The Edge of Faith
There are three reasons for a man to fall to his death from a cliff.
It might be an accident, either brought on by a quirk of nature or human error. An unfortunate turn of events may have brought him to some precipice at a bad time – like a sudden rainstorm causing him to run for cover over a path that has abruptly been washed away. Perhaps he was victim to a landslide from the cliffs above, sending him down into the next level below, and then again. Highly unlikely but possible is that he stepped on a rattle snake, or encountered a rabid animal, such as a racoon or coyote that, in its blind madness, lunged at him from the dark green margins of the path. Or the accident might have been man-made – for example, the failure of a rappelling device or a faulty crampon. Perhaps it was something as simple and unfortunate as a protruding rock on the path that caught the toe of his shoe and threw him just enough off balance so that he, despite the last desperate grasping for any solid piece of this earth, passed over the edge empty handed.
Less likely but more compelling is the notion of the intentional act of one man upon another. There is unfathomable darkness in the hearts of men. There are places where the very light of Truth has been extinguished, where a guilty conscience can be drowned and buried forever, where any act of evil can be justified: the strong survive in nature; the strong man is merely an instrument of fate. And for one who is not only immoral but also cowardly, it is a simple task: position yourself on the inside of the path, wait for the right moment when the slightest push on the hip or shoulder will send your victim down so rapidly that it is all over in seconds, and the sharp and unforgiving rocks below will have done the brunt of the dirty work.
The third is the ultimate self-infliction: the lunatic whisperings within the mind, begging for peace and reason, gather together to form one desperate voice that peals across the valley to the deaf and blind mountain walls, then returns in a shattered echo that mocks the sender. And last, there is the defiant one who, with so little to hold on to and even less to lose, scoffs at the very idea of god and has dared himself so many times, always edging closer to the precipice, until he finds comfort and familiarity there at the edge. It is no longer a matter of spitting in the face of god, but of the simple resolve to just let go.
But maybe there is one more reason that goes beyond all these.
I came to Maui to investigate what is officially a missing person case, but one that local police assume to be suicide or murder. The only witnesses were a family of four tourists – parents in the front seat, a 10 and 8-year-old boy and girl, respectively, in the back. They were driving on highway 30 along the sharp switchbacks that line the cliffs high above the ocean about seven miles northeast of Kapalua. As they passed a scenic lookout, they saw a car parked there. According to the father and son, a thin man dressed in what looked like a white hoodie was standing at the edge of the cliff waving his arms. The daughter, despite being dismissed by the others, insists that there were two people, a man and a woman, who was also in white. Both son and daughter recall turning in their seats to look back after passing the parked car and seeing the man leap high into the air, then disappear beyond the ledge.
They reported the incident to 911 and an hour later the police arrived. The car was registered to a John Hawking of 724 Mill Street, Lahaina, who was nowhere to be found. Possible evidence gathered by the police included the prints of a bare-footed man near the edge, some pieces of light-weight fabric, a six-inch piece of ¾ inch PCV pipe, and a small anemometer. The only evidence that might corroborate the little girl’s account was a traditional Hawaiian woman’s headdress caught in the bushes across the road, its flowers already wilted.
Hawking’s car was impounded, and the Coast Guard was called in to search the rocky beach over three hundred feet below the precipice. After several days, the search was called off; there was no body was to be found.
As I stood there at the spot where John Hawking had leapt, it seemed impossible that anyone could survive that fall. Despite the sheerness of the cliff at that lookout point, it would have required near superhuman strength to leap far enough out to reach the water, and even if he had cleared the cliff, he would have landed among a platoon of large protruding rocks that defended the cliffs against the onslaught of swirling, frothing waves.
John Hawking lived in a modest, barely furnished apartment a few blocks from Lahaina Water Sports Emporium where he had worked as a kitesurfing instructor. There was one photograph in the bedroom of Hawking and a woman posing at the beach in their swimsuits. This was a remarkably beautiful couple. Hawking was tall, very muscular, with wavy dark hair that came to his shoulders. The woman was of Polynesian descent, with dark creamy skin, and black, waist-length hair streaked with caramel. She also appeared to be athletic, yet very feminine at the same time. She was wearing a haku lei of gardenias.
I learned more about the man from his boss, who had known of Hawking back in high school in Honolulu. Hawking was a state champion swimmer and diver who had been offered a full scholarship to numerous colleges. He messed up during his senior year after getting involved with a bad crowd of drug users, ending up in jail for selling cocaine to a narcotics officer.
John Hawking’s father was a retired Air Force pilot Viet Nam War veteran from Louisiana who married a young woman from the Philippines. Neither of John’s parents was forgiving. Their solution to their son’s misguided behavior was to pressure him into the military. John served four years in the Army, deploying three times to Iraq, and received a Bronze Star with Valor. By John’s own admission, he was luckier than he was heroic.
It was at the end one long and tedious day of a convoy mission in the desert when John and his crew got permission to stop their Hummer on the side of the road to take a piss. There was still some light, so the convoy continued at a slow pace, which would allow the crew to catch up after the quick stop. As John was unzipping, he noticed up ahead the figure of a man emerge from behind a garbage pile by the ditch, crawl out into the middle of the road, then run back across the ditch and into margins. The lead truck of the convoy kept going forward, and John suddenly realized that the driver had not seen that man, and that he was heading straight for an IED. Pissing all over himself, John sprinted ahead and managed to flag down the truck just in time. There was a relatively small explosion, but John took some shrapnel in the arm, along with some damage to his left ear drum.
