The noodle maker came down Main Street with heavy sheets of dough draped over her shoulders, pushing an enormous, rickety cart that held a worn wooden cutting board, three giant pots of furiously boiling water, dozens of prepared condiments and toppings in neat wooden drawers with smooth brass handle pulls, several folding stools hung on wooden pegs, a crock of chopsticks inlaid with abalone shell, and a sharp cleaver in a slot. The solar panel that shaded the cart’s workspace and powered the noodle maker’s burners glinted dully in the hazy sunlight. The cart teetered and careened wildly over the uneven pavement between the abandoned shops, but the noodle maker did not spill so much as a drop of water.
Her first customer was mongoose, who trotted over happily and requested cut noodles with cabbage. He proffered a large bowl of fine, white porcelain. The noodle maker separated a portion of dough from the sheet on her left shoulder, folded it in thirds on the board, quickly sliced it into long skinny noodles with the sharp cleaver, and dropped the tangled handful into one of the boiling pots.
“Shave ice man go up Snow Mountain, eh?” said mongoose.
“Did he?” the noodle maker asked, keeping her voice steady. She handed mongoose a pair of chopsticks from the crock. “I had no idea.”
“Mmmm-hmm,” mongoose said, nodding slowly, his little black eyes following her carefully.
The noodle maker turned to her drawers and quickly wiped a tear from her eye with the cuff of her blue cotton work jacket. “Would you like extra-spicy today?” she asked mongoose over her shoulder.
Mongoose lifted his nose to the sun, a blood-red disc hanging in the white sky above the island, and sniffed. “Put three spoon.”
The noodle maker dropped three big spoonsful of pepper paste into mongoose’s bowl along with a ladleful of boiling water, then poured a thin, dark stream of shoyu from a small pitcher with a narrow spout. “Say when,” she said.
“When,” said mongoose, stirring the broth with his chopsticks.
The noodle maker pulled the strainer of noodles from the boiling pot, gave it two shakes to drive the water off, and gently tipped the contents into mongoose’s bowl. She added another ladle of boiling water on top. Mongoose used his chopsticks to flip the noodles quickly a few times, mixing everything up. The noodle maker pulled a few leaves from a huge head of napa cabbage and sliced them finely, making precise and even cuts with the cleaver, then piled the shreds generously into mongoose’s bowl. She opened and closed her drawers one by one for the toppings: a shower of sliced scallion, a tiny spoonful of ginger paste, two yellow half-moons of the sweet-hot takuan she made with her mother’s mother’s recipe.
The familiar movements of her work lulled the noodle maker into thinking this was an ordinary day, but when she lifted her eyes from mongoose’s bowl she saw the hulking mass of Snow Mountain and remembered. What was he thinking? she wondered, feeling a flush of anger creep up her neck. If shave ice man knew he was leaving, why hadn’t he told her last night? She would have told him if she were leaving.
The noodle maker watched as mongoose tucked a messy bite of noodles and cabbage into his mouth, spilling a little broth in the process. He chewed a couple times, sucked the noodles into his mouth loudly, chewed again, grunted, swallowed, then helped himself to a stool, removing it from a peg and snapping it open with a flourish. He perched his long body on the seat, his short, furry legs sticking straight out. Noisily sucking at another mouthful of noodles, mongoose returned his gaze to the noodle maker.
The noodle maker methodically wiped down the cutting board and cleaver before asking, “Why did he go? Did something happen?”
Mongoose stopped mid-slurp, noodles dangling from his thin black lips, broth dripping into his bowl. He looked at the noodle maker for a time without blinking, without moving. The noodle maker waited calmly. The sun was hot. The street was empty. It was so quiet out. Where had everyone gone? The noodle maker had the disturbing sense that there was an animal mob behind her, silent and waiting. Mongoose finally resumed chewing. He swallowed and pinched a bright slice of takuan between the tips of his chopsticks. “Something?” he chuckled. “Ole lady, you tink one ‘something’ wen happen, wen stay all pau already.” He switched to English, mockingly: “You can’t turn back now!” Mongoose flipped the yellow radish into his mouth and crunched cheerfully.
Frigatebird landed soundlessly on the ground next to mongoose and folded her great black wings against her body. “’Ohana,” she said, nodding at mongoose. “’Ohana,” answered mongoose, tilting his bowl to his mouth to slurp some broth.
“You wen tell her?” frigatebird asked mongoose.
“Yeah,” said mongoose, then: “Get extra spicy, three spoon.” He flicked his head toward the sun.
