Father Damien of Molokai

A century ago Hawaiian blood froze at the very name “Molokai.”
Lepers waded through this surf to await death. 
As a boy, I heard “leopard colony
and dreamed of joining him for a glimpse 
of the big cats with the terrifying skin. 
At night, in bed, I’d whisper 
“Da-mi-en of Mol-o-kai … ” 
each syllable mysterious and transporting, 
like “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Tarzan of the Apes.” 
Stark photographs revealed 
the cats’ appalling appetite for flesh, 
the wounds that never healed, 
the wasted, dying, brown-eyed 
natives Damien had come to save. 
He helped them by the thousands 
through their final hours, 
knowing his own would come, 
a gorgeous head tearing cassock and collar, 
limb from noble, careworn limb.
Sahib! Where the leopard walks, 
he brushes out his tracks with his tail!
My teacher brushed away a smile 
at the symmetry of my mistake: 
“Like Daniel in the Lion’s Den?” she asked. 
I thought of that, years later, 
walking on the sand at Waikiki 
the week they closed the Father Damien Museum, 
which I’d stumbled on by accident, 
while shopping for sunscreen, my white legs 
slippery with coconut oil, 
my mind on sunburn and melanoma—
an unheroic, uncontagious man. 
By then, I knew that both Bacillus leprae 
and Panthera pardus had survived the flood, 
that Hawaii had no cats worth speaking of, 
that god’s work was stranger than it seemed. 
I’d learned, as well, that most of us forgo 
the swift drama of the muscled beast— 
that there are other ways to be destroyed. 
I knew that you could walk 
for years along the shores of Molokai 
and not see what was eating you alive.