The Story of an Island: Marooned by Request
by ROBERT DEAN FRISBIE
TEA this morning at half past four, ship’s biscuits, and three dozen tiny wide-awake eggs among the five of us; then we went to work in earnest on the tree-house. Son Jakey worked steadily — as steadily as a boy can-salvaging galvanized nails from the wreckage of the Suvorov Atoll trading post; daughter Johnny plaited roofing sheets from green coconut fronds; my younger daughters, Elaine and Nga, bossed the job when they were not minding their babies—that is, their dolls made of long, slim, undeveloped coconuts wrapped in rags and tags.
Now that Captain Prospect and his Hurry Home have left, there has been no excuse for delaying the work on the house. The sun had scarcely risen before I had cut a score or two of green nonu saplings, strong, tough, and flexible. These made window sills, rafters, and ridgepole. By noon the framework was complete; then Johnny and I cooked a pot of rice, opened a tin of bully beef, and we made a meal of it, polishing off with a couple of green coconuts each. This afternoon I helped Johnny with the roofing sheets while Jakey went to the reef with his spear.
By the time Jakey returned with enough fish for all of us, Johnny and I had finished the forty sheets needed for the roof. For the excelling meal we boiled some unleavened dumplings made from grated coconut and flour, grilled our fish on pemphiswood coals, and brewed ourselves a cup of tea. Then, there being a moon three-quarters full, we went to work lashing the sheets on one side of the roof, and finished the job by 8.00 P.M.
The little house has a fascinating look by moon-light. I can scarcely keep my eyes off it. I shall sneak away from the children and sleep in the little monkey nest up the tree.
Good night, cowboys! Good night, Desire. How I wish you were with us tonight!
We put the rest of the roof on the house yesterday morning, then plaited coconut fronds on the sides, and finished the job by night. These plaited fronds give both a beautiful effect and a raintight shelter. Today Johnny made two big blinds, six feet by thirty inches, for the two windows, and I hung them on the lintels so that they could be raised or lowered. Also, I made a bunk on the east side of the house, and I am lying on it at this moment. By turning my eyes to the right I can look over the undergrowth of Suvorov and see, between the boles of coconut trees, vistas of the passage, the east reef, and the Gull Group beyond. The trade wind blows fresh and fragrant through the house. In a half hour, when it is dark, I shall see the moon over the far islets, splashing mild yellow light on the fierce tide rip that will then be flowing out the passage.
I have made a writing table from the south end of the bunk across the house to its west, side, A kerosene case with a back nailed to it serves for a chair. My mat, pillow, and quilt are on the bunk, and under it are the children’s sleeping things, while on the table are my typewriter, dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, a half-finished novel, and numerous papers. Under the table is a little chest with papers, ribbons, letters, and odds and ends. Also, there is a shelf by my head, and on it smoking paraphernalia, Lamb’s Letters, Montaigne’s Essays, Spengler’s Decline of the West, Stefansson’s Friendly Arctic, and a few volumes of lighter reading.
Only one thing troubles me: there is a tall coconut tree leaning over my house, with its head above the tamanu trees and therefore above the roof. The tree is loaded with coconuts; and I have been wondering if one might fall, go through the roof, and land on me! Probably not, for the rafters are a foot apart and the roofing sheets close together. However, it is a troubling thought, so tomorrow morning I shall send Jakey up the tree to throw down the nuts. Incidentally, Jakey, though not too hot at the three R’s, is a number-one hand at climbing trees.
WE HAD a grand time on the reef this morning and a grand bird-snaring this afternoon. The tide was low in the forenoon and the reef dry. Johnny and Jakey had short fish spears made of six-inch spikes seized on four-foot nonu poles; Elaine and Nga had frond baskets for periwinkles; the Boss of Suvorov had his heavy single-prong spear. Thus equipped we walked to the north point, across the shallows, to the reef.
Every island has a reef peculiar to itself. On some the coral is so jagged, the crevices so wide and deep, that it is difficult to walk them even at low tide; but Suvorov’s reef is as smooth as a fairway. The combers break from thirty to forty feet to seaward of the highest part of the reef, and only the big ones lap over the reef-shelf into the shallows.
