Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
Signs and Wonders
[p.158]The phone woke Tevita in the night. He kicked at his sheets, freeing his long brown legs so he could run into his mother’s room. The call had to be from the hospital—about Grandpa.
“What? Right now? Do you know what time it is?” Suliana listened for a moment and then held the phone away from her ear, staring at it. Tevita reached out to take it from her, but she shook her head and waved him back. “Yes, I’m still here. Where’s the nurse?” Tevita could hear Grandpa’s deep Tongan voice as his mother moved the phone away from her ear again. “All right. Don’t shout—you’ll wake the whole hospital. We’ll go look. You go to sleep now. It’s—” She turned to look at her clock·radio. “It’s after two in the morning, and you need your rest. Yes, we’ll go look. Then we’ve got to get back to bed too. I’ll come see you after work. No, I’ll talk to you about it then. Good night, Papa.” She hung up and sat blinking as she stared at the phone.
Tevita cleared his throat and ran his hand through thick black hair, wanting yet not wanting to hear what crazy thing Grandpa wanted now. Suliana sighed and gave her son a tired smile. “There’s a comet. He said he saw it through his window and knew we had to see it too.” She shook her head and stood up. “Get some pants on, and a jacket.” Putting on her robe, she shooed him out the door of her room.
When Tevita came into the living room, he found Suliana crouched at the front window, trying to see the sky beyond the roof of the porch. “Where is this comet supposed to be?”
“Over Olympus Cove. Papa’s room looks east.”
[p.159]“Well, let’s go outside then.” He opened the door. “I just hope no one sees us.” He stepped to the front of the porch and forgot about anyone else. There, hanging in the sky, small enough to cover with his thumb, was a comet: a bright smear of light, a blot of white paint brushed through and spread upward toward the stars. No roar, no movement, just light and silence. Tevita felt the chill of the autumn morning enter through his bare feet and creep up his legs, but he didn’t care. Wait until he told the guys about this. Had someone already said something at school and he hadn’t been listening? This was really something.
He felt his mother standing next to him, heard her shuddering breath, knew she was crying. He put his arm around her. Good thing it was so early and no one could see him.
He lifted his other hand and barely covered the comet with his thumb. It was so huge, burning its image into his memory forever. He sighed. “Wow.”
Suliana nodded. “Wonder what Papa is going to say about this.”
“Signs and wonders, Mom.” Tevita pulled his gaze away from the blaze of glory and looked down at her. When had she gotten so short? She smiled up at him and shook her head, then started for the door. Tevita followed her. No need to glance back; this was something he would never forget.
When football practice ended, Tevita found his mother waiting for him outside the gate to the stadium. Glad that his complexion hid the blush that heated his face, he waved his friends on and walked over to her. “Mom, what are you doing here? 1 don’t need a ride home like some kid.” He glanced over his shoulder, certain the guys were laughing at him, then thought of Grandpa. “Has something happened?”
Suliana gestured away his question. “Papa just wants to talk to you. Do you want to go home first and clean up?”
“Do I have to go see him?” Tevita started toward the car, knowing that it would be useless to argue. “You know how I hate hospitals and being around sick people.”
Suliana gave a barely audible snort. “You’re his only grandson and you haven’t been to see him yet.”
Tevita held out his hands for the car keys. “Okay, Mom; but I’m doing it for you.”
Tevita stood in the sonic shower and let the vibrations remove the [p.160]football grime. He wished they could afford a water shower, but this did the job and he had to admit he enjoyed the tingle on his skin; besides the low hum made it easy to relax and remember.
Poor Grandpa, he went through life doing the best he could and hoping for something better, and when the something better didn’t come the way everyone had expected it to, then what did he do? Tevita had only been a kid when the century had turned, but he had still sensed the disappointment in the adults around him. Where was the Millennium they’d been hoping for? Tevita wondered if Grandpa had been crazy before then, or had that been when it started? “We must not be ready yet. There has to be something we still have to do.” But the heart seemed to have gone out of most of the adults back then. Even Tevita’s religion teachers acted like deflated balloons, going through the motions, tired and puzzled.
Only Grandpa still burned with the fire. “I’ve got it! The City of Enoch! Didn’t Joseph Smith say it was at the North Star? Where will it go when it comes back with the Lord? It has to land somewhere, right? But it can’t land on all the people, all the cities.” Grandpa’s grip on Tevita’s little-kid arm was as strong as a vice. “Remember that guy who thought the rock pictures spread out on the ground in—where was it? South America? —were for people from space? That’s what we have to do. We need to make a picture for the City of Enoch, so they’ll know where to land, so they won’t land on Salt Lake City.” Tevita rubbed the bruise on his arm after Grandpa released him. “We can go up to Idaho and get lava—Max Morrison has acres of it—and spread it out on the salt flats. We’ll make what—a fish? Something big enough to be seen from space.”
“Why a fish, Grandpa?” Even though Tevita really didn’t care.
“Early Christian symbol- fishers of men.” Grandpa waved away the question. “Doesn’t really matter, they’ll know it’s for them, whatever it is.”
