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POWER

Dogster saw him first, diagonally opposite, at the far side of the open space, a distant shock of dusty speckled white hair. The surprise on my face turned heads towards this little intruder. Joshua hadn’t given up, after all. There was no way I could explain what he was doing here, tell them the reason for this traveling pilgrimage; still here, doggedly carrying out his mission, doubtless too scared to go home without his task accomplished. I felt guilty and cruel.

The men peeled away from him and stood silently facing the boy. They shuffled half-way across the square while Feathers moved closer to talk to him. The conversation was shouted so that everyone could hear. The boy was standing his ground, despite what must have a formidable sight; the entire village arrayed silently in front of him, staring hostility at this unwanted intrusion. This child from another world was clearly breaking all the visiting rules.

The conversation went on. I guessed the content. The boy spoke out hesitantly at first, then with more confidence. It seemed like a prepared speech he had been sent to deliver, the same one as at the resort. There was a murmur from the men, an international gerrumph and hmmrrggh of disapproval like an amateur theatre chorus, then a shout.

Steven stepped forward and gave the shrinking child a piece of his mind, let forth what seemed to be a torrent of local obscenities, heaped scorn at the albino, turned away. When he turned again he clearly expected to see the retreating back of the messenger, instead what he got was a defiant stare. He shouted an instruction to Feathers and that handsome young man took his bow and arrows from his shoulders, stretched one sharpened stick from string to bow, pulled back, aimed and calmly let fly.

The child vibrated, jumped sideways and dodged the arrow but it was a signal to the rest. Little boys ran in every direction seeking stones, the women retreated to the rear dragging small girls behind them. The chief stayed motionless in the middle of the square as a hail of missiles rained down on that empty spot where the boy had stood just seconds before. He was gone, into the undergrowth, pursued by a military mission of small boys hurling stones. I saw the glance of rock on blotched cheek, heard his cry as he disappeared, felt somehow responsible. Steven bellowed out a single word and puffing pint-size warriors appeared back in the clearing, breathless from the chase.

Abruptly it was all over. Everybody seemed in extreme good spirits, as if a mortal enemy had been repulsed. There was boasting and laughter and a little spontaneous dance, back-slapping and bravado. The old man began to sing. Dogster couldn’t quite see the victory in seventy against one, couldn’t rid his mind of that slash of blood on a little boy’s cheek, couldn’t stop his legs from shaking, but had to confess unexpected feelings of relief as they rid him of his little island penance, his ghostly trailing messenger from John Frum.

*

Red coals glowed in the darkness of Sulphur Bay, shining faintly on an elderly face of concern. Every fold in that ancient skin was etched in amber and shadow, each wrinkle in black. The old man poked deep into the embers with a stick of charred wood, one thin finger curled down the shaft, one cracked fingernail curving out and over his fingertip. It seemed to point at the deepest, hottest patch of fire, demanding, prodding that distant life to come forth. Inside the sparks, beneath the fire, there was a shimmering image of another, brighter pyre, of naked men sitting in a circle staring, seeing their own pictures in their individual flames, peering further into this humid infinity of lives and deaths and strange beliefs. The chief crushed one coal with the end of his stick, put all his weight into it, speared that red-hot ember and shattered it into a dozen pieces with a shower of tiny sparks that flew a dozen feet into the air.

‘Joshua,’ the old man called softly. ‘Joshua, listen to me.’

In the coals he could see the child crouched in the jungle, whimpering, afraid, a little boy fear of pain and stubbornness. He could see a trickle of blood on the boy’s face, a dried map of tears cutting through the dirt on his pink cheeks. Joshua was huddled up against the trunk of a tree clasping both knees to his chest. It was pitch black, that deep, desperate darkness of jungle and humidity, a teeming symphony of insect voices and animal cries, a fearsome, evil place for a small scared child.

‘Remember what I told you, Joshua. Remember the words for fear? Say the secret words for fear. Say them, Joshua.’

And, without knowing why, the blotched intruder recited his grandfather’s mantra, said the words to drive the blackness from the jungle, calm insects, night terrors and ghosts, words to send the child into a reverie of security, faith and courage, to heal bitter wounds and calm confusion. Joshua’s head slumped forward and soon he was asleep, dreaming of his grandfather stoking the fire.

