by Giulio Rocca
The Mokes beckon to me in the early morning light. Even as I step onto the sand, I hear my grandmother’s voice: “Their proper name is Nā Mokulua, keiki,” she says. “Moku Nui and Moku Iki.” The water’s calm today, the waves cresting gently all the way to the twin islands, while a solitary sailboat glides along the horizon. I adjust my swimsuit and lower my goggles, eager to start the swim, as I’ve done many times before. Sometimes I wonder if I’d ever be able to live off island, away from all this.
I start slowly with a breaststroke and transition into a crawl, picking up pace as my body finds the familiar rhythm: stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe. It’s not long before I’m far enough that the few sunbathers of Lanikai beach shrink to the size of dots, while ahead the little beach of Moku Nui grows larger. There’s an orange kayak pulled up on the shore, but otherwise it looks deserted. I push forward and catch sight of a green sea turtle, its carapace glinting in the refracted sunlight.
The kayak isn’t the only visitor on Moku Nui this morning. A monk seal is dozing on the shore; it’s sprawled face-down and thoroughly covered in sand, but clearly unbothered. I pause to catch my breath, wondering who the kayak belongs to; that’s when I hear some indistinct chatter in the distance. I imagine it’s the occupants of the kayaks, perhaps tourists, and I’m glad for them; so many never leave Lanikai beach.
I find the trail that leads to the island’s summit, a steep ascent that requires me to use my hands, and it only takes me a few minutes to get up. On the way, I walk past the burrowed nests of shearwater birds, and I’m careful to avoid startling them. At the summit, I find an older man with dark skin, wavy black hair, a wide nose, and a black ink armband tattoo. I assume he’s kānaka maoli or Polynesian. He’s shirtless, and the left side of his body has a long scar running along it.
“Beautiful day, yeah?” he says, with the cadence of a local.
“Yes, gorgeous,” I say, smiling back.
We both stand there silently taking in Oahu’s windward coast; it’s a clear day, and I can see all the way to Makapu’u Point in the south to the Marine Corps Base in the north. The lush mountains make the coastal homes stand out even from here.
“We must cherish these islands,” the man says. He reminds me of something my grandmother would say: “He ali’i la ‘āina; he kauwā ke kanaka.” The land is the chief; man its servant. I ask him if we’ve met before, if he grew up here. He nods, but doesn’t say anything; he’s closed his eyes and seems to have fallen into a trance. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” I say, as I get ready to leave. He doesn’t flinch, and I retrace my steps back down to the beach.
I see the kayaking couple I had heard earlier. They’re taking selfies with the monk seal in the background; you’re not supposed to disturb the wildlife, but they’re keeping their distance. I wave at them, wondering if they came with the man on the summit; but their kayak only has room for two. I make my way to the rear of the island, carefully navigating the volcanic rock in search of the Queen’s Bath. It’s a natural formation that fills with water from the ocean, and it’s one of my favorite places. “Used by Hawaiian royals,” my grandmother told me. I find it, and I’m in luck; today it’s filled with water, so I slide in and find a comfortable nook. I close my eyes, and tilt my head upward to the sun, listening to the sounds of the ocean.
I wake up to rain stinging my face. The sky’s heavy with clouds and lightning laces the sky in the north. I climb out of the Queen’s Bath and start shivering as the wind cuts into me. I make my way back to the little beach, almost slipping a few times, and find it empty: no kayak, no man, even the monk seal is gone. The waves are tall now, and visibility has dropped; the only part of Oahu I can see clearly is Lanikai beach, while the rest of the coast is shrouded in mist. It looks like the main storm hasn’t arrived yet, and I figure there’s time to swim back safely if I leave right away.
I dive into the ocean and go straight for a fast crawl. Quickly, I realize that the journey back will be much harder than I thought; I’m floating up and down increasingly large waves that sometimes cover my entire field of vision. The rain’s coming down hard now, bouncing off the water into my face; but I push on, looking back to Moku Nui occasionally to judge my progress, which is slow but steady. When I reach what I think is the midway point, I stop for a break. But the current is strong, and I don’t dare rest for more than a moment, as it pushes me out toward open water.
