Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In the Eye of a Fish

[Congratulations to Dawn Fraser Kawahara for her first-place finish in our 2012 Creative Competition.]

This is a tale, true as true, dear readers (listeners). The events took place some quarter of a century ago here on Kaua`i, but this story is timeless. It is about something that could happen in any time, any place–as long as there are fish in the sea and people who seek knowledge through their inner eye and heart, and know the secret of entering the aloha circle of love and life, and giving freely. . .

A woman–let’s call her Lisa–walked each day at the shoreline. On one particular day, picture her walking along a long curve of beach fringed by ironwood trees, enjoying the feel of sand under her feet and the trade winds fanning her sun-warmed skin. Can you smell the salt brine, hear the sound of the curling waves? What a place, she thought to herself.

Several fishermen were casting in the area. Lisa made sure not to disturb them, nor to ask questions as she passed. She had learned this made for bad luck fishing. One fisherman was casting as he walked, overtaking her. He was very dark, sun bronzed, and smiled as he passed. She smiled back, then went back to her own thoughts.

As she walked, she was hoping to receive inspiration for a story that was forming in her mind. She wanted it to be a gift for her husband’s mother, who had visited them some months back. (Let’s make her name Marie, and Lisa’s husband’s name Jack.) Before leaving the island, Marie had quietly told Jack and her that she had an inoperable cancer. The time to bring the story into being had come with a call from Jack’s sister saying that their mother had grown much weaker since returning home, that she was getting her affairs in order before things worsened.

Lisa thought back to the torrent of previously unsaid words that had poured from Marie one day as they’d sat companionably in folding beach chairs, watching the endless flow of waves. Lisa and Jack had listened carefully to all the things Marie said she’d held back from doing in her life. Their connection had deepened with the understanding that came, even as they were saddened by the encroaching sickness. Lisa wanted to use her story-telling talent to ease Marie’s regrets, and the pain that was sure to come. She wanted her story to enfold the good woman, lifting her spirit like a cool, blue wave during the difficult time at hand. She would need to find form in a fitting character and scenario.

Then, one day while she was floating in a sea pool, the idea of using a small, gray fish to represent Marie had come to her. This fish needed to swim its way into the perfect story. Her question, as a storyteller: How to frame the story of a fish who seems nondescript next to the more flamboyantly colored tropical fish, yet kindly–and meekly–places the needs of others before her own. always being supportive, and never claiming any time to fulfill her own dreams and desires?

This question–yet unanswered–was foremost in her mind as a set of strong breakers churned around Lisa’s strong calves. She moved a little higher up the sand, and looked to the mountain that loomed over the bay–the same mountain that had drawn her to Kaua`i–dark and strong, radiating an earth energy that always renewed her. No matter where she was on the island, even if she didn’t actually see it, she always felt the presence of this mountain, which seemed to represent a higher power, Always, when she needed a story, the event or events would come. She trusted in this as she trusted in "her" mountain, and in Jack.

So she walked, and breathed deeply, and drank in the sensations that were the gifts of nature; she gave thanks for all these riches in her life. The hard-packed sand by the river mouth had changed to the soft, sink-in kind, and Lisa concentrated on placing each foot; her heart beat an accompanying rhythm. Two haughty sister fish images were now forming in her mind. The little spotted fish was getting teased and taunted by her two sisters, just as Marie had been all her life. But what would give the plain fish a magic touch, a secret strength?

She gasped, because right then a high wave lifted a dark object and practically smacked her with it. When the wave receded, there lay a fish. It lay completely still. At first glance, Lisa noticed it had a horn, like a magical unicorn horn; it was greenish-gray, the size of a large platter. She had never seen a fish like this.

Other moments of magic had lightened her life over the years, but Lisa was still somewhat shocked at the timing of the event with her thoughts. She skimmed the waters of the bay through narrowed eyes, wondering if a predator might have chased this prince of a fish onto shore. There was no shadow or sign of disturbance, just the measured sets of oncoming waves coming over the reef as high tide approached. Lisa saw the fisherman who had passed her earlier trudging back toward her. He was still a way off, but he was staring. She looked back to the fish, which still did not flail. His golden eye looked so deeply into her own that she held her breath.

