The Hala Tree Walks In Darkness

halatreeillustration

The Hala Tree Walks In Darkness

Joseph Demarco

 

 

Hala 

  1. (noun) Sin, offense, fault, error. Ho’ohala. To cause to sin.
  2. (verb) To pass, elapse (as time); to pass by; to miss; to pass away, die.
  3. (noun) The pandanus or screw pine, native to Hawaii growing at low altitudes both cultivated and wild. It is a tree with many branches which are tipped with spiral tufts of long, narrow, spine-edged leaves; its base is supported by a clump of slanting aerial roots. The pineapple-shaped fruits are borne on female trees whereas spikes of fragrant, pollen-bearing flowers are borne separately on male trees.

 

January 15th 1779

The morning air was still cool and breezy; the sun had barely made it up over the mountain, yet Naku had finished cleaning his morning catch. He placed a thin piece of meat on the kuahu or altar, then very greedily he snatched half that piece and popped it into his mouth. He heard the words of his kupuna, there is a delicate balance in nature, never take more than you need, and always leave an offering for Akua. Akua has plenty, he thought to himself, looking over the vast ocean. He quickly wrapped the rest of the raw fish in ti leaves, stopping momentarily to trade a fish for some Hawaiian salt. He wiped the sweat from his brow; it had already been a long morning, but soon he would be taking the long trail back to his village. He ducked under an ulu tree after weaving his way through a thicket of hala trees. The hala trees were very mysterious to Naku. He often thought he saw eyes in the trunk and he believed that once a tree had grabbed him and refused to let go. He was not sure he liked the hala. Its strange pineapple-looking fruit could be made into a lei that was bad luck to wear except around the New Year. Its leg-like roots jutted out of the ground, making the whole tree appear to be walking on stilts. Naku thought the tree sort of looked like a giant sixteen-legged man. The elders of the village had shared stories that the hala trees walked around at night and, every so often, would share a secret with you if you were worthy.

The lo’i was shady in the early morning light, this wetland taro garden was fairly sparse of taro plants because of the upcoming Makahiki festival, a celebration of the harvest and the god Lono. The makani began to blow and Naku shuddered in the morning Hawaiian sun as he was walking past the mysterious little thatched hut. It had been there as long as he could remember. Still, the woman who lived there barely came out in the day and most of the villagers were afraid of her. Naku, on the other hand, kind of found the crazy old lady fascinating. The local lore about her was that she was a kahuna from the island of Moloka’i and had magic powers. All the villagers cowered in her presence because they said she had red eyes, but Naku had stood before her once and realized the error in this description. Her eyes weren’t red, no, not the color red anyway; her eyes glowed like hot magma spewing from the earth. They looked as if they were on fire but they certainly weren’t red. Naku had this feeling he was being watched, so he quickly hurried down the path to his kauhale or village.

The village was busy at work for the upcoming Makahiki festival, so no one noticed Naku slip into the kauhale. He covered his morning catch in salt, wrapped it in the kalo leaves and stored it in a dry basin near the back of the dwelling. He slipped out the back and into his personal hale to grab his niho pahoa. The blade was made of a tiger shark tooth and it was razor sharp. He could cut almost anything with it. He was cutting coconut fibers to weave into cordage when Kolohe found him and asked, “Whae yooh was?”

“Ai stay on I’a duty,” Naku responded.

“Yooh catch any?” Kolohe asked.

“Plenny,” Naku answered.

“Fo’ Uncle Kalehua?” Kolohe asked. “Whea he stay?”

“He stay up in da mountains.”

With Kalehua gone and his birth father killed in the brutal inter-island wars, Naku, at the ripe age of thirteen, was the temporary head of his kauhale. It was a big responsibility for such a young man. He decided it was break time; they retreated to the stream to cool off. It was already getting hot on the Kona side of the island, and the hike to the streambed was a long one.  They passed three wahine nude from the waist up; their dark hair was wet and their coconut nipples beading with water from their morning bathe. Naku and Kolohe politely bade the ladies Aloha kakahiaka, but did not stare at their breasts.

