“Manus children live in a world of their own, a world from which adults are wilfully excluded, a world based upon different premises from those of adult life.” ---Margaret Mead 1953, Growing Up in New Guinea. New York: Mentor Books, p55.
My pal Leonie is back in her village on Baluan Island, in Manus Province, a cluster of islands far north of the mainland. She’s there to make a documentary about the local slit-gong, or garamut, drums. Can I come for moral support? Yes. In a minute. From Goroka, an Air Niugini flight takes me south to the capital, then connects to bring me up across the mountain spine of the country, across to the Bismark Sea to a small island cluster just beneath Micronesia. The airport is in Los Negros, a forty minute drive to the capital of Lorengau. There are no PMVs to town when I arrive, but thankfully the hire car woman takes pity on me and takes me to town where I check in at the one hotel and walk over to the market. This is where I look for someone from Baluan who might give me a banana boat lift to their distant island. It’s a brilliant Saturday market, brimming with island foods: pineapples, mangoes, pawpaw, guavas, bananas, star fruit, pomelos, sago, taro, yams, betelnuts; fresh fish, prawns, and octopi. A live tree possum trundled in vine and banana leaves at my foot catches my eye, the most anthropomorphic of animals here in PNG, and my heart sinks--he’s looking straight at me, pleading for mercy, and I feel like a slave trader or smuggler avoiding cries of Free me!! I could cry. But this food for many, and best sold live I imagine.
Eventually I find Nora, a friendly extrovert from Baluan who claims to be Leonie’s cousin (not that everyone on a small island isn’t everyone’s cousin) and can give me a lift to Baluan tomorrow. Nora and her husband, a big blue-black Bougainvillean named Gibson, their baby girl, plus her sister’s family with its three kids, and I, pile into Gibson’s big banana boat around a huge mound of cargo covered in a blue tarp. Gibson jumps in the lagoon for a dip before wet set off, his bald head flinging ropes of water alongside a swimming dog. Already at 8 AM it’s beginning to get hot. By midday it should be searing. It will be more than two hours across the sea to Baluan, one of the far flung of Manus’ outer islands. In the middle of the journey, over an hour from town surrounded by pitchy black seas, the skies cloud over and a light rain begins. The swells rattle us back and forth, bow to stern, and send us cresting high waves and slapping down with frightening force. Everyone covers themselves in caps and rain gear, the oldest kid, a little girl, sliding under the tarp mound, sheltered by the boat’s curved lip. One of them crawls under to make a bed on duffel bags, and the baby, a doe-eyed beauty of maybe 12 months, is cradled under her father’s head. None of them cries, not even a whimper, because they must be used to this. Like the highlands kids who uncomplainingly ride flatbeds over rocky cliffside trails, these kids are born to big seas. We roll and take in water, and the rain grows stronger making it hard to see. I’m terrified, searching for shark fins in the frothy waters and thinking about a Styrofoam esky as life preserver. But eventually the seas calm, Gibson sets a firmer course and we slice right through them as, miraculously, the sun comes out again.
We pull up at the rocky shoreline and Nora kindly walks me inland, uphill, along a path through stilted homes, to a grassy clearing. A small timber house with a cement patio and wide roof sits in a clearing not at all unlike a weekend house on the coast of Australia somewhere. Surrounded by croton and hibiscus bushes, and fruit trees, and yet dwarfed by the dense rainforest that climbs a steep mountain just behind, this is the loveliest oasis I could have imagined. You might almost expect a waiter bearing gin and tonics. Even better, there’s Leonie on the veranda strumming a guitar with her cousin Freddie. They see me, smile, and continue.
I pressed a knife to her breast
She cried Oh my love don’t murder me
I’m not prepared for eternity
Down by the banks of the Ohio
Baluan is a tropical idyll, not too small, and perfectly lush. It has five villages along a coral footpath that girdles the whole island. Food is everywhere: fish in the sea, fruit and nuts on the trees, rich gardens on the hills inland. Old people have only to reach out their windows for a big grapefruit-like pomelo to eat. And as if life couldn’t be better, there are hot springs pulsing from grottoes all around the shoreline, the luxury gift of a volcano called Malsu at the very center of the island. They even have public baths to enjoy them. You go down to men’s or women’s springs at dusk and dawn, where you sit behind bamboo blinds and try not to disturb the silty bottom going down. I learn this the first night, as Leonie laughs and tells me I now have to wait for the dirt to settle again. But I’m so white that I glow in the dark behind a flimsy bamboo partition.
“Sit down! You’re too white!” and I flop into the mud.
Leonie and I amble around filming everything that matters. People are home for the Christmas holidays, and one civil servant from Moresby stages a big feast, called a polpolot, to distribute money from the sale of a garamut drum. This is crucial for Leonie’s film. First, there’s a long serious Council of Chiefs meeting on the upper veranda of his home, which includes enough Pidgin with the local language for me to understand. Baluan has several lapans, or sub-chiefs, under one paramount chief. But their authority must be earned, I am told, and cannot be taken for granted. Leonie’s cousin Selan is a lapan, and there’s endless discussion over what he’s doing wrong, what he should do, what they used to do, and so forth. Inherited status has a competitive edge. Any strong individual could challenge his authority, if not the title.
We attend an all-island basketball championship party in Selan’s ground one evening, where teenage boys spend endless minutes between songs tweaking the speaker system and cassette player. It’s a big coconut-broom swept clearing bordered by crotons with frangipani and hibiscus decorations strung from ropes running around the edges. Young Beryl, Leonie’s neice, sits on a bench watching red ants carry a husk of chewed betelnut. In the hazy fluorescent pool over the dirt, all the little boys like her brother’s son Kanawi dance in pairs, while the women shuffle around in regulation modesty outfits, big t-shirts and laplaps. Older people sit in the darkness outside the hum of the light, chewing betelnut. There’s that song by the Sagothorns called “Kolwin,” then “Pindo Pando” by Reks Band: just the local pop cassettes someone happens to have, infused by static humming. Then the sound dims, and all the older boys flock to the table to check the system. They disconnect wires from the machines and talk about nothing, making everyone wait forever while the techies take over. The electric cicadas rise to fill the void and I think we might as well be dancing to them.
