A Red Woman Was Crying


























About Don






A Red Woman Was Crying, Deconstructed



In the story "Confluences," told by the young man Tagilali (half-Nagovisi; raised elsewhere), he and Elliot have been walking through  the big bush making penis jokes. They stop to rest and chew betel and start talking about the Red Woman myth. They have a lot of fun with it.


Red Woman is an important kobonala [myth]. I was there when Tupuua spoke it into Elliot’s tape recorder. I was watching Elliot’s face as Tupuua spoke and it had a look on it that I’ve rarely seen. Tupuua can’t speak pidgin, so when he was telling the story Elliot was on his own. I could tell that he was trying hard to keep up, even though he knew he was getting it on tape and could take his time listening to it later.

I turned around, walking backwards. “Elliot,” I said, “if I say ‘Red Woman’ and ‘penis’ then what will you reply?”

“Ha ha!” he said, “I thought we were done with penises, but all right. Red Woman is my favorite kobonala. Every part of it is strong and filled with meaning. Including penises.”

“Go ahead, then. Tell me Red Woman.”

He walked a few steps, clearing his throat.

“A red woman was crying,” he said, and then he stopped. “When Tupuua spoke those words, just those first words, I knew, I don’t know how I knew, but I did, that I was about to hear something very powerful.”


“Because I never heard a story that started like that. And he was speaking slowly, I don’t know it that was for me or the way he tells the story.”

“It was the first time I heard it too. I don’t think it was for you.”

“To me it was immediately a mystery, a red woman, what could a red woman be? And why was she crying, and why all this at the beginning? It was like being suddenly pushed into a deep pool, Tagilali, that’s what I felt. Even now sometimes I speak those words to myself because they are so beautiful and mysterious.”

He shifted the tripod from one shoulder to another.

“Fuck a dog, this is getting heavy.”

“The stakes are heavy, too.”

“I see a keeled tree ahead,” he said, “let’s sit there and lean against them and chew.”

I didn’t expect him to say “and let’s rest.”


When he was settled he began.

“I know we’re having fun with this penis talk, but it’s hard for me to take this serious story and make it into a joke.”

“I’m not asking you to make a joke.”

“Good. I’ll be serious about the penises. A red woman was crying.” He paused and shook his head. “Her name was Koso and she was hungry. She thought she could eat some things she saw on the ground, but they were leaf spines, not flying fox bones.”

He stopped. “This is why I love the story so much. We never learn why she was red, and although the thing about flying fox bones sounds good, she couldn’t eat flying fox bones. Nobody eats flying fox bones! So this part isn’t really about looking for food, it’s about seeing something that stands for something else, and being wrong.”

I said, “Maybe. But what if she thought people were walking along eating flying fox, and they might feed her? But continue.”

“I will,” he said. “Some men came and said to Koso, ‘You had better go to Sekentu’s house. Perhaps a pig’s been killed there, and you can eat it.’ Koso didn’t know who Sekentu was. Koso’s father took her to Sekentu’s, and left her there.”

I said, “Who were ‘some men?’”

“Truly,” he said, “it’s like that all the way through, isn’t it? Indeed who were these men? Where did they come from? And why did they tell her to go to Sekentu’s house? And then her father, yes her father just appears and takes her there. And we never see him again, the father. It’s very strange. No mother?”

He continued. “Sekentu’s mother was Makunai, the demon ancestress of the Eagles. Makunai sat Koso down on a bed made of black palm planks and told her she was now married to Sekentu. In this way, Makunai became her mother-in-law.”

He laughed and shook his head, and spit. “Koso still doesn’t know who Sekentu is, but she doesn’t ask. She didn’t say, ‘What husband? Who?’ Makunai tells her to stay on the bed until Sekentu comes back from hunting pigs, and she talks about how the bushes will shake. If you’re hearing this for the first time, you say what? What? Shaking the bushes?”

“What did you think, Elliot?”

“I didn’t think anything, because I knew it was a kobonala and its world wasn’t our world. Also I was struggling to keep up and didn’t have time to think.”

I said, “I like the part about the snake making the bushes shake, because what snake ever did that? It’s another way for the story to tell us Sekentu was not like the snakes we know. Sure enough, Koso looked up and saw the bushes shaking. When she saw her husband, he had a pig tied to his tail,” and I punched Elliot’s arm and said, “How does a snake tie anything to his tail?”

