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A Pattern of Islands

The Spell on the Oven

The Spell on the Oven

When our houseboy Biribo married, it was only natural that Mareve, the lady of his choice, should take charge of his kitchen. The main job of a Gilbertese woman is to cook for her man, and Mareve's skill with the native earth-oven was a byword in the villages of Tarawa. The earth-oven is a bowl-shaped pit paved with hot stones on which food is left to cook covered over with a roof of matting. It is a tricky thing to manage, especially for the baking of those complicated puddings of babai and coconut called buatoro which so easily go sad at the centre. Mareve was famous in particular for her buatoro. But for this, I doubt if our kindly and laughter-loving Biribo would ever have married her, for she was a heavy, shrewish creature; and beyond that, she had made a point of bullying his sister-housekeeper Tanoata ever since the two had been children together at their village mission-school.

Tanoata, at nineteen, was everything Mareve, at twenty-two, was not-light-hearted, swift and very comely in the sleekness of her apricot-satin skin. But, as Biribo told me, her cooking was more than an orphaned bachelor could properly tolerate. He was quite tired of beating her for the undutiful messes she served up to him. So Tanoata was displaced; Mareve came to rule the hearth-place, and from then on nobody was at peace from her scourging tongue in Biribo's house by the lagoonside. We did not see much of Tanoata after that. She spent most of the time away in a village with her adoptive grandmother. Whenever she returned, there was furious squabbling in the back premises. The climax came when Biribo, at his wits' end one day, drove her out with blows, whereas, by rights, he should have given Mareve the beating.

I was pottering round Biribo's quarters after lunch a day or page 91two later, when I heard someone muttering and moaning very quietly in Mareve's cooking-hut. It was strangely alarming. Everyone was supposed to be asleep in the dwelling-house at that sweltering hour. As I tiptoed to investigate, the idea came to me that someone wrung with pain had crept out to hide himself in that murky little den. What I saw there only increased my anxiety. On the floor squatted Tanoata, naked, with an ugly grin on her face, stabbing with a stick at the ashes of her sister-in-law's earth-oven. As she stabbed, she alternately muttered at the ashes and was torn by gusts of strangled laughter. Real horror gripped me when, with a deep groan, she flung herself backwards on the floor, her legs and arms jerking wildly, as in a fit. With every jerk she hissed a word-always the same word 'Tuki!' —meaning tense or tight-drawn, as if in piteous complaint at the spasms that racked her. I started forward: 'Oh, Tanoata!' Her legs and arms slumped to the floor. She lay for a moment all limp, staring up at me. Then with a shriek, she snatched a loincloth from beside her and bolted out along into the beach. I managed to catch her as she tried to double back into the bush. She made no struggle, but collapsed there, face to ground, writhing and groaning. It was quite a time before I grasped that the cause of her distress was neither epilepsy nor any form of pain, but a storm of laughter.

But I didn't find it funny. Tarawa women made little enough of clothes, but they were ferociously modest about entire nakedness. There was something very wrong about the girl's laughter. In any case, there was hysteria in it, I thought, so I gave her a good hard smack, of which I have never yet been ashamed. She stood up, immediately silent, put on her loincloth without haste, looked at me unsmilingly, and breathed: 'I want Biribo to thrash that woman Mareve. I want him to thrash her! Do you see?' I did not see at all. She suddenly wept then, and explained. When Biribo had driven her out, she had gone crying to her adoptive grandmother. The old woman had agreed with her that the only medicine for a woman like Mareve was the father and mother of a hiding. The difficulty was, Biribo was much too soft, but that could be changed. The solution was to put a spell on Mareve's earth-oven. The right ritual would infect with black page 92anger everything she cooked in it and within three days of the third performance Biribo would be making the house-place ring with her yells of anguish.

So Tanoata had learned an age-old spell called 'The Spoiling of the Oven'. She had been finishing the third performance when I stumbled upon her. Here is a translation of the words she muttered:

I stab them north, I stab them west,
I stab them south, I stab them east,
The ashes of the oven of Mareve.
Spirits of fire, spirits of stone,
I stab, I confuse, I overturn.
Bring stinking, bring anger.
Be sick at the stomach, you Biribo, Biribo! Be enraged!
For the food of Mareve stinks and stinks:
It is tiiki-tiki-tiki

Tiiki and tiki, meaning in this context 'soggy and full of lumps', was the word I had heard her hiss as she lay twitching on her back. Her grandmother had told her to stiffen every muscle each time she repeated it. She must actually be in her own person, at that moment, a pudding refusing to rise. Otherwise, although the spell could be counted upon in any case to make Mareve's food nauseous to all comers, it could not succeed in sending Biribo fighting-mad. Hence the contortions I had taken for an epileptic fit.