Leonie’s two beautiful little nieces follow her everywhere. Beryl and Stephanie, about ten and six years old, obviously worship their glamorous aunt, which is understandable because Leonie is tres chic and wears bangles on her long thin arms, expresses herself with long lacquered nails in cyclical hula-like motions, and is gobsmackingly beautiful. She once told me she’d never worn a meri blouse. These girls fetch her betelnut, run messages and deliver gifts of fish from their mother, which Leonie returns with rice and noodles. She feeds the girls, and permits them to flip through her glossy magazines at will. But the girls are easily distracted, especially Beryl, who cranes her neck for the next best thing. Off she goes now. Their flawless brown skin sparkling from a dip in the sea, their hands peeling a pomelo or a pakpak fruit, and their brilliant smiles and big clear black eyes untroubled by calendars, clocks or responsibilities, these lovelies embody the mythical idea that childhood is bliss in Manus. It is definitely a freedom they will never have again.
Leonie and I sit at her verandah stoking the Coleman lamp. Beside us sits her tall, slightly goofy and gentle Uncle Pare, in a globe of big hair. He seldom talks but always smiles. Pare is the adopted son of Paliau, Baluan’s most beloved son. Right after W.W.II, Paliau rocked the Australian administration by demanding local self-government and schools for Manus. His efforts and the teachings he espoused were called a cargo cult, one of many that erupted across the country after the War, in a pattern that emerged after the First World War. These were religio-political movements that reacted against the church and the Australian administration, sometimes involving neo-traditional ritual and wild goings on--as the administration reports had it--like orgies and human sacrifice. In essence, they were local attempts to get the good life villagers saw these foreigners enjoying—hence, they were cults for obtaining cargo. Sick of hearing different things from different white people—after the priests told them to behave this way, and the kiaps told them something else---many communities became fed up with the growing inequity between the white people and themselves. All the homiletic speech in the world couldn’t explain why containers of manufactured goods kept arriving on their shores exclusively for these visitors, not for the hosts. These people also spoke in metaphors, so that when pastors said Thy Kingdom Come, they surely understood the illusions to harvest and reward. But what magic was also secretly being employed to reap this kind of harvest? Many Melanesians believed that a secret ritual or code was being withheld from them---which is, indeed the case, as the means of production for this new cash economy were still beyond their reach, and some would say remain so today).
Some cargo cults emulated the white man’s most quotidian behaviors, like typewriting, marching drills, listening to the radio, and running up the flag. People would carve typewriters, shotguns and radios from balsa wood and dress to resemble their overlords, forsaking customary routines as counter-productive in the new age. These rituals worked for the newcomers, they might work for us. Some set up altars, conducted rituals and rewrote the catechism for their eager and similarly frustrated followers. The Europeans reacted much the way public health officials react to homeless schizophrenics in town. They called this madness. The way the villagers conflated European concepts and feigned submission was nothing but scoundrel passive-aggression, and both the church and the colonial administration sought to ferret out the sedition beneath.
When American GI’s arrived on Manus’ main island, some of them astonishingly Black American to boot, Manusians were finally convinced that their churches and state had been lying all along. None of the instant wealth and superficial equality within the corps made sense to the restraint and passivity they had been taught for two generations or more. Across the country, not just in Manus, cult rituals redoubled, many of which sought the return of Americans, their real brothers, for final redemption after the War. Biblical stories of Ham and prodigal sons which had been folded into origin myths about brothers of different fortune, now became prophesies fulfilled. The War had revealed the truth and the people of Papua and New Guinea were not unlike other postwar colonial populations who refused to submit to false promises any longer. After the War, Paliau’s movement was replicated in neo-Independence efforts across the country, under an illusion that they could cast off their past—or rework tradition with modern routines-- and be reborn global citizens.
Cargo cults hailed the rise of ambitious new leaders, men (and sometimes women) who had visions, who cultivated followings that for the first time stretched horizontally across the region, well beyond the clan, parish and tribal boundaries of before. Some were more self-serving than others, like charismatics everywhere. But Paliau was certainly amongst the most intelligent. As foreigners grew less mystifying over the years, and as the vox pop changed, his brand of salvation adapted to the Manusians’ evolving aspirations. From being stridently anti-tradition, it softened to a more culturally proud and syncretic movement. It required little change, however, to shift from demonized cargo cult to a proto- independence self-help movement, which in turn grew into a political party and church that lobbied to bring local government councils and schools to Manus. Paliau’s movement is a Revenge parable for Manus, as Australians transmogrified from horror to indulgence, particularly after the public support Margaret showed Paliau after the War. He was eventually revered as a culture hero by the entire country. The educational jump-start he gave Manus produced a generation of elite civil servants just after Independence, which some in Port Moresby referred to as the Manus Mafia. Paliau is certainly one reason why Leonie can be a cosmopolite in the 1990s. She went to film school in Gororka, then Paris, and was courted by all manner of Europeans before she married a British volunteer and had his child. In another well-rounded parable, she eventually left Douglas for the thrall of a handsome educated Manus man and a romance customary undertones. Hers is a story as thrilling as Paliau’s. Today the Baluan people have made Paliau memorial of cellophane-wrapped flower bouquets on the old man’s cement grave, right next to Leonie’s house.
When Margaret Mead came back to Pere on Manus mainland in 1953, she met Paliau for the first time and experienced the transformational effects his work had had even by then on the Manus people. “They speak, she writes,
with rapt looks on their faces, of ‘1946’with the devotion of a true revolutionary. In 1946, the new order began. Where did it come from? It came p like an arthquake, from nowhere. Who started it? No one, we ourselves initiated it. We decided to have a new way of life, to throw away every evil custom of the past and set up our own form of life.
On the far side of the grave is Paliau’s church, the Haus Hamamas—the Happiness House. Every Sunday the Win Nasin members gather in their whitest clothes to observe Paliau’s three rules: Report what you’ve done; Give Information on community events; and Ask questions about each other’s business. No secrets, is the message, everyone must communicate. Then they sing Win Nasin songs under a cross inscribed with the words: Unity, Peace, Rights, Freedom, Self. The old men wear clean laplaps and white t-shirts that say LIKE A FIRE THE 1946 PALIAU MOVEMENT, clutching woven baskets under their arms, their mouths stained betelnut red and, more often than not, a frangipani tucked behind the ear. Or they wear long ladies’ skirts from secondhand shops in Lorengau, and hug small patent leather bags, wearing big glassy drop earrings instead of the tortoise shells rings in their earlobes. And every morning these elegant and self-posessed men stride across the green in front of Leonie’s house to salute the flag over Paliau’s grave, with reverence. They are like a troupe of aging female impersonators, deadpan and war-weary.
The church sits in Mouk territory, the narrow strip of marshy ground that’s been ceded for generations to a migrant community called Titans, or Mouks. Paliau was a Mouk, and this is an important distinction. The Mouks are said to have fled their imploding Island long ago and migrated to the coasts Manus, where they exist as vaguely second class or Roma people, but renowned for their fishing skills. Their tiny stilt houses sit over the water at the end of log walkways, out beyond the pigsties and mangroves that dot the shore.