There was little sport in spearing fish, for they were too plentiful. We did not have to hurl our spears like Achaean warriors in Ilium, and see them describe perfect parabolas before transfixing the fish. When we spied a big parrot fish or a reef cod in one of the pools, half hidden under a ledge of coral, we simply poked our spear in him, then flipped him up on the dry coral.
The quiet, gentle, diffident little Nga, the spiritual counterpart of her mother, nosed about the reef crevices and potholes like a mouse, sniffing here and there, poking her little paw into a hole to pick out a periwinkle or a cowrie shell, never screaming or showing any excitement, perfectly self-contained. And presently she showed me her basket full of shellfish, and she smiled in a way that said, “There you are, Papa. I don’t make as much noise over my fishing as the rest of the cowboys do, but I bring home the bacon.”
I specialized in lobsters. There were plenty of them on the reef, but they were hard to find, for they live in the foaming water on the edge of the breakers. Now and then I would see a pair of long spiny feelers thrust out from a hole or from under a ledge of coral. Then I would wait for a calm spell, reach in warily lest my hand encounter an angry crab or a poisonous sea urchin, grasp the lobster firmly, and pull him out. I got five — one for each of us — and then gave it up, for lobsters have a way of scratching the back of one’s hand with their scabrous feelers.
Close to Whale Islet we came to a big pothole on the outer slope of the reef, within a few feet of the breaking seas. The hole was about four feet across and thirty inches deep, with a rounded bottom and smooth sides. To children brought up in the atolls it suggested only one thing; and thus it was that all live of us jumped into it during a calm spell between seas, and crouched down so that our shoulders were level with the rim of the hole. In a few seconds a towering comber broke within six feet of us.
We ducked our heads and braced ourselves to let the comber roar over us, probably a good three feet deep. In ten or fifteen seconds the worst of it had passed. We raised our heads from the foam, took deep breaths, and ducked again while the next comber rushed over our heads. It was safe enough for us, who have spent the best part of our lives on the atolls; but pothole squatting should not be added to lists of diversions for tourists. The danger lay in leaving the hole; but we judged our time correctly, in a lull, scrambled out, and dashed back to the reef-shelf before the next sea could catch us. Then, highly pleased with ourselves and telling the world about it, we proceeded to Whale Islet.
After climbing up the beach of the tiny storybook islet we inspected the lean-to we built while Hurry Home was here. Elaine and Nga found a ghost tern fledgling on a low limb of a Tournefortia bush, and of course they fell in love with it — who wouldn’t? It looked like a fuzzy little ball of cotton wool with two red eyes and a black beak, and, to the delight of the cowboys, it opened its mouth to exhibit an amazingly large gullet. Jakey climbed a coconut tree to throw down nuts for all of us; and after we had refreshed ourselves with food and water we proceeded to the Bird Cays — the same cays where we had gathered eggs a month before.
Now the eggs were all hatched, while under the bushes were thousands of wide-awake fledglings. So far as I know, they are the only young sea birds that are agile on their legs; many sea birds can scarcely walk, and their fledglings can no more than push themselves across the sand. Wide-awakes scamper over the cays, in flocks of several hundred, precisely like baby barnyard chicks. They make a peeping noise and, though I have not seen them scratch, they remind me of the speckled chicks of a Plymouth Rock hen. When watching them this morning, sometimes in flocks a thousand strong, scattering from one cay to the next, as identical as machinemade cigarettes, I marveled that the mother birds can find their fledglings. The tide started to come in while we were on the cays, so we hurried back to Whale Islet, and from there waded to the inner edge of the reef at the shallowest place.
“There’s a shark!” Elaine squealed presently.
“Two of them!” Nga corrected her.
The children gathered close to me, and we kept a sharp lookout. Soon there were five sharks circling about us. Then a few heavy seas came over the reef to race across the shallows a good two feet deep. Johnny and Jakey braced themselves with their spears against the coral; I held Elaine and Nga. There were twelve sharks about us when the seas had gone down, and when we reached the beach we counted twenty-five of the brutes within a hundred yards of us. It was one of the times I have wished there were other people on the island. I doubt that the sharks were after us, but they were after our fish and lobsters; and how they knew we were carrying them I leave to someone else to decide.
