A Pattern of Islands
5 — Lagoon Days
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.page 115
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.page 116
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.page 117
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.
Assignment with an Octopus
I certainly should have never ventured out alone for pure sport, armed with nothing but a knife, to fight a tiger-shark in its own element. I am as little ashamed of that degree of discretion as the big-game hunter who takes care not to attack a rhinoceros with a shotgun. The fear I had for the larger kinds of octopus was quite different. It was a blind fear, sick with disgust, unreasoned as a child's horror of darkness. Victor Hugo was the man who first brought it up to the level of my conscious thought. I still remember vividly the impression left on me as a boy of fourteen by that account in Les Travailleurs de la Mer of Gilliatt's fight with the monster that caught him among the rocks of The Douvres. For years after reading it, I tortured myself with wondering how ever I could behave with decent courage if faced with a giant at once so strong and so loathsome. My commonest nightmare of the period was of an octopus-like Presence poised motionless behind me, towards which I dared not turn, from which my limbs were too frozen to escape. But that phase did pass before I left school, and the Thing lay dormant inside me until a day at Tarawa.
Before I reached Tarawa, however, chance gave me a swift glimpse of what a biggish octopus could do to a man. I was wading at low tide one calm evening on the lip of the reef at Ocean Island when a Baanaban villager, back from fishing, brought his canoe to land within twenty yards of where I stood. There was no more than a show of breaking seas, but the water was only knee deep, and this obliged the fisherman to slide page 119overboard and handle his lightened craft over the jagged edge. But no sooner were his feet upon the reef than he seemed to be tied to where he stood. The canoe was washed shorewards ahead of him; while he stood with legs braced, tugging desperately away from something. I had just time to see a tapering, greyish yellow rope curled around his right wrist before he broke away from it. He fell sprawling into the shallow water; the tapered rope flicked writhing back into the foam at the reef's edge. The fisherman picked himself up and nursed his right arm. I had reached him by then. The octopus had caught him with only the top of one tentacle, but the terrible hold of the few suckers on his wrist had torn the skin whole from it as he wrenched himself adrift.
This is not to say that all the varieties of octopus known to the Gilbertese are dangerous to man. Some of them are mere midgets, and very beautiful. Lying face down on a canoe anchored over rocks and sand in Tarawa lagoon, I sometimes used to watch for the smaller kinds through a water-glass.
The smallest I saw could have been comfortably spread on the lid of a cigarette tin. I noticed that the colours of all the little ones varied very much according to where they were crawling, from the mottled rust-red and brown of coral rock to the clear gold and orange-brown of sunlit sand speckled with seaweed. From the height of my top-window, most of them looked as flat as starfish slithering over the bottom, but there was one minute creature that had a habit of standing on its toes. It would constrict its tentacles into a kind of neck where they joined the head and, with its body so raised, would jig up and down rather like a dancing frog. But what appealed most to my wonder was the way they all swam. A dozen sprawling, lace-like shapes would suddenly gather themselves into stream-lines and shoot upwards, jet-propelled by the marvellous syphon in their heads, like a display of fairy water-rockets. At the top of their flight, they seemed to explode; their tails of trailed tentacles burst outwards into shimmering points around their tiny bodies, and they sank like drifting gossamer stars back to the sea-floor again.
The female octopus anchors her eggs to stalks of weeds and coral under water. It seems to be a moot point whether she page 120broods in their neighbourhood or not, but I once saw what I took to be a mother out for exercise with five babies. She had a body about the size of a tennis ball and tentacles perhaps a foot long. The length of the small ones, streamlined for swimming, was not more than five inches over all. They were cruising around a coral pinnacle in four feet of water. The big one led, the babies followed six inches behind, in what seemed to be an ordered formation: they were grouped, as it were, around the base of a cone whereof she was the forward-pointing apex.
They cruised around the pinnacle for half a minute or more, and then went down to some small rocks at its base. While the little ones sprawled over the bottom, the mother remained poised above them. It looked to my inexpert eye exactly as if she were mounting guard over her young. And at that point a big trevally was obliging enough to become the villain of a family drama for my benefit. He must have been watching the little group from deeper water. As the mother hovered there, he came in at her like a blue streak. But she avoided him somehow; he flashed by and turned to dart in again, only to see a black cloud of squirted ink where the octopus had been. (Incidentally, that was the only time I myself ever saw an octopus discharge its ink-sac.) The trevally swerved aside, fetched a full circle and came very slowly back to the edge of the black cloud, while the mother and her family were escaping towards the shallows on the other side. He loitered around for a while, then seemed to take fright and flicked away at speed into the deep water.
