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You can always count on a crowd outside Heads by Harry, the Yagyuu family's taxidermy shop in Hilo, where the regulars gather every day to drink beer, eat smoked meat, and pontificate into the pau hana hours. But above the shop, where the family lives, life isn't so predictable. Toni Yagyuu, the middle child, has enough on her hands dealing with her budding diva of a little sister. But it is the men in her life that really have her running in circles: a flamboyant older brother who wants to be a ...
You can always count on a crowd outside Heads by Harry, the Yagyuu family's taxidermy shop in Hilo, where the regulars gather every day to drink beer, eat smoked meat, and pontificate into the pau hana hours. But above the shop, where the family lives, life isn't so predictable. Toni Yagyuu, the middle child, has enough on her hands dealing with her budding diva of a little sister. But it is the men in her life that really have her running in circles: a flamboyant older brother who wants to be a hairdresser, a stubborn father who refuses to accept her into the family business, and the Santos brothers—two pig-hunting, ex-high school football players who don't know what to think of their headstrong, outspoken neighbor.
A roseate sky envelops Mauna Ke'a on the Big Island of Hawai'i, youngest in the chain of Hawaiian Islands, and the only home I have known.
Trough the Saddle goad to Waiki'i, we take the lonely drive between two mountains, sleeping volcanoes, the tallest mountains in the world from the sea floor up:
Mauna Loa, purple dome sister.
Mauna Ke'a, regal white brother.
And the Saddle Road between them is an undulating stretch of broken asphalt.
We wait downwind from the blue pheasants sated in a morning drizzle. This is the day that my father lets me shoot first, the Japanese blue pheasant, my first trophy--wings spread, cobalt-iridescent feathers, and vermilion glass eyes. My pheasant poised to fly from an `ohi`a branch.
When I was sixteen, my father gave my older brother, Sheldon, and me Labrador retrievers, two black babies with yellow eyes and breath that smelled like tuna fish and yeast. The breeder, a hunter from Keaukaha, threw the puppies into the brackish ponds at Leleiwi.
"Pure water dogs," my father said as he moved his hand over the glossy sheen of fur.
On every other hunting trip, Sheldon got to shoot first. He always missed. My father would swear loudly, "Goddammit you, Sheldon, I hate wing shooting." He'd take a single shot sending a bird whirlwinding midair.
He told the family as we ate our breakfast that morning at Waiki'i, "Them other hunters watch too much TV, especially American Sportsman. Who the helllike the dog flush the damn bird?"
My father preferred sneaking up on his game, then taking Good aim. Shooting a stationary target allowed him to choose The point of bullet entry.
"Now that's sporting to me," he said. "But shit, every time I let Sheldon shoot first, damn kid miss and I force to snag the bird up in flight. Not Toni."
Mommy nudged him hard, so my father dropped it. Sheldon didn't care. I saw it in his sassy face. All those other times we hunted with our father, my brother was shooting junk on purpose, so he wouldn't have to come on any more hunting trips as he flushed the birds with his falsetto voice and ballerina arms. He wanted to stay home and make sushi with our little sister, Bunny.
But this morning, like every other time my father could've uttered words immersed in his singular affection for me, he looked at me and smiled instead. Then he changed the subject.
"Where the egg rolls you made, Bunny?" Food conversations in Japanese families put us all at ease. If we were all eating, then we were not talking. "Mary Alice, you like shoot today? Pass me another musubi. What about you, Bunny? Where the fried wing dings? So who's hunting with me?"
My mother and sister opted for waiting in the truck. It was too cold. The dogs were smelly and wet. The brambles scratched their delicate arms. "We'll keep the truck warm. Good luck, goodbye, goodbye," Mommy said, waving us off with a half-eaten wing ding.
I see, through my father's eyes, the Saddle Road, Mauna Ke'a sloping in shades of maize, olive, and lavender. I see a white rim of clouds at the level of condensation encircling the summit of the mountain.
I follow his eyes to the summit, where on this island of rain forest, desert, tide, and vale, I once touched snow with my bare hands and traveled above the stratum of white clouds with my father.
I see, on this day, grassland intensifying the space in front of us, so that everywhere I look is distorted by heat waves, except for the sky, which is milky blue by sever in the morning.
I walk beside my father, who points out to me the groves of mamane growing in the gullies of Waiki'i. He looks for the palila honeycreepers, indigenous but nearly extinct, tiny yellow birds with beaks like finches that feed on the blossoms of the mamane.
