• Jennifer Lighty

Pele and Kamapua'a

I wasn’t born ugly. I wasn’t born bitter. And Pele didn’t always rule this island. My people were here many years before she, an exile, sailed here. She found sanctuary here. We gave it to her. My people. The people of the fertile, green forests of Hamakua where the waterfalls chant the world into being under the wane and swell of the moon.

I was born in the cool mountains of Koolau on Oahu to Hina. Hina was my mother before she was the goddess of the moon. When she was a young and beautiful girl, she married the man the world calls my father, Olopana, an old man who was no match for her grace and beauty. He was an influential chief, so my mother did her duty in marrying him, but secretly she was in love with his younger brother, Kahiki-ula. Some say he was my father.

Hina would often invite Kahiki-ula to go berry-picking. He always accepted, and wandering the mountain together they talked plant lore and swam in the cool streams. Old, arthritic Olapana was resentful of their friendship, but was too proud to say anything. He didn’t interfere or ask my mother any questions. Only she knew herself if Kahiki-ula was her lover.

That changed when she gave birth. Olapana refused to acknowledge me as his son. “Let Kahiki-ula claim him,” he declared for all to hear, dooming me with his words. “I name this child Kamapua’a. Hog-Child.”

I grew up strong and handsome despite his cruel and bitter curse. I was also smart, and some said god-like, since Hina was my mom. Right from the beginning I could shape shift into all sorts of other creatures from fish to ferns. I thought this would win my father’s love, or even his approval, but it didn’t. The more my father mocked me, the more my hatred for him grew, until eventually I didn’t care if he approved of me or not. I left my village and set up a camp in the hills, followed by a few dozen young men who also felt oppressed by my cranky and cruel father. We plundered and pillaged Olapana’s lands, devoted outlaws, snorting with laughter as we robbed and killed.

I loved being an outlaw, so I told myself. Loved it so much I shaved my head and tattooed it and my upper body with black, menacing marks. I let a short, bristle grow on my scalp. Hog-Child. Hog-Man, was more like it. Watch out, Olapana. I even skinned a boar and made a cloak out of its bristly hide. When I looked at my reflection in the stream even I was horrified. My father wanted a monster, well he’d got one.

They finally caught me. My father himself was going to execute me. My head was on the block. I remember looking up at him as he stood over me with a knife, searching for a glimpse of regret about what he was about to do. None.

One of my father’s priests had slipped me a knife. Tired of the old man. Time for a new ruler. If I had seen regret in my father’s eyes, even a glimmer of mercy, I wouldn’t have plunged the knife into his heart. To be killed while sacrificing his son—not the way my father thought he would leave this world.

I thought I was completely jaded, devoid of innocence or any desire to trust another human being, but I found that after I killed Olapana, the man who was supposed to be my father, I had a desire to know my real father, the one that had birthed me into the world. I went to see Kahiki-ula on Maui, my mother’s rumored lover, and asked him if the rumor was true, was he my father. “I do not know you,” was all he said. “I have no son."

And that is how I embraced utter debasement, killing, raping, plundering without mercy, regret, or a shred of shame. I took whatever I wanted in the form of a man or hog. No one could stop me. When I looked in the stream at myself I was no longer horrified.

I had a boat and men to follow me, pirates one and all. One day we found ourselves looking at the shore of Moku o Keawe, and took harbor in a lush, green valley between Polulu and Waipi’o. Everybody there was talking about a woman that had recently arrived from across the sea, exiled we heard, and moved into Halema’u’ma’u, the crater of Kilauea volcano. They were saying she was the most beautiful—and powerful—woman they had ever seen. The beast in me stirred. I had to have her. My men and I traveled south to find her and I fell in love at first sight.

It was dreadful. To fall in love like that. To want something with my whole soul. To be so out of control. I loved her so much I had no shame. I begged her to be my wife. Again and again. She laughed-mocked me. Just like Olapana. She found my tattoos and head-bristle (you call them mohawks now) repulsive. I just wanted to be loved.

I was so crazed with desire and heartache I decided that if she wouldn’t love me I would destroy her. I would rip that mocking laugh right out of her throat, gore her with my tusks, rut on her in the mud. I planned my attack.

She was a worthy opponent. I fell on her with the power of rain and storms. She fought back with fire. “If you drown me you’ll never have me as a woman,” she gasped beneath me.

I was holding her down even though her skin was so hot my hands were smoking. “If you burn me, your own barrenness will starve you,” I challenged her back.

I don’t know if it was because she wanted me or she was worried her people would starve, but she yielded, and I did, too. In Pele’s arms I became soft again. I became the man I’d wanted to be since I was a little child. I felt loved. We were the only people in the world. I looked at her with my eyes full of love and let the monster’s mask drop.

It was too much for her. She wanted the monster. She was not ready to be loved.

Pele leaped up from our fern grotto and said the words that doomed us, “No! Not again. No! Leave me alone, Kaumapua’a. I came here to be queen, not the wife of a king. You are too powerful. You can keep the green valleys of Kohala, Hilo and Hamakua. I’ll stay here in Ka’u and Kona and balance your water with the sun’s fire.”

She was clearly stuck in her head and not speaking from her heart. I knew if I was patient enough with her, she would meet the water of my emotions and not be overwhelmed. I never wanted to douse her fire.

And then she broke my heart. Pele ran away from my feelings-from hers. Ignoring my cries for her to stay and talk it out she fled with my words unable to keep up. “I know you’re afraid!” I yelled after her. And then as her silhouette on the horizon became smaller and smaller, “Please come back, Pele! Don’t leave me like this! I will die from love!” But words couldn’t travel fast and far enough to reach her. She hid with her family in the caverns beneath Kilauea. I kept calling for hours, days, years-I don’t know how long. I may still be calling in the future I haven’t met yet. I called so hard the earth shook. This stopped me. It was not me causing the earthquake, Kilauea was erupting. In horror, I realized Pele and her family, hidden in the caverns beneath the volcano, would be incinerated. So would I if I stayed, so I turned and fled toward the water and when I reached the edge plunged in without a thought, transforming into a humuhumunukunukuapua`a, a hog-nosed triggerfish. Even though I could shape shift, I could never totally escape the monster my father named me.

I swam in my loss for years, never setting foot on shore. Eventually I grew tired of swimming and sought sanctuary in the cool, green hills of Kohala, in the river-carved gulches where the maile grows. It was there someone told me Pele and her family had survived, that the fire had actually made them immortal. And I learned that Pele, nine months after I’d leapt in the water, gave birth to our son, Opelu-nui-kauhaalilo, who became the ancestor of many chiefs and common people. People told me Pele, seeing our son, longed for my cooling presence, that maybe I should venture south to see if I could woo her back. I even heard her love chants ringing through the mountains, still do when the wind is right, but I will not venture south to find her. Here in the green forest I protect the wild pigs who never mock me. Here, soothed by the sound of waterfalls, I protect my wounded heart.

Copyright 2021 Jennifer Lighty

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