I know I need to remain calm, so I start swimming again, more slowly this time. I keep at this for what feels like an hour, but the shore is still a good distance away. The lightning is now directly on top of me; the thunder pierces my ears and jolts my heart. I’m now struggling to stay afloat, but my adrenaline kicks in, and I’m able to push onward, holding my breath to tunnel through the bigger waves. If I can keep this up a while longer, I’ll be ashore soon.
But it doesn’t work that way, and I exhaust myself. I hazard another quick rest, except the waves are so tall now that it’s impossible; it’s taking all my effort just to keep my head above water. I’ve been caught in a few storms before, but nothing like this; it feels like the Pacific ocean is bent on destroying Oahu.
My arms and legs feel rubbery, and I begin to consider the possibility that I might drown. I start sobbing, and I think about my family, about how I want to spare them the pain of identifying my washed-up body. Another wave crashes into me, and this time I go under, surfacing with barely enough time to take another breath as the next column of water sends me back down. This time I can’t find the strength to swim up again; the surface looks impossibly far.
That’s when I see it.
It looks like a tiger shark, a big one, but I’m too panicked to be sure. It charges at me, and I almost jump out of the water, tapping reserves of strength I didn’t know existed; but deep down I know I can’t outswim a shark in open water. Miraculously, it charges right past me, only hitting me with its tail. I hear myself scream underwater and swim with all my might toward the shore, sometimes crawling, sometimes paddling chaotically; but I’m getting closer.
The shark charges at me two more times, but each time it just grazes me. I keep going, my tears mixing with the ocean, until I realize I’m in shallow water, and I can stand. I risk a look back, but I don’t see the shark; still, I don’t take any chances, and I run the rest of the way to shore, collapsing onto the sand, completely spent. I drag myself forward with my elbows, moaning with terror, as I imagine the shark vaulting onto the shore for a final, triumphant bite.
I reach my towel and bag, now drenched, and dry off as best I can. The ocean’s covered in an angry white foam, and I spot a fin disappearing into the distance, making for the Mokes. I curse the shark, shouting in the wind like a madwoman, and then stumble back to my Toyota Camry, where I turn on the heat to the highest setting. I ball up in the driver’s seat as the rain pounds the windshield.
A moment later there’s a knock. It’s a young man wearing a lifeguard’s uniform holding an umbrella, his dirty blonde hair matted against his forehead.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m a lifeguard from Kailua beach up the road.”
I nod, too tired to speak.
“I happened to be in the area and saw you come out of the ocean. Are you all right?”
“A shark attacked me.”
His eyes widen and he runs his eyes over me. “Do you need medical attention?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? What did the shark look like?”
“It was long, maybe twelve feet,” I say. “It looked like a tiger shark, but I’m not sure.”
“Did you notice any particular marks or features?”
“No,” I say. “I mean, it had some dark spots, that’s all.” I pause to think. “Actually, I think it also had a…” The realization stuns me; surely it’s just a coincidence, why should I be superstitious? But that’s when my grandmother’s voice speaks up again: “He could take the form of shark or man.”
The lifeguard looks at me expectantly.
“Sorry,” I say. “I think it had a scar.”
“Okay,” he says. “Anything else you remember?”
“No, that’s it.”
“Okay, I’ll report this right away. Are you sure you don’t need any help?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Thanks.”
I roll up the window and start driving back to Honolulu, replaying the shark attack in my mind. It’s all I can think about as I meander along the Pali highway as a sense of awe sweeps over me. The old man. The shark. The attack that wasn’t really an attack. It all fits, but no rational person would ever believe it. “He would guide the lost ships home,” my grandmother said during my bedtime stories. “His name was Kamohoaliʻi, brother of Pele, a kupua, the shark god.”
Giulio Rocca is an Italian-American fiction writer. He received an M.A. in English from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He lives in Florida..
One response to “Journey to Nā Mokulua”
I enjoyed reading this story. It brought back fond memories of my childhood travels to Hawaii.