It had taken years. Tevita had grown up and grown strong helping Grandpa arrange the lava across the salt flats, putting each chunk of rough black rock where the old man directed, and it still wasn’t complete. He shut off the shower and stepped out to flex his muscles before the mirror. Well the effort had been worth something to him after all.
Tevita followed his mother as slowly as he could down the glaring white halls of the hospital. His nose burned at the smells of pain and [p.161]disinfectant. He didn’t need this.
His mother led him to a small room off of one corridor. The slatted shades were pulled up to expose a large window full of Wasatch Mountains and sky. No wonder Grandpa had seen the comet. Tevita imagined the night sky framed in the window and saw the glory once again. “Does it have a name?”
“The comet?” Grandpa harumphed. “What difference does that make? They name it after whichever polongi saw it first.” He lifted an IV-trailing arm and pointed at Tevita. “I name it Warning. You saw it. Didn’t you feel it?” Without waiting for an answer, Grandpa harumphed again and folded his arms across his chest. “‘They seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.’”
Tevita tried not to stare at the old man in the bed. He’d only been in the hospital a few weeks, but the change in him was more amazing than the sight of the comet had been. The once large man—larger than Tevita even-seemed to have shed all his muscle and left only bones hung with yellow-brown skin. The dark wires of hair had turned white overnight. Tevita thought that only happened in stories.
Suliana tugged on his arm. “Sit down, Tevita, so Papa doesn’t have to wrench his neck to look at you.”
As Tevita sat in the chair, he noticed that Grandpa had turned toward him, his still-bright eyes watching, waiting. “Tevita, you know what this means, don’t you?”
Tevita glanced around the room, looking at the blood-pressure gauge attached to the wall, then at other machinery arrayed around the room; anywhere but at Grandpa. He really didn’t need this.
“Tevita, answer me.”
“What what means, Grandpa?”
“The comet. It’s a sign.” Grandpa leaned toward him. “The polongis think it’s just a ball of ice and rock, but it’s a sign for you and me, Tevita. For our people.”
Tevita sighed and looked down at his clenched hands. An old scab curled away from one of his knuckles. He picked at it and it fell away easily.
“Look at me, boy. You know what you’ve got to do.”
Tevita finally raised his face to the old man and met the fiery gaze with his own unbelieving one. “I’ve got school and football practice every day, Grandpa. You don’t want me to quit school, do you?”
“You don’t have to quit school—you didn’t have to quit your job this [p.182]summer, did you?” Grandpa leaned back on the bed, his face turned toward the mountain. “You can do it on Saturdays, the way you did in the summer. This is my dying wish, Tevita.”
It was Tevita’s turn to snort. “You’re not dying.” But the figure in the bed already looked more like a cadaver than something alive. What if Grandpa really was dying? He’d never been sick before the heart attack. What if the only thing keeping him alive was this crazy idea? “It’s not your job-or mine-to make a landing place for the City of Enoch, Grandpa.”
Grandpa waved away Tevita’s statement. “We’ve been over this before. You know what year it is. You know the Millennium didn’t happen at the turn of the century.” Dark eyes narrowed at Tevita, and he couldn’t look away. “The Tongans accepted the gospel and came here and to Independence, Missouri, so we could meet the Lord when he came again. After all, the Tongans in Missouri are building houses for him. They know we are the people who must prepare the way.” The burning gaze seared right through Tevita. “You give me a better reason for no Millennium. You show me that everything is ready for him to come back.”
“But we’ll never be ready, Grandpa.” Tevita stood up. They had been over all of this before. And Tevita had quit going to religion classes when Grandpa had had the heart attack-if there really was a god and Grandpa was doing his work, why would God strike him down in the middle of the job? He turned his back on the bed and the mountain. “Maybe the Second Coming was all a big story anyway.”
Grandpa didn’t even ask what he’d said. The old man had always had excellent hearing. But either Tevita’s hearing had gone bad, or everyone in the room was holding their respective breaths. Before Grandpa could recover and react, Tevita decided he’d been there long enough. “I’ve got to go.” He pushed out of the door and down the hall, expecting at any moment to be pierced through the back with the sound of Grandpa’s roars.
Every morning after that, by 2:30, the phone shrilled out its wake-up call. “Go see if you can still see the comet.” Tevita and his mother would stumble out onto the porch to gaze at the sight that burned deeper into their memories with each viewing. And the comet blazed over Olympus Cove, a harbinger of something, though Tevita refused to even think about what it could be. He also refused to return to the hospital. That [p.183]thing in the bed wasn’t Grandpa. It was some kind of special effect, and he didn’t want to think about it either. He was a sophomore on the varsity team and he had three good seasons ahead of him. He didn’t want any Second Coming to get in the way of that. And he needed his sleep.
Then one morning Tevita woke on his own. His clock-radio said 2:45. Had he slept through the phone call? He tore out of the sheets and into his mother’s room. The bed lay empty and the clock-radio read 2:46. He hurried into the living room and looked out the windows. Suliana saw him from the porch and opened the door. “Tevita? Get some pants on and come out here.”
When he joined her, she turned from staring at the sky to face him. “Come look.”
