Moloka'i Nui Ahina

Kirby Wright

© Copyright 2002 by Kirby Wright


Photo of wide beach at point.

Chipper Daniels was my hapa haole grandmother's first try at marriage. She'd already had two sons out of wedlock and the first son was my father. Chipper came in the Indian Summer of her romantic life, not long after she'd had an affair with Alan Ladd in Honolulu. My big brother Ben and I called Chipper "uncle" because he wasn't our real grandfather. But even today, whenever I imagine a grandfather, he always comes to mind. My memory of him is a mosaic of fragments, pieces gathered like ocean-smoothed glass along the beaches of east end Moloka'i. Their marriage ended somewhat amicably, with Gramma giving Chipper a life estate on an acre between the dump and the mangrove swamp. The swamp marked the eastern edge of her property, the border where Kainalu Stream pooled and fed the roots of the mangrove. In the early days on Moloka'i, the days before garbage was hauled out to the public road for collection, landowners reserved less desirable acres for things they lacked the heart or the ability to destroy. If something once held value in Gramma's world, it usually found a final resting place on the banks of Kainalu Stream.

At first, the ranch belonged to Chipper. His parents had given it to him when he returned a hero from The Great War. He called it Hale Kia, Hawaiian for "Home of the Deer." He named it that to honor the herds of Axis deer roaming the high country. Hale Kia began at the beach. Then it reached over the flatlands through the pastures and extended up to the skyline. The property recognized the same boundaries King Kamehameha had devised when determining districts for his chiefs. Moloka'i was divided into ahupua'as, parcels of land that began at the shore and ended at the skyline. The sacred elements of water, earth and sky defined where one ahupua'a ended and the next began.

Chipper wanted to share Hale Kia with Gramma. But the more she learned to love the land, the more their relationship suffered. Chipper's heroics in the war helped him accept the fact he was living off a trust; he didn't need to work because there was enough money for food and booze. He threw luaus and seduced local girls foolish enough to attend. Chipper's depression started when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, not because of the loss of American lives, but because here was a war with bigger stakes. And, because every new war demands new heroes, Chipper's heroism in the first war faded from his mind and the minds of the people on Moloka'i. He was a has been. That's when his love for Gramma deteriorated into something brutal and damaging.

Gramma ignored Chipper's drinking and infidelities. She acquired skills essential to survival on the east end, things like riding horses, rounding up cattle and mending fences. Gramma used her skills to secure a job as a fence rider at Pu'u O Hoku Ranch. Men on the west end of Moloka'i, fascinated by stories of the beautiful woman who worked as a paniolo, traveled thirty miles on horseback just to catch a glimpse of the wahine who could rope and ride.

My grandmother was in her early thirties when Chipper began throwing week-long parties at Hale Kia, gatherings that attracted mostly Hawaiian and hapa haole men. Gramma was not only a woman among men, she was also the only hapa haole woman east of Kaunakakai. The men showed up at Hale Kia dressed like they were going to Church-button-down shirts, slacks, and shiny cowboys boots. My grandmother was a goddess to them, a thin brunette in a green kimono wearing her hair up like a geisha. Her face was painted-mascara, rouge, pink lipstick dragged over her thin lips. She wanted to show Chipper she could be beautiful and act submissive. "All dolled up," she thought as she dragged a white wicker chair over the lawn and sat while the men stood around her drinking red eye out of pickle jars. They stood like fence posts, posts that leaned more and more into one another the drunker they got. Chipper handed her a jar and she started drinking. She pretended to be watching the ocean between two men while her mind filled with thoughts of her lovers. The lows and highs flashed like images on a newsreel, from the blond Englishman she'd met as a sixteen-year-old to the rugged Portuguese longshoreman and finally, to Chipper. She had chosen to be on Moloka'i with Chipper and that was that. She raised the pickle jar and drank. The red eye burned her heart. She knew what she was doing and part of her wanted to smash the jar against the brick retaining wall on the side of the house. But she kept drinking. She saw her two sons living with her piha kanaka maoli mother in a run-down rental on Oahu. She loved them but Chipper didn't want them around. She couldn't leave Chipper because she couldn't return to Oahu, the island where two men had left her. Pakalaki memories. Moloka'i was her island now and she would make the best of it. She watched Chipper gulp from his pickle jar. He was ten years older but it seemed more like twenty. She was glad the men lived far away on other ranches so they could not hear the screams in the days and nights between parties. Chipper was not dressed like the other men. He wore a pair of rolled-up Levis and his bare chest was red from the sun. He wore no shoes and he crouched on the centipede grass next to the wicker chair, like an old lion prepared to relinquish his mate and his territory. She'd caught him with a girl in the ironwoods. "I own this god damn ranch," he'd said, "I can do any god damn thing I want." "Kua'aina!" she'd said and busted the bottom off an Old Granddad bottle and chased him through the forest with the jagged neck.

