| CREATIVE NON-FICTION |
THE DAY OF THE ULUA
By Kirby Wright
The Montréal Review, May 2011
Jeffrey followed his big brother Ben through the horse pasture. The
pili grass was tall and still wet with dew—it soaked the bottoms of their jeans.
Jeffrey didnʼt like the wet feeling creeping up his legs. He wanted to go shirtless
like Ben but thought that might attract the blood flies camped on the horses.
His brother jumped. “Kukae!”
Jeffrey smelled the manure and eased over a greenish-brown mound. He
liked being with Ben on Grammaʼs ranch because, whenever something bad
happened, his brother usually got blamed. Jeffrey didnʼt mind if his brother got into trouble. He remembered being in a crib and a boy with curly blond hair
reaching in. The boy grabbed his arm and yanked, slamming his baby body
against the bars. The boy had made a game of it, slamming over and over.
Ben stuck his hand between the two lines of wire and spun the valve.
Water spewed into a white tub. The sound reminded Jeffrey of his father
spraying fizzy tonic into drinks. His father and mother were back at the beach
house having cocktails while Gramma drank “pineapple juice on the rocks.” She
wasnʼt allowed to have cocktails; heʼd overheard his father say, if she had one,
sheʼd keep drinking until she got on her hands and knees and crawled through
the sand like a blind crab. Jeffrey didnʼt like Grammaʼs beach house—animal
heads with glistening eyes hung off the walls and there was no lock on the
bathroom door. Sometimes sheʼd march in while he was doing number 2 and
ask, “You pau sittinʼ on the throne?” But he liked the bluish-green glass balls
suspended in cord nets on her lanai and the briny smell when trades blew in off
The father had told Ben and Jeffrey to come right back after they watered
the horses. At dawn heʼd baited two giant hooks with octopus and helped the
boys drag their cord kaka lines into low tide. “Spit on your bait for good luck,” the
fatherʼd told Jeffrey, swinging the purple-veined leg inches from his mouth; he
spit and watched the glob slide down the suckers. Jeffreyʼs line veered east for
the harbor. Benʼs line went straight out for the barrier reef. The father had tethered the ends to the storm window posts on the beach house and Jeffrey liked how the lines moved up and down with the tide.
Jeffrey saw his mother duck through the makai fence. She wore a pink
dress and walked awkwardly through the pasture—it looked as though she was
trying to avoid land mines. He could tell she didnʼt like the country and figured
her main fun was not spending time with him or Ben but going to Mass at Father
Damienʼs Church in Pukoʼo. He pretended not to see her. He didnʼt like dresses
and earrings on the ranch; he felt a woman should wear cowboy boots, jeans,
and a palaka shirt like Gramma. He wondered if the horses might charge after
pink the way bulls charge after red. He imagined a stampede of hooves. He was
sure she loved Ben more because he had her blonde hair and fair skin. She was
Irish. He loved it when Gramma had said, “Irish, Irish, Irish, why donʼt they all go
back to Ireland.”
“Here comes Mummy,” Ben said.
Jeffrey turned and his mother waved.
“Boys,” she said, “Iʼve got something to tell you!”
“Tell us what?” Ben shouted.
She stumbled over the root of a breadfruit tree, limped past the corral in
gold sandals, and joined them at the trough. She had on cowry earrings. “Iʼve
got exciting news.”
Ben winced. “Whatʼs so exciting?”
“One of you just caught a big fish.”
Ben spun the valve and the water quit. “Is it my fish?”
“Iʼm not sure. Daddyʼs down on the beach right now and wants you both
to join him.”
Ben darted through the pili grass and zipped past the breadfruit tree.
Jeffrey gave chase. The horses left the shade in the coconut grove and galloped
to the east side of the pasture. Jeffrey hurdled a pili clump and landed hard in his
Keds; his ankle hurt but he kept going. He hated his mother for not knowing. He
was sure Ben hated her for the same reason. Jeffrey wanted it to be his fish.
Please, God, he begged silently, let it be mine, let that fish be mine. His lungs
ached trying to catch up. He figured today would mark him a winner or a loser
forever. Ben was already through the fence and scooting past the Norfolk. He
remembered walking his line over the stinky mud flats and thinking no fish would
touch his bait. He looked back when he reached the fence—his mother was still
at the trough examining her sandal. He slipped through the wire but the sleeve of
his t-shirt snagged on a nail in the kiawe fence post; he pulled against the nail
and tore himself free. He saw his big brother reach the edge of the beach house
and disappear behind it. He quit running. It would be Benʼs fish and heʼd feel
like a fool breathing heavy while his brother gloated. He walked up the knoll and
rounded the house. His line was limp on the grass while Benʼs was as taut as
“Gramma, who caught the fish?” he heard Ben ask. “Who caught it?”
