Kumai’s mornings started with the first cup of Kona coffee at her kitchen counter, the second outside, while watching the sea. Whether a work day or a day off like today, she sat on her lanai observing the ocean.
This peninsula known as Puako was formed by a finger of lava which on January 23, 1859 flowed out from the northwest side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Kumai’s house faced up the coast to the resorts and North Kohala, sideways to the morning and evening breezes.
Her lanai at the back of her house overlooked a small rectangle of lawn. The grass ended at a low wall of black stone for a fence which held back the sand and flanks of palm trees on either side. The pacific ocean leveled out to her left in an eternal indigo until changed at the crisp line of the horizon to the blue-grey of sky.
Palm trees clacked in the early morning breeze, sounding brittle in the cool air. The sprawling arms of the palm branches took on a glow as they danced in the growing light of the rising sun.
At sun up, the breeze traveled mauka-makai, from snow-capped Mauna Kea toward the sea. Her coffee warmed away the morning chill in her fingers. Steam carried the rich nutty scent as she sipped.
Hawaii’s air intoxicated her. She rubbed her arms as if to soak in the sensation. Humid, warm, a gentle surrounding presence, the air here greeted her like a hug the first time she stepped off a plane as a kid to visit her dad.
The grey of the morning sky tinged pink. Birds twittered and sang out. A diesel truck started across the road from the front of her house. On a work day, her neighbor’s departure signaled time for her to get a shower. Today, suited up in board shorts and pulling on a blue rash guard, Kumai planned to swim. She went over to her bird on his perch, stroked his head, and handed him an unshelled macadamia nut to puzzle over.
The cup of coffee still steaming on the lanai table pulled her in for one last shot. She put her cell phone in its waterproof case and tucked it inside the rash guard pocket, waiting to zip it up until she got music playing. She walked barefoot out onto the small patch of lawn and looked back at her house, a plantation-style cottage painted pineapple yellow with pina colada white trim.
Dave, her African Grey parrot let out a screech and flapped his wings in panic. She looked around to see what was bothering him. The neighbor’s cat crossed Kumai’s lanai and started making a speech.
On the makai side of her house stood a modern glass house in a cube design that you could see into like a fishbowl. The cat’s house looked dark and all locked up. Maybe they weren’t early risers. If the cat was still around begging tonight, that meant they had left and forgotten to arrange care for the cat again. She knew where the couple stored the cat’s food in a small trash bin outside, so she could go over tonight and feed it.
On the uphill, mauka, side of her house the neighbor’s clapboard shack faded and curled against the weathering assaults of the ocean. A vitamix roared from that direction, then stopped. The next house up mauka were cooking bacon. The savory scent carried on the morning breeze from their cedar octagon to Kumai. She imagined hash browns, and started putting together a full breakfast in her mind. How would she do the eggs? Her stomach growled.
The sand at the edge of Kumai’s lawn was not exactly a beach. Small pockets of sand pooled between the coastline collection of charcoal black rocks. She played in the cool wet grains with her toes then got earphone cords out of their holders in the rash guard collar. The wash of the waves around her shushed as she put in swimmer’s earphones. Her mask and snorkel rested on top of her head as she rinsed her feet in the water, using a large rock for a perch to put on her fins.
Her cell phone rang. She tried not to look to see who was calling. This was her first day completely off in a long time. Granted, she had a cherry job. And her other work, diving, happened to be her passion. But today was set aside to be simply Kumai, not doing anything productive. The call went to voicemail.
As she started her music playing on the phone, an alert on her screen read, “Missed Call. Annamae.” She grimaced. Her playlist for swimming started up. A tone sounded to notify her that she had a voice message. She ignored it and tucked the sealed phone into its zippered pocket on the rash guard.
The water was relatively warm as oceans go, but it still took adjustment, especially this early in the morning. Slowly she waded out into deeper water. The sun peeked over Hualalai and drenched her shoulders in warmth.
