The Adventures of Lofa

Lori Laleh Goshert July 26, 2017
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    The Adventures of Lofa

    Wishes are dangerous things. To long for something that wasn’t destined for you can be a powerful push to do something daring, creative, or even heroic. It can also consume and destroy you. What, then, can a wish do that has built up over 623 years?

    One day, over 700 years ago in a land that we now call Tonga, a young artist and shaman named Papahie felt bored. She took her tools and a large stone and headed for the beach. There, she began carving a chimera – a hybrid of her favorite local animals. A few weeks later, this creature emerged from the dark stone with the body and long, forked tail of a tropicbird, the wings of a fruit bat, the long, scaly neck of a gecko, and a humanoid face like a tiki. On impulse, Papahie gave her creation the eyes of her favorite warrior and whispered his name, Lofa, which means “storm bird.” Being of a mischievous nature, Papahie cast a spell: after a period roughly corresponding to 623 years by our calendar, the one-foot-tall chimera would come to life. Then, she hid him in a niche in the cave now known as ‘Ana Hulu, or “Hulu Cave.”

    Time passed over Lofa as a medley of people passed through ‘Ana Hulu. Well-hidden behind a cluster of stalactites, Lofa saw all: secret meetings related to love, trade, or local politics, British adventurers, children swimming, students reading literature together (which Lofa loved), birds and bats flying through and exchanging news, and occasionally, honeymooners whispering endearments, unconscious of the immobile listener above them. Lofa saw and heard, Lofa learned, and above all, Lofa wished. Listening to the explorers and tourists, Lofa longed to see the sun and explore the island that everyone described as so beautiful. Listening to the lovers, Lofa wished to love and be loved. Listening to the schemers, Lofa desired to meet the king – and maybe a beautiful princess too. But Lofa’s greatest wish came from listening to the farmers: Periodically, a tropical cyclone, Afa, destroyed homes and crops and caused water to rush into places it shouldn’t go. The farmers were powerless against Afa because he came from far across the sea, from the sky. “The farmers can’t fight Afa because they are tied to the ground,” thought Lofa. “I will be able to fly, and I have the face of a god and the eyes of a warrior. When I finally come to life, I will fight and kill Afa. Just think how the king will reward me!”

    At long last, the day came. As the first rays of the sun entered the cave and reflected off the still, blue water below, Lofa felt warmth creeping through his stone body. His lips tingled as he tentatively moved them for the first time. He felt his tail grow pliant and his wings thaw. He stretched his wings to their full extent, feeling the heat surge through the awakened muscles. Lofa’s stomach became soft and, looking down, he saw that it was covered in fine white feathers. He blinked his warrior eyes and filled his lungs with the humid air.

    Eager, he threw himself from the ledge. Lofa’s heart skipped a beat as the water rushed up to meet him, but he saved himself just in time with a powerful flap of his bat wings. Intoxicated by the circulation of his own blood, Lofa soared through the mouth of the cave and into the full sunlight. Lofa blinked hard and crashed into a palm tree, surprising a banded iguana that skittered down the trunk. Lofa managed to fasten himself to the tree with the claws at the top of his wings and hung there, heart racing. He opened his eyes slowly and looked around. To one side, Lofa saw blue sky and blue sea stretched to infinity. Below him was a sandy beach, caressed by the waves. Further on were trees in so many dazzling shades of green – palm trees like the one he still clung to, as well as shorter shrubs and fruit trees. Lofa forgot his newfound breath as he took it all in.

    An unfamiliar sensation in his stomach compelled him to seek out another palm tree, one with large green ovals hanging from it. Instinctively, Lofa knocked down one of the orbs, which broke open as it hit a rock, exposing white fruit inside and splashing out water. Lofa flew down to investigate. He shivered with delight as the warm, sweet water hit his tongue and flowed down his throat. He used his claws to tear off pieces of the white meat and ate. He sat on the beach next to the broken fruit and felt the warm sea breeze ruffle his silky feathers. The rhythmic sound of the waves would have sent Lofa to sleep, but he was too excited to sleep. The sound of footsteps startled him, and he flew up into a tree.

    “So, when do they expect us at the palace?”

