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Kia Manu

Stories of Life in Old Hawaiʻi

Caroline Curtis

illustrated by Oliver C. Kinney

Kamehameha Schools Press

Honolulu, 1998

pgs. 125-140





Kii: Herb Kawainui Kane


With the Birdcatchers

The Baby is Named

 

"Moku!" Grandfather took the baby in his arms and looked at him lovingly. Then he told the parents, "As I slept my god Mokuhāliʻi stood beside my mats. He told me that you have another son. 'Let this boy bear my name,' he said."


    "Moku," the father repeated, "our family has always worshiped the forest gods. The name is good."


    The baby grew to be a healthy active child but he was silent. He made no baby sounds. He learned to understand what others said and sometimes his mother saw him move his lips as if to talk—but no sound came. Tears filled the mother's eyes. "Our boy cannot talk," she said sadly.


    Now and then Grandfather came from the far-away village where he lived. He played with the baby, carrying him about. When the child was larger he rode on Grandfather's shoulders, holding on by hair or ear. As Moku walked beside the old man or sat on his knee the child listened to talk of life in the forest.


    After a time Grandfather paddled away to his distant home. Moku will forget him, Mother thought. Months later when the old man came again the child ran to him. He had not forgotten.


    The two played together. Mother watched as Grandfather swung the boy in his arms, then tossed him up and caught him. "Is Moku riding a canoe in rough waves?" she asked.

    "No," Grandfather told her. "He is in a tall tree shaken by the wind." This time when the old man left, the child stood watching sadly. "He will come back," Mother promised.

    As Moku grew he came to understand that Grandfather was a birdcatcher. He listened to stories of the deep forest where many gods live. He heard how birds were caught and feathers gathered so that chiefs might have capes of red, yellow and black. As long as Grandfather's visit lasted the boy was with him—except in the eating house. Moku was still a little fellow who ate with his mother and other women.


    Kūpā, his older brother, ate with the men. One day Kūpā ran from the eating house to tell Moku, "I am going to be a birdcatcher like Grandfather. Soon I shall go to live with him."

    Moku did not wait for Grandfather that day but took the trail leading to a cave where he often played. The boy sat in the dark cave while tears ran down his cheeks. He knew that older brothers could do things a small boy could not. Kūpā ate with men and told of eating pork. He went fishing with bigger boys and was learning to paddle a canoe.

    But I am the one named for a forest god, Moku thought. I am the one to live with Grandfather and be a birdcatcher. Not Kūpā. For a long time the child stayed in the cave. When he went back to the beach Grandfather was gone.


    In the weeks that followed Moku thought often of Kūpā's words. It must be so, he told himself. Older brothers have everything. Kūpā will go to live with Grandfather. He will learn to be a birdcatcher. I cannot talk. I am no use to anyone.    Then Grandfather came again. Moku ran to him at once, held his hand and listened as the old man talked to Father and Mother. "Mokuhāliʻi spoke to me again," Grandfather said. "These were his words, 'Take my namesake and train him. The silent child pleases the forest gods.' O my son, O my daughter-in-law, we must obey."


    Mother was troubled. "You cannot take a little boy into the forest," she said. "Who will care for him while you are gone?"


    "Ana, my relative. You know it is the custom for a boy to live with the parents of his father. Because my wife is dead I have not asked for your boys. Now our god has spoken and we must obey."


    "We shall obey." Moku's father spoke slowly. "Moku shall be a birdcatcher. Today he shall be consecrated."


    That afternoon Moku went to the men's eating house. On the shrine stood a wooden image of Lono, the great god. The boy watched as Father put an offering before the image—a cup of ʻawa drink and ʻawa root, maiʻa, niu and cooked pig's head. A gourd hung from a cord around Lono's neck. Father cut an ear from the cooked pig and put it in the gourd. All the men and boys watched reverently. Why did he do that? Moku wondered.