As Baluan’s fishing people, the Mouk trade their catch for the garden produce of their landowning hosts, who still garden the steep shoulders of the Malsu volcano. Their authority is gilded by the mysterious survival of stone cairns and walls throughout these garden hills, left behind by ancestors no one really remembers. The Titans are smaller darker people to the light-skinned ‘true’ Baluans who boast that they originate from Micronesia (which may in fact be true—Yapese people migrated here). But the Titanic national pride in their celebrated son, Paliau, has elevated the Mouks in the modern age.
Papua New Guinea writer Jaive Smare writes about Baluan on his blog ‘My Amazing Paradise’ (www.mayamazingparadise.com). “I asked the Baluans about the Mapo” he begins.
They said the Mapo were a group of dwarf like people who lived on the island and built these rock walls. Their ancestors apparently remember the Mapo as people who lived in the island’s jungles and watched the activities of the Baluans. They only ame out when the Baluan villagers had retired for the night. The story is that the Mapo were hard workers. When the Baluans cleared land for gardening or started planting but did not finish, the next day when they returned, they found that to their surprise the mysterious Mapo had completed all the work for them. The Mapo did everything excessively and where very hard working. According to the Baluans, this was not just strength of the Mapo but also a weakness. When it came to harvesting crops, if the Baluans harvested some bananas from their gardens, the next day when the arrived at their gardens, all their bananas where harvested, even the green ones. They said the Mapo over-harvested the gardens and the land. They were helpful but also destructive. So what happened to the Mapo? Where they chased off the island or did they mysteriously leave one day? Different Baluans will tell you different stories. But something happened.
Leonie’s brother, Roy, is handsome and curly-haired with big long eye lashes. Like Leonie, he is landed Baluan, athough the distinction is more political than true after several generations of intermarriage. His wife, Heni, is Mouk, mother to Beryl, Stephanie and their brother Kanawi. Their one room stilted house sits about 50 feet offshore just down the hill from Leonie’s house, across the prickly coral island footpath. But to reach it, you must walk the long slippery garamut log from the shore, which is as much a challenge to me as one of those vine-covered logs thrown across the great Baliem valley in West Papua, which schoolchildren scamper across all day and I have only shimmed across with my teeth clenched against the deep gorge and river below.
Roy’s house is worth the effort; it’s a breezy room with a small verandah facing the sea out back where the banana boat is tied. Roy is a doting father, and his three kids are busy conducting the business of childhood in Manus. Roy sits placidly on a stool as the kids jump from the verandah to their small canoe, paddle to the log in front and repeat the routine with determination. As Margaret Mead observed over fifty years before:
The [Manus] father treats his young children with very slight regard for differences in sex. Girls or boys, they sleep in their father’s arms, ride on his back, beg for his pipe, and purloin betel nut from his shoulder bag. When they are three or four, he makes then small canoes, again regardless of sex. Neither boys nor girls wear any clothing except tiny bracelets, anklets, necklaces of dogs’ teeth, and beaded belts.
Of the Mouk stilt houses, she writes:
The house floors are made of strips of wood, short and smooth and evenly placed, so that there are frequent gaps. Little children have to exercise nearly as much care as if they lived in trees above the water…Even the pigs have become water animals. During the day they are kept fenced up in small pens on piles, but at night they are let out and wallow and swim peacefully about in the low water.
Heni is malarial and lying down as we sit around inside gossiping. Stephanie finally comes to sit with us, winded. Heni’s brother is washing his baby in a tin bowl on the verandah now, and Beryl comes up the log to the front door and asks for betelnut, which her father throws. Then she runs through the house to tickle baby in back, pinching her nose like a doll as she jumps into the sea. The baby cries, Roy stands up to tell Beryl to cut it out, and then Stephanie stands up to bolt out back and join her sister. They swim to the banana boat squealing and kicking, as if they’d never in their life had so much fun in this warm green water. These are the kind of kids who make me clucky.
It’s New Year’s eve and Leonie has the senseless idea of having a drinking party, with beer and precious rum. All her cousins, sisters and brothers and their kids squeeze with us onto the cement verandah, plastic cups in hand. Little Beryl and a cousin are cracking the rinds of pakpaks together; the one that breaks first loses, and the other gets to eat both lychee-like fruits. Meanwhile, little Kanawi makes flinty fireworks with an old sparkplug tied to a match to the end of a stick and hurled to the ground hard--BANG! –loud as a pop gun. The cassette player plays PNG music, Madang bands, and people sing along much of the time. The sky is purple, the coconuts are silhouetted, and we sit in a postcard of tropical dreams. I don’t remember mosquitoes, only the music and good company. At midnight one of Leonie’s brothers, Ray, walks off to strike the gong of an empty fuel tank hanging outside the Haus Hamamas. Happy 1998. The whole island can hear the peel. Then he comes back and becomes so hopelessly drunk, stumbling all over the verandah as we try to dance and calling out “Happy New Year! Happy New Year!,” so that the kids laugh uncontrollably, and Pare tries to sit him in a wicker chair. But Ray starts swinging at Pare so hard he swings himself out of the chair. Then Beryl takes Kanawi’s spark and slams it to the ground just beneath Ray’s arse, so he jumps so far he nearly falls on his head, Beryl throwing her head back in the biggest laugh of all. Ray’s fallen into a croton bush, and he tries to rise and take a swing at the air but passes out instead.
Then the fights start. One uncle picks a fight with his wife for standing in the darkness outside the party and not coming in close when he calls her. He pulls her shirt up to her chin and pushes her to the ground. She gets up and marches into Leonie’s house crying. Beryl finds a dog-eared women’s magazine under a table and flashes a close-up photo of a orangutan at her little sister, who bursts out crying, causing her mother to swipe Beryl, who also starts crying. Heni’s laughing though, and the three of them go inside and curl up on a pallet on the floor. The rest of us stay up dancing and telling stories for what seems like forever, until stragglers from another party, young boys, emerge as shadows in the darkening black beyond the verandah. They hesitate only briefly then break the illusory glass of the fluorescent lights and stand amongst us, demanding alcohol. Someone hands them cups, and Leonie and I make our way inside. They have the cassette player going long after Leonie and I have shut the door. “Tell them to go away,” I say.
“I can’t,” she says, “They’ll think I’m selfish.” So they stay on and finish the rum, a gift from Leonie’s ex-husband.
