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Ke Kulanakauhale ma ke Kai or, The City by the Sea – Thomas iannucci

“The city by the sea, the city by the sea,” crows the blind man as he rows, his oars dipping in and out of the icy gray water in time with his cadence. His voice rings loud and true, but even so, it is hardly audible over the roar of the frigid sea. A wave crashes into the small boat, drenching the man and his two grandsons, but he pays it no mind. “Wherever I may go, may she watch over me! The city by the sea, I keep her in my heart,” he sings on, and his defiance in the face of the weather is almost inspiring. “When I had lost it all, she taught me to restart!” Another wave crashes into the old, wooden vessel, lifting it up and slamming it back down with a jolt. This time, the man stops, spluttering as the salty spray momentarily overwhelms his senses.

“The city by the sea, the city by the sea.” His eldest grandson, Veeka, picks up where the old man has left off. As a Singer — even one who has not yet completed his training — it is his kuleana to continue the song. “Wherever I may go, she’ll remain with me.” He sings it dutifully, with less embellishment than his grandfather; where the old man’s voice is polished and strong, Veeka’s is less certain, and full of anxiety. The difference between master and apprentice, between kumu and haumana, is stark. “Wherever I may go, she’ll remain with me!” Veeka tries to keep rhythm while he sings and rows, the way his grandfather does. It helps him to focus. He needs the focus. The life of his brother depends on it. Veeka glances back at his younger brother, Shay, and grimaces. Shay is wrapped tightly in a thick, boarskin cloak, and is wearing their finest rain-jacket, a family heirloom from many decades past. Neither seems to be helping. He shivers.

“The city by the sea, forever will I miss,” intones their grandfather, picking up where Veeka has trailed off. In other circumstances, Veeka would have been humiliated: to leave a song unsung is unforgivable. But, thinks Veeka, as he observes the great, gray, churning mass of waves and ice cold water that surround their vessel, this is no ordinary situation. “The city by the sea, forever I will miss…” Veeka’s grandfather also trails off, and he frowns. “Forever I will miss…?” He grunts in frustration. “I can’t seem to remember the last part. Do you know it, Veeka?” he calls out. The voice of a normal man would have been swept away by the sea spray and winter winds, but the old man is a true Singer. His voice carries easily to his grandson.

“No, grandpa. I don’t. You never taught us that one, remember? I’ve just been trying to go off of what you’ve been singing so far.” He shakes his head. “I don’t even know what a city is.”

“It’s like our village, only bigger. Much, much bigger,” says the old man. “Or at least, that’s what my tūtū used to say.” Veeka thinks about that. How much bigger? How many people live there, he wonders. A hundred, perhaps? Maybe even a thousand? The idea is hard to grasp. But, as his grandpa always reminds him, he doesn’t need to grasp this knowledge, only to preserve it. That is the role of a Singer.

“Hmm.” The old man blinks, his sightless gaze looking far off, unaware of Veeka’s internal musings. “A song should never be left unfinished. It’s bad luck, yes. Bad, bad. Maika’i ‘ole. What kind of Singers are we, if we can’t remember our words?” He shakes his head. “We are the memory of the people! And if the memory forgets, what then?”

“I don’t know,” says Veeka, frustration creeping into his voice. “Does it even matter anymore? Lāna’i has fallen. Our lāhui was slaughtered, as were the others, most likely. There’s no one left for us to remember for.” It is true. This very morning, the Men from across the Long Sea arrived, in their great boats, with their metal weapons. Veeka and his surviving family have been at sea all day after narrowly escaping the raid on Lāna’i. All day is more than enough to overrun such a small island. No doubt their sister islands will follow suit.

“My mother’s mother taught me that song,” says the old man. “It was about the home her parents left behind. We aren’t native to Lāna’i, you know.”

“Yes, tūtū, I know,” says Veeka, using the Old Word for “grandparent.” He knows a few words from the Old Tongue, but much of it has been lost, at least on Lāna’i. That is why the Singers exist, to preserve what has been lost. But now that is over, too. Veeka looks back at his grandfather. Sometimes, when the old man is singing, it is easy to forget that he has long gone senile. But when it comes to other matters, his mind can no longer focus.

“I could never remember the last bit,” says the blind man, his irritation at odds with the direness of their situation. “‘Auwe! That’s no good. It was the important part, I think. The endings are always important.”

As the old man laments his lack of memory, Veeka silently prays, focused on what remains of the journey. They have been rowing for hours and hours. Veeka’s numb muscles no longer burn or groan with protest. They surrendered that fight long ago. Instead, they mechanically obey, spurred on by desperation now that the adrenaline of their flight has worn off. Veeka is certain that, if they survive, he will find that he’s done permanent damage to his body today.

