Fish are bloody and fleshy and briny. The belly meat is fatty, the guts are sharp and acrid. But they barely sate my hunger. Only the flesh of your skin-sack kin does that.
It’s been so long.
I look at the stringer of fish: some weke nono, an uku, a scattering of kole. The weke’s vibrant stripes contrast with the uku’s darker colour. Out in the water, I said the ritual words. Then I feasted. Even a predator recognises those above him. I devoured two bright green uhu before I came in, making short work of their thick scales. The edge of my hunger is dulled, but still cutting. Gnawing. Whispering. Insisting.
I walk across the grass, stringer and spear in one hand, the rest of my gear tucked under my arm or balanced across my chest. I stash the rest of the fish in the cooler in the back of my truck for later, and head towards the hose.
A young boy splashes his slippers idly in the puddle on the asphalt by the spigot. This is the beach I dive at most and I see him around with his dad and some other folks. I’ve even traded fish with the father a few times.
The boy’s wearing a stained and tattered pair of red surf shorts. Someone, maybe his mom, has added elastic to the waistband to make it fit his skinny brown frame better. As I approach, he turns and stares at me unashamedly, as children do.
My breathing quickens and my muscles tense. I force myself to relax. His stare is not a challenge. I flick my eyes over him. He’s a little runt, hair turned ‘ehu from the sun. He might be twelve. Maybe he’s eight. I don’t know his age, but that’s more because I can’t be bothered to pay attention to the developmental stages of your whelps rather than some ageless quality about him.
“Uncle, my dad says that you should never dive alone.”
And now he’s talking to me. “I’m not your uncle, boy,” I grumble, brushing past him to get to the hose. Uncle. As if we could be related.
I am a glorious kupua, a niuhi even. A ravening killing machine, sending your ape-descended ancestors into the never-ending night. Leaving their entrails to twist in the salty currents of the sea. I am the tax your people pay for living by the shores of the great sea Moananuiākea.
“My dad said you can get shallow water blackout if you hold your breath too long!”
“I’ll be careful next time,” I snort, not mentioning that I can breathe underwater. That the feel of water rushing across my gills as I chase down prey is one of my greatest pleasures in life. That if this was two hundred years ago, I would already know what his liver tastes like.
“Plus my dad said that the sharks feed at dawn and dusk!”
Feed. My irises widen and my heart begins a relentless thudding. My feet pace out circles, with the hose in my hand, one eye fastened on the boy.
Some of my shark kin feel that fear spoils your flavour, taints your meat, so they strike quickly, from the murky depths. But me? I love the actinic savour that bowel-chilling terror imparts to your flesh. So I let you see me coming. Dorsal rising like the sail of a voyaging canoe as I circle. The whites of your eyes before you turn and try to scratch for shore. “Ka liu o ka pa‘akai,” as we used to say, the savour of the salt.
I sluice the cold hose water over my face, feeling slightly diminished as I wash the salt water from my skin. Less like me and more like one of you. I peel out of the sleeves and torso of my green camo wetsuit and continue to rinse off.
“Ho, Uncle, that’s a nice tat on your back! What is that? Shark teeth? I like get one like that too, but my dad said I too young yet.”
I don’t answer. Godsdamn, that fucking kid does not shut up. I shake my head and chuckle to myself, giving in a little bit.
“It’s a family design. Everyone in my family has it.” I turn my back to him so he can see the stylized black triangles stretching between my shoulders in an oval, a lei of teeth. I’m a little puzzled at myself. Maybe I’m being nice to him or maybe I’m just a little vain.
I sense the vibration when the boy shudders. The black depths between my shoulder blades beg him to come closer. The darkness promising a quick flash of red and then oblivion. I turn my back away from him as I feel the teeth starting to unsheathe from my torso, sharp tips beginning to push out from the triangles, the jaw aching to saw through his thin bones.
He’s so close. It would be nothing to just give into the transformation and tear into him. My hunger tells me to just let go. Just let go. Just let go. Just let go. Just. Let. Go.
