Skip to main content

The Mirage

Kalei Clark

Kahau unlatched his case in our Waimea B&B. He had spent fifteen hundred round ones on the Mirage, but it was worth way more. Made in ’74, it was maybe one of five in existence. Spruce top. Mahogany back, sides, and neck. Ebony board and bridge. Retrofit electronics. The sound was pure Kapa‘ahu homestead. A stone wall, a bone-white shack, an old man on the porch, kī hō‘alu drifting down the cinder road. Yes, if you could describe it in terms of a man’s voice, it would be ‘Olu Konanui all the way. I’d wanted the Mirage more than Kahau, but he had the mea poepoe, not me. I should have bought it anyway. When I found it three years ago at a garage sale, it had practically sung "Mauna Kea" on its own.

"F-." Kahau started swearing fast and mean, but he cut himself off with a harsh laugh and a cool,"Whatever."

"What, bra?" I asked. He tipped his case, and I winced. The guitar’s peghead had snapped. It dangled now from a network of strings. He laughed again.

"Ho man, what you going do?" I asked. "We play Polly Girl’s tomorrow."

"Relax, Lima. It’s no big deal." This had been happening a lot with Kahau: from hot to cold i ka pupu‘u nō a ho‘olei loa. Back and forth in a flash.

I couldn’t relax. "I told you in LA, slack the strings and newspaper the head before you send um through baggage."

"I forgot, but it’s no big deal. I’ll drive back to Hilo and get Kitaoki to fix it. Or buy a new one. What’s your problem anyway? It’s my guitar."

Then it hit me. "This is no accident, Kahau. It’s the song."

"What? What’s the song got to do with any of this?"

"It’s huikau. It’s from the legend but all mixed-up. Trust me, Kahau, I read um in the old Nupepa Kuokoa. Laieikawai by Hale‘ole, 1860-something. The original. Was fine till Bradda came along in 1990 with his ‘ūpā. He wen’ snip a little Hale‘ole from here and clip a little Hale‘ole from there, and then he wen’ twist tie um together to make his hit song. Big romance. Full of tears and baby come back. We neva should have recorded it."

"Lay off, Lima. Since when did you have so much to say about anything? You’re starting to sound like Tūtū Lady. Always looking for signs. I tell you, it’s not the song. I forgot to take care of the packing, and some baggage guy took care of the rest. So get off your high horse."

"Akahele, bra, akahele. Don’t act like there’s no meaning here. Mai noho a hulikua o pa‘i ‘ia auane‘i. That’s what Tutu Lady would say. It’s one big sign with blinking red lights, and still you going turn your back?"

I had to get him to take the song off our upcoming CD, so I offered to ride with him back to Hilo. "Good," he said. "You can keep me awake." But when we got in the rental car, he slammed the door and gave me stink eye.

"What?" I said. "Now it’s my fault? Wasn’t my idea to pick the song or name the CD for it."

Kahau just stared at the road ahead. End of conversation. We’d always been opposites, strangers and brothers at the same time. I was a Machida to his Lake, a Tseu to his Keale. He was the pure Hawaiian. I was the mostly-Japanese poi dog left at his grandmother’s door.

Right above Kukuihaele, Kahau tried to patch things up. "What’s so wrong with the song, anyway? The Hawaiian looks fine to me, and it won a couple of Hōkūs when it first came out. Song of the Year and Haku Mele. So how can there be a problem?"

"Look," I said. "No try pull one Kamakanui on me when all you got is band-aids."

"Big eye? What do you mean ‘big eye’ and band-aids?"

"Kamakanuiaha‘ilono. The healer, bra, not ‘the big eye.’ He lived here. Tūtū Lady wen’ talk about him all the time, but you, Mr. Stanford Hawaiian, you remember Palo Alto better than Pi‘ihonua."

"We only lived here for ten years, until the funeral. I remember a lot, but not like you. I don’t carry her on my shoulder. And what’s wrong with fixing this up between us? She’d want that."

"I tell you Kahau, this ain’t no band-aid thing. How many times Tūtū wen’ say, ‘Not going heal till you peel the onion’? So I going peel um for you now, if you can handle."

