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Author disclaimer: This is a fictional work, and I do not advocate for readers to engage with sharks in the ways described without experience and/or permission. This work was written to honor traditional practices of kahu manō, of shark-guardianships in Hawaiʻi as well as to identify marine- and Oceania-based climate solutions that are inclusive of and dependent on local and Indigenous islanders.


OFFSHORE SOUTH KONA, HAWAIʻI ISLAND
MARCH 20, 2112

“Why are we out here again?” Kūkia’s breath came out as small breaths of steam in the chilly early-morning air. The winters had gotten harsher, wetter and colder, just as the summers brought the bleaching, the water much too warm.

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“Poachers,” Māihi whispered grumpily. She was not a morning-person, particularly on these crisp spring mornings. But it was she who had insisted that they come out. Māihi had always liked the warm-muscle feeling in her legs that would come as they anchored her to the deck in the rolling swell and she focused on that now. They had been watching, waiting for over an hour.

“I don’t think they’re coming,” Kūkia said sourly and shook his head, although he smiled behind his neck guard. He dangled his feet off of the swim-deck in small, lazy circles. One and Aka moved languidly beneath his toes with their gentle-giant way. The waters here were rich with the plankton that they needed. He knew many of the manō by name, easily distinguished by their varying markings or scars, and would often spend the day freediving beside them, trying to immerse himself in their world of salt and humpback song. He began to sing softly, a song composed to honor Kanaloa, the akua of the sea-world.

The pair gazed down at the slow movements of the large, graceful whale sharks and the gliding movements of the occasional ray below. The water was clear enough that they could make out the Alice-in-Wonderland outline of the reef below, some 20 or 30 feet down and the undulating indentations in the sand that ran parallel to the shore behind them. Māihi’s feet tapped an ʻuwehe into the deck: one foot lifted, weight held on the opposite hip, foot lowered, and knees pushed forward, heels raised. The four-step-pop steadily followed the rhythm of the sea and boat’s entwined heartbeat.

“We know they’ve been coming in the early morning,” Māihi insisted quietly. If she closed her eyes, she could feel the rough sandpaper edge of shark skin she sometimes saw at the market, the bins of fins secretly coveted as black-market-medicine, with the increasing levels of cancer among the islanders, and her anger would bubble through her, like a muscle spasm she couldn’t control. So, she kept her eyes wide-open.

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“We have to stop them.” She peered sideways at Kūkia, admiring his loose, long black hair. Her hands instinctively reached to the ends of her short hair and her naʻau sank with the remembering. The four-step deck dance stopped.

Kūkia waited several moments before responding. “People are struggling.”

It had been 20 years since the meat industry had been shut down and U.S. production had fully switched over to plant-based replacements; just 10 years since Hawaiʻi had started the Sea Pathways program in partnership with other Oceania-nations.

People weren’t hungry, maybe, he reconciled within himself, but they were starved for something, the something that he and Māihi now guarded.

Kūkia, a few years older than Māihi, had been part of the project from the beginning as guardian of the manō’s movement through ʻŌiwi waters. He, himself, had never liked the idea of the plant-based proteins, of meat-being-made and had watched with fear for his people, as the rising protein prices had come along with the industry. He had watched as their waters had been increasingly fished by all those who couldn’t afford the protein, returning to this ancestral icebox. And as the fish populations had declined, the hunger had turned towards the sharks. For meat, for leather, for spirit- medicine. People weren’t hungry, maybe, he reconciled within himself, but they were starved for something, the something that he and Māihi now guarded.

“Everything depends on them,” Māihi said, her voice so low Kūkia almost couldn’t hear her. “Everything.” Since climate scientists had reported that large marine creatures, not just whales, but also large sharks, large fish such as tuna and marlin, could store as much, if not more carbon than some of the largest trees, Pathways had been designated for their protection. “One whale is worth a thousand trees”, she had remembered reading. Koholā and manō were the guardians of the climate. And once the manō had learned of these ‘safe’ places, and learned the routes, they had come, and certain individuals, like One and Aka, had stayed.

Kūkia leaned back from the boat-deck uneasily. Māihi was being uncharacteristically serious and he wondered what was wrong. She kept reaching for her hair and drawing up short and so he didn’t tease her as he might have when they were kids. Māihi had cut all of her hair off when she had lost her husband last year — had kept it short ever since. Still, she clung to the sadness, as something integral to her, the way she did her makeup the same way every morning: thick black lines and a rusty-red shadow that made him think of the rust-red dust of Mānā on Kauaʻi. She wore her grief with pride.

