Moloka`i Homestead, 1933

by Kirby Wright

The aina makes demands. Brownie’s thankful her husband built the bamboo shanty and filled it with axes, picks, shovels, and hoes. There are carpentry tools too: hammers, handsaws, a block plane, and chisels. She’s proud of her cinder block home overlooking the channel and the water tank on stilts the paniolos helped Chipper raise. She worries about the tank running dry and what will happen if Chip loses his Army pension. Driving cattle at Pu`u O Hoku Ranch made him mean, the kind of mean that turns everything good between a man and woman bad. Clearing trees brought hate when she matched him swing for swing. Now husband help is tough to come by.

Brownie swings the long ax at a lilikoi and the blade sinks deep in its watery trunk. Sometimes she drops one with a single blow. She swears the land is more wahine than kane because it changes. No rain like last year. Hot as blazes, made hotter by denims and palaka shirt. Cut down a tree and two spring up. Hard dirt where once was soft. Scorpions everywhere. The mouth of Kainalu River clogged with sand and pilau water. She swings again—the tree leans and yellow fruit falls. Winter’s coming, she thinks. The time purple monsoons force open Kainalu’s mouth and flood gutters to feed the tank. She jitterbugged last Christmas in the falls spilling off the tank’s lip and remembered dancing with the boy in the white suit at the Moana, the blond from England who promised to return before boarding his steamer at Aloha Tower. She was sixteen. He was seventeen, sent overseas by wealthy parents to end his dreams of becoming a hero in the Great War. She watched her belly swell waiting for his telegram, a postcard, any sign. “Goddamn you, Brownie,” she mutters and swings again. The blade breaks through and the lilikoi tumbles. She picks up the short ax. She hates herself for leaving Buddy with her mother on Oahu. She should have stood up when he called her son a bastard.

She hears a snort and sees Bella kicking the ground in the corral. The mares want their barley. Sometimes she brings mangoes. She’d built the corral and painted it Chinese red when Old Man Pong gave her five gallons for three flapper dresses, a set of heels, and a hat that made her look like a gangster. “Lucky wahine,” he’d told her, “you same size as Missus Pong.”

Mornings like these with no trades and clouds too thin to drop shadows turn the homestead into a prison of 50-foot tall kiawe entangled in vines. Less than a quarter of the mauka land is clear. Brownie smells seedpods baking on the dirt. She wants open pastures framed by redwood posts strung with gleaming wire and mares grazing on long blades of pili. She wants kanakas driving the public road to admire her pastures. She approaches a kiawe with the short ax. Sometimes she thinks there is no ocean at all and the paradise promised was only a lie to ball-and-chain her to these acres. She swings. The blade barely cuts, the tree sending its iron-tough message from blade to blistering handle. When Chip worked alongside she chopped till she bled. She swings again—this time the ax spits out a wedge as white as bone. She hates gloves. Gloves soften the will. She likes shaking hands with men in Kaunakakai so they feel the work on her.

Brownie loves the ocean. Tonight she will drag kaka lines into the sea and drop hooks baited with octopus, tethering the lines to the posts between storm windows. She wants ulua, the sweetflesh swimming out of the deep to feed in the shallows. She will pan-fry fillets and boil heads for chowder. Chip will sit at an open window and drink as the lines move up and down with the tide. He will hobble off to the point at sunset, where a girl waits on a quilt spread over the sand.

She spots Chip on the makai edge of the field. He’s slow as molasses because of missing toes. He wears only jeans. He reaches the gate to the beach house and dangles arms over the top beam. He cups hands around his mouth. “Hui,” he calls. “Brownie!”

“Wot?” she fires back.
“I want lunch.”

She tugs down the brim of her hala hat to cover an eye. She remembers her mother saying a man stays faithful with three squares a day and getting what he wants in bed. She drops the ax. “Comin’,” she calls, “I’m comin’, Chip.” Her voice sounds kupanaha. It’s deeper and seems to carry more weight, as though another wahine is trying to break through.


Kirby Wright’s first play is making the rounds in New York.


Filed under Nonfiction

2 responses to “Moloka`i Homestead, 1933

  1. This is a companion piece to THE QUEEN OF MOLOKA’I, which won the Honolulu Weekly Creative Nonfiction Contest.

  2. One of the magical things about writing is remembering the stories told by your elders, the things they did before you were born. If you listen hard and try and get several points of view you can piece together a fairly good story. If you need the interior world you should base that on the facts and anecdotes you’ve collected about that person or persons during family gatherings such as Thanksgivings and Easters.

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