Marooned on Mataora
THE sun was low when the Faaite steamed out through the pass and headed for the Cook Group, six hundred miles west and south. Dark clouds hung over Raiatea, — Rangi Atea of Maori tradition, the Land of the Bright Heavens, — but the level sunlight still illuminated the hillsides of Tahaa, the lovely sister-island, protected by the same great oval reef. Far off to the north, the peak of Bora Bora towered abruptly from the sea.
It was not yet the season of the Trades, and the northeast breeze which followed us brought a sweltering heat, intolerable anywhere but on deck. Worthington was sitting beside me— a lean man, darkly tanned, with very bright blue eyes. His feet were bare; he wore a singlet, trousers of white drill, and a Manihiki hat—beautifully plaited of bleached Pandanus leaf— a hat not to be bought with money. The dinner-gong sounded.
‘I’m not going down,’ he remarked; ‘too hot below. I had something to eat at Uturora. How about you?’
I shook my head — it needed more than a normal appetite to drive one to the dining-saloon. Banks of squallcloud, shading from gray to an unwholesome violet, were gathering along the horizon, and the air was so heavy that one inhaled it with an effort.
‘ This is the worst month of the hurricane season,’ Worthington went on; ‘it was just such an evening as this, last year, that the waterspout nearly got us — the night we sighted Mataora. I was five months up there, you know — marooned when Johnson lost the old Hatutu.
‘I was pretty well done up last year, and when I heard that the Hatutu was at Avarua, I decided to take a vacation and go for a six weeks’ cruise with Johnson. Ordinarily he would have been laid up in Papeete until after the equinox, but the Company had sent for him to make a special trip to Penrhyn. We had a wretched passage north — a succession of squalls and broiling calms. The schooner was in bad shape anyway: rotten sails, rigging falling to pieces, and six inches of grass on her bottom. On a hot day she had a bouquet all her own — the sun distilled from her a blend of cockroaches and mildewed copra that did n’t smell like a rosegarden. On the thirtieth day, the skipper told me we were two hundred miles from Penrhyn, and so close to Mataora that we might sight the palm-tops. I’d heard a lot about the place (it has an English name on the chart) — how isolated it was, what a pleasant crowd the natives were, and how it was the best place in the Pacific to see old-fashioned island life.
‘We had been working to windward against a light northerly breeze; but the wind began to drop at noon, and by three o’clock it was glassy calm. There was a wicked-looking mass of clouds moving toward us from the west, but the glass was high, and Johnson said we were in for nothing worse than a squall. As the clouds drew near, I could see that they had a sort of purplish-black heart, broad at the top, pointed at the bottom, and dropping gradually toward the water. There was something queer about it; the mate was pointing, and Johnson’s Kanakas were all standing up. Suddenly I heard a rushing sound, like a heavy squall passing through the bush; the point of the funnel had touched the sea three or four hundred yards away from us — a waterspout! There was n’t a breath of air, and the Hatutu had no engine. It was moving straight for us, so slowly that I could watch every detail of its formation. The boys slid our boat overboard; the mate sang out something about all hands being ready to leave the schooner.
‘I’ve heard of waterspouts ever since I was a youngster, but I never expected to see one as close as we did that day. As the point of cloud drooped toward the sea, it was ragged and ill-defined; but when it touched the water and the noise began, I saw its shape change and its outlines grow hard. It was now a thin column, four or five feet in diameter, rising a couple of hundred feet before it swelled in the form of a flat cone, to join the clouds above. Curiously enough, it was not perpendicular, but had a decided sagging curve. Nearer and nearer it came, until I could make out the great swirling hole at its base, and see the vitreous look of this column of solid water, revolving at amazing speed. It had n’t the misty edges of a waterfall. The outside was sharply defined as the walls of a tumbler. I wondered what would happen when it struck the Hatutu. The mate was shouting again, but just then the skipper pushed a rifle into my hands. “Damned if I leave the old hooker,” he swore; “shoot into the thing — maybe we can break it up.” And, believe me or not, we did break it up.
