I have been away from this blog because I was busy with politics on Facebook (my bad). Also, I have been struggling to produce a new book. It’s a collection of stories:”Astonishing Women.” Wish me luck. Below is another story not in that collection. It’s an escapist story, of course. Don’t we need one, right now?
I am moving idly on the surface looking for I don’t know what. I am in the ocean, at the bottom of a cliff close to my house near Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. At that time, I have under my belt (weight belt, of course) ten years of intense diving in the cold, murky waters of California, and a little less in the warm, clear waters of Mexico. Here is an important detail: I am a free diver; I go down holding my breath. Scuba (based compressed air tanks) is kind of wimpy and it involves too much equipment that will distract you from your real goal. The real goal is catching something good to eat, of course. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging but OK, I don’t really care so, here goes: I have become such a proficient spear fisherman that I rely entirely on a sling, a long, light aluminum handle with a steel trident at one end and a strong rubber loop at the other. It’s a far cry from a spear gun. The sling requires that you get real close to the prey.
On that day, I am just exploring. I am new to Hawaii and the spot I have chosen is not promising by conventional standards. It’s just close to the house I am renting. There is plenty of sea life in the fairly opaque water but nothing to get excited about. I notice a surfer in the water. I can tell from afar that he is a brown skinned native Hawaiian. Soon, he is gliding by me shouting something. I did not catch what he said but I guessed that he was yelling at me to get the f… out of his way. He told me later, on land, that he had come by to re-assure me, to tell me that there was a big shark in the water nearby but that he had talked to the shark and asked him to leave me alone. He also said he knew I would be fine because his family had the same shark as a clan totem, and thus, he had influence. When he told me all this, I don’t know if he was in earnest or he he was putting me on. I have to admit that with the constant flux and re-flux of naive continentals, haoles, on his island, the temptation must have been great. Whatever the case, I forgive him and the fact is that I was not bothered by any shark.
I swim away in another direction and soon find myself in a patch of clear water where I can see the bottom. I dive down to explore some scree of fallen rocks, the kind of formation that provides hiding places for sea creatures. Sure enough, on the third dive, I make it to the bottom and look under a rock where a large gray pointy mouth with beady eyes on both sides faces me. It’s so big that at first, I don’t recognize what it is. And yes, I know, I am beginning to sound like a typical fisherman; so be it! Back on the surface, I catch my breath and my train of thought and I realize there is a conger eel in that hole, a big one. I have caught conger in France before but the size of that tropical specimen has thrown me off. I arm the rubber band on my spear, drop down head first and shoot the fish right in the mouth. It convulses wildly but, in the process gets out of its hole. I swim up vigorously holding the spear straight up with the eel writhing wildly on it. Fortunately, the water depth is modest and the shore close. I land on a grassy edge of the water and there, I am afraid, put the poor conger out of its misery with a large rock.
More fish story: The largest conger eels ever caught according to Google weighed 300lbs; it was taken by net. Mine wasn’t even close to that because I was able to half-carry it, half-drag it up the cliff to where my pick-up truck was parked. I observed that it was a little longer than I was tall, maybe six feet. I guessed that its weight may have approximated mine, 180 lbs at the time, or perhaps less. Anyway, I drive the few minutes to my house. I had just rented it a couple of days before. A newcomer to Hawaii, I had resisted the temptation of the small, expensive condos lining the lagoon that borders the south face of the small city of Hilo. I am on a teaching sting, not well paid enough for such luxury and anyway, my adventurer’s heart has told me there must be more interesting housing arrangements. Guided by a local young man, a student, I ended up renting a big house in a plantation village ten miles from downtown. My house had been used to shelter cane cutters in the days when there were still many cane cutters. Then, the sugar industry quickly mechanized and the houses became useless almost overnight. An adventurous Filipino immigrant had bought one as a rental. My new home has six bedrooms arranged along a central corridor, a big kitchen, and a toilet. The shower is in a separate hut outside. My house is one of twelve or so disposed around an oval dirt path surrounding a grassy area where kids play baseball.
