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Return to the Islands

The Curse of Nakaa

The Curse of Nakaa

An uneasy silence would fall upon the older villagers whenever one mentioned the great drought of the eighteen-seventies. I often got the impression that some shared dread constrained them never to talk of it. It was not until 1930, page 40when I had known them for sixteen years, that anyone told me of the horrors it had meant for them. It was old Eri, the native magistrate of Baanaba, who spoke of it then. Not that he had visited me expressly to do so, but his story sprang naturally from a pathetic request he had been deputed to make on behalf of the older villagers.

The British Phosphate Commissioners had recently asked for a hundred-acre extension of their diggings, and a party of young men was heckling the council of elders about the price to be demanded for the concession. Eri came to me deeply disturbed. "Nobody will want to pay the young men's price for our dust," he put it, "and that will be the end of our hope of buying a better home than this for our grandchildren to inherit. So, in the end, the curse of Nakaa will rest upon their heads also."

"The curse of Nakaa?" I echoed blankly—"What are you talking about, Eri?"

"About the great drought," he said, and that launched him on his story.

"I was a young man then, and my parents, who lived in Uma village, had arranged for me to take a wife from Buakonikai. She was a girl named Marawa, very beautiful in my eyes, and we were to be married at the full of the fourth moon at the season of the Pleiades. But when the third moon went out, and for three months no rain had fallen, her father said to mine, 'You will need your son to fish for you and we shall need Marawa to fetch water for us now that a drought has set in.' And my father answered, 'Even so. Let there be no marriage until the rains return.'

"Our hearts were sore at that and my mother tried to comfort us, saying, 'Patience. The drought will soon end.' But it did not end; and even when the sun showed a full year gone we knew that it would not break yet, for the rainclouds at sea, from which we had contrived to collect water up to then, ceased to come near us. Then our council of elders issued an edict:

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'From now on, let no household take more than one coconut shell of water a day from the bangabanga.'

"So the water was made to last for another whole year. But long before the next solstice in the south our food trees were gone; not one stood living in the land. We had nothing but fish to eat, and the fish often stayed so far from our shores, that for many days together there was none to be caught anywhere. We were already half starved when the drought sickness came, that white men call beriberi.

"People's gums rotted in their mouths; their teeth fell out; their bodies were covered in ulcers. They fell in the pathways and died there; and where they died their bodies remained, for who was strong enough to carry corpses home for burial rites? So the curse of Nakaa rested on the land."

It was strange to hear a man like Eri, stern old pillar of the Protestant Mission that he was, talk of the curse of a pagan god as if he believed in it. Nakaa, so the ancient myth had it, was the all-seeing guardian of the gate between the worlds of the living and the dead, who, in the beginning of time, had decreed eternal torture by impalement in his pit for those who neglected the funeral rites of their own kin.

"But Eri," I protested, "a Christian like you can't fear Nakaa or his curses any longer."

"Nakaa is a spirit of darkness," he answered earnestly. "Shall any man do away with him by becoming a Christian? And how shall we forget our unburied dead? These walk like ghosts in our hearts for ever." And then, after a long silence: "In the middle of the third year, when the waterholes were nearly dry, word came from Buakonikai that Marawa's parents had died. Things were a little better for us in Uma than in Buakonikai; Uma is by the sea; we had found seaweed to suck, and some said that this protected us against the sickness. But we were very weak. I was the only one of our house who could walk a hundred paces. So my mother said to me, 'Go now to Buakonikai. Speak to the brother of page 42Marawa's father and, if he will let her go, bring her to us here. So, from this drought you shall have a wife and I a daughter.'

"At her words, the strength came back to my legs. I made nothing of the long walk to Buakonikai. I came to the house of Marawa's father's brother. My heart said to me, 'Now you will see her.' But alas! when I lifted the screen to enter, she was not there. Only her father's brother was within, and he was dead. And the stink of corruption was everywhere around me as I walked through the village to her father's house.

"I found her with her parents. She had laid their bodies side by side and herself at their feet. The sickness was heavy upon her. Her lips were black and her body eaten with ulcers. But she was still beautiful for me. I think she had been asleep before I entered; but when I lifted the screen she awoke and smiled at me, saying, 'I knew I should see you again,' and tried to sit up, but fell back looking into my eyes as I sat down beside her. Lying there, she smiled again and sighed very slow and deep. The smile stayed on her lips. She was dead.

"I laid her beside her mother, her feet towards the west. I lifted her head from behind between my hands and looked down into her eyes. So, bending over her, I whispered the spell called The Lifting of the Head, to make her way straight into the land of our ancestors."

He paused a long while, remembering. I did not presume to ask him then what magic words he had whispered over his dead love; but, months later, he gave them to me of his own accord, and this is how they ran:

  • I lift your head, I straighten your way, for you are going home, Marawa, Marawa,
  • Home to Innang and Mwaiku, Roro and Bouru,
  • You will pass over the sea of Manra in your canoe with pandanus fruit for food;
  • You will find harbour under the lee of Matang and Atiia and Abaiti in the West,page 43
  • Even the homes of your ancestors.
  • Return not to your body; leave it never to return, for you are going home, Marawa, Marawa.
  • And so, Farewell for a moon or two, a season or two.
  • Farewell! your way is straight; you shall not be led astray.
  • Blessings and peace go with you. Blessings and peace.

"So I brought no daughter to my mother," the old man said, suddenly coming out of his silence. "Time went on. The waterholes were dry, but the rainclouds at sea had returned. Also, we of Uma village went down to the reef at low tide and lay covered with mats in shallow pools, so that our skins drank in the wetness.

"And on a day, I took my mother with me to a pool under the lee of certain rocks. We lay there, our heads resting on wooden pillows which I had brought, and soon we fell asleep.

"I did not wake until the rising tide floated the pillow from under me, so that my head was spilled into the water. That nearly drowned me, but at last I was able to kneel, and then I remembered my mother. She was not beside me. I looked out to sea; she was not there. I turned my eyes to the beach; she was floating there, on the edge of the tide. She had drowned beside me as I slept. How many times had she called me, and I deaf to her cries?

"A ship arrived not long after … a trading ship from New Zealand. The captain took my father and me, with most of the others who remained alive, to the island of Oahu, near Honolulu. There we lived until my father died, six years later, and then I returned to this place, because I owned no land anywhere else. Others returned with me, but none of us had ever been happy here. And since the Kambana [Company] came and began to pay us for our dust, we have hoped that, one day, it may buy all the rest together for a great price. With that money, the government could buy a happier page 44home for our children's children to dwell in. Help us in this, we beg you."

He sat in silence a full minute staring over my shoulder into the past. Then he rose. "A home for our children's children not haunted by the ghosts of our unburied dead," he whispered, more to himself than to me, and left without another word.