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Tropical Romance (A Fable)

The scream echoed through the house like a fire alarm and caused the paniolo (Hawaiian  cowboy) to bolt from his seated comfort in the anteroom. Following the sound he arrived in the kitchen on the run and spotted the problem right away, dispatching it with a swift slap of his hand. He bundled the mangled remains in a paper napkin and tossed it into a wastebasket then looked at the startled woman standing in a backward lean against the counter, the back of one hand held to her mouth.

“Wh-what on God's earth was that?” she implored, trembling slightly.

“Bull 'racha, Ma'am,” he said, washing his hands under the faucet. “Big devil, too.”

“ ... 'racha?” she wondered, lowering her hand and composing herself with a tug at the hem of her loosely worn blouse, “What's a 'racha?”

“Well, Ma'am, the Mes'cans call 'em cucarachas. Then one day, down at the corrals, Alejandro said 'racha' and it just sorta caught on. Some folks call 'em cockroaches,” he explained while giving her an appraising once over, noting her dimpled cheeks and lovely dark eyes that seemed to flash in the excitement of the moment, a petite hourglass figure that fit his vision of womanhood.

Not half bad, he thought to himself.

“Do they always jump out at you?” she wondered.

“Only when you surprise 'em, Ma'am. It's usually a good idea to turn on a light for a spell before you go pokin' around in a cupboard.”

“Are they dangerous?  Do they have teeth?” she asked, then added, “How could you use your bare hand like that?”

“Can't say they're dangerous, Ma'am. You learn to use your bare hand because they are so quick. If you want to get 'em, you have to go right at 'em.” Then, sizing her up once again, noting the graceful sway of dark hair falling across her forehead, he ventured, “You might want to have your husband give your room a goin' over, though … I've heard it said that they can be attracted to the prettier gals,” a smile crossing his face.

“I don't have a husband,” she said, feeling a little flustered. “This will be my first night as a guest of the ranch and my first night on Maui as well. I wouldn't know how to do it, or where to look. Why didn't they tell me I'd have to put up with a horde of hideous primeval bugs before I came here?  We don't have anything like that where I came from.”  She had left her home in the Eastern US a few months earlier, seeking adventure and a global point of view. The circumstances surrounding her arrival on Maui are as farfetched as winning a lottery and she chooses not to talk about it, fearing people would think she was either bragging or fibbing.

“Oh, well, Ma'am,” he said, a note of apology in his voice, “Folks here are used to 'em—they just come with the territory, like the Ocean. I don't suppose no one thought much about it, no way.” He could have told her that management refuses to use poisons to control pests, but thought she might not understand their reasoning.

“Oh, I don't mean to complain,” she said, noting his sun-weathered complexion, a lean physique and a touch of gray at the temples. “I'll be okay; it was just such an unwelcome surprise. Bugs give me the creeps.”

She wasn't familiar enough with Hawaii to wonder about his lack of local pidgin dialect and the western accent. The paniolo had come to the ranch from Wyoming three years earlier, sought out and  hired by one of the owners for his knowledge of cattle and skills in the saddle. It was just an adventurous impulse at the time, but he became enamored with the beauty of Maui and would readily admit that he didn't miss the Wyoming winters and sub-freezing temperatures that came with them.

* * *

The following morning she went out to the stables to see the stock of horses. The Upcountry pasture-land was absolutely dazzling, a gently rolling landscape that carried up the slopes of Haleakala with stands of exotic eucalyptus and koa dividing the pastures. She had never before encountered such  brilliant and remarkable hues of green. The whole vista was accented by the most colorful flowering tree she had ever seen, all thirty feet of it covered with vivid purple blossoms. There were several mares with their foals in a nearby section of pasture enclosed by a crisp white rail fence, giving the entire panorama a storybook quality.

Then, as she reached to tighten a lace on her riding boot, her temporary serenity was replaced by another reality: a tropical centipede, appearing as though a holdover from the Jurassic and fully eight or nine inches in length, had managed to attach itself to her boot, encircling the ankle. It was armored with broad semi-circular body sections of dark iridescent colors that bled into brighter shades of red, indicative of its toxic bite. It had uncountable legs and fierce mandibles that looked capable of piercing leather. A cry escaped her throat as she recoiled, throwing her arms skyward and backing up as though to escape, but the centipede held to her boot and came right with her. She caught a glimpse of the paniolo, close-by, wheeling his horse and riding hard in her direction. She felt darkness closing in on her as she went into a faint.

