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The Curse of Lono
  • October 09, 2011 : 20:10
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Captain Steve spent most of his time at the wheel, high up on the flying bridge, while Ackerman and I stayed down in the cockpit smoking marijuana and waiting for the reels to go off.

I had long since got over the notion that just because we were fishing, we were going to catch fish. The idea of trailing big-bore lines from the outriggers and rumbling along at trolling speed was absurd. The only way we were going to get any fish, I insisted, was by going over the side with scuba tanks and spear guns, to hunt them where they lived.

We trolled all the way down, but the only signs of life we saw between Kailua and South Point were a school of porpoises and some birds. It was a long, hot ride, and by midafternoon, all three of us were jabbering drunk on beer.

It was just before sundown when we finally rounded the corner at South Point. The sea had been rough on the run down the Kona side of the island—but it was nothing compared with what we encountered when we came around the point.

The sea was so high and wild that we could only gape at it. No words were necessary. We had found our own hurricane, and there was no place to hide from it.

At sundown, I switched to gin and Ackerman broke out a small vial of white powder that he sniffed up his nose off the tip of a number-ten fishhook, then offered the vial to me.

"Be careful," he said. "It's not what you think."

I stared at the vial, examining the contents closely and bracing my feet on the deck as the boat suddenly tilted and went up on the hump of a swell.

"It's China White," he said, gripping the back of the fighting chair as we came down hard in the slough.

Jesus, I thought, I'm out here with junkies. The boat rolled again, throwing me off balance on the wet deck with a cup of gin in one hand and a vial of heroin in the other.

I dropped them both as I slid past Ackerman and grabbed the ladder to keep from going over the side.

Ackerman lunged for the vial with the speed of a young cobra and caught it on one bounce, but it was already wet and he stared at it balefully, then tossed it away in the sea. "What the hell," he said. "I never liked the stuff anyway."

I pulled myself over the chair and sat down. "Me either," I said. "It's hard on the stomach."

He eyed me darkly for a moment and I planted both feet, not knowing what to expect. It is bad business to drop other people's heroin—especially far out at sea with a storm coming up—and I didn't know Ackerman that well. He was a big, rangy bastard, with the long, loose muscles of a swimmer, and his move on the bouncing vial had been impressively fast. I knew he could get me with the gaffing hook before I reached the ladder.

I resisted the urge to call Captain Steve.

Were they both junkies? I wondered, still poised on the edge of the white-Nauga-hyde chair. What kind of anglers carry China White to work?

"It's a good drug for the ocean," Ackerman said, as if I'd been thinking out loud. "A lot of times, it's the only way to keep from killing the clients."

I nodded, pondering the long night ahead. If the first mate routinely snorted smack at the cocktail hour, what was the captain into?

It occurred to me that I didn't really know either one of these people. They were strangers, and now I was trapped on a boat with them, 20 miles off the far-western edge of America with the sun going down and deep black water all around us.

The land was out of sight now, lost in a desolate night fog. The sun went down and the Haere Marue rumbled on through the waves toward the terrible Land of Po. The red and green running lights on our bow were barely visible from the stern, only 30 feet away. The night closed around us like smoke, cold and thick with the smell of our diesel exhaust.

It was almost seven o'clock when the last red glow of the sun disappeared, leaving us to run blind and alone by the compass. We sat for a while on the stem, listening to the sea and the engines and the occasional dim crackling of voices on the short-wave radio up above the high bridge, where Captain Steve was perched, like some kind of ancient mariner.

The sea was not getting any calmer as we approached our destination, a small beach at the foot of sheer black cliffs. Captain Steve took us in about halfway, then slowed to a crawl and came scrambling down the ladder. "I don't know about this," he said nervously. "The swell seems to be picking up."

Ackerman was staring at the beach where huge breakers foamed. The first alarm came from Captain Steve, up above, when he suddenly shut down the engines and came back down the ladder.

"Get ready," he said. "We're in for a long night." He stared nervously into the sea for a moment, then darted into the cabin and began hauling out life jackets.

"Forget it," said Ackerman. "Nothing can save us now. We may as well eat the mescaline."  He cursed  Captain  Steve.