No answer. Just a lifting of fingers from the steering wheel. So I began.

"First, that song is about Tūtū Lady’s own Tūtū Lady—great, great, great, and more, from way back in ka wā kōli‘uli‘u. How you think Aunty Lilly got her real name? And Polly Girl hers? Lilly and Polly are day-time names, go-school names. But underneath, they’re Lilinoe and Poli‘ahu, brah, not Lilly of the Valley and Pollyanna. And why you think Uncle Linsey them still go up Kala‘i‘ehā on the sly? It’s for the iwi, brah, not for the snowboarding."

Kahau stayed silent, staring straight ahead, so I kept at it. More sentences in a row than I’d spoken, or he’d allowed, in years.

"Second, the song is bull-lie. It makes like Poli‘ahu was marinating in ‘Alekoki-juice after her break-up with ‘Aiwohikupua. Heartbroken. Lovesick. Paralyzed. ‘O the pain of it all; she has no one to love, no warm companion.’ Plus, Bradda tries for make like ‘Aiwohi was worth it. Like ‘A was the big man, not one compulsive, small-time cheat. No way on both counts, bra. In Hale‘ole, Poli‘ahu is way more smart than ‘Aiwohi. And way more tough. And always in control. So when she catches ‘Aiwohi fooling around, ‘o ka hū a‘ela nō ia o ka huhū wela. She busts that pua‘a laho with cold and hot, hot and cold, and she sends his honeygirl packing. Then she returns to Maunakea for good. Not in misery, brah, but in pono. The four sisters together. Poli‘ahu. Lilinoe. Waiau. Kahoupo. Like the akua wāhine they are.

"Last of all, Kahau, since you so deep into Nū Hopa these days, I going remind you of the kauoha, ‘Don’t take His name in vain.’ For me, this is taking Her name in vain. Our Poli‘ahu, our grandmother of snow-mantled Maunakea. So, Kahau, the whole song stay messed up. Huikau. Maybe even hewa. We neva should have recorded it in LA. That’s why your Mirage wen’ break."

We’d reached the Kolekole turn-off by then, and Kahau pulled over to the side, his face red with anger.

"Here’s my Hawaiian phrase of the day for you, Lima: ‘aina kō Kepanī. Japanese cane trash. That’s what you are. Cast-off rubbish from the plantation days. It was my Tūtū who took you in, not your obaachan, whoever that was. So don’t play the ancient grandmother card on me. You don’t have the blood, so you don’t have the right.

"And here’s another vocab lesson while I’m at it: ho‘opilimea‘ai. You’re a parasite, bra. You’re eating my food, and you’re riding on my coat tails. You’ve never succeeded at anything but playing guitar like Aunty Alice and singing like Uncle ‘Olu. Nobody listens to that old-lady tuning or those creaky, ‘elemakule vocals. I’m your ticket, Lima. Without me you’d still be pouring beers at Anna Bananas and flunking out of Nogelmeier’s Papa Mele.

"And since you’re more into old nūpepa than New Hopa, try this old news on for size: ‘A‘ole pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho‘okahi. Knowledge isn’t limited to one source. Maybe Bradda knows something you don’t; maybe there’s more to the Poli‘ahu story than Hale‘ole has written. Last time I checked, Bradda was the kumu, not you, and he has twenty years worth of Hōkū awards. None of your three old-lady songs—or is it four—has even been nominated. So get off your high horse, Lima, because it’s not even your horse. It never was."

He was more right than I wanted to admit. "My piko," I said, "is in Waiau, same as yours. Tūtū took um both." And we fell into a cold silence that lasted until we reached Kitaoki’s shop on Mamo St.

Kitaoki was closed up for the night, but after one look at the beautiful, crippled guitar, he switched the lights on over his workbench and grumbled, "She going take long time. Can crash on da pūne‘e in back if you like."

