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A Pattern of Islands



There is a four-fathom bank of Tarawa lagoon where the tiger-shark muster in hundreds for a day or two every month. If you let your canoe drift offshore at rising tide, you can watch their great striped bodies sliding and swooping with arrogant ease not six feet under your keel. They range in length from nine to fourteen feet, with an occasional giant of seventeen or eighteen feet among them. There is nightmare in the contrast between their hideous size and the slack grace of their movements in the glassy water. Their explosions out of quietude into action are even more atrocious. An evil shape comes gliding below you, smoothly, negligently, as if tranced in idleness; the next instant, one monstrous convulsion has flung it hurtling into attack.

In my earliest days at Tarawa, I spent a good deal of time page 109watching the tigers there. I wanted to find out why, for a couple of days each month, they preferred that particular hunting-ground to a dozen others that seemed as good. Tigers always do cruise around banks where the smaller fish swarm, but not usually in hundreds. Any village fisherman could have told me the whole story in a few seconds, but I was new to the place, and the Gilbertese do not render up their knowledge easily to strangers. It was only by chance that I stumbled on the first clue. I happened to tell my cook-boy that I wanted to go trolling for trevally over the shark-grounds.

He smiled: 'When the rereba (trevally) are there, the tababa (tiger-shark) also are there. If you hook a rereba you will end with a hot bottom, for the tababa will take it from you.'

I paused to wonder what a hot bottom might be. 'Sir,' he replied, 'it is the fisherman's word for the state of one who sits, and sits, and catches nothing, and behold! as it were, his bottom burns.'

'And say now – if the tababa are there for the rereba, what are the rereba there for?'

'Kai ngkam,' he replied, meaning anything from 'I really couldn't say' to 'I'm not sure I ought to tell you that.'

But I had my clue. The inquiry that followed led me right back from the trevally in the four-fathom water, down through a gradually diminishing series of ravenous mouths to the shoreline.

The land in that part of Tarawa is cut by a tidal passage between lagoon and ocean. When the springs flood high through the passage, they bring riding in with them from outside a minute marine organism, which settles along the shallows. The weed, or animalcule, or plankton (I do not know which it is) makes tempting food for millions of tiny soft crabs that live on the water's edge. Great hosts of these, none much bigger than a sequin, are lured by the bait an inch or so deeper into the sea than they usually venture.

The next scene belongs to the teeming sardines. Perhaps they too have mustered in their millions because of the tide-borne food; or perhaps they know that the coming of the food spells crabs in the shallows. Whichever enticed them first, they re-page 110main for only one purpose. Their battalions, massed like silver clouds in the two-foot shoals, charge wave upon wave to the lip of the tide bent upon nothing but the massacre of crabs.

But sardines make just the food the grey mullet love best. The mullet have been massing for their own purposes a little farther out. If these again are initially attracted by the floating food, they soon forget it. They plunge in among the sardines, a ravening army of one-pounders. The small fish twist and scatter wildly into open water, the bigger ones after them.

And that is why the vivid, blue backed trevally have come so close inshore. Their meat is mullet. They sweep to landward of their quarry and hunt them out to sea, devouring as they go. But alas for their strength and beauty! Engrossed in their chase, they drive straight for the bank where the tiger-shark are mustered. A sixty-pound trevally is a streak of azure lightning over the shining bottom. He can zig-zag in a flash and leap a man's height sheer from the sea to escape a close pursuer. No heavy-barrelled tiger-shark, hunting alone, is a match for his dazzling tactics. But for all his desperate twists and turns, his breachings and his soundings, he is lost where a hundred rushing jaws are above and below and around him.

Yet, in the last act, it is not the tigers that triumph. The ultimate destroyer in that chain of hungry bellies and ravening jaws is no creature of the sea but man himself, out after shark-flesh in those innocently smiling waters.

Thirty-five years ago, the Gilbertese were beginning to use steel hooks for shark-fishing; but there were many who still claimed that the old-style twelve-inch ironwood hook, trained to the right shape on the living tree, was the only thing for tiger-shark. A twig of the tree (pemphis acidula) was bent so that it recurved upon itself, and left to grow lashed in that position for a year or two. When it was rather more than half an inch thick, it was cut and fashioned for service. The outstanding virtue of this gigantic instrument was that it could be grown with magic, trained with magic, cut with magic, and trimmed with magic. Good luck for the fisherman and bad luck for the shark could be poured into it at every stage of its manufacture, whereas a steel hook bought from a trade-store could only be page 111magicked once, as a finished article. According to the old men, nobody but folk ignorant of the proper spells would ever dream of using anything but ironwood.