We had a huge meal at noon; then the boss cowboy climbed into the tree-house for a smoke, an essay of Montaigne’s, and a doze; but the rest of the cowboys had heard a flock of curlews piping their characteristic kee-u-ee cry. Food being their sole reason for living, the cowboys went after the birds. Johnny and Jakey got lengths of fishline, fixed small hooks on them, and baited them with hermit crab. They laid the baited hooks on the lagoon beach, close to the water, and scattered various legs and claws of hermit crabs about them. Then they brought the other ends of the lines up the beach, and whistled the birds to them. It was simple enough. Any sort of a whistled kee-u-ee will attract a curlew. In a half hour they had six of the big, fat, delicious birds.
A dozen or more sandpipers were with the curlews, and these were game for the younger two children. Their specialized skill amounted to cutting the tops from drinking nuts, gouging a half-dozen holes close to the edge of each opening, and tying to each hole a tiny slipnoose made from coconut-husk fiber. The coconut-shell snares were placed on the beach, and the two toddlers sat back in the shade to wait until a flock of sandpipers came pecking by. When the birds saw the shells they thrust their heads into the open ends to eat the meat, and their neck feathers were caught in the slipnooses that encircled the openings. When they pulled their heads out they had coconuts tied round their necks, and thus were easy prey for my bloody-minded babies.
The birds made us a Homeric evening feast. Now the warriors are once again asleep, their bellies full, their souls at peace. The old man proposes to join them. Good night.
WE ARE working into a comfortable routine of life. I wake before daylight, fully refreshed and with no desire to lie a-mat. Nevertheless, I lie on my bunk in the tree-house long enough to roll a pandanusleaf cigarette, light it, and take a few deep puffs as betimes I glance out the big window and decide that it will be a fine day. If there is a moon, as there is now, I can see the passage black as River Styx, and beyond it a misty line where the combers thunder over the east reef. The cigarette half-finished, I bind on a loincloth and climb from the tree-house.
Usually there are some glowing coals from the campfire of the night before. I lay a couple of coconut spathes on them, put a few fagots of pemphis wood on the spathes, and set the teakettle on a pair of iron bars that are supported by bricks over the fireplace. The kettle has been filled the night before, so I have only to add two tablespoonfuls of coffee and leave the wind to fan up the fire.
I turn to my coconut-grating gear, which has been set out in readiness the night before. This consists of a square foot of strong calico, a coconut, a bushknife, a bowl, and the scraper itself, which last is a piece of iron one-quarter inch thick, one and onehalf inches wide, and about a foot long. One end, rounded slightly and serrated, extends four inches beyond the top of a kerosene case, to which the other end is screwed.
I crack the coconut in two with the bush-knife, grate the meat out of the halves into the bowl, place the gratings in the cloth, and squeeze out the milk. By then the coffee is boiling. I strain it into a coffeepot and add the coconut milk and a little sugar. Next I break out a few ship’s biscuits and some meat or fish if there is any in the oven; and usually I time it so that the first blush of dawn is showing faintly above the jungle when I sit me down to breakfast.
After the first bowl of coffee, I remember that there are some cowboys in the tree-house. A thunderous roar wakens them; another roar informs them that it is a good morning; a third roar warns them that faces are to be washed and hair combed before breakfast.
Their morning meal consists of a drinking nut each, a ship’s biscuit, an uto (the absorbing organ in a sprouted coconut), and anything that happens to be left over from the night before. After breakfast I take a walk along the beach and usually I take my fish spear with me, for octopuses are easily found in the early morning, and they make good bait. By the time I have returned the sun has risen, the children have washed the few cooking and eating utensils and cleaned the house and the clearing — which last requires a short explanation. Children, children, God bless them! What problems they are! Their minds are such delicate mechanisms that they should have big signs painted on them, in red letters: DANGER! HANDLE WITH CARE! An unfair reprimand, a thoughtless ridicule, and something breaks in the child’s mind — something that can never be repaired! The world is full of minds broken by careless, stupid, or vicious parents. We give assiduous attention to the bodies of our children albeit most of the physical breakages can be repaired; but we give scarcely a thought to the wreckage we cause in the minds of our own children — wreckage that no man can repair! School stops when the children have had enough. Then many things may happen. This morning Jakey went pole fishing off the south side of the island, the tide being too high to go on the reef. Johnny stayed at home, for she has a boil on her knee. Elaine and Nga did what they do virtually all the time: rustled food, ate, rustled more food, and ate some more. The old man continued work on his novel until noon, then kindled a fire in the native oven, made a sort of pudding of utos, grated coconut, and arrowroot starch, and baked it.