‘It did n’t come down with a crash, as one might have expected. When we had pumped about twenty shots into it, and it was not more than fifty yards away, it began to dwindle. The column of water became smaller and drew itself out to nothing; the rushing noise ceased; the hole in the sea disappeared in a lazy eddy; the dark funnel rose and blended with the clouds above.
‘A fine southeast breeze sprang up as the clouds dispersed, and we were reaching away for Penrhyn when a boy up forward gave a shout and pointed to the northwest. Sure enough there was a faint line on the horizon — the palms of Mataora. A sudden idea came to me. I was fed up with the schooner — why not ask to be put ashore and picked up on the Hatutu’s return from Penrhyn? She would be back in a fortnight, and it was only a few miles out of her way to drop me and pick me up.
‘Johnson is a good fellow; his answer to my proposition was to change his course at once and slack away for the land twelve miles to leeward. “You ’ll have a great time,” he said; “I wish I were going with you. Old Tairi will put you up—I’ll give you a word to him. Take along two or three bags of flour and a few presents for the women.”
‘At five o’clock we were off the principal village, with canoes all about us and more coming out through the surf. The men were a fine brawny lot, joking with the crew, and eager for news and small trade. I lowered my box, some flour, tobacco, and a few bolts of calico, into the largest canoe, and said goodbye to Johnson.
‘It was nearly a year before I saw him again; as you know, he lost the Hatutu on Flying Venus Shoal. They made Penrhyn in the boat and got a passage to Tahiti two months later. Everyone knew I was on Mataora, but it was five months before a schooner could come to take me off.
‘There is no pass into the lagoon. As we drew near the shore, I saw that the easy, deceptive swell reared up to form an ugly surf ahead of us. At one point, where a crowd of people was gathered, there was a large irregular fissure in the coral, broad and deep enough to admit the passage of a small boat, and filled with rushing water each time a breaker crashed on the reef. My two paddlers stopped opposite this fissure and just outside the surf, watching over their shoulders for the right wave. They let four or five good-sized ones pass, backing water gently with their paddles; but at last a proper one came, rearing and tossing its crest till I thought it would break before it reached us. My men dug their paddles into the water, shouting exultantly as we darted forward. The shouts were echoed on shore; by Jove, it was a thriller! Tilting just on the break of the wave, we flew in between jagged walls of coral, up the fissure, around a turn — and before the water began to rush back, a dozen men and women had plunged in waistdeep to seize the canoe.
‘Mataora is made up of a chain of low islands — all densely covered with cocoanut palms — strung together in a rough oval to enclose a lagoon five miles by three. Though there is no pass, the surf at high tide breaches over the gaps between the islands. The largest island is only a mile and a half long, and none of them are more than half a mile across. Dotted about the surface of the lagoon, are a number of motu, — tiny islets, — each with its flock of seafowl, its clump of palms, and shining beach of coral sand. Set in a lonely stretch of the Pacific, the place is almost cut off from communication with the outside world; twice or three times in the course of a year, a trading schooner calls to leave supplies and take off copra. Undisturbed by contact with civilization, the life of Mataora flows on, — simple, placid, and agreeably monotonous, — very little changed, I fancy, since the old days. It is true that they have a native missionary, and use calico, flour, and tobacco when they can get them; but these are minor things. The great events in their annals are the outrage of the Peruvian slavers in 1862, when many of the people were carried off to labor and die in the Chinchas Islands, and the hurricane of 1913.
‘After presenting myself to the missionary and the chief, I was escorted by a crowd of youngsters to the lagoon side of the island, where Tairi lived, in a spot cooled by the trade wind and pleasantly shaded by cocoanuts. The old chap was a warm friend of Johnson’s and made me welcome; I soon arranged to put up with him during my stay on the island. His house, like all the Mataora houses, was worth a bit of study.
‘Pandanus logs, five or six inches in diameter and set four feet apart, made the uprights. On each side of these logs, and extending from top to bottom, a groove was cut. Thin laths, split from the aerial roots of the pandanus, were set horizontally into the grooves, making a wall which permitted the free circulation of air. At the windward end of the house, a large shutter of the same material was hung on hinges of bark; on warm days it could be opened to admit the breeze. The plates and rafters were made of the trunks of old cocoanut palms — a beautiful hard wood which blackens with age and can be polished like mahogany. The roof was thatched with kakao — strips of wood over which were doubled selected leaves of pandanus, six feet long and four inches across. The kakao are laid on like shingles, so deeply overlapped that only six inches of each is exposed, and the result is a cool and perfectly watertight roof which lasts for years.
