by Malia Collins
I grew up in Hawai`i and before I learned to read, I was made to memorize the list of superstitions my mother kept posted on the side of the fridge, superstitions we’d repeat back to her, like a mantra, whenever we broke one: no whistling at night; don’t sleep with your feet towards the window or the doorway; don’t look outside once it’s dark; don’t cut your nails at night; never step over a body on the floor; don’t sweep trash outside the door; don’t cut your hair, and if you do cut your hair, save it.
I grew up afraid, afraid of being taken away by spirits, of getting eaten while swimming at the beach, or in a waterfall, and then turning into a spirit myself—a woman with no face like the one who haunted the Waialae Drive-In, or the woman who appeared in reflection at the wading pool at Manoa Falls, who lured young men in for a kiss and then drowned them. At night I slept with the light on and fell asleep praying that nothing would come in to steal my breath.
Two things I remember most from high school: ghosts and wild boars. At drama camp every year, we spent the weekend in the upper campus dorm, the one with its insane-asylum green walls, and the kitchen light that flickered on and off and buzzed like a mosquito punk. The students who boarded on campus said it was the most haunted dorm, home to the ghost of the high-school senior who was found hanging in the forest behind the school. In that spot, it was rumored, where on nights with no moon they could hear him, calling out to his girlfriend, his lonely cries echoing off the dormitory walls. There was the girls’ bathroom where I once saw the ghost of a young woman hanging from the rafters, or the heaviness I felt sitting on my chest when I went to the nurse’s office, which had doubled during World War II as a dispensary for gravely wounded soldiers. The students who lived on campus told stories of a woman who floated down the hallway and smelled of yellow ginger. They told stories of the night marchers, spirits of the ancient Hawaiian ali`i who marched in procession over the same worn paths they fought when they were alive. You know they’re coming, they said, when you hear the drums and the conch shell blowing. My Aunty Betty, whose house butted up against the Nu`uanu Pali, said the night marchers’ path led through her house, past the baby’s room, out to the yard and into Nu`uanu Stream. When the baby was little, she said, the first night marcher in the procession lifted him up, and set him off to the side, and the last one in the procession set him back in his crib.
“What happens when you hear them?” I asked.
“Babe,” she told me, “you throw yourself on the floor. You don’t look up. You wait and wait and pray. They see you looking and you’re the next one dead.”
On November 17, 1982, two days before Hurricane Iwa struck the island of Oahu, a pack of wild boars thundered through the hallways of the school and ate everything in their path: backpacks, shoes, even metal chairs. The pigs were huge—the size of boulders, their tusks sharp and covered with dirt and shit and blood. The sounds their hooves made against the concrete was like something otherworldly and I could feel in my chest the reverberation of their giant bodies’ pinballing against the walls. When the flash floods hit and the wild boars were washed down the mountainside into the backyards of the houses dotting the valley floor, the whole place reeked of rot and dead pig flesh and we rode the school bus with our hands pressed over our mouths and noses to keep the stink out. On the nights of the Kona winds when the air doesn’t move and hangs thick over the mountains, people who live in the valley say they can still hear them, and when they look outside to see what’s rustling in the yard, nothing’s there, but they can smell their heat, and their blood, and hear the faint rumble of hooves likes angry knocks on the door.
The house we live in now is haunted. When we bought it, the old couple living there, who were both blind, said it was too hard for them to get up and down the narrow staircase. It was a good house, they said, a good place to raise kids. They had raised five children in the house, and we found out years later that their oldest son, Randy, died in the house shortly before we moved in. He slept in a small room off the back, the best room in the whole place, cozy with white walls and a huge picture window that looked out over the back yard. He built and painted the room himself and when he was diagnosed with cancer, he moved back in with his parents, to wait out his days in his old bedroom. For the first couple years we lived there, I couldn’t stay in the house alone. There were nights when I woke up and smelled cigarettes and sweet-old-lady perfume. One night I was downstairs in the laundry room and saw the shadow of a man pass by, first slowly, then quickly, and run behind the door that led down to the crawl space. When we knocked down the walls upstairs to make a bigger room, it only got worse. At night I’d wake and stare at the ceiling, the rafters shadowed like the hull of a ship, and hear footsteps in the part of the room that used to be Randy’s. Once I heard what sounded like a big, metal pot being dropped on the kitchen floor, but when I went down to check, nothing was there. When my son Max was two and we were upstairs in the room playing, he said to me, “Mama, who’s the man standing behind you?” There were nights I woke up and Max was standing next to the bed, staring at me. One night I saw the same dark shape crawling across the floor in the direction of the kids’ bedroom. They moved their little mattresses into our room after that, and we slept all four of us, door locked, sweating.
