Into the dark

At 70-plus years of age, he was still making house calls and administering voodoo remedies in the small Hawaiian town of Puako. Neither an ordinary doc, nor a regular man, Dr. Alighieri had a strange edge to him and seemed to pass his days in and out of a sort of trance.

This edge was horribly intensified by his left leg. One of many stricken by polio, Alighieri sported a severely shrunken limb. It was load bearing but hard on the eyes, the type of thing that made for goose bumps and great late-night stories.

As a 10-year-old spending one of several extended summers in Puako, I always tried to steer clear of Alighieri. His piercing eyes told of a trip well beyond reality, and he carried that leg like an old curse, reluctantly but with a hint of pride.

My dodge was doomed to failure. On a random summer morning, Alighieri sprang from nowhere, cornering me and a friend and extending a peculiar invitation.

“How would you boys like to see a Hawaiian burial cave?” he whispered, glancing around to make sure no one was listening.

Plainly, I had no interest in spending the day with Alighieri. But, he’d thrown an attractive lure to a 10-year-old. Visions of vengeful gods, sprawling temples and bizarre ritual practices ran through our heads. With little hesitancy, we accepted the eccentric doc’s offer.

The majority of the Big Island of Hawaii is sealed in a case of black lava, barren, raw desert embodied. And on that particular day, an airborne observer would have spotted three lost souls fleeing a beaten Buick and venturing into the middle of that black waste.

The heat of lava leaking through the soles of our shoes, we slipped into that folding slab of endless rock. Nose in the wind, Alighieri navigated by random landmarks. Few words were exchanged.

“We’re close now,” the doc uttered suddenly.

He hobbled over a slight rise, beckoned us forward and pointed out over a deep cavity in the field. The slog was over, and the cave lay before us. This minor triumph would be short-lived.

Alighieri’s eyes never closed, and he never lost consciousness. But, out of nowhere, he simply collapsed. It was almost as if an enormous weight drove him down to the ground. His head and chest hit the slab first, bone and flesh slamming and then breaking against stone. Instantly returning to his feet, he winced in pain, showing off several missing teeth, a badly gashed face and a collarbone that had buckled, snapped under the load and now stuck out of a hole in his chest.

With nary a whimper, the doc arched his back and slipped the scapula back into place. Then his long arm extended toward the depression and his finger centered in on the cave, urging us forward. “Keep going,” he muttered with no hint of humor in his voice.

At first appearance, the cave seemed pretty standard subterranean fare, black, cold, musty and damp. However, as my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, a presence made itself known. This is big medicine amigos, it seemed to say, and you are most definitely not welcome.

We both fought the urge to flee and waited for our eyes to come up with some answers. Eventually, the cave betrayed its secret in blacks and whites. Lined along its expansive walls were about 20 shelves. On each of these sat a tidy pile, of bleached bones. Closest to the cave’s entrance rested a recent burial, an intact man wearing blue jeans and shoes. From appearances, those shoes might have walked the earth the week earlier. It was beyond time to haul ass home.

Alighieri peered over the edge as we tumbled out of that hole. He took one look at our pasty faces and humbled eyes, scrambled to his feet and flashed another trickster grin our way.

“Ah, you saw the bodies,” he chuckled through loose teeth.

The brief lesson had ended. Although, looking at that grim and bloodied Alighieri, I’m still not sure who did the teaching that day.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows