Even if I hadn’t been sworn to secrecy I still wouldn’t have been able to lead anyone back to the cave. Finding anything in the endless fields of lava in Waikoloa, Hawaii, is an incredible feat. All I could see both ways down the coast was miles and miles of unbroken lava, undulating swells of stone like a dark, frozen mirror of the churning ocean waves breaking on the shore, visible a few miles away. Except for the occasional scrubby bush, puff of brown grass and the white coral chunks arranged to spell things like Kimo ♥ Kelsey on the slopes facing the highway, nothing distinguishes one stony slope from another. I couldn’t see any difference between the section of road where we had stopped and the miles we’d covered to get there from the hotel, but somehow my uncle could.
After our cars pulled onto the bulldozer-crushed lava lining the highway, Uncle Jon stood with a hand shading his eyes, looking out over the rough, choppy sea of stone between us and the distant ocean. A minute or so later he saw whatever marker or sign he’d been looking for and we were off, the twelve of us picking our way down, up and around the steaming, frozen waves of black stone.
When I first saw the lava tube, I was a bit disappointed. It was small – smaller than my thirteen-year-old imagination had made it the night before when my little brother and I, laying in the stale, uncomfortable hotel bed breathing the stale, air-conditioned air, had listened to my parents as they talked about the last time they’d seen it. It was more of a lava crack than a tube, really – maybe two feet high and six across. It looked like a big, frowning mouth. Not a dangerous mouth – one with teeth that can eat you – this mouth seemed too old, too quiet, and too sad to be of much harm now.
I wasn’t afraid of it, though I realized then that I’d expected to be. It was to be my first visit to an ancient Hawaiian burial cave, and while the adults had already given my brother and my cousins and I lectures about being respectful, about remembering who we are and how we got here, and lots of other warnings meant to instill in us a sense of awe, all it had done for me was build up the image of the place. I had been picturing an ominous, fog-filled crevice guarded by fearsome statues, or night walkers – Hawaiian guardian spirits or ghosts. I’d been expecting something out of Indiana Jones. The cave turned out to be set into the wall of a depression just a little ways from the highway, hidden in the folded landscape – much more subtle than I’d imagined.
After climbing down into the depression, we lined up behind Dad and Uncle Jon watching those in front crawl single-file into the lava tube. The small opening expanded quickly into a full-sized cave, so by the time I started crawling through the crack right on my dad’s heels, my uncle was already standing, switching on his collection of flashlights. He gave the first one to me, which I passed on to my brother as he finished squirming through the cave’s mouth.
Inside, it was cool, even though the sun baked down on the rocks above us. The rock that made the cave was just as black as it was on the other side. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but somehow I’d wanted the stone to seem different, paler maybe, for the fact that this lava had never seen the sun. The only thing that really seemed different at all underground was the smell. The scents of ocean salt and dry grass that dominated the world above yielded to a deep, musty smell down there – the smells of old wood and emptiness. Besides us, the only living thing in there was a wasp, one of the big, skinny, long-legged kind I’ve only seen out in the lava fields. It just floated there, its wings giving off a whine I might have only imagined over the many little sounds my family made as they crawled in, dusted themselves off and fussed with their flashlights. The wasp just hovered there and watched. Unafraid, it almost seemed to challenge us.
I was still watching the wasp when my dad called me, pointing with his flashlight towards a corner—if an oblong lava tube could be said to have corners. A narrow wooden box sat on a raised shelf of rock, ancient in the pale, murky beams of our flashlights. I felt that I was in the presence of something older than anything I’d seen before. I stared at it, no longer hearing the mumbling complaints of ten other people crowded into a tight, dark space.
“Here’s one,” my uncle said, passing me to stand over the box.
“Is that a coffin?” my little brother asked the darkness. No one replied – we didn’t have to, since the rough-cut box had no lid, and its occupant was plainly visible.
Inside were bones. I say bones and not a skeleton because I’d always pictured a skeleton looking something like the three-foot-tall plastic figure in Mr. Bibilone’s science class. These bones were a pile of lumpy white sticks half-covered with rags – there were what I assumed to be ribs in the middle of the coffin, and the skull was on the opposite side of the little bones sticking out of what must have once been the hem of a long, floral-print dress. But this was no skeleton, no intact remains of a woman – not anymore.
