Thursday, May 30, 1985

Rarotonga and Aitutaki

I wrote this in the spring of 1985, for Travel & Leisure, on my first trip to the South Pacific. They published it a year later. 

The afternoon I arrived, the island of Rarotonga was in turmoil.  The Prime Minister’s son was mowing the lawn near the wharf.  An elderly woman, dignified in her bright red pareu, was explaining to the officer on duty at the tiny police station that her sewing machine, which she’d brought with her, was broken and the only man who knew how to fix it was away.  And a Cook Islander who answered to several names was preparing, with a partner, to attempt the first swim around all of Rarotonga—a long day’s swim, out beyond the encircling reef, though the island is only 26 miles around.

Maps of the South Pacific make a mockery of distance.  The Cook Islands, in Polynesia, are fifteen dissimilar plops of land scattered over an area of ocean roughly equal to Western Europe.   On the map they are crumbs, and Rarotonga is the largest.  Mercifully, they are still little known, largely because we tend to glance westward through the dark tunnel of Tahiti.

At first the island evoked Caribbean memories:  the spinal backs of the mountains, the clash of colliding greens, the flowering chaos of palms and banana trees.  Most of these islands have great shallow lagoons, and it looked from the air as if someone had lassoed Rarotonga with two pale-white ropes—one a continuous beach, the other the reef a half-mile out.

But here the air was perfumed, fervent with inexhaustible blossoms—hibiscus in yellows and pinks and scarlets and purples, set against a backdrop of limber palms swaying in their elegant, maybe-yes maybe-no way.  A few people were hanging around on the single road along the coast, waiting to see what might happen; perhaps nothing would happen.  The women beautiful in a new way, with flowers in their long dark hair.

Rarotonga is not a quick study.  Few islands are:  their insularity is their deceptive paradox.  Some unfortunate people must pass through for a couple of days and see little besides a few lovely beaches, curved like razor shells, and a tiny town with a library and post office and several shops and a few outdoor sheds with gossiping women selling fresh fish and paw-paw.

But after a few days you find yourself deeper in the local dream.  People seem to know you on the road, and wave, or invite you over; a stranger may give you a grin and call out, in a staccato sing-song, “Well, did you find any birds in your nest last night?”—and he is referring to those of more human and unpredictable plumage.

The island seems designed for a motorbike.  My first morning I rented one and tried to get the little town of Avarua clear in my mind.  Nearly the first place that caught my eye was a ramshackle bar that looked more like a trading house out of Stevenson or Melville, with a sign that read:  Banana Court.  I’d already heard wild tales of horse-race betting and weekend crowds—“Turn yourself banana at the Banana Court” seemed to be everyone’s motto—but the place looked deserted.  Of course, it was mid-week.

Along the grassy waterfront, by a cemetery that held the customers of a quack Czech doctor who’d discovered a cure for cancer several years ago before being run off the island, the ocean was pummeling a wharf where an island boat was moored.  It might be out for weeks and weeks at a time, visiting the northern Cooks, taking supplies, mail, picking up copra and pearls.  Rarotonga, with a population of about 10,000, is by far the largest of the Cooks.  Palmerston has about fifty inhabitants, Suwarrow none at all at the moment, Rakahanga and Penrhyn in the low hundreds.

Half of all Cook Islanders live and work in New Zealand, and the islands were a protectorate from 1901 until 1965, when they achieved independence, though associative ties are maintained and at voting time in each there is much back-and-forthing.  But in a jet age where most of the world provincially pretends to be local with the rest, it is a delight to be with people content to be local with themselves.  The Polynesian history of cannibals, missionaries, great chiefs warring against neighboring islands in long canoes, is as recent as the turn of the 19th century.  It was a relief, too, to be in a place so different in atmosphere from the half-made West Indian societies that were formed and scarred by colonialism, and to be among islanders who were not suspicious, or tense, or greedy, but charming in a healthy climate.

