Copyright © 2005 Tom Ludvigson. All rights reserved.
PROLOGUE: A DAY IN THE LIFE(1)
I wake with a start. It is dark all around me and I am momentarily disoriented, not knowing who or where I am. There is a rumble to the left of me, then a creak, and I turn my head just in time to see the silhouette of a young boy against the pale light of dawn coming in through the half-opened door.
Then he is gone and I merge again with my identity: I am in central Espiritu Santo, in Lisa's house in Kuvutana; an anthropology student struggling through the rite de passage of my first field research project. Across the house from me I hear the puffing sound of forced breathing and a fire bursts into flame, driving the darkness back towards the corners of the house, where it will remain, hiding in nooks and crannies that never see the light of day. Lisa is sitting up on his mat, leaning over the fire, almost embracing the flickering flames with his body. Suddenly I am aware of the cold, and, sitting up, I nudge together the logs of the smoldering fire next to me, knock the ashes off the end bits with a dry length of cane, and blow it alight.
On the other side of the fire Vanlal's sleeping-mat is empty. It must have been the noise of his getting up that woke me up. Now he comes inside again, jamming the door wide open with a block of wood on his way back to his mat and the warmth of our fire. He sits down, puts a foot up on each log, and hunching his shoulders and rubbing his upper arms in a familiar gesture he looks at me and smiles: Akira mina inia! "It is cold!"(2)
In the light of the fires and the open front door I can now see the house gradually coming alive. Shaded from the door by the large bamboo cupboard where I keep my papers and medicines, Vanlal's younger brother Riki is poking his fire. His small brown face lights up with the red glow of the embers as he blows on them. Across the logs from Riki little Maritino is stirring in his sleep on Lisa's mat. Next along the wall is Lisa, now carefully balancing yesterday's pan of koro, tiny river fish, on top of his and Vekrai's fire. On the other side Vekrai is getting up, careful not to wake Epin who has been sleeping in her arms. Skirting the oven stones in the centre of her part of the house she makes her way to the back door. She removes the length of wood with which she bars the door every night and swings it open, only to hurry back to a crying Epin who has woken up on feeling the absence of the warmth of her mother's body. With a string of soothing words Vekrai sits down, lifts Epin to her breast and puts a nipple in her mouth.
I lie back on my mat and look up at the sooty sago-leaf thatch above my head. Through it I can hear the sounds of morning - roosters calling to each other between Kuvutana and Vorozenale, the sound of birds in the bush sloping down from the settlement. No human noises yet from the outside – people must still be in their houses, just waking up or occupied with their morning meal.
As indeed we are. The koro having boiled, Lisa lifts them off the fire, putting the blackened old frying pan down on the earth floor. With his fingers he shifts a few of the fish on to a metal plate, then he pours some of the salty stock over them. This he places on the floor in the centre of the front part of the house, midway between the centre post and the front door, then retires to the rear part of the house. Squatting in front of Vekrai's mat he takes a cold cooked taro from the pile behind the centre post and begins to peel it with a small knife, letting the peelings fall on a worn piece of sacking, spread out on the floor for the purpose. I stand up and take a couple of my taros from an aging coconut-leaf basket, hanging from the house post next to my mat. These taros have been given to me by people in the hamlet as part of the normal distribution after cooking. They are black from being scorched in the flames while firing the oven stones - this ensures that they do not irritate your throat as you eat them. I fetch an old rice-bag for taro peelings from among the oven stones, retrieve my small knife from its place in the thatch above my mat, and squatting next to the plate of koro I begin to peel one of my taros. Vanlal and Riki both fetch taro from the pile behind the centre post and join me by the plate. We chew our taro and swallow it with fish stock and maybe a few strands of the white flesh with each mouthful.
Non-vegetable foods are so scarce that there is not enough to just chew the fish with the taro. Instead we have to zimzim - holding a piece of fish with the right hand fingers and repeatedly dipping it in the juices on the plate and sucking it we manage to make a finger-size fish each last for a whole meal.
Lisa has woken Maritino up and they zimzim in the fry pan in front of Vekrai’s mat. Vekrai is eating too, but pauses intermittently to turn over a small taro that she is roasting in the embers of her and Lisa's fire for Epin - infants are not fed on cold taro; it has to be hot. When it is cooked and she has scraped it clean of ashes and the charred skin, she chews a little at a time and puts it straight from her mouth into Epin’s. It looks like she is kissing the little one.
Meanwhile the rest of us have finished eating and I put my knife back in the thatch, then gather up the four corners of the rice bag with taro peelings in one hand and walk out through the front door to feed my pig. The peelings from the meal in the rear part of the house will go to Lisa’s huge sow in the enclosure across the street from his house, sloping down towards the Zari river. My pig is in Sulu's enclosure, behind his house on the other side of the hamlet.
Ducking out from under the shade of Lisa's verandah I am hit by the sun. Though it has only just risen over the treetops of Truvos it still warms me in the chill of the morning. Above me the sky is clear with the promise of a hot day.
I walk briskly up the street, noticing in passing the tiny padlock in place on the front door of Eilili's house. He and Meriulu must have left for their gardens really early this morning. Being childless he tends to get away before any of his brothers most mornings. As I pass Popoi Trivu's house I can hear him and Vepei talking inside. I cut across the slope up towards the rear of Sulu's dwelling. Here I stop, turn around, and admire the view.
Closest to me is the black and tattered thatch of Popoi's residence. Here and there along the roof are patches of brown indicating where a leak has been repaired with fresh sago thatch. The split tree-fern trunk that forms the ridge of the roof is overgrown with green moss. It is the oldest house in the hamlet - Popoi's three sons have all built themselves new houses since I first came here.
Above the ridge of Popoi's roof I can see Eilili's smaller dwelling. The light brown colour of the thatch reveals that it is a very recent structure. Eilili still makes fires in it daily, smoking the thatch to preserve it for long life.
