by Jennifer Lighty
The water in Waipi’o knows no boundaries. It pushes its way out of clouds to tumble down thousand foot gulches, splitting them open like guavas found all over the valley floor. “Don’t eat guavas off da ground,” was one of the first things he told me. “Dey full of worms.” I opened my palm and let the guava I’d just picked up fall, ashamed of my ignorance. Where I came from there was no fruit on the ground. Fruit trees were messy. No one planted them in suburban backyards. There was a flowering cherry or two in the neighborhood, but they were sterile.
Drops of water don’t exist before they fall over cloud edges. It’s hard to imagine a cloud has edges—even where you can see where one ends drifting low enough to bump the rim of a valley a thousand feet above, you can’t touch one. Fingers pass right through clouds; halfway between liquid and solid they take the shape of skin for a flash and then move on, hole sealing without a scar.
When I lived in Waipi’o, I spent a lot of time lying on my back on the greenest grass in the world, by the edge of a taro patch where heart-shaped leaves bobbed above murky water. Sometimes my boyfriend would join me (sometimes he made fun of me for being a hippie.) He would tell me stories about his grandfather who had survived the 1947 Tsunami, about a canoe he’d discovered in a cave high up a gulch that wasn’t there when he went back the next time, about drums he heard in the back of the valley, about watching fireballs from the Z-trail streak above the canopy. I saw fireballs myself, when I was still alone in a tent by the beach. When I told him, he said it was the menehune, legendary little people who were known to play catch with fire. He had never seen them, but his grandmother had when she was a little girl.
The Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, begins with the birth of night out of the earth. A long genealogy follows that mirrors the development of a human embryo, although man is not created until the second part of the chant after the gods have appeared on earth. The gods husband the change of animals into humans, and the Kumulipo goes on to name an unbroken chain of them from the time of creation to the late 1700s, when it was supposedly recited in its entirety for the last time to Captain Cook when he arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiians thought he was the god Lono, and I can imagine them reciting their genealogy to him to confirm their relationship, to let him know he hadn’t been forgotten.
Born in Japan of military parents, raised in Connecticut, my ancestors were a mixed bag of Irish and German, with rumors of a great great grandmother who had married a Cherokee, which I latched on to like the mutt I was, hoping it would give me the pedigree I really longed for—to be indigenous. I felt ashamed that I was descended from people who stole and destroyed from the Native Americans, ashamed of my white privilege, which at the time of this story, I wasn’t even aware of.
Maybe, in the beginning, that’s why I was drawn to islands. Although they are contained spaces, they’re in constant contact with the ocean — traditionally associated with the unconscious. Even though I was young, there was a lot I wanted to forget, and a lot I had forgotten that I didn’t want to remember. Instead of trying to do something about this shame, I ran from it. Little did I know when I boarded the plane for paradise that I was soon going to be in the thick of indigenous culture on the Big Island, where I’d flown after two weeks in Honolulu visiting a friend in grad school at the University of Hawaii. Before Hawaii, I had lived on Block Island, a place so small you can see the ocean in all directions. The road called the Neck was so narrow it washed out in big storms, dividing the island’s body from its head.
Waipi’o Valley is one of the most sacred sites on all the islands, birthplace of kings and a Place of Refuge with a heiau near the beach that offered sanctuary to anyone who violated sacred law, or kapu. Waipi’o is surrounded by walls up to two thousand feet. The dirt road in requires 4-wheel drive and steel nerves. When I lived there it rained so hard it washed out and cars couldn’t use it for a month. The other way in or out is through a wall of breakers. On the other side of that wall, a riptide that could suck you out into the open ocean where the reef ends and the tiger sharks patrol. To be succinct, it’s hard to get in but even harder to get out.
My first day on Hawaii I had been to the island’s other Place of Refuge, Pu’uhonua au Honaunau, located in one of those calm, tropical bays you dream about during cold Connecticut winters. I didn’t wonder at the time why I didn’t set up camp there, but it makes sense now. Anyone that sought refuge in Waipi’o must have wanted to live so bad they’d risk death.
My boyfriend became my boyfriend overnight by showing up at my campsite with fresh prawns to supplement my bag of granola and canned tuna, by showing me where I could fill my gallon jug with water flowing from a spring right out of the ground so I wouldn’t have to leave when I ran out. He had long black hair and brown skin marked with scars and tattoos. He’d been going barefoot year round his whole life and rarely wore a shirt. His family had always lived in Waipi’o. By always, I mean going back to the first Polynesians who settled Hawaii about 1,500 years ago. King Kamehameha the Great, who conquered and united the Hawaiian Islands was from Waipi’o. My boyfriend told me that was descended from ali’i, royalty. I was too in awe to be suspicious, and to be honest I didn’t care if he was lying. I wanted to lie with a king, like a girl in a fairy tale.
