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I’m Going to Sovele

 

Everybody calls me Lunta, which means deaf. The young people don’t know my other names, but I don’t care. It’s just a name, and it’s a good name because indeed I am deaf, although not as deaf as I pretend to be. They don’t know I hear them imitating me, but I do. Everybody thinks it’s funny when I say “I’m going to Sovele. I’m sick,” because I say it so often and, it’s true, I do shout it. Sovele’s where the hospital is, so why shouldn’t I go there when I’m sick? It’s closer than Lalaga’s hospital.

     Not long ago a mountain man I knew died. We don’t speak the names of people who have recently died, so I’ll call him The Dead One. He was a man I’d fought, long before the Japan War, when we were both young—little more than boys. In that battle we killed five of them, and four of our people died, but it was all even because someone among the mountain men had already killed our leader Mesiamo’s father by sorcery, and that made it five each.

     I tried to kill The Dead One and he tried to kill me. We both failed but in the end here I was, alive, and there he was, up in the mountains, dead. I didn’t go up there to cry for The Dead One and dance around his funeral pyre with the other mourners, even though I wanted to. I was afraid, and that’s the truth.

     Among the mountain men you can still find skilled sorcerers, as skilled as the one who killed Mesiamo’s father. And cremations are dangerous. All sorts of spirits come to cremations, you don’t know what might emerge from the dead person’s body, the smoke can carry poisons, people are moving and close together so there’s a chance somebody could put something on you, or blow something at you, or even stick you with something and you wouldn’t know until it was too late.

     The other Pomalate and Biroi people didn’t go up either. Our leader Mesiamo is a fierce man but he never seeks out trouble. Even though the deaths were settled long ago, we think the mountain men are holding what we Nagovisi call mudemude, an anger that stays hidden for years. You never know about mudemude until someone reveals it, maybe by doing something on account of it.

     Another reason was that they didn’t invite us, and although it’s not wrong to go uninvited to a cremation, it’s never a good idea if you think there might be trouble.

     If there’s mudemude it’s because the mountain men think that Mesiamo has no right to their clan brother Leau’s head, which we cut off in that battle. I haven’t seen that head since the Japan War, and I don’t know where Mesiamo hides it or even if he still has it. But I suppose that doesn’t matter to the mountain men.

     I was one of the men who killed Leau, and watched his head being cut off. If it weren’t for that business about the head, I wouldn’t fear going among the mountain men. Indeed because The Dead One and I had become friends, sometimes went up there to visit. I always returned safely.

     True, I was careful.

     I thought that if I didn’t go up there for at least part of the funeral, The Dead One’s relatives would be angry. They’d say, “You didn’t come to cry for your old enemy, you didn’t care about him, it seems he was nothing to you. Shame!” Then they’d probably try to kill me because The Dead One couldn’t.

     So I knew I had to go, but I knew I’d need to be careful up there. I thought that the safest event would be the little ceremony when The Dead One’s close relatives would resume having fires, eating hot food, and could return to their gardens.

     This is a simple ceremony and it wouldn’t matter if I missed the actual fire-lighting. I’d cry a little, rest, and go home. They wouldn’t have many chances to poison me, even if they wanted to.

     With sorcery, there are two things to worry about. One is leaving behind some part of you, like a hair, or mucus you might have coughed up, or earwax, even piss. When I’m going to a dangerous place, I ask someone to brush my hair vigorously, so hair won’t fall out. The sorcerer can use anything that’s been in your mouth, like a betel nut husk, so you shouldn’t leave those things behind.

     The other thing is to watch what you put in your mouth. Everybody’s food is cooked together and you see who’s serving you, so that’s not a worry. But there are other things you put in your mouth that other people have handled out of your sight, such as unhusked betel nuts, and betel peppers, and sometimes tobacco.

     The most difficult thing is taking care while acting as though you’re not. If your hosts think you’re protecting yourself against them, they feel insulted. They might decide to harm you even if they meant you no harm before.

