for her and drew her close.  She began to sob and he felt his own emotions rise to the brink.  He felt the heat in the corners of his eyes but didn’t heed the stray tears that trickled down his tanned cheeks.  “I’m sorry, La’ani.  I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to demean you or your experiences.” 

She continued to rock and cry, her arms around him like he was some life preserver.  She pored out her feelings about her brother and father and her mother; things he had already heard and things new to him.  And throughout it all, Lee held her close. 

“My mother used to rock me like this,” she finally said.  “Here I didn’t want to be treated like a child and I throw myself into your arms like one.”

Lee remembered that his mother had done the same thing and he saw her again in her casket.  The harsh emotions of his recent loss threatened again to overwhelm him.  He felt the hot tears of being alone—no—of being bereft.  Suddenly Lee wasn’t holding La’ani to comfort her, but to comfort himself as well.  What he had held in at the funeral suddenly released, however briefly and Lee couldn’t stop it. 

After they had held on to each other for what seemed hours, he pulled back.  “Even adults need that kind of comfort at times,” he whispered in her ear before they found another outlet for their emotions.  Their lips touched and then molded together in expressions of understanding and affection.  And desire.  What Lee had been striving to suppress, to control, because he had thought her barely climbing out of childhood came surging forward.  This latest expression, too, seemed to last forever and then reluctantly, slowly they parted.  They sat in the canoe, facing each other, panting slightly, not quite knowing what to say. 

La’ani spoke first.  “Lee, I hope that wasn’t because you . . . you….”

“It was because you are a special young woman, because I care very deeply for you and because….”  His voice dropped to a whisper as he caressed her cheek.  “Because it was right.”    And the irritating little voice of reason kept asking him if it really was right.  For all that she was considered an adult, she was still seventeen years his junior, she was a queen and for that alone she was as inaccessible to him as the Seaview was at the moment. 

“Lee Crane, I love you, but I am under no illusions.  Your heart belongs to another,” she said suddenly, bringing him out of his momentary illusion. 

“Huh?”

“Your Gray Lady, Lee.”  She smiled softly.  “I could have worse rivals.”  Her hand reached up where his still lay against her cheek. 

Lee frowned.  “She’s not mine to have or love, La’ani.”

There were other things missing, La’ani thought.  “Lee, tell me what’s happened since you left here before.  Please.  Maybe we can find a solution.”

He looked at her in astonishment and admiration.  “You’d help me get your rival back,” he said half serious, half teasing.

“Are you happy without Seaview?” La’ani asked.  He shook his head.  “Then tell me.  Please.” 

So he did.  As they were slowly carried on the current that paralleled the reef he told her everything—his recovery, the admiral’s disappearance, his mother’s death, the loss of command.  He left very little out of his narrative.  

“But why would someone do this to you, especially so soon after the death of your mother?”   She stopped and gasped softly, seeing the pain on his face.  “Oh, Lee, I am so sorry.  I. . .”

“I know.  It’s hard, no matter how or when it happens,” he replied.  But he was thinking of her question.  What he was really concentrating on was the seeming lack of protocol.  Why he hadn’t thought of it before, he didn’t know.  If one had a substandard score on any part of a physical, especially someone in a position like his, the individual was usually called back in after a grace period to have the test reviewed, possibly retaken.  There was at least a warning that such action as a reassignment was going to happen.  And why a doctor on the other side of the country?  Sure it had been convenient at the time, since he had been near the east coast anyway….  Now he wondered just who it had been convenient for.  Something smelled and he had been wallowing too much in his self-pity to notice.  He couldn’t even begin to think who might have it in for him.  There were too many people he had irritated over the years.  Someone had been watching him carefully, waiting for his most vulnerable moment and he had walked blithely into the trap.  Hell, he thought, he had sent the invitations.  “That’s a very good question, La’ani.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself.”

“For the same reason I allowed Bomar to use me, Lee.  I was in pain.  You were as well.”  She hesitated, her thoughts in turmoil.  He had not professed love to her, but he had admitted something very close.  And his body language had admitted it even more.  With his being barred from her “rival,” she had the opportunity to have him forever.  Despite the fact that he was of the same race and nationality as the hated Bomar….   She paused in her thoughts, shocked.  How could two people have the same roots and be so different?  But despite all that she knew her people would come to love Lee even as she did.  La’ani wished the A’ona Matua were still here.  Then she heard herself asking, “Can you fight this decision, Lee?”

“Fight it?” he asked.  “I don’t know.  I may have let too much time pass, La’ani, but I think I should at least inquire.”  He then looked back into her face and saw the conflicting emotions.  Was it worth fighting city hall when he had something very worthwhile right here?  Then he asked himself how happy he could be not having at least tried to find out why he had been so summarily tossed off the boat.  He thought of being away from the men he had come to think of as brothers and felt an ache—the same ache he had felt ever since he had opened that damned letter.

“I think you should, too,” La’ani replied, breaking into his reverie. 

“Why?” he asked, studying her carefully.  “That would be taking me away.”

