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Daughter of Moloka'i (Moloka'i, #2)
Author:Alan Brennert

Daughter of Moloka'i (Moloka'i, #2)

Alan Brennert


An abiding friend

An inspiring writer





A wave of Kona storm clouds rolled across the jagged peaks of the Wai'anae Range, arriving in Honolulu with a cannonade of thunder and the kind of wind and rain Hawaiians called lani-pa'ina, “crackling heavens.” In the harbor even the largest ships seesawed in their berths; one little steamer, the Claudine, barely made it into port by sunset, before the sundered clouds began to weep and rage.

Sister Mary Louisa Hughes stood on the covered lānai of a house high atop a hill overlooking the Kalihi Valley, with a fine view of nature’s wrath. Short and stocky, she didn’t flinch at the trumpeting thunder or the spears of lightning in the distance—in fact, there was a smile on her broad, open face. Louisa had grown up on the South Side of Chicago, her family’s cold-water flat wedged into the middle of a stack of sooty tenement apartments; she had never drifted to sleep to the soothing patter of rain on a rooftop, not until taking her novitiate at the Franciscan convent in Joliet. So what she was now witnessing—the majestic fury of a genuine tropical storm—this was glorious. God’s glory, yes, but also Hawai'i’s. She was more certain than ever that this was where she belonged—glad that she had answered the call for volunteers to make the long voyage to O'ahu to serve at the Kapi'olani Home for Girls.

But there was work to do: Kau'iokalani, the night nurse, was sick, and Louisa had taken her shift. There were fifty-eight girls—ranging in age from twenty months to twenty-one years—living at Kapi'olani Home, and as Louisa entered she could hear the youngest crying out in fright. She went to the nursery, going to each child in turn, lifting them from their cribs, holding and comforting them against the noise and the night. “Ssshh, ssshh,” she told them, “it can’t hurt you. I won’t let it.” Finally, when the storm had abated and the last child had fallen asleep, she went to check on the older girls; she suspected they were probably up long past their bedtime, telling each other blood-curdling tales of obakes—ghosts—in the dark.

But before she could reach the first dormitory, there was a furious knocking on the front door. At first she thought the wind was merely animating a tree branch, but when she recognized a human rhythm to the knocks she hurried to the foyer and swung open the door.

Standing on the porch was a tall, unfamiliar sister in a rain-soaked habit. She was holding a bundled child, its face tucked into her shoulder, shielded from the rain by a swath of blankets.

“Oh my heavens,” Louisa cried out. “Sister, do come in!”

The nun—in her mid-forties, with a wet but pretty face—smiled gratefully and stepped inside. “Thank you, Sister,” she said. She walked with a slight limp, but it didn’t seem to slow her down much.

“My goodness, you’re drenched. Did you walk all the way up the hill?”

“No, I took a cab from the harbor. Most of the moisture is from the steamer trip.” She smiled. “I’m Sister Catherine Voorhies. And I’ve come bearing precious cargo.”

She peeled back a layer of blanket, revealing the sweet round face of a frightened infant—no more than a year old—with the tawny skin of a Native Hawaiian and the slightly almond-shaped eyes of a Japanese.

She was an absolutely beautiful child, in the unexpected ways children could be in Hawai'i.

“Her name is Ruth Utagawa,” Sister Catherine said, “and we’ve come from Kalaupapa.”

“I thought as much. But let’s get you both out of those wet clothes and in front of a warm fire.”

* * *

Within five minutes Catherine had shed her waterlogged habit, toweled her short brown hair as dry as she could, and slipped into a freshly laundered bathrobe offered by the friendly and efficient Sister Louisa. Ruth’s blankets were soaked almost all the way through but her corduroy frock was, thankfully, still dry. Louisa had brought them both into the kitchen, stoked a fire in the oven, heated up a bottle of milk for Ruth and a cup of coffee for Catherine. Ruth drank eagerly, and only when she was done did Catherine allow herself to take a sip of her coffee.

Louisa dragged a chair close to the fire and said, “Please, Sister, sit. You must be exhausted. Can I get you something to eat?”

“Not after that boat ride, thanks.” Catherine sighed. It felt good to have her veil off and to feel the heat of the fire on her face. She reached up and touched her wet hair. “I must look a fright, Sister.”

“Oh, nonsense.” Louisa’s gaze drifted to little Ruth and to those sweet brown eyes—so dark they almost looked black—glancing shyly away. “She’s lovely. And I can tell she’s special to you.”

Catherine nodded. “Yes. Her parents are dear friends of mine. I promised them I would make sure she got here safely.” She felt the first pang of loss, one she knew would only deepen as she drew closer to parting.

“The parents—they’re lepers?”

“Yes. But Ruth is healthy. After a year of observation, she shows no sign of the disease.”

“May I … hold her a moment?” Louisa asked.

“Of course.”

Catherine hefted Ruth and handed her to Louisa—but as soon as the child was in Louisa’s hands, she began to wail.

“Oh dear,” Louisa said.

“Rock her. Bounce her. It took her a while to get used to me too.”

After years of cradling orphans at Guardian Angel Home in Joliet, Louisa thought she knew how to soothe infants. She rocked Ruth gently back and forth, but the baby was not to be placated. Between sobs she repeated a single word: “Wih-wee,” she cried, the word resonant with loss, “wih-wee, wih-wee!”

“You’d best take her back.” Louisa handed her to Catherine, but Ruth continued her lament. “What is it she’s trying to say?” Louisa asked.


“Is that her mother’s name?”

Catherine shook her head. “Lillian Keamalu is the matron at the Kalaupapa nursery,” she explained. “The babies are taken away from their mothers at birth. The parents are only allowed to see them from behind glass in the nursery. The only mother the children know—the only one who holds and comforts them—is Miss Keamalu.”

Louisa ached to hear this. She was new to this world of children and leprosy; there were always, it seemed, fresh cruelties to discover.

They sat in silence a while, Ruth’s cries gradually fading until the only sounds in the room were the drumming of the rain and the rattle of the windows as the wind shook the house like a tambourine.

Louisa noted, “Strange how a place as beautiful as Hawai'i can have such bursts of stark, sudden fury.”

“Beneath that beauty,” Catherine said, “the land has molten power. These islands have borne many wounds over the years—not the least of them leprosy. I think sometimes they wake and cry out in rage at the injustice.”

Louisa hadn’t the faintest inkling of what Catherine was talking about, and it sounded uncomfortably close to paganism, to boot, so she said nothing. Finally, Catherine spoke again.

“Sister,” she said softly, “I would count it a great favor if you would do something for me.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Take care of her?”

Catherine’s voice broke when she said it. It was clear to Louisa that this child meant a great deal to her.

“I will. I promise you. She will not want for affection.”

“Thank you, Sister.”

Not knowing what else she could say, Louisa stood. “Let me find you a fresh habit and a warm bed. We have an extra crib for Ruth in the nursery.”

Catherine hesitated. “Would you mind if—if she sleeps with me tonight?”