“The end of a song binds the memory to us. Without it, that memory can fly away, untethered, like the Po’ouli birds of old,” says the man.

“I wish we could fly away,” says Veeka, looking around them. He can see the looming presence of the Great Island further on ahead, and he’s fairly certain they’re almost there, but the fog and sea mist make it impossible to accurately judge the distance. He turns back to look at Shay, whose shivering continues to worsen. “You’ll be okay, palala. Just rest. I’ll take care of you,” he promises. “Somehow.” A wave that seems nearly the size of the mountains in the near-distance rises up, lifting their boat with it. Veeka cries out in terror.

“The city by the sea, the city by the sea!” sings the blind man. Their boat lands on the other side of the wave with a heavy crash. Water splashes everywhere, and some fills the boat, which creaks uneasily. Shay coughs violently, pulling the boarskin cloak tighter around him. His eyes snap open. They start to rove around frantically, taking in the oppressive gray surrounding them. “Cold,” he says, through chattering teeth. “So cold.”

“It’ll be okay, palala,” Veeka assures Shay. Looking around them, he realizes that the island is much closer than he originally thought. He feels something akin to hope swell in his chest, though its flavor is also reminiscent of desperation and hysteria.

“Sing, Veeka!” admonishes the old man.

“Never mind the song,” snaps Veeka, heart pounding. “Keep rowing! I think I see the bay up ahead!” This gets the old man’s attention, and the two of them begin to row frantically, harder than before, though neither had known that that was possible until now. They’re aided by the fact that they’ve been caught in a riptide, one that’s pulling them directly towards the beach. The speed of their vessel increases significantly. They are so close. “It’s going to be fine, Shay,” swears Veeka as he rows. “We’re going to get you to the city, the city by the sea, and they’ll fix you up, good as new! They’ll be able to protect us there. I promise.”

Veeka rows with fervor and valor and hate and fear. He rows and rows, stabbing the gray, watery abyss below him again and again with his paddles, raging against it as it rages against him. He is an island unto himself, and now it is him pulling the Great Island towards himself instead of the other way around. For a moment, he feels his spirits lift.

And then he sees the sea monster.

A horn. White. A spray of ocean water as a great something breaches ahead of them.

“‘Auwe!” cries Veeka. “Sea monster ahead!” The large, white, blubbery mass swims towards them at an astonishing pace, slamming into the side of their craft, which rocks the boat and threatens to capsize it. “No, no, no!” Veeka desperately tries to outpace the creature as it turns around to face them again. Though half of it is submerged, he can see its long, spiraled horn pointing at them as the monster prepares to make another charge. The blind man looks around in confusion, sensing even in his senility that something is deeply wrong.

“Keep rowing, tūtū!” orders Veeka. “Row, and sing!”

The old man acquiesces. “The city by the sea, the city by the sea! Wherever I may go, may she watch over me,” he cries. The sea monster, as though it senses a challenge, bellows in return, and assails them. Thankfully, its horn misses Veeka’s grandfather, but its giant, slimy head slams into the back of the boat, which shudders as it is thrust forward. Veeka feels his teeth clack painfully together, but he stays focused. The bay is coming into view. The tides are really starting to pick up now, pulling their small vessel directly towards the island, towards the city, towards their only hope of salvation.

“The city by the sea, I keep her in my heart!” sings the blind man, his song a cry of defiance against the winds and the waves and the ice and the monster that pursues them.

Filled with longing, and reminded of their life before the men from across the Long Sea had come, Veeka joins the old man in his song, tears streaking down his cheeks as he sings with all his heart.  “When I had lost it all, she taught me to restart! The city by the sea!”

The phlegmy, throaty roar of the sea monster drowns out their song for a moment. It slams into the back of the boat once again, propelling the old man forward, and he crashes into his younger grandson. Shay coughs and gasps, while the old man starts grasping desperately for his oars. While the boat is propelled further ahead, the monster swims alongside it, ramming into it again on the starboard side. Furious, Veeka drops his oars, now confident that the island’s tides will soon deliver them to the beach, and the legendary city therein. He reaches down near his feet and grabs the ancient, rusted harpoon that belonged to his grandfather’s grandfather, and prepares to defend his family.

Veeka ducks as the great horn of the beast whistles past him, and then he stabs the harpoon into the head of the creature. It roars out in agony, and Veeka is barely able to withdraw his weapon with a sick, sucking pop, before the creature lunges at them again, leaping high into the air. This time, its mottled, white body manages to get onto the craft, sending frigid seawater and hot, steaming blood pouring into the boat. The vessel has been compromised. It will not last much longer.

