My big brother Ben was fourteen when our father gave him a .22 rifle for Christmas. He took the gun out to our backyard in Honolulu and, after firing his first shot in the centipede grass and digging up the slug, he realized he had the power to kill. With this power came the desire to protect our grandmother's ranch on Moloka'i, especially the high country where the deer lived. We'd spent every summer with our hapa haole grandmother since I was four. Ben knew Gramma didn't have time to watch the mountain so he purchased a telescope on a tripod and, after our morning chores of shoveling manure and picking lauhala, he spent the day scouting for poachers. The ranch was known as "Hale Kia," Hawaiian for "home of the deer." Hale Kia began at the shoreline, moved through the pastures, and stretched up the mountain; its boundaries were the sacred elements of water, earth, and sky recognized by King Kamehameha. Kamehameha had given the property to an ali'i as a reward for helping him conquer Oahu and, through the centuries, it had ended up in Gramma's hands.
Ben hated anyone who wandered onto Hale Kia without permission-he felt trespassers were not only challenging an old woman's authority but his as well.
"Let's go fishing," I said as he adjusted the focus on his telescope.
"I'm busy," he replied.
"Protecting our land."
"It's not your land yet."
"It will be someday," he said.
I thought Ben was wasting his summer on Moloka'i. But then he spotted the poachers. It was the second time he'd caught someone trespassing.
Ben squinted through the lens. "One's a popolo."
"Black as the ace of spades," he answered. "Take a gander."
I looked through the lens and saw two men wearing camouflage jackets hiking toward the third gate. One was haole and the other black. Rifles hung from their shoulders. They hiked like they owned the place. It made me feel as though they were staking a claim to our mountain. Gramma had built a house a mile up from the third gate and I didn't want them to find it and break in.
"I'm going up," Ben said.
I took my eye off the lens. "Want company?"
"Willing to fight?"
"You'll chicken out, Jeff."
I remembered when Ben had spotted poachers the first time and Gramma didn't want Ben going up after them. "Shoot ova their heads," Gramma'd instructed. Ben's .22 could rain fifteen shots as fast as he could pull the trigger. Gramma'd pulled out her .219 rifle from The Great War. While they'd blasted, I fired Ben's old BB gun. Bullets and BBs had flown across the public road and we kept shooting and loading while the poachers ran for their lives. It'd been great fun. You could get away with crazy things like that with Gramma. Ben had told me he'd intended to kill the poachers all along, that he'd shot only an inch higher to make up for the distance. "This is our Vietnam," Ben had said.
Gramma would only let Ben go up after the poachers if he brought me-she didn't trusted him alone with a gun. We set out climbing that first hill in our jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. Ben had brought two weapons: his .22 Remington rifle and a hunting knife with a deer bone handle. He kept the knife in a leather sheath attached to his belt.
"Too bad you don't have a gun," Ben said.
"What if they start shooting?"
I'd thought about bringing the BB rifle but I knew that would do little against the guns carried by the poachers. I didn't ask if he had a plan. I just hiked. I tried not to be a burden by matching Ben's pace. He was walking so fast that I had to jog to keep up. I was huffing and puffing after the first hill. The lantana was blooming and there was a wild smell in the air. Ben had gotten his braces and headgear off when the school year began and he'd traded in his horn-rimmed glasses for contacts. Losing all that gear made him feel new and invincible.
"Bet Daddy never scouted like me," Ben said.
"Gramma says he used to run up this mountain," I replied.
"She's full of kukae."
I realized Ben had been waiting for this day, the day he could match deadly force with deadly force. The idea that the poachers were men made him all the more determined to defeat them because this way he could match what our father had done as a boy. Gramma claimed our father had roped and tamed wild horses, discovered the source of the falls, and speared a hammerhead shark with a steel fence post. But there were no stories about him going up after poachers. Ben knew Gramma considered him a tenderfoot because he had our mother's blonde hair, green eyes, and refined features. I had our hapa haole father's wide nose and dark complexion.
Ben didn't mind me tagging along after I told him I could serve as eye witness to his exploits. We snuck through a series of fence lines that kept the cows and steers from reaching the public road. Sweat made my shirt stick to my skin. There were narrow trails in the scrub brush full of goat kukae. Gramma had told us the land between fences was inhabited by ghosts that killed hunters.
When we reached the third fence line, I gazed back at the ocean and saw the blues and greens of Pailolo Channel to the south and the coral reefs fingering out toward Maui. There were turquoise pools in the reef where fresh water bubbled up through the ocean floor. A marlin boat cruised the water between islands. A cool breeze blew off the channel.
Ben pointed to a KAPU: NO TRESPASSING sign nailed to the gate that Gramma used to get to the high country. "Punks can't read," he said.
I ran my fingers over the sign-the white paint flaked off and snowed over the red dirt. The fence line ran east and west. The wire was smooth and the posts were heavy ironwood. There were trails full of deer prints on either side. Mounds of cow manure baked on the red dirt flats to the north.