I have not yet met any of the adults in the settlement but like everywhere, children have the run of outside and of much of inside. As soon as I park in front of my house, a swarm of kids surrounds my truck. When they spot the big conger eel in the back, there are many shouts, most in their dialect I do not understand. Two ten-year-old run to another house all excited. Shortly afterwards, an old lady comes out of the same house carrying a hatchet. She crosses the grass to my truck and without a word, without even looking at me, opens the back-gate and instructs several children to carry the big fish next to a log stump nearby. When this is done she proceeds to hack the fish, my fish, into a dozen or so chunks. The chunk she leaves for me is plenty enough. The kids all run home carrying big pieces of my big fish in recycled vegetable plastic bags the old lady has brought along. I am so stupefied, I have no idea what to say. Yet, since I am already somewhat of a social scientist at the time, I recognize that I have witnessed a demo of what Karl Marx has called “primitive communism.” OK, I know, I know, there isn’t much to this story so far but wait, I am going somewhere with it.
The conger eel’s flesh is dense and a little flaky. It tastes very good. It’s reminiscent of lobster if you don’t overcook it. I eat a big piece parboiled for dinner, hot, with rice. I have more, cold, with pineapple from the backyard, for lunch the next day. (I had to resort to pineapple because I couldn’t remember how to prepare from scratch the mayonnaise the cold conger was entitled to by French right.)
The next day is a Friday. Around six, two men in their late twenties knock at my door. One is the normal mixed brownish color common on the Big Island. The other has flaming blond hair and green eyes. (He is a descendant of the many Portuguese imported from the Azores to cut cane, after the Chinese and the Japanese and before the current Filipino immigration. Detour on Hawaii’s demographic history: The island’s planters kept bringing in people from different parts of the world for the arduous job of cutting cane. Every group’s children snubbed the cane fields and the planter had to try again with another group.) Both guys say hello. One begins talking to me in a dialect I do not understand well. At any rate, I gather that they have come to invite me to go hunting the next day. They will pick me up at 5 am sharp. I know it’s “sharp” because the guy keeps hitting his wristwatch with his index finger. I do not know anything about hunting in Hawaii but I am game pretty much for any game.
In the morning, I am up and waiting with my first cup of coffee and a piece of bread inside of me. I am wearing strong shoes and a thick shirt, with jeans. I am holding the shotgun I have brought to Hawaii on the off-chance I will be able to hunt birds with my gifted Labrador. A big SUV rolls by and stops. The guy from the day before comes out. He barely says “Hi”, and mentions to me to return the shotgun inside the house. He hands me instead a nice, visibly well oiled rifle. He spends all of two minutes making sure that I know how to load and unload the gun and how to put on the safety. We get into the car where two other guys are waiting, including Blondie. They all say “Hi.” We take off toward the top of the volcano. Twenty minutes later, I still don’t know what I am going hunting for. So, I ask and it turns out one of the others speaks standard English. “Goat” he says, “feral goat.” I am a man of immense culture so, I remember that “feral” designates animals once domesticated that have returned to the wild. But, “goats”? To me, they are kind of nice animals living near a farm from which one gets goat cheese. I am perplexed but I say nothing.
After thirty minutes or so, we stop and get out. There are two dogs with us. We walk and stop, walk and stop in the foothills that line the volcano. Few words are exchanged. The dogs, nose to the ground, seem to be searching in vain. Then one guy swears softly. We are on the edge of a sort of shallow valley. The hill on its other side is one large meadow. There, right there, on that the side, is a herd of ten or twelve goats. There is more muttering from which I gather that the animals are too far to shoot and that there is no way to approach them without being seen, heard, or smelled. The others begin to turn away with more swearing. I don’t know the rules so, I tell myself, “Why not?” I stop, click a shell into the barrel, shoulder, aim at a white goat, easily the most visible, and shoot. The animal goes down, the others flee uphill.
