In the rainforest seven miles up Kaloko on a dirt track hidden in tree ferns stood the wood house that Kumu Lani built. Today the Kumu surprised Kumai by gesturing from her doorway for Kumai to come inside the house. Usually the students all met their teacher in the garden for the weekly training in Malama aina. Kumai glanced to the field to see if everyone else had gone inside, but no. Her classmates were bent over their careful rows. Kale and lettuces glinted in the morning sun, kabocha peeked out from umbrella-sized leaves, and purple heart-shaped leaves shimmered as the breeze stirred the taro patch. Kaandi seemed to have noticed Lani’s gesture and watched from the field this change in routine. Kumai wondered if Kaandi wished she were the one asked inside, maybe to get a visit with Kumu Lani’s mysterious and highly eligible son.
Kumai waved to Kaandi, who looked away as if too busy to really notice. Kumai would be sure to peek around inside the place and report back to Kaandi any tidbits she found.
Kumu Lani was wrapped in a red pareo with her salt and pepper hair pinned back by a fake white spider lily. Kumai in her khakis always felt like potting soil surrounded by exotic flowers. “Kumai! My star student.” Kumu Lani gushed.
I am? thought Kumai, who said, “Um, thanks.”
“Please come in. It sounds like you had a rough day yesterday.”
“You heard?” Kumai tried to think who would have told Kumu Lani about the events. Her Kumu was well-connected all over the island.
“The police. I have several friends on the force. I ask them to watch out for my acolytes.”
Kumai tried to smile. Somehow this motherly protection was coming across as creepy. “Thanks?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not so much, no.”
“Okay. How about a cup of herbal tea? It’s excellent for detoxing after a period of intense stress.” Kumu Lani removed a kettle from the wood stove.
“That sounds good, but… the class?”
“The class can wait.”
Kumu Lani asserted, “Consider this research into herbal remedies. You can report the results back to your classmates.” while sprinkling dried herbs and powders into a brown mug from various glass jars on a shelf. Kumai walked over and read some labels she recognized: Kava, Noni, Ashwaghanda. There were many more she didn’t know. She moved from the herbs to a bookshelf and scanned around for family photos.
The thick golden floors of Kumu Lani’s dwelling were formed from slabs of ohia wood, as were the overhead beams supporting the bedroom upstairs. Dark koa trim picked up the darker grain lines in the ohia. “All the trees that I used to build my house were cut down in order to clear the area for my gardens.” Lani pointed out the side window to where Kumai’s classmates were stooped in labor with long sleeves and sun hats like migrant workers. Except they were paying for the privilege.
“Maybe it’s time for me to make room for someone else in your class, Kumu.” Kumai said before she could think herself out of it.
“What? No. Kumai! You have the potential to be a great herbal healer! As long as you’re not trying to heal plants, that is.” Lani chuckled. “It’s true that you have a green thumb that’s mostly brown. But that doesn’t mean you can’t train in the use of the plants. Let someone else grow them for you!” Again Lani pointed out the window to the working students.
“Thank you for your confidence in me, Kumu. I took your classes in hopes of being able to grow my own food. At this point, I would starve to death. If I focus on herbals, I will be on a completely different track. I’m not sure that’s for me. Besides, I’d also hoped to grow new friendships. That hasn’t happened so much either.”
“I know.” Lani agreed, “Everyone is very focused and serious. But I thought you had common interests with Kaandi?”
Kumai smiled, “Kaandi’s sole interest is in your approval, Kumu.”
“Well, if you still want to make new friends, I’d love to introduce you to my son.”
Kumai tried not to stand too still. But then she felt like a robot, moving in weird jerks. She couldn’t think of what to say. “Oh?” she said. Kaandi would shoot her if she knew. Kumai needed to never meet Lani’s son, if only for the sake of her quasi-friend who was convinced that she would marry this man she’d never met. “I don’t think so, Kumu. I’m kind of seeing someone.”
Lani handed the fragrant mugful to Kumai and gestured for her student to sit. “What’s going on, Kumai? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“No, Kumu.” She said, “Nothing to do with me. I’m just a courier in the wrong place.”
“Courier? What, like drugs or something?”
“No, nothing like that. Just a dossier full of old land documents.”
“You saw them?” Lani gasped, “I mean, you know what everyone is after?”
“What? No. Not everyone. I didn’t think to give the file to the police. Now I’m thinking the Bishop Estate makes more sense.” Kumai fell silent and sipped her tea, both hands wrapping the mug like she was cold. In fact, it was a clear sunny day outside. If it was this warm up at this elevation, it would be hot in town today.
“I know one of the trustees for Bishop. Want me to get it to him?”
“Who’s that?” Kumai asked.
“Manfred Tokushima. He lives Hilo. I can get it to him right away if you want to be free of it.”
“I do. But I don’t know, Kumu. Thanks for the offer. I may take you up on it.”
Kumai set down the partially-sipped mug. “I think I’ll just go on home now. Thank you for all that you have taught me.”
“Okay, sure. I also happen to know quite a few boat owners at the marina. I could probably get you a captain position on a dive boat called the Blackwater if you wanted.”
“Wow. That’s pretty amazing. I guess I didn’t even know that you knew about my diving. That’s a wonderful offer. Again, let me think about it all. I’ll get back to you if it sounds like it’s for me. Thanks.”
“So you’re really leaving the class, then?”
“I am. I don’t think it’s for me.”