    “In three days, so we should probably leave soon. Are you ready?”

    Lofa’s ears had pricked up at the word “palace,” and he silently followed the travelers. For two days they walked through tropical forest and farmland, Lofa tailing them from above and sampling new fruits along the way. Once, when the two travelers stopped to rest, Lofa saw a flock of birds with feathers and forked tails like his sitting in a banana tree. He rushed to go introduce himself. Upon hearing Lofa’s strange voice and the flap of his bat wings, however, the group started up at once in fright, flapping and squawking in a shower of white feathers in their hurry to get away. As the cacophony died away, Lofa shook off the flurry of feathers that weren’t his. “Am I really so scary?” he thought. Seeing a pool of water in the middle of the path, he alighted and looked at his reflection. “I look different from them, but my wings are stronger and more versatile, my neck is more flexible, and my mouth is more useful than their beaks. I do wish I had some friends, though.” He then flew to catch up with the travelers, who had continued with their journey.

    When the large, white building came into view on the third day, the two travelers stopped to refresh themselves while Lofa flew on into the royal gardens and settled himself into a dense tree and waited to see the king – for any kind of action, really, to help him visualize all he’d heard about the royal family and life at court. It all turned out to be surprisingly mundane for Lofa, aside from the lush fruit trees and the princesses, who spent their mornings and evenings in the garden, walking, reading, and talking. “If I could marry a princess, I would make life at court much more interesting. And maybe the king would give me an army to fight Afa,” Lofa mused. Lofa watched the princesses over several days and set his eye on the one who seemed to be the sweetest and most thoughtful – a plump young woman with dimples in her golden cheeks and hibiscus flowers in her shiny hair.

    One day when the princess was alone in the garden, Lofa summoned up all his courage and, in his strongest voice, repeated a line he’d heard from the lips of a lover in the cave: “Life is the flower for which love is the honey!”

    The princess started and looked around. “Who’s there?”

    Lofa glided down to a ledge right in front of her and bowed. “My princess, I am Lofa, the storm bird.”

    The princess stared at him, wide-eyed, for a few seconds, then let out a piercing scream that brought several men running from the palace. Seeing Lofa and his unusual shape, they let out a shout and came at Lofa with their clubs and spears – and a net. The princess, meanwhile, had recovered her composure. “Don’t hurt him! He’s not dangerous; he didn’t mean any harm!” The men ignored her and continued to chase Lofa around the garden until Lofa flew through a break in their ranks and up, over the stone wall. Lofa flew until he was out of sight of the palace, along the beach.

    “Birds are afraid of me. Humans are afraid of me. Where can I find someone to talk to?” Lofa nestled himself into a tree while he caught his breath, his heart throbbing from both the exertion and the rejection. He looked absently out to sea. “When I kill Afa, all people and animals will respect me. But I have to wait for him to show himself.” Lofa settled into a troubled sleep.

    Lofa was awakened by a commotion in the next tree. He opened his eyes and observed a group of flying fox bats feasting on ripe bananas. “I am part bat,” said Lofa to himself, extending one wing and admiring it; “Maybe my home is with the bats. But I should take care not to frighten them.” Lofa glided to a spot on the trunk below the bats and waited for them to notice him.

    “What are you waiting for?” called the bat closest to him. “Come up and eat with us!” Lofa clambered up the tree and took a piece of banana. The other bats peered at him over their lunch.

    “Why is your face so different from ours,” asked one bat. “And how is it that you have wings like us but feathers instead of fur?”

    “My shaman made me that way. She combined all her favorite animals in me.”

    The bats appeared satisfied by this answer and went back to eating their bananas. “You can’t open thick-skinned fruits with those flat teeth of yours,” said the first bat. “Do you want me to open a breadfruit for you?”

    For the first time in his life, Lofa was touched. “That’s very kind of you, but I like the bananas better.”

    For several weeks, Lofa flew with the bats, eating fruit with them and sleeping upside down, sharpening his senses, and learning to follow his intuition. The bats were a close-knit community that took care of everyone and accepted Lofa with open wings. Each day upon waking, the bats hung in a circle and those that had dreamed shared what they had seen. Lofa was astonished to find that a number of the bats’ dreams came true. “It’s our gift,” one bat explained. “We’ve always had it. That’s why shamans sometimes kept us near them, and it’s probably why your shaman made you part bat. It’s too bad there are no shamans left on the island.”

