Aside from her two robes and black ankle boots with ties, Sister Rose had only a few possessions: two silver crucifixes, a watercolor picture of Christ's face, a plain cross that hung from a chain around her waist, a rose-quartz rosary, and, of course, her prayer book and Bible. When she was reading her Bible, her face--framed by her black veil and white cowl--shone like a pearl in an oyster shell. The young nun had sensitive blue eyes and lovely hands, which she folded behind her when she went for a walk.
After her Bible was destroyed, Sister didn't eat or sleep or leave her room for days, except to go to the chapel or the lavatory. When she reappeared, pale and thin, it was clear to everyone she had taken the scraps of her Bible and its loss a little too personally. She said the Lord had spoken and for the rest of her days on the island she did without the trappings of her vows. She did not preach--or she tried not to--and she put away her possessions, even her prayer book. She could not give up her black habit or her gold band. Except for them, she carried her faith in her bosom, performing the proper and sometimes not completely proper--as in my case--services in the spirit of.
Life was not overly simple for me. In fact, I cannot think of anything more impossible than being brought into this world by a seaman's mistress and raised in an ungodly place by a nun, who, however enlightened, was a touch unstrung. Fortunately for me, the one, my mother, died in the other's arms, leaving me a hundred percent orphaned, l was led to believe, in a mission on the northeast coast of nowhere. I say I was fortunate, because what my mother knew was that Sister Rose was one of a kind.
Sister Rose and my mother argued almost constantly, much the way two sisters do who never marry. When Mother finally succumbed to her fever, Sister Rose retreated into silent prayer. The sun was casting long shadows by the time she finally began talking again, and it was a huge relief to everyone, I was told, even if she was only talking to herself.
Originally from the highlands, Ruki was a dark-skinned, middle-aged, craggy man, who knew more than anyone on the island about the seasons and the cycles of life. He said the loa bugs would come that year and they did, by the millions. Since I was ignorant of such things, Ruki lifted a small bug, showing me its underside, on which a golden pouch was filled with poison, meant to discourage predators. And so I watched from a safe distance as the loa bugs ate a path through the forest down to the river, leaving behind a stringy, gluelike substance, which Ruki collected in petrol tins and sold to the traders from the forbidden side of the island.
Sister had Muk, whom she had taught to prepare Western food, make stew. The soft-spoken girl with mahogany skin had short, sturdy legs, flat feet, and large, heavy hands that dangled at her sides like church bells when she ran. When the meat was soft, Sister broke her fast and drank manioc, a special light brew Muk had made from cassava. The very next day Sister came down with fever. And you could hear her screaming. She was not herself. When the fever broke, the villagers went into the woods to celebrate, saying my mother's spirit could finally be put to rest--now that Sister Rose had released it.
Sister got back to herself and back to her work, the Lord's work. She ran the church mostly and the school, educating me in the process, and she collected sacred art from the Chamber Lake people and those who came down from the blue mountains and across the pine ridges near Goroko. The elderly clansmen living in the deepest parts of the forest carved great hohoa shields, which Sister also collected. On them, all forms and matter of life, such as frogs, hornbills, turtles, and more, could be made out. Ruki explained the clan signs to me. And why it was a good thing that no one mated with a member of his own family, and why it was dangerous when two nasty individuals joined forces. "Only the worst of each is passed down," he said. Sister's trading put her in contact with hundreds of different dialects, which she recorded by pen and ink in a book whose pages went yellow and then brown, as if to honor the ancestors who had spoken these languages for ten thousand years. Sister liked both the old and the new art in spite of Ruki's chiding. The old, he cursed, should not be bought because it was priceless, and the new should not be bought because it was worthless, made by drunk boys for manioc. Nevertheless, Sister had a keen eye and before too long she built a large shelter for the pieces, partly to appease Ruki and partly to seal away the dampness and to prevent creeping wood-rot.
Sister told me--when I was old enough to understand--that my mother's death was an act of mercy. She had been wild and probably insane from syphilis. And she was in considerable pain, both physically and spiritually. "She would stand outside in the most awful torrents, hollering indecently at the sky," Sister explained. When my best friend Kiki's mother could not find the word in our language that in hers referred to a tremendous and sudden downpour, she gave my mother the name Rain. One day, Kiki, who resembled me--she had jade-green eyes, small features, and paler skin than her fellow tribesmen--said that a turtle never begets a snake, an alligator never begets a monkey, and that their ancestors never receive an offering from a bowl containing the flesh of their kind. It would be like eating themselves. If you could understand that I was as much from the bush as I was from the church, you could see why I never believed my mother had died and gone to heaven. To me she had simply been transformed into her proper element. And so I grew quiet when the rainy season came, often remaining inside to study scripture and arithmetic, and Sister stopped referring to me as her unholy terror.
Until I was ten I had only seen my reflection in the unsteady waters of the river, and so, when the doctor and his wife brought their mirror with them across the ocean, I supposed it was made partly from water. Water turned to stone. I was afraid to look into it for fear it would turn me to stone, as it seemed to have done to the doctor's wife, a tiny, chinless woman with miniscule feet and an unintelligible mind. She rarely spoke and never smiled. Though Sister Rose told us the mirror had no magic, neither Kiki nor I would enter through the front door of the doctor's house, where the mirror hung in a gilded frame the size of a clan shield. It was many years before I understood how true my instincts had been. The white man recognized only one God whom he perceived in his own image. I never found any God in my countenance, even on Sister Rose's Sundays when I washed and put on fresh clothes and listened to her prayers. To imagine any one spirit so powerful as to create the earth and the sky, wind and fire, water and metal, and every creature and all in only six days, took a great deal of concentration. Sister said I thought too much. I had to have "faith." I wasn't sure.
