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A Pattern of Islands

6 — Strange Interlude

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Strange Interlude

Introduction in Sorcery

Most Europeans who believe in an after-life draw a clear horizon-line between the worlds of the living and the dead. The pagans of the Gilbert Islands, as I knew them, imagined no such comfortable partition. The seen and the unseen made but one world for them. Their dead were helped overseas to a western paradise, it is true, but no known ritual could bind them there; only the lapse of generations could do that.

The belief was that the more recently departed could and did return. They were jealous. They wanted to see what their descendants were doing. Their skeletons or skulls were preserved in village shrines mainly for them to re-enter as they liked. If skulls at least were not kept, their ghosts would come and scream reproach by night with the voices of crickets from the palm-leaves that overhung the dwellings. And so, whether a man was pious or impious to his fathers, his house was a house forever brooded over by unseen watchers.

Not that the older folk thought of their dead only as threatening ghosts. There was love as well as fear in the ancient cult of the ancestor, and mostly the love predominated. I was looking round the waterfront of a Tarawa village one day when I came upon an old, old man alone in a canoe shed nursing a skull in the crook of his elbow. He was blowing tobacco smoke between its jaws. As he puffed, he chuckled and talking aloud: 'The smoke is sweet, grand-father – ke-e-e?' he was saying. 'We like it – ke-e-e?' He told me he was loving the skull because his grandfather – who was inside it at that moment – had been very good to him in years gone by. 'Is it not suitable,' he asked, 'for me to be good to him in return?' and answered himself at once, 'Aongkoa! (of course!)' He went on to say he had chosen tobacco as his offering of love because, as far as he knew, there was no supply page 127of that particular luxury in the ancestral paradise. For his homely affection, at least, the skull was no grim reminder of death, but a cheerful token of man's and love's immortality.

The sad thing was that the earliest Christian teachers in the Gilbert Islands gave no honour to the spirit of filial gratitude and fatherly goodness that breathed through the old beliefs. More modern pioneers would have used them, much as gardeners use the rugged stocks of wild rose and bitter orange, for grafts of tenderer yield. I saw one or two later missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, earnestly trying to do that; but the harm had gone too far by their day to be undone. Cruel, unavenged raids on village skull shrines in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, and indiscriminate derision poured upon the old ways of thought well into the twentieth, had destroyed almost all veneration for the pagan dead among the rising generation by the time I reached the Gilbert Islands. Affection had made its exit with respect, and only superstition remained. Ancient superstitions are not rooted out as easily as ancient loves. The ghosts of the dead still haunted the villages; the difference was that they had become wholly vindictive now in the belief of everyone but a handful of the dying generation.

Then, too, there was the immanence of Things – Things that were not human. The new religion had not yet banished the fear of these. There was not a single inanimate object but had a Thing lurking inside it. A stick, a stone, a tree, a leaf, or the fragment of a leaf was not only its visible self but also a hidden presence. And every presence was a possible menace; it could be enlisted to destroy you. The more intimately it was attached to you, the more dangerous it could be. The spirit of your fish-hook could be turned by nothing more than the fixed stare of your enemy to bring you luckless fishing. The spirit of your cooking-oven could be made by sorcery to encompass your madness or death, the spirit of a fragment of your dress, or a nail-paring, or a stray hair of your head (especially if you were a woman) to work hideous things upon you. And crowding in at you out of the dark with the ghosts of the dead and the Things that lurked in things were the prowling familiars. Every sorcerer had his familiar. It was usually something alive like a page 128beetle, bird or fish, but it might be some unbodied spirit of disease, or rottenness, or the blackness under the earth. Whatever it was, it could spy on you and bring evil as the sorcerer ordained. Beyond the familiars again were the multitudinous creatures whose death might mean your own, you knew not when – the life-index creatures. If your enemy took a lizard or a dragon-fly and slowly starved the breath out of it, using the right rituals, so would yours fade away, and when it died so would you too.