Opposite the two, on the other side of the street, are the remains of Lisa's old house. Built after the last big hurricane that ruined all the houses in Kuvutana except Popoi's, it is small and low to withstand strong winds. It is now rotting away, though still standing up. The thatch is torn, and both the roof and the gable I can see from where I am standing have large holes in them. That house is not used anymore, except by children playing - and by Lisa's dog Ravet when she had a puppy recently.
Further away from me, close to the front of Eilili's house, is Lisa's new house, where I live. It is wider than the others and, like his old one, placed along the street instead of at an angle to it. It is more than a year old and is taking on the dark brown colour of maturity. Smoke from our fires is seeping out through the roof and rising up into the still air of the morning.
Beyond is the end of the Kuvutana mazara, the street and clearing surrounding the houses, kept free of weeds. Here the sun-baked red clay gives way to tall grasses, sloping up a small hill that separates the hamlet from its neighbour Vorozenale, blocking it from my view. I can see a man coming down the track from Vorozenale - probably Lahoi, judging from the colour of his loincloth: orange with large white flowers; cheap cotton bought in a Chinese store in Luganville township on the South Coast.
Looking to my left over the trees that border the hamlet I can see the steep slopes of Paten on the other side of the Zari. The ridge is still in shadow, a uniform murky green that reaches the skyline unbroken. On my right I look down into the Art valley, with tufts of cloud and mist still lingering in the gullies on my side of the river, but with the opposite side bathing in the morning sun. Squinting, I can see the houses of Tonsiki, just below the skyline. My eyes travel left along the ridge, past the peak of Patunlapevus, its slopes haunted by the spirits of people killed in warfare in the past, and finally come to rest on far off Santo Peak, visible through the high pass that forms the head of the valley, at the source of the Ari.
Turning back to my task I continue around the back of Sulu's house. It is larger than any of the others and also recently built. Then a short stretch down a path and I'm at Sulu's pig enclosure, calling my pig. "Ah, ah!" A rustle in the bushes and here he comes, sniffing and grunting his way up the "well trodden clay bank. He has been blinded, as he kept jumping out of the enclosure and going on nightly excursions foraging for food. The enclosure is large and only partly fenced in, the rest of the circumference being steep banks or gullies, some of them fairly easy to negotiate for a determined animal. Even sightless he used to escape in the company of a small pig belonging to Sulu's son Lino, but since that was killed to feed the builders on completion of Sulu's new house. My pig has been alone in the enclosure, and has kept to his place. He walks up to the foot of the bank where I am standing, lifts his snout up towards me and I pour the taro peelings all over him.
Leaving my pig to his meager breakfast I retrace my steps back towards Lisa’s house. As I pass the spot with the view I can hear a familiar sound: "Touk, touk, touk, touk, touk!" Grandma Vepei is calling them, and from all over the hamlet fowls come running as fast as their legs will carry them, converging on a spot in front of Popoi’s house where his wife has thrown the refuse from their morning meal. Pecking and clucking among the woodchips left over from countless battles with logs of firewood they scatter in front of my feet as I walk through their morning feast. I cross the open space between the houses, duck under the low fringe of Lisa's verandah and re-enter the house.
It is dark inside, and more so in contrast with the bright daylight outside. I head for my sleeping place and barely notice a man sitting on the edge of Vanlal’s mat. I sit down. As my eyes get used to the dark I can see that it is Lahoi - the man I saw coming down the path from Vorozenale earlier on. I suspect he has come to see me about some ailment of his. This is routine - practically every morning somebody shows up.
My ticket to membership in the community and my entire raison d’etre. as far as the local people are concerned is as a healer. With the aid of some medical training received during my military service in Sweden and free medical supplies from the British authorities on the coast, I do my best to look after my hosts' health. In exchange for this service they feed me and put up with my ceaseless questioning.
Lisa tells me that Lahoi is indeed here to see me as he is ill, so I turn towards him, asking what the matter is. Lahoi’s face looks haggard and he answers me in Tohsiki, the language of the people on the other side of the Ari: Patunku me vasisi; "My head hurts." I don't speak Tohsiki, though I can understand simpler phrases, so I carry on in Kiai, the language of the people I live with: Na nisa? "Since when?"
Lahoi informs me that he has had headaches every morning for the last three days, but they finish well before noon. He indicates the time by pointing to where the sun is when his headaches desist. I take his pulse - 120 - and feel his forehead. It is hot. It must be malaria, a chronic ailment they all suffer from, though the attacks seem to affect them less than they do me. I fetch four tiny Nivaquine tablets and a couple of Disprin from my stores in the bamboo cupboard beside the front door. Having filled a cup with water from the huge demijohn in front of the centre post I drop the Disprin in and hand Lahoi the cup and the Nivaquine. He watches, fascinated, as the headache pills bubble and boil and dissolve, then swallows the anti-malarials with the mixture. Before he leaves I tell him that he may have a mild attack tomorrow morning, but the day after tomorrow he will feel well. I know this from both personal and others' experience with the anti-malarials, and I tell him mainly to reassure him that he will be better soon. These predictions and cures have earned me a considerable reputation, though.
The local healers derive their success from personal powers; I suspect they see me as powerful too, instead of just the meek wielder of powerful tools. Sometimes people come all the way from the South Coast to see me, instead of going to their nearby dispensary - a practice that annoys me, as it takes up enough of my time just dealing with the needs of the people of this valley, not to mention the delegations of sufferers from further inland.
By now Lisa and family are ready to leave for their day's work. Lisa selects a long bush knife from the array wedged into the bamboo network of the cupboard by the door and walks off first without a word, closely followed by Ravet, wagging her tail. Vanlal takes a knife and follows, while Vekrai shuts and bars the back door to keep the fowls from entering the house during the day. She is carrying Epin in a cotton sash tied across her right shoulder, the little one straddling her left hip. Vekrai is wearing the traditional saksakiri, a bunch of fresh red and green cordyline leaves back and front, hitched up by a string around her waist. All the women in the valley wear Cordyline; they plant it at the back of the houses and in gardens, to provide fresh clothing every few days.
