SEARCHING FOR AMELIA EARHART
By Ben Orlando
The way I remember that day, Amelia and I are two women chattering along with the song birds around us. She stands next to me in her beige fatigues while I sit on a bench in our back yard high above the ocean, gutting the three-foot tuna my father caught that morning. Behind us the rain rat-a-tat-tats on the aluminum roof but there’s no roof above us. In this heat the rain is a blessing, and the constant shower helps with the cleanup. While Amelia and I stare out into the ocean, the entrails at my feet slowly bleed down the soft slope of the yard, over the edge, and eventually into the Pacific. The way I remember it, while I clean the fish, we talk about boys and breadfruit and all the things you can’t find on the island.
I don’t know who she is, only that she’s a woman who suddenly appeared. When I first notice her standing at the edge of the trees staring at me, I miss the fish and nearly plunge the knife into my leg. But my alarm subsides as she smiles and starts to walk towards me. And she’s a white woman. At the time there aren’t many on Samoa. Definitely more since the treaty ratification in 1929, but still not where we live. This white woman is either military or government. I guess military.
At some point she asks me “How far to town?” Her voice is soft, refined, a stylized way of speaking that reminds me now of Katharine Hepburn.
When I really remember that day, I realize this was all she ever said, and the rest I’d just said for the both of us. For the first fourteen years of my life I often talked out loud to myself, to the point that when I was with other people, I had a hard time remembering what they said and what I said for them. But when Amelia Earhart stopped by, she spoke only those four words. For the length of time it took me to gut that fish she never made a sound. She simply walked up to me and smiled, and stared out at the ocean while I prepared our dinner.
After I answer her question, she tilts her head towards the sky, and walks off without saying goodbye.
“Hey!” I shout, but she keeps walking and soon disappears into the nearby copse of banyans.
Once she’s gone, I think about her question. The dirt road near our cabin leads to the village of Masefau, and because we’re so close to the shore, there is no other road, nowhere else to go, and she appeared from the side of the woods that faces the coastline.
Maybe a boat then, I decide.
My father retired from the U.S. Navy in 1923, nine months after the Teapot Dome Scandal, when supposedly I was conceived in a rowboat docked near Pago Pago. If my father had known about the scandal at the time, he never would have dropped his pants that day. The timing of my conception was certainly bad luck. But maybe if my father hadn’t gone on about President Harding’s corrupt behavior and the scandal marking a low point in American morality, my superstitious mother would not have died the instant I was born. And Amelia Earhart would not have come along.
On a tiny speck in the South Pacific, first Lieutenant Harry Levant made a critical decision not to return to the mainland with his new daughter. When I asked him why we never went back to the states, he only ever said that America was a land of depravity. I think the real reason was that he didn’t want to be too far from my mother even though she was dead. Somehow he expected her to return.
Sometimes when I was being difficult, I asked him why he couldn’t marry someone else and give me a new mother to love. Of all the things I ever said to hurt him, this question seemed to gut him the worst. Knowing this, I’d wait until my anger was at its peak before asking the question again.
After retiring as a reconnaissance pilot at the age of forty-five, my father continued to give lessons on the airbase three days a week, or he worked at a small shop in town, building and selling mechanical contraptions. We lived in Pago Pago until, when I was two, he decided to use his savings to build a rustic lamina-roofed cabin on the eastern, undeveloped side of the island, where we lived without many problems for the next twelve years.
He taught me to fish and to hunt, and we kept a small garden surrounded by mango and orange and jackfruit trees. Because of my father’s skills and what he taught me, we rarely had to buy food supplies from the outside.
My father ordered books of every sort: math, science, history, literature, astronomy, war. At first he gave me lessons on each subject, but when I was old enough to read and learn for myself, he left me to choose what I wanted to learn and how. Mostly I wanted to learn about the United States.
I had a few friends in the nearby villages, and during the holidays I’d spend all day playing and listening to the gossip about the people I hardly ever saw. I learned the traditional siva, which is a dance performed by both men and women during the ‘Ava ceremonies, and I also learned the maulu’ulu, which only the women are allowed to perform.
Every morning I walked with my father to his shop in Masefau, and then I’d chat with some friends and stop by Papa Pulau’s on the way home. Papa Pulau was an old blind man who lived alone in a shack more decrepit than ours. He used to spend his days just staring out into the jungle, or fiddling with a one-stringed guitar until my father fixed up an old transistor radio for him. After that, Papa Pulau spent all of his waking hours trying to tune his radio to a German waltz station he’d only ever heard once for three minutes. But the song was so beautiful, somehow so important, he said, that he’d happily spend what was left of his life trying to find it again.
Otherwise I spent my days around the house, fishing, hunting, reading, or writing stories about the United States. From my writing and from the books I read, I was trying to paint a picture of the country where my father was born. I was trying to understand why I would probably never see his home. I was not often bored, but near the end of my time on the island I spent many hours wondering if one could die from a lack of social interaction.
When I told my father about the woman who’d walked out of the woods, he stared at me for a while, waiting for the joke. When I didn’t smile, he didn’t smile. He walked out the door.
