An Island Memory

IT was our last day on the island, — the exquisite bit of land known in the old chants as Pari, — and Terei and I slept late on our mats, for the night had been one of feasting and dancing. At seven Tamarua came in to wake us.

‘You sleep well,’ he said with a smile; ‘it was three when we left the dancing, but I was not sleepy; I took my canoe and went to the reef to fish. Since you must leave us to-morrow, there will be a feast in my house at midday. Will you ask your friends to come?’

A plunge into the lagoon drove away the vestiges of sleep; and when we had breakfasted, we set out for the house of Amani. A schooner lay at anchor before the settlement, rocking gently to the swell which came in over the reef. The music of the surf filled the air with a deep undertone, now soft, now loud, as flaws of wind — forerunners of the trade — died away, or rustled the palms above our path. Inland, beyond the flat lands of the coast, the island rose in fantastic contours of peak and spire and razor-backed ridge — the home of wild goat and jungle-fowl, as little known to-day as in the times of Captain Cook. In places one’s eye caught the glimmer of a waterfall, outlined, like a streamer of lace, against cliffs of volcanic rock. The remote heights were veiled in masses of cloud.

The night’s fishing was over and the fishermen had returned, to breakfast and doze through the morning in their houses of openwork bamboo. On the beach before each hut a canoe was hauled up — long narrow craft, shaped from the trunk of a puka tree and equipped with a light outrigger. Women stood knee-deep in the streams flowing down from the mountains; draped in bright pareus, laughing and exchanging gossip as they did the family laundry or ducked their small, struggling offspring. Other babies — naked, brown, and smiling — splashed busily in the shallows or paddled about, clinging to bits of wood. Everyone seemed either laughing aloud or on the verge of laughter: one had only to look, to receive a smile and a friendly greeting.

‘Do you wonder at my declaring that I ’ll never leave the Islands again?’ said Terei, an old-timer in the South Seas, who had just returned from a visit to England and the United States. ‘I tell you, man, these are the only people in the world who have n’t forgotten how to laugh!’

Presently our path turned inland, to lead us through silent groves of cocoanut and into the bush — tangled thickets of candlenut, ironwood, and hibiscus. Here and there a great tree rose clear of the low, matted vegetation — a utu, with huge glossy leaves and bearing the fruit used to poison fish, or a stately puka, favorite of canoe-builders. Close to the sea, the pandanus grew everywhere, sprawling at strange angles on its cluster of stilt-like roots, suggesting the poles of a teepee. It is a useful plant in the Islands; the beautiful rurutu mats, like the hats of Manihiki, are woven of its leaves; and among the atolls, and in times of famine on the richer islands, its pulpy fruit is mixed with arrowroot to form a nourishing food.

Over the tree-tops, snowy terns, with pointed wings and long, forked tails, soared and wheeled restlessly — small lonely spirits, hovering above the silent bush.

A path led off to the right, just beyond a brook, and we followed it to the house of our friend, set in an old clearing, shaded by breadfruit, mango, and mountain plantain. As we drew near, I heard a shriek of mingled amusement and consternation; a youthful figure emerged from beneath a tree, dropped one of the long poles used for knocking down fruit, and bounded off toward the house with fluttering pareu and streaming black hair. Amani met us at the door, a twinkle of the eye illuminating his grave and friendly smile. He wore a two-yard strip of print about the waist, ‘Ia ora na, orua,’ he said, using the curious pronoun which denotes that two persons are addressed. There were mats spread on the verandah, and we sat down to smoke while Terei told our host of the invitation.

Amani’s mother — Tuira, the Lightning — came out to greet us, straight and slender at sixty in her loose gown of black. She was an unusual woman, this old Tuira, who could neither read nor write, and whose life had been passed on a dot of land in the Pacific — a strong woman, shrewd, fearless, and tolerant. Her dark eyes, brilliant and wide-set, the aquiline features, the nobly modeled head, proclaimed the daughter of chieftains: a head woman among the Island people.

When she had returned our filial greetings, — for both Terei and I had been adopted informally as members of the family, — Tuira raised her voice to call the cook, one of those mysterious Polynesian dependents, half-servant, half-relative, whose exact status is a riddle to the foreigner. She was an Austral Islander from Rimatara, — about thirty, I judged, — and her rather tragic face retained the vestiges of uncommon beauty. Her parents, when they christened her, could scarcely have anticipated her future profession, for she was named ‘No Food!’

‘É,’ called Tuira, in her soft deep voice; ‘the throats of Terei and Pupure are dry — bring something that they may drink.’

