The kanakas from the fire department drove my Uncle Ku through town this morning. I could just imagine sirens wailing, him sitting high on top of the truck, two big blalahs, one on each side, drinking beer and waving to everybody on Ali’i Drive, his thin hair waving along with them. He loved riding on the truck. They had picked him up early and dressed him in his favorite aloha shirt before I had even gotten out of bed. When I went into the kitchen for some cereal, mom was crying at the table. I was afraid to say anything, since I never see her crying, not really. There are times when there’s a sad movie on TV and I hear her on the couch behind me, but I don’t think that this was the same kind of crying.
When I was younger, Uncle Ku told me I was named after him and that we had a long tradition of passing this name from one generation to the next. He said that our name had powerful mana and that we were the heart of the land. I always imagined that mana was a superpower that Hawaiians have like Superman’s flying or The Flash’s super speed. I wish I had superpowers. I would be the Super Kanak, able to eat twenty lau laus in one sitting. At Sunday school, I learned about how mana fell from heaven to feed these people who were wandering through the desert, but I don’t think it was the same thing. How can mana be powerful and be food?
Last week we was up on the North side of the island. Uncle said we was paying respect to our amakua, the one we was named after. I watched him wrap a rock in long green ti leaves. I saw his hands shake as he tied them. We placed it on the altar of the heiau. It looked like a really big lau lau ready to eat. I don’t know what ancient heiaus looked like, but this one is in a large field of yellow grass growing along rock walls that are as tall as me. It’s a huge rectangle and when you stand by the altar you can see the ocean. Uncle said that in the old days, our amakua would have preferred a human sacrifice. It reminded me of the movie Blue Lagoon, the part where they go to the other side of the island and they see a large black statue with an altar covered in blood. I felt weird about it, but I don’t know why. He said that the heiau was built near the favorite hunting grounds of our amakua. He said that they used to throw enemy warriors and kapu breakers into the waters and all kinds of sharks would eat them. I don’t think I’d liked to be eaten by a shark and I’m glad we don’t make those kinds of offerings anymore. I wondered if the Ali’i were ever sacrificed. When we got home, mom was mad and I thought I was going get it. He told her no worries, everything was okay, and that he wanted to ride on the fire truck around town.
Uncle always talks to me like one grownup. One day, I was offered to lick a plastic toy ring. I don’t remember why. It was red and covered in Hawaiian chili pepper, but I didn’t know it at the time. They told me to lick it, and like one dumb kid, I did. The burning was so bad that I ran all the way to my house screaming for help. Uncle was home. He was always home. He kept asking me what happened and all I could say was that my tongue was burning.
“What’s wrong Ku Boy?”
“They made me eat chili pepper.” At least that’s what I was trying to say, but it really came out like “They may me ee ili peppah.” I tried not to breathe as that seemed to make it burn even more. He just started laughing at me. I didn’t think it was funny. Finally, he gave me a spoon full of sugar, not in the nice Mary Poppins way, and my mouth felt so much better. Then he gave me some juice to drink.
“So, what really happened?” He poured more juice into the cup.
“I was playing in the back and a couple of kids told me to lick this ring, and I did.”
“Did they make you do it? Did they dare you?”
“No. I didn’t even think about it.”
“See that’s your problem. You never think about what you doing.” He gave me some bread to eat. “You remember that time you wanted some papaya in the tree and your friends told you to throw one rock at it? What did you do?”
“I threw one rock at the tree.”
“You threw the biggest rock you could handle, didn’t you?” I nodded, my eyes still watering from the chili peppers. “And what happened?”
“It hit the car windshield.”
“Who’s car windshield?”
“Yours,” I answered, scared he was going finally give me lickins for it.
“And, what happened?” He poured me more juice.
“Everybody ran away and I got dirty lickins from mom.”
“Did you get the papaya?”
“You missed right?”
“I didn’t miss your windshield.” He started laughing again.
“True, but how come you got in trouble?”
“Coz, I broke your windshield?”
“No, because you never think before you act. If you had just thought about what you was doing, maybe you wouldn’t have thrown that rock at the papaya, and maybe you wouldn’t have broken my windshield and gotten dirty lickins from your mom.”
“I guess so.”
“You think you going learn your lesson this time?”
But it wasn’t the last time someone told me to do something and I got dirty lickins. We were doing laundry down at the Hele Mai Laundromat and I was really bored, so I started playing with the other kids on the outside patio. There was plenty cigarette butts on the ground and one of the kids picked one up and started to pretend to smoke. He looked really cool. I picked one up and pretended that I was smoking too. My mom caught me and made me eat fives butts off the ground, and told me I was lucky we wasn’t home or else she would have given me dirty lickins. I think I would rather have had dirty lickins. Mom told uncle when we got home, and he just shook his head as I sat next to him.
“What did I tell you about thinking before you act?”
“I know. I know.”
“Then, how come you got busted pretending to smoke cigarettes? You know that your mom hates smoking?”
“I know. I know. Sheesh.”
“Don’t you sheesh me! This is the last time I going tell you stop doing stupid shit!”
He was right. I sure didn’t like that chili pepper or the cigarette butts or the dirty lickins. I just didn’t know why I couldn’t think stuff through.
When my dad found out that they took uncle out on the fire truck, he looked really pissed off. I thought he was going give me dirty lickins for sure, but I think he was more mad at mom because she called uncle’s friends for come pick him up. Mom told dad that uncle had asked her to call his holoholo gang down at the firehouse to come get him. Dad started yelling at her, saying it’s illegal and we going get arrested. She yelled right back at him. “Stay his last ride!” I don’t know why Dad was worried, Uncle was friends with the police, they no mind.
Then, we heard the sirens. They had brought uncle back. I saw him between his friends. His head was resting on a shoulder. It wasn’t looking too good for the kanakas on the truck but they looked like they was crying. I looked over at my dad. I knew he was going let ‘em have it, but he was crying, too.
Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a writer born and raised in Hawaii. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with an MFA in Fiction. She then moved to Japan to teach English, where she continues to do so. Her work has appeared in the GTK Creative Journal, the Waccamaw, The Jet Fuel Review, Crack the Spine, Booth: A Journal, and The Baltimore Review.