The Grandpapa of All the Fishes
WITH our strong-minded horse between the shafts we dashed around a hairpin turn on the dizzy Vaihaa cliff. Below us stretched a mile of pure white beach, dividing Manea’s gorge-like valley from the sea. The brown thatched roof of his house stood out plainly in a grove of breadfruit trees.
Tuahu, my old native friend, held the reins. With only a nod toward the house and a mutter that we were nearly there, he kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. For a little he was busy guiding the charging horse down a steep boulder-strewn grade, where the road was scarcely wide enough for the buggy; then we were over the worst of it, and Tuahu had settled back to blow out his wind with a long whistling sound.
‘There he is,’ Tuahu said presently, pointing down the road where, a quarter of a mile away, old Manea stumped down a weed-grown path from his house to the road. He was nodding his head and waving his arms toward Mrs. Manea, in the cookhouse; and soon we could hear him greeting us in the ancient Tahitian manner: —
‘It is Tuahu and his son. May you live, the two of you! Come and eat!’
Manea was a cheerful soul who enjoyed a good drink, a good meal, and a good companion. He was chronically penniless and in debt, but still he managed to entertain his friends with ungrudging hospitality. This was common enough, for in the Tahiti that I remember the poorer natives were invariably the more generous. It was because they lived off the products of the land, caught, their own fish, and ate them with their own plantains and their own coconut sauce. Children of Tahiti, they called themselves. They did very well without the luxuries demanded by the wealthier natives. For a man of Manea’s class, a feast would call for a wild boar, a string of milk mullet, breadfruit, plantains, native coffee sweetened with honey, and a tub of orange beer. But to a rich native such a feast would be in bad taste.
I preferred the poor men, the true children of Tahiti, and even old Manea himself, in spite of his great elephantiasic legs that made him waddle in a duck-like manner. Of medium height, skinny save for his huge legs and one hand which had swollen to the size of an unhusked coconut, his temper was that of a mischievous but good-hearted schoolboy. His sharp little eyes, set deeply in a closely furrowed face, seemed constantly interrogating, highly amused with life in general, and shrewd. His forehead slanted back rather sharply, while his shaggy and graying hair hung in hanks and tangles over his ears and the nape of his neck, reminding one of the untrimmed thatching on a native hut. And there was the wart on one side of Manea’s nose, —
Reed as the bristles of a sowes eres.
When we had climbed out of the buggy Manea suddenly threw up his arms; an expression of extreme despair convulsed his face, and he cried: —
‘ Ai ya! Drive on, Tuahu and his son! This is a day of great shame! Drive on! Leave me to wipe the salt water from my eyes! Aué-ué! Aué-ué!’
Tuahu divined the trouble at once. ’What is this, Manea?’ he shouted with a laugh. ‘If you are weeping because your beer tub is empty, then you are a foolish old man. You should know that we would bring better drink than you can brew from your sour Hitiaa oranges. Cheer up, Manea! We have brought that which will bring laughter to your lips!’
Manea brightened up a little at this. ‘You have guessed rightly!‘ he cried. ‘I am greatly ashamed that my relatives should come to my house and find it empty. Yet, perhaps the old woman may be able to find you a thin little fish and the half of a breadfruit for your supper — eh, old woman ? ’
‘Humph! Your brains have gone to your legs, Manea!’ screamed Mrs. Manea from the house. ‘Attend to their horse, Lazybones, and don’t let them come to the house until I have straightened it up and put on my black dress!’
‘My son wanted to drive round the island, Manea, and particularly to see your valley,’ Tuahu said as we unhitched the horse and led him a little beyond the breadfruit grove, there to tether him in the deep water grass. ‘This son has been pestering me for months about visiting Manea, and going with him to catch some of those big ruvettus that the men of your side of the island are always bragging about. And so here we are, my relative, with a few bottles of wine and our bundle of quilts. You see we have come to stay for several nights.’
