One summer, my family stayed at Punalu’u on the north shore of Oahu. Punalu’u is the district known to be the haunt of the god Kamapua’a who, long before Freud educated us, could take the shape of either a pig or a handsome man — while a pig, he destroyed the lands of the ali’i; while a man, he seduced their women. At first light (sometimes in the dark with flashlights), we searched up and down the beach for any blue glass balls that might have broken free from fishing nets in the Sea of Japan to float across the Pacific to wash ashore at high tide. During the day, we gathered limu, or seaweed. We went spearfishing. We prised the tiny ocean snail named opihi from the ledges of the rock pools. We ate at a long wooden table on the lawn — it was impossible to know how many places to set until the last minute. Often there were twenty people for dinner. Late at night, the punees (daybeds) were transformed with the addition of pillows and light straw mats or quilts (no sheets) for any guests who chose to stay the night or could not make it home.
There were five children, of whom I was the eldest. Our mother was fairly irresistible. She was our leader. We would have jumped into a fire had she wished it. As it was, she had us jumping into the ocean. She was not always sensible about this. She took us into deep water, literally as well as figuratively. She sometimes took us into a mysterious wet cave in Haena, on the island of Kauaʻi. This is a passage from My Old Sweetheart, published thirty years ago. The child Lily is myself. My mother is the character Anna:
Anna was already in the water. Lily followed Anna’s black head, round and shiny like a seal, bobbing through the green water, to the rocks at the base of the cliff. Anna’s head disappeared as big, round bubbles floated between Lily’s legs. She took extra air into her lungs and then she too disappeared beneath the surface.
Under water, pale green, Lily followed a delicate trail of effervescence. She let some air rumble slowly out of her nose, saving the rest. The bubbles rose past her open eyes. Her mother was gone. Lily slid herself along the spiky wall of rock, arms outstretched to keep from being thrown against it by the current. She found the cleft in the lava wall, felt for the opening in the rock, and quickly pulled herself inside.
At once she felt the temperature of the water change. It grew colder and colder as she nervously kicked herself back to the surface. She came up in darkness, spouting loudly, and breathed the cool, damp air. She was inside the Wet Cave. It was black all around her. There was not even a reflection in the water.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she heard her mother whisper. Her voice echoed. Lily could not see her in the dark. They were inside the mountain in a vaulted cavern washed hollow for thousands of years by the sea. The hundreds of tiny pinholes in the lava dome above were distant constellations. It was like the clear night sky.
“Where are you?” Lily asked.
She felt the inky water move around her, and then a hand splashed behind her and she found her mother’s arm.
Are you afraid?
Lily didn’t answer. She was always a little afraid in the Cave, no matter how many times she had been there. She could just make out the shape of her mother’s round head next to her. There was the sound of wings beating. She looked around to make sure that the small, green circle of light, the opening to the world, was still beneath them in the water.
“It is really like being on the very edge of the planet,” Anna said exultantly.
Lily’s legs began to tire from treading water. The water was cold. It was growing difficult to judge distances — the distance from her to Anna and the distance from minute to minute. It made her dizzy. The pull of the tide rocked them gently, and the mock stars above them changed position. There was a story about two boys who had been caught in the Cave when the neap tide was rising. They were unable to find the green hole. Lily wondered what it must have been like, feeling yourself move higher and higher into the night sky. Their dead bodies were marked with hundreds of pricks where they had been crushed against the lava dome.
Lily said, “Iʻm getting tired, Mother.”
Anna spoke as though she had been startled. “Oh, my old sweetheart,” she said.
Lily heard her mother take in air, then the splash of her kick, then it was more silent than before. She floated on her back. She was alone in the Wet Cave. The green light flickered as Anna wiggled through the hole on her way back into the world, then she too dived into it and smiled as she felt the stream of warm, living sea slide over her.
I was ten years old that summer in Punalu’u. I swam in the morning and again in the early afternoon. I swam at sunset. I would swim until I was tired, although not too tired to make it back to the beach. I found a hole in the reef into the deep water at the edge of the channel. If I swam far enough, I could see the big rock on the side of the mountain that marked the site of the shark-god’s burial place. Sometimes I was overcome by an inexplicable feeling of panic, as if there were too much beneath and above me. I feared that the ocean might suddenly curl me into a wave and fling me from the loneliness of Earth into the loneliness of space, and I would hurry back through the reef as if the ocean were trying to catch me.