“No kidding!” frigatebird said, annoyed. “Pea soup.” She shifted on her webbed feet, fluffed the white feathers of her breast patch, then looked at mongoose. “So, when she going?”
“Bumbai . . .” said mongoose. He shrugged, then filled his mouth with a mound of cabbage and crunched slowly.
Frigatebird took two steps up to the cart and acknowledged the noodle maker for the first time: “One dip, yeah? Three spoon.” She handed over a deep blue porcelain plate intricately inlaid with gold and abalone shell and a matching wide bowl for the sauce.
The noodle maker separated a portion of dough, dusted it with flour, rolled it on the board until it was a fat snake, joined the two ends, and began pulling and looping, pulling and looping, until she held dozens of pale, thin strands stretched between her palms. She wanted to go home. Or maybe not home, exactly, just . . . away. As she worked she remembered how, when Guava Billy died, she and shave ice man had laid him to rest on the lava slab at the other end of Main Street, the way they were required to under their agreement with the ’Ohana. They dressed him in his best clothes, moved him from his bed to shave ice man’s cart, and pushed him to the slab. It was hard for the two of them, who were old and tired, to get him up there. It was, the noodle maker remembered, undignified. No rites, no chants, no picking of leaves was permitted. After arranging the body, they went into the saimin restaurant, hooked up the radio to the solar-powered battery, and turned it on. It didn’t matter which station— for years the same thick static played up and down the dial. They cranked the volume on the radio so it was easy to hear beyond the old broken windows, and walked away. The next morning the radio was off and the slab held nothing but a few bloody bones and two buttons off Guava Billy’s last aloha shirt. From then on it was just shave ice man and the noodle maker and the ’Ohana.
She dropped the noodles into a pot of boiling water. As soon as she was done making the strong dipping sauce, the noodles were ready to be strained and neatly folded into a compact square on frigatebird’s plate. The noodle maker balanced the bowl of sauce on the side and set the dish at frigatebird’s feet. Frigatebird bent her beak to the plate, grabbed the noodles, dropped them a few times messily in the bowl of sauce, then flung her head back and swallowed them in one gulp.
“Slow down,” mongoose advised, too late. “Last noodle . . .”
Though the noodle maker had imagined this day thousands of times, the reality of each moment felt strange and dreamlike. Every member of the ’Ohana came to her, one by one. She made what each requested, the weight of the dough on her shoulders getting lighter and lighter with each dish, and then listened to them talk amongst themselves about her fate.
“We goin kick her out?” scorpion asked, her babies in a busy clutch of tiny shining tails and pincers on her back.
Frigatebird said, “No need, no need.”
Nēnē said, “Go do um already!” She slapped her half-webbed feet in the dirt, then turned her black head away.
Little dog said, “Nah, no boddah her—last one, eh? Jus one ole lady!” Cat said, “Little dog, you too nice—you stay sof like one mochi.” Everyone laughed at that, even little dog.
Frigatebird said, “Eh, little dog right—last one, no boddah her.”
The ’Ohana was silent for a time, then mongoose asked of no one in particular: “Okay, but . . . who goin make her bolo head den?”
The ’Ohana would not permit her to make noodles without a cleanly shaven head, like a monk’s. When she was younger she had done it herself every evening with an electric razor. But eventually her shoulders, worn out from so many years making and carrying heavy noodle dough and pushing that cumbersome cart all day, couldn’t reach the razor much past her ears. At that time there were a few other humans left on the island who could have helped, but shave ice man was the only one who volunteered, so the noodle maker stopped by his house every evening to get a shave in his kitchen before going home to bed.
Shave ice man preferred to use one of his old, manual ice shavers, carefully modified to perform the job efficiently and silently, with nary a nick or scratch. They had always been quiet as he worked, just in case bat was listening in the dark yard. But after Guava Billy’s death, shave ice man had become talkative and belligerent, insisting on arguing with her about Snow Mountain every night.
