I grew up moving every two-and-a-half to three years, due to the nature of being a child of the Navy, raised in a family in which my mother was a non-church-going Baptist and my father was agnostic at best. Once I was in high school, I gave church my best shot, straining with a great amount of effort to believe that the Protestant Christian paradigm, and all the cultural rules that came with it, was the way, and the only way, to get to heaven.
I was a spectacular failure at that.
Ferreting out the memories of my youth, one of the experiences that sprouted the seed of my ability to critically think was when I was seventeen. Mother, Dad, and I flew to Hawaiˋi for a winter vacation. Eager to see my birthplace again, I went there only with fond thoughts of my past and excitement to be in a beautiful part of the world for ten days.
One night, we sat out on our lānai, feeling the beautifully warm breeze waft up from the ocean. Mother and Dad talked to each other about stories of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes in the Hawaiˋian culture. I sat quietly, feeling like my earways were willing themselves to open more, if possible. Who was this Pele? And if there was only one god, how could there be others? While the folks from church were generally of the belief that other gods were actually demons, I couldn’t really figure that out to be correct. The world outside of the Middle East had been developing just fine for eons without Christianity, and it seemed to me to be of utmost cruelty that the god of the three Abrahamic faiths would will all the people in the Middle East and out of it – before, during, or after Jesus – to Hell for not having heard of and for not having chosen to believe only in the newest game changer – the Gospel. It reeked of a fickle nature.
I heard Dad say to Mother, “People still occasionally see Pele today. She will appear as a beautiful woman dressed in red, or as an old aunty with a little white dog. She sometimes asks for a ride in your car. If you give her a ride, she might sit and smoke a cigarette before she vanishes, mid-ride. If you don’t give her a ride…well…It’s probably better to give her a ride.”
I spoke then, for the first time since sitting on the lānai in the warm darkness. I asked, “What happens if you don’t give her a ride?”
“Bad luck,” Dad said simply.
Mother spoke. “You’re also never supposed to take any of the rocks from Kilauea, the volcano where Pele lives. People do, and they send them back in the mail because they have bad luck.”
“There’s certainly something in it,” Dad exhaled and fell silent, staring out into the night.
My mind worked on it. It was a new experience to hear Dad admit that something could be real. This 50th State, so far removed from the rest of them, was more like a different country. (It is a different country, but that’s a story for another day.) The people of Hawaiˋi seemed to play by different rules. The same people who might be at church on Sunday also performed hula in honor of Pele, or Lono, or Hina, or other gods and goddesses. The Christians here participate in chants at the opening of public events. This was a different world to the one I knew from my time on the Mainland, and it seemed contradictory. But suddenly it seemed to me that anything was possible.
During the ten days in Hawaiˋi, I also heard about the Nightmarchers. According to the local folklore, they were the spirits of Hawaiˋian warriors who would march at night (hence the name), clearing the way for the Aliˋi (nobles and chiefs). Sometimes one could hear them first by the blowing of the conch shells and chanting in Hawaiˋian. Sometimes one could see them, far off at first, a line of torches blazing into the blackness. They say that if you encounter the Nightmarchers, you must fall prostrate and not look, or else the warriors would ensure that you meet a violent death, either in the moment or at a later time. If you have Hawaiˋian blood, and one of the spirits is your ancestor, he will shout, “Na’u!” which means “Mine!” and the warriors will not harm you. There is also the thought that it might be good to take all your clothes off and urinate on yourself. The thought behind that was it might make you appear crazy, and the warriors might have pity on you and not ensure a violent death to you.
The Nightmarchers seem to be more than just a legend. Even to this day, Hawaiˋian locals tell stories of having seen or heard them.
My brain worked intently on the stories I overheard. Somehow, it seemed silly to me that I was an active participant in a paradigm that believed only one truth, and that everything else in the world was caused by the mischief of demons. It grew more and more nonsensical to me. The logic of it failed.
Nearly thirty years later, I found myself in Hawaiˋi again, having long abandoned the church, finding it impossible to force myself to believe. I might as well have tried forcing myself to like eating snails or to hate potato salad.
I had been to Hawaiˋi three other times in those years, and I heard many more stories of the folklore, such as to not take pork with you while driving the road over the Pali, as it might cause your car to break down. I hadn’t experienced anything unusual during those visits.
This time was different. I was in Hawaiˋi with Mother, and one night I decided to take a ghost tour to learn about more of Hawaiˋian folklore. Mother wanted to stay in for the evening to get some rest, so I went downstairs to wait for Uncle Joe Espinda to pick me up.
Uncle Joe was a diminutive, warm Hawaiˋian gentleman, who made sure I understood that this was not the kind of tour where people jump out and scare a person. Rather, it would be his personal tour of sacred sites on Oˋahu. And since I was the first person he picked up on his route, I was lucky! I sat up front with him, which allowed us to trade stories that night.
He took his guests up to the Pali, and then over to the windward side of the island, to Ulupō Heiau. From there, we visited Morgan’s Corners, and then we went out to the Mānoa Valley to visit a haunted tree. Uncle Joe deftly whipped his van around the “closed” gate and trundled on into the park. When we got out, Uncle Joe used a flash light, and the rest of us turned on the lights from our phones, as we were in utter darkness. He told us the story of the tree, and as he was telling it, a sense of foreboding slowly but surely crept in on the group.
I whispered, “Listen.”
The group fell silent. The valley was still, and so hot. The darkness was oppressive. It was abnormally quiet, without even the sounds of nature. And then the lightest breeze breathed through, and there it was. The sound of chanting. Or almost the sound of chanting. Hawaiˋian chanting…but as if it wasn’t quite here in this world…as if we were listening through a thick glass wall. It was barely audible.
Uncle Joe shifted his feet and whispered uncomfortably, “Okay, time to leave. We need to go, now.”
We all climbed back into his van, and the group fell silent as we traveled out of the valley and to the last stop on Uncle Joe’s tour.
He dropped everyone else off at their hotels, and then he pulled into the gas station next to my hotel. We both got out. I tipped him and thanked him for making the evening so thorough, and said, “What do you think? I mean, about what happened at Mānoa Valley.”
He sighed and said, “It’s rare, you know? I heard it happen before. Only once. But these islands, they have mana. What about you, what do you think?”
“Well…” I began slowly. “I think the gods here were never put to sleep by the church, so they are still wide awake. I think…I think…well. ˋThere are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'”
Uncle Joe’s eyes glinted knowingly, and we were both aware that the quote from Shakespeare said everything that I couldn’t say.
He nodded at me with complete understanding, and said, “Aloha, my friend.”
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