Closer to the coast with its missionaries, market and money, the women wear cotton dresses. The local women have them too, but use them only on visits to the coast, and - very occasionally and only some of the younger women - when going to a feast.
Vekrai now tells Riki to stay home and look after his little brother Maritino. Then she hoists a basket of taro stems on to her back, suspending it by the many plaited strands from her forehead. The taro stems she has collected from the back of the house, left over from carrying taro home for cooking. They are obviously going to plant a new garden today. Lisa and Vanlal must have gone ahead to carry taro shoots from one of their old gardens.
With Vekrai gone up the path to Truvos and Riki and Maritino playing outside, there is only me left in the house. I’ve got a large backlog in notes to transfer from my little jotting pad to my duplicate notebooks, so - wise from countless interruptions when trying to write at my table under Lisa's verandah - I pack my writing materials into a shoulder bag, grab my mat, bush knife and umbrella, and go outside. I’ll do my writing in peace in one of my hiding places in the bush surrounding the settlement.
I walk up the street past Sulu's front door and take the same path as the others, following the ridge up towards the grassy summit of Truvos. The path is wide and worn free of vegetation through years of use, and lined with Hibiscus trees with beautiful pink and white flowers, and tall grasses. Here and there are a few trees - scattered outposts of the denser bush on the slopes down towards the rivers on both sides of the ridge. Truvos used to be full of houses, I've been told. In the past this was the main settlement of my hosts, before they dispersed into the smaller hamlets of Kuvutana and Vorozenale, and Matanzari and Palakori on the other side of the Zari. Outsiders still refer to them as mera i Truvos: "people of Truvos". Tall, majestic coconut trees bear witness to the history of the summit, their leaves moving gently in the morning breeze with a sound like a distant waterfall. They grow around most settlements, though they bear no fruit at high altitudes - here a good seven hundred metres above sea level. People still plant them, as the leaves are useful in many different ways: for baskets, "ground sheets", kindling and so on. For fresh coconuts we rely on fruiting stands on the valley floor.
Here at the summit the path divides into two. One goes off to the right where it soon branches again, leading to gardens on the slopes down to the Zari. I take the other one, turn left across a wooden catties stop and into a large expanse of short grass that slopes gently down a forked ridge towards the Ari, with a wedge of bush dividing the field into two.
The view from here is magnificent. The whole exuberant valley is spread out beneath me. I can follow most of the outline of the Ari with my eyes, as it runs its jagged course down towards the flatlands south of Big Bay. I can even see the sea, as a streak of glaring light, reflecting the sun between the sky and the blue haze of the distant shoreline. The entire valley is covered in luxurious green forest, except for a few irregular patches on the hillsides opposite the river from me – the gardens of our neighbours, the Tohsiki-speakers. I can also see two grassy spots in the valley, a bit like the one I am standing on. One of them, on a low ridge in the centre of the valley, is the former settlement of Morkriv. This is the old home of our neighbours, complete with coconut trees, but no houses. First some of the people moved away to Vunpepe, closer to the river, after a quarrel. Later, as many of those remaining in the old settlement died, the survivors moved further down the ridge to Duria. They blamed the deaths on the locality - they bury their dead inside the houses and there were too many dead bodies underfoot at Morkriv. Later a few of them left Duria and settled high up on the mountainside at Tonsiki.
The other grassy area is on my side of the Ari, but much further down river. This is Moruas, another abandoned settlement. Some years ago a young man living there eloped with a married girl from Duria. The people of Duria were enraged and threatened the Moruasians with witchcraft. They all fled the settlement, living instead in garden houses and gradually establishing new settlements further down river. Only one of them, Mol Sale moved up river, allegedly due to bad relations with his neighbours - he has a reputation as both witch and sorcerer. He now lives with his married sons at Zinovonara, just next to the river close to the coconut grove at Miremire, where Lisa has a garden house.
Looking left instead my eyes follow the ridge past Tonsiki, traveling the same path as earlier this morning. I can see smoke curling up from Taskoro, although the houses are hidden from view. There lives Pune Tamaravu, a Vorozenale man who moved across the river and allied himself with the Tohsiki-speakers, after one of his daughters died. Further up the valley are the coconut trees of Vunpati, where Lisa's and Sulu's father-in-law lives with his two married sons. I take the path to the left, and skirting a small herd of cattle I continue down the grassy slope. There are a few bushes and lots of large, light grey dead trees - a popular source of firewood for the settlement on the ridge. I turn off the path to the left and continue down to the edge of the grassland, to where I have cleared a level patch well out of sight from the path. Spreading my umbrella to shade me from the increasing heat of the sun I sit down on my mat and go to work on my notes.
I have been writing for hours. My back and legs are tired from sitting cross-legged on the mat, it is near noon and I'm getting hungry. The day has gradually changed its character during the course of the morning: scattered clouds occasionally obscuring the sun becoming more frequent until now they form a uniform grey cover all around the horizon, like a roof placed on top of the valley, heralding the usual midday showers. It is time I went back to the house and had something to eat. I start packing up as the first heavy drops begin to fall. By the time I am back on the path through the grassland the rain has turned into a steady drizzle. I hurry along under my umbrella, knowing it will get worse before it gets better - I can see a grey curtain moving steadily up the valley from further down the river.
I've passed the summit of Truvos and turned right, down the path towards Kuvutana, when the shower hits me with a roar like heavy surf. Within a minute the path has turned into a slippery stream, wetting my legs with the splashes from the barrage of raindrops. I run the last stretch down the track and past the houses until I am safely out of the downpour under Lisa's verandah, dispersing a group of fowls that were hiding there from the rain. They quickly find their way to shelter under the eaves of Eilili's nearby house.
