I grew up in Hawaii, on one of the islands that boasted no notable city. It was a rural community and still very much steeped in the lifestyle and practices of my native ancestors. There were plenty of cultural traditions and legends my parents taught us as children. Some were stories; tales of great heroes and their incredible endeavors throughout the islands. Others were perceived more as history; lessons our ancestors have learned and passed down throughout generations. Then there were the ones that were meant to guide certain behaviors; observances of ancient practices not to be taken lightly. My story has to do with the latter, and how when we are young and impetuous we tend to brush off such cautionary tales as pointless superstition, and how wrong we can be.
I was about 12 years old when my uncle first taught me to hunt. The dominant land game on O’ahu is wild boar. Unlike deer, hunting wild boar requires aggressive tracking, agility, and the very real threat of being attacked. My family felt it necessary for me to learn to hunt the way my forebears did: no guns, no hides, no dogs; just me, a recurve bow, and a knife to finish the kill. I learned to follow trails, cover my scent, move quietly and pick out the correct target. Pregnant females, adolescent members of the pack, and the Alpha male were off limits. Along with proper targeting, the most important rule I was taught was how to respect the animals we hunted, and how to give offering, or ho’okupu.
“All life is full circle,” my uncle would say. “When you are blessed with a kill, it is important to remember that the animal was provided by the earth, and that it died to feed your family.” Hunting for sport was strictly forbidden. When my cousin Kawika and I were taken on our first hunt, we were beside ourselves with excitement. He was a good 20lbs heavier than me, and at least a foot taller, despite being only a year my senior. My mother always called me iki, meaning ‘little’. Kawika couldn’t stop yammering about how he was going to catch the biggest boar ever. I was constantly nocking the string on my bow and firing invisible arrows at the pigs that ran rampant through my imagination.
“Shut up, both of you!” my uncle scolded. “Hunting is for men, not keiki (children) who cannot sit still.”
We rode in his rundown jeep through the mountains until we reached a valley. My uncle spotted some tracks and bade us to dismount. The three of us stalked up to the edge of the wild growth and my uncle unslung his bow. My excitement quickly turned to fidgets of unease. “In the hottest time of the day, the pack will head deep into the valley where it is cool,” his voice was steady and reassuring. “They’ll loiter around a waterfall until dusk.” He took the lead and punched through the brush, Kawika in tow. I lingered at the forest edge a while longer, nervously plucking at my bowstring.
“Don’t worry iki-boy,” my uncle turned and reached in his pocket, producing a 9mm pistol. “I have this for emergency.”
Boars have been known to charge their attackers, if not put down immediately.
I’m sure my mother made him bring the gun to protect us in case things became too unhinged. Tradition is all well and fine, but there is no point in honoring the value of our past if you end up gutted by your quarry. My uncle likely argued against bringing the gun, but my mother was the voice of reason-and his elder sister. Before I continue my story, let me give you a bit of history surrounding my home and its people.
Ancient Hawaiian culture has been repeatedly recognized by scholars for some of its brutal traditions. Human sacrifices were a constant occurrence. War and death played as much a part in our past as the more widely stereotyped concept of Aloha. Cannibalism wasn’t considered a common thing, but wasn’t completely without its place amongst the islanders of ancient times. Although rare, the practice of ‘heart-eating’ had been known to occur when two warriors lock in combat until one expires. In an effort to restore his strength and absorb his opponent’s power, the victorious warrior would cut his victims heart out and eat it on the battlefield. This was also used as an intimidation tactic to cow one’s enemies.
One such story I remember most vividly was that of “Chief Man-Eater”. Although based on a supposed historically accurate figure, the stories surrounding him were mainly cultivated as a local boogeyman; a deterrent against offensive behavior. At least that’s what I used to believe.
“You better not disrespect your elders, or Chief Man-Eater will get you,” my mother would warn. Or “iki-boy, finish your food or Chief Man-Eater will pay you a visit tonight.”
I would pretend to heed her words and obey, all the while laughing inside at the thought of such a man being real. It wasn’t until my uncle told me HIS account of Chief man-eater that I felt it might possess a modicum of truth.
“Boys,” he sat Kawika and me down around our fire pit, the night before our first hunt. “The most important thing to remember when killing your catch is to end the animal’s pain as fast as possible and give thanks for the food it is providing.”
“Or, let me guess,” Kawika scoffed, “Chief Man-Eater is gunna get us?”
This was answered with a swift cuff across his cheek.