"This is your fault, you stupid little bastard. We'll all be dead before morning."

Captain Steve shrugged as he swallowed the pill. I ate mine and set about assembling the hibachi I'd bought that morning to cook our fresh-fish dinner. Ackerman leaned back in his chair and opened a bottle of gin.

We spent the rest of the night raving and wandering distractedly around the boat, like rats cast adrift in a shoe box, scrambling around the edges and trying to keep away from one another. The casual teamwork of the sundown hours became a feverish division of labor, with each of us jealously tending his own sector.

I had the fire, Ackerman had the weather and Captain Steve was in charge of the fishing operation. The hibachi was tilting dangerously back and forth in the cockpit behind the fighting chair, belching columns of flame and greasy smoke every time I hit it with another whack of kerosene. The importance of keeping the fire going had become paramount to everything else, despite the obvious and clearly suicidal danger. We had 300 gallons of diesel fuel in the tanks down below, and any queer pitch of sea could have spilled flaming charcoal all over the cockpit and turned the whole boat into a fireball—putting all three of us into the water, where we would instantly be picked up in the surf and dashed to death on the rocks.

No matter, I thought. We must keep the fire going. It had become a symbol of life, and I was not about to let it die down.

The others agreed. We had long since abandoned any idea of cooking anything for dinner—and, in fact, we had thrown most of the food overboard by that time, thinking to use it for bait—but we all understood that as long as the fire burned, we would survive. My appetite had died around sundown, and now I was covered with layers of cold mescaline sweat. Every once in a while, a shudder would race up my spine, causing my whole body to tremble. In those moments, my conversation would collapse without warning, and my voice would quaver hysterically for a few seconds while I tried to calm down.

"Jesus," I said to Captain Steve sometime around midnight, "it's lucky you got rid of that cocaine. The last thing we need right now is some kind of crank."

He nodded wisely, then suddenly spun around in his chair and uttered a series of wild cries. His eyes were unnaturally bright and his lips seemed to flap as he spoke. "Oh, yes!" he blurted. "Oh, hell, yes. That's the last thing we need!" Captain Steve had never tried mescaline before, and I could see that it was reaching his brain. It was obvious from the confusion in his eyes that he had no recollection at all of taking our last bottle of stimulant with him, in the pocket of his trunks, when he'd gone down with the scuba tanks to secure our anchor line around a big rock on the bottom, about 90 feet below. Any fool who will dive to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with two grams of cocaine in his pocket is capable of anything at all; and now he was losing his grip to the psychedelics.

Bad business, I thought. It's time to collect the knives.

When I woke up at sunrise, I found Ackerman passed out like a dead animal and Captain Steve wandering frantically round the cockpit, grappling with a tangle of ropes and saying over and over to himself, "Holy Jesus, man! Let's get out of here!" I stumbled up from the cabin, where I'd spent two hours sleeping on a cushion covered with fishhooks. We were still in the shadow of the cliffs, and the morning wind was cold. The fire in the hibachi had gone out and our Thermos bottle of coffee had cracked open sometime during the night.

The deck was awash with a slimy mixture of kerosene and floating soot.

Ackerman had dropped a scuba tank on his foot, crushing the big toe and splattering blood all over the deck. He'd then gobbled a handful of Dramamine and fallen into a deep stupor. Captain Steve had been awake all night, he explained, never taking his eyes off the anchor line and ready, at any moment, to leap into the surf and swim for it.

"I'll never understand how we survived," he muttered. "Now I know what they mean about South Point. It is a dangerous place."

"The Land of Po," I said.

"Yeah," he said, reeling in the last of our all-night fishing lines. All the hot dogs had been gnawed off by eels, but the hooks were otherwise clean. Not even a sea snake had taken our wrong-minded bait, and the water all around us was littered with floating debris: beer bottles, orange peels, plastic Baggies and mangled tuna-fish cans. About ten yards off the stern was an empty Wild Turkey bottle with a piece of paper inside. Ackerman had tossed it over sometime during the night, after finishing off the whiskey and stuffing the bottle with a sheet of Kona Inn stationery on which I had scrawled, BEWARE THERE ARE NO FISH.