This much they agreed upon: When they were little children, after the first line of coastal communities had been lost to the rising sea, Snow Mountain burst out of the ocean in a violent cloud of steam and fire. The sky filled with ash and embers. The ground shook. The people ran from here to there, screaming, their hair on fire, their skin on fire. Their little mountain town was lucky at first—they were far enough and high enough that they were not buried by lava or washed to sea by tsunami, like the communities then closest to the coast. The worst thing for them was that the waterfalls stopped for a while and everyone had to rig up crazy water catchers in their yards. But then the thick ash started a long famine. Shave ice man’s father died. The noodle maker’s mother died. All of the babies. When the volcano finally quieted decades later, its vast lava skirts had stretched to join the southern coastline, more than doubling the size of the island. Snow Mountain shifted the rains, generated strange clouds, and cast new shadows. As the seas continued to rise, the people came to see that the mountain was a gift, and decided to break a trail all the way to the top so everyone who remained could move to higher ground. But after many months of steady progress the trailbreakers suddenly stopped returning from their work. Bigger and better- provisioned teams were sent after each other, but no one ever came back.
Shave ice man said that high up on the far side of the mountain there was the kind of heiau the ancients built long ago. He said he’d seen it in his dreams. Maybe the temple rose out of the ocean when the mountain came, or maybe it appeared there some other way. Whatever the case, shave ice man believed that when the trailbreakers arrived at the temple, strong spirits sacrificed them one by one, took their voices, and gave them to the animals. To him, their deaths were meaningful, part of a retributive cycle. “The temple only has three walls,” shave ice man said every night. “The fourth side is open to the ocean’s horizon so you can watch the sun while they bash in your head.”
The noodle maker did not believe there was a temple somewhere up the mountain’s face. She thought that the trailbreakers probably just fell down a deep gully or were consumed by a hidden pool of lava. She felt quite strongly that the animals did not need divine intervention to steal human voices. While shave ice man worked they went back and forth, she arguing for dumb circumstance, he arguing for vengeful logic, neither changing the other’s mind, until shave ice man wiped the last streak of lather off the noodle maker’s scalp.
Then the noodle maker gave him a packet of springy hand-pulled noodles and a container of dipping sauce for his dinner. When the noodles exchanged hands, they bowed to each other, bending at their waists until the tops of their heads nearly touched—an old custom they practiced reflexively. They said good- night, and the noodle maker took her cart, rattling and bumping through the quiet dark, past the house that had been Mrs. Nakamura’s and past the house that had been Mrs. Sia’s and past the house that had been Guava Billy’s, and then she was home. Sometimes along this walk she heard rooster’s claws on the dirt behind her; sometimes she heard nothing.
By the time the noodle maker was out of dough, the entire ’Ohana was gathered around her cart, busily chatting. Even bat, who shouldn’t have been awake at that hour, was there, perched on big dog’s back, blinking sleepily. It was a kind of party, she realized, a celebration.
The stools were all in use. While watching the ’Ohana eat, the noodle maker considered how bowing—a human gesture the animals shunned—was the kind of thing it was easy to convince yourself carried no importance whatsoever. She knew that everyone already knew the answer to the question of who would shave her head: no one.
She wiped down every inch of her cart and neatly folded and refolded her towels. She turned off the burners under the two noodle pots, sent their starchy water down the sewer grate, and scrubbed their interiors with her coconut husk scrubber. Just one pot still bubbled away, half full of clear water that she would normally use to clean everyone’s chopsticks before packing up for the day. But no one was going to return their chopsticks today, the noodle maker saw. The sun was dropping toward the dead ocean and the day’s oppressive heat was beginning to rise from the road, slowly moving through the thick air.
The noodle maker pulled out her small black teacup, added a single rolled leaf of oolong, and filled the cup with clear boiling water from her pot. She watched the leaf unfurl and wondered if shave ice man had left simply to speed the process of dying. Perhaps he thought he’d meet boar on his way up the mountain and that would be that. Or maybe he’d decided to see, once and for all, if the temple of his dreams was real. Then again, maybe the ’Ohana had murdered shave ice man in his bed before dawn and were now just waiting until they could do the same to her.
She fished the tea leaf out of the cup with a pair of clean chopsticks, then sipped once, twice. The ’Ohana continued chatting amongst themselves as though she were already dead. The noodle maker gazed up Main Street, to the old heart of the town. She remembered how, before Snow Mountain, when she was still a child, the shelves behind the counter at the candy store held gleaming glass jars full of preserved plum and dried lemon peel and mango strip. She remembered the smells of licorice, salt, li hing mui, the sweetsour brine that Mrs. Kamemoto used for her green peach pickle.
The noodle maker finished her tea. She rinsed her cup with a ladleful from the pot of still-boiling water, then sent the rest of the water down the sewer grate. She turned the burner off, packed up her teacup, and rolled her cart down the street. The ’Ohana, still perched on her stools, did not remark upon her departure.
