• Jennifer Lighty

Nanaue The Shark Man

Updated: May 2, 2021

In the reign of Umi, a great chief of Waipi’o Valley, lived a beautiful girl, Kalei. Her hair was a thick, black wave to her waist. The wind loved to play with it and tiny i’iwi birds stole strands to weave into their nests high up in sandalwood trees, leaving her feathers she collected to weave into capes and headdresses for the ali’i. Her hands were deft and her feet, never bound by shoes, were much broader than ours today. She never lost her balance walking through the valley’s streams. Kalei was very fond of shellfish and often went to a bathing pool near the ocean to pick opihi off the black rocks. Even the crabs who sunned on the rocks loved her, staying above the waterline when she climbed over the slippery, worn smooth lava to pry off the tasty opihi. Usually some of the other girls went with her, but one day the weather was so rough they all said no thanks when she asked them if they wanted to go to the bathing pool, so she set off alone, delighting in the rain for she knew if it fell hard enough waterfalls would burst over the rim like old friends returned from a journey. She was looking forward to a swim. The pool was safe and sheltered from the gigantic waves that rolled in from the open sea, and she wasn’t afraid, just thrilled by the storm’s wildness.

Now I have to tell you, this pool was also a favorite spot of the shark god Kamohoali’i, and one of the reasons he loved going there was because he had seen Kalei dive from the rocks so gracefully she didn’t even splash the water. Not a ripple. He hid at the bottom looking up at her, afraid to show himself because he didn’t want to scare her, utterly enchanted by her beauty. He longed to make her his wife. Kamohoali’i knew he could grab her in his jaws and take her, but he was far more elegant than that, and he had made a pact with the first humans not to hunt them.

You may be surprised to learn that about sharks, but they don’t want to kill us. If they do bite, it’s by mistake, and if you’ve seen one like I have swimming in the big blue, you’ll know they stalk their prey with the exquisite precision of a Toledo steel sword etched with flowers and vines that only grow in the deepest gulches. The places known only to humans brave enough to climb up vertical faces, risking death by landslide. They move through the water like mercury, fluid and contained and Flamenco guitar shoots out of their fins. Even though you can’t hear the music, it shakes the water like a sub-woofer, touching the primal. So yes, Kamohoali’i had big teeth, rippling muscles and could take a lover to the edge of death until they begged for release, but he wanted more than that from Kalei. These days we call it consent. If he took her, he would kill her. If he let her escape she would fear him forever. So with the elegance inherited from 450 million years of ancestors he resolved to court her. He transformed himself into a very handsome young man and began to walk over the rocks toward Kalei.

Kalei was agile and usually had no problem sticking to the rocks with her broad and tough feet, but that day a huge wave surged higher than usual and almost swept her out to sea. “Aiee!” she yelled, but there was no one close enough to hear. She would have been lost if a very handsome young man hadn’t appeared just in time to save her. Of course this man was Kamohoali’i, and Kalei was so grateful and charmed by his strong hands, his calm smile, his white teeth and shining black eyes, his words of assurance, and the way he looked at her as if she was good enough to eat, it was easy to fall in love with him. She had no idea he had called the great wave that had almost taken her, and in truth, she probably wouldn’t have cared. Kamohoali’i was a smooth talker, a deft lover, and had a heart with infinite depths that could love even her darkest parts. She felt safe.

They lived together in ecstasy, cradled by Waipi’o, although Kalei did wonder why her husband would only come home at night. “Kalei, why your man no show his face in da day?” the villagers asked, looking askance at her swaying hips, flushed cheeks and dilated pupils. “What he hiding?” But she felt no need to explain anything to them or ask her husband why she couldn’t see him in daylight. Eventually she became pregnant and Kamohoali’i, a just and ethical man, told her his true nature. You can imagine her shock when she found out her lover man was the shark god, and then her grief when he said he would have to leave. She would have to raise their child alone. You can imagine how it would feel to discover the father of your unborn child was a pariah, can't you? Still, she loved him, and was stricken he had to leave.

