Authors: Randolph Stow
Tags: #CLASSIC FICTION
The path we walked on was cropped and green, springy under my feet in shoes, springier to her bare soles. But the palms that bordered it were stunted and poor. Somehow the whole island, the earth of it, seemed starved. For more than a week there had been no rain, and the mean scrub of the fallow gardens had shrivelled and the grass had dried. In the middle of the brilliant, empty sea the island was like a drab backyard that man had made and never looked at since with more than half an eye.
But the headman loved it, that was evident. At the entrance to his village, standing aside from the path, he threw out his arm like an immense gate that he had been keeping closed till then so as to stun us at the last minute. He flung open his arm for us, and we filed past it, and came out in the centre of a circle of houses much like any other houses, but poorer than most, where chickens scratched and women cooked and one pig foraged on the barren swept ground.
The long line behind me caught up and milled around us, guiding us towards the thatched platform outside the headman’s house, where an old woman who must have been the headman’s wife was spreading grass mats, and beaming. Small boys darted from the trees with green coconuts and screamed at their fathers to hack them open so that the Dimdims could drink. Half the village had a chicken under one arm, and the other half had a bamboo pipe in one hand, and the word on every lip was
, to smoke tobacco. Even the animals came running to look at us, and the hens shrieked and fell about as the pigs charged through.
Through all the commotion Kailusa moved like a priest, carrying the sacrament in a padlocked tin box.
E, the crazy people. I laughed so much that Alistea turned round and told me enough. But who would not have laughed at them, all talking about the tobacco they were going to have. And the wife of Punutala, the old commander of the village, she kept shouting at him to ask the Dimdims if they would buy this thing or that thing, and if they would calaboose the person who was stealing her seedlings of tobacco in the night. That was when I laughed most, thinking of that robber in the night. I thought that in two years he would have enough seedlings for a cigarette, and then would have to sail to another island to smoke it.
And the things that they brought to sell, where had they got them? These are the things they wanted Alistea and Timi to buy: two forks and two spoons, a live crab, a pair of glasses like Misa Makadoneli’s with no glass, a battery for Misa Makadoneli’s torch, a live grasshopper for eating, the skin of a python, a green parrot, a little new pig, and a piece of something that nobody could say what it was, but Timi thought it was a part of a Dimdim machine called a squeezebox. All these things the Kaga people thought that Alistea would wish to buy with his tobacco.
But Alistea told them, no, he wanted nothing, only to talk with them. But he said if they would talk, he would buy one chicken from each man, for one stick each. And so they said: ‘O taubada, our very great thanks,’ and Kailusa gave every man one stick, and soon it was as if the whole island was burning.
Then Alistea said that he wanted to talk only with the men, the women and children should go away. When they heard that the women muttered and were angry, and would only go after the men had given them half of their tobacco. And they said to Alistea: ‘And her, taubada,’ pointing at me. But he said: ‘She is not a Kaga woman,’ and so I stayed with the Dimdims and the men, after the women had hustled each other away to smoke in the grove.
As soon as they were gone Alistea opened a little book and spoke to the men from the platform where he and Timi sat. He said that they would not like to hear what he was going to say, but that it was nothing, it was all over, they were not to be afraid, he only wanted them to talk with him.
Then he said: ‘Seventeen years ago, in the war, at Misima, a man called Buriga began to talk to the people. Buriga told the people that if all the Dimdims were killed the world would turn over, and any Dimdim that remained would be changed into a native, and all the natives would be changed into Dimdims. And because of Buriga’s talk, a soldier and a trader and some other Dimdims were murdered.
‘Later on some canoes came to Misima from Muyuwa and heard Buriga’s talk and took it back with them to Muyuwa. And with the talk they took a man called Taudoga. We do not know this man Taudoga, where he was born or where he is now. He was not a Misima man and not a Muyuwa man. Perhaps he was a Kaga man. We only know these things about him: he believed in Buriga’s talk, and he was mad, and he wanted to kill.