    Then Father prayed:


            "Here is the pig, niu and ʻawa,

            O ye gods,

            Kū, Lono, Kāne and Kanaloa."


    The prayer was long. Moku could not understand all but one thing he did understand. As the pig's ear was shut away in the gourd by the cover so were Moku's sins shut away. Every bad thought he had had was gone. He was clean. His life as a man was beginning. The next day when Grandfather paddled to his own village Moku was with him.

    Life in the strange village did not trouble the child for he was with Grandfather. Ana was kind. At first the children thought Moku odd because he did not speak. Soon they learned his sign talk and liked him. "He is good at crabbing," they said, "because he is quiet and quick. When we go for shrimps he sees them on the undersides of water grasses and quickly knocks them into our baskets. He never shouts and argues as we do."

    Moku paddled the canoe when Grandfather fished. He helped plant kalo and weed. He learned to make fire and cook food.


    And Moku listened as the old man talked of the lehua forest and the work of birdcatching. Perhaps he will take me this year, the boy thought, and let his nails grow long like claws as birdcatchers do.


    Grandfather saw the fingernails and the longing in the boy's eyes. "Not this year," he said. "The trail is long and the work hard. You are still a little boy."

    Moku helped Grandfather and the other birdcatchers with their backloads of food and watched them take the trail. Next year I shall be strong enough, he thought. He worked alone in Grandfather's garden. He went with the men to cut olonā or wauke saplings. He helped to bring kauila wood for posts for a new house. If I do much work I shall be strong, he told himself again and again.


    Soon after the birdcatchers returned to the village the Makahiki festival began. Moku loved the months of gift giving, games and feasting. This year he listened more eagerly than ever before to stories of the forest. He knew that many gods lived there and that they loved and cared for every living thing.


    "In the fall birds molt," Grandfather said. "Old feathers are loose because new ones are growing. That is the time we may take feathers. It is also the blossoming time of lehua high on the mountain slopes. The little honey-sucking birds come to the lehua and at that time the gods let us catch the birds and take a few feathers from each one."

    When Makahiki was over it was time to begin many kinds of work—fishing over the reef, gathering salt, planting ʻuala. Later ʻulu and ʻohiʻa ʻai must be gathered.

    It was also time for the feathergatherers to make ready for the forest. Moku tied fresh leaves to the net of olonā fiber which made Grandfather's raincoat. This is a thatch of leaves to keep Grandfather dry, thought the boy as he carefully tied one row of leaves above another.


    He salted fish and pounded poi. It is almost time for the men to start, Moku was thinking. Tomorrow I must gather ʻulu gum and then...

    Sap had come from places on an ʻulu trunk cut by a sharp stone. The sap had hardened into balls of gum. It was while Moku was gathering these that he heard Grandfather call. Grandfather sounded excited. Moku ran.

 

On the Way

 

    "Let us see if this fits." The old man was holding up his raincoat of leaves. No, it was not his raincoat, but a new one which he threw over the boy's shoulders. "It is just right," he said. "You will need this for the rain is heavy in the upland."

    Then Moku knew! He was going with the birdcatchers!

    That night he prayed earnestly. He could not pray aloud, but Grandfather had often told him to pray in his mind. "The gods will understand." So Moku prayed:


                "O Kāne,

                O Kanaloa,

                Give me power,    Give me wisdom,

                Give me great success.

                Oh, climb to the wooded mountains,

                Climb to the mountain ridges,

                Gather the birds.

                Bring them to my gum to be held fast."


    Before dawn the men made offerings to the gods and prayed once more. Then they were off. The trail was dark but they knew it well and walked quickly in the cool of early morning.

    The sun had risen when they passed the gardens. Now the trail was steep and rough. At last they reached the forest and stopped beside a spring to drink and rest. Moku had been here before but today it seemed different because he was with the birdcatchers. The moss about the spring was like tiny ferns, vines crawled along the ground and tree ferns stood taller than the men.