‘Io,’ came a clear hail from the back of the house; ‘I come.’

As we set down our glasses, the three sisters of Amani — laughing, barefoot, and dressed in white—appeared: Patii, the Asker; Maara, most graceful of the Island dancers; and young Tapu, whose laugh was a delight to hear. Amani left us to dress; the girls went inside to put on their slippers of white satin — treasured possessions, which might have been carried by hand, while their owners walked in comfort, if neighborly eyes had not been on the lookout along our path.

Maara came out of the house with a small basket of cocoanut frond in her hand. From the bushes by the door she filled her basket with blossoms of tiarétaina, poti-murea, and frangipani — exquisite waxen things, delicately perfumed. Plucking a leaf of hibiscus, she doubled it over, sewed the sides together, and packed the flowers carefully into this green receptacle, turning down the point of the leaf and sewing it in place to make a cover. The others appeared; Terei took up his accordion and I my guitar, left at the dance the night before, and we straggled off along the path to the settlement.

I noticed, as we went on, that Tapu, walking beside me, was in a serious mood. She was limping a little; when I glanced at her suddenly, I surprised an expression which, on another countenance, might have been called grim. The dark clouds we had seen about the peaks of the interior were gathering overhead; the sunlight grew watery and faded away. I heard a roar behind us like breakers on a reef — a squall of rain passing over the treetops. My companion needed no hint from me; in common with the other ladies of the party she was already stripping off her shoes, and next moment, with a sigh of relief, she handed me these instruments of martyrdom. I unfurled my umbrella, with which I proposed to shelter the slippers in my right hand, the guitar in my left, Tapu, and myself. A few large drops pattered on the leaves, the roaring grew closer, the squall struck us with a rush. For three minutes the air seemed filled with sheets of flying water; then the rain ceased, the clouds broke, and the sun shone down with greater heat than before. We were a bedraggled company. There was laughter when Tamarua greeted us at his door.

It was a feast without chairs or tables, knives or forks. We seated ourselves on mats, in two rows, facing across a double line of young banana leaves — a dark-green tablecloth, spread on the floor. For dishes, we had leaves of the hibiscus; for forks, our fingers; for knives, our teeth. Maara opened her flowers and distributed the blossoms without which no Islander feels fully dressed. Tapu seized a frangipani and drew a chuckle from the company by placing it over my right ear. No Food and Anoano (the Wish) — a girl of Tamarua’s household — came in from the ovens to set platters of food on the leaves before us. I heard old Tuira’s voice speaking rapidly and seriously; Tapu snatched away my flower, removed the two gardenias with which her own ears were adorned, and bent her head. The laughter and talking ceased abruptly. I glanced about: every flower had disappeared, every head was bent. Tuira began solemnly to say grace.

She finished. The buzz of talk began where it had ceased, flowers were hastily replaced, a laugh rang out. Tamarua raised his glass. ‘Manuia tatou!' he shouted; and when the glasses were empty, ‘Eat!’

No urging was needed. We began with raw filets of albacore, soaked for six hours in lime juice and served with the sauce called mitiari, compounded of cream expressed from the meat of a ripe cocoanut, sea-water, onion, red pepper, and the juice of limes. Platters of chicken and young pig—baked underground — succeeded the fish; the pitchers of mitiari were refilled, and mounds of yam, taro, and breadfruit laid on the banana leaves. Last of all, plates of the pudding called poki were set before us — a purée of wild plantain and arrowroot, much more delicious than it sounds.

‘Take warning,’ said Tapu mockingly; ‘it is an old saying that he who eats of the plantain will never leave the Islands.’

At last Tamarua sighed and stood up, not without an effort. His name means Two Men, and no two of my acquaintance at home could have kept pace with him that day. Under my eyes he had devoured an entire chicken, half of a suckling pig, the best part of an enormous root of taro, and breadfruit and yams unchecked. Now he stood up and proposed that the dancing should begin.

Anoano and No Food cleared away the remains of the feast; Terei unlimbered his accordion; I tuned the guitar. They danced the old-fashioned European dances — learned a generation before from sailors and the captains of trading vessels: waltz, schottische, polka, and quadrille. It was hot in the house, despite the trade-wind blowing through the latticed walls, the musicians, at any rate, streamed perspiration and were glad when, at the end of two hours of alternate playing and dancing, someone suggested a swim.

