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Mud City is an online literary journal promoting the ideals and vision of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Low Residency MFA Program.

Melissa Llanes Brownlee

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Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a writer born and raised in Hawaii. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with an MFA in Fiction. She then moved to Japan to teach English, where she continues to do so. Her work has appeared in the GTK Creative Journal, the Waccamaw, The Jet Fuel Review, Crack the Spine, Booth: A Journal, and The Baltimore Review.

Ulu’s Gift


    A cool breeze danced across my skin as I sat on the lanai waiting for my sister to come home. I searched for her dark hair through the branches of the coffee trees, but I couldn’t find her. Legs swinging, my bare feet bumping the railing, I thought about how she had promised to take me out to look for menehune tonight. I’d heard that menehune were like the dancing leprechaun on the Lucky Charms commercial. When I asked Ulu what she thought, she said leprechauns were silly because they were always trying to hide their pot of gold, but menehune were useful and hardworking because they built stuff we could use. I imagined a secret army, in one night, making stonewalls, fishponds, and taro patches.

    I decided to walk through the coffee field, hoping to meet up with Ulu before she got home. The rows towered over me and I was glad it was still day time. I wasn’t scared but you can never be too safe from the Obake. I could see that the leafy branches were half full of red beans, and I knew we would have to start picking soon. I hated coffee picking season. You walk around all day with a basket strapped to your stomach and you have to pick only the red beans, because if you pick the green beans you get dirty lickins. If you talk too much or fight with your sister, you had to keep the sticky beans in your mouth, or else. But, I rather pick coffee than mac nuts. That’s much worse. You have to bend over and run your hands through the fallen macadamia leaves searching for nuts. You can’t use gloves because you might miss the nuts and those leaves are sharp and pointy.

    I found Ulu reading under the breadfruit tree. She was always reading. She didn’t really watch TV. She said you learned more from books. I didn’t like learning and I sure didn’t like reading. One time, I picked up one of her books, My Life in the Land of Milu, and started reading:

    I was six before I learned the meaning of bad and good, because at that time my father decided he preferred me over my other sisters and the attention was not unwanted. When no one else was home, he would pull me towards him and make me kneel, petting my hair and calling me a good girl. So it was here that I understood the meaning of good because I did as my father asked and did not yet know the meaning of bad.

    My father was a fisherman. Well, that’s what he thought of himself, but really he worked in a hotel kitchen at one of the resorts. He wasn’t happy about waking up at three in the morning to cook breakfast and lunch for tourists, but you don’t make money as a fisherman, at least that’s what my mother said. My mother was a teller who handled money all day long and came home later than my father. This left plenty of opportunities for my father to spend time with me as all of my sisters were older and did not come home from school until much later.

    In those days, my parents fought many battles and some of them were as follows: money wars, housework wars, marijuana wars, porn wars and cheating wars. Cheating wars were more common than any other war in our house. This was very bad luck for us because that meant we may have to a) watch my mother run around the house with a meat cleaver chasing my father, b) pack up the car with all of our belongings and sleep in a parking lot for the night, or c) get locked in my parents’ bedroom as my mother cuts all her underwear into tiny little shreds. On any given night, it could be all three or any combination of the three. The first time I saw my mother chase my father with a meat cleaver I was four and I thought it was normal. My sisters would try to leave the house when this happened, but my mother always found a way to keep them with her.

    When my mother thought my father was cheating, she would throw his clothes out of the closet, searching for the porn she knew would be hiding there. Whatever she found, she would show us what a disgusting man our father was and I would see naked people: men and women, women and women, sometimes there would be two men and one woman. My mother would take all these magazines outside and burn them in our fire pit and an eerie high-pitched shriek would travel up through the smoke. I always imagined it to be the ghosts of the people trapped in the magazines, caught forever, burning in the flames.

    Since I was the youngest, no one paid much attention to me, so I would hide in the hallway closet. My friend Rose would join me. She never came when anyone else was there. I never minded. She was a good friend. Sometimes we would play hide and seek, but she would always win because I could never find her. Once, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her peeking out from the kitchen when I was alone with my father. She shook her head and popped back behind the wall before I could stop what I was doing. I was surprised, since she never showed herself to anyone but me.