I go inside and have a bleak meal of cold taro with cucumber and salt - we finished the last of the koro this morning. Maritino is asleep, but Riki shares my meal in the perpetual indoor twilight. He tells me that he has been clearing a new track in the fallow bush on the far side of Akara - a nearby stream where we bathe and do our washing - and would I like to come bird hunting with him tonight? We have done this before with varying success; me with bow and arrow and him with a torch of dried bamboo, lifting it high in the search for sleeping birds on the branches of the saplings. This is a favourite evening pastime of the young boys of the valley, especially as it sometimes results in a bit of extra meat, a welcome addition to our near-vegetarian diet. Riki, trying to enthuse me with the prospect of a successful venture, says that he has seen some droppings on the ground under some trees in the area. I tell him yes, perhaps, if the rain stops. Wait and see.
Our meal finished, I take my papers outside under the shelter of Lisa's verandah. The rain has slackened off to a drizzle; it will probably stop soon. I sit down at my usual place of work - a small bamboo table that Eilili has made for me, and an empty kerosene drum for a chair. Again I immerse myself in my perpetual backlog.
I have only worked for a short while when I hear footsteps along the side of the house, coming down the street from the direction of Vorozenale. I look up and notice that the rain has ceased and the sun is bombarding the village clearing with heat. The hard red clay surface is steaming after the shower. A tall man with graying hair rounds the corner of the house and ducks under the edge of the verandah. I have never seen him before. He walks up to me and hands me a basket that he has been carrying hanging from his shoulder.
I can see cooked taro inside, and a tin of mackerel. I recognise the gift as a susu tana, normally given by a visitor before asking for a service or some counter gift. Behind the man I can see a woman with a child on her hip just rounding the corner, so I know what is coming: it is time to play doctor again.
I invite the man into the house. He walks straight through to open the rear door and let the woman in. Meanwhile I find a couple of taros and place them on the floor inside the front door, together with my small knife. Having no good meat to offer my guest I take a tin of mackerel from my dwindling supply, open it, and pour the contents on to a plate which goes on the floor beside the taro. The man picks up the food and retires to the rear part of the house, to eat together with the woman and child - she must be his wife, as they share their meal.
We exchange a few words while they eat. The man tells me that if it had not been raining yesterday and the river too violent he would have brought me some puru i ari: little freshwater snails that have become extinct in our valley - fished out since the introduction of diving masks, as they are considered a delicacy by the local people. My guest must be from the Vailapa valley as he speaks Moiso, a language sufficiently similar to Kiai for me to understand most of what he says.
Meanwhile Riki has been off to spread the news of the visitors to the people in Sulu's house. Sulu and family are home early, firing their oven stones judging from the amount of smoke I have seen billowing up through the roof of his house. Riki now returns with Sulu, who walks into the house with a big smile and greets the visitors with a stream of words.
His little boy Lino follows in his wake, pausing shyly just inside the door to watch the proceedings. I open the susu tana tin and Sulu, Riki and I eat a little with the taro brought by the visitors. When he sees us feasting on tinned fish Lino joins the three of us squatting in a circle on the floor in the front part of the house.
When we have all finished eating Sulu takes a taro and a piece of fish and goes to give them to his parents. The visitors put the rest of the food I offered them in their basket which I have returned, then come up to the centre of the house with the child.
The little boy has an ugly infected sore in the groin. His father explained that it started as a swelling which eventually burst. These boils are common and account for a large part of my medical work. They usually take a long time to heal - especially as they are rarely kept covered, and dirt and flies have free access. I have been told on the coast that yaws has been eradicated in this area but I have seen some suspicious-looking sores among the people a bit closer to the South Coast.
Fortunately the sores respond quite well to treatment with penicillin. I use it in both injections and powder form, cleaning the pus out of the sores, and dressing them. I try to examine the little boy’s sore close up, but he screams in terror and hides his face in his mother's arms as I move closer. My pale face always frightens the little ones; I probably do not even look human to them.
I give up the attempt and fetch from the top of my cupboard a small aluminium kettle, part of a camping set that has served me well ever since I was a boy scout. Inside is a small syringe and a few needles, all cleaned since last time and ready to use after sterilization. My fire is out so I relight it, using for kindling some of the dried cane kept for the purpose on a rack under the ceiling in the front part of the house. Having half-filled the kettle with water I place it on the fire to boil. I usually boil the equipment for about ten minutes to be on the safe side.
This gives me time to attend to the sore. It is not easy; the little boy kicks and struggles as I try to clean out the pus. It must be very painful - he yells as only a one-year-old can yell, and it takes both his parents to restrain him while I put a dressing on.
Finally I’m through and retire to my mat, checking my watch to see if it is time to take the kettle off. Another minute to go. Still time enough to get my things organised: a bottle of Triplopen, a phial of sterilized water, a small file and a pair of tweezers. I have to pour the water out of the kettle without dropping any of the contents on the ground, then assemble the syringe and put the needle on with the tweezers, make a notch in one end of the glass phial with the file and break the tip off, fill the syringe with the right amount of water from the phial, inject this into the bottle of penicillin, shake the bottle and draw the right amount of milky white fluid into the syringe, all without contaminating any of the sterile equipment. It is a tricky business - sometimes I drop something, or the phial won't break or else shatters, or the needle gets clogged and has to be changed, or I find a speck of dirt in the syringe after filling it with penicillin - the water I use to boil it in is never completely pure, being our ordinary drinking water from a nearby stream.
Frequently a mishap means having to start all over again, washing the equipment and boiling it a second time. All very time-consuming - there are days when I have worked from early morning until late afternoon without a break, giving fifteen or more injections in a day. I find it a strain; it takes a lot of concentration, and I am also apprehensive in case one of my patients should get penicillin shock and keel over and die upon being given an injection. I always keep a phial of adrenalin handy just in case.