    Taller still, lehua trees reached for the sunlight. These trees had already lost their blossoms. Moku knew that the birdcatchers were going to the higher forest where flowers came in the molting season.


    Vines and mossy logs tried to trip men and boy. Once the four waded through a marshy place where their feet grew heavy with mud. Once they climbed up a waterfall, passing their bundles from one to another to keep them dry. Then along a narrow ridge. Cliffs dropped steeply on each side but Moku was not afraid. Grandfather was leading and Grandfather knew the way. Perhaps the men grew tired but the boy was too excited and happy to think of rest.


    It was growing dark when they reached their house. Moku had heard of this forest house ever since he was a little boy but now it seemed a cave of darkness. Then one of the men kindled a fire. Smoke at first, then dancing flames.     Moku hugged himself with joy. He liked the cozy fire inside a sleeping house. The fire was in a trench lined with stones. Near it a log walled in the sleeping place filled with fern leaves. As the fire burned brightly Moku saw rolls of mats on a shelf and on the other side of the small house large gourds which he knew held kapa covers.


    While Moku looked about, Līhau unpacked food. The four ate beside a little shelter where cooking could be done in time of rain. The boy was hungry yet he hardly tasted the fish and poi. He was listening to forest sounds— the wind in the trees, the call of sleepy birds and the splash of a waterfall. Later he lay warm and comfortable beside Grandfather under a kapa cover and watched the glow of the fire. Ē, this is good! he thought and fell asleep.

    Birdcatching did not begin next day for other work needed to be done first. Līhau got fresh koa bark to mend the wall of the cooking shelter while the other helper gathered wood and stored it in a dry cave. Grandfather led Moku to the lehua trees. "We must know which have blossoms," he said. "We must remember where each blossom is, for our work is done before morning light brings the birds, the honey-suckers."

    The two gathered gum from mountain plants. They heated ʻulu gum in a large shell, added the other gum and mixed them with a stick. All was ready.

    Everyday the four had prayed. Only with the mana, power, from the gods, could they get feathers from tiny birds. On the night before the work was to begin Moku prayed again and again. He thought he lay awake all night praying but suddenly Grandfather was waking him.

    The boy shivered with cold and excitement as he pulled his raincoat about him and followed the old man into the fog. Only by keeping a hand on Grandfather could Moku find the trees.

    "Climb," the old man whispered. Moku went quickly into a tree, found a flower by touch and gummed a twig just under it. A bird will light on this twig, he thought, and I shall catch it. As he worked he prayed:


                "O gods of the forest,

                Give me wisdom,

                Give me success.

                Send birds to my gum."


    Dawn came and the fog lifted. All about were the calls of waking birds. Men and boy must leave the trees and hide or they would frighten the birds coming for honey. Moku hid behind a fern. He heard a flutter of wings and saw Grandfather climb. He watched as Grandfather took the bird in gentle hands, cleaned the gum from its feet and let it fly. He had not taken feathers, for the first bird caught must be an offering of thanks and prayer.

    A sudden flutter of wings above Moku's head! In his tree! Panting with excitement the boy climbed. There was the little struggling bird. Gently he lifted it with his hands over the wings. He felt the frightened heartbeats, wiped the tiny feet on an end of his malo, lifted the bird and let it fly. "Manu! Bird!" he cried in excitement.

    Moku was so excited and happy that he did not know he had spoken aloud but Grandfather knew. He came from his hiding place and took the boy in his arms while tears of joy ran down his cheeks. Then the birdcatching went on.

    Again and again Moku climbed. Again and again he held a fluttering bird, pulled out a few feathers, cleaned the feet and let the bird fly. As he worked he prayed, then climbed from his tree to hide behind his fern and wait.

    The boy was so excited that he did not notice the bright sunshine falling between leaves. He was surprised when Grandfather said, "The feeding time has passed. We must break off the gummed twigs. Be sure you get every one."