You just don’t throw back gifts of this sort, she thought. To do so would be to reject the magic in the world.

What do you think, dear readers (listeners)? If you like, we can talk after the story. . .

Lisa figured she would have time to think this through later. For now, she needed to get this fish into a safe place. She knelt beside the fish and examined him closely. She grasped him tightly above his branching tail fins, adjusting her grip as she felt sharp, bony points, then carefully carried him, retracing her steps. She placed him under her car in the shade, and turned back to the ocean. She had time for a quick swim before going home.

When she came back, the fisherman was waiting, squatting beside the fish–her fish.

"How’d you get this?" he asked, rising and picking up his fishpole in one fluid motion.

She told him. He let out a long, low whistle and stepped back from her.

"You must be some kine magic lady," he said. "This, a kala. Hardly ever lucky enough to catch."

She stared at the fish, not knowing what to say.

The fisherman went on. "Kala, they hard fighters, stay outside the reef–take a lot of pounding. Feed on kala limu–seaweed, you know the kine? Grows on the rocks. Where the water breaks. Green, slippery. Like long ribbons."

Lisa nodded, told him she had no idea how or why the fish had come, but she was going to take it home. She opened the car door, and he helped her lift the kala and put it on the floor mat.

"Are they good to eat?" Lisa asked.

He nodded vigorously. "Pulehu this ‘un. Bake, over hot coals. Wash first, then–you got ti-leaves?–good. Wrap ‘em in mebbe five, like a package." He moved his hands back and forth in front of him, to show her. "Then, the coals."

"What about cleaning him first?" she asked.

"Nuh-uh. No clean," he assured her. "Peel the skin off." He made the motion. "After."


He nodded. "After–all cooked. Dark meat–like duck. Very good. Can lift meat from guts."

"The guts?" She felt her eyebrows lifting.

"The guts," he repeated, grinning. ""That’s how you fix kala."

"Thanks," said Lisa, sliding in behind the wheel and closing the door. "I’ll tell my husband."

"No problem," he said, stepping back and giving her a kind of a salute. "Eh, Magic Lady. I see you back here bye-‘n-bye. Take you along as my good luck, okay?"

"Sure," she said, waving. She was still thinking, Cook him, guts in. Wow!

She couldn’t wait to see the expression on Jack’s face when she told him how this fish–this kala prince–came to her. She couldn’t wait to see the expression on the face of their friend, who had been printing Hawaiian fish as an art form, that is, when she was lucky enough to get them. (Let’s call her Anne, okay?)

When Jack came home to grab some tools he’d forgotten and refill his water bottle, Lisa showed him her fish.

"Christ! You might have cut your hand off," said Jack, seeing the knife-like bone spurs. She told him the story. When she got to the part about the fisherman’s comment, Jack chuckled, then kissed her. "You’ve done it this time. This even outdoes your sign of the breeching whales." His blue eyes shone and his approving grin played right to her heart.

"Before cooking this magic kala, you know where it has to go?" she asked.

He thought a moment. "To Anne, right?"

She nodded. "This might be the fish print that gets her work into the gallery. She’s been hurting for money, and some sales would help."

"Let’s take it over after work."

The kala lay in the cooler, the ice rattling as they jounced along in Jack’s big, brown truck. The rest of Marie’s story came jouncing into Lisa’s head, another gift. She didn’t want to tell anyone until she had it completely finished.

"You’re still smiling about your fish," Jack said, glancing at her.

"You’re right. I still don’t believe it. I’ve never caught a fish in my life, more or less had one come and present itself at my feet, giving itself to me."

Anne heard the truck arrive, came to the screen door. "What’s in the cooler," she asked, holding the door open for them to come in.

By way of an answer, Jack set it down and removed the lid. Lisa drew out the fish with a flourish. She and Jack were not disappointed by what they saw from their friend’s expression. Anne reached for the fish, and Jack quickly intercepted.

"Watch out. This guy has knives in his tail."

She drew back and asked, "What is it? You caught it?"

Lisa recounted her story.

Anne carefully and reverently touched the kala’s horn. "I’d like to try to print him."

