Andean Hillstar Hummingbird
In a world where what
is missing might best be for-
gotten, she found it.
“Andean Hillstar Montalbo, you have a father, the best father you could ask for. And I will not talk about this with you…”
With each word, Mom’s voice rose a bit higher in volume. Her face scrunched up turning what I can only describe as an awful shade of red, matching the flame-throw color of her hair. You see, she is Irish-American.
And I am sure that my face mirrored hers on the angry scale of one to ten being an ELEVEN when I shouted back, “Andean Hillstar Sanjin Montalbo. Why do you always forget my “real dad’s name when you say mine?
“And besides Gil is not my real father and I want to know him! I don’t think that is an unreasonable request. Even if Riku Sanjin turns out to be a mob boss or a hit man for the Yakuza, I have a right to that information.”
“We are not having this discussion, Andean. I have told you this over and over,” Mom shouted back.
Her hands clenched into fists while her entire body had this kind of fight or flight agitation. The last words came out of her mouth as a shriek. “Why do you persist?”
Then came the tears and my usually strong, sensible mother, she was, after all, a photographer for National Geographic, who, by the way, met my step dad in the bowels of the Amazon rain forest while she was pregnant with me. By the way, it was in the Amazon rain that Mom also gave me the name, Andean Hillstar, from a Chilean hummingbird.
This is where she turned and slammed her bedroom door shut right in my face, IN MY FACE! Within an inch of knocking my nose in which is SERIOUSLY not cool.
For a moment, I stood too stunned to move, planted beside the closed door, tears of rage streaming down my face. Arms wrapped so tight across my chest that I could feel the veins in my neck and head about to pop. Through the closed door, I could hear Mom’s muffled sobs, knowing she lay face down shoved into a pillow on her and Gil’s king-size bed.
I’m sorry if this sounds insensitive, but her sobs just annoyed me that much more. And of course, here came my stepfather shuffling passed, his face bent toward the ground, in shame, for sure, shaking his head and mumbling something in Spanish that I could barely understand.
You see, I was taking Japanese language and culture in high school, not Espanola. Then, of course, Gil goes inside to comfort Mom.
Can you believe this!
“Denial is not a river in Africa,” I shouted petulantly. It was a place my mother cowered in since the death of my “real” dad… I spat the words, fists clenched at my sides.
I knew saying it out loud was a nasty thing to do, but I was so… MAD AND frustrated. And it wasn’t that I thought Gilbert Montalbo was a bad “STEP-father.
I hated the way Mom always used that phrase like a stick to beat me with every time I asked about my “real” dad? Truth be told, Gil was the only father I had ever known.
I wanted to say a lot more. The nasty rebuttals tingled at the tip of my tongue like grenades of poison. Besides, my own angry attitude was giving me a headache.
So, I bit back the awful words and spun away from the front lines, sprinting up the stairs to my bedroom, the only rooms on the second floor. I liked it that way. Especially at times like these when I needed a lot of space between myself and my “parents”. I had recently acquired the rooms since starting high school two autumns ago.
After this latest blowout with Mom, I could feel a deep frown not only furrow between my brows, but clench like a fist inside my throat. The only thing I knew about my real dad was his name, that he was Japanese and that he had died before I was born.
How pathetic is that!
When I had tried to search on my own for my dad, say on the internet, I could not find anything except a famous dragon in Japanese mythology named Watasumi, Watasumi Sanjin, a sea deity that ruled the upper, middle and lower seas. This famous dragon dude was created by the divine ancestor Izanagi during the ceremonial purification after he returned from Yomi, the land of the dead. Izanagi had gone there in search of his yeah you guessed it, dead wife, Izanami.
This is where I got the idea that maybe Dad had been a member of the Japanese mob. I mean don’t those guys use made up names and stuff?
I also found it curious that this Izanagi guy had also created Tsukiyomi, the god of the moon during this same ritual cleansing. I couldn’t help, but wonder, how all these powerful gods popped out of the dirt that Izanagi washed off. Of course, it was special dirt that he had acquired while stomping around in this place Yomi where dead people go. So I guess that makes sense in a twisted sort of way.
