These hot summer days remind me of the tale a friend told about her healing swim in the clear, cool waters of Hana Bay.
She had not attempted to enter anything but shallow surf for the previous 10 months, after the scary day, I forget where, when she swam in rough ocean while recovering from pneumonia and lost the strength to get back in. She finally let herself get washed up and cut up on jagged rocks.
Now she was on retreat in Hana, with its lively, tossing sea. She started off for Red Sand Beach that morning, but instead something told her to take the trail at Pu'u Ka'uiki on the south side of the bay.
This leads to the birth cave of the great Ka'ahumanu, favorite queen of Kamehameha. He is said to have "nohoed" (to dwell, stay, tarry, marry, sit) with over 20 women, but she outshone them all, even the sacred Keopuolani who bore him three children, two of them kings.
Ka'ahumanu's name translates as "the feather mantle," the mark of a chief, and she carried herself nobly. "An Amazon in size" late in life, tall, stately and dignified, "often overbearing," she bore marks of the celebrated beauty of her youth. "A handsome woman, six feet tall, straight and well-formed was Ka'ahumanu, without blemish and comely," reads a remarkable passage by the Hawaiian historian S.M. Kamakau.
"Her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk, her fingers tapering, her palms pliable like kukunene grass, graceful in repose, her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem; her eyes like those of a dove or the moho bird; her nose narrow and straight, in admirable proportion to her cheeks; her arched eyebrows shaped to the breadth of her forehead; her hair dark, wavy and fine, her skin very light. Of Kamehameha's two possessions, his wife and his kingdom, she was the more beautiful."
A brass plaque placed in 1928 at the Pu'u Ka'uiki trail commemorates Ka'ahumanu's birth in the 1750s, but many historians place the date at March 17, 1768, or thereabouts.
Her father was the mighty Ke'eaumoku, one of Kamehameha's famous "Four Uncles" from the Big Island, who fled to Maui and married the high chiefess Namahana. The marriage gave him, a rival chief, the advantage of her rank and lands in central Maui, and Kahekili, the Maui ali'i nui, considered them a threat. He attacked the couple in Waihe'e, chased them to Moloka'i and then to the cinder cone at Hana Bay where their daughter Ka'ahumanu was born.
She was a kindhearted and obedient child, and startled Kamehameha with her beauty at their meeting at Makahiki when she was a teenager. They married in 1785 she captivated him with her intelligence. When Kamehameha died, Ka'ahumanu became the imposing kuhina nui (premier), unmatched for her strength and decision.
The storm surge of Hurricane Iniki has washed away part of the trail to her birth cave at Ka'uiki, so getting there is not as easy as it once was. My friend, who is a midwife, described a shallow hemisphere in the cinder hillside, maybe 8 feet deep and 5 feet high, looking out down the cliff over the ocean.
She set to work clearing away the piled dead flowers - old offerings - and other debris. "A few things I left and placed in cinder niches; a Spanish moss lei, a glowing white smooth oblong stone, a pretty shell. No one had made me keeper of the cave, but I had cleaned up after enough birthings. Why not clean a birth cave?"
Then she sat quietly on the newly bare ground, feeling the vibration from the crashing surf moving through the rock and up her spine. "Breath flowed in and out like waves rocking. I felt grounded, blissful, utterly calm." Then came the blessing of the fierce sacred feminine.
"I looked out over the sunlight shining into turquoise water so clear I could see the bottom. I decided to swim there. There was no thought of overcoming fear. No thought really, just slipping out of my clothes and into the ocean. Yummy warm sun and cool water, stretching and diving down, it all felt really good."
It was magical, a moment suspended in time.
"Let me tell you where you swam," her hostess scolded when my friend returned. "They call that place the 'shark houses.' It's where the sharks give birth. I would NEVER swim there!"
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.