Kamohoali’i left her very specific instructions on how to raise their child. “Listen, my love,” he told her. “It’s very important you follow these rules. You must never feed our child meat. He will be born with the instincts of a shark and the ability to shapeshift into other forms. If he gets a taste of meat the results could be deadly.” Kamohoali’i swore she’d never let a morsel of meat touch the lips of their precious child. They kissed through passionate tears, teeth clashing, and when he leaped into the sea and shifted into his shark form she licked the blood from her lips like it was sweet nectar.

In time she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy boy she named Nanaue, who was normal in all ways but for one-on his back, between his shoulder blades, was a shark’s mouth complete with razor sharp teeth that snapped at her when she tentatively reached out a finger to see if it was real.

Kalei loved her son despite his deformity. Whenever she looked at him she saw his father and remembered how it had felt to lay with him in the dark and feel his teeth nuzzling her throat, his lips moving up her jugular vein before swallowing her with a kiss as deep as a trench never touched by sunlight. “Oh my love, how I miss you,” she would sigh in the night.

She had confessed her husband’s true nature to her family and they agreed to help her hide the hideous jaws on her son’s back. They were afraid the village wouldkill him if they found out.

But there were many years of joy between the two of them before that resentment grew like a cancer, devouring the w of their bond with malevolence. One of the things they loved to do was hike into the valley to a waterfall where there was a small bathing pool. Here Nanaue got to take off his a’s boy?” Poor Nanaue. He just wanted to be normal and grew to resent his mother, who began to lose sway over him as he grew.

But there were many years of joy between the two of them before that resentment grew like a cancer, devouring the fabric of their bond. One of the things they loved to do was hike into the valley to a waterfall where there was a small bathing pool. Here Nanaue got to take off his kapa cape and swim freely, chasing the little fish and splashing without fear anyone would see the jaws on his back. And then one day, right in front of his mother’s eyes, he changed into a shark as soon as he hit the water and began eating all the little fish he had up until this moment just chased.

Dread sank like a stone in Kalei’s belly. She knew this was just the beginning.

In that time there were many kapus, sacred laws, the people had to follow. Nobody knew where the laws came from, but the ali’i —chiefs and priests enforced the laws under punishment of death. One of those rules was that men and women could not eat together. When a boy became a young man he stopped eating with his mother and aunties and took his meals in the mua, the men’s house. Because he had no father, Nanaue’s grandfather was the man in his life. And Nanaue was such a fine, handsome young man, tall and straight as a sandalwood tree. His grandfather was very proud of him and hoped he would grow up to become a famous warrior, which was the greatest thing you could be in those days. When it was time for Nanaue to leave her house to eat with the men, Kalei begged her father not to let him eat meat. “Please, father. You must listen to me. I swore to his father never to feed him meat. He told me the consequences would be dire.”

“Worse than being put to death for violating kapu?” her father answered. “Besides, young boys need meat. You want him grow up big and strong, right? If we keep feeding him kalo and bananas he’ll be one woman eventually.”

He ignored Kalei’s entreaties not to feed the boy flesh, stuffing him with pork and dog meat that caused him to grow even bigger and stronger. He was the most impressive young man in the village. All of his friends were envious. He had no doubt his grandson would be one of the most ferocious and brave warriors of Haumakua.

Nanaue’s grandfather watched over him like an i’o, the hawk who lived in the high trees who soared down from the mountains to pluck bright-feathered i’iwi from the sky. “Da boy fine. No worry,” he told his anxious daughter. "Human blood stronger than da shark.” But eventually the old man died and Nanaue lost his protector. He was now dependent for food on his uncles and stepfather, who all roasted him about his voracious appetite, even tossing them their scraps and bloody bones to see him scramble on the floor for them. “Kalei’s boy one glutton,” they sneered. “Like one dog. Let’s make him do tricks.” Kalei didn’t even hear them. His senses were totally locked in on the scent of blood on the bone scraps. They had no idea how soon they would rue their mockery.