    Rose said she lived next door and that she was bored. So, she had decided to come over and play with me. I didn’t mind. I didn’t have anything else to do except watch TV and I wasn’t always allowed to do that. She told me that there wasn’t anyone at home most of the time. I asked her what her parents did, but she always wanted to play, instead of talking. She was good at keeping me company when I was lonely. I always wondered why she never came around when anyone else was home and I never saw her at school. What did she do all day long before I saw her? She would show up when I got home from school and leave when my sisters came home. She didn’t like to come over on the weekends. She told me that she didn’t like my family very much and that she preferred to play just with me. I never really asked her why she was always disappearing.

    One weekend, because my father was a fisherman, we went camping. My mother hated to camp. She said it was dirty and she had better things to do then sit around in the shade waiting to cook food for everybody. I guess she didn’t like swimming or lying in the sun. She said that all the spots on her face were from the sun when she was a child. So, instead of enjoying herself, she sat and grumbled.

    The great thing about camping was the beach, because we got to stay in our bathing suits the whole time. We swam. We tanned. We ate. It usually was great as long as my parents didn’t have any of their wars. At night, we would sit around the cooking fire and watch the flames jump and spark and the ashes float away. Sometimes on these camping trips, when my mother had been drinking, my father would spend time with me. This time was no different. He pulled me to the back of the tent when I saw my mother out of the corner of my eye. She saw what my father was doing and started to swear at me. She pulled me away by the strap of my bathing suit, tearing it. She screamed at me. Telling me I was a bad girl because I did as my father asked. And here I thought I had learned the meaning of bad. On and on my mother screamed as she dragged me across the sand by my bathing suit. No one stopped her and no one helped me, and I couldn’t see my father. She stopped at the edge of the water still screaming about how disgusting I was and what a bad girl I was and how I didn’t deserve the roof over my head that she provided. I cried, but she did not hear me.

    Then, my mother tossed me into the sea.

    When I finished reading, I felt really sad and I wondered what kind mother throws her daughter into the sea, and what kind father does that kind stuff. Why would anybody want to read this? I just didn’t get it.

    After that, I stopped trying to read anything my sister had in her room. It just was a waste of time. Plus, I would much rather watch TV. You could see the whole world on the television, the jungles of Africa, the skyscrapers of New York, the North Pole, and outer space, too. There were no children being hurt or killed by their parents.

    Ulu looked up at me as I walked out of the coffee field and smiled. I always thought it was funny to be named after a tree. She told me that the ulu tree was great. You could make poi, stew and even dessert from the fruit and bowls and utensils from the wood. I really didn’t like ulu poi. It’s yellow and smells like BO. I like the dark purple color and sour taste of taro poi. If you look at the taro plant, you can see that it looks like a person. The leaf looks like a big head, the stalk like a long neck and the taro root like a big rolly polly body. The ancient Hawaiians believed that humans were created from the taro plant and that the taro is our brother.

    So, we goin’ go look for menehune tonight?

    Yeah, yeah. We goin’ stay at Aunty Hau’s house coz she not going baddah us.

    Shoots. Wen we goin’?

    Wen I pau read dis chapter.

    Watchu reading?

    None of your beeswax!

    No get all futless. I was jus askin’. You not still reading that Milu book.

    What Milu book?

    You know the one with the girl getting thrown into the ocean by her mada?

    Whatchu was doing, reading my books? You know you not supposed to be in my room.

    I wasn’t being ni’ele. I just wanted to see what was so great about reading, das all.

    Well, dat kine book not good for you. It’s for adults.

    You not one adult.

    So, I can read like one adult. Anyway, I pau with dat book already.

    Oh yeah? What happened to the girl?

    She wen go to the underworld and she had to work hard as a slave in the house of a ghost and her friend would visit her but wouldn’t help her escape.

    What? That no make sense.

    That’s why I told you not to read my books! They not for you. Just kule kule and let me pau reading this chapter.