‘So you wish to fish for the big ruvettus,’ Manea said as we returned to the buggy. ‘Of course the fishing is poor on your side of the island. . . . Well, we will go after those big fellows to-night, for this is the fifth night of the moon, when they take a hook as a poor man takes tobacco.’
Back at the buggy, Tuahu reached under the seat to bring out a few bottles of wine and a bundle containing our quilts and pillows. In Tahiti it was a breach of good manners to visit even a close relative without bringing one’s own bedding. With the bottles and the bundle we followed Manea into his wattle-and-thatch hut.
At dusk we were served by the ample and cheerful Mrs. Manea with a great tureen full of river shrimps boiled in coconut milk, baked breadfruit, and bowls of orange-leaf tea. After the meal we prepared for the night’s fishing.
First Manea cut a V-shaped fork of ironwood to be used as a fishhook. He drove a tenpenny nail through the end of one prong, for a barb, and fastened his three-hundred-fathom line to the other one. The nail was lashed firmly in place, so it would not break loose, and was sharpened by a few rubs on the tire of one of our buggy wheels.
The finished article, I thought, might be serviceable as a hook on which to hang whole butchered beeves, or as a cargo hook. Of one-inch diameter ironwood, it might have supported a ton dead-weight; but that a fish would approach to within fifty yards of it seemed to me absurd.
While Manea was occupied with his hook, one of the children had caught an old red rooster, and, after decapitating him and plucking out his feathers, had tossed him into the canoe.
‘Nothing like an old rooster for bait,’ Manea told us. ‘A ruvettus simply can’t resist a drumstick or a juicy wing bone!’
A few drinking nuts for food and water, and we put to sea in our host’s big sailing canoe. The mountain wind filled the sail; we glided silently over the black water, through the Vaihaa passage to sea. It was quite dark by then. The canoe rose gently to the long southeasterly swell; the feather from her bows flashed with phosphorescence, and there was a glowing pool of water under her stern that seemed to flow aft until it was lost in the shadowed water to landward.
‘Shall we have luck, Manea?’ Tuahu asked presently.
‘Luck!’ Manea exclaimed in a tone of disgust. ‘We arc wasting our time. We shall catch not a single fish. There are no fish in the sea; there never were any, and there never will be any — not a single one! We should have stayed at home and eaten tinned salmon! ’
‘What do you think, Ropati?’ Tuahu asked me, diffidently; ‘shall we have luck?’
‘Not a hope,’ I declared. I knew that the fishermen of Tahiti believed that the only way to assure success was to anticipate failure. One sanguine hope, in their minds, would have spoiled the night’s fishing, so I replied that which was expected of me: ‘We shall not so much as see a dead squid floating on the water; but we are almost certain to be capsized, or to break the outrigger, or to be blown to sea, where we shall all starve to death!’
Tuahu chuckled appreciatively. ‘Ah! You are a true child of Tahiti!’ he muttered. ‘Another man might have brought us bad luck. Now, though I know that there is not. a chance to catch a single fish, still I don’t mind trying, just to pass the night away.’
Three miles from shore the mountain wind died down; but we were over the fishing banks by then, so we lowered the sail, rolled it round the boom, and laid it, with the mast, along the outrigger crossbooms.
It was a fine night, steely calm, with a new moon low to westward and only a scattering of clouds along t he horizon. The great mountains of Tahiti stood out sharply against the sky, but the valleys were lost in shadows, and the distant headlands seemed to meet and dissolve in the sea. Between us and the beach was a mile-wide gap in the reef; but we could see the rise and fall of the combers on either hand, and their distant thunder came loudly across the still water. Presently we caught sight of flashes of torchlight in the valley above Manea’s house; and, as the night wore on, bamboo flares appeared on the reef to the north, disclosing tiny figures moving slowly beyond the white wall of breakers. About the same time a bonfire blazed high up on one of the ridges: it was a pig hunter, Manea told us, signaling that he had made his kill.
