Melissa Llanes Brownlee
Every summer, we’d pack up our camping gear and head to Opihihale. Grandpa and Dad sitting in the front of Dad’s beat up truck, me in the back, holding on tightly as we swung around the windy road down south. We’d leave Kona behind as we drove along Queen K Highway, heading towards Mamalahoa. After we’d pass Honaunau, the rainforest would rise up, towering above our heads, and I’d pretend that I was Indiana Jones, riding through caves in a mining cart, trying to beat a wall of water. Sometimes, I wondered if Indiana Jones could surf. Wouldn’t that be something? Catching that wall of water right out of the mountain? Dad loved to take the road a little fast, especially when Mom wasn’t around. I’d always know that the turn off to Opihihale was coming up when Dad started to slow down. It was just a little driveway with a gate. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d probably miss it. As we pulled up to the gate, Dad would hop out and open the lock, swinging the gate open as he did. Then, he’d set his tires to 4WD, so we could make it down the bumpy road to the beach.
Opihihale is our family’s land, an ahupua’a stretching from the tip of the mountain out to the ocean, which had belonged to my bloodline for generations. As I was growing up, bits and pieces had to be sold just to pay for the property taxes. Since we could not afford to pay the family lawyer, he and his family owned the beach. Luckily, my family retained the right to go there any time we wanted. To protect his investment, the lawyer had installed another gate where his piece met ours, just in case someone had made it past the first gate. I had always found it interesting that a lawyer would own the very land, where, supposedly, my ancestors are buried.
As we drove slowly down the mountain, the truck rattling as it was jostled by the unpaved road, we passed through a rainforest filled with guava, papaya, and mango trees before passing through a field of spear grass. I hadn’t envied the person who’d have to clean that mess up. Once, we’d cleaned an acre of it, bending down in the hot sun, trying to pull that crap up by its roots, our ungloved hands pricked and bleeding. When we cleared the grass field, I could see our campsite. There were tables and coconut trees, and the outhouse seemed to be standing, which was good. The last time we had come down, a couple of drunk cousins decided they wanted to see if they could move it and it ended up rolling down the hill and breaking against the lava rocks. Dad had to build a new one and he wasn’t too happy about it. I could see the whole coast. I would always imagine I could see all the way to Kona, on the one side, all houses and hotels, and Kau on the other, all lava deserts and pastures. There were no boats on the water, yet. I knew that come nightfall divers would be trolling our waters, trying to swim up to our shores, searching for spiny lobsters. Sometimes, we would throw rocks into the water to try and scare them off, since they always caused the fish to disappear, disturbing their natural feeding grounds. I had always wondered what they thought as they made their way back to their boats. “Damn crazy Hawaiians!” Our campsite wasn’t a traditional campsite, at least not in the way most people expect. Even though it was a beach, there wasn’t any sand. Not really. It was mainly crushed lava rocks and gravel that had been trucked down to make the ground even. At least that was one good thing the lawyer did.
We’d spread out a tarp high over the tables and string it up between the coconut trees and the truck. I could see Dad and Grandpa scanning the tide to see when it would be a good time to go fishing. I loved going fishing with them, especially at night. We’d sit out on the point with our poles dangling bait in the water, waiting for the schools of menpachi and ‘aweoweo to start feeding. As we sat, Dad and Grandpa would take turns talking story. They’d always talk about work or fishing: who was getting a promotion, who was getting fired, what season was the best for which fish, whether it was good to use fresh, real, or fake bait. They seemed to always have something to talk about. Yet, sometimes, they would just sit. I wasn’t sure which I liked better, but quiet can be nice. I could hear the water lapping against the rocks, or forever flowing in and out of the caves to our left. We were lost in our own thoughts as the stars passed overhead when Grandpa asked, “You see that light out over the ocean?”
“Yeah. What stay that?” I asked.
“That’s a fireball from one evil kahuna.”
“There’s no such thing. That’s probably an airplane.”
“Airplanes don’t fly that low.” Dad said.
“Maybe it’s a star.” I hoped.
“When I was one keiki, I saw three right at this spot.” I wanted to laugh, but I knew that he was serious because he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring at the horizon.
He was just a few years younger than me, when it happened. He talked about how you have to be very careful. You never know when someone will curse you. He was raised to never cut his hair or fingernails at night and that he must always burn them when he did. He was taught that if you didn’t, the Kahuna ‘ana ‘ana would use the pieces to cast an evil spell on him. He really didn’t believe it, but some superstitions are hard to break.