Quickly, I finish rinsing and all but run to my truck, large strides devouring ground. I reach into the cooler and pull out one of the weke. I say the ritual words, then I feast. I bite into the rich pink-striped belly first, fat, blood, and organs sliding down my throat. No one is around to see the nictitating membranes flick up to protect my eyes as my teeth rend their way into the weke’s sweet flesh.
I always marvel at how you flesh pockets eat with these flat bovine teeth. It’s like you have to grind your meal into baby food first before your delicate constitutions can digest it. My true teeth have not torn into prey, even fish, for far too long. Now I hunt with these inferior analogues: three-prong spear, speargun, fiberglass-bladed dive fins, low-volume dive mask.
The weke’s viscera and bile do little to slake my bloodthirst but it is enough. Though I lick every last speck of blood from my lips, I am in control again. When I am in this form I hunger less for you tasty little crabs. For the nectar in your veins. For the frenzied thrashing followed by sweet stillness. That slight blunting of my hunger from walking on two legs is why I have been reduced to living among my prey for so long.
Two hundred years ago, the sharks of Hawai‘i had a great battle at Pu‘uloa. A place you people so brilliantly renamed Pearl Harbor . . . because it was a harbour with pearls in it. Skin-sack ingenuity.
Ka‘ahupāhau and her brother Kahi‘ukā were amongst our most powerful leaders. But they betrayed us. They refused to be what they are: Predators. They wanted to be more like you soft dull-toothed ape-children. So they led a group of sharks who had forsaken eating people.
Against their own kin.
The battle was terrible and glorious at the same time. The sea of Pu‘uloa was filled with flashing teeth and blood and death. As we fought, we shifted through shark, and human, and in-between, but death found us no matter our form. When the fighting ceased, the dead on both sides lay bloated and rotting in the sun, and we niuhi, the maneaters, had been defeated.
Ka‘ahupāhau and Kahi‘ukā were the protectors of Pu‘uloa, and after their victory, they declared that no shark shall eat human flesh in the seas around O‘ahu ever again. And do you know how your chimp forebears repaid that boon? Your leaders built a military base on their home. They even built a dry dock right atop Ka‘ahupāhau’s cave.
Though no one has seen Ka‘ahupāhau or Kahi‘ukā since the base was constructed, I follow their mandate. Even though they broke with our traditions to defeat us, I still adhere to our traditions and our hierarchy. They were victorious, and I will obey the law they decreed. When I am a shark and the hunger hits, nothing can stay my jaws. There are none of the weaknesses brought by your flabby human form to hold me back. I stay in this lowly human form so the hunger does not overwhelm me.
Two hundred years.
Anger flares when I remember the last time I swam as a shark. Entangled by Ka‘ahupāhau’s net, held still and slowly suffocating. Battle hunger fading, my powerful fins separating and shrinking into these willowy little ape paws. But I burn at the thought that some mob of flesh sausages thought it would be okay to build on top of the home of Ka‘ahupāhau and Kahi‘ukā. Yes, they were my enemies but there is no justice in that.
I shove the weke’s head into my mouth, biting down and feeling skull crunch. Fishermen say that if you eat the head of a weke, you get nightmares. But I am the nightmare: That feeling on the back of your neck. The movement out of the corner of your eye. The shadow in the sea.
Now I have been relegated to eating only fish. Sometimes, your ancestors used to sacrifice ulua to the kini akua in place of people, a fish standing in for a man. Let me tell you though: fish are no replacement for a sawn femoral and the long slender thigh of a kanaka. Eating all this fish, I may as well start eating vegetables too, like a godsdamned sea cow or some idiot pescatarian in Kaka‘ako obsessing over coffee and asking if his golden tilapia filet was harpooned or line-caught.
My knuckles are white, clutching my threeprong. It would be so easy to use it to put a hole in one of these meat sacks lounging on the beach around me and drink the life from them. To say the ritual words and then tear them to pieces. I feel my pupils dilating to let in more light, more information for the hunt, my foot twitching, wanting to propel me into action like a sweep of my giant tail.