A three-foot length of plaited hair from the head of the fisher's wife or daughter made the trace for an old-style hook, and the line was a coconut-fibre rope as thick as a man's forefinger. The shark-hunter was not out for sport; he wanted nothing but dead shark. His gaff was not a gaff, but a glorious club with a ten-pound rock for its head. And it was not for simple fun that he did his fishing from a canoe not much longer than a man; the basic reason was that he could not handle the line himself; if he did, the bite of any sizeable shark would snatch him flying into the sea. He had to make the line fast to the middle of his craft; and that spelt a small canoe, because the resistance of a big one to the first furious jerks of his catch would tear the hull apart.

I imagine the broad technique of it is still very much as it used to be in those days. The fisher paddles out in his cockleshell, baits his hook, whether ironwood or steel, with a couple of pounds of almost any kind of offal, lets it hang from amidships on two or three fathoms of line, and drifts waiting for a bite, his club beside him. A big one takes the hook. The quiet canoe gives a sudden lurch and starts careering round in mad little circles; or it bounces insanely up and down; or it zig-zags like a misdirected rocket; or it rushes off in a straight line, forwards or backwards as the case may be, at sizzling speed, the fisherman holding on grimly whatever it does. Half a dozen small craft milling around like that all at the same time, without visible means of propulsion, make a wildly eccentric sight from the shore. But the fury of a tiger-shark's struggles soon exhausts it. It floats limply to the surface and then comes the high moment of the fisherman's day. He hauls the spent brute cautiously alongside and, letting out one piercing howl of pleasure, cracks it on the nose with his trusty club. That is the only part of the business, I think, that affords him anything like the savage thrill that civilized sportsmen get out of killing things.

But although safety first is the rule when tiger-shark are about in numbers, plenty of Gilbertese are ready to fight a lone prowler in its own element. Owing to his great girth, a tiger cannot turn page 112quickly; once launched on its attack, it thunders straight forward like a bull; there lies the hunter's advantage in single combat. Out sailing with a Tarawa friend one day, I pointed out a cruising dorsal fin. 'That's a tababa,' he said, 'watch me kill him.'

We lowered sail and drifted. He slid overboard with his knife and paddled around waiting to be noticed. He soon was. The fin began to circle him, and he knew he was being stalked; he trod water; it closed in gradually, lazily to fifteen yards.

He held his knife right-handed, blade down, the handle just above the water, his crooked right elbow pointed always towards the gliding fin. He would have a split second to act in when the charge came. It came from ten yards' range. There was a frothing swirl; the fin shot forward like an arrow; the head and shoulders of the brute broke surface, rolling as they lunged. My friend flicked aside in the last blink of time and shot his knife into the upswinging belly as it surged by. His enemy's momentum did the rest. I saw the belly rip itself open like a zip-fastener, discharging blood and guts. The tiger disappeared for a while, to float up dead a hundred yards off.

That kind of single combat used to be fairly common. It was rather like a nice score of fifty at cricket in England; the villagers applauded but did not make a great song about it. But the feat of Teriakai, another Tarawa man, became a matter of official record. Teriakai was a guest of His Majesty's at the time, having got himself into trouble for a rather too carefree interpretation of the marriage laws. He was an exceptionally welcome guest; his vital, stocky frame was the equal of a giant's for work, and the bubbling of his unquenchable humour kept his warders as well as his fellow-prisoners laughing and labouring from morning to night. A happy prison is a tremendous asset to any Government Station. Whenever there was a special job to be done, he was the man we always chose to do it. It followed naturally that, when the captain and chief engineer of S.S. Tokelau – lying beached for cleaning in Tarawa lagoon – wanted to go out for a sail in weather that threatened to turn nasty, Teriakai went also to look after them.

The south-east trades have their treacheries on the Equator. page 113Though they breathe steady at twenty-five miles an hour for months on end, you can never afford to forget how suddenly the wind can slam round to the north and blow a forty-mile gale. If the northerly buster brakes your mainsail aback close-hauled to the south-easter you are capsized before you know what has hit you. The Tarawans call that particular wind Nei Bairara, the Long-armed Woman. She caught Teriakai and his friends just after they had put about for the homeward run. They were spilled into the lagoon ten miles from their starting point and eight miles from the nearest land on Tarawa's northern arm.

