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A Pattern of Islands

The Sorcerer's Revenge

The Sorcerer's Revenge

I don't mind admitting I felt queer when old Taakeuta said a death-curse had been laid on me. You would have felt the same yourself at that hour of the morning. He crept out of his village between 3 and 4 o'clock and got my servant Kirewa to wake me up. As soon as I stirred, they both began begging me not to light a lamp, in case other eyes should see us. So I had to lie there under the mosquito net, listening to their talk of curses in the dark. They were just voices whispering doom at me out of the unseen, and it gave me the creeps.

White men were supposed to be immune from Gilbertese sorcery, but Taakeuta feared I might not be as safe as others because I had recently been made a member of the Sun clan. That gave me magical powers, but it also opened me to magical attack, he thought: the curse would surely work unless I would agree to do as he asked me. My one safety now lay in the prayers of the clan ancestors for warding off death-spells. They were infallible if used aright – but would I use them? He had come hurrying through the night to teach me how to do so before the page 136next sun rose. His tremulous old voice trailed off into entreaties.

I knew the dark obscenity of the death-curses. Not that I really believed that a hotch-potch of words and gestures, however vile, could harm me. But I was alone on an island impregnated with age-old superstition, and I was young, and the living reality of these two friends' dread was heavy upon me. Then, too, there was the deep sincerity of Taakeuta's purpose. I couldn't just turn the shaky old fellow back into the night uncomforted. Maybe I was a little curious as well. Any how, what with one thing and another, I spent the last hour before sunrise over on the eastern beach, learning those protective prayers from him. All of them ended with the lovely benediction, 'Blessings and Peace are mine. Blessings and Peace.' I am not prepared to deny that it did a lot to calm ray twittering nerves.

The innocent cause of all this to-do was a poor, half-witted girl who had been brought before me in the Lands Court. It was a real-life case of a defenceless orphan and the wicked uncle. The uncle had contrived, at the death of her father and mother, to get himself registered by the Native Court as the owner of her whole patrimony, which amounted to nearly twenty acres of good coconut land. That was great wealth for a Gilbert Islander. He had got away with it solely because of his fearsome reputation as a sorcerer. He was credited with many victims, and the terror of his curses paralysed the island. The sick-minded child drifted about the villages for eight years living on charity; she could not fail to find that among those kindly people, but no one dared to complain on her behalf until I arrived to set up a Lands Commission. Then, because I had become a member of his clan, old Taakeuta did tell me about her. It was an act of superhuman courage for an islander. Two others followed his lead, and their evidence eventually enabled me to put things right for her.

It was no part of my court's job to pursue the wicked uncle. I merely recorded the facts about him for the judicial attention of the District Officer and got along with my Lands Commission. So he, on his side, was able to stick around considering how best he might pursue me. As a matter of fact, I'm sure there was more than a streak of insanity in him, which loss of face had whipped page 137up into a maniac obsession. It was actually he himself who had told Taakeuta about putting the death-curse on me. He was boasting of it all round the place. He said I was going to fall ill within a week and be dead within three weeks. It may sound puerile, but the insolent certainty of it hypnotized the hagridden villagers into something like appalled conviction. The meeting-houses of the island buzzed with debates about my safety.

It wasn't merely for me that people were afraid: they feared for themselves even more. No white man had ever yet been known to succumb to Gilbertese magic. The whole confidence of the brown men in the white race rested ultimately on that one fact. We were queer, often unmannerly creatures, but we were always above being corrupted or constrained by secret sorceries. Yet that terrible man seemed so sure of his powers. Could I resist him? If I could not, what white man was to be leaned on for protection any more? This was not a rhetorical question that I imagined for myself: it was the way my servant and loving friend Kirewa put things to me, and I knew that the stark simplicity of his view stood for the whole island's feeling. It was no good discounting it as mere hysteria: the hysteria itself was the fact that had to be faced. In that atmosphere of panic, the wicked uncle didn't even have to bring about my death to win a smashing victory. Any real illness that happened my way would be seen as a triumph of his sorcery. And, apart from the white man's prestige in general, there was the special matter of my work on the Lands Commission. Once I was made to appear even a little susceptible to spells, every spark of public faith in my judgements would be snuffed out, for every man would be asking his neighbour whose magic had swayed me. The immediate answer to all this was, of course, that I mustn't fall ill or, better still, mustn't let anyone see it even if I did. There wasn't a doctor within a hundred miles, anyhow, to fuss around ordering me to bed; but the hair-trigger situation did make me a bit nervous, because I was subject to fulminating attacks of dysentery.