I take the kettle off the fire and start the preparations by pouring the water off. My audience watches fascinated as I slowly and carefully work my way through the entire procedure. No problems this time. When I am ready I tell the man to hold his son really still while I give him the injection. Riki who has seen this many times before joins in, holding the little boy's left leg in a vice grip so he won't kick, and I plunge the needle into the muscle midway between knee and hip. The little boy goes rigid and fills his lungs with a big gasp of air, while I rapidly push the plunger down and jerk the needle out. By the time the screaming starts it is all over. The man carries his son outside to walk him around until he calms down. I fill the kettle with water again and go outside to wash my healer’s tools.
The equipment washed and put away, I lie down on my mat to have a rest. Everybody has gone up to Sulu’s house, I am alone and it is quiet. I find I tire easily here in Santo. My health has been bad all the way through, my body riddled with parasites of one kind or another, all taxing my energies. I relax and lose myself in daydreams.
Steps outside and the doorway darkens as Lisa, Vekrai and Vanlal enter in rapid succession, laden with heavy burdens of fresh taro. Vekrai carries hers on her back in the basket she left with this morning; on top of the taro I can also see a large roll of Heliconia leaves for covering the oven. Lisa and Vanlal have cut themselves carrying-poles and carry their loads on their shoulders - a bunch of taro at each end of the pole, suspended from the tied-together leaf stems. I can also see a fresh kava root hanging from Lisa's pole - we ran out last night and had to search the ceiling for old, dried roots that are hard to chew.
They all walk through the house and put their burdens down in the rear part, close to the oven stones. They must have decided to come home early and fire the stones as we are running low on cooked taro. When Lisa's eyes get used to the indoor dusk he notices me on my mat and greets me Io, ku to malamalau malum! "Oh, you are lying down!" I tell them about our visitors and offer them some of the taro and fish I received, sitting on my mat and telling them the details of the visit while they eat.
When they are finished they start preparing the oven, Lisa removes the large, smooth river stones from the shallow pit, placing them in a pile to one side. He also picks out a few bits of charred wood left over from the last firing, finally spreading the remaining lot of little stones into an even lining for the hollow. Vanlal climbs a ladder up on to the saruru, the spacious firewood rack that forms a ceiling over the entire rear part of the house. He throws down lengths of firewood, one by one, cut to size and split lengthwise - each piece is about one metre long, the same size as the oven pit. Lisa picks them up and places them alongside each other, covering the oven pit with one layer of wood, then another few bits of wood on top, at right angles to the rest. Finally he lights some dried cane and sticks it into the middle of the rough square, heaping the large stones on top as it gradually begins to smoke.
Meanwhile Vekrai has cut the stems off the raw tare brought home from the garden, careful to leave a thin slice of the tuber on each stem for replanting. The taro she leaves in a heap between the centre post and the burning oven; the stems go outside the back door. She then selects a few taros, sits down, peels them and proceeds to grate them on a long, prickly dry tree-fern leaf stem, letting the starchy white pulp drip down on to a large folded-over Heliconia leaf. She is preparing uri, the well-known New Hebridean(3) pudding dish known as laplap (B)(4) throughout the group.
The house is getting so smoky that my eyes are beginning to sting. Lisa shuts the back door, but the improvement is minimal. I lie down on my back again, finding relief in the thin layer of fresh air hugging the floor under the dense clouds of choking fumes. I know it will get better soon; it is always worse to start off with, before all the wood has caught fire properly. Lisa follows my example and throws himself down on his mat, while Vekrai bravely works on with long, even strokes along her grating stem.
Presently the oven is all aflame and the air gets cleaner, though it is still by no means free from smoke. As the burning wood collapses under the weight of the stones, signaling that the fire will soon have burned down, Vekrai calls out to Lisa to singe the taro. He gets up and throws the larger taros on the fire one by one, leaving the little ones in their place by the centre post. The taros hiss as the flames lick their moist skins.
Having finished grating all of the taros she peeled, Vekrai now places some dark green Heliconia leaves on the floor, so that they form a star, crossing each other in the middle. On this she makes a bed of rau oke or "island cabbage" – the young leaves of a cultivated bush of the same family as Hibiscus.(5) On top of this goes the gluey grated taro, then another layer of rau oke. Finally she turns it all into a neat package, by folding the Heliconia leaves one by one inwards across the top of the foodstuffs. The pudding is ready to go in the oven.
And the fire has finally burned down. Lisa and Vekrai both go to work with long wooden tongs made from saplings split down the middle up to two thirds of their length, the last third remaining whole. They first pick out the singed taros, replacing them among the others by the centre post. Next they lift and push out the hot stones, leaving them around the rim of the pit. The few remaining bits of smoldering firewood go in a pile by the back door. It is hot and heavy work; the large stones keep slipping out of the tongs, bouncing off the other ones and rolling along the floor, forcing Lisa and Vekrai to quickly jump to the side not to get their feet burned. When all the large stones are out Lisa grabs a stick and stirs the embers in among the smaller stones lining the pit.
Next they cover the smoking hollow with one layer of taros, all carefully placed so as not to waste any space. On top of this they wrestle most of the larger stones, again using the tongs. Then the rest of the taro and the wrapped-up pudding, with the last of the hot stones on top. Finally they cover the pile with long, fresh Heliconia leaves, first across the top and then around the edges, all held down by brown packages of old leaves fetched from a stack against the rear wall. Their work done, they both retire to their mats. Lisa shreds some plug tobacco with a knife and gives part of it to Vekrai. They both roll cigarettes and lie back smoking while the oven slowly starts to give off steam through the leaf covering.