    Moku climbed quickly. It would be wrong to leave a single sticky twig. Perhaps a bird would light on such a twig when no one was near to take feathers and set it free. The bird would flutter, flutter and finally die. The gods would be angry that the life of a bird they loved had been wasted. Again the boy was praying:


                "O gods of the forest,

                Do not let me forget one twig.

                Give me success in all my work."


    At last every gummed twig had been broken from his trees. Moku was sure. Then he went to the shelter where the others waited around the food mat. Grandfather held a small ʻawa cup and prayed:


                "O Mokuhāliʻi,

                The boy has spoken.

                He is no longer silent.

                O great god of the forest,

                We give thanks.

                O Mokuhāliʻi,

                You have given your name to this boy.

                He is yours.

                Give him more words.

                Grant him speech

                That he may pour out his thoughts.

                O Mokuhāliʻi,

                Here is ʻawa.

                Here are kalo leaves.

                Drink and eat.

                We give thanks for the word spoken.

                Give the boy more words."


After the prayer Grandfather drank from the cup and passed it to Moku. "Drink," he said.

    Wondering, Moku took the cup. "Drink," he repeated as he put the cup to his lips.

    "Eat," Grandfather invited as he passed a bowl of kalo tops to Moku.

    "Eat," the boy repeated as he tasted the lūʻau.

    The men listened in wonder and tears came again to Grandfather's eyes. "Mokuhāliʻi has heard our prayer," he said reverently.

 

Life in the Forest

 

    Every morning the men and the boy were at work before dawn. There were many blossoming trees and each man had his own part of the forest. One day he gummed certain trees. Next day he went to others. After a few days he came again to those gummed at first.

    The afternoons were busy too. Feathers must be sorted and tied into bundles with a cord of niu fiber. Each man kept his feathers in a gourd—a gourd with a close-fitting cover, for the feathers must not get damp.


    Everyday the men gathered wood. A rainy time might come when dry wood would be needed. They dug wild kalo roots and planted more, for they must never rob the forest.

    They cut olonā stems and peeled off the bark. This was needed by netmakers. They gathered fern shoots for food.


    Two or three times some of the men tramped the long trail back to the village. They carried down feathers and other things they had gathered and worked for a day or two in the home gardens. When they climbed the trail again each carrying pole was loaded with bundles of food—salt fish, poi and cooked ʻuala. The long tramp tired Grandfather. Often he and Moku stayed behind in the forest. When the work was finished Moku sat beside a little waterfall and practiced talking. It was easy to form words with his lips, but it was hard to make the sound come out right. The boy liked to practice alone then surprise the others with new words.

 

Birdcatching in Other Districts

 

    For two months the work went on. Every night it rained lightly and every morning the fog appeared. Then the heavy rains began. The four were glad for their well-thatched house and for the dry wood in their cave. It was good to sit beside the fire and talk quietly as they worked.


    The men cracked kukui nuts. These nuts were needed for candles. Fishermen used the oil to quiet waves. Moku collected the shells. Later he would burn these to make charcoal for tattooing.


    Suddenly he spoke. The boy had a question which he had practiced for days. "Birdcatchers," he said. The men looked up, surprised. "All—work—like us?" It was a sentence—more words than he had ever said at one time.

    For a moment no one spoke. Then Grandfather answered quietly, "There are many ways. In one district men use gummed poles."

    "That is more work," one man said. "Our way is better."


    "Ours is the way of this district," the old man told them. "It is the way my father taught me. But gummed poles are easy to take away when the feeding time is over. A man will not leave his pole in a tree. There is no danger that a bird may be caught by gum to flutter and die when no one is near.


    "Līhau," Grandfather added, "tell Moku about the snaring which you saw."    "That is interesting," Līhau said, "but takes much skill. Our way is better."

    Moku moved closer to Līhau. "Tell," he said eagerly.