The next morning, Beryl is sitting on a wicker chair on the verandah when I go outside. But she spies her older brother Kanawi emerging from the bush behind with a couple of boys, and their shirts are full of ripe pakpak stolen from the gardens. Embarrassed to see him with kids who scrounge under other people’s trees, she yells, “Kanawi!” and he turns, smiles, and runs off with the pack. “Bikhet Mouk!” she calls out. I don’t know why I’m so enthralled with these kids, but I think they’re extraordinarily clever and independent. They are Huck Finns, the Berstal Boys, of the tropics.
Writing home in 1928, Margaret Mead talked about these kid, who would become the basis of her 1930 book, Growing Up in New Guinea.
It’s paradise for children. They have no work except to run errands and that involves paddling about in the water. At low tide in the early morning they course about shooting fish with tiny bows and arrows, dragging the water for minnows with a long piece of bark used in imitation of a net, or practicing just issing each others’ feet with a piece of coral hurled through the water.
Leonie and I are fishing with the kids in the afternoon, around the far side of the island, on a small rocky island surrounded by a wide light green skirt of coral. The water is very warm as we all stand in it to throw out lines. Dolphins surface not far away. Hornets hum from a nest in the mangrove tree behind us. Beryl, Stephanie, Kanawi, and a sweet droopy-eyes little boy named Kila whose spine must be fused because he can’t turn his neck, all strip their shorts off to dive for troicha and nautilus shells. Leonie catches one silvery seaperch after another, while I get nothing. The kids help by smashing snails found in the rock crevices which serve as bait. They make neat piles of it on the rocks, just to be obliging. Leonie throws her fish into a little pool between two rocks, and little Stephanie squats down to stroke them. She picks each one up and bites their eyes out, like jujubes, crunching down on their noses murderously. Some are left alive, though, and she takes one, a wrasse in beautiful pale blues, pinks and greens, and at the declination along the ridge of its belly she pokes her finger right through. Gooey intestines slide out, like sausages in a long sack, and expertly, she squeezes the goop out to salvage the transparent sack, leaving the fish in death thralls on a dry rock. “Stop it!” Beryl suddenly screams. “Stop it! Stop it!” she demands, coming up behind. But Stephanie continues her dissections on a second fish. Beryl knocks the first fish back to the pool and slaps the second one from her sister’s hand.
“Asap!” she screams, using a term for second-sister. Switching from Baluan to Mouk language, her mother’s tongue, she yells (and Leonie translates): ‘Those fish are alive! You stupid girl you can’t gut the stomach of a fish where you caught it, you know that. Those fish are alive! Stop it!’ Her sister, I learn, has broken a fishing taboo. Stephanie twists on her bare feet to look serenely over to her Aunt Leonie, clearly a master at infuriating her older sister. Leonie shrugs and calls out “Catch this,” unhooking another fish, which Beryl receives slithering into her palms. She is still aggrieved, and whines, “Stephanie is taking the guts out from the fish when she should wait!”
“Wait for what?”
“To do it somewhere else!” she says, astonished that Leonie doesn’t know why. “You can’t use the stomach of the fish for bait if you just caught it, you have to move somewhere else.”
“You little Mouk!” Leonie laughs. Turning to me, she says, “Must be a Mouk thing. A superstition, you know.”
But I don’t know: this kind of childhood is so far from my own, set against a volcanic island and beautiful people. Because it’s school holidays, our days are more langorous than usual, but still the self-assurance and complex society of these kids makes me wonder what I did with friends at this age. I have Our Gang memories of long afternoons, but these Baluan youngsters are a much more resourceful community than I ever knew. What I had growing up was feigned Independence---all walkie-talkies, Schwinn bikes and Good Humor trucks nothwithstanding. These kids eat anywhere, sleep anywhere, and only get a scolding if they deign to interrupt intense adult concentration. Even then, no one sulks, and nothing is taken personally.
No child under thirteen or fourteen had any possessions except his canoe and bow and arrow, furnished by adults. …The child does not complain…I shall never forget the picture of eight- year-old Nauna mending a broken penny balloon which I had given him. He would gather the edges of the whole into a little bunch and painstakingly, laboriously, wind it about with raffia-like grass. The hole made temporarily fast, he would inflate the balloon, which a moment later would collapse and have to be mended again. He spent three hours at this labor of love, never losing his temper, soberly tying up the rotten flimsy material with his sturdy grass string.
Two nights later, Leonie, Beryl and myself are all asleep on foam pallets on the floor of Leonie’s house. The silence is solid, but for a honking toad now and then. The cicadas are faint and near the shore now, having left us hours ago. Just before sleep, at the moment when it feels you’ve now been spun off into space, we hear the sound of a drum. The tattoo of a garamut slit gong, the very subject of Leonie’s film. We have been filming the carvings and tuning of these slit gong drums for over a week now. People pay them for us, improvisationally, and also pedantically, because they are important vehicles of trade, ceremony, trade and communication. This is the first time I’ve heard one unsolicited, at a distance. Leonie sits up straightbacked, listening closely. “It’s Sakumai. I have to go.”
Beryl stirs, and we both watch Leonie dash out to the darkness. Off toward Selan’s compound, beyond the black bush. The drum goes on for maybe ten minutes, and it’s the most solemn sound I’ve ever heard. Twenty minutes later Leonie’s back, her eyes filled with tears. Uncle Kuam is dead. Everyone’s gathering at the widow’s house and Leonie must go back to be with them. You go, I say. I’ll wake and bring the camera later. It’s no later than 4 AM. When I arrive, the old women are washing the body. The house glows by kerosene lamp, alive with the family’s moaning. Someone is wailing loudest and highest, and several old women begin to sing a slow lament in the old Baluan language. These are the traditional mourning songs and they fill the interior to reverberate outside. It’s a big house, built out from the original one room and verandah on tall palings, into four rooms of plywood and sheet metal, with a walkway between rooms and a blue tarp extending the thatch roof over part of the kitchen. From the sloping path outside I see stacks of tin bowls, pots and coffee mugs set to dry on a board at the kitchen window, and inside, a blackened kettle on the fire. Benson and Hedges ads are tacked to the walls with pretty mixed race girls in sunglasses. People sit crowded against the walls when I walk inside. Leonie’s there. Old women have taken off their meri blouses and are slumped on the floor wringing tea towels against their soft deflated breasts, their mouths revealing blackened teeth as they sing dirges and wail out, again and again.