The giant Kauage came out of the forest in the season when fires burn wearing no more than a sheath of cane, which rose from between his legs up to his massive shoulders. Sister Rose became hysterical, but the doctor's wife, who had shrunk to an even smaller size than when she had arrived--we made jokes about her disappearing--fled, never to return. The very next week, she took the boat for Moresby, and from there we heard she bought a one-way ticket for England. And that is how the dark-eyed doctor, with the dimple in his cheek, became theoretically single. And acting as if it was for no reason, Sister Rose issued him the new nickname of the good doctor. The question we asked ourselves was for whom was this nickname a needed reminder? Being a nun in the dry season, on a fiery coast on the equator, with a wretched orphan and a handsome middle-aged medical man the only people of one's own kind in whom to confide, must have tested Sister Rose, who was not strong to begin with, to the limit. She and the good doctor each worked alone and then together and harder than before in an impossible effort to avoid the inevitable. They were in deep trouble by the time it happened. And when it did, Sister Rose put away her habit, folded tidily, with the rest of the trappings of her vows. She did not remove her gold band and she carried on with her work, the Lord's work, in the spirit of. Of course, no one betrayed her to the church authorities, not because she asked us not to, which she never would have, but because she was indispensable. And that was that.
Meantime, I myself was becoming tall and womanly, and Kiki had married the man, Song, and was carrying her first child. She fell asleep no matter what she tried to do and was very happy when the rains came, because they cooled the earth. The good doctor, who had become Paul, sent for her every week, but when her time came, Kiki disappeared into the forest to have her baby, to secure its ties within the clan. Thus Miro was born on Lavo Mountain. Kiki bleached his fine curly hair with urine and when he was a year old brought him down to Wewak to show him the ocean and to meet Ari--short for Ariadne. Regardless of Miro's origin and Sister's improbable authority, she christened him Francis Peter. Miro's hair thickened, but it never went dark again except at the roots, so it appeared as if he wore a halo. They said it was because Kiki and I, whose coloring was fair, had been inseparable when we were small. As everyone did, Paul asked after Miro's health whenever Kiki came to town, but we never saw Miro again.
They say some children are born ghosts, that their bodies are vessels for spirits condemned to walk the distances from one world to another, back and forth for alltime. Miro was such a child; Muk said so. Whoever he is supposed to be, he may come and go many times in many forms before he chooses to stay as a man. The villagers, Muk said, thought that I, myself, had come before, in the form of a whale that drifted into the waters off the coast and returned every year for one hundred years until the year I was born. Muk told me Wisdom was the name they gave the whale, because its eyes had seen the horizons of all the oceans and it had breathed the air from before the time of the great-grandfathers.
Sister Rose was not concerned with the stories I brought back from the bush any more than she was with uncovering herself. She shed no tears. What she had lost, she had lost in God's world, and so it was His plan. Beyond the pleasure she had taken and the admiration she felt for the Almighty's impeccable design, she did not confuse her ecstasy with passion, which she reserved entirely for God and the work He allowed her to do in His name. Still, she did not carry on her affair secretly, and so it was that, in a small canyon downstream, I came upon Paul and Sister Rose, naked, moving as one.
When Sister Rose went blind, I promised myself, the Lord, Heaven and Hell, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph that I would not fornicate. Sister Rose refused to go with Paul to Moresby, where there was a hospital, and instead continued her work, trying as it was for us all. She even bought several hohoa for her collection, fingering the front of the fine ancestral boards for their individual designs and demanding I record each of their histories and their carvers' names with pen and ink in her book. The day was coming when the rains would begin and we worked on empty stomachs to patch roofs and secure the campgrounds, the food storage, and the chapel against tiny pigbugs. When they came, we were pleased with our efforts, and I was relieved to be able to go about on my own. Sister Rose fasted and prayed for weeks and locked herself up in the church until the river overflowed. It had not rained so much since the year my mother died. It occurred to me that Sister--who had become thin and grown her blonde hair to her shoulders--was pretty. She wore clothes, which she let out, that the doctor's wife had left behind, and her hands--moving fluidly as if to convey what her eyes no longer could--took on a quality difficult to describe. Increasingly translucent, her blue eyes stared deeply inward. And though it appeared to us that what she was seeing was otherworldly, we were afraid to ask what it was.
Sister sent for the giant Kauage, who was carving a burial canoe out of the trunk of an ancient sago palm, turning the prow and the undersides into the head and body of a crocodile. At the finish, he blackened the wood with smoke from a fire. It was just a few days earlier that Sister Rose was aroused by the sweet odor of the smoking chips from the hollow. Sister had Kauage lead her to Paul's house and into the front entrance where the big mirror still hung, and she told him to see himself. Kauage did as he was told and saw a man--much as we did, excepting Sister Rose, who saw something more--who stood three heads taller than any other on the island, who was dark skinned, flat nosed, broad as a ship, and gentle as an early rain. His eyes showed the many hurts he had received as a result of his absurd and unusual size. Among his people, customarily short, he was considered deformed.
