Return to the Islands
Thin Man in the Moonlight
Thin Man in the Moonlight
I was always skinny in the Pacific, but never quite so ramshackle as round about that time at Tarawa. The sorcerer's trick up north which had sent me to Betio hospital (he had pulled it off by dropping an infusion of cantharides fly into my daily drink of coconut toddy) had fined me down to under nine stone, and that seemed to leave me simply six feet of skeleton clothed in nothing but skin. The Gilbertese, with their fine, sturdy frames, had a choice of national jokes, quite unprintable here, about thin men and a number of frank words to describe their different appearances. The particular epithet for my type was kiboriana, which may be interpreted buttocks knocked away going under him. I didn't greatly fancy it at the time, but oh, how I wish it could be honestly said of me now!
It was at this turn of my career that I realized what an advantage stockily-built officers in the colonial service enjoy over thin ones. The stability, the quality of not being easily knocked over, which they command is essential to anyone who page 131 wishes to maintain, come foul, come fair, the true bulldog look of the old-style British empire builder. I just hadn't got it: practically everything tripped me up. I often managed to look far-flung as a result, also bloody, but never by any chance unbowed.
I was sitting alone, one lovely moonlit evening, on the lagoon beach of my house at Betio, when a very comely young man rushed panting from the shadows of the coconut grove behind me and flung himself on the sand at my feet:
"Save me ! Hide me !" he gasped.
Gilbertese men had not the habit of throwing themselves about like that except in the extremity of terror. There seemed so little reason for fear of any kind on such a perfect night; I jumped to a conclusion as he lay struggling for breath: he was insane, and fancied he had seen some dreadful demon somewhere among the trees. So I only said, non-committally, "Where have you come from?"
"From Bairiki," he replied. "Hide me in the calaboose. page 132Lock us both up. That woman is following us." He laid hold of my ankles: "We have sinned. Lock us up," he kept on pleading.
The village of Bairiki was four miles up-lagoon, across a tidal passage. It seemed, I said to him, a long way for a female demon to be chasing him and his friend, whoever that might be. And anyhow, being locked up in the calaboose might not give him the best protection from so active a spirit; so what about coming along to the hospital with me instead.
He sprang to his feet: "No! No! That woman! She will find us in the hospital and kill us with her akis."
A European axe didn't equate well with a Gilbertese demon. I got up. But, before I could exercise my intelligence further, a high scream rang out from the beach-head and a young woman, naked but for a brief petticoat, came pelting down towards us. "Quick! Quick! The calaboose," she panted: "She comes … that woman with her akis!" and hurled herself not, as you might have expected, into the young man's arms, but into mine.
She was small but solid; I, as I have said, tallish but spidery: the impact knocked me flying, clutching at her as I fell. It struck me as the more unfortunate because I was wearing nothing but a loin-cloth myself.
As I rolled bosom to bosom with her on that moonlit strand, my mind worked with unusual speed. This, it told me, must be the other party to the young man's 'both of us'; she, therefore, was the person with whom he had sinned, and the woman chasing them with an axe was his wife. It followed that these intimate gambols which now engaged me were not only in questionable taste for an official grass widower but also, to an unnerving degree, perilous: I had no stomach for demon wives with axes, late at night, in nothing but a loin-cloth. I wrenched myself free, sprang up and bolted for the safeties of my house and a pair of trousers.
They followed hard on my heels, imploring me at the top page 133of their lungs not to abandon them. I ordered them, with no warmth, to wait on the verandah while I changed.
I felt better buttoned-up in my slacks, but I didn't fancy being involved like this, on behalf of a guilty couple, in a game of hide-and-seek with an outraged wife. However—I thought—there was the situation: if she really was out for murder, locking up this precious pair would be as much for her protection as theirs, while, if she wasn't … well … they had asked for it. I told them brusquely to follow me and led them in sombre silence through the amethyst glimmer of the coconut grove towards where the twin havens of the male and female lock-ups lay dreaming in the moonlight.
I set the pace at a rapid but stately stride. They crowded in a twittering huddle close up behind me, so engrossed in their fears that neither gave heed to my swinging heels. I don't know whose foot it was that interfered with mine, a hundred yards or so from our gaol, but, male or female, it was all one: my left toe suddenly found itself hooked round my right ankle; my trunk and upper members took an impulsive forward plunge; for the second time that night, I hurtled to the ground. The fact that I hurtled alone on this occasion added little to my pleasure.
I lay face down, saying things into the roadway. Not even a sudden shriek of the girl's deflected my immediate attention to her. It was only when flying feet whipped past my head that I looked up, to see the pair of them racing hand in hand, deadly silent now, towards the prison.