If I had believed that anything could possibly come of this childish mummery, I should certainly have intervened on Mareve's behalf. But I did not believe, and did nothing except reprimand Tanoata and threaten to report her to her Mission authorities. Anyhow, the third day after her performance passed without the least outburst of conflict in the back premises; so also did the fourth day, a Sunday. But on Monday something queer did happen. Biribo said a word-a very vile word indeed – over the noon-day meal about Mareve's cooking. It was the first time he had done anything of the kind since his marriage. Tanoata, who happened to be there, crowed with delight, and that was more than enough for Mareve. She hurled the criticized food-a buatoro pudding-into Biribo's face and thrashed him disastrously with a stick while he was plucking the hot mess out page 93of his eyes. She then turned and beat the paralysed Tanoata with equal soundness. I had to run out and stop the appalling noise. Biribo was completely cowed. Tanoata, strangely enough, apologized to Mareve that evening, and stayed on in the house.

I got Biribo to change the site of his cooking-hut the same day. The move proved welcome to Mareve. She came especially to thank me. She felt her old hearth had somehow become unlucky. She said she had been having bad dreams about it. That struck me as rather queer. For four days after that, her puddings resumed their former mastery. I took care to inquire from Biribo himself. He lavished the most servile praise on them, and so did Tanoata. I was idiot enough to believe that everyone would now live happily ever after. But on the fourth evening, the comfortable dream was broken. As we sat at our sundown drink, there burst on our ears a tearing shriek from the back premises. It was the shriek of a woman in the extremity of pain and fear. I hurled myself off the verandah. As I ran, I heard a man's voice savagely rumbling, and the sick thuds of a stick on flesh, and newer, wilder shrieks with every thud. It was Biribo thrashing Mareve. He was mad; he hurled me aside when I tried to stop him; he would have beaten her to death if Tanoata had not helped me to drag him off. Even when we pinned him down, he struggled, gnashing his teeth, to get back at her. He raved all the time about her food; he kept shouting 'Tiiki! Tiiki!' It may have been pure chance-the word is common enough-but it gave me gooseflesh. I had to put two friendly policemen on guard over him all through the night.

Tanoata had disappeared when I returned from the police lines, but she crawled into our room and woke me at daybreak. She was too terrified at her own thoughts to excuse herself for breaking in at that hour. She began talking as soon as I sat up. I must change Biribo's cooking-hut again. Please, please, would I do it at once. Her confession poured itself out. She had been wicked; she had wanted her revenge; that was why she had stayed on after Mareve had thrashed her-to have her revenge. She had cursed the second oven. She had done everything properly this time. She had not laughed, for one thing: real anger had driven her. For another thing, she had been able to throw page 94herself into the mad-making 'Tiiki-tiiki' convulsions without interruption from me. It was not cheerful hearing. I could think of nothing better to do than dress and hurry her to the Mission station for immediate advice. She followed me eagerly. I returned and got the station police to move the beastly cooking-hut to another place within the next hour. Biribo was sane again by then.

The most probable explanation of all these happenings is, of course, that Tanoata's grandmother gave her something to bury in the bottom of the earth-oven-something or other that tainted the food as it cooked-maybe a fish-poison. Tanoata denied it, and I found no suspicious remains in either oven, but these two negatives might mean very little. The question that puzzled Olivia and me was: why did the poison (assuming there was some) leave Biribo meek enough to take a beating from his wife the first time, yet drive him killing mad the second time? Or if, for argument's sake, my intrusion the first time prevented Tanoata from putting the poison in place, what was it that suddenly made Mareve's cooking bad enough to wring that vile word out of him? And if there was no poison in either oven, then why did Mareve's hand resume its cunning only when she cooked somewhere else? I cannot pretend to know. The only thing that cheers me about this story is that the thrashing Mareve got did her a lot of good. It sounds all wrong, but it is a fact. She never resumed her nagging of Biribo: she was scared stiff of him; and from that time on there was shining peace in the back premises.

It is worth adding that Tanoata got herself married from Biribo's house a few months later. The wedding feast that Mareve put up for her was reckoned by all comers as the most delicious in human memory.