Kuam lies on a carved and painted wedding bed, on legs about a foot from the floor, cushioned by a foam pallet, and covered to his chin in flowered laplaps. Bald, big-nosed, his skin is a purplish red, livid. Someone explains to me that he just sat up in bed and had a stroke (she uses the English word) in the middle of the night. I’m a complete stranger in the midst of this very private moment, but she rubs my arm and tells me to stay; she’s the widow’s sister. When I walk outside, the yard is already full of visitors. People sitting on logs and rocks and plastic chairs between the mango and rain trees. They’re all chewing buai, some rocking babies, some of them crying. More men arrive, their heads bowed, carrying axes. They set to chopping down a stand of eight betelnut trees to one side of the house, all the trees planted by the dead man himself. It’s sunrise now. Leonie’s sister Dinah explains that it’s their right to take the [alms as members of the man’s sister’s line, the same line that will receive payments at the big mortuary feast, the filo, to come. After the funeral they’ll also come raid the widow’s house of everything belonging to their Uncle. All the skinny palms come down easily, boughs full of ripe nut clusters which the men and some of their wives pull from the tangled fronds as they hit the ground. Little boys run along the trunks, wobbling and jumping off at the ends. The nut clusters are now hung at the corners of the house, inside the haus win and on the verandah, so all the visitors can have a chew. Hands disappear into baskets for stubby mustard seeds and jars of lime powder, as betelnuts are palmed around in twos and threes. I take one and split it with Beryl’s little sister Stephanie, who hands me someone’s lime and a bit of mustard seed. It’s good betelnut, not too bitter, hardly needs lime to cut the sting. It is a time when I cannot take notes, but I find a way to remember so many details.
From inside the house the widow sobs.An older man translates for me.
Oh my sweetheart, oh my darling,
You’ve left me now my darling, oh my darling,
Oh my sweetheart, why did you leave us,
Why did you leave me?
The old man and woman from the top of the volcano sit in a haus win groan and keening songs in the older Baluan language. They may be the last people to know the songs, and so they bring them to the funeral. The dead man’s brothers file past on their way to the house. There’s Ngat Selan, whose long white hair and beard, his fair skin, glasses, and brimmed hat, made him look like an Orthodox Jew come to sit shiva. His son Richard is a little touched in the head, and walks around hang-dog with an oft-lascivious smile. Very Boo Riley. Leonie and I visited this Uncle at his house, where he showed us some of the carvings that have made him renowned on Baluan, and he talked about how sorry he was Richard couldn’t learn to take over from him. Uncle Kapo follows next, with his small eyes and a big nose just like his brother Kuam’s. Then Uncle Nou, chief Sakumai’s father, more nervous and talkative than the rest, saying, “Morning, morning” to all of us. One brother can’t be moved from his house on the water, where he lives with his wife and his crossed-eyed granddaughter. Still another is in the capital.
Now one of their cousins emerges from the house, her face contorted, reaching for her baby in another woman’s arms before she hurries down the path and home. The wife of the dead man’ son stumbles out with her arm around Leonie, and they moved to sit on the verandah. Women now arrives in a long line, bringing food in tin bowls carried above their heads, covered with tea towels. Rice, sweet potato, taro, papaya, coconut cooked rice dumplings wrapped in tiny leaf bundles.
By mid morning ten men have gone off to dig a grave behind the village playing field. By mid afternoon they’ve abandoned it as too rocky, and are sweating under the flinty sounds of shovels at a second spot. Eventually this too is abandoned. At the house, more men are measuring, sawing and hammering a coffin from sheets of plywood. Word comes back from the dead man’s eldest son, George, in Port Moresby not to bury their father today, but to wait. He and his sister are arranging to fly in tomorrow or the next day. This means the body must go to the hospital morgue in Lorengau, on the big island. It can’t be left in the heat of the island.
All the people inside and outside Kuam’s house have nothing to do but debate this decision already made for them, because debate is the real sport on Baluan, bigger than billiards played on homemade tables (with beautifully carved and sanded black palm pool cues). The time it’ll take the kids to get here is unreasonable, some say. And the seas are so rough they might even have to wait to bring the body to the morgue. Then George and his sister Louisa would arrive to find their father’s half-rotten corpse, mangled by bouncing on the high seas, god forbid. Besides, all the flights to and from Manus and the capital are overbooked, it’s the holidays. But a Mouk who works for Air Niugini in Moresby might find space on a cargo flight, which would mean the children and the dead man’s brother, Ngi, could all come. The body would still have to be two or three days in the morgue. Several banana boats are organized for family to take it in its coffin to Lorengau. Not today--there are whitecaps on the horizon. Probably tomorrow. Baluan is so very far from anywhere, so very hard to get to. Speedboats and shortwave radio are its strongest links to the rest of the world. It’s the sort of place where Coke bottles wash ashore from around the globe, as one did recently, idly launched seventeen years before by a young California couple from their picnic at the beach. Leonie’s father found it, had Dinah read the note, and went to pains to write a letter back from so far afield and so many years away. Then the couple wrote back, sending Leonie’s father a photo of a smiling middle aged couple surrounded by red headed children.
Leonie and walked up the volcano at the center of the island once, to meet the family that’s always lived there. The wiry handsome patriarch--the man who sings a lament at Kuam’s house---leads us to the blood stones, last signs of Baluan cannibalism, fragments of a human abattoir, where victims were butchered before being stewed in large clay pots. The real Hollywood backstory. Children, the old man tells us, were always the juiciest meat. In fact, they were often swiped from visiting trading vessels. Once a Baluan boy was stolen by nearby Pom Islanders who brought him to their lapan. He was terrified to see they were readying for a feast, but soon realized they were actually preparing for his installation, as the old lapan had no son of his own and impulsively decided to adopt the boy. Rather than eat him.
We stand at the edge of the extinct volcano, looking over into its cold uninhabited but feathery center. It’s a conical pit that reaches down below the sea floor and seems to be covered with a soft shag carpet of young palms. The old man says he’s recently been to America, on a Bahai church junket, and he met an American couple who told him there were people in Israel building an ark for the millennium. Oh, I say. No, I’m afraid I don’t know these people, I have to admit, and I probably don’t have a seat on the ark. When I ask about his kids--all thirteen--he explains with great pride which son is a doctor, which one’s a lawyer, which daughter is a teacher, where they live, and so forth. It doesn’t surprise me that a man atop a volcano in a far flung South Sea island has fervent belief that an ark for the end days is under construction, in America. That his son is a surgeon at Goroka Base Hospital, his daughter works for the Education Department in Port Moresby, and his nephew is Minister of Culture, I did not expect. I have entered 100 years of solitude, waiting to be written by the Malsu grandchildren.