If a man is born ashamed, he must first find out whose ancestor he insulted, and then he must fight a crocodile until the point where each could lose, but he must know when to stop. It is at the point between winning and losing that a man triumphs, winning nothing more than honor, losing nothing more than shame.
It did not take Sister Rose's vision to see Kauage as we all did the day he returned to us, his finished burial canoe resting all its weight across the back of his mammoth shoulders. He was clothed in fine black pants fit for a giant and a grand black short-sleeved shirt with a strong white collar. It wasn't until he was within arm's reach that I recognized the transformation of Sister Rose's habit. She must have cut and stitched in the spirit of and with some other kind of sight. It marked the beginning of many small miracles and some disasters.
When the planes first flew overhead, they say the mountains cried and the rivers ran red from sorrow. Soon afterward, crunching and hollering and generally noisy, the Germans arrived on foot, and the villagers named them basiki, warrior termites, because they dressed like insects and made enemies of the trees. Not all warriors, Paul pointed out, devoured their enemies--at least not right away. Sister told him not to joke, that they could just as easily run him down. But we had nothing they wanted, which was a sign in itself to us that we were doing something right, and they barely noticed us. The rivers actually did run red, but it was from the unearthing of the deep red clay that washed into the river when the Germans uprooted the trees for landing strips. It was not understood at first, nor did it ever really become clear, why the basiki had come so far to build roads that led nowhere.
The Japanese, who arrived and left, like snakes, almost without our knowing, buried their dead in small clearings, hired village women to tend the graves, and came back year after year to honor their ancestors, while the thousands of blue spruce the Germans planted grew into a forest of wandering souls. It was said that if you became drunk and wandered into it, you could not find your way out, because every tree was a twin of every other. By the time the war was over, we were being visited by more and more families who, it was clear, were at the very least as disturbed as the landscape, and Sister Rose sent to Moresby for the psychologist, Jim.
Jim sailed by himself up the coast in an old rig, which he had refurbished after it washed ashore with no one at its helm. The Dutchman who was its master was never found, and it was feared that people on the other side of the island had eaten him and shrunk his head. I did not expect anything when Sister Rose received word Jim was coming. And I did not ask about him. Sister was of the belief that, to be fair, every one of God's children should be greeted, at first, with well-mannered indifference, and so she did not mention that Jim was a birdgod, a doctor who deals in souls.
He arrived on the horizon the day Sister predicted he would come, and it took him all day to bring the small sloop into the cove. Kauage waited with me in a storm under an umbrella on White Beach, all the while trying to convince me that Jim had enraged the souls of the ancestors, who sent currents in all directions to foil his journey. The ancestors did not approve of men, he said, who tamper with other men's fates, and, as a result of their anger, Jim and his boat had been hurled against rocks, made to drag for weeks in the doldrums, and had been nearly swallowed up by whirlpools far out at sea, all of which had made Jim famous.
These tangos with death had strengthened Jim, lengthening his muscles, bleaching his hair, and darkening his sun-drenched flesh the color of canyon earth. Sister Rose appeared just after the skies cleared, and it seemed her irises glowed like coals as they reflected the fiery sunset.
Jim anchored far out and rowed in on a small raft in twilight, transporting only himself, a coil of copper wire, and a small but finely made ax that was secured at his side like a spare hip and thighbone. He was the only person who came, after the fact, who knew without asking that Sister Rose was blind. I fell deeply in love.
I did not know, until I myself was so stricken, that Patti was in love with Sister Rose. While she maneuvered about, her eyes increasingly opaque, Paul's eyes brightened and his hair grew gray. She had to tell him not to follow her with his eyes around camp. She was gentle about it, but still, that was the day we realized her gifts went far beyond what we had perceived them to be. She began to be able to tell birds apart, identifying individuals not only by their particular song, but also by their location and the sound of their flight patterns. She picked up the footsteps of strangers, gauged the weather by sniffing the wind, and could tell time better than the night owl and smell the blood of a freshly killed monkey from deep within the forest. And though I had said nothing of it, I was not surprised when she remarked about my loving Jim.
I suppose I was wise like the whale, solitude and schoolbooks having been my sisters. I grew up believing all roads led to God; Hell was no more than a detour, evil no more than temporary insanity. The degrees of lawlessness in our lives reflected the strength of Sister's faith, and since I was in God's hands, I was left (outside of my chores and chapel) to discover the universe. By the time I saw Jim paddling out of the ocean, I had traveled as far as nature and my well-toned limbs would take me. I had swum uncharted rivers, descended underground caves lava currents had long ago abandoned, eaten blue lizards, and recorded dialects of people who wanted to eat me. If there was one expedition more trying than the others, it was the one I took each night in my dreams.
I told Jim about my dreams. I told him everything. When I lay down beside him, he would run his fingers over me, soft as a breeze, and listen while I recounted stories of my adventures and of my childhood. In my dream, my mother's flesh, though soaked in sweet oils and mud from the Highlands, is seemingly impenetrable. She is dying. Sister Rose is kneeling in her old habit, her pink-quartz rosary clicking through her fingers, bits of paper in a row on the bed beneath her gaze. I cannot read the words on them. My mother cries out, "One thousand men is no different than one man." In the distance I see a small child with a long staff walking towards her. It is Miro with his halo hair. He is standing under a waterfall that I recognize but cannot place. My mother gets up and joins him. And he takes her away into a cave beneath the falls.