“Uncle, you doing okay?”
My eyes snap to the boy, unrecognising, seeing only flesh and vulnerable spots to drive my jaws into. Belly. Throat. Face. Anywhere on this whelp actually.
“Uncle!” Instead of retreating, the boy hurries closer. “You okay or what, Uncle?”
Most prey runs, rather than approaching. I cock my head and he starts to separate from the background, coming into focus from the frenzy.
“Eh, boy,” I say slowly, words thick in my mouth. “Yeah, I’m fine. And stop calling me Uncle. What’s your name?” I ask, starting to feel a little calmer. I grudgingly appreciate that the boy is bringing me back. “You know what, never mind. I’m just going to call you Uncle so you know what it feels like.”
The boy giggles loudly and comes closer. “So what are you doing here, Uncle?” I ask, eliciting another giggle.
“My dad them is cruising over there, drinking beer.” “Uncle” points to a cluster of EZ corner tents sheltering coolers and men in tank tops playing music. Their trucks are clustered on the grass behind the sandy berm. A widely spaced line of fishing poles, lines taut and bells attached, run along the shore. “We come every weekend in the morning and put our lines out, then just camp and take it easy. Sometimes we catch plenty fish too!
“I get one spear like yours too, but I never get to use it yet.”
The boy’s eyes glitter as he eyes my spear, maybe even a spark of hunger. Once more, I look him over, with an appraising eye, not as meat, but as something else. He’s not much to look at. More like a trumpetfish or a fence pole than anything, but perhaps this boy is a hunter too.
“Next time I come, ask your father if you can come dive with me. We’ll get some fish for them throw on the grill.”
“Uncle” beams. “Shoots!”
I walk past him to get in my truck, flicking his hat off his head, “ n‘kay, Uncle.”
He giggles again as he catches his hat against his chest before it falls to the ground. My engine coughs to life and I drive off, seeing him in my rear-view walking towards the little flock of tents.
Uncle runs up to my truck when I pull into the lot early in the morning. He has a three-prong in his little boy hand, and I can see his dad and the others by the tents yelling at him to stop running, “bumbye you fall and poke your eye out.” He’s standing right outside my window, making shaka, bouncing up and down.
“You did come back today!
“I told my dad you was going come back!
“He had to go back home to get my spear!
“See, Dad, he’s back!
“When are we going to go diving?
“Do I need a wetsuit like you?”
I try to keep a look of disgust off my face. Regret surges for my lapse yesterday. What was I thinking? This wet paper bag a hunter? I get out of my rusty red truck and nudge Uncle toward the back, where I have all my gear stored. I lift the rear window of the camper top, hinges screeching. I reach in with one hand, using the other to pass gear to him, all the while trying to ignore his steady stream of conversation.
I stack the dive float on top of the pile of stuff Uncle is already carrying and he giggles as he tries to balance it all. I grab the float back and tuck it under my arm, but I let him hobble along with the rest of the gear. Got to earn his keep, right? Did I just smile at him?
I can tell that the dad and his friends had a late night by the sheer number of beer bottles, but they’re all up early, empties bagged up for recycling, some joking around, some cutting bait, others grunting as they lean over their prodigious bellies to put their tabis on.
“How’s it?” the dad greets me. He extends his thickly muscled arm, and we clasp hands.
I jerk my head up and flash my eyebrows at him, “How’s it? You guys had any luck last night?”
“Not too bad,” he says, lifting the lid of the big white fish box they have filled with ice. Next to the cold cuts, bags of apples, and tubs of poke are a handful of mullet and a couple of papio. Next to the big cooler is a smaller one with an aerator humming and a bunch of oama that they were using for bait, but the dad says they might end up frying them for lunch instead.
“We probably just stay in the shallows today,” I tell the dad, beckoning to his son with my head. “We go.”