What I felt most, as I sat up, was the need of a little more solitude. I shouldn't have hurried my next move but for the cause of their flight, who now came into my ken. There she was, a female fiend, incredibly massive and bony, charging down on me, chopper in hand, at hurricane speed. She was so close that there wasn't any real hope of getting out of her way; I should have lain down again, quickly; she might have tripped over me then and knocked herself silly. But I panicked and sprang up facing her. She crashed into me; I clung to her page 134resistless bulk; we stood on our heads together for a moment; then I found myself back again at the old game of roly-poly on the ground.
But within three seconds she had flung me off, leapt to her feet and rushed on, chopper aloft, hooting like a siren, in chase of the fugitives. I sprinted after her, my thrice-shaken mind grappling with the new evidence. This demoniac middle-aged Atalanta couldn't possibly be the young man's wife. As for the girl, no angry husband was on her tracks. Therefore, whatever sin the two had sinned, it wasn't the crime I had assumed. I reached this flawless conclusion about thirty yards from the prison gates and six feet behind the huntress's heels, just as her quarry disappeared into the guard-house. Five seconds later, she flew in after them. I caused her to be airborne myself, with deep pleasure, by cleverly crossing her legs in the last tick of time. There were noises within before she emerged in the grip of two guards.
When at last she gave up fighting for her freedom, we gathered a fact or two from her frothing flood of talk. She was the girl's mother, it seemed. The young couple were soon to be married; the law said they could be; she couldn't stop them; anyhow, it was high time they were, so she said. All that was bad enough, but, even at that, it didn't amount to a matter of life and death. It was when they started spoiling her cook-house that life and death, according to her, came into the picture. She knew what to do about that, nobody better; there wasn't a finer cook in Tarawa; look at her puddings, for example … I could make no sense of it.
"Life and death? Your cook-house?" I only managed to silence her by yelling as loud as I could.
"Yes! My cook-house," she bawled back: "didn't you hear? My cook-house. Four times they have spoiled it. Four times I have changed the place of the earth-oven. And now, tonight, they have poisoned it again."
The whole population of the police lines, male and female, was gathered around now. A groan of sympathy, evidently page 135intended for her, burst from them at her last words. "We hear, we hear," called a woman's voice. "Continue. Make everything clear, for we listen." The men holding her arms dropped them and stood aside.
Placated by this show of fellow-feeling, she began to explain herself more quietly. As every decent housewife knew, she said, love-making was one of the things that the spirits of a Gilbertese earth-oven never could abide. The shame of it soured their stomachs, and the poisonous winds thus engendered inside them were infallibly extruded into every kind of food that came their way for cooking. But these two lovers, being Christian converts, called this nothing but wicked pagan nonsense, and despite her every entreaty, went on and on making assignations in her kitchen.
"Alas, for shame!" wailed a score of horrified, decent pagan matrons, "and what happened then?"
The inevitable thing had happened, she wailed back, bursting into tears. Her husband and aged father, who lived with them, had fallen ill: they were afflicted day and night with the most painful and outrageous flatulence. And, as if that wasn't enough in itself to break any woman's heart, there was their constant ill-temper, which they visited regularly upon herself. That very morning, they had thrashed her between them—taking turns at holding down and beating—until she was nearly dead. What then, she asked us, did we think had been her feelings tonight on finding this pair at it again?
Not a mere groan, but a roar of sympathy this time answered her. That was really, for her, the climax of the evening's drama: from then on, every one of us was with her, heart and head, for the pagan purity of her kitchen. There were speeches all round. I contributed a nice piece myself, to which the young man replied with suitable guarantees of amendment. Nobody had the ill-grace to mention the chopper, which lay behind me, where someone had thrown it, quietly winking at the moon. If anyone remembered it, I certainly did not when, at the end, the girl bowed herself before her page 136mother and promised never, never again to enter the kitchen except for cooking. Deeply touched by the generosity of that high surrender and uplifted more than I can say by the pride and honour of my function as father and friend of all of them, I pronounced a short but beautiful little benediction, drew myself up with lifted hand as stately as an archbishop, stepped a pace or two to the rear, thus posed, for my leave-taking, tripped over the chopper, and threw a wild back somersault to the floor.
Unlike my three earlier performances, this one had an appreciative audience. It took a long time to restore decent order by the prisons. And even then, as I limped back alone to my house, I could hear that the three authors of my downfall (trudging homeward now, all happy together) hadn't yet forgotten it. But the moonlight was so wonderful, and peace among men always was worth at least a bruised behind, and somehow I couldn't manage to resent the laughter that came ringing through the trees, first clarion clear, then dwindling to silver bells along the road to Baikiri, and dwindling again until there was no more of it, or them, or anything but sea-whispers and moonbeams in the aching stillness of the night.