My father passes to me a seed pod from the mamane tree. He shrugs his shoulders and sighs sadly. "Too many mouflon sheep eating the trees," he tells me. We walk on through the kikuya, thick shrublike grasses, and into the openness of the fields.
"Toni, you shoot first," my father says. I look at him and he nods deeply. "Give her the gun, Sheldon." My brother quickly turns toward me.
"Be my super-cali-fraga-listic guest, honey," he says as he holds the barrel with the tips of his fingers and swings the butt at me. I hold the old .410 that I shared on so many trips with my brother. The gun I practiced on with my father at the Police Academy range.
"Walk into the wind, muffle your step, and the wind bring the bird seem to Sony and Chiba." I hear the tiny bell I attached to Chiba's collar stop. And I stop. My dog never flushed the game. I taught her not to so that my father would never call me American Sportsman wannabe wing shooter, one-shot. A light drizzle lapses in the upland wind. "Better for you. Drown your scent," he whispers in my ear.
Sheldon drags his ass and yanks at the kikuya grass as he follows our trail, He's stomp-stomping and singing, "A hundred mirrion meee-ra-culls, are happening ebbry-day," and then the pheasant, a Japanese blue, flushes, two three of them. I raise my gun, I am shooting first, and I fire once.
This moment lasts like a picture.
I see the tunneled falling of a blue bird through the lucid expanse of sky.
Sheldon rolls his eyes.
My father lowers his gun.
Chiba crosscuts through the kikuya grass for the bird.
The smell of pheasant blood stains my hands for hours, unwashable.
No words, all my life he offered no words.
My father gives me a firm pat on the shoulder.
There were wild thimbleberries in the Laupahoehoe Forest Reserve. I would bake a thimbleberry pie for my father. Or I'd make for him a thimbleberry jam by sprinkling packets of pectin into the slow pop of red boiled jell alter adding the C & H, cup after cup.
I went with my father and his hunting friend, Cardoza, to gather the berries.
I had seen fieldworkers picking strawberries on National Geographic. I saw cherries that grew on trees.
I wanted to be the girl who picked berries for her father, the girl he lifted into the Big Island sky in the 8-millimeter film starring me.
And in this film, I see my father looking at me with his face full of calm affection, his gestures, his nod, in the crackling of celluloid through an old projector, and the flickering light.
My father and I follow Cardoza into the reserve. He turns to remind me to bring the Ziploc for the thimbleberries. We walk down the dark trail and into the forest.
There is a soft grunting noise.
Shhh, no noise.
Be cautious with each step, he motions to me.
Shhh, don't snap the twigs or rustle the leaves.
My father points to a hollowed area under a kukui tree. Cardoza nods, still filming all the while. I cannot see. The whole underside is hidden by vast overgrowths of wild thimbleberries. My father readies his gun, and I creep closer. I reach for the wild berries, straining to look over a log and under the next to see the backside of a huge black sow. I hear the suckling.
My father shoots the sow near her head without warning. He wants her for smoked meat. The piglets scatter at first, so young and unafraid, they scramble around me.
"Gather them up, quick," he says, pulling burlap bags from his pack. The sow, still breathing, gurgles and foams as I run after the piglets. "Put them in the burlap bag, hurry up, Toni, run, quick, run." I manage to catch four of them, kicking and crying, and I shove them in the burlap bags.
Cardoza begins skinning the sow alter a couple of stabs in her throat to stop her noise. But her sounds don't stop until he skins a portion of her hide off the flesh.
I take the fourth and smallest piglet out of the bag before my father secures the other three to his waist with rope. He lets me carry her out of the forest. When I put my knuckle to her mouth, she suckles it. Her mouth smells like a puppy's, tuna fish and yeast.
I was a girl who wanted to pick berries for her father.
He shot a sow and smoked her meat.
I got a piglet.
I named her Fern.
Neither of us bothered to pick the berries.
He let me keep Fern in the apartment above our taxidermy shop, Heads by Harry. It was summer and my pig. let followed the downstairs like a dog, except smarter. I had her paper-trained in no time. I bathed her in the tub with Suave strawberry shampoo.
I named her after Fern Arable in Charlotte's Web. I was Charlotte. Sheldon was Templeton. Bunny was off reading Dr. Seuss's There's a Wocket in My Pocket. I liked the name Fern. The name reminded me of the Laupahoehoe Forest Reserve full of hapu'u where I found the piglet I fed with an EvenFlo bottle.
But there is never a happy ending in stories with a child and a wild animal. E. B. White knew.
When Fern got too big to live in the apartment above the shop and feeding her two man-size meals a day became too costly, everyone had an opinion outside of Heads by Harry.