We ducked between the strands of wire. Ben pulled back slowly on the lever of his rifle and loaded the chamber. He tapped a finger on his lip and handed me his knife.
"Slit his throat," Ben whispered.
I waited while Ben snuck through the plum trees. I brandished the knife and climbed up to a dirt flat on the side of the road. I could smell the manure baking; flies buzzed the fresh mounds. I looked east and saw only the green gully that led down to the valley. There was a giant mango tree on the valley floor. I wondered if the Old Hawaiians had relied on that tree for food. Then I spotted the black man sitting on a boulder looking through the scope of his rifle. He was watching the ridge directly east. The sleeves of his jacket were rolled back over is elbows.
Ben crawled to a plum tree next to the boulder. He popped up and pressed the barrel of his .22 against the man's neck. "Drop it!" Ben said.
The man stood up and raised his hands.
I ran through the brush gripping the deer bone handle. When I reached them, the man had his hands behind his head.
Where's your haole friend?" Ben asked.
"I came alone."
"What's this all about?" the man asked.
Ben nodded at me. "Get his rifle."
I reached into the brush and picked up the rifle by its strap and slung it over my shoulder. It was heavy.
Ben pressed his barrel against the man's chest. His finger was curled around the trigger. "Move."
"And if I don't?"
"I'll kill you up here."
I could tell by the way his voice got deeper that Ben meant what he said. All he had to do was squeeze the trigger and a bullet would rip through the man's chest. The man kept his hands behind his head and walked back to the road. He tripped on a root and wild pheasants scurried through the brush.
I started worrying about the haole poacher. Then a strange feeling took hold, something that made my chest burn and my legs tingle. I slashed at the wind with the knife-it made a dangerous sound. "Tell us where he is," I told the man, " before I knife you." The slashing caused the rifle to fall off my shoulder.
"Jeffrey!" Ben said.
Ben kept his .22 on the man but he didn't make a move.
"Pick the gun up," Ben told me.
"I go nowhere with you two," the man said.
Ben jammed the barrel of his .22 into his back. "You're going to jail for trespassing."
We heard an engine when we reached the road. I looked south toward the third gate and saw Gramma charging up the mountain in her International Scout. She wore a lauhala hat with a wide brim and a palaka shirt. The long thin barrel of her .219 pointed out the window as she pulled alongside. Her skin was white but her eyes slanted.
"This mountain's kapu," she told the man.
"Thought it was state land," he said.
"You thought wrong," Gramma said and looked past us. "Now who's this fulla?"
I looked up and saw the haole poacher hiking down. He held his rifle in one hand and kicked up dust as he walked. He had his camouflage jacket off and knotted around his waist. There were tattoos on his arms and something cocky about the way he carried himself.
"He might shoot," I said.
"He won't shoot," said the black man.
"Thought you came alone," Ben countered.
The black man said nothing.
"Hello, ma'am," the haole said when he reached us.
Gramma told him he was trespassing and "damn lucky" she hadn't called the game warden. Ben grabbed his rifle and Gramma put their guns in the cab. She made them march down unarmed in front of the Scout. Ben and I rode standing in the Scout's bed. The men looked tiny as we leaned over the roof. Ben kept his .22 on them while they marched and I clutched the knife.
When we reached the public road, Gramma unloaded their rifles and threw their bullets in the brush. She gave the men back their guns.
"Don't eva lemmee catch ya again," she said.
"Next time," the haole said, "we'll ask permission." Something in his voice said he was sorry.
"Won't be a next time," Ben said.
We watched them walk east toward the bridge at Kainalu Stream with their guns slung over their shoulders. They didn't speak to each other and they didn't look back.
Ben lowered his .22. "Damn poachers."
"Ya boys did good," Gramma said.
We headed back to the flatlands and I begged Ben to let me borrow the knife.
"No way," he said.
"Just one day."
"All right. But no throwing it against trees. I don't want it busted."
I held the bone handle tight. "I won't bust it."
Gramma turned off the public road and took the long driveway down to the ocean. The horses were safe in their pasture and I could see Gramma's house. White blossoms from the oleander bushes were scattered over the driveway. I felt connected to Hale Kia in a way I'd never felt before. I knew we'd surprised Gramma with our courage and that, for the first time, we'd proved we loved the land enough to risk our lives.
Kirby Wright was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is a graduate
of Punahou School in Honolulu and the University of California at San
Diego. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State
University, where he studied under the tutelage of Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun). Kirby has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and
is a past recipient of the Ann Fields Poetry Prize, the Academy of
American Poets Award, the Browning Society Award for Dramatic Monologue,
and Arts Council Silicon Valley Fellowships in Poetry and The Novel.
Before the City, Kirby’s first book of poetry, took first place at the
2004 San Diego Book Awards.