‘The floor of Tairi’s house was of fine white gravel, covered with mats. A bed of mats, a few odds and ends of fishinggear, and a Bible in the Rarotongan language made up the furniture. The old man had been a pearl-diver for many years; he knew all the lagoons of this part of the Pacific, and could give the history of every large pearl discovered in these waters. Twenty fathoms he considered an ordinary depth for the naked divers — twenty-five, the limit. One day he went too deep, and since then he had been a cripple with paralyzed legs, dependent for care on the kindly people of his island. He busied himself in carving out models of the ancient Polynesian sailing canoes, beautifully shaped and polished, inlaid with shell, and provided with sails of motherof-pearl. Now and then he presented a canoe to the captain of a tradingschooner visiting the island, and received in return a bag of flour or a few sticks of tobacco.
‘I had some interesting yarns with Tairi — I speak Rarotongan, and the Mataora language is a good deal the same. They have three extra consonants, by the way: the F, L, and H. What a puzzle these island dialects are!
‘Tairi told me a lot about pearlfishing. The people had divided their lagoon into three sections, one of which was fished each year. In this way each section got a two-years’ rest. The shell is the object of the diving — pearls are a secondary issue. The divers are not much afraid of sharks, but dread the tonu and the big conger-eel. Some years before, when Tairi was resting in a boat after a spell underwater, one of his companions failed to return to the surface. Looking through his water-glass, he saw a great tonu lying on the bottom sixty feet beneath him — the legs of his comrade hanging from its jaws. Fancy the ugly brute, ten feet long and all head, like an overgrown rock cod with a man in its mouth. Tairi and several others seized their spears and were over the side next moment; they killed the tonu, but too late to save the life of their companion.
‘Conger-eels grow to enormous size in the pearl lagoons, and the divers keep a close watch for them. They lie in holes and crevices of the coral and dart out their heads to seize a passing fish, or the wrist of a diver, stooping and intent on his task. When the conger’s jaws close on wrist or ankle, the diver needs a cool head; no amount of struggling will pull the eel from his hole. One must wait quietly, Tairi told me, until the conger relaxes his jaws preparatory to taking a better grip. Then a quick wrench, and one is free.
‘On an atoll like Mataora, where the food-supply is limited to fish and cocoanuts, with a chicken or a piece of pork as an occasional treat, fishing plays a large part in the life of the people. The men were all expert fishermen, and used a variety of ingenious methods to catch the different kinds of fish. Tairi, of course, was no longer able to go out; but a friend of his — an old fellow named Tamatoa — used to take me with him. He was a fine specimen — six feet tall, muscular and active as a boy, with clear eyes and thick gray hair. One day he proposed trying for koperu, a small variety of mackerel.
‘The settlement is on the lee side of the island, where a coral shoal runs out half a mile to sea, covered with twenty to forty fathoms of water. It was early in the morning — a dead calm — when we launched the big canoe and slipped out through the surf. About a quarter of a mile off shore, Tamatoa asked me to hold the canoe stationary while he went about his fishing. Fastening a twenty-foot rope to the thwart, he made a noose at the other end and passed it under his arms. Then he took a ripe cocoanut, split it, and gouged out the meat with his knife. With the white pulp in one hand, he slipped overboard and swam down as far as the rope would let him. Through my water-glass I watched him put pieces of cocoanut into his mouth and blow out clouds of the finely chewed stuff, which drifted and eddied about him in the gentle current. He seemed to stay under indefinitely — the lungs of a pearl-diver are wonderful things! Now and then he came to the surface for a fresh supply of chum, and finally — at first in twos and threes, and then in shoals — the koperu began to appear from the depths. Little by little he enticed them close to the surface, until they swam all about him fearlessly, gobbling the morsels of cocoanut. At last, the old man reached up for his fishing-tackle — an eighteen inch twig, with a bit of doubled sewingcotton and a tiny barbless hook. He baited the hook with a particle of cocoanut and dangled it under the nose of the nearest koperu. While he hung on the shortened rope, just beneath the surface, his right arm broke water in a series of jerks, and each time it rose, a fish tumbled into the canoe, until they lay in the bottom by dozens.
