According to Hawaiian legend, the Volcano goddess, Pele, fell in love with a young man named Ohi’a. She tried to flirt with the handsome man but he rejected her. He was already in love with a young woman named Lehua. No one ever refused Pele and in a fit of jealousy, she turned Ohi’a into a tree. Lehua was devastated by the transformation and remained inconsolable. The other gods took pity on Lehua. They turned her into a flower and placed her on the tree of her lover. Hawaiians believe when someone plucks a flower from the Ohi’a Lehua tree, it begins to rain–signifying the tears of the separated couple.
As a little girl, Camila wondered why Lehua–and for that matter Pele–didn’t just go find another boyfriend. The flower, on the other hand, inspired her. No one expects to see flowers on an evergreen tree. It doesn’t look like it belongs there. Some think it is a parasite. But it is very much a part of the tree.
With the late afternoon sun peeking through the forest, Camila paced up and down the Waiakoa trail searching the Ohi’a Lehua trees for the most dramatic flower. She spotted a starburst of candy-apple red clinging to an evergreen branch that stretched out over a cliff. By crouching down, she could get a blurred background of the mountain descending on the left, the ocean on the lower right, and her flower exploding like a firework toward the sky. Its sticky, crystalized needles pointed in every direction like the sea urchins that pierced the bare feet of careless tourists wading in the tide pools.
Plumeria flowers with their creamy white petals and yellow center were popular but there were so many of them and their beauty got put to work—used in leis for the droves of tourists that flew in. The gaudy Birds of Paradise flower demanded attention like a teenager with too much makeup. Camila preferred the unconventional Lehue flower. It fueled her desire to be an artist.
With an hour left of good light, she set her gear bag down and pulled out her tripod. First, the horizon in the background would have to be level. Camila kneeled down and adjusted the tripod legs until the bubble in the base lined up in the center. Next, she attached a macro lens to her digital SLR camera. To get the effect of a blurred background she would need a shallow depth of field, so she set the aperture to f/2.8 and would use a faster shutter speed to capture the tips of the needles that would inevitably blow in the breeze.
She focused on the base of the flower and held down the remote shutter button, waiting for the flower to settle in for the perfect shot. A gust of wind kicked up the back of her hair. The branch swayed. She exhaled slowly and remained still, praying the flower would return to its original position.
A couple of tourists passed by, hiking with their small dog. She liked dogs but they always ruined nature shots when the subjects were wild animals. Bark all you want, Fluffy. You’re not going to scare away my prize today. Another couple stopped to watch.
Camila repeated her mantra. Breathe. Tourists happen. Let them pass. The bus will be leaving soon. With patience comes the right moment. A spiritual moment.
Her mind stopped. The branch held its position. Click. Click. Click. Three to be safe. But she was sure the first was the one she wanted. The sun reflected in the sea provided a backlight for her flower. The needles glowed at the tips and changed to a crimson shadow at the base. She breathed deeply.
A crunching of footsteps approached from behind. “Wow. Look at that.” A man with a cell phone crouched beside her and clicked off a photo of her flower.
“What are you doing?” she shouted. “That’s my shot.”
“Your shot?” The guy’s eyebrows turned down like an innocent puppy.
“I spent fifteen minutes setting that up.” She pointed down the trail. “Go take a picture over there.”
“But I like this one.”
“But it’s mine.”
“You can’t claim a flower growing in the wild.”
“I can and I did. I take photographs of nature and make cards.”
“No, like art.”
“Is it a good business?”
“Yeah, when there aren’t any poachers.”
That shut him up. But to be honest, she hadn’t sold many cards. Her mom told her they were too beautiful to send in the mail.
She tried again. “I’m going to ask you kindly to delete that last photo you took.”
The guy walked away. More tourists gathered at the railings to photograph the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, framed by the mountains and coastline of Maui. Her thief joined the others but kept his phone by his side. Maybe he only steals difficult shots.
Camilla tapped him on the shoulder. “Take me home.”
Several tourists looked back at her.
