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.

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