“You think you funny?” my uncle’s face twisted in anger. “You know why he was called Chief Man-Eater, smartass?” Kawika and I looked at each other blankly. “He was a chief who forgot to show respect. Respect for the hunt, respect for the kill, but most of all respect for the gods who gave us everything.” Now, you may want to note that my uncle was somewhat of a recluse and was known to by many to duly immerse himself in “outdated” traditions, but to him-these weren’t just stories. They were warnings.
“One day, the chief killed a pig on his hunt, but instead of putting the animal out of its misery, he let it slowly bleed.” The grave features of my uncle’s face lit against the dancing shadows of our fire. “Some say he was upset with Kamapua’a, the boar god, for stealing the affections of his lover. He wanted to make him pay. So, he let the boar squeal in pain and thrash about, gasping for air and release. It is said that the resounding cries of a thousand of its enraged brethren could be heard in the surrounding forest, and that Kamapua’a himself came down from the mountains and knelt beside his dying child, stroking its mane until it finally died. The chief watched in terror as a single tear fell from the god onto the corpse of the boar, its body soon deteriorating into a putrid husk. Filled with anguish and rage, Kamapua’a cursed the chief, twisting him inside and out.
“For defiling the spirit of my child, your hunger will grow wild, but no food will stem your appetite,” my uncle’s voice took on a dire tone. “You are not fit to enjoy the nourishment of fresh meat, but will scour the ground, forever searching for the reek and rot of bodies long passed, starting with that which you have shown such disrespect,” Kamapua’a gestured to the decayed remains of his child, prodding the chief with his spear. “Eat, defiler, and scurry into the shadow of death-should she allow you another meal.”
A long agonizing moment passed before he spoke again.
“In fact, the correct translation of his name is Chief Dead-Eater.”
That story enveloped my mind the entire jeep ride. I felt it deep down in my stomach that the traditions of the hunt must be observed. Kawika was less convinced.
“Brah, can you believe that s**t?” he whispered as we followed my uncle along the trail.
“I dunno, seems kinda stupid to me.” I was fearfully quick to rescind my arrogance. “But just in case, no act dumb, k?”
My uncle reprimanded our chatter with a stiff glare before continuing onward. Kawika leaned into my ear.
“We are about to become men, iki-boy. If you’re going to cry like a girl, go home.”
I had no answer for his hubris. My thoughts chided within, urging me not to further our ignorance through discussion. My uncle gave us the signal to slink lower into the tall grass. He motioned that he had spotted the pack and that silence had become paramount. The three of us inched forward carefully as not to alert the group of meandering creatures. We all drew our bows in close, nocking an arrow and scanning for our quarry. We had practiced this a dozen times, and knew to wait for our uncle’s signal before letting fly. Attacking a boar will send the entire group into a frenzy. The key is to capitalize on the confusion before they regain their composure. If you don’t, you’ll have one pissed off stampede trampling towards you.
Kawika obviously forgot that lesson.
He let loose his arrow, connecting with the leg of a female pig. The pack erupted into a violent uproar, bucking and snorting viciously. I weakly let my drawstring slip, sending a bolt skidding off the rocks of the riverbed without a target. My uncle cursed and pushed us both down by our heads, tearing his pistol free and firing several shots into the air. The pack scattered. All that was left on the stony creek trail was my lone arrow and a mewling female boar, a similar arrow lodged in its calf.
“You f*****g dummy!” my uncle’s fist hammered down on the back of Kawika’s head. “You no like listen? I f*****g hope Chief Dead-Eater comes for you tonight.”
“Dad!” Kawika whined at his reproving father, who was already storming off towards the outlying woodline.
“Kill that pig, and pray for forgiveness!” he hollered back to us. “I’m going to make sure the rest if the pack isn’t still roaming around.” Kawika and I took a second to collect ourselves and slowly crept from our spot within the leaves.
“Oh, and Kawika?” we heard my uncle’s voice ominously echo from the surrounding trees. “Hope you’re ready for one beating tonight.”
Kawika froze, his gaze fixated on the stream of water rushing past his bare feet. I could see the fear swelling in his glossy eyes. I kneeled next to the struggling pig, placing a hand on its muzzle and exposing its neck.
“Eh, no worries Kawika. Let’s just kill this pig the right way and-”
I was cut off by the loud crunching of bone as Kawika slammed a large rock onto the boar’s head. It yelped pitifully but didn’t die. Kawika kicked the rock off and began to stomp furiously on the pig’s weeping skull, every footfall denoting hammering panic into the divots of my spine.
“You stupid f****n pig!” he continued to bludgeon. “Make me look dumb!” I lunged towards my cousin, eager to stop the offense.
“Kawika, stop!” but he effortlessly threw me to the ground; I was small, remember?
