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A Pattern of Islands

The Limping Man of Makin-Meang

The Limping Man of Makin-Meang

It is clearly up to a District Officer to be listening and learning all the time. But there is a mortal difference of spirit between genuine research and prying. The danger is, the genuine thing can deteriorate by such subtle and unconscious stages into mere over-curiosity that a bona-fide student may find himself poised on the very brink of fiddling before he wakes up to the horrid change that has gone on inside him. That was what happened to me on Makin-Meang.

Perhaps the eeriness of the island's reputation for ghosts, added to the odd taciturnity of its villagers, had something to do with my ineptitude. But I base no defence on that. The District page 157Officer's job is to find ways through to his people, not to leave them groping for ways through to himself.

I had heard of the ghosts of Makin-Meang before I got there. The people of Tarawa and Maiana and Abaiang were full of tales about them. They told me that the whole Gilbertese race, for over thirty generations by their count (it was sixty or so by mine), had looked on that most northerly island of the group as their halfway house between the lands of the living and the dead.

The story went that, when anyone died, his shade must first travel up the line of islands to Makin-Meang. Going ashore there on a southern beach, it must tread the length of the land to a sand-spit at the northern tip called the Place of Dread. This was not an actual place-name, but simply a term of fearful reference to the locality — for there sat Nakaa, the Watcher at the Gate, waiting to strangle all dead folk in his terrible net. The ghost had no hope of winning through to paradise except by way of the Gate, and no skill or cunning of its own could save it from the Net. Only the anxious family rituals, done over its dead body, could avail for that; and even these might fail if any outsider were to break in upon their course.

The reasonableness or not of these beliefs is of no concern. It was the age and intensity of them that weighed on Makin-Meang. Every yard of the island was loaded with the terrors and hopes that sixty generations of the living, and the dying, and the long-dead, from end to end of the Gilbert group, had focused upon it. The impress of man's thought was as heavy as footfalls on its paths. I wondered if that was why those silent villagers always seemed to be listening inside their ears for some sound I could never hear.

They were courteous and gentle, but they would not talk to me about the place where Nakaa sat; they did not even try to change the subject when I raised it; they simply dropped their eyes and removed themselves into abysses of reserve. It was not from them but from my orderly, a Tarawa man, that I learned how best to avoid the horror of meeting a ghost face to face. He lived in such open fear of doing so himself that the Native Magistrate had let him know out of pity.

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He told me that the shades of all the folk who died on the other fifteen islands found their way to Nakaa by the road above the western beach, whereas only those of local people used the eastern path. There were therefore many more chances of meeting ghosts on the west side than on the east. Not that it mattered greatly which way you chose going north, because you were travelling with the stream anyhow, and the only thing you had to remember was never, never to look behind you. But coming back against the northbound traffic, you must take no road save the eastern one. You could find out in advance when that was safe or not by asking if any local death was expected the day you planned to use it.

When I had finished my routine work on the island, I naturally wanted to see the Place of Dread, so I called the Native Magistrate along one morning and asked him to find me a guide.

I have never seen a face change and darken as swiftly as his did at my simple request. He stood dumb for a while with downcast eyes; then, still looking at the ground, 'Do not go to that place,' ' he exclaimed, and again, on a higher note, passionately, 'Do not go!' The edge on his voice made it seem almost as if he had said, I order you not to go.'

'But why?' I said irritably. 'What's all this nonsense about Nakaa's place? What's all the mystery? Shall I offend anyone by going?'

'Nobody will be offended,' he replied, 'but do not go. The place is perilous.'

'But why perilous for me, a Man of Matang?'

His only reply was to wrap himself away in a cloak of silence. So I tried another line: 'You're a member of a Christian church. You surely can't believe still that souls go that way to Heaven or Hell. Or do you?'

He lifted his eyes to mine, crossing himself. 'Not Christian souls,' he whispered, 'but pagan ones … to Hell … they still walk the island … and Nakaa stays there … and there is fear …' His voice trailed off into mumbles; I got no more out of him.

I should of course have made up my mind in all decency then to find the place for myself. The island is a straight, lagoonless page 159ribbon, and I could not possibly have missed its tapering northern end. But I was cussed: 'Please find a village constable who isn't afraid to be my guide,' I said, 'and send him to me here.'

