The Tall Tale Boy, Part I – “A Herring Heart”

Sunday, February 26th, I stood naked in a large dark hotel room, at the JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort in Oahu.  I’d just arrived on the island that morning, spent the day with a cousin and her husband who live in Honolulu, visited Kailua beach, then traveled across the island to check into my hotel as dark clouds began to downpour.  The heavy rain was rare but welcome here.  For me, it eased the transition from Portland winter to tropical island warmth.

I opened the sliding balcony shudders which spanned the length of my room, then the balcony doors.  The comfortably humid air somehow explained my decision to disrobe.  Behind me were two queen sized beds, an office desk, entertainment center, armchair, then spacious separate bathroom:  altogether, larger than my studio apartment in Southeast Portland.  I had arranged my few humble belongings and hung dress shirts on one side of the double closet to prepare myself for the week.  Tomorrow would begin three days of business meetings, obligatory dinners, and late night schmoozing over cocktails.

My balcony overlooked the Pacific Ocean to the left, facing northwest.  To the right, due north, I could hear but not see the theatrics of a luau through a thick of tress.  Drums and a loudspeaker gave me the impression of a tourist trap where fat white people ate and drank to excess while they gawked at performers of mixed ethnicity mimicking traditions not necessarily their own.

From my sixth story room, I felt distant from the world below, new to me but less than exotic.  After one becomes accustomed to travel, few sights and spectacles offer otherness, especially attractions groomed for tourists and business conferences.  I heightened my appreciation for the moment by beholding my nakedness in a too large room, then gazing into the evening sky.  The sun had set.  Over ocean waves, I found Jupiter then Venus.  Last night, the two aligned with Mercury (hidden below the horizon) and now waited to form a triangle with the crescent moon.

blue butterfly over starfishJust then, as if responding to the promise of planetary alignment, a tiny blue butterfly flit from the darkness beyond my balcony to float only a few feet in front of me.  How and why had a butterfly flown to this height?  It hung there, as if to catch my attention, then faltered to return to the ponds filled with black starfish below.

I obeyed what felt like a beckoning, put on clothes, and left my room to find my way to the resort grounds below.  Disoriented at first, it took me a moment—passing an outdoor pool and restaurant patio—to find the landscaped pond I’d seen from above.  I looked up to where I believed my room to be, then all around in search of a butterfly.

In the distance, I could hear the chatter and laughter of men and women drinking, socializing, likely people I would meet over the next few days.  But here, beside the pond, all was quiet.  It was then that I became aware of a dark shape gliding beneath the water’s surface, among the rocks on the far side of the pond.  I’d wondered why such a large body of water was not filled with koi or some other fish.  As I stood on a stone path bridge that separated one section of the pond from another, another stingray passed beneath me, near enough I could have touched it if I’d put my hand to the water.

Instead, the ray circled wide, passing its friend among the rocks, then returned to where I crouched at water’s edge.  As it approached, it lifted its head from the water, just enough to keep its body afloat near the surface.  Then the ray spoke:

—Tell me of the ocean.  Follow the crabs to the fish to the sea turtle to the koholā, and she will tell you the wisdom of the great blue.

The ray dipped its head back below the surface to pass beneath the bridge where I stood.  The other ray then came near, lifting its bow as gracefully as the first, and whispered:

—Go.  Go!

Before I left for Hawaii, I’d met online a black Cuban boy who lived on the outskirts of Portland.  We planned to meet in person after I returned from Hawaii.  I could tell already Mark and I were different creatures.  He envied my trip to a warmer climate; I knew, despite Oahu’s loveliness, it was not somewhere I could live year round.  In trade for my contemplative head shots with full beard, I received photos of a thin young man, clean shaven and stylishly dressed, head to toe.

Mark reminded me of my exes, always men in their late 20s (regardless of my age) who were attentive to their appearance, friendly, in some way world-wise, but also simple-minded.  As I left behind the well-lit, well-manicured resort lawn to find a rocky path down to the waves, I thought to myself, there are those who live a contented life beneath the sun, and those of us drawn by the moon into the night.

I’m now in my mid-30s.  Men in their late 20s have become boys, and I find myself attracted to both younger men and broad-shouldered daddies in their 40s and 50s.  Maturity and loneliness have sharpened my attention to that platonic bond between young and older men that I’ve never known firsthand.  This lack of a male bond—and attraction to both youthful innocence and aged masculinity—have coalesced into a longing for pederasty, reinvented between adult men.  Now in my 30s, I feel too old and too young.  But youthful beauty such as Mark’s inspires my protectiveness, guardianship, an assertion of dominance.