     I put on the warm shirt our white man gave me, because it’s cold up there, and I get cold easily. Then I went over to his house to borrow a flashlight because I knew I wouldn’t get back before night. I didn’t think I’d get up there until late in the day, and nothing could make me stay there overnight.

     “Are these new batteries?” I asked him, and he said he couldn’t remember, and went back to his metal box and got two new ones for me. I put them in my bag. “Do you know how to change them?” he asked, and I said, “I’m old, but I know that,” and he said, “Go, then.”

     I told him where I was going but not why, because he would want to come along. I didn’t want to be responsible for anything that happened to him up there.

     It’s a long walk, and while walking I thought it would be a good joke on the mountain people if they poisoned me and nobody down here realized what happened because I’m sick so often.

     When I got there the sun was almost down, and the fire lighting ceremony was over. I wanted to stop where the funeral pyre had been—the blackened area stays for a long time—and cry a little, to be polite. But I was tired and went on to the feasting house to rest. There were a few people there but while I was sitting on a bench, warming myself at the fire, more came in and sat down—some on the benches, some on mats on the ground.

     When I realized that they were all gathering around me I was a little frightened, but nobody seemed threatening. I didn’t say anything. Then I thought perhaps they wanted to ask me about the old days, when I fought The Dead One, but I hoped not, because that might make them angry, even though it wasn’t I who killed him.

     So I just looked around, nodding and saying useless things about the fire and the weather and the trails, and showed them our white man’s flashlight, because it wasn’t the sort of flashlight an old man would have.

In this way I learned they wanted to ask me about our white man. They knew about him, a few people had shaken his hand, but he hadn’t ever walked this far into the mountains and they were curious about him.

I was happy to talk about him because that wasn’t likely to make anybody angry at me. Probably it would please them, help pass the time, and then I could go home.

     I told them I didn’t sit with him regularly, the way Lalaga and Our Leader did. I wasn’t going to use Mesiamo’s name up there among the mountain men, because of that business about the head. I said I talked to our white man from time to time, usually when we met along the trail to Sovele.

     I said, “I’ll tell you what happened one day when I met him on the trail, and you’ll see what kind of man he is. You can ask me questions, and I’ll answer them if I can hear you.”

     This was going to be a new thing for me, but I didn’t see anything worrisome in it. If I kept them interested and amused, what was hidden might stay hidden.

     I settled myself on the bench, getting as close to the fire as I could. That way I could keep warm and also spit into the fire, where nobody could get my spit.

     I said, “Here’s what he’s like. I was on my way to Sovele …” and I heard a voice like my own saying “I’m going to Sovele, I’m sick,” and I had to laugh. The man who imitated me—Meteko—did it very well.

     “It’s true,” I said, “It’s true,” and when people calmed down I continued. “I saw our white man walking toward me. He had a small parcel of mail. I suppose they were letters from his mother, or maybe from that woman Anna who writes to him. When the children are running along the trail carrying our white man’s letters they are usually singing ‘Anna, Anna, Anna,’ but he wasn’t singing.”

     The people laughed. Of course the mountain people knew that anna is another word for woman, and they knew it was also a white name. I told them about the letters because I knew that letters from a woman whose name was woman would amuse them.

     The mountain people are a more serious people than we lowlanders are. Sometimes they can be a surly bunch, so I thought that amusing them would be good, as I’ve said.

     Usually surly or not, it seemed that everyone was being pleasant. You would never have thought they were mountain people in mourning. This mourning business is never easy, so I was thinking they might be happy because the first part of it was finished. But then I thought maybe it was because they were looking forward to poisoning me, and so I thought I had better try to keep them laughing and in a good mood.

     Someone I couldn’t see said, “Speaking of women, tell us about his people. His mother, if you know anything.” We Nagovisi trace our lineages through our mothers, so that was a good question to ask. I told them I knew he had a mother—more quiet laughing—but that even though I’d seen her picture, I didn’t know her name. I said that when he showed it to me he said “My mother,” and instead of asking her name        I said, “No father?” and he showed a picture of his father, and again I didn’t ask for a name.