‘ Though the people of Mataora made sport of their work, they had plenty of leisure for other things. In the evening, when the tasks of the day had been completed by lighting the lamps in the roofed-over sleeping-places of the dead, the young people loved to gather for a session of akatu talanga — story-telling. They met in someone’s house, or brought mats to spread in the bright moonlight outside; and while the others lay about, intent on the tale, one after another related the adventures of some Polynesian hero, or the loves of some legendary island princess — strange fragments from the old days, full of spectres and devils and monstrous heathen gods. There was a girl named Porima who told her stories marvelously well — a tall youngster of seventeen, with a dash of off-island blood; Hawaiian, I think. She was an artist in her way; one could imagine in her the pioneer of a literature to come. Her broad forehead, the masses of black hair which from time to time, with an impatient gesture, she shook back over her shoulders, and the slumbrous eyes, with a suggestion of hypnotic power, made her a person not easily forgotten. Although she had told them many times, Porima’s stories never failed to hold her audience; the whispering ceased when she began, and every head turned toward where she sat, her hands continually in motion, her voice rising in excitement, or dying away to a murmur, while the listeners held their breath. As the hours passed, both audience and performers used to grow weary and drop off to sleep, one by one; finally a rooster crowed and one awoke with a start to realize that it was day.
‘One evening, at a story-telling, I heard a shout from the beach and remembered that I had been invited to go after flying fish. A dozen canoes were putting out through the surf, each manned by four paddlers. I made a fourth in the last canoe; we shot out of the opening with a receding wave, paddled desperately through the surf, and a moment later were rocking gently beyond the breakers. The canoes were formed into a rough line; each stern-man lit a torch of cocoanut leaves, bound with bark, and a man forward took his place standing — net in hand. The net is like a shallow landing-net, set on a haft of stiff bamboo, and can be handled only after years of unconscious training. My position, paddling amidships, enabled me to watch how the net was managed — one does n’t often see such an exhibition of dexterity and strength. The art consists in clapping the net over the fish just at the moment when he is lying at the surface, hesitating before taking flight; at any instant the netter may see a fish to port, to starboard, or directly ahead. Our man swung his net continually, and each time it passed over the canoe, he flipped it upside-down to drop a fish. Think of the muscles needed for this sort of thing; the quickness of eye and hand, where a delicate balance must be maintained, and one is constantly alert to guard one’s face against the fish, which whizz past at all angles. Then remember that it is a pretty serious matter to capsize in this torch-lit water, swarming with sharks, where it is imprudent even to trail one’s hand overboard.
‘ In the bend of a bow-shaped islet at the north end of the lagoon, under the palms behind a shore of blue water and dazzling sand, lived an old chap named Ruri, who introduced me to another kind of fishing. Ruri was close to seventy, but a strong man still; his only complaint was lack of teeth, which compelled him to live on varuvaru — the grated-up meat of the young cocoanut, mixed with its own milk. The ambition of his life was a trip to Tahiti, to get a set of false teeth. He was not a native of Mataora: his mother was a Gilbert Islander and his father a Samoan. For many years Ruri had followed the sea — cabin-boy under Bully Hayes; deserter (to keep a whole skin) from the famous Leonora; blackbirder in the New Hebrides and Solomon Islands; pearl-fisher in Penrhyn and the lagoons of the Paumotu. At last, on a black night of storm, his vessel struck and went to pieces on the coral of Mataora, and Ruri’s days of wandering were over. He married a woman of the island, but now she was dead, and the old man lived alone, a mile from the settlement, occupied with his simple wants and immersed in dreams of the past. Close beside his house was the grave of his wife — a tomb of cement, enclosed in a neat building of octagonal shape, with a door and a small curtained window. A fine lamp, carefully tended and lit every evening at sunset, hung above the grave, and a few stunted gardenias and frangipanis, brought from enormous distances, were planted about the door. Ruri’s little plantation of cocoanuts and coarse taro was free from weeds, and the neatness of his house, shipshape and scrupulously clean, betrayed the old sailor.
