Once upon a time, in the time of the Great Depression, a boy named Tadahiko Murakami lived in the Coffee Belt of the Big Island of Hawai’i. Tadahiko was a Japanese-American kid with a sloping forehead and lots of freckles. He was skinny, but he was the strongest kid on the island. Scrawny. Wiry. Never still. Always moving.
His family owned a small coffee plantation on the slopes of Mauna Loa, the long mountain. Everyone worked very hard: mother, father, brother and sister. But Tadahiko, the youngest, did not like to work that hard. Whenever he could, he would run to the beach. And right behind him ran his sister, Sarito. She carried the rice in her lunch bucket.
And so he ran down the mountain slope. He stopped at the home of his friend, Taro, and whistled. His friend’s home had a big banyan tree right beside the side of the house. Tadahiko always said the same thing to his friend when he came out.
“Big tree” he would say and shake his head.
His friend, Taro, just laughed. “You wish you had a big tree.”
“Oh, no,” said Tadahiko, “That is a big tree and it will just get bigger until it falls on your house. And look at all its tangled roots.”
“All you have is scrawny coffee trees around your house,” returned his friend. “Just like you. Small and hard. Not big and grand like our banyan tree.”
“C’mon,” urged Sarito. She wanted to go to the beach.
The two rivals grinned and looked out over their homeland. They stood about 3,000 feet above the sea, over half a mile up from the ocean. If they looked up the mountain, the biggest mountain in the world, they saw what looked like the shoulder of a sleeping giant rising before them. And if they looked down the mountain, they saw the vast Pacific Ocean stretched out like a grey cape.
Mauna Loa was a volcanic mountain and its bulk was buried deep in the ocean floor. Magma had flowed from its core, moving down the flanks of the mountain and creating new land while destroying present land. But lava had not flowed on their land in recent history. The soil was rich from long ago lava.
“The beach,” urged the sister. And the two boys mock boxed for seconds and then joined her race down the mountain. They were headed for the lava beach at the City of Refuge, a place sacred to the ancient Hawaiians.
The air had a chill edge in January, the time of the passage of the whales. The wind made big waves on the sea and rustled the fans of the coconut high overhead. Tadahiko and his friend, Taro, looked out at the horizon, hoping to see a whale spout. The wind blew their shirts open and they shivered.
“Dolphins,” said Tadahiko “Spinning dolphins. No whales yet.” In the distance ten spinning dolphins leapt out of the sea, spun around and fell back in.
“Listen to that myna bird screeching,” said Taro.
“Just like my mama,” said Tadahiko “I am her bad boy and she practices on me.”
His sister squatted in the tide pools and collected white shells, the size of her baby fingernail. She picked up large whorled shells, and whelk shells striped in bands of pearl and bronze. “Look!” she cried. “A big fish!”
“In the tidal pools?” questioned Tadahiko scornfully.
“It’s as big as a banyan tree in a coffee grove,” insisted Sarito.
Tadahiko crouched down in the pools. He saw small stippled fish as they flitted from rock to rock. Small white pebbles, pieces of coral, filled in the cracks of the black lava. The sea poured in and flowed out of the pools. The sound of the breakers lulled him. He forgot about the big waves that came periodically. He forgot his father’s voice which warned, “Never turn your back on the sea.”
He was absorbed in studying the life at his feet. In his hand he held his small wooden spear with a metal tip. Poised on the rocks, he waited and watched. The tide was coming in. Flowing over the rocks, sea foam and then water gathered in the pools.
Down the beach a ways, a Hawaiian boy threw a net into the sea. Both boys waited for a big fish.
“My mother will be proud of me,” thought Tadahiko “I will bring home a big fish.” But all he saw were small bright fish. “You will have to go out further on the rocks,” he challenged himself. And he turned towards the sea.
He saw the big fish drifting. He stood on tiptoe, pointed his spear and threw it. The momentum carried him forward as well and Tadahiko fell in the ocean.
His sister and friend laughed.
Tadahiko was so angry. He stood up holding his spear and found, on the end of it, the large speckled fish.
“I am the best fisherman on the island,” he bragged. “I caught a fish with freckles like me and you don’t get any to eat.”
Tadahiko had a soft heart. And he really did not like to work very hard. “Well,” he conceded, “If you clean it and scale it, I will share it with you.”
“Me, too,” asked Taro.
“You make the fire,” ordered Tadahiko He forgot his mother and father and his big brother at home. This fish was a fish for three. While his sister and his friend worked, he captured the small black crabs that raced about the lava rocks.
The fire blazed. The fish sizzled over the open fire. The children ate the fish with some sticky rice and seaweed which Sarito had carried. They licked their fingers and looked at the sky.
“The sun is going down,” said his sister fearfully. It was winter and the days were shorter.
“Nightwalkers,” warned his friend, referring to the Hawaiian spirits that walked this beach.
The three children stood at the edge of the western sea and watched as the clouds in the sky turned pink and the mountain at their back changed from green to black. They waited until the first last trace of sun disappeared on the horizon and the first star of the night appeared.
“Did you see it?” asked Tadahiko of his companions.
“The Green Flash,” said Taro reverently of the mysterious green flash that occurred on the horizon as the sun disappeared.
A black moth with a bronze eye fluttered by his sister’s face. “Let’s go,” she cried, thinking of the Nightwalkers. The children ran up the hill to their home on the slope of Mauna Loa.
Mother looked proudly at her two youngest children as they came in so noisily. Her face was rosy as she stood before the fireplace. She cooked rice in a pot suspended over the fire on a jointed iron rod. The kettle on the embers was filled with hot water. She poured the water into a teapot with green tea leaves.
“Time to eat,” she said softly. She placed a bowl of rice, hot daikon pickle and sheets of nori seaweed on the wooden table for her husband and all her children. They sat on benches in front of the open window that looked down on their coffee trees.
Tadahiko poured tea into his bowl of rice and slurped the mixture, noisily. His mother ate her rice with chopsticks and drank her tea from a green porcelain cup with no handle. “Tadahiko,” she said, reprovingly. “Be mannerly.”
Tadahiko winked at her and she smiled back at her favorite boy. Tadahiko and Sarito said not a word about the fish they had eaten with their fingers earlier that day.