Fireflies Killed Her
My name is Polanara.
When my daughter gave birth to a boy, our white man Elliot exchanged names with him. Now my grandson has an American name, and Elliot has a Nagovisi name, Kanai. Elliot killed a pig for his namesake, making them one person. I am their grandfather.
I’m not like the younger men. It’s hard for me to be at ease with whites, because before our white man came to us, no white man had ever done anything except give me orders. Make me work for him. Obey. Not talk to him beyond saying, “Yes, master.”
Even though Elliot did none of these things, it wasn’t until he became my grandson that I felt at ease with him. I understood that he wanted to learn things from us. Yes, even from me, an old man.
When he lived with us he studied our gardens. He loved gardens more than anything and was always asking questions about them, especially the taro gardens from before. When the Japan War came to us, the taro died and never grew again. The war, all the killing, the death of taro, these are bound together in ways none of us, not even Lalaga, can understand.
It’s possible that my grandson is here to study these connections. Maybe some day he’ll tell us, unless it’s a secret.
Since the Japan War, I’ve had a question I wanted to ask an American. I’ve seen one or two Americans since the fighting, but I never thought I could ask them anything. It wasn’t only because they couldn’t speak our language. I thought they wouldn’t want to tell their secrets to someone they didn’t know. When I became Elliot’s grandfather I thought if I asked him to reveal American secrets, he would. I was waiting for the right time.
One day he asked me to show him my old taro garden, so he could study it. I thought that would be the right time and place, the garden where we were on this day I’m telling you about.
Even so I almost didn’t ask, because it was so direct. But then I reasoned that because he asked me to help him, and I did, that he would want to make us even by answering my question. Even exchange is very important to us and he understood that.
I said, “Grandson. Here we are. I’ve told you everything about this garden, the garden we made before you were born. I remembered where I felled the trees, and I showed you the stumps. I showed you where we planted taro and sweet potatoes, greens, where I made the fences, everything. I showed you, I helped you cut lanes so you could measure, and I held the end of your tape, and you made your map. Are you finished?”
He said that he was.
I said to him, “Now that we’re standing here, I have something to ask you.”
He looked at me, and although I was used to that open look of his, the look that always says, “Ask me anything you like,” it was hard for me to ask my question. It wasn’t a question such as “What’s the name of your village?” or “What’s your mother’s name?” Many people ask him simple questions like that, and he always answers them.
Mine was more difficult. True, men like Siro and Lalaga are always asking him about America, and the young men and women, they talk about modern things. I know because I hear them talking and it’s clear they are talking easily about things that are not secret or forbidden to talk about.
I know that the world beyond Nagovisi is a different world. But I’m an old man now, so knowing that it’s different is all I want. I don’t need to know how it’s different, or why. The new things like radios and tape recorders, I just listen to them. It’s not necessary for me to understand anything about them, or learn how to operate them, and I don’t want to.
The same with cacao. I grow some cacao, and my daughter and son-in-law dry it and take to the Co-Op and they bring back money, and we buy tinned meat or rice with it. Without cacao I wouldn’t have any money, but that would be all right. I help my daughter in her garden and she feeds me, and when I’m too old to go to the garden, she’ll still feed me, and then I’ll die and the Lolo women will come for my body and probably cremate me, because I’m not strong for the Catholic Church.
I was thinking all these things while my grandson was standing there not saying anything. I was thinking about them because thinking about that day brought back memories of fear, of death, of dead bodies, of mourning, of cremation, and most of all, of trying to understand new things.
I walked a little distance from him as if I had to do something with my knife, which was easy because in the bush there’s always something to do with a knife. I was deciding how to phrase it. He waited, standing.
When I was ready I turned and walked back to him. I said, “My question is, do you know who killed my wife, your grandmother, here in this place?”
He widened his eyes. He seemed only a little surprised, and I thought that might mean that he knew that he might be asked about it. He said, “It was an airplane, that’s what everybody told me. An American war plane. No? Are you saying that it wasn’t an airplane?”