     Somebody I didn’t know asked why I hadn’t, and I said, “Deaf as I am, I’d hear it wrong and say it wrong, and he’d think I was insulting him.” Meteko shouted “What? What?” and the people sitting next to him pushed him around and said, “Quiet! Quiet!” There was a lot of laughter, so I smiled and nodded my head. I thought it might be genuine.

     I thought I had better laugh too, but that made me cough. I spit safely into the fire. A woman I didn’t know asked if I wanted water, and I said no. My plan was to wait until I was so thirsty I couldn’t talk, and then say I had to piss. I could hardly piss in the feasting house, so no one would think it strange if I went outside, and no one would go with me. I could sneak a drink from someone’s rain barrel with my hand, pretending to be splashing it on my face. That way I wouldn’t have to drink from anybody’s cup.

     I admit I was pleased to have an audience. I’m not an important man, so most of the time people are wanting me to listen to them. But this was the other way around and it was very pleasant although as I’ve said, worrisome.

     I said, “I’ll continue. On the day I’m talking about, our white man greeted me and then asked if I had any betel. He said he had lime and one old pepper.”

     I told the mountain people I had a betel nut in my bag, and that I knew he was expecting me to lick it all over before handing it to him, so I did.

     “He knows what that means,” I said, “Lalaga told him,” and a woman interrupted me, asking “He’s learned about sorcery and poison?” and I said that was true, and then I quickly said I didn’t think he would ever use what he learned.

     I could have said “He knows what that means” and stopped there, but I thought that talking about poison as if I knew everything about it and didn’t worry at all what a white man who learned about sorcery might do would remind them I was no easy mark. In truth there’s no telling how lethal a white man who knew our poisons might be, because he could put that together with his people’s sorcery and that could be very dangerous, yes. Very.

     I said, “I licked it because I wanted to show him respect. I wanted to do what I knew he was expecting me to do,” and there was a murmuring that seemed approving to me, and then I said, “True, I was sick,” and before I could continue someone said, “And on your way to Sovele,” and again there was laughter.

I hadn’t meant to be telling the licking story as a funny story, but that’s what was happening. I don’t see what’s funny about proving you haven’t put poison on a betel nut.

     I said, “What happened was that he took the betel and said, ‘My jaw’s sore. I’ll open it with my knife,’ and that’s what he did. He popped the nut out and cut it in half with his small knife, just as we taught him!”

Someone said, “I wonder what else you’re teaching him,” but I had no idea what she meant, so I went on. True, sometimes people say things like that to trick someone into talking about something they’d like to keep hidden, but I didn’t have anything hidden apart from how they were worrying me.

     I said, “He handed half to me. He opened up his tin of lime, broke the pepper in half, and we shared it. It was a big pepper but old and limp,” and some of the women laughed and one said, “What does his pepper look like, I wonder,” and then it was all laughing and carrying on. Mountain women are easier to be around than mountain men are.

     When the laughter died down, Meteko said, “Have you taught him to spit, then?” and I said, “Certainly. He does all the spits properly, although he painted his face red when he was learning,” and I passed my hands all over my mouth and chin. I continued, “If you heard his kuioto spit”—that’s the explosive one you spit to summon spirits but mostly so that everybody in hearing knows you’re chewing—“but you didn’t see who was spitting, you’d think it was one of us.”

     I wasn’t surprised when someone interrupted me—“He does kuioto? What a thing! White men hardly spit at all”—so I waited while people said one thing or another about not-spitting whites, and then I continued. “Even so I’m not telling a story about spitting. I’m talking about what happened when I met our white man along the trail to Sovele,” and again someone started “Because…” but another person shushed him up.