They stripped out of their malo and waded into the icy stream, which was fed from the mountain peaks of Hualalai, an 8,000-foot mountain but still only the third tallest on the island of Hawaii. Once they were submerged, Naku felt better, like he could think straighter.

“I wen dream bout da lady again,” Naku confessed. “Da one down by da lo’i.”

“Da witch?” Kolohe asked.

“Ai.” Naku was serious, but Kolohe was already goofing on him.

“Maybe yooh like oof her,” Kolohe said smirking and thrusting his pelvis forward.

Naku was not amused. In the dream she had laid her hands on the hala tree and proclaimed death was coming from across the waters. Naku knew it was only a dream, but it felt real, and the old woman had pinched him on the nipple in the dream, but he dared not tell Kolohe about that part of the dream.

Kolohe got serious for a moment. “She wen tell me da hala tree wen talk to her. It wen see da future.”

Naku shivered slightly. “No believe her.”

“I do,” Kolohe admitted.

Naku splashed water at Kolohe, and thus a splashing war ensued. The war climaxed with Kolohe launching himself off a rock and crouching into a ball forming a boulder (the Hawaiians had never seen a cannonball, not yet, anyway) and hitting the water causing a massive splash that rocked Naku.

 

January 16th 1779

The sliver of a crescent moon was already setting; it was many hours before dawn. The trail was dark and quiet as Naku crept downhill to the bay. Below him, he could see several small torches of fishermen. Naku’s attention was focused downhill when he heard an ominous scratching sound that made him stop in his tracks. He felt a tremor in his heart; the sound was coming from the thicket of hala trees. He got this feeling all of a sudden as if one hala tree was looking at him. It doesn’t have a face, he said to himself, it’s not looking at me.

He was about to hele on out of there, when he heard it again.

It was very light sounding but it was clearly coming from the tree.

He stopped his breathing; waiting, he heard, “TsssS, TssSs, TsSss, TSsss.”

It almost sounded like someone whispering.

“Who dere?” Naku whispered, but all he heard was the soft scratching getting closer.

“TSSss, TSSSs, TSSS, TSSS.”

Naku paused. He could feel the chicken skin up on his arms; like a hog, the hair on his body was standing straight up. He heard the scratching again. It seemed to be coming from a big burly hala tree that had something like twenty-three legs sticking out of its trunk. Although Naku was fearful, he put his hand on the trunk of the tree. The scratching sound abruptly stopped, but Naku’s eyes nearly popped out of his head as he looked downhill. He saw what looked like a white apparition moving between the hala trees. Naku crouched down. As he moved in closer to the tree, his nose brushed against one of the spikes on the hala leaves causing him to bleed lightly. He put his hand to his face, watching the ghostly white silhouette move between the trees, its kapa cloth flapping lightly in the breeze. As the apparition moved closer, Naku realized it was the witch that lived in the grass hut near the lo’i, the one whose eyes burned like hot lava from the Kilauea crater.

Naku could hear she was chanting an oli, “Eo Mai e na Kupuna I Hala,” Heed my call to the ancestors.

She touched each hala tree as she passed, “E Ho’oikaika ia makou,” Give us strength.

“E ala e,” Rise up.

Naku was puzzled. Was she telling the trees to rise up or the dead?

She continued, “Mai luna a lalo,” From the top to the bottom.

Naku heard more crunching and then, in the distance, what sounded like a large tree falling over.

The witch moved slowly and each moment felt like an eternity for Naku. When she passed out of sight, he hurried on down the hill. As he stopped to catch his breath under an ulu tree, he thought he had avoided an awkward altercation with the witch. That was when he felt the cold clammy hand on his shoulder. He nearly jumped out of his skin. Naku smacked her arm off his shoulder and retreated about a yard. He was prepared to strike her if she closed the gap, but she remained a large stone’s throw away.

“What yooh want?” Naku questioned.

A voice that sounded as if it came from the bowels of the Earth came out of her, “Yooh wen sin boy,” the witch stated.

“I neva…” Naku started to say, but the witch cut him off with this infernal cackle.

“Yooh wen sin and now da sea goin bring us death,” the witch stated.

“Eh?” Naku questioned looking out over the calm bay waters.