The noodle maker pushed her heavy cart up Snow Mountain. The way was narrow and steep and her cart swayed along the red dirt path. After some time the surface of the path became coarse and loose and the cart wallowed, particularly at the turns of the switchbacks. Eventually the cart’s wheels stopped rotating entirely, unable to gain purchase on the rubble. So the noodle maker pushed and shoved the cart, plowing two thick furrows through the shifting rocks, her head bowed, her arms extended, her back bent, her legs churning behind her.
As she made her slow way, the noodle maker knew that she should sing but could not recall a song. She knew that she should chant but could not remember a single line of a sutra. She knew that she should cry but could not generate a single tear. The noodle maker thought, as she had countless times before: If there were other humans somewhere, anywhere, wouldn’t I sense them? Wouldn’t I somehow know? The noodle maker sent her consciousness out into the graying sky, like a speeding, seeking drone. She thought of it circling the earth, piercing the planet’s thick scrim of pollution and water vapor, listening, watching, waiting. Reconnaissance: to know again, to recognize. How strange, the noodle maker thought, that we used this word in war.
Night fell, finally dimming the terrible whiteness of the sky. But for her labored breathing, the noodle maker was silent. The cart made a grinding, jangling racket as it slowly plowed its way. The noodle maker was tired. Her arms shook, her legs shook. She could no longer see where she was going. She stopped, steadying the cart in its ruts. In the quiet she heard the sounds of the animals who followed her, their wings, their hooves, their claws and paws, the chorus of their breathing.
“Try rest,” shave ice man’s voice rose from the dark on the side of the trail. Little dog commanded: “Ey! No talk Pidgin!”
“Sorry, sorry,” shave ice man said. It was too dark to see his face, but the noodle maker knew he was rolling his eyes.
“Here you are,” she said. She held her hands out in the dark and moved them around until they caught his. He guided her to sit next to him on a rough lava boulder.
After a few moments of silence shave ice man began to laugh. “Brought the cart, huh?”
“I thought we’d need . . .” she started, but then realized how absurd it was, how absurd the entire day had been. She should have simply beheaded herself with her cleaver before she’d started mongoose’s bowl. Ended it then and there. She heard boar’s cavernous breathing behind her and caterpillar’s tiny feet tapping along on the lava near her hand. The compulsive scratching of rooster. Cat purring. Someone urinating loudly. Probably pig. The animals they had served for the last chapter of their lives were all there, waiting to witness the final phase of the ’Ohana’s plan.
“We’re like Eve and Adam,” the noodle maker said, “but in reverse. Last woman. Last man.”
“Finally,” nēnē muttered.
Shave ice man was suddenly angry. “Why are you all even here?” he said sharply, standing and turning to address the crowd. “You know what’s going to happen. No need to watch.”
“Yeah, but,” said mongoose, his voice sharp and bright. “Best part!” A wave of tittering and snorting rose in support of this statement.
The noodle maker pulled on shave ice man’s sleeve. “Forget about it,” she advised. “Sit.”
But shave ice man did not sit. Instead he bent to the ground and seemed to feel around. Then he rose again and, flinging something into the darkness with a grunt, yelled, “Get outta here!”
There was a thud. “Aiiyeeee!” yelped big dog.
The noodle maker stood quickly and moved behind her cart, giving the animals the space they needed for the kill. It was fast—everyone wanted to participate in their own way. The noodle maker realized that she’d felt burdened all day by the question of shave ice man’s fate and now she was relieved of it. The animals’ happy eating sounds made her sick to her stomach so she struck out again, leaving the cart behind, moving carefully so she wouldn’t tumble off the edge of the dark trail. As she went, she learned to perceive the course of the switchbacks by clicking with her tongue and listening to how the sound was absorbed by the thick air or echoed off of the mountain’s surfaces. She made her way, expecting that the animals would return at some point, but they did not.
Minutes passed, then hours. The noodle maker wondered if it had happened without her knowing. If her proficiency with echolocation was simply the way one passed from life to death. If the darkness of the night was the darkness of death.