As things fell out, however, I needn't have worried about dysentery. The pains that woke me up just before dawn two days page 138later were not like that. I felt as if an ice-cold hand with red-hot fingernails was tearing out a hollow space between my kidneys and my solar plexus. I suppose it was natural for me to dream, as I struggled up out of my sleep, that the clawing hand was the wicked uncle's and that his face was mouthing at me a piece of a death-curse I had learned from old Taakeuta:

His liver heaves, it heaves, it is overturned and torn apart;
His bowels heave, they heave, they are torn apart and gnawed.

At that, it might have been only a severe attack of renal colic, but there were other symptoms too. They don't matter here, except that they told me beyond doubt what had hit me. I had had a mild sample of the same thing before, and it hadn't been caused by magic. The all-too-obvious fact was that I had swallowed before going to bed a considerable swig of the blistering stuff known to science as cantharidine. It was easy to make that particular mistake in the Gilbert Islands if you were a toddy-drinker. Cantharides flies (which we called toddy-bugs) crawled in hundreds wherever the sweet sap of the coconut blossom was being tapped. We had to take care to keep them out of our collecting-vessels. No more than three of them drowned in a pint of liquor were quite enough to put a man to bed for a week. The squeezed-out juice of a dozen or so, secretly dropped into a man's drink, was as sure a thing as any sorcerer knew of to make his death-curses work, and horribly.

The only coconut toddy ever allowed near me was that gathered by Kirewa. He was a martinet about that. I got none at all if he found even a single fly drowned in my liquor. But my toddy-tree was well out in the bush: anyone could have climbed it and doctored my drink unseen in the sleepy hours after noon-day. There wasn't a mite of evidence to show who had done it; but if nobody had, in fact, given me a dose of cantharidine, the inference was that nothing save the wicked uncle's curse was blistering my insides. Though this made satisfactory nonsense for me, it didn't for Kirewa. He thought the death curse was come upon me, and told me so with tears. It was not comforting. All the same, I did know I could count on his silence outside. He said himself he didn't care who or what was to blame, only one page 139thing mattered now, and that was how to keep the sorcerer's victory dark.

Apart from the pains of my condition, its initial calls for attention were so importunate that they could not possibly have been kept dark without the help of luck – an accident of time, you might call it, unless you preferred just Providence. My trouble happened to begin on a Saturday and Saturday was a day of rest as far as my court work went. So I started off with the merciful gift of a clear week-end of seclusion. Nevertheless, when Sunday night came, I could not even sit up. There wasn't the remotest hope of my being able to open the Lands Court as usual at six o'clock on Monday morning. I lay torn in half with pain wondering what message I should send to the packed meeting-house. Should I say outright that I was ill, but ill, of course, only because somebody unspecified had poisoned me? My mind replied: if my Kirewa didn't believe in the poisoning theory, why should a single other soul in those spell-haunted villages? So, alternatively, should I without a word of explanation suspend court sessions until further notice? The answer to that one was that it would simply bring a swarm of fearful folk, driven by the gibes of the sorcerer himself, rushing round to confirm his triumph. There was absolutely nothing I could do to avoid disaster. Yet I must do something. My mind went on and on; rigors began to seize my body; by four o'clock, I was semi-delirious. And then, in the same dark hour of Taakeuta's warning visit and the first onset of my sickness, more help came. You can call it an accident out of space this time, unless you still prefer Providence. A roaring westerly gale blew up, unprecedentedly late in the season, and pushed over half the dwellings on the island. Nobody was hurt, but it took the villagers a full week of intensive communal work to get their homes standing again. Until the following Monday, not a mother's son wanted to be bothered with me or my Lands Commission.

