Here is Mother in the sunlight, laughing—her red mouth, her pretty teeth. Here she is with Father, hand in hand, lying down upon the sea. And here, my not-yet mother on the day of her wedding to my not-yet father: she is wearing a yellow sundress, blonde curls spilling out beneath the wide brim of her hat; he is decorous in a borrowed suit. They are sitting in the front seat of a red convertible garlanded with paper flowers. The top is down, the day is fine, they are pleased with themselves and with each other.
I studied the photo, missing myself.
“But where am I?” I asked my father.
He pointed to a place just outside a lower corner. “There, seeing everything,” he said. “Just smell those flowers.”
I breathed in. I smelled the flowers.
My mother said I’d held my breath since I was born, that I came out blue from nearly drowning in the womb. “You were never a swimmer,” my mother said. She claimed to have acquired the habit of wakefulness from sitting up with me on asthma nights, my father off again somewhere, administering the public health. Until I learned to breathe, she claimed, her hands were always there, holding me up while I was drowning, dispensing eucalyptus steam, honey tea, oxygen from a cylinder.
But I remember other nights, when it was not asthma keeping us awake, I’d slip from my bed and follow the light into the kitchen where she was already pouring the steaming chocolate into cups, two places set at the table.
I’d say, “It looks like you’re expecting someone.”
She’d smile and hand me the buttered toast, which we spread with honey from the wild beehives in the Keawe woods. There, in that honeyed light, she was still the doctor’s wife. A pair of eyes, a pair of hands.
She said, without her seeing to it, he’d have given all his time away—he’d give free medical advice, the last piece of pie, the dancing ladies from her garden. On weekday mornings if she was not at the door to see him off, he called to her, “Where are you Eva,” as if he had misplaced something he could not do without.
My mother did not tell me stories. She read me the news. She read about a place in England where, each year, it rained green beans in the summer time. She read about a woman in New Mexico who discovered the face of Jesus on a tortilla and a famous poet who wrote a poem about this. She read about a boy with gills who lived underwater and a woman who gave birth to a jellyfish. She read about a dog in Russia, swallowed by a giant sturgeon which was then pulled from the river and slit open. The dog, released, was quite itself again.
Everyone can use a second chance at life, my mother said. It was she who named me Lazarus.
Koya, Rose Lazarus Bright. My name is in my mother’s hands. It is on thick paper, neatly typed. We skip down past the date and hour of birth to the names and colors—
Mother’s Full Maiden Name: Bright, Evelyn St. Lazarre
Father’s Name: Koya, Franklin Hiroshi
Race: O ther
Between the O and the t, there is a small gray smudge, and, faintly showing through, the trace of letters that I can’t make out.
She was fresh out of library school when they met (Come home, why don’t you come home, they told her, but she wouldn’t hear it), and he was all the way from Hawayah, training as a doctor in America. My mother’s version is spare on detail—all that bright hair, that clear skin; she could light any room she was in.
And then, one day, she lit on him.
It would have been one of those sudden days when winter gives way to spring—the air filled with ease, the bulbs tricked into blooming.
“Evvy Bright, you watch your step!” her mother warned. “Yes, dancing!” Little Evvy (now Eva) said.
Memories like fishes, slippery, fast. My father with a butterfly net. My father in a funny hat. My father reading aloud, Once there was a girl who lived under the sea—
In Father’s version, they met in a book. A night of no-sleep, prowling the dim-lit stacks of the library. Somewhere between picornaviridae and retroviridae, he happened to glance up and there she was. It was morning, and she was standing in a ray of winter sun. “Hello,” she said. “My name is Evelyn.”
She was also known as Evvy, Lina, Lindy, Lynn. “Someday you will grow into your proper name,” her mother said.
But Eva came to be her best name, a knife’s edge on a daughter’s tongue; it was the name I did not say aloud (she was always Mother), the name she was called, my father said, by all the men who loved her.
Eva, he says. Eva, Eva, Eva—
If you know the name of a thing, you know what it is, my father believed. In his books, which he called keys, were the names of every kind of plant and animal and their medical significance. These are the names he taught me: order, family, genus, species.
There must be order in a family, everything belongs to a genus, a species.
On weekends, when he was not called away by work, my father and I went for naming walks. For my eighth birthday, he gave me a clothbound notebook with waterproof pages, like the one he carried everywhere. In his he kept an illustrated record of all the scientific things he had observed. On the cover of mine he’d printed, A Book of Names.
The early entries are in his hand, the pictures that accompany them are mine. Anura. A green-skinned woman with spectacles. Lepidoptera. A gaudy angel. Odonata, megaloptera—each name calling up weather, a particular day and place.
On green days, smelling of fern, it rains in the woods; we rescue damsels from the lake.
On gray days, swelling with heat, we hunt red dragons among the cattails.
On blue summer days, the sky the color of pigment squeezed from a tube, the milkweed crawls with fat black and yellow caterpillars.
My father and I collected other things too, things we brought into the house, despite my mother’s admonitions.
Poison ivy from the woods. A bucket of crawdads that escaped behind the stove before we could boil them for supper. Strands of marsh pearls which turned into tadpoles, and then one morning, into small green frogs which we found all over the house for days.
Some weekends we packed sandwiches and drinks into a canvas satchel and went for naming walks in our backyard.
“You do not have to go far to find new things,” he said, pointing out the ant lion dens beneath the lilacs, the wood bees nesting in the compost bin.
The specimens we did not keep alive went into the killing jar, layered at the bottom with crushed cyanide covered with plaster of Paris. These we dried by pinning in a cork-lined box. The ones my father could not identify by sight he looked up in one of his insect keys.
Evelyna evanae has five stingers on each hand and one on the tip of her tongue. Her antennae are silver laments; her rain-colored eyes are neither green nor blue nor gray. She flies by night, invisible in the light of day.
One afternoon, I found my father in his study, searching the titles upon his shelves. There was an open book in his hands and other books lying open upon his desk, pages marked with notes.
“—The Morphology of Insects, Linnaean Systems, Trapp’s guide to Medically Significant Arthropods—” He turned to me, reciting titles. “Soon we must learn all of this new.”
When I asked why, he said that a new system of naming was being invented—a system based on DNA.
“But what is DNA? Why can’t we keep the old names too?” I asked.
“The old names will still be there,” he said. “They are useful for naming the outside of things. But the new names look under—at what cannot be seen.”
Just as weekends were my favorite days, my father’s study was my favorite place. Here, I spent the long hours when he was away and asthma kept me home from school, browsing his books and poking through his enormous desk.
There, in secret drawers and cubbies, he always left treasure for me to find. Three tiny mongoose skulls covered with miniscule writing, a rubber stamp in a at metal box containing a piece of night sky, a sea green insect’s wing in a covered jar—
This wing, he explains, belongs to a rare and very beautiful moth, called the Fabulous Green Sphinx, which lives only in the tops of certain trees on the highest mountains of the tropical islands where he grew up. Very few people have ever seen one, much less captured an intact specimen, and when he was a boy, it was his dream to travel to the rain forest and watch them fly.
When I ask if he did, he does not answer. He has turned to the window and is gazing at Mother out in the garden. Slowly, she moves among the rows of flowers with a basket and a pair of shears. She sees us and waves, the sunlight shining through the gauzy fabric of her summer dress, her sleeves uttering in the breeze.
At any moment, she will lift into the air, it seems.