Uncle grabs all his gear excitedly and his dad takes a picture of him with his phone.
“Dad! Send that to me!
“I’m going to put it on Instagram!
“Are you on Instagram? You should just post pictures of your tat!”
If he asks me to take a selfie with him, I am going to eat him right now. Uncle follows on my heels like a yapping pup. Is that why I’m doing this? He’s some kind of pet? Some kind of biological imperative from being in this form so long?
We walk down to the sandy shoreline, still reflecting a warm orange in the early morning sunlight. It’s summer, so the swells running up the shore are only about knee high, the water making a gentle rustle as it sweeps up the beach.
“What is that orange thing for?
“How long can you hold your breath?
“When do I get to use a spear gun?
“How come your wetsuit is green if the water is blue?
“My dad said bananas are bad luck for fishing.
“He also said you’re not supposed to say “fishing” if you’re going fishing, but can I say “diving” if I’m going diving?”
I clench my teeth again and wonder what I was thinking when I said I would take Uncle out diving. I also wonder if he is making me hysterical because I find myself chuckling a little at his incessant chatter. I get some blessed relief when we reach the water and he puts the snorkel in his mouth, though I swear it seems like he is still talking through the rubber mouthpiece.
I swim out to a good spot, Uncle doing his best to follow along behind me. As we bob in the water, arms and legs moving lazily to keep us afloat, I tell him that for his first time, he should swim around the surface looking down for fish.
“What kind of fish?
“Is that a fish?
“How do I know—”
I push the snorkel back into his mouth, and nudge him to get going. He nods and zooms off, long green fin blades flinging water into the air and churning a white trail behind him, head swivelling left and right.
Damn kid. I shake my head, imagining all the fish for hundreds of metres scattering at Uncle’s over-enthusiastic approach. For the fish’s sake, I hope he keeps that snorkel in his mouth or else he’s going to question all of them to death. I float there and give him about ten minutes to tire himself out before I push off into the slight wind chop and catch up with him.
The hunger is always there at the back of my mind, but it is easier to hold it at bay when I am hunting. I tell him to follow me and do what I do, and we quiet down our movements, using our fins to push through the water without breaking the surface, using the current to drift to where we want to go. Uncle’s a quick study, but I don’t tell him that.
We’re in about five or six metres of water. Mounds of coral dot the sandy plain; some edged with colour, others wrinkled and brown. There is good visibility through the clear blue. Uncle’s having the time of his life, making excited noises through the snorkel, and tapping me to point at anything swimming in the sea, sometimes even just the interesting ways the light is shimmering on the expanse of white sand bottom.
What strikes me is how much less fish there is here now. The fish often get leery when I am in the water because even in human form they can tell that I am a predator. But you idiot bone-sacks have killed so much reef and habitat with your sunscreen and your dumping and messed up the food chain with your long-liners and your overfishing. You know what pisses me off even more though? You don’t even eat the fish yourself. You send it off for other people far from here to eat. There is no justice in that.
The shaft of my three prong is bending where I am gripping it in anger. I look over to see if Uncle’s noticed, but he’s pointing in the other direction trying to get me to look at a clump of seaweed shaped like a sheep. I can hear him giggling through his snorkel, windy little spurts of air shooting out the top of it.
But as I turn my head in that direction, I see the signs of a he‘e, an octopus, hiding in its burrow. I point out the hole and mime what he should do. He breathes up and after a brief hesitation, folds over and dives down. I follow him down and watch as he uses the tip of his three prong to dig in the sand and tickle the octopus out of its burrow. Spotted orange tentacles erupt out of the sand, darkening with irritation, and wrap around the head of the spear trying to push it away.
It’s all the opening I need. I reach past Uncle and yank the he‘e out of its hole, tentacles clinging desperately to the burrow opening and a cloud of ink spurting out. I spit the mouthpiece of the snorkel out of my mouth and without thinking I bite the octopus between its eyes, crushing its brain. It turns white in death and hangs limp for me to shove into my mesh bag.
