Out on the reef where waters fly
                    and limu feeds the fish
                    coral thrums a lullaby
                    o'er the nest of the octopus.

          Deep in a rocky hollow, sheltered from waves, she tends her eggs, clusters of saffron rice hanging down from stone. Her arms move constantly among the strands, caressing, plucking out what has floated in, keeping things tidy. She watches for marauders, tiny crabs, sea stars, voracious little fish that would eat her young. She is vigilant, a good mother, never pausing a moment, not even to feed, and when the eggs hatch in six months, she will be dead from the effort.

          A boat slips, sliding into the curling surf as a sun drenched fisherman piles in nets and gear, wades thigh deep as he climbs aboard. In his strong hands the oars reach forth, back and forth, propelling the boat from shore. At the reef he anchors, feeling in his bones the strength of tradition and the lure of fishing, this pursuit of the elusive but attainable, a series of hopes cycling through his brain night and day. Fishing is in his blood, in instincts passed on by his father and all the fathers before, through kinships reaching back to some memory drowned shoal.
          He steps onto the reef, spear in hand, and dives through the burnished waves into the clear blue regions below, looking among dappled clouds of fish for the distinctive shape of uhu, the parrot fish. He glides, a predator, his pores almost electrostatic; alert. Through the water he senses the crunch as uhu forage, poking through coral with their beaks in search of algae.
          Two little puffs of anticipation balloon off the sand as his feet strike bottom, one foot akimbo to balance the coiled spear arm. Lightning strikes without warning, a fish reels, one flip of his tail as his life force ebbs. Other fish continue to graze, the sharks drift, indifferent and lazy, in the mid day current. The fisherman carries the still glimmering fish to the surface where it blazes anew in the sun and throws it into his bucket.
          This is an auspicious day for the fisherman, his wife is about to give birth. For many years he has wanted a son and today, God willing, he will have one. He takes seven more uhu to cook in his backyard oven. “I'm going to bake these,” he plans, “and slice them, and mash in the fat livers, and mix in the salty lipa'akai seaweed juice. I'll steam these others and cover them with gravy glistening with liver fat and feed my family and those who have come to help.”
          Smiling relatives beckon him to shore. His wife is well, the child has come, a tenth daughter. He is awestruck, numbed by a God that would deny him a helpmate, an heir to carry on his name, to carry on his manly traditions, to fish. Hope, in all its small parts, and all its large parts, flees. He accepts the good wishes and congratulations, knowing full well the teasing will come later, from his fellow fishermen. He cooks and everyone eats heartily, devouring all the uhu, followed by sweet potatoes and poi, everything washed down with the juice of guava and the red lilikoi.
          When the moon rises he puts out to sea. He has been struck low by his luck, his mind is a torrent of black thoughts. He can't fish, sits and cuts bait as his small boat drifts, carried on the current flooding through the reef break and into the deep waters beyond. As the boat catches an eddy and slowly spirals off shore, he hears a voice.
          “Yo!” it says.“ You're breaking the law. Out here it's eat or be eaten!”
          “That's true,” he replies, perhaps to himself. “I used to have confidence in the traditions, obeyed the laws of the sea, I was a reasonable man. But I've lost all hope. I have a wife and ten daughters, no son. What can I do?” He throws his hands wide, “I want to call it finished, roll up in my nets and throw myself into the sea!”
          “Oh! Don't bother with the wrapping,” calls the voice, “I'll eat you the way you are!” and a giant shark, baring his teeth, dashes upright from the silvery sea, falling on the boat, thrashing and biting ferociously.
          “I'm feeling something!” cries the fisherman. “It's hope! Hope! I'm hoping you won't eat me! Yes, let me go and I'll teach all my daughters to fish! They'll be able to always eat. And if they depart, as the young do, they will remember their Molokai home. And even if they fall in love with less skilled men than I, they and their children will be alright. They will be happy because they can fish!”
          And that's apparently how it happened. When I met Abraham Kanakakekai in 1971 he was standing in his yard by his house where the road bends at Kamalo, where the surf swirls just steps away. He was wearing a dark blue T-shirt and bib overalls, an old man, tall and muscular, dark leathery skin from a lifetime on the water, his hair still black and wavy but streaked now with silver. The only way you could tell he had ten daughters was by the deep lines worry had etched on his forehead, the love in his eyes as he spoke of them and the pride in his voice. English was not his first language and although he reached for some of the words I understood that his actions and his faith in Hawaiian traditions were eloquent.

Talk story

  1. AJFolkart says:

    Ellen, when I thought that I should return the favor of your comment (on the Molokai Cowboy)I little thought that I would be in for such a reading treat. Fish is a wonderful story, beautifully told. It is heroic, but deceptively simple. I love the way you open with the octopus and her eggs, and expand to a man and his ten daughters–both parents instinctively protective. She guards and keeps order, he fishes and hopes for a son. She will die when she is no longer needed, he must go on. I liked that in his despair he thinks he's ready to throw himself into the ocean and give up, that is until he is confronted by the shark that is perfectly willing to make a meal of him. Faced with reality, death, he see that he must and can go on. It's a lesson that many learn when faced with a life-threatening situation when we think that we don't care. We find out that we do. It is a renewal.

    The description of how he cooks the fish made me very hungry, made me want to be invisible so that I could go with this man and learn from him.

    thanks for the super read.
    Do you live on Molokai?

    Alice Folkart

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