I said, “No, no, it was airplane guns, I know that. I asked who, not what, because an American man flew the airplane and shot the guns and because you are an American I am wondering if you know whether that man was black or white.”
That last thing was my true question. Many old people believe that the American pilots, the ones who bombed us, the ones who sprayed poison on our gardens, that these were black men, not white men. I believe this might be true.
My grandson said he knew that an airplane killed Katenai, but he never heard the whole story. He asked me to tell it to him. I thought he might be trying to slow things down, so as to have time to think. Whether he learned that from us or it was already his way when he came to us, I don’t know.
I began telling him. I remembered everything about it, even the little things.
In my mind I could see the garden the way it was. I asked him if he could see it too, and he said that he could. He’s been learning about gardens from Siuwako, and he can clear away trees and brush and vines in his mind and see what any place looked like a long time ago. She taught him that.
I pointed to where my wife had been restarting the fires from the day before, and I told my grandson, “It happened over there.”
He nodded his head and said “Tell me, Grandfather.”
I said, “I was swinging my machete around, deciding what to do first, maybe repair the fence, maybe weed, maybe cut some new bush. It was still chilly. I was turning around, moving, and then I heard the airplane.”
I paused. When I was silent, my grandson asked if I knew what airplanes were then, before the fighting.
“Yes,” I said. I told him I knew what they were, and I knew they carried cargo because Lovio’s plantation master at Rabaul sent him to the airstrip to unload cargo from one. That was the first time he saw one up close, and when his contract was over and he came home, he told us about it. But I didn’t know they could be used for fighting. I thought they were like cargo ships, except they traveled into the air. They were just another machine that white people used to carry things from place to place.
I told my grandson that before the Americans came, airplanes were rare. Sometimes we heard them but rarely saw them, and when we did, they were high in the air. Then after one killed Katenai they were always overhead, not droning in straight lines but diving, tossing like bats, flitting. Usually we saw them in pairs, like hornbills, but sometimes they were all together, like crows mobbing an eagle.
I stood up and asked my grandson to come to the cliff with me. I cut some bush and when it was open enough so he could see out over the Tavera River, I pointed to the bend and I told him that I heard a sound that wasn’t the airplane sound I knew. It wasn’t steady. It was changing pitch, and although I thought it was an airplane I couldn’t see one in the sky, which confused me.
The feel of that day was returning to me. I put my hand on my grandson’s shoulder and spun him around, and I said “Look, you see? This was all clear, from there to there to there”— I was pointing — “you know what a garden on a ridge looks like, so I could see the sky but there was no airplane in it. And I turned around and around, looking, like this,” and I spun around, looking up, and I said, “Katenai was busy with the fires, kneeling, making noise with the branches, concentrating. I’m sure she heard it too, because she turned around. The sound got louder and louder and then suddenly it flew around the bend, so fast, fast, right at us. I hadn’t seen one except high up, from underneath, the wings, but here we were, suddenly the airplane coming at us.”
I slashed at the air with my machete. I knew my voice was changing. I said, “I was so surprised. It shot lightning, winking, but slower than lightning, and I remember thinking fireflies, fireflies in the morning? I couldn’t understand it. I turned towards Katenai and I saw the earth around her spurting up, I’d never seen such a thing before, and blood spurted from her, too, from her back, because she had jumped up from her fire and then she was driven backwards, spinning around.”
It was so fast. I clapped my hands three times to show my grandson how fast it happened. One, two, three claps, finished.
And the roaring! And a crackling sound like fire, only louder.
I said, faster than I meant to, “And it seemed like a wind flung her over there, Grandson, when the blood shot out, it was right over there, there, it shot out,” I pointed with my machete, “over there.” And I said again, “Over there. Over there.”
My grandson looked at me without saying anything. His mouth was open.
