by Jason Poole
Gramma? Can Uncle Jason take us down to the bridge to go swimming?
Your voice rang through the little wooden house with tin roof; over the grownups who sighed and stood with their arms and legs stretched away from their bodies to keep from sticking to each other; over the sound of the chickens and roosters making a ruckus outside.
Gramma? And you gave me a quick, stink-eye glance that said, You better not say No to this. (How fitting, your name means chief, commander, king. Even at six years old, you ruled us all.)
Without waiting for an answer, you and your two cousins ran out of the house and let the screen door slam.
The dirt road that runs from the heart of the valley to the ocean was paved with mango pits and still-rotting fruit. You kids ran far ahead of me in a tangle of bodies, all elbows and knees and noise. Brown-skinned bare feet clamoring over the packed brown earth. You didn’t even look back to see if I was there. I don’t think you cared. You were free from the house and heading to the bridge for an afternoon of fun.
Remember when you climbed the mango tree and you tore your pants?
Hurry up already! Let’s run!
I walked slowly. I wilted in the humidity. And I was grateful to be under the dark and slightly cooler canopy of trees while we made our way makai, toward the sea.
For one brief moment, I thought about my home in New York City, five thousand miles away from Molokai. For one moment, I dreamed of taking a cool shower and lying down on my couch while the air conditioner dried my skin.
The chatter of a mynah bird called me back.
When we reached the turnoff by Aunty’s house, where the dirt road becomes thick, black mud that even the hottest sun can’t dry, you kids stepped and slid with confidence. I slipped and stumbled as the mud sucked at my heels. (How did you maneuver so expertly, so gracefully through that muddy stretch? Is it because you grew up in the valley and know its secrets? Is it some kind of innate knowledge? A part of your DNA? Is it tattooed on your bones?)
With a wild WHOOP! the three of you left the muddy road and tore through the tall grass. You ran toward the old wooden bridge stretched over the river. We’d had rain for several nights. And at first, the waterfalls made the river fast and cloudy with mud. But on that sunny day, the river finally slowed and widened and darkened to a deep green. Perfect for swimming.
I heard your laughter as I approached the bridge and watched as the pack of bodies broke apart; each of with your own swagger, your own joy-dance in the sunlight. You raced toward the edge of the bridge and then stopped and waited until the three of you made one line. And then each of you leapt with arms and legs akimbo, one at a time, like a carefully choreographed Esther Williams movie. One splash. Two. Three.
Only then did I stop to think what would happen if something went wrong. What if one of you hit your head on a submerged rock? What if a careless jump left you hurt or broken? I wasn’t there as a spectator. I was supposed to be a lifeguard, but I had no whistle. Not a single phone works in the valley. It’s too far away from town for wires, too remote for satellite signals. How could I help you when help was so far away? Would I run back to the house? I stood a better chance of summoning help using smoke signals.
I held my breath as I rushed to look over the edge of the bridge. But my fears were unfounded. The three of you looked like seal pups, slick and shiny, as your swam around in circles. And then you raced to see who could be first to climb out of the water and back to the bridge.
Over and over again. Laughing, leaping. Splashing, swimming. Chasing, racing. Not a care in the world other than the dares you issued to each other: Try jumping off using only one leg! Try making your body straight like a surfboard! Try flapping your arms like a bird and see if you can fly!
You ignored me, acted like I wasn’t there. I wondered if I cramped your style or embarrassed you, somehow, as your outsider-uncle. I pretended not to watch or listen. I scanned the sky for birds. I squinted to see the ocean over the sand dunes and through the trees.
And then, you called out my name. Uncle Jason!
I turned and we locked eyes. You smiled.
And you leapt.
And my heart flew with you.
About the Author
Jason Poole is a Kumu Hawai‘i, a Hawaiian cultural teacher and lineage carrier of the traditions, stories, music and language of Hālawa Valley on the island of Molokai, Hawai’i. Jason began his Hawaiian studies with revered Hawaiian elder Kumu Pilipo Solatorio in 2008 and he was “hānai-ed” (adopted) into his teacher’s family. He was given the title of Kumu (teacher) in 2010. He teaches Hawaiian-style ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music and culture in New York City public schools with a non-profit music education organization. Additionally, he works as a Hawaiian musician both here in the Continental U.S. as well as back in Hawai‘i. And he’s always got his notebook open, writing stories and songs about the islands. Jason’s story is featured in the documentary Sons of Hālawa (Quazifilms, 2015) and he wrote several songs that are featured on the film’s soundtrack. Jason just became a father and lives in NYC with his family.