A FULL moon rose from the sea. Strands of light reached across the vast Pacific, caressing an old man’s face as he sat in the bow of an outrigger canoe. The old man studied the moon until it hovered above the horizon. He lifted an arm and signaled to move ahead.
Songoree, the young man in the stern, dug his paddle into the dark water, driving the canoe through the channel and beyond the mouth of Neue Bay.
A fresh wind drifted over the bay from the northeast. It whispered as it flowed over the canoe and fell silent as it swept back over the channel. The only other sound was the splash of the paddle.
The old man signaled to halt.
Songoree lifted his paddle. The boat began to drift with the tide. He watched the old one taste the air, feel the wind caress his cheek, note which direction the boat moved. Songoree’s gaze shifted to the water. He listened. Up ahead, he heard the faint splash of sharks as they pursued their prey. He saw the phosphorescent wakes the night hunters carved through the inky water. Neue Bay was a safe place to swim during the day, he knew, but at night the big sharks, the dangerous fish, swam over the reef to hunt close to shore. These fish had no fear, and they were feared by everything that swam.
The old man smiled. He motioned in a direction east of the boat’s heading.
Songoree checked the position of the dim glow of lights far off the stern. He dug his paddle into the water once again, making an adjustment in course.
Moonlight silvered the strong lines of Songoree’s bare chest and lean torso. His hair shone blue and swept over his shoulders, held in place by coconut oil and a wreath made of Maile leaves. A single-strand, pink coral necklace hung around his neck, and a blood-red tapa cloth hugged him from waist to knees. The dark cloth blended with the shadows in the boat, making it appear as though Songoree was an extension of the canoe, some bizarre sea creature hunting the perimeter of the reef.
Over the wind’s murmur came a faint pulse, which announced they were nearing their destination. Songoree sighed. The journey had his arms and back burning. He had kept a strong pace until now, to prove his mettle to the old man, but he knew he couldn’t maintain his bold tempo much longer. The growing sound of surf renewed his hope that his strength would last.
This mission, Songoree thought, is impossible even for an extraordinary man, much less for mere islanders like us. But I have no choice and neither does Grandfather. We have stepped onto the path, and our only option now is to take the next step, even though failure is certain. Grandfather has the insane idea that a man with a pure vision, a Gandhi, can change the entire human experience. It’s true that Grandfather is remarkable. He holds knowledge passed down from generations of island shamans, but he is still just one old man, and perhaps a crazy old man at that.
Songoree tried to lift his spirits, reminding himself that the mission would soon be over, that they would perform the ceremony, and that would be the end of it. But a stubborn fear lodged in his heart. The weight of it crushed him, making it difficult for him to breathe. It was more than fear of failure. Failing would prove once and for all that his years of training with his Grandfather had been wasted, that the old man was no great shaman, merely a sham.
Songoree shook the thought from his mind, but the fear remained locked in his heart. He gritted his teeth, dug his paddle into the water, and leaned on it. He paddled another thirty minutes before the sound of breakers boomed like thunder. He knew that landing the canoe in huge surf was hazardous even in daylight, and he had never attempted such a feat at night. If they capsized, Songoree would need to pull the old man through the breakers.
Alert, his fatigue dissolved. Beads of sweat coated his face while his teeth chattered. He fought to maneuver the canoe through the swells and past the fingers of reef clawing at the surface.
The boat’s aft rose on a wall of water. Now the canoe was almost perpendicular, and Songoree paddled a frenzied pace as they sped toward shore.
Water sprayed Songoree’s face. The salty mist blinded him. He maneuvered on instinct alone while the wave, dying around him, rushed toward the sand. He blinked his eyes until his vision returned.
The old man sat in the bow, still as a statue.
Songoree beached the craft below a rocky point that defined the northern crest of the island. As he bounded from the boat, he glanced at Grandfather’s face, expecting some amount of recognition for his skill, but the old man showed nothing.
After hauling the outrigger onto a patch of sand, Songoree took the old man’s arm.
“Let me help you, Grandfather.”
The old man strained to a standing position. He paused while his body adjusted to movement again after sitting for so long a time.
Grandfather had deep-set eyes the color of black coral, and his face was cracked like the glaze on ancient pottery. A feathered cape covered his thin body, its brilliant colors dulled by the dim light. His silver hair fell to the middle of his back. Around the old man’s neck hung his ceremonial necklace—a simple piece of carved jade bordered by a string of sharks’ teeth, trophies he had ripped from the mouths of his prey in his younger years.
Grandfather bent to grab his staff from the canoe. It towered three feet above his head, and carved into the dark wood were faces of the Island Gods—Kane, Ku, Lono, and Pele.
The old man’s bloodline reached back to the first group of Polynesian settlers who discovered this fleet of Pacific islands. His family had migrated to this largest and most southern island before even the first of the great wars. They settled near the Paopao River in a valley called Waimanu, a place known for its spiritual power. Now the old man had gone beyond his eightieth year and had outlived Kushi, his wife of forty years, his only son, and one of his two daughters.