“We’re on a date.” She explained to them. The tourists turned back to the sunset.
Her date, Daniel, held up his phone. “Let’s take a selfie first.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
She hated—no, loathed—the millions of posts on social media with that one person in the corner struggling to smile and stay in the shot. To think that a hundred years from now art students would be calling this era—the one she lived in—the selfie-period of photographic art. Lord, if she could only have lived during the classical era of black and white photography.
“Just a quick one,” Daniel said and jiggled his phone at her.
That was a bad omen. A comment that most certainly epitomized his personality. Sexual overtones aside, he’d be a man of convenience. Heating dinner in a microwave. Driving to the gym to get exercise. Vacationing in Europe with tour guides.
They met through a friend at an art exhibit and he asked her out for drinks. She suggested brunch instead. How can you get to know someone in a noisy bar crowded with drunk people? And not even remotely romantic.
He brought her to one of her favorite restaurants right off the beach, “House Without a Key.” That gained him some credibility. He ordered the eggs benedict; she had an artichoke frittata. He was the heir apparent to his father’s small business–a print shop. An industry that was a shrinking, but it was family. He described all the posters he had produced for local events, and when he noticed she was still listening, he listed off all the equipment the shop owned and explained how they calibrated the printers for a sharp photo.
The second date was dinner at a French restaurant with a four-course meal and custom-made martinis. They discussed the effects of light and shadow on color, which led to this date. The important one. Hiking and a picnic. Their first activity. Everything before was just talk. Now they would see how well they did things together. The true test of their future.
“You guys came all the way to Hawaii to go on a date?” a dad tourist asked. His pink, skinny legs stuck out of his baggy, blue shorts. “A bit expensive for a date.”
“I think it’s romantic,” the tourist mom replied. She wore a red Hawaiian shirt that matched her lipstick. Whisps of gray hair floated above her head like cloud cover.
“We live here,” Camila explained.
“But you’re not Hawaiian.” The mom tourist needed clarification.
“Ethnically, no. But I was born here. My dad was a surfer. My mom was a romantic. Now she’s a realist and lives in LA.”
Dan took her hand and led her away from the couple. They strolled down the path to the parking lot. Shadows on the trail grew and everything had a golden tint to it.
“You shouldn’t talk to tourists while grinding your teeth,” he said, “it makes a bad impression.”
“Don’t I look like a local?” Somehow her long, dark hair and tan skin was not enough.
“You’re too uptight.”
“I’m uptight? That’s because you…”
“Shh. Be quiet. You’re behaving like a mainlander who didn’t get a fruit basket in their hotel room.”
He smirked and she punched him in the shoulder.
They continued down the path to the beach. The waves crashed on the shore and muted the voices of a group having a barbecue. Other couples leaned their heads on each other, watching the sunlight fade. No clouds in the sky. Just a solid gradient color of orange to red to purple and black. Nothing to frame. No dramatic clouds to stretch and twist the light.
“Are you going to delete that photo?” she asked Dan. They stood shoulder to shoulder, an inch apart. Far enough to avoid contact, close enough to look like a couple and avoid the embarrassment of others thinking they were sadly plutonic.
“Tell you what. I’ll delete my photo and you send me a copy of yours.”
“Why? So you can post it and comment on our date? I don’t give away my work.”
“I’ll only delete my photo if you send me a copy of yours.”
“You’re blackmailing me?”
“No. I just thought it would be nice if we shared. We could work as a team. You take closeups of flowers and I’ll take landscape shots of the scenery. We’ll have a nice picture book to show off together. What do you say?”
“I work alone.”
The lower tip of the sun melted into the horizon. Couples squeezed closer together. Daniel moved toward Camila but she stepped away. He moved in front of the sunset to face her. His silhouette had an aura surrounding it that glowed with warmth.
“Okay, I have to confess. I need to post this photo so I can get someone off my back.”
“Some pushy girl, perhaps?”
“My mom. She keeps setting me up on dates with local girls.”
“I’m a local girl.”