"Smoke that damn wahine buta," Niso-san said to my father. "Too much-i eat-u buta kaukau. Too much-i oinku, oinku, oinku. Pee-yeu, and ku-sai, nei, the un-ko and shi-shi."
"No, the meat too tender. No smoke um. Go kalua the pig. She so fat, the whole thing be one rump roast," Mr. Lionel Santos said. "Kalua in the imu. I help dig the pit. Me and my boys."
"Let's huli huli the pig with lots of rock salt," Uncle Herb said, smacking his lips. "No, Mildred? It's too much humbug to dig the imu. We'll buy the liquid smoke and let's make some laulau."
"Well, Tom ma dear," my father said to me, "I thinking about you."
I was such a little girl. And he gave this so little thought.
That weekend, we return to the Laupahoehoe Forest Reserve. My father finds the kukui tree surrounded by the thicket of wild thimbleberries and takes Fern off of her leash. She won't run. She sits there at first and then roots her snout in the soft mulch near the base of a thimbleberry bush. I pull a handful of berries off of the thorny branches and open my palm to her soft grunting snout.
"What the hell you doing, Toni? We trying to make your goddamn pig go born free and you feeding her from your hand. How she going fend for herself?" My father sits down on a fallen log as Fern nuzzles up to him, lifting his arm with her heavy snout to pet her head. He puts Fern's head in a gentle choke hold and knuckles the top of it.
"I can give her to the Portagee by Uncle's house."
"He probably eat her, Daddy. I not stupid, you know."
"Well, you the damn fool been treating her like your pet dog."
"We just keep her already, Daddy."
"Where? In our goddamn apartment in downtown Hilo? You nuts, little girl."
"What we going do, Daddy?"
"I don't know what the hell to do about this goddamn pig," my father says, exasperated. "See what you did, you damn kid. No talk to me for little while. Let me think."
I wander off with my pig and pick wild thimbleberries for her. Most she eats, but a Baggie-ful I take home.
Later on, my brother made jam.
We did a Fern Arable and gave the pig to Uncle Herb, who at that time lived on his in laws' sugarcane land out n Pepe'ekeo. And as happy endings go, she lived a fine life of leftover stops from the Saloon Pilot cracker cans my uncle gathered up each afternoon from the neighbors, who gladly contributed because the pig was smart.
Bark. Sit. Shake hands. Bang! She'd roll over and feign death. Mrs. Freitas always gave the burnt bottom from a pot of Portuguese bean soup if her grandchildren could pet the pig. Efrem Garcia threw in butbut and mochi rice while his children, nieces, and nephews clapped at the tricks. Sheldon, Bunny, and I visited every weekend with a bucket of slops and cold Naa'alehu milk.
We visited Fern every weekend, up until the night Melvin Spencer's pig dogs got loose and killed Fern right in her pen, right next to her pig house.
I begged my father to bring her back home.
"What for? What I going do with that fat dead pig at the shop? You tell me, Toni."
"Somebody might eat her, Daddy."
"I heard Uncle Herb telling Mr. Spencer he could kalua the pig," Sheldon told my father as he draped his arm over my shoulders.
Bunny cried for days. Sheldon pounded a cross out of hibachi wood scraps from the alley out back.
I was a little girl immobilized by inexpressible grief.
The day my father sits me on the stool next to his shop table I know what will happen. "Everything coming off," he says, making the first incision, "the ears, eyelid, and the lips. And then we take off the excess meat from the skin. Here, hold your pig straight for me. I show you where those damn dogs been bite Fern."
Her belly is ripped, neck covered with massive dog bites, and one ear nearly torn off. He points with the tip of his knife to the internal bleeding and massive bruising.
"She never even fight back," he whispers to me.
I say nothing but rest my head on his shoulder.
"Okay," he says, taking a deep breath and pulling himself together, "you watch Daddy be real careful around the eyes. I no like you blame the Portagee man. This was a freak accident of nature."
I watch my father's knife bite into the delicate flesh. The skin tightens near the skull, so he removes it with short flicks of his blade. "Hold the ear for me," he says. He doesn't want to lose it. He helps me sew it back on later.
And when the skinning is done, my father says softly, "Say your final words to your pig. Daddy going in the back get the preservatives ready. In two, three months, she be yours again. I let you hang her up in your bedroom. Right above your bed."
"Get in there, Sheldon," my father says, giving him a shove. "Say bye to Toni's pig. Go get Bunny and bring the cross you made. And no touch thing.
Bunny places the cross over the cape of bristly skinned hide.