*

Another wise old man sat in black sand on the other side of the island, singing a song about previous lives, gulping back kava as he too stared into a fire. The waves roared behind him, a fresh new breeze was clearing the heaviness of the day’s heat out from the bungalows just around the point. Zachariah could see the lanterns flickering as guests wandered in and out of their rooms, heading up the ruined restaurant for dinner. His was a healthy fire, a raging tower of licking flame leaping up into a starry moon-lit night. A silver glare from the far horizon scampered across the waves to rest dull and wet on black sand as the old man sang low and strong, songs of strangers, songs of death, songs of simple fear. There is danger on the island tonight.

*

Daniel sat motionless in the darkness at the top of his cliff, watching the old wizard sing. There was too much distance between them for the tour guide to hear the words, but he knew the content. All Daniel’s songs had long left him, dried up and broken away, smashed like the rest of his expectations. He could only listen across the bay, hear snatches of crooning as the shifting breeze changed direction, rock in seething hatred of that certain knowledge he once had but had forgotten, lost, mislaid – he didn’t know. He was trapped in the wrong time and nothing he knew would fix it – without a past, without a future, only a grinding anger to hold him together. He had turned in on himself, the black of his heart was the only strong force left, bitter malice his survival.

He couldn’t see the fire any more – he saw only flames. The old men used their fires as a looking glass into time and space, diving into the flickering coals, finding peace and meaning – connection to their earth. The red of the embers was the living embodiment of the molten centre of that earth, the volcano the visible sign of those forces. It was impossible to live on the slopes of an active volcano without daily obeisance to the gods of a trembling landscape. For old men of wisdom, and for a few strange young men, the gods paid back a legacy of secret powers, of insight and continuity, of strength and flight and force. Daniel’s bitter legacy was to know what he had lost.

*

Dogster looked up at him with salty eyes and sighed.

‘What’s happening to me, Steven? Do you know?’

Steven smiled that warm, open smile and squatted down across from the Englishman. The fire flared as he poked it with his finer.

‘You are safe here,’ he said softly, looking deep into the old Dog’s eyes, ‘the old man is singing your safety.’

It occurred to Dogster that he might be a prize. That some unexpected cachet accompanied him, an accidental celebrity born exclusively of chance and circumstance. That who and what he was could well be immaterial. In the fortuity of his arrival were the seeds of his perceived specialness. It didn’t matter who the arrival was, simply that someone arrived. At that point the assumptions began, the layering on of meaning, the piling of supposition upon certainty until the original, incidental tourist becomes the sum total of all the hopes and fears and presumptuous dreams of the beholder. A fusion takes place, the subject merges with the purpose until even he himself cannot tell the difference.

*

This blissful island lifestyle, so relaxed and carefree, laid like a valium blanket on tribal feud and argument, the simple village existence a vast web of superstition and fear where rules and traditions sat rock solid, evolving sideways to deal with shifting situations in a changing world.

But whose values are important here? Not mine. A western interpretation of these events would be to miss the point entirely. These were gargantuan feuds, long distance time wars waged in a different moral climate, with a different set of weapons. I could only sit, watch, grunt back and nod; frozen in a glimpse of the reality I so guilelessly sought

I was still too confused by the sudden switch to anger, the strength of hidden passion that had flared to life earlier. Everything that happened as the day wore on was glimpsed in that parenthesis. All the mundane details of custom village life explained in minute and loving detail in a secret language of grunt and giggle were both amplified and qualified by the treatment of that little boy. Those captivating little children became characters from ‘Lord of the Flies’, miniature adults freed of civilizing forces, committed by accident and fate to another island in this self-same sea. Tanna was stripping him of his dreams.

‘Who is he? That old man on the point? What did he mean, Steven? He said I had been here before. How did he speak to me? Steven?’

Steven chose not to answer. He looked up slowly across the fire and took a deep breath. His nostrils flared and his frame enlarged dramatically, the black man seemed to expand. Expelling the breath through his teeth, he sent out a long, low whistle of compressed air that pierced the ashes and made the coals glow bright red. A little whirlwind of sparks took off into the cool night air, flying around in concentric circles until the space above the fire was a mass of tiny red particles.