“I git a message fo’ yo’ village,” said the witch.

Naku was puzzled. “From who?”

She patted the hala tree. “Da trees, dey tell me tings,” said the witch. Her smile was ghastly.

“I no hear anyting,” Naku said boldly, though he was still fearful.

“You don’t no how fo’ listen,” the witch explained. She put her hand on Naku and he almost screamed out; the other she placed on the trunk of the hala tree and rubbed it softly. At first there was nothing except the limbs shaking in the tradewinds. Naku struggled to free himself, but the witch had an ironclad grip. Then, as if it was some kind of dream, he heard it, lightly at first tsss, tsss, tsss, tsss, and then gaining strength, tsss, tssS, tssSS, tsSSS.

Naku felt the hair on his arms standing up again. “It jus one insect burrowing,” he said trying to reason with his own fear and apprehension.

Tsss, TssS, TsSS, TSSS. Naku thought it almost sounded like words, but he couldn’t quite make them out.

The witch smiled, “Yooh tink so?” The wind started to bluster and blow causing the branches to shake and rattle. Naku looked about him; it was only he and the witch. Still he felt another presence.

Naku changed stances. “Wat da tree saying?”

The witch’s eyes started to burn like molten magma. “We stay headed fo’ dark times.”

“Da tree wen tell yooh dat?” Naku questioned.

“Silence,” the witch shrieked, her fingernails digging into Naku’s arm. “False gods goin fo’ bring pestilence, famine and disease upon our people.”

“How da tree wen know dat?” Naku inquired.

The witch gripped Naku tighter. He could feel blood running down his arm onto the bark of the tree. The witch did not appear to have the answer.

“Dere is nuthing yooh can do fo’ stop dem.” The witch’s eyes were blazing now. “Death no can stop dese false devils. No island goin fo’ escape dere wrath.” The witch sounded stark-raving mad.

“Wen,” Naku questioned.

“Sooner than yooh tink,” the witch laughed wickedly. In the midst of her laugh, she started to cough. When she was doubled over, Naku shook himself free from her grasp and took off running down the hill. By the time he had reached the sea, he was out of breath. He washed the blood off his arm. He was too shaken up to go fishing. Still he brought out the net, climbed onto the reef, and went through the motions. He did not catch anything. He was lost in thought; he knew he needed to talk to Kolohe.

He had to wait until breakfast. Even then in the hale mua or eating house, there were too many ears; he could not discuss matters with Kolohe. They would have to go someplace private. They went for their usual bathe in the stream.

Naku began to spill his guts about the witch and her warning.

Kolohe stood there, his mouth gaping open. After a short time he looked around. “Wen dis happen?”

“Dis morning,” Naku reiterated.

“An wen she say da false gods wen arrive?” Kolohe questioned.

“She neva say,” Naku stated.

They hushed, as there were a group of wahine approaching, five females fresh from bathing in the cold mountain stream, their dark hair wet and messy, their brown coconut nipples standing erect and beaded with dew, but today Naku barely even looked at them. He was already tied in knots. The ladies smiled saying, Aloha kakahiaka. Naku politely nodded.

As soon as they were out of earshot, “What we goin fo’ do?” Naku asked.

“We can tell Kaulana,” Kolohe suggested.

“Nah, dat witch has shit fo’ brains,” Naku said chuckling, but Kolohe didn’t laugh.

Eventually after an awkward silence Kolohe said, “Yooh need fo’ tell someone.”

“Eh, nuting goin fo’ happen,” Naku informed his friend.

They stripped out of their malo, but Kolohe would not enter the stream. “Befo’ yooh make a decision, I need fo’ tell yooh a story,” he said wading into the stream.

 

Kolohe’s Tale

That previous winter, Kolohe had been in charge of the night’s watch for the stone temple near Kealakekua Bay. He had to leave the village around 1:30 a.m. to arrive at his post. Most nights Kolohe would go straight to his post, but sometimes he tended to meander. One such night he was out wandering, exploring, and upon hearing strange sounds near the large hala tree, decided to investigate. Kolohe had been fascinated by the tales of the tree walking around at night. To Kolohe the tree looked like a rather large skeleton wearing a hula skirt. He walked over to the trunk and heard something hit the ground behind him.

