Photo by Connie Payne
Marylou was drinking herself to death and she probably knew it, but she had some time before lost all interest in time. It was like people who have lost all interest in how they are dressed or in keeping house. Though she retained some sense of those sorts of things, her sense of time—of time lapsed, time projected, of why anyone else would be interested in such things—had been dissolved in alcohol. So whatever sense of death she may have had—of her own death, of her open invitation to it—lacked any quality of imminence. Not this afternoon, not tomorrow. For Marylou everything beyond today and tomorrow was just one big when, as vacuous as space around an asteroid.
Marylou lived in an old mission house out on our end of the island, an hour’s jitney bus ride each way from the only island liquor store (government run) in the main village. When necessary (about once a week in everybody else’s universe) she would put on a clean muumuu and walk down to the beach road and wait for a bus to town. A while later (the sun lower over the ridgeline anyway) she’d come walking back up the hill, carrying a cardboard box of clinking bottles.
My daughters and I lived in the only other house on that two-rut jungle track, just down the ridge from the mission house. From our screened-in porch we could watch her coming up the hill beneath the giant mango trees, her head down as she trudged, her big bony hands wrapped around the corners of the box. Tracy, my youngest, had made up a little jingle that she sang whenever she saw Marylou:
Even the roosters like Marylou.”
And I would shush her. But it was true—even the dogs, who would bark at anything strange that moved, would not bark at her. They’d just raise their heads and watch her pass. I don’t drink and my daughters are too young, so she was something special to them. She was the ageless alcoholic Marylou, who lived in the mission house with all those ghosts.
Years before, the mission house had been condemned as unsafe and everyone had been evicted. By that time it wasn’t a mission house any more but had been fixed up as apartments. Then two back-to-back hurricanes had badly compromised the hundred year old structure’s integrity as a place to live. Everyone else left. Doors, windows, and pieces of the roof were missing. Loose roof irons rose and closed in the trade winds like gasping gills, and the jungle had begun to reclaim the place. Marylou stayed.
A dozen or more years before she had arrived on-island as an educational consultant, a two-year contract worker from the mainland. She fell in love with muumuus and the pace that tropic heat dictated and stayed on. I had no idea where what little money she needed came from, but the island had a history of strange, recluse Caucasians who got by without working. A monthly Social Security check or small trust fund remittance could go a long way here.
I knew Marylou paid no rent to stay in the abandoned mission house. No one had found the need nor gumption to throw her out. She had no electricity, no phone, and caught her water from roof gutters. She washed her clothes in the stream that ran down to the beach past both our houses. That’s where my daughters got to know her. Her laundry was play for them, and they would help her soap and pound and rinse and lay her few things out on the bigger rocks to dry. She’d splash with them and quiz them about things. The dogs would sit and watch. Sometimes though she would do her laundry silently at night, laying her clothes out to dry alone in the moonlight, where the girls would find them, mystified, in the morning.
I had little contact with Marylou. A couple of times when she was sick she came to me to ask for help, woman to woman, a small unavoidable crisis and intrusion to deal with and put behind us. Just as she wasn’t pretty but didn’t smell, these small requests were frank but not offensive; they weren’t meant to be taken as invitations to friendship. In any event, we seldom saw her because she was usually too drunk to get out.
The small narrow valley where we lived—and especially Marylou’s old mission house—had the reputation among locals as being excessively haunted. There were stories that went back a hundred years and there were stories as recent as our arrival there. The stories told of apparitions, possessions, unexplainable events, and locales to be avoided at all times. In our front yard there was a prominent boulder on which young girls should never sit. Of course, I learned of this from a woman in the village months after we moved in and my daughters had taken to watching the sun set into the ocean from that spot. These stories were our guards, our security service. Our little jungle hollow of females was a ghost-gated community, where only strange Caucasians might be exempt from the malign attention of the spirits that dwelled there or regularly visited the place.
One such transient ogre was the cannibal Tuiatua, dragging his steel-tipped pike, emitting a distinctive repugnant odor. I learned these stories slowly from people amazed that I had moved into this house that no one else had wanted and without any males to protect us. It was peaceful there; we had no visitors.
No one visited Marylou either. With a 4-wheel-drive vehicle you could make it almost all the way to her place; but no vehicles ever went up the track, and none of us had ever seen anyone other than Marylou walking up there. Of course, we were gone much of most days—the girls to school and me to my job in town. But most of the rest of the time we were home; there really wasn’t much of anywhere else to be.
One Saturday morning a barefoot, bare-chested man appeared at my back door. I didn’t recognize him; he was not from the village. He asked politely—his English was not that good—if I had an axe he could borrow. A tree limb had fallen on “Mele’s” house. Mele was what Marylou’s name had become. I gave him our axe.
One of the girls was sick that day, fever. I was pretty much bound to the house to look after her. I didn’t venture up to the mission house to see what had happened. Then the EMS arrived. They managed to back their ambulance up to about half way between our house and Marylou’s. The two girls who weren’t sick went running after them. “It’s like a movie,” one of them said as she hurriedly slipped on her yellow flip-flops and disappeared out the back screen door.
Marylou was uncertain, in fact uninterested, in exactly when and what had happened. The EMS guys said it looked like her arm had been broken for a couple of days. The girls walked with the ambulance down to the beach road, their little hands on its sides like miniature pall bearers.
The next day Marylou came walking back up the hill, her right arm in a cast supported by a hospital sling. The dogs went out and barked at her. An hour or two later I heard the dogs go off again, and to my surprise Marylou was standing at my back screen door. I asked her in, and she sat down slowly and heavily at the kitchen table. She declined a glass of iced tea. She asked if I could spare one or two of the girls for a while. She had to move things around in her house and she was having trouble doing that with her “busted wing.” There was a purple bruise turning green on the right side of her face. She was subdued and, I guessed, sober.
I checked on my ailing daughter who was feeling better and with my eldest, Ronnie, headed up to the mission house, taking along a bowl of leftover stew.
I had never been inside Marylou’s rooms before. The mission house had a deep open veranda, and in my few visits there before the veranda was as far as I had gotten. It ran around the entire house, but now vines and jungle plants choked off most of it, and only the stretch in front of the rooms where Marylou lived was clear. There was no furniture on the veranda aside from a heavy old ironwood chair with a mat-covered crate beside it.
For the final twenty yards or so before Marylou’s house the path ran between wild hibiscus hedges that widened as you approached the creeper covered house and its ancient looking concrete steps. The hibiscus was all in bloom—the usual purple and pink and a delicate vermilion in blood red double-bloom variety I had never seen before.
Ronnie had fallen behind. I could tell she didn’t want to be there. Ronnie—Veronica when I wanted her attention—was my dark-haired, dusky, moody daughter. Though no island DNA had a hand in it, she could pass for a slender local girl. Within a year or two she would no longer be one of my little girls. Prominent among my many single-mother worries was how I could get closer to, participate more in the workings of that inner Ronnie, which now I could only read like the weather—intermittent adolescent squalls followed by hours of sunlight and peaceful shadows. When I looked back for Ronnie from the foot of Marylou’s steps, she was standing in the shadow of the double-bloom hibiscus, purposefully not watching me. Like a blow it struck me how beautiful she had suddenly become, how outside me she had to be to be that beautiful.
I walked up the steps and across the veranda to a wide door frame that held no doors or screens, called out “Marylