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  • Published: 3 March 2020
  • ISBN: 9780143796602
  • Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $32.99

Sharks in the Time of Saviours





MALIA, 1995


When I close my eyes we’re all still alive and it becomes obvious then what the gods want from us. The myth people tell about us might start on that liquid blue day off Kona and the sharks, but I know different. We started earlier. You started earlier. The kingdom of Hawai‘i had long been broken—the breathing rain forests and singing green reefs crushed under the haole fists of beach resorts and skyscrapers—and that was when the land had begun calling. I know this now because of you. And that the gods were hungry for change and you were that change. In our first days I saw so many signs, but didn’t believe. The first came when your father and I were naked in his pickup truck in Waipi‘o Valley, and we witnessed the night marchers.

We’d come down into Waipi‘o Valley on a Friday, pau hana, with Auntie Kaiki babysitting your brother at home, and me and your father both knew we were going to use this childless night to screw our brains out, were run dumb with electricity just thinking about it. How could we not? Our skin rubbed dark by the sun and your father then with his football-days body, me with mine from basketball, the two of us feeling our love like the hottest habit. And there was Waipi‘o Valley: a deep cleft of wild green split with a river silver-brown and glassy, then a wide black sand beach slipping into the frothing Pacific.

A slow descent to the bottom of the valley in your father’s bust-up Toyota pickup, hairpin turn after hairpin turn, a sharp cliff to the right, cobbled tar underneath, the road so steep it caused the truck cab to fill with the smell of the engine’s burning guts.

Then a jarring road of silt and waist-deep mud puddles at the bottom of the valley and we reached the beach and parked the truck right up against the freckled black eggs of rock that rimmed the sand; your father made me laugh until my cheeks prickled with heat and the last shadows of the trees were pointing long toward the horizon. The ocean boomed and sizzled. We unrolled our sleeping bags in the bed of the pickup, over the gravel-smelling foam pad your father put down just for me, and once the last teenagers were gone—the thick buzz of their reggae bass fading into the forest—we took our clothes off and made you.

I don’t think you can hear my memories, no, so this won’t be so pilau, and anyway, I like to remember. Your father gripped a small fist of my hair, the hair he loved, black and kinked with Hawai‘i, and my body began to curl into a rhythm against his pelvis, and we groaned and panted, pressed our blunt noses together, and I pulled us apart and straddled above and came back onto him and our skin was so hot I wanted to store it for all the times I’d ever felt cold, and his fingers traced my neck, his tongue my brown nipples, this gentleness that was a part of him that no one ever saw, and our sex made its sounds and we laughed a little, closing our eyes and opening them and closing them again, and the day lost its last light even as we kept on.

We were on top of our sleeping bags, the cool air minting our dampness, when your father’s face got serious and he rolled away from me.

“You see that?” he asked.

I didn’t know what he saw—I was still coming out of some sort of fog, still rubbing my thighs together for the tingle there, the last of the oiled rush of our love—but then your father jolted to a sitting position. I rose to my knees, still sex-drunk. My tits swung in against his left biceps and my hair fell down across his shoulder and even though I was scared I felt sexy and almost wanted to pull him into me, right there, never mind the danger.

“Look,” he whispered.

“Come on,” I said. “Stop messing around, lolo.”

“Look,” he said again. And I did, and what I saw yanked me tight.

Out on top of the far ridge of Waipi‘o a long line of trembling lights had appeared, slowly dipping and rising as they moved along the valley’s crown. Green and white, flickering, it must have been fifty, and as we watched we saw the lights for what they were: fires. Torches. We’d heard of the night marchers but always assumed it was only a myth, part of a hymn of what had been lost to Hawai‘i, these ghosts of the long-dead ali‘i. But there they were. Marching slow on their way up the ridge, headed for the black back of the valley and whatever waited there for undead kings in all the damp and darkness. The string of torches plodded along the ridge, winking between the trees, dipping, then rising, until all at once the flames snuffed out.

A loud, creaking groan sounded out across the valley, all around us, the sound I imagined a whale would make before dying.

Whatever words your father and I had choked in our throats. We were up and off the pickup bed and jerking on our clothes, toes in gritty black sand, us hopping and gasping and yanking into the cab, ignition, and your father had the engine loud as we tore back through the valley road, the headlights flashed over rocks and mud puddles and bright green leaves; the whole time we knew those ghosts were in the air behind us, around us, if we didn’t see them we felt them. The truck bounced through the rutted wreck of the tar, the windshield showed trees and sky and back down, into the muck, up and down as we bounced, everything black and blue but what our headlights could flash over, your father making the truck race between the lurking trees and up the long road to the exit. We came up out of the bottom of the valley so fast that there was nothing below now but the few speckles of house lights farther back in the valley, the outlines of the sunken taro patches gone white in the midnight.

It wasn’t until we got to the lookout that we stopped. The cab was full of panic and mechanical effort.

Your father blew a long breath and said, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

It was the first time he’d talked about anything holy in a while. And there were no more torches; no more night marchers. We listened to our blood thump in our ears and it told us alive alive alive.

