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Kirby Wright

The Day of the Ulua

            Jeffrey followed his big brother Ben through the horse
pasture. The pili grass was tall and still wet with dew—it soaked the
bottoms of their jeans. Jeffrey didnʼt like the wet feeling creeping up
his legs. He wanted to go shirtless like Ben but he thought that might
attract the blood flies camped on the horses.
         His brother jumped. “Kukae!”
         Jeffrey smelled the manure and eased over a greenish-brown
mound. He liked being with Ben on Grammaʼs ranch because,
whenever something bad happened, his brother usually got blamed.
Jeffrey didnʼt mind if his brother got into trouble. He remembered
being in a crib and a boy with curly blond hair reaching in. The boy
grabbed his arm and yanked, slamming his baby body against the
bars. The boy had made a game of it, slamming over and over.
         Ben stuck his hand between the two lines of wire and spun the
valve. Water spewed into a white tub. The sound reminded him of
his father spraying fizzy tonic into drinks. His father and mother were
back at the beach house having cocktails while Gramma drank
“pineapple juice on the rocks.” She wasnʼt allowed to have hard
drinks because his father said she drank until she got on her hands
and knees and crawled through the dirt mumbling, spittle and red
dust caking her lips. Jeffrey didnʼt like her beach house—animal
heads with glistening eyes hung off the walls and there was no lock
on the bathroom door. Sometimes Gramma marched in while he sat
on the cold seat and asked if he was “pau sittinʼ on the throne.” But
he liked the bluish-green glass balls suspended in cord nets on her
lanai and the briny smell when trade winds blew.
         The father had told the boys to come right back after they
watered the horses. He wanted them to be more independent, yet
feared for their safety around the mares, the rickety fences with rusty
nails, and the centipedes. He wanted them to spend less time
around their mother because he thought her overly feminine nature
might rub off. He didnʼt want his sons becoming homosexuals.
Earlier, heʼd baited giant hooks with octopus legs and then helped
them drag their cord kaka lines into the sea. Jeffrey wanted his line
to veer east for the harbor. Benʼs line went straight out for the barrier
reef. The father had tethered the ends to the storm window posts on
the beach house.
         Jeffrey saw his mother duck through the makai fence. She
wore a pink dress and walked awkwardly through the pasture, as if
trying to avoid kukae. He could tell she didnʼt like the country and
figured her main pleasure was not spending time with him or Ben but
attending Mass at Father Damienʼs Church in Pukoʼo. He pretended
not to see her. He didnʼt like dresses and earrings on the ranch; he
felt a woman should wear cowboy boots, jeans, and a palaka shirt
like Gramma. He wondered if the horses might charge after pink the
way bulls charge after red. He imagined a stampede of hooves. He
was sure she favored his brother because he had her blonde hair and
fair skin.
         “Here comes Mummy,” Ben said.
         Jeffrey turned and his mother waved. He waved back.
         “Boys,” she said, “Iʼve got something to tell you!”
         “Tell us what?” Ben shouted.
         She stumbled over the root of a breadfruit tree, limped past the
corral in gold sandals, and joined them at the trough. She had on
shell earrings. “Iʼve got exciting news.”
         Ben winced. “Whatʼs so exciting?”
         “One of you just caught a big fish.”
         Ben spun the valve and the water quit. “Is it my fish?”
         “Iʼm not sure. Daddyʼs down on the beach right now and wants
you both to join him.”
         Ben took off—he ran through the pili grass and zipped past the
breadfruit tree. Jeffrey gave chase. The horses left the shade in the
coconut grove and galloped to the east side of the pasture. Jeffrey
hurdled a pili clump and landed hard in his Keds; his ankle hurt but he
kept going. He hated his mother for not knowing. He was sure Ben
hated her too. Jeffrey wanted it to be his fish. Please, God, he
begged silently, let it be mine, let that fish be mine. His lungs ached
trying to catch up. He figured today would mark him a winner or a
loser for the rest of his life. Ben was already through the fence and
scooting past the Norfolk. He remembered walking with his father at
dawn through the shallow water on the stinky mud flats and thinking
no fish would come near his bait. He looked back when he reached
the fence—his mother was still at the trough examining a sandal. He
slipped through the wire but the sleeve of his t-shirt snagged on a nail
in the kiawe fence post; he pulled against the nail and tore himself
free. He saw his big brother reach the edge of the beach house and
disappear behind it. He quit running. It would be Benʼs fish and heʼd
feel like a fool breathing heavy while his brother gloated. He walked
up the knoll and rounded the house.