He’d written in an email, I want to be your boy.  But would he venture with me down this rocky path, with only those heavenly bodies representing good fortune and love as guides?

jupiter over venusI removed my sandals and held them in one hand as I used the other to steady myself, following a narrow path between jagged rock to a small cove.  Amidst gray sands and deep cerulean waters, I recalled the stingray’s words, follow the crabs to the fish to the sea turtle…

There, among the rocks, skittered little shelled bodies between crevices.  I set my sandals safe beside the path where I trusted I’d find them again, and climbed over the rocks toward the side-walking crustaceans.  I followed them to where subdued waves washed between hard surfaces, blurring that boundary: the water’s edge.


A herring, his head the size of my fist, looked up to me amidst the gentler waves and spoke.

—Slip into the water.  Careful the rocks, but fear not that below the surface.  The rocks below are those rocks above, only wetter.

I dipped my foot into the water beside the herring.  I felt his eyes on me as I closed mine, searched with my toes for a safe place to stand, water rising and falling from my calves to my thighs.  I removed my keys and wallet from my pockets, then decided to remove my clothes, folding them and setting them beside my other belongings, safe atop dry rock.

—Worry not, you enter at high tide, said the herring.  Follow me!  I’ll swim slow.

I carefully stepped, foothold by foothold, as the water rose to my waist.  I followed the herring to where the ocean waves broke upon rocks to fill this cove with calmer waters.  I suddenly could no longer find the fish in the darkness.  I stood some distance from where I’d set my clothes, and the water now chilled my nipples and wet my elbows.  I shivered, from both cold and fright.  Had I followed the advice of a ray and followed a talking fish to this dangerous inlet, with barely enough moonlight to see my hands as they held my body steady in the wash of waves?

At boundaries between safety and the unknown, we have only two choices, and so I dipped my head beneath the surface, to acclimate my body to the water’s temperature.  Eyes closed, I opened them before resurfacing, and there, somehow, made out a large, smooth, oval shape, a finned foot, then another…  Was it the sea turtle?

I rose for air, then dipped again below the surface, and thrust my naked body forward.  The salty water took on an eerie glow.  It was indeed a turtle, wider than I from shoulder to shoulder.  I swam awkwardly but better than ever before, knowing I must follow.  I worried no more about breathing or rocks or darkness.  Somehow I could see enough to follow this quiet creature into the ocean’s depths.

sea turtle in the deep

We swam for some time.  For how long, I cannot know.  I no longer comprehended time or physical space.  I only knew that I went and went and went.  Swimming forward, following in bubbling silence through the glaucous deep.

Only after I’d forgotten time itself did I arrive upon the ocean floor.  I did not need to breath for the deep blue had become the night sky, and suspended before me, where I hoped to find a whale, floated a slender, wiggling fish.  It was perhaps the herring I’d followed to find the sea turtle.  Again, to me it spoke:

—How can you hope to speak with the koholā, let alone discover what the hihimanu wants to know?  Even the sea turtle escaped you in Oahu!  You cannot comprehend the loneliness of the deep if you haven’t known love.

The herring spun about in midair and looked to me with its other eye.

—Return to dry land upon which you were borne, and plant a seed with my body.  Only then can you hope to catch a bigger fish.

And with that, the herring flopped upon the dry, brittle grass, gasping, choking in the open air.  I stood, not in tropical Oahu, but surrounded by the flat, uncultivated farmlands of Ohio.  Here, my heart sank, as if all I could know of love I had left behind, in the place of my birth.

I woke to the clamor of birds in the trees below, more obnoxious than the luau from the night before!  I rose to close the balcony doors, which I’d left open overnight.  But I found there, on the balcony, a dried herring, its mouth hung open.  Somehow, it had followed me, though I could not recall how I’d returned to my room.

Unable to comprehend the previous night’s events, I returned to the small cove beyond the hotel property.  The path was as I’d remembered and easier to follow in the early morning light.  I again removed my sandals, as it was easier to walk without sand and stones slipping between my feet and the soles of my shoes.  My toes wiggling in rough sand, I stood at the water’s edge and spotted a few crabs retreating into the rocks.  But I knew no herring waited for me to follow him.  In fact, this was no place for a herring at all.

blue morning coveClouds hung heavy in the morning sky.  A breeze cooled the warmth of the still rising sun.  In a few hours, the sun would burn off the cloud cover.  This was, after all, Hawaii.  My heart did not belong here, but somehow I knew that a herring must return home with me to Portland.

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