Manea had baited his clumsy hook with a leg of the rooster, and paid out the whole three hundred fathoms of fine. The fish would bite, he said, as soon as the moon went down. He wound the end of the line round his great knotted leg, which he had propped up on one of the outrigger booms. Tuahu and I filled our pipes, and thus we sat and smoked in silence, thinking our own thoughts or none at all, as is the way with fishermen.
And presently the moon sank behind the western cloud rack. For a little time the clouds were fined with yellow fight, but soon it faded and was gone. The night darkened, the constellations brightened. Scorpio rose to eastward, the Southern Cross and the Centauri were just visible above the mountains, and to north the Great Bear lay low over the sea. By imperceptible degrees the Milky Way formed, out of nothingness it seemed, until suddenly we were aware that it was above us, a great glowing arch across the sky.
In an hour or two the land breeze flowed down from the mountains again, as cool and clean and fragrant as the rivers of Tahiti themselves. When the canoe started to drift, Tuahu picked up one of the paddles and, heading into the wind, paddled slowly, his eyes on Manea’s line to ascertain that it was straight up and down in the water.
It was midnight before Manea had a bite. My head had been nodding and I was wondering whether I should stow myself in the bottom of the canoe for a watch below, when suddenly Manea jumped to his feet with a startling yell.
‘I got him! Ai ya! I got him!’ he shouted, and started to haul in his line, hand over hand. But presently his excitement lessened; he muttered an obscure Tahitian curse and handled his line in a fribbling manner.
‘What’s the matter, Manea?’
‘Ma’o,’ the old man growled back. Shark!
‘That’s because of the rooster bait,’ Tuahu muttered, laying his paddle across the gunwales and wiping his hands on his shirt, preparatory to refilling his pipe. ‘Who ever heard of fishing ruvettus with rooster? You’ll catch nothing but sharks. Now if you had used flying fish as we do on my side of the island . . .’
‘You’re as bad as Maui-the-FirstBorn,’ Manea growded. ‘What do the men on your side of the island know about fishing? You just wait and see what my bait brings up!’
With that he slung a small shark over the gunwale; then stood over him a moment, watching him thrash the hull with his tail. Gradually a grin formed on Manea’s lips. He put one foot on the shark’s belly, leaned over to twist out the hook, and, grasping the shark by the tail, swung him once round his head and flung him into the air! Then he stood motionless, in a peculiarly dramatic attitude, gazing fixedly upward, but paying no attention to the shark as he circled through the air to land with a splash in the sea.
‘ That’s the way Maui-the-Last-Born did it!’ Manea shouted suddenly. Then he laughed a trifle cynically, as one might who had just said his part in a bad tragedy and had stepped into the wings. He sat down, rebaited his hook, tied a rock to it, and dropped it over the side.
‘Go ahead, tell the story,’ Tuahu said presently, when all but the last few fathoms of line had trailed over the gunwale and the end had again been wound round Manea’s leg.
Our host leaned forward until his face was close to mine. His sharp little eyes seemed to glow; and there was a grin on his lips, such as might have appeared on the lips of those strange manahuné bards of former days when they chanted their extravagant tales.
‘How come the breadfruit to Tahiti?’ he asked abruptly; then, without waiting for a reply, went on: ‘And how come the banana plantations, and the fields of yams? And all the fish in the sea, and the stars in the sky; And Tahiti itself: how come Tahiti to rise out of the sea, eh? You don’t know? Well, I’ll tell you.’
He handed me the fish line, so as to give free rein to hand and foot gesticulations, and began his story.
One day the three gods, Mauithe-First-Born, Maui-the-Second-Born, and Maui-the-Last-Born, went fishing. For a long time the first two gods had all the luck. They pulled up all the fat food fish of the sea, while the poor little three-fingered god caught only sharks.
