International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year:: Majuro Atol
are a Rainbow
J. D. Riso
Kwajalein. Ailinglaplap. Jaluit. Bikini. Their names dance across
my mind like an ancient incantation. Ages ago, far below the blue,
a volcano sunk, and coral reefs reached towards the sky, forming
refuges for prehistoric sea voyagers. The plane swoops and descends
towards Majuro. I look down at the dainty ring of sand; the place
which the descendants of those long ago wanderers call home.
had to widen the atoll to make the runway big enough for jets,"
the woman next to me, a lawyer from Guam named Jennifer, says. She flashes
a goofy grin and laughs. The folds of her belly shake.
Nothing but water outside both windows. I grip the armrests and close
my eyes. Her banal chatter lulls me out of the panic as the plane touches
down. I brace myself for the bang as the engine thrusters are reversed.
Ive had four such landings on my island-hopping trip through Micronesia.
I should be used to it by now. The passengers break into applause as
the plane shudders to a halt a few meters before the sea wall.
Jennifer looks out the window as we taxi to the tiny cement block terminal.
"Its been ten years since I was last here. Im anxious
to see how its changed."
A weather beaten sign greets us as we walk into the terminal. Yokwe!
Welcome to Majuro Atoll, Capitol of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
"Yokwe means hello, goodbye, and love,
but it literally means, you are a rainbow," Jennifer
A woman and a young girl wave and walk over to us. "This is Anne,
a lawyer from Saipan, and her daughter, Lindsey." She introduces
me by name.
"Our law firms are putting us up the swanky new resort." Jennifer
says, rolling her eyes.
They look at me expectantly, so I mumble the name of a budget hotel
in the center of the atoll.
"That place is a landmark," Jennifer says with a wide grin.
"I always liked staying there. Much more personality that some
luxury chain resort. You should join us for dinner. Well give
you a call tomorrow after we finish our meetings."
"Okay." I turn and walk towards a waiting taxi. A familiar
sadness washes over me. Jennifer is the first person I've had a conversation
with in over a week. I'm tired of traveling alone.
The sun slips under the horizon. I lean my head against the taxi window
and watch it disappear. Palm trees line both sides of the road like
sentinels. Beyond them only the incoming tide, which surges towards
the road. A strange stirring in my mind. I know this place.
My hotel room has no windows and smells of chemical air freshener. I
crawl into bed and turn on the TV. I count the rest of my money and
try to calculate how close I am to my credit card limit. It looks like
I'll be sleeping in the Honolulu airport for one night. Washing up in
the restroom. I thought that I was beyond all of that. I fall into an
uneasy sleep while watching a black and white war movie with the sound
Im the last soul on Earth, on the last remaining island. There
is only the sand, the sea, and me. Ive survived when all others
have perished. I should feel triumphant, but all I feel is regret. A
faint rainbow appears on the horizon. I open my mouth, but no sound
comes out. The rainbow vanishes. The waves begin to wash over my feet.
I open my eyes to pitch darkness. The same nightmare Ive had for
years. And now Im here. Panic seizes me. I reach over and flick
the lamp switch, but nothing happens. I feel my way through the darkness
to the door and open it. A small light illuminates the hallway. They
must switch off the generator at night to save energy. I sit on the
floor next to the door until morning and listen for signs of life.
I walk through the hotel lobby and out into the parking lot, where Jennifer,
Anne, and Lindsey wait in a rental car. I walk past a group of men who
have congregated around a minivan. Theyre all wearing tropical
print shirts and carrying briefcases. Something about their smug demeanor
makes me uneasy.
"The Marshall Islands are a tax haven," Anne says after I
close the door.
"Lots of dodgy stuff going on here," Jennifer adds. She exchanges
a knowing look with Anne.
"Thanks for coming to get me."
"No problem," Jennifer says. "I cant imagine coming
to Majuro and not going to Laura Beach." She maneuvers the car
around gaping potholes and piles of rusted junk as we drive through
D-U-D Municipality, the closest thing to a town on Majuro. "Sit
back and enjoy the ride. It will take at least thirty minutes to get
to Laura. Were going to the end of the Earth, ladies."
chest tightens. I look ahead, rather than at the land, which constricts
around the car as we head out of town. Waves creep toward us, first
on the left shore and then on the right. Back and forth. Squeezing
the land in its claustrophobic embrace. The world tilts and my head
begins to spin. I take deep, deliberate breaths.
Lindsey hums to herself and then turns to look at me.
"I just turned
eleven. How old are you?"
"Wow, I thought you were a lot younger," Anne says. "When
are you leaving for Honolulu?"
"Tomorrow." I wipe my sweaty palms on my sundress.