The noodle maker felt the ground beneath her feet flatten. She could not find a surface for her clicks to bounce off, no matter where she turned. She slowly got down onto her hands and knees and moved forward, still clicking, turning her head this way and that. Tiny sharp rocks bit into her knees and palms. She smelled inexplicable, distracting aromas—gardenia, cheeseburgers, refined sugar—aromas that had disappeared from the island long ago. She heard her mother screaming her name and the sound of human footsteps behind her: crunch, crunch, crunch. A ghost, a ghost! the noodle maker thought. She crawled and clicked in the dark until she finally found a wall. She could tell by the smoothness of the lava boulders beneath her palm and the way the surface sloped away from her as it rose that she had found the temple. Too bad shave ice man isn’t here to see, the noodle maker thought. He was right. She rose, nearly overwhelmed by the smells of manapua, brown gravy, adzuki beans, mayonnaise, fish cake, pineapple, lau lau, lumpia, ketchup, chow fun. She ran her hand lightly along the wall, following its straight course until she found an opening and entered the temple. The noises and aromas of the noodle maker’s life stopped immediately. She sensed a vast interior space, a huge, flat court open to the sky. The temple demanded silence and so she rested her tongue in her mouth and shut her lips. Had there ever been a darker night? She wondered. Not even a hazy sliver of moon was there to help her.
The noodle maker made her way forward into the center of the temple, then stood still and listened carefully. There was nothing. She sat on the temple floor and found a smooth bowl of cool water at her feet. She reached and found a pointed stick in her hand. She bent and began to write the story of her life in the dirt. She wrote from one end of the court to the other, shuffling along on her aching knees. She began with “I was born . . .” and ended with “I am near death.” She fell asleep as dawn was breaking.
The noodle maker woke hours later and rose from the floor of the court. She looked at the expanse in front of her. The scratchings in the dirt appeared as nothing more than unintelligible vandalism: someone was here. She had been resting on a pile of bones. The cleaver, which she had left behind on the cart, was now in her hand.
The noodle maker walked to the open side of the temple, where down below the surface of the sea barely reflected the smothering sunlight. She was stiff and had developed a sharp pain in her hip that made her limp. The noodle maker thought of how the people who had first been sustained by the island learned to navigate by looking only at the sky and at the patterns on the surface of the water. Now the sky was blank. Now the ocean was confused.
The cleaver’s weight felt good in her hand, its handle perfect in her grip. Even in all the years before the ’Ohana formed, she had never used it to kill an animal or process meat. She had never wielded it in violence. Unless you counted the few times she had nicked herself accidentally, the honed edge of the cleaver had never drawn blood nor touched flesh.
With three quick motions, the noodle maker hacked off her legs and one arm, her torso dropping to the floor of the temple with a light thud. The blade was merciful in its sharpness. Then she carefully and quickly pared herself down, taking thin slices from here and there, until she was a rounded mass facing a neat pile of wet scraps. She dropped the cleaver and encircled herself with her one arm, then launched what there was of her off the temple’s edge. The noodle maker rolled down Snow Mountain’s rocky face, gaining speed with each second. She bumped along and bumped along and bumped along, faster and faster the noodle maker went, until she plummeted, at last, into the hot, bleak sea.
The noodle maker floated easily, her tiny face to the sun. She drifted aimlessly until a swift current caught her and carried her quickly away. In whatever direction she fixed her eyes, the noodle maker saw only the horizon or the sun, hanging red in the white sky. Her lips became blistered. Her eyelids turned to leather. She could not identify what was in her mouth.
The sound of the water lapping at her ears, which she had first pleasant, became irritating to the noodle maker—but there was nothing she could do about that. She was carried through vast, stinking algae blooms that made her sting and burn. She was pushed into fields of garbage and dashed against huge metal containers and caught by plastic nets so brittled by salt and sun it took just one or two bites to set herself free. Overhead the moon finally appeared: a dim, bitten disc. How long had it been since anyone could see the face of the moon? she wondered, trying to remember: Was it a man who was there? Or a rabbit?
The noodle maker came to a place of quiet, flat water. A whale floated there, still and horrible. Cut deeply with fishing line and bound tightly with nets, its withered gray skin hoary with salt, the whale regarded the noodle maker steadily with one blood-red eye. It expelled a dry, slow breath from its blowhole. The noodle maker found herself moved to tell the whale a story in which one of them wasn’t the murderer and one of them wasn’t the murdered. As the ocean brought her closer to the whale, the noodle maker said, “You have nothing to fear from me.” As she bounced against its putrid hide she declared, “I’ll bite those nets off you lickety-split.” As she was carried under the whale’s huge belly, she gurgled through a mouth full of tainted water, “You’ll be good as new.” Before she could surface, something gripped her and dragged her downward. “Once upon a time!” the noodle maker yelled, and though she could feel her mouth moving again and again, she heard nothing when she landed at the bottom of the sea, a hard, flat disc that was quickly buried in the lightless deep.