‘Ai ya! Why did you come with us, you cripple?’ one of the other gods would shout. ‘You catch nothing but sharks! ’
‘Hai! Weakling brother, look at this fellow!’ another would shout as he tossed a fine albacore or bonito into the canoe. ‘I bring up only the finest fish. No sharks for a fisherman like me! ’
But Maui-the-Last-Born kept patiently fishing, pulling up one shark after the other; and, though his heart wept because of the stinging words of his brothers, he said nothing — just kept on pulling up sharks.
‘Whoops!’ by and by shouted the first Maui. ‘A number-one barracuda! My wife and I eat to-night!’
‘Hai!’ shouted the second Maui. ‘About as fat a dolphin as I’ve hooked this season! The wife’s fond of dolphin. . . . Does your wife eat dolphin, little three-fingered god, or does she care for only shark meat?’
‘Aué atu ei!‘ grunted the first Maui. ‘I had quite a fight with that big tuna. Well, thank goodness it was n’t a shark! It must be hard work pulling up all those sharks, little half-aman! ’
But Maui-the-Last-Born just kept on pulling up one shark after the other for a long, long time — maybe three, four days, till, all at once, there was a tremendous tug on his line. In he pulled, hand over hand. ‘Ai ya!‘ he yelled. ‘I got one fine fish this time, all right!’
‘It’s only a shark!’ sneered the first Maui.
‘ Another shark! ’ laughed the second Maui.
‘No shark at all!’ yelled the threefingered god, and in he pulled.
At this point in the story Manea demonstrated how the third Maui had pulled in his fish. With violent gesticulations he gave us a graphic representation of the struggle. Sometimes he would haul in frantically on an imaginary line; then, cursing, he would lay the line over the gunwale and hold it down tightly with his foot. Or again, panting and grunting, he would pull in slowly and laboriously until the fish, apparently, dashed off, and there was no holding him. Then Manea would yell as the line burned his fingers, and, reaching down, he would again take a bight over the gunwale.
But finally he gestured the fish into the canoe; then, pointing to it with one of the fingers of his swollen hand, he asked: ‘Well, what do you think it is?’
‘Another shark,’ I hazarded.
‘Not at all,’ said Manea in a tone of surety. ‘It is a nice field of yams!’
‘A field of yams, you said?’
‘Yes,’ snapped Manea; ‘and you need n’t speak in the skeptical tone. It is a field of yams, perhaps two or three hectares of the round kind we call ufi mené-mené.‘
He then went on with his story.
Maui-the-First-Born and Maui-theSecond-Born laughed about the field of yams, though they were a little jealous that their brother should have pulled up so valuable a property. It was not sportsmanlike, they said, to catch things like fields of yams. They kept on pulling up the same kinds of fish, every kind in the sea, as a matter of fact: little red mullets and big blue carangoids; South Sea demoiselles and gigantic dogtooth tunas; pipefish and swordfish and parrot fish and sailfish and needlefish and bonefish, a few whales, some sea serpents, and a school or two of porpoises.
Then Maui-the-Last-Born got another bite, and this time he pulled up a number-one banana plantation!
‘Heh! He’s got a banana plantation!’ exclaimed the first Maui.
‘Yes,’ cried the youngest brother; ‘and the nice red variety of bananas, too!’
‘Pooh! Nothing but a banana plantation!’ the second Maui sneered.
‘But they’re fine for banana puddings,’ boasted the three-fingered god.
The two brothers did n’t laugh so much about this, for, though neither yams nor bananas are sportsmanlike things to catch, still the gods liked them both; and when, a little later, Maui-the-Last-Born pulled up a whole grove of breadfruit trees, the brothers became green with envy.
‘The little upstart!’ one cried. ‘He’s trying to shame us! ’
‘Never mind,’ growled the other as he swung a thin little trigger fish over the side; ‘next time we go fishing we’ll leave him ashore to weed his yams and bananas and breadfruit.’
Then they turned round in the canoe so that their backs were to him, and ‘shook the salt water out of their eyes.’