Two chief dangers threatened them then: tiger-shark were all around them, and they were near enough to the ocean reef to be sucked out to sea when the tide began to fall. Teriakai attended to the sharks first of all. He started by hacking the mainsail adrift with gaff and boom complete (His Majesty's guests are not supposed to carry sheath-knives, but he had one, bless his impertinence). The canvas, buoyed at head and foot by its spars, made a fine bag under water, into which he ushered the captain and engineer: 'Stay inside this,' he said, bridling their refuge by a length of halyard to the upturned boat, 'and the tababa won't smell you.' Then he looked for the anchor. The chain had fortunately been made fast to a thwart, but it took him an hour of diving and groping to get everything unsnarled so that the anchor reached bottom. 'I'll go and get help now,' he said when that was done: 'If I can get past those tababa, we shall perhaps be meeting again.'

He swam straight at the ring of tigers – the captain and engineer watched him – and the devils let him through. I asked him afterwards if he had any notion why. He replied, 'If you stay still in the sea, the tababa will charge you. If you swim away from them in fear, they will smell your fear and chase you. If you swim without fear towards them, they will be afraid and leave you in peace.' So he chose his shark, swam full speed towards it, and lo! the line melted away before him. There was absolutely nothing to it except a courage that passes belief.

He had gone about four miles before anything else happened. I have an idea it need not have happened at all unless he had wanted it to. He said the next tababa just attacked him, but he page 114never could explain for laughing why he trod water and waited for this one instead of trying to shoo it off like the others. It is a good guess that he was overcome by the thrill of wearing a sheath-knife again and the delight of feeling himself, after months of prison, alone and free for a little in his loved lagoon. Then again, the tababa was a male. I do not know how males and females are distinguished from a distance, but the Gilbertese fishermen knew, and they valued the genital organ of a bull-tiger very highly. They said a man who had the right magic could appropriate its virile qualities to his own unspeakable advantage as a squire of dames. Teriakai made a nice job of the tababa, extracted the priceless organ from its ventral slot, tucked it into his belt, and swam on.

The swift night of the equator fell on him in the next half-hour. The moon was not yet up, repeated busters from the north were whipping the water to fury. In the welter of waves about his head, he missed his direction and swam into a maze of reefs off the coast to left of his objective. The breaking seas flung him on cruel edges, rolled him over splintering coral branches, sucked him into clefts bristling with barbs, spewed him out again stabbed and torn until more than a quarter of the skin (so the doctor reported) was flayed from his body. But he got through still conscious, swam a mile to shore, waded and walked two more to a white trader's house, and collapsed on his verandah. The trader brought him round with a tot of rum, but refused to take his boat out to the rescue on a night like that.

Teriakai's answer was better than words. He grabbed the bottle of rum (forbidden by law to natives) from the man's hand and ran with it out into the night. He had another five miles to struggle to the next trader's house; I doubt if even his gay courage could have made it but for the liquor. In any case, it would be pettifogging to carp at the good cheer of his arrival. He awoke Jimmy Anton with a stentorian song about tababa, and himself, and girls, and capsized white men, beating time for himself on the front door with whangs of the thing he had cut from the shark. In his left hand was an empty rum bottle. He streamed blood from head to ankles, but a smile of pure rapture shone through the torn mask of his face.

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Jimmy Anton, the son of an Austrian father and a Gilbertese mother, was not the man to refuse a risk either for himself or his boat. He called out his Gilbertese wife, and between the three of them they got the boat launched at once. His wife brought coconut oil for Teriakai's wounds, blankets and brandy for the rescued. They set out together. The moon had risen by then. They found the capsized boat just before dawn. The captain and engineer had been in the water twelve hours, but they were still safe inside their canvas bag. Teriakai was awarded the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society. Before that arrived he had acquired a uniform to wear it on, for we discharged him from prison at once and made a colony policeman of him. Nobody ever found out what he did with the trophy the shark gave him. It disappeared from official ken the moment we got him into hospital.

There is just one kind of shark that really does scare the Gilbertese. They call it the rokea. It is a giant as slim as a panther, that doubles on its tracks at full speed. Fortunately, it never haunts lagoons, being a deep-sea hunter, but when the bonito hold their annual swarming over the forty-fathom banks outside some lagoons, the rokea are there too in their scores. The biggest of them run well over twenty feet long. You never see them lurk or prowl, for their dreadful quickness exempts them from any need of stalking. They flash like hurled lances through the water, and they can leap bodily from the sea, using tails as well as jaws to kill.

