Chapter 16: Puaura Sleeps

“Go,” Ahio had said. “You mother needs you. You should go.”

“I can’t return to the island!” Puaura had said. “Not without you!”

But Ahio had turned away. “You don’t belong with me. I am not Ahio Kaho. You married the wrong man.”

Puaura felt ripped apart. Had her husband lost his mind? She wanted to believe him, but his story was too bizarre to be true. He was really a merman? The god of the sea had switched him with the real Ahio, and the imposter Ahio had still married her, pretended to be the man she loved, stolen her away from her home?

“If there is any truth at all to what you are saying,” said Puaura, her voice shaking, “then you are an evil, evil man for what you have done!”

The imposter Ahio’s eyes were dull. “I know. I am very sorry for what I’ve put you through.” And to Puaura’s great shock, he presented her with papers for an annulment. “You married me under false pretenses. Now you can be free. Go back to your family.” He leaned forward and kissed her gently on the forehead, then left.

Puaura nearly chased after him. But in the end, she decided to return home, to visit her sick mother. return (62)return (67)

When she first set foot on the familiar shores of the islands, she wanted to weep with joy. Never had the sands glittered so golden bright. Never had the wind appeared to caress so gently the fronds of the palm trees. Never had the island birds sung such a sweet melody. She was home, home, where she could be herself again.

Mama. She could not wait to see the face of her mother, to feel her warm, soft embrace when they reunited. Her heart feeling lighter and freer than it had in a long while, Puaura rushed to the rental car agency, so that she could get to her mother’s house as quickly as possible.

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She sped through the winding hills, drinking in the scenery. There were so many things she wanted to see, and many people she could not wait to visit. She would stay a couple of days with mama, then—

Something small darted in front of the car. Puaura gasped, then slammed on the brake. With a screech, the car careened off the road. There was an ear-shattering noise of crunching metal and breaking glass. Then everything went dark.

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Puaura did not see the kind stranger who pulled her from the wrecked car and performed CPR. She was unaware of the rapid ride in the back of the ambulance, siren wailing.

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She was not awake during the lifesaving surgery, either, or for many days afterward. As Puaura slumbered on in a deep coma, her mother, whose illness had worsened, slipped away into an eternal sleep, unaware that Puaura had even returned to the island.

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Chapter 15: Poe’s Lucky Break

As the months sped by, Ahio worked feverishly to make up for the loss of Poe’s income. He performed countless magic shows and accepted every drumming gig he could find. It was not easy, especially as he had to divide his time between life on land and life in the sea. But he had no choice. Pregnant acrobats could not earn money.

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Ahio performs magic tricks at parties to earn extra money.

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At last, the big day arrived. Ahio rushed Poe to the hospital, where, after hours of tears and screaming and several medical complications, Poe gave birth to a healthy baby boy, whom they named Tane.

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In an instant, Ahio’s life had changed again. But this change was different. It was as though before, his life had been a film set on fast-forward, a dizzying whirl of people and colors that never stopped moving. But when he took Tane into his arms for the first time and looked down into his tiny red face, the world slowed almost to a stop. Suddenly, the only thing that existed, the only thing that mattered was that tiny, squalling infant. His son.

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Poe, however, did not take to her new role in the same way. When the baby cried, she ignored him, or shot an exasperated look in Ahio’s direction until he dropped what he was doing and took care of Tane’s needs. She refused to have anything to do with changing diapers. “The odor upsets my stomach,” she complained. And instead of spending her time playing or cuddling with the baby, she darted off to the carnival, eager to get back to work.

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Ahio was perplexed. He did not mind caring for Tane. But he had not expected to take on most of the child-rearing duties, and in truth, knew very little about babies. Maybe he was a little old-fashioned, but he’d always thought that Poe would do most of the motherly, nurturing stuff. But Poe, as he soon learned, did not really care about their son. Poe only cared about Poe.

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Poe receives an offer to join a large traveling circus in Australia.

“One of the carnies I work with has accepted a huge job with a traveling circus in Australia,” Poe told him one day, her eyes bright with excitement. “And get this – he’s invited me to come with him! Isn’t that the greatest news?”

Ahio frowned. “You mean – you’re leaving the islands?” “What about…what about your job here?” He couldn’t bring himself to ask about Tane. Was she planning to take Tane to Australia? If Ahio didn’t join them, then he would never get to see his son again!

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Poe let out a puff of air. “Doing acrobats for the same old crowd, year after year? No thanks. This circus job is an amazing opportunity.”

“But…the baby?”

For a moment, Poe said nothing. Then, without meeting his eyes, she said, “Well, this job isn’t exactly compatible with having a kid, you know? Maybe he can come to visit me when he’s older.”

“You mean, you’re just ditching him?” Ahio was horrified. “You’re going to take off and pretend like Tane doesn’t even exist?” How could she?