It seems a marvel that the race remained cheerful under the weight of so many dreads, for it did remain cheerful. I found plenty of evidence in the humorous legends and old burlesque songs and dances of the villagers that laughter never died in the Gilbert Islands. I personally believe that the survival of the people's sense of proportion was due mainly to their religion. 'Be of good heart amid all these dangers,' said the village fathers, 'for your ancestors love you.' I am not quoting at random; the words were said to me by Taakeuta, an elder of Royal Karongoa, the Sun clan into which I was adopted, when he believed me to be threatened by a death-curse. His teaching was that I had only to justify myself before the ancestors and the sun – first, by giving them honour, second, by avoiding incest, third, by abstaining from violence against their sacred creatures – and they would save me alive if I called upon them properly. A system of protective rituals had its roots in this comforting doctrine.

The appeal for protection was made in the form of invocations called tataro, which were, in effect, simple prayers. Taakeuta gave me two tataro for personal use. He recommended the first for what he courteously styled my 'bad luck' at fishing. It had to be recited sitting on my canoe, looking up at the sun (when it was at its noonday strength, ideally) with the luckless hook raised breast-high between joined palms:

Sun-e-e, Sun-o-o, I beg thee, I, Grimble!
Thou knowest me with my ill-wished hook.
Ancestors-e-e, Auriaria, Tituaabine-o-o, I beg you, I, Grimble!
You know me with my ill-fortune.
I am faint-hearted, you! Help me!
It is ended. Blessings and Peace are mine. Blessings and Peace.

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The true characters of prayer appear more convincingly, perhaps, in the next example, for an attitude of supplication is associated there with an oblation and a plea of righteousness. My teacher gave me this one with others, as a sure defence against the death-spell I have mentioned. The instructions ran that, before beginning to eat any meal, I must raise a morsel of food on upturned palm before me and repeat aloud:

This is the lifting up of the portion of the Ancestors.

Here is thy food, Auriaria: I have committed no incest.

Here is thy food Tituaabine: I have not harmed thy creature (the Giant Ray).

I am excellent-e-e! I touch the Sun, I clasp the Moon.

Turn back the spirits of the death-magic; turn them back, for I, Grimble, beg you.

I am not lost. Blessings and Peace are mine. Blessings and Peace.

Taakeuta said the prayer would please the Ancestors best if I could get one or two companions of my adoptive clan to repeat it with me, I speaking in the first person singular for myself, they using the first person plural for all of us. It was disclosed to me later by my servant and dear friend Kirewa – also an adopted member of the sun clan – that tataro of the same shape were used in collective ceremonials for the fructification of the pandanus tree and the eating of first-fruits. One of the fructification prayers Kirewa gave me is of double interest here because it refers to the birth of Karongoa's secret sun-god Au, so many times mentioned already, from the crest of a virgin pandanus tree in the ancestral lands of Abatoa (Aba-the-Great) and Abaiti (Aba-the-Little). Abaiti is, of course, the Gilbertese equivalent of the ancient Maori fatherland Jawaiki. The prayer was intoned by a single officiator sitting with hands upturned at the foot of an emblematic pandanus tree. There was no limit to the number of Karongoa folk, men or women, who might be present, and members of Maerua, the moon-clan, might be invited but all others were strictly excluded. The ceremony took place at noon, the sun's strongest hour for ritual purposes:

This is the planting of our emblem of a tree, Au-forever-rising-o-o!

This is the planting of our emblem of a tree, Au-forever-turning-over-o-o!

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This is our planting of our emblem of a tree, Au-forever-setting-o-o! I have spread the branches of our tree of fruitfulness, our tree of the Sun and the Moon.

The lightning flashes, the thunder and the rain descend, even the fructifiers of the tree,

The virgin tree, the pandanus of Abatoa and Abaiti,

Thy tree, thy mother, Au-of-the-Northern-Solstice, Au-of-the-Southern-Solstice!

Spirit of the Crest, son of the tree, Au-forever-rising,

Spirits of Matang, Tituaabine, Tabuariki, Tevenei, Riiki, I call to you, I call only to you:

Bless us under our tree of fruitfulness, fructify our pandanus trees, I beg you.

I beg you-o-o! I, Kirewa.

Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace.