Only her skull made it real for me. I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly, but I wanted a real human skull to look somehow different from the ones in the movies, from Mr. Bibilone’s mold. It didn’t. Her skull was lying on one side, like the lady had died watching the cave entrance. The R. L. Stine books I’ve read always described skulls and skeletons as having gaping eyes, empty and angry-looking. This one didn’t fit – her eyes were big, and empty perhaps, but not angry at all. She looked sad more than anything else, with her jawless head cocked off to one side and the rest of her body scattered around the box.
I wasn’t scared; I just couldn’t stop picturing the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Scarecrow got torn up by the Wicked Witch’s winged monkeys – They took out my chest and threw it over there, then they took out my legs and threw them over there… It almost looked like an animal had gotten in there, I thought— as if there was anything but wasps and donkeys for miles. But if it was a dog or something the coffin would probably have been broken, and the bones would have been scattered around the cave. Besides, there were no bite marks.
“Why’s it all mixed up?” my little brother asked, his voice high and sharp in the quiet cave.
“Dogs,” my older cousin answered.
“No,” Uncle Jon said before I could, “not dogs, people. People came and stole.”
“Stole what?” my brother asked.
“They used to bury people with their jewelry – necklaces, wedding rings, stuff like that.” He leaned over the box. “One day, somebody found this place, raided the bugger.”
“Is that why the Hawaiians hid dead people?” my cousin asked.
“Sort of,” my Dad said behind me. “They used to steal bones to get their power.”
“But these guys didn’t take the bones,” my brother pointed out.
“No, they just wanted money,” Uncle Jon said. “Besides, this wasn’t that long ago – last twenty years.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because when I was here twenty years ago she was ok. We had to peek in through the cracks,” he said, lightly touching the rough, unpolished wood with a finger.
“Come on, there’s more back here,” my cousin called, but I was slow to follow.
I couldn’t seem to get rid of an image of the lady, alive and lying there watching the cave entrance, where her robbers had come in. The suspicion I could still see on her skeletal face made me very sad all of a sudden. I tried to picture how she might have looked in that faded yellow dress so many years ago, but I couldn’t imagine her alive, with fingers that were anything other than dry, white tubes, with eyes anything other than gaping holes. Eventually, I turned to follow the rest of my family. I didn’t want to be left behind with just the poor old lady and that wasp, which was still floating in place, watching us.
The lava tube went on for about thirty feet, with a slight downward slope from the entrance. There were four others in there, most of them tucked into the various nooks and crannies the lava had created. Two of the skeletons in the back, next to a wall of broken rock marking an ancient cave-in, weren’t in boxes. Instead, they had been buried in little canoes, just big enough for a body. The canoes looked out of place underground, surrounded by all that dry rock, though somehow, they also seemed a more natural, a more fitting place for the people inside them, even though they’d been looted too. One canoe had been tipped, spilling a few of its bones on the floor. At first, Dad wanted to pick them up, to put them back, but Mom wouldn’t let him touch anything – it would be too much, just too much, she kept saying. So we left them there.
We left after what had seemed like an hour but couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. We passed the old lady and that unmoving wasp, crawled out of the cave’s mouth and back into the blinding sunlight. From the highway, I turned back, trying to see how far we’d come, but the cave was already hidden from view, invisible in the choppy sea of stone even though I knew where to look. This frustrated me, at first, but by the time I’d climbed back into my dad’s truck I was smiling, comforted by the thought that maybe the canoes, the old lady and the wasp would be left alone, now. It would take me a while to understand my own part in all this, but then, as we rolled through miles of empty-looking fields of lava, I wondered how many more of these burial caves had never been found, out in that sea of black rock. I wondered how many other old ladies were left out there – intact, undisturbed old ladies, old ladies who didn’t have to lie scattered around and watch out for robbers, tourists and curious little kids.
Even my brother was quiet during the drive back to the King Kamehameha hotel. I’d been looking forward to swimming in their huge saltwater pool all week, but now all I could think about was that lady and the others whose bones had been thrown around. I still swam, of course, and for a while I even managed to forget about the lava tube and all the troubling things it had shown me. My cousins and I spent the afternoon chasing and splashing and half-drowning each other, while our parents sat around the pool talking and drinking the beer and wine they’d smuggled out of our rooms in red and white cups. The little poolside grill only served drinks with fruit in them, as far as I could see.
I was just standing in a towel, lost under my parents’ conversation and watching the other hotel guests – tourists from the mainland US, I assumed, even though we must have looked just like them – when suddenly all my thoughts about the cave and that poor old lady came back to me. We must have looked just like whoever had come and robbed that dead old lady, I thought. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d never know we weren’t just sightseeing, that we weren’t being respectful. We’d have seemed like graverobbers who just got there second.