The New Way
The next time I see this lovely old man and his wife is at an ‘awareness’ meeting down the coral path from Leonie’s house. In a low thatch building with benches down the long walls and a long table and chairs in the center, tens of people have gathered to hear a Baluan man, a civil servant back from Moresby for the holidays, give a talk about the problems of government today. The issue of corruption, that thing called globalization, and foreign aid. It seems to me in keeping with the Paliau ethos that someone should host and everyone politely attend such an event. The man himself, a big bear of a fellow named Sionin, has introduced himself to me already and heartily invited me to come.
I sit diagonally across from an elderly man named Sipo, an important figure in the Catholic Church I’m told. He has long open earlobes and a blue cap that falls forward to the top of his aviator sunglasses. His sulu is a long jersey wraparound skirt, and he rests one hand on a walking cane while the other clutches a betelnut basket to his chest. Everything Sionin says makes him nod with approval. An old woman next to him chews such a big wad of betelnut that she has to keep poking a finger to keep it inside. The Malsu volcano man and wife are near the far end of the bench, listening intently. On a white board against the far wall Sionin’s written:
PEACE AND ITS RELATED CONCEPTS
What is peace freedom, unity and its opposites of war, conflict?
How can we overcome conflicts and achieve/realise Peace?
Why racial and other forms of prejudice and discrimination?
attitude/perception governments/countries religion ethnocentrism--ethnicity
egocentrism--egocentric sexual (men vs women) domestic violence child abuse!
FREEDOM--Are you free? From what? Sources of freedom MAN HIMSELF/OURSELF (MAN is the measure of all things)---Government by the people for the people--Kennedy
constitution justice system human rights organisations legislation
eg Village Courts United Nations
That all the prophets from God including Mohammed Krishna Buddha and Jesus came to deliver “peace” message from God! (if we believe in the unity of religion and mankind).
‘People,’ he bellows in Pidgin, ‘we must think twice about these concepts, Freedom and Justice. The Hindus of India, for example, cut off the arms of little babies to beg for money in the streets of Bombay. Is this something you can tolerate? Because someone before mentioned the word tolerance. Can we tolerate that? The Muslims in the Middle East are performing acts of terrorism. They force women to cover themselves head to toe when they go outside, and I’ll tell you, as someone who has visited Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, these people have very different ideas about freedom than we do. Is that something we can tolerate? Because as I say this, you know there are already mosques and temples to these religions in PNG today--I’ve seen them!
‘Now all this leads us to....’ and here he lifts a piece of paper with the bold words “CORRUPTION” on top and the cartoon of a fat man with a cigar below. ‘Corruption,’ he intones, then pauses. ‘Many of you have heard this word more and more on the radio and in political talk. We are becoming a nation of corruption.’ He sets down his stack of papers. ‘Let me ask you, this Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan, some say he’s a billionaire. Why? Because he takes kickbacks. Why are all our politicians driving Pajeros and flying to Brisbane when the grassroots people like ourselves are left to pay higher school fees, and we can’t even afford rice and tinned fish? I’ll tell you why. Because it’s corruption.’
I remember a visit to my father and stepmother in their Florida retirement idyll, where they enjoy all the mod cons and lime green accents, and are in no sense back to nature, but here they have arrived after decades of dim cubicles and windowless offices working to afford this kind of simplicity, or this kind of view, with a dock. Their local club is filled with madras and Lilly Pulitzer, and has none of these wraparound midis or drop earrings; but they strive just as anxiously as this set of seniors who were born in paradise and dream of a landline phone. In Florida it’s a new car, the next set of clubs. But both places carry on without enjoying the view.
No one responds to Sionin. Some of the older ones look to be waiting for a punch line. Sionin picks up his papers now and flips to the next one, the drawing of a beggar on one side, and a fat politician on the other. ‘Now I read somewhere that a UN study puts us seventeenth on a list of developing countries for our quality of life. Seventeenth! Poor! We’re poorer than seventeen other developing countries! And yet we’re a nation of huge natural wealth--gold mines, oil, timber, coffee, copra. One of the wealthiest countries in the world filled with some of the poorest people. Why is it our Manus politicians haven’t brought any sort of development to Baluan? Do you see development here? Are you living like white men? No! We’re still living like bus kanaka. And our politicians--where are they? Did you see Pokawin or Marsipal at the canoe races? Did they come to your volleyball tournament? Why does one of our lapans have to chase after them like a nobody to get money for your village? You tell me.’
The morning after death, a procession descends the path from Kuam’s house to two banana boats at the shore. The couple from Malsu, the old Uncles, and Leonie holding one Uncle’s arm, all look exhausted from keening and weeping thirty six hours or more. Then all the women in Kuam’s brothers’ line come. Everyone moving slowly. At the back six men, all dressed in white shirts and trousers, members of Win Nasin, come bearing the coffin on their shoulders like a small plane gliding to the airfield. People cry as the coffin bores through the crowd. Finally, the widow descends. She’s held by two women at her elbows, her head wrapped in black cloth. A few women in the crowd break into a lament, and another begins wailing (again) and pressing a tea towel to her forehead as she stares at the sky through tears. The coffin halts by the boat, then drops by small grunts: tipping, slipping in the many palms and dipping toward the center of the boat. “Heavy,” someone says. After it’s settled, the widow, the son, Leonie and several others step in and sit down. They set off immediately across the sea for the morgue in Lorengau. Minutes later, a second boat pushes off with other mourners, secondary characters, myself included. Thus begins the next ordeal.
We congregate at the long haus win outside Leonie’s cousin Margaret’s house in the Lorengau settlements. These are astonishingly clean and well spaced blocks for settlements, all along the beach. Anywhere else in the world they might be pricey holiday bungalows, but here they’re simple stilt houses with upturned boats and broken-down PMVs in the yards. We’re down the road from the big house where Kuam’s closer relatives and the widow are having a marathon of wailing and keening and smoking and chewing betelnut. One big crowded house of unhappiness.
Recently widowed, Margaret has her hair cut short and wears only black, but she’s warm, hospitable and keeps the kettle on for endless teas and coffees. I guess she’s not yet forty, maybe she was a young bride. In the village, a dead man’s family can come in and raid the widow’s house of anything they like, but here in town Margaret has so many things you don’t have in the village, like a toilet, two old boats on blocks, metal tables and heavy wooden beds---a lot more cargo to be carted away by the in-laws. What may have seemed token in the village is real haulage here. For that reason, she’s turned a bookshelf to one wall and pulled a table across the door to her bedroom, blocking off her last valuables in case the in-laws drop by. Leonie tells me they’ve already ‘repossessed’ 40 hp motor, kerosene stove, tea kettle, and even an orange tree from the front yard. Organized theft which would be ameliorated in the village but leaves a crater of debasement in town, as if to push the widow into a deeper precipice of sorrow. Margaret’s brother Tiptip has brought a 25 kilo bag of rice, to help feed the visitors.
