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Chapter 3. Big Island

Sage lay in her bunk staring at a mosaic of family photos plastered on the ceiling, which was bathed in Procyon’s light. In one she was surfing at age six, a tiny smiling girl on the beach. So much aloha, she thought. In another photo, she was with friends in the surf at 10. Her favorite was of her Hilo ‘ohana, all 12 of them. Off to one side, a torn photo of her with her dad on surfboards. She cherished it above all as fragile proof of his love. Their huge smiles beamed out at her. Happy times. As the memories of her father came flooding back, so did the seemingly unbreachable gulf that existed between her and her family. Although the memories of her father were painful, and she had tried hard to forget the enduring pain of his loss, they were mixed up with a part of her life that her heart coveted more than anything. Near that photo hung a few puka shells, the ones remaining from the necklace she gave him before he left. Now he is gone, forever.

But he wasn’t her only family. Sage thought about her auntie, wondered what she would think of this mission. When Sage was young, she adored her mother’s sister as she fought for the protection of her beloved coral reefs. Rising sea levels and repeated bouts of coral bleaching had decimated the reefs in Hawaii and flooded most of the beachfront hotels. But Auntie Kēhau and others watched in dismay when developers simply rebuilt as tourism grew and demand for luxury resorts skyrocketed. While most Hawaiians lived on an island decimated by increased storms, hurricanes, droughts, fires, and flooded coastlines, the superrich lived in a bubble of luxury, separated from the devastation by technology and access to the last pristine areas on the planet, even as species rapidly went extinct around them. But her auntie’s rising radical environmentalism, which included blockades and acts of destruction, had caused Sage to pull back as a teenager and the rift between them hadn’t healed since.

The fragrant smell of a dried lei from her cousin Lani brought up memories of her life with her family. Even here, 12 light years away, she could hear and smell the trade winds gusting off the ocean, moving through the guava, ohia, and lychee trees, and sweeping up to her house in Hilo on the slopes of the sacred volcano Mauna Kea. The wind mixed with the sweet fragrance of plumeria and puakenikeni before it washed in through her window as a gentle mist, a vibrant chorus of the life of the land mixed with the smells of the sea. Over the years, these sights and smells became inextricably linked with her life in Hilo.

Memories of Hawaiian music began playing in her head. It was the sound of her youth. Gentle and soulful, it hearkened back to a lost past but a powerful future, one full of hope for the land, the ‘āina, and all its inhabitants. It was a voice for the Hawaiian people and the soul of Hawaii. Her life, she thought, was like an old Hawaiian song, full of beauty, fresh with promise, but on the edge of heartbreak. Like the songs, she yearned for something bigger in life, but she didn’t know what it was.

A fragment of her father’s song popped into her head, and she began to sing in a low voice:

You know, life is what you do

I know, love is strong with you—

But she was too choked up to finish. Too many memories with that one. Her father wrote the song and sang it to her in his soft, beautiful voice before he left for Thalassa. It was a goodbye song, but one that promised a return and an eternal presence. She had often wondered about the meaning of the words. And although the music was a bridge to her memories of him, she hadn’t been able to sing it, despite the song playing endlessly in her head. His music was like a gentle wind that blew melodiously through the trees; she could hear and feel his love, but she couldn’t hold it.

Dina walked in and peered down at her. “You OK?”

Sage nodded as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Dina sat down next to her.

Dina spoke in a soft voice, “You need to stop getting into it with Milo. He only cares about himself. You know that about him.”

Sage shook her head. “I know, I know, but things are different now. I need to beat him and regain my reputation. It’s all I have left. I’ve surfed so long; I don’t know what else to do with my life except compete.”

“Sure, I get it,” she replied. “But there’s more to life than surfing. Don’t you miss your family?”

Sage remembered when Dina met her family long ago. As Dina greeted Sage’s parents—her quiet and supportive Chinese-Haole father and outgoing Hawaiian mother, Naniall of Sage’s aunties, uncles, and cousins came swarming out to embrace her. Dina became enamored with Sage’s cousin Lani, who was 10 years younger than Sage but followed her around and listened to every word. Lani adored Sage, and she loved her back like a sister. Then her cousin Keoki—Lani’s brother—came running out. Instantly recognizing Dina as a famous big wave surfer, he fawned over her until she promised to go surfing with him. Keoki only cared about surfing and was Sage’s dedicated surf partner. Then Dina was introduced to her stern Hawaiian tutu, Kalena, and her younger sister, Great-Auntie Halina. Dina said she could almost feel the wisdom pouring out of them. Without hesitation she was “Auntie Dina,” and everyone gave her hugs and kisses and brought out massive plates of food. Amazed, Dina had looked at Sage, who smiled back and said, “That’s my ‘ohana.”