So I had nine grace-days in all for secret running repairs. Kirewa easily kept the odd caller at a distance by saying I was buried in my writing work. My difficult temper when interrupted at that was well known. The searing flame inside me pretty nearly cooked my goose on Monday and Tuesday, I page 140imagine, for there were sloughings and haemorrhages too. But rest, with an exclusive diet of tinned milk, olive oil and bicarbonate of soda worked something like a miracle in the next few days. I was not to be wholly well again for over three years, but I was able to stand up early on Sunday morning. That night, I staggered without help as far as Kirewa's house in the back yard while he hopped around for rapture under the quiet stars. He made a triumphal song as well as a dance about it; the words were very simple but they meant a lot to both of us: 'O, the white man, the brown man – o — o!' he chanted. 'Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace!' But there was still the Lands Court to face.

I got to the meeting-house steadily enough next morning, on a bicycle: there are no hills in the Gilbert Islands. Kirewa was waiting there to hold the machine as I got off: it was quite a usual courtesy in those days, and it helped a lot. There were only eight paces to take from there, and I managed a good, strong walk-on. It was needed. Over a thousand people were waiting under the vast thatch. According to the forecast, I should have fallen ill by now, and they were there to check up. The wicked uncle was squatting on his mat straight opposite my table, in the first row of spectators. He was staring at me. Everybody was staring at me. A sigh moaned through the place like a wind as I took my seat. I don't know why, but that very nearly bowled me out. Maybe it was weakness, maybe relief. To be precise, I desperately wanted to lay my head on the table and cry. But I did have enough sense not to burst into tears, and in the next flash I knew that the only thing to carry me through that moment was a joke – any old joke, as long as it was topical enough. The topic was there, throwing itself at me, a million years young every-where in the world – the weather. So I stared back at the wicked uncle and said the island would be a lot freer of these westerly gales if the local sorcerers wasted less time on death-curses and put in a lot more on spells for good weather. Everyone knew that good-weather-making was the speciality of my own Sun clan.

There followed what seemed an age of stunned silence. I thought my feeble effort had failed disastrously. As a matter of fact, I never have been sure that it would have caught on at all, page 141but for Kirewa. He suddenly gave a great hoot of mirth from behind me. It was so near my ear, it scared the wits out of me. I whipped round and nearly slipped from my seat. That and the braying noise he made seemed to pull a trigger that released all the sinister tension in one vast explosion of laughter. The house kicked and twisted with it for ten minutes. The Gil-bertese are princely laughers, and they have no nonsensical rules about a man not laughing at his own joke: I howled unnoticed with them, and, incidentally, got my chance to shed a few tears then. I knew with certainty that safety (if not exactly blessings) and peace were upon me. When eyes were dried and order restored, the wicked uncle had vanished. He never put his nose back in the Lands Court, and nothing was ever heard again of his curse.

Six weeks later, I finished my work on that island. The evening before I left, Taakeuta took both my hands in his old gnarled ones: 'Sir,' he said, 'what might have happened but for the prayers of the ancestors?' He knew nothing of my illness. I could not bring myself to tell him that I had not used his prayers. In any case, a blank denial would have amounted to an evasion. My rehearsal with him on the ocean beach had left me haunted with a thought. I felt that the ancestors had stumbled on something considerable when they put that phrase about blessings and peace in the form of an affirmation. It seemed to me then that blessings and peace truly were, in the last analysis, entities within a man for him to lean upon at need. Perhaps that was merely wishful thinking, but I found it a very comforting bed-companion in my sickness.