"Were on the same flight," she says with a smile. "How
At the side of the road, three young boys are sitting behind a wooden
table thats piled high with coconuts. A cardboard sign reads Coconutts
$1.00. The misspelling makes my heart wrench.
"Oh, we gotta have fresh coconut milk!" Jennifer says. She
parks the car next to the table.
Lindsey jumps out of the car, picks up an unripe coconut, crosses the
road, and stands with her back to the seawall. "I bet I can throw
this coconut all the way across the island!" she screams. She lifts
the coconut over her head with both arms and then heaves it. It lands
with a thud on the small strip of grass next to the boys, and then rolls
into the water. She flexes her biceps and growls.
I toss her another coconut. "Okay, but lets see you do it
again, Super Girl."
The boys cringe in Jennifers hulking shadow. "Yokwe!"
she booms. "Four coconuts, please!"
They blink a few times in confusion, and then hand us our coconuts and
some plastic straws. As we continue our drive, Majuro widens slightly,
and small wooden houses, no bigger than sheds, line the road. Watermarks
adorn the sides, the lines of demarcation creeping ever higher.
"Only one small tsunami away from oblivion," I say.
"Or typhoon," Anne says. "Luckily, Majuro is on the very
edge of both of those zones. Otherwise, I'm sure it would have been
wiped off the map by now."
"I hear that sometimes waves wash across the road and the locals
wake up to the sound of them lapping against the sides of their houses,"
Jennifer says. "Soon, maybe even in our lifetime, this place will
disappear." She sighs and shakes her head. "As if the Marshallese
need any more trouble."
"By trouble, you mean Bikini," I say.
"Bikini, and Rongelap, and Ebeye. Youd think the Marshallese
would hate us for contaminating their country and crowding them into
ghettos, but they dont."
We are silent for the rest of the drive.
Jennifer parks the car next to a battered picnic table. "The end
of the road. Isnt it beautiful?" She walks ahead without
waiting for my answer.
I try to mask my disappointment as I look at the small beach, which
is littered with plastic soda bottles and other unidentifiable detritus.
The sand is dingy and coarse. I walk gingerly, taking care not to step
on broken glass. We find a clear spot and spread out our towels. Jennifer
walks to the water's edge and wades in.
"What do you do?" Anne asks me, as we take turns using Jennifers
Swiss Army knife to dig holes in our coconuts.
"Im a travel agent, but I just moved across the country,
so Im in between jobs." My throat constricts. I couldnt
afford this trip. I shouldnt have come here. But I had to get
away. "I went to college for a while for anthropology, but I got
burnt out trying to work three jobs to pay for it. And I didnt
want to be shackled by debt. I just wanted to travel
The finality of my impending return to normal life rises up. Only two
flights away from my oblivion. The despair is so strong that I'm afraid
I'll say something strange and incomprehensible. I bite my cheek and
look down at my hands. These women are successful, stable. They wouldn't
"I didnt realize coconuts were so thick," Lindsey says
with a giggle. She beats her coconut against a palm tree.
"Bring it here, Lindsey." Anne says. She turns to me. "What
an interesting life you have ahead of you. True freedom." *
I leave my door open a crack, so that a tiny beam of light pierces the
darkness. For a moment I wonder if this is a smart thing to do, but
then I remember I have nothing to steal. I crawl into bed and fall asleep
Im on the island. The sea lurches towards me. Its motion now seems
desperate rather than menacing. I look out over the horizon in expectation.
The rainbow appears. This time it grows more vivid. An unfamiliar peace
fills me. I kneel on the sand and write S.O.S.
"Where are you staying in Honolulu?" Anne asks as we taxi
down the runway.
I look out the window and then down at my hands. "I dont
Shes quiet for a moment, and then says, "You can stay with
us. Lindsey can sleep with me and you can have the other bed."
I blush. "I wasnt trying to ask if I could stay with you."
"I know. People helped me out when I was traveling through Eastern
Europe. Now its my turn. Its not easy for a female to travel
alone. One day it will be your turn to help a young woman traveler out."
She pauses. "And you will be in a position to do so, wherever you
are. The turmoil will subside."
"Thank you." I lean my head back against the seat as the plane
I look down for one last glimpse of the fragile arc of sand, but it
has already disappeared into the blue. Yokwe, Majuro. When the waves
rise up to reclaim you, let it not be said that you are forgotten.
© Julie Riso November 2009
Bio: J. D. Riso's short fiction and travel writing have appeared in
Slush Pile, The Nautilus Engine, Camroc Press Review, and many other
diverse publications. She leads a nomadic life and currently resides
in Budapest, Hungary with her husband and her rabbit.
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