Thursday, November 22, 2012

Why Menehune Came to Kauai

[Congratulations to J. Arthur Rath III for his runner-up written entry in our 2012 Creative Competition. Check back daily as we post other recognized entries.]


Menehune whisper secrets along Kokee trails of flora, fauna--even life itself.  These 1942 scenes, so dear to my childhood, are fond recollections I bring into view.*

From down in the valley I watched wisps of ragged clouds spiraling, rising toward the sun, revealing rainbows within misty cores:  Turning silver and spectral, they cycloned into clouds floating over the range into the interior.

I stared, seeking figures within clouds shaped to tell a story.  (Aunty Kalei Lyman told friends: “Ten-year-old Arthur has his head in the clouds!”)

Kahu, my menehune guide, whistled shrilly and gestured.  I followed him to a stream.

I drank cool water, lifting my head I became aware of sweet aroma wafting toward us.  Responding to my quizzical look, Kahu murmured:

 “The scent comes from plum blossoms.  Trees ahead are called palama, Hawaiianized version of the English word ‘Plum.’

“General Albert Kuali’i Lyman, your Auntie Kalei’s brother-in-law, headed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Civilian Construction Corps.  He had local young CCC men plant over sixteen thousand plum trees now blooming..  This was done during the Great Depression, fruit is for Kauai residents.”

Kahu gestered toward the grassy mound under a large tree.  “That’s the stage,” he said mysteriously.  “We’ll hide behind large ape leaves to watch the performance.”

I heard giggling and chattering sounds in bushes behind “the stage”.
A stately elderly woman strode out dramatically from the underbrush.  Kahu reaches waist-high to me, she was a bit shorter than he.

“That’s Kupuna,” her name means source for knowledge,” Kahu said and then clapped his hands sharply close to my ears.  “Now you’ll understand her.”

He twisted ape leaf stems to each side, allowing us a clear view of happenings below.

Kupuna sat in front of a big tree, the stage backdrop.

Excited children holding musical instruments appeared from the undergrowth.  A boy carrying a gourd drum placed it in front of Kupuna, they exchanged nods.

Kahu whispered, “Kupuna will vary her chanting pace, moving her head up and down for children to follow her beat.  She’ll use her nose flute to make wailing or lighthearted sounds and will strike the ipu to emphasize parts of her chant.”

A boy handed her stones.  She held two in each hand and went “click, click.”  A heavy-set boy, lumbering from the bushes, lugged part of a tree trunk.  Setting it upright, he tapped the top and looked toward Kupuna.  “The drumhead is covered with taut shark skin,” Kahu explained.

Kupuna click-clicked the stones, nodded for drum beats, and moved her chin up and down to set tempo.  She established a singing melody with her nose flute that other flautists reinforced.

Kahu whispered, “This is the prelude to her story of menehunes’ travels to escape giants that led to their discovering Kauai.”

Kupuna lowered her head when the orchestra finished paused and seemingly reflected.  Raising her head, she did marvelous vocal things--creating sweet melodies and trilling, wailing, making hiccup noises, shrieking, dropping to a low register to sound like a man, and then humming in her upper register.

Kupuna’s chanting style varied: A single tone for historical information, it made each word stand out; holding her voice in her throat and creating a rich, round sound; repeating phrasies, thenadding phonetic patterning to emotions she was conveying.  She enunciated carefully, using both short phrases and prolonged vowels.  Sometimes she added a fluctuating trill.  Her strained guttural tones denoted intensity and added dramatic excitement!
From the corner of his eye Kahu saw my emotional responses during the menehune opera.

Walk across Asian Plains
Into Indonesia
Two million years ago...

Lived in Java’s forests:
Dragons and elephants,
Some of them we hunted.
Some of them hunted us.
Using stone tools, we built
Sturdy dugout canoes,

Fish. cultivating food:
Good life for little ones--
Until Big People come!
We hide in the forests,
Put canoes into caves.
They steal our food, and then
They want to dine on us!

Kupuna looked at the boy with a ti-leaf trumpet next to him and dropped her chin. He picked up the ti-leaf and blew a blood-curdling shriek.  Flute players joined in.  When they put instruments down she continued:

Pele passed on the word:
We now must get away!
They paddled night and day,
Reaching the Marquesas,
Landing on Kahiki.
We thought we found safety,
Right for perfect living:
Lush mountains, waterfalls,
Lagoons teeming with fish.
We farmed and were happy,
Life there was very good.

Then, The Big People came,
As in Java, the same:
Steal crops taking sea food!
Chasing us to devour.
Now we had sail canoes,
Large,very seaworthy.
We filled canoes with yams,
Taro and plants we liked,
Other roots, drinking nuts.

Helmswoman was Pele,
Yes, the redhead herself,
Menehune ruler.
It was revenge time!

Jets of lava gushing,
Pele hurls forth lightning,
Vomits of flames pouring;
“Farewell to Kahiki,
To savage Big People--
To our invaders!

Continuing northward,
Until we discovered

Kupuna stressed the words Paradise and Kaua’i.  She stopped at this, “the denouement!”

She stood and stretched.  Young menehune moved around, chattering excitedly, as if experiencing a sugar high!

Kahu said softly , “Let’s go.  When we come next time you’ll learn why a million menehune left Kauai.  Menehune in the hills will be in the audience if they learn how wonderful the children’s orchestra is!”

We trekked to the stream to drink cool, refreshing water,  I washed sticky sap from my arms.

The mountain breeze had died down, palama blossom scent was absent.

Rapidly moving his head back and forth, Kahu sniffed the air then said: “Wait by this stream.” He disappeared within the bushes.

Parts of what I’d heard replayed in my head, especially Pele’s fiery revenge on the Big People invaders who I realized were cannibals!

Relaxing, not thinking of anything, I looked at spiraling clouds.  Sunlight on misty rain was creating kaleidoscopic spectrums--red, yellow, orange, blue, magenta.  These spread into a double rainbow and the sky seemed aglow!

I heard whistling.  Appearing from bushes near the stream, Kahu walked up and held out a little packet made from ti leaves filled with berries.

“I picked these mokihana for my kuuipo,” he explained.  “She’ll love scenting her clothing with them.  Let’s go. 

“We’ll come back for more Menehune Opera when palama are ripe,” he promised.

And we did.


*My reminiscent phrase about childhood is from “The Old Oaken Bucket,” by William Woodworth (1784-1842), a poem described as “The most beautiful words in the English Language.”

Art credit: Henry Ha'o

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