‘After a spell of calm weather, when the breaching surf had ceased to cloud the waters of the lagoon, and the suspended particles of coral sand had settled to the bottom, Ruri offered to show me how to catch tenu, — a fine fish, inhabiting the lagoon in ten to twenty fathoms of water, — speckled like a trout on a ground of brown and gold, and reaching a weight of twenty pounds.
‘In the absurdly complicated process of obtaining bait, tenu-fishing is typical of the South Pacific. The night before, Ruri had spent two hours with a torch, catching hermit crabs; now, using these crabs for bait, we had to catch some ku ta — a small prickly fish which alone has power to interest the tenu. We set out in Ruri’s leaky canoe and paddled to a big coral mushroom, which rose to within a yard of the surface. Here the old man smashed the shells of his hermit crabs with a stone, broke off the claws, set the soft bodies to one side, and mashed the claws to a paste, which he dropped overboard and allowed to drift into a dark hole in the coral. Then he produced a short line, baited the hook with the body of a crab, and let it sink out of sight into the darkness of the hole. In ten minutes a dozen ku ta were gasping in the bottom of the canoe — fantastic little fish, colored scarlet and vermilion, with enormous black eyes, and a dorsal fin which seemed to be carved out of red sealing-wax. We put them in a basket, trailed overboard to keep them alive, and began the real fishing of the day. I paddled slowly, while Ruri — who did not believe in fishing till the fish was in sight — leaned over the side, scrutinizing the bottom through his water-glass. Finally he signaled me to stop — his eye had caught the movement of a tenu among the masses of live coral, forty feet below us. The rest was simple: one hooked a ku ta under the dorsal fin, tossed him overboard, and allowed the weight of the hook and line to carry him to the bottom. By means of the waterglass, one could watch the approach of the tenu, see him seize the bait, and judge the proper moment to strike.
‘The bonito, which they call atu, is the most important of all fish to the people of Mataora. Almost any fine day one could see a fleet of canoes working offshore, busy at bonito-catching, surrounded by a cloud of the sea-birds which guide one to the schools. They use a pretty lure for this fishing — a sort of jig cut out of mother-of-pearl, equipped with a tuft of red-dyed cocoanut husk, and a barbless hook of shell. Each fisherman carries a stiff bamboo rod and half a dozen of these lures — ranging in color from pale green to black — attached to ten-foot lengths of line. The islanders have discovered that the condition of the water and the variations of light make certain colors more attractive than others at a given time; and when a school is found, they try one shade after another till they discover which the bonito prefer. Then the jigs not in use are hooked to a ring at the base of the pole, and the fisherman begins to pull bonito from the water, heaving them out by main strength, without a moment’s play. The barbless hook releases itself the moment the fish is in the canoe, and the lure goes overboard without the loss of an instant.
‘One day, after a period of low tides, I saw another method of fishing — rarely practised nowadays — an ora, or fish-poisoning picnic. You know the barringtonia, probably — the big tree from which they make their drums; it grows on all the high islands, and sometimes one finds it on the richer atolls. There were a few on Mataora. Ever notice the flower? It is a lovely thing: a tassel of silky cream-colored stamens, shading to old rose at the ends, and tipped with golden beads. The fruit is odd-looking, like a squarish pomegranate, and it has odd properties, for when pounded up and put into shallow water, it seems to stupefy the fish.
‘I was sitting in the shade beside Tairi’s house when a boy came through the settlement, blowing melancholy blasts on a conch-shell, and announcing that the chief wanted everyone to be on hand that afternoon at a certain part of the lagoon, where an ora was to be held. We set out at noon, the women carrying the crushed seeds of the barringtonia in hastily woven baskets of green cocoanut frond. A crowd from the other settlements was waiting our arrival; and when the babies had been put to sleep in the shade, with small children stationed beside them to fan away the flies, the fun began. A shallow stretch of lagoon lay before us, half a mile long by a quarter wide, and into this plunged the women and girls, wading and swimming in all directions, trailing behind them their baskets of poison. As time went on, a faint and curious odor began to rise from the water — a smell which reminded me vaguely of potassium cyanide. Soon the spearmen were busy — wild brown figures, naked except for scarlet loincloths — pursuing the half-stupefied fish among the crevices of the coral. Before the effect of the poison wore off, and the reviving fish began to make their escape to deeper water, the men were returning to the beach, the strings of hibiscus bark at their belts loaded and dragging.
