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Return to the Islands

No Pagan Hanky-Panky

No Pagan Hanky-Panky

It is worth a man's while to remember now that erring wives did not entirely monopolize the Gilbertese market for generosity: not, at least, at Tarawa in 1916. There was Taratake, for example, a much wronged husband. Taratake knew of his own goodness that, only given time to cool down, he could condone practically any slip of Laughter-of-Waves, his wife. So he brought her to my office one day, saying, "Kurimbo, this woman has sinned. She has already deceived me twice before, and I have forgiven her. I love her greatly, as all men know, and I wish to pardon her again in the end; but I fear I shall strangle her this time unless you lock her away from my anger for at least six months."

I asked Laughter-of-Waves if the proposal struck her as reasonable. It did, she said. She didn't want to be strangled; besides which, both she and her partner in crime were sorry for what they had done and eager to afford Taratake the solace page 115of an official expiation. I accordingly recommended the two offenders to the favourable consideration of the Native Court, which obliged all of us by sending them to prison for six months each.

Taratake's only real fault after that was too much forgiveness. Yet can there ever be too much? And then, who but a complete saint could have turned a blind eye to the interior weakness of our penal organization? The colony was desperately poor. Big prison staffs were entirely out of the question. We were happy indeed, in the circumstances, if our criminal gentlefolk were tactful enough to keep their breaches of discipline decently hidden and beyond that, willing, when they chose to sing at night, not to bawl themselves quite hoarse.

Taratake had once done a year in the central prison at Tarawa (I forget what for) and he knew much more than I did about its interior possibilities. This valuable experience, plus his wife's clever use of the latitude allowed for midnight song, plus the happy accident that the women's wardress was his father's sister, enabled him to organize the sort of reconciliation that his generous heart ached for.

I only began to learn the facts when Laughter-of-Waves had been released from prison for some months, and I heard that she had given birth to a fine son. That was pleasant news in itself, but a question of time rather puzzled me. The prison records said that she had been discharged just five months and three weeks previously after serving her full sentence of six months. It made strange biological arithmetic for the cloistered seclusion of a female prison, unless one believed in spontaneous generation. I asked them to come and have a private chat with me. The baby came with them.

Our opening talk was about a virgin known to Gilbertese mythology as Nei Matamona, who—so the story ran—had once upon a time been visited by a sunbeam as she lay basking in a solitary pool, and so became the mother of that mighty sun-hero Bue. But Taratake said No: as a Christian (though his wife was a pagan) he couldn't approve of Nei Matamona's page 116methods and didn't, in any case, believe things happened that way nowadays. There was clearly nothing to do then but apologize to him at once, on behalf of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, for what had happened to Laughter-of-Waves in the female lock-up and congratulate him, in the name of humanity, for his generous readiness to father an interloper's child.

This was, however, more than a virtuous mother could take in silence. Laughter-of-Waves spent the next ten minutes forcing me with floods of indignant tears, to note the astounding resemblances between her baby and his father. All that time, Taratake sat with an arm round her waist, nodding his head at every point she made and shaking it with such reproachful eyes at me that I felt lower than a worm. But I did want all the facts, if only for the appraisal of my own gullability, and presently they came tumbling out.

It appeared, to begin with, that Laughter-of-Waves was a most accomplished sorceress. Her spells, she claimed, had twice won Taratake's instant pardon for her wilful ways; it was therefore only natural to turn to them again for help in prison. She didn't want him throwing eyes at other women while she was locked up; wasn't she right in that, she asked. I had to admit I thought she probably was, and was glad to hear from her then that the gaol wardress, Taratake's aunt, had held absolutely the same opinion.

It was this aunt who had obtained from him a few strands of his hair for the right kind of spellbinding and had also provided matches for burning them at the right ritual moment. Laughter-of-Waves herself had organized the community singing. "Do you remember," she reproached me, "you once sent your cook over to us three nights running, to beg us not to sing like lunatics? You see, everyone had to sing loud. Otherwise, they would have heard the words of my spell, and it wouldn't have worked." She was good enough, after hearing my expressions of regret, to let me have the words in question. Here is the slightly expurgated English rendering of them:

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Mr. Hair-of-his-head, Mr. Hair-of-his-head,
Go you to him, to Taratake!
Whisper my name when he dreams, when he wakes,
When he walks among the women.
Draw him by the hand,
Draw him by the foot,
Draw him by the heart and entrails to me.

He thinks only of me;
He dies for love of me;
There is no woman for him but me, no love but mine, no love-making but mine.
He comes to me, he comes, he is here with me,
With me, Laughter-of-Waves-o-o-o!

The burning of a single hair at the end was enough to speed the indwelling spirit on its way.

I don't know how it strikes you, but I thought it pretty natural, that, after three performances of a ritual like that, Taratake should have started dreaming of his wife—especially as he knew from his helpful aunt exactly when the series began and ended. The third performance completed, he said, he had allowed Mr. Hair-of-his-head one night to come and draw him by the hand, a second to do the same by his foot, and a third to deal with his heart and entrails. "But, Taratake," I ventured to protest at this point, "you're a Christian! You can't go playing about with pagan spirits like that, you know." The dignified reproof in his answer left me sorry I had spoken: "Sir, you have forgotten that it was my own hair. The spirit of it was as Christian as I am myself."

So, on the fourth night, the spirit led him to the wardress's quarters in the gaol yard. It was easy going after that, because another spell known to Laughter-of-Waves held his aunt bound to her mat in a miraculous sleep. This again was, religiously speaking, blameless. She was a Christian like himself and had given the sorceress some of her own eyelashes for page 118the sleep ritual, so as to make sure there was no hanky-panky with pagan spirits. Comforted beyond measure by this thought, he took the key she had carelessly left by a lighted hurricane lamp and pressed serenely on with his mission of forgiveness into the female lock-up.

Everything was ready for him there. The other lady inmates had plaited garlands of perfumed flowers to hang about the room. They lay now, magicked asleep, on the concrete floor. They had to be on the floor, because their wooden pallets were needed to make the little cubicle where his beloved awaited his forgiveness. But what could hard lying matter to them, who slept so fast and dreamed so deep, maybe, of love fulfilled in the scented darkness?

"And how many times did they have to be magicked altogether?" I asked Laughter-of-Waves when all was told.

"Only six," she replied. "You see, it was difficult. We started the night you left on a visit to Abaiang and finished the night before you came back. You wander round the station a lot at night, and we didn't want to hurt you."

I was grateful for their tender feelings. For the rest, what was to be done? One can't wheedle confessions from one's parishioners only to put the dogs of justice on their tracks. So I asked them weakly what their idea of a fair thing was. They had it all ready: "We thought," said Taratake, "that it would be nice if we called our son Kurimbo, after you." I looked at the brat. He really was rather a nice baby. I was proud to be his sponsor.