Elliot said, “Or to the pig! Or did he wrap his tail around the pig? I’ll continue. Koso saw he was a snake, not a man. And what I like is that she doesn’t scream and try to run away. She only says, ‘What kind of husband is this?’ It’s like she was disappointed, not terrified. Then she begins to cry, who wouldn’t, but Sekentu goes to sleep and doesn’t see her. And he goes to sleep under the bed. Why does a snake have a bed and if he does, why does he sleep underneath it?”

I said, “He sleeps on the ground like a snake! But no, he curled up on a basketry platter. Why? The only reason I can think of is that the platter is made by coiling a thick vine, so maybe the vine is like a coiled snake, like his mirror.”

“Hah, I never heard that, but, true, that’s what it looks like.”

“So here we have the snake coiled up on the platter with his new wife that he doesn’t know about just above him, crying. Don’t snakes have ears?”

“It’s a kobonala!”

“True, true. Sekentu wakes up because he’s getting wet from a few tears. It’s not like rain, but it’s enough.”

“I think that’s all right. Maybe a teardrop hit him in the eye.”

“He’s sleeping! His eyes would have been closed!”

“All right, so we don’t understand that part.”

Elliot said, “And it gets worse. Here’s the giant talking snake under the bed and instead of looking to see what’s above him, he asks his mother.”

“That’s what mothers are for.”

“Makunai tells him that Koso’s his wife, and he doesn’t say anything like ‘why can’t I have a snake wife?’ instead he coils around her, puts his tail in her vagina, and ejaculates.”

I said, laughing, “Why can’t I have a snake wife, truly. Remember the platter Sekentu was sleeping on? Where the coiling begins, there’s a hole. Some people call that the platter’s asshole. Hah, I think vagina, not asshole.”

“And we return to penises,” Elliot said, “Indeed. Snake tail penis. Or, as if I had to tell you, Sekentu himself is a giant penis, but no balls, so where did the semen come from?”

We laughed. Elliot eased his machete out. “Let’s see if anybody’s in the big bush with us.” He struck the keel a good one. The bird noises stopped.

“Perhaps that’s why many women fear snakes,” I said, and Elliot laughed and shook his head, “Do women fear penises? Not many, I think.”

“And we know who they are!”

“I don’t, but I’m sure you do. Some men fear snakes,” he said, “I’ve seen it.”

“I’m not afraid of snakes. Remember when I caught that snake in the garden at Tutueo-go and the women were screaming at me to kill it, so I took the black tar from my pipe and put it in the snake’s mouth? You were there.”

Elliot said, “It died soon enough, and that was before I heard the Sekentu story or I might have said to the young girls, ‘here’s your husband.’”

I said, “No, you wouldn’t have. No. You’re too polite.”

“Or scared of saying something wrong, in truth.”

So we chewed and spit red on the tree’s keels. It ran down, making long red trails.

“Red Woman’s tears,” Elliot said, and I said, “True.”

We sat for a moment without talking. Then we heard somebody striking a keel twice. Elliot struck again, three strikes. Then we heard four.

I said, “If we start adding to each other’s count, we’ll be here a long time. Don’t reply.”

“All right. I’ll continue,” Elliot said, “I was thinking about Sekentu and how he never talks except to ask his mother why he’s getting wet. The whole story is about Sekentu and that’s all he ever says. I can’t think why that is.”

“I can’t either, except later on the only people he could talk to are her brothers, and you know a husband has to be careful around his wife’s brothers.”

“True, yes, maybe,” Elliot said, “and now I’ll jump to the part where they went to Koso’s village so that Sekentu could meet her brothers. The part about how Sekentu went hunting and caught pigs for Koso because she was thin, and they smoked them…I don’t see much to talk about there, do you?”

“No, but we’re probably missing something. We should ask Lalaga. As for going to the brothers, it was Makunai who sent them, so maybe Koso was happy and didn’t want to go back to her people. And in the story she has no sisters, why not?”

“I don’t know. Eating smoked pig every day instead of only when there were feasts, maybe she liked that.”

“Does that make up for having a snake husband?”

Elliot laughed and waved his hands. “I don’t know, so I’ll continue. I like this part because it’s so very strange, that her brothers did not know what happened to their sister.”

“It’s true,” I said, “why didn’t her father tell them?”