We left town that summer to spend a week in Maine and had friends come over to housesit. When we got back, we invited them for dinner, but they wouldn’t come. For weeks we invited, and they always said no. Months passed, and I forgot about it. A year later, I ran into one of our house sitters and he finally offered to talk to me, not at the house, but at a coffee shop downtown.
He said it didn’t start the first night, or the second, but it was the third night they were there when it happened. He said his girlfriend bolted out of bed and started screaming. When he snapped on the light and looked at her, her eyes were wide open, but it was like she wasn’t there—she was focused on something in the corner of the room. He tried to calm her down, but she pushed him away, panting. And then, he said, she looked at me, and it was her face, and her eyes, but her eyes looked scary, and she said: “Close the door now. The little people are outside.”
He jumped out of bed, grabbed her and the dogs, and said, “We’re leaving.”
She said, “We can’t leave.”
So he left by himself. And then—this is the one thing I’ll never forget—he said: “As I was backing out of the driveway, I looked up at the window facing the street, the kid’s bedroom, and I saw her standing at the window, silhouetted against the dark, and the shadow of something else walking up behind her.
“I’ll never step into that house again,” he said. And he hasn’t.
In the summer of 2017, my husband Josh and I hiked the ten miles from Waipio Valley on the Big Island back to Waimanu Valley. They call Waipio Valley the Valley of the Kings and the whole place is said to be haunted by the spirits of ancient Hawaiian ali`i. Along the beach on the way to the trailhead, we passed a number of sand mounds marked with crosses and signs reading: Kapu—Keep Out—Hawaiian Graves. It is in this valley where Kamehameha I, the first king of a conquered Hawai`i, was hidden after he was born, and where some say his bones are buried. Since the Hawaiians believe a person’s spiritual power, or mana, is manifested in their bones, the bones of the ruling class were wrapped in kapa cloth and secreted out at night, and hidden in sea caves, cliffs, and behind waterfalls. One story goes that Kamehameha’s bones were hidden in one of the caves deep in Waimanu Valley. When I told my mother it was into this valley we were hiking, she said—you know what’s back there, right? You know what you could find. Don’t make trouble. Don’t go anyplace you’re not supposed to.
The only way to Waimanu Valley is to hike in. And the hike is hard. At the trailhead is an old wooden sign that reads: Don’t Fall off Cliff; Caution: Menehune, No Stare; Dead End Trail; Wild Pigs next 8 miles; Plenty Sharks, Strong Current; They’re Watching, Good luck! When the tsunami struck Waimanu Valley in 1946, the forty or so people who still lived there escaped up the cliffs we’d just hiked down and the valley has been uninhabited for more than a half century.
The first mile is vertical, along the Muliwai Trail, the switchbacks a strung-out Z across the cliff face, the same trail the ancient Hawaiians hiked to get from one valley to the next. Halfway up we passed a local family with six kids in tow, coolers strapped on their backs, fishing spears and nets slung over their shoulders. I thought: if they can get up this, I can get up this. I stopped every five minutes, I dropped my backpack. I told Josh: “Leave me here to die.” When we finally made it to the top, and sat under a thicket of ironwood trees, I started to think my mother was right. That we shouldn’t have come. I wondered if this was a way for the valley to tell us to keep out.
The hike traverses eight miles of valleys and gorges and there are thirteen stream crossings. There are no ocean views during the hike, just thick forest and albizia trees wide enough to carve tunnels through. The day was gray and overcast and in the thickest section of jungle, it felt like nighttime. At the third valley in, a dead boar lay in a puddle next to the stream and I hiked, gagging, for almost ten minutes. We saw few people on the trail, and with the gray sky and clouds threatening, I knew we wouldn’t see many more.
The closer we got to Waimanu, the heavier the air felt, and just past the sixth gulch, when I called Josh’s name and another voice answered, a voice that came from the trees and not the direction where Josh was headed, I felt it behind me, the space filled with something I couldn’t see, but could feel. Once we got down into the valley, I could feel it even stronger.
About five miles in, with another five miles to go, a man stopped us. “Turn back,” he said, “or camp at the next shelter. You’re not going to make it. It’s going to be dark and you’ll get stuck on the trail. You don’t want to be on this trail once the sun’s down. Trust me. You don’t want to be on this trail in the dark.”
