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just where they wanted to be - ellen sollinger walker

The first thing my husband and I notice when we arrive on the Polynesian island of Moorea is there are chickens and roosters everywhere. They greet us at the ferry dock. They are there at the car rental office. They walk, willy-nilly on the side of the road or sometimes, into the road without warning. The mama chickens strut their stuff in gingham polka-dot dresses, scratching in the dirt like they are performing some jazzy jig. The daddy roosters wear proud, black and orange headgear and provide music for the dance, a never ending “cock-a-doodle-doo” at the top of their lungs. After some research, I learn these fowl are in fact “feral chickens,” or jungle fowl, brought to these islands by the early Polynesians as fighting cocks and hens.

We rent a Chinese-made car called a BYD (I rename it POS because it’s made of tin, plastic and cardboard) and begin the drive to our lodging on the one road that circumnavigates the island. The view on the left side is the great Pacific Ocean, shimmering with an iridescent blue that is so beautiful, it makes my mouth water. On the right side, reaching up into the bluest sky is a lush dark green rain forest and majestic, craggy peaks. The peaks are so high, no one can live or farm there. We drive with our windows open and the spicy smells of burning garbage and dead palm leaves mix with the sweet smells of tiare, the white Tahitian gardenia.

The road we drive serves as Moorea’s Main Street, Wall Street, Central Park, and City Square. Teenage boys ride bikes on the road, practicing gangster wheelies like American thugs showcase their guns. Whole families walk to the market, open only a few hours a day, to buy French bread and Hinano beer. It seems that everyone is carrying those long spears of French bread, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Six loaves are carried under the arm of an elderly woman as she shuffles on the berm in plastic sandals. Twenty loaves protrude out of a boy’s bicycle basket as he rides home from market. On the dash of a small Dacia truck, there’s a pile of crispy spears almost too high for the driver to see over. And, all these loaves are sans plastic bag, as if to say, “Only sissies and Americans smother their bread in plastic.”

We stop at one of the fruit stands constructed out of cardboard boxes and balsa wood. They showcase little finger bananas, pineapple, papaya, and passion fruit. We ask the spindely-legged, brown boy manning the stand how much for a luscious, sweet pineapple. He calls out to his father in a French lilt and we are rewarded with the sweetest of them all, the father making the universal gesture for “just cut.”

When we reach our lodging, we move into a thatched-roof hut at a rustic, no frills resort on the west coast, ocean-side of the road. Off the long dock at the resort, the ocean water is turquoise blue, clear, clean, and filled with fish of all colors. We see blue and yellow fusiliers, yellow butterfly fish, black and white striped angel fish, skinny-nosed trumpet fish, black tipped sharks and flesh-colored nurse sharks. Every morning, we throw our leftover French bread from breakfast into the water and are treated with a free fish show. In the evening, our resort host throws large fish heads into the water for the nurse and black tipped sharks to wrestle over. They send salt water and fish tails into the air as they fight for the coveted snack.

I have returned to Moorea for the second time. My first visit was thirty years ago, when my husband, son, and I traveled here to visit my parents. They were about four-years into a ten-year circumnavigation in their own 36-foot sailboat. In the next six years, my parents would visit Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Sumatra, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan, Turkey, and Gibraltar. But, in the whole world, Tahiti remained their favorite. Now, at their request and because I am their only child, I have come to spread their ashes in this magical ocean.

Before leaving on the trip, I scooped their cremated ashes into a clean, zip-lock plastic bag. I mixed the remains together because, after 64-years of marriage, there would be no “till death do us part.” I told Peter when we arrived on Moorea I would know when the time was right to release them into the water.

The time arrived almost exactly one year after their deaths. Dad died in February 2016, and Mom, two months later in April. Earlier in the day, Peter and I had taken a scuba dive, breathing with a regulator and floating seventy feet down, pushed by the ocean currents. We swam with thousands of fish who shimmered like jewels in the clear water. Fluorescent blue fish swam up to my mask as if to inviting me to stay a while in their company. A red eel slithered out from behind a rock to display his sharp teeth. A large sea turtle floated past, seemingly in deep thought about his next meal.

That evening, as the sun is setting, the sky turns a flaming red orange. Far offshore, almost to the barrier reef, we see three outrigger canoes with six people paddling in each one, heading in the direction of the sunset. The time is right. I run to the room and grab Mom and Dad’s ashes. Peter and I go to the end of the dock in our bare feet and sit down on the edge.

I hug the bag of their remains, I wrap my arms around their hunched shoulders, feel their spines under my fingertips, touch their adventurous spirits, hear their voices one more time, see them wave good-bye. Then, just as a nurse shark appears below our dangling bare feet, I let them go. The white ash enters the water like smooth fine silk. The strands intermingle like arms embracing, like lips touching. We sit for a long time, watching them float away together to some glorious heaven, until they are just specks in the water. Mom and Dad are one again, over the horizon, eternally dancing with the radiant fish and the infinite sky above, just where they wanted to be.

Ellen Sollinger Walker, the daughter of world explorers, is a retired classical pianist, university music professor, and clinical psychologist. She holds an MFA from Carnegie-Mellon University and an MS from Eastern Michigan University. An emerging writer, Ellen’s published work may be found in a variety of online and print literary journals including Storytellers Refrain, Papers Publishing and upcoming in an anthology published by Tolsun Books. Ellen was personally invited to attend The Writer’s Hotel (TWH) Annual Writer’s Conference in Boothbay Harbor, ME (May 2023) as a Teacher’s Assistant. She has been invited back in 2024 as a Director’s Assistant.



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