“One night, I went fishing with my father, your Great Tutu Kane. We were throwing nets into the water over a school of menpachi when three big, green fireballs went right over our heads.” His free arm cut the air above him.
“What happened?” I leaned forward.
“I thought for sure we was going get it, but Tutu, he told me not to look up, so, I closed my eyes really tight, and I prayed.”
“So, what did it look like?” I was trying not to rush him.
“You’d think that it was really hot, being one fireball, but it wasn’t. It felt like we were up on Mauna Kea. It got real cold, real fast. It never even look like fire, not really, but I wasn’t sure what else for call ‘em.” He took a swig of his beer. “Even though I wasn’t supposed to, I looked up real fast and the fireballs were hovering right above us.” His hands went to his crotch, “I really thought my olos was gone for sure, but Tutu just yelled ‘Auwe! Don’t you think you can scare us! I know who you stay, and I going find you in the morning!’ Then, one funny thing wen happen. The fireballs went straight up, turned mauka, and disappeared.”
“What? How come there was fireballs after you?”
“I never know this at the time, but Tutu had one girlfriend in Miloli’i and he wen try break it off with her because he was married and he knew if Tutu Wahine found out, he was going lose his olos for sure. Anyway, his Miloli’i girlfriend never like listen. She told him that he was hers and her father was one Kahuna and he was going make sure that Tutu would never leave her, and if he tried, she was going make sure he ended up make.” I could see my Dad nodding his head. I wasn’t sure, but I think he had heard this story before.
“How you wen find out about all of this?” I had never heard about Great Tutu having girlfriends before, and I had wondered what else they’d never told me.
“When I was a little older than you stay now, Great Tutu wen sit me down and told me what really happened with the fireballs. He said he had thought he wen fall in love with one pretty wahine in Miloli’i. Her family were fishermen, too. He came down to her village one time to get some opelu for Tutu Wahine, who was pregnant and craving dried opelu. He said she had the prettiest smile he had ever seen and he couldn’t resist, so he spent the night with her. He left her the next day and went back to Tutu.” Grandpa looked over at Dad, but Dad was staring into the surf below.
“Did she know?” I couldn’t imagine Dad trying to have a girlfriend. Mom would’ve probably cut his olos off with the meat cleaver.
“He never tell her nothing, but you know how it is. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Plus that crazy wahine started talking to everybody about how they was going get married and have one big family. Wen he heard all of this, he was so afraid that Tutu was going kill him, but she told him to go and make sure this wahine knew that he was married and that she better stop telling stories, or else. So, he went down to Miloli’i again to tell her that it was over and she just went lolo. She started screaming, trying to scratch and throw blows. Then, her father came out and looked at him, and he knew that it wasn’t over. He wasn’t afraid, but he was worried. He knew the father was going be trouble. He went home and told Tutu everything. Then, Tutu told him in that voice, you know the one your mother use on you when you being kolohe?”
Of course, I knew what he was talking about. He looked over at me and smiled, but it was a strange smile, one that didn’t travel up his face.
“She said, ‘I will take care of this and bless the house and the kids, but if you ever do this again, you going wish she had killed you.’ And he knew this was no joke.”
“I don’t get it. How did the fireballs find you?”
Tutu leaned over to me and whispered, “She kept one piece of him.” I had shaken my head trying to wrap my mind around what he was saying.
“So, he had left some hair or toenails behind?”
My Dad laughed, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be talking about that kind stuff.” Tutu shrugged his shoulders, and I waited for the rest of the story.
He cleared his throat, “She had a piece of him and she had given it to her father. He could not help her because Tutu Wahine had blessed us all, so he waited. He knew Tutu Kane would be alone, especially on a moonless night as that was the best time to fish for menpachi.”
“So, he waited until he knew Tutu would be going fishing again? Not even.” I just couldn’t believe it.
“Oh yeah. He waited and that’s when those fireballs came after Great Tutu and me, but Tutu knew what it was when he saw it and he wasn’t scared.”
“I would have been shitting my pants.” I said this before I realized what had come out of my mouth. Dad and Grandpa laughed, their eyes watering, their bodies doubling over.
