The Myth of Niuhi
Water magnifies prayer.
Water magnifies prayer, Rose thought, as she paddled through the red-stained sea, remembering the first inscription on the painting she’d stared at for hours last night.
We are a prism and we shed a particular light: we are not corrupted.
This was the second inscription on the painting—the last painting Vivian had made. All her grandmothers’ scribblings were riddles for the heart to ponder. A message of forgiveness for herself, or was Vivian forgiving someone else? Rose contemplated her grandmother’s puzzles; all the questions that would never be answered by the now deceased.
When the flower is ripe with love
The third inscription, but the paper was torn and the sentence incomplete. When the flower is ripe with love…what? What happens then? Rose was agitated with her grandmother’s unfinished riddle.
The hot morning trade winds had come. They blew in offshore from the east, blanketing the island in volcanic fog. The humidity was 84% and the heat index read 93 for midday, and although only into the first part of six o’clock it was climbing by the quarter hour. The few early morning swimmers who had come to the beach for a dip were already packing their oversized pink hotel towels and bottles of water into their bright canvas beach bags and heading for the showers in the shade to rinse off the salt. Most of the tourists already had salmon sunburns on their calves and backs from previous days of vacationing. The local early morning risers—surfers, Filipino fishermen, and retirees walking their dogs—stayed longer.
To the north side of the bay there was a pile-up of black lava rocks that had been pushed into place by centuries of waves and tides pressing against volcanic outbursts. Flat gray and red-shelled crabs scattered across the rocks seeking out shade much like the tourists heading for their rented convertibles. Past the black rocks, around the corner, there was another section of beach that could only be accessed by a small pathway hidden with bougainvillea and bordering a sacred Hawaiian heiau. This was Rose and Tove’s spot as well as an infamous surf break for the locals.
Rose paddled out through the cold red water, stained from the volcanic clay, hurrying to catch the perfect morning glass before any more waves passed her by. Past the first reef, out beyond the second; a fifteen-minute paddle. No one else was out but they would be soon. Rose made it out just as a set came. She lined up and paddled into the wave, going left, popping up, her body curvy and strong, hugging down close, slicing fast, going down and then up on the wave, a long ride all the way back to the first reef before pulling off and paddling back out.
Rose was wired from the 3-5 am shift on day two of the death vigil for her grandmother; a first for her. She pulled her long braid of sun-bleached hair from the back of her rash guard as she finished paddling back out, several tuberose falling out into the ocean where they had been braided in the night before by her mother Ruby.
Rose had clung to her beguiling Welsh witch of a grandmother throughout her early teen and adult life, taking her cues from her even though Vivian constantly challenged her. Vivian always had something to say about it. She had a strength in her diamond-shaped eyes that Rose had not encountered in a woman before, almost as if the diamond-shape itself created an architecturally sound super structure capable of holding more pressure than the usual almond shape. Before she had died, Vivian asked Rose to come to her—that she had something very important to tell her—and Rose had said no. She had just visited her and didn’t believe Vivian had something important to say because if she had she would have told her in the countless other times Rose visited.
At least that’s what she told herself.
Rose sat on her purple mini tanker at the Westside break, calves vanished in the red water and stinging from the sea lice, the sun starting to hint its true strength across the water in the east, and Rose felt the stillness of the ocean’s breath out beyond the reef sucking in and out. Another set rolled in, this one bigger. She paddled into a huge wave only because she couldn’t get out of its way fast enough. She started to lift her body up but she was too far forward and the wave too steep. In the split second it would take to correct, she froze—she knew she wasn’t qualified for this wave—and Rose and her board went crashing down over the falls and into the huge swirling beast of dark water. She held her head and protected her neck while she was tumbled in the washing machine and suction of the wave. As Rose was held under, she was able to be honest with herself: she had avoided visiting Vivian because she was afraid of Death that peered out of her grandmother’s eyes when she spoke to her.
Rose popped up to the ocean’s surface. But just as she did, she saw another enormous wave coming right for her, Rose too far in the impact zone to get out in time. She grabbed her board and maneuvering with all her strength Rose took off like before. In what she felt was a total fluke she found herself inside the barrel.