My mother was crazy in her youth and Sister Rose still had her eyesight. With her last breath, my mother said she did not believe in God. Sister Rose said it was no use trying to force her. That God ruled over every drop of rain. Jim's naked body pressed me tightly into the old fanroot upriver. Growing up with nakedness a way of life, I had no clues to the pleasure of the flesh. Until Jim, I had had no one. Despite my curiosity, Kiki's initiation, and all that I knew from books, I had a good surprise. The fanroot was soft and swollen under my back and just wide enough that my outstretched hands could grip its edges, which gave way as Jim found his way inside me, stinging. From the silence came a wind, from the wind came thunder, from the thunder came lightning, and then the whole sky opened up, spilling torrents of rain down on us, and I prayed I would not go blind or mad.
Muk and I went to gather silverstools, shiny gray mushrooms that tasted like fish, and she told me a story, which, much later, I realized revealed her jealousy.
The alligator, thinking the praying mantis was a queen, fell in love with her. He knew, or he thought he knew, all of his lover's tricks. There was no risk, he told his brother, in his being devoured after coitus. "How could one so delicate and ladylike consume a creature so gross and large as me?" "Beware," the brother said, "of seeing things only as they appear. The pig is more clever than the owl." Throughout the courtship, the praying mantis settled between the eyes of her suitor and sunned herself, snatching the flies feeding on his salty tears, for which the alligator was deeply grateful. The wedding ceremonies lasted several months, and the groom was especially drunk when he and his queen departed for her home where she told him he was to become king. When the newlyweds arrived in the great meadow, they were welcomed by a million of the bride's cousins and treated to delicacies from all over the world. Now the alligator had been intoxicated for weeks and he had not been alone for a minute with his bride. By the time she led him away it was too dark for him to see. When the alligator awoke, he saw the praying mantis in the distance taking a bath, but he was sure he had been too drunk to consummate the marriage. When he got close, the alligator was stunned to see his bride, not bathing, but eating an alligator tail, four legs and a trunk much like his own. When he realized he had been betrayed, that the praying mantis had tricked him, and that there was nothing left of him but his snout and his eyes, he began to cry, to which the praying mantis replied, "Dry your own eyes, fool." When the alligator tried to catch the praying mantis in his mouth, she only laughed. All those months of her sunning herself on his snout had made him permanently cross-eyed. And so her cousins descended on what was left of him.
Jim told me love evolved from vanity. I believed him. I could not see myself clearly anymore. My passions paraded me about as if I had never known self-reliance. And even I, who had disparaged it, searched out the old mirror, whose reflection did not surprise me, my eyes wider and deeper than before. If it hadn't been for all the work required to help the sick villagers descending from the forest, I felt I could easily be one of them. Love came as a shock to me much as the twentieth century had come as a shock to the islanders. Like them I had no point of reference on which to base the sensations that invaded my body, no romance books (excepting the doctor's wife's copy of Jane Eyre, which was thick with mold) to find comfort in, no dictionary to leaf through in search of words to describe love-flushed cheeks, feather-tongued whispers, spiral-winged palpitations in my heart. The dead heat of the solstice was so intense it grounded flying insects and killed any fire in the hearth. Somewhere I had gotten it in my mind that love lasts only as long as the body is strong. Jim said it lasts as long as vanity holds up. Sister Rose said it was not for us to question God's way. "Love is a blessing," she said, "not a treasure hunt."
Since the sick and the displaced had not experienced such things as electric poles, airplanes, cars, or machinery, nor, because of the dark and dense forest in which they lived, had they seen much of anything at long distance, the new forms and open spaces were jarring. And the soldiers, whose flesh was pale--not, like ours, sunbaked--they saw as ghosts or phantoms. Hoping to calm the most frightened, Jim decided to show them a little about practical matters. With his copper wire and inventiveness, he devised contraptions that illustrated electricity and magnetic fields, and we covered a hairless piglet with mud, except for a spot on his back which the sun browned, and we made sticks that cooked the meat through from the inside out (especially beneficial, we pointed out, during heat waves, when fungus flourished).
Jim had a way with the women and children, who loved to see how many of them he could carry at once. Though he was not as tall as Kauage, he was built like him. His calves and thighs tapered neatly into their joints, his muscles as dense and complex as the roots of a mangrove. His eyes brightened when he laughed, as if someone were raising an inner shade, letting out the light of a secret solar system. He saw each family as unique and all the individuals interesting. Like Sister Rose, he took in every tremor, flare-up, and eruption, piecing together with Sister--and me, who did the writing--the detailed behaviors and histories of a human way of life, which we knew would disappear, in part by virtue of our interpretation, and inevitably from our very presence.
As time heals better than any god or mortal, or, rather, sheds light on the past, there came a day when all of those who had been sick were sick no longer, their souls consoled, their calm returned. The elders and the children seemed to comprehend what the future would bring, the children curious, the elderly resigned. And the rest, the young parents, the women, the adolescents, were too busy to remain distracted from their tasks, and soon the electrical poles, prop planes, the traders' trucks, the bulldozers and concrete mixers, and all the growling of the earth and sky of the white man's world seemed, to them, no more than the raging of a madman.
There was something saddening about it when the last of the elders left to reclaim what was never lost. Ruki and Muk went on vacation to Goroko in a truck, and Kauage, wearing new shorts and a printed shirt, went on a walkabout with his brother's family. The dry season was mercifully coming to an end. The day before the first real downpour, the sky could not have been clearer and the moon blackened the sun. Sister Rose christened my daughter Eclipse when the time came, because she was born that day. She was blind.