Circling the island I rode past low houses along a road fringed with palms, the sea peeping among them to my left.  On Rarotonga no houses are permitted higher than the highest palm on the property.  This, together with the obvious attention people lavish on their gardens, gives the island an extremely tidy quality—though the interior has that extraordinary foliage, nourishing yet exhausting to the eye, that is like an explosion of energy in the heart of the tropics.

In front of many houses were carefully-tended graves, for there are few cemeteries on the island and people feel great ties to their ancestors.  This is in part because they live only on ancestors’ land.  “Land isn’t an asset, it’s a liability,” someone told me, and he was serious, I think.  Under Rarotongan law (established by the missionaries in the early 1800s) land can only be inherited or leased.  It may not be sold or bought.

I passed a rugby field with young men and boys in uniform idly assembled, choosing sides.  Between villages there might be several miles of wild palms and splashed light on the sea.  Children everywhere ran to wave.  The few village stores were closed in the heat of the day, with mail taped to the wooden doors.  A beach of strange coral, some horses wandering.  A few shipwrecked clouds hovering outside the reef.  A long and deserted beach of impeccable white sand.  I kept stopping.

That reef had already insinuated its rhythms into my blood, and that night it would enter my dreams.  It is a reef of many voices—it can murmur to you, or mutter away to itself, or pound melodramatically, or make a sibilant whisper like someone calling you from a great distance.

It was always an imposing sight:  the deeper waters breaking apart and crashing on the coral, and if there was a breeze, being dissipated into a blown magnificent powder.  Over a couple of weeks that reef came to symbolize what the island provided—protection from the churning waters without, a transparent lagoon of calm within.

I passed Matavera Village, where men were whitewashing a stone church and women were laying out food for when the work was done.  I went swimming at Muri Beach—a long, idyllic horseshoe inlet that, with its motus (islets) just within the lagoon, must be one of the loveliest beaches in the South Seas.  Past Ngatangiaa Village there were children just off shore, whooping as they paddled a canoe the shape of a folded hat, though it was home-made from the corrugated steel used generically as roofing throughout the tropics.

At my hotel there was a garland of fresh hibiscus blossoms on my pillow, and breezes from the beach nudged the petals, and brought hints of the island’s music—“the strange silences and the strange noises”—that would occupy my dreams.

And then the strangest music of all reached me—of furious drumming, and calls, echoing from somewhere around the low hotel.  It had a clamorous, celebratory fervor, and it would last for a minute, then stop.  I followed that beautiful sound.

It was a rehearsal upstairs for the evening’s show.  The Cook Islanders are often acknowledged as the best dancers in Polynesia, and what I saw over dinner smashed flat everything I’d seen elsewhere.  The stage went dark; a flurry of yells and drumbeats began, suddenly punctuated and arrested; and there in a flood of light stood several rows of men and women, three deep, in grass skirts or fronds, the men naked above the waist, the women in bikini tops, all wreathed in smiles.  Then the drumming began again, at first slow and measured, then gathering uncontainable energy.  Accompanying it would be singing from a chorus of men and women about the drummers, several guitars and local ukuleles hidden there somewhere, all answered and echoed by the dancers onstage.

How to convey the sweetness, the joy of that sound, the grinning beauty of the dancers?  The women with pareus wrapped around them, their bodies like supple fruit, emphasizing every nuance of the beat; the men doing a dance like a sailor’s hornpipe run riot, their hands making an A-OK gesture, then leaping bandy-legged into the air, forefingers upraised as their hips wagged against the beat, arguing with it.  The women shaking straw pom-pom plumes, or slowly ushering time sideways with their flowering hands; or reaching lightly upward to grasp the moon and the sun, to name the stars.  The men with flattened hands pushing the air down to the ground, the women with hips revolving now at incredible speed, nearer and nearer the stamping men, as the drumbeats urge and cajole and stampede—until in a final frenzy the whole event stops, hangs in the balance, and the lights go down.  When they come up again the stage is empty.

The group was the Te Ivi Maori, the “Bones of Our Ancestors.”  I thought the solo dance of one woman the most beautiful.  It was almost as if she were swimming underwater, her hands forming delicate and complicated shapes, like fish wriggling in the shallow air, her lips mouthing words of the love chant silently, her fingers fanning by her ears or at her hip while the other hand softly pushed at invisible deep-sea currents and her hips swayed lazily, with ultimate nuance of meaning and without the slightest coyness—nothing promised that would not be given.