Tove, paddling out, hollered at her cousin’s ride, admiring how graceful and fierce Rose was. As Rose slid down the wall of glass, for the briefest second she became aware that she was completely one with the ocean and air all around, and that there was nothing else going on except the inhale and exhale. The wave shot her out before crashing down onto the reef and she dove off her board into the murky water feeling the exhilaration of the barrel and rush of cold all over her body.
Yes! Rose thought to herself. That was the biggest barrel she had ever caught.
Now Rose felt happy for her grandmother to finally be out of that carcass.
As large water from the passing swell moved them around, Rose and Tove did their call to each other to say hi; a “Sao-wah!” long and deep, low to high—an island imitation of the Samoan and Tongan girls they’d gone to high school with who would Sao-wah across the gym at pep rallies for minutes at a time; the victor always whoever could do it longest; a show of power in the breath. Rose and Tove paddled outside to wait for the next large set looming in rolling lumps on the horizon.
Far on the outside of the reef, Rose made out a silhouette paddling around the outer edges. She hadn’t previously noticed someone else out there. The morning vog, the thick volcanic fog, obscured her view but she could tell it was a big man with a large barrel chest and flowing dark hair and beard because that whole part of the body silhouette looked bulky with the weight dispersed forward. The man paddled out of the low-hanging mist and Rose could tell by his rust colored neoprene rash guard that she was indeed having a rare sighting of The Shark King.
He was the most legendary surfer on the Westside and was so mythical that people didn’t even know if he was real. Rose wasn’t sure he was real either. She thought she had seen him maybe two times in her entire life of growing up on Kaua’i, both times at Pakalas surf spot so far outside that it was hard to determine if it was indeed him or just a mirage on the water. Not much to go on, even with a vivid imagination. Rose and Tove both sat upright on their boards and stared him down, squinting to focus into the vog.
The Shark King’s mysterious status was attributed to the decades of stories about him: that he sleeps on his board; that he paddles between here and Ni’ihau; that he eats reef sharks raw in the water; that he is part fish; that he has gills; that he is protected by all the Hawaiian water gods; that he himself is an apparition of Ku’ula the god of fishermen; that he is the human messenger of Ka-moho-aliʻi, the shark god; that he has a secret cove where he tends to an ancient family that breeds the most beautiful Hapa children; that he has nine wives and twenty children; that he surfs breaks in the ocean that no one knows of; that he is immortal because no swell is too big and no wind too strong. On and on the legends and stories went and over the space of growing up one does not know where myth ends and truth begins.
Rose’s tenth grade boyfriend, Aki, had once whispered into her ear in the back of his Honda hatchback after making out outside of the saimin shop that he’d been out fishing with a group of friends on the back side of the island—where it was only cliff and no roads, no access—and that the Shark King was there that day:
We were in a small alcove on the Westside near K Bay where a group of us guys had been fishing. We were all cruising with the actual Shark King. For real. He was a normal guy too, but cool. We were all climbing back into the boat, which was small kine sloppy since we forgot the ladder. Benji offered to be a human ladder for everyone to get back up by having us step on his shoulders while he hung on the side. The Shark King held on to the side of the boat and stood on Benji’s shoulders, pushing Benji down deeper into the water of the bay until he lost his grip on the boat and just let the guy sink him all the way down. We were howling. The Shark King was roaring. Benji, underwater with the Shark King’s weight on his shoulders could hear him booming with laughter, his barrel chest full and free. Benji said he felt so happy at everyone’s happiness; there, under the water, with the weight of a great man on his shoulders, suspended in the deep blue, laughing so hard he inhaled half the Pacific. We sat there in the boat after and the Shark King talked story telling us the happy tales of his travels and we all felt so alive and free on that afternoon.
It was obvious from the way Aki told the story to Rose that the men loved and respected this man. But was it really the infamous Shark King or just a waterman Uncle from the Westside or a neighboring island? Rose had stared at Aki, reading his eyes and determined that he didn’t really know. How would one know, anyway?
The story that carried the most weight was the one where there were witnesses. It was the story that gave him the name; Shark King. A man was on his boat with his wives and daughters way out at sea somewhere in the South Pacific, swimming and enjoying the fish on the reef when a group of sharks approached. The other men were in the boat, shouting at the women and children, but it was too late for anyone to move.