At dusk, she lights mosquito coils in the haus win. People keep arriving and she wants them to know they can sleep on the wooden benches if they want. It’s after dusk when Kuam’s brother Ngi, having just flown in from the mainland capital, comes to pay respects to Margaret. She stands as he enters the doorway and reaches for his hand. They’re both crying, but silently. Ngi is dressed in a brown sulu with a camera bag strung across his chest. He looks very much like his dead brother. Behind him a tall younger man enters whom Margaret hasn’t seen and then when she does, startled, she moves aside for an embrace. He is Ngi’s son, Albert. Margaret and he are cross-cousins, closer than brother and sister in Baluan society; they are joking cousins, which makes them free to be silly and even provocative to each other as kids, and silent supporters as they grow to adulthood. They sit together on the bench under the light of a kerosene lamp, holding hands. The others in the haus win are an old neighbor woman, Margaret’s teenage son Edward, Leonie, Tiptip, a couple teenage nieces, and myself. “The girls?” Margaret asks Albert.
Albert shakes his head, hiccuping a sob. “They’ll be all right. They went to hospital first and then we sent them Madang, to visit Elizabeth. They’ll be all right.”
“I could have stopped it!” the old man exclaims, shaking his fist. His face is compressed with anger and he flexes his bare feet up and down as they hang from the bench.
“Don’t think,” Margaret says. “You aren’t to blame. It’s the raskals who are.”
Throughout the evening they speak in both Baluan language and Pidgin, so I gather the gist of this slowly.
“Now they won’t have a proper marriage,” Albert says.
“They’ll never forget,” the old man spits. “And it killed their grandfather. Killed him with worry....” His voice softens. “Dead from stroke.”
“He was a worrying man,” Margaret says.
“And I should die too!” Ngi cries again, head bowed.
The old neighbor woman removes the kettle from where it hangs over the fire and for the hundredth time today pours out coffees, with dry milk and heaps of sugar. She hands them to the newcomers. These men live in the capital with Albert’s daughter, and the daughter of Kuam’s son George, a girl of thirteen who’s at school there.
“George is not well,” Albert says, shaking his head. “He’s the most upset.”
The old man slides off the bench and paces the floor. “I was there,” he begins in Pidgin. “I had just come from a veteran’s meeting and for the first time in ten years I’d been given some beers and I was drunk. I came back to the house and fell asleep underneath. I couldn’t even get upstairs, and I passed out. They must have climbed the security fence and the cut through the razor wire and come down in a second. They got inside, tied up Albert and his wife in their bedroom and then went in and defiled the girls. Both of them. They took the TV, a cassette player, food, that’s it. And then they took off. And all the time I slept!” He shakes his fist. “But the police caught them down in Badili at daybreak. They got all three.” He stares at the dirt and his eyes well with tears.
Later we walk to the big house of mourning where a meeting is going on upstairs. It’s a house only half-built, there are people all over the verandah and in the whitewashed rooms upstairs. All the people of Kuam’s line are there sitting against the walls in one room lit by the warm glow of a kero lamp on the floor. Underneath the house everything’s darkness, except out back, behind the house, where seven or eight women sit in a small haus win around a table lit by candles and laden with tin plates of donuts, sago and coconut balls, pineapple slices, dry biscuits and rice balls cooked in coconut milk. We climb the outside stairs to the second floor. On the verandah two little kids lie sleeping face down, and two teenage girls sit with their legs dangling through the palings, talking quietly. In the lamplit room one of Kuam’s nephews is making a speech about how much he’s contributed to the mourning, reminding everyone that he was the one who called the family in Moresby, he rang the morgue, he hired the ambulance from the landing, and found petrol for the boats. Everyone looks utterly exhausted. Another nephew now lists his contributions, his services in kind. He adds that the relatives on Baluan all wanted to bury their uncle right away because of the heat, and they traditionally have the right to make this decision, but in this case they’ve assented to the wishes of the children and gone to these extraordinary lengths to preserve the body for them. “That’s all,” he says, “I’m finished.”
Suddenly a woman who’s been very agitated in one corner bursts out crying and pulling on her hair as she hugs her knees. She turns to the wall and wails that none of these people have the right to organize this funeral, that she alone has the right as the man’s niece on his sister’s line, and she has not been consulted at all, and they should just go and bury him without her if they want it that way, and she knew they would undermine her authority all along, even though she’s been prepared to help the children in every way. Sobs and moans as she declaims them. Twenty or more people around the room wait, looking blank. It’s almost pro forma how they react. Is she really bereft or just making primogeniture claim? No one responds. But when her fit subsides and she’s switched to low gear, Kuam’s son George begins. He’s just come from the capital today, he points out, and wants to express his gratitude to his cousins for putting aside their obligations on this occasion and heeding the desires of their Uncle’s children, so that he and his sister, plus his cousin Albert and Uncle Ngi, could all arrive to say their last good-byes. He speaks with his eyes fixed on the empty center, as if careful not to stir strong sentiments. And yet he also looks tired and sad. Beside him sits his sister Louisa, her hair combed straight back tightly, with pretty bangles on her wrists and a gold chain around her neck. Now she speaks. She wants to acknowledge that she has been told her Uncles Sege and Sionin have made a large contribution to the cost of this funeral and in that way have made it possible for everyone to come say good-bye to her father.
I hear shuffling in the dark hallway beyond the room. There’s the widow, still hooded, slumped against a wall beside a young boy. Both of them sit listening in semi-darkness. They seem to be ghosts, as if no one but myself can see them. In this event the widow is an extra, he has no lines, and waits with the stagehand. Then he stands and walks away into compete darkness, leaving this old woman alone and noiseless. When George finishes, Leonie and her cousin Tiptip rise to leave the room, and I follow. It’s late now, past midnight. As we walk back the houses in the yards have either gone black or glow only dimly. On the beach to our right, two men sit under a mangrove tree drinking beers. I can understand the idea of time standing still, the relativity of it all. How, in a terrible calamity or loss, everything moves very slowly, days pushing on through the night hours without punctuation. The physical exhaustion makes you more sleepless still, and your body grows heavy as your thoughts numb. Mourning, lamentation, in all its tedium.
The next day we go to Papindo Trading and buy a bolt of white cotton, a large piece of red cotton, a can of aerosol deodorant, and two full bolts of flowered cotton. Margaret carries her hand-powered sewing machine out to the haus win where she and Leonie cut and sew a large red cross for the white cloth that will drape the coffin.