    So, I sat down next to her. I really didn’t care what she was reading. She’s just weird. All I wanted to do was find some menehune. Ulu is the only person I know who can see menehune. Weird stuff is always happening to her, especially the last time we went camping. We were all sleeping, and all of a sudden my dad woke me up. Before I could say anything, he shook his head and pointed at Ulu sleeping next to me. I could see that Ulu’s hair was moving but there was no wind. It was so still I couldn’t even hear the ocean. We just sat there watching as her long hair moved around her shoulders. I looked at my dad and he didn’t seem scared. Then, the smell of maile leaf drifted over us and I got major chicken skin and all I wanted to do was hide under the blanket. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t woken up yet. I know I would definitely get up if someone was touching my hair. Then, the smell was gone and Ulu’s hair just dropped back onto her shoulders. My dad walked over to her and woke her up. He asked if everything was okay. She told us she had the nicest dream. She was sitting in the rainforest reading when she met some girls. They told her how much they loved her hair and ran their fingers through it. Then, she watched them gather maile leaf and lehua blossoms to weave a lei po’o and they put it on her head. Ulu said she didn’t mind and that it was very nice. They had to leave, but asked if they could visit again, and that’s when daddy woke her up. Dad told her that every time we go camping, he saw her hair moving at night, but he always thought it was just the wind. This time there wasn’t any kind of wind and Ulu’s hair was still moving. Dad said he wasn’t surprised because this stuff happened to his mom, too. I knew there was something different about Grandma, but I never thought she was like Ulu.

    All pau. You ready?

    Watchu think?

    No act. I not goin’ take you to find menehune if you keep it up.

    Sorrys. I just like go already.

    They no come out ‘til night time, so stop being so kolohe.

    I followed Ulu through the coffee fields. I just wanted to run, like running would make the sun go down any faster. Ulu told me that the ancient Hawaiians used to have men who ran around the island delivering messages for the Ali’i. There were runners’ trails all over. I imagined that I was running to save the kingdom from evil invaders.

    As we walked to Aunty Hau’s house, Ulu and I talked story about school. Ulu said her teacher Mr. Chee was going let her tutor her classmates because she was such a good student. Sometimes Ulu can be high maka maka. Most of the time I don’t mind, but when she starts bragging about it, I just want her to shut it. I guess it’s because I’m not doing so well in school. It’s just so boring. I don’t mind ukulele class. That’s fun, making your fingers dance like ukus over the strings. I’m getting pretty good, but you don’t see me bragging about winning an award for best ukulele player in my class.

    How come you read so much?

    I learn all kind stuff and I can travel all over.

    What? You just reading some words, you not going anywhere.

    You so lolo. Of course, I no go someplace for reals, but my mind can go anywhere the books take me. You know like that Milu book you read.

    I never like that book. It made me sad and I only read the first chapter. How come you like read that kind stuff? You want to see children get hurt and killed by their parents?

    No, that’s not why I read it. I read it because the girl goes to the underworld. She gets away from her bad parents and she lives a whole new life. She learns from all kinds of people. She’d never have done that if her mother hadn’t thrown her in the ocean.

    I don’t get it. So she was killed and you okay with that?

    I not okay with that, but she wasn’t really happy was she?

    No, why didn’t she tell somebody what was happening?

    That’s not really the story, is it?

    I thought about that as we got to Aunty Hau’s house, she had just finished making dinner, my favorite, beef stew with rice. Aunty Hau was easy. She always asked how school was going and I would let Ulu do all the talking. They always liked Ulu. I think it’s because she’s so smart and she always listens to the adults. I mean really listens not just pretend listens, when you just nod your head and say oh yeah now and then. Ulu says that’s how you get them to do stuff for you. I tried listening to Aunty Hau, but after she talked about her sore back and how much she needed a massage from the tutu kahuna for the third time, I just couldn’t. I kept staring at the taro on her neck, hoping that I’d never grow taro on my neck. After we pau eat, we watched the sunset from the lanai. I love watching the sunset. I always look for the green flash. Sometimes, I think I see the green flash because I’ve been staring at the sun for too long.