When Chipper's was unable to pay his property taxes, he signed over Hale Kia to Gramma in exchange for a life estate across from the dump. This exchange took place the same month the divorce papers came in from Honolulu. So, within a year, Chipper lost his wife, his land and whatever pride he had left. Even the local girls grew tired of his violent binges and stopped driving out to the dump. But he still had the bottle.

* * *

Ben and I scoured Hale Kia's shore for weeks finding fuel for our first bonfire. Ben had our mother's blonde hair, green eyes, and refined features. I had the dark complexion and rugged features of our hapa haole father. We found kiawe branches, shingles, old coconuts, planks full of rusty nails, lumber with Japanese symbols and hau logs. I even gathered up string and rope. We kept our stockpile on the shore in front of Gramma's house. Our parents were across the channel on Maui and my father said he wanted to see Hale Kia from his hotel room. The previous summer, he hadn't seen a single light on Moloka'i; my Irish mother said Moloka'i hardly looked like "The Friendly Isle" as advertised by The Hawaii Visitors Bureau. She'd suggested they change the name to "The God Forsaken Isle." I shared Ben's determination that they'd see us this time.

Gramma was less than thrilled about our bonfire, especially after she caught me playing with matches. She walked down to the beach and circled our mound of wood. She was a tiny woman who spoke a type of creole common on Moloka'i. She was wearing her usual ranch attire-cowboy boots, jeans, palaka shirt, and a lauhala hat with a wide brim. She looked haole but her eyes slanted. "Ya kids are too young fo' fires," she said.

"Daddy said we could," Ben said.

"Don't burn it near me."

"What's the big deal?" I asked.

Gramma crossed her arms and gave me the evil eye. "If one spark hits, ya'll burn me down."

"Nothing'll happen," I said.

"Yeah," Ben said, "and Daddy wants it."

"Ya damn firebugs," Gramma said, "drag it down by Chippa's."

We dragged our stockpile east and piled it on the shore down from Uncle Chipper's house. I wasn't worried about Chipper because I'd never seen him on the beach. His pale skin was a testament to the fact he stayed indoors. His house was set back behind a forest of ironwoods. There was a boat turned upside down next to his garage and I took that as a sign he'd given up on the ocean the way he'd given up on Gramma all those years ago. I always thought of Kainalu Stream as Chipper's waterway, but Gramma'd said Chipper would drop wire traps in the deep water past the reef. That place scared me because the water was ink blue and you couldn't see bottom. "He brought up horrible things in those traps," Gramma'd said.

Ben and I found a stretch of dry sand above the high tide mark. We stood the biggest logs and leaned them against one another. Soon we had the skeleton for our bonfire. We placed lumber, shingles and branches against the logs. When we'd finished, there was a hill of wood. Ben tossed in coconuts and I threw in string and rope. That's when Uncle Chipper came out of the ironwood forest. He was a tall man made taller by the fact he was rail thin. He wore a green cap, an undershirt, shorts and sandals. He picked his way along a sand path because toes were missing on each foot. He smelled like sour wine. I felt bad seeing him on two feet and had the urge to run to his porch and bring him a chair.

"What's the ruckus?" he asked.

"This is our bonfire," Ben said.

"What in the hell fo'?"

"So our parents can see us."

"They're on Maui," I explained.

Chipper looked out across Pailolo Channel. His creole wasn't as pronounced as Gramma's and he seemed to avoid Hawaiian words. He hobbled over and picked up a shingle. "Some of this's good."