“We better get going or we’ll be late for Ceremony,” Kūkia said and took a deep breath of the rain-heavy salty ocean air. He clapped his hands together in an effort to warm his muscles in face of the Makani Ōlauniu — the coconut-leaf-piercing wind — and rose from the swim deck.

“Yeah, OK, I … ” Her words were cut off by the echo of a motor cutting across the slow-rolling sea’s expanse.

“Do they think we’re just out here for shits and giggles?” she asked, shaking her head as the boat neared them. There were no boundary lines that you could see offshore, but everyone knew this was one of the protected Pathways.

The difficulty with guarding something so large, that had grown to trust them and trust this area, was that they were easily found. And that trust, their relationship, meant that many of the manō, and One was among them, greeted the boats and would swim right up to the side of the deck, as they did for Kūkia and his ancestors so many generations ago. 

“Damn,” Māihi swore, and reached for their own steering panel. “I knew it.”

“Hold on, Mā,” Kūkia said. “What are you going to do when you catch them?”

“You’re just going to let them get away with it?” her voice was deep with the constant-sea-of-outrage she swam in.

“No,” Kūkia finally said, glumly. “But if I get shot, I’m blaming you.” 

Illustration of whale shark used to divide story text

As she leaped onto the deck she felt her stomach drop, as though falling out of her body, to the sound of a gun cocking. There was just one man, and she instantly knew that he was not a fisherman — he looked like someone better suited to sitting behind a computer screen. She looked the man in the eyes without hesitation and, despite her pounding heart and the sweat pooling above her lips, felt no fear.

“Kū, stay back,” Māihi called calmly as she stepped forward, hoping that he would listen.

She had known from the very beginning that to bring back the manō, to reclaim these ancestral sea-corridors, to put them in ʻŌiwi hands, would inevitably invite violence. It was the cholera epidemic of 1895, the shark-culling of the 1960s and 1970s. It was the make ʻīnea, the anguish-filled deaths of her Hawaiian peoples, their names on waitlists for Hawaiian Homelands, never to be received.

“I’m not here to hurt you. Or to catch you.”

She moved toward the man slowly, his hand trembling, finger on the trigger. She could feel, without looking, Kūkia and The Lanikai rocking softly behind her.

“You came out here, alone?” she asked, continuing to move closer.

“My kids are hungry. My wife is sick. I don’t know what else to do,” the man finally said, his voice loud and tremulous.

Māihi knew he was telling the truth. “It’s OK.” She stepped so that the rifle was placed firmly against her chest, as well as locked into his shoulder where he held it. The rifle’s tip was still warm from when he had fired in warning and yet still, she felt no fear. “It’s OK,” she said softly and she looked clearly into his brown eyes. 

After several long moments the man lowered his rifle slowly, as though defeated, ashamed.

“Bring your family to our ceremony today. Bring your wife to our kahu. There’s plenty of food for your children. My freezer is still full from the October harvest, I have enough to share.”

“I’m not ʻŌiwi.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Illustration of whale shark used to divide story text

“Hana hou!” Kūkia heard over the large speakers as the emcee called for the last performance to be repeated. His eyes were not on dancers, but locked on Māihi where she sat, just a pop-up-tent away, with her son, August Jr. She was reading something to him but he couldn’t make out the words over the speaker. She had done her hair and put on a dress since that morning’s outing.

“Damn it,” he whispered to himself for his curiosity, but he moved to one of the free lawn-chairs under her pop-up.

She looked up briefly and gave him a nod but continued to read with her strong, clear voice. “Aloha kakahiaka.”

Kūkia realized she must be starting from the beginning, as this was the way, in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, to say good morning.

She continued on in English, Kūkia knew she was still learning how to speak their language. “I am here today to speak on behalf of the manō, our brothers, our cousins and the poʻe iʻa, the sea people, on which we all depend.”

Four-year-old Junior looked up at his mom as though she were Hina and he was a pale, lavender koaliʻawa morning-glory, drinking in the moon’s glow. Everyone called him Junior, as the loss of August still lingered among their people.

