Puhala and the Temple of Refuge
The Makahiki Festival
Kauaʹi, Northwest Coast
700 Years Ago
It was noon on the island of Kauaʹi. The cloudless, turquoise heavens stretched from the steep jungle cliffs all the way to the vast ocean in the distance. It was as if sea and sky were connected, one continuous sheet of brilliant sapphire fused seamlessly on the edge of the horizon.
Puhala looked across the water, his toes dug deep into warm white sand. He caught his breath, cleared his thoughts, and for a moment, he was able to block out the screams of the crowd.
He had been excited about participating in the Makahiki Festival all year, but with the contests coming to an end, it seemed that they had been nothing but one big disappointment.
Having placed third in konane was embarrassing, but not unexpected; Puhala actually lasted longer than he thought he would, considering he was up against Lea. He even managed to capture a few of her playing pieces during their match. But in Lea’s final move, she leapfrogged four of Puhala's white lava rocks in a row. Her strategy was so impressive that his loss wasn't as painful as it could have been.
But ending up fifth in surfing? Impossible. These were his waves, his beach, and the guys from the neighboring village of Ha'ena had beat him handily.
It was as if the harder he tried, the less he was able to do.
Sure, there was still mokomoko, but Puhala was not about to stand toe to toe with a guy twice his size and trade unguarded blows to the head to find out who was tougher. And there was no way he would climb the volcanic rock faces and slide down narrow grassy slopes on a hōlua sled.
Puhala scanned the beach and watched as villagers from halfway around the island screamed their encouragement. He chuckled nervously.
Like I need anyone reminding me not to mess this up, he thought.
The festival had been going on for nearly four months, King Kiamana having finally arrived with his family in Puhala’s village of Nuʹalolo just days earlier. The Makahiki Festival began as it did every year, in the winter at the first sighting of Makali'i, a cluster of seven stars that could be seen rising at twilight from the south.
The square constellation was sacred and said to be a gift of the god Lono. Upon its appearance, all the villages on the island came together under a promise of peace to celebrate the year’s harvest through the sharing of food and fierce competition.
Puhala wiped sweat from his brow, knowing this was his last chance to prove his strength to his loud audience.
“Hey! I’m over here!”
Noa, Puhala’s closest friend, called out to him, arms spread wide, a six-foot-long wooden throwing spear held loosely in his hand. This was the last event until next year. Puhala knew he had to catch the weapon when Noa chucked it his way.
“Pay attention,” Noa yelled. “This is the part where you keep yourself from being killed!”
There was at least a hundred feet of white sand beach between them. Puhala offered Noa a confident smile. “No problem!” he shouted. “Don’t worry about me. Just make sure you don’t underthrow it.”
Noa and Puhala were both thirteen years old and had large hands that were calloused from hard work and even harder play. Noa stood a little over five feet tall, was quick with a joke, and had a build that was both compact and strong. Puhala was taller and thinner, with a thick mat of wavy hair hanging on his shoulders. His intense, black eyes were filled with passion and curiosity and were framed by sharp, distinguished cheekbones.
Noa, the stronger of the two, had the responsibility of throwing the lance, while Puhala, far quicker than his friend, had the job of sidestepping the spear and catching it as it flew by.
The boys had practiced all season, perfecting their well-rehearsed technique of throwing and catching their weapon. When performed properly, the spear was caught as easy as snatching a tossed stone. A single mistake, however, could turn the game lethal. A team’s ejection from the competition would be the least painful price to pay for any misstep - any of the dozen or more teams taking part in the competition would tell you that. With every successful toss and catch in the tournament, participants took five steps back. These growing distances made each round increasingly difficult and more dangerous than the last, and Puhala and Noa were currently attempting their third and longest throw of the day.
The king and his family watched from a raised, shaded platform on the opposite end of the beach. Adorned in a bright red feathered cloak and royal crested helmet, King Kiamana seemed amused. On each side of the royal family, kāhili bearers stood at attention. Used to identify the aliʹi, the royals, kāhili were feathered bundles that stood atop long poles that rose taller than a person’s raised hand and were made of thick tufts of gray feathers taken from the island’s birds of prey.
Puhala took hold of his orange and tan-patterned malo, his loincloth, and pulled the soft bark cloth material tight against his hips. Bending low, he scooped dry sand from alongside his feet to clean the slick sweat that rolled down his hands.
Looking across the beach, he yelled to Noa. “Ready!”
Noa stepped backward slowly, balanced the spear’s dark hardwood in his hand, and then leaning back, stretched out his arm as far as he could. In one fluid motion, Noa advanced, arched his back, and slung the spear into the sky.
The crowd fell silent as the lance streaked through the air, first rising and then dropping like a dart. It seemed to everyone that the javelin would hit Puhala right in the chest, impaling him, skewering him straight through the heart.
At the last second, Puhala, fast as lightning, sidestepped the weapon’s fire hardened point. In a blur, he swept his hand across his body, snatched the flying shaft out of the air and stopped it mid-flight. The spear froze, solid as a rock in Puhala's grasp. There was an eruption of cheering. Puhala heard his family among the screams, the voices in harmony like a familiar song. Triumphant, he waved to the swarm of onlookers.
“Nice catch!” hollered Noa.
“Nice throw!” Puhala screamed back.
He handed the spear to two younger boys who each grabbed an end and raced it back across the sand to Noa. The spear appeared gigantic compared to them.
Puhala thought, did I really just catch that?
Upon hearing Noa's voice, Puhala snapped out of his daydream. His partner held up one finger.
He took a step backward. Puhala did the same.
“Two, three, four, five!” they shouted as the distance between them grew.
Puhala glanced at the other teams as the little boys shuttled the spear. One team threw short. Another simply failed to catch the spear, despite a well-aimed toss.
Puhala looked at Noa anxiously holding their spear. “READY!” he yelled.
The crowd seemed to grow with every toss. Their voices echoed off the rocks. It was like the island itself was cheering for Puhala and Noa.
After the pair’s fifth completed throw and catch, they watched as King Kiamana and his family applauded and shouted from their royal platform.
Puhala wanted nothing more than to win, to please the King, and now, only one other team was left: Kala and Ano.
He knew them well. They were brothers, twice Puhala’s age, each six feet tall. Perhaps to Kala and Ano, Puhala and Noa looked like the little spear-runners - two giggling children.
In a flash, Puhala remembered seeing Kala and Ano competing in the spear throwing competition during last year's festival, the year before that, the year it rained, and the year of the dolphins. In every festival that Puhala could remember, Kala and Ano had thrown and caught the spear. And every year, they had won.
Puhala steadied his heart. How was he going to do this?
“ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE!”
Puhala and Noa called out each step as they walked backward across the sand. Noa, seeing the doubt in Puhala’s eyes, offered his friend an encouraging nod. This was the longest throw they had ever tried, and Noa knew in that moment he would need to dig deep into his soul for the strength to succeed.
Noa felt the weight of the spear in his hands, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply, drawing inside himself the energy that flowed through the hāhālua, the manta ray, his family’s god.
Noa repeated the calming words of his grandfather to himself, “Powerfully patient, gracefully strong.”
As he looked down to his hardwood spear, he focused on the intricately carved image of the great hāhālua, its wide wings and large mouth deeply engraved into the dark grain of the wood.
Noa’s grandfather had fashioned this weapon especially for his grandson soon after Noa was born. He whittled it from a long limb of the kauila tree, making certain it was weighted just right, with the tip slightly heavier than the tail. Every surface was smooth and polished. Midshaft, his grandfather had carved the figure of the hāhālua to remind his grandson to always be patient and strong - quick, but never hurried.
It sounded as if he was a million miles away when Puhala yelled, “Ready!”