I made my way up to the bridge, where I could look straight down on the main deck of the Haere Marue and see both the captain and the first mate badly disabled.

One appeared to be dead, with his mouth hung open and his eyes rolled back in his head, and the other was twitching around like a fish with a broken neck.

The maze of human wreckage down below looked like something the legendary King Kam might have brought back to Kona in one of his war canoes that got caught in an ambush on Maui. We were victims of the same flaky hubris that had killed off the cream of Hawaiian warriors in the time of the Great Wars. We had gone off in a frenzy of conquest—to the wrong place at the wrong time and probably for all the wrong reasons—and now we were limping back home with our decks full of blood and our nerves turned to jelly. All we could hope for now was no more trouble and a welcoming party of good friends and beautiful women at the dock. After that, we could rest and lick our wounds.

Nobody was there to meet us, but it didn't matter. We were warriors, returned from the Land of Po, and we had terrible stories to tell.

Captain Steve was still hunkered down on the bridge when Ackerman and I finished off-loading our gear and prepared to leave. "Where're you guys going?" he called out. "To Huggo's?"

"No," Ackerman said. "There's only one place for us now—the City of Refuge."

Ackerman's notion had seemed like a good idea at the time, but the scene we found back at the compound on our return from South Point was too ugly to cure by anything as simple as a drive down the coast to some temple of ancient superstition where we might or might not find refuge. Right, I thought, never mind that silly native bullshit. It's time to leave.

Where's a telephone? What we need now is a quick call to Aloha Airlines.

Ackerman agreed. We were both stunned by the chaos we saw when we turned the little VW convertible into the driveway. The storm that had almost whipped us to death in the ocean off South Point the night before had moved north and was now pounding the Kona Coast with 15-foot waves and a blinding monsoon rain. Both houses in the compound were empty, the pool was swamped, the surf was foaming up on the porch and deck chairs were scattered around the lawn in a maze of what looked like red seaweed. On closer examination, it turned out to be slimy wet remnants of 200,000 or 300,000 Chinese firecrackers, a flood of red rice paper from the dozens of thunder bombs we'd been amusing ourselves with.

I thought it had been washed out to sea—which was true for a while—but it had not washed out far enough, and now the sea was tossing it back.

Ralph and the family were gone, the door to their house stood open and the place where he'd parked his car was ankle-deep in salt water. The fronts of both houses were gummed up with a layer of red slime and there was no sign of life anywhere. Everything was gone; both houses had been abandoned to the ravaging surf and my first thought was everything in them, including the occupants, had been sucked out to sea by rip tides and bashed to death on the rocks.

I was still rummaging through the bedrooms, looking for signs of life with one eye and watching the sea with the other. A big one, I knew, could come at any time with no warning at all, rolling over me like a bomb. I had a vision of Ralph clinging, even now, to some jagged black rock far out in the roaring white surf, screaming for help and feeling the terrible jaws of a wolf eel grip his leg.

I heard Ackerman's voice just as a monster wave hit the pool and blasted 10,000 gallons of water straight up in the air. I scrambled over the porch railing and ran for the driveway. High ground, I thought. Uphill. Get out of here.

Ackerman was calling from the balcony of the caretaker's cottage. I rushed up the stairs, soaking wet, and found him sitting at a table with five or six people who were calmly drinking whiskey and smoking marijuana. All my luggage, including the typewriter, was piled in the corner.

Nobody had drowned, nobody was missing. I accepted a joint from Laila and breathed deeply. Ralph had flipped out sometime around noon, they explained, when the sea hurled a 50-pound stalk of green bananas up onto his porch, followed by the wave of red slime. Hundreds of dead fish washed up onto the lawn, and the house was suddenly filled with thousands of flying cockroaches.

The caretaker said Ralph had taken his family to the King Kam Hotel on the pier in downtown Kailua after failing to find seats on a night flight back to England. He handed me a crumpled piece of hotel stationery, damp and dark with Ralph's scrawl and folded into a knot:

"I can't stand it anymore," it said. "The storm almost killed us. Don't call. Leave us alone. Do it for Sadie. Her hair is turning white. It was a terrible experience. I'll get even. Love, Ralph."

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