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Poe shrugged. “He’ll have you. He’ll be fine.”

Anger surged through Ahio like a wave. “God, Poe. I never realized you were so selfish!”

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“For what?” Poe snapped. “For not wanting to raise a kid? For wanting to have a real life, doing something I’m passionate about?” She spat out a string of foul words. They continued to argue back and forth, but nothing Ahio could say would change Poe’s mind. And that very evening, she packed up her belongings and left Ahio behind to raise Tane on his own. Tane (45)

Chapter 14: Ahio the Amazing

acrobat (36)Ahio’s life continued to transform into something he barely recognized. The moment it seemed that life had settled into some stable form that he could rely on, it shifted, and everything was different. It was like trying to stand up straight in an ocean current.

Even he could not stay the same. In truth, he was now four different people. When no one was watching, he was a cursed merman, gliding through the salty sea. When he returned to land, he would wash the kelp from his thick blond braids, then pull on his performance clothes. Suddenly, he was no longer Ahio the Merman, but Ahio the Amazing, the great illusionist of the Matahina Islands. After months of practice and failures, Ahio had at last managed to put together a magic show that was impressive even to the most doubtful audience members. Well, most of the time.

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His relationship with Poe was much more complicated, however. Sometimes, he was nothing more than Poe’s quiet roommate, who just happened to share her house as Poe pursued her own career as an acrobat and dance instructor. She never seemed to have a steady boyfriend, but breezed through brief flings with lovers and admirers.

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Ahio was the latest of those flings. It did not last long – only three weeks, as Poe was easily bored, and like a flame, always searching for the next match to burn through. Ahio knew this, but enjoyed every tender moment they spent together. She was not Puaura – he knew in his heart that nothing and no one would ever warm the cold place inside him created by Puaura’s absence. But true to her nature as a performer, Poe was exciting and fun, and briefly made him forget.

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When their affair quickly ended, and the ashes cooled around them, Ahio did not feel any sense of loss. It was more like an entertaining movie had come to an end, and the house lights came back on. He and Poe were once again only roommates on friendly terms. Nothing more. Until two months later, when Poe approached him, an apprehensive look on her face. “I have some…surprising news,” Poe said. She took a deep breath. “You are going to be daddy, Ahio.”

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Chapter 13: The Imposter

“Aren’t you coming in?” Puaura called.

Ahio shook his head. “Nah. I don’t feel much like swimming.”

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Puaura frowned. “You never feel like swimming anymore.” It was true. Back on the island, she and Ahio had practically lived in the water, windsurfing and scuba diving and just floating, warm and lazy together in the sunshine. But now, he always had an excuse as to why he could not join her. The pools in San Florian used too much chlorine. The weather wasn’t warm enough. He’d forgotten his swimsuit.

“Okay fine. I’ll swim.” Ahio heaved a sigh. Then he stripped to his swim trunks and slid into the pool. For a moment, Puaura’s heart soared. Maybe now, they would splash and race about, teasing each other like they used to. But Ahio never left the side of the pool, where he held onto the edge, his face as nervous as that of a brand-new swimmer.

What had happened to him?

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Swimming wasn’t the only strange thing. He was so changed, in every possible way. Although he insisted that they go to church each week, he only listened quietly during the mass, then seemed impatient to get home afterward. Her Ahio, who had always been so outgoing and friendly, barely even smiled at the townspeople, let alone engage in conversation. He was happy to save them from their burning houses, but he did not want to get to know anyone.

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He had changed in another way, too – a way that hurt Puaura deeply. Before they had gotten married, they had loved to discuss their future children. Puaura wanted a big family. Four, maybe five children. Ahio wanted six. At least. He couldn’t wait to become a father. But now, it was like he could not even bear the subject of babies.

“Absolutely not,” he had said during their most recent argument about it. “Maybe we will have a kid. One day. Like maybe in ten years.”

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“Ten years!” Puaura could not keep the dismay from her voice.

“Look,” he said, softening his voice, “if you need something to care for, we could, I don’t know, adopt a dog or something.”

Puaura didn’t speak to him for two days after that.

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She was trying so hard to love him. She was doing everything that a good wife should do to make him happy. But Ahio never seemed to be happy. He had a constant frown imbedded in his face, like he had swallowed something bitter. She wanted to help him, but she didn’t know how.

Then the phone call came. Puaura was overjoyed to hear her mother’s voice on the line. They spoke once per month, but sometimes the time seemed to stretch too long in between. But her joy was short lived. carnie life (56) carnie life (61)

“I’m very ill, little Po,” said her mother in a weak voice. “The doctor has told me that I may have only a month or two left to live.” Puaura, choking on her sobs, promised to return to the island right away.

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“That is out of the question,” said Ahio.

Puaura’s mouth dropped. “Did you not hear what I said? My mother is dying! I have to go to her. We must leave right away!”