The story went that the man faced the head shark in the water as it bore down and it became a battle of energy. As the shark approached the man, the shark diverted his path and swam under him as a sign of submission. The man said that the shark had agreed to make peace with him and become his protector god as long as the man protected the land and sea of the territory.
Because of this, the man was to be given autonomy with all other sharks, as the story goes. After that incident, word spread about the waterman, and the locals dubbed him the Shark King. Sightings became less frequent as the decades went on because the man lived a private life, mostly out at sea, or tucked away from the village view. A lot of people thought he was Tahitian and lived in Tahiti on his sailboat most of the time, only coming to Hawaii occasionally. No one really knew the truth from myth.
Rose was surprised to see him in and out of the vog like that on the outer reef edge, holding a fishing spear while balancing on a large paddle board, completely focused on his task.
Rose watched who she assumed was the Shark King until he slid out of view from the set coming in and she positioned herself for a wave and paddled into it. A long boarder careened into her, smashed his board and himself straight into her and gave her a bloody nose. The guy—who must have been fresh to the island—apologized as he flipped his neon green board upright.
Color is a funny thing, Rose thought. The color was the same neon green color of the shoestring her father used to tie Vivian’s jaw closed for the vigil. To keep it from opening as a corpse’s mouth will do. Rose thought it was just a bow in her grandmother’s hair, not seeing the whole string for two full days, thinking it was Vivian’s humor to go out with a neon green bow in her hair.
Rose’s nose stopped bleeding and she was able to stay in the water for another hour.
“Did you see Da Kine out there?” Tove asked Rose as they paddled in, motioning with her head to the outer reef.
“It was him, wasn’t it.”
“I think it was.” Tove looked at Rose with wide eyes, trying to conceive if it was really possible.
Rose was just as wide-eyed. “Where did he come from?”
“Yeah, really. Where does he come from?”
The women sat in the shallow of the inner reef and twisted their leashes around their fins and stripped down their rash guards.
“He must have a camp somewhere. Or a boat?”
“Maybe he lives in the Hawaiian housing district.”
“Maybe he spends a few days at sea and lives in his car the rest of the time or something.”
“Maybe he lives in Kalalau or Miloli’i.”
“I’ve heard that they find outlaws in the caves near the army base. That they find electrical outlets there that they plug TV’s into and watch movies from.”
“I’ve seen those you know. In high school.”
Tove splashed water in Rose’s face reminding her that she was the one who had shown her the caves in high school, and Rose splashed her back as they got out, both excited about the quiet mystery the island held.
“You know, Tove, if you think about it, I feel like our childhood and teen years were actually spent on adventures literally looking for the guy. Right? Wasn’t he the poetic reason behind all those midnight moon walks into Kalalau or getting someone to drop us down the Na Pali to paddle the coast, all the dawn patrols here, all the jungle hacking with machetes, swimming around the rock cliffs to the next private beach – jugglers to the queens bath, Midlers, the secret coves, the Westside – remember we did that at Allertons, like weren’t we always on the exact same quest? To see, and find out, and suss this guy? Like maybe we’d find clues, be the ones to actually discover his lair.”
Tove nodded. “He was our swan song and we didn’t even know it.”
The ladies smiled at the mainland term they’d heard on television.
Their ritual since childhood after surfing was always the same. They’d drop off their boards at their towels, grab their masks and go to the nearby keiki pool—a rock-walled pool the Hawaiians had made to make fishing easier, where children would play since the water was safe from the outside waves. The current also made the red dirt from the nearby river flow differently. Where they had surfed had been murky but here in the keiki pool the water was crystal clear.
Rose and Tove swam in small circular patterns in the pool, a sandy-bottomed section carved out between the reef and slimy rocks below. Rose dove down to the purple coral reef to look at a parrotfish’s vibrant scales rippling back and forth in the fractured sunlight. The fish was gnawing with its beak-lips at a swaying pile of algae that was attached to the reef by its stem. Rose kept her eye out for the eel she’d seen a week ago around this spot. It had been completely gold, something she’d never seen before, and it had circled her before darting out of sight. They could bite if you startled them, so she looked for him carefully before popping back up to talk with Tove.