He woke us up at six the next morning with a whole and newly strung Mirage. "No ask; paniolo trade secret," he said in response to our wonder over the beautifully crafted, neatly spliced peghead. "I grew up Paka Ranch, hānai to one saddle maker. Pommel or peghead, maku‘u or po‘o, same kine work." He had carved the name "Li‘ulā" into the outer face of the head and inlayed his flawless scrollwork with māmane. The light wood shimmered against the darker background like yellow blossoms in a downpour.

"Bring um back when you pau da gig an’ I do the refinishing. The lacka job going take couple days, an’ I need fo’ blend um nice and dry um good. But right now, I like you guys go ho‘okani little bit fo’ me."

Kahau handed me the Mirage, the Li‘ulā, and said, "You first, Aunty Alice." Trace of a smile.

My fingers went tingly-numb as soon as I held it, and I was tempted to play Kāua i ka Nani a‘o Hilo in response to the sensation. Because of the "ka me‘eu ho‘i" line. But I had an agenda, so I slacked the strings down to wahine tuning and sang "Ka Manu." When Kitaoki asked for a hana hou, I retuned and offered up Mauna Kea. I’d chosen the two songs carefully, hoping their words would further soften Kahau. The first about real star-crossed lovers. The second about Queen ‘Ema’s visit to the mountain and her swim in Lake Waiau. Love and pain, endurance and rebirth.

Kitaoka nodded over the mele for ‘Ema. "Da saddle-maker’s kupuna kāne went ride horse from Mānā wit’ ‘Ema an’ her po‘e hololio. ‘Ohana Pilipo, like you two. If you know da story of the rain and da māmane branch shelter, ’den you know how come I put da māmane inlay."

But Kahau had grown impatient; he had no ear for old stories. He took the guitar from me, leaned into the conversation, and said, "We have time for one more. Maybe you know this song about the lovesick snow goddess. It’s called ʻPoli‘ahu.’"

I had no more fight in me. I said, "Whatever, Kahau," and let him play.

Afterwards, Kitaoki clapped Kahau on the back. "Hū ka sweet," he said. "Keikei kūlana hale wili. Like one Kohala shuga mill." To me the old craftsman gave a quick nod and, "See you in da funny pepas. You know what dey say, ‘‘A‘ole i pau, e ho‘omau ‘ia ana.’"

"ʻNot pau, to be continued,’ like Prince Valiant," I joked half-heartedly, smiling but completely off balance. Kahau raised his eyebrows and looked at me with cold, proud eyes. He’d found vindication in Kitaoki’s words; I thought I heard something else.

I kept smiling until we got into the car. It was after 7:00, and we’d promised Aunty Lilly that we’d help set up the tents, tables, and sound system. "Let’s grab our stuff at the B&B and go straight to Pu‘ukapu," Kahau said. I nodded, leaned against the window, and tried to sleep.

He shook me hard at the bend in the road above Kealakaha. "Wake up," he said. "There’s nobody out there. No canoe. No wahine of the cliff. And what’s with, ‘Lo‘a ka ‘ike mai ou mau kūpuna loa’. What’s that supposed to mean anyway?" I had no idea what he was talking about. The ride to Waimea had become shrouded in the mist and fog of an approaching migraine.

Aunty’s coffee helped. Along with a quick, cold shower and her pressure-point trick on that spot between my thumb and index finger. "Kahaleolimaloa," she said, using my full name, "I didn’t know you were still getting these visits."

"Not so much nowdays, and this one stay only small-kine, Aunty. More hu‘ihu‘i than poluea. You wen’ release um fast, I think."

By late afternoon I was fine. Maybe even a little euphoric, which sometimes happens. So I found myself trading off with Kahau during our 4:30 set. Usually he’d introduce the songs and take the lead. Sometimes, if the audience was older, he’d raise an eyebrow and let me take a few. And that was fine with me. Like he said, he was my ticket.

But this was for Polly Girl’s baby lū‘au, not for Ho‘omau or Miss Aloha Hula. So I started every other song and chose only those that Aunty them would dance to or Uncle them would knuckle their eyes over when nobody was looking. Maika‘i ka Makani o Kohala and Hole Waimea, our anthems. Heha Waipi‘o and Kanaka Waiolina for the violin man of the valley and our Thomas ‘ohana. Kaula ‘Ili, Lei Onaona, and Waiomina for the Low side of the family. And, of course, Mauna Kea for our queen and her rebirth in the tingling, hu‘i-a-ka-manu waters of Waiau.