When Desire died I told my friends that I proposed to keep my children and bring them up without a woman’s help. If my wife could bathe my son, I opined that I could bathe my three daughters, but as all my children could bathe themselves it should be necessary for me only to see that they did so. In other things, I proposed to teach my children to take care of themselves. My friends were skeptical. They believed I would soon be fed up and would remarry or hire a nursemaid. Hire a nursemaid! For myself perhaps, but certainly not for my children; and I need no nursemaid to take care of me so long as I have the children for the job.
One of the chores about a South Sea house is keeping the yard clean; and this we expect our children to do, for their backs are limber, their fingers nimble, their eyes sharp. For a long time I failed to find a way to make policing the yard a pleasure; then by accident, here at Suvorov, I discovered it.
“Jakey,” I said one morning, “I’m going fishing. You take charge of the outfit and see to it that the women clean the yard.”
Then off I pranced, without much attention to Jakey’s grin of malicious glee or the angry glances of Johnny, Elaine, and Nga. When I returned I was met with a storm of protest. Jakey, it seems, had become drunk on the wine of authority; Jakey had stuck out his chest, lowered his voice to a growling basso profundo, made his eyes snap, and worked his sisters like slaves.
A critical situation had arisen, but, with my usual discretion (quoting Captain Prospect), I smoothed things over at once by telling Johnny that she would be in charge tomorrow, Elaine the next day, and Nga the day after. Later I dropped a hint to Johnny that if she was too hard on the other children they would take revenge on their days.
The scheme worked. Johnny bossed her brothers and sisters mildly, getting the job done well without starting any fist fights or even reports of cruelty to the lord of the manor. When Elaine’s day came it was a sight for a sore spirit to see the little dear almost in tears with happiness as, for the first time, she bossed her brother and sisters.
Now and again she would gasp with emotion, her eyes would become soft and almost sensuously happy. “Rinse out the teakettle, Jakey!” she would command, and when the big cowboy obeyed without a murmur she would be so happy that she could not find the heart to work Jakey any more that day. But when Nga disobeyed her a little spark of anger came into her soft brown eyes, and her peppery cry to Nga came in a tone I had never heard her use before. Gentle little Nga looked up with eyes wide and mouth open, as surprised as I, and straightway did as she had been bidden.
When Nga’s day came she made somewhat of a mess of things; but the children are fond of her and Elaine had forgiven her insubordination, so when she ordered them to burn down the cookhouse and fill the tank with sand they swept the yard and washed the dishes; and when she ordered her old man to make rock candy he obeyed without a murmur, being fond of rock candy himself.
As for the old man, he eschews his turn at bossing the outfit, for he is too fond of his gang to deprive them of a recurrent day’s pleasure; and anyway, as I have said, the old man is the only one in the outfit that requires a nursemaid.
When the yard is clean, the houses are tidy, the dishes washed, the boss of the day lines up the other three cowboys in the clearing below the tree-house, roars “’Ten-shun!” then marches down the line to inspect hair, eyes, ears, and to see that no scholar has forgotten to dress for school. Then the three warriors are put through a little snappy drill, some calisthenics, and finally marched up the ladder into the tree-house for instruction in Higher Learning.
Though Jakey is younger than Johnny, they are in the same class. I write them a page of English to be learned and copied, a page of arithmetic, and a page of drawing with captions and conversation, as in the comic papers. They are enthusiastic scholars, and solely, I verily believe, because they know I should prefer not to teach them and that I have not the slightest objection to their playing hookey any time they wish.