“Hoi manong, aren’t you tired from that sesh, not to mention the whole last couple days?”
“Hoi manong. Yes. To say the least. It’s all a lot to process.”
The two used the Filipino slang hey brother from their childhood.
And the Pidgin English they’d grown up with, despite having to speak the Queen’s English at home.
Save for the heat it was a perfect day at the beach; the blue sky with white puffy clouds. Rose didn’t want to go. Where was there to go? Tove had to cover the store today, not her. Her next vigil shift wasn’t until evening time. She looked out where she’d last seen the Shark King wondering if he was still out there, whoever he was.
Who is he and why do I care so much?
With the sun’s climb ever higher, the water was now absolutely fluorescent electric-blue. The ocean tide pulled and swayed, in and out, back and forth all day long. Small schools of fish swam quickly by the slender legs of the ladies and realizing no food was coming slid off into another pocket of the reef.
The morning light was so bright that Rose squinted as she dried off and Tove grabbed her dark sunglasses to protect her eyes. The air was heavy as a Persian rug, instantly fogging Tove’s glasses against her cheeks.
The two picked up their towels, shook off the chunky sand and headed for the path. As they walked, the top of their heads burned from the sun and the bottoms of their feet burned from the sand, and as they hiked up the hill the air became heavier and heavier with water molecules.
The palms slowed and even the waves seemed to stall. As they walked up the path Rose felt odd—as if her breath had stopped and her adrenaline exploded. It was an instant feeling, one that made her think she could telepathically feel that right at this moment something was happening to someone close to her. Something big. Maybe something bad. Rose stopped midway up the path and turned around. She surveyed the beach, reef and ocean scene.
No, it’s fine, she thought to herself. Perhaps she was just sleep deprived with too much sun.
Rose walked forward but then, again, stopped in the middle of the narrow dirt path and turned around, swinging her board with her, to look about. She could feel the connection from the invisible psychic strings attaching her to Tove and Tove to her and her to the water and the trees.
Tove was walking in front of Rose and talking mindlessly about their plans with the Commune Boys that night. Tove was very beautiful; a mix of French Polynesian-Japanese and Scandinavian-Welsh, and all the boys were deeply in love with her despite her having settled on Luke. Tove took a minute to notice that Rose had stopped.
Rose proceeded to stand there in the middle of the hidden dirt path with the overgrown bougainvillea, agitated. Trying to feel it out.
Tove motioned to the surrounding island cliff-side and shrugged her shoulders, trying to catch her breath; irritated that Rose had stopped.
Rose, not sure of what it could be, if anything, continued walking.
But what if that was actually the Shark King?
Like, the actual guy. The one we have looked for our whole lives; that our whole childhood myth was centered around. Shouldn’t I at least find out? Couldn’t today be the day? To satisfy the need to know for the rest of my life? What was a small sunburn and another long paddle in the face of knowing if the Shark King was real or not? It was only the longest standing myth the island held. What if it was a sign from our grandmother just passed over? Sending some kind of message. Or gift. Shouldn’t I find out? These were Rose’s thoughts.
Rose shouted to Tove up ahead. “Tove! I’m going to paddle back out. I need to know if that really is Da Kine guy. Don’t you just want to know? Once and for all?”
Tove stared at Rose, and then out to the sea, squinting in the bright light of the raging Hawaiian sunshine, easily a UV14 day. She stuck out her lower jaw and clenched her teeth as she considered just what she was passing up by not already having paddled out there and sussing it.
Rose squinted back at her. “Why not.”
Tove remembered she had to work. “You go. I have to open The Lilikoi.”
“Tove Kaze, what if this is the ultimate moment of your whole life? I wouldn’t care if you opened the store late. Your call but you’ll have to live with it forever.” Rose called out her cousin, mildly amused at her own schoolmarm chastisement.
Tove ignored her. “I’ll see you at the farm later. Be smart.” Tove packed up her truck, apprehensive that Rose would in fact find the Shark King out there and she was going to miss out on a major moment of their lives together. It did seem like it could be him. But it’s basically impossible, Tove thought to herself, looking for her keys. He doesn’t exist.