     I said, “I’ll continue. We sat chewing and spitting. Our white man didn’t know it, but we were sitting where our she-demon Topegina lives, and I decided to tell him about her, because although he doesn’t believe in our spirits, he wants to know about them. I said, ‘Over there is the she-demon Topegina’s place,’ and he asked me what kind of demon she was, as I knew he would.”

     Someone said, “Did you tell him what she does?”

     I said, “I didn’t want to tell him all at once. I was in no hurry. I wanted to have some fun with him, even though it was dangerous to talk about Topegina in her own place. So when he asked me what kind of demon Topegina was, all I said was ‘She takes the form of a beautiful woman,’ and he seemed surprised. He said, ‘No one’s told me about a beautiful demon,’ and I said, ‘White Man! Here we’re on the trail to Sovele, a trail you walk all the time. Are you telling me that the Pomalate people let you walk through this dangerous place without warning you?’ and he said, ‘Warning me? About what? A beautiful woman?’” and some people started to chuckle. These were the people who knew about Topegina, I suppose.

     I made a motion with my hands—calm down—and I said, “I told our white man that yes, Topegina is a beautiful woman, and he asked ‘Why is she dangerous?’ as I hoped he would, and I said, ‘She takes you into the bush and screws you,’ and he opened his eyes wide and said, ‘What’s bad about that?’ and I shouted, ‘Afterwards your penis swells up and falls off, White Man!’”

     Everybody was laughing. Somebody called out, “What did he say, Lunta?” and others were shouting, “Tell us! Tell us!”

     I waited until it was quiet and then shouted, “He asked … ‘Does that hurt?’”

     Now everyone was laughing, and loudly. I told the people I answered, “Does it hurt! White Man! Who cares! You die!” and that he started laughing, so I knew he was teasing me. I said I thought he knew about Topegina already, but was keeping it secret.

     A woman I didn’t know said, “Probably Lalaga told him,” and Meteko said, “Lalaga, the man who knows everything but believes nothing.” Indeed that’s what I think myself. No one is smarter than Lalaga, except perhaps Mesiamo and our white man, but if you ask him about the spirit world he always says it needs to show itself to him before he’ll believe it. Mesiamo says that also, but there’s not a person in Nagovisi who doesn’t think he knows the spirit world very well.

     But I didn’t want to talk about Lalaga, in case somebody started thinking, “Doesn’t believe? I’ll show him!” because Lalaga was far away and there was only me to be shown, so I continued. “Our white man said, ‘Are you saying that if a beautiful woman finds me on the trail, I shouldn’t go into the bushes with her?’ and I answered, ‘Don’t do it. Being a white man won’t will help you. Your white penis will fall off.’”

     I waited for a moment and then said, “Too bad I’d chewed my pepper or I’d have made it white with lime and wiggled it at him,” which got the women going again.

     “White pepper” they screamed, and pushed each other. “Limp white pepper!”

     I began to think that making them laugh might be the thing to do. People having a good time laughing won’t start thinking about poisoning the one who’s amusing them.

     I’m not very strong anymore, and I don’t mind a break from talking. I always have to talk loudly so I can hear what I’m saying, and that’s tiring. I decided to smoke. I reached in my bag and pulled out my pipe. Smoking a pipe is safer than rolling cigars or making cigarettes from newspaper, because you know where the mouthpiece has been.

     Someone I didn’t recognize called, “Do you have tobacco, Lunta? I have plenty,” but I pulled out a leaf of bush tobacco and waved it at him. “You can have some of mine,” I said, and that man started to laugh and said, “Have you licked it?” and again they were all laughing but this time it was at me, and I didn’t like it. Of course I hadn’t licked it. It’s hard to light tobacco after you’ve licked it all over. They should have known that.

     After I lit my pipe, I went back to my story. I said that, as usual, our whiteman began to ask me questions even before he and I calmed down from laughing. “Does it hurt? Does it hurt?” someone said in a loud voice, and I said, “Yes, and I’ll continue. He asked me when the last time Topegina took a man into the bush was. He always asks questions like that— when, how long, where. I told him that it was in my lifetime.”

