The slanting light of the dying day courses across the manicured plot of land. Tall tombstones cast elongated shadows in more ways than one. The Makawao Cemetery is final chronicle of a post-missionary Maui history.
The cemetery with its latest lines of modern islanders stands behind a picket fence made of slowly rusting iron. Gates free of the overpowering hedge show decades of care with coats of glossy black paint and free-swinging hinges. The main gate is locked.
I'm on a quest. At the heart of the search for the graves of two women is a translation of a chant that is both history and sacred text, according to na keiki o kaaina. The women are folklorist Martha Warren Beckwith and her companion and benefactor Annie M. Alexander.
Beckwith was born in Massachusetts but wrote that she spent her childhood "within the sound of the hula drum at the foot of the domelike House of the Sun on the windy island of Maui." It has been a windy day, but the coming sunset has calmed the bluster to a breeze.
There's still the problem of getting into the cemetery. Perhaps climb over a short part of the fence not covered by the hedge? A closer look reveals a simple latch. Pulling a pin opens the pedestrian gate.
The close-cropped grass is so thick it makes walking tricky. As is true of most cemeteries, there is a settled, comforting feeling about this place of endless sleep. A kupuna once told me: "If you have a good heart, there is no reason to fear the old ones." I look for ways of walking around the graves. The layout makes it impossible. Side-by-side grave sites have markers facing both east and west.
Many of the older family plots are surrounded by low concrete borders. Nearly all of the markers have haole names. There's a scattering of Hawaiian, Asian and Portuguese names. One grave has no name but is set aside by a growth of ferns around the base of a driftwood cross lashed together in the Hawaiian fashion.
The stones range from what appears to be white marble to granite to natural stones with carved flat surfaces for the names and dates. The birth dates show arrivals in the late 1800s. Dates of deaths chronicle departures early in the last century.
No Martha Beckwith. No Annie Alexander.
Walk up and down the ranks of mortal remains. Eyes keep lifting to the imposing stones near the center of the cemetery. Still, the graves between here and there need to be checked.
Some of the imposing tombstones are taller than a man, tributes to Baldwins, Alexanders, Kings, Smiths and Camerons - all families whose members helped shape modern Maui at a time when enterprise counted for more than genealogy.
The sought graves are decades old. There seems to be little reason to check the names on the flower-decorated graves on the Paia side. These have modern, flat metal nameplates.
Finally, there is a dawning. Martha Beckwith's unmarked grave is probably in the Beckwith family plot, just a few feet from an Alexander family plot that may contain the unmarked remains of Annie Alexander.
They were acquaintances from childhood. The friendship took full form during a 10-week horseback camping trip through northern California and southern Oregon in 1899. Later, missionary descendant Alexander funded Beckwith's folklore research while a member of the faculty at Vassar College. It's only appropriate that their graves would be close to each other.
Beckwith ranged the world, collecting accounts of culture and history. She always returned to the islands. Her crowning work was "The Kumulipo, a Hawaiian Creation Chant." She credited the aid of many experts and the translations by King David Kalakaua, Queen Lili'uokalani, David Malo Kupihea, Daniel Ho'olapa and Pokini Robinson and editing help by Mary Kawena Pukui.
Beckwith's translation is the standard text taught today, eclipsing the earlier work of native scholars. It was published in 1951 by the University of Chicago Press. There are critics who say she took liberties with the chant's underlying meanings and displayed a Caucasian perspective in her annotations - a common occurrence among Western anthropologists at the time. There is no question that hanai Mauian Martha Beckwith loved the islands' people and their stories.
The sun is setting. The shadows retreat.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for the Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.