Chapter 10: The Prayer of Princess Poe

Poe Manu was restless. Some days, she loved her home in the Matahina Islands. She loved the clean, sparkling sands of the beaches. She loved the clear blue waves that lapped the shores, and the coconut trees that waved like fingers in the warm breeze. Who wouldn’t love to live in such a place? It was paradise. acrobat (11)

Except…for the lack of tourists. Poe was a performer. She could dance like a bird seeking his mate. She could twist and contort her body in ways that made a crowd ooh and ahh. She was handy with a fiery baton and could juggle just about anything. Princess Poe, they called her. Poe the Perfect. Poe Possible. carnie (101)

But Poe was bored. Sure, she happy to spend her days at the island carnival, doing tricks to please the same crowd again and again. And when business was slow, she taught dance classes from her home studio. But she longed for something greater. How she wanted to perform for a great audience of people from outside the islands – people who had never watched and would be open-mouthed in amazement when they saw her perform. But even more than that, Poe longed for a companion.

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“Please send me a friend, Ta’aroa,” she prayed time after time, hoping that the creator god would hear her.

It was not easy, being a carnie. Everyone always expected you to put on a show. Make us laugh, Poe. Entertain us. But at the end of the day, when the costumes were put away in the closet, and the makeup was washed away, she was just Poe. Plain Poe, who came home to an empty house and had no one to talk to about her day.

One night, while practicing her dangerous new act on a deserted beach, Poe saw something so strange, that she nearly dropped one of her flaming torches. Out in the sea, she saw what at first appeared to be a large fish splashing about in the waves. But in the silvery glint of moonlight, she could swear that she saw the pale body of a man. Someone out for a night swim, she thought, starting to turn away. But then the man dove into the water, and something – no, it was not possible, but she was sure that she glimpsed a fish-like tail follow him beneath the surface. Screenshot-2

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A fish-man? A trick of the moonlight? A sign that she had been staring too long at spinning flames? Or maybe, just maybe, it was a sort of sign from Ta’aroa. Her prayer had been heard.

The very next day, she began to notice the man lurking around the carnival. He wore ragged clothes and heavy, blond braids, and wandered around the carnival grounds with a lost, hungry expression, like a stray dog. Poe’s heart twisted when she saw him. Who was that man? Did he have a home? Food to eat? Someone to talk to at the end of the day? Was he lonely, just like her?

One day, she decided to approach him as he slept on a hard wooden bench. “Would you like some lunch?” she asked gently, afraid of offending him. He accepted with eagerness, wolfing down the greasy, sugary carnival foods she brought him each day.

“If you like,” she told him, “you can come and see my show. No charge.” And so, he did. And some days, they hung out together afterward. Not Poe the Perfect and a fan, but like two friends, chatting and laughing together. His name was Ahio. He had lost his family in a terrible accident (though he would not give details), and now he lived on the beach. Poe couldn’t stand it anymore. He needed a place to live just as much as she needed a friend.

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“Please come and stay with me,” she offered. “At least until you get your life on track.”

He hesitated. “Well I have…some health issues.”

Poe shrugged. “I don’t mind. Please, my home is your home.”

A few days later, her new friend moved in. And life soon became anything but boring.

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“My home is your home.”

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Chapter 9: The Acrobat

She was gone.

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One day, Ahio had been the happiest man alive. He’d had friends, parents who loved him, and a comfortable home. Best of all, he was about to marry the most wonderful woman in the world. Puaura was the love of his life, and, as corny at it sounded, his best friend, his better half. But by some cruel trick of the gods, a man had stolen his body, his life, and his bride-to-be. And Ahio, transformed into a monster and banished to the sea, watched the couple slip away during the night on waves as calm as glass.

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Gone. Perhaps forever.