Anger still raging inside my heart, I yanked my bedroom door open and then slammed it shut behind me. Like mother like daughter, I suppose.
And then there was poor Gil, one of the nicest guys you ever want to meet, who for the last six years, since I turned ten and had starting wondering about my “real” dad. Gil had spent too much of his time ducking thunder bolts of female estrogen Mom and I hurled at each other on the house on Dewpoint Hill. Talk about the typical enabler.
I flung myself on to my bed, and then turned my tear-streaked face to gaze soulful at a photograph of my brother, Raff, dressed in officer khakis. The picture stood on the nightstand directly opposite of where I lay with the side of my face pressed into a pillow.
Feeling a sudden fit of betrayal, I jerked up to a sitting position and yanked the photo toward me. I stared laser beams through the slightly smudged pane of glass-overlay aimed at the handsome, young man who gazed sternly back at me.
Lt. Raff Montalbo, pilot in the United States Navy with his jet black hair and slightly slanted Asian-American, with a hint of Irish green in his hazel eyes, my older brother by five years.
“Traitor!” I whined. “You had to go and join the military, didn’t you? You had to go and leave me alone with those two…” I pointed an accusing finger toward my closed bedroom door and beyond.
My final burst of anger spent, I drew in a deep calming breath, the way I had learned to in yoga class and managed to rein in my “Irish” temper long enough so the framed-glass did not shatter when I placed “Raff” back on the nightstand. Then I sat like a zombie staring blankly at my surroundings until I could cool off and my rational brain was in charge once again.
Anyway, I found myself staring at the far wall where a gas fireplace stood next to a trapezoid-shaped door. The odd-shape, cut as such to accommodate the slant of the roof, led to the attic.
I leapt to my feet and within moments, I crossed the room and shoved open the door. Years ago, when this was the guest bedroom suite, I had thought of the attic as a place where monsters lurked during the dark hours of the night. And during the daylight hours was at best a hot, musty sort of place that I certainly did not want to spent time in. But today it looked more like the best place to start searching for anything that might tell me about my dad.
I stepped inside the space and stood gazing at stacks of old, dusty boxes and discarded things that the four of us had collected throughout the years. Things we probably had no more use, but for our own clutter-bug, twisted reasons, could not bear to part with.
The atmosphere beneath the slant-roofed room was stuffy and dusty, some of which floated on rays of afternoon, summer sunlight that streamed in through a small window. But I was a woman on a mission. A bit of discomfort would not deter me.
Like a frantic maniac, I walked around the room, checking out the stack of boxes and stuff, reading any markings on the box tops that might tell me what lay stuffed between the cardboard cubes. A sneeze or two tickled my nose and my eyes actually began to water when I noticed an old steamer trunk, shoved against a back wall, draped in shadows.
Eagerly, I pushed my way through until I stood beside the steamer. The next instant, I gasped with fright and almost tripped over the stack of boxes behind me.
Hanging down from the opened-beam-ceiling was an enormous spider’s web that clung to the entire right side of the trunk that I wanted to pilfer, including a portion of the steamer’s dingy lid. Yuk! I hate spiders and for that matter all creepy-crawly things that scurry on more than four legs. So it was no surprise when I began to imagine tiny insectoid “feelers” crawling up and down my arms and legs.
I slapped at the imaginary vermin, stepping lively in place while raking my fingers through my shoulder-length hair. I was looking desperately around the room for a broom or anything to brush the spider web out-of-the-way when I spied the chunky padlock, the kind with a keyhole, wrapped through the latch of the steamer’s lid.
I heaved an exasperated sigh knowing I had more problems than a girl-eating spider to contend with. I ran my fingers down my arms, torso and legs one more time to make sure I had rid myself of all the phantom arachnids, sending one last shiver up and down my spine. Then I knelt to inspect the lock more closely while keeping a sidelong vigilance for the true occupant-of-the-web that had yet to make an appearance. I gave the lock a sturdy yank, as if that was all it would take to pull the U-shaped shackle open, just because I wanted it to be so. But of course, nada happened.
