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SEX, LOVE AND THE MIGHTY FINE STRUCTURE CONSTANT by A.A. Attanasio - Excerpt from DON'T LOOK BACK



Don't Look Back

Hawaiian Myths Made New – An Anthology of Modern Mo‘olelo. In this one-of-a-kind anthology, old meets new as Hawai‘i’s best writers present favorite myths and legends in surprising contemporary settings.


A. A. Attanasio, born at the exact midpoint of the 20th century and terrorized from childhood by the threat of thermonuclear apocalypse, grew up convinced he would never grow up. Liberated from any hope of a future, he pursued a passion for creative writing—and ultimate questions. Twenty-two published novels and two short story collections later, this eclectic author is giddy to find that the world is still here, his two daughters have grown and left home to pursue their dreams, his wife still laughs at his jokes, and hiding from death in books actually turned out to be a life.



More myths, please!

Read excerpts from other tales in the Don't Look Back anthology:

Timothy Dyke's NO LOOK BACK

J. Freen's IF YOU GOOGLEEARTH 1188 BISHOP STREET

Darien Gee's PELE IN THERAPY

Gary Pak's LANGUAGE OF THE GECKOS

Christine Thomas's PLACES OF ENTRY


The perpetuity of myth and legend is, and has always been, paralleled by a lively tradition of distilling, retelling, and recasting the epics and grand tales in completely new, often abbreviated, contemporary forms. These recast stories are themselves brand-new and sometimes spontaneous productions. With themes and dynamics drawn from the classics, the characters are often contemporary and may barely reflect the original heroes and gods, the settings are intentionally familiar, and the issues and actions are intentionally current. The myths, in their “classical” forms, connect the common roots of human society from times ancient to today, while the recastings make the longevity of those attitudes, principles, and ethics immediately relevant.

The contemporary tales in this collection are presented as chants of celebration, arias of advice, and revelatory refrains, composed in resonance with the tempos and scales of stories long known and legends long told.


— Dr. M. Puakea Nogelmeier, foreword to Don’t Look Back


SEX, LOVE AND THE MIGHTY FINE STRUCTURE CONSTANT

A.A. Attanasio

INSPIRED BY THE LEGEND OF KAMAPUA‘A AND THE WANDERING VAGINA

This myth describes the creation of Koko Crater, which, from the viewpoint of Honolulu to the west, looks like a typical promontory. Seen from Kalama Valley in the southeast corner of O‘ahu, the cinder cone exposes two coalesced craters; early island settlers named them Kohelepelepe, which I understand to mean “inner lips of the vagina.” The Hawaiian story of Koko Crater actually begins 150 miles away on the Big Island; there, the lusty Pig God, Kamapua‘a, assaulted Pele, the Goddess of Fire.

The frenzied Pig God would have ravished his victim if not for the intervention of Pele’s sister, the sorceress Kapo, who distracted Kamapua‘a from his lewd advances by detaching her vagina and tossing it from the Big Island to O‘ahu. The Pig God chased after it. The flying vagina slammed into the earth. And Kamapua‘a, unable to stop quickly enough, crash-landed, gouging out Kalama Valley, now a suburban community—but, until 1975, a valley of pig farms! Kapo retrieved her portable genitals, leaving behind this impression in the land—the tuff ring of Koko Crater.

I live in Kalama Valley, and the surreal account of Koko Crater’s origin occupies my daily landscape. So, of course, it’s the first myth to come to mind when asked to retell an ancient Hawaiian tale. Is there a 21st-century way to relate to gods and goddesses? That’s the challenge I set myself with this retelling. We are not a mythic people, we who invented the printing press and the hydrogen bomb. Who—or what—are the gods to us? This short story is a contemporary answer to that question.


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My sister has problems. She’s a real bitch—and I mean that literally. But you’re not going to believe a word of what I have to say without some heartfelt explanation. So, let me get this over with right up front: I’m a god. Well, I’m a goddess; however, given the exacting scruples at this feast of tact we call the postmodern age, where actresses pass as actors, I guess I’m a god. I know that sounds alarming. Just hear me out, and what I have to say will piece together all the arbitrary plastic of this world’s broken heart.

My name is Kapo-‘ula-kina-‘u, which means “the sacred night streaked scarlet,” or “red eel woman,” depending on whom you ask. I picked up those aliases among the islanders, I suppose because I like the night and I hang out a lot with my sister, Pele, the bitch I mentioned whose name means “lava flow.” Night above incandescent volcanic badlands is one of my favorite forms. Many times, I have been eelish streaks of scarlet light in the night. I’ve also been birds, deep-sea fish, a variety of butterflies, and distinctive boulders. The akua—the gods—can take many forms.

