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John Nippolt
Aunty Pele's Kiss
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       I saw him down below on the hillside, studying his progress, planning his next step. He was looking deep into the overgrowth he had been removing single-handedly from the backside of the knoll where he is building a place to live. Picture an older Hawaiian man silhouetted against a magnificent tropical backdrop; full lush greenery that continues on behind him toward the base of Mt. Ka'alaea, one of the steepest peaks of the Ko'olau range, a glorious verdant wall and intensely vertical mountain range that separates us from the other side of the island. Standing there in a pile of rubbish, palm frond hat pushed back on his head, his chin resting on the tip of his shovel, it was my guess he was imagining how everything would look when he got done with it.
       He had moved back to his family's land, the place where he grew up, clearing and cleaning for the past six months. It had been a grueling job for him so far; poisoning almost two acres of overgrown cane grass entangled with trees, vines, and weeds. After igniting the initial back-burning fires, he raked the remainder of the dead, burnt, left-over debris into piles for more burning. Once the land and the rest of the hillside were cleared, he would pick up what was left underneath the vegetation, covered for generations. Bottles, cans, broken glass, and every other type of garbage imaginable, strewn about the neglected property for more than forty years. Once again he had shown me his passion for the aina, (the land) demonstrating how to free it up and make it ready to produce.
       I met him long ago when I first moved to Kahalu'u. At that time he leased farm land in Waiahole, the next valley over from my place. We had a falling out over an agreement; land he said he would give me for building his father's home. I finished my work, but the unwritten contract never panned out. He gave me some lumber, but that wasn't our agreement and our friendship evaporated. That was twenty years ago.   
       I learned of his recent near death struggle with diabetes, and other medical problems he was trying to combat (exposure to agent orange, in Vietnam). I forgave him the past, and we renewed our friendship. I started hanging out with him again, and on one of my visits up to his place, I discovered a tiny cemetery on his land. A lone cypress, fenced inside the small grave yard, is centuries old, and stands sentinel to buried Irish missionary immigrants, his haole (Caucasian) ancestors, their headstones dating back to the mid 1800's. His grin flashed when he saw me approaching and he put his shovel down.
       It was hot out and I knew he would be ready to take a break. I was holding a sack of ice for his cooler. He must have noticed. "Hey Johnny, you thirsty?" were the first words out of his mouth. "Sure man, with some of this, water will be just fine."
       We walked over to his covered living area. He's building a one room studio made from left over wood from a house he tore down in the same spot. The room needs a roof before he can move his belongings in. In the meantime he lives in a 25' x 25' hutch. Underneath all the tarps are his bed, dresser, a few chairs, a kitchen sink and counter. "All that matters," he says, "is that the plastic tent keeps the weather out." His bathroom is over to the side; three plywood walls surrounding a toilet and bathtub left open to the mountain and sky. He tells me he is content with his life.
       We filled our cups and walked over to sit in the shade, under the canopy of a huge mango tree.
       "My auntie kissed me yesterday."
       "Your auntie?"
       "Yeah, did you see my fire?"
       I started to laugh. Did I see his fire? On my way home from work, before Kahikili highway turns into Kamehameha highway, I could see smoke rising up from where he was burning. I was miles away.
       "Hell yes, I could see your fire. Did the fire department show up?"
       "Not this time, but I thought they would. I had a real blaze going. Come."
       We got up out of our chairs and I followed him along the top edge of the knoll, and he showed me the area where the burn took place. He got right to his story and believe me, Ula tells a good story. He became animated, lifting his invisible gas can, describing how he poured the gas all about, soaking it into the poisoned, dried out vegetation along the hillside.
       "It happened right here, I was pouring the gas all around the place. Some gas over here and some gas over there."
He pretended to pull out a pack of matches. "So, I lit a match and threw it."
       "Oh no!" I made a quick grimace.
       "Not yet. Not yet," he said. "The match didn't light it." He continued, even more animated this time, acting out his tale. He lifted his imaginary gasoline can once more and shook out more of its imaginary contents in the same place. "I was really mad that the first match didn't start it up, after all, I know about fire. I was going to get this goddamn fire lit this time, no ifs, ands, or buts." He was excited now, and he pointed to his imaginary matchbook, pulled the imaginary second match, struck it, and threw it into the gas soaked surrounding. He shook his head. Again, nothing.
       He was really into the telling of how it went down, explaining how much angrier it made him. He is a volatile kind of guy in the first place, so he was getting pretty aggravated that twice the fire wouldn't start. He did this type of work all the time and this time would be no different. He would get this blaze going, no matter if it killed him. He ran about wildly, pouring more imaginary gas onto the hillside, showing me how determined he was to start that fire. I thought I knew what was coming next, but I found I didn't have a clue. Ula slowly demonstrated how careful he was lighting the third match. He bent down, leaned over, arms extended, pretend match in hand and he struck. Fwoooom!
       He showed me how he fell to his knees, head staring straight into the explosion. He instinctively blinked and when his eyes opened, he was staring into the face of his auntie...Auntie Pele. He explained, "time seemed to be standing still while the flames engulfed my head and shoulders, and the whole time the old Hawaiian woman looked out through the flames at me from inside the inferno."
       He moved his hands back and forth, hatching his fingers like flames dancing about in front of his face. He crooked his head to the left, then to the right and back again to the left. "She was turning her head like this, and her bright eyes were twinkling, yet reprimanding me, like I was a foolish little boy, caught with my hands in the cookie jar. She was reminding me how human I was. How my simple, classic, deadly mistake could have had a different ending, even now. I should have known better...then she blew me a kiss. Just like this."
       He kissed his hand and blew the kiss towards me. Our mood got serious.
       I know his Hawaiian ancestors were worshippers of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanos. His Hawaiian name, "Ula", translates: flame.
       He broke the spell and said, "It was over in a flash. I jumped back and rubbed my hands all over my head and neck. I felt my face, my lips, my eyebrows, my cheeks, no burns. My forehead and hair, no burns. Wait a minute!" He mimed how he felt something at the same time he smelled it and ran back to his digs to look in the mirror.
       By now, I noticed on the right temple of his forehead at his hairline, in the same location where he said his "auntie" blew her kiss at him, his hair and scalp were singed. No other marks or burns, nothing anywhere else, that was it. He smiled wryly, "You see? Even after all this time, I finally got the message."
When Pigs Fly