I had hooked a bonito outside Tarawa one day, when there was a jerk followed by a deadness at the end of the line. I started reeling in, but my canoe-mate jumped forward and without a by-your-leave cut the line. 'A rokea has bitten your fish in half,' he said then, 'give it the rest.' He explained that, if the half-fish had been hauled aboard, the enraged rokea might have attacked the canoe, and that would have been the end of us.

I did not really believe him then. It was only a couple of years later that I saw what he meant. My canoe with a dozen others was trolling for bonito off Nonouti, when we heard a thud and a crack from a craft not sixty yards off.

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As we looked up, there came another thud; a vast tail had frothed from the water and slammed the canoe's side. A second later, the whole fish leapt, and there was a third smashing blow. We saw the hull cave in and start sinking. The rokea leapt again, and one of the two fishermen on board was swept off the foundering deck by that frightful tail. We saw him butchered as we raced to rescue the other man. While we hauled the survivor aboard, the sea near us boiled with shark as other rokea, attracted by the victim's blood, fought each other for fragments of his body. The survivor, a boy of seventeen, confessed with tears that he was to blame; he had whipped a bonito aboard as a rokea was after it; the demon's attack followed in the very next instant. There was no more trolling there that day. They said the rokea would now connect every canoe-keel with human flesh, and attack unceasingly. We made off at once for other grounds, sailing bunched together for safety.

I gave up fishing after a few years, because I found my heart aching for the beauty and courage of the things I caught. But there were two terrors of the sea whose death I never could mourn – the octopus and the tiger-shark. These seemed to me as little worth pity as any prowling bully, and I felt no sense of guilt in killing them.

In the early days at Tarawa, I did want just one tababa all my own. I could not get the brutes to take any kind of trolled bait or cast lure, so I had to fall back on the villagers' technique with a one-man canoe, a twelve-inch ironwood hook bought as a curio, and a lovely loaded club. My cook-boy immediately doubled up with laughter when I announced my intention to him. I asked him why all that mirth, but he only clutched at his stomach and staggered some more around the verandah. He found further entertainment in watching me attach the hook to a trace of steel dog-chain, and in putting up an idiotic burlesque of magic-ritual over the finished work. His antics had the other servants hooting with him in the end. They clung to my arms, gurgling, 'O, the Man of Matang … the Man of Matang, o-o!' to show no offence was meant. But nobody would tell me exactly what was the great joke behind it all.

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The next day, when we got to the sandspit where my little canoe lay waiting, it became clear that the whole village had been warned of the event. The beach was crawling with sightseers. They were all immensely courteous, but the shining of their beautiful eyes gave them away. I was wafted on to the canoe and pushed off in a silence that throbbed with joyous expectation. I found this more than a little embarrassing, but it was nothing to what followed.

Eighty yards offshore, I dropped the baited hook, made the line fast and, following instructions, set the canoe drifting beachwards with a paddle-stroke or two. I had certainly hoped for a quick bite, if only to save my face, but I was altogether unready for the fulminating success that fell upon me.

I was not yet settled back in my seat when the canoe took a shuddering leap backwards and my nose hit the foredeck. A roar went up from the crowd as I was drawn whizzing away from it on my face. I picked myself up with much care and was in the act of sitting again when the shark reversed direction. The back of my head cracked down on the deck behind me; my legs flew up; my high-riding bottom was presented to the sightseers shooting at incredible speed towards them.

In the next fifteen minutes, without one generous pause, that shark contrived to jerk, twist or bounce from my body for public exhibition every ignoble attitude of which a gangling frame, lost to all self-respect in a wild scrabble for handholds, is capable. The climax of its malice was in its last act. It floated belly up and allowed itself to be hauled alongside as if quite dead. I piloted it so into the shallows. There I tottered to my feet to deliver the coup-de-grâce. But it flipped as the club swung down; I missed, hit the sea, somersaulted over its body, and stood on my head under water with legs impotently flapping in the air.

This filled the cup of the villagers. As I waded ashore, there was not a soul on his feet. The beach was a sea of rolling brown bodies racked on the extremity of joy, incapable of any sound but a deep and tortured groaning. I crept silently from their presence to the seclusion of my home. When my cook-boy was able to stand, he staggered back and told me the point of it. A page 118Gilbertese youth is trained to sit a bucking canoe about as carefully as we are taught to ride. It takes him a year or so to master the technique. That was why the villagers had turned up expecting some innocent fun from me, and gone away fulfilled. But they despatched the shark before leaving. Their kaubure brought along the liver that evening as a reward for my cook-boy. A few days later, the jaws, beautifully dried and cleaned, were sent to me, the champion of the wooden hook, as a consolation prize.