In the deepening twilight I will lead you
To a lonely secret place.
There no man’s eye will see you;
We shall flee through curtaining clouds
And nest in the farthest heavens.

On Rarotonga you sleep as if drugged and awaken early, and after several days you realize you are moving to a clock whose gears you do not quite understand.  I was there, too, to make a literary pilgrimage in honor of a writer, forgotten now, named Robert Dean Frisbie, who died in 1948.  Michener echoed the feelings of many when he wrote, “Frisbie was the most graceful, poetic and sensitive writer ever to have reported on the islands,”  and Frisbie’s words became like a background chant to my stay.  “An island attracts one strangely and inexplicably,” he wrote.  “The charm may be engendered by the knowledge that here is something one might acquire in its entirety.”

A skinny, humorous intellectual, Frisbie served in WWI, then came out to the South Seas.  Tiring of Tahiti, he’d lived on Rarotonga, then set himself up on the remote northern island of Puka-Puka (also known as Danger Island then) and become the first trader and storekeeper—a good way to learn about the locals’ character.  A ship stopped twice a year.  Here Frisbie wrote, and married a Puka-Pukan girl and had four children, whom the islanders called “cowboys.”

In The Book of Puka-Puka Frisbie wrote, “Without a thought for the white man’s code of ethics, I have been happy, enjoying a felicity unknown in right-thinking realms.”  He described how natives “sink into trances with perfect ease, bolt upright, eyes open, completely unconscious of the world about them,” and he learned how, too.  He had no illusions about the Polynesians, seeing them as full of fantasy and short of memory, except for their own long poems.  (These poems, mostly erotic, always sung by the men, constitute an entire Homeric tradition.)

One day at the Avaruna library, reading through Frisbie, I was startled when the librarian volunteered the information that he was buried about fifty feet from where I was sitting—in the corner of the little graveyard of the church across the road.  The headstone rested in the shade of a small paw-paw tree, and it marked the grave of someone who’d come out to these islands filled with a vision that he’d realized, that most men only dream about; and before alcohol took over he’d gotten it down on paper.  “I hunted long for this sanctuary,” he wrote.  “Now that I have found it, I have no intention, and certainly no desire, ever to leave it again.”

He’d caught the most profound time of the day on the island.  “Of a sudden I understood:  all this land and sea, dormant by day, had awakened at dusk, refreshed, hungry....”  Every day, as evening came on not with the usual tropical abruptness but with a slowness and strength that was almost carnal, I saw the most tender sights: a mother sitting on a tumble of rocks by the beach, nursing one baby while her young son played beside her and their father fished in the shallows, a quartet so inviolate  that no stranger could fracture it.  Or a cluster of friends playing tennis over a tattered, makeshift net strung across their lawn, thirty feet from the sea—perhaps the grass court with the best view in the world.  Or the two girls in blue and green pareus ambling down the road, chattering like magpies, with that lazy, timeless walk so hypnotic in its grace:

I shall wind the beautiful cloth about my beautiful body;
I shall be stared at in the inland groves;
Oh! I shall be a power in the islands!

One night I went to a fashion show, with designs by a young local woman who’d studied in New Zealand.  The models, all Cook Islanders, would’ve stunned a Manhattan fashion expert.  These women—the tallest and most arresting turned out to be thirteen—have a beauty that seems wholly innocent and wholly erotic at the same time.  It is certainly without effort, and it is obvious why so many Western men, confronted with this heady mixture, have taken the easy way out and stayed on with women who smell of fresh flowers and spurn ornament and makeup alike.

Nor was this all a visitor’s imagination.  Sex is the most frequent source of jokes, and a constant topic that lurks not far below the surface of any conversation.  “So, Anthony, did you catch any foxes last night?  Did you set your traps right?” asked the girl who brought me my tea every morning.  She was not being flirtatious, just friendly—she simply wondered what luck I was having.