Mom probably knew where the key to the lock was, but after the recent blowout between us, I was not inclined to ask. But this little setback did in no way discouraged me. Stubborn tenacity is one of my strongest and most endearing character traits. Besides the trunk looked very promising, especially since it sported an adhesive label, stuck to the lid, with a painted image of the famous radio transmitter splashed with red typed words that read: Tokyo Tower.
I knew Gil kept all kinds of tools in the garage. He fancied himself a handyman and was actually quite good at fixing anything that broke around the house, plus whipping up some rather beautiful wooden cabinets and such that people gushed over when they came to visit.
With thoughts of conquest burning in my brain, I dusted myself off and hurried out of the attic. A few minutes later, I found myself staring at neat rows of tools hanging from pegs bored into the wall above a metal table that hid a fancy jigsaw in a closed hatch beneath.
Something to chomp through the thick metal shackle of the lock was what I was looking for when I spied a pair of shears I had seen Gil use to clip the many shrubs and trees that adorned the five acre lot where our house sat. I was reaching for the tool when I heard footsteps of someone entering through the open garage door.
I turned around to find Gil hovering behind me, his fists planted against each hip. A teasing smile caressed his lips. His gaze went from the tool-hung wall to my guilty-looking face, I’m just so sure.
I was thinking, he must have some kind of radar that let him know if anyone was about to tamper with his “tools”. It was eerie, to say the least.
“So, Andy, what damages are looking to inflicted and on what?” His tone was playful and helpful. A lilting Spanish accent enveloped his English.
“I…I need to cut the shackle off an old trunk of mine,” I hurriedly lied. “I lost the key and well, you know how that is? Now I want inside, but…”
As I spoke, Gil reached toward something that looked like the pruning shears I was about to abscond, but these had shorter handles, about twelve inches in length, but with shorter blades held together by a large bolt and screw. The neatly typed label on the wall above where the tool hung called them “bolt cutters” so, yeah, I would say these were the very best tool for the job.
Gil lifted them toward me with a warning look in his dark eyes. He always looked that way when he let me use something that he felt was potentially life-threatening.
“Be careful,” he warned, his eyes growing wider with the idea of my potential disaster. Those blades can cut off a finger just as easily as they chop through the steel on your lock.”
He paused, knowing what was coming next. “You want me to do it for you?” He asked, with an oh-so-slight tilt of his condescending head toward me.
I had to contain myself so as not to roll my eyes and heave a heavy sigh of disgust. Gil’s tone and attitude smacked with insinuations that I was a moron, stupid, helpless female that needed watching closely when I had sharp objects in hand. But I had enough of angry words at least for today. So I smiled sweetly and gave him a peck-of-a-kiss on his cheek.
“No thank you. I can do it and I promise not to whack off even one finger. Promise!” I gushed while reaching out to take the tool and found Gil reluctant to let go of it.
“These are not toys, Chiquita. You do understand that?” Gil’s tone had become firm. His eyes took on a kind of terrified glaze over the expanding black pupils.
Oh, God! I screamed inside, tilting my head to the side to match his and smiling up through my eyelashes. I was also biting my bottom lip to keep from blurting out what I really wanted to say and hoping, at the same time, that I did not draw blood.
“Of course, Gilbo.” I simpered as I pulled the cutters loose from his slowly releasing grasp.
At my words, his expression sagged while his eyes grew wide with hurt. “Since when did you stop calling me Dad?” His tone sounded choked and muffled in this awful sort of way.
Instead of waiting for an answer, he pivoted in the opposite direction and strode out of the garage. Of course his reaction to my thoughtless remark, could not help but be influenced by all those heated conversations between Mom and me and the awful accusations of my tainted loyalty to Gil that Mom always leveled at me.
The gripped bolt cutter fell to my side as I let out a defeated puff of air. I was a moron and that was a fact. In my desperate search for the truth about my dad, I never intended to hurt Gil.
He really was a good guy… really. He had been there for Mom, my brother and me, one hundred percent, since the time when Mom and Raff were mourning the death of my father… and Mom was pregnant with another man’s baby… me.
Now THAT is love!
Filled with renewed determination, and regret at hurting Gil, I hurried for the garage door, snagging a broom that leaned against the wall next to the door before I trudged back up to the attic.
