Puhala and the Secrets of the Menehune
No Longer a Slave
Kauaʹi, Northwest Coast
700 Years Ago
It was early morning on Matu Island. The sun had barely risen above the low-lying trees. A hazy light spilled deep shadows through the jungle as two brother warriors, Kekoa and Kye, sprinted around clumps of brush.
They ran like their lives were in the balance, because they were.
The pungent smell of their comrades’ blood was still wet in their noses.
They dashed silently, like ghosts. The only sounds being the occasional swooshes of low-lying branches and the crackle of fallen palm fronds being crushed under their feet. The upward slope of the trail was overgrown with vines and ferns, but this wasn’t a problem for these trained warriors. Dressed in only tan malos, loincloths, these expert young men dodged trees and shrubs as they sped through the forest.
Kekoa ran ahead. In his hand, he held a small newa, a war club. A volcanic rock the size of a closed fist rested atop a tapered handle made from dark koa wood. Rough cord held the newa together - its fibrous twine lashed the bulbous stone head to its shaft.
The weapon was small but lethal.
As Kekoa raised the newa above his head, he slowed to a stop, bending down to the sandy ground. The trail split in front of him, one path running inland, the other toward cliffs that overlooked the ocean.
Breathless, Kye crouched alongside his brother and cautiously raised himself to search the surrounding jungle for movement.
Kekoa studied the ground for even the slightest of signs. He searched for any turned leaf or odd-looking divot that would provide a clue to the location of their invisible enemy. The dark tattoos that covered his cheeks, nose, and forehead creased with concern as his free hand felt the waxy texture of one of the many vines that crisscrossed the path.
After a moment, the brothers quickly sprinted up the inland trail that led to the village.
Kekoa and Kye were Matu, and as such, they prided themselves on their ability to attack in a blur of motion, to shock their adversaries with such speed and ferocity that any attempt by their foe to defend themselves or fight back was useless. The Matu attacked with knurled clubs, long koa wood spears, and lethal leiomanōs, flat, heart-shaped clubs riddled with shark teeth.
As they moved inland, the warriors showcased the same blistering speed they’d had since childhood, but now they weren’t training to attack enemies on a battlefield. No, they were on a manhunt, hoping to find any sign of the spy who entered their camp and dared oppose the great Matu king.
This intruder had stolen the king’s arsenal of weapons hours before a grand battle was about to begin, and in doing so, he had taken away the king’s war.
It had been a generation since the Matu arrived from across the great ocean. They came on a wa'a kaulua, a twin-hulled sailing canoe over one hundred feet long and thirty feet wide. Their wa'a kaulua sported a pair of tall triangular sails, a storage hut, and carried as many as one hundred passengers.
The journey across the moana demanded an incredible degree of commitment, courage, and planning. Long ago, they decided to leave their home island in the South Pacific and head northeast across the vast ocean to a land only rumored to exist. The value they placed on their families’ lives was paramount - any fear of drowning or starvation only eclipsed by a hope so mighty it was worth dying for.
For some, the incentive to venture across the sea was to escape strict kapu laws used to control the commoners. Kapu laws were spiritual rules meant to protect the people, but these same laws were often perverted and used as repressive weapons when wielded by often merciless South Pacific kings.
The Matu yearned to escape the unrelenting oppression of tyrants and find a home where families could live in a world free from barbaric rulers who tormented and abused their subjects. They wanted peace, isolation from war and strife, to be free from the constant fear of attack from neighboring villages.
The Matu were kau'wa - slaves, outcasts - and as long as they remained under the power of their masters, they and their children would always be kau'wa unless something radically changed.
And it wasn’t only a matter of gaining their freedom: the Matu wanted to be kings in their own right.
A person became kau'wa by being born small or feet-first, by getting caught repeatedly causing trouble or by being a warrior from a defeated army. As kau'wa, the Matu, their children and their children’s children, would always be servants, the lowest class of people. They were told what to do by everyone: the ali'i, the royals, and even the maka'ainana, common citizens.
There were thousands of kau'wa on islands all across the South Pacific, but what made the Matu stand out was that they had a particularly bold leader: King Afu.