She congratulated herself on resisting the telephone and lowered her masked face into the sea. Frou Frou sang, “It’s Good to be In Love” and Kumai did the crawl stroke in time with the song. The water glided past her as the swim came easily, her body buoyant and fit. The ocean floor slipped down and away below her as she went out farther in the water.
The phone buzzed a text message. She cursed and paused swimming. Floating easily with her fins pointed up out of the water in front of her, she retrieved her phone from the pocket and read a message from Annamae, “Call me. Big $.” Kumai floated a little longer and debated what to do, keep swimming or give in to work.
The black blanket of land rose up from the blue fringe of water where she floated. Farther up the hill, grasses softened the rocky terrain. The soft mounds of land looked like an egg dipped half in green dye, half in yellow. Rain made a line on the distant hill where it stopped, delineating the rainy side of the island from the dry. The water around her brightened to turquoise as the sun rose higher.
She floated a little longer and asked herself, did she give in to her favorite companion and social saboteur, work, or stick with her plan for the day? This wasn’t an easy decision. Her work as a private concierge for the resorts meant that she dealt with very high end clients. If Annamae thought it was big money for Kumai, it must be a notable account. The money always helped, but mostly she enjoyed helping people get what they need. It was never the same job from client to client.
With a disgusted sigh, she lined up the circus of her opposing demands. She had worked hard to learn to pause before doing anything impulsive. Her sponsor said that at least Kumai was now looking before she leaped, even though she still leaped. Memories bubbled up of her last dive in Florida.
Quickly putting the phone back in its pocket, she decided to think about whether to work today or not while she swam. “Fly Me to the Moon” played next as she continued to float and study the rocky shoreline. On the South side of the Puako peninsula the coast stretched down to the area near Waikoloa Village, then the airport and marina, and Kailua-Kona beyond them to the South where Kumai spent most of her time as well as at the industrial area between them. Most Big Islanders called the large town just Kona. Farther South, as well as up Hualalai mountain, was coffee country. Kumai’s beans came from her ohana hanai’s farm in Kealakekua, in an area known to locals as Up Country.
Her mask squeaked and pulled as she stretched it over her wet hair. She would swim while she thought. Drifting with the current, she let the land slowly rise up again beneath her. Below she saw the emptied shell from a sea urchin, a lavender globe with regular white spots in lines radiating out from the center. It rested on the sandy floor where a few of its black spines were scattered. She took a full breath and dove down to retrieve it, shaking out watery sand from its insides to check for any inhabitants. Looking up, she could see the silvery discs of her air bubbles as they wobbled and grew toward the surface. The sky looked small and very distant in the reversed lens of water. Because of years free-diving, Kumai could stay down for quite a while. She was cautious never to tell anyone in Hawaii that she was a free-diver, although she often practiced like this while snorkeling.
While below, she checked under the coral stands and rock formations for any shy fish. A few clown fish and yellow tangs darted away as she rounded the alien towers of mineral around her. The fish looked like orange and gold autumn leaves being blown sideways around giant mushrooms. She really hoped she wouldn’t come upon an eel. Eels were supposed to be benign. Maybe benign like Charles Manson. Their predator gaze creeped her out.
Growing up surrounded by potato farmlands, Idaho taught her to despise snakes. Snakes were bad enough without finding them living in water. Eels always peered out of their holes with their mouths open. Supposedly they were breathing. They looked poised to bite, showing a maw full of tiny shark teeth in military rows.
When she came to live on the island over a year ago, Kumai researched Moray eels and found pictures of one weighing more than her and about two feet longer. Tourists liked to cut up hot dogs to feed to eels by hand. Hot dogs look way too much like fingers for her comfort. Local divers approached eels differently, with caution. If in doubt, trust the natives.
She decided to surface.
A collecting-bag of nylon mesh lived in her short’s pocket. Kumai pulled out the bag and dropped in the delicate urchin shell. She tethered the bag to a loop on her shorts.
She wondered who the new client could be. After already letting down a bit, could Kumai find the energy to do her job on a day off? A familiar yearning crawled over her spine and urged her to use more than coffee to perk up. She shivered and changed focus.