He looked at me mutely, spread his hands in a hopeless little gesture, and left. The constable, a giant of a man with bushy eyebrows and a grimly smileless face, appeared within the next half-hour. He said before we started that, as I was a stranger, I must take the western path going northward, just as the ghosts of strangers did, and that I must be careful not to look back.

'And if I do look back?' I said.

'If you look back and see a ghost,' he replied, 'you will be dead within a year,' and marched off ahead of me without another word.

I followed him in silence, eyes front, for perhaps half an hour, when he stepped suddenly into the coconut forest on our right. 'Come in among the trees,' he called without turning his head: 'This is my land. There is a thing you must carry to Nakaa.'

The thing was a seed-coconut. It appeared that every stranger, on his first visit to the Place of Dread, must bring with him a sprouting nut to plant in Nakaa's grove. I thought well of the idea until he told me I must carry it myself. It had an enormous sprout. I am inclined to believe he chose that particular one with deliberate malice, seeing that the only correct way to carry it (or so he said) was upright in my cupped hands with elbows well in against my ribs. I felt a complete ass sweating meekly behind him in that ridiculous attitude for the next five or six miles with my aspidistra-like trophy fluttering in the wind.

I planted the nut at his order where the trees petered out in a sandy desolation at the island's tip. When it was done to his liking, he just walked away into the forest.

'Here!' I called. 'Where are you going now?'

'I will wait here,' he replied. 'There in the north is the place you seek,' and was lost among the trees.

There was nothing in that empty waste to distinguish it from fifty other such promontories in the Gilbert group. It was merely a blazing acre or two of coral rock shaken by bellowing surf and strident with the shrieks of swarming sea-birds. I walked to the page 160point where the meeting tide-rips boiled. It was from there that happy ghosts, the Net of Nakaa passed, fared forth across the sea to be gathered at last with their fathers. I knew that in that very flash of time, from somewhere down the chain of islands, the thoughts of dying folk might be winging their way in wistfulness and fear to the spot where I was standing. But somehow, my mind only played with the idea. There was no sense of reality. The place itself put me utterly out of tune with the old beliefs. Perhaps it was the noise. Death is so quiet, and there was nothing in Nakaa's domain but that din of birds and shattered waters and the trade wind's diapason booming in my ears.

Nevertheless, the brazen heat of rocks and sand that drove me out at last did have its importance, because it gave me the thirst that led to what followed. I went straight back to my guide among the trees and asked him in all innocence to pick me a drinking nut.

He sprang back as if I had struck him: 'I cannot do that,' he almost barked, 'I cannot do that. These trees are Nakaa's.' Fear oozed out of him, almost as tangible as sweat.

I could not press him to violate his belief; nor had I learned yet to scale a forty-foot tree for myself; so I had to sit down there in Nakaa's grove to a sickeningly dry lunch of bully-beef and biscuit. I remember muttering to myself, 'This is how the old devil strangles foreign ghosts, anyhow,' as I gulped the stuff down.

It was past two o'clock when we started for home down the eastern path. My friend told me that his proper place going south was in the rear, and dropped forty paces behind. Perhaps he just wanted to keep out of my sight as well as the sound of my voice; anyway, it was I who led the way against the traffic-stream of local ghosts.

After ten minutes' walking, with thirst at concert pitch, I stopped and croaked back at him (he would not come near), 'Are we out of Nakaa's grove yet?'

Not yet, he shouted back, there was still a mile or more of it. It was then that an unpleasant little worm within me turned. I made up my mind to disregard his scruples and ask anyone we met, anywhere, to pick me a nut. And there, in the midst of that page 161peevish thought was suddenly a man coming along the track to help me.

Across the arc of a curving beach, I saw him appear round a point. I could follow every yard of his course as he came nearer. My eyes never left him, because my intent was pinned on his getting me that drink. He walked with a strong limp (I thought that might make it hard for him to climb a tree). He was a stocky, grizzled man of about fifty, clad rather ceremoniously in a fine mat belted about his middle (a poor kit for climbing, commented my mind). As he came up on my left, I noticed that his left cheek was scored by a scar from jawbone to temple, and that his limp came from a twisted left foot and ankle. I can see the man still in memory.