King Afu heard tales of islands far across the ocean to the northeast where people lived in harmony with the sea and the land, dedicated to the love of family and unaccustomed to war or strife. Families there lived according to a code of peace that, in the mind of King Afu, was theirs to participate in, as well.
Over many months, King Afu and his followers hatched a radical plan to escape the servitude of their South Pacific masters and be free. The plan was simple: steal the village’s wa'a kaulua and pilfer as much food and livestock as they could carry to the new world.
They would rewrite their fate by finding an island and becoming the ruling nobles of their own land.
King Afu’s Anger
Sweat pouring off their bodies, Kekoa and Kye searched the thick clusters of huluhulu bushes that spread through the Matu village but found nothing. Hunched over, with exhausted breaths heaving from their chests, they looked at each other. As warriors, they were prepared for combat, trained to fight through pain and fright. Today they faced a different kind of horror, a dread they had never imagined: confusion.
The warrior king ordered them to find the spy and the weapons he stole. If they could not accomplish this, they would be brought before King Afu’s court and killed.
“The cliffs,” Kye whispered breathlessly. “South of the village. We need to hurry. If we don’t find a sign of the invader, we will be the next sacrificed.”
After months at sea, the eighty Matu passengers who remained alive on the stolen wa'a kaulua landed on solid ground.
The island was not what they had envisioned. It was arid and dry, with scraggly foliage and weak soil, its coastline rocky and rough. There was fresh water, fruit trees, and hard wood, but this was not the home King Afu promised his followers as they slaved in bondage in the South Pacific.
It turns out that the paradise the king promised was further off: visible on the horizon, a mere day’s paddle away. But there was a problem, it was already inhabited by a spiritual people who had arrived a hundred years before and were intent on staying there.
Lush valleys, thick jungles, and fresh water were abundant on the neighboring island of Kaua'i. The fact that people had settled there generations before was of little consequence to the Matu king. He had made a promise to his people and he planned to keep his word. He would take the land and if the people refused to yield to his demands, they would be killed.
A short year after first landing on Matu Island, King Afu attacked their eastern neighbor only to be defeated and pushed back into the sea.
Now, after ten years of licking their wounds, the Matu had grown in numbers and strength. They stockpiled weapons and positioned their army to strike back, but a day before the planned assault, they were thwarted.
Someone had learned of the Matu plans to attack, discovered their arsenal of weapons, and stole them.
Kekoa and Kye blew past pockets of brush and palms as though a horrific demon was chasing them. They approached the cliff’s edge and stopped on the crest of the high rock face.
The two warriors resumed their search, Kekoa moving left and Kye to the right. Pacing across the rocks, they desperately looked for signs of the intruder and the weapons he had taken. It wasn’t until Kekoa peered into the whitewater swash that roiled far below him that he noticed a number of strange objects bobbing in the foam at the base of the cliff.
Kekoa assumed it was a flock of birds drifting in the water, but as he focused on the flotsam, it became clear to him.
“There - in the water - in the shallows!” he screamed. “Look what’s floating!”
Without hesitation, the two scrambled down the rough lava rock and once close, threw themselves into the water.
The sun had moved up a fist’s width above the horizon, and with the full light of day before him, King Afu was furious. He seethed as he stood atop a raised wooden platform, a tan kapa loin-cloth hung down to his knees, a single boar tooth niho palaoa hanging loosely around his neck, whipping with every hard step.
Atop his head was a wreath of woven hala leaves, long feathers jutting wide from the rear. Black hook-like tattoos spread like macabre spider webs across his face and along his tall, muscular frame.
“Our warriors are searching, my king,” a chief priest said from a distance.
“Who stole my weapons?” King Afu screamed. “I want to know where this thief came from. Now!”
Behind him on the sandy ground, the warrior king’s priest stayed well back on bent knees. In front, the men from the village lay face down before King Afu as he pointed and screamed at the throng of petulant villagers.
“Who is responsible for stopping my war?” he asked.
Flashing menacingly in the king’s hand was a hooked wooden bludgeon ringed with red-stained shark’s teeth. At his feet lay what was left of a lifeless guard, beaten to death.