         “Gramma, who caught the fish?” he heard Ben ask. “Who
caught it?”
         “Yoʼ liʼl bruthah,” came her voice.
         Jeffrey reached the beachfront. The storm windows were open
and Gramma was in her cane chair smoking. She had on her widebrimmed lauhala hat and ranch clothes. She tapped her ashes into a copper can resting on the ledge.
         Ben stood in front of her window with his arms crossed. “Are
you sure itʼs Jeffreyʼs?”
         Gramma pointed to the line tethered to the eastern post. “Itʼs this line,” she said, “and that line belongs to Peanut.”
         “Itʼs my fish?” Jeffrey asked.
         “Gunfunnit, you damn kids,” she answered, “whose else would it be?”
         He followed Ben through the naupaka. Their father was
wearing khaki shorts and kneeling over something shiny. The kaka
line was coiled on the sand like a snake, its hook wedged in the
crevice of a lava boulder. A chunk of white meat clung to the barb.
         Jeffrey knelt beside his father. The fish was silver with blue
streaks running along its sides. The tail and fins were bright yellow,
his favorite color. The tail kicked furiously against the sand.
         Ben stood beside their father and peered down. His shoulders
were red from the sun. “Is it Jeffreyʼs or mine?”
         Jeffrey saw his brotherʼs eyes dull over and his face droop. He
kicked a stone. Then came a greenish fire in the eyes, a burning
inside. Ben ran over to his line—it was suspended a few feet over
the sand and it moved up and down with the tide. “Daddy!”
         “Pull my line in.”
         “I caught something.”
         “I would know if you hooked one, Ben.”
         “Your line would be zigzagging back and forth like your
brotherʼs. I had one helluva time pulling this buggah in.”
         “Maybe I caught a shark.”
         “Thereʼs nothing on your line.”
         Ben picked up a piece of coral and hurled it at the ocean.
         The father patted his son on the shoulder. “Iʼm proud of you
Jeffrey,” he said. “You caught an ulua. Itʼs the best-eating fish in our
         “Better than mahi-mahi?”
         “I like it better. And so does Gramma.”
         His fatherʼs praise made him feel good. He liked his father
better than his mother because he shared his dark complexion and
rugged features. A warm wave rolled from Jeffreyʼs chest and
washed through his body. His thighs and forearms tingled with
chicken skin. It was a double victory because his win was his
brotherʼs loss. Heʼd never beaten him at anything and he wanted to
stay all day on the beach watching the fish with his father. He saw
the gills pump furiously. He touched the ulua on the bridge between
its eyes and ran his fingers down the length of the spine to the tail.
The ulua made a squeaky sound like a porpoise. He felt bad. Part of
him wanted to drag it back to the sea but he knew that would blot out
his victory and make his father mad. But he didnʼt want it to die.
         The mother joined them on the beach. She was barefoot.
Burrs from the pasture stuck to the hem of her dress. “My,” she said,
placing her hands on her hips, “what a beautiful fish. Maybe your
grandmother will serve it for dinner tonight.”
         The father stood up and looped an arm over her shoulder.
         “Weʼre not freezing this beauty.”
         Jeffrey and his parents watched the fish as the gills slowed and
the tail quit flapping. Jeffrey put his ear over the mouth to listen for
the porpoise noise.
         Ben tugged at his line again and finally came over. He knelt
beside Jeffrey. “Itʼs not really your fish,” he whispered.
         “It sure is,” Jeffrey said.
         “Did you pull it in?”
         “Daddy pulled it in, right?”
         Ben smirked. “That makes it Daddyʼs.”
* * *
         The grandmother gutted the ulua as the late sun turned the
clouds orange. The aroma of pan-fried fish drifted out of the kitchen
and made Jeffrey hungry. Heʼd put on a new shirt and wanted to stay
on the lanai instead of digging up crabs with Ben. He studied a deer
head on the wall. His parents were sitting at a storm window drinking
cocktails. He saw his brother run over to test his line. The channel
between Molokaʼi and Maui became a pool of purple velvet. He
tinkered with stone artifacts on a cane display case: a poi pounder, a
scraping blade, and an ulu maika used for bowling. Something heavy
like a pot or a pan fell in the kitchen and he heard Gramma say, “Foʼ
the luva Pete.”
         His father leaned into his mother. “Go see if she needs some
         His mother got up and swung open the screen door to the
kitchen. “May I please set the table for you, Mother Daniels?”