     Agata said, “That’s all, Lunta? That’s all that happened?” and I said, “No, no. How fast do you think I can tell this story?” and people laughed. I thought I’d make them wait. I stopped and looked around. They were all looking at me. I suppose that did make me an important man and I liked that, but because envy can be a reason for sorcery, it would be best not to seem pleased about sitting and talking easily with our white man. He would have sat and talked easily with any of them, too, but they didn’t know that.

     I smoked a little and then I said, “It was like this. Remember we were chewing. Our white man chewed and spit, and I did the same. Then, just when I thought he probably had no more to say, he asked me if Topegina could turn into a white woman, which was an interesting question, don’t you think?”

     The feasting house people made noises of agreement. Someone said, “Indeed his spirits must be white,” and although I didn’t see what that had to do with anything, I nodded my head.

     I nodded my head again. “Yes,” I said, “That question surprised me and I had no answer. I thought he might be teasing me, but when I looked at him he seemed serious. I said, ‘If she can turn into any woman, I suppose she could turn into a white woman,’ but he wasn’t satisfied and said, ‘But if she never saw a white woman, what then?’ and I said, ‘She could have seen one of the nuns,’ and he said, ‘There’s no nun who could tempt me into the forest,’ and I said, ‘How would you know, they’re always covered up,’ and we started laughing again.

“Even before we stopped, our white man said, ‘Clothes, what about clothes, what do spirit clothes look like, or would she be a naked white woman?’ and I said, ‘Another good question, White Man, because I never saw Topegina and I can’t say whether she would be naked or clothed. I think naked.’

     I could see people elbowing each other. A woman called out, “Only naked in the days we didn’t wear clothes,” and another woman shouted, “Today she’d wear a skirt and blouse!” and again everybody started laughing.

     One woman pretended to take off her clothes, and a younger woman said, “You’re not beautiful,” and she gave that woman a shove, and although it’s true everyone was laughing I was thinking that laughing or not, they might be in a violent mood.

     After the laughing died down, Meteko cleared his throat. He’s a serious man and I was glad he was talking. He’s never been accused of anything. He said, “Indeed, Lunta. Good question. I wonder if your white man knew anything about our mountain spirits who do the same thing”—I shook my head—“because in case you don’t know, ours never change their shape and never look like anybody except themselves”—he motioned at me—“and before you ask, yes, always beautiful. And the rest is the same, about the penis.”

     The women again screamed with laughter. “Yes! Imagine our demon Kado-orem looking like one of us,” a woman shouted, “How would a man know the difference?”

     “That’s the kind of question our white man always asks,” I said, “because he hides what he knows,” and a man said, “What do you mean, secrets?” He looked troubled and more than one person shifted on their seats or moved around a little. I didn’t mean for that to happen. If they thought our white man had dangerous secrets, then they might think I knew them, and fear me, or envy me, or both.

     So I made sure they didn’t have the wrong idea. I said, “I suppose he has secrets, but that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that if he already knew about Topegina, he would never say so. We know this because sometimes a woman will say to another woman, ‘I told our white man about that,’ and the other will say, ‘As I already did,’ and the first will say, ’He never said he knew.’ When I asked Lalaga about it, he said our white man wants to know everybody’s story, and if he says ‘I already know that’ then he’ll learn nothing new. So he always says he doesn’t know, and that may be true or not true.”

     By then I suppose I had twenty people listening to me. I was still tired, so I thought I’d stretch out my story, and that way I could recover completely before I went back down.

I saw that a man whose name I knew—Kebotai—had come in and was sitting next to Meteko. I didn’t know him to be a sorcerer, but he was a talker, so that was probably good.

     Kebotai and Meteko whispered to each other and then Kebotai called to me, “A man who keeps what he knows secret sounds like a priest to me.” That didn’t sound like a priest to me, but I wasn’t going to argue. I know many people think that priests are keeping secrets from us, but that’s not what I meant. I said nothing, and Kebotai continued, “I’m wondering if your white man could be a priest of a religion we never heard of. We heard there’s some new religion down in Buin Town and he was in Buin Town before he came to you, wasn’t he?”

     I hadn’t heard about that new religion, and I said so. “Where did you hear about it?” I asked and Kebotai said, “At the copper mine they were talking about it,” and I said, “I don’t know, but I doubt it. For example, our white man never tells us what to do, except simple things like ‘don’t get water on that bandage,’ or ‘if you see my mail at Bereteba, bring it to me.’ Things like that, and I never knew a priest or one of those Methodist missionaries who wasn’t always saying ‘You must do this, do that, do the other thing otherwise God will be angry, or Jesus, or Mary,’” and after I said that there was a lot of head nodding and people were saying, “True, it’s true,” and things like that.

     Even so I didn’t want them thinking our white man was carrying any kind of religion to us, because they might think I was part of some secret religion and be suspicious, or angry. I said, “I can say that our white man asked me if I thought that the old days were more interesting than now. I said, ‘Well, we don’t fight any more,’” and as soon as I said that I wished I hadn’t reminded them that I had helped kill Leau. So I quickly explained what I meant about the old days.

     I told the people in the feasting house that I told our white man it was easier in the old days because we didn’t have to worry about the white man’s spirit world or the white man’s laws or the white man’s money and that we had our own spirits and demons, and we understood them well. Then I paused because again I was sorry about what I’d said. Why was I always talking about dangerous things? Was there no way to talk about pigs or exchanges or cocoa or whether there would ever be a tractor road up here?

     Kebotai said, “I can tell you what I would have told him about the white spirit world. I would have said, ‘God, Jesus, Mary, and those Saints are your spirits and we don’t understand them.’ That’s what I’d have said, and then I would have said, ‘If God and Jesus are everywhere, like Padre says, then they must have been here too, so why didn’t they show themselves…’”

     I interrupted him without thinking. I said, “Maybe the beautiful women along the trail were really Mary pretending to be us,” and after I said that there was a lot of shouting, especially by the men, the ones who were religious. Even among the mountain men there are strong Catholics, which has always surprised me because of how far they have to walk to get to Sovele.

     Even now I’m not sure why I said what I said, considering I was thinking about tractor roads. I shouldn’t have started people thinking about how Mary might take a man into the bush. But in the church at Sovele, there’s a statue of Mary and in truth she’s beautiful. I haven’t seen many white women, but I like the way Mary looks.

     Someone I couldn’t see said, “Mary’s a virgin even yet, so she can’t have taken men into the forest,” and someone else shouted, “Makes no difference, virgin or not,” and Mekala the catechist—I hadn’t seen him come in—stood up and shouted, “Stop this sinful talk that foul-mouthed Lunta has brought here,” which was something I didn’t like hearing. It wasn’t me who talked about Mary’s virginity. Was Mekala the only one angry at me?

     I thought I ought to get away from Mary and be done with religion, because catechists can be dangerous. Yes, angering a catechist is dangerous. If we make him angry, then that makes Padre angry, and if Padre’s angry that makes Jesus angry, and if Jesus is angry, he might kill our children, unless his mother Mary stops him. That’s how I understand it.

     It’s true that I never heard Padre say that thing about Jesus. I overheard a man named Karesa tell someone he heard one of the catechists say it, who said that one of the teachers at Sovele told him he heard Padre say it. It must be true, because a mother can usually stop her son from doing something he shouldn’t. Otherwise there would be more dead children than there are.

     I wanted to calm Mekala, so I said, “If I said anything sinful, I’m sorry about it. I’ll confess to Padre and be done with it, and why don’t you let me finish with our white man along the trail at Topegina’s place?” and people said, “Go ahead, Lunta, go ahead and tell us.” Perhaps no one was angry, after all. Even so, Mekala continued to look crossly at me. I thought that if I got to Padre before Mekala did, I’d be safe.