And when the first-fruits had been gathered in, sweet puddings called karababa were made of the best of them for an offering to the sun and moon. The officiator, sitting as before at the foot of the emblematic tree, with the congregation in a half-circle behind him facing east, lifted a fragment of the sweet stuff on upturned palms towards the crest, intoning:

This is your food, Sun and Moon,

Even the first-fruits of our pandanus tree.

This is thy food, child of the virgin tree, Au-forever-rising,

Even the first-fruits of our pandanus trees.

This is your food, spirits of Matang, Tituaabine, Tabuariki, Tevenei, Riiki,

Even the first-fruits of our pandanus trees.

We are blest under our tree of fruitfulness.

Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace.

After which, he threw back his head to look up at the sun and in that position swallowed the oblation, and the congregation, with cries of 'Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace,' turned their faces to the sky and joined in the ritual meal.

The Gilbertese word mauri which I have here construed 'blessings' might also, in a very general sense, mean 'safety'. It has compendious connotations of material prosperity, good health and security from the attacks of evil spirits. In its prayerful page 131context, I think 'blessings' is the better word, as the state of being mauri was regarded always as a gift from the gods and the basis of all human happiness. I found few tataro, and none of those which appealed for protection from the death-magic, that did not close with the wistful formula – statement of faith and benediction in one – 'Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace.' An equally touching and constant feature of all the protective prayers was their total freedom from revengeful motives. 'The Sun and the Ancestors will do what they will to your ill-wishers,' said my old friend to me: 'the tataro is not for anger.' These prayers aimed at security, in fact, not through the malice of the suppliant or his gods, but simply through the faith of a man in the love of his fore-fathers.

But the active charities that went with the cult of the ancestor were confined within the family group. There was no obligation upon a man to abstain from the practice of sorcery against members of clans other than his own, except his mother's and that into which he might have been adopted. The same person could be Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – a user of tataro for self-defence and of the death-spells called wawi and wairaakau, maniwairaa and terakunene, for aggression. As a sorcerer he was crudely animistic. He believed that everything in the world had inside it an anti – or spirit, that could be called up out of the darkness of its imprisoning stuff. Nothing was needed to evoke it but the use of the right words with the right movements. If every detail of his ritual were correct, the sorcerer became the master of the anti; there was no nonsense about its loving him or wanting his love.

But this is not to say that Gilbertese magic was wholly bent on evil. Its spells covered the entire range of village activities; there was not a cranny of a man's or a woman's life into which it did not penetrate, and great sections of it – especially those which covered childbirth, marriage, prosperity, and death – were untainted by human malice. My aged friend Tabanea, of whose traffic in the 'magic of kindness' I shall have more to say later, gave me some samples of spells meant to comfort, not to kill. One of them was of the family known as te Kaanangaraoi, the givers of good direction, i.e., roughly, the bringers of good page 132fortune. It was a father's blessing on his son, but Tabanea said it would do well enough, alternatively, for any of my daughters.

'Lead her to an eastern beach just before sunrise,' he instructed me, 'and seat her on a stone facing the dawn. You may take her to the stone I use for myself, if you like. When she is seated, anoint the crown of her head with a little coconut oil – a drop or two will be enough – and tie a fillet of young coconut-leaf about her brows, making a knot like this. Then let her sit very still, her hands upon her knees, waiting for the sun to rise. And when you see the top rim of the sun appear over the horizon, stand beside her with your right hand resting on her head, saying these words three times:

By this crowning with a fillet, by this anointing with oil,
Thou art beautiful, thou art the first of thy generation.
Thou shalt overturn the hearts of the old men,
Thou shalt overturn the hearts of the warriors;
They shall gaze upon thee and eagerly speak thy name.
Thou art become the child of the sun;
Thy feet shall tread high places;
Thy heart shall burn, thy body shall shine;
Thy face shall be beautiful and terrible;
Thy word shall be a judgement that is judged,
And thy name only, Joan Ruth, shall be in the mouth of all people,
Thine, thine, thine!
The Sun is risen.'

