Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sweep the Dead

There was a path that ran from Luaniua village, down the entire length of the island. It was called 'the Road', simply because it was the only established thoroughfare on Luaniua. It was down the Road that my friends and I decided to embark one Saturday.

We set off through the village in a happy bunch, myself, my best friend Sehilono, Kala, and Kala's cousin and sister. All our excursions included some body's random relatives. It seemed like the villagers couldn't ever do anything alone, nor did any really want to.

The edge of the village faded into bush, and we grew quiet as the trees closed in over us. I stopped playing my ukulele. Mosquitoes buzzed in a cloud behind us. Ahead we could see the cemetery that lay separated from the village by its buffer of jungle. It was strictly taboo to make any loud noises, laugh, or sing in the graveyard, lest you waken the dead. Yet we always stopped here on our trips into the center of the island, to look at the graves in the heavy quiet of the place.

An expanse of hard sand, white, the color of death, was broken by grave markers. A widow stooped among the tall stones in a far corner, sweeping the area clear of leaves and debris. We made a wide circle around her, leaving her to her grief and communion with her dead. We wandered among the grave stones, and Kala explained the significant ones to me.

"This one is Father Simeon's grave," she said, in a hushed voice. I gazed at the massive cross, wreathed in fresh leis. It towered above the others, standing alone in a slightly larger space than the rest of the markers. I wondered who this man had been, of whom I had heard the villagers speak in awe, reverence, and a slight fear.

We continued to wend our way delicately among the graves, cognizant that below our feet lay centuries of bones, ancestors whose names were still called upon in times of want or danger. I wandered over to one of the frangipani trees that grew on the edge of the plot, noticing that a broom was hanging from one of the branches. I reached up, drawn to it inexplicably. I wanted to break that broom. I wanted to snap it in my hands and watch the broken pieces fall to the ground. It looked grey and brittle and waiting as my reaching fingers approached it ... at that moment Sehilono grabbed my hand.

"NO!" she whispered in my ear. I turned my head, to see all four islanders staring at me with eyes huge in their faces. "Don't," Sehilono warned, "those brooms are taboo. They are used just to sweep the dead." I looked past her shoulder and met the eyes of the widow. She stood now it the shadows of the far bush, her eyes blazing at me.

"You don't belong here, outsider," her voice spoke to my mind.


Past the graveyard, we were still walking in the pall of what had happened. I did not understand, except that I had somehow crossed the invisible line of the taboo.

"Come on," said Kala, "Let's walk on the beach." We crossed the few yards between path and beach, and emerged from the green shadows into the brilliance of sand and sea and sun. Sehilono took up my ukulele and started on a song about boyfriends of the past. The lagoon laughed up at us, throwing flashes of brilliant light that it had distilled from the sky, mixed through the azure depths, then spit back out again into the air like intangible gems. Crabs scuttled away from our feet clicking furiously. If one got too close to the encroaching surf, it was tumbled about until the waters receded, and then lay for a few seconds on the sand, regathering its dignity and spitting salt water.

We found a spot where the jungle hung out like a benediction, casting deep, cool shadows over the sand, and plopped down to rest. I wriggled my butt into the soft whiteness until I had made myself comfortable, then turned to Kala. She was absently sticking bits of twig into the sand.

"So ..." I said tentatively. She glanced up. "Who was Father Simeon? He had such a big cross on his grave ... " I didn't know quite what the rules were for speaking of the dead, and didn't want to cross the line twice in one day.

Kala's eyes settled on the dance of the waves on the sand. "Father Simeon was a priest years ago," she said in the cadence of the storyteller. The others grew quiet as we all succumbed comfortably to her spell. "Before the priest we have now, and before the one before him, Father Simeon was our priest. Before him, people didn't follow the Anglican God. They didn't believe in His power, so they didn't bother to come to church in the mornings and evenings, and take communion on Sunday. They did not give to the church. Very few people were faithful." She paused, to let us take in the wickedness and folly of these people who did not obey the teachings of the priests and catechists.