         “Shuah, Mary. Letʼs use the nice silva.”
         Jeffrey helped set five places around a table meant for eight.
He poured water from a pitcher into glasses. He folded paper napkins
at an angle so they became triangles and placed forks over them. He
felt funny that there werenʼt enough people to fill the table. He wished
it could be a party, like a birthday celebration with all the locals on the
east end showing up in cars and trucks to congratulate him and enjoy
the fish heʼd caught. As long as Ben didnʼt tell anyone his father had
pulled in the ulua heʼd be safe, his victory secure. But he knew deep
down his brother wouldnʼt allow him to win at anything, if he could
help it.
         Gramma stuck her head out of the kitchen. “Kaukau time!”
         “Ben,” the father called, “get up here for dinner!”
* * *
         First came fish chowder in deep ceramic bowls. The
grandmother had boiled the fish head with sweet onions, potatoes,
and bacon before adding a can of evaporated milk. Jeffrey thought it
tasted like clam chowder, only not as thick. He was happy sharing
his fish with the family, glad heʼd helped put food on the table. Ben
sat beside him but Jeffrey kept his eyes on his father. His father
dipped his tablespoon into the chowder and slurped it up; his Adamʼs
apple looked like a stone in his throat.
         “This soup is very good, Mother Daniels,” the mother said. “I
must get your recipe.”
         “You never make soup,” the father said.
         The mother used her half-smile. “I would if someone
encouraged me once in a while.”
         Gramma dipped a tablespoon into her bowl. “Just throw fish
heads into wattah and boil ʻum,” she said.
         “Yuck,” Ben muttered, putting down his spoon.
         After chowder, the grandmother served pan-fried filets, cups of
poi, and steamed bok choy on Golden Harvest plates. Everyone dug
in. Jeffrey enjoyed the buttery taste of the ulua; he dropped pieces
into the poi and ate them together with a spoon.
         “This sure beats corned beef hash,” the father said.
         “Daddy?” Ben asked.
         “Was it hard pulling in the ulua?”
         “Jesus,” he said, “that fish put up one hellava fight. The cord on
that line rubbed my hands raw.”
         The mother tapped his wrist. “Dear,” she said, “you promised to
watch your language around the boys.”
         “What did I say?”
         “You took the Lordʼs name in vain.”
         “Cʼmon, honey, thatʼs just a figure of speech. You canʼt protect
the boys from things theyʼll hear sooner or later.”
         Gramma chuckled. “Next thing I know theyʼll be wearinʼ bloody
         Jeffrey finished first and rested his fork on the plate. He
thought about what Ben had said. It was true his father had pulled in
the ulua, but it was still his fish. His father was only the helper. Heʼd
created the magic by dropping his line at a special spot near the
         “Can I go now?” Ben asked.
         “You havenʼt finished your fish,” the father said.
         “Iʼm stuffed. And I need to check my line.”
         The legs of Benʼs chair scraped against the cement floor. He
bolted through the lanai and hopped over the ledge of an open
window. Jeffrey could see the puff of blond hair moving through the
twilight naupaka. He listened to his parents discuss protest marches
in DC, Grandma Gert in Boston, and how Ben and I should start
riding the horses.
         “Would you like that, Jeffrey?” his mother asked.
         “Iʼd like it more than anything,” he lied. He hated horses
because they scared him. Sissy had almost bit his fingers when he
tried feeding her a carrot.
         Gramma lit a cigarette. “Gettinʼ dahk,” she said.
         “Yes,” said the mother. “Maybe we should wash the dishes and
then turn on Lawrence Welk. Will you dry, Jeffrey?”
         “Iʼll go see what Benʼs up to,” the father said.
         Jeffrey helped clear. There were fish bones, green plops of bok
choy, and half-eaten filets. The fish was gone. The Day of the Ulua
was over. He felt like a sissy carrying plates into the kitchen. He was
mad at himself for saying heʼd dry. All of the warm chicken skin
feeling was gone. He thought about his father strolling the shore
muttering phrases like “goddammit,” “hellava,” and “buggah,” and Ben
trying to will a fish to take his bait.
         He didnʼt want his brother catching anything.
         Not now.
         Not ever.





kaka: fishing line without a pole
kaukau: food
kiawe: mesquite
kukae: excrement
lauhala: leaf of the hala tree
makai: ocean side
naupaka: soft green bush found on shore
palaka: checkered blue and white
pau: finished, done
pili: thick, pliable grass
ulua: skipjack
ulu maika: stone used like a bowling ball