Fuck him, I thought. I found a deep reserve of strength I didn’t know I had and we hustled through the rest of the hike. We made it to camp by six, with enough light to set up. Our campsite was next to the beach, along a jetty of black rocks, some stacked ten or twelve high. The water was too rough to swim in, and murky, too, it had been raining on and off for a week and the rains brought debris from the valley down through the stream and into the ocean—brown water means sharks and we stayed away. Once the tent was up and the fire blazing, the wind picked up. There were maybe fifteen folks at other camping spots down along the shoreline. By seven it was dark. By nine we were in bed.
I’m not a camper and I truly believe the best part of camping is waking up alive. But in Hawai`i, I’ll camp, maybe because it’s home, maybe because it’s always warm. The sound of the ocean soothes me, and the smell—salt and rain and trees—makes me feel safe. But here’s the thing: Hawai`i is the single most isolated land mass on earth and the spots we seek out for our summer backpacking trips are the remotest spots in an already remote place. The Big Island of Hawai`i is the youngest island in the Hawaiian chain and is still being both formed and destroyed. The land feels different there. It is where my mother was born, where she took me to heal before my own babies came, it is the place my son is named after, where my grandmother is buried, and where her oldest son disappeared. Halema`uma`u Crater is the home to Pele, the volcano goddess, who can appear in different forms and there are roads on the Big Island people avoid driving out of fear of seeing a white dog, or a young woman in white, floating, who waits to be picked up. People say the woman who steps in the car is not the same as the woman who’s there at the end of the ride, that it is somewhere just past the burial cliffs at Honoka`a where she transforms from a young woman to an old woman, skin gnarled and withered, who leaves behind an ohia lehua blossom or strands of hinahina.
In the winter of 2016, the department of land and natural resources shut down both the hike to Waimanu Valley and the campgrounds after two residents in Waipio tested positive for dengue fever. Even though it had been over a year since any new cases of dengue were reported, and the trail and campsite were deemed safe, people were still hesitant about visiting the valley and the hiking permits, usually hard to get, weren’t. Half of the campsites were empty. Since there were so few people camping along the beach, it was easy to make out the headlamps of those who passed by our tent to get water from the stream. The closest tent and campfire were about a hundred yards down the beach. The waves were calm that night, and I fell asleep almost immediately.
I don’t know what time it was when I woke up and saw the flicker of orange flame on the side of the tent, or what time it was when I peeked through the tent flap and saw the line of torches marching down the same path we’d taken to get to Waimanu. I couldn’t move my feet and at the end of my sleeping mat, what looked like a very small boy was sitting on them. Fear is a felt sense; my body felt like it was pushing itself together, trying to make itself smaller. I blinked once, then twice. The little boy was gone. I could hear my Aunty Betty’s voice like she was right there with me. “Babe,” she whispered, “when you hear the night marchers, keep quiet. Don’t let them see you. Put your head down. Pretend you’re not there. Even better,” she said, “pretend you’re dead.”
I closed my eyes and lay with my face against the ground. In the distance a conch shell sounded and then the rumble of drums. The beats were low and rhythmic, bum, bum, bum, bum, and then they grew louder and louder and what sounded like the swish of feather capes grazed the outside of the tent, and the drums still, bum, bum, bum, bum. The drag and shuffle of feet passed by the tent, some paused, then kept going. I was breathing harder now, and trying to count a minute in my head, then two, then three. The last footsteps were the lightest—the children. When the sounds of shuffling stopped, and the drums grew quiet, I lifted my head slightly, turned, and peeked outside. The long line of torches split apart at the end of the beach, and half walked out to sea, the other half up the mountain, and the flames from their torches turned into a gray mist that disappeared into the night sky. I thought of the little boy I saw at the edge of my sleeping mat, and wondered if his appearance there was a warning, or a sign.
The next morning when I woke I found two red ti leaves—a sign of royalty—pointed at the opening to our tent. I stepped around them and looked up the cliffs and down the beach. Even with the sounds of all those feet dragging across the sand, there were no footsteps, or signs, that anyone had walked past. It looked untouched, possibly even smoother than it had the night before. It’s a story I’ve never told anyone, until just now.
The waterfalls that ring Waimanu Valley fall from nearly three thousand feet up. Wai`ilikahi Falls, the biggest waterfall I’ve ever been in, was an hour’s hike from the campsite. Hawaiian superstition says to float a leaf on the surface of the pool before going swimming. If it floats and spins clockwise, you’re safe. If it sinks, or swirls counter-clockwise, whatever lives below the surface is waiting to feed. I dropped a leaf down and it floated, clockwise. We climbed in.
