YEAR OF THE MONKEY CONTEST
Pana'ewa - December entry - 1333 words
"...he methodically squeezed each of the twelve beer cans with his shaky fist, while strands of nonverbal conversation passed between us."
Stories that conjure up memories of the ohana at Christmas hold a special place in the hearts of many of us, it helps bring their warm aloha back to you, right where you are. I started writing this one while occupying a cramped space in a concrete block, steel bars defiantly staring back at me. I felt cold, damp, violated and maybe forgotten, foolishly longing for tutu's nonjudgmental understanding and Uncle Kapuna's occasional jokes.
The ancient forest rests, almost forgotten, under a suspended canopy of rain-laden, heavily pregnant clouds, on the brink of bursting. Families of tall, gnarled ohia, both young and old, stand, looking vulnerable, arbitrarily doomed to a "rapid death" sentence. Traces of the last few hauntingly fragrant, yellow 'awapuhi punctuate the neglected roadside growth. Towering clusters of invasive, rope-like vines, claw their way up the parasols of mist and birdsong. This is Pana'ewa Hawai'i. Nobody would think of Christmas trees though. In the depths of the forest, a stand of Christmas trees grows in a poi bowl-shaped clearing, it's my 'ohana's secret spot since "mai kinohi mai", long, long time ago.
Uncle Kapuna and I usually make the traditional pilgrimage up there each year. This summer though, the heavy fist of tragedy pounded on the weathered door of our humble Hawaiian Homes 'aina. Uncle Kapuna was involved in a gruesome car accident, just a mile away from home; he didn't make it. The months flew by, life got in the way and I completely forgot about the stand of Christmas trees in the ancient forest. Then, a few days before Christmas, I lay in bed for a few seconds after the alarm went off, reminding me of the raging, early morning surf. Tutu shuffles down the hallway, pausing, then I hear her soft knock on my bedroom door. "Boy, you sleeping?" she pauses, "Boy?" More persistent knocks. "Yeah tutu?", I reply. "Gotta get da Christmas tree early this morning you know, bumbye, not going have anything left." "Yeah tutu, I going." I felt the pressure, I knew I had to bring back a tree for her. It's the best gift I can think of, after all, she's the only one on the planet who took me in after my "all expenses paid stay" at Halawa.
I revisit the bumpy journey in my old but loyal, hamajang pick up. Clunking, climbing, sometimes crawling, up the old mauka road. Struggling to pick out the right spot, the mile-high confusion of weeds, fog and biting wind keep slowing me down. I knew it wouldn't be easy, only Uncle Kapuna knew the exact spot. This tradition just wasn't the same without him, just before reaching our spot, he always broke the silence with a different story about the "mana" of the forest. It always gave me chicken skin, I'd feel like turning back, but I pretended to be as strong and silent as he seemed. We weren't close, I only saw him once a year when he'd come with me to get tutu's tree. He must have been entrusted by the 'ohana to safely guard the secret of this precious spot, and the tree, his usual humble gift to her.
Finally, I found it. It always took us a little while to pick out the perfect one, so I carefully circled the stand of trees a few times. The trees glared back at me, defiantly, like the bars in a cell block, as if saying, "just you dare". I myself was wondering if I'd be able to bring one down single-handedly. The captivating peace of this spot momentarily took hold of me. I had never stood here alone, it was beginning to feel kinda eerie, suddenly, a loud grunt sounded out of nowhere. It gave me the creeps. My thoughts, constantly wandering back to the big surf, tried to suppress the urge that "guarantee, I'd be paddling out by now". Then, from the corner of my eye,something bright red, I mean really red flashed past! Hmmm, no lehua on the trees yet. I should've asked our neighbor Bruddah Bobo to come along this year. I worked as fast as I could, hacking, chopping furiously, with my reluctant plantation machete, finally, the perfect tree came down with a thunderous thud. Then, another grunt came from behind the trees. Panic gripped the back of my neck, should I just leave this spot, without the felled tree and disappoint tutu? I ruggedly finished off the cut, dragged and hurled the lifeless form, a corpse of green needles and branches, into the back of the truck and dug out. Fear followed close behind. All the way downslope, nervously glancing at the needle approaching "E" on my gas gauge, I kept wondering if that flash of red would reappear. What was it? I remember one of Uncle Kapuna's stories, I think he mentioned red, against the dim lighting of the forest, he'd occasionally see a figure clothed in red.
Back home, tutu would pull out the forgotten, musty, cardboard boxes and very slowly put up faded, old decorations on the tree's cool, wet branches, giving each object a tender, pensive look, like trying to recognize a close friend from the distant past. In the years past, Uncle Kapuna , who wasn't really cut out for tutu's emotional moments, would retire to the back porch with me and Butchie Girl, his loyal, three-legged dog. I'd sit through long pauses of silence, he hardly talked, just went steadily through his twelve pack. In stark contrast to tutu's tender handling of the tree decorations, he methodically squeezed each of the twelve beer cans with his shaky fist, while strands of nonverbal conversation passed between us. You know, the usual, the whys and how comes and whatever happened to...things like that. Questions that never, ever had any answers. Questions that might take you down a dead end road every time you thought you found a scrap of an explanation. He'd then pick up his 'ukulele and strum, I'd try to work out why he chose a particular song and when he first played it, was he happy then? Occasionally, I'd look through the cracked, dusty window and watch tutu. Decorating the tree always made her happy, I think. This memorable scene momentarily brushed past me with the feeling some people call "happiness".
Once the tree is up and lit, she shakes her head, releases a sigh and slowly shuffles into her bedroom. She sits on the edge of her bed and carefully leafs through the cracked plastic pages of her photo albums, recycled tears begin to flow, softly, for Uncle Kaipo, who never came back from Vietnam a few lifetimes ago. This year, she adds, "Now get my two keikis on da other side, I'm still here." Somewhere though, deep down inside, she still blindly hopes Kaipo will return on Christmas Day like the young decorated hero in "It's a Wonderful Life". Sadly, Kaipo's last letter to her said he was just three weeks, ten days and a few hours away from his next meal of poi and lomi. Even more sadly, it arrived weeks after the official letter informing her that he was declared "Missing In Action".
I slowly settle into Uncle Kapuna's rickety wicker chair in the back porch, take another pull of Primo, thinking of that beautiful, long, hollow, roll of a wave that got away, and continue strumming on Uncle Kapuna's "out of tune" 'ukulele. Butchie Girl, now nearly blind, sidles up to the chair, carefully sniffing its legs, perhaps groping for thread-bare traces, in her own way, with her own thoughts, then, sensing the void, she resigns herself to the worn rug in the driest corner of the porch. I wonder, how long do scents really linger, or is it just the memory of a scent she's registering? The "ka ua kilihune noenoe", Pana'ewa "kine" rain, falls like the first drops of tutu's photo-album tears, slowly drawing out the damp, musty, all too familiar scents of Pana'ewa, Hawai'i.
Have a "mele" season, BR readers and staff.