Just one of those things, is what me and your father told ourselves, soon after and for many years. After all, there were so many people in Hawai‘i that had seen similar things; we’d talk story in full kanikapila mode at a beach barbecue or back lanai house party long enough, and plenty similar stories came up.


The night marchers—you’d been conceived that night, and all through your first years there were stranger things. The way animals changed around you: suddenly subdued, they’d nuzzle you and form a circle as if you were one of their own, didn’t matter if it was a chicken or a goat or a horse, it was something instant and unbreakable. Then there were the times we’d catch you in our backyard, eating fistfuls of dirt or leaves, flowers, compulsively. Far beyond the dull curiosity of other keikis your age. And some of those plants—the orchids in hanging baskets, for example—would bloom in the most incredible colors, almost overnight.

Just one of those things, we still told ourselves.

But now I know.

Do you remember Honoka‘a in 1994, not so different than today? Māmane Street, both sides with low wood buildings from the first days of cane, front doors repainted but inside still the same old bones. The faded auto-mechanic garages, the pharmacy with the same deals always on the windows, the grocery store. Our rented house on the edge of town with its layers of stripping paint and cramped bare rooms, shower stall patched onto the back of the garage. The bedroom you shared with Dean, where you started having nightmares vague with sugarcane and death.

Those nights. You’d come quiet to the side of our bed, still partially tangled in your sheets, swaying, with your hair smeared every direction, sniffling in your breath.

Mama, you’d say, it happened again.

I’d ask what you saw, and you’d start to talk in a spill of images—black fields cracked and empty, cane stalks shooting not from soil but from the chest, arms, eyes of me or your father or your brother or all of us, then a sound like the inside of a wasp hive—and while you talked your eyes were not your own, you were not behind them. You were only seven years old, and the things that were pouring out of you. But after a minute of talking this way you’d come back.

They’re just dreams, I’d tell you, and you’d ask what I was talking about. I’d try to repeat some interpretation of the nightmares—the cane, the reaping of your family, the hives—but you never remembered what you’d just been telling me. It was as if you’d just woken and found yourself in front of me while I told you someone else’s story. The nightmares happened every few months, then every few weeks, then every day.

The sugarcane plantation had been around since before we were born, our whole side of the island shagged with fields of cane, mauka to makai. I’m sure since the beginning people had been talking about the Final Harvest, but it seemed like it would never come: “Hāmākua’s always hiring,” your father said, dismissing the rumors with a flap of his wrist. But then, so soon after your nightmares reached their daily cadence, along Māmane came the low of the cane-truck horns, that September afternoon in 1994, and your father was one of the drivers.

If I could be above our town, looking down, I would remember it this way: Into the town came the tractor trailers, many with the chain-link-style beds, empty loops like the ribs of neglected animals, swaying as they made their way past the Salvation Army, past the churches, past the empty storefronts that used to hawk bins of cheap plastic imports, past the high school across from the elementary school, past the football-baseball-soccer field. As the trucks passed, blowing their horns, people left the bank and grocery store and gathered in rows on the sidewalks, or the shoulders of the streets. Even those inside that didn’t come out must have heard the truck horns moaning, the air brakes bleating, the hymn of an industrial funeral. It was the sound of a new emptiness coming. Because they would never be in the fields again, the trucks were polished to a mirror-shine, none of the dirt of work on them, and for all the Filipino-Portuguese-Japanese-Chinese-Hawaiian families that lined the streets, the chrome threw back a slippery quicksilver reflection of their dark- brown faces and the new truth settling there.

We were in that crowd, me, Dean, Kaui, and you. Dean stood still and stiff like a little soldier. His hands were already so big at nine, and I remember the dry sheath of his palm wrapped around my hand. Kaui was drifting in between my legs, the breathy tickle of her hair against my thighs, a few fingers pressing after. You were at my other hand, and unlike the confusion and anger thrumming along Dean’s fingers, his stiff neck, unlike the four-year-old’s dreamy spin of apathy coming from Kaui, you seemed completely at peace.

Only now can I guess what you’d been dreaming about—whose was the death, our bodies or the sugarcane. In the end it didn’t matter. You’d seen the end coming before any of us. That was the second sign. There was a voice inside you, wasn’t there, a voice that was not yours, you were only the throat. The things it knew, and was trying to tell you—tell us—but we didn’t listen, not yet.

Just one of those things, we said.

The cane trucks made their turn just before the grocery store, ascended the steep hill out of town, and never came back.

A few months after the plantation went under, we were completely stretched. Everyone was searching; it was no different for your father. He was driving for hours across the island, chasing a paycheck that moved like obake: here and gone. Sunday morning in the orange light bouncing off our old wood floors he’d be at the kitchen counter, clutching his favorite coffee mug spreading its Kona steam and sliding his fingers over the “help wanted” section, lips moving like a chant. Days he found something, he’d slowly cut it from the page and take it with just the tips of his hands and place it in a manila folder he kept near the phone. Days he didn’t, the sound of the newspaper as he crushed it was like a flock of birds taking flight.

