A Pattern of Islands
The Whistling Ghosts of Arorae
The Whistling Ghosts of Arorae
The work of the Council of Advice was hardly well finished when a ship of the Japanese trading company in the Marshall Islands brought unexpected news to Tarawa. The company had decided to send no more of its vessels to pick up copra in the Gilbert group south of Butaritari. What worried me about this ultimatum was that a number of the longshore traders page 217down south were in the habit of holding the copra for the Japanese concern, which paid better prices than others. They had to be warned at once that their only buyers from that time on would be the rare British ships that came their way, and I was the only person there to do it. It was lucky, in the circumstances, that the 35-ton ketch Choiseul had come up from Abemama on her own business some days before and was waiting to take me back to the Central Gilberts. I chartered her that day for a quick run to the Southern Gilberts instead, and went on board the same evening so as to be sure of an early start next morning. Thus it was that I fared forth to meet the whistling ghosts.
Our first landfall was Onotoa Island, 270 miles from Tarawa. There was no ship's passage into the lagoon in those days, and only one canoe – the Native Magistrate's – was waiting for us outside the reef. A steep westerly swell was running; the reef was a-lee; it was tricky work manoeuvring my transfer with a suitcase and a steel despatch-box from the ketch to the canoe. I mention these points to leave it clear that no conversation passed between the ship and the canoe except the exchange of curt orders and responses about my transhipment. Certainly, nobody in the ship's crew shouted anything by way of gossip from the northern islands. I could not possibly have missed hearing it if they had.
There was no talk in the canoe until we had shot the big surf in the boat-passage, but when we had made calm water the Native Magistrate said suddenly apropos of nothing, 'We hear Tabanea is dead.'
The Tabanea he meant was my old friend the professional sorcerer of Tarawa. The death of a man like that could not fail to set the whole group talking, for there was not an island where he had not a crowd of customers for his peerless love-potions and amulets. But he wasn't dead, I told the Native Magistrate; I had seen him only the week before, heartily enjoying the great song and dance at Tarawa.
It did not seem to impress him, though; he chatted on as if I had not spoken; 'They say he died the day before yesterday, in the evening, of te bo maiaona (a blow from above him).'page 218
'What's a blow from above him? Who says? What ship brought the news? Certainly not ours,' I countered irritably.
It appeared that a blow from above him meant what we might call a seizure or stroke. He did not state who had spread the rumour, but said no ship had brought it. He was bound to say that; ours was, in fact, the only deep-sea craft in the Gilberts at the moment; the other was down in the Ellice group.
'So there you are,' I wound up rather pompously, 'it's just another silly bit of village tittle-tattle.'
'Tao eng (perhaps, yes),' he murmured, 'tao eng' – meaning roughly, 'Oh, well, let it go at that' – and changed the subject.
The whole thing had slipped out of my mind by the time we landed. I was so used to village rumours of that sort. Nobody else mentioned Tabanea to me for the forty-eight hours I stayed on Onotoa; probably the Magistrate had warned everybody that the subject irritated me: in any case, it was not until I got to Arorae, the last island of the Southern Gilberts, that the next thing happened. It never would have happened if I had spent only a day or two there, as elsewhere. But I found trouble in the place; the nature of it does not matter here; the point is, it forced me to stay. The ketch left with a promise to be back in a month or so.
Arorae lies out in the blue, 100 miles from Onotoa. It is a lagoonless wisp of coral sand and coconuts, open on every side to the towering Pacific swells. When westerly gales sweep up at it, the huge surf bellows week-long on the weather reef like a million driven bulls raging at the thresholds of the villages. The westerlies blew hard for most of my stay. I couldn't get away from that tortured roar, or the yelling of the coconut-crests in the wind. The ceaseless, smothering din did something to my relations with the people; somehow, it seemed to be always between us. I felt very lonely among them. Perhaps that made me a good subject for a game of brown man's bluff.
Bluff or not, it began when I had endured nearly a week of the place. My one familiar friend on Arorae, a retired Tarawa policeman, married to a local woman and on a visit to his in-laws, came to look me up. Tarawa men adore a comfortable chin-wag, especially in their own dialect when they are among strangers. I fancy that was what tempted him to be so extra-communicative page 219that evening. As soon as he was well seated on the guest-mat, he began newsily, 'So Tabanea is dead.'
I smiled, 'Now, now … you got that bit of gossip from Onotoa … by our ship.'
He denied this blankly. He said he had heard it the Sunday before last. I pointed out that his timing made nonsense for me: our ship had not even arrived at Onotoa by this date. But he persisted that our ship had nothing to do with the case. He had heard about Tabanea's death the Sunday before last from his wife's very aged and absolutely infallible kinswoman, Nei Watia.
'Nei Watia has another name as a baptized Christian, but, for this kind of thing, one must always call her Watia,' he explained.
'What kind of thing?' I naturally asked.
He was too wrapped up in his main theme to answer that at once. The old woman, he drove on, had mentioned two important details: Tabanea had died just before sunset, of a blow from above him.
I rubbed it in that the phrase was precisely the one that the Native Magistrate of Onotoa had used, but he overrode the irony: 'Naturally the words are the same,' he said, 'the news-bearers do not speak with two voices. What they reported in Onotoa they reported to Nei Watia also, here in Arorae.'