I said, “Now I know it was bullets hitting her that flung her back onto the heap, like when wind, wind rushing before a storm, takes a rain cape. That’s what it looked like. You know how wind sweeps down from Wakupa, you hear the noise, look up, see brown clouds, then it’s on you, the wind, you run to the garden house to be safe, the thatching jumps and slaps. This was more sudden. No wind from Wakupa ever came so fast, wind never made that noise. No storm ever swept in with fireflies for lightning. No. No. And the blood spreading.”
I sat down, then I stood up again. It was hard for me because this was something I never talked about. Telling my grandson about it made it real again, and that made me angry and frightened. We Nagovisi say fear is sometimes anger’s mother and sometimes anger’s child but on this day I’m talking about they were sisters.
My grandson said nothing. He was looking at me and his eyes told me he understood. I could see that I’d taken him there with me, back to that day. He was seeing it as I saw it, feeling it as I felt it, and that calmed me, as if I had transferred my feelings to him.
I said, “Grandson, after she was down I couldn’t do anything. I stood here, stunned as if lightning had struck near me, and I remember thinking fireflies killed her, even though I knew the airplane had done it. I knew she was dead but I couldn’t understand how.”
I took my grandson’s arm and pulled him to where Katenai died.
I said, “I ran to her, here. Around her was red, blood on the dirt, blood splattered on the leaves she was burning, and the fire was heating the leaves and they were brown and curling up around the sizzling blood. Even though I was confused and terrified all I could think of was how much it looked like betel spit into a fire, the way it hisses and boils on hot wood.”
He said, “Oh, Grandfather.” That was all he said. I told him I looked at the blood and I looked at Katenai and I didn’t know what to do. I pulled some branches over us, and I hid there with her until I couldn’t hear the airplane any more. I could hear her body making noises, but I knew she was dead.
My grandson put his hand on my arm. I slashed a little at the leaves. I said, “Katenai did nothing to the airplane and neither did I. An American pilot came and killed her for no reason and although I could not see his face, some people say that the pilots were black men from America.”
My grandson said, “Black men? Is that what people say?” and before I could answer he said, “This is a hard story to hear, especially in this place. I wonder if you can tell me what happened next?”
I wanted to be sure he understood, so I said, “Black men is what people say, but I don’t know whether that’s true. American black men.”
He didn’t say anything. He nodded his head as if to say, “Tell your story,” so I did. After this long, I could wait a little for an answer.
I said, “I had to carry her back. It was very hard. I crept out from under the brush. I was still afraid of the airplane. I pulled Katenai out and I slung her across my shoulder and started carrying her back to the village. I had never carried a dead person by myself. All the way there were noises louder than anything I ever heard, and more airplanes too.”
He asked me if I’d stayed on the trail.
I said, “Yes. On the open parts of the trail I tried to run, because I was exposed. It was hard to run because when I did she bounced up and down on my shoulder. It was terrible to feel that. Can you understand?”
He nodded his head yes and then he shook it, no.
I went on. “When she bounced on my shoulder, her body made noises. So I held her tight, but that felt wrong. I knew she was dead but I was thinking ‘Maybe I’m hurting her.’ That’s how crazy I was. I held her tight and ran a little faster than walking, and when the bush hid the trail I slowed, but I never stopped.”
My grandson said, “It’s very far from here to the village.”
I said, “Very far, yes. It was terrible. My back and chest were covered with blood, and it mixed with my sweat, matting my body hair. When I looked down at my chest it seemed I was the one bleeding. Blood ran down to my elbows and dripped off, and her arms were slap slapping against my back, her feet bobbing in front so she seemed alive.”
I put my hand on my grandson’s bare back and struck him rhythmically, so he could feel what I felt.
“Slapping,” I said, “bobbing, bouncing, and I could smell her. Smoke, sweat, her wrap, woman-smell. It was terrible. Finally I came into the village but no one was there. I stood at the center. I was so tired and frightened that I didn’t know what to do. And sad.