    I strummed Aunty Hau’s ukulele. It’s the only time outside of school I get to play. My fingers danced over the strings, picking a C here and a G there. I really wanted an ukulele, but my parents said that it was useless and that I should learn to play the piano, instead. Nobody cared if you played the ukulele. Ulu played the piano since she was four. My parents made me take lessons, but I hated the metronome. Every time I heard it tick tocking, I wanted to throw it at the teacher’s head. Of course, that’s not what good little girls do. I would never practice and my parents finally said it was a waste of money and stopped paying the piano teacher for my lessons, but Ulu, always being the good girl, still had lessons every week. I would tease her and say that she was a kiss ass, and she would say that I was so lolo and one hard head. I don’t care what she says. I going buy my own ukulele when I get older and no one’s going to tell me that I can’t. I looked over at Ulu and saw that she was reading again. Always reading. Sometimes, she read so much I think her brain going get so big her head going pop! I started playing a song about centipedes, trying to get her to laugh, but she was so into her book, she didn’t even look up.

    We waited for the quiet snores from the living room. When the stars started to come out, Ulu got the flashlights we had brought from our house.

    You stay ready?

    Yeah.

    You stay scared?

    No way jose.

    We walked across the road and into the rainforest. We really didn’t need the flashlight, the moon was so bright and I wasn’t scared. I didn’t know where Ulu was taking me, but I was wondering if hunting for menehune was such a great idea. I started to imagine that the boogeyman was following me and I grabbed Ulu’s hand. She just looked down at me and smiled.

    So, you no stay scared?

    I let go and walked ahead of her. I didn’t want her to know how scared I was getting.

    No worries. I no think you stay chicken.

    I no care if you think I stay chicken, coz I’m not. Why I gotta be scared of some little menehunes? What they going do to me?

    Kule kule. I think I stay hear something.

    I wanted to tell her to kule kule, but that’s when we heard drums. I didn’t really think it was anything, but Ulu got major chicken skin. I looked around and all I could see was the full moon shining through the trees. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The drums got louder. I tried to figure out where the sound was coming from. I looked up at the moon and there was a huge white circle around it.

    You, stay close.

    Why come?

    I think the Night Marchers stay coming.

    What? You stay joking.

    Kule kule.

    I no believe in the Night Marchers. What they going do?

    If we stay out here, they going take us with them.

    What? Not even.

    The only stories I’d heard were about the Night Marchers walking where nobody lived like on the lava flows down south, and if you happened to be in their way, they would carry you off with them. The drums started to get louder and I saw a row of fire coming down the mountain. Ulu started to pull me back to Aunty Hau’s, but I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to go to the underworld. I didn’t want to be the slave of some ghost. The sound kept getting louder. I think it was way too late to try and get back to the house, so she told me lay on the ground face down.

    No try look!

    As I tried to lay on the ground, making myself as flat as possible, I could hear water hitting the dirt and I remembered what you’re supposed to do when the Night Marchers come. I knew I shouldn’t laugh, but I couldn’t help it. I started to giggle as I thought about how the same thing that protects you from the Night Marchers also helps when a wana needle gets stuck in your foot. Then, all of a sudden I didn’t feel like laughing anymore. Although I couldn’t see what she was doing, I knew she was trying to save me. Then, she lay down next to me and we waited. I was so scared, but she just kept telling me to keep my eyes closed as the drums started to sound like they were ready to pound us into the ground. I could feel something walking very near us. I couldn’t hear feet on the dirt or the leaves on the trees moving, but I knew something was there. I just kept my eyes closed and hoped that they wouldn’t touch us. I really didn’t want to die.

    Finally, the drums started to get softer, but Ulu kept my head down and told me to wait. I listened because I still had chicken skin, and there was no way I wanted to become a Night Marcher. Ulu told me I could lift my head, but I didn’t see anything except for this big wet circle around us. There were no footprints. You’d think they’d leave footprints.

    We stood up and I didn’t care if there was pee on me and I hugged Ulu.

    You okay?

    I shook my head and I thought about that stupid book. I thought about that poor girl and how no one had really loved her, and I hugged Ulu again, really hard. I didn’t think I wanted to look for Menehune anymore, and we walked quickly to Aunty Hau’s and we didn’t look back.