I returned to the tiny pacific island of Kauai twelve years after I had left it with my mother. The reason to move back was simple: the slow island pace suited me. I got a job as a line cook in a busy restaurant within a week of getting here. The money was modest but I was happy as my dad let me stay in a coffee shack on his property and that meant no rent. In my free time, which I had plenty, I built a covered outdoor shower, fixed the roof and put in new screens to make the coffee shack habitable. The island had accepted me with open arms.
Socializing on such a small island is effortless. People are excited to see a new face and within a month of moving here, I knew almost everyone in the sleepy north shore town of Haena. Though western civilization has changed the way most hawaiians live, my father and his family still live by the ancient hawaiian way. Pa is the caretaker of Limahuli botanical garden and before him Grandpa was in charge of the upkeep, and before him for centuries his ancestors lived at the feet of the mountain.
Grandpa worked in the garden everyday and lived alone in a cottage deep in the garden and up the hill. He was a man of few words but had a very infectious smile. Tourists, for some reason, always wanted to get a photo taken with him. I think they just liked his long flowing white beard that reached his belly. Years ago, Grandpa used to be an ordained minister and married hundreds of people. He doesn’t do that anymore. I’m sure he would still like to but I don’t think he’s capable, especially the way he sometimes stops and just stares in the distance in the middle of having a conversation. Everybody in the town knows that Grandpa zones out for a little bit every now and then.
My life was mellow. Four days a week I worked at the restaurant and sometimes on my days off I helped Pa with maintaining the garden. Pa made an effort to teach me what he knew best; hunting wild pigs, catching fish and playing the ukulele. I tried my best to learn it all.
On a hot summer day when Grandpa didn’t show up for work I thought he was just taking it easy. Pa had a concerned look on his face but he didn’t say much the whole day. In the evening, Pa came up to me and said that we need to check up on Grandpa. On the way to the cottage, my heart felt a little heavy as if expecting the worst. After all Grandpa was an old man of eighty-one and wasn’t going to live forever. On reaching the cottage, Pa knocked on the door and to my relief, Grandpa opened the door instantly and commanded us to come in quickly. He slammed the door shut behind us.
I could see the relief on my Pa’s face. Grandpa was grinning and said, “You boys not gonna believe what I found?”
“What did you find, Pa?”
“You gotta see it to believe it,” said Grandpa and pointed to the right. There it was. A ten foot tall master piece. The finest tiki I’ve ever seen. It was carved out of dark ash colored Koa wood and had red glittering stones as its eyes. Hundreds of small shining gemstones studded in its crown gave it an aura of royalty. Pa and I silently moved closer to the tiki and observed its intricate craftsmanship.
“Don’t touch it. He don’t like being touched,” said Grandpa just as I was about to place my hand on the tiki.
“Where you find this thing Pa?” asked my father.
“Don’t remember now. I think it was here close by,” said Grandpa.
“He looks heavy. How you got it in here? Carry em’?” asked Pa.
“He walks,” said Grandpa with a grin.
Pa smiled nervously while I laughed out loud and Grandpa frowned at us.
“What are we going to do with this thing?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Grandpa. “Tell nobody. The government will take him away, the feds and all will put him in a museum or something. He don’t like that. He told me. Tell no one about him. He like stay here with me.”
“Okay,” said Pa. “You wanna keep him, keep him.”
“Good,” said Grandpa loudly.
Soon after, we drove to the bar in the town across the river. The bar was packed with tourists and more were queuing up in front of the hostess to be seated. As always, we snuck through the back door and stood at the end of the bar. Aunty Pua were entertaining the tourists by playing guitars and singing Tiny bubbles. Pa and Grandpa, after pounding a beer each, got up on the stage. Pa played the guitar and Grandpa sang a Hawaiian song. The tourists loved it and cheered and clapped and wanted Grandpa to sing another one. So he did. I wished it was a quiet night and I could talk to the cute bartender.
The next morning, Grandpa was on a mission. He had a list in his hand and was gathering leaves. He carefully examined each leaf before plucking and throwing it in the bag over his shoulder. When I asked him what he was up to, he said he was making a potion. I helped him pick the rest of the leaves on his list as I saw he was exhausted from the effort.
Within a month, Grandpa went from being a weak old man to a strong man. He gained quite a bit of muscle, shaved off his beard and his skin looked smooth and tanned. The two lines running across his forehead were the only signs of his age, otherwise, he looked as strong and fit as my Pa, who was fifty at the time. Grandpa told me that he bonked the cute bartender that I had a crush on. He didn’t know about my crush and I thought it was funny.
I was there when Grandpa told Pa that he wanted to cut down the oldest, most beautiful Koa tree on the property. Pa was livid but there was a manic energy in Grandpa’s eyes and Pa knew he had no other choice. Thus, Grandpa cut down that tree and started making a tiki out of it, working like a madman from dawn to dusk. His hands worked as if he was born to do that kind of artistry. The new tiki was a female and a foot shorter than the other one. I still remember the last time I saw the tikis, they stood side by side, looking magnanimous, even a bit godly.
And then they were gone. The tikis mysteriously disappeared or were stolen. Grandpa said he was sleeping when they left and visited him in his dream. He said the prince had thanked him and gone to live on top of the mountain with his bride. Pa and I thought Grandpa hid the tikis somewhere and we searched the whole property hoping to find them, but had no luck.
Later that week, Grandpa told us that he wanted to go to the mountain peak. The three of us set off for the mountain at dawn and made it to the top in about four hours. At the summit, Grandpa told us about the old hawaiian tradition of Oahi. Men lit papala and hua wood on fire and threw it to the sea. The flaming pieces of wood, aided by strong winds, sailed to the sea where men in canoes waited to catch the embers. The royal ceremony was dangerously spectacular and thrilling to watch.
After telling us about Oahi, Grandpa grinned and looked up at the sky as if listening to someone. He then asked us if it was better to fade out or shine like the fire. Pa and I had no answer. Still grinning, Grandpa turned around and ran away from us and did not slow down as he approached the cliff end. Pa and I ran after him but before we could reach him, he had jumped off the cliff like a fire in the sky. We saw him drop down to the ocean with arms outstretched like a bird flying in peace, and then there was tiny splash in the water way below in the sea.
Heartbroken, numb, and traumatized, Pa and I made it to the bottom as soon as we could. We were determined to find his body and give him a proper funeral and headed straight to the ocean. The news of Grandpa jumping from the mountain had spread like fire and as we pulled in the beach parking lot, a lifeguard rushed to our truck and said they found him. We ran across the lot and on to the beach. There he was, surrounded by paramedics and lifeguards, telling them a story about the biggest fish he had ever caught. As usual, Grandpa had a grin on his face.
Tourists still love to take photos with him because he talks a lot more these days. Grandpa doesn’t remember about the tikis at all. I don’t know if he doesn’t want to talk about it or he simply wasn’t there the whole time the tiki prince was visiting us.