Dogster was drawn into the picture, felt wind and sharp pinpricks of pain as sparks dived at him, flew into his face, blinding him. He clamped his eyes shut and in the sudden blackness a bright white light appeared. Inside the light was a ghostly face, a negative image of the old man on the point that dispersed as soon as it appeared. Dog gasped and rubbed his eyes, leant away from the fire suddenly to escape the sparks, realized too late that there was nothing behind him and tumbled backwards into space. With a soft thud he landed on his back in the black sand.

*

Joshua woke up with a start. He was confused. Something was wrong.

‘Stay!’ hissed the old man in Sulphur Bay.

*

Daniel fell into a deep and unexpected sleep. He didn’t see the old man on the point raise one wiry arm in a kind of benediction, hold one bony finger pointing at the moon, couldn’t hear the thin chant projected over the waves, saw nothing of flame leaping high, of sparks, of heat and fear. Daniel couldn’t see Dogster – but Dogster could see him. On the other side of that roaring blaze man a slender, wizened shaman pointed and rocked on his haunches, speaking words that white men can’t hear. Steven smiled from a distance.

*

Now it was the grandfather’s turn in Sulphur Bay. He waved one arm over the fire, spat, rubbed a sweaty palm over his face and began.

Dogster felt himself dissolve, split apart again. His body was still in Yaohanon, his mind was here on the point, but now some crystal bud of clarity was being dragged across the island to Sulphur Bay. He had the distinct vision of a triangle with three bright points of fire, felt himself briefly in the centre of that island geometry, tugged and pulled equally from all sides by bush magic. Directly below him, in the centre of this pyramid of mixed forces was the child, standing there, looking up at him with fear in his eyes.

He hovered again in mid-air at the apex of his triangle, caught in the multiple flickers of three great fires, warmed and scared and free all at once. Steven’s grip never let up – it was his grounding through this fantastic journey – without it, he thought, he would float free and never come back.

I was feeling stronger, starting to learn the essential art of balance, using the three opposing forces to forge my own native power, revolving slowly, binding them one around another to form a spiral rod of strength. Steven was guiding me, showing by his very force and solidity the way of control. I flew in the black skies of nothing, dissolved into clear Pacific air.

Now he hovered somewhere, a carpet of a fires beneath him, the whole world of stars above his head. There were bubbles of pain and pleasure floating around, little worlds of sights, smells, the sound of children, the slap of disapproval. They bumped into him, dissolved around him, showered him with memory, lost times, those key points of identification that still remained in a life nearly devoid of connection with the past.

Dogster hovered there, enthralled by the strange sensation, kept aloft by three sets of wild magic and the child’s desperate gaze. It was a long moment of balance, then, with a rush, he was drawn towards the village.

‘Oh!’ he gasped as suddenly he reappeared at Steven’s side, ‘Steven, did you see that?’

The young islander reached out silently with one strong arm and drew Dog into his shoulder, holding him tight and safe, warm in his embrace.

‘You are safe here,’ he repeated, soothing the confused tourist with the mellow tone of his voice, ‘you are safe.’

I opened my mouth to speak. Steven held one brown finger to his mouth.

‘Shhh…’ he said, ‘wait.’

He turned Dogster round so that he sat on the earth between his legs, wrapped both arms and strong bare legs around him and leant forward. His breath warmed my right ear as he whispered impossible secrets. There was a high pitched bat squeal, a soft crackle as if rocks were rolled over a coral beach, a deep, menacing rumble from the earth. Dog felt his eyes turning up and sweet blackness rolling in. This time, however, the weight of Steven’s body, the firmness of his grip settled me, removed the solitary terror of unseen travel, held me safe in big brown arms, clutched in the father’s grip of an uncertain son.

Dog was lifted again, moved through dark places, propelled into the thick black soup of nothing. He knew this place. He’d spent his life here.

He knew all the corridors of abandonment, held maps of the forbidden floors, could reach out blind and find the secret doorway by touch. Dog lived here by habit, avoiding closeness, routine, friends – always leaving, always just arrived. He felt overwhelmed at the purity of it, naked in the blank face of it. He was being shown more than bush magic on an island – Dogster was being shown the internal landscape he inhabited without the multiple diversions he relied on. It was a still, sad space; an empty black stage echoing the ghosts of long dead players, always pregnant with impending meaning, always full of imminent activity. The hollowness of it stayed with him long after the vision was gone.

*

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