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TANNA

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A thin, transparent fish, about a metre long, died in an underwater bubble of incandescent sulphur a million years ago. As fish go, it was content at the moment of its death, vaporized just as it was chewing on a small grey cod, absently casting its eyes around for more.

Gas burst out of the ocean’s floor, opening up a tiny fissure that turned into a jagged crack that continued under the ocean, led by creak and shudder inevitably to a chamber of molten rock, built up from a tunnel that fell a hundred miles through the crust of the earth. A single bright glob of lava appeared, oozing unexpectedly in acloud of bubbles and gas – then another beside it then a third, pushing the seaback in a rush. With a surge the sea-floor opened up and, in the deepest silentblackness of the ocean, a hiss and a roar vibrated for miles.

In a steady stream the lava poured out on top of itself, forced out by the earth, instantly cooled andtamed, continuously changing from liquid to solid, crusting on top of itselfonly to break though its own skin. Now the channel was open, the stream becamea flood. The sea was held back, the land grew beneath it, overpowering theocean, pushing it back, vaporizing it as it crowded in. The earth fought the sea before breaking through the surface, boiling its enemy into vast clouds oftoxic steam, smoking and belching its life at the sun and the sky and an unsuspecting world.

Yasur rose out of the sea in full eruption dragging with it the ocean floor. Streams of lava poured up from the centre of the earth, rolling down the evolving slopes of the volcano, destroying and constructing in the same moment, smothering all the life and times of that ancient South pacific eco-system, freezing it as fossils in jagged, weathered larval rock. Stone fish, frozen shells, a rock pool in the shape of a long decayed dolphin, a frozen moment from a split second in time.

The birds and the currents did their work. A coconut washed onto a beach, a seed dropped from a bird’s beak, that first palm tree, a patch of weed. The wet and humid Pacific was a perfect conservatory. The plants grew and multiplied, seeds scattered by the trade winds, the palm became a grove, the grove a hillside of lean, swaying trees. Times ten thousand years, the thick black dirt from hell was a rich compost for the future. Sea birds nested, the fish returned as the earth cooled down. Soon coral formed, brought more underwater life, the seas teemed with activity. On land, too, the birds were joined by lizards and insects, brought in by the birds from the older islands. The vines and grasses fed the throng.

A single canoe, then another, from no-one knows where, stumbled upon an island, scraped past coral reefs to rest on a black sand beach, build a fire, rest. In the morning they explore, climb the hills, walk the coast, find the water that makes them stay. Family by family they clambered into tenancy of the island, understood its secrets, deferred to its whims, learnt to respect it, revere it, eventually deify the smoking god.

Time rolled on in a tropical haze, one day very much like the last, the years only counted by the cyclones and the storms, the earthquakes and the many moods of Yasur. The world rolled up to them, and they chose not to notice. Other islands in the group were colonized, annexed, fought over, sold, but none of it reached these islanders. The villages grew slowly and survived, locked in a revenge culture that determined their every move, ever drowning in a multi-layered web of ritual and superstition.

And then the white men came.

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