“These are girls from families she knows. I’m sick of dating.” Daniel blushed. “Don’t get me wrong. I want this…,” he pointed back and forth between them, “the two of us, to work out.”
“I’m not sure I want to date a man who can’t stand up to his mother.”
“Family is important, Camila.”
“So is your independence.”
His shoulders drooped like a hurt puppy. “You’re right. Maybe we won’t work out.”
“Don’t give me that defeatist attitude,” she said. “You have to understand that no relationship will work for you until you tell your mom to back off a little bit…or a lot…I don’t know your mother.”
“She thinks I’m ugly.”
“Mothers don’t think their sons are ugly.”
“It’s true. She stares at my crooked, gapped teeth and says it’s ugly. She insists I get it fixed but I’ve refused. I told her the woman who falls in love with me won’t care about my crooked smile.”
“Good. So you’ve got some backbone after all.”
“My dad thinks I’m being stubborn. He says I inherited that from my mom.”
Camila lifted his chin and forced him to look at her.
“I don’t care about your teeth. We’ve had some good dates and it never bothered me. But if we’re going to continue seeing each other you have to be firm with what you want: your teeth, continuing your dad’s business. You’ll never be in any happy relationship until you figure that out. Right?”
He looked away to think.
She grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “Right?”
The next day at work she received a message from him along with the photo he took of her flower. It was out of focus. The mountain looked more black than green. The horizon got lost between ocean and sky. Flat colors, not contrast. His message said, “Hardly worth fighting over, don’t you think?”
They set a date for that night. He appeared on her doorstep with hands behind his back.
“I have something for you.” He rocked on his feet. “I went back to the spot where you took that photo and I picked your flower.”
“Oh my god! Why?” Her throat tightened.
“Because you liked it so much.”
“You killed it.” Tears welled up in her eyes. How could he be so thoughtless and deface something so beautiful? She had trusted a monster too ignorant to know what he’d done.
“I think you can keep it alive in a vase.”
“It was growing there for everyone to see and appreciate.”
“I thought you didn’t want others to steal your photo.”
“You just don’t get it.”
Dan kept smiling. He really didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Not seeing why this was so important to her. She wanted to slam the door shut, rush to her couch, and hide her face in a pillow.
Dan brought his arm around and presented his gift. It was not her flower. It was a dozen roses, of sorts. A dozen individually photographed roses. Each printed on a card, bound with pink ribbon and attached to green pipe cleaners for the stems. He even got a pot with clay in it where he stuck the stems.
“That was a mean joke,” she said.
She accepted his artwork and admired the photos. The roses were in focus. A spotlight created shadows that captured the texture of the petals. A decent effort for a beginner.
Daniel held up his hand like a boy scout. “I promise not to take for granted the hard work you put into your art. I promise to correct my mistakes when I behave like a clod. I’m not perfect. I don’t always get it. But I learn. That’s all I can offer. I hope it’s enough.”
The tears on her cheeks had still not dried. She needed time to think. They agreed to meet the next day for dinner and a moonlit walk on the beach.
She went to the beauty salon the next day for a radical change. Li-mei and Darian suggested a side-shaved, short bob but she knew what she wanted. They cut off her long, luscious, black hair, dyed it candy-apple red and spiked it to stick straight out—like her flower.
She needed to show Dan this style. Her true aesthetic. Her true self. She needed to be understood without explaining it. His initial reaction would determine their future together.
If he says he likes it, she’ll suspect he’s just being nice. That would create a lack of trust and that could not be the basis for a solid relationship. If he says he hates it, she’ll know it’s the truth. He’ll never understand her but at least they could be honest friends. It was a no-win test, but it had to be done.
Mei-mei and Darian stood back to look at their new girl. Long strands of black hair lay at her feet liked blackened roots. Her head turned and rolled freely. She embraced her friends with languid arms. Outside, the wind played with her hair. The clouds had captured the sun and it began to rain.
Reference to Hawaiian legend: www.RapidOhiaDeath.org