Uncle’s eyes are huge behind the lens of his mask. I think that he is shaken both by seeing something die right in front of him and by how fast I did it. Maybe I underestimated him. But when we surface, he starts jabbering excitedly. I pull the snorkel out of his mouth.
“That was so awesome! Let’s do it again!
“I love to eat he‘e! My dad smokes it.
“I guess that’s what it’s like to be part of the food chain!”
I don’t know if he realizes how much a part of the food chain he is. Killing the he‘e and the taste of its flesh in my mouth brings the hunger surging back. I side-eye the human child through my dive mask. He’s a bony little thing, but I don’t mind. Sometimes the feeling of a femur snapping in your mouth is as satisfying as the meat itself. No one has seen Ka‘ahupāhau or Kahi‘ukā for decades. They betrayed us. How long must I follow their edict?
I start seeing red flashes in my vision. A blood-red cumulus hovers on the periphery of my sight. I look down; it’s a school of juvenile ‘alalauā and mature āweoweo, all big eyes, grumpy-looking underbites, and crimson scales. They are floating near the protection of a small coral overhang. I do have a weakness for āweoweo.
“We’re going to get us some fish to fry. Start your breathe-up.”
“How long should I breathe?
“Do you think I should count—”
I give him a look and he begins to take slow breaths, getting a little more oxygen in his blood and slowing his heartbeat. At my signal, we both dive and he grabs onto my shoulders, riding down on my back. With smooth powerful strokes, I take us to the bottom and lay flat against the sand, holding onto a rock to keep us steady.
The sling is drawn tight on my spear, and my right arm is extended, aiming at the large āweoweo swimming back and forth in front of me. I line up a shot on a big one and release my grip. The rubber band drives the spear forward and all three prongs pierce behind the huge staring eye of the fish. Stoned it. The fish twitches and then is dead.
We rise and I show Uncle how to attach the āweoweo to the stringer hanging from our dive buoy. He’s still asking questions the whole time, but quiets down when I raise my eyebrows at him. His excitement is infectious though, and I take it easy on him. I tell him to breathe up one more time, and he takes one last dive on my back, before I tell him to dive on the hole on his own.
I float next to him, hunkered down on the coral, while he tries to line up his shot. All I hear is tok . . . tok . . . tok . . . as he lines up, fires, hits the coral with his spear, lines up, fires, hits the coral with his spear. He finally hits a fish just as he is running out of air, but it bucks loose from the tip of his spear when he’s surfacing. His posture sinks in disappointment, so I spear one through the dorsal and show him how to hold the prongs above the fish so it doesn’t come off.
Uncle is thrumming with all of his energy, from losing the fish, but also from really wanting to go down and get another.
“It’s okay, Uncle. You’ll get the next one.” I help him readjust his dive mask. I make him do a longer breathe-up so he can calm his excitement and hold his breath longer. Then we both dive together, me following him this time.
I still hear his tok-tok-tok but then he starts to connect and brings up a fish every dive or two until we have a nice bounty on the stringer. Enough to cook for everyone’s lunch and for him and his dad to take some home for dinner. I say the ritual words and then sneak a couple of tender ‘alalauā into my mouth while Uncle is not looking, and crunch down on bone and scales. I watch him appraisingly, tiny blood and gut clouds puffing out of my mouth. Maybe he is more of a hunter than I thought.
I look to the side and freeze. The stringer of āweoweo has drawn one of my kin; the scent of blood and the vibration of death calling it from a distance. It is not a niuhi like me, just a white-tip, no more than two metres from tail to snout. Even in my human form, I have the scent of niuhi on me, so it keeps its distance, circling warily, making no signs of threat. It knows not to make a move on my kill, but it is hoping that it can feed on the scraps I leave behind.
I normally pay no attention to such lesser creatures, more like dogs than true relatives of mine, but my senses are drawn to Uncle. He saw the shark just after beginning his dive and now he’s stiffened up and is frantically kicking back to the surface. He’s illuminated by the sun above, so all I see is a skinny silhouette of flailing arms and legs, looking like nothing more than an injured fish. Uncle’s motions activate our prey instincts, and both the whitetip and I draw closer to him with interest.