Sage shrugged off the memories. “Sure, they’re great, but I’ve moved on. My mother is a closed book, and the old traditions just don’t work for me. Everyone is disappointed in my competitive spirit. They don’t get it, so I’m going to prove to them and the world that I’m the greatest surfer ever. Then I’ll get my followers back. They adore me, and I’m loved on the holoscreen. That’s my family now.”

“Well,” Dina said, “I’m sure your ‘ohana still loves you. Your tutu was protective of you, so was your great-auntie Halina. When I first met you, they warned me about spending too much time surfing. I thought it was a joke.”

“That’s just it—it’s wasn’t,” said Sage. “I was taught spending too much effort on something frivolous like surfing was a waste of time. Hawaiians are very generous: what one has, everyone has. It’s an expression of aloha; you love unconditionally and give everything you have. Your ‘ohana is everything. It’s an important part of my culture to understand and believe in our unique place in the world as Hawaiians and to contribute to family and community. I don’t belong anymore, and I haven’t given back. I’ve only taken, and it hurts them. I can see it in their faces. It’s painful to be with them.”

“But you’re a famous Hawaiian surfer,” Dina replied. “Isn’t that important?”

She stood up and began pacing the room. “I really don’t want to talk about my family. But no, that meant nothing to my tutu, and now she’s dead. To her, I’ve lost my pono. Tutu taught me having too much pride and coveting things is wrong. Being pono is doing things in the right way. I lost that fighting with Milo. I’ve been deceitful and dishonest and hyper aggressive. My dad taught me to surf old style—humble and grateful, listening and feeling the ocean, knowing where to sit, letting the waves come to me. But I’ve learned that doesn’t work. You have to fight for what you want to be competitive. You know that.”

“I didn’t know pono was still important,” said Dina. “These days, with all the wave parks and surf tech, nobody cares about the ethics of surfing. It’s dog-eat-dog out there.”

“My family cares about that. I used to…anyway it’s deeper than that and hard to explain.” She looked down and lowered her voice. “As a Hawaiian, I was taught to aspire to a higher purpose, to venture into the world and make a difference but in the Hawaiian way, with pono, in the right way. I haven’t done that, and I can’t go back, and my career is on the ropes, so I’m feeling lost. Life made more sense when I was a kid.”

Dina paused, then said with a sad smile, “Yeah, when I first met you, you were 12 and had so much aloha. You loved everyone and everything, you glowed. I remember you snorkeling on the reef, and all the fish and turtles would swim to you as you sang to them. You were a child of the sea and a natural, graceful surfer.”

As Dina spoke, it brought back memories of the days when the ocean was Sage’s world and she spent every minute in the water surfing with her father and her friends. When it was too windy, they’d sail; waves too small, they’d dive for fish; too tired, hang at the beach. On other days she explored the waterfalls and lava tubes near her home with Lani. That was her life, and it was perfect.

Her father was a marine biologist and a professor at the University of Hawaii when he was unexpectedly hired by NASA as they began plans to explore water planets like Thalassa. He taught her his water skills as a young child by taking her tide pooling and snorkeling on the reefs. Then he showed her how to surf. Only after years of riding small waves near the beach did he lead her into larger waves offshore, despite her insistent push to ride the bigger surf. He taught her the mysteries of the waves and the wind, the surging of the tides, and the science of the stars in the sky.

But Dina had come along and trained her to compete against other surfers, much to her father’s distress. But then he left for Thalassa. It was as if she had arrived to replace her father.

“Those days are gone,” Sage said with a blank stare, “and my dad is just a faint memory.”

“I just met you then he died,” Dina said. “After that, your life changed when you began tackling big waves.”

Her words triggered strong emotions in Sage as she recalled the day NASA announced he was dead. At first she couldn’t—wouldn’t—believe it. My dad was the strongest person I know, he could survive anything. A month later, at a family funeral as they buried some of his belongings, it finally hit home. He’s gone forever! They were so close, his loss created a huge void in her heart, an empty space that could not be filled. Then she became angry; mad at herself and at her father. Why did you leave me? I need you. I’m alone. And I didn’t tell you how much I love you.