The other guys turn back and more swearing erupts, loud swearing, this time. We all run across the little valley to go up and retrieve the white goat. What can I say? Beginner’s luck, probably but still, I am in good health, I have perfect vision, I am steady on my feet, I don’t get excited easily, I know enough to press the trigger slowly and steadily. (Believe it or not, I had a bit of training, in the French Navy, of all places.) I was good in California at taking down ducks and geese in flight with a shotgun. So, there is a chance I am a good rifle shot who does not yet know it. And, in case you are wondering: My companions are not spiteful; they seem glad to not have to go home empty-handed. It seems they hunt for the larder rather than for the glory. My goat is good and dead with a bullet through the chest. In twenty minutes, my buddies have gutted, dressed and quartered the animal and apportioned it to the plastic garbage bags they have brought along. I ask for the pelt but they tell me it has too much lice.
Back at the village, I receive my share, more than enough for me alone. For lack of more culinary knowledge, I barbecue it the next day. I am a Paris boy, after all; where would I have learned to cook goat meat? I wouldn’t even know people ate goat if I were not such an eclectic reader. Anyway, several children invite themselves and bring their own Coke. The meat is pretty good, tough but tasty, kind of gamy. Afterwards, I have to nap in my hammock outside, overwhelmed as one can be after gorging on large quantities of animal protein.
Life goes on; I teach my classes during the week but the next Friday, the same guys come to invite me to hunt. This time, I ask point-blank what we are going for. My brain is getting used to the Hawaiian dialect but I can’t believe the answer: Tomorrow, we are going for feral sheep. Part of me is a little worried at this mention of yet another farm animal. What is it going to be the next time around, feral donkey? We drive to another part of the volcano early the next morning. Long story short: We kill two small brown sheep. The second is downed by two shots. I am pretty sure mine was the first shot but I don’t make an issue of it (obviously!) This time, I get a whole hind leg. I invite two of my university acquaintances from the mainland – fellow haoles – to join me the next day. I bake the meat the way I would any leg of lamb. It smells strongly but it has more fat than the goat did. I enjoy myself. My guests less so. They are a little too effete for the experience, it seems. They think of meat as coming wrapped in cellophane. It doesn’t matter; we have plenty of beer and they brought dessert. They are at least intrigued.
The next weekend, two older men invite me to go fishing with them. They tell me they can lend me a rod but that I am welcome to try to spear fish in their area. We leave the village at a decent hour in their four-wheel drive, go a short distance on a dirt road near the shore and then, straight cross-country. I have never done this before. We ride over big boulders and muddy areas at the speed of a man’s pace. It’s uncomfortable and worrisome but the old dudes obviously know what they are doing. Finally, we stop in a clearing on the edge of a low cliff. The men lay out their gear while I put on my light wetsuit. Once in the extremely clear water, holding my thin spear, the thought strikes me that probably no one ever has dived in this spot, never, ever! It’s a warm feeling. There are plenty of fish around, including giant multicolored parrot fish with protruding rabbit teeth, that must taste awful but also several species I know to be edible. A part of my brain tells me this is a time for exploring, not for bagging ordinary fish. I go up and down looking under rock formations when I am down. (Remember that I am free diving, diving on my own air.) After an hour, I have caught three nice sized spiny lobsters (with small claws, langoustes, langostas.) They are difficult to see in the penumbra under rocks because, unlike the reddish California and Caribbean lobsters’, their carapace is dark blue and yellow mottled.
I am also bringing back a cowrie the size of my fist. It’s sitting on my desk as I write. It’s not different from one you would find in any good curios shop yet, it almost cost me my life (another story). The old guys have caught by hook and line all the fish they wanted. We drive home slowly. They give me some fish, I give each a lobster. They protest energetically, which suggests that lobster is not often on Hawaiians’ menus. I eat the third lobster by myself, like the pig I am!