Who is to say what is wrong and what is right? Little Eclipse fought the earth from the day she was born, as if it, and not I, were her mother. Was it cruel she was not born a bird? I will never know, but it hurt me time and time again when she came home bruised, her small knees and elbows scraped, her chin raw from her efforts to leave this earth behind, her little limbs bent out of shape much like those of the baby eagle she had stumbled on, which she cried over for days.
By the time Eclipse was six, her knowledge of birds far surpassed that of Sister Rose. It was the little bat, as we called her, who taught Sister to hear distances more clearly. She became strong like Jim and took to swimming in the sea, and I was sorry when she could swim against the currents because I knew she would leave one day. I sensed Eclipse loved the ocean because it mimicked the sky and she could glide forever on the water. It seemed sometimes that my daughter was unfairly troubled, her body like a fish, her soul like a bird. Some people, Sister Rose remarked, the Lord intends to crucify. I became furious with her, but it was with God that I was incensed.
Meanwhile, Jim was sailing less. The hospital in Moresby was treating scores of the displaced and unemployed for mental illness, malnutrition, alcoholism, and other diseases of the traders. A large concrete wing was assembled for the most disturbed and it was there the interned painted in the style of children, using blood reds, yellows, and blacks, all death colors, Jim explained. They were grieving the death of their lineages and the destruction of the dream: of life, elemental and eternal.
When Jim could get away, he took us out to sea and we swam in cold water. I was sad that Eclipse could not see the emerald green, the pink turn in conch shells, the flame of the coral, or the whiteness of the sand on untouched shores. But I did not mention it. Once when we sailed east to Kali Bay, when the water and sky were as clear as they were on the day she was born, Eclipse turned her small face skyward and let the word blue roll off her tongue, over and over, in rhythm with the waves. That night she woke with a start, saying she felt the earth change course, as if it were a ship and the universe its ocean. I could not console her until Jim lifted anchor and we sailed home.
Sister Rose and Ruki disappeared the night Eclipse felt the earth change course. They left before sunset with a squatter who came to the mission to report the kidnapping of his wife and their baby. Paul was convinced there was something else Sister was not telling him, and when we got back, it became clear Eclipse knew that Sister and Ruki would be gone, and I suspected she knew of their whereabouts. That Eclipse and Sister Rose were like granddaughter and grandmother did not help us, because one would not ever betray the other, nor did the threat of punishment budge my daughter. She refused to explain herself. She did, however, tell me about her dream. She said she met Rain walking with a man who had no lungs, who could talk and see only on one side like a fish, and who wore a wishbone around his neck.
My daughter heard the engine of the plane long before it was sighted. Paul told us it was arriving from Christchurch, South Island, but Eclipse said it came across an ocean of ice, carrying unholy cargo. When I first glimpsed Father Baron, I was not sure Eclipse was wrong. He was the embodiment of decay. His skin was molting like a snake's and his rancid breath brought tears to my eyes. His gums were putrid and the corners of his mouth were strung with scum the same yellow as his one good eye, which glowed, like a paper lantern, behind a curtain of cigarette smoke. Strands of white chest hair protruded from his clerical collar, and, almost as my daughter had dreamed, one half of his face was useless, streaked with scar tissue. But the strangest thing of all lay not in what the priest had chosen to ruin, but in what he chose to save, for he kept his fingernails and his bony hands scrubbed and rinsed with rose water. The odor wafted up to my nose when he bent to pick one suspiciously slim, yellow-brown Bible, the size of a toadstool, from a box of hundreds, blessed and crossed it, and passed it to me in his ashen palm. Leafing through it, I saw the pages filled with oversized letters, like the ones we normally used in the school to teach the alphabet to a child. I sensed Father Baron was the reason Sister Rose had gone into hiding, but the rest I could never have imagined.
The priest punished his small congregation with a fearsome God, one in the unlikely image of a pirate. He lathered the pulpit with sweat and sputtered vile froth onto the helpless children who filled the front rows of the chapel. He beat the women who forgot to cover their breasts. Muk was not amused. She even told me that when she cleaned the priest's room, she discovered under his pillow a wad of various mean-looking insects--some ants, some spiders, basiki, and loa--coupling as if in an orgy. She decreed this a bad omen. And said we should do something. That we were no longer safe. Sister Rose had taught us never to ignore a madman, never to let him wander, nor tie him to a post, and most of all, never to let him entertain the children. I sent for Jim.
It was clear to Eclipse alone that the priest was not exactly human. She asked me if I had ever seen him eat and I hadn't. Had I seen him drink, or pee, or defecate, she demanded to know? Had I seen him sleeping or reading his verses? Eclipse, who could identify the heartbeat of every living creature within camp, said she had not been able to detect one in the man, as she called Father Baron. She even suggested, based on the grayness of his skin, which someone had told her about, that he would not bleed if he were cut, and I told her she knew better than to talk that way with me. Still, when he took to questioning the children, plying them with sugar and foreshortened Bibles, we told them the priest had come down with a case of sillybugs, and then I sent a more urgent message to Jim. Father, as the priest now demanded we call him, appeared to have no faith.