“Let me ask you, Kumai, is your yard suffering like your garden section here has done?”
“Um. My yard? I don’t know. Everything is still alive.”
“So that’s good.” Lani chuckled. “I wonder if it would offend you for John to come by once a month and care for your yard? He could even plant some food…”
“Wow. Really?” Kumai thought for a moment. Kumu Lani’s own gardening assistant? Kumai was hesitating at the idea because of what he might charge. “I can’t, um, maybe not, Kumu. His time is too valuable.”
“I’ll pay for his time. You don’t worry about that. If you decide to come back to class, just let me know. I’ll make room for you. Let’s touch basis next week.”
“Well, yes. Thank you, Kumu. And thank you for being so understanding.”
Lani said with a grin, “I’m just being selfish. Let’s go gather you a little garden food for the road.”
Kumai went quietly through the garden telling classmates farewell. When she got to Kaandi, she said, “I looked for any photos or something to tell you about Kumu’s son.”
“But there was nothing. I’m sorry Kaandi.”
“What for? Anyway, I’m glad you’re free of us. All the best to you and all that. A hui hou.”
“Send me a wedding invite?” Kumai asked with a sly glance to Kaandi.
“Huh? Oh! Ha, yes.”
“Who’s getting married?” Lani asked, coming up silently behind the women in her bare feet. She held out to Kumai a large box of fresh produce, “Kaandi, put several bunches of parsley in here, please. It’s Kumai’s favorite.”
Kumai took the box from Lani, “No one’s getting married. Not right away, Kumu. It’s just a joke. Thanks, Kaandi, that’s plenty.”
Kumai carried the box to her car and Lani opened the trunk for her, “Cute pup there for your copilot. Oh!” Kumu Lani fingered the dossier, “Is that your albacross, the dossier you were saying about?”
“That’s the one.”
“Sure you don’t want me to take it?”
“Nah, s’alright. It’s my burden.”
“It’d be easy for me.” Lani reminded her.
“All the same, I need to take care of this, if only to feel like I’ve done something for my neighbors.”
“Okay, sure.” Lani agreed. “Please come visit soon.” She hugged Kumai for a long moment, whispered something Hawaiian, then walked back to her garden and students. Kumai watched Lani’s back as she sashayed with fluid ease, as if even her stroll was a gentle hula.
Kumai felt a weird mix of sadness plus relief. The relief walked her to the driver’s side and got her back on the road toward home. She shifted into second for the entire descent from the cloud-enshrouded rainforest down to the searing Queen’s Highway near sea-level. She stopped at Tesoro for petrol and grabbed her favorite comfort food, snoballs, for a snack later.
Back on the road, she dialed Susan Winters, her new client in California.
“Hello, Susan. It’s Kumai on the Big Island of Hawaii.”
“Kumai, hi! How does the ranch look?”
“I haven’t seen it yet. Everything is in place. The pup is with me. I should be able to get up there tonight.”
“Oh? Everything’s okay, though?”
“All is well. If you’d like, I can text you tonight.”
“Well, I may be there by tonight. Can you arrange to pick me up?”
“Sure. Just let me know when you leave and I’ll have a ride waiting for you.”
“Okay. Or you could buy me a ride.”
Kumai paused for only a beat, “Sure. What do you have in mind.” Actually, she pretty much lived for these moments when she could help someone get what they need.
“An older pickup. Something nondescript, but not too beat up. Anything under 20 K is fine.”
“So, low mileage may mean a newer truck.” Kumai clarified.
“You can buy a newer truck for under twenty grand? I’d heard that Hawaii’s more expensive than here on the mainland.”
“Oh, sorry, no. I misunderstood.” Susan’s K was thousands in dollars, not miles. Kumai stopped herself from apologizing again. Once was always plenty.
“Oh. So what do you think.” Susan made her questions sound like statements.
“I can find you an older model pickup for under twenty thousand dollars. Do you want club cab? Four wheel drive? Color preference?”
“No, you decide all that. I just want a truck.”
“I’ll see what I can do. How do you want to pay for it?” Kumai wondered how this would work.
“Do you have square wallet? I’ll transfer the money to that.”
“I do. I’ll email you the info in an hour. Let me know when you are leaving and we’ll get things ready on this end.”
Well, Kumai thought, if Susan was upset about anything she probably wouldn’t have had me shop for her truck. All the same, it might be time to focus more on work. What was next? Head home and comb Craigslist for trucks.
Kumai pulled over to put the top down on her car. The pup walked delicately out on the a’a lava to do some business. Kumai added Pavlov, Radar, and Clarence to the dog names on her mental list to email to Susan. Was she forgetting anything? Immediately she thought of Bradon. Then she comforted herself by remembering that she had already forgotten him, so that wasn’t it.
The sun-heated wind blew across the lava fields and circled like a convection oven. Kumai strapped in the dog and rejoined the train of cars heading North.
Messages of love and remembrance made of white coral graffiti decorated the black desert of rock. The scribbled words were punctuated by perfectly-formed white coral corporate logos near the resort entrances. Kumai passed the entrance to the Four Seasons without turning in today. She had too much work to do to go into work. She smiled at that thought until she saw a message in coral that read Malama Aina. It reminded her of ancient land maps and failed gardening classes. Kumai felt like a lousy steward of anything, especially the land. Her element was the sea. Why was Lani talking about a dive boat? Kumai looked to her left where only yards away from the highway the white fringes of surf danced in the air whenever waves vaporized on the rocky black shore.