Nanaue, as you can imagine, was a lonely boy. He didn’t understand why he had been born this way. He hated the jaws, the ghastly teeth he could hear clacking on his back. He hated his cape and the way his mother was always following after him telling him he had to keep his back hidden. He never felt safe, or free to be himself. Eventually he gave up trying to play with the village boys who taunted him about the cape and spent most of this time hanging out by himself at the two pools, the one in the sea where his mother and father had met, and the one at the base of the waterfall in the back of the valley. Everybody gossiped about him because it was not normal to wander off by one’s self in that time. Everyone talked about his cape and wondered what was beneath it. He felt like a freak. He was a freak. Even though he was a beautiful young man, he hated himself, and because he held himself apart, the villagers began to call him stuck up, not understanding he had to stay away from fear he would kill them. Sometimes he could hear their blood thumping under their skin and had to flee.

Nanaue did have one good quality according to the villagers. He was often found helping his mother in the kalo patch. People would see them working together knee deep in the muddy water on their way to the ocean or into the valley to swim at the waterfall. They were surprised because the sullen boy was suddenly social, asking each passerby where they were going. If they answered “to the sea,” he would say “be careful or you may disappear.” Strange, they’d think. What’s he mean by that? Even stranger, people were starting to get bit by sharks on a regular basis in the ocean.

And then it got worse. Solitary swimmers started disappearing. The villagers searched the water but never found a trace of human remains. They still didn’t suspect Nanaue, whose mother was so terrified she tried to keep him chained. But he was a young man without a father or grandfather, there were only those mocking uncles and his horrible stepfather. He refused to listen any of them and whenever someone passed them in the kalo path he looked at his weeping mother and walked away, slipping into the water after his friends and relatives, swimming right up to them in his human form and then changing in a flash to a shark. He dragged them under in one bite, thrashing in triumph, stripping flesh off bones that sunk to the bottom of the sea where smaller fish nibbled on the scraps he couldn’t scrape off with his teeth. All because his grandfather hadn’t listened to Kalei and fed him pork and dog meat.

This happened over and over again. The villagers were terrified and King Umi had no idea what to do, although being King he didn’t he didn’t admit that. Kings must not show fear. Instead he organized a work party to bring the village together, tilling a large plantation to raise sweet potatoes and kalo. Everyone was required to go and they all did, except for Nanaue, who stayed behind to help his mother tend her garden and kalo patch. The men were astonished-no one disobeyed the king—and turned him in. Nanaue was ordered to appear before King Umi. “Why have you disobeyed my orders?” The King demanded. Most other young men would have been afraid, but not Nanaue. He answered with the insouciance born of having a pair of man-eating jaws on this back, “Because I didn’t think I had to. I had other things to do.” Other things! Umi was enraged, but he also admired the boy’s boldness and splendid physique, and decided not to punish him. “Boy you will make a great warrior, but you need a little discipline. Show up to help with the work tomorrow and we can forget this. I remember your grandfather. He was a good man. I can see those uncles and that stepfather have not been raising you right. From now on, look to me.”

These words would have swelled the heart of any other young man, but Nanaue knew that not even King Umi was a match for him. He showed up for work the next day only to please his mother, who he still loved, even through the blood-call of the beast. Of course he had to wear the kapa cape, which was dreadful and cumbersome in the hot weather. Of course the other young men teased him, finally growing bold enough to snatch it off his shoulders. “Monster!” they shrieked. Inflamed by blood lust, the young men would have killed him if they could, but Nanaue was much stronger, severing wrist veins and jugulars with his teeth. Finally they restrained him and dragged him by the feet to the King. “It’s Nanaue! He da one killing our families!” the men exclaimed. Umi looked at the snapping jaws on this handsome young man’s back and the choice was clear. “Put him to death,” he proclaimed. The villagers started gathering wood for a huge bonfire because the only way to kill a shark man was to burn him down to ashes.