But that didn’t stop your father’s smile; nothing would. He’d been that way even when things were steady, even when you all were in hanabata days, upper lips crusted with baby-leak, just learning to walk, and he would fling you into the air so your hair would flap open and your eyes would squint happy and you’d squeal your brightest. He’d throw you guys as high as he could—aiming, he said, for the clouds—and when you’d come back down so would my heart. You’ve got to stop, I’d say, especially when he’d do it to Kaui.

I not gonna drop ’em, he’d say. Besides, we can make another one if they break their necks or whatever.

Other times, in the morning, he’d stay in bed later—mostly he’d been an early man, that still continued after the cane trucks stopped—and he’d curl up close to me and start giggling through his thin mustache, and I’d try to scramble free from the covers before he’d rip a good fut and trap me in the cave of it with him, the ripe cheesy-beany stink of whatever was burning in his gut.

Almost taste better going out than coming in, yeah? he’d say, and giggle again, like we were back in high school goofing off in fifth period. I remember once he did his fut-under-the-covers thing and asked that same question and I said I don’t know, let me test, and slipped a finger up inside his boxers, just into his butthole, and he squealed and jerked away going, Eh, that’s too far, that’s too far, and I laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed. There was something about your father, and me, and us, and how we’d push each other, that went good with the quiet times, us in the bathroom watching each other brush teeth in the mirror, or juggling the one car we had (we traded the bust-up pickup for a bust-up SUV just after you were born) to get you all to science fair, basketball practice, hula performances.

But if we could’ve poured our money into a cup that cup would be half empty. Your father lucked into a part-time thing at one of the hotels, like everyone else wanted, but he couldn’t get full-time or the good tips at the restaurant, only working the room crews, and he’d come back and tell me about the barely touched plates of ahi on the balconies being picked over by a mass of mynahs and the volcanoes of clothes on the hotel room floors. Those haoles got two pairs of clothes for every day of vacation, he’d say, Two for every day.

And it felt like almost as soon as that hotel job came, it went, Seasonal Restructuring. And my hours at the mac-nut warehouse got slashed. Our dinners got simpler, never mind the food pyramid. Your father did everything he could, a house-painting job here, some landscaping there, a couple days bent over at a friend’s farm. I picked up a few nights at Wipeouts Grill. We came home with backs splintered with pain, aching legs, and blood-drumming foreheads, and we’d pass each other and hand you kids off while one person’s shift ended and the other’s began. But those shifts were less and less on the calendar, until suddenly we were at home using the calculator to find out how much time we really had.

“We can’t do this,” your father said to me. It was late in the evening, after you all were asleep. Dogs were barking down the road, but the sound was soft and we were used to it. The gold light from our desk lamp made our skin look honey-coated. Your father’s eyes were wet. He wouldn’t look straight at me, and I realized I hadn’t heard a joke from him in so long. That was when I was really afraid.

“How much?” I asked.

“Maybe two months until trouble,” he said.

“And then what?” I asked, although I knew the answer.

“I gonna call Royce,” he said. “We been talking.”

“Royce lives on O‘ahu,” I said. “That’s five plane tickets. That’s a whole different island, a city. Cities aren’t cheap.” But your father was already standing up and walking toward the bathroom. The light went on, and the fan, then the water hissing and spattering in the sink, the wet sucking and spraying of his breaths as he washed his face.

I wanted to break something, it was so still and quiet. Your father came back in the bedroom.

“So I think,” he said, “I’m gonna sell my body. The mahus get my okole and the ladies get my boto. I’d do that for us.”

“I’d do that for you,” he followed, after pausing a moment. He had his shirt off and was looking at himself in our long mirror. “I mean, check ’um, yeah? All the sex waiting in this body.”

I giggled and hugged him from behind. I spread my hands over each pectoral and ignored the way they were starting to sag a little toward bitch tits. “I’d probably pay money for these,” I said.

“How much?” Your father grinned in the mirror.

“Well,” I said, “what’s included?” I let my left hand drift down, worked it into his waistband.

“Depends,” he said.

“Mmmm,” I said. “What I’m feeling’s probably worth two or three dollars.”

“Hey!” He pulled my hand out.

“I’d be paying by the minute,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, and your father snorted. But then he paused.

“We’re going to have to sell more than my dick,” he said.

We both sat down on the edge of the bed.

“We’ve got Kaui and Nainoa wearing Dean’s old clothes,” I said. “They get free school lunch.”

“I know.”

“What did we have for dinner last night?” I asked.

“Saimin and Spam.”

“What did we have for dinner the night before?”

“Rice and Spam.”

Your father stood back up. He walked to our desk and leaned down on it, placed his palms on it like he was going to push it this way or that.

“Fifteen dollars,” he said.

He stood, sighed, laid his palm on the dresser. “Twenty-five dollars.”

“Forty,” I said.

“Twenty.” He shook his head.

He went this way, touching each thing he could see: a seven-dollar lamp, a two-dollar picture frame, a closet full of five-dollar clothes, the sum of our lives not more than four digits.

Sharks in the Time of Saviours Kawai Strong Washburn

A powerful debut novel that delicately blends Hawaiian myth with the broken American dream.

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