This was at least good entertainment, so I asked for more about Nei Watia's exceedingly single-voiced news-bearers.
It appeared they were alternatively called Taani-kanimomoi – The Whistlers. He said the Whistlers were the ghosts of dead relations … not the very long dead ones … the more recently dead. These made a constant habit of returning to the Gilberts. Their domain was the air (he called it 'the layer of wind' – as it were, the invisible plane) just above the level of the coconut-crests. At that height, they flew up and down the islands seeing and hearing everything that happened. They came lower from time to time and passed the news on to anyone alive who understood their speech. Not many people did understand it, because they spoke in whistles; but Watia was an adept; she had power; she could actually order her particular ghost to come along and answer questions whenever she wanted.page 220
I took his talk for a big boast. It was only by way of calling his bluff that I asked whether his infallible relation-in-law would undertake to ask her ghost a question from me. But, far from piping down, he put me on the spot instead.
'Aongkoa (Of course)' he replied at once. 'Is it indeed your wish that I should ask her?'
I found it was not particularly my wish, but I could not withdraw. The upshot was that he came back the next night with an invitation for me to go with him at once to Nei Watia.
I followed him through the bush to a stony, treeless space above the weather beach. It was a wild night; the place was shuddering and thundering with the fury of the surf; but the moonlight flooded it starkly between racing cloud-shadows. A solitary screened shack stood out in the open, fifty paces away. I saw the glimmer of a faint light through the plaited screens. He pointed: 'There is Nei Watia,' he said; 'I cannot go in with you,' and left me standing there. I watched him plunge back into the blackness of the bush.
The thatch was so low that I could not stand upright inside. A hurricane lamp was burning on the floor. An incredibly aged face was glaring up at me round the light, almost from floor-level. It had a cutty pipe in its mouth; its lips were moving but I heard no words. I stood there mute until a skeleton hand flailing above the face ordered me to be seated. I squatted, cross-legged as she was, on my side of the lamp, fascinated by that ruinous, wild-haired mask. The lips moved again, but the roaring of the night drowned her voice. I craned an ear forward. Then with atrocious suddenness the mask was convulsed and lunged up at me. She tore the pipe from her gums and shrieked into my face, 'Tabanea is dead!' Nothing but that. I had not recovered from the shock of it when the whistling began.
A single note, strident, like a cricket's, sounded from behind my left ear. I whipped my head around. Nobody was there. A second chirrup fell from the roof. I sprang to my feet; my head struck the ridge pole; the witch screamed with laughter; but I hardly noticed it, for the whistling was at once all around me. It wasn't harsh now, but multitudinous. It crowded in on my ears page 221wherever I turned, as if a host of tiny invisible birds were twittering up there in the shadows of the roof.
I dived out into the moonlight and pelted round the shed. In that white glare everything was visible. There was nobody on the roof, no tree, no sizeable rock within fifty yards where anyone could be hiding. Back under the thatch, I fell on hands and knees to stare into the crone's face. Her gums were clenched, but still the twittering went on overhead. There was no break in it even when she shouted at me, 'The Ancestor waits. What is your question?'
The Ancestor might have been her father for all I knew. I did not ask, but shouted back at once, sprawling there on my knees, 'When will the Japanese ship be returning to Arorae?'
She stared at me for a long moment: 'You have told us the ship will not return,' she said at last.
'Yes, yes, grandmother,' I replied, 'but perhaps I was wrong. What does the Ancestor say?'
Her answer was to twist her face over her huddled shoulder and howl at the roof, 'The Man of Matang asks when the ship of the Japan men will return.'
The twittering ceased. For half a minute I heard nothing but the noises of the night. Then there came a morse-like succession of strident chirrups, followed by a dozen phrases of something like birdsong that faded gradually back into the clamour of wind and sea.
'The Ancestor has spoken,' muttered the witch; 'count twenty-three days from tonight, and the ship will arrive.' That ended the session.
'Well – so much for the whistling ghosts and their news!' I said to myself outside. 'A mere trick of ventriloquism.' Just how she could have whistled and talked at the same time, or thrown a chirrup with her mouth shut, I couldn't imagine; and I was puzzled to think why she should have said the ship would come when I said it wouldn't. I decided she had been caught in my little trap 'perhaps I was wrong'. 'What an old hoax – she and her precious Ancestor!' I thought, clinging to the hoax idea rather desperately as I groped my way home through the screaming darkness of the bush.page 222
But the fact is, Tabanea was dead, and he had died in the evening, and the cause of his death was a blow from above him – an embolism, the doctor called it. He was found lying in his dwelling-house at just about the time I went on board the ketch at Tarawa. The ketch lay anchored eleven miles down-lagoon from his village. Obviously, the crew could have heard the news before we left next morning. But, knowing how fond I was of him, they wouldn't – they couldn't conceivably – have kept the thing to themselves on our southward run, had they heard it. It was the very first news they rushed to tell me when they came back to pick me up.
Also, the Japanese ship did return. The prediction was a little out in point of time; she arrived on the twenty-second day not the twenty-third. She came to pick up two copra-lighters which she had left at Arorae.