The old navigators of the Gilberts used to talk with fear of a gigantic octopus that inhabited the seas between Samoa and the Ellice Islands. They said its tentacles were three-arm-spans long and thicker at the base than the body of a full-grown man–a scale of measurements not out of keeping with what is known of the atrocious monster called Octopus Apollyon. There were some who stated that this foul fiend of the ocean was also to be found in the waters between Onotoa, Tamana and Arorae in the Southern Gilberts. But I never came across a man who had seen one, and the biggest of the octopus breed I ever saw with my own eyes had tentacles only a little over six feet long. It was a member of the clan Octopus Vulgaris, which swarms in all the lagoons. An page 121average specimen of this variety is a dwarf beside Octopus Apollyon: laid out flat, it has a total spread of no more than nine or ten feet, but it is a wicked-looking piece of work, even in death, with those disgusting suckers studding its arms and those bulging, filmed eyes staring out of the mottled gorgon face.
Possibly, if you can watch objectively, the sight of Octopus Vulgaris searching for crabs and crayfish on the floor of the lagoon may move you to something like admiration. You cannot usually see the dreadful eyes from a water-glass straight above its feeding ground, and your feeling for crustaceans is too impersonal for horror at their fate between pouncing suckers and jaws. There is real beauty in the rich change of its colours as it moves from shadow to sunlight, and the gliding ease of its arms as they reach and flicker over the rough rocks fascinates the eye with its deadly grace. You feel that if only the creature would stick to its grubbing on the bottom, the shocking ugliness of its shape might even win your sympathy, as for some poor Caliban in the enchanted garden of the lagoon. But it is no honest grubber in the open. For every one of its kind that you see crawling below you, there are a dozen skulking in recesses of the reef that falls away like a cliff from the edge where you stand watching. When Octopus Vulgaris has eaten its fill of the teeming crabs and crayfish, it seeks a dark cleft in the coral face, and anchors itself there with a few of the large suckers nearest to its body. Thus shielded from attack in the rear, with tentacles gathered to pounce, it squats glaring from the shadows, alert for anything alive to swim within striking distance. It can hurl one or all of those whiplashes forward with the speed of dark lightning, and once its scores of suckers, rimmed with hooks for grip on slippery skins, are clamped about their prey, nothing but the brute's death will break their awful hold.
But that very quality of the octopus that most horrifies the imagination, its relentless tenacity, becomes its undoing when hungry man steps into the picture. The Gilbertese happen to value certain parts of it as food, and their method of fighting it is coolly based upon the one fact that its arms never change their grip. They hunt for it in pairs. One man acts as the bait, his partner as the killer. First, they swim eyes-under at low tide just page 122off the reef, and search the crannies of the submarine cliff for sight of any tentacle that may flicker out for a catch. When they have placed their quarry, they land on the reef for the next stage. The human bait starts the real game. He dives and tempts the lurking brute by swimming a few strokes in front of its cranny, at first a little beyond striking range. Then he turns and makes straight for the cranny, to give himself into the embrace of those waiting arms. Sometimes nothing happens. The beast will not always respond to the lure. But usually it strikes.
The partner on the reef above stares down through the pellucid water, waiting for his moment. His teeth are his only weapon. His killing efficiency depends on his avoiding every one of those strangling arms. He must wait until his partner's body has been drawn right up to the entrance of the cleft. The monster inside is groping then with its horny mouth against the victim's flesh, and sees nothing beyond it. That point is reached in a matter of no more than thirty seconds after the decoy has plunged. The killer dives, lays hold of his pinioned friend at arms' length, and jerks him away from the cleft; the octopus is torn from the anchorage of its proximal suckers, and clamps itself the more fiercely to its prey. In the same second, the human bait gives a kick which brings him, with quarry annexed, to the surface. He turns on his back, still holding his breath for better buoyancy, and this exposes the body of the beast for the kill. The killer closes in, grasps the evil head from behind, and wrenches it away from its meal. Turning the face up towards himself, he plunges his teeth between the bulging eyes, and bites down and in with all his strength. That is the end of it. It dies on the instant; the suckers release their hold; the arms fall away; the two fishers paddle with whoops of delighted laughter to the reef, where they string the catch to a pole before going to rout out the next one.
Any two boys of seventeen, any day of the week, will go out and get you half a dozen octopus like that for the mere fun of it. Here lies the whole point of this story. The hunt is, in the most literal sense, nothing but child's play to the Gilbertese.
As I was standing one day at the end of a jetty in Tarawa lagoon, I saw two boys from the near village shouldering a page 123string of octopus slung on a pole between them. I started to wade out in their direction, but before I hailed them they had stopped, planted the carrying-pole upright in a fissure and, leaving it there, swum off the edge for a while with faces submerged evidently searching for something under water. I had been only a few months at Tarawa, and that was my first near view of an octopus-hunt. I watched every stage of it from the dive of the human bait to the landing of the dead catch. When it was over, I went up to them. I could hardly believe that in those few seconds, with no more than a frivolous-looking splash or two on the surface, they could have found, caught and killed the creature they were now stringing up before my eyes. They explained the amusing simplicity of the thing.