Noa pulled his attention back to the competition. “Throwing!” he shouted.
As he stepped back, he focused his eyes on Puhala and shifted his weight from his back leg up and out. He whipped his arm across his body and flung the spear into the air. It rose in the warm tropical air, strong and true, until it slowed and hung suspended high in the sky. Like a great seabird, the spear turned earthward, once again gaining speed, dropping faster with every second.
Puhala didn’t hear the crowd or notice the ocean that spread out before him. He only held one thought:
Catch the spear.
As it neared, Puhala corrected his position, shifted his feet, and centered himself. After taking one last half step, the spear dropped within two fingers width of Puhala’s face. Puhala lifted his hands and made his grab.
Not far from them, Ano caught Kala’s spear expertly. The contest was over.
Maybe it was the speed of the spear or the angle with which it fell, but as the sand beneath Puhala’s hands kicked skyward and the lance dug deep into the beach, there was no denying the miss.
Noa jogged toward Puhala. “I threw it too high,” he said. “I should have flattened it out.”
Puhala stumbled on his words. “No, it was my fault. I just slipped.”
“Nobody could have caught that! It fell like a rock. Next year we’ll crush them.”
The crowd swarmed the contestants. Noa grinned, embracing the attention. Puhala hung back, stung, too disappointed to care.
He heard his parents call his name from within the crowd. He tried to smile, but there was no hiding his frustration as Puhala's makuakāne, his father, appeared, grinning broadly at his son. “Next year, Keikikāne,” he said. “You were so close!”
Puhala only shook his head.
Puhala’s makuahine, his mother, gently placed her hand on his shoulder. She whispered, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You were wonderful.”
Puhala’s makuahine was a quiet woman, tall and thin with long hair that draped down her back. She had soft and knowing eyes. They were quite a contrast with her muscular arms and sandpaper hands. Low on her thigh she wore a deep scar. A second gash traced jagged across her stomach and side.
Whenever Puhala asked about the wounds, she only said this to him: “A painful past.”
Standing at his side, she was a combination of kindness and confidence. “What is it, Keikikāne?”
Puhala stared at his feet. “Why couldn’t I catch it?”
“Puhala, look at me.”
As her keikikāne looked up, she added, “The question you should be asking yourself is not, ‘Why couldn’t I catch it?’ but, ‘When will I catch it?’”
She couldn’t help but smile. “And the answer is: soon.”
It was late evening. The bird calls from high in the jungle trees began to quiet. The men had finished eating and had moved into groups, dark shadows forming between small ground fires that surrounded the clearing between the cooking and prayer huts.
They discussed the events of the day as the smell of cooked pig wafted from the large imu cooking hole that was used to steam vegetables and meat. Heated rocks and wood smoldered in the open pit oven. On the ground lay large banana leaves that held what remained of roasted kalo, breadfruits, and shredded, steamed pigs. Wooden bowls were scattered about, the last streaks of gray poi nearly finished.
The laughter and banter of the men could be heard along with the rhythmic drums and solemn chants that echoed from the kahunas as they recited prayers honoring Lono, the Hawaiian god of music, agriculture, and peace. From inside the prayer hut, the solemn drone of a nose flute reminded Puhala of the hollow sound of the wind before a storm as it whispered through the palms.
After excusing himself and getting to his feet, Puhala nodded goodbye to his makuakāne and uncle and walked toward the beach. He eased his way into the tranquil kai, the shallow ocean water near the shore, caught the warm kai in his cupped hands, and washed himself free of the grime and confusion of the long day.
As he washed his face and rinsed his matted hair, squeezing it tight behind his head, he heard an unfamiliar voice, one that both startled and soothed him at the same time.
“I wouldn’t know.” She said.
In the orange and purple light of the fading sunset, Puhala looked over his shoulder and was startled by a girl whose strength and sheer beauty took his breath away. She was older than the small children that seemed to be everywhere in the village. She was his age, her hair long and straight. She smiled as she walked into the kai up to her knees.