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Ahio looked tortured, like some sort of battle was raging inside him. Then, in a slow, toneless voice, he said, “You may go to visit your mother. But I can’t come with you.”

“Why not? What do you mean you can’t come?” She reached out to grab his arm, but he pulled away.

“I can’t come, because I am not Ahio Kaho,” he said.

Puaura couldn’t speak. She felt as though the room were spinning. Something was very, very wrong.

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He repeated himself. “I am not Ahio. Do you understand? I was granted a youthful wish by Tangaroa. I asked to become a man, and he gave me Ahio’s body. Now I am him, with the body of a man.”

Puaura couldn’t catch her breath. Her husband was sick, too. He was raving like a lunatic. “Then where is my Ahio?” she asked carefully.

Ahio grinned, which made him look suddenly sinister. “Your Ahio,” he said, “is a fish.”

Chapter 12: The Firefighter’s Wife

Adieu Island (136)It was different than Puaura had expected, being married to Ahio. He seemed so different than the funny, carefree boy she’d grown up with on the island. Here, he was quieter, more serious. More focused on his work as a firefighter. She was happy that he had found a career that brought him so much fulfillment. But he was away from home so often – usually for a stretch of four days at a time. Adieu Island (71) carnie (147) carnie (40) carnie (45)

She made the best of it. She explored their new home town, practiced the new language until she was nearly fluent, and managed to make a couple of friends. Still, she felt heartsick whenever she allowed herself to think of her home, her childhood friends, and most of all, her mother. She didn’t understand why Ahio had brought them to this strange new land, so far away from everything and everyone they had known. But whenever she tried to ask him about it, he would change the subject, or shut down, or put in extra work hours at the firehouse. Perhaps to get away from her, she worried sometimes. carnie (22)Adieu Island (46)

It was different – he was different. But it wasn’t all bad. They managed to turn their run-down house into a cozy little home. And though sometimes it seemed they had little in common, far less than they used to, they learned to enjoy the small things they did have in common.

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They both enjoyed learning about the culture of their new country, and trying new music and foods. Ahio was also drawn to the Catholic Church, where everyone in town gathered each week. It was lovely, in a strange and foreign way. But when she was alone, Puaura preferred to seek out a beautiful spot near the water, where she could faithfully worship the gods of her youth.

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Everything was different. But Puaura adjusted. She had agreed to love her husband no matter how what. And though he was suddenly like a different man, her love for him remained the same. carnie (133)

 

Chapter 11: Color, Sound, and Magic

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Thanks to his strict parents, Ahio’s life had always been a structured one. Swim team by age five. Dinner every evening at six. Everything tidied and in its proper place by the time he flossed his teeth each night. When he had fallen in love with Puaura, he had made the perfect plan – a June wedding. Two years to adjust and save money. And then, if they were ready, two children; a boy followed by a girl. Of course, he knew that things did not always work out so neatly, but still he hoped.

Ahio learns to cook.

Ahio learns to cook.

Life with Poe was anything but structured. Unlike his old home, which was tastefully furnished and well-organized, Poe’s house was like a mini-circus, with walls splashed with vibrant colors and mismatched furniture. It was rarely quiet. Poe often rose at dawn and blasted cheerful calypso music or cumbias while practicing her dance moves or routines. Her pet bird had an annoying habit of screeching along with the music. And if that was not enough commotion, Poe’s strange carnie friends and dance clients streamed in and out of the house throughout the day, their conversations and laughter bouncing around the rooms until Ahio’s head throbbed, and he began to long for the peaceful refuge of the sea.

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Solace under the sea

Solace under the sea

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“So, what do you do all day, exactly?” Poe asked him one day, when the house was strangely empty of people.

Ahio looked at her, startled. He couldn’t tell her the truth. “I…I just wander around the island, I guess.”

Poe shook her head. “I mean for money. What can you do that will earn money?”

Ahio shrugged. His last job had been as a lifeguard. Before the switch, he had also begun taking online business courses, so that one day, he could take over the management of his father’s furniture store. But that life was behind him now. “I can play the drums a little,” he said, his face flushing red. Not exactly a big money-making skill. Magic (80) Magic (79)

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Ahio’s new job.

“It’s a start,” said Poe. And a week later, she had booked him a gig at a local bar, playing drums for a small band. She also had a few of her carnie friends offer him lessons in the magic arts, and after a slow start, he was soon performing simple tricks at children’s birthday parties. Magic (68)  Magic (69)Magic (65)

A few years ago, the old Ahio would never have dared to imagine himself living a life like this – a life full of the unknown, of chaos and color and music. He would not have guessed that he would become good friends with a charismatic acrobat like Poe, or sleeping in her bed, curled together like cats, exhausted after a long day of entertaining the masses. He wondered what the old him would think. He wondered if Puaura would still love him if she knew what he had become. Magic (93)

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