The next time Maui-the-Last-Born let down his line he decided to fish deep, six thousand fathoms down, so he paid out the first line, and the middle line, and the last line, until finally his hook touched the bottom of the sea; and he fished for a long time, until, by and by, he wondered if his bait had been nibbled off. He decided to pull up.
‘Whoops!’ he yelled suddenly, thinking he had a bite. ‘ I got the grandpapa of all the fishes now!’
Maui-the-First-Born and Maui-theSecond-Born looked over their shoulders and laughed. ‘You’ve got your hook fouled in the bottom!’ they cried, and grinned at one another.
‘I guess I have,’the youngest brother muttered glumly, so he took a bight with his line across the gunwales, wrapped one end of it round his foot, and waited for a sea to raise the canoe and wrench the hook loose. A long time he waited, maybe three, four days; then a monster sea came, and the canoe was heaved high into the air; but the third Maui’s hook, holding fast, broke a great mass from the bottom of the sea.
‘Ai ya!‘ Maui-the-Last-Born sang out. ‘Now I got him!’ And he started to pull in. ‘Ai ya!‘ he sang out again and again as hand over hand he hauled in his line.
Again Manea demonstrated for us by graphic and forceful gesticulations how Maui had pulled in his fish, straining, struggling, his eyes bulging, sweat, I imagine, actually pouring down his face. ‘Ai ya! Ai ya!‘ he yelled again and again; and he became so excited that he must for the moment have believed himself in the canoe of the gods, and about to land the most remarkable fish that was ever pulled out of the sea.
‘There it is!’ he shouted finally, letting out his breath in a long aspiration of relief. ‘The Great Island of Tahiti!’
‘He pulled up Tahiti?’
‘Exactly; and he flung the yams and bananas and breadfruit ashore; then, turning to his brothers,’ — here Manea turned pertly to Tuahu, — ‘who were weeping with envy, he cried: “Now, brothers, just because you laughed about my catching sharks I’m going to catch a real shark. This one is going to be such a shark as was never seen before, and it is going to be my prestige symbol forever!”
‘So he let down his line once more, and presently, sure enough, a shark took his hook. Maui pulled in until the great brute was at the surface: and he was so big his tail stretched beyond the sea into the Land of the Sky, and his two pectoral fins thrashed the most distant oceans in the world, and his mouth was big enough to swallow the island of Hawaii.
‘ Maui-the-First-Born and Maui-theSecond-Born glanced once at the shark; then, dropping their lines, they crouched in the bottom of the canoe and whined with terror. But Maui-the-Last-Born stood upright, plunged his ironwood spear into the shark, and with a mighty heave hauled him out of the water and flung him into the sky!
‘And there he is to this day, hook, line, spear and all!‘ Manea cried dramatically, with a sweep of his elephantiasic hand across the sky. ‘The hook!’ — and he pointed to the stars in Scorpio’s tail. ‘The line!’ — with a gesticulation toward the tangle of stars in Sagittarius. ‘The spear!’ — and he pointed to the black nebula in Ophiuchus. ‘Maui’s shark!’ — and his hand swept the Milky Way from north to south.
‘Now,’ Manea concluded, returning to the thwart, ‘it’s time you pulled up that ruvettus that’s been tugging on the line since Tahiti was pulled out of the sea! ’
There was a ruvettus on the hook, right enough, but his tug at the end of the three-hundred-fathom line had been too slight for me to detect when listening to a fish story such as Manea had to tell. Soon I had the slimy fangtoothed brute in the canoe, and then, as though the fish had only been waiting for the old man to finish his story before biting, they took the hook one after the other. We took turns pulling them up, until the canoe was deep in the water and the last wing of the red rooster had been tied to the nailbarbed hook. Only then did we paddle ashore; and by the time we had beached the canoe and walked up the river to Manea’s house it was morning, and Mrs. Manea was busy in the cookhouse preparing our coffee.