Elliot said, “Maybe he was ashamed of what he did,” and I said, “Maybe, but also where is Koso’s mother in this story? Nowhere! If you think about it, there are no women except Koso and the demon woman Makunai.”

“Ah, that’s true, so maybe this is a story made up by men to tell other men.”

“You know we don’t have men secrets and women secrets, so maybe it’s a story made up by women, to show what happens if men control everything.”

“Hah, could be.” Elliot continued, “At Koso’s village, Sekentu went to the feasting house and Koso went to a cookhouse, where people asked whether her husband had come, and Koso said yes, that he was at the feasting house. Her brothers went to the feasting house, filled with slit gongs, but they didn’t see anybody there. They went back and said, ‘Nobody’s there,’ and Koso said, ‘Ah, you think he’s a man, do you? Did you look inside the slit gongs? You killed me by sending me to Sekentu.’”

I said, “And who was you? It was her father, not her brothers.”

Elliot said, “So they went back, looked inside one of the slit gongs, and saw a snake. They said to each other, ‘What kind of thing has married our sister?’”

I spit a loud kuioto spit. “Why didn’t they say ‘what the bloody fucking hell is a giant snake doing inside our slit gong?’ but no. They only looked at him. I would have run away.”

Elliot shook his head. “True! I think this is when Sekentu becomes a penis-snake or maybe a snake-penis. Slit gongs! What is more like fucking than pounding on a slit-gong? And the sticks to beat them with,” and he hit the tree keel with his machete one, two, three, four, five times.

I said, “Now we’ll have to wait and answer.“

“Ah, it doesn’t matter. Sticks are like penises and then the giant snake penis has already fucked the slit-gong . . . the whole thing is like fucking, maybe that’s why only men beat slit gongs…except Sekentu was all the way inside, so maybe the slit gong vagina captured him…there are stories in the world about vaginas that have teeth and eat penises, or the penis can’t get out, but no teeth in this kobonala so maybe not.”

And he laughed. And so did I. We spit red. Vaginas with teeth? I never heard of that.

I said, “And the brothers, ‘what kind of thing has married our sister?’ and why didn’t they know that, considering it was their father who sent Koso to Makunai’s house to marry a snake? In this story everybody talks like idiots.”

“You see that in European stories, too. Idiots, I mean. And Koso says ‘You killed me,’ except that she’s still alive.”

I said, “You can skip over the next part if you like.”

“I will. The brothers hid in the bush as Sekentu and Koso passed by, and they measured how long Sekentu was. Koso and Sekentu said they would return and when the brothers knew they were coming, they put logs across the trail so that Sekentu’s body would be draped on the logs”—he made motions with his hand—“and then jumped out with axes and chopped him to bits.”

Again he shook his head and laughed. “It’s the only part of the kobonala that makes sense in our world. If you want to cut a big snake on a trail, it’s soft ground so your ax won’t go through on the first strike, but if you’re chopping against a log, it will. Right? I’ve tried and tried to think of a meaning for waiting until Sekentu drapes himself over the logs, and I can’t.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I said, “cutting up the penis . . . into what, more penises? Short ones? And the logs are like penises themselves, so a giant snake penis is being cut up on top of wooden penises.”

Elliot gave me a shove. “Like the kobonala where the woman has a thing that goes up a breadfruit tree and brings down fruit, and the man catches her doing it and chops her thing into pieces that become women’s decorations? In the old days people must have liked to chop up penises.”

“Hah, yes. I was thinking about that one, too. Was the thing a penis? Perhaps that’s why women don’t have penises.”

Elliot said, “But what was that thing, really. It climbed the tree! The kobonala just calls it a thing. It could be her clitoris or it could be that the woman actually had a penis.”

“We can’t know!”

“True, but if it were a penis, then what we have are women who put pieces of that woman’s chopped-up penis into their ears and noses. Not a man’s penis. So when a woman put one into her ear is she thinking, ‘this is why I have clitoris and not a penis,’ or is she thinking, ‘this is in memory of when we woman had huge long things,’ and not worrying about that the thing was?”

“I could ask some of the old women,” I said, “but so could you. Your grandmother Warabai would tell you. She would shout and laugh, but she would tell you.”

Elliot said, “I have an idea about the brothers and how they killed Sekentu.”

“Tell me.”