Songoree, the old man’s grandson, was now his sole companion and caretaker.
Only a few islanders knew the old man’s true name, and no one but Songoree knew his spiritual name. Songoree, like everyone else on the island, simply called him “Grandfather.”
Songoree busied himself with lighting a torch, which proved difficult in the breeze. Once lit, the red-yellow flames danced on the wind. It cast a shimmering light on Grandfather’s cape. The feathers came alive. The effect made Songoree stare wide-eyed, mesmerized.
Grandfather laid a hand on Songoree’s neck. “Focus.” His voice grew firm. “No monkey-boy business tonight. The fate of mankind hangs on what happens here. Stay focused, or all is lost. Now fetch my helmet.”
Songoree retrieved a carved gourd from the outrigger. It was adorned with feathers and shark’s teeth. The old man donned the helmet, and except for the two gaping eyeholes, it covered his entire head.
A sharp beak was carved between the eyeholes, and set below that were two rows of shark’s teeth, upper and lower, making him appear like a cross between a bird of prey and a shark. Carved lines emulated overlapping feathers covering the sharp angles of a shark’s facial structure. The lines were simple yet forceful, projecting an image of wild savagery. Only Grandfather’s long hair and bony legs extending below the cape showed signs of his being human.
Songoree examined the mask. It suggested the outline of a human face within the facial structure, as if the mask were meant to reveal the animal savagery within human nature, or perhaps man’s temperament within nature’s most fierce predators. Either way, he couldn’t dismiss the feeling that the mask was a projection of his own essence.
“Quickly.” Grandfather grabbed the torch. He hurried across the beach and on to the lava beds. They traveled as swiftly as Grandfather’s legs would move. After a considerable distance, they stopped where the barren rock skirted a rainforest.
Honeycreeper finches and hooting Pueho owls called from the canopy.
Grandfather nodded his head toward the trees.
Songoree dashed into the undergrowth. He returned a few minutes later carrying several palm fronds under one arm and a bundle of sticks under the other. Grandfather held the torch low to the ground as Songoree arranged the palm leaves so the tips all touched at one point and fanned out, creating a circle atop a smooth spot on the lava rock. Songoree made two more trips to the forest to gather enough wood for the night’s ceremonial fire.
He built a pile of sticks in the center of the palm circle and stepped away while Grandfather buried the torch in the pile. A flame caught hold. Grandfather passed his staff to Songoree before stepping into the circle of palm fronds to kneel before the fire.
“I enter the circle of life and bow to the light.”
Songoree studied the dancing flames. Fire, the symbol of civilization. Mastering fire is what set man apart from other life forms.
Songoree entered the circle from the opposite side. With the staff held high, he echoed his grandfather’s words. He looked over his shoulder to ensure that the bundle of firewood was within easy reach. It was his job to tend the fire throughout the ceremony.
He watched the old man check the position of the moon, taste the air, listen to the breeze rustling the nearby palms. Everything is perfect, Songoree thought. Why is he waiting?
Grandfather pulled a sharkskin pouch from beneath his cape. He opened it, grabbed a handful of ground roots, and sprinkled it on the fire. Blue sparks erupted from the flames while pungent smoke rushed on the wind toward the trees.
“Let the herbs of this sacred land call the Island Gods,” Grandfather said. He drew several offerings from the pouch and laid them beside the fire: a flask of rice wine, polished seashells, sweet candies, a handful of rice, and a folded leaf holding a purplish mound of poi.
“Great Kane, God of all that is, and Pele, fiery Goddess who shapes these sacred islands, accept these gifts.”
The firelight glowed on Grandfather’s helmet. It showed the mask’s intricate carving and made the old man’s eyes gleam red inside two eyeholes.
Grandfather slapped the smooth lava with his right hand, thumping the rock with a particular rhythm. He nodded at Songoree.
Songoree lifted the staff and brought it down on the rock, again and again, copying the same rhythm Grandfather made with his hand. Once the beat was established, Grandfather stopped, but Songoree continued to pound out the cadence. The thumping, Songoree knew, was Grandfather’s notion of how to attract the island spirits.
After twenty minutes, Grandfather signaled Songoree to stop. He tilted his head toward the rainforest, straining to listen with every fiber of his being.
Songoree studied the old man’s degree of concentration with awe. Grandfather signaled for him to continue, and Songoree took up the thumping once again. The vibration of the staff made a weird moaning noise as it struck the rock. With every beat Songoree felt a pulsation run up his arm and dissipate into his chest.
After an hour, Grandfather whispered across the fire, “Don’t turn around. Power spirits have come. They’re behind you at the edge of the forest.”