"Great," said Lisa, "Have you got a big plastic bag?"

As she eased the kala into the bag, she lifted out a bottle of white wine she’d slipped in underneath him. "Let’s all have a glass of wine and toast this wonderful gift."

Anne placed the gift fish in the refrigerator, then turned to get three glasses. "To magic," said Lisa. The three friends clinked glasses and sipped.

"To us," said Jack, raising his glass, and then, with a faraway look in his eyes, "and to my mom. May she pass peacefully when the time comes."

After a little bit, Anne raised her glass again, said, "To friendship, and unexpected gifts." They stood in the narrow space of her island kitchen, sipping and communing quietly, each thinking their own thoughts until Anne said, "How about you both come back? After I print him, I’ll give the magic fish a good wash-down, get all the paint off him, and we’ll cook him for dinner, the way you said."

"Deal," said Jack.

Two nights later they were back, admiring Anne’s prints while the coals were heating. Anne had clothes-pinned the rice paper to the matchstick blinds and her livingroom lamp shades, giving them a glowing effect with the sunset beyond, and then the lights being turned on.

"These are, well. . . really good prints," said Lisa.

"You gave me such a wonderful fish to work with," said Anne. "I felt like the magic came right on through."

"The sheen on these–how’d you get that effect?" Jack asked her.

"A little experiment: I tried mixing in a metallic gold into the blue and green–oh, don’t worry. It was still tempera paint, and washed off."

"No worry. Anyway, I like the way these turned out."

"Me, too," said Lisa. "They’re your best prints, yet."

Anne told them that the gallery owner wanted to see the kala prints, and all her fish prints, the following week. "All I have left to work on now is the eyes. That’ll be a challenge."

They went out to watch Jack put the fish on the grill in it’s ti-leaf bundle. Smoke and a good aroma almost immediately began to pour out of the vent holes of the lid.

Everything worked just as Lisa’s fisherman had said. Jack grilled it until it was flaky tender, peeled off the skin, and carefully removed the meat onto a serving plate. The three friends ate slowly. The kala was rich and savory with added butter, garlic and ginger.

"This meal–well, it’s like a ritual," said Lisa.

Jack agreed, and Anne said, "It seems we’re taking some elusive, mystical element into ourselves," said Anne.

Jack rolled his eyes, then refilled their wine glasses.

Anne told them she’d made several special prints for them, one to go to Jack’s mother with Lisa’s story she knew was developing. She mentioned that while she brushed on paint, one side of the kala appeared to have a slash that didn’t break through the tough skin. "Do you think a shark was after him, that he was frightened to death and came to shore on his dying breath?"

"I didn’t have a sense of that," said Lisa. "Anyway, not the fear," Lisa said.

After dinner, Jack took the remains of the fish out to the back wall, an offering for the wild kitties who had come to know that such treats were available from time to time. The next day, Anne found the remains–only tail and fins and skeleton, licked clean–out under the paperbark tree. Before she tossed them over the hill into the trees, she noticed the kala’s skeleton was very different from those of the other fishes, showing a strong yoke of cartilage along the box-like framework of its bones. She wondered if Lisa would bring something about that into her story, about how being a rough water fish, the kala developed the ability and the body that could take a battering that would do in the other fishes that lived in protected waters.

What do you think, my readers (listeners)? Would she?

Let’s find out. . .

Several mornings later, Lisa stopped in unexpectedly at the office where Anne worked. "Sorry to interrupt," she said, handing over a sheaf of pages. "I just had to bring you my story–I’m so excited. Maybe you can read it this evening." She blew a kiss as she exited, said over her shoulder, "Call me, huh? And tell me what happened at the gallery."

Anne treated herself by reading it at her lunch break. She became thoroughly engrossed in the story of a kala prince who is injured and needs care. And whom else but the kind little gray fish comes to care for him and heal him in a protected tide pool before he returns to the wild side of the reef. Lisa had woven in the vain sister in the person of a spotted, preening fish, and a belittling sister who shows her true colors by mocking their plainer sister.

"It’s a good story," she told Lisa, calling after work. "You wove it so cleverly. Marie is going to love it, and understand, too."

"You really think so?"