Lisa does not rest for long. When he has finished his cigarette he grabs an axe and walks off in search of firewood, with me and Vanlal trailing behind. On the way we stop at Sulu's house for Lisa to greet the visitors. The father of the child with the sore is sitting on a mat by a fire by the wall to our right as we enter the house. On the other side of the fire is grandpa Popoi. Sulu is lying on his mat further down the length of his enormous house. Way back towards the rear door I can see his wife Levtoro with their daughter Evlin in her lap, the visiting woman and her child, and grandma Vepei, all surrounding a steaming oven - it must be just about ready to open up by now. Riki, Maritino and Lino are nowhere to be seen - they must be off playing somewhere. A glass bowl half filled with an opaque, honey-coloured liquid in the centre of the men's part of the house bears witness to the afternoon's activities: kava-drinking.. Lisa and I squat down by the bowl, he fills the half coconut shell floating in the bowl with kava and drinks, fills it again and hands it to me. After me he has another shell full, emptying the last sediment-filled dregs out of the bowl on to the earth floor. We remain squatting on the floor during a short conversation, then we are on our way again.
On the path up to Truvos Lisa explains to me that the visitor is a man from Napaka in the Vailapa valley, two thirds of the way between here and the South Coast. His wife is a "sister" of Lisa's, as her father was of the same clan as Popoi - Vunu Maliu, the Mushroom Clan.(6) This makes the man a tau, a "brother-in-law" of Lisa's. I see an opportunity to pursue some questions about kinship and marriage rules, and we continue up the path, talking.
We turn left at the summit, then right immediately after the cattle-stop, following the Miremire track. Again I am struck by the grandeur of the scenery, but now it looks different again. Though the sun has come out again after the rain the mountain wall on the opposite side of the valley is now in shadow, which lends a look of gloom to the landscape. The day is less hot now. Tall dead trees cast long shadows across our path as we descend the rolling, grassy hillside.
After walking for a while Lisa turns off the track to the left, and we enter the bush next to the paddock, following an overgrown path down into a narrow gorge. The ground is still slippery here after the rain and I have to dig my heels in with every step, lest I fall over. I am pretty good at negotiating these mountain tracks by now, though when I first arrived in Santo I used to come back after each excursion into the bush covered in clay from slipping over so many times. I still occasionally end up on my rear end, much to my companions’ amusement, but if I exercise care I am usually all right. So I concentrate on the track as we follow the side of the gorge in the shade under the late afternoon trees.
I am so intent on my feet that I hardly notice at first that we have arrived at the top of an old garden. Below us and all the way down the slope to the small stream at the bottom of the gorge is a tangled mass of waist-high greenery interspersed with saplings and a few dead trees with- the branches lopped off. In amongst the chaotic growth, I can distinguish here and there a few large taro leaves, some red, green and purple cord/line plants, a few stands of sugarcane and some "island cabbage" bushes. But everything is overgrown with weeds and creepers. A lot of it I recognise as asi merika, a fast-growing creeper allegedly introduced during the war to provide rapid camouflage for military installations, which has since spread to become a noxious weed all over the island.
Lisa heads for one of the dead trees - ring barked when the garden was first made, maybe two years ago - and starts chopping it down with heavy, regular strokes of the axe. It is not long before the grey pillar comes thundering down with a crash, breaking in half on impact, which is fine - less chopping to do. Lisa and I take turns with the axe, cutting the tree into one-and-a-half-metre sections; the top for Vanlal, a mid-trunk section for me, while Lisa takes the heaviest base section. A couple of sections we leave behind for another day, after standing them up against the tree-stump to keep them from getting wet. Shouldering our logs we begin the tiresome uphill journey home.
Walking with a burden is even trickier, though I generally find it easier to walk uphill without mishaps. We make our way back along the side of the gorge and up on to the grass slope, stopping to rest at the foot of a tall sago trunk, charred by lightning years ago. Then another leg up to the summit of Truvos, shifting our logs from shoulder to shoulder by bending our heads and rolling across our necks as we get tired. Lisa has placed the axe over his free shoulder and under the log behind his neck, to distribute the weight of his heavy burden on to both shoulders.
A final stretch downhill and we are back in Kuvutana, continuing straight inside and dumping the logs on the floor in Lisa's house. After a short rest we lift them up on to our respective patapata - firewood racks made out of bent saplings tied to the rafters to enable us to store our logs above our bedside fires. It makes for really dry wood which will burn all night without going out.
Looking down I can see three small taros that were not there before at the foot of the post next to my mat. I bend down and touch them - they are still warm. They must be from Levtoro; by now they will have opened up the oven in Sulu's house. I ask Vekrai, who is sitting in the warmth of her steaming oven, engaged in the seemingly endless task of plaiting a mat, Epin asleep beside her. She confirms my guess: Lino brought the taros a little while ago. I pick them up and put them in their place in my coconut leaf basket on the post. Then I go outside on to the veranda to get some more work in before it gets dark.
Looking up from my books I occasionally see small groups of people coming down the path from Truvos, following the street through Kuvutana past Lisa's house. These are Vorozenale families - the day is drawing to an end and they are all returning home from their day's work, clearing, planting or weeding their gardens. Nobody will have burned a garden today owing to the rain - it takes at least a few days of sunshine before the debris is dry enough to burn. Some of the people carry taro, others carry only their bush knives. Most of the women have small children on their hips, held in position by the inevitable cotton sash.
As Mol Paroparo and family walk past, his teenage son Ravu comes over to me with two taros. They have been spending a few nights in their garden house at Vatenzari where the Zari river flows into the Ari. They have cooked their taro before returning home to Vorozenale - this gives them a lighter load as the corms are much heavier when raw. After handing me the taro Ravu cuts himself some of my plug tobacco, rolls it up and lights it, standing next to me smoking and watching me write while I deliberately ignore him to get some more work done.