After the War he returned to Honolulu, but his war experience had unnerved him to the point where he was ill-at-ease with all the commotion of the city. So he moved to Maui, got a job doing maintenance at the Lahaina Water Sport Emporium, and took up kitesurfing on his own as a hobby. One day, as fate would have it, a strong wind caused him to become tangled in his line. He nearly drowned, and ended up in the hospital, where he met Angela Juneau, a strikingly beautiful young part-time nurse. It was a time of healing of both the broken body and the war-torn soul of the man. As he recovered from his injuries, he also discovered the beauty of Love. They would marry two weeks after he was released from the hospital, and a week after that, John would be promoted to kitesurfing instructor at the Emporium.
However, a marriage between two beautiful people does not ensure a perfect union. Angela Juneau worked a side job as a hula dancer, part of a troupe that performed in some of the highest circles on the islands. They were sometimes flown to Honolulu to perform at corporate events. Although John respected his wife’s talent and her right to perform and to earn money, he became increasingly uneasy about her being away. And though he trusted her, he began to obsess over the idea of her being ogled by the unscrupulous and greedy executives who would, by their very nature, be less concerned with the art of dancing and more with the kind of lustful feelings that were elicited.
Less than two years into marriage, there was an accident. It was on one of these trips to the main island that the Cessna 208 carrying Angela and her troupe went off course in a storm, crashed against a cliff, burst into flames and plunged into the ocean. There were no survivors.
At the funeral, John was a broken man, and the people who knew him were worried that he would do something drastic. Soon, however, just a week after the accident, there was a remarkable shift of emotion displayed by John. He became very outgoing and friendly at work, and seemed content with his life.
Still, some were concerned that he was too much alone. The only time he was seen in public other than during work was at Maria Lanakila Catholic Church on Sundays, where he passed the offerings basket and occasionally helped Father Tony issue communion. There was concern over his extreme weight loss, and rumors emerged that he led some secret life – that perhaps there was another woman, or even another man, someone either new in his life or who had been there for a while.
I decided to visit the Maria Lanakila Catholic Church and speak with Father Tony, who welcomed me warmly and invited me for a glass of wine in the rectory.
“Yes, John and I were very close friends,” he said with a sigh. “Closer in our differences perhaps than in our likenesses. But I can tell you that he suffered greatly from his wife’s death, and I, like many others, worried about him. He lost so much weight, was practically skin and bone. Then he began to come to church almost every day, always seeming to be in good spirits. But there was a period of about two weeks before the incident that I did not see him at all, and from what I understand, he had taken that time off from work. No one knew where he was. It is important to know that, although he was a secretive man, John was also highly spiritual.”
I sensed strongly that there was something he was not telling me.
“Mr. James,” he said with gentle urgency, “what John told me in the covenant of the confessional must not be revealed to you. That is sacred, and I will not renounce my vows. But what I can tell you is that there is, somewhere in the warehouse behind the Emporium, a locked room to which only John had the key. He rented the space from his boss after Angela died. If there is anything that can help you in your endeavor to make rational sense of his loss, which I doubt that there is, it would be in that room. All I ask is that you be very, very careful about revealing what you discover; it may be of such a nature as to shake some of the very foundations of this institution.
It was nearly dark, closing time at the Emporium. John’s boss was eager to give me the key, telling me he always had an eerie feeling about that place, and would be glad to have it cleared out.
As I entered the room I was met with the strong smell of glue, which is common in areas of boat repair. Through the dim light of a single bulb hanging overhead, I could see in the middle of the room the forms of two pieces of furniture covered with sheets. Uncovering the smaller piece, I discovered a sewing machine, along with various small bottles of liquid, spools of wire, needles, and a scrap of light weight material, apparently the kind used for hang-gliders and kites. The larger piece was a table, in the middle of which was a large, ornate candelabrum. Lighting three candles, I could see clearly the contents there: three long pieces of ¾ inch PVC pipe, a thick book call Avian Anatomy, and to my utter amazement, a full scale model printout of the wing structure of a mature Great White Heron.
I knew now that I needed to explore the waters at the bottom of the lookout. The next morning, I summoned the Coast Guard to take me out along the shoreline of Honokohau Bay to the area beneath the lookout from which John Hawking had jumped. We scheduled for that evening, despite the call for high winds and choppy waters.
When I arrived, the captain told me that it was really no use; too much time had elapsed, and any remains of a body would have either washed ashore miles to the east or been devoured by fish long ago. I ignored his admonitions, intent on finding whatever I could find, and we set out on the troubled waters, dwarfed beneath the hulking shoulders of the mighty cliffs.
It was a silver twilight that surrounded us as we approached the cove beneath the lookout, the waters quieting as if in anticipation. Reluctantly, the captain obeyed my orders to move closer. We motored quietly, cautiously toward the ring of boulders, their opaque faces gazing blindly skyward. And then I saw it – a sealed plastic bag containing a rectangular black object was trapped between two rocks!
The skies cleared on the way back to the Coast Guard station. If not for the hum of the motor, I might have thought we were sailing aloft, high above the waters and surrounded by the stars on this moonless night.
Somehow this old leather-bound copy of a Bible had survived the fall. I opened to a page that had been bookmarked and highlighted:
He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. Psalm 18:10
On that same page was folded up, hand written letter:
I have never missed you because I have never really felt that you are gone. I close my eyes and I see you there in front of me. You are alive. Your eyes see. Your lips speak. Your body moves like the waves of the ocean. You are still warm and young and beautiful. Though I cannot embrace you now, I know that there will be a day, a glorious day, when I will hold you again in my arms and nothing in the universe will ever let us part. You are my great and only love. I am filled with faith and joy knowing that, through the miracle of God’s grace and beauty, we will meet on that threshold where, without fear or misgiving, I will leap into the sky, our wings will join together, and we will fly away into those heavens that are eternally ours.
Pete Howard works as an English teacher, a musician, a writer, and a house painter.