Tell Me a Story

Pele and the Calabash of Poi (A Hawaiian Folktale)

People say the goddess of the volcano known as Pele was born in Tahiti, one of six daughters. But Pele's father, the powerful god of heaven and earth, grew tired of her explosive temper, and so at long last he gave her a canoe and exiled her from his land. Led by her eldest brother, Kamohoali'i, king of the sharks, Pele made her way to Hawaii.

When she reached the islands, Pele used her pa'oa, a long, sharp stick, to strike deep into each place she landed, creating great pits of fire wherever she went. Pele's oldest sister killed her in a great battle, but when Pele died, she transformed into a goddess and settled on the island of Hawaii, where she lives to this day, inhabiting the crater at the summit of the Kilauea volcano. When Kilauea erupts, people say it is Pele's temper bursting forth, and they speak of the face of the goddess that appears amidst the volcanic eruptions.

People also tell tales of seeing her wandering out in the world, sometimes disguised as a frail old woman, other times as a beautiful young girl, often leading a tiny white dog. People see her on long, empty roads in Kilauea National Park, but usually when they turn to look again, she has mysteriously vanished.

And so it was that one day, disguised as a hag and leaning on a gnarled cane, Pele walked down the mountain toward a village to wander among the people. She came to a large home thatched with ti-leaves, a sign of the family's high rank. The windows of the house opened out onto a lovely garden of taro, coconut palms and bananas. The setting was beautiful, and so Pele peered inside. She saw a family of well-dressed people sitting around a table, clearly enjoying a feast.

"Aloha," she called, and the man of the family turned, startled to see a stranger at his door.

"Aloha," he said, but he did not sound happy. "Can I help you?"

Pele nodded. "I have walked a long way," she said, exhaustion in her voice. "I am very hungry. Perhaps you would be kind enough to offer me a calabash of poi. I see you grow a great deal of taro in your beautiful garden."

Now the women at the table had spent many hours pounding the potato-like taro root and cooking their delicious poi; the men had worked hard at their harvest. And all they could think was that if they gave some away, that would be less for them later.

"I'm afraid we have too little left to share," the man said. "This will have to last us for a long, long time."

"Then perhaps a piece of fish," asked Pele.

"Ah, it's all gone, I fear," said the man. This time he lied.

"A few berries for an old woman?" she asked. "To quench my thirst."

"Oh, our berries are green," the woman of the house lied, hiding the pot of berries. "You probably cannot see they are green because your eyes are so old."

Now Pele's eyes were anything but old, and now they gleamed with fire, but she stopped herself from exploding with rage. Instead she simply bowed and backed away.

Pele continued down the road until she came to a neighbor's house, this one a small hut on a narrow patch of land. She stopped at the gate and watched as a family talked and laughed together in their little garden. They were enjoying the sight of the setting sun beyond the slopes in the distance, the slopes that were Pele's home.

"Aloha," Pele called. "I see you have finished your supper, which is a shame since I hoped to have a little poi. I'm very hungry."

At once the poor farmer smiled at Pele, and everyone in the family smiled as well, each one radiating warmth, as if they had inhaled the sun. "Come in," said the man. "You are more than welcome. Please, make yourself comfortable."

Before he had finished speaking, his wife had prepared a calabash of poi for the old woman and led her to a mat on the floor. Pele sat and ate heartily, dipping her fingers again and again into the delicious poi. When she had devoured the bowlful, she looked up and asked, "Have you any more?"

Without hesitation, the woman filled the calabash with another helping of poi, and once again Pele devoured the treat. Then she looked up. "Any more?"

Again the woman did not hesitate to fill the calabash as full as she could. "I'm so sorry," she apologized, "this is the last of our poi. As you can see, we have a small garden and little taro."

When Pele finished eating the third calabash, she rose from her place on the mat. She moved more slowly now, for she was full, but her face glowed with the fire of pleasure. "From this day on," she said, "whatever you plant in your garden at night will be full grown by morning, and you will have as many crops in your garden in one day as your neighbor will grow in 10 years."

Then she walked outside, and when the family turned to wave to her, she had vanished.

The next morning the poor man awoke and walked into his garden. He stared in wonder, for everywhere he looked, ripe bananas hung on new, sturdy plants, and full-grown taro stood ready to be harvested. His sugarcane plants reached so high he could barely see their tops.

Then the poor farmer looked across the road toward the beautiful garden of his rich and powerful neighbor, and saw that the rich man's garden was bare.

And so he understood that he had been blessed by the goddess of the volcano because of his hospitality to a poor old woman.

"Tell Me a Story 2: Animal Magic," the second CD in the audiobook series, is now available. For more information, please visit www.mythsandtales.com.

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