    But Lofa could not be completely easy despite his idyllic surroundings and good company. Didn’t he have a mission to fulfill? Lofa decided to broach the subject with Peka, the unofficial leader of the bat community. Lofa unburdened himself to Peka, laying out his wishes and intentions, and proposed that the bats join him in fighting Afa. Peka listened attentively without interrupting, but then sighed and shook his furry head. “We bats are dreamers, not fighters. If it’s for anyone to fight Afa – which I doubt – it’s not for us. Stay here with us. Don’t concern yourself with Afa. When he comes we store food and take shelter in the caves.”

    Lofa’s wish was too strong to abandon, so he said a sad goodbye to the bats, promising to return to them after he had killed Afa. Despite his love for his bat brothers and sisters, however, Lofa felt a twinge of contempt for their cowardice.

    Lofa looked out over the sea, wondering when Afa would come and who would help him fight such a powerful adversary. He flew out over the water and settled on a coral reef. He nodded to a couple of turtles who swam past. Lofa had tried to strike up a friendship with the turtles before, but their reptile brains worked slowly and he had quickly become exasperated with them.

    Lofa was yanked out of his reverie by a splash of water against his stomach. He glanced down to see a silver tail disappear beneath the waves, to be replaced in a moment by a laughing silver face. “You looked so sad; I had to snap you out of it!”

    Lofa couldn’t help smiling back. “Is that how you normally make friends?”

    “Well, I don’t have any friends who are… what are you exactly?”

    “I don’t know. I guess I can be called a chimera. My name is Lofa.”

    “I’m Makelesi.” She raised her pectoral fin and Lofa touched it with the tip of his wing. “So, why are you so sad?”

    Makelesi looked at him with such frank sincerity that Lofa poured his heart out to her. Being a fish, she of course couldn’t give him advice on fighting Afa, but she was sympathetic and told him she hoped he would find his army. They talked for the whole afternoon and Lofa promised to visit her again the next day. The days followed each other punctuated by his afternoon chats with Makelesi and, after a few weeks, Lofa found himself madly in love.

    This was a precarious situation. Lofa wasn’t afraid of fighting Afa, but he was terrified of telling Makelesi that he loved her. Lofa kept his secret for several days as he pondered what he should do. Carve their names into a coconut? Bring her a necklace of frangipani? Recite some poetry by moonlight? In the end, Lofa’s impulsive nature upset all his romantic and increasingly complex plans. One beautiful day, Lofa was sunning himself on the coral reef as Makelesi swam around him. He was, naturally, thinking of his predicament and when Makelesi asked him a question about dinner he blurted out, “How do I love thee!”

    Makelesi looked at him in surprise and Lofa wished he could turn himself back into a statue. After an eternity, Makelesi replied, “I love you too,” and, jumping halfway out of the water, managed to kiss Lofa’s lips.

    Lofa couldn’t suppress a laugh of relief. “I was sure you’d be angry with me. I though you would slap me with your tail!”

    “Why would I be angry?”

    Lofa touched her cheek with his wing, then paused. “But… what are we going to do now?”

    “About what?”

    “Well, can you live outside water?”

    “I’ve never tried it.” Makelesi jumped out and landed on the coral next to Lofa. A second later she gasped for breath and started flopping around frantically until Lofa pushed her back into the water.

    “No, that’s not going to work,” he said as she caught her breath. “Let’s try it the other way.” He plunged into the sea and came up a few seconds later, spluttering and choking, and paddling with his wings. He scrambled to get back onto the reef, with a strong nudge from Makelesi’s nose.

    “Oh, why didn’t my shaman give me gills?” Lofa lamented, sprawling on the reef. “She gave me something from every other animal! Now how are we going to live together?”

    Tears ran down Makelesi’s face and mingled with the salty sea. “It’s hopeless,” she sobbed. “We can never be together!” And she disappeared into the waves.

    “Makelesi, wait!” But she didn’t come back.