"Then Father Simeon came. When he came, the head witchdoctor challenged him. The witchdoctor did not know Father Simeon's God's power, and thought to have sole control of the people. He said, 'It's either you or me, but we both cannot exist in this village.' Father Simeon was not afraid, for he knew his God had mighty power. Father Simeon picked up an axe beside him and said, 'Let us have a contest to see whose god is more powerful. I will throw this axe into the lagoon. If it sinks, your god is greatest and I will leave this village. But if the axe floats, all the people will know that my God reigns, and you will have no place here.' The witchdoctor smiled, for he knew then that he would soon route the priest.

"The entire village assembled on the beach, and the two contenders got into a canoe, the axe between them. They paddled out into the lagoon. When they were in deep water, Father Simeon stood up in the canoe. He raised the axe above his head, and threw it in a great arc across the water. The people then let out a great gasp, because as the axe flew through the air, its handle became unattached to the iron. The witchdoctor smiled a triumphant smile, because he knew that the axe could not possibly float without even the wood to aide it. By this time, many people had paddled out in their own canoes to see. The axe head struck the water and sank to the bottom of the lagoon. The people could see it there clearly, lying on the white sand at the bottom of the sea. And then! Behold, the axe head began to rise to the surface. As all the village watched, the axe head broke the surface of the water and floated there, bobbing on the waves.

"Everyone knew it was a great miracle, and great was the power of the priest's God! The witchdoctor left the island, and from then on the church was full with people coming to worship God."

"God paid the people back, too, for their faithfulness," Sehilono chimed in. "There came a time when the village was preparing for a feast. Father Simeon told the people not to go fishing, that God would provide food for the feast. He went to the water's edge and prayed, and there came a great whale into the lagoon. It got stuck in the reef, and everybody got into their canoes and just took what meat they wanted. There was enough to feed the entire village for days!"

"Yeah, but that was before YOU were born. If you had been there, there still wouldn't be enough food, with the way you eat, " Kala replied. She lept up with a shout as Sehilono kicked sand in her direction, and we all ran screaming into the surf, stories forgotten and ready to answer the call of the beckoning surf.

Friday, October 16, 2009


One morning a brown face appeared at our door. It peered in, eye-level with our floor on its stilts, taking in the strange, magical world of the foreign family. I was lying on my stomach on the opposite side of the veranda with my math papers spread around me and absently poking bits of leaf through the floor board. I watched a piece flutter to the gravel below, like a tiny WWII bomber, shot down in flames of glory by a Japanese gunship ... and looked up to meet the curious eyes.

"Whadda-you want?" I asked in Pijin, bored, but willing to take any diversion over my schoolwork. Village kids often came to our door, sometimes just out of boredom to stare at us. Other times they would bring requests for assistance, or gifts from their families; a plate of succulent fish heads with the blank, opaque eyes that stared up at you, some taro pudding that looked like blocks of poo on the plate, or even the occasional chicken egg to sell. Some of which actually had yolks instead of fetuses when you cracked them open.

"Come and see, my cat had kittens and this one is for you," the urchin responded, and over the floorboards poked a little pointed face, with a white patch surrounding its pink nose, sleepy blue kitten eyes, and little bumps of ears.

"Oh!" I cried, and scurried over to cuddle the little fur ball to my chest. "Thank you!" The child grinned at me and settled down on our steps to watch the rest of the kelaipa (white) family's reaction to his gift.

We decided the kitten's name over dinner. Our veranda was too narrow to afford enough moving room during the day with a table down the middle of it, so my dad had rigged up a large sheet of laminated plywood, which he attached with hinges to the wall. During the day it folded flush against the wall, held by a swing hook, and at meal times we suspended it with a rope on the free side, like a drawbridge. We squeezed in around it on flour and rice buckets to pounce on whatever food my mother had managed to cook up. "Vultures!" she would scold, as we all jockeyed with our plates for the first spoon full as soon as the last 'amen' was said.

"I think we should call it Jimbo," Matthew said. I looked indulgently at my littlest brother, but immediately gave the suggestion a mental veto. 'Jim' was the name of one of our cousins back home, and Matthew had already named one cat after him.

"I think we should name it after something in Austin," Anna said thoughtfully.

"How about Austin?" was the next inevitable remark. Lame. I looked to my dad for help.

"Well, what are our favorite things to do in Austin?" Mom prodded. Ideas were thrown out:

"The park!"

"Grandaddy's house."