Spells of this benign quality lent themselves very easily as a bridge between paganism and Christianity in the days of groping from belief to belief. The old pagans of my time had seen the emissaries of the new faith working ruthlessly against their loved ancestors in the earlier days of missionary work, and for that reason most of them resisted to the very end every effort to christianize them. But they distinguished with extraordinary sensitiveness between the new God and His human prophets. Their stubborn resistance was directed not against the notion of a foreign deity but against the church organization as such. The Christian God seemed very powerful to them. Had He not saved from the anger of their own spirits the desecrators of their village shrines? They had need of the protection of such a page 133Power, not His enmity, in their bitter loss. So Katutu, a pagan of about eighty, put it to me at Tarawa. 'And besides, God and Jesus do not belong only to the Protestants and Roman Catholics,' he said to me. 'They belong to pagans also. They are not surrounded by a fence up there in Heaven, and we do not have to run into a mission fence to find them here on earth. They are everywhere, like Auriaria and Tabuariki and Tituaabine. We can take them for our own friends if we want them.' And some of them did precisely that, by the simple expedient of using the names of God and Jesus as names of power in their magic of kindness. I cannot think that there was anger in the courts of Heaven when the following prayer was heard there. It was used by Katutu when he was lost at sea in his fishing-canoe. Lifting a little sea water at arms' length in cupped hands, he called:

This is the lifting of the draught of the sightless:
I am cross-eyed, I am blind! I know not North, I know not South,
I know not heaven or the underworld-o-o!
Lift thyself up my draught – I drink thee;
Let them tell me, let them direct me, for I am cross-eyed, I am blind.
O bu-u-u, ba-a-a, God and Jesus!
Only thou, God, art the land, thou the ocean.
The ill wind blows: destroy it, disperse it,
Return it to its place – the ocean-o-o!

'And when I had said it three times,' said Katutu, 'the ill wind dropped its wings, the sea fell, a fair wind blew, and I came safe home.'

Katutu like Tabenea was a professional sorcerer who dealt only in the magic of kindness. His sort brought nothing but help to villagers nominally Christian yet still far less confident than pagan Katutu of the love of their accepted God. But there were few professionals like him; the majority were sinister beings; curses intended to bring madness, disease and death were their common stock-in-trade, and the terror of their works hung like a black cloud over the villages. Here are the words of a curse upon a cooking-oven. The sorcerer is to be imagined squatting naked in the dark before dawn over his enemy's fireplace and stabbing it with a stick as he mutters–

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Spirit of madness, Nei Terang!
Spirit of excrement, Nei Tebutae!
Spirit of eating alive, Nei Mataora!
Spirits of rottenness, Maauere, Maauere-o-o!
I stab the fire of his food, the fire of that man Naewa.
 Strike west of him, you! Strike east of him, you!
 Strike as I stab, strike death!
 Strangle him, madden him, shame him with rottenness!
His liver heaves, it heaves, it is overturned and torn apart.
His bowels heave, they heave, they are torn apart and gnawed.
He is black mad, he is dead.
It is finished: he is dead, dead, dead. He rots.

My old friend of the protective ritual, Taaketa of Marakei, gave me this spell as an example of the kind of curse that had been laid upon my shrinking self. Obviously, apart from their obscenity, such curses amounted to nothing more than any other pack of words. But the trouble was, they often worked. The sorcerers took care to back their rituals with something more than words. They knew a good deal about fish-poisons, and also about the blistering secretion of the cantharides fly, which swarms among the coconut-blossom. And even when no such adventitious aid was used, there was always man's fear working on the side of the sorcerer. It is an eerie thing to know yourself cursed, even if you are a European. A brown man with sixty generations of terror-struck belief whispering in his blood, and no trust any more in the saving love of his ancestors, and not yet any deep hold on the comforts of his new religion, was easy meat for the death-magic. The sorcerers had little to learn in practice about the murderous force of auto-suggestion.

I believe all these dark things are done with in the Gilbert Islands of today. Education in the mission schools and (if I may be so sentimental) more comforting emphasis upon the dynamics of love in Christian teaching, had already helped much by 1933 – when I left the Pacific – towards banishing dread of the death-magic from the villages. Since then, exciting new things like co-operative marketing, and political progress, and radio have come into the life of the islands. The long tedium of the village nights is brightened in 1951 by talk and thought about a page 135hundred interests that were not there to drive out the spectres of old. But I lived there when fear was still master. The villages, so bright by day, were haunted when night closed down upon them.