‘In the same year a Kaga canoe went to the village of Boagis on Muyuwa and heard the talk of Taudoga. And when the men returned to Kaga they brought Taudoga with them.
‘The first thing that Taudoga did when he came to Kaga was to make himself King of it. These were the people in the Government of Taudoga’s kingdom:
Number Two King: Mewabusi
By that time none of the Kaga men was looking at Alistea. They were looking at their hands, or the ground. And I and Osana were laughing and laughing and could not stop.
But Alistea went on.
‘Resident Magistrates: Tamayuyu
‘O, Punutala,’ cried Osana to the headman, ‘were you nothing better than a Resident Magistrate?’
‘Shut up, Osana,’ Alistea said in English. And once more he read from the book.
‘Assistant Resident Magistrates: Polonai
‘Motor Drivers!’ I and Osana called out together. But Alistea frowned, and we covered our faces in our arms.
Alistea said again:
‘Motor Drivers: Gumabudi and Gudisei.’
Then the names were finished, and Alistea looked up from the book. ‘That was the Government,’ he said. ‘We do not know very much about the doings of that Government, but we do know what Taudoga said. He told you people of Kaga that once your ancestors had made the world turn over, everything would begin again. He said that your ancestors would come to life again and give you everything that you wanted: food, white men’s somethings, everything. And so you people of Kaga, you went to your gardens and destroyed them, you cut down your palms and fruit-trees, you emptied your yam-houses into the sea. You said to the ancestors: ‘See, we have nothing.’ And truly you had nothing. But still the world did not turn over.’
We looked at the men of Kaga, I and Osana, and we could not see one face. Their heads were down towards the ground, and all their happiness about the tobacco was gone.
‘I do not speak of this to shame you,’ Alistea said. ‘Three of you have been in the calaboose in Misima because of it. It has been forgotten for thirteen years. But the Patrol Officer who heard of it and punished those three men could not find Taudoga. He was gone. So I am asking you, when everyone else has forgotten: What did you do when he was King? And where is Taudoga today?’
At last one face was lifted up among the heads of the crouching people. It was the old one, Punutala. He said: ‘Taubada, Taudoga vanished. In the night, we do not know how. No one saw him again.’
?’ Alistea said. ‘And his customs? What did you do in the time when Taudoga was King?’
But the old man would not speak another word. He hid his face, and the silence went on and on.
‘Very well,’ said Alistea, swinging down his legs from the platform and standing among the men, ‘we will not talk any more. I am sorry that I have made you feel shame. It was long ago. I thought that you would make me understand. Now I see that I will never understand. Well, we others, we must return now to Kailuana. So let it disappear from your minds, and come, all of you, and say goodbye to us under the mango tree.’
I saw that he felt pity for those men, and I felt pity too, they were so quiet and so shamed before us and one another. Only Osana kept on laughing to himself, and muttering: ‘Idiots.’
‘Okay, Tim,’ Alistea said, and moved his head, and went away. And Timi, who had not understood one word of all that talk, jumped down from the platform and hurried after him, looking surprised and a little stupid, the way he often looked in those days, but today no more.
Side by side, in white clothes, Alistea and Timi were walking across the emptiness of the village place. Then Kailusa went, and I and Osana and Biyu followed. Behind us the village was still as if a great disease had suddenly killed it; but all those eyes, I knew, were looking at our backs.
And I thought: Shame is very strong, shame is terrible, most of all the shame of a man. I thought: That is a thing that can kill, the shame of a man.
I hadn’t understood anything that he said, but I saw the men freeze under his words, and when we left it was like saying goodbye to a ghost village that had nothing to offer us any more.
But that was only the men. From the grove the women and children caught sight of us, and came running. They massed in the path behind us, marching in step. Or else burst suddenly from the bushes ahead, to stand big-eyed beside the track and drink in the picture of us from front and side and rear.
,’ they told each other, and I knew that that was me. A very big man, so they said everywhere.
And I thought for his sake, to lighten the atmosphere, I would do my act for them, Dolu’udi the Dimdim clown.