“Yoʼ liʼl bruthah,” came her voice.
Jeffrey reached the storm windows. They were open. Gramma was in her cane chair smoking. She had on her wide-brimmed lauhala hat and ranch
clothes. Her face made him think of a wrinkled brown bag with slits for eyes.
She tapped her ashes into a copper can resting on the window ledge.
Ben stood in front of her with his arms crossed. “Are you sure itʼs his?”
She pointed to the limp line. “Itʼs this one,” she said, “and that line belongs
“Itʼs my fish?” Jeffrey asked.
“Gunfunnit, you damn keeds, whose else would it be?”
He followed Ben through the naupaka. Their father had on khaki shorts
and was kneeling over something shiny. The kaka line was coiled on the sand
like a snake, its hook wedged in the crevice of a lava boulder. A chunk of meat
clung to the barb.
Jeffrey knelt beside his father. The fish was silver with blue streaks
running along its sides. The tail and fins were bright yellow, his avorite color.
The tail kicked furiously in the sand.
Ben stood beside their father and peered down. His shoulders were red
from the sun. “Is it Jeffreyʼs or mine?”
Benʼs eyes dulled over and his face drooped. He kicked a stone. Then
came a greenish fire in the eyes, a burning inside. Ben ran over to his line—he
tugged at the brown cord suspended a few feet over the sand. “Daddy!”
“Pull my line in.”
“I caught something.”
“I would know if you hooked one, Ben.”
“Your line would be zigzagging back and forth like your brotherʼs. I had
one helluva time pulling this buggah in.”
“Maybe I caught a shark.”
“Thereʼs nothing on your line.”
Ben picked up a piece of coral and hurled it at the ocean.
The father patted Jeffrey on the shoulder. “Iʼm proud of you, Jeffo,” he
said. “You caught an ulua. Thatʼs the best-eating fish in our waters.”
“Better than mahi-mahi?”
“I like it better. And so does Gramma.”
His fatherʼs praise made him feel good. He liked his father better than his
mother because he shared his dark complexion and rugged features. A warm
wave rolled from his chest and washed through his body. His thighs and
forearms tingled with chicken skin. It was a double victory because his win was
his big brotherʼs loss. Heʼd never beaten him at anything and he wanted to stay
all day on the beach watching the fish with his father. He saw the gills pump. He
touched the ulua on the bridge between its eyes and ran his fingers the length of
the spine down to the tail. The ulua made a squeaky sound like a porpoise. He felt bad. Part of him wanted to drag it back to the sea but he knew that would
blot out his victory and make his father mad. But he didnʼt want it to die.
The mother joined them on the beach. Burrs from the pasture stuck to the
hem of her dress. She was barefoot. She had narrow feet with all the toes
smooshed together. Triangle feet, Jeffrey thought. “My,” the mother said,
placing her hands on her hips, “what a beautiful fish, Jeffrey. Maybe your
grandmother can serve it for dinner.”
The father stood up and looped an arm over her shoulder. “Yes, Honey,”
he nodded, looking down at the ulua. “Best to eat fish when itʼs fresh. Iʼll tell
mother not to freeze this beauty.”
Jeffrey and his parents watched the gills slow and the tail quit flapping.
Jeffrey put his ear over the mouth to listen for the porpoise noise.
Ben tugged at his line and wandered over. He squatted beside his
“Itʼs not really your fish,” he whispered.
“Sure it is,” Jeffrey said.
“Did you pull it in?”
“Daddy pulled it in, right?”
Ben smirked. “That makes it Daddyʼs.”
The grandmother gutted the ulua as the late sun burned the clouds orange. The aroma of pan-fried fish drifted out of the kitchen. Jeffrey was
starving. Heʼd put on his white button-down and wanted to stay on the lanai
instead of digging up crabs with Ben. He studied a deer head with antlers
hanging off the wall. His parents were sitting at a storm window drinking
cocktails; they had their legs crossed and stared out at the beach. He saw Ben
scooping sand. The channel between Molokaʼi and Maui became a pool of
purple velvet. He tinkered with stone artifacts on a cane display case: a poi
pounder, a scraping blade, and an ulu maika used for bowling. Something heavy
like a pot or a pan fell in the kitchen and he heard Gramma say, “Foʼ the luva
His father leaned. “Mary,” he whispered, “go see if she needs any help.”
Jeffreyʼs mother got up with a pained look in her face. She had on a green
muumuu and smelled like pikake. She swung open the screen door to the
kitchen. “May I please set the table for you, Mother Daniels?”
“Shuah, Mary. Letʼs use the nice silva.”