She approached him, her colorful loose-hanging shawl and skirt flowing as she moved. She looked deep into Puhala’s eyes and smiled confidently, like she owned the beach and everything on it.
“You wouldn’t know what?” Puhala said, shaking sea water from his hands and hair.
“What it’s like getting pig off my fingers. Kapu law says women aren’t to eat pig or coconuts or banana or… should I go on?”
“I know the rules, but I didn’t make them.”
He pointed to the flower lei that circled her neck. “If I am not mistaken they’re your rules. Those flowers are reserved for the aliʹi, the royal family. You came here with your makuakāne, the king.”
“My rules?” She took another confident step toward Puhala. “You can’t talk about me. You don’t know me. But oh, I know you.”
“And how is it you know me?” Puhala said mockingly.
“I saw you in the spear-casting competition. I hoped you’d win. You’re Puhala. My name is Lana.”
As Puhala looked into her amazing eyes, he tried to act relaxed, “Aren’t you worried about being seen with a simple farmer? I thought you aliʹi made an effort to stay away from us common folk.”
Lana’s face turned stern. “I may be from the royal house, but I speak to whomever I please. And for your information, farmer, I am not the king’s daughter. My makuahine and the king are cousins, which makes me...” With a quirky smile, she added, “If our family were a flock of birds, we would be the ones circling the outside.”
Puhala and Lana laughed as they stepped out from the warm kai and plopped down at the edge of the sheltered shoreline. Constellations shifted in the sky as they talked, first for a minute, and then for hours.
“I can't wait to show you the kalo field,” said Puhala. “Have you ever walked through one?”
“No, but I've seen them. They’re near the cliffs, right?”
“They’re surrounded by those cliffs.” Puhala shuddered. “It scares me up there. At the very top of them, you don’t know if you’re going to fly or fall to your death. Kind of depends on the day.”
“I wish I could go there with you,” she said. “I’d make sure you didn’t fall.”
“But we're leaving in a few days,” she added, “and I have to stay secluded with my family until then. I only got away tonight because I said I wanted to pick some flowers. Are there any yellow ma'o hau hele near the village? They’re so lovely.”
“No, but we have red koki'o with wavy petals. I can show you some, if you’d like.”
Puhala stood and reached for Lana’s hand. As they walked through fields of flowers in the night, they confided pledges and promises to each other, shooting stars streaming bright across the clear sky above them.
The next day brought an odd mixture of excitement and frustration as Puhala returned to his responsibilities of farming the kalo fields that spread out at the base of the cliffs above the village. He thought of Lana, forced into seclusion with the royal family while he was left digging holes and watering plants.
Puhala looked up from the wet, red clay that oozed through his toes and focused on the enormous cliffs that surrounded the kalo field. The jagged volcanic bluffs climbed thousands of feet straight up and encircled the entire field, the only opening being out west where the valley swept downward past the village and toward the light blue sea.
Puhala loved his kalo fields, but since meeting Lana everything was different. The high cliffs now seemed to surround him like the walls of a prison cell, his time tending the kalo plants a life sentence of hard labor. He wanted to be with Lana - even just near her.
Standing with his long, curved ʹoʹo digging stick, Puhala watched as dozens of villagers tended the big broad-leaved kalo. They labored with sharpened stone blades and hooked wooden tools, pruning the plants and tilling the soil in the honored tradition of their ancestors. The kalo fields had been cleared hundreds of years ago by Puhala’s forefathers, who came in twin-hulled sailing canoes piled high with plants, animals and rich traditions borne from islands thousands of miles to the southeast.
Puhala looked through a gap in the jungle toward the ocean where a large flock of long-winged albatross spun and turned in the late afternoon light. Seeing the magnificent white seabirds always made Puhala smile, with their large orange feet, sharp beaks, and their unique way of hunting: quick, fierce and free.