I am not suggesting that ghosts returned from the dead, or familiars prowled, or presences lurked in things. I write as a sceptic about that kind of belief. But it is my experience that malice and fear are strong infections. They can taint things and places, just as human love can sweeten them. Generation upon generation of sorcerers who willed evil, and of people who dreaded their power, had lived out their lives in those islands. The piled-up horror of their convictions had achieved, down the ages, a weight and a shadow of its own, an imminence that brooded over everything. It was man's thought, more potent than ghosts, that haunted the habitations of men. One felt that practically anything could happen in that atmosphere.

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.

The Calling of the Porpoise

It was common rumour in the Gilbert Islands that certain local clans had the power of porpoise-calling; but it was rather like the Indian rope-trick; you never met anyone who had actually witnessed the thing. If I had been a reasonably plump young man, I might never have come to see what I did see on the beach of Butaritari lagoon. But I was skinny. It was out of sheer pity for my poor thin frame that old Kitiona set his family porpoise-page 142caller working. We were sitting together one evening in his canoe-shed by the beach, and he was delivering a kind of discourse on the beauty of human fatness.

'A chief of chiefs,' he said, 'is recognized by his shape. He is fleshy from head to foot. But his greatest flesh is his middle; when he sits, he is based like a mountain upon his sitting place; when he stands, he swells out in the midst, before and behind, like a porpoise.' It seemed that in order to maintain that noble bulge a high chief simply must have a regular diet of porpoise-meat; if he didn't, he would soon become lean and bony like a commoner or a white man. The white man was doubtless of chiefly race, thought Kitiona, but his figure could hardly be called beautiful. 'And you,' he added, looking me up and down with affectionate realism, 'are in truth the skinniest white man ever seen in these islands. You sit upon approximately no base at all.'

I laughed (heartily I hope) and asked what he thought could be done about that. 'You should eat porpoise-flesh,' he said simply, 'then you too would swell in the proper places.' That led me to inquire how I might come by a regular supply of the rare meat. The long and the short of his reply was that his own kinsmen in Kuma village, seventeen miles up-lagoon, were the hereditary porpoise-callers of the High Chiefs of Butaritari and Makin-Meang. His first cousin was a leading expert at the game; he could put himself into the right kind of dream on demand. His spirit went out of his body in such a dream; it sought out the porpoise-folk in their home under the western horizon and invited them to a dance, with feasting, in Kuma village. If he spoke the words of the invitation aright (and very few had the secret of them) the porpoise would follow him with cries of joy to the surface.

Having led them to the lagoon entrance, he would fly forward to rejoin his body and warn the people of their coming. It was quite easy for one who knew the way of it. The porpoise never failed to arrive. Would I like some called for me? After some rather idle shilly-shallying, I admitted that I would; but did he think I should be allowed to see them coming? Yes, he replied, that could probably be arranged. He would talk to his kinsmen page 143about it. Let me choose a date for the calling and, if the Kuma folk agreed, his canoe would take me to the village. We'fixed on a day early in January, some weeks ahead, before I left him.

No further word came from Kitiona until his big canoe arrived one morning to collect me. There was not a breath of wind, so sailing was out of the question. The sun was white-hot. It took over six hours of grim paddling to reach our destination. By the time we got there, I was cooked like a prawn and wrapped in gloom. When the fat, friendly man who styled himself the High Chief's hereditary porpoise-caller came waddling down the beach to greet me, I asked irritably when the porpoise would arrive. He said he would have to go into his dream first, but thought he could have them there for me by three or four o'clock. Please, though, he added firmly, would I be careful to call them, from now on, only 'our friends from the west'. The other name was tabu. They might not come at all if I said it aloud. He led me as he spoke to a little hut screened with newly plaited coconut leaves, which stood beside his ordinary dwelling. Alone in there, he explained, he would do his part of the business. Would I honour his house by resting in it while he dreamed? 'Wait in peace now,' he said when I was installed, 'I go on my journey,' and disappeared into the screened hut.