This evening at dinner, I would tell Gil that I was sorry for being such a brat and thank him profusely for directing me to the correct tool for the job. But now, all I could think about was ripping down that ginormous spider’s web and then tearing into the steamer trunk to see what treasures it might hold…
Back in the attic, with my long hair pulled up in a head-top ponytail, I tossed the bolt cutters to the ground and held up the broom ready to do my worst against the massive spider’s web. I wielded the broom as if it was my bamboo shinai from kendo class.
That was when I spied the fat arachnid herself creeping down the strands of silk. She stopped as if surveying me and my broom sword, turning her menacing black eyes at me as if I was her next meal.
“You are toas-s-st!” I hissed while swiping the broom’s brush tips across the gossamer web.
With the spider and her house smeared across the broom bristles, I tossed the whole thing toward the attic door, as far from me as I possibly could.”
I was trying to sound tough, but really, though, in my overactive imagination, the spider’s size seemed to take up the entire room. “She” was really only about a quarter of an inch long next to my five foot, two inches. I mean, how much of me could the tiny thing really eat?
The spider disposed of I dusted off my hands and squatted down in front of the trunk. Holding the bolt cutter handles so the powerful blades gaped on either side of the steel shackle, shoved inside the age-dulled body of the padlock and more than likely rusted inside the locking mechanism, I clamped the handles of the cutters together and squeezed, successfully snapping the shackle in two with one powerful snip. Then I tossed the bolt cutters aside and smiled knowing that I had done all this without snipping off even one tip of a finger.
I slipped the ruined padlock from the latch and tossed it next to the cutters on the floor. Then, filled with eager anticipation, I pushed the trunk’s lid up and gazed wonderingly down at neatly folded clothes covered with bright patterns of flowers, bamboo and cranes. To one side, I could just make out the edge of a folded fan pushed down between the back of the trunk and clothes.
I lifted what turned out to be a cotton kimono robe with matching obi-sash. When I held it up, the long, white sleeves of the robe hung several inches above the hem where the tail of a jade green dragon swept across the material. Its fierce whiskered face popped out beneath the right armhole opening.
The obi was the same delicate shade of jade as the dragon. Near the place where the summer kimono had lain, I found a pair of wooden geta-thongs.
I set the clothes aside, determined to try them on at a later time. Then in full discovery-mode, I pushed aside or lifted several more large folded fans of various sizes with colored backgrounds of gold or silver. The smallest fan had a scene with an emerald and gold hummingbird hovering in freeze form over a branch of pink cherry blossoms.
I continued to dig and stack things on the floor around me until I reached the bottom of the trunk. Here, I found a white cardboard box filled with old photographs of people who I don’t know, beside a ragged-looking map of Tokyo’s subway system. Smashed against the floor of the trunk, as if it had fallen from the box and become trapped beneath was a yellowed piece of notepad that waited like a time bomb ready to fire up my imagination and explode into itty-bitty pieces the life I had known so far.
I set the box of photographs and the map on the floor next to the kimono set and unfolded the yellow piece of paper. Below the street name and number, penned in hiragana, was the hanko-kanji-stamped signature of Sanjin Shimo. Now this really piqued my interest since Sanjin was my father’s family name, my family name.
At last, I had found someone who quite possibly was a relative of my dad. So, the next thing I did was to rip open the box of photographs and dig. In my hands-on excavation I found a photograph of a really cute guy standing beneath a cherry tree in full-bloom. I stared at his image, thinking that something about this guy seemed very familiar.
A few minutes later, I took the photograph, the yellowed note, the map and the summer kimono set out of the attic and dumped them on my bed. I snatched up the photograph of the man beneath the cherry tree and held it next to the photo of Raff in his officer uniform. A huge smile appeared on my face because I would swear the young man looked a lot like my brother, if you smudged out Raff’s Irish-American half. But it could have just been wishful thinking. It was one of those kinds of days.
Anyway, I left the photo of “Dad” standing next to Raff and studied the address stamped neatly on the faded note paper. I retrieved my laptop from the desk, logged on to the internet and began typing the English translation of the address into the keyboard.
I came up with a street in the Ueno section of Tokyo and my heart began to race with excitement. The home port of the ship that Raff was currently assigned to was just north of Tokyo. It was here and now that the fabulous plan began to simmer and perk in my brain.