When Eilili and Meriulu arrive home I finally give up, put my papers away and walk across to their house to give them their share of the Napaka taro and tinned mackerel. As I put the food down on the floor in front of him with a concise ameurua - "for the two of you" - he immediately asks me who brought it: Isei mo vatia tau? He can tell from the fact that I am bringing him food that we must have had a visitor from some other area.
I sit down on some coconut leaves and recount the events of the day. Eilili is the closest thing I have to a "buddy" in the mountains. The youngest of the Kuvutana brothers, and childless, he spends a lot of time with me in youthful pastimes - like hunting flying foxes at night in the season, or just swapping tales and joking over a bowl or two of kava. He offers me food and I stay around talking while outside the night descends on the small group of houses.
We are interrupted by a call from Lisa’s house: Ra somai ani te uri! "Come and eat some pudding!" They must have opened up the oven. We all leave immediately, Eilili and I ducking under Lisa's veranda and in through the front door, while Meriulu rounds the house and enters through the women’s door at the back.
Inside Lisa and Vanlal have carried the hot, wrapped-up pudding into the centre of the front part of the house and are in the process of unwrapping it, one hot leaf at a time. It is a slow process, as the leaves are stuck together from the heat and burn their fingers. In the dim light from Lisa’s hurricane lamp, hung up high in the centre of the house for maximum effect, I can see Vekrai attending to the cooked taro. Meriulu joins her in her task, shifting the steaming taro corms into a neat pile at the back of the centre post, on top of the now dry leaves used to cover the oven.
The pudding unwrapped. Lisa cuts it into long strips with a flat stick of wood. Repeating the cuts at a ninety-degree angle to the first lot he transforms it into a checkerboard of rough squares. Aniani to! "Eat!" Lisa urges us laconically, and we start in on the delicacy holding our starchy bits of pudding in pieces of leaf torn off the unfolded wrapping. Lisa moves a few pudding squares into a metal dish for Vekrai and Meriulu - they eat in the rear part of the house. He then sits down on his mat with one piece, sharing it with Maritino, while the rest of us squat in a circle around our still-steaming meal.
When we have all eaten our fill the rest of the pudding is split into two parts and carried off by Riki and Vanlal to Popoi's house and to Sulu and his guests, as none of them came to eat with the rest of us. The boys also carry some cooked taro from the pile by the centre post. Lisa offers me and Eilili some hot taro and boiled rau oke, but we both decline. We have had enough.
Instead I fetch my torch from next to my mat and the two of us proceed up to Sulu's house, taking with us the kava root that Lisa brought home today. As we arrive Sulu greets us with the news that the water is finished, so Eilili borrows my torch and goes to fetch a full kettle from his house. While he is gone I make myself comfortable, taking a mat from on top of a firewood rack and spreading it on the floor next to a pair of huge logs, lighting some dry cane in our visitor’s fire and kindling my own, cutting some tobacco for a cigarette, finally lying back, smoking. I exchange a few words with Sulu and our visitor while watching the network of shadows among the rafters under the ceiling stir faintly in the flickering light of our fires and Sulu’s tiny improvised lantern, made from the foot of an old broken pressure lamp.
Eilili soon arrives with his big kettle of water and puts it down on the floor. He then takes a bush knife from the wall thatch inside the door and starts peeling the kava root. Squatting, he holds it steady on the floor with his left hand and more or less chops off the skin with his long knife, with seemingly infinite precision. Never before in my life have I seen people handle knives with such ease coupled with accuracy as here in the mountains of Santo. Perhaps it is not surprising - the first toy a child gets here is a knife. Toddlers stumble around hacking away at everything in sight from the time they take their first steps.
Having finished peeling, Eilili pours a little water from the kettle into the glass bowl and washes the root. Next he starts chopping little pieces off, putting them into his mouth one by one and crushing them with his teeth, chewing continuously. He puts in more and more pieces until his mouth is full and his cheeks puff out, like a chipmunks. Even so he keeps on chewing for a while, masticating it all thoroughly before finally spitting it out into a cloth bag. Again he reaches for the kava root and the knife, starting all over again with the chewing. I have tried chewing kava myself, and I find it very difficult - my mouth goes numb, and as the mush works its way down into my throat it makes me want to vomit. I avoid chewing it whenever I can, though I quite like the drink itself.
When Eilili has finished his second round of chewing he takes a mouthful of water from the spout of the kettle, washes it around in his. mouth and sprays it out against the thatched wall of the house in a well-aimed jet. Then he washes his hands in the glass bowl and pours the dirty water out, calling Riki over to help him. Eilili holds the cloth bag over the bowl while Riki half fills it with water from the kettle.
Holding the top firmly closed with his left hand Eilili then squeezes it with the other, careful not to spill the yellow liquid that comes gushing out of the bag with each squeeze, gradually filling the bowl. They repeat this process, the liquid getting paler and thinner each time, until nothing but clear water comes through the bag. The fibrous remains in the cloth bag Eilili shakes out on to a folded-over Heliconia leaf, hanging the empty bag over the handle of the kettle, ready for re-use. Finally he fishes the half coconut shell out of the bowl, leaving it to float on top of the brew. Then he comes and sits down on some coconut leaves on the other side of my fire, rolling himself a cigarette from shredded plug tobacco while we others start in on the kava. Eilili does not drink for a while, waiting for the effects of the chewing to disappear before he has his first shell full.
Now Riki comes and sits next to me on the mat and whispers in my ear: Kera vano pula sara! "Let’s go hunting!" I recall my half promise from earlier on today, and reluctantly give in - I would really rather stay and listen to the conversation as our visitor will be full of news from the Vailapa valley. Ale, ku lui, nau ka tau, I tell him; "You go first, I’ll follow."
When you go hunting you should sneak away as unobtrusively as possible, I’ve been taught. It is too easy for others to ruin your hunt if they know about it. It is enough that somebody mentions your name and your quarry will hear it and hide, and you will fail to catch anything. Riki takes off out the door and I follow him a couple of minutes later.