As Nanaue watched the pyre being built the fire to live flared inside him. He called out to his father, “Kamohoali’i! Save me!” and the shark god endowed him with superhuman strength that enabled him to burst his ropes. He fled from the warriors to the ocean pool and leapt in, and in plain sight of his entire village, shape-shifted into a shark and swam into the deep ocean out beyond the reef. The villagers watched his fin slicing the surface and shuddered.

Irate, indignant, terrified, they seized Kalei and Nanaue’s uncles who had helped hide his secret and brought them before King Umi. “Kill them!” they cried out. It was a feeding frenzy.

Umi, a wise king, considered the nature of Nanaue’s father, the shark god. Umi knew that Kamohoali’i was not a vicious beast, that his killing had a purpose, and that he was generally beneficent, though of course unpredictable as wild creatures are, especially predators. He saw that it was not a good idea to kill his relatives. Kamohoali’i had lived among them. He had married Kalei, a woman of their own village. He had known love as a man and a beast. Clearly it was wrong to kill his wife, and he also reasoned that if he killed all Nanaue’s family there would be no one around to keep him in check if he roamed the coast hunting them; he could even make his way upstream through the underground tunnel from the ocean to the pool at the waterfall where the people liked to bathe. “No. These people will live,” he pronounced. “We may need them to calm this wild beast they’ve raised, and I also want you to remember it’s not entirely the boy’s fault. If his grandfather hadn’t fed him flesh none of this would have happened. He could have lived more human than animal. Set them free. Priests, make an offering to the shark god so we can hear his desires in this matter.” Kamohoali’i accepted the offering and took possession of one of the priests and spoke: “I am grief-stricken my son has violated our pact and killed your people. It was never my design for sharks to eat humans. It’s his grandfather’s fault as you know. If you need to blame someone, blame him, but I will take care of my son.”

“You going kill him?” the villagers asked.

“I will not,” Kamohoali’i replied. “I will banish him. He can never swim along the shores of Hawaii. If he does, my shark officers will execute him without a second thought.”

The villagers were disappointed because they wanted the blood debt to be paid, but there was nothing they could do. They were mortal, he was a god. “And one more thing,” Kamohoali’i continued. “Kalei is my wife and I still love her. If anyone in this village, including your King Umi, harms her or her family I will command my son to come back and terrorize you for the rest of your lives.”

Fortunately Nanaue had no desire to go back to Waipi’o. He had already forgotten his mother as soon as he’d crossed over the reef’s edge into the deep water. The villagers honored their agreement to Kamohoali’i and didn’t harm her, though they were never friendly. She lived a lonely life.

What happened next to Nanaue was not part of the story that I was told all those years ago when I climbed up moss-slick rocks behind a young man who looked much like Nanaue—long black hair, rippling muscles, broad feet. When we reached the waterfall pool he told me this story. This was Nanaue’s pool. The one where he’d swum as a child with his mother and first tasted fish, the one where many beautiful girls had disappeared over the years. I was young and foolish in my beauty. I took off my clothes and sat down on the moss and slipped into the green milky water, swimming to the other side of the pool without looking back at him. Only when I heard him knife the water did I turn around and watch him as he swam toward me without a ripple, his black eyes fixed on me. When he was just a few inches away he told me. “The shark’s my aumakua.” I didn’t care who his ancestor was. I wanted the beast. Maybe not the monster. I didn’t know the difference.

Banished from Waipi’o and the island of Hawaii, Nanaue swam to Maui and came ashore at Kipahulu, resuming his human shape. People asked him who he was and what he was doing there, suspicious of this handsome stranger who had turned up out of nowhere, but he was so beguiling that they accepted his flimsy story of being a traveler and one of the local chiefs even gave him his sister as wife. Nanaue didn’t really want to marry her because he was afraid she would discover the jaws on his back, but he didn’t want to draw attention to himself by refusing her, so he married the chief’s sister and made a pretend vow that he had to remain chaste, insisting they sleep in separate houses.

