I paddled out through the red clay stained water, no visibility below, cold and brisk on my skin, a faint fish smell, not thinking about the tiger sharks, stroke after stroke to warm up, hurrying to catch the perfect morning glass before any more waves rolled. Pass the first reef, out to beyond the second. A fifteen-minute paddle. No one is out yet, but they will be soon. I make it out just as a set comes and line up and paddle into the wave, going left, popping up, hugging down close, slicing faster than it seems from shore, going down and then up on the wave, a nice long ride all the way back to the first reef before pulling off and paddling back out. A turtle's head pokes out and I ignore it as I get out just in time again to get another nice long ride. I paddle back out to wait and catch my breath.
I sit on my mini tanker out at the Westside break, calves vanished in the dark red water from the clay in this region, legs stinging a little from the sea lice, the sun starting to hint it will rise in the next hour far across the island in the east, and I feel the stillness of the ocean’s breath out beyond the reef, sucking in and out. Another set rolls in and this one is bigger so maneuvering fast I take off and before I know it I am being barreled. Alana is paddling out and hollers at my ride because the barrel is unexpected and as I slide down the wall of glass praying to god I don’t eat it on the exposed reef below for the briefest second I become aware that I am completely one with the ocean and air all around, that there is no separate sense of me doing anything whatsoever other than participating in this big inhale and exhale. This is relieving. The wave shoots me out before crashing down and I dive off my board into the murky water to feel the cold all over and be refreshed.
“Ho! Morning barrel, what is that?!” Alana splashes water at me in congrats for my sweet wave.
“A gift from the Gods.” I splash water back at her, my furrowed brow alleviated for a minute.
She picks up on it.
“How’s your dad this round?”
I shrug and look at the pink in the clouds covering the rising sun as I try to think if the chemo has made any difference.
“It seems to kill the pain for a week before it comes back. His legs are puffy from the water retention.”
“How’s his mood?”
“Pretty good. He likes to sit in the sun in the yard and listen to The Beatles.”
Alana takes me in and then switches her focus to the set rolling in and paddles quickly with her long lean arms into the set, takes off and expertly carves up and down, spraying her little brother and his grom crew as they paddle out and yell at her in defiance.
Far on the outside of the reef I suddenly make out a silhouette paddling around the outer edges. The morning vog--volcanic fog—obviates my view but I can tell it’s a big man with a large barrel chest and flowing dark hair and beard because that whole part of the body silhouette is bulky like the weight is dispersed forward. He paddles out of the low hanging mist resting on the dark sea and I can tell by his rust colored neoprene rash guard that I am indeed having a rare sighting of the Shark King. He is the most legendary surfer of the West side and is so mythical that people don’t really even know if he’s real. I’ve seen him maybe three times in my entire life of surfing, and he’s usually so far out—like he is now, cruising the outer reef, that it’s hard to determine if it is indeed him or a mirage you are hoping for in order to report back.
His mysterious status is attributed to the decades of stories about him—that he sleeps on his board, that he paddles between here and Ni’ihau, that he eats reef sharks raw in the water, that he is part fish, that he has gills, that he is protected by all the Hawaiian water gods, that he himself is an apparition of Ku’ula the god of fisherman, that he is the human messenger of Ka-moho-aliʻi, the shark god, that he has a secret cove where he tends to an ancient family that breeds the most beautiful Hapa children. That he has nine wives and twenty children as the ancient Hawaiian chieftans did. That he surfs breaks in the ocean that no one knows of. That he is immortal because no swell is too big and no wind too strong. On and on the legends and stories go and over the space of growing up one does not know where myth ends and truth begins.
But the story that carries the most weight is the one where there were witnesses. The story that gave him the name Shark King. This is the story of a man in the water with his wives and daughters, swimming and enjoying the fish on the reef when a group of sharks approached. The other men were in the boat shouting at the women and children, but it was too late for anyone to move. The story goes that the chief faced the head shark in the water as it bore down and it became a battle of energy. As the shark approached the man the shark diverted his path and bowed to the man treading water in his field, swam under him and as a sign of submission curled three times and with his group of sharks swam off. The man said that the shark had agreed to make peace with him, become his protector god, and share the territory as long as there was always a mutual respect. Because of this, the man was to be given autonomy with all other sharks, as the story goes.
After that incident, word spread about the waterman and the locals dubbed him the shark king. Sightings became less frequent as the decades went on because the man lived a private life, mostly out at sea, or tucked away from the village view.
I was surprised to see him in and out of the fog like that, on the outer reef’s edge, holding a fishing spear while on a large board, completely focused on his task.
I watched what I assumed was the Shark King until he slid out of view from the set coming in and positioned myself for a wave and paddled into it. A long boarder also took off and we had a party wave until he fumbled and careened into me. We went down in a frothy pile over shallow reef and popped up and untangled everything, squatting low on the reef coral. I was bleeding from the nose where I’d been thumped. The guy—fresh to the island—apologized and flipped his neon green board upright. Color is a funny thing. The color was the same neon green color of the shoestring my father used to tie around my grandmother’s jaw to the top of her head for the three-day vigil. To keep it from opening. Me, thinking it was a bow in her hair, not seeing the whole string for two full days, thinking it was her humor to go out with a neon green bow in her hair. That was only six months ago. I told the guy I was fine and looked out at the horizon line, scanning for the shark king.
I thought about paddling in but then turned back around and paddled out again. My nose dried up after a few minutes and I doubted it was enough blood to alert any sharks that may be in the area.
Alana and I caught several more sets before the sun became too hot and we had to paddle in.
“Did you see da kine?” She asked me as we paddled in, motioning with her head to the outer reef.
“It was him, wasn’t it.”
“I think it was.” She looked at me with wide eyes, trying to conceive if that was really him.
“I think it was him. But I was out so early, before anyone. Where did he come from?”
“He’s from the sea, Rhi. He doesn’t come from a Tundra in the parking lot hello.”
“Yeah, but really. Where does he come from?” We sat in the shallow sand of the inner reef and twisted our leashes around our fins to tie them up and strip down our rash guards. “He must have some camp somewhere. Or a boat.”
“Maybe he lives in the Hawaiian housing district?”
“Maybe he spends a few days at sea.”
“Maybe he lives in Kalalau or Miloli’i.”
“I’ve heard that they find outlaws in the caves near the army base. That they find electrical outlets in the caves they plug tv’s into running lines from the electrical.”
“I’ve seen those you know. In high school.”
“Who showed you, hello.”
Alana splashed water in my face and I splashed her back as we got out and headed back to the east side.