Plonk.

It was a lone sound and was not very loud, but in the dark stillness of night it caused him to jump. Kolohe spun about-face expecting to see an animal or possibly a spook standing there, but all that was behind him was emptiness. The wind began to blow lightly as if it was its own entity. He looked about; he was alone, but he didn’t feel alone.

From the other side of the tree he heard a Clomp. In the silence, it was somewhat pronounced. He shuffled his stance, looking panic-stricken.

“Aloha?” Kolohe whispered, but was met with silence. As he rotated again awkwardly, in the shadows he saw movement. Something had fallen from the hala tree, ponk. He moved closer to the sound.

“Where you stay?” Kolohe asked. There was no answer. On the ground was a slice of one of those pineapple-looking fruits that hang from the female hala trees. Another sliver fell off to the right of him. THAP. It hit several leaves on the forest floor.

The fruit of a hala tree is actually nothing like a pineapple. It tastes nothing like one and is only really eaten by bats, rats, crabs and lizards. The fruit also falls out in slices (and looks rather like one of those enormous candy corn that are given out at Halloween, except these are green and yellow instead of orange, yellow and white.) Several hala fruit started to fall all at once, Clonk, plonk, Whap, bonk. One struck Kolohe on the side of the noggin. He was flustered; he shuffled his feet, and picked up the loose fruit. He ran his fingers along the smooth inner part of the fruit and over the prickly, bumpy outside that is exposed to the air. A piece fell from the utmost branches, high in the tree. Thhh, it hit several branches, Thhh, on the way down, before THOMP, hitting the ground several feet from Kolohe.

“Aloha?” Kolohe whispered again. It was then that, just out of the corner of his vision, he noticed someone standing there. She was as motionless as the trees and in the initial shock of her presence, he almost jumped out of his skin. She certainly looked like a spook. There stood the witch, her white kapa flowing lightly in the Kona breeze.

Kolohe was petrified, yet he tried not to show it. The witch was chanting an oli. Kolohe could not hear most of the chant, but again she bayed the trees to “E ala e,” Rise up.

Kolohe stood tall as she approached but dared not look her in the eye. He stared down to the twisted roots of the hala tree; as he did this, he noticed his knuckle was bleeding. He made a fist, the blood curdling and dripping onto the twisted roots of a tree that looked like some kind of poly-legged immortal.

“E Ho’oikaika ia makou,” the witch chanted. Give us strength.

The witch raised her arms toward the heavens.

Then there was a deep subterranean growl from beneath the tree as if the Earth was groaning. The ground started to rumble, and it started to rain hala fruit down all around him. Thap, bonk, THomp, Clonk, Whap, bonk. The ground lurched slightly to the right, as there were cracking and splintering sounds from underneath their feet. Before Kolohe could even run, there was an echoing crash and the ground broke open. With a shuddering CRUNCH, roots exploded out of the earth and for a moment, he thought perhaps it was a landslide. Then Kolohe almost fainted dead away, as he saw the roots of the hala tree extricate themselves from the ground. He stumbled several feet backwards and fell on his okole, as he saw the root bend and step crashing into the ground like the leg of some wooded giant.

The witch was still on her feet, standing before the tree, “Eo Mai e na Kupuna I Hala,” Heed my call to the ancestors.

The earth rumbled again as the back leg of the tree burst from the ground and stepped even closer to the witch. Kolohe let out a blood-curdling scream, as he saw what appeared to be two eyes and a mouth on the enormous trunk of the tree. Like a frightened animal, Kolohe leapt to his feet and made a dash down the hill toward the ocean.

 

Naku’s Reaction

“Dat wen neva happen.” Naku splashed his friend from the cool of the pool.

“I swear,” Kolohe stated solemnly.

“What it mean?” Naku questioned.

“I tink it mean we goin fo’ tell da village about da witch’s message,” Kolohe explained.

“She already say we can do nuting,” Naku told his friend.

“It no matta we can try. We can start wit Kaulana,” Kolohe said confidently.