“Suppose that the meaning comes from how brothers aren’t supposed to hear anything sexual about their sisters, and if Sekentu is a penis, then every time the brothers see him, they have to think about their sister and her husband’s penis, and this shames and enrages them because Sekentu is doing and showing them what must not be done, so they have to kill him.”

“Maybe,” I said, “or Sekentu makes them think about sex in the presence of their sister, which they must not do, so they kill him to keep themselves from thinking bad thoughts.”

“Both our ideas could be true. What do you think the brothers did with the pieces, then?”

“I don’t know. I can’t think of anything. They disappear. Like the brothers. No, wait. The salt water kills the brothers. Aparito. Now for the end of Red Woman, yes?”

“All right,” Elliot said, “The last part. Makunai had tied a vine to Sekentu’s tail, and she pulled the last bit of him home after he was chopped up, and now we get to the part where Sekentu isn’t even a snake anymore, but something that makes salt.”

“I wonder whether the piece Makunai pulled back included the snake’s asshole?”

“Asshole!” He paused. “I’ll give you an English word, which is cloaca, and that’s what you’re calling the snake’s asshole, but it’s not like a human asshole. Everything comes out of that one hole: piss, shit, and semen. There’s a penis in there somewhere but I don’t think it comes out. Maybe.”

I said, “Cloaca, cloaca. Good word. And about what it is, I didn’t know that. I never saw snakes fucking. I’m glad people aren’t like that.”

Elliot said, “Indeed. Especially that our women aren’t.”

I shouted, “Shut up! We’re talking about penises”

“So we are, but listen to this. Long ago, a European man wrote, ‘we are born between piss and shit,’ but at least women have three holes, and not a cloaca.”

I hit him on the arm. “I don’t want to think about that. We’re not talking about women, you and I, neither of us has a woman, so why talk about them?”

“We’re talking about Koso, though.”

“She’s not a real woman. Kobonala.”

“True.” He sighed. “Even so, talking about real women makes me sad.”

“And me,” I said, “as you know. When the crocodile has you in his jaws you’ll be thinking, ‘I’m being killed and I never screwed a Nagovisi woman.’”

“Tagilali! Stop!”

“All right. Continue.”

“We’re back at Makunai’s house. She put the tail into the thatching above her fire and when she wanted to season the food she was cooking for Koso and Sekentu’s children she would command it to come alive and spill out salt water.”

I said, “So now it’s a cut penis and it ejaculates salt water, not semen.”

“Yes, but only when a woman tells it to. How can ‘come to life’ not mean ‘get hard?’”

“What mother tells her son’s penis to get hard and ejaculate?”

“A demon woman, I suppose. I wish the Sekentu penis was still tied to a vine, so Makunai would just have to pull on it.”

I said, “Like turning on an electric light in town. On, off, on, off. Also she has complete control over the penis, like it’s her child. Ah, Sekentu is her child. Maybe this is about how women control their young sons.”

“But what’s the lesson, then? It’s not like ‘mother knows best,’ because it was Makunai who sent him off to be cut into pieces.”

“If she was human, but she’s a demon so we’re meant to believe she had some plan.”

Elliot said, “And now we come to the end, which is like a famous story from Europe and probably everywhere in the world, where the children start something but cannot stop it. They command Sekentu’s tail to make salt water and it makes so much that it covers the land and kills Koso’s brothers and becomes the sea.”

I said, “Did you ever notice that Koso is the only named woman in the story? Except for Makunai, and she’s a spirit. There’s only Koso and her brothers and her father. Everybody else is just people so we don’t know what they are.”

“True. I did notice it but I didn’t think carefully about that.”

I said, “And about red. I think maybe Koso is a red woman because of blood, that she menstruates.”

Elliot hit the keel again and said, “I never thought of that. You must be right. But that would mean at the beginning, that would mean that Sekentu screwed her when she was menstruating.”

“He was a snake. What do you expect?”

We laughed. Snakes don’t care about anything.

We sat for a moment, thinking about the story. Nobody answered Elliot’s keel strike.

“Another thing,” Elliot said, “Koso disappears from the story when Sekentu is chopped up. Where did she go? She got pregnant by Sekentu before they killed him, but there’s more than one child, so who was the father? And we never heard about any children until then. By the donkey’s long penis, I love this story. It’s perfect, because it’s not a story of our time. But we don’t care. All the things that don’t make sense are what please me.”