After what seemed like an eternity, the squealing finally died down to a gurgling hiss, then silence. I buried my head under folded arms and pretending this didn’t just happened. A sharp yank pulled my face towards my cousin’s stark, heaving grin.
“Listen up, girl-this is what happened,” Kawika seemed possessed. “We killed the pig the RIGHT way, then you went to bury her since she was a mother, and a mother belongs in the arms of earth, not the bowels of men.” I recalled that lesson from my uncle, where he explains the sacredness of a mother. For some reason I didn’t feel this was the same thing.
“But, Kawika, you didn’t…” this time I was the one chastised with a fist.
“No get dumb with me,” his voice came in panicked breaths. “You say anything about what happened, I’ll kill you.”
My uncle eventually returned and we began our trek back to the jeep. He seemed to believe my story about killing the pig the right way and burying it. And since he didn’t even bother to speak to my cousin, that’s all he had to go off. We sauntered into the jeep and my uncle turned his key, rumbled the heap of scrap to life. As I sat in the back, sifting through the roar of the ignition, I could’ve sworn I heard the cries of a thousand boars.
The next day was Sunday. No school, no work. Everyone was in a good mood, except Kawika.
I finally stood up out of my bedroll on the ground and walked over to Kawika’s bundled form. My house only had two rooms, so if you weren’t mom or dad, you slept on the parlor floor with everyone else.
“Kawika!” I stubbed his hamstring. “Wake up already. Let’s go play video game at the gas station.”
Kawika muffled something indecipherable and rolled over, content with blowing me off.
“Fine, a*****e,” I kicked at his legs again before wandering out the front door, eager to feel the sun on my face. I didn’t care that Kawika was being a recluse. His hiding from everyone else had nothing to do with me.
The day was vibrant and full of life. My aunties and uncles moved about their daily business; tilling fields, tending taro crops, or otherwise occupied with the many responsibilities of country life. I trudged along the dirt road leading towards the only gas station within miles. I didn’t have any food stamps left, and my last quarter was spent days ago, but that didn’t bother me. I’ll watch the bigger kids play video game and thumb through the comics with my friends. At least it got me out of the house and away from everyone else.
A couple of hours passed before Kawika finally walked in.
“Eh, what’s up with you, Kawika?” our friend Nalu called from the arcade tower. Kawika was wearing his stained brown hoodie, which was weird considering it was sweltering. He walked right past us and headed straight for the meat freezer. Keahi, one of the older boys and closer to Kawika than anyone else, approached him as he dug through the ice box.
“What-no like get your a*s kicked by my Ryu today?”
Kawika was always ready to throw a fist, but this was his friend, and this was different.
He pinned Keahi to the wall with one hand and snarled, like an animal. Before any of us could intercede, he tore through the packs of meat within the cooler and gnashed at a frozen steak, Keahi still squirming against his iron grip.
“Faka, let me go!”
We were all too scared to move. Kawika held him in place and tore away into the frosted gristle without pause, effortlessly rending and swallowing it. I nervously thumbed my pocket knife, taking several hesitated steps towards my cousin.
“Kawika,” I muttered. “You good or what?”
He shot me a piercing glance before returning to his meal, all the while keeping Keahi well off his feet.
He looked… sick.
My heart thumped within my chest. I felt the urge to scream, but stomached it with a gag. I fiddled with my pocket knife, my fingers lacing its case within my jeans. Keahi pleaded with me through silent eyes, unable to wrest my cousin’s hand from his collar.
“Cuz, let’s go home,” I beckoned. “You’re sick,” I finally gathered the courage to grab his wrist. He exploded into a dervish of clawed swiped and howls, tossing Keahi to the side as if he weighed nothing. He faced me and growled. I stared into his eyes, losing myself in the voids that rested beyond his sight. He wasn’t my cousin anymore.
Mr. Murata, the shop owner, charged forward and brandished his shotgun, aiming at my cousin’s head.
“Leave this place, obake! (Malevolent Japanese spirit).
A single shot towards the wall tore us all from inertia. I yelped and fell to the ground. My friends did the same, all but Kawika. He hissed like a snake before bounding towards the coke machine and charging through the window. In a wake of broken glass and cries, he was gone.
It took several hours to explain what had happened to my mom and uncle. As much as they wanted to believe it the ramblings of an overactive imagination, our culture proposed different.
“He has become a dead-eater,” my mother finally managed between sobs. Kawika’s father was far less ready to believe that his son would succumb to such a thing.
“My son is strong!” he slapped several dishes off our kitchen table, unwilling to hear the truth. “He would never disrespect the hunt.”
