Kala was beautiful, even compared to the rest of the stereotypically good-looking Polynesians who populated our village. She had long, slightly frizzy black hair, a straight nose and razor sharp cheekbones. Her eyes were quick and brown, and words came easily to her light tongue. Her family lived in a group of huts just across the rain tanks from ours. Her mother was beautiful, too, with the sad, faded thinness of a woman who life has disappointed. Her grandmother and aunts, along with Kala and her mother, all shared a certain aloofness, an indefinable mark that held them apart from the rest of the village. I never learned the back story to that family, or why there were no men living in their group of huts, besides the patriarch. Kala's grandfather was quite literally the village idiot, and we were all afraid of his crazy eyes and the way he stumbled around muttering nonsense, especially when he was drunk, which was often.
Kala ran with my group of peers, but was always just a little removed from the core. She was part of our volleyball games, hopscotch and occasional picnic forays to the neighboring islands, but wasn't invited to the hours spent on the shady beach with a ukulele and songs, or group trips to the well to haul back buckets of water and gossip.
As we slowly started to make the transition from children to teenagers in the eyes of the community, I became aware of a subtle undertone of animosity emanating from Kala. I would catch her looking at me with a mocking glint in her eyes. Her mouth would smile as it uttered her honeyed words, while her face remained as hard as the reef that protected our little atoll from the deep ocean's swells. As unsophisticated and inexperienced as I was, the change in her confused me and an unacknowledged resentment began to grow inside me.
There came a time when the popular game sweeping the village was foot racing. Kala and I were both the acknowledged queens of the footrace, because of our tall statures and long legs. We had never raced just the two of us, though.
One day, Kala came upon me as I was ambling home from a friend's hut. "Let's race." The challenge was in her eyes leveled at me beneath half-closed lids.
"Um ..." I stood indecisive. There was no typical audience to cheer us on. We were alone. No set course. And the look in her eyes frightened me. I didn't understand the animosity in her stance and in her poisoned intonation. Some instinct told me to watch out, but I didn't know what to look out for. Or what to do once I spotted it.
Before I could respond to her challenge, Kala lunged across the few yards that separated us. Her eyes captured mine with a wild, delighted rage, her mouth opened in a snarl and her outstretched fingers reached for my hair. Without a seconds thought, I turned around and took off as fast as I could run.
I won the foot race to the beach, to the open place where Kala had to stop under watching eyes. What I lost was a little part of my dignity, my pride, my confidence in my own ability to defend myself. I relinquished to Kala a piece of myself. My surrender-and-run, tail-between-my-legs retreat at the moment of truth revealed something about myself.
But I still haven't decided if I'm a peacemaker, or just a pansy.