The Guardian

Lean and spirited, my grandfather Caleb Aikane, last of eleven children, often composed tales to tell tourists passing through his tavern. Like any good story, they were a mixture of lie and truth; how much of either depended on taste. In his final years, long after the tavern turned into a Payless, after diabetes took his eyesight and left leg, he turned his attention to me. The last tale for the last mo’opuna. I was told it is all true.

Caleb’s grandfather, Poli, had an affair with a missionary woman. She was a wisp of a woman, the tendril tip of a keawe branch, the fin of an ‘ala’ihi. Had they been public, aside from their skin, they would have been an odd pairing surely, for my great great grandfather was a leathery mountain with shark’s teeth. They would meet in the back of her cottage deep in Maunawili, shrouded by lauae and twisting winds. How careful they would be; gathering up the white scalloped edges of her petticoat to not touch the forest floor. After the matter, they would pick ripe lilikoi growing wild on vines that canopied the trees for great great grandmother, Kapio, as an alibi for the afternoon. The only witness, aside from the ferns and forest uhane, was the missionary woman’s cat who initially roamed close against her knowledge. Once found out, she brought the cat along to play near the stream as she listened for Poli’s call. The cat patiently waited beside the stream like a river rock, their low voices washing over his black coat forming concentric circles in the water, ever outward, like a thrown stone.

When the woman was found face down in the stream, a thin streak of blood trailing from between her legs, speculations arose. From the old houses, the old traditions were muttered as proof. She ate bananas did she not? Were the proper offerings made? Perhaps the unborn, early in development and still belonging to Ku, could not be reconciled to the missionary woman’s god. There were also less divine suggestions; perhaps she had slipped while washing her husband’s good coat, or the harsh living conditions proved too difficult for such a fragile woman in that way. To those who pulled her small frame out of the water and the midwife who cut away the bloody undergarments, it had the markings of anger. This was kept quiet.

Her husband, a tightly wound man with a red speckled face, spoke little at the time of her funeral. He buried her in the backyard of their cottage, which he then deserted to find another wife. The cat, a reminder of lost things, was relinquished to the forest and his own abilities. He was a wreath of matted fur and bones by the time Poli found him, sitting beside the stream waiting for the woman to return. Knowing his voice, the cat followed Poli away from the water but no further than a few feet, panting, failing. Poli began the old prayers, prayers he could not say at the woman’s funeral; kalana, kahea i ola. The cat’s eyes fluttered, slits of pupils shielded from the light. Poli fed him small opai from the stream, which he swallowed with difficulty, but they stayed down. More prayers and finally the little cat fell asleep with small even breaths. Sensing the cat would not tolerate moving away from the stream, Poli dug deep into the root of a huge ohia tree, carving out a smooth bed that would protect him from the wind. He placed the sleeping cat within, and for good measure he took several ti to beat away any evil spirits near the root. He left exhausted but returned before dawn to check on the cat. It was in this way that Poli’s affair continued, with his afternoons spent nursing the cat. A tenderness that was damned up in Poli overflowed on this little one.

Never having to fend for itself, the cat lost his natural instinct of fishing so Poli had to teach him. Over the next few months the cat learned to imitate Poli’s way of crouching low in the stream facing upward of the current, then scooping the fish onto the stream’s bank. The cat became so comfortable in the water, he would spend several hours lying in the gentle current. His blue eyes mirroring the waters that travelled over his shoulders and down his muscular back.

Poli would usually make his trek up the mountain in the early afternoon while the sun was still bright but not scorching. The cat, fond of sleeping in the coolness of a palapalai grove, would ease out when Poli whistled. Comfortable in their routine, they would stroll to their favorite fishing spot and spend the passing time in silence as opai, crawfish, and o’opu was gathered. After the catch was enjoyed, mostly by the cat, Poli would nap with his face in the shade, body in the sunlight; the cat curled at his feet. One afternoon however, Poli was wakened suddenly by heavy breathing and the crunch of dry brush. Unsettled, Poli moved to sit up when a large rock landed near his head startling both he and the cat. It was the hissing voice of Kapio he heard next, “What kind of man are you? Playing all day with a cat?” Kapio was snarling but this was not really different from her usual manner. She rarely smiled as a child and less so now as an old woman. Initially her marriage to Poli brought rain to her drought, but she soon turned back to the parched riverbed she was.

Kapio had grown large as the years past. It required much effort for her to throw the second stone, which missed the cat by inches. The cat ran into the stream. Poli, a man normally slow to anger, growled at his wife, “I’ll do as I please, leave now Kapio.” “ I’ll leave with your cat and have him for dinner since you care so little!” Kapio lunged towards the stream but then recoiled when her hand touched the water “It burns!” Poli looked to where the cat was crouching; steam was billowing over the stream edges. The water rose quickly; a surging wall, as the current reversed on itself, away from the cat, who sat in the still center. Vibrating rings of water eddied outwards from the calm; the first sound a high pitched wail, then laughter and love making; it was Poli and the missionary woman. The cat’s ears and blue eyes turned, fixing on Kapio. The vibrating rings intensified- the laughter turned to shouts, a woman screaming, a struggle. It was Kapio’s menace and the missionary woman’s plea amidst the thrash of a woman drowning.

Kapio dropped to her knees, cursing the cat, “I’ll kill you!” She forced herself into the stream, screaming as the water blistered her skin. Poli stared in bewilderment as each of Kapio’s arms and legs shriveled into dry gray branches. Unable to hold up her weight, her torso and face submerged and then sprung up with force as an old cracked log. Her eyes and hair were gone, just a knot in the middle where her mouth would be. The log flailed downstream, uncoiling the spirals of sound with the current. Once out of sight, the stream cooled and quieted to a gentle murmur, as if just waking from a dream.

Poli slowly inched to the middle of the stream to lift the cat out, his black fur shined like the moon. There were no burns, no scalded skin, and as Poli cradled him to his chest, realized there was also no breath. Those who knew Poli thought him mad in the months that followed, but how could we ever know the burden of losing a friend, wife, and touch of the gods in one afternoon? He planted a grove of ti around the ohia tree where he buried the cat along with fish and maile for his journey. He visited everyday without fail until his legs could no longer carry him.

On his deathbed, Poli told this story to my grandfather and now grandfather tells it to me with the same request; that I be the guardian of his bones and stories. That I spread his ashes beneath the ohia tree which houses his grandfather, uttering the same simple prayer that Poli uttered, so many years ago- Thank you my friend for our days of sunshine, may we meet again soon in gentle waters surrounded by laughter and peace.

Talk story

  1. Eric Kimura says:

    great story. It draws one in and ensnares one into the tale.

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