At night I have an unexpected dream of Helen, the crazy woman of Lou Island who was born before the War. They say that, as a young girl, Helen and her mother and baby brother were captured by the Japanese in Rabaul, East New Britain, where they were lined up on the beach with other prisoners and shot. But Helen and her mother fell just before the count of three. They lay with the dead bodies until night, when they slid off to the water. Swimming away, they were shot again by guards, who killed the baby. Helen and her mother got away, though, and came back across the Bismarck Sea to Lou Island, which lies just across a strait from Baluan. Helen was never right after that, even as a young woman. She never wore clothes, not even a grass skirt or a cotton wrap. No underpants. Sometimes now she wears a t-shirt and nothing else, a shocking old hag who walks about queerly. Once a tourist was trying to come ashore to Lou by powerboat when Helen appeared on the beach, naked. He pulled back and excused himself for disturbing the old woman her at her wash, but everyone on the shore just laughed and told him not to worry. Now the image of Helen’s nakedness keeps reappearing to me in all its clumsy detail. I want to know what her body looks like for some reason, and yet it’s always out of focus Sometimes I sense everyone on the shore is laughing at me, but I’m wearing clothes. Still everyone laughs, they keep on laughing. It’s me, the outsider, I’m arrived, embarrassed. Please tell me why? I want to know. That’s where the dream ends.
It’s barely dawn when we set out for Baluan again. We enter a long channel banked by mangroves that’s the passage between the main island and the smaller Los Negros island, connected overhead by a two lane bridge. There’s a truck on the grassy shoulder above, and people are handing cargo down from the truck to Gibson’s big boat, where the coffin is secured under a yellow tarp. The three boats from Lorengau pull up to wait for Gibson, and soon we all leave in procession for the long trip to Baluan. The sea is calm, but not dead calm. We pass the small volcanic islands where people come to picnic, and proceed out to the vast sea. Only Lou and Pom islands now tear a distant gray band between the sky and the water. Everywhere flying fish leap from our wake, fanning out tiny gills to soar across the glassy surface, improbable fairy acrobats like an entourage for this procession. An old man named Namalap pulls out a half-smoked bush cigar and strikes one match after another to light up. He cups his hands, turns his back and hunkers down between the mound of cargo and the side of the boat, but the wind finds him anyway. One of the young men up front takes it, bends over between his knees, sucks it alite, and hands it back to Namalap, who curls up in a depression on the tarp to enjoy his smoke. Just over half way, when Lou Island draws close enough to reveal Baluan behind it, the sea changes. Larger waves ripple loosely across the surface, then begin to cross cut each other. Choppy crests surround the boat and slowly rise and fall over bigger and bigger swells. Sometimes Roy, standing drenched in the stern, will steer into the waves to plow across them, and sometimes they come back to smash the boat sideways, rolling it almost halfway over. Water slaps up both sides of the boat, drenching everyone as we rock back and forth. We slip into a trough and are thrown sideways with great thudding force, then rise and dip with a smaller swell, only to crash into a bigger wave on the other side, water spilling in on all sides now. Gradually the spray turns to rain, and I look out to where the other boats have been swallowed by white clouds sitting on the surface of the water. I wonder if the corpse has been jerked around. The engine chokes and stops, and one of the young men scrambles to the back to help Roy lift the motor, change hoses, and pump fuel from one tank to another, as the boat rocks wildly and everyone tries a firmer grip on the sides. Slap bang, I think of the corpse against the wooden box. Leonie turns to me and her face looks mauve, like the sadness has become nausea and she might heave at any minute now. But she doesn’t.
Kuam is buried that afternoon. He is dropped into the fourth attempt at a grave, the one spot clear or coral, right before his house. A Win Nasin choir stands by the open hole and sings eight songs about Manus and Papua New Guinean Unity. One young girl sings the first line of the song on her own, as the caller, and the group responds en masse. As they sing some of them start to cry. The choir master gives a sermon with a Bible in his hand. When it ends, they shift the coffin down by long strips of red fabric into a six foot hole. Sionin stands on a boulder with his videocamera and Albert, from Moresby, stands near the grave and takes pictures with an instamatic. One of Kuam’s sons takes laplaps and a hard-hat belonging to his father and bends down to place them on the red cross of the coffin. He rises to shovel the first mound of soil, the whole gathering bursts out crying. Kuam’s brother Ngi comes up to the edge of the grave and wails, his face contorted, calling out to the brother who looked exactly like him. It’s all too sad to bear; my own nose tingles and my eyes are tearing now. Soon all the soil has been shifted into the hole. People stamp on the grave, they place wreaths of plastic flowers and strands of gladiolus on top. Afterwards, we all go home to sleep. Only the kids are left awake—Beryl, Stephanie and Kanawi all running down the rocky path throwing stones at the water.
Many years later, Leonie’s brother Ray became a member of my household in Madang, and Uncle Ray to all my kids and grandchildren. A big gentle character, Ray has never been working on all cylinders, which makes him easy to con or manipulate and why, when I saw him in the market in Madang that day, I had to invite him home. That quality also made him rule-bound and honest; he could obsess over small transgressions and play the bad cop to the little kids, a quality I valued. Ray became a security guard and worked nights, which was convenient to us as he could be home all day to watch the house. We had an early audio book of Eragon, the fabulist young adult novel about dragons and princesses that is so beautifully realized because, I have since learned, it was written by a young man himself, someone home schooled in the marvels of the original Hobbit, C.S. Lewis, Frank L. Baum and Grimm fairytales. This was before Harry Potter. Ray lay in bed and listened to it right through, and listened again and again. Leonard was seven I think and they took turns living with Eragon. It may have been with him on an earpiece the night Ray’s workmates decided to rob the big company they were guarding. In the end, they ran off and left Ray holding the bag. Rattled, but resilient, he survived the court case and went to prison for a year. Prison in Madang at the time was neither awful nor benign, it involved overcrowded cells in a fairly beaucolic part of town. Similarly, the diet was little more than brown rice and tinned fish every day, more than many villagers would ask for, but monotonous to anyone for whom food is the very structure of their day. We would bring novels and pots of chicken on the weekend that the guards sometimes confiscated. Our friend the convicted rapist ex-Governor of Madang was also serving a sentence in the prison, and his circle of homeboys made the place seem like a low security stint for a mob boss, but it may have made everyone’s life easier for the time being. Ray lost over thirty pounds that year in prison, and all the old Madang people from the old Yali movement embraced him as the prodigal son, child of Paliau, when he came back. They fattened him up nicely. It seems to me that Ray has never left the wondrous but intelligent place of Baluan childhood. He would have been the determined but not bossy one, maybe last in line but perfectly able to fend for himself.