“No,” I said, as if he didn’t quite understand, except he understood every word. It was getting late but still he began to walk in the direction of town. I ran outside and shouted in irrefutable detail my encounter with the morose, friendly woman who’d asked me how far to town and then disappeared into the trees.
I kept shouting the details of the story but my father only heard it once. He walked off, back to Masefau, and that’s when he heard about Amelia Earhart’s missing plane, her last known transmission sent three days before she appeared in our backyard.
I know he heard about it because this was big news on the island and around the world. But he didn’t tell me. I heard it from Papa Pulau the next day.
When I approached the small hut, I saw the eighty-three-year-old wrinkled Samoan smiling as if he’d just walked into a surprise party and all the people he’d ever loved were in the room.
He’d heard his song the day before, except this time the entire seven-minute waltz played through before the station was swallowed by static. He described every detail, slowly, thinking carefully before translating his experience into words. After that we ate lunch together in silence, and when I rose to leave he remembered what else had happened the day before. About Amelia Earhart and her missing plane.
“It was her,” I told my father that night.
“That was fifteen hundred miles from here.”
“Still,” I reasoned, “we should tell someone.”
He told no one, and told me to forget it, but I wouldn’t stop talking about Amelia. Maybe she’d washed up onshore, I told him. She needed help and right now she was lost, wandering through the jungle. Hurt. Tired. Lonely. During our meals together I described everything I could remember about our encounter and pleaded with him to let someone know.
“I’m not going to eat with you if you don’t be quiet,” he said, but I didn’t listen. I kept talking, and he continued to eat with me, never responding or moving his head to show that he was listening.
The next month we flew to Sydney. He told me it was a vacation, but in truth he’d enrolled me in an all-girls school, St. Christina the Astonishing. He stayed until he was sure I wasn’t talking to any corpses, although the people at St. Christina talked to corpses all the time.
I spoke to many living people during our visit but after I learned what he had in mind I didn’t say a word to my father.
He left and joined the largest search party in U.S. history and spent the next five years sweeping the limitless Pacific for a tiny plane and even tinier human remains. In his letters he told me there was a lot of money in the search, but I knew he was spending his savings on this preoccupation. I wondered how many times they asked him why he was doing it, why he’d dismantled his life and broken his family to spend so many hours and weeks and months and years searching for a woman he’d never known.
After graduating from St. Christina’s, I went to a dull university in Brisbane and then moved with a friend to Seattle. I knew my father was born in a section of town called Georgetown, but I never went there or asked anyone about it. I experienced the America I’d read about for so many years, while my father spent his days at the bottom of a hole. In 1943 he and all the men on his ship had been captured by a Japanese patrol. He spent the next three years underground. To me he was already long-dead.
When he showed up at the office where I worked, I fell backwards into the wall. I didn’t believe he was real until the man next to him asked if he could help, and even then I didn’t believe it. He looked nothing like my father. The flesh was gone from his cheeks. The bump had disappeared from his nose, and where a full head of blonde hair had been, now there was only a dome of glazed sunburned skin and liver spots. His eyes had sunken so far back into his skull that when he stood in the shadows I couldn’t see them at all.
My boss gave me the rest of the day off. We walked to a small café around the corner, empty at that time of day.
I asked him questions, and each time he parted his lips nothing came. After a while I wondered if he was actually trying to talk, or if the motion was simply a way to let air into his mouth.
The silence between us churned the bitterness from milk into sour cream. He did nothing to explain why he’d done what he’d done.
I did give him a chance, but when he didn’t speak, I swallowed, and I began to talk about Amelia Earhart. I described the light tint to her curly hair, and I watched my father wince. I told him about the rips in her beige jacket, and the smudge of dirt on the right side of her face, and the near-perfect teeth when she smiled, and the way she talked, just like in the news clips. I kept on for the next twenty minutes until he walked out of the café.
The next year he knocked on my door while I was near orgasm with an older man I’d just met. I’d never experienced an orgasm although I’d slept with a number of men. While the stranger knocked on my door, my lover pleaded with me to ignore it, but I could never withstand for long the ringing of a telephone or knocking at the door.
When I stood up, my legs wobbled, and the muggy area between my thighs tingled. But when I opened the door, the site of my gaunt father standing there crooked, hat in hand, turned my vagina into a sapless pocket of skin.
I waited ten seconds and when he didn’t speak I closed the door, but he managed to wedge his shoe into the remaining space. I pushed harder, knowing I was crushing his foot, but his face did not register any pain.
“When you were four,” he said, “you called out to me. I was in the front yard sanding the legs for the kitchen table. You shouted to me. You said there was a woman, and she wanted to talk to me.” He dropped his head. “You were persistent, you said she knew me, but I didn’t listen. I didn’t believe you.”
He struggled to breathe deep but his tortured lungs would only grant him a shallow swig. “Afterwards,” he continued, “you described her. You described every detail. And then you forgot.”
I stood, my robe coming undone, as my father walked away. He disappeared into a clump of Japanese maples.
About the Author:
Ben Orlando is a professor of English at George Mason University. His novel, Lost Journals of Sundown, recently received the runner-up prize for the Bath Novel Award.