Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Nobody knows where King Kamehameha, the great king of the Hawaiians, is buried. (Though it’s suggested that it might be somewhere near where an almost impassable ropy lava road comes out reluctantly on the beach by the old Kaloko and ‘Aimakapa fishponds on the Kona Coast, after bucking and balking the whole way like one of the donkeys that run wild just north of there; not really leading to it so much as seeming unable to quite keep you from it in the end.)
Why ever don’t they know? you wonder, wanting plausible explanations—he was lost at sea or taken prisoner in war—or a simple failure to employ the latest techniques—carbon dating, computer mapping, the infrared photography that strips the very heart from deserts and jungles. The historians on Hawaii, the Big Island, are working so steadily to uncover the past and to preserve it, collecting the stories of the elders who still live on the island. Surely they should have figured it out by now. Just as they will want to fix the very bad road.
But one of the elders explains that the whereabouts of King Kamehameha was a deliberate secret, known only to the one who buried him, and still respectfully kept, unasked. The old Hawaiians believed that bones hold spiritual power, mana, and that the bones of their king hold the greatest power of all. They couldn’t risk letting that power come into the possession of their enemies, of those who were unworthy or would misuse it.
Walking again at o Honaunau, I thought about that sacred power of bones being unloosed, instead, entrusted to the land and sea; and could believe that my father’s bones, lost to the waters there, have gained and relinquished mana too.
I spent the afternoon at the beautiful bay called the Place of Refuge, Pu ‘uhonua o Honaunau, where five years ago we scattered my father’s ashes. Three miles out towards the horizon in an outrigger canoe—a journey flat as through the midwest, where he always said he felt that without mountains to contain the edges, he was going to fall off. He is everywhere there in spirit.
I walked feeling sad for all of us—for a friend who died in Arkansas early in January; for the daughter our elderly Hawaiian friends lost to cancer a couple of days before; for my father beyond all the others. But more than anything I felt as always the abiding peace of the place. Within its protective half-circle of coconut palms life began anew in ancient Hawaii. Here in what was a sacred refuge people were provided with a second chance—a second chance for life itself.
The inner bay is alive with sea turtles, amber and green, dapple and sunlight, the color of the water. My father never got to see them; they have come just in the last few years, as if generated from his passing (like the inexhaustible torn and scattered god in the Rilke poem). And in the far pools in the lava, variously silvered and clouded like trapped sky, there are striped fish darting after brilliant red fish; spiky sheer black urchins. I walk out to the farthest of the pools, and back.
It’s clearly there, the mana. The power to protect the living; the enduring power of the natural world; the regenerative power of the wise old water-colored sea turtles.
The king is safely lost still.
image: Christie B. Cochrell, royal fishpond, island of Hawaii