Elaine has a page of English and lots of pictures to copy. Nga is given a carbon of Elaine’s page, which she interprets, with the rare genius of a modern artist, into whirligigs and thingumabobs. Jakey, being a real he-man, takes little interest in school learning. This should worry me, I suppose, but it doesn’t.
We had a big meal when Jakey came home with his fish; then I returned to the tree-house, this time to read a dozen pages of The Decline of the West, to wonder if I really live in the same world Spongier writes about, and to go to sleep. I woke at about four and put in two hours of hard work clearing a path to the north point. Arrived there, and finding the children, I joined them till dusk, to cool off and wash the sweat and grime from me.
To GIVE an impression of this exciting day will be hopeless unless one bears in mind the loneliness of Suvorov, its complete isolation from the rest of the world. Try to imagine a ring of green islets that no one knows anything about or cares anything about. Try to hear the monotonous rumble of reef combers, the screaming of sea birds, the wind’s everlasting song in the palm fronds, which combine in the very language of solitude itself. Try to smell the clean breath of an island untainted by habitations. Try to feel the presence of the familiar spirit of this haunted place — the familiar spirit that has inhabited the sequestered groves for ages.
I felt strongly the loneliness of Suvorov this morning as I trod the beach toward the north point, spear in hand. I was thinking, of course, of the strange light Johnny and I had seen the night before; and it was several seconds before I became conscious of something strange in the humming sound that came from across the lagoon.
Then suddenly I associated the sound with the Fiji, where Johnny and I were last year, and the next instant with the warplanes we had seen flying over Suva. My heart missed a beat and my knees went weak. Warplanes! Japanese! Suvorov an air base for the enemy! All settlers on Suvorov summarily dispatched with machine-gun fire! My children! They were a half mile away, too far to warn!
Then I saw the warplanes over Tou Islet — two of them! I did not have to dive for shelter: I had simply to step back a pace and the jungle swallowed me so completely that a man passing ten feet away could not have seen me. The hum of the warplanes rose quickly to a vicious roar. They were circling over Anchorage Island! I parted the leaves slightly and glanced up. One plane flew over me not three hundred feet away. On each of its silver wings I saw a star. I let the leaves close over me again and offered a little prayer that my children were as well hidden as I. What nation uses a star for its insignia, I wondered? Perhaps the United States. I hoped so, but did not know.
The planes circled over the island for fully five minutes, then they roared away toward Turtle Islet; their noise diminished; they were gone.
I hurried back to the clearing to find that the children had taken cover like mice, crawling into a great heap of palm fronds. Needless to write all the exclamations, surmises, that passed between us. Now we are wondering if some vessel has been wrecked on the other side of Tou islet, if there are castaways on Tou, and if the aeroplanes have been searching for them. On this supposition we sail for Tou tomorrow, the wind permitting.
Silver wings over Suvorov! So there is another world, after all! So there is a war going on, my country is embroiled in it, and I should be almost any place except on Suvorov — any place where I can aid my country. Well, I can’t swim to the United States, and neither Panikiniki—my sailing canoe — nor the pearling cutter will take me there.
We set out in Panikiniki (Skipping-stone) this morning for the six-mile sail across the lagoon to Tou Islet. For equipment we took a bush-knife, a fish spear, matches, and tobacco: nothing else, for we enjoy using our wits to live when we go to the far islets. We consider a civilized picnic more nuisance than pleasure; and a camping trip, with almost everything from portable bathtub to medicine kit, the next thing to a nightmare. God save me from portable property! God save me from traveling with dozens of trunks, suitcases, hatboxes, bundles, and packages! God permit that I go through life like a child, with a spare shirt and a slingshot tied up in a handkerchief!
There was a mild breeze, but even so the crossing was unsafe, for Suvorov’s lagoon, being almost free from coral heads and reefs, builds up an ugly chop. By the time we were beyond the lee of the land, skipping along under the full force of the wind, I wished we had taken a reef in the sail, not only because there was danger of Panikiniki’s capsizing but also because, when she sails faster than eight knots, she takes a good deal of water over her bows. Well, I got Elaine and Nga aft with me to keep the bows well out of water, put Johnny and Jakey on the forward outrigger crossboom, and we flew along in grand style.