Meanwhile, the children either laughed or cried in response to Father Baron's inquiries, and he complained that the mission needed more teachers and blamed me for not instructing the children in Latin. There was one question, though, we all thought he should have asked, which he didn't. Eclipse insisted that he did not ask about Sister Rose because he knew what had become of her, or at least why she had gone away.
Paul went looking for Sister Rose. He was gone for weeks. No one would go after him, and I did not sleep. He was getting old, the good doctor, and I had grown to think of him somewhat as a father, and now I prayed he would be safe. We never saw him again. We wrote his wife, packed his possessions, built a crate for his mirror, and sent everything but his body to England. Sister Rose had said about a man finding himself, "He who has faith never need retrace his steps." And it gave us some comfort, though we missed Paul very much.
When the storms hit shore, we lost the church and the dispensary, the garden, many old trees, and a dog that was not missed until we discovered her brood yelping from the hollow of an abandoned canoe. There were other small animals and several birds that Eclipse nursed back to health, her small, knowing hands zeroing in on broken bones and wings, filling their beaks with eyedroppers of sweet water, bathing ulcerated sores, delousing with the devotion of a monkey. Like Jim, she had a gift for healing. It was she who found him, washed up on shore at Golden Point, hawks spelling doom in the sky.
The body I had come to know was gone, his sweet and sour flesh, his big-boned hands and feet, amber lips, and salty tongue. A shark had severed Jim's right leg. His skin was waterlogged and drained of pigment, and his ear had been eaten on one side by crabs in the sand. She had only recognized him, she said, by his heartbeat, which was so faint she had to cry before we believed her that Jim was alive. We set him up in what was left of the doctor's house and kept him comfortable and dry. It was a month before Jim's eyes moved under their lids.
Eclipse, who was by now quite grown, cleaned her father's wounds, dressed them, closed his stump with boiled threads, peeled away the layers of shrinking tissues, and provided him with the same sweet water she gave sick birds. Jim would survive, she told us, because he was a birdgod and I was surprised she remembered a word she had not heard since she was a baby.
The giant Kauage, who had taken Ruki's place as superintendent, supervised the rebuilding of the church and steeple, and a new schoolhouse opened its doors, but it was not the same. People stopped asking for Sister Rose and the novelty of Father Baron's God had worn off. And Muk, who had been beaten for it, had refused to bake for all the traders who came in groups to barter with the priest over what he called his "brilliant collection," which, of course, was the art in Sister Rose's warehouse.
In my heart I knew Sister was safe, being in the hands of God, but I did not know why she sent no word. And I could not forgive myself for sending for Jim even though Sister would have explained my self-reproach as pride. I could almost hear her. "No mortal, Ari, no matter how boastful, can hurl the wind and toss the sea. Jim lost nothing in following his heart. He was a healer, after all." Still, as I sat with him, watching the dreams erupt beneath his brow, I longed to hear Sister's gentle voice and to be touched by her hand.
About the time Jim, still in his dream state, began speaking in the language of the headhunters from across the mountains, several white traders vanished from the small town that had sprung up around the mission. Two partially decayed heads and one arm were placed by their murderers in carved yifoli, normally used for paint mixing, and sent to sea with sails of human skin. When another yifoli, carrying a small foot and two fingers, was found on the riverbank, we were even more disturbed. Eclipse said the sound of a heart beating echoed in her eardrums. She claimed the remains belonged to her friend Moses, last seen upriver, collecting fronds for a seaman's grave.
After the rains began, no more human remains were found drifting in coastal waters, nor did any traders come, nor did Jim speak again. The day the Central Highland Authority notified us that two boys from Huli tribe, who denied everything, had been charged with the murders, Jim's eyes flipped open, the lids sticking, the irises flat, and the pupils, like the night bird's, unyielding. Eclipse cut pepperweed to get tears from her eyes, and she collected them and dosed her father's eyes to keep them moist. It was a cold night for the equator when a voice I thought I would never hear again stopped me short as I opened the screen door of the doctor's house. It was Jim, not weak, but strong. He came back to us, though, without knowing what year it was, or what had transpired, or even that he was a doctor of the mind.
If I had wondered what it was that bound my mother and Sister Rose, I knew it was more than Sister could tell me. It had something to do with Rain's refusing to pray, even on her deathbed. When I was older and more curious, I asked Ruki about her. He told me my mother once complained to him. She told him, "Rose came to this backward bush just like the rest of us heathens, to beat the hours in a day. No day can be found longer than a day on this crummy coast."
We found Jim could use a crutch, and he and I discovered that he had not lost everything. And so, after our long dry spell, we got carried away, the fanroots up and down the riverbanks bruised at the edges from supporting our entwined bodies. Muk collected, gilled, and served the fanroot scraps, and we all kept straight faces, knowing the delicious food's secret origin when Father Baron filled up on it. Like our first season together, except better, because of our gratitude, life was so beautiful every day seemed far too short.
We were distracted and did not notice the swelling numbers of traders among us, Father Baron himself more trader than priest, until his "brilliant collection" in the warehouse was close to empty and only boys high on bietle nut, its blood-froth beading their lips, brought inferior work to market. And ignorant women sold fine carved wooden bowls and bright hand-woven string bags for tin goods and chewing gum. And like a greedy child who, in raiding the bees' nest, forgets to leave some honey and is surprised when the bee follows him home, Father Baron was sorely stung by the traders he once seduced with sacred art, blessed wine, and toy Bibles. And so he secretly booked passage on the boat to England.