I wondered what she would have thought if she’d known that one day she’d be lying in a torn-open box with a bunch of white people staring down at her, albeit respectfully. I wondered why Mom and Dad and Uncle Jon had taken us there. It wasn’t just to show us something neat, I knew, but the lesson – the lesson hadn’t been told, not yet. I thought about where I’d come from in a way I never had before, knowing full well that none of my ancestors could be found in that cave, I thought about all the things that had needed to happen to bring me, of all people, to that point, standing in a hotel towel and hand-me-down swim shorts just hours after crawling into an ancient, sacred place I’d never be able to forget. But mostly, I thought about that poor old lady, and wondered what she would think of it all, what she would think of me. What was the difference, I remember asking myself, between these sunburned, splashing people who knew – or cared – nothing for the old lady and what she’d endured, and myself? Sure, I’d lived on this island all my life, I’d known no other home, and at the time I’d barely seen anything of the world beyond the islands. But what, really, did any of that change, I wondered?
I had a dream a couple months later, after I’d stopped thinking about the cave and that nameless old lady. In it, I was sitting on the rough stone floor of a cave – or I assumed it was a cave, since I was surrounded by nothing but black. Everything was quiet except for the faint, barely-there whine of a wasp’s wings. There was no wind, no smell, no sense of anything other than the stone and the wasp’s echoing whine, but I knew, with the kind of unquestioning clarity that only comes in dreams, that I was back in the burial cave.
Then I saw the old lady standing in front of me. She had the same dress on, though it was no longer tattered or worn-out, and neither was she. She wasn’t dead anymore – she was beautiful. She was very wise and very old, but beautiful in a terrifying way, with her large, sad eyes. She just stood in the dark, absolutely silent save for the distant, humming wasp. I felt her accusation, her judgment, and I was ashamed.
And even though I’ve never been back, and I kept my promise to my uncle and to the lady, having never told a soul how to find the cave, at times I can still feel her eyes, open and empty and staring. Her eyes, they know me, I’m sure. Her eyes know that I can’t hide behind diplomas and teaching credentials, and that no matter how many Hawaiian words I memorize and how many stories I tell my students about living the Hawaiian ideal of pono – doing what’s right or just – and respecting those who’ve come before us, that no matter how I try to escape the violence of my heritage, her eyes know I am the child of missionaries and plantation managers. I am descended from the whites that destroyed her life or those of her ancestors. They see through me and my pretense of being any different from the robbers, from the tourists by the pool sipping iced drinks with pineapple slices and thinking they’ve learned something about this ancient, once-sacred place. Sure, I know more than they do, but somehow, her eyes tell me as they say nothing, none of that really changes anything.
Neither me nor any of my family defiled her grave, but I know – I know now – that my blood led to it. I accept that the history that gave rise to me also led to everything else her eyes have been forced to see – even the highway cut across sacred grounds that I used to reach her. It led to institutionalized racism and loss of the Hawaiian language for generations, to guided tours of Iolani Palace, home to the native monarchy before its overthrow, to hundreds of tourists in Waikiki hotels where a thriving farm community once existed. It led to multimillion-dollar beach rentals and vacation houses, to military training grounds on religious sites and harbors dredged to make way for cruise ships…it led to everything good and bad about Hawai‘i.
My ancestors came to Hawai‘i looking for a better life, and I can’t blame them for it – I benefit from it even now, generations after the first plantation workers and missionaries with my blood came to the islands, decades after I toured an ancient, disturbed burial cave. I am invested in her destruction, the lady’s eyes say, and I cannot disagree. Her eyes say that perhaps I have played little role myself, but I benefited from it all; I still do. This is the guilt I’ve learned to carry, the responsibility that comes from understanding what I began to see back in that cave. The only way is forward, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore your past, since it isn’t only yours. I won’t, I want to tell her, but I can’t. She watches me, but she can’t speak and she can’t hear me, because she’s dead and nothing I do really matters to her.
Gavin McCall’s short stories, essays and one poem have appeared in dozens of of literary magazines, including Eyeshot, Every Day Fiction, Paradigm, Bamboo Ridge, and Off Course. He won Hawai‘i Review’s first Sudden Fiction Award and a scholarship to attend the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and has worked for three years as an intern for The Normal School Magazine, and is currently working on the second draft of what will hopefully become his first novel. He earned an MA in Honolulu and an MFA in Fresno, but now he lives and writes on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, the first place he called home.