For the first year after Puaura and the imposter fled the island, Ahio wished that he could die. He wished that the great Pahuanui would appear from the depths and swallow him whole. There was nothing left for him. But he did not die. Instead, he passed day after day below the surface of the sea, seeing things he had never known existed. He glided through great forests of kelp and learned to find pleasure in small things, like the way glittering schools of tiny fish would dart to one side, creating a path for him as he swam by. He found strange fish, colorful stones, and beautiful, discarded shells, hidden in places where ordinary humans would not think to look. He always kept his eyes open for other humans – staying out of sight so that no one would discover him. He also kept a constant eye out for the mysterious treasure of Rongo, holding onto the impossible hope that, if he were to find the treasure, then Puaura would return to him.  acrobat (29) acrobat (34) acrobat (35) acrobat (44)

It was a lonely existence. As he was neither fully man nor fully fish, he could not live forever on land or in the sea, but was doomed to live a half-life, switching from one habitat to the other. His times on land were the hardest, as he had no home, no job, and no money to buy food. He often wandered over to Carnival Taonga. He did not know why he found the carnival so appealing. Perhaps it was because the carnies were such unusual people, and he now felt most at home among freaks. Or perhaps it was because he was drawn to the mouthwatering smells of popcorn and cotton candy, which wafted through the air and made his empty stomach growl. carnie (77)

He did not think that anyone noticed him as he tried to blend with the crowd of carnival-goers, but someone did. One day, while he was sleeping on a bench behind the big tent, a popular young acrobat, whom everyone called Princess Poe, noticed him. She was there when he opened his eyes, a wide, warm smile on her face. carnie (78) Screenshot-9

“Do I know you?” she asked. “What is your name?”

“Ahio,” he answered, his voice cracking from disuse.

“Well, Ahio,” she said. “Are you hungry?” He nodded, his stomach twisting sharply at the thought of food. Poe led him to a snack cart and treated him to a meal of corn dogs and popcorn.

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Then she invited him to come and watch her next show, which he did. And for days after that, Ahio sought out Princess Poe whenever he was hungry, and she was always there with a smile, ready to feed him, no questions asked.  Screenshot-22

Chapter 8: San Florian

distant shores (10)Everything in San Florian was wrong. The language felt thick and strange on Puaura’s tongue. The air smelled, not of salt and sand, but of spices and people and dank buildings made of clay and stone.

With the little money they had been able to exchange for local currency, she and Ahio had rented a house the size of her old houseboat. It was in a terrible state of neglect, with grimy walls and leaky taps, but they did their best to make it livable.

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Ahio, who had an easier time absorbing the language of San Florian, quickly found work as a cook in a local restaurant. It paid very little, but Ahio didn’t seem to mind. He spent his first two paychecks on a Vespa, after explaining that he needed a reliable way to commute across town to work.

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“But we barely have enough money left over for groceries!” said Puaura in dismay. “What will we do? We have to eat!”

Ahio frowned. “Look, I am doing the best I can, okay? What – do you want me to find a second job as a lifeguard at some swimming pool? That’s the only job I ever had back on the island.”

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Puaura’s shoulders drooped. “Of course not. I just want to be able to buy the things we need.” She began to work harder than ever at learning the new language, so that she, too, could find work. At last, she was hired to harvest produce at a local farm. When that season ended, she found work as a barista at a local coffee shop by day, and as a bartender by night.   distant shores (11)

By the time she made it home after her night shift, it seemed as though she barely had time to close her eyes for a brief second before her alarm clock woke her up again to do it all over again.

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“This is no way to live,” she told Ahio one day, rubbing her tired, puffy eyes. “I am working all the time, and still we don’t make enough money to pay our bills.”

“You’re right.” Ahio sighed, looking at the growing pile of late bills on the kitchen table. They needed t find a way to earn more money. But how?

Three days later, Ahio came home from work, his eyes shining. “I was accepted!” he cried, waving a paper in the air. “I applied and passed the test, and I was accepted!”

“Accepted to what?” asked Puaura.

Ahio’s grin widened. “I am going back into the lifesaving business,” he said. “I’m going to become a firefighter.” Adieu Island (79)

Chapter 7: Farewell to the Island

Island Wedding (4)  “But I don’t understand.” Puaura’s voice was filled with confusion.

Ahohako felt miserable. He wished that they could stay here on the island, lost in newlywed bliss. But he could not shake the firm voice of Tangaroa from his mind. He stepped toward his new bride and put a reassuring arm around her. “We must leave. Tonight. All I can tell you is that I will explain along the way.”

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Puaura sniffed. “But Mama—” her voice broke. “She will have no one!”

“Everyone on the island loves your mother,” said Ahohako. “She will be fine. Everything will be okay.” His throat constricted as he forced out those words – words which he himself did not even believe. Would Tangaroa allow the two of them to flee the island safely? Or would they be dashed against the rocks and killed, like outsiders? “Everything will be okay,” he said again.