Cheap liquor, scarcity of goods, and the worship of a malevolent God made madness of what little remained of the Mission of Our Lady. The heat dried the riverbanks, the grass, and the beams of the empty church. In the shrinking tidewater we found butchered men, liquored and left to drown, and it wasn't long before we were treating young girls whose languages, old as stone, had no words to describe brutality.
If all roads led to God, this detour, I thought, must be the evil of which Sister Rose had spoken in her lessons. Muk and I had no relief, our work unending, if not insurmountable. I prayed on my feet, while washing clothes and bandages, while dishing pounded yams and preparing the bread, and for the briefest time when I was in the chapel--no longer than it took to wipe Father Baron's dead skin from the pulpit.
But when Jim came, holding up Eclipse, her features askew, her body smeared and frozen, I took a vow not to pray again except to leave this place, even if it meant never seeing Sister Rose again. Eclipse left behind her childhood that day, not because a stinkard, as she called him, had forced her to lie down with him, but because she received her calling, one she said I would have to wait to see. I could not understand my daughter. She was not enraged, but calm.
Rumors swept the cove, surrounding hills, and river basins. People were saying that the white man's gold was cursed and that the ancestral carvings from longtimepass were still alive in a cave guarded by the headhunter of all headhunters. Soon clusters of bloated body parts appeared floating in brackish water, and we believed we were in Hell. Everyone, black and white, was intoxicated and smoldering; fears heavy as incense rose with the odor of death from the center of the forest. Then, in blinding light, I watched, first, the warehouse and then the church go up in flames, their roofs and the small steeple collapsing, its silhouette hovering for a time before it, too, succumbed to the blaze. When I turned away, it was as if I had been staring at the sun. There was nothing but white, and I could not see that the doctor's house, where I had left Jim and Eclipse, was but rising soot.
Muk came for me and dragged me into the forest. The next morning, when I opened my eyes, the image of the steeple, black against a gold sky, had burned into my mind. I called out for my family, and Muk reminded me to keep quiet. We were in dangerous territory. In the silence, I lost hope and, worse, what little remained of my faith. I feared that my husband and child were gone from this earth. And God, with whom I had lost favor, I began to hate. And I questioned whether He was a creation of Sister's imagination; a conjured image meant to correct in her heart what could never be made right. No Bible, fat or slim, could un-cleave the dark continents of my heart.
For days we stopped only to clean ourselves of leeches and to eat. For fear of attracting attention, we made no fire, and ate raw lizards and small wallabies of the rat family. We crossed muddy streams and traveled far just to avoid deep-water rapids, and though we smelled smoke, we bypassed every village in dread. On the third day, we took turns sleeping, but we did not find food or fresh water. Muk came across a giant ant colony of a type she had never seen, but she did not gather any ants to show me for fear they would swarm. We pushed on until morning, when we saw someone through the great ferns of the forest floor.
Father Baron, slumped at the bottom of a mangrove, its blood-red sap spilling down his back, his ankles and feet swollen to the bursting point from the poison of sliverwarts, was stranded. We picked the needlelike thorns from his feet, and though he protested, bled him with leeches to relieve the pressure, replacing those engorged with flat worms until we had taken as much blood as was safe. Then we left him to rest.
Muk and I were no longer young, but we tied up our skirts and, to conserve heat, ripped our blouses, covering our heads with the cloth. We scavenged for edible berries and plants, ate legless lizards, and broke off clumps of fanroot, though, raw and thick, they were hard to chew, for sustenance. When Father Baron was strong enough, we walked, passing the outskirts of a large village engaged in stewing taro, the smell so rich to our depleted stomachs that our mouths went dry and we gagged. But with signs of the black cockatoo and the hornbill carved in trees, I knew we were now deep into cannibal country.
I hungered for sleep, but when it came, my fears so disturbed me that I awoke and, much to my disgust, Father Baron revealed himself to me. Tossing in his sleep, he called out for Sister Rose, and I watched from the shadows as his brow furrowed and the good side of his face pulled into a lascivious grin. He was seeing someone, a woman, poring over her, his old, ashen tongue traversing the crevices in his parched lips. Then, seizing himself between the legs, he searched for a name, and when it came, it was Rain. He cried out and his dirt-stuffed fingernails sprang from his loins to his face and began digging. It took all my strength to pry his hands away, and I had to give him a good slap to bring him around. Having succeeded in ending his nightmare, the priest then broke down sobbing and told me his story, all the while weeping, unaware we were of the same flesh.
I did not know if, to be fair, I would have greeted the priest with more or less indifference had I known he was my father. Nor did I know if it was only by renouncing the Heavenly Father that I was shown the earthly one, his frailty hidden somewhere in my own, perhaps even in our common loss of faith. It was a relief after so many years for Father Baron to make his confession. As a young missionary, down with fever and too much tonic, Father Baron had assaulted the novitiate, my mother. She and Sister Rose and he, none much past their teens, had been sent to the island to open The Mission of Our Lady. It was Sister Rose who tore him off my mother. It was Sister who cracked the kerosene lamp on his head, the flames igniting on contact. And, in the end, my mother, unable to conceal her disgrace, left the church in defiance.