The surprise of the myth of South Seas beauty is how far the reality exceeds all expectations.  Partly it is because the Maoris’ lives still seem so perfectly suited to their environment that no split, no tension is felt—if a woman needs a new blossom for her hair she only has to reach out her arm for one.  Deeply staring dark eyes, a face wholly without worry, ready to open into a laugh or an enticing smile in an instant; skin like avocado; dark, lustrous hair; and a musical walk that seems ready to become dance at any moment, and every dance is a soliloquy of all those things the body says better than fumbling words.

At the fashion show I spoke with a luminous Scotswoman in her sixties named Margot Johnson.  She’d lived on Rarotonga for thirty years.  She had the easy glow of the women here, and a bit of the local reserve—not shyness so much as a  lack of self-announcement.  I asked if she considered herself a Rarotongan.

“I don’t have that privilege.  But this is one of the few places where you can find Polynesia the way it’s supposed to be.  The people here have all the qualities the Polynesians are supposed to have.”  She laughed gaily.  “I’d say if you don’t have a good time here it’s your own fault.  Get out.”

In several bars I met her inverse: the Westerner who had “found” himself in the islands and drifted off into alcoholism, or ranting about local politics, or his own private affairs and grand intentions.  Good meat for the novelist; and there were also those men, many elderly, who’d settled down with local women in a kind of passive semi-retirement.  Margot told me, “Once they get used to a Polynesian woman they never go back.”

One day, riding up a path into the hills, I came upon one of the swimmers, Papa Teuruaa, who was to attempt the record.  I guessed he was about thirty, and he had a broad, beaming face.  He suggested I accompany him to see his house, which he’d just built, so I left my bike and walked on, down a path that wound among people’s fruit trees and palms growing in varying degrees of wildness or array.

“See, we have no private property here,”  said Teuruaa softly.  “You got a piece of land, it belongs already to your children—they divide it one day, when you die.  So many Cook Islanders go to New Zealand to work that there’s still enough land.  I got a lot back here, you see, going all the way back to that mountain looks like someone on their back with their chin up.”  He saw I was sweating and he said, “You need a drink.  Maybe I do, too.”

He gave a whistle and a teenage boy appeared from among some palms.  Teuruaa gave a large grin and suggested the boy climb a tree for us.  He said, “You see, I used to be the best on the island, but now he is.  Right?  Right?”

Teuruaa went to a hibiscus and tore down a stalk as long as a man’s leg.  He skinned it patiently, not tearing it, and he twisted the vine-skin round and round itself until it was like rope.  He then made a figure 8, tied the ends, and handed it to the boy who took it wordlessly, placed it against the bark of a coconut palm.  With his feet in the loops of the 8 like stirrups, he leap-frogged up the tree in no time, the gadget taking all the punishment.

I said I thought this was a pretty sophisticated way to get coconuts.  “Yah, makes it much easier,” said Teuruaa, and in a moment we were backing away to avoid falling coconuts.  We walked away with armfuls.

One morning I flew to Aitutaki, the nearest island—an hour’s flight in a Piper, 140 miles to the northeast.  Embraced by a lagoon with twenty-four motus, it is as close as you can come to a desert island with all the comforts.  My room was a thatched beach cottage on stilts, on a strip of beach that jutted into the lagoon.  Lion-bark trees stood straight up, like plants in a vase, with their bizarre root systems like a child’s stick-drawing.  The water was the most transparent I’ve ever seen, the color of diluted lime juice at depths of thirty feet and like wavering glass elsewhere, with universities of tiny fish darting along.  White birds followed, their shadows intense on the sand.  Breezes blew through the little cottage, and someone with a fine sense of  humor had added a nice touch—a blanket in the corner.  The sense of tropical grandeur, of total isolation, with an island of scrub pines and palms riding on the near horizon, were like a balm to the citified mind.  I read Frisbie and envied him and wished I could stay and stay.