     I was going to continue, but I was thirsty. Lucky for me it was dark by then. I excused myself to go piss, and I took my bag along. I took my time pissing over the cliff. There were probably pigs down there but I never heard of a pig-sorcerer. Then I went to a rain barrel, splashed water on my face and secretly drank some.

     When I got back, I reminded them that when we got off track about the secrets, our white man and I were talking about whether Topegina could take the shape of a white woman. I said that our white man was pressing me about the naked white woman, and indeed we both thought it very funny, but I wanted to make sure he knew that Topegina could take the shape of living people.

     When I said that, both men and women began laughing and making noise. I hurried so that no one could spoil my story. I said, “I told our white man that after the Japan War Topegina was taking the shape of his grandmother Warabai.”

     Women laughed but the men didn’t. I said “Our white man only knows Warabai as an old woman, but I told him she was very beautiful when she was young,” and some of the old men said, “Yes! Yes, she was!” The women fell silent.

     I told them our white man said that he’d heard the same thing, but he wasn’t smiling anymore and he didn’t seem ready to laugh, so I said to him “You heard that Topegina was taking her shape?” and he said “No, that she was very beautiful,” and looked away from me and I couldn’t see his expression.

     Before anybody could steal my story, I quickly told it—I told our white man that when Topegina took Warabai’s form, many men went into the bushes with her. And nobody’s penis swelled up and fell off and nobody died.

     Some people made noises, but nobody laughed. I was surprised because to me, that’s very funny. Nobody said anything for a moment, and then Meteko’s wife said, “Lunta. I don’t think you should have told him that. It was a long time ago and although it’s true that we heard about it up here, not everybody believed it,” and I said, “Believed what thing?” and she said, “About the penises, that they didn’t fall off,” and I said, “Why wouldn’t you believe that?” and she started to laugh so hard she could hardly talk, but managed to say, “Because you Biroi talk so much about penises we think you must have lost yours and are angry about it,” and nobody could say anything for some time because of all the laughter.

     It’s not true, about the penises. We do curse much more than they do, but it’s hard to curse without naming penises, and she should have known that. I suppose people who don’t curse wouldn’t know that, now that I’m thinking about it.

But why had they all been silent before they started laughing? I couldn’t understand. Certainly they knew the story, but they didn’t laugh until Meteko’s wife scolded me. So they were laughing at me, not at something I said. They were laughing at me because that woman scolded me, and yet what had I done? I was only telling them about our white man, as they asked. It made me nervous. But what could I do?

     I said, “I’m sorry our white man didn’t come up here with me, because he would have liked that joke, very much. As I did. But now I’ll continue, because I have more to tell you.”

     I told them that when I said the thing about all the penises staying where they were attached, all he said was, “Ah.” I was going to go on, but Kebotai said, “It must be that he started asking questions,” and I said, “That’s it. He said, ‘What you’ve told me is interesting. Do you think Warabai knew Topegina was taking her shape?’ and I said, ‘I suppose people talked about it,’ and he said, ‘And did anybody ask her about it?’ and that’s when I realized he was asking me questions I couldn’t answer, to slow everything down while he worked out what to do.”

     I could see people nodding their heads. One of the old women—I recognized her but couldn’t remember her name—said “I never asked that woman but certainly we talked about it, even up here!” and the other old women started laughing.

     Meteko’s wife looked as though she wanted to talk again, and that was all right with me. I thought I knew what she’d say, and it was better for her to say it than me. I gestured to her and said, “You talked about it up here?” and she said, “Oh yes. As Nuapaga has said. In truth I remember very well that all the men, even our men up here, wanted to believe it was indeed Topegina, and so did their wives, even more,” and some woman said, “I remember! Yes!” and Meteko’s wife continued, “Having your husband tricked by a dangerous spirit and surviving was one thing. Having your husband go with the real Warabai was another,” and I said “I wonder if you were in the forest listening, because that’s what I was thinking, sitting there on the trail with our white man.”