"Yes," said Anne. "She may cry, at first, but I think they’ll be healing tears. She will see so much about herself reflected in the story–things you probably could never say in ordinary words."

"That’s what I want the story to do. Jack’s going to fly over, to see her through the end, and he’s taking it with him."

Anne offered for Jack to take along a print of the kala, too, but she was hesitant about painting in the eye, the finishing touch. "In your story, you say it’s a golden eye, and I’ve been painting the eyes black, like I was taught. They have seemed flat, and dead. That’s why I’ve held off."

"Don’t worry," Lisa said. "I read somewhere that the masters just pictured any eye they were painting as if it reflected back the picture that it was seeing. Then it looks real, and alive."

"Hmnn. . . I’ll give it a try."

That very evening. Anne mixed her paints a new way, swirling some gold mixed with yellow, white, and a dab of gray together. She studied her own eyes in the mirror, pictured the kala’s eyes, then practiced curved strokes on a narrow strip of rice paper, leaving white space to give the impression of light, and life. Last, she followed her urge to add the tiniest dot of scarlet. And it worked.

But, dear friends, we should return now to the last threads of Lisa’s story. . .

Anne had read how it was the shy, selfless fish that was touched in gratitude by the prince’s golden horn, and this, before all the other fishes of the pool. Like a transforming wand, or the kiss of a fairytale, her small, shy fish’s life from then on changed; she was marked to receive special honor and respect, and love, until the end of her days, and then beyond, as she was to be remembered. So, for those who guessed "Yes" earlier, the shy fish is elevated into this honorable place by no other than the brave prince, himself–the kala who knows that those who learn to survive in spite of thoughtless and cruel people and difficult circumstances, who learn to overcome the battering and pain that come with the roughest waves of life, and to develop strength because of it, as well as remain kind and giving, are the real heroes.

Now we are getting to the center of this story focused on a gift where the energy is not held, but passed on, and on: first, Lisa wanting to give Marie a healing story; then the kala, giving itself at Lisa’s feet; next, Jack and Lisa sharing that gift with Anne, who would paint and print beautiful impressions of the kala; of course, the kala fed them all–even the wild kitties were nourished. Then, as the gifts go forward without expectation, the kala works his way into a story, a story that will teach an important principle. This amazing fish also ends up being framed and having his pictures hung on several walls–including Marie’s, as Jack takes the last vigil at his mother’s bedside. (Any of you who have ever lost a mother, or loved one, will understand the depth of feeling that accompanies that circumstance.) Marie watches the kala print and listens to Jack read her story as she floats in and out, and Jack sees her smile through the fog of her pain killers. He holds her gently; their tears become tears of joy, and victory.

Back on the island, another small victory occurs: the gallery owner accepts the kala prints, and all Anne’s prints. She gives her the chance for her own art show. People come; those attending the opening hear the story behind the prints (Hear that? Prince!)

There comes a month when Anne is short of paying her rent. A call comes from the gallery just before it’s due: It seems a woman who is purchasing several of her prints, including the kala, would like to know if she could take some fish-printing lessons. Anne’s share of the gallery payment is exactly what she needs for her rent, solving her worries. The woman, you should know, becomes a friend, as well as a collector and admirer of Anne’s work. Besides printing for her own enjoyment, she goes on to share the art of gyotaku, or fish printing, with family and friends.

Last, you should know that the kala prince, and his nursemaid fish, who was like Jack’s mother Marie, still live in the hearts and minds of everyone who has heard, and then gone on to tell, this story. The prints of the kala are to this very day hanging on the living room walls of Anne’s, and Lisa and Jack’s homes. New friends remark on the prints when they visit and want to know the story. Looking forward, long after Lisa and Jack, Anne, and the fisherman have disappeared–along with the framed fish prints that were either kept or sold–the story of the magic of giving freely and unexpectedly will go on living in each new wave of our family `ohana, and our keiki, children.

The story is told as it happened. I have told you the details as truthfully as I can remember them. Now it is up to you to receive, then pass on the gift, the secret–and the magic–behind true aloha, as embodied in the golden-eyed kala of the ocean waters surrounding Kaua`i in his last act while yet alive.


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