What now? And then he saw the sky over the mountains, grey and menacing with clouds that reflected the city’s glow and hid the comet’s light. The air crackled with angry energy.
“Is that why Grandpa didn’t call this morning?”
Suliana unwrapped her arms from around herself and put them around Tevita. “I don’t know. I hope so, but I’m afraid.”
And then the phone rang, a distant shriek. But Tevita knew in his heart it wasn’t Grandpa. Grandpa was gone, gone like the comet, gone with all his wild and millennial dreams. Tevita sat down on the porch stairs. He didn’t want to hear about it.
After the funeral and pola, Tevita’s mother asked him for the keys. “I’m driving. We have somewhere special to go.” The sun glinted off of the Great Salt Lake as they headed west on North Temple Street. Could she really expect to see anything? But they took a turn he didn’t recognize, away from 1·80, and he realized they were going to the small plane airport. Tevita shook his head. What was the point? Too bad they didn’t believe in cremation; he could have scattered Grandpa’s ashes among the lava. “Grandpa left us money to fly over his masterpiece, didn’t he?” Suliana nodded. Good, he’d been wanting to see what Grandpa had made him work on for so long. It was Grandpa’s money. Just one more part of his craziness, Tevita guessed.
How big did something have to be to be seen from space? And would a plane get them high enough to really see it? One time when the work was done for the day, he had climbed a nearby hill and still seen nothing but lava. And Grandpa didn’t even have a map, carrying the whole [p.164]picture in his head. Tevita was willing to take this one last look, but Grandpa was going to be disappointed if he thought this would change his mind. Besides how could Tevita finish something he couldn’t visualize? But maybe that was the purpose of this flight.
As the plane rose into the sky, he squinted into the glare of whiteness. At least the lava would make a break in the monotony of salt. The pilot turned to glance back at Suliana. “You’ll have to tell me where to go, Ma’am. Your father’s instructions weren’t very clear.”
“Ask Tevita. I’ve never been out there.”
“West. How high can you get? If you follow I-80, we ought to be able to see it fairly soon.”
Below them green, yellow, and rust-colored water lapped against Black Rock, the lake high again in its cycle of rise and fall. And to the west, the salt flats beckoned with their latest, unfinished works of art. They passed over the concrete “tree” and the metal “tower of technobabble” and all the other “statements” that mingled with billboards along the shabby, hole-pocked interstate.
And then something besides grey mountains and green-yellow-rust interrupted the whiteness. A black smear to the north of the ribbon of road beckoned to them. “That way. Do you see it?”
The plane banked and left the road behind, putting the sun over the pilot’s shoulder. Tevita strained to see a fish as the splatter of lava moved toward them, but the picture wouldn’t resolve itself. “Can you get any higher?” The plane tilted again and carved a circle in the air, a crown over the lava spread below. Tevita frowned. This didn’t look like any fish, unless it was a jellyfish or something. It looked more as if someone had dumped a large blot of black paint on the salt flats and then swished a brush through it, spreading it outward toward the sun.
Then Suliana’s gasp echoed the chill that went through Tevita as he realized what he was looking at. He and Grandpa had created a black comet against a white sky, a sign and wonder for the heavens, a message to those who waited above. And it wasn’t finished. One section of the comet’s tail was missing, making the whole thing look lopsided.
“Wow! That’s really something.” The pilot banked the plane some more, craning his neck to see past Tevita. “Why’s it so big?”
Tevita glanced at the man, one of Grandpa’s scorned polongis. “It’s supposed to be seen from space.”
“Really? But we aren’t sending people up any more. Or do you mean someone else? I thought they’d decided no one is out there, or [p.165]else they would’ve answered all those messages we’ve been beaming out to them.”
Was there really no one out there? Tevita still wondered. Was this picture nothing more than a crazy dream, a last desperate gasp of hope rejecting the environment of despair? What if there really was someone, something? What if they waited, watching, for the completion of the sign, a signal that it was time to come back?
Which was better, accepting polongi reality or believing in something no matter how crazy? Tevita remembered the light that seemed to shine from Grandpa when he talked about the picture. It made him stand out among all the dull, colorless men around him, the men who had given up. Which kind of man did he want to be?
Tevita realized that the pilot was waiting for an answer. “Maybe they were looking for the right message.” He shrugged. There was really only one way to find out. And besides it would be a fitting monument to a man who wouldn’t forsake his dreams.
Grandpa had kept his beliefs, stood tall and strong against the despair in others. It didn’t matter if that made him crazy. Tevita realized now that the dream was the important thing. He blinked at the tears he hadn’t been able to shed before. “How much time do we have?” Staring out the window at the unfinished part of the comet, he made sure he would know it when he got back on the ground. It would take, say, three or four truckloads of lava to finish it, at least.
“Time’s almost up. But we’ve got plenty of gas, and I’m willing to stay a little longer. That’s pretty spectacular. You say your grandfather did it?” The pilot shook his head. “He must have been some kind of guy.”
Tevita glanced at his mother, who smiled at him through her own tears, and he smiled back. Then he turned back to the pilot. “Thanks, but we’ve seen enough. And, yeah, Grandpa was a real wonder.”