Kuma was a big village in those days: its houses stretched for half a mile or more above the lagoon beach. The dreamer's hut lay somewhere near the centre of the line. The place was dead quiet that afternoon under its swooning palms. The children had been gathered in under the thatches. The women were absorbed in plaiting garlands and wreaths of flowers. The men were silently polishing their ceremonial ornaments of shell. Their friends from the west were being invited to a dance, and everything they did in the village that day was done to maintain the illusion.

Even the makings of a feast lay ready piled in baskets beside the houses. I could not bring myself to believe that the people expected just nothing to come of all this careful business.

But the hours dragged by, and nothing happened. Four o' clock passed. My faith was beginning to sag under the strain when a strangled howl burst from the dreamer's hut. I jumped page 144round to see his cumbrous body come hurtling head first through the torn screens. He sprawled on his face, struggled up, and staggered into the open, a slobber of saliva shining on his chin. He stood awhile clawing at the air and whining on a queer high note like a puppy's. Then words came gulping out of him: 'Teirake! Teirake! (Arise! Arise! … They come! Let us go … Our friends from the west … They come! … Let us go down and greet them.' He started at a lumbering gallop down the beach.

A roar went up from the village, 'They come, they come!' I found myself rushing helter-skelter with a thousand others into the shallows, bawling at the top of my voice that our friends from the west were coming. I ran behind the dreamer; the rest converged on him from north and south. We strung ourselves out, line abreast, as we stormed through the shallows. Everyone was wearing the garlands woven that afternoon. The farther out we got, the less the clamour grew. When we stopped, breast deep, fifty yards from the reef's edge, a deep silence was upon us; and so we waited.

I had just dipped my head to cool it when a man near me yelped and stood pointing; others took up his cry, but I could make out nothing for myself at first in the splintering glare of the sun on the water. When at last I did see them, everyone was screaming hard; they were pretty near by then, gambolling towards us at a fine clip. When they came to the edge of the blue water by the reef, they slackened speed, spread themselves out and started cruising back and forth in front of our line. Then, suddenly, there was no more of them.

In the strained silence that followed, I thought they were gone. The disappointment was so sharp, I did not stop to think then that, even so, I had seen a very strange thing. I was in the act of touching the dreamer's shoulder to take my leave when he turned his still face to me: 'The king out of the west comes to meet me,' he murmured, pointing downwards. My eyes followed his hand. There, not ten yards away, was the great shape of a porpoise poised like a glimmering shadow in the glass-green water. Behind it followed a whole dusky flotilla of them.

They were moving towards us in extended order with spaces page 145of two or three yards between them, as far as my eye could reach. So slowly they came, they seemed to be hung in a trance. Their leader drifted in hard by the dreamer's leg. He turned without a word to walk beside it as it idled towards the shallows. I followed a foot or two behind its almost motionless tail. I saw other groups to right and left of us turn shore wards one by one, arms lifted, faces bent upon the water.

A babble of quiet talk sprang up; I dropped behind to take in the whole scene. The villagers were welcoming their guests ashore with crooning words. Only men were walking beside them; the women and children followed in their wake, clapping their hands softly in the rhythm of a dance. As we approached the emerald shallows, the keels of the creatures began to take the sand; they flapped gently as if asking for help. The men leaned down to throw their arms around the great barrels and ease them over the ridges. They showed no least sign of alarm. It was as if their single wish was to get to the beach.

When the water stood only thigh deep, the dreamer flung his arms high and called. Men from either flank came crowding in to surround the visitors, ten or more to each beast. Then, 'Lift!' shouted the dreamer, and the ponderous black shapes were half-dragged, half-carried, unresisting, to the lip of the tide. There they settled down, those beautiful, dignified shapes, utterly at peace, while all hell broke loose around them. Men, women and children, leaping and posturing with shrieks that tore the sky, stripped off their garlands and flung them around the still bodies, in a sudden dreadful fury of boastfulness and derision. My mind still shrinks from the last scene – the raving humans, the beasts so triumphantly at rest.

We left them garlanded where they lay and returned to our houses. Later, when the falling tide had stranded them high and dry, men went down with knives to cut them up. There was feasting and dancing in Kuma that night. A chief's portion of the meat was set aside for me. I was expected to have it cured as a diet for my thinness. It was duly salted, but I could not bring myself to eat it. I never did grow fat in the Gilbert Islands.