Songoree didn’t believe it, but he heard an eerie screech behind him. A shiver raced up his spine. It took all his will not to turn and look. He kept his eyes focused on Grandfather.
“Keep thumping,” Grandfather whispered. “Be ready for anything.”
Grandfather lifted his arms over his helmet and chanted in an ancient dialect. His words came slowly, as if he were singing a love song. His baritone voice sounded vibrant for one so old.
Songoree felt the mystical pull of the words. He understood most, but not all of the phrases. He still had much to learn of the old language and ceremonies. He knew enough to follow along as Grandfather recounted the history of the island people, countless generations migrating from the heart of Asia, across the Pacific, to these islands.
The chanting continued for hours. As Grandfather sang, his delicate fingers wove through the air, as if they formed the words out of wind and mist.
Songoree, mesmerized by their movement, glanced at his own hand holding the staff. His were the hands of a twenty-year-old—strong, yet awkward by comparison. He wondered if he would ever command such grace. The thought made him realize that he was real, not merely consciousness witnessing the ceremony from the mist. He shook his head to drive the thoughts away and reminded himself to focus. I can’t disappoint Grandfather, not tonight. This means too much to him.
The pile of firewood dwindled as time bled by. Over the eastern horizon, the stars faded. As Grandfather chanted, he pulled a bone-handled knife from beneath his cape and held both hands over the fire—one hand held high, the other gripping the knife. The blade flashed in the firelight as Grandfather slid the razor edge across his left palm. Blood streamed into the flames.
Songoree heard a noise behind him. It sounded like heavy claws scraping on rock. Whatever crouched behind him was drawn by the smell of blood. Fear overtook him. He began to beat the ground in a furious tempo. Grandfather signaled him to slow down, but he felt an icy breath on the back of his neck. He dropped the staff, and it clattered on the lava stone.
Grandfather waved his bloody hand and hissed, “Pull yourself together.”
Songoree couldn’t help turning his head to see what was breathing on his neck. As he did, an immense shadow lunged over his left shoulder. It landed thirty feet away on a boulder. Songoree felt a tremendous jolt. He fell onto his back, shrieking.
Grandfather signaled him to continue thumping, but he could only stare in astonishment at the shadow. Songoree was not altogether sure whether it had leapt over him or vaulted out of his body. His body had certainly felt something leap. He stared intently with eyes wide open and saw a blackness that didn’t have any visible boundaries, but slowly, a silhouette crouching on the rock emerged from the mass that was superimposed on the night sky. It took the form of a big game cat—huge, awesomely silent. The density of the shadow’s blackness paled the sky around it.
Grandfather slapped the ground with his hand again, pounding out the same rhythm as before. Songoree managed to fight through his fear. He scrambled back to a sitting position, lifted the staff, and thumped the cadence.
Grandfather chanted once again. As his voice rose in volume, Songoree joined in.
The immensity is Kane,
root, rock, sand, and light, is he.
Kane is within.
He took hold of the Manaiakalani Hook
and raised the blessed Islands of Hawaii
from the ocean floor. He scattered
stars across the night sky, and
holds the sun by day.
Kane is never still, all is moving.
Kane compels the people,
people press the earth.
All is fluid, ever changing.
We are the witnesses.
It is the time of the Speaker.
It is the time of the Speaker.
Complete are the foundations.
Complete are land, water, and heavens.
Complete are bird, fish, and beast.
Now comes the time of man.
Bring forth the Speaker.
Bring forth the Speaker.
Their voices hushed. The wind died. The dense shadow dissipated, leaving no trace.
Songoree wondered whether he had actually seen anything there; had fear created something from his imagination? He glared at Grandfather, silently pleading for help to understand what had happened. All he could see were the eyes within the mask’s holes reflecting the firelight.
Everything became still, as if the entire universe was holding its breath. A bird called from the trees. In the distance, the sound of surf rose in a steady pulse, like the beating of a heart.
A breath of wind fluttered the palms. Songoree felt a growing breeze on his skin. Now the wind traveled in a different direction, from the rainforest out over the sea. Songoree smelled the sweet odor of jungle frangipani mixed with the stench of rotting vegetation.
Grandfather struggled to stand.
Songoree hurried to help him to his feet. He handed the staff back to Grandfather, then pulled the red tapa cloth from his waist, ripped away a long strip, and wrapped it around the old man’s bleeding hand. Naked and exhausted, Songoree looped one arm around his Grandfather, supporting the old man’s weight. They turned back toward the beach.
“Fool! You almost killed us both. Never show fear in front of power.”
“Sorry, Grandfather. Will he come?”
Grandfather removed his helmet. “We have performed the ceremony. It is done.”
“But will it work? Will he come?”
Grandfather struggled to walk, willing his cramping legs to move. “Your mind has too much future, not enough faith.”
With Songoree supporting Grandfather, they staggered back to the canoe as the red dawn painted their beloved island with sanguine light.