There was a pass in the reef opposite the settlement, and the channel, showing deep blue against the green of shallower water, ran close to shore — a broad five-fathom groove in the floor of the lagoon; a place of luminous depths and blue caverns hollowed in walls of coral, peopled by iridescent fish. The sand shelved off from the beach to the edge of the coral, where one could stand waist-deep and gaze down, through thirty feet of translucency, to where the blue pakoti darted past in shoals. There were dangers here, when one stopped to think of them — a noo might lie buried in the sand to impale one’s foot on its poisonous dorsal spine; an octopus might fling out an arm from its cave to grasp the swimmer’s leg; a hideous tona, with jaws capable of engulfing a man, might dart out of its lair in the folds of coral; a hungry shark might slip in through the pass.

One heard hints of these things from the Paumotan divers — mention of silent struggles for life at incredible depths. There was a woman of Hikueru — stout, middle-aged, and matterof-fact — known from Mangareva to Apataki for the depths at which she could work.

‘How deep?’ she said, in answer to a question; ‘it makes little difference, — eighteen, nineteen, twenty fathoms [120 feet], — it is the same when one knows how. The weight carries you down, but when it is time to come up, you must remember to rise slowly — that is all. They say it makes one deaf, but I am not deaf. I am forty, and I can bring up as much shell as any man. Sharks? Most of them we do not mind, but now and then a bad one comes. You can tell him at once, for he approaches slowly, while the good ones come fast and pass on. Twice, at a hundred feet, I have flattened myself on the coral and clung there while a great mongo pushed at me with his nose, for he could not bite me as I lay. Each time I was lucky; I found a lump of loose coral at hand and struck him on the snout — his tender spot. That hurt him and he swam away, while I rose quickly to the boat, for I knew that presently he would come back.’

The beauty of our bathing-place made us dismiss its unpleasant possibilities from mind; by daylight, and with many bathers together, the danger was remote. Tamarua had found an old canoe with the outrigger missing, and he and Terei held it firmly in the shallows while a load of girls clambered in and seated themselves gingerly in the bottom. When all were ready, a gentle push set it moving toward deep water. The fun was to see how far it would go without capsizing, for without its outrigger it was never meant to float right-side-up. The loading, the brief voyage, and the final disaster — to a chorus of delighted shouts — made a game of which the players seemed never to tire. Out by the edge of the channel, Tapu was beckoning to me, a small fluted shell in her hand. She raised her arm as I floundered alongside, and flung the shell far out into deep water. I took a long breath and dived.

It is not easy to convey in words the beauty of such a place, seen from beneath the water — the cool radiance of the light, the quivering play of color from blue to green, the shapes and tinting of the coral, the jeweled fish, gliding past in silent companies. I was a couple of fathoms beneath the surface and had sighted the shell, drifting downward in slow and erratic curves, above me and ahead, when I caught a glimpse of a large moving shadow, crossing a patch of sandy bottom. I began to rise, peering about hastily — not without disquieting thoughts. Then I perceived the cause of the shadow. On my left and a little below me, Tapu was swimming straight for the shell— paddling easily and naturally, at unhurried speed — planning to surprise me in the under-water game at which she excelled. In this quivering, opalescent light, — against the tinted background of the coral,—her graceful motions, the floating cloud of her hair, the barbaric pattern of her pareu, made a picture I shall not forget. I watched her reach up and seize the shell; next moment we rose to the surface side by side, laughing and out of breadth.

The sun was low in the west when we tired of the water and waded through the shallows to the beach. Old Tuira herded the girls off toward the house. We had taken a plunge at the mouth of a mountain stream, and now we sat among the pandanus roots until our skins were dry. Tamarua brought a bottle of cocoanut oil for the rub which always follows a swim — an ancient custom in Polynesia, and one which has much to do, I fancy, with the unblemished complexions of the race.

As we dressed and lit cigarettes, I heard Tuira calling to her son.

‘My mother says that you must come home with us — you and Terei,’ said Amani; ‘this is your last evening, and we shall eat together.’

On the way back, along the shore and through the bush, we said little — the shadow of parting was on us all. These people, whom we had known less than a month, had taken us in and made much of us; to-morrow we must sail away. It was possible, in the spaces of the South Pacific, that we might never again sight their island — landfall of unearthly beauty when at dawn its high and ragged skyline is silhouetted against banks of cloud; never clasp their hands again, or warm to their friendly smiles of greeting.

Thinking these thoughts, I sat on the verandah while the others went about the task of preparing dinner. Presently, without a word, Tuira came and sat on the mat beside me, taking my hand in hers — the Island parting. The western sky flushed and faded; the shadows deepened and the light grew dim.