    Līhau smiled at the boy. "My friend, Kaupua, showed me a cord of olonā. 'It is a snare,' he said. I did not understand so Kaupua took me to the forest. I hid among the ferns. Peeping out, I saw my friend tie a ripe maiʻa to a branch with a maiʻa blossom just above. The maiʻa was so ripe it was bursting from its skin. Below it Kaupua placed the small noose formed by his cord, then hid near me.


    "I heard a mamo call from the fern where my friend hid. The call was clear and true. I almost thought a bird had whistled, but I knew it was Kaupua. Then I heard an answer from the forest. That was a real mamo. My friend whistled again. This time his call was soft as if he said, 'Come. Here is food. Do not be afraid.'


    "The mamo came. It cocked its head and looked about, then flew to the food it loved. As the bird stepped into the noose Kaupua pulled the cord and the bird was caught."

    "That way is not good," Grandfather said. "The bird is badly frightened."

    "My friend was very quick," Līhau answered. "In a moment he had taken feathers and freed the bird. He did not have to clean gum from its feet."

    "Some catch birds with a decoy," the third man said.

    Moku's lips formed the new word but he made no sound.

    "Have you seen that done?" Grandfather asked.


    "No but an old man told me how he tied the first bird caught just above blossoms then gummed twigs nearby. Perhaps an ʻōʻō sees this decoy bird, flies down to drive it from the blossoms and is caught. The old man said he had caught several birds with one decoy."

    "I have heard of a man who tamed a young bird," Grandfather added. "He made a cage for it and gave it food. The bird learned to love the man as our chickens do. That bird he used as a decoy."

    "I like our way best," Līhau said.

    And Moku repeated, "I like!" The words came suddenly and loud. The boy had not meant to say them. The men smiled.

    "The life of a birdcatcher is good," said Grandfather, "and there is always need for feathers."

    "Yes, I like to see a chief dressed for Makahiki or for war." It was Līhau speaking. "His cape shines in the sunlight and I think, 'There is nothing so beautiful. The feathers I gather will help to make such a cape.'"

    "Or a feather god to lead our army in battle," the third man added. "It is good to be a feathergatherer."

 

The Great Surprise

 

    The molting season lasted nearly three months. At last it was over. Lehua blossoms were gone. The bird-catchers could return to their homes beside the ocean.

    Mats were rolled and kapa stored in big gourds. Nets were loaded with forest gifts and men and boy tramped down the trail.


    Moku loved the forest. Now he found that he loved the ocean too. It was good to swim and surf, to race with his friends or lie on the sand in sunshine. It was fun to surprise the boys with words he could say. Yet Moku was eager to go on. He was eager to see Mother and Father and take his gifts to them.


    The way home was long in the canoe and the paddle grew heavy. Then the home village came in sight and Moku forgot that he was tired.


    He heard shouting. Children had seen the canoe and had run for Father and Mother. The whole village was at the landing place and they welcomed him noisily. Mother and Father wailed with joy.


    After the wailing of welcome Moku ran to the canoe for the many lei maile he had prepared—some of his forest gifts. As he put a lei over his mother's shoulders everyone was watching. "Mother!" Had they really heard him speak? Then he put a lei about his father's neck. "Father! Maile!"


    Suddenly there was excited talk and laughter. Moku felt his mother's arms about him. He felt her tears of joy.


    Later there was a feast. Relatives came from upland farms. A black pig and ʻawa drink were offered to the gods. All the family gave thanks because Moku had begun to talk.

    After the feast the boy asked the question in his mind, a question about his brother. "Kūpā—where?"


    "He is learning to be a canoemaker," Father answered.

    Grandfather's face was full of joy. "We are a forest family," he said. "We serve the forest gods."

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I love this story of Moku. I like reading Mo’Olelo of our history.

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I love how the birdcatchers are so honoring of nā manu, they must be sure to break every twig they gummed so as not to catch a bird after they leave and not be able to release it. They donʻt use methods that will scare the birds unnecessarily. They replant kalo in ka nahele so they donʻt rob it. And so much reverence and prayer for good intention is beautiful. Mahalo!

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