Grandpa wiped his eyes on his shoulder. “True. True. I felt that too.” He sipped his beer. I think he was trying to decide what to say next. “The very next morning he went back to Miloli’i and told that lolo wahine and her Kahuna father that his family was Ali’i and that their mana was more powerful. If they ever tried to hurt him or his family again, he would burn down their hale and he didn’t care if they were in it.” I was very shocked by this. I never really thought that our family could be violent, but I saw that my Grandpa believed that his father had meant it, and sometimes, I think I did, too. I had never really believed in evil kahunas or evil spirits, no matter how many times my mother threatened that the obake would get me if I didn’t clean my room, or do my chores, but I realized that maybe there was some truth to all of it after all. Maybe, I shouldn’t discount a thousand years of beliefs. I mean I don’t really cut my hair or toenails at night even though I know that nothing will happen to me. I preferred to be in a blessed house, especially after a thorough cleaning. I can still remember my mother whispering as she walked through the house, a ti leaf doused in Hawaiian salt and water, sprinkling, “Send this back sevenfold. Leave our house evil spirits. Send this back sevenfold.”
“You know that they buried King Kamehameha here?” Grandpa asked.
“Not even. He no stay here.” Like anyone that important would be buried in Opihihale I thought to myself.
“No joke. A part of him stay in one of the caves here. We don’t know where he is because the chief that wen bury him never told where exactly he stay.” He cast his line out again.
“No worry. He no stay believe you, but you can still tell him how you wen find out.” Dad said, baiting another hook.
So, Grandpa opened another can of Bud and settled into his chair and started telling us about when he used to sit with his uncles listening to their stories about how all of their fathers were warriors in King Kamehameha’s army as they chewed on awa root.
“I really didn’t believe them, but it was still good talk story.”
One of the uncles brought out a club with shark teeth, which was given to him by his father. His father told him that this club had killed many warriors and to keep it safe. And as he promised to, his father began to whisper to him about the story of how King Kamehameha’s body was hidden away. As was tradition in Old Hawaii, special family members would hide the body, so that no one could steal its mana, but because he was so important, they decided to split up his body. They took some of his bones to the place of his birth. Some were kept near a Temple of Ku, although Queen Kaahumanu would not have been very happy to hear that her husband still believed in the Old Ways as she had forced everyone to become Christian by eating bananas with her son, Prince Liholiho. The last place was kept a secret from everyone but the person who hid it. The uncle told Tutu that it was his father who had the responsibility of hiding the bones of Kamehameha at Opihihale. He didn’t help prepare the body as that was the job of the Kahunas, but he had heard of what they did. They would boil off the meat because the mana was stored in the bones. So, when Tutu’s uncle’s father received a part of the king, it had already been wrapped in a white kapa cloth. He was told not to open or look at it, and if he did, the worst evil would visit him. When he heard this, he became afraid. He did not dare open it and he hid the bones away in a sack so no one would know what he was doing. He began to walk on the King’s Trail to Opihihale. When he got there, he searched for a sign of where to put him and a mist fell over the area and he heard a voice tell him quietly to follow it, and he did. He followed the voice because he had become blinded by the mist and finally he came to an opening in the cliff. All his life he had walked along his family’s land and had never noticed this particular cave. He didn’t question it, but quietly walked as far as he could to the back of the cave, searching for a puka to place the bones into. Then, the voice whispered “Look to your right,” and he saw an opening hidden by a boulder that protruded slightly from the face. “Put it in there,” the voice whispered, and he did. He walked back to the light of the cave opening, trying to find his way back to the trail, when the mist lifted and the sun shone as hot and bright as if there were no mist. And, when he looked back the way he had come, there was nothing but a field of smooth pahoehoe lava. He tried to find the cave on several occasions, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not.
“So that’s why no one knows where it is? Some mystical mist came down and he found some weird cave? How is that true?”
“I know. I know. This is just one story I heard. You like hear the rest, or not?”
“Sure, sure, I was just asking.”
So, every day for a month he searched for the cave. He didn’t tell anybody about what happened, not even the Kahunas. He was just curious about where the bones were. He walked up and down the King’s Trail, searching for a cave in the cliff that can be entered without climbing but he never found it. He started walking home, defeated, when the mists fell again. He knew what was going to happen, and he stopped and calmly waited for the voice, but it wasn’t the woman’s voice from before, but the strong low voice of an Ali’i, and he immediately put his forehead to the ground. He didn’t look up but he sensed a powerful presence.
“I know that you have been looking for me, but you must stop. Our family must protect our mana and if anyone should find the places where I rest, they will have our mana and power over us.”