He and my mother argued back and forth for several minutes before my anger took root.
“Stop!” I finally announced. “We didn’t kill the pig the right way. He was wrong!”
My uncle unforgivingly grasped my face, bringing his lips close to mine.
“Shut your mouth, iki-boy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I was rendered immobile, terrified of the man who had taught me everything with an iron fist. My mother, being his older sister, wasn’t so quick to concede to his temper.
“Let him go!” I have never heard her so angry. “You know if they didn’t observe our laws, consequences must be dealt with.”
I watched in sorrow as my mother and uncle argued their cases. It was a terrible display of dominance, but one that ended the way I feared.
“Then it’s settled,” my mother coaxed her cup of tea, blowing the steam from its precipice. “Iki-boy will find him, and complete the rites.”
My uncle didn’t speak after their squabble. He merely sat in the papaya grove, f*******g the locket on his neck and silently chanting. It seems I was the one to repair the damage done.
“I’ll get him mom,” my voice more wavering than steady.
“I know you will, iki-boy. I know you will.”
My search through the midnight forest was far less intimidating than I imagined. It was as if the denizens of the woods avoided my steps. I occasionally heard a feint squeal in the distance: an eerie mesh of animal and human, and it didn’t take long for me to find Kawika’s tracks. He had followed the same trail into the valley from yesterday. As I got closer to the riverbed, his footprints changed. It looked as if he had started walking on all fours. The sky was starless, light from a lonely moon bathing the low creak in an ivory hue. Kawika was in the middle of the shallow river. He had perched himself on a decaying log, face delved deep in the boar carcass from yesterday’s failed hunt.
“Cousin,” I called weakly, struggling to keep my nerve.
Kawika didn’t answer. His teeth were far too busy ripping at rotten flesh. He looked different. His legs had reversed, knee limbs pointing backward in a perverse angle. His hands were gnarled, calloused knuckles flexing terribly as he tore at broken muscle. His pallid skin was blotched with weeping sores and lesions. A bright crimson froth dripped from his mouth, sliding down his muscular throat. His eyes were vacant, black… lifeless.
“Do it,” his guttural voice finally cracked.
I unfolded my pocket knife hesitantly.
“Don’t make me do this, Kawika.”
His answer was a melody of clenching fangs and cracking bones. He stretched his neck out in the moonlight.
“I am not worthy of fresh meat, iki,” he paused for moment before returning to his meal. “I am a dead-eater.”
I careened into the monster that was once of my blood, driving my knife deep within his carotid artery. He bayed horribly, like nothing I have ever heard before. He tore away from me, knife still lodged firmly, and splashed into the stream. My chest heaved with the urge to expulse. He continued to thrash around on his back, clawing wildly at the blade in his neck. Our eyes met one last time, his face reverting once more to the boy I had grew up with. I couldn’t watch anymore.
“I’m sorry, cousin.”
I bolted through the brush, running as fast as my legs would carry. His wailing gradually faded, and by sunrise I was curdled around our fire pit, cursing myself for leaving him to die alone.
“I couldn’t even finish him,” was all I managed to sputter as my mother scooped me off the ground and carried me into the house.
Kawika was dead.
The next day was unbearable; a funeral for the boy who was my idle in life, now silent in death. My uncle and several others had retrieved what was left of him from the woods that morning. Our rites demanded he be returned to the earth, an act I couldn’t complete on my own.
I watched quietly as the people from our village paid their respects, but I didn’t join. My shame shrouded my sadness, and the thought of confronting him made me lurch. Two of my much older cousins stayed with me as I mourned, away from the group and their sorrowful stares. They eventually ushered me to the ceremonial ground where certain rituals were performed, the funeral precession having dwindled to just my family and Kawika’s coffin.
My mother wrapped her arms around me and looked into my eyes. Her sobs grew louder as she stroked my hair behind my ear. Kissing my forehead, she pushed me towards his casket.
“I love you so much, iki-boy,” her voice trembled, “now-finish it.”
I stared at the box that contained the remains of the thing that was once my cousin. “I couldn’t finish him,” was all I could say. I traced my hand along the coffin lid. The roar of a thousand pigs rang within my ear and my stomach turned. One of uncle’s hands gripped my shoulder, the other holding a large machete at his side.
“You saw him before he… changed,” he sounded frail, like a child. “How did he look? Was he strong?” a terrible pain gnawed within my gut. My mother looked away to weep into my father’s chest.
My hands began to scrabble and scratch at the seams of the casket. Why wouldn’t the damn thing open! My uncle levied his blade into the air as I began prying at the lid, before finally answering him.
“He looked… delicious.”