    She wasn’t there the next afternoon either. On top of that, he had overheard a farmer that morning saying that Afa was sure to come soon, and Lofa still had no idea how to fight him. He wished he had Makelesi’s sympathetic ear. “After I kill Afa, maybe I can find a shaman who can help us be together,” he thought. Lofa flew up, higher and higher, trying to clear his head and come up with a plan. Faintly in the distance, he spotted a small island.

    “Well, it can’t hurt to investigate,” he thought. “Maybe there is someone or something there that can help me.” However, the distance was greater than he had anticipated, and Lofa barely made it before dropping to the beach in exhaustion.

    Lofa awoke to find a young woman sitting beside him. To his surprise, he looked up into eyes that were exactly like his own. The woman smiled. “You were made by a shaman. We shamans are not welcome on the big island, so we live here. My name is Papahie.” She was, in fact, a descendant of the shaman Papahie who had made him.

    “Shamans!” exclaimed Lofa. “I need your help. Afa is coming and I don’t know how to kill him, and I’m in love with Makelesi but I can’t breathe underwater and she can’t live out of it!”

    Papahie laughed, placing her hand on Lofa’s back. “One thing at a time! Yes, Afa is coming soon, but you can’t kill him. Afa is wind, rain, and lightning. He comes from nature; he can’t die.”

    “But I must kill him! Afa destroys the bats’ fruit trees, and the farmers’ fields, and the houses, and he dumps water in places where it shouldn’t be!”

    “He destroys our trees, crops, and homes too. But I don’t think we can stop him. I’ll tell you what: I’ll call a meeting of the shamans tonight. You can come too, and if there’s a way to fight Afa, we will come up with a plan.”

    At the meeting, Lofa was introduced to the other shamans, and he told them his greatest wish. The shamans listened to Lofa, then exchanged ideas in low voices. At the end, Hyvah, the eldest shaman, addressed Lofa: “Papahie is right. Afa cannot be killed. But if we all work together, we may be able to protect our islands. When Afa comes, we will change our shapes and go meet him. If we can, we will push him back to where he came from.”

    The shamans spent the next few days preparing for battle. On the last day, when the inky clouds made the sky look like night at midday, Papahie bathed Lofa in vaiola to protect him, and then the other shamans sprinkled it over themselves. Hyvah intoned some words and slowly began to transform until she had the body of a great dragon, bat wings like Lofa’s, but bigger and stronger, and long claws at the ends of her arms. Her face remained her own. Hyvah inhaled and then blew out a tremendous column of air that bent the trunks of the palm trees. The other shamans followed Hyvah’s lead until they were all dragons.

    “We will fly to meet Afa,” said Hyvah, “and we will all blow at the same time. If we blow our hardest, it might just be enough to make Afa change direction and miss these islands.” And they all ascended.

    Lofa and the shamans flew for nearly an hour, Lofa resting periodically on Papahie’s back, before Afa came into view. At that point the wind from Afa was so strong that it was hard for the shamans to keep on course. “Just a bit further,” called Hyvah. A few minutes later she called for the others to line up on either side of her. “Ready…now!”

    The shamans exhaled with so much force that Afa stopped moving forward. The shamans advanced, pushing Afa back. It was working! But one by one, the shamans weakened and ran out of breath. As they paused to inhale, Afa attacked with such force that he scattered the dragons. With a great effort, they regrouped and exhaled again. However, their energy was half-spent and they were unable to push with the same power as before.

    Lofa had been clinging to Papahie to avoid being separated from the group, but now he saw his chance to attack. He let go of Papahie and flapped his wings as strongly as he could to advance.

    “For king and country!” He cried and, extending his claws, charged at Afa.

    Lofa had no time to realize his mistake before Afa snatched him from the air, twisted him in a fierce spiral, and hurled his broken body down to the crashing waves below. The moment Lofa’s battered head slipped beneath the surface, Lofa turned back into stone and sank instantly, all the way to the ocean floor.

    The next day, when Afa had gone and the ocean had become tranquil again, a silver tail pushed Lofa’s body upright onto its stone feet against a wall of coral. Tearful eyes gazed into his unblinking ones and a silver fin caressed his face.

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