"No, stupid, Grandaddy lives in Houston."

"Don't call your sister stupid, Nathan."

"What's Austin?" (this was from Matthew, the youngest, who had already forgotten everything except for his current world of palm trees and smiling, butt-naked friends).

"How about Barton Springs?" Dad suggested, seeing the conversation was in danger of getting completely derailed. "There's also Barton Creek, and Barton Springs Road..."

And so we decided to dub the cat 'Barton', in honor of our home town. Barton grew into sleek adulthood and gained his place in family lore as the stupidest cat we ever kept. He would lay in the very middle of the main breezeway through the house, and get his tail stepped on at least once a day, whereupon he would yowl and swipe at the owner of the offending foot, and get kicked out the front door for his pains. He feasted on canned tuna every night, which we secretly fed to him in the dark, after the danger of watching village eyes was over - it was considered supreme wastefulness that bordered on sacrilege to feed an animal anything but the very last scrapings of table scraps. And even table scraps were better given to the pigs or the chickens, who at least served a purpose and could be eventually eaten in return.

Barton was particularly hated by my Dad, who generally hates all cats on principle, but was tolerated because he kept the mouse population under control. He was our cat until we went on furlough a few years later. Upon returning to the village after our re-Americanization, he had disappeared, gone to the place that village animals go to after their short, stark lives. But for a brief time of glory, Barton was the better fed and kept than any cat (and probably most kids) in Luaniua village.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Lice in Church

The village church sat right outside our front door, a giant pavilion consisting of cinder block pillars supporting a vast tin roof. It was filled with simple benches that ran down each side, with a central aisle leading up to the alter in front. The church was divided strictly by sex, with the men sitting on the right and the women sitting on the left. In Luaniua language, the right hand was called, "kelima laoi", or, "the hand of love", and the left hand was called, "kelima Sakane", or, "the hand of Satan". You can draw whatever conclusions you want in regards to the women's placement in the church, and their role therein.

Us children would sit in the very front, balancing our bony behinds on the wooden 2 x 6's , which were polished smooth by the generations of restless supplicants who had come before us. Time tended to pass like molasses through a sieve in those Anglican services. I learned to entertain myself in a variety of ways.

I would focus on the 'Lord have mercy's' and 'Lord hear our prayer's', trying to say each one a split second before the rest of the congregation. You could also say them more quickly, slowly, in a high or low voice, pious or obnoxious, or tap out the rhythm with your fingers underneath the bench. I would study the line of curved brown backs in front of me, and pick out every one's spines. I would stare covertly at the boys across the aisle. These were all interesting ways to fill the time, but paled in comparison to our favorite church-pew sport:

Lice circus.

Most kids' mamas and aunties kept their offspring's pretty well groomed, with their head population down to a respectable minimum. This was done over hours spent with our heads in each-others' laps, as we took our turns getting picked over. A select group of children, however, came from families who either didn't have the time, didn't care, or had too many offspring to keep up with the growing louse population on every head. If we were careful, my friends and I could position ourselves behind one such unlucky individual when we sat down for the evening's service.

With eyes peeled, we would stare at the black, stringy hair, and soon enough were rewarded at the sight of a small brown oval wriggling its way among the strands. A quick hand can snag a louse out of another's head and then we had all we needed for the next half-hour's entertainment. Let the lice circus commence!

Event 1: Tight rope
Place the louse on a stray hair held taut in each hand, and watch it scale its way from fingertip to fingertip.

Event 2: O-Course
Set the louse on your prayer book, and challenge it with obstacle to overcome as it attempts its bid for freedom; a strand of hair, your finger, a pebble from the floor, the inclined book cover.

Event 3: Wrestling
Sometimes (if you get two feisty ones), you can pit two lice against each other. It's a fight to the death! (or until one gets turned over on its back)

Event 4: Acrobatics
Place a lice belly-side-up (do they have bellies? Abdomens?), and see how long it takes to get its feet underneath it. Another fun variation on this event is to dangle a strand of hair over it as it is on its ... back? ... and see if it can grasp hold while in that upside-down state.

Event 5: Seek-and-Hide
Place the louse back into the hair of the person in front of you, and see if you can find it again once it disappears. Warning; This tends to anger the person in whose hair the louse is doing the hiding!