Kūkia listened too, though as puhi, eel, emerging from shade shrouded coral cave to the bright, dazzling world the sun-filled open reef. Dazed. Māihi had been asked to give this year’s speech at their annual spring equinox ceremony to offer their prayers to restore the climate. The sound of the pahu drum moved over the surrounding vendors and family tents, linking their heartbeats in unison.

“We open this ceremony in a place of prayer. We know, as we live the blessings so prayed for by our ancestors, that our place within ceremony, with prayer, moves with and changes our mana: energy, our spirit.” Māihi looked up and made eye contact with the two, one pair of eyes young and hungry, the other soft, thoughtful.

“When we ask each other, how are you doing, we say ‘pehea ʻoe?’. But when we break that phrase apart, and we look at ‘hea’ alone, we know we are calling on, giving name to, to recite, as in genealogy. We recount how we are connected to our ancestors, to our homelands, our homeseas. We are asking of each other’s connections to all else. On this tenth anniversary of the Ancestral Seas Pathways program making possible the connected homelands of our manō across Oceania, of our ancestral ways of knowing and caring for sea, I ask each of you to reflect. What are you connected to? What is your connector to the sacred? And how do you honor it with your life?”

“Mama, can I go get a laulau?” Junior interrupted as she took a breath.

Māihi quickly fished her voucher out of her purse.

Junior ran off with a small skip in his step. 

“You know you don’t have to be nervous. You’re gonna do great,” Kūkia told her.

“Can I tell you something?”

“Mmm?”

“I feel like, whenever I’m out in public, everyone is really nice, almost too nice, you know? Since August …” She didn’t like to say it out loud. “And I’m going to be up there, and all anyone’s going to see is the sad lonely widow.”

“What are you connected to? What is your connector to the sacred? And how do you honor it with your life?”

There it was. August. Kūkia hadn’t known him well; August hadn’t grown up with them in Pahoa. Kūkia had only really known him as an amazing sea-person. He had been out picking ʻōpihi, highly prized limpets, when he disappeared. Taken by The Sea.

“You know we’ve been friends for a long time …” Kūkia started. He wished he could hug her, and could almost feel her ʻehu hair on his fingers as he imagined pulling her tight. “And I promise you, not one of us thinks that.”

“You should keep going, I want to hear the rest,” he continued.

“Really? You’re not just being nice to me?”

“Really.”

“Hmm,” she said but she took up the paper again. “Ke Akua mana loa. We greet Hina, Kanaloa, and Kāne, the sacred beings we call on to hear our wishes. I pray for the people, for our lives to be good. For the young people, the sick people. We pray for the seasons to be restored, for the wellness of our lives, for fulfillment, for all beings to evade danger, sickness. That we live to become old. “

“I need to ask you something,” Kūkia interrupted.

“OK.”

“Don’t get mad at me?”

“We’ll see.”

Kūkia knew he was going to regret it before he opened his mouth but he said it anyway. “You ask in your prayer, to evade danger … to live to become old.”

“Yeah?”

“So, what was that, this morning?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’re willing to … die … for the manō.” It wasn’t a question.

Māihi looked out over the vast blue horizon and the foreboding dark gray sea-clouds. She chewed her words before she said them. “I think you hit a point where you realize that Death isn’t the thing to be afraid of.”

“But what would happen to Junior?”

“Gosh, Kū, it’s not a big deal,” she said with a shallow laugh, as though to brush it off.

“I want you to be serious … for one moment. Before you get up in front of everyone and pray for old age.” He knew she was going to be so, so mad at him for saying this and he already wished he could take it back, swallow it somehow. They had known each other forever. And he had loved her forever. And she had chosen August. The constant war raged on in his head. He thought of what her name meant. To peel, or strip, like bark or skin, and depending on its use, to escape … by the skin of one’s teeth. It was this quality, even from small-kid days, the evasive tenacity, that had drawn him in, had kept them apart.

“He has all of you. All of this,” she whispered, her eyes still lost on the Faraway. “That’s all I could ever hope for him.”

Kūkia had known she was in deep-grief, but he had not realized until that morning that she was also standing on Leina’s edge. “He’s half August,” he said and rose, moving away, toward the elders’ tent.

Illustration of whale shark used to divide story text

“Mama!” a little voice called.

Even through the voices and drums, the voice carried and Māihi knew it was Junior.