He wept to hear those words and knew that what he had been doing was wrong. No one should look for the dead once they have gone. And his searching had cause Kamehameha’s spirit to awaken.
“There will be many lives lost and many lives given and one day we will be a great people again. Stop looking for me and you will be found.”
I had looked at Grandpa and wondered why he was telling me all of this.
“All the uncles started to laugh. ‘You lolo. Kamehameha never speak to your father. He jus wen drink too much awa and wen scramble his head.’ He looked up at them in silence, his eyes burning as he shifted the club in his hands. The other uncles quieted down and shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
‘I never say you had to believe me, but this is what my father told me, and you know what? I carried his bones along the trail, too. The mists came for me and I placed him in the same cave as Kamehameha. I walked out and never looked back. I have never looked for that cave and I never going.’”
Grandpa stopped talking and looked over at my Dad. “I have never looked for that cave either, and even though we cannot bury our dead as our ancestors did, I think that I would like for what’s left of my body to be placed here. I would like to join the many relatives that have passed here. I would like to join my son.”
“Son? What son?” Again, I had wondered what they weren’t telling me.
“My brother,” Dad sighed. “You weren’t born yet and we were both barely teenagers.” He sat back. I could see that his eyes had closed and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear what he had to say. “It was the baby luau for your Aunty and we were in charge of getting the opihi for the party. We walked down the mountain to the point, where we knew there would be plenty of opihi, really big ones. Your uncle wasn’t afraid, but he knew that I was. We scrambled out over the rocks, our opihi bags hanging from our belts, knives strapped to our legs. We had come down at low tide and we had a couple of hours to scrape them off the rocks before high tide started to come in. We knew that the further out we went, the better the pickings. We tried to outdo each other, hanging by one hand, our toes clinging to little pukas in the slimy lava rock. Soon, our first and second bags were filled, but we needed at least 10 bags total to feed all the people at the baby luau. So, out we went again, each time coming back with a full bag as the tide slowly came in. The crashing waves didn’t seem to bother him. He kept going further and further out. I hung back trying to see if I had missed anything closer. I wasn’t being chicken. I just didn’t want to get slammed by the waves or get caught in a blowhole, my body trapped, the water forever pushing my body in and out, no family even able to get me. I just couldn’t handle that. I just stayed close to the shore, but my brother just kept going lower and lower, below the tideline, scraping off every bigger opihi as if it mattered what size those little fuckers were. All anyone would do was eat it and what was that worth? I think it was his pride that pushed him to go out to the edge of the point, to brave the incoming tide. As he reached down to grab an opihi sticking to the pink underbelly of a limu crusted lava rock, a massive wave crashed him into the rock he was clinging to and I saw just his hair as the water dragged him under. The very thing I feared for myself was happening to him. I wished I could have saved him but I knew that if I tried to save him, I would be caught in the same blowhole. I was so afraid, I couldn’t move. I started crying because I knew that I could do nothing to save him. I have always carried that with me.”
Grandpa had looked at Dad with what I think now was sadness and regret. I had thought at that moment that Grandpa would hate Dad for letting his son die, but I realized that death is just a part of our lives. As we fished and took the lives to feed ourselves, sacrificed our lives to protect our families, risked our lives to get that perfect opihi, I wondered if our trips to go fishing was a way to connect to my uncle and for me to know that maybe one day I too would be talking story to my children and grandchildren, letting them know the strength of our history and the convictions of our beliefs. I knew that one day I, like my father before me, would spread my father’s ashes hoping that the mist will come, letting me carry my father to the place of my ancestors.
Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a writer born and raised in Hawaii. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with an MFA in Fiction. She then moved to Japan to teach English, where she continues to do so. Her work has appeared in the Waccamaw, The Jet Fuel Review, Crack the Spine, Booth: A Journal, The Baltimore Review, River River, and The Notre Dame Review, and will appear in an upcoming issue of Pleiades.
I don’t usually keep souvenirs. I don’t really have the space, especially now. There is one thing that I have kept, and it leans against the wall near the entryway to my apartment. A walking stick I bought on my climb up Mount Fuji. On it are the brands of various station stops. Each brand is a reminder of the grueling journey I made and the cans of oxygen I consumed to get to the top. It’s a reminder of my body’s betrayal and my mind’s triumph. Also, that stick saved me from the worst part of climbing Mount Fuji, the descent.