On Aitututaki there is one of everything.  One air-strip, surely the most deserted in the world.  One wreck.  One day a month when a bank manager and his staff fly over from Raro, so that everyone can do all their bank work that one day.  One house with the front end of a WWII bomber parked out front, for during the war the island was a crucial air link up the island chain.  Americans are remembered fondly—we helped dredge the harbor.

In Aitutaki’s main town, smaller than any village on Raro but for its great wharf and banana-packing plant, I ran into an American grad student named Bill Baringer.  He’d been here for two weeks, off a boat, and he said with a laugh of disbelief, “You just can’t pay to eat here.  They won’t let you.  When my boat left the people literally stocked it with food—everyone brought all they could carry down to the dock to give to my friends.  All for free.  My bunk was covered with bananas.”

We were watching, on the wharf, a man mending a tipped-up boat while his little son watched patiently.  I asked if there was anyone I should be sure to meet.  Bill pointed to the slouched stone house beside the small Catholic church.  “Father George,” he said.

That august gentleman greeted me as if I were expected.  In a blue-and-white island shirt and worn pants, Father George looked at home.  Originally from Holland, where he’d been active in the underground during the war, he’d come out to the Cooks in 1947, then in his mid-thirties, and been the priest on Rarotonga until 1977, when he was sent here.

His rooms were a muddle of papers, old National Geographics, jigsaw puzzles, maps, postcards, plates, out-of-date Dutch airmail newspapers, fans, and slippers.  In a narrow hallway he’d set up footstool and armchair, because the hallway caught all the different breezes.  In his long study were shelve of weary books and a vast collection of seashells gleaming in a glass case.  On the walls were great tortoise shells and inscribed amateur watercolors.  A Rachmaninoff piano concerto was beginning its tender deliberations.

“I collect boats, what do you think of that?”  said Father George, in a thick Dutch accent.  He had the cherishing smile of a little boy whose pleasure is infectious.  I thought he would show me some boat-models, but instead he brought out a dozen gigantic logbooks dating back to 1965.  These books are famous throughout the South Pacific, for they constitute the best record of all the many yachts that have sailed the islands in the last twenty years.  That was how Bill Baringer knew the priest; he’d come to inscribe a page of one book, paste in a photo or paint a picture of his boat, write in a crew list, commentary, narration of past and present voyages.

“I have one after the next, you see?” said Father George.  “Many, many more than a thousand.  Look at all these beautiful boats.  Some of these modest people, sailing the world.  One man was a British knight.  I ask him about that honor.  He said, ‘They give those things away for emptying garbage cans.’”  He laughed.  “I will stay here for good if I can.  You have seen my flowers out back?  And my mango tree.  I am behind in my reading.  You would like to hear the other side of the Rachmaninoff?  He plays it very well, someone sent me that, very kind of them.  Don’t tell me you want to hear what I did in the war, perhaps I tell you.  You can come back for a visit in the morning?  I can show you my shells, then.”

His life seemed one of great sweetness and practical contribution, and I left him waving from his porch, his cat crawling around his ankles.  Farther down the road I had an extended talk with Aunt Dora Harrington—the whole island calls her that—who said, “Look there.  That goat’s eating my fence.  One of my relations’ goats, I bet you.”

That night, after a dinner of parrotfish, there was a sudden pelting rain, and the next day I flew through mountains of cloud that made mushy shadows across great tracts of crinkled ocean.

On a Friday night I saw the Banana Court in action.  It was like being at an extremely well-mannered and pleasant riot.  A heaving, packed dance floor had a disco band at one end.  It was full of papa’as  (foreigners) dancing with locals.  There were surrounding tables, so you could drink and watch and try not to go deaf with a grin on your face.  There was a bar that on Saturday would close just before midnight, when the Sabbath officially begins.  Side rooms had trees growing in them and a second bar and weary couples watching newcomers pay the dollar admission.  Elders sat on the porch and watched who left with whom, for this was fox-hunting night, as they say, and the energy given off at the Banana Court seemed to be an attempt to compensate for everyone’s ease the rest of the week.

