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WISDOM

‘Hey Hey! You! Mister. Come in, come in.’

We had just passed what looked like a derelict shed with a family lying dully outside. A single grizzled hand beckoned them in. Feathers and Beads were disinterested in this crazy old king in his one room world but seemed prepared to wait. They couldn’t have cared less.

The Chief took him in to his castle, a tiny thatched hut with reed walls. His family lay comatose on the grass outside, barely able to raise the energy to look up as another white man walked in. The tourist was by no means a novelty, all those Lonely Planet backpackers had been there before him, but in their tens, not their hundreds, just enough to alert the locals to the potential for gentle exploitation, just enough to start the occasional amateur enterprise like this one. Dogster could already see the clawing palm.

On the dried, matted wall was a hand-drawn picture; a large brown man stepping into space off an island that Chief Tom told him was Tanna. This was the story Daniel had hinted at last night-on the volcano. It was space and sea he ‘was stepping onto, On the horizon were other islands with little colored people. Little black ones, little yellow ones, dark pink ones, white ones and green ones. Dog could work out most of them, but he got stuck on the green ones. Like an enthusiastic schoolteacher the old Chief pointed out all the elements of the picture, showing the path of Jesus the big black man over the waves to colonize all the rest of the world leading all the animals in single file behind him. Bible story and metaphor were mangled in his extravagant and intricately explained monologue.

‘Too many, many animals here on Tanna.’ the Chief said, ‘bi-i-i-ig animals. Elephant. See? Lion, big monkey, see? Buffalo… bi-i-i-iiig snake.’

Big snake looked awfully like a crocodile to me, but there wasn’t much need for pedantry in this vast and fanciful re-telling of the myth.

‘The animals and the peoples here had fight, big fight. Animals eating alla people, so Jesus God, Chief Mahdikdik took a handful of Tanna earth and threw it high up in the air this way.’

He waved vacantly out the door.

‘Then this way.’

He waved in the opposite direction.

‘Then this way.’

The roof.

‘And that Tanna dirt made Big U.S.A., and this Tanna dirt made London, and this bit made ‘Stralia and the rest was flying on the wind and made all the other places in the world.’

It was like an illustrated lecture. He was highly animated, almost messianic in the telling. I watched his scrawny fingers as they jabbed at the drawing on the wall, followed the fantasy off to all those other islands in the sky.

‘He sent those animals off in his boats, see?’

Mr. Dogster nodded furiously.

‘And the lion went to Africa and the big bull went to U.S.A.’

‘But what about the different colored people, boss? What’s this green man here?’

‘First thing all peoples this color.’

He held up his arm, traced one bony finger from wrist to elbow. ‘The right colour. But too many, many peoples. Same thing. Jesus God Mahdikdik send extra people to all these places.’

‘But how did they change color?’

He looked at Dogster as if he was a half-wit.

‘People stay out in the sun too long time, go red. People sometimes get stuck on reef, go white.’

‘I don’t understand, why white?’

‘Salt.’

So I had been bleached. O.K., I could deal with that, but I had to ask.

‘What about the green people?’

‘Green people are green because they got wet.’

‘And where did the green people go?’

‘Living under the sea.’

He might as well have said: ‘obviously, fuckwit.’

The story meandered on, but I was thinking about the green people under the sea and not listening, so that by the time Jesus went to live in Buckingham Palace and fathered the Queen he was a little confused.

He pored conscientiously over the oily photos of the Royals, those prizes plucked from Fifties picture books and ancient copies of the Women’s Weekly, oohed and aaahed over the plastic replica Buckingham Palace pencil sharpener. It seemed perfectly normal to be chatting about the Royal family to this gnarled native chief deep in jungle Vanuatu, a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Dogster had left the commonplace far behind.

‘But what about John Frum? Where does he come in to it.’

‘What do you want with John Frum?’

Dogster was taken aback at his intensity.

‘Uh, I just wondered, I’ve heard of a man called…’

‘John Frum not wanted here. I don’t like John Frum here. He is a de-e-emon.’

He started into another local language Dogster couldn’t understand, shrilly protesting his breach of manners to the comatose family outside. Without warning he started to beat his hands about his shoulders, a primitive flagellation of thuds and slaps, shouting out some epithet, stamping his anger into the ground. Dogster nervously held his ground. Finally he spat directly at his feet and lapsed into silence.

It was a long silence. Time to go. I backed out distributing cigarettes, begging his apology, picked his way over the sedentary family and continued on his way with the boys.

Just a little surrealist stopover on the way to the moon. I resolved to do more listening and less asking in future. Subvert the need for meaning.

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