The day after his funeral, she was scheduled to participate in the Menehune surf contest, her first competition, and Dina convinced her to stay in it despite her intense grief. That day in the water, Sage channeled her anger into her surfing and easily won the contest. The seminal moment on the stage holding her trophy and looking out over the hooting and yelling crowd changed her life. The crowd’s adoration warmed her heart and helped mask her emptiness. She decided that competitive surfing was the way out of the darkness. I’ll prove my love to my dad by being the best surfer in the world.

Her body shaking at the memories, Sage looked up at Dina with moist eyes. “Yes, my life changed when he died.”

“I was so startled by your change in attitude after the contest. I expected you to withdraw, but instead, you wanted so badly to be the best surfer in the world. And you did it! You beat my record and won the big-wave title. But only after years of dedication and hard work. That’s what you need to get back to. Forget your mistakes and injuries, and rededicate yourself to beating Milo. If winning is what you need, you have to return to the drive and focus you had back then. Embrace your inner aloha spirit, Sage. That’s how you won before.”

Sage stared down at her empty hands. “I don’t think I have that anymore.”

Dina reached out and held her hand. “I have no doubt you are physically ready—shoot, you’ve been hitting the gym twice a day for seven months, and you’re fully recovered from your injuries. You’re as driven and in the best shape I’ve ever seen.” Then she squeezed Sage’s hand and looked into her eyes. “But you’re not emotionally ready.” Sage dropped her head as Dina continued in a soft voice, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for both of us. You can do this: you can break the big-wave record on Thalassa. This will be the crowning achievement of your life!”

Sage shook her head. “Well, yes, but…it’s not that simple. My tutu reminded me my life isn’t just about surfing. I am hiapo—the first born—and in the old Hawaiian tradition, I belonged to my tutu, not my mother. My tutu raised me as a child to instill the traditions and family history for the next generation, as she was taught. That is also my legacy, one I was taught from birth, and I haven’t taken it seriously. She taught me all the old customs, had me memorize the families’ genealogy and the names of our ancestral guardian spirits—her ʻaumākua. I was entrusted with the responsibility to pass the knowledge on to the next generation. That’s why she was so protective of me. She believed I had a bigger purpose in life, and it had to be done with pono.”

“I guess I don’t understand why pono is important,” replied Dina.

Sage’s eyes brightened at the memory of an old story. “Tutu taught me one way that pono works. It’s about correcting a wrong by doing right. It was the legend of the greedy chief Halaʻea. The greedy chief Halaʻea kept demanding all the fish from his villagers, so they got together and gave his fish to him, all at once, and swamped his canoe.”

“How is that pono?”

Sage smiled, “The villagers didn’t do anything wrong, they just gave him what he wanted and he died from his own greed.”

“That’s a great lesson,” Dina said. “Maybe Milo will end like that, with too much attention on the holoscreen.”

Sage laughed. “Now that would be poetic justice. But hopefully, you understand why being pono is important. It’s not just what you do but how you do it that matters. Anyway, it’s too late. I lost my pono a long time ago.”

“I get it,” Dina said. “And I don’t mean to pry, but why didn’t Tutu teach your mother?”

Sage’s smiled faded. “My mother is a gifted artist and has a beautiful voice, but as a child, she wasn’t interested in the stories, the gods, or family spirits. Instead, she became Catholic, dedicated to her small church in Hilo. I can’t connect with her—we’re just too different and argue about everything. After my father’s death, she closed up and wouldn’t talk about it. I think she thought she was protecting me, but I saw her grief, and it scared me even more. I don’t know how to reach her.”

Then, shaking thoughts of her mother out of her head, Sage said, “You see, I’m Tutu’s last hope. She was holding on for me during my last visit, and she reminded me of my obligations before she died. I can’t get it out of mind. And now with Milo bringing up my father and the Proteus, it’s just too much!”

Seeing the despair on her face, Dina drew closer. “Your father chose to go on that mission, and he died doing what he loved. The same with your tutu. She was what, 97? She lived a long, good life. You have to move on. If you want to win back the title, be the best surfer you can be, with pono or with whatever it is you need.”

Sage replied with a weak smile. “I know you’re right. And talking about it helps. The truth is, after I set the world record I started making mistakes, my failures started piling up, and I stopped trusting myself. I guess I thought things would change after I won, but they didn’t.”

“What is it you wanted to change?”

Sage’s eyes watered up. “I guess…I thought…Oh, never mind. I don’t know what I was thinking. It doesn’t matter anyway.”

After Dina left, Sage lay in her bunk trying to sleep, but the conversation had exposed long-buried desires of being with her ‘ohana. But that’s not possible, she thought. It’s too late, and it doesn’t work. They don’t respect what I do. I have to forget them and focus on Thalassa.

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