When I set up camp in the ironwood pines by the ocean I never imagined that within a month I’d be living in his auntie and uncle’s cabin on their taro farm. They called him Manuela Boy, from a song about a no-good local slacker, but they liked me. I got Manuela Boy back on the land instead of watching TV in his mother’s house. We spent our days pulling taro and foraging for prawns, fish, fruit, and stories. My boyfriend couldn’t speak Hawaiian, but he knew a lot of words, and even though he said I asked a lot of questions, he answered them. He knew the name of every flower, tree, and waterfall, even the ones that only appeared in the heaviest rains, bursting over the edge with an audible explosion. He flowed through the valley like the Hawaiian language, liquid ls and ahs punctuated by alert staccato ks that kept him from falling on his ass like me whenever we crossed a stream.
His friend Dave, the first time I met him, told me he’d recently driven off the pali in his Suburban. He had the leg brace and crutches to prove it. “I only survived because I was thrown from the car,” he boasted, like it was a conscious decision. This was a man, I would later learn when I was stranded by flood at his house for a week, who cracked open beers at 4 am when everyone else collapsed, desperate for sleep after the cocaine was gone.
The first time my boyfriend asked me to buy baking soda and tinfoil at the general store up top I didn’t know why. “Just do it,” he told me when I asked what for, and because I wanted to please him, I did. Little did I know the man behind the counter now thought I, the haole girl living down Waipi’o with that no good Kaapana boy was a crack addict. Pakalolo, marijuana, was so common in the valley it was basically legal, and everyone kicked back with 40 oz. Steinlagers on the beach. I could “handle” they said. I wanted to handle. So I pretended I wasn’t shocked that first time in the cane field when I learned what the baking soda and tinfoil were for. The water we used to mix with the coke was from a puddle in the red dirt. My hands were the cup. Coke was frowned on, which meant that people had to do it in secret: outside under carports instead of in the kitchen where Grandma Tutu sat weaving maile leis, in window-less sheds surrounded by fighting cocks and pit bulls chained to concrete, in mud-spattered monster trucks pulled deep into the cane fields.
Stupid haole was a phrase I heard often. I started to consider it a compliment when people didn’t switch from pidgin into Standard English around me. I must not have been as stupid as the rest of the haoles. I didn’t consider they thought I was so stupid they didn’t bother to hide it. I had studied post-colonial literature in college. It wasn’t hard for me to see why my new boyfriend who should have been a warrior was smoking crack in a cane field. What’s crazy to me is that I became one of those people itching for sleep on a garage sofa before the roosters started crowing.
I wouldn’t have said I was scared at the time, but I was. The only explanation that truly makes sense to me is the one I mentioned before: I wanted to live so much I was willing to risk death. I wanted initiation, a ritual death that would help me know who I was and how I could help my tribe. Since I didn’t have a tribe, it’s not surprising I wasn’t initiated. What’s surprising is that the desire for initiation was so strong it arose from my unconscious and took over my life. In an indigenous tribal culture I would have had elders to guide me. I would have understood what I was going through. I would not have had to initiate myself by actually putting my life at risk like I did over and over again with Manuela Boy.
Dave, that first time I’d met him and the rest of the Waipi’o Valley locals on the beach where they often gathered at sunset, gestured with his crutch through the noni trees to a heap of scrap metal - his Suburban. “Looks like one compact car now, neh?” He was proud he’d survived, even though he’d been drunk when he’d driven off the pali and his wife had left him for a ranch up top in Waimea. He got their Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse built from the refuse of the abandoned Peace Corps training camp. All the locals had a story like that, although some of them either couldn’t speak or weren’t sober enough.