I feel the teeth shifting and extending between my shoulder blades, pushing to be free of the wetsuit’s neoprene. Gill slits begin to tear open on the side of my throat, and I can feel more oxygen running into my blood, giving me more energy, more drive. I just have to give in to the change, and I can feast. Kanaka blood and meat . . . It’s been so long . . . Screw Ka‘ahupāhau’s edict.
The split-second I take to ponder the edict puts me behind in the race, and the white-tip arrows past me towards Uncle.
This vertical-eyed sea rat is trying to move in on my kill? This time I see red for real. Anger stops my shift in an instant and I shoot my hand forward, clamping down on the white-tip’s long, notched caudal fin. It turns its blunt snout to snap at me, but my grip and my scent, both enhanced by my anger, cut through its frenzy and put it to flight, changing its direction and vectoring off into the distant blue curtain.
Mmmm, I can taste Uncle’s fear-stiffened movements in the water though. Ka liu o ka pa‘akai. The savour of the salt. I swivel my head slowly back and forth and let the water run into my mouth, over my tongue. But then I clamp my mouth shut. The edict’s hold is tenuous but I will still follow it.
I surface and expel the salt water through my snorkel. I put my hands on Uncle’s skinny shivering bird shoulders to steady him. I lift his mask onto his forehead so he can see me. “He’s gone. We go, boy.”
I turn to swim back in, and he calls out, “Uncle, how did you do that?
“What kind of shark was that?
“We don’t have to go in.
“I’m okay, Uncle! I wasn’t scared.”
His fear has made him revert to calling me Uncle. I don’t turn around, but I call out over my shoulder: “Don’t call me Uncle, Uncle.”
He giggles, but I don’t have to look to know that he is crying. Swimming back to shore lets him burn off some of his fear and nervous energy though. His body is coming down from its fight-or-flight response (Uncle had definitely chosen flight), and as I swim behind him, I hear his breathing become more even. His heart slows down from caged cocaine-addled bird to pulsing workhorse, a thumping plod pushing blood to his smoothly moving limbs. By the time we get in, he is even smiling a bit and asking questions about how to cook the āweoweo.
The sun is still behind the mountains, but the sky is already a clear cloudless blue, north winds blowing lightly. The water is the colour we used to call uliuli, not really a colour, more of a depth. The deep of the sea is uliuli, as is the deep of the forest. That colour implies a certain gravity to a place. But you lackwits would probably just call it “like soooooo blue.”
Today I’m going to take Uncle out into the soooooo blue, so we can get some bigger fish. I have been taking him diving for a few months now, and even I have to admit that he’s getting pretty good. He’s even starting to fill out a little bit, not looking like a handful of sticks stuffed into a pair of pantyhose anymore.
He’s good enough with the spear that he can supplement his family’s food supply but also sell the excess. I have actually had to warn him a few times about taking too many fish, especially just to sell. There is no justice in that.
Most of his money is put back into diving though. In the beginning, he wore an old wool sweater of his father’s to keep warm in the water, but now he has a wetsuit with this red camo that’s supposed to become invisible underwater. I told him that it looks ridiculous, but he still wears it anyway.
He even bought a new dive mask that has a mount for a GoPro. I told him that I better not see myself on his YouTube channel, Say Uncle, where he posts dive footage set to local reggae music and gives dramatic recountings of how he speared his fish.
I sometimes think that he doesn’t understand why we do this. Why we hunt for our food. Why I say the ritual words before I feast. I don’t mean some hippie crap about us being one with the ocean or whatever drug-addled notions they peddle at their Puna retreats nowadays. I mean that there is a responsibility to being in the ocean, swimming in the salt blood of this planet. There is a weight to being predator or prey, and it is something you gutbags have forgotten.