Speaking of diet, at the time, I am diving several times a week. Sometimes, I even spear fish between classes. Actually, I bring home a lot of fish that I usually share in the village. Having been reared in surprisingly cold and rainy Paris, I enjoy a lot tropical living. The water where I dive is often warm and clear. I love picking a banana off my own tree every morning before breakfast, and the super-ripe pineapples the landlord sends my way every other day. I collect easily four or five kilos of ripe wild guavas whenever I want just stopping my car on the side of the road on my way to work. Everything is expensive in Hawaii but I don’t buy much, just gasoline to go to work and to explore the island a bit, also rice, bread and beer, and coffee. (The locally grown coffee – Kona – is the best in the world, I think. Of course, I can’t afford it.) I eat mostly fish and wild meat, and the occasional small lobster, with a little rice and fresh fruits from around the village. I am in the best shape in my life.
But, soon and with regrets, I am preparing to leave. I actually want to stay in Hawaii for at least one year but my doctoral dissertation is stuck and there is a nasty divorce coming over the horizon. I just have to return to California where I have lived for most of fifteen years. I have a plane ticket for a Wednesday. On my last Friday in the village, my buddies show up to invite me to go hog hunting. Of course, it’s feral hog! The wild boar of Asia and Europe does note exist in the Pacific. The Polynesians who first settled the Hawaiians islands brought small domesticated pigs on their giant canoes. They must have fed them coconut flesh and fish leftovers on the long journey from Tahiti. Some pigs escaped and established themselves happily in the Hawaiian fruit-rich bush. There, they grew in size and grew and grew and they have never stopped growing. Now, they tend to be huge.
We leave earlier in the morning than usual, when it’s still dark. Today is different. No one hands me a rifle so, I go back inside and grab my shotgun. “Don’t take it,” one guy says. There are three SUVs this time. Astoundingly, in each one are a man or two and six or seven dogs of all kinds and sizes. There is even a large, blond French poodle. I recognize only two dogs from around the village. We drive to another area of the volcano, one covered by old lava and exposed to weather so it’s almost forested. As soon as we stop, the dogs are let out. I notice vaguely that still, no one is carrying a firearm. I am puzzled, but it’s my place to observe and learn, not to question. Within a few minutes, a dog gives voice and the whole pack leaves off barking and running in the same direction except two that seem too busy to sniff the ground to join in. All the men follow the pack. Fortunately, we are running almost all downhill on the uneven ground.
In a short while, the dogs sound louder and we join them in a sort of natural circus. They have a pig trapped there against a lava wall. It’s a big black beast with a huge head. The dogs keep it harried so it does not pay the several of us men much attention. Our leader pulls a long knife off his belt and hands it to me. “Are you out of your mind?” I shout. He shrugs lightly and walks forward, kneeing the dogs out of his way. He steps straight to the hog and cuts its throat in a single swift gesture. The blood spurts; the dogs surge forward to get a taste. I catch my breath and examine the animal. I am transfixed by the double set of curved teeth jutting out of its mouth, like in the movies. The guys let the dogs lick the fresh blood for a while then, they kick them out of the way to begin doing what needs to be done. In less than a half hour, the beast is gutted, skinned and butchered; the meat is neatly divided into five black plastic garbage bags for each of us to carry up the hill. When we get back to the cars, the dogs that had stayed behind are nowhere to be seen. We just abandon them as we hustle the other dogs back into the vehicles.
Back in the village, I get my largely unearned share in the form of what looks like a big roast. My hunting buddies have noticed my interest in the set of curved teeth and they sort of know I am leaving. So, they hand me today’s trophy in the form of a lower jaw with four curved fangs still in. I still have to ask them about the mysterious thing appeared out of nowhere, a ready-made hunting dogs pack, although I have already half guessed. It turns out that whenever they want to go hunting for hog, the preceding Friday night, the guys visit their buddies who are in charge of the dog pound. Now, it’s a special dog pound. It does not hold stray dogs captured on the streets. Nobody cares about stray dogs in Hawaii. (It’s America but also the Third World, then.) Instead, the municipal/county pound houses dozens of dogs at one time that are in quarantine while their owners prepare to join them from somewhere or other on the mainland. (My own Labrador had spent two months there, I believe, at great expense to me. Somehow, she got pregnant there. Another story.) So, as it happens, the inventive islanders have developed a system whereas impounded dogs can be paroled for a weekend. The hunters pay a small fee and take charge of however many dogs they can transport. The hunters return the dogs on Monday morning. The pound supervisors get an income supplement; the hunters have an instant pack they couldn’t possible support; the dogs no doubt enjoy the vacation. How about the owners who are paying through the nose for their dogs’ maintenance? Well, what they don’t know can’t hurt them. There is still the small matter of the dogs who got lost on the volcano. Well, they must be declared dead of cardiac arrest. Their owners will get another pet and recover eventually.