Through the brush, Kekoa and Kye burst forth, their arms laden with fragments of smashed hardwood axes, broken spears and crushed blades.
They ran to the king and laid their find at his feet.
“Speak!” King Afu demanded.
Kekoa shuddered at the sight of the bloody corpse on the sand before him.
He found his voice, “Great King Afu - we pulled these from the water at the base of the southern cliffs.”
Anger lacing each word, the king spoke. “I want the thief who destroyed my weapons. I want him dead!”
Ho'oponopono, the Pathway to Forgiveness
The kahuna in charge of the Temple of Refuge was an elderly woman named Maka, Kahuna Maka. She was tall and thin, her hands stained and wrinkled from years working with her island’s herbs and ointments. Her eyes, having acquired a deep wisdom over her years spent as medicine woman and spiritual healer, were keen and mysterious. She maintained a gentle appearance as her bent and knurled hands ground the stringy roots of a kava plant into a coarse powder.
Kahuna Maka smiled as she worked, sitting cross-legged on a tan lauhala mat beneath the temple’s pili grass roof. She wore an aged red and tan kihei of pounded kapa that hung square off her shoulders and loose to her waist. Her pa'u skirt was tied around her waist. By her side rested her careworn koa wood walking stick.
Holding the grinding bowl securely in her lap, her wavy gray hair fastened loose in a bun behind her head, Kahuna Maka prayed as she worked making the thick, yellowish-brown liniment for the teenager.
Her patient’s name was Puhala.
His hands had been torn to shreds while above his knee there lay a jagged gash, wide and long. He lay silent and unmoving as his blood, a deep red, flowed down his leg.
The Temple of Refuge was square, fifteen feet to a side, built on a raised foundation of stacked lava rock. It was constructed from stout wooden poles lashed together with finely spun olonā cordage, its walls formed from clumps of long, thin pili. On the floor, woven mats spread from wall to wall while scattered across the smooth surface lay wooden containers holding varying quantities of herbs and salves.
Encircling the magnificent temple was a high wooden wall constructed from finely carved wooden poles. The fortification was built to protect innocents, a secure enclosure to keep the pain of war, torment, and persecution at bay. The Temple of Refuge was sacred, a haven for any islander, whether he or she was a wounded soldier or a criminal.
Occasionally, Kahuna Maka glanced across from where she milled her ingredients to observe Puhala. As he lay wounded on his sleeping mat, she counted the frequency of his breaths, the beads of sweat on his skin, the levels of his pain.
She was unfazed by the way he bled from the deep, finger-long gash that cut across his leg or the wounds that covered his hands. It was almost as if she enjoyed watching Puhala suffer.
“Thank you for the la'au, Kahuna Maka,” Puhala said weakly as the medicine woman approached him.
“La'au? These simple herbs? I hope you don’t think this la'au will heal you.”
She laughed as she lifted the cup of ground root off her lap.
“You have some deep hurt, the least of which is that wound on your leg. The la'au will help cure your body. Your real hurt lies deeper. Inside.”
The kahuna bent down moving alongside Puhala’s gashed leg. Taking her thumb, she pressed hard, indenting the skin all around the wound.
Grimacing, Puhala wrapped his forearm across his eyes to block the throbbing agony.
A voice arose from across the room. “I think his bleeding is worse now.”
“That is what I am hoping, Puhi,” she said. “Puhi is the name you go by now, isn’t that right? Big Puhi?”
Kahuna Maka chuckled as she watched blood ooze down Puhala’s leg. “We have to clean the inside of the wound.”
Big Puhi sat with his back against the far wall of the Temple of Refuge, a small wooden bowl of water held carefully in his pudgy hands.
“Yeah, that’s my name now: Big Puhi.”
Big Puhi and Puhala had been enemies for most of their lives. Big Puhi used his tremendous size and bitter spirit to torment and take advantage of nearly anyone he could bully. Puhala, after taunted by Big Puhi for years, ended up breaking strict kapu rules to show Big Puhi he wouldn’t be told what to do.
“It’s just that - well,” Big Puhi said as he laughed to himself. “I’m starting to like Puhala and would hate to see my hoa, my friend, bleed to death after all that we’ve been through.”