Uncle and I paddle out on kayaks with our gear loaded on them. The water is smooth and glassy. Small swells pulse through like ripples on a sheet tossed over a bed. The paddle is easy, and once we pass the reefbreak, the seafloor drops away quickly, going from a patterned turquoise to a solid uliuli.
“The water is soooooo blue!”
I give Uncle a dark look, but he ignores it and chatters on about what kind of gear he’s going to buy when we get some big fish. We keep paddling until we start to approach a spot that has worked well for me before.
Uncle starts to ask how I know we’re in the right place, but the big bird piles and flashes of colour at the sea’s surface provide all the answers he needs. He sits reverently for a few moments before switching on his GoPro and making excited comments. I shake my head. This is not why we hunt.
I slip into the water and see a huge ball of small nehu drawn together for protection while kawakawa, rainbow runners, aku, and juvenile ‘ahi swarm through the school. I can see shimmers of larger ‘ahi swimming down deep, taking what they want of the terrified baitfish. ‘Ahi is not the same as kanaka, but remembering the thrill of speeding through the depths running down an ‘ahi puts an edge on my hunger.
Uncle points excitedly down below and turns on his GoPro. I signal him to come over so I can tell him what to do, but he cocks his new multi-band spear gun against his chest, and makes his dive. I watch him as he swims down to about twelve metres and floats there, his gun extended, waiting. Damn this idiot boy. The uliuli is not a place for amateurs.
The big ‘ahi Uncle had been eyeing swims through the school in front of him and, unaware of its impending death, presents a broadside target for him. I hope he doesn’t shoot.
Click. There is no cry of pain when the spear pierces the fish just behind the gill plate and the toggle springs on the other side. But the powerful fish reacts instantly, instinct and agony driving it to zoom into the depths, leaving a trail of cavitating bubbles behind it.
The spear is tethered to a series of dive floats, and the ‘ahi’s panicked flight drags the first float down, which will slow the fish’s escape and help draw it back towards the surface. The second float goes down as well, just as Uncle comes up for air. But it comes back up relatively quickly, the exhausted fish being dragged inexorably back upwards by the inflatable float.
“Did you see that shot?
“How big do you think that ‘ahi is?
“Do you think I got good footage of it?”
I cut him off angrily: “Never mind, Uncle. Go finish it off quickly.” I know what is coming but he should probably learn this himself.
We use the tethers on the float to continue to draw the tired ‘ahi to the surface. My movements are quick and furious. I grow even more upset as I realize that some of the outrage is motivated by concern. Uncle is putting himself in a very dangerous position, but he doesn’t know it yet. When the ‘ahi gets close enough, Uncle does a short breathe-up, and we both dive down again. I show him where to stab the ‘ahi’s brain and he uses his dive knife to dispatch the fish quickly. I give him a quick nod of approval. He did that right, at least. A dusty pink and brown cloud of blood and brain drifts like smoke rising from a fire as the ‘ahi shudders then stills.
It doesn’t still fast enough though. As Uncle grips the ‘ahi under its gills to lift it to the surface, I see a horde of sinuous shapes spiralling up from the uliuli. They have been drawn by the ‘ahi’s death throes, what to my kin must have been a cacophonous din advertising a free meal. At least a dozen sharks are making their way up. Oceanic white-tips, Galapagos, blues, even tigers.
Even in the midst of their hunger, they are wary. An angry niuhi is no small matter. The ‘ahi blood and the vortex of nehu are pushing them to bravery though, or foolishness, becoming heedless of their personal safety in my presence. In a very calm voice, I tell Uncle to get the ‘ahi up on the kayak. If we leave it for the sharks, they will think they can extort the catch from any diver. I don’t care about you damn meat buckets, but there is no justice in that.
Uncle hurriedly ties the big ‘ahi onto his kayak, his quick but clumsy movements tinged with fear.
“Get on the kayak, Uncle, and let’s get out of here.” The tigers coming up are fierce, but I am only leaving for Uncle’s sake. “Get on the kayak, boy.” I put a stern note of urgency in my voice.