“The city by the sea, the city by the sea!” sings Veeka in fury and terror and desperation. He picks up the harpoon and drives it into the beast again, and again, and again, the third time driving the metal spear deep into the monster’s eye. “Wherever I go, she’ll remain with me!” he roars. The sea monster cries out again, this time in agony rather than anger. It thrashes around, sending cracks through the boat, and knocking Veeka over with its horn. He drives the harpoon deeper into its eye. The creature stops thrashing and goes limp. With a sigh, it sinks heavily back below the surface of the deep. Veeka winces, and sees that, in the struggle, his arm has been pierced. He looks back and sees his grandfather protectively shielding Shay. “It’s okay, grandpa! It’s okay! We’re almost there, now!” He points eagerly ahead, then laughs at his own foolishness when he remembers his grandfather’s blindness. They are in the bay now, and though the mist and fog are thick, he can start to see spires, and the tops of great buildings. Against all odds, they have survived. Veeka begins to laugh, and tears of joy stream down his face.

“We made it, Shay,” he tells his brother. “We made it.” And not a moment too soon, either. The boat is taking on water, slowly but quite surely. He pats its stern affectionately. “Mahalo, old friend. You’ve served us well. We will sing songs about you.”

“The last line!” says the old man, interrupting Veeka’s sentimental musings. “I remember it now!”

“Really?” asks Veeka, delighted, as he resumes rowing. They are making great progress now, the shore quickly approaching them. “Then sing it with me, tūtū! Sing!”  Veeka feels himself choke up. This is what it means to be a Singer. This is the power of their calling. This is why keeping the memories matters. The two men begin to sing, triumphant and proud, as they row safely into the bay.

“The city by the sea, the city by the sea,

Wherever I may go, may she watch over me,

The city by the sea, I keep her in my heart,

When I had lost it all, she taught me to restart,”

As the two men sing, Veeka looks around, curious, and breaks off his singing. “It’s taking too long to find the beach,” says Veeka, confused. “I know the Great Island’s a lot bigger than Lāna’i, but…this doesn’t make sense.” Though he’s never sailed this far before, Veeka has often gone in between the minor islands on vessels like this one. He knows roughly what the distance from the bay to the shore should be for an island of this size. “Something’s wrong.”

Ahead of them are strange shapes, floating in the water. It is hard to make out what exactly they are through the fog, but it is clear that they are man-made, leftovers from before the Snowfall. Giant, rotting ships, perhaps? But no. These aren’t ships. The way their tops peak out above the ocean makes them seem more permanent, like structures. They seem vaguely familiar, but he isn’t sure why.

“This…isn’t right,” says Veeka. “What is this place?”

“The city by the sea, the city by the sea!” Veeka’s grandfather goes on, unaware of Veeka’s growing concern. “Wherever I may go, she’ll remain with me!”

Several of the strange structures are coming into view, and Veeka looks around, surprised to see that he is surrounded by the great, metal-and-brick shapes. Some have long, thin spires that point into the air, while others are flat and covered in slush. A thought suddenly occurs to Veeka, who turns back to face his grandfather. “Grandpa,” he says frantically. “The last line of the song! What was it? You said you remembered it, right?”

“Yes, yes,” says the old man, excitedly. “I do! I remember it now, so clearly, the way my mother used to sing it to herself before bed.”

“How does it go?” demands Veeka. The strange structures go on and on, filling the bay, of which there is no end in sight. He sees his own, pathetic image reflected back at him from one of the larger structures, and shudders. This reminds him of something, reminds him of the memories his grandfather used to sing to him of the time before the First Snow, and the great civilization that had once lived on the islands. His heart drops. The old man coughs, and clears his throat, spitting into the ocean. “The city by the sea, forever will I miss!” he sings proudly, before taking a breath and delivering the final line. “For she sank below the tides, and rots among the fish!” His delighted laughter becomes a cackle. “I finally remembered! It’s been so long, but I finally remembered, Veeka! What a relief, it was driving me mad!”

He claps his hands joyously as Veeka looks around in horror. The bay keeps going and going and going, lined with the strange aquatic structures, but now Veeka can place them. “Buildings,” he whispers. “These…are the tops of buildings.” He falls silent as it all hits him, but his grandfather takes no notice. Shay shivers again, but this time, Veeka has no words of comfort for his younger brother. Their grandfather laughs and laughs and laughs in delight as Veeka begins to sob.