They’re spooked, Puhala thought as he looked over his shoulder toward Noa who was patiently working alongside a mud-splattered, teary-eyed little girl, a wilted red hibiscus flower stuck in her tangled black hair. Puhala noticed Noa’s kind eyes as his friend tried to teach the child how to press the mud against the stem of a kalo shoot without destroying it.
“It’s okay, Kaiko,” Noa said as he bent low to demonstrate. “It took me forever to learn this.”
As he wiggled his toes to elicit the slightest hint of a smile from the tiny girl, Noa rotated his hips and in one smooth motion swept the mud around the kalo sprout, forcing the sprig to point straight up.
Kneeling in the mud, Noa said to the girl. “Pretend the mud is poi. You’re hungry, and you swirl it into a mountain right in the middle of…”
“But I always squish them,” Kaiko interrupted. She showed Noa a handful of mashed muddy sprigs of squashed kalo.
Noa whispered, “What do you say we just hand these to your older sister to plant.”
He sneakily placed the mashed kalo into Kaiko’s sister’s basket. This finally put a smile on the girl’s face. “Why don’t you practice a little? I’ll check on you in a while.”
Noa left Kaiko to her task, stood up straight, and approached Puhala, who was staring intently at the ocean. “What’s going on? What do you see?”
Puhala pointed to the circling birds. “They’re on the hunt.”
Noa watched them as they spun over the water. “They have their eyes on something in the water,” he said. “Whatever’s down there is going to be bird food for sure.”
The boys jogged up the north side of a nearby cliff to get a better look. The birds rotated in a tight formation, rising higher and higher above the surface of the kai. Pulling his feet free of the muddy muck, Puhala moved toward the edge of the craggy overlook as Noa followed along, shaking clumps of wet soil from his feet.
Noa walked right up to the bluff’s edge and peered down.
Puhala stopped short.
Puhala knew his fear of heights was unusual. It hurt him, knowing he was different.
Young or old, it didn’t matter - no one in his village seemed to have a fear of heights except him. He often tried to force himself to face the deep panic that crawled up his spine every time he looked down from these steep cliffs. But whenever he tried, all he could see from these ledges was not a beautiful view, but a terrible vision of himself falling to a horrible death.
Noa turned to Puhala and laughed. “Again, Puhala? Just come here and look.”
“No,” Puhala said sharply.
“This happens every time,” Noa said. “You’re not going to fall.”
Chuckling after a moment, Noa finally nodded. “Fine. I promise I will never mention it again.”
“Yeah, you’ve said that before,” Puhala replied.
Noa took two small steps away from the cliff edge, and Puhala joined him. Standing together, they watched as the flock of albatross slowly rotated high above the glassy ocean.
Suddenly, the kai beneath the birds began to change. At first, it was just a delicate shimmering, the sun’s glint becoming distorted, as though someone had thrown a stone and rippled the water. But the kai began to churn violently, frothing with foam like it was boiling from below.
The albatross reacted immediately to this thrashing and turned out of their tight formation and dropped like arrows from the sky, their hooked beaks pointed straight toward the kai below. As each bird smacked the surface, a splash erupted, and the animal disappeared, now diving into the depths.
Moments later, the seabirds popped to the surface of the water a short distance away with small baitfish flapping in the tight grip of their hooked beaks. Without wasting a second, the albatross kicked back their heads, swallowed the fish, and with a whoosh of their powerful wings, lifted off again into the air to stage another attack.
“Dinner time,” laughed Noa. “Those anchovies are done for.”
“Oama,” Puhala said as he watched the savage ballet. “They’re not anchovies. Those baitfish are oama, and yes, they’re done for.”
“Anchovies, oama, whatever you want to call them - all I know is they’re bird food now.”
As Puhala watched the birds dive again and again, he wondered what forced the baitfish up from their protective depths. What had frightened the oama so much that they left the safety of the deep kai to flee up into the realm of the hungry seabirds? “Something’s chasing them from beneath,” Puhala said. “A school of barracuda or snapper must be pushing them toward the surface.”