“I slid her down through my arms, Grandson, that was awful because her head hit my shoulder and I had to look at her dead face. I couldn’t put her down. I turned her and I cradled her like a child, and then I called out, without clearing my throat or catching my breath, and what came out of me was a huge voice screaming ‘Katenai is dead! Dead! An airplane killed her!’”
My grandson took my hand.
I said, “And all the people who were in their gardens, but no airplane attacked them, all those people who ran from their gardens when the noise began, all those people who ran carrying food and infants, all those people hiding in the bush around the village, all those people ran towards me to see if it was true. When they saw me holding bloody dead Katenai they knew it was true.”
My grandson said, “Grandfather, I’m crying for you,” and I could see that his eyes were wet and I believed him.
“Cry,” I said, “Weep. And I will tell you what happened. The people came to me. When they saw Katenai with big bloody holes in her they made noises but they couldn’t speak. People couldn’t control themselves. Some people belched. Some groaned. Some farted. Some covered their faces and sobbed. Two or three ran away back into the bush. The rest made a ring around me, and I kneeled on the dirt and put Katenai down on her back. No one helped me. I arranged her arms properly and put her legs together.”
I took my hand from my grandson’s and wiped my own eyes. “When I stood up my body felt as though it would rise into the sky. On that day I thought I would rise like smoke and airplanes would kill me. Then the women began circling her body and singing the mourning dirge immediately in full sun, and the men joined them. They didn’t wait to wash the body and lay it out in a house. Nobody went to get a mat to cover her. That was not our way but no one was thinking clearly.”
My grandson touched my arm. He said, “Did you stay with her?”
I said, “I stood next to Katenai. I should have joined the circle, but to me it was like a dream. I thought I might be dead, too, with the mourners singing and dancing around me. The center is for the dead and the singing and dancing is for the living, but I was so confused it seemed I was dead and alive at the same time. I joined in the singing, My wife, O my wife, O my wife, which told me I was alive. But the other singers were surrounding me, which told me I was dead.”
My grandson asked me if I’d stood there for a long time, and I said that I didn’t think it was very long, but it seemed a long time, and he made a noise but said nothing.
I said, “Mesiamo came and took me away from the mourners. ‘Let them sing,’ he said, ‘come away now.’ He took me to my cookhouse and made me sit down and drink water. Then he gave me betel. I didn’t want to chew because of the red, but he made me. He prepared it for me and put it in my hand and put my hand to my mouth, so I took it in and chewed. I didn’t want to spit red, because I was remembering the red blood that came from Katenai’s mouth, so I swallowed my spit.”
“And then?” my grandson asked, “What then?”
I said, “Mesiamo asked me, ‘Was it a Japanese airplane?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to tell,’ and he said, ‘Did it have red circles on it?’ and I said, ‘I didn’t see any red circles,’ and then he said, ‘Did you see anything?’ and I said, “No, it was so fast, but no red circles,’ and he said, ‘It was not the Japanese,’ and then he said, ‘This is bad because we don’t know who is killing us.’”
My grandson said, “Grandfather, what happened then? Did you cremate her?”
“Yes,” I said, “Mesiamo sent men for wood to build the pyre. The men couldn’t make the proper ritual meal but even so they went for the wood and cut and split it and chopped down Katenai’s betel palms for the supports. The women washed her and covered her with a mat. All this was done in a rush when the sun was still high. We laid her in the body-crib and and I put fire to it.”
“And that night?” my grandson asked.
I said, “Everybody came to me that night and made me tell my story over and over, because Katenai was the only one killed. Everyone wanted to hear it. I told them, ‘Why must you hear the story so many times,’ and Big Kenema from Osilaada said, ‘Because if we can understand what she did to anger the airplane we won’t be killed,’ and Lunta asked me, ‘Why did it kill her and not you?’ and that was my question too. I couldn’t answer it.”
My grandson said, “It must have been very hard. In the morning she was alive and working in her garden and by nightfall she was burned to ashes. So sudden, so fast.”