'There's only one trick the decoy-man must never forget,' they said, 'and that's not difficult to remember. If he is not wearing the water-spectacles of the Men of Matang, he must cover his eyes with a hand as he comes close to the kika (octopus), or the sucker might blind him.' It appeared that the ultimate fate of the eyes was not the thing to worry about; the immediate point was that the sudden pain of a sucker clamping itself to an eyeball might cause the bait to expel his breath and inhale sea-water; that would spoil his buoyancy, and he would fail then to give his friend the best chance of a kill.
Then they began whispering together. I knew in a curdling flash what they were saying to each other. Before they turned to speak to me again, a horrified conviction was upon me. My damnable curiosity had led me into a trap from which there was no escape. They were going to propose that I should take a turn at being the bait myself, just to see how delightfully easy it was. And that is what they did. It did not even occur to them that I might not leap at the offer. I was already known as a young Man of Matang who liked swimming, and fishing, and laughing with the villagers; I had just shown an interest in this particular form of hunting; naturally, I should enjoy the fun of it as much as they did. Without even waiting for my answer, they gleefully ducked off the edge of the reef to look for another octopus – a fine fat one – mine. Left standing there alone, I had another of those visions …page 124
It was dusk in the village. The fishers were home, I saw the cooking-fires glowing orange-red between the brown lodges. There was laughter and shouted talk as the women prepared the evening meal. But the laughter was hard with scorn. 'What?' they were saying, 'Afraid of a kika? The young Man of Matang? Why, even the boys are not afraid of a kika!' A curtain went down and rose again on the Residency; the Old Man was talking: 'A leader? You? The man who funked a schoolboy game? We don't leave your sort in charge of Districts.' The scene flashed to my uncles: 'Returned empty,' they said. 'We always knew you hadn't got it in you. Returned empty …'
Of course it was all overdrawn, but one fact was beyond doubt; the Gilbertese reserved all their most ribald humour for physical cowardice. No man gets himself passed for a leader anywhere by becoming the butt of that kind of wit. I decided I would rather face the octopus.
I was dressed in khaki slacks, canvas shoes and a short-sleeved singlet. I took off the shoes and made up my mind to shed the singlet if told to do so; but I was wildly determined to stick to my trousers throughout. Dead or alive, said a voice within me, an official minus his pants is a preposterous object, and I felt I could not face that extra horror. However, nobody asked me to remove anything.
I hope I did not look as yellow as I felt when I stood to take the plunge; I have never been so sick with funk before or since. 'Remember, one hand for your eyes,' said someone from a thousand miles off, and I dived.
I do not suppose it is really true that the eyes of an octopus shine in the dark; besides, it was clear daylight only six feet down in the limpid water; but I could have sworn the brute's eyes burned at me as I turned in towards his cranny. That dark glow – whatever may have been its origin – was the last thing I saw as I blacked out with my left hand and rose into his clutches. Then, I remember chiefly a dreadful sliminess with a herculean power behind it. Something whipped round my left forearm and the back of my neck, binding the two together. In the same flash, another something slapped itself high on my forehead, and I felt it crawling down inside the back of my singlet. My impulse was page 125to tear at it with my right hand, but I felt the whole of that arm pinioned to my ribs. In most emergencies the mind works with crystal-clear impersonality. This was not even an emergency, for I knew myself perfectly safe. But my boyhood's nightmare was upon me. When I felt the swift constriction of those disgusting arms jerk my head and shoulders in towards the reef, my mind went blank of every thought save the beastliness of contact with that squat head. A mouth began to nuzzle below my throat, at the junction of the collar-bones. I forgot there was anyone to save me. Yet something still directed me to hold my breath.
I was awakened from my cowardly trance by a quick, strong pull on my shoulders, back from the cranny. The cables around me tightened painfully, but I knew I was adrift from the reef. I gave a kick, rose to the surface and turned on my back with the brute sticking out of my chest like a tumour. My mouth was smothered by some flabby moving horror. The suckers felt like hot rings pulling at my skin. It was only two seconds, I suppose, from then to the attack of my deliverer, but it seemed like a century of nausea.
My friend came up between me and the reef. He pounced, pulled, bit down, and the thing was over – for everyone but me. At the sudden relaxation of the tentacles, I let out a great breath, sank, and drew in the next under water. It took the united help of both boys to get me, coughing, heaving and pretending to join in their delighted laughter, back to the reef. I had to submit there to a kind of war-dance round me, in which the dead beast was slung whizzing past my head from one to the other. I had a chance to observe then that it was not by any stretch of fancy a giant, but just plain average. That took the bulge out of my budding self-esteem. I left hurriedly for the cover of the jetty, and was sick.