The next instant, I began to type out an email to Raff. It was simple, really. I could fly to Japan and stay with him. Then while he was at work, I could nose around in Tokyo to see if I could come up with anything using the Ueno address. Yokosuka Naval Base, where the aircraft carrier that Raff was assigned to was just an hour or so train ride from Tokyo.
The plane fare etc. could be funded with money I had earned over the last year as a cashier at a hectic, upscale burger joint on Friday nights and weekends. I attended my junior year of high school classes during the week and had to study the rest of the time.
But school was out for the summer and so the fabulous plan began to hatch. All I needed now was to hear back from Raff. That came before supper, happy me! And then I had to tell Mom and Gil. Since I was still a minor, I had to get their permission. I already had a passport. Had had one since I was an infant.
You see, I’m like a battering ram against a granite wall when it comes to persistence and not stopping until I get my way. What with the strong will of the Celtic tribes from my Scots-Irish background combined with the cool, calm of the Samurai imbedded in my chromosomes, I was practically unstoppable.
When I came down for supper, I reluctantly told Mom about my plans to visit Raff in Japan and that he had already Okayed it. I also explained how I could fund the trip with my money.
For several moments Mom just stood there with her head bowed, her mouth and eyes scrunching up. I held my breath as I watched a single tear trail down her cheek.
Slowly, she looked up and said, “I think going to Tokyo to meet Raff… is a good idea.” I was immediately ecstatic except for the tears I heard trembling in her voice.
“You must really hate my real dad,” I whispered the words before I realized that I had said my thoughts aloud.
Mom’s blue eyes were swimming when they met mine. “No, not all, in fact, I… loved him very much. It’s just, that…” She drew in a deep breath. “I have never really allowed myself to deal with the loss of him.”
At that, Mom began to sob and her shoulders to shake. I could feel tears knotting up in my throat as well.
When she spoke again, her voice had become a whisper when she said, “Plus, I love Gil very much and I never wanted to make him think I didn’t care as much for him as I did for… your dad.”
She raised her tear-streaked face to me and spoke with firm assertion. “Because I do! It’s just that,” her voice became a whisper again, “your father went so suddenly and we were so…happy.” She choked on the last word and burst out crying again.
I stood dumbfounded at this new bit of information. It had never occurred to me that love or heartbreak were the reasons for Mom’s silence on the subject of my dad. I had always assumed he must have been some sort of criminal. Now, I had no words to respond. My mind was shocked blank, my voice to silence.”
When I finally found my voice, I had to ask, “How did Dad die?”
Mom drew in a deep breath and then spoke really fast, as if she had to get the information out quickly before it scorched her throat. “One night, he woke with a burning fever. I tried to convince him, but he would not let me call a doctor or take him to the hospital. He kept saying that it was no use, that they could not help him. Then… three days later he died.” Again, Mom broke down crying.
After a few tense moments, she wiped her face and pressed something cold and hard into the palm of my hand. She gave me a quick hug and then turned to hurry toward her room for, my guess was, another crying jag. At least this time she didn’t slam the door, but instead shut it so softly I barely heard the click of the latch in place.
When I opened my hand I found a tiny key, to the trunk, I suspected that unbeknownst to Mom I had already pilfered. Though I had no use for the key now, the gesture spoke volumes for Mom’s acceptance of why I thought it was important to know my dad.
“Thank you,” I whispered to the empty living room.
After supper, and after apologizing profusely to Gil, I went back to my rooms upstairs to find a small, square, metal box lying on my bed. And no surprise, the key that Mom had given me fit perfectly in the lock face.
When I opened the box, I found piles of photographs of Mom when she was in her twenties, Raff when he was a baby, toddler and preschool age. There were also photographs of the same handsome young man I had found standing beneath the cherry tree.
Now it was my turn to sob. I had finally found my dad. At least, I knew what he had looked like and that he had been a good man. Everything that had happened today made me want even more to learn as much as I could about Riku Sanjin. And the fact that my mom had loved him dearly made him that much more precious to me.
Copyright © 2011 by Ledia Runnels
(Coming soon to Amazon.com)
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