His dismount was a single effortless motion, executed while reining his horse from a gallop.  He caught her in the arc of her swoon, halfway to the ground.

She came to consciousness looking into the dancing light of his azure eyes, crystal pools reflecting kindness and concern. She heard him speaking to her as though from a distance, his voice reaching her with a reassuring warmth and confidence.

“It's all right, Ma'am. It'll not bother you again. It's these Kona winds, you know, that sometimes brings them out.”

“…Kona?” she questioned, consciousness returning in gentle waves.

“Yes, Ma'am. Winds that blow from the south and southwest. The prevailing winds here are trade winds that come out of the east and northeast. But this is a south wind, a Kona wind.  It fools the insects, Ma'am. They think the season has changed when it blows Kona. They crawl out of their homes and start building anew to protect themselves from the south wind. Most of the big storms, Ma'am, are blown in with the Konas.” He looked off at the horizon with a studied glance. “Could be that we're fixin' to have some weather.”

The realization that he was still holding her slowly seeped into her awareness, a taut muscular arm across her back, his hand cupping her shoulder, holding her up off the ground. She again noted the clean, rugged lines of his visage, brown from the sun. The brim of his hat threw a shadow across a broad forehead, his face clean-shaven but for a trim mustache lightly speckled with gray. And he had those smile lines at the corner of each eye she called “crow's feet.” She had come to think that a man with crow's feet in his smile suggested an attitude that would make him an ideal shopping partner: “Go ahead, dear…buy all of them if they please you.”  A brief shudder rocked her shoulders as he effortlessly lifted her to standing.

Not half bad, she thought to herself.

* * *

Two nights later a furious Kona storm was battering the island. Power was out at the ranch and  lines were down from Lahaina all the way to Hana. A hundred year-old table lamp that had once burned whale oil was at her bedside. She found the soft warm light soothing and enjoyed the comfort it provided. She trimmed the wick and was mildly amazed by the generous illumination it gave off through the blown glass chimney, providing enough light to comfortably read her book. She reflected on the history of such lighting, taking certain solace in the fact that whales were no longer slaughtered in order to light our homes.

Preparing for bed, she noticed from across the room some dark spindle-like fingers protruding from the side of a slightly open closet door. Startled, she calmed herself with an inner laugh. No bug has legs that big. It's just the edging on a wool blanket, a fringe of yarn … something like that. Confidently opening the closet door to investigate, she watched in stunned horror as a tarantula-like cane spider the size of a tea saucer nimbly bolted from the closet and across the wall to her bed where it came to rest on a throw-pillow. She stood stock-still, frozen in shock, unable to move or summon a call for help. When her scream was finally liberated, the spider made a hasty retreat over the side of the bed, exhibiting surprising speed.

She heard running footsteps in the hallway and a brief pounding on the door before it opened, the paniolo appearing in the threshold. He followed her trembling fingers, pointing in the direction of the spider's retreat.

Kneeling at the bedside he removed his hat and, with gentle practiced moves, ushered the spider down the length of the bed and out of the room into the hallway where it scampered off into the dim light of the corridor.

“Don't want to kill 'em, Ma'am,” he said. “They eat the 'rachas.”

* * *

The relationship was cemented. She wouldn't sleep alone for the remainder of her stay. The paniolo was happy with this turn of events, although he had questions of his own. Was it just her fear of those puny bugs or was it something more than that? Well, he thought, never-the-matter. Whatever it was that got us to here is just alright with me. A warm embracing glow settled over him as he listened to her  breathing softly beside him and sleep began to overtake his rambling thoughts … maybe tomorrow I'll show her the ruins at Halehaku Bay on the Haiku coast, the place where Kamehameha the Great landed his war canoes to start his conquest of Maui … if the 'skeeters don't eat her alive … we could always jump in the ocean if she's bothered … wonder if she's afraid of  fish? … I've seen barracuda and a reef shark in that bay ... dolphins, turtle and a manta ray, too … maybe she'll begin to understand that it's all just a part of the beauty that comes with Hawaii ... maybe she'd like to go dancing Saturday night in Makawao … she might even stick around for a while.

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