Back home, I rub whatever I have on the roast, including Coke in addition to salt and pepper and I place it the oven at moderate heat. Then I roll up my sleeves and consider the big pig jaw. Now, remember, I am a Paris boy. Not much prepares me for the task. I quickly figure out nonetheless that pliers are not the way to go because they might break the trophies. I figure that bone is softer than ivory so, I decide to boil the whole jaw. It stinks to high heaven but the jaw does seem to soften a little. I let it boil for ten hours, all windows open. My landlord is an amiable guy and tolerant. Plus, he says he is sorry to lose me. He would like me to come back. I eat the pig roast with a lady neighbor who brings cooked sweet potatoes. The roast is tough but tasty. The neighbor goes home with half of the remaining half, for her nephew, she says. The next morning, I repeat the stinky jaw softening operation for another five or six hours. Passers-by smile knowingly: haoles!
The Monday preceding the Wednesday when I am flying to California, I eye an old couple walking up the path toward my house. Somehow, they seem dressed up. I am puzzled, of course, but I go back inside. In minutes, there is a knock at my door. I open and the old Asian couple says good morning while bowing deeply, Japanese-style. (More than half of the population of Hawaii is of Japanese origin; at the time, some are even immigrants from before World War II.) I bid the old couple in, sit them down and ask them if they want coffee; they assent. They are silent while I boil the water and prepares the coffee. I have never met those people although I am not surprised they are neighbors. “I am Mr Yamoto,” says the old guy, “and this is my wife, Mrs Yamoto. We speak for the Japanese in Papaiku.” -Silence – “We heard that you are leaving, maybe. If it is true, we hope you will change your mind. If you do not, we hope you will return soon. You see, among us, we need sashimi all the time, for Christmas, for weddings, for birthday parties, for almost all occasions. The past couple of years, with the new big hotels opening downtown, we have not been able to get all the fresh fish we want. With all your spearfishing and all, we were hoping you could become our regular sashimi provider. We think it’s an honor but we would pay you well too.” I am instantly flattered like I have seldom been but also instantly saddened. I confirm that I am going back to California, unfortunately.
Then, the old lady pipes in with a voice I barely hear, “If you come back, we will make sure you are elected to [ ].” The last word eludes me but I get the drift. The Big Island has an exotic political system, a mixture of straight California political science design and of exotic Third World additions. The latter include a plethora of tiny elective positions that bring the incumbent some social honor and sometimes also a small stipend. I have gathered that it’s common for the factions to stand a haole for such elections as a convenient way to avoid direct clashes between the different ethnic groups. (I think the Japanese-Americans could probably win all the elections if they wanted to; they are careful not to.) I promise to write if and when I plan to come back. The old people get up to leave with contrite smiles.
On Tuesday morning, finally, I manage to pry all curved hog teeth from the softened jaw. I celebrate silently while I pack them carefully in plastic. Then, I go dig a hole in the backyard for the jaw. (Won’t 22nd century anthropologists be puzzled when they find the remains?) I have time to pack and take a long last swim in the warm Pacific. In the evening, some of my university colleagues give me a skeptical going-away party. They are skeptical because they don’t really believe I am leaving this job and this liefstyle for good. Half of them half think I will be back for the next semester. My boss is miffed because he had recruited me personally. He will have to recruit all over again. Sorry. On Wednesday, I am lucky to the end. As my plane lifts off, it’s raining heavily over Hilo which saves me from strong regrets at having to leave.