Kū aku au, mahalo i ka nani

Ka hale a ka wai hu‘i a ka manu.

I stand and appreciate the beauty

Of the house of the chilly water of the birds.

Kahau seemed fine with the exchange. Into it, even. And he surprised me more than once with careful choices of his own. A rousing new mele that we’d been working on for the CD—John Top’s tongue-twister—Lei ‘o Kohala, paired with its parent mele He ‘Ai Nei ‘o Kalani. Then the old Hi‘ilawe; pre-Gabby. Something I’d never heard him do. Then a Kamae-inspired Hinahina Kū Kahakai that had everyone weeping to the words, his voice, and the incredible ho‘āeae tones of the reborn Mirage.

We’d been at it for more than an hour when Aunty gave us the almost-time-for-pule sign. So I segued from Pua Be Still into Kawaihae Hula hoping that Uncle Lionel’s "Hō‘ike Poli‘ahu i ke kapa hau / Ho‘i ana i ka piko o Maunakea" would bring our set to an appropriate close, but the Poli‘ahu reference triggered something in Kahau. After I unplugged and stepped off the four-by-eight plywood stage, he said into his mic, "Before Father George sends us all home with his blessing and Hawai‘i Aloha, I have one more mele for Polly Girl. It’s going to be the title track of my new album."

Ears burning and fingers tingling, I slipped into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. "All yours," I thought and waited for the return visit. When Kahau got to the song’s chorus, "E ho‘i mai, e ku‘u ipo, e ho‘i mai, a pili kāua," the air grew wet and icy and the Kīpu‘upu‘u swept down the mountainside like the leading edge of a throw-net, catching up paper plates and bowls, snapping tent flaps, toppling the oasis and lehua centerpieces, and shredding the party streamers that had been tied to the yellowed canvas tarp above Kahau.

The onset of the wind-driven rain forced many hasty good-byes and brought Father George and the family indoors. But Kahau played on, the Mirage brittle-sounding in the sudden chill. I saw, through the half-open louvers above the sink, that only Aunty Lili had remained at her table. She sat there straight-backed and somber. A kīpuka of calm. She rose to confront Kahau when, at last, he was done. But I turned from the window with Tūtū’s "maha‘oi" ringing softly in my ears. It wasn’t my business, and besides, I’d come to a decision.

The wind didn’t die down until after dark, and by then it was time for me to leave for Hilo. I’d arranged for a ride with Father George, and on my way out I found Kahau sitting on the parlor floor showing Polly how to work the latches of his guitar case. "Pa‘a. Hemo. Pa‘a. Hemo. Smart girl; strong girl!" Latching and unlatching.

"It’s pau; all of it," I said. "I’m catching a ride to Pi‘ihonua fo’ take care Tūtūlady’s house. Aunty them said fine, bout time a Pilipo lived there again. I’ll let you know how she goes."

Then I picked up the Mirage and handed him a check for fifteen-hundred. All the gig-money I’d been saving to re-enroll at Mānoa.

I expected a fight, but he nodded, balled-up the check, and lifted Polly-Girl to me. "Up you go, Poli‘ahu," he said, "time to honi ‘Anakala Lima."

I popped open the guitar case at the B&B where we’d stopped to pick up my things. The neck and peghead of the Mirage were carefully packed in newspaper. On a yellow post-it attached to a crumpled wad of Tribune Herald, Kahau had written:

Aunty said this is yours. "Limaloa and Kawahineokalī‘ulā in their cloud-house." As usual, I don’t get the reference. Or the one about two houses, same kauhale. Maybe I’ll find out tomorrow. She’s making me go pi‘i mauna with Uncle Linsey. I think it’s true what they say: ‘A‘ole i pau, wahi a ka nūpepa.

—your brother, Kahaukapuokahalelaumāmane

© Kalei Clark 2006