Puhala had seen massive boils of schooling baitfish before. Alone, a single defenseless oama was an easy target, simple to snatch by any hungry predator. As a group, however, they became an immense, churning ball of strength, hundreds of tiny fish darting in unison in an incredibly tight sphere. The way the kai churned, white water whipping into the air, Puhala knew they were under attack, their protective bait ball compressing and contracting to keep hunters away.
Puhala and Noa didn’t feel shock or fear as they watched. It was the way of the ocean, the cycle of life on their island. Fighting for food was just one of the many struggles their villagers lived with every day.
There was, however, something else that Puhala and his village had to defend themselves against, a danger more devastating than a temporary lack of food.
Puhala looked to the horizon to see if he could make out the tiny silhouette of an island to the west. He had to squint, but there it was.
This was home of the Oromatua, or as they were often called, the Matu.
This was the land of the fierce Matu warriors. The island was distant, a long day’s paddle away, but the danger from the Matu was real.
Stories of the Matu were told through songs and powerful dances at nearly every village gathering. Legends spoke of fierce Matu warriors who arrived a dozen years ago to try and take the valley from its villagers. When Puhala and Noa were small children, the Matu attacked in dugout canoes, carrying stone axes, knives of bone, and feathered spears ten feet long.
The Matu killed without mercy. They attacked without pity or remorse. They were no different than a barracuda or a shark. And like the oama on display before Noa and Puhala, their village had circled tightly together and pushed back against their invaders.
Yes, the Matu were hungry, but they did not come to Kauaʹi to trade or to unite. They came to steal. The Matu didn’t only want food. They came with axe in hand for the kalo fields, the family homes near them, and the very lives of the people there.
Puhala’s makuakāne, makuahine, aunts and uncles still wore scars from battle with the Matu. Puhala had just been a young child when they attacked, but he could recall the sounds he heard as he hid with his grandmother behind the multi-rooted trunk of a hala tree during battle. They were evil sounds, death sounds.
He recalled these haunting accounts of the war against the Matu as he and Noa returned from the cliff top. Back on the wet soil of the kalo field, Puhala’s hands gripped tightly around his digging stick. His face turned hard as stone. With a practiced agility developed over years of farming the soil, he drove the point of his sturdy ʹo’o stick deep into the dark ground beneath him not once but twice.
Puhala wished he could have fought against the Matu, that he had been old enough to throw a spear or wield an axe for his village. He had to prove he was more than just a kalo farmer. He’d show King Kiamana what he was capable of.
Puhala tried to ignore the empty feeling that sat in his heart, the hollow feeling of loneliness and helplessness that burned in his chest. Twisting the muddy stick in the planting hole, Puhala enlarged the hole at his feet to the size of his closed fist. He then pulled the ʹoʹo stick free, stepping forward to attack the next section of earth.
He saw Noa quickly raise and lower his planting stick in time with him.
“Better keep up, Noa,” Puhala teased. “Don’t fall behind.”
Noa lifted his digging stick high over his head before slamming it into firm soil.
“First of all,” Noa shouted, “the dirt is harder over here.”
“And second, this isn’t a race.”
Puhala stopped to clear a large lava rock from his planting row. “You only say that when you’re falling behind.”
Noa changed the subject. “So? Are you going to talk to her again?”
“Lana? They won’t let me anywhere near her.”
“What are you talking about?”
With grief in his voice, Puhala replied without looking up. “Farmers don’t mingle with princesses, I guess. Rules are rules.”
The sun slipped low and bright red. 'Akepa birds began singing as Puhala and Noa finished helping the children plant the last of the day’s kalo shoots. Satisfied with their accomplishment, they directed the children to a nearby stream, where they could wash the mud off of themselves before returning to their homes.
This was when Big Puhi started screaming.