Reel forward eight months. I am now living in Indiana where I have obtained a tenure-track position. Indiana wasn’t my first choice, being so far from any sea. But the university there has promised to help me solve a serious problem I have with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. (It will, eventually, yet another story.) In California, back from Hawaii, I had found lodgings in a converted wood water tank. (Would I make this up?) It belonged to an old black lady who treated me like her white pet. (Not complaining, here; could do worse.) Soon after arriving, I had looked for someone with drill bits small and hard enough to pierce my hog teeth. Then, I did the obvious and got a dentist to drill four neat holes in four minutes in return for an abalone dinner. Contrary to what you might think, I did not hang the trophies on a thin gold chain; I am too well-bred for this. Instead I threaded a fine, ordinary string through them and tied a square knot in the back to close the loop. As I was finishing my thesis, I allowed myself a handful of parties in town. Against my manly tanned chest, the necklace seemed to make an impression on some of the women, an animal impression, if I dare say so. Well, I had to leave for a real job. I don’t even remember what I lived off during those few months without a job.
My doctoral dissertation is in the can finally, not gloriously but not ignominiously either. I drove from California to Indiana in the same old pick-up truck, the truck of the conger eel. My smart Labrador went with me, of course. I hauled a small trailer across country with my five sticks of furniture. I began teaching almost before I could find my bearings. I found a place to live easily, a little out of town. The cost of living is low here. The local people are pleasant and polite. Still, the divorce has now rolled over unto my side of the horizon. I am saddened and alone. One evening, instead of driving straight home, I stop at Papa Bear’s for a drink. I meet someone who buys me a drink just because I am new in town; I reciprocate, of course. Several of his friends join us because it’s past six pm. One of the friends is pretty girl with a flared skirt. I happen to be wearing my hog tusks necklace that evening. (May have been premeditation; I don’t put it past me.) The new girl shows an interest in it and I tell her half the story. Of course, she thinks of Hawaii as impossibly exotic. She beams at me.
We have several more drinks. Then, I realize that everyone has left except the girl. She and I get even more drinks and we become cozy, thigh against thigh on our bar stools, with little kisses on the neck. The girl is in her early or mid-twenties. I can tell from her speech that she is not a student, or faculty member, but a local girl. Soon, I tell her it’s time for me to go home to feed my dog. I don’t exactly invite her but I explain to her how to reach my little duplex near the lake. The Hoosier girl makes it there right after me. (Yes, we drove drunk a lot in those days. The figures show that we also died a lot.) I am barely getting out of my clothes; I am hanging the hog tusks necklace on its nail in the bedroom when she comes through the door.
I don’t want to go into details because I sincerely hope this story is going to make it to Family Story Hour. Let’s just say we do what healthy young people will do when they are a little lonely and a little needy, and more than a little liquored up. We stop long enough to feed my dog, after all, and to make sandwiches for ourselves. She leaves early in the morning because she has to go home to prepare for work. We have exchanged neither vows, of course, nor phone numbers but it’s a small town and I have told her in what academic department I work at the university; and she knows where I live, obviously. She also knows the scar high on my left thigh. I wake up with a hangover, naturally. I get up for a remedial cup of coffee. Then, I take a shower, hot, cold, hot. When I re-enter my room to put on my clothes, I vaguely detect that something is a little bit off. Then, it hits me: The tusks necklace is not hanging from its nail above the bed. I look inside the bed and turn back the sheets. I look under the bed. Nothing! I have to face the obvious: The girl with the flared skirt has stolen my necklace.
The Hawaiian hog tusks have become a trophy for the second time. This time, the winner earned it fair and square (unlike me with the original win), if you know what I mean. In any event, I never bumped into the girl again, not at Papa Bear’s, not in any other bar, not at the small downtown, not on campus perchance. Her evil deed done, she has vanished into thin air. I recovered from the loss in the end. Nowadays, there is even a good spot in my heart where I think of her. I imagine that there is a sweet young girl in southern Indiana who received a baroque, primitive necklace made of curved animal teeth from her grandmother who was smiling warmly and knowingly as she handed it to her.
© Jacques Delacroix 2022