They did not pack much for the journey. Puaura brought a small bag, but Ahohako, not wanting to take anything else belonging to the real Ahio, chose to leave everything behind but the clothes on his back and a wallet filled with all the money from Ahio’s bank account. Then, later that night, they met with Puaura’s mother for a teary farewell.boat (22)

At exactly midnight, they boarded the small, wooden rowboat which Tangaroa had shown to Ahohako in a dream. Puaura sobbed as they boarded, and sobbed harder still as they pushed away from the shore. As Ahohako rowed against the oddly calm waves, the island hulked by in the ghostly moonlight, then shrank into the distance, until all that remained was Ahohako and Puaura in the blackness.

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For the first few days of their journey, Puaura barely spoke. But at last, she opened her mouth. “Where are you taking us?” She looked at Ahohako with the shy uncertainty that one usually gives a stranger. Which, of course, he was. Maybe Puaura was beginning to sense it.

“I don’t know.” It was true. All Ahohako knew of the sea came from swimming fish-like beneath the surface. Now, as a man, the sea was as much a stranger to him as he was to Puaura.

“What will we do when we arrive?” asked Puaura.

Ahohako pressed his lips together. He did not know. He did not have much formal education or job training. Neither did Puaura, as far as he knew. “We’ll figure something out,” he said.

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Many days after leaving Matahina Island, the endless blue of the ocean began to give way to land. Ahohako rowed inland along a wide river, until they began to see signs of civilization – docks, stone walls, and strange buildings with thick ivory walls and red-tiled rooftops. With a few final exhausted strokes, Ahohako pulled the rowboat onto the banks, then he and Puaura emerged on wobbly legs.

For a long moment, they just stood there, looking around at the hills and buildings and foreign plants. Then Puaura said, “We are very far from home.” And she buried her face in her hands and wept. Ahohako, overcome at last, wept beside her.Adieu Island (62)

Chapter 6: The Stolen Wedding

1 Island Wedding (2)At three o’clock that afternoon, Ahohako put on the suit that was hanging in Ahio’s closet, and slipped his feet into Ahio’s polished shoes. Then he caught a taxi to the wedding location. As he approached the crowd of guests, his heart flipped and flopped like fish on the shore. It was his wedding day. Yes, he had stolen this wedding day from the real Ahio, who was probably underwater somewhere. Nevertheless, it was now his wedding day, and he planned to enjoy every moment of it.

“Ahio!” a woman cried, flinging herself into his arms. “Ahio, my son. You look so dashing!” Ah, the woman was Ahio’s mother. His mother. She stood back to look at him. “Are you ready to change your life?”

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“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Ahohako hoped that his smile hid his feelings of panic. Could he really pull this off? Or would everyone realize right away that he was an imposter? Despite the warm weather, his hands felt like ice. He helped himself to a glass of champagne to soothe his nerves, then took his place at the wedding arch. It was time.

The music began, crooning soft and sweet as Puaura glided up the aisle toward him. Ahohako’s breath caught in his throat. Although he did not know Puaura well, he was struck by her beauty. He was marrying an island rose – a gorgeous tropical princess whose dark eyes shone like stars as she gazed at him. As they exchanged vows, Ahohako tried not to flinch as Puaura said Ahio’s name. It was Ahio whom she loved – not him. But it was he who slipped the ring on her finger, and he who kissed the bride. 1 Island Wedding (5) 1 Island Wedding (6) 1 Island Wedding (7)

“Mr. and Mrs. Ahio and Puaura Kaho!” announced the minister, and everyone clapped and cried and threw petals in the air. 1 Island Wedding (8)

It was done. And for the rest of the evening, Ahohako and Puaura danced together, laughing, happy together, although Ahohako’s happiness had a strong undercurrent of guilt.

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As the moon rose higher in the sky, Puaura leaned forward and whispered in Ahohako’s ear, “Maybe it’s time we escape this scene?” Ahohako blushed hot from the tips of his ears to his toes. He had never been with a woman – had never even kissed one before. But tonight was their wedding night, and he did not want to disappoint his bride. 1 Island Wedding (9) 1 Island Wedding (12)

“Just be Ahio,” he coached himself as Puaura readied herself in the bathroom. “You can do this.” And as Puaura emerged, he took her in his arms, feeling her soft, round curves against his body. And as his lips met hers, his nervousness melted away. Stranger or no stranger, he was ready to make love to his wife.

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