Māihi shuffled through the crowds around the hula stage. Everyone was facing the other way, all except for her son, it seemed. She could see his small, sturdy body facing towards the ocean, standing on the high tide line of leaf debris. This was the island-point of the Pathway, where land met sea.

“August!” she called sharply, hastening to him. Junior was independent, would only cry out for a real reason. 

She was about 100 feet away when she saw Her. Ina’s fin was immediately recognizable for the half-shred that cut through the stiff half-moon. Ina had been a part of a tagging study many years ago, but the tag had snagged on something, and ripped. This was not one of the gentle-giants, the whale sharks they had seen this morning. Rather than the distinctive checkerboard pattern of the whale sharks they had seen that morning, Ina bore tiger stripes. For some reason, Ina’s fin was not moving, but remained lodged in one spot above the water line. Māihi knew that Ina needed constant movement to get enough oxygen through her gills.

The fear that had been absent that morning pulsed through her now. “Junior,” she called. “I want you come to me.”

“It’s OK, Mama.”

He echoed the words she had used that very morning and darted forward into the water, rather than retreat.

She ran after him, for while she loved manō, she also respected them. She dashed the last 20 feet to Junior, and entered the water until she was thigh-deep, standing between August and The Sea. The waves gently splashed her, trying to knock her off of her feet, and she wiped the salt water from her lips.

“What are you doing?” Māihi said softly, trying to keep the fear from her voice. Her hands held tightly onto his shirt behind her.

“Something’s wrong with Ina.”
Junior had grown up learning about Kai, The Sea, from her, but most of all from August. And despite his father’s disappearance, Junior had no fear.

“OK, I want you to go back and get Uncle Kū,” Māihi said. He was the kahu manō, the one who would know what to do.

“Mom, there’s no time.”

“Junior, don’t argue with me.”

“Mom.”

“Fine. You stay right where you are.”

“You have to help her.”

Māihi looked up at the tormented now-afternoon spring sky, at the incoming surf breaking over the reef beyond. She pushed backward on Junior’s chest, forcing him to take a few steps back.

Māihi knew that she could not show fear, but she knew that Ina could feel her heartbeat. She took a deep breath to steady herself.

“E Kanaloanuiākea,” she began to sing, remembering the words from Kūkia’s tune earlier that morning. Kanaloa of the vast expanse.

She waded forward, singing as she went. “… Kanaloa noho i ka moana nui,” she sang, increasing her volume as she moved forward. Kanaloa residing in the great sea.

As she moved closer to Ina, now just two feet away, the great body began to move, to thrash with agitation. Māihi was now chest deep, and she could see and feel the presence before her, of a manō that was at least twice her size.

She sang several more lines before she submerged. “Moana oʻo i ka iʻa nui, i ka iʻa iku, i ka manō i ka niuhi.” Mottled sea, in the big fish, in the small fish, in the shark, in the tiger shark … The song directly called on Ina and as Māihi released that line she submerged to see what had caught Ina in one place.

The thrill of the cool-water-shock washed over Māihi and she blinked as her eyes adjusted to the stabbing salt water. Despite the eddies of fresh water that rippled through and blurred the kai water, Māihi could see that Ina had been caught in a tangled fishing line, stuck in the reef.

Ina’s back fin swayed menacingly, but she held a single, smart black eye on Māihi where she appraised her steadily. The intelligence and pride were evident.

OK, Māihi said to herself. OK.

She remained submerged, making sure that she knew exactly what they would need, when something tugged on her ankle. With a burst of bubbles, she rose to stand and whirled around to see the source.

“Dammit,” she yelped as she locked eyes with Kūkia. She looked beyond him, for Junior, relieved to see him on the beach where a small crowd had gathered. More time had passed than she had thought. That was another one of the manō’s magics. “You can’t do that to me!”

“You kicked me,” he said teasingly.

“How are you so calm?”

“You have to be, to be here.”

“Well, I’m not.”

“Here you are again, twice in one day.”

“Hush,” Māihi looked at him, already feeling more at ease. She couldn’t say it but she felt the calmness that his presence usually brought her. “Did you bring a knife?”

“I brought two,” he said, handing her what looked like a kitchen knife from one of the food vendors.