Walking down the street towards Lisa’s house I can see Riki waiting for me next to the veranda. He is standing in a circle of light, his short frame illuminated by the bright yellow flames of the bamboo torch in his hand - just a long section of dried bamboo lit at one end. He hands me my bow and two arrows, tipped with four barbed prongs each, made from the black spikes that form in the pith of tree-fern trunks.
Holding a spare length of bamboo in his free hand Riki leads the way along the side of Eilili's house and down the Akara path.
I have never been down this way after dark before, and though I am familiar with the track from countless trips down to the stream for a dip, it now seems completely different, transformed by the shadows of night. Friendly rows of flowering Hibiscus trees planted along the sides of the track now form a strange, lifeless tunnel around us. The colours look all wrong as they enter the bubble of light that surrounds us, only to quickly disappear again in the dark as we pass them by - like a ghost-train ride at a childhood carnival. Further down in the gully, as we enter the bush proper, the vegetation looks surprisingly grotesque, the network of shadows receding among the tree trunks writhing and turning as we walk past. I can see why the local people prefer to stay indoors at night - it would not take a lot of imagination to encounter one of the ogres that haunt the bush after nightfall.
We descend to a small creek, jump across it and follow the track past the sound of the waterfall where we shower on hot days. Shortly afterwards we cross the Akara and begin the climb up the slope on the other side of the gorge. As the track levels out towards the top, Riki takes a turn to the left in among the young trees of an old garden. I follow close behind him, careful where I put my feet, as he has cut away only the undergrowth and there are lots of sharp sticks and roots along our path. We walk in silence, making as little noise as possible, the only sound in the night the distant rustle of the waterfall. Riki holds his torch high up among the trees, constantly turning his head back and forth, looking for birds asleep on the branches.
We follow the rough track in zig-zag fashion down the hill side, stopping only for Riki to light his spare length of bamboo as the other one burns out. About a half hour later we emerge again on the main track, not having seen one bird. Perhaps the others have been talking about us at the kava session in Sulu's house? Riki looks disappointed - no extra morsels of meat tonight. We resume our journey back to the houses in silence.
As we again cross the Akara, Riki suddenly crouches down and rapidly dips his hand in the shallow water, straightens up and continues up the bank on the other side. Para mo ese: "A spider", he informs me. He has caught a water spider, without even stopping. This sort of thing never ceases to amaze me.
The local people don’t seem to miss any opportunity to enrich their diet with whatever game comes their way. If there is a wood-pigeon on the track, a quickly cut-to-size stick will be flying through the air before I know it. Or somebody will follow a fleeing gecko up the trunk of a coconut tree. I once saw a whole crowd chase an eel through the shallows of the Vailapa river, striking at it with their bush knives, after someone spotted it during a crossing - a constant alertness in the quest for food, gone out of our lives with the advent of the supermarket. Riki balances the spider on his burning torch, roasting it as we keep walking our way home. When it is cooked, he breaks it in two, handing me one half over his shoulder. It is charred and rather tasteless, but at least some reward for our nocturnal effort.
On arrival back in the settlement I first go to put my bow and arrows away in Lisa's house. The village women are all gathered in the back of the house, including the visiting mother with her child. They are having their own separate get-together, talking and working on their mats and baskets. I return my hunting gear to its place under the rafters and proceed up to Sulu's house.
Lisa has arrived while we’ve been out, sitting cross-legged on a mat with Maritino asleep in his lap. The pile of pale yellow fibres on the folded-over leaf has grown, revealing that the men have drunk their way through at least another two bowls full of kava during our abortive hunt. I note the absence of people from Vorozenale - perhaps they have their own session going tonight. Sometimes they come here to drink, sometimes we go over there; there is no fixed pattern to our socializing.
I have a cup of kava and sit down again, rolling a cigarette and listening to the others talking, rambling from topic to topic, exchanging news from their different parts of the bush.
Living closer to the coast our visitor also has news from the larger society. He tells us about a fatal road accident on the South Coast a few days back - a young man from Tangoa was killed on the day of his wedding. He talks about unrest on the coast following the recent first-ever general election in the New Hebrides. Some men from East Santo have been chasing people from other islands off European plantations on a "Santo for the Santoese" pretext, also involving party politics. My hosts express their approval as there is a shortage of work on the coast these days, owing to the low price of copra. They in turn tell our visitor about happenings in our valley – about births, deaths, marriages, disputes and house building, both here and among the people across the river.
Some topics are sparked off by more immediate circumstances. Riki has a rash on his buttocks, so they discuss what food taboos are appropriate to get rid of it. Popoi ate the Napaka taro that Sulu brought to Vepei, though he normally only eats taro from his own oven, refusing to share proceeds-from any oven with menstruating women, as it gives him headaches. This brings up the possibility of erecting a menstruation hut, as the mountain people resettled at Ipayato at the mouth of the Navaka river have done. Pros and cons are weighed up.
It goes on and on. We finish the bowl of kava and Lisa chews another batch. Though the kava we drink is made with more water than on most other islands in the New Hebrides, it still has a mild sedative effect if you drink a lot. Eventually I nod off on my mat, waking only when Lisa prods me with his foot. Tomasi! Ku turi! Kera mule! "Stand up! Let's go home!”
I sit up slowly, shake my head and stretch. The house is quiet - Eilili, Popoi, Vanlal and Riki have already left. So I rise and follow Lisa out the door, down the street and into his house, barring the front door behind me with a stick.
Vanlal has already lit our fire so I stretch out on my mat in the warming glow. Before going to sleep again I scribble a few words on my jotting pad in the dark, to jog my memory of the evening's conversation for tomorrow's note taking. Then I curl up with my back towards the fire, slipping back into oblivion after another day of fieldwork in central Santo.