After their morning bath, they went to tell Kaulana about what the witch had foreseen, or, more accurately, what the hala tree had foreseen. He was kind of famous; the word kaulana meaning famous.

Kaulana’s hale or hut was enormous and both boys were afraid to enter. They found Kaulana sitting in the darkest corner staring into a bowl of kawa. Kawa is made from the roots of the plant; it is a drink that can make one feel high or cause mild euphoria or hallucinations. The bowl was made from the inner coconut shell. Kaulana seemed to be focused on the bottom of the coconut.

“Aloha kakahiaka,” the boys greeted Kaulana.

The famous Hawaiian was slow to look up, but he eventually did, nodding at the boys, not saying a word. He motioned for them to take a seat on a mat weaved from palm fronds. So Naku and Kolohe sat down cross-legged, each of them a little nervous and hesitant about how to proceed.

Kaulana was a dark Hawaiian, of ali’i breed; he was made darker by the little black triangles that were tattooed over half his body. He stared into the shadows of the muddy kawa water inside his coconut bowl like some soothsayer waiting for a sign.

“Da witch git one message,” Kolohe blurted out after an uncomfortable silence.

Kaulana sipped from the bowl. “No can stop da makani from blowing, no can stop da wai from flowing,” he said, staring deep into the bowl. “I fear da wahine is right.” He passed the bowl to Naku. Normally Naku only drank during celebrations, but under the circumstances he downed the bowl. He felt his gums go numb; the kawa root calmed him, and it made him see things more clearly.

“What should we do?” Naku asked Kaulana.

“It matters not. Yooh can tell da village, but it no goin fo’ make one difference,” Kaulana said sadly. He poured another bowl of kawa from a large coconut bowl.

“Wat if we scare dem off?” Kolohe suggested.

Kaulana stirred the kawa with his finger. “No matter, afta dey leave, da presence still goin fo’ stay. An den mo’ goin fo’ come.”

The hut was silent. Outside were normal things, sunshine, palm trees swaying in the breeze, birds chirping, but Naku felt dead inside. When they arrived back at the village, the boys told everyone in the hope that Kaulana was wrong, but most were too preoccupied with the upcoming festival. One elder listened and replied that Lono i ka Makahiki would one day return and perhaps this would be the year.

 

January 17th 1779

The night moved like a poisonous jellyfish spilling its sac of eggs onto the beach. Naku was no stranger to the sting of the sea anemone, an abysmal beast from the dark depths of the ocean. He remembered feeling those blue quills sink into his flesh, looking remarkably like blue stitches. He remembered that sick feeling like he was about to pass out. He had felt the poison course through his body, his armpits feeling numb as the venom slowly tried to stop his heart. He almost went into anaphylactic shock; had he been a few years younger, perhaps we would need another protagonist for this tale. The venomous invertebrate left its lightning-like scar all over his arm.

Visions of jellyfish danced in his head; Naku could not sleep. He left the hut and walked down to a scenic spot to look for the false god. He saw only the calm, placid ocean. Could the witch be wrong? Maybe she’s just a crazy old bat.

Down toward the stone temple, the torches were burning bright; everyone was getting ready for the festival, the celebration of Lonoikamakahiki, the God of peace, agriculture, and fertility. Naku could see torches in the distance all around; people were coming from distant villages. Naku would have to offer some of his finest catch, maybe some dried aku or was it already too late? Maybe they were cursed, and maybe he had cursed them all. He shivered slightly as a small breeze blew down the mountain; the hala tree rustled as if giving him a warning.

In the distance, he could hear the beating of a pahu drum. The ceremony had begun. Now he could see more people coming from the hilltops all around. By the morning the white banner of Lono would be parading around the island collecting offerings for the chief. Naku snacked on some dried fish, keeping one eye on the horizon. The sky was starting to get light in the east when Naku must have nodded off. He came to and thought he was seeing the night marcher’s ghosts walking toward him, as an entourage of enormous ali’i soldiers marched past him toward the temple.