"Help yourself," Ben said.

"Gotta 'nough junk."

"Gramma said burn it here," I said.

Chipper dropped the shingle. "Oh, she did, did she?"

"Yeah," Ben said.

"When you're ready," he said, "get me." He hobbled back on the path into the ironwoods. He didn't seem like a bad man. But, according to Gramma, he'd placed a litter of kittens in a burlap bag with a large rock and boated them out into the harbor.

"Did you see his feet?" I whispered.

"Yeah," Ben said.

"How'd he lose his toes?"

"Mowing his lawn without shoes."

"Why'd he do that?"

"He was drunk on red eye."

That night, Ben and I waited on the lanai for the phone to ring three times. That would be the signal from Maui to start the fire. We were to call after the bonfire was lit. The moon was full and the ocean was a silver meadow. I could see the lights from Kaanapali, Maui's answer to Waikiki. My mother loved it there because of its hotels, restaurants and piano bars. It was hard to believe my father couldn't see lights on our island. The phone rang three times.

"Shoot yo' pickles!" Gramma said through the screen door.

Ben and I ran down the beach. It was windy. Ben had newspaper and a box of matches. When we reached the wood he shoved in a wad of paper and struck a match. The paper wouldn't light. I could see the spark against the box and the flaming match on the paper, but the wind was too strong. Ben burned his fingers on the fourth match. "We need help," he said and ran into the forest.

I looked across the channel and prayed my father hadn't given up. The wind howled and the clouds covered the moon. "Hurry," I said. I heard branches breaking and saw shadows in the forest. Ben had brought Uncle Chipper. Chipper still had on his cap. He held a can and spilled gas over the wood. "Stand back," he said. He lit a match, cupped it and carried a blue flame to the mound. The logs ignited with a rush. Every piece we'd gathered, even the wet wood, flared to life. My coils of string and rope burned in the guts of the bonfire. The wind fanned the fire and soon the flames were jumping a hundred feet into the sky. The three of us stood there watching sparks leap for the stars.

"They'll see you tonight," Chipper said.

"Mahalo, Uncle Chipper," Ben said.

He nodded and walked off with his can. I watched his thin shadow move through the ironwoods. This was the same forest he'd used to hide things from Gramma and now he was hiding himself.

I danced in the orange sand. "We did it!"

"Call Maui," Ben said.

"You're not coming?"

"I promised Uncle Chipper I'd stay with the fire."

I ran along the shore. The beach was wet from the rising tide. My Keds sunk deep in the sand. I reached the incline to Gramma's house and climbed over the frame of an open storm window. Gramma was waiting for me on the lanai.

"It's lit!" I said.

"Damn firebug," she replied.

I followed her into the kitchen, where she phoned my father and handed me the receiver.

"Can you see us?" I asked him.

He laughed. "Looks like Moloka'i's on fire!"

That made me feel great. I looked through the screen door and saw the lights on Kaanapali. One of those was his. It struck me that my father was a good man. For the first time in a long time I felt close to him. Ben and I had finally done something right. My mother got on the phone and told me she had already sung Kui Lee's "I'll Remember You" at the Hyatt piano bar. There was nothing in her voice that said she missed us and she seemed more like a distant aunt than a mother.

"Are you having fun?" I asked her.

"I'm getting a good rest," she said and handed the phone back to my father.

"Keep an eye on that bonfire," he said.

"I will." I gave Gramma the receiver and charged out of the house. As I ran back along the beach, I could see sparks flying over the forest. Coconuts started exploding. The night smelled like coconut cake. As I approached, I could see Ben's silhouette against the flames. He was dragging palm fronds across the sand. He tossed the fronds in.

"Wha'd Daddy say?" Ben asked.

"Moloka'i's on fire."

Ben held out his hands to the flames. "Bitchin'."

I thought about how Uncle Chipper had helped us and then disappeared in the ironwood forest. He had helped our father see us across seven miles of ocean. The fire was our flag on this dark coast and it felt as if the island belonged to Ben and me. We were victorious. But Chipper had not shared in our victory. He'd decided years ago to ignore my father because he refused to raise another man's son. I watched the flames destroy everything we'd gathered.


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