Distracted by dueling thoughts, she couldn’t keep her mind on the swim. She looked up from the surface of the water to use landmarks and determine her location. Her heart jumped when she realized that she was swimming directly over the cave she made sure to avoid. The eel cave. Like a new snorkeler, she started hyperventilating. She tried to calm down. She put her face back in the water to see exactly where the cave was from her position.
The cave was directly ahead of her if she kept going with the current. She tried to back up while keeping an eye on the location, but the current was too strong. The waves lifted and lowered her body over the rocks and coral, leaving little more than a foot of water over the top of the eel’s rock. If she drifted any nearer, the eel would be too close. She tried swimming sideways, but the push of the current was stronger now in shallower water. Panic chilled her and made her feel too heavy for the water to hold her. Reminding herself that she was floating easily only moments before, she calmed herself enough to remove one of her fins to use as a shield.
She pushed her hand into the fin, running the strap over the back of her wrist. She would steer the fin with both hands even though she knew in water it was going to be tough to move quickly. As the current lulled her over to the cave, familiar red spots undulated below. Then the eel’s head peered out. Its face looked like an emaciated skull, with collapsed cheeks. Behind the narrow jaw bulged a fat round neck of dark grey skin covered in red dots. The eel’s mouth shot open. A wave lowered Kumai closer, too close. She could barely swirl the fin between herself and the eel without knocking the fin out of her hands on the rocks. As she got the hard plastic in place, she felt a strong blow come up at the fin from below. Two more rapid punches followed.
The next wave lifted her and she shoved with her one-finned foot to move with the current. The effort turned her in the water to face the eel. The white of its eye looked like the ring of a target, with a tiny bullseye in the middle shooting straight for Kumai. The wave started to drop. She swung the fin to cover her face, twisting her wrist at an awkward angle. Another punch from below shoved the fin’s upper surface into Kumai’s mask, searing her nose with pain. She held her breath even though she was using a snorkel. No more punches followed. She wanted to peek around the fin, to see what the eel was doing, but didn’t. The frame of her swim mask blocked too much of her peripheral vision. The eel might come out of its cave to change its angle of attack. She glanced to either side of the shielding fin to search for any writhing spotted flesh. Nothing. The water lifted her again.
Quickly, she returned the fin to her foot and swam away like she was trying to climb on top of the water. She left the area of the cave easily now, but still flailed and gasped, sucking up a mouthful of saltwater. Kumai glanced down to be sure she was clear of the cave, then lifted her head and spat out the snorkel. She coughed, gagged, and burped. Finally she could get a clear breath. She lifted her mask and made herself slow down her breathing. She wanted to float, to recover. But now the waves were carrying her too close to the rocky shoreline.
This area of the coastline was wilder than where the houses sat. She knew she couldn’t just pick anywhere to come ashore. If she didn’t get dashed on the rocks by a wave, she would certainly have to climb through a maze of wana. The idea of her hands and feet filled with sea urchin spines helped her resolve to swim back home, going safely around the eel cave.
No other idea came to her, so she took another large calming breath, refused to imagine the eel’s fanged jaws waiting somewhere below her, and put her masked face back into the water. Once clear of the eel’s domain, she sprinted a swim straight toward home. Cramping started to grow in her legs first, then her arms. The current pulled her back and Kumai had to admit that it had been too long since she last snorkeled. Starting out, she should have gone against the current so that the return swim could be easier. She was losing energy to return.
The image of the eel kept her motivated. Rolling to her back, she removed her snorkel and put up her mask. A steady backstroke saved her from cramping up completely. She came up out of the water at last, panting. Strewing her gear along the ground behind her, she collapsed on the grass and massaged her twisted wrist. She didn’t look forward to seeing her nose. “All of me” came up next on her playlist and she snorted, shutting off the music. Laying there, glad to be alive, Kumai greeted the day with her first words of the morning, “Bloody eels.”