Lee and Hondo were Vietnam vets who appeared and disappeared into the jungle. They always carried a six-pack cooler between them filled with Meisterbrau. Considering there was no store in the valley this was quite a feat. I never heard either one of them say a word and apparently they didn’t eat very often. We had a potluck one night at Maggie’s treehouse, which she shared with her husband and 4-year old daughter, Cheyenne, who refused to wear clothes and played with a wild pig they’d domesticated instead of going to school. Dave got so excited that Lee ate a chicken wing he talked about it for months after. The King of the Jungle was Jimmy-Jive, who may have been king because he had a TV plugged into the cigarette lighter of his Toyota, driven into the bushes years ago. He kept the tank filled and the battery charged, and claimed he could drive out whenever he wanted. He had supposedly found an ancient Hawaiian artifact that he was going to sell to collectors from Honolulu and buy a huge ship to sail away to Tahiti. We were all invited, but my boyfriend scoffed. “I like see, Jimmy-Jive.” When Jimmy-Jive refused my boyfriend said, “I know its one-dog tooth.” Jimmy-Jive remained defiant, but I could tell he was crushed. It probably was a dog tooth, but I told him I believed him. I felt bad for him - I thought he was mentally ill. I didn’t realize then that some people were just liars. He invited me over to watch the Steven King mini-series The Stand, but I wanted to pass my evenings listening to frogs in the taro patch rise above the constant roar of Hi’ilawe, the valley’s highest waterfall named after a girl who had turned into mist to be with her lover, who had himself been turned into the boulder under the falls.
A drop of water doesn’t exist until it pushes its way out of a cloud. Since it’s transparent, you might think it hollow, when in fact it’s full. It breaks and reforms, dissolves in the ocean or is taken back up to the clouds. I wonder if it forgets, or if it always knows where it came from.
My feet were white and narrow, pinky toes almost curled under from disuse. When I was a kid my aunt Doris had her pinkie toe removed for a skin graft. I remember my Mom telling me it didn’t matter too much because that’s the way we were all going. We didn’t need pinkie toes anymore because we wore shoes, but if the only shores you ever wore were rubber slippers, if you’d been running through mud and wading streams your whole life, your pinkie toes flared out to claim as much ground as they could. I had seen my Manuela Boy walk across a stream up to his waist carrying a backpack stuffed with a hundred pound wild pig he’d killed with a Swiss army knife like he was taking a stroll down a boardwalk. I had watched him kill it, one of the first of many traumas I went through in Waipi’o. The first actually happened up top in Kukuihaele. We were arguing in a borrowed Toyota outside some house where we’d been partying. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but I was ready to leave him and the valley. His auntie Ernestina lived right around the corner and she loved me, despite the fact I was dating Manuela boy. As soon as my hand touched the door handle his arm whipped across my throat, pinning me to the car seat. Something dead inside me rose up and took my voice. From that point on, it was in control.
The first place he took me was a hidden waterfall on his family’s private land. On the way there we passed his cousin Clarence pulling taro. Clarence stood and eyed me up and down. “What, skinny-dipping?” when my boyfriend told him where we were going. I held my chin up and looked in his eyes shaded by a wide-brimmed lauhala hat, said nothing. Why should I be ashamed? When I had watched him that morning wade through the stream, bending over to reach under rocks for prawns he would later cook at my campsite for lunch, I had wanted to touch his brown back, and I would.
I didn’t know then that land had power, especially land that was still alive with stories. How a story still attached to the place where it was born was far more powerful than my bold intentions to allow myself to be seduced at the waterfall. On the way up, pulling myself along moss-slick rocks until we reached the second pool, (there was one more above us, but it was obvious I couldn’t make it that far), he told me a story. There once was a boy born in Waipi’o with a shark mouth on his back. His mother did her best to hide it with a cloak. She would take him to swim in a hidden pool where he could eat the little fish that lived there, but as he got older they weren’t enough to satisfy his appetite. The village became suspicious when people started dying from shark attacks right after talking to him. One day they tore off his cloak, exposed the jaws snapping on his back. Before they could kill him he leaped into the ocean, shapeshifting before their eyes into a shark. Supposedly he had an underground passage leading from the ocean back to the pool where he’d once swum with his mother - this pool. His name was Nanaue and this waterfall was named for him. “The sharks my aumakua,” he said. “my family’s guardian spirit.” I found out later an aumakua was more than a guardian spirit, it was an ancestor. My boyfriend was descended from a shark.
That story was a challenge. Was I brave enough to swim with the shark god? I don’t know if I was brave or foolish. What happened after I turned my back to him and took off my clothes to lower myself into the opaque green water has made me who I am, a woman who survived a shark attack. Someone who’s been dragged down secret passages, who made it back up to float on the ocean.
Jennifer Lighty writes poetry, prose and fiction on Block Island, RI in the USA. She was named the 2014 Merit Poetry Fellow by The Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. Recent work has appeared in The Beloit Poetry Journal and is forthcoming in Earthlines. Find out more about her work at http://www.medicinewheelwithin.com and http://www.wildblockisland.blogspot.com.