Patii, Maara, Terei, and Amani were gathering fruit, and seemed to have recovered their spirits in this harvesting of food — transformed by the Islanders into a pastime. Each man carried a long pole of hibiscus wood, with which, aft er many ineffectual lunges, he knocked down the fruit, while a girl stood beside him, on tiptoe, to catch the descending mango, breadfruit, or alligator pear. When their baskets were full, they went behind the house to cook the meal.

Tapu stole out and slipped down beside her mother. The trade-wind had died away; it was very quiet in the bush, and cool, now that the sun had set. A colony of mynah birds, roosting in thickets of wild orange, set up a drowsy twittering; the solemn voice of the Pacific, breaking on the distant reef, rumbled its chant of eternity. Where could one find greater peace than here, in this place of unspoiled loveliness? Was not man meant-to live in this fashion, — close to the old realities, — rather than in the complex and bewildering structure of civilization? Commerce, art, culture, scientific advance — what did they amount to, when the last word was said? Was it not best to make merry in simple ways; to feel the sun and rain; to eat the food one’s hands had produced; to be weary in the evening, when people gather to speak of homely things? Old questions, these — disturbing, forever without an answer.

Tuira had risen and was pulling at my sleeve: the meal was ready. An hour later, when we had said goodnight, Terei and I took the path to the settlement.

There was music in the house of Tamarua — the quickening music of the native dance, stamping of feet, and laughter. Our host was sitting crosslegged on a mat, singing in a metallic voice the song of the hura, while his fingers vibrated over the strings of a guitar. An elderly white man, naked except for a red and yellow waistcloth, sat in a chair, smiling as he beat time with his bare foot. This was Whitmore, for many years a trading captain, now retired to spend the evening of his life among the scenes of old boisterous days. Two native boys, with red flowers above their ears, were dancing; and, facing them, No Food and Anoano went through the curious figures of the hura. They had worked hard that day to give us pleasure, and now they were having their fun in good Island fashion. The chorus of the song was always the same, but Tamarua improvised words for each stanza of the verse. He was something of a humorist, judging from the shouts of laughter as we entered.

The dancing ceased; glasses were filled; I took the guitar and Terei took up the song. Urged by whispers and pats on the back, No Food stood up, swaying until she had caught the time.

Then, turning her head slowly right and left, as she raised her folded arms to hide her eyes, she began to move across the room, propelled by the movements of one bare foot, while the other tapped time on the floor. She stopped, facing Tamarua, placed her hands on her hips, and smiled. He was up at a bound; as the music went faster, the others began to dance, until the old captain, unable longer to resist the spell of the hura, stood up to show the youngsters what their grandmothers had taught him.

The dancing stopped after a time, and we gathered about Whitmore for a smoke. The two girls were asleep on the floor; I glanced at No Food, admiring the contours of her face — softened and youthful in sleep. The old man noticed my glance.

‘Fine girl, that,’ he remarked; ’I ’ve known her since she was a kiddie. Had a hard life — people all died in the epidemic, four years ago. I brought her up here on the Tureia —my last trip with the old packet. She’s related in some sort of way to your friend Amani, and I knew the family would take her in. I had a passenger aboard, an Austrian who had planted an atoll in the Paumotus. He got on the soft side of the girl there, and I had n’t been ashore six hours before he was off with her in another schooner — bound for his island. He was no good. A year later she was back here. Let me see — she was fourteen then — must be eighteen now. Poor kid; looks thirty, eh? Well, boys, let’s turn in; it’s late.’

There was a great deal to do next morning: gifts to select and present, luggage to be packed and stowed aboard the boat, and a long session of farewells. To Anoano and No Food, we gave a silk handerchief each; to Amani, a pair of canvas shoes; to Tamarua, an assortment of fishing tackle; to each of the sisters of Amani, the six yards of calico which make an Island frock.

Our friends were waiting for us when we brought our boxes to the shore — waiting to load us down with their presents: hats, wreaths, fans, necklaces of bright shell from the atolls. When the last farewell had been said and it was time to go aboard, Tapu sprang at me, a strip of pandanus fibre in her hand.

‘Quick!’ she cried; ‘ take off your hat; I am going to make you a better one. It shall be waiting when you return.'

As the tape of fibre went around my head, I saw Maara hastily measuring the head of Terei. Old Tuira had my hand in both of hers, and was speaking in her deep soft voice.

‘Go now,’ she said, ‘but come back to us, my son.’

It was evening, and we lay by the rail, smoking not too cheerfully. The clouds along the western horizon were aglow with color, but we had no eyes for the sunset; our faces were turned eastward, to where the ridges of Pari were fading from sight — high and remote against the dusky sky.