“Lee, I want you to be happy.”

He pulled her close as fresh tears tracked down her cheeks. 

“If I can only have you for short times it will be worth the wait the rest of the time,” she heard herself saying and realized it was true.

“That’s not fair to you.  You deserve better.”  He had felt attracted to many women in his life, but never had he felt the attraction, the deep affection also augmented by the respect that he had for this dark-eyed Polynesian girl.  That anyone could even cause him to consider turning aside his career….   But still, his words were true—she did deserve better, whether he got his command back or not.

She pulled away and then reached up and stroked his cheek with one finger.  “Lee, perhaps it is a cliché to you but I am Polynesian, a child of the ocean.  We know the ocean, we live it, breathe it.  The ocean runs in our veins and through the centuries it has separated our peoples from one another.  We know how to deal with the separations that are caused by living with the ocean and being a part of it.  You know that, I can tell that you know it.  The ocean is part of you as well, even if you aren’t Polynesian.”  She smiled and let her hand fall, brushing down his chest as it did.  “And we also know how to enjoy the moments together,” she murmured. 

He bet she did, Lee thought.  He felt warmth rising in his body.  Now is not the time, he reminded himself.  He just held her close and pondered everything that had just transpired.   The sun slowly slid beneath the distant ocean horizon and they simply sat in the canoe and watched, only paddling occasionally to stay close to the island.   After everything that had happened to him in the recent past, Lee felt a peaceful comfort in simply being with La’ani.   

She lay quietly in Lee’s arms, enfolded in his strength and caring as the warm darkness enfolded them both.  In the distance lightning flashed intermittently.   It was getting quite late but time meant nothing. 

He leaned forward until his lips caressed her ear.  “You are a very special woman, La’ani.  I felt that from the first moment you came into my cell.  I feel it so much more now.” 

She was tempted to turn and gaze into his eyes. She was hearing something she hadn’t heard before.  It was more than caring.  Dare she hope?

He continued and to her ear, he sounded somewhat bewildered.  “La’ani, as much as I would like to stay, I have to go back and fight this.” 

La’ani realized that she would only have Lee Crane until Mata returned then he would be gone.  “I want you to, Lee,” she whispered back, even though deep down there was a part of her that wanted him all to herself.  

Although she was lying with her back against his chest, she knew that he was looking up toward into the soft, cloud enfolded night.  “I wish you could come with me,” he murmured.  I wish I could stay.”  He paused and then held her a little tighter.  “I . . . I still wish I was being totally fair to you.”

She pulled away and turned to look into his dark eyes.  How could she reassure him?  “What do you mean, Lee?  Have I complained?” 

He laughed softly.  “No, you haven’t.  On the contrary, you have made it so easy to love you.”

She sucked in her breath.  “What?” she asked, her voice almost breaking.

“You heard me, Queen La’ani Rana’oanui.  I believe you have thrown your net over me and captured my heart.”  Then he sighed.  “But I’m afraid that it’s also not mine to give.” 

She turned enough to kiss him.  “Lee, are there married men on Seaview?”

He sighed again.  “Yes, but most of the families live near the Institute.”

“So I live a few miles farther away.”  She laughed softly and then felt his indecision.  “Lee, if we love each other and it’s meant to be, it will happen.”

Lee said nothing, only wondered if he loved her enough.  He was so deeply attracted to the dark-eyed woman.  He realized that now and understood why he had gravitated to this place after being stripped of everything.  “Yes,” he murmured.  He felt the ring on his finger, the one that had belonged to his father, and he pulled it off.  “La’ani, I don’t know how long it will be before Mata returns.  I don’t know how long it will take to fight my . . . dismissal, or what the outcome will be.  Or when I will be able to return.”  He paused and reached for her hand.  “But until I do, I want you to have this.  It was my father’s.”   He found her hand and slipped it on her index finger.  Her hands that had seemed infinitely large and strong when he was sick were in actuality, small, with long, graceful fingers.  The ring was too big.

“Oh, Lee.  I . . . I . . . thank you,” she said.  “It’s beautiful.   Your father’s?”  She held it on her finger with her other hand; afraid it would fall off.

“It’s too big,” he stated, disappointed. 

“I will put it on a necklace.  It will be near my heart.”  She paused as though considering something.  “But I have nothing for you,” she added sadly.

He kissed her.  “I have the taste of you on my lips.”  He ran his hands through her hair and then held her hands in his and kissed her palms.  His fingers slid up her bare arms and rested on her cheeks.   She shivered but didn’t make any other move.  “I have the feel of you in my mind.”  He took her in his arms and held her close.  Her heart beat a close cadence to his heart and he felt the warmth of her breath on his chest.  “And your heart resides in my heart.  That is a gift better than life itself.  And it will sustain me no matter what happens in the future.”  In the darkness, he felt her tears course down her cheeks and down his chest.  The lightning flashed closer and muted thunder began to sound above the cadence of the waves on the reef.   Reluctantly they took their paddles and began the return to the island cove.  This time their cadence matched perfectly.   

 

 

 

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