Jeffrey helped set five places around a table meant for eight. He poured
water from a pitcher into glasses. He folded paper napkins at an angle so they
became triangles and anchored them with forks. He felt funny that there werenʼt
enough people to fill the table. He wished it could be a party, like a birthday
celebration with all the locals on the east end of Molokaʼi showing up in cars and
trucks to congratulate him and enjoy the fish heʼd caught. As long as Ben didnʼt
tell anyone his father had pulled in the ulua heʼd be safe, his victory secure. But he knew deep down his brother wouldnʼt allow him to win at anything, if he could
Gramma stuck her head out of the kitchen. “Kaukau time.”
“Ben,” the father called, “get up here for dinner!”
First came fish chowder in deep ceramic bowls. Jeffrey had watched
Gramma boil the fish head with wedges of sweet onion, potatoes, and bacon
before adding a can of evaporated milk. Jeffrey thought it tasted better than the
clam chowder at Fishermanʼs Wharf back home in Honolulu. He was happy
sharing his fish with the family, glad heʼd helped put food on the table. Ben sat
beside him but Jeffrey kept his eyes on his father: he watched him dip his
tablespoon into the chowder and slurp it up—his Adamʼs apple looked like a
stone in his throat.
“This soupʼs very good, Mother Daniels,” the mother said. “I must get your
“You never make soup,” the father said.
The mother dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin and used her
half-smile. “I would if someone encouraged me once in a while.”
Gramma sunk a tablespoon into her bowl. “Just throw fish heads into
wattah and boil ʻum,” she said.
“Yuck,” Ben muttered, putting down his spoon.
After chowder, the grandmother served pan-fried filets, cups of poi, and steamed bok choy on Golden Harvest plates. Everyone dug in. Jeffrey enjoyed
the buttery taste of the ulua; he dropped pieces into the poi and scooped them
out with a spoon.
“This sure beats corned beef hash,” the father said.
“Daddy?” Ben asked.
“Was it hard pulling in the ulua?”
“Jesus,” he said, “that fish put up one hellava fight. The cord on that line
rubbed my hands raw.”
The mother tapped his wrist. “Dear,” she said, “you promised to watch
your language around the boys.”
“Why? Whaʼd I say?”
“You took the Lordʼs name in vain.”
“Cʼmon, Honey, thatʼs just a figure of speech. You canʼt protect them from
things theyʼll hear sooner or later.”
Gramma chuckled. “Next thing I know, theyʼll be wearinʼ bloody dresses.”
Jeffrey finished first and rested his fork on the plate. He thought about
what Ben had said. It was true his father had pulled in the ulua, but it was still his
fish. His father was only the helper. Heʼd created the magic by dropping his line
in a special spot on the flats.
“Can I go now?” Ben asked.
“You havenʼt finished your fish,” the father said.
“Iʼm stuffed. And I need to check my line.”
The legs of Benʼs chair scraped the cement floor. He bolted through the
lanai and hopped over the ledge of an open window. Jeffrey could see a puff of
blond hair moving through the twilight naupaka. He listened to his parents
discuss protest marches in DC, Grandma Gert in Boston, and how “the boys”
should start riding the horses.
“Would you like that, Jeffrey?” his mother asked.
“Iʼd like it more than anything,” he lied. He hated horses because they
scared him. Sissy had almost bitten off his fingers when he tried feeding her a
Gramma lit a cigarette. “Gettinʼ dahk,” she said.
“Yes,” said the mother. “Maybe we should wash the dishes and then turn
on Lawrence Welk. Will you dry, Jeffrey?”
“Iʼll go see what Benʼs up to,” the father said.
Jeffrey helped clear. The plates were filled with bones, green plops of bok
choy, and half-eaten filets. The fish was gone. The Day of the Ulua was over.
He felt like a sissy carrying plates into the kitchen and he was mad at himself for
saying heʼd dry. The warm, chicken skin feeling was gone. He thought about his
father strolling the shore muttering phrases like “goddammit,” “hellava,” and “buggah,” as Ben tried to will a fish to take his bait.
He didnʼt want his big brother catching anything.
kaka: fishing line without a pole
lauhala: leaf of the hala tree
makai: ocean side
naupaka: soft green bush found on shore
palaka: checkered blue and white
pau: finished, done
pikake: Arabian jasmine
pili: thick, pliable grass
ulu maika: stone used like a bowling ball
Kirby Wright was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Wright 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, his first book of
poetry, took First Place at the 2003 San Diego Book Awards. Wright is also the
author of the companion novels PUNAHOU BLUES and MOLOKAʼI NUI AHINA,
both set in Hawaii. He was a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers
Conference in Hong Kong, where he represented the Pacific Rim region of
Hawaii and lectured with poet Gary Snyder. He was also a Visting Writer at the
2010 Marthaʼs Vineyard Writers Residency in Edgartown, Mass.