After an hour, Josh got restless. “Let’s look for the next one,” he said.
We gathered our things to go, and once we got down the path toward the main trail leading back to camp, I saw a hau tree and its roots formed a perfect bridge to cross over the stream to get to the other side of the valley. I climbed over the roots, crawling in spots, and Josh followed. When we got to the valley floor on the other side of the stream, the dense tangle of trees opened up and I could see a trail. I told Josh to follow me, and I led us deeper into the valley.
After ten minutes of walking, I stopped. I was not a good navigator when it came to unmarked trails, but this time was different. It was like I could see the path before I saw it, and walked from one spot to the next, with no trail markers. I said to Josh: “I know this place. It feels like I’ve been here before.”
The skin on my neck started to tingle. I walked faster. The path kept opening itself up to me and it was with laser precision that I got us to the second waterfall, Kaka`auki Falls, this one smaller, and darker, the jungle thicker, the water the color of mud, and tinged red around the edges.
The waterfall into the first pool was small and at the edge of the pool was a short scramble up a rock face to a fern grotto. Even though there was no light coming through the canopy of trees, the ferns in that grotto shimmered green and swayed like something underwater. Josh swam over first, and climbed up the rocks.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “Come.” But there was something keeping me from getting in the water. I slowly took off my hiking boots, but I still felt uneasy. I dropped a leaf in the water and it floated and swirled in the right direction. You’re being paranoid, I told myself. Josh called again. I slid in and swam to the other side.
Once there, I climbed the rocks and looked up. At the back of the grotto was another waterfall, much bigger than the one below, and when the ferns blew back from the force of the water, I saw hidden behind the falls were two small caves carved into the rocks. I heard my mother’s voice in my head. “Don’t make trouble,” she said. And then I felt it, something settling onto my shoulders, and then as if a hand was pushing me down, I fell, my feet and legs like they’d been shoved out from under me. I tried to get up, but couldn’t. It felt like something was holding me from under the water. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry.” Josh pulled me up. A figure, two, maybe three heads taller than me hovered over the water for a moment, then vanished, and what looked like a small, red ball of light flew through the waterfall, lit up the inside of the one of the caves behind it, just for a moment, before flickering out. The air smelled like sulfur. I was crying then, my heart racing. “We’re not wanted here,” I said. And we both swam back to the other side as quickly as we could, climbed out in silence, packed up, and left.
Since I knew the trail so well on the way in, I thought it would be an easy trip back to the first waterfall, and then to camp. But on the way back, nothing looked familiar. I didn’t see the trail, or the trees, or the stream or rock piles we’d seen coming in. It was like I’d never been there. I steered us in one wrong direction, and then another. Finally Josh went ahead and led the way back. It took more than double the time to get back as it had taken us to get there.
Hawaiians believe in the akulele, or flying gods, and their appearance can mean one of two things: death is coming, or whomever died in that spot is warning you away.
My mother says what led me from the first waterfall to the second was calling me to a place they didn’t want me to leave. Like the voice that answered when I called Josh’s name, it wanted to lead me astray, back through the trees and tall grass and rock paths that lined the valley floor. Into the waterfall, and perhaps to the small caves just beneath it.
Shortly after that hike, I developed a slight limp in my left leg, the same leg that hit the ground first, when whatever led me to Kaka`auki Falls made their presence known. I think of the limp now as a reminder to stay out of places not meant for me.
Legend says when you tell a story like this one, the spirits can hear you. They believe you’re calling them back to you. This morning I woke up, and on my left shoulder were five red scratch marks, like a hand grabbing me, warning me, but still, I didn’t listen.
Malia Collins grew up in Hawai`i and has lived, worked, and traveled around the world. She now lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two children. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the College of Western Idaho. For years she worked as a teaching writer in the Cabin’s Writers in the Schools program and her great joy comes from teaching writing and helping young writers find ways to tell their stories and lift up their voices on the page. She’s a teaching artist with the Idaho Commission on the Arts and a teaching writer for Writers@Harriman. Malia’s published short stories in literary magazines, has two Hawaiian children’s books, her first, Pele and Poliahu: A Tale of Fire and Ice, will be re-released this fall. She is currently working on a collection of essays and short stories. She loves to swim in the ocean, wander in the mountains, and hike up Table Rock, particularly at sunrise. She also loves being really, really scared.