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WISDOM

Feathers had the most beautiful back. He ran, he jumped, he shot arrows into the air and climbed trees to bring Dogster back tart, red mandarines, stalked birds in the undergrowth and failed, generally showed off all the way to his village. Beads was quieter, stronger, more solid in his task. Perhaps it was just the cardboard box balanced on his head.

The unlikely trio walked a gentle gradient uphill for about an hour, passing mission villages and the government school, a strange concrete intrusion on this Pacific island. Dogster and the custom boys were communicating by now, a pidgin diet of learnt words, ferocious obscenities and graphic gesture. Feathers knew few English words, Beads was familiar with only two. Coca and Cola. Dogster couldn’t do much with that. They taught him names of things, he returned the gesture, they all laughed at their attempts at pronunciation, they all made an effort to communicate. Traveler’s language.

When the conversation ran out the two young men began to chatter away amongst themselves as they walked. Dogster had no idea what they were talking about but there was a lot of laughter. He joined in their good humor, smiling vacantly at their jokes, sending them into renewed fits of laughter.

‘Do you think he’s got a dick?’ Beads was asking his brother.

‘Of course he’s got a dick,’ Feathers replied, ‘even white men have dicks.’

‘I bet it’s a big one.’

‘How big?’

‘This big!’ and Beads held out his hands about a meter apart.

Feathers held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. The two young men hooted with laughter. Dogster smiled benignly.

‘Silly dick,’ Beads said, ‘stupid white man.’

They were still walking on dirt road, but it was getting dirtier and more overgrown as they continued. Gradually the dust underfoot became softer, a loose, fine powder that puffed out little brown clouds as they walked, left crisp, detailed footprints behind. Soon Dogster was falling back, shuffling silently through the jungle, the boys far up the road. They disappeared round a bend and for a moment Dogster was on his own, out there in the rain-forest, wandering towards the complete unknown. He shivered at the strangeness of it all, hesitated for a second and took in all the tropical wonder around him.

The thick air closed in, he became aware of the million noises that flowed through the forest, a high-pitched buzzing, a zing of creation out there in the wind. His eyes traveled slowly over the gnarled trunks and flowing vines, past enormous split leaves and dangling stalks, seeing them for the first time. There was a vividness about the colors that he hadn’t noticed before, a tang that he could almost taste. His nostrils arched and he breathed in all the smells of the afternoon, a damp sweet aroma of death and renewal. It was all too much. He blinked and shuddered and started walking again, following the footsteps of two young men along a dusty road.

*

Chief Tom shouted for his nephews to come over, waited impatiently as they stumbled from their various huts, a motley crew of testosterone, trapped out here in the bush. They were lazy and fat, preferred a sedentary life of lying round, drinking kava, being fed and adored. Their wives, they thought, should do the work, and they did, and were quite content to do so.

The first of the five lumbered over, a cheerful earthy fellow, a strong young man of about twenty; torn yellow T-shirt barely covering the bulk of him, already a gut hanging over his belt, a piece of twine that held baggy trousers around what once were his hips. He stood there, panting, while his brothers ambled over. They all looked much the same; a diet of pure starch had ballooned them into Michelin men. They were solid, big men, a rugby scrum dressed in a motley of shorts and flapping shirts, a beanie, a fraying baseball cap incongruously topping off one of them, the eldest, a strapping lad gone quite to seed. He was only thirty, at the most, but a lifetime of inactivity and a diet of sweet potatoes made him look older, heavier than he should. Only his plump, baby face was at odds with the rest of him. It sat there on his chin with an innocence that belied the murderous thug that owned it. The fierce tattoos on his neck and chest lent a side-show air to a man who clearly deserved to own them. His name was Bad Peter and he was spoiling for a fight.

All five stood uneasily in a row, squinting into the dying sun. They had grown to hate this wiry old uncle, loathe his endless demands. This ceremony, that one, an endless litany of tasks none of them understood; a routine to a day that needed none. It was inexplicable, but it was custom, that was all they knew. None of them had anything remotely resembling imagination – just a brute force that gave them a certain power. The chief relied on this in the past, flanked the boys behind him as he spoke unpopular words. But it was just going to be the ceremony, they knew, it was the time again. They looked at each other and rolled their eyes, shifted warily from foot to foot, lined up there at attention.

‘Today is the day,’ he said to them. One yawned and sat down. Big Peter let out a low groan.

‘Today is the anniversary. You know what to do.’

Five bored heads looked at each other in turn, a neck ballet of sullen flesh, then turned as one to their uncle. Ten dead eyes stared back at him. Fat fools, the Chief said to himself and renewed his efforts.

‘Get up, go on!’ he said, shooing them out of his sight. ‘Make the preparations! Bring out the flags! You know what to do!’

*

They were sitting in a clearing not far up the track. Dog was right upon them before he saw them, noticed a single guilty movement as Beads tried to hide the pipe he was smoking. It was too late. Mr. Dogster had seen it and Beads knew he had. Feathers kept looking at the tourist and said something out of the corner of his mouth to his brother. Beads looked back at the white man and without guile, held up the pipe.

‘Whooshhhh!’ he said and mimed smoking the pipe, then rolled his blood-shot eyes and waved his other hand round his head. Feathers laughed and motioned to Dogster.

‘Fuck.’ he said. ‘Good.’

I joined them and sat down on a log as Beads held the pipe up to his lips. Feathers struck a match and held it to the bowl.

I knew the drill. Feathers and Beads watched, impressed at the amount of smoke that issued from the white man’s lungs, glanced at each other with approval then broke out into delighted laughter. Dogster was aware that he had passed some kind of test. He was giddy from the onslaught of the drug and pulled a stupid face.

Whooooo’ he said and the two youths laughed some more. We were bonded.

*

‘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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