He did his best to deny his desire for human flesh, but eventually the craving was too strong and he started killing again. It was too easy. All he had to do was walk up to these new friends as a human and push them into the sea, leaping in after them as a shark and ripping into their warm, juicy meat. Eventually he was caught in the act by some fishermen on the rocks he hadn’t noticed and Nanaue fled across the ocean to Molokai where nobody knew him.

On Molokai, he lived at Poniuohua and it was not very long before he was pushing people into the water and devouring them as a shark there, too. If only his grandfather had not fed him that pork and dog meat! Nanaue actually thought this sometimes. He was still half human, and longed to be a man as much as he longed to eat men. But he couldn’t control himself. After a time of this, the terrified people of Poniuohua went to a shark priest for advice. It had reached the point where they were unable to fish because it was unsafe to go into even the shallowest water. The people were starving. The shark priest looked within and told them to hide by the shore and wait for Nanaue, the stranger who had appeared on their shores from far away, who seemed so friendly and always willing to lend a hand and was so handsome he made the girls’ stomachs flutter. “He’s not what he says he is,” said the priest.

The burliest men of the village did just this, and when Nanaue appeared on the path toward the ocean, leapt on him and tried to restrain him. Nanaue was so strong he shook them off, but not before they pulled off his kapa cape, and there it was, his dirty secret exposed once again for all to see, his shame, a frenzied shark’s jaws snapping on his back between his shoulder blades. Terrorized himself, Nanaue was able to flee, running down the path to the ocean, but the men caught up with him and bound him so tight there was no chance of escape. Once again he had to watch as the villagers gathered firewood to build a pyre to incinerate him. Even if he had begged for a faster death by beheading (which he wouldn’t have), the villagers would not have relented, for it was known that a shark-man can only be totally consumed by fire, otherwise he could come back and take possession of a harmless shark who had never thought to hunt humans, turning that shark into a man-eater.

Nanaue was exhausted, not just from the struggle with the men, but from a whole life of hiding who he was, and of struggling against his instinctual nature. The fire would be dreadful he knew, but then it would be over. He hoped his mother didn’t mourn him forever and that his father the shark god Komohoali’i would honor him in the shark way, circling with his fin above the water at dusk until the sun sank into the ocean and the darkness rose up from the depths and took over the Earth, offering humans the chance to overcome their terrors and fears.

But the instinct to live was strong. As he lay there watching the people build the fire that would take his life, the tide came in and he saw that if he rolled over his feet would touch the water. As soon as the first wave lapped him he turned back into a shark. Someone noticed and raised a cry, and the people stopped stacking wood on the pyre and threw nets over him, entangling his fins in a tight web. This, along with the shallowness of the water, stopped him from using his monstrous strength to break free. As they beat him with clubs and pierced him with spears, he struggled toward the breakers, growing weaker from blood loss, and he would have got clear if they hadn’t called on the demigod Unauna, who lived in the upper mountains of Kainalu. In truth, only another god could defeat him, and Nanaue was stronger, but he was also bound and hampered by nets. Unauna defeated him and the villagers dragged Nanaue up the slopes of Kainalu to the waiting pyre.

You can still see the mark of his passing in the shallow ravine leading up to Shark Hill, and the stone around which Unauna tied the rope to haul the shark up. Nanaue was so immense that his wounded body oozed such a great quantity of blood and water it put the fire out several times. Unauna saw the danger in this and told the villagers to cut bamboo from the sacred grove of Kainalu to make knives to slice the shark’s flesh into strips that dried out and burned completely. It took the whole grove and Unauna’s father, the god Mohoali’i, was so angered at the desecration of the sacred grove that he stripped the sharpness and edge out of the bamboo that grew there, so that to this day it is different from the bamboo on all the islands. Unable to cut or pierce, useless for anything but shelter and shade, and the sound it makes as the wind passes through it from mountain to sea.

Hear Jen Lighty read this story:

113 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All