He braces the speargun against the pad on the wetsuit’s chest and draws back the bands to cock it.
“Uncle, what are you doing? Get on the kayak, I said!” I kick towards him, but he presses the shutter on his GoPro and dives down. I reach out to grab him but find no purchase as he slips down past me. I go down after him. There are too many sharks. My worried anger rises with each foot I descend. I have to get down there.
As Uncle levels out, it is too clear what he is about to do. I can’t bring myself to believe it. I’m too far away to do anything as I watch him adjust his GoPro in the mount and line up his shot. He swings the gun towards a four metre beast of a tiger shark rising up slowly toward him. The largest of my approaching kin. Its blunt snout traces its way through the water, muscles sliding it sinuously out of the depths. Uliuli striped on its back. The interplay of the tiger’s markings with the shimmering surface light is beautiful. I admire the rows of ripsaw teeth in its mouth, so much like my own. It follows no edict. It eats what it wishes. It is a hunter.
As I should be.
It is a poor shot. Uncle had wanted to line the spear up with the GoPro’s field of view and in his over-eagerness, he’d shot from an odd angle. The tip punched into the shark’s midsection behind the gills and toggled on the other side. Flesh pierced and muscle ruined. It is a mortal wound, but not a quick one. Like the wound I have been living the last two hundred years. The shark kicks its powerful tail and swims wildly back and forth in agony, trying to dislodge the spear’s breakaway tip, leaving contrails of blood in its wake.
Before the tiger can escape into the uliuli of death, the rest of my opportunistic kin turn on it. It has fallen from the perch of hunter, and become merely prey. I know the feeling. Powerless, diminished, no longer a predator. My mind flashes back to Ka‘ahupāhau’s net, entrapping me. Forcing me to become one of you. Soft pink prey. The merest meat. A maneater who does not eat man.
The sharks rising up towards us arrow after the tiger. They clamp their unworthy jaws on its striped flesh and tear away chunks. The tiger contorts to bring its teeth into play, but there are too many. It has no chance. A hunter besieged by wolves. Each shark takes a mouthful and then swims out of reach. Soon there is only dead weight at the end of Uncle’s tether. A head, part of the torso, a tatter of dorsal fin.
Uncle reaches up and stops his GoPro, flashing me a thumbs-up that he got the shot. He thinks I will be happy for him. Thinks I enjoyed the spectacle. My heart is hammering. A thrashing drum echoing in the water. I will not suffer the fate of the tiger. That was not a death for a hunter, for a niuhi. There was no justice in that.
I pull out the mouthpiece of my snorkel. Take off my dive mask. Undo my weight belt. Slip out of my fins.
This nonsense has gone on for too long.
I lift the wetsuit hood off of my head, and as I begin to work my way out of the wetsuit top, I feel the tips of my teeth emerging from the tattoo on my back. They tear through the black triangles on my skin and push their way forward, becoming a ring of jagged teeth around uliuli.
Gills tear open on my neck and denticles rise on my skin. Bones crack and soften, reshaping and elongating, fins pushing out from my torso. The neoprene stretches and shreds into little pieces. I arch my back with the pain of the transformation and roar soundlessly as it completes.
With the return to shark form, so too comes the freedom of hunger. And there is only one prey. Uncle gapes at me, GoPro forgotten. He kicks wildly to get back to the kayak. Too late for that, boy. It was a mistake to think one of you could be anything more than meat. One sweep of my tail brings me to the surface, my dorsal fin breaking the surface like the emergence of a new island. I circle Uncle slowly, letting him see what I have become. What I have always been. Mmm, ka liu o ka pa‘akai.
In his fear, he calls out in a small, high voice, pleading for protection.
“Uncle, what happened to you?
“Uncle, what are you doing?
“Uncle, why are you doing this?”
Uncle. As if we could be related. I say the ritual words. Then I feast.
Originally published in Pacific Monsters, edited by Margrét Helgadóttir.