“She’s pretty agitated,” she said as he wade-swam to be level with her. Māihi wanted to reach out to him, to grab his hand for reassurance but she held back, her hand curled into a fist instead.

“I’ll go around by her head, and keep her calm and you can cut?”

“Kū,” she said as he gently lowered himself in the water so as not to disturb the surface. Māihi recognized that unlike this morning, her body was full of fear. First for Junior, and now for Kūkia. But also strangely, for herself.

“What is it?” he asked, still calm, steady.

“I’m afraid,” she whispered.

“I can do it alone. It’s OK.”

“That’s not what I’m saying!” She twisted her hands tightly. “I know I haven’t … I know I’ve been …”

“We can do this after,” he said, for he could feel his heart pounding now, and he needed to be still within himself.

“Since August …”

There it was.

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve already died.”

He gazed at her silently. He knew they needed to get Ina freed, and quickly. But he also knew that this needed to be said in the before.

“I’m in love with you,” he said simply, flatly, looking away from her, towards the horizon instead. He had said it to her in his head a million times before, on a cassette tape that he constantly had to rewind. He had never said it out loud and he knew he wouldn’t have, if it were not for the graceful, mana-coiled presence before them, for the death-pressed-to-her-chest that very morning. 

As the ‘you’ was uttered Kanaloa shifted. Instant, obvious, the small waves that had been pushing against them where they stood, waist-high, stopped. The beach had become as a lake. Everything was still.

Māihi felt the chicken skin crawl up her arms and breasts. Holy shit she said in her head. She had never seen anything like it. She knew that the Rains, Winds, Waves, listened, knew that very occasionally, they responded. But she had never experienced it for herself. She knew in her whole being that this was not a coincidence.

Māihi reached out for his hand and he couldn’t help but smile. They both submerged together.

Illustration of whale shark used to divide story text

Glossary and references (in order of appearance)

kahuguardian, caretaker (often of the spiritual)
manōshark
One & Akanames of two of the whale sharks
Kanaloaakua (deity) associated with the deep sea
akuadeity
ʻuwehefour-count hula dance move
naʻaugut, the place of feeling and intuition
Oceaniaanti-colonial name for Pacific Region, Hauʻofa (1993)
“One whale is worth …”quote from Chami et al. (2019)
koholāhumpback whale(s)
Mānā, Kauaʻicoastal plain near Waimea on Kauaʻi Island
Makani Ōlauniunamed wind of the Kona Coast, Hawaiʻi Island, Alameida (1997)
ʻŌiwiNative, native son (Hawaiian)
make ʻīneaanguished death
The Lanikainame of their boat
Aloha kakahiakamorning greeting
ʻŌlelo HawaiʻiHawaiian language
poʻe iʻasea people (inclusive of all marine life), Malo (1898)
Hinadeity assoc. with femininity, moon, tides, the setting sun, healing
koaliʻawabeach morning glory
puhieel
pahudrum
pehea ʻoe?how are you?
laulauHawaiian dish made of meat, taro & ti leaves
ʻōpihiHawaiian limpet that thrives in the intertidal wave zone
ʻehureddish tinge in hair; also texture, as salt-spray
Ke Akua mana loacalling on the great spirit of great power
Kānedeity assoc. with sunlight, freshwater, rebirth, healing
“I pray for the people …”ʻŌiwi adaption of an Aatsimoiskaan documented by Grier (2003)
leinaplace where spirits leap into the nether world
Inaname of specific tiger shark
kaisea, saltwater
E Kanaloanuiākea …composition used to honor Kanaloa, Kanahele (2017)
manaenergy, spirit

Read more from the 2022 Imagine 2200 contest:


Gina McGuire (she/her) is pursuing a PhD in geography and environment at the University of Hawaiʻi, where she considers the well-being of rural coasts from the lens of Hawaiian healing praxis. Her work has been published in Trouble the Waters: Tales From the Deep Blue, Yellow Medicine Review, “But When You Come from Water”, and We Are Ocean People: Indigenous Leadership in Marine Conservation, and she is the 2021 winner of the Imagining Indigenous Futurisms Award. Her writing and research are grounded in her love for Indigenous lands and persons (human and nonhuman), and in aloha for her ancestors.

Mikyung Lee (she/her) is an illustrator and animator in Seoul, South Korea. Her poetic and emotional visual essays focus on the relationships between people and objects, situations, and space.

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