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Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Under the Volcano

While vacationing on Hawaii’s Big Island, JUDY PANKO REIS suffered an unspeakable crime. Decades later, she sees that out of even the darkest violence a new life of service and transformation can emerge.

Waking Up Inside the Tent (1980) 

Under the gleam of a half-sliced moon, Phil noses our Mazda rental past fields of wild orchids into MacKenzie State Park. A hidden Hawaiian gem mounted on the cliffs of the Pacific, the park is tucked away outside the forested perimeter of the volcano Kilauea, the legendary home of Pelé, the fire goddess. The mixed fragrances of pine and brine welcome us to a night of camping on the Big Island.

I am focused on my sketches of Pelé—her purple crater and golden veins—as she is depicted in the travel journal spread across my knees. I decide my gushing words and bold images capture the aura of the volcano and my awe of Pelé, the legend of Hawaiian folklore.

Traditionally, islanders consider her a transformative figure who wields the dual powers of creation (island building) and destruction (home and landscape demolition). She hurls fire into water, spewing love and jealous anger in protection of her sacred land. For me, Pelé exemplifies a radiant female force of nature that blends polarities. I seek her guidance in my quest to reconcile the lighter aspects of the world with its darker shadow elements.

My excitement grows. I squeeze Phil’s sinewy fingers and run my hand through his curly hair. “It’s incredible here, isn’t it?” I whisper. “I can’t wait to get to Volcano House.” In Volcanoes National Park, I plan to study Pelé’s handiwork and temperament, to harness her creativity so I can awaken more enlightened parts of myself in the coming year. Phil grins, crinkling his eyes. “Tomorrow night at Volcano House will be awesome.”

As darkness descends over the dozens of scattered tents and vehicles dotting the campsite, we discuss our upcoming wedding and Philip’s future medical-career possibilities on the Big Island. He unzips the entry flap of the nylon tent, nodding hello to other campers. We crawl inside and pull off our shoes, emptying streams of sand onto the floor. In no time, our thoughts about Pelé’s transformative powers tumble out. We discuss how her firestorms decimated vegetation and then midwifed the birth of brilliant new spectrums of scarlet, yellow, and purple species of plant and animal life. How her explosions sculpted lush islands and reshaped the park’s jagged coastline.

Slipping into our sleeping bags, we celebrate the thought that our presence on the island draws us into Pelé’s self-perpetuating cycle of physical and spiritual regeneration. She is the progenitor of this splendor that regales all living creatures in her court—including a pair of lovers on this Wednesday night, the twenty-third of April, 1980.

Outside our tent, a restless wind roars through the giant ironwood trees. Sounds of thunderous waves hammer the rocks.

Before closing my eyes, I whisper to Phil that I feel Pelé has beckoned me here and I’m counting the minutes until we reach Volcano House the next day. He kisses me goodnight. In blissful fatigue, we surrender our awe to the night.

 In the distance, Pelé sleeps.

Trapped in a luminous orange cave, I rouse from slumber. Threads of orange daylight filter into my mucus-filled eyes. I feel pudding-thick blood clots slither down my cheeks into my mouth. The saline taste forces a gag. I choke down the stench of erupting vomit. Instantaneously, the contents of my bowels and bladder surge onto the floor of the cave. I heave torrents. Animal sounds of my retching echo through the cave. The avalanche of vomit mixes in a sea of body fluids that gush around me. Where am I?

In a haze, I recall pitching the tent with Philip the day before. Or was it two days ago? A lucid part of me takes control. I am… in a tent camping on the Big Island of Hawaii. My head explodes with pain that radiates through every nerve of my body. My heart pounding, I reach for my head to soothe the agony. Withdrawing my fingers, I see they are bathed in the crimson of fresh blood.

I turn to awaken Philip. He is still beside me in his sleeping bag. I urgently need his physician’s skills. I lunge toward him desperately and cry, “Philip, wake up, wake up, I’m hurt, I’m bleeding, I’m sick.” I heave, tears leak from my eyes. “Phil… wake up.” I grope through the orange folds of the collapsed tent that entombs us. “Give me your hand, Phil.” I extend a bloody hand to reach the flesh of his palm. He is inert.

A prism of light pours into the tent as I hear what I think is Phil’s voice. I say, “Phil, I’m thirsty, please help me.” Instead I hear, “What’s your name… phone number for a family member… who did this to you?” I rattle off my name and my parents’ phone number in Illinois. “Judy, try to stay awake—rescue is here,” says a male voice.

On April 25, 1980, Honolulu newspapers deliver these headlines: “Honolulu Doctor Slain,” “Two Beaten at Park.” The papers say the park had a history of thrill beatings, but no current suspects. A passerby walking his dog in the late afternoon had found us as I struggled, murmuring Phil’s name, to free myself from the collapsed tent.

Later that week, Phil’s corpse is slipped into a black nylon bag and shipped to his family in Queens, New York.

Because of the shortage of neurosurgeons on the Big Island, I am helicoptered to Straub hospital on Oahu to repair what remains of the right hemisphere of my brain. It is the same hospital where Phil had been practicing as a first-year medical resident before we left on our trip to the Big Island.

Approaching my hospital bed, my parents wear worried eyes and crumpled clothes. I vaguely hear a nurse explain my physical losses.

My father’s voice quivers in response: “Are they permanent?”

“It’s too soon to tell.”

The room is abloom with garlands of leis, tropical bouquets, and cards from Hawaiian residents offering apologies for the crime.

When the neurosurgeon inspects the tracks of sutures in my head, he turns to my folks and says, “You can take her home now.” Their collective gasp jolts the room.

Patricia, a social worker friend of Phil’s, swoops into the room in a blaze of light that pierces our confusion and dread. Waving a file bulging with admission papers for a rehabilitation hospital in Chicago, she says, “If this place can’t teach Judy how to sit up, read, dress, and feed herself, no one can. You’re lucky they’re in Chicago.” With a compassionate smile, she strokes my face and then embraces my parents.

Hilo detectives, visiting before we depart, tell me that my travel journal helped them retrace our steps. But it ends with our visit to Kilauea the day of the assault. My musings and sketches of Pelé are remarkable, the big copper-skinned native Hawaiian sergeant says, but offer no clues to the crime. In denial of Phil’s death and my multiple disabilities, I focus on the officer’s compliment of my artwork. He glares at my crushed skull and says that Phil’s murder and my assault are tearing him up.

In the distance, Pelé weeps. 


An adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Chicago’s College of Nursing, Judy Panko Reis lectures and writes on women’s health, violence, and disability. More than a decade ago, she was introduced to Buddhist meditation.

Read the rest of this article inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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