Like everything else in the Cooks, there was a little air of competition.  Another disco opened in mid-week when these two were quiet.  It seems a diplomatic approach to business, and it certainly eliminated fears that the action might be somewhere else.  At the Banana Court, there was no doubt that most of the action for about 850,000 square miles was right here.

No one can begin to understand Rarotonga unless they attend a church service.  I went to the beautiful white-and-blue church at Titikaveka, the oldest on the island, built between 1830 and 1841, soon after the first missionaries, led by John Williams, appeared.  (The Bounty mutineers, searching for a remote home, were probably the first Europeans to see Rarotonga, in 1789.)  It’d taken the missionaries—Mother Hubbards—only seven years to do away with the local religion, and now the most popular sect is Cook Islands Christian Church, a kind of amalgam.  At Titikaveka there is a service at dawn in Maori, at 10 a.m. in English, and another Maori service at 5 in the afternoon.  Maori is taught in Sunday school, so the children don’t forget the mother tongue.

Sunday school was in session outdoors by the beach, the little boys and girls singing Happy Birthday to one of their number.  Bells began to ring emphatically.  Girls in white dresses stood in the shadows of the trees.  Men leaned against a stone wall.  A blind woman of Chinese descent softly strummed a ukulele and sang to herself “a little song as silly as it was beautiful.”  Her son was playing with her woven straw pocketbook.  A dog came trotting eagerly over.  The road was lined with scrub pines, and they made the brilliant morning cool.

By a great knotted tree with a magisterial spread, I talked to an elderly man in a blue jacket who was the bell-ringer.  I asked about the tree.  “Utu is our word for it,”  he said after a gentle handshake.  “Barringtonia is yours.”  He pointed to the plump, canvassy fruit.  “The children use them for balls.  But the insides are very powerful, and in the old days our women would grind it into a powder.  Then the men would spread it on the sea, and it would stun the fish.  Bring them to the surface.”  He blinked at the memory.  “The old chiefs used to meet under that tree.  That’s why the church was built by it.  A utu tree can have its insides rot, but the outside keeps growing.”

People were gathering and starting to go in.  The visitors like myself sat in the central pews, and there was a good number of us, even a young Polish couple holding hands and an American lady who’d had the bad taste to wear a pareu.  By stained-glass windows the Cook Island women, in long dresses, with their lively faces, all wore straw hats and fanned themselves with leaves, while the men sat more complacently with folded arms.  The children filed in last, to the right, and the choir in blue and white robes as if they were graduating.  Twenty fans revolved on wooden posts that went up to the high-vaulted ceiling, like looking down into the belly of a ship.

The service was given by the preacher first in Maori, then in English.  The translation was almost unnecessary: the holy words of every language sound holy to any ears.  After the psalm the preacher took up Maori again, and the phrases “seven-a-side” and “unfortunately” surfaced in English, as well as “under attack.”  He was talking about a loss of the Titikaveka rugby team, and I noticed sports trophies on a table at the back.

And then the service concluded with the most extraordinary singing I ever heard.  The men in the choir began, a simple chant that was almost African in its urgent enthusiasm, the women joining in a different meter altogether—the call and response of the tropics, a chant of insistent joy and constant impulse, full of complex cross-rhythms, with inner shouts and high-pitched calls, the congregation echoing.  Some people rattled their keys in time.  The choir swayed, and then it all ended abruptly on a long, sustained call that filled the rafters—and the music vanished, in sudden silence, to wherever it is that music goes.

There was a final song, “Nothing Is Impossible,” that sounded like it came from Broadway, and apologies from the preacher that the congregation wouldn’t be able to accompany the visitors across the road for tea and biscuits and fruit, because they had to hold a church meeting “and the sooner we are starting, the sooner we are finishing.”

Along the beach later that day, I watched a white tern wandering in a low whirling wind that came off the mountains like a cello’s calm voice.  Out to sea in the far distance were clouds like war-smoke, clouds of battle.  The ancient Polynesians, navigating vast distances, had known there were islands over the horizon by the kinds of clouds that always hung in place, or by the lagoons reflected in the sky, or by the dented profiles of wave-crests downwind.