,’ I called to them. ‘
Sena toveaka yaegu
.’ And it brought the house down, as always, it had them screaming and slapping themselves with laughter. They shouted the news down the length of the line that I had agreed I was truly a big man.
Only Misa Kodo, stumping the path ahead of me, was not bowled over by the joke, having heard it a few times before.
After a while the applause died away into mutters and whispers, and I knew that behind me there would be a clustering of people around Osana or Biyu, full of questions. Were we kind, were we clever, were we just? Because I had made us human to them, by sounding like an idiot, and they would want to know more.
And then it seemed that the air changed. Over and over I heard the same phrase being whispered, and it sounded like a phrase that I had heard before, had heard often, always on those walks between villages, always in a whisper. It sounded like something that we were not supposed to hear or understand. And to show them that I had my ears about me, to scandalize them, I shouted it out.
La kwava i paek’
And the whole world seemed to die, with a little gasp.
I saw Alistair pause in mid-step. His head moved and he looked at me. Unbelieving. As if I had put a spear in his back. Then he turned and walked on, faster than before.
I went after him, half-running, with that silence around me. I said to the back of his neck: ‘Alistair—what did I say?’
‘Don’t you know?’ he said, speaking straight ahead.
‘You know I don’t know, I just said what they were saying. You’ve got to tell me.’
He dropped his voice, though no one within earshot could have understood the English. ‘You said: “His wife refused.”’
The quietness seemed to hit me in the head and in the gut, like a rush of blood brought on by fear or shame.
Yet we were still ridiculously striding on, in single file, an engine with one truck.
‘I didn’t know,’ I said.
‘It’s their idiom,’ he said, ‘didn’t I tell you? As we might say: “His wife took a powder.”’
‘Alistair,’ I said. I came beside him and put one arm round his shoulder. But he broke away and went on.
‘It’s nothing new,’ he said. ‘Wherever we go, any village, I hear that in the background. It goes on as long as I’m there. And then all the discussions, all the arguments, about what went wrong.’
‘How do they know?’
‘Osana tells them. Or Sayam, or Biyu. Everybody’s interested. A great old Dimdim comedy.’
should it matter so much? It’s happened to plenty of other people, plenty of
‘Oh, yes, but,’ he said, ‘I’m a Dimdim, and you don’t often see a Dimdim so—at such a disadvantage. And they have theories, you know, about me. Have they ever got theories. She’d be amazed. I’m amazed.’
He never turned, but went striding on, the shadows of the palms sliding down his white clothes and falling on the green ground.
‘I never would,’ I tried to tell him, ‘I never would—’
Still moving, he reached back an arm and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. ‘Come on,’ he said dragging me after him, ‘walk beside me. Dimdims shall be seen to be the best of mates at all times. Forget it, it’s something-nothing. My wife refused, but what the hell. I’ll write South for another one. What else did they say?’
‘I don’t remember,’ I said, not wanting to remember. ‘Oh, except—something, they said, they thought was very big.
, they said.
Kala mwasila sena kwaiveaka, a dok
‘“His shame,”’ Alistair said, towards the gap in the palms ahead, where the
showed, asleep on the wheat-green water. ‘“His shame, I think, must be very great.”’
‘It’s mad,’ I said. ‘Their idea of shame—’
‘Of course it is,’ he said. ‘But that’s just them. Our custom is different.’
When I and Saliba came to the beach Mister Cawdor and Mister Dalwood were sitting in the sand under the mango tree, and Mister Cawdor was talking to a young Kaga man called Sagova. They were sitting with their backs to the rock and their legs stretched out in front of them. But when Saliba walked near them to go to the dinghy Sagova jumped to his feet, because the sand was so narrow that he saw she would have to step over their legs almost, and he was nervous. And he kept looking down at Mister Cawdor and Mister Dalwood and muttering: ‘Taubada, taubada,’ until Mister Dalwood stood up too, though he did not understand the reason. But Mister Cawdor stayed where he was, and just nodded to Saliba as she passed.