I said, “It was terrible. All in one day. And that night, questions, questions, and the people surrounded me in the feasting house. ‘Why? Why?’ they kept asking and I had no answer, and then I became angry and I answered ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, Why are you asking me, I don’t know’ to every question, and finally Mesiamo said ‘Stop!’ and he made everybody leave.”
My grandson asked, “You were alone that night?”
I said, “Yes. I left all the people in the feasting house and went to our house. I lay down on a bench in the cookhouse and covered myself with a mat. I couldn’t have a fire because of the death, but I didn’t want one, because of the airplane. I was afraid that it would see the fire or see me, the one who escaped, and come winking like a firefly in the night and kill me.”
Again my grandson made a noise and touched my arm.
I shook my head and made a noise myself. I said, “I fell asleep and dreamed that in the garden Katenai flung herself at the piled up brush, that when she staggered to the heap she was escaping under branches and logs.
“And in the dream I ran to her and she called to me from the heap, ‘Husband, I’m not dead, under the logs I’m alive,’ and I pulled the tree branches and vines from the burning heap but I could not find her. I pulled and pulled and she called ‘I’m alive, I’m alive,’ but she wasn’t there.”
My grandson said, “Grandfather, I’m very sad about all this,” and I said, “I know you are, and I’ll continue. When I woke from the dream I knew she was dead. I could smell the pyre, I could smell her flesh burning, I could smell the blood that was still in my chest hairs because I never went to wash. And Mesiamo was sitting with me, not talking, just sitting. I was not an important man, that he should sit with me while I slept.”
I paused, remembering all this, how strange it was. I said, “And I remember thinking, ‘We are in a different time now.’”
In the garden I sat on a log facing the little area I’d cleared while telling my story. I pushed my machete in and out of the dirt and said softly, “I couldn’t ask you about the pilot before today. I thought maybe you wouldn’t tell, if you knew, because it might be an American secret we are not allowed to know. Then you asked to study my old garden and I thought, ‘I’ll ask him there, I’ll show him the spot and when he looks at it and hears about my first wife, his grandmother, killed there, shot for no reason, maybe he’ll tell me what he knows.’”
“So that’s what I think,” I said, “that maybe you know, and if you do, that you’ll tell me. Now I’ve said everything I have to say.”
My grandson said nothing for a little while. Then he said, “Grandfather, please ask your question again. You told me this sad story and it made me weep, but I’m not sure what your question was.”
I wondered if that was true, that he had forgotten, but it wasn’t important. We all say things like that.
I said to him, “I want to know if the pilot was a black man or a white man.”
My grandson cleared his throat and said, “In the books I have read about the Japanese War, there is nothing about black pilots. The black pilots were in the place called Europe, where the other part of the big war was. So I can tell you that the pilot who killed Katenai was a white man, not a black man.”
I thought that was probably true. If my grandson didn’t know which pilots were black and which were white, then no one I could ever talk to would know.
He said, “Grandfather, I’m wondering why you are worried about this.”
I said, “I have seen many things in my life, but one thing never changed until you came to us. What’s never changed is that white people boss black people and if it’s ever black fighting white, the whites kill the blacks. Therefore it is easy to understand what to do about white people, which is to obey them always. Otherwise they might kill you.”
We sat there for a while without speaking, and I decided to tell him why I wanted to know. I felt sure he’d understand.
“Grandson,” I said, “Grandson, it’s like this. I think that everybody, black or white, that everybody is unhappy if the world seems upside down, not the way you think it is. Don’t you agree?” and he said that he did, but that’s all he said.
For a moment I said nothing. I’d asked him a difficult question but this was almost as difficult.
“Grandfather, tell me,” my grandson said, and so I said, “It’s like this. If the pilot was black then everything I understand about the world is wrong. But if the pilot was white then the world is as I have always thought it was.”
I looked at him and said, “Do you see? Do you see?” and he said, “I see,” and I said, “Then you understand it comforts me, that the pilot was white.”
My grandson looked at me and I could see he was sad. I could see that he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. After a while he said we should start back to the village before the rain came down from the mountains.