But later, when the wind freshened a little, I had to send Johnny on the outrigger itself. She sat on its forward end, her back to the crossboom; and it must have been an exciting ride for her, sometimes skipping from wave to wave, sometimes swung a foot or two above the water, and sometimes ducked to her neck when the outrigger plowed through a wave. Jakey perched halfway out on the crossboom, steadying himself with one hand on the windward stay. Elaine and Nga were busy bailing.
With an outrigger canoe — mine, at least — a man cannot come about and ret urn to his point of departure, for the canoe will capsize if the outrigger is on the lee side. To come about, the canoe must be beached or sailed to shallow water where it can be held. Then the sail is lowered, the mast unstepped and then secured in the other end of the canoe, and the sail hoisted again. The outrigger must be always on the windward side.
So there was nothing for us to do but carry on, once we had started; and when we were halfway across I stopped worrying about the wind, — I hoped it would freshen, — for all at once I got to thinking about the planes — curse them! “What a perfect target we should make!” I thought, with a shudder, and straightway fancied scores of enemy planes swooping clown on us to spray us with machine-gun bullets. It was with a good deal of relief that I steered Panikiniki through the mess of coral heads in Tou Islet’s crescent-shaped bay and got the children ashore.
First we walked around the islet in search of castaways; but not a sign of one did we see, not even a footprint to fire the blood of Ropati Crusoe and family. On returning to the lagoon side of the islet we found a place where it was possible to break through the thick shore bush and go inland; and this we did, at times creeping or even worming our way under the bush, or tramping over it, or cutting a path through it. The jungle was denser than it is on Anchorage Island, for there were thickets of Cordia saplings, which do not grow on the other islets; and there were Guettarda trees, and Hernandia, impenetrable tangles of pemphis and pandanus, and in the center of the island as fine a grove of tou trees as I have ever seen.
There was less undergrowth under the tou trees. Glancing up we could see thousands upon thousands of noddy terns, ghost terns, and boobies nesting in the branches. The air was rank with the miasma of decayed vegetation and sea-bird droppings; the thunder of reef combers came seemingly from far away, very faintly, and hollowly, and somehow lugubrious. There was not a breath of wind. The clamor of the birds was so great that we had to shout to be heard; and all about us, climbing the trees, in every hollow log, under rocks and rubbish, or even on the open ground, scurried the coconut crabs, like prehistoric creatures, big-clawed, red-eyed, feeding on sea-bird fledglings and eggs.
Suddenly something fell at my feet, with a thud and a squawking noise. I jumped back, my “knees unstrung,” then laughed weakly when the children pounced on the thing, which we found to be a fifteenpound coconut crab with a booby in its claws. The crab had been killed by the fall, but he held the bird in a death grip, one claw on its wing, the other in its breast. They represented food for us, so with our bush-knife we pried open the crab’s claws, killed the booby by swinging its head against a tree trunk, and made sure the crab was dead by tearing open its head from the mandibles backward.
Jakey amused himself for a little space by shying stones at nesting birds. He is a remarkably straight shot, but in the ton grove almost anyone could have knocked them down. He got fourteen noddy terns. These we tied in pairs by their wing feathers, and carried them, with the booby and the crab, back to the canoe.
There are three islets to the south of Tou, with narrow channels between them. We poled the canoe to the first one, but found the bush so dense that we did not even attempt to break into it. On the next one there were only five coconut trees and not more than a rood of ground. The third islet looked no more promising at first, but when we had poled the canoe to its south point we found as pleasant a picnic place as one could wish for. A white coral beach shelved into a narrow channel six feet deep, while beyond the channel the reef shallows, now dry, curved away to the Cays and New Islet.
We pitched our camp under a big Tournefortia bush, within a few feet of the beach. Then Jakey and I went after drinking nuts and utos while the women folk picked the noddy terns and the booby and cooked them, and the crab, on pemphis-wood coals. We gorged like savages. After the meal we jumped in the channel for a swim.
On the way home, just as we were wallowing through the channel, Johnny yelled at the top of her lungs; “Sail ho!”
And so help me, if it wasn’t the sails of a cutter rounding the point of Turtle Islet!
(To be continued)