Right now, I’m an astrophysicist, and I work on Mauna Kea at the University of Hawai‘i’s 0.6-meter telescope training undergraduates and experimenting with focal pane arrays for various low bandgap infrared photodetectors. But enough about me. “I” is a bird that tugs the reins of the wind. “I” is a fish without a thought in her head. “I” is a butterfly heavy in the air. “I” is a boulder feeling for some inner truth. “I” is an astrophysicist with a shoehorn smile. “I” is mythology.

Let me tell you, instead, about the bitch, my sister. She’s a white bull terrier— the “gladiator of the dog world.” When she’s a bitch, she’s always white. Le rouge et le noir of lava wear thin after a few centuries, and she prefers white when she’s a bitch. This thing she has about dogs, I’ve never understood. She says it smells good. What’s good about it for me is that when I’m at work, I never have to walk her because she adores romping around the observatory where the landscape is so grim it is beautiful.

Unfortunately, the tainted dog food from China that made headlines a while ago began a cavalcade of problems for me. Pele got sick. That was the real cause of the strongest earthquakes in twenty years that rocked the Big Island on October 15, 2006. The temblors broke safety bolts at most of the observatories, including mine, and bollixed my scope’s alt-azimuth drive. That kept me plenty busy, and I wasn’t as attentive to my sister as I usually am, which led to Pele drifting again into her obsession with the opposite sex. And that’s always been trouble, because she has this monumental penchant for other women’s men.

But before I get into that, a necessary and salient aside about akua. I just said that the “real” cause of the earthquakes was my sister’s sickness. I should explain, because it is probably news to you that in the manufactured world gods are real. We are things, as you are—only different. For over a hundred years, science has closed in on a definitive understanding of who we are, and physicists even have their own name for us: Boltzmann Brains.

Oh, you were expecting something more poetic? “Long ago on the path of stars, midmost between the worlds, there strode the gods of Old. In the bleak middle of the worlds, They sat and the worlds went round and round, like dead leaves in the wind at Autumn’s end… And the centuries went where the centuries go, toward the End of Things, and with Them went the sighs of all the gods as They longed for what might not be.”1 That’s from another writer, Lord Dunsany, a lantern-bearer for the gods, who wrote fantasies around the time science first began to speculate about Boltzmann Brains—so long ago that now his words are in the public domain and I can bandy them about to make my point: the gods recline in tinted fields above the morning, their bodies swirling up and down the world with other dust, all in the center of life’s hopes, rejoicings, and laments.

Do we really recline on clouds? Nah, it’s not like that. The gods are random vibrations in the fabric of spacetime, a.k.a. vacuum quantum fluctuations that attain the status of actual observers who are, in the parlance of legal scholars, “not erroneous.” That’s me. And Pele and all akua. …

Pig God and Lava Flow share a long, aggressive history. The love-hate relationship of these two akua is the story of Hawai‘i. And it begins long before Pele and I showed up in these islands. We are haoles, meaning foreigners. We come from another island of underground fire, the faraway magma plume of Lýðveldið Island3, where the tortured feud with Namaka began when Pele scored with Aukelenuiaiku (Storkjøre-svømmer-soldatsønn, as he was known on that island: “Great traveling swimmer, son of the officer”). After one too many of Pele’s flagrant adulteries with the overeager husbands of troll queens and ice giantesses, we fled and got as far away as we could. Only spiteful Namaka followed, and we thought we might make a clean start (still young and ignorant of the eversame malady and compulsion of myth).

One of the first akua we met was Kamapua‘a—“Pig-Child.” His father had named his handsome son that in a blind fury at the boy’s mistaken illegitimacy. That warped the kid, and he stalked the mountains like thunder, harrying his father’s people, raiding their lands. Named a hog, Kamapua‘a maliciously acted like one. He turned goth, shaved his head to a bristly Mohawk, and tattooed his body black. After he killed the old man, he went on living his father’s curse. Then, he met Pele. My sister is a looker. Not as lean, lovely, and fragile as Poli‘ahu, who as a snow goddess has that “hollow of cheek as though she drank the wind”4 look, Pele carries a more robust beauty, a fierce grace, and a challenging smile that plays with fire. Her proud, tough glamour radiates psychosexual rawness, an argument with reality. Kamapua‘a recognized a match for his tantrum passion in that outlaw tita and fell for her hard as the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.

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1Time and the Gods, Lord Dunsany (John W. Luce & Co.), 1905
3Iceland
4W. B. Yeats, describing his lover Maud Gonne in “Among School Children”

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A.A. Attanasio's story "Sex, Love and the Mighty Fine Structure Constant" appears, along with 16 other tales, in the anthology Don't Look Back: Hawaiian Myths Made New, edited by Christine Thomas.

All stories in this anthology reprinted by permission with copyrights retained by individual authors. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information retrieval systems, without prior written permission from the publisher, except for brief passages quoted in reviews.