The sky turned all pink and apologetic but brought nothing with it, only uneventfulness, no false gods or famine and pestilence, no storm of disaster. As Naku sat there waiting, a crier came around announcing the lifting of the kapu or taboo. He presented Naku with some wrapped pork which our hero happily gobbled up. With warm meat in his stomach, Naku began to feel drowsy. Below he could see commoners setting up stands where games and food would be sold. A short man was driving wooden stakes into the ground for a traditional game of ulu maika (which is a lot like Hawaiian bowling).

After hours of sitting, waiting, hoping, wishing, tying himself in knots, Naku finally rose and returned to his thatched hut. He rummaged through his belongings for some time, not really knowing what he was looking for. He was confused, perplexed. Was the witch serious? Had the hala tree really given her a prophecy? And how come this felt like a bad dream?

Pondering all these questions, Naku promptly fell asleep. In his dreams he swam through an endless ocean of phosphorescent jellyfish to a lone island that had but one tree on the middle of it. As he swam closer, he could see the tree was an enormous hala tree with about thirty-three legs sticking out from its trunk. As he waded to shore, he could see the hala tree’s eyes looking at him. Right before he came out of the dream, he could’ve sworn it winked at him.

He awoke in the afternoon, the hot Hawaiian sun spilling into his hut. He limped into the sunshine; the village was already empty, everybody having gone down to the festival. He was alone. For a moment he imagined the village vacant, the huts missing thatching in places and all desiccated, everything broken down and deserted. He shivered. The witch couldn’t really talk to hala trees. Kolohe just has an overactive imagination he said to himself, as he set off toward the ocean. He stopped; he couldn’t hear the beating of the pahu drum. He had that inkling that something was wrong; there seemed to be a nervous silence about the shoreline that was unlike a normal Makahiki festival. It was so quiet he could hear birds chirping. He picked up his pace.

As the heiau came into view, he could see no women dancing hula, no fire dancers or wrestling or feats of strength; everyone was frozen. Just standing there. What were they doing? It appeared that they were looking at something, not just looking but staring. Staring at something on the horizon. One Hawaiian was even pointing toward something way out beyond the bay. What was he pointing at? Naku squinted; he didn’t see anything. Then like magic, he saw something appear out of thin air. The thing was hard to make out, as it was far away, but it was large and was rising and falling with the tides. As it came into focus, he could hardly believe his eyes. He had never seen anything like it. It was tall, at least a palm tree’s height above the water. He rubbed his eyes. It sort of looked like a small floating island, and on top of that island perched for everyone to see was the white banner of Lono. Had the god literally returned?

He began to sprint down the hill, almost falling in the process. Everybody was still staring at the floating island in the distance, but it was getting larger, closer. When he made it down to the temple, he could already hear the murmurs.

“Lono has returned,”

“Could it be Lono?”

“Lonoikamakahiki.”

Naku stumbled around in disbelief; it was really happening. Exactly what the witch said would happen. He felt as if he couldn’t breathe. It was like a bad dream. He wanted to speak up and tell about the hala tree’s warning, tell them this was not the real Lono, but the words seemed stuck in his throat. He dropped to his knees looking up toward the heavens, but there was no god there. He was approaching from the west on a floating island with white rectangular banners and white skinned men. But he is a false god, Naku said to himself. It matters not, he heard Kaulana’s words, and he felt himself sinking.

Story by Joseph DeMarco

Joseph DeMarco was born in New York City; he grew up in Buffalo, NY. He has taught seventh grade on the island of Oahu, Hawaii for the last ten years. He is the author of the novels Plague of the Invigilare, The 4 Hundred and 20 Assassins of Emir Abdullah-Harazins, At Play in the Killing Fields, Blind Savior, False Prophet, Vegans Are Tastier, and The 4 Hundred and 20 Assassins: Green Mourning.

Illustration By Liza Adamandidou B.
Liza Adamandidou B. is a freelance illustrator living and working in Athens and Istanbul whose works reflect the relationship between the real and the surreal through personal and social myths, stories and memory. Through her own story telling with mythical characters and spaces, she creates a new language for the viewer to read the everyday life and the physical world through an imaginary yet magical perspective. Her work questions and seeks for the unknown and the unseen beyond the visible form.