     Meteko’s wife nodded her head. “Yes,” she said, “I remember that, and feeling we were lucky, because Kado-orem never did that.”

     I said, “I didn’t know,” and then I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll finish about our white man. I thought he and I might as well be done with this, so I said, ‘You know Warabai. Can you imagine asking her? Perhaps you’re not understanding me?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve been understanding you,’ and then he spit a long, slow spit”—I bent over and imitated him, being careful to spit into the fire—“‘but I admit no one’s taught me what to do when somebody’s joking about my grandmother. If it’s all right to laugh, or not, I don’t know,’ and it was good, that he finally admitted he didn’t know what to do.”

     People said, “Yes, good,” and “He admitted it,” and things like that. But nobody asked any direct question so I went on. “I was glad to hear that. I was glad to know he was thinking about what he should and shouldn’t hear about his grandmother. ‘You can laugh,’ I said to him, and he laughed and laughed until he started coughing.

“I hit him on his back. He hit me on my thigh and spit a perfect kuioto and then he said, ‘I’ll never tell. Was she really like that?’ and I smiled at him and said, ‘People say,’ because it was one thing to tell him that about his grandmother, but another to name names.”

     What I didn’t tell the mountain people I said was, “We’re not talking about your sister,” because they are so careful up there that even a hint as to what a man must not hear about his sister would offend them. For dangerous sorcerers, they’re prudes.

     People were shifting around in their seats. They didn’t look angry, but in the darkness it’s hard to tell. I said, “Our white man and I sat for a while, and then he got up. ‘Go on to Pomalate and read your letters,’ I said, ‘but if a woman steps out of the bush around here, don’t stop. Never mind whether she’s black or white, wearing clothes or not,’ and he shook my hand and went along the trail.”

     “I turned in the other direction because I was going to Sovele,” I lifted my hand and said, “No need to—” but it was too late. They all began imitating me, even the women, and very loudly too, and two young men stood up and started walking the way I do, bent over, coughing and shouting, and more men did the same.

     It was insulting, and I wanted to say so. I’d done what they asked, and here they were making fun of me. But what could I do? If I’d shouted back at them they would have thought I wanted to fight, and who knows what would have happened?

     I had no weapon except our white man’s flashlight. I may be an old man but I would have broken some heads with it, I can tell you that, just the way I broke Leau’s head with my axe, broke that head before we cut it off and took it home. Yes, we did and would do it again, too.

     I thought, May mudemude heat these rude prudes so much they try something against Mesiamo, and I came very near saying it. Instead, I got up from my seat, put on an angry face and turned from side to side. I shouted, “Enough is enough! No need to insult an old man who’s come to help you mourn,” but they wouldn’t stop. Everywhere, people were imitating me. It was intolerable but in a moment I realized this offense was giving me my chance.

     I pushed my way through the crowd, refusing to shake hands with the women offering theirs, giving strong looks to Meteko and Kebotai and the other fools—Mekala the catechist also—and not taking the hands they offered me. Who knew what they had on them?

     I was shaking, but not with cold and not with anger. With relief. Yes. It was clear I’d been in grave danger but I’d seen my chance to escape, unharmed, by using my old wits.

     The Dead One also failed to kill me, I said to myself as I walked from the feasting house. I turned on our white man’s flashlight and I walked slowly, to show them I was unafraid.

     I paused for a moment at the pyre because I know what proper behavior is. I also didn’t want He Who Died angry at me. After I said some things to him I started walking and I didn’t look back.

     I could hear them shouting and laughing farther down the trail than I expected. When I could no longer hear their insults I cursed them with their dogs and pigs and their sisters and their brothers.

     Then I walked a little faster because there was no way to know who might have heard.

 

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