‘On another day I joined a party of young people for a picnic across the lagoon. It was glassy calm; the water was like a mirror in which the palms of the wooded islets were reflected with motionless perfection. The beaches on the far side, invisible on an ordinary day, seemed to rise far out of water in the mirage. We landed on an uninhabited island, hauled up our canoes, and set out on a hunt for cocoanut crabs.
‘They are extraordinary creatures, these crabs, enormous, and delicious to eat. You will not find many on the high islands; but in a place like Mataora there are hundreds of them, and they do a lot of damage to the cocoanuts. During the day they hide in their holes, deep among the roots of some big trees; at night they come out, climb the palms, nip off the nuts with their powerful claws, descend to the ground, tear off the husks, break open the shells, and devour the meat. To catch them, one can either dig them out, or build a fire at the mouth of the hole, which never fails to draw them. Fire simply fascinates the brutes. They must be handled warily, for their claws can grip like a pair of pipe-tongs, and shear off a man’s finger without an effort.
‘We lit a fire under the shade of a puka tree and liberated the crabs we had captured. It sounds incredible, but they walked into the fire, and sat down quietly on the embers to roast! One of the boys climbed a palm and brought us some cocoanuts of a variety called nu mangaro, with an edible husk, sweet and fibrous, like sugar-cane. After lunch we had a swim in the deep water close inshore, and lay about smoking while the girls wove us wreaths of sweet fern. It was an idyllic sort of a day.
‘I spent five months on Mataora. At first, when the schooner did not appear, I was worried and used to fret a little; but as time went on I grew to like the easy-going, dreamy life, and when at last a schooner came to take me off, I did n’t know whether to be glad or sorry — there were moments when I almost decided to send for a few things and follow the example of old Ruri.
During those five months I knew more disinterested kindliness than I had supposed existed in the world; my heart warmed to the people of Mataora.
‘Finally the day came when a schooner dropped anchor in the lee of the village— Whitmore’s Tureia. Canoe after canoe shot out through the surf; the women gathered in the shade of the canoe-houses on the beach, awaiting the landing of the boatmen, who would bring news of husbands diving for shell in distant lagoons, or relatives scattered among far-off groups of islands. As I shook hands with Whitmore, I heard a prolonged wailing from the village — the tangi of a new widow.
‘When I went to the house to get my things together, Tairi informed me that, as the schooner would not leave till next day, the people were preparing a farewell feast in my honor. It was held in the assembly-house of the village, decorated with arches of palm frond, garlands of scented fern, and the scarlet flowers of the hibiscus. Everyone brought a gift for the departing stranger — a fan, a hat, a pearl fishhook, a drinking-cup of ornamented cocoanut-shell, a carved paddle of porcupine wood, inlaid with mother-ofpearl. I distributed what little I had to offer, wishing it were a dozen times as much.
‘On the beach next morning, the people of Mataora gathered for a last hand-clasp; smile cynically if you will — there were tears shed; I was n’t too happy myself when I heard their plaintive song of farewell floating out across the water.’
Worthington ceased speaking and leaned forward to scratch a match. The squall had passed long since; the immense arch of the Milky Way stretched overhead, and low in the south — beyond Hull Island and Rimatara, over the loneliest ocean in the world — the Southern Cross was rising. Lying on mats behind us, a party of Cook Islanders spoke in soft tones, their faces illuminated fitfully by the glow of their cigarettes. My companion was lighting his pipe, and in the flare of the match, I could see that he was smiling to himself.
‘Some day,’ he said, ‘You will hear that I have closed up my affairs and disappeared. Don’t worry when that happens; you ’ll know I have gone to Mataora — this time to stop for good.’