There are many theories that hold that it was the Cook Islanders who reached and populated New Zealand first.  These voyages were one of the great human accomplishments; and if little else, as civilization measures achievement, has come from this part of the world, it must be blamed on the place itself, the lack of balance between challenge and response.  For though the most remote islands may pose their lonely questions of survival, what deeper challenge is there in paradise?  What can the response be, but to succumb?

My last evening I had the privilege of attending an umu kai—from the Maori for ground and oven. It was held as dusk descended along the beautiful beach at Muri.  There were perhaps sixty people in all, but in the gloom, as stars appeared over the softly clattering sea, it was difficult to tell faces except in the torchlight.  Traditional foods, such as taro and kumara, and fruit, pork, and raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, were laid out, with a dozen varieties of vegetable extras, and our plates were great pandanus leaves in hand-baskets woven especially for the occasion.  The reef sounded like a locomotive.

I was surprised by the formality of the occasion, which was to honor the two swimmers.  The few papa’a guests served themselves first, then the men, the women, and the children, who were extremely well-behaved.  An umu kai is often held to accompany a haircutting ceremony.  Around Raro you may see a boy, even up to the age of twenty, with unshorn hair neatly braided or tied back.  When his family feels the time is right, his hair will be tied into many knots, each with a ribbon, one for each guest at the feast, who will be expected to place money in the ribbon.  Then the boy’s hair is cut, the money falls to the ground and is his, and the guests enjoy the umu kai while the boy symbolically becomes a man.

Night had brought on a black sky of vast depth and uncontrolled grandeur, infested with so many stars that for once the word ‘universe’ had meaning.  It didn’t take us long to eat, and looking up, I was beginning to find my way around these new constellations—there hung the Southern Cross, there familiar Orion, in the wrong place—and I was already regretting leaving.  And then came the speeches.

Each began with a Kia Orana, the welcome to guests.  Some speeches were in English, some in Maori, some translated phrase by phrase.  They all spoke of the swimmers’ achievements—how they’d been beaten back at first by rough seas, defeated by a New Zealand swimmer who appeared suddenly, then managed to break her record the next week by ten minutes.  The speeches were improvised with such ease, such a sure sense of humor, such natural eloquence, that one speech seemed to make way for the next, and they opened to embrace local politics and private ribbing.  An old man began by saying, “You young men plan to swim from Tahiti to Moorea and back, but have you considered which is the best way?  Is it the women of Moorea who won’t want you to turn around, or those in Tahiti?”  Then he spoke of the early Maori, who certainly had swum around the island; and there were murmured assents of respect for an ancestral history too recent to be legend and too dim to be fact.

After the speeches I wandered down the beach.  Under the moon and stars the shallows at Muri were luminous, lit from within, and out at the purple depths I could see the path of the Milky Way across the water, a trail of oceanic stars.  A breeze was unconcernedly playing with the tops of the palms.  It was easy to summon up those early voyagers—it was only the present here that did not seem quite real.  And I saw, silhouetted by moonlight, that old man, the last to speak, standing at the water’s edge, and a passage in Frisbie came back to haunt me.

“The old man looks long across the lagoon and reminisces on his past futile days.  Then he wades in until the water comes to his shoulders.  He swims with long strokes until he is a mile or more from shore, and quite exhausted, and realizes that now it is absolutely impossible for him to return to shore.  He rolls over on his back and stares heaven-ward, then he looks to land, and suddenly he smells the fragrant mountain wind, sees the moonlight throwing the shadows of articulated ridges across the water.  He for the first time in his life realizes that there is beauty.”

He stood there a long time, and I did not disturb him.  My own expected departure was so vivid in my mind it was like an image of oncoming illness.  I thought of that thunderous light as you approach Avarua along the coast, the mountain flinging its arm around the little harbor; I thought of the women’s lilting songs.  I thought of the ei, the long necklace of tiny shells I would be given tomorrow at this time—they say that if you wear it until you reach your next destination, you will return to the island.  I thought: One day I will come back here, to this many-minded moonlight, this silken water.

I was right.  Two weeks later, I did.

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