But the question is did he see me? He totally ignored the greeting I gave him. He did not even turn his eyes towards me. He went by as if I didn't exist. If anyone was a ghost on that pathway, I was – for him. He left me standing with one futile hand flapping in the air to stay him. I watched his dogged back receding towards my on-coming guide. I was shocked speechless. It was so grossly unlike the infallible courtesy of the islanders.

He was just about to pass the constable when I found voice again: 'Ask that chief to stop,' I called back, 'he may need some help from us.' It had struck me he might be a lunatic at large: possibly harmless, but we ought to make sure of that. But the din of the surf may have smothered my voice, for the constable didn't seem to hear. He passed the newcomer twenty yards from where I stood, without a sign of recognition.

I ran back to him. 'Who is that man?' I asked.

He stopped in his tracks, gazing at my pointed finger. 'How?' he murmured hesitantly, using the Gilbertese equivalent for, 'Say it again.'

I said it again, sharply, still pointing. As we stood dumbly looking at each other, I saw swift beads of sweat – big, fat ones – start out of his forehead and lose themselves in his eyebrows.

Then it was as if something suddenly collapsed inside him. It was horrible. 'I am afraid in this place!' he screamed high in his head, like a woman, and, without another word, he bolted out page 162on the beach with an arm guarding his eyes. He disappeared at a run round the point, and I didn't see him again until I got back to my quarters.

But there he was when I arrived, on the verandah with the Native Magistrate. I saw the two of them absorbed in talk, the constable violently gesturing now and then as I approached the house. But they stepped apart as soon as they heard my footsteps, and stood gravely collected when I entered, waiting for me to speak.

I plunged head-first into my petulant story. The sum of it was that the constable had witnessed the discourtesy of the man with the limp, and was now trying his silly best to shield him from censure. It might be very loyal, but did he take me for a fishheaded fool? To pretend he hadn't seen the fellow … well … really! And so on. I was very young.

The native Magistrate waited with calm good manners for me to run down, and then asked what the man was like.

I told him of the twisted foot, and the belted mat, and the scar.

He turned to exchange nods with the constable: 'That was indeed Na Biria,' he murmured, and they nodded at each other again.

'Na Biria?' I echoed. 'Is he a lunatic?'

He dropped his eyelids, meaning, 'No.'

'Then bring him to me this evening.'

He looked me straight in the eyes: 'I cannot do that.'

'Cannot? What word is this … cannot? Is everybody here dotty today? Why cannot you bring him?'

'He is dead,' said the Magistrate, and added as I stood dumb, 'He died this aftenoon, soon before three o'clock.'

They were both so remote; the whole place was so secretive; my mind was as fagged as my body; everything in that moment conspired to weaken its resistance against the improbable. Perhaps I was being bluffed; I don't know; but I suddenly had the picture of Na Biria in the article of death projecting his dying thought, with sixty generations of fear behind it, along that path through Nakaa's grove to the Place of Dread beyond. Had I received the impact of his thought as it passed my way? Or if not, what was it I had seen?

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I knew it was not only thirst that made my mouth so dry, and that angered me. 'If he only died at three, he is not yet buried, and I can see his body,' I exclaimed.

'His body lies in the village,' replied the Magistrate.

'And I can see it?' I insisted.

He paused a long time before bowing his head in assent. But brusquely then the constable interrupted: 'No! The Man of Matang is a stranger! They are straightening the way of the dead. No stranger must break in … No! … No!'

The Magistrate silenced him with a gesture. 'I am a Christian,' he said solemnly to me: 'I will take you. Let us go at once.'

I followed him out of the house.

We heard the mourners wailing from a hundred yards off. I saw a dozen of them flogging the purlieus of the open-sided house with staves, to frighten away strange ghosts. I went near enough to see people sitting with raised arms at the head and feet of a body. But I halted outside the circle of beaters. It was finding them so earnestly at work that brought me back to the decencies. These folk believed utterly in what they were doing. For them, the dead man's whole eternity depended on their ritual. For them, the intrusion of me, a stranger, would send him to certain strangulation in Nakaa's net. What earthly or heaven-born right had I, for a moment's peevishness, to condemn them for the rest of their days to that hideous conviction? I suddenly felt as small as I was. I could go no farther. I turned away from the house. The Native Magistrate followed me in silence.