At the time, had Father Baron made the smallest gesture of repentance, it would have meant something, but the young often lack the courage to seek forgiveness, and the old seek forgiveness too much, as if death were a punishment. Sister had not been wrong to want to forget the past, but she never could see that her righteous willfulness only made things worse. I was struck with what she was. Like a child, Sister hung her faith on every tree and swept away evil like it was no more than dust under a bed. If I ever saw her again, I would ask her why she did not tell me the truth. Why she didn't trust herself, despite the fact that everyone else depended on her.
The truth was like a mudslide for the priest, the weight of his sins pressing in on him. Yet Muk and I thought we saw him breathe easily for the first time. His uncovered soul, though atrophied and shrunken, was still burning. Suddenly he seemed to know where he was, and, feeling renewed, took it upon himself to take the lead. Like a sniffing dog, he guided us along, using tree trunks and broken branches, and several times we passed huge black clay anthills of the kind Muk had seen a few days back. But he became sweaty and froze when we came among hundreds of these same hills. There must have been millions and millions of ants, more even than the stars. They were all around us and underneath us, too, Muk said, and yet we did not see a single ant or hear a sound. We saw no one, came across no village, and found not even a rodent to eat; and Muk came to believe the priest was the Devil, for who is better oriented than the Devil, and who else could find a place so desolate? She even went so far as to suggest to me that he was responsible for all the death and destruction we had so far survived. That he was a ravenous headhunter, who had trapped us into caring for him by injuring himself.
Exhausted, Muk and I fell asleep, wary of the priest, the strange anthills, and the nearby villages, whose women we imagined stewing the flesh of our loved ones. I dreamed we were preparing a large feast of fresh coconuts, jujuberries, wine, and yams to be cooked in the coals under a roast. And then Eclipse appeared, tears running down her face, and with her father's old axe began hacking at the stakes on which a fleshy bone turned above the fire. When she got hold of it and cleaned it, Eclipse drew Jim out of hiding. His wound was fresh, and we became aware it was his leg with which we were about to fill our bellies. He threw down his crutch, took the bone, fitted himself with it, and left with the help of his daughter. I looked for them in the bush, but found nothing of them.
When I awoke, I was alone and I became terrified. With a heavier heart than I had ever known, I believed I was the last person on earth. Then, listening, I heard the priest praying in the distance. He recited in a whisper, "And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: But if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you." Then he gave the last rites. I rose and found him. He told me to turn back, that Muk was no longer with us, and that we had little time to reach the other side of the Great River of Many Waterfalls, where we would be free from this terror.
Not believing him, I stepped into the tall grass and was confronted with what was ahead and what was at our heels, for there, in a flash of horror, I saw my dear friend Muk's skeleton. Her skirt, laid out like a tablecloth, was drenched in a ghostly fluid such as the loa bugs leave behind. The intimate corners of her body were alive with feasting antlike creatures, each of whose backs was marked with a golden cross.
With Father Baron at my side, I watched Muk's half-devoured corpse being carried away, piece by piece, hand, foot, and even hair, disappearing into the mouth of an anthill. And I realized where all the remains at Golden Point had come from. The two Huli boys, executed by hanging, must have found the leftover arm, heads, fingers, and small foot in the dirt, and, thinking to terrify us and the setters into abandoning our land, set the pieces afloat.
Where Father Baron had been bitten, his wrist was swelling. Between his thumb and index finger, he had trapped a single bug that he held out for me to inspect. It had two unique features: a razor-sharp claw like a termite's and a vivid cross running down and across its bulbous back, and it became clear to me once and for all that it was not a human tribe or headhunter undoing our world, but this new kind of insect, born of a mix, which had become an insatiable forager, swallowing everything alive in its path.
Spying many trails of ants traveling toward us, Father Baron and I rushed on, seeing gaping holes carved into every branch and tree trunk. Just as we were gaining ground, when the Great River came within reach, Father Baron fell. When I saw him go to his knees, I panicked, and I could not help but turn back. To stop me, he took hold of his shirt and raised it over his head. His heart hung on a wishbone of tissue, his gut swarming with the poisonous ants. And as Eclipse had long ago foreseen, the two lobes of his lungs were completely missing.
Suddenly I was flying effortlessly over the river, passing above waterfalls increasing in size, until I came to the biggest of them all. From it, I could stand and, looking back, see all the distance I had traveled. And with the water roaring wildly, I could not hear the priest's cries, nor through my tears see anything moving except crosses aglow in the dark. Heading toward the flow, I felt the first of a thousand deadly stings.
The giant Kauage, back to wearing only his sheath, emerged from a coolly lit tunnel. He lifted me, and I was so small in his arms I felt helpless and cried. Across the Great River of Many Waterfalls appeared an unexplored forest rich in flowers with pale colors and birds that sang all at once and only at noon, and each girl was prettier than the next and every boy was a great magician. All fights were fought in jest there and tears shed for joy--even the priest wept. I was reunited with my family: Jim's leg and ear restored, Paul still young, Muk and Ruki, Kiki and her great-great-grandchildren, Miro, whose hair had finally gone black, Rain unspoiled, and Moses, who rode everywhere on Eclipse's back, and Eclipse, who, having become an angel, had wings at last. And Sister, too, could see.
And as the moon rose into the sky, we all gathered together to share the treats of our garden, the day's delights, and our sadness over its coming to an end. And I looked up to see a wall of white blossoms, millions of tiny, torn pages descending from the sky, and on each piece words are written, which when arranged, say the things you want to hear.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2010|
|Previous Article:||What Should We Anticipate?|
|Next Article:||Good Night, Ladies.|