Kahuna Maka’s voice was stern and accusatory. “Yes, Puhi. Goading Puhala to defy the king nearly got both you and your hoa killed.”
Puhala interrupted. “But we did not die. I stole the Matu weapons. I stopped them from attacking.”
“Silence, both of you!” the kahuna scolded.
Turning to a shelf, the old woman selected a small gourd, removed its wooden stopper, and placed a pinch of ground kava powder from the vessel into a cup of water. She stirred it and carried it over for Puhala to drink. Sitting up, Puhala grasped the cup in both hands and sipped the dark liquid.
“Ugh. This tastes like dirt.”
Big Puhi laughed from across the room. “Stop your complaining, Puhala, Toughen up!”
“It's an acquired taste. Finish the rest. You will appreciate it once I start binding that wound.”
Puhala, a year younger than Big Puhi’s fourteen years, drained the remaining kava and eased himself back against the hard floor of The Temple of Refuge.
He pictured Lana, the strong and beautiful second cousin to Kaua`i’s King Kiamana he met a few days earlier (A lifetime ago, he thought). He wanted to prove himself to her and the rest of the ali'i so badly - more than anything.
But how many people had he hurt in his effort?
It wasn’t Big Puhi’s fault Puhala broke the kapu rules. He and he alone rebelled against his makuakāne, his father, and stole the family canoe. No one forced him to defy King Kiamana by going out on the moana after being told to stay off the water.
He had tried to convince the village, his family, and the king that he was something he wasn’t. It was only by the graciousness of the god Lono that, while fighting for his life on the open ocean, he discovered the Matu’s plan to attack his home and stole and destroyed their weapons.
Puhala didn’t notice Kahuna Maka as she wrapped loose coils of olonā cord around his leg or the way she took layers of noni leaves that had been heated over a flame and placed them over his wound. What he did feel was an intense stabbing pain as she cinched the wrap to stem the bleeding.
“You must rest and let your body heal,” Kahuna Maka said.
She cleaned a grinding bowl with a banana leaf and washed her soiled hands in a shallow dish of water.
“We will speak later.”
The kahuna clutched her walking stick and stepped away from Puhala, over to Big Puhi. She said, “It has been a long time, Big Puhi.”
He looked away from the old woman. “Is Puhala going to be alright?”
Kahuna Maka stared at Big Puhi for what seemed like a million years. She looked past the welts and bruises he sustained during the boys’ battle to gain entrance into the Temple of Refuge and focused on his left ankle.
It was still there - that faded smattering of ink dots. The ankle tattoo was different than Big Puhi’s other body art. It wasn’t big and bold like the one on his shoulder or spiky like the dark squares that covered his right arm. This tattoo on his ankle was old, faint, almost as if it was placed there by mistake.
Kahuna Maka knelt and looked at Big Puhi. “We will see if he lives.”
The boy couldn’t meet the kahuna’s stare until he felt the water bowl being lifted from his hands. Reluctantly, he looked at the concerned woman’s timeworn face.
“Ho'oponopono,” she said. “The pathway to forgiveness.”
She set the empty water bowl aside, carefully took Big Puhi’s hands in hers, and in a soft voice only a grandmother has, explained, “The gash in your friend’s leg is nothing. We need to care for the pain and resentment you carry in your heart, Puhi.”
With a stern expression, Kahuna Maka continued. “You two escaped the judgment of King Kiamana by finding protection here. The god Lono has forgiven you. I am certain he sees great things in you. Now, you must forgive yourself, Big Puhi. And most important of all, you must leave your old self behind.”
“Remember,” she whispered as she held his hands. “A person is only alone when he stops caring for others.”
“'Ae, yes,” Big Puhi nodded his head as tears welled in his eyes.
Kahuna Maka stood, looked down at the very large, very confused teenager and in a hard voice laced with deep disappointment, she said, “You must never go down that path of bitterness and selfishness again.”
She shifted her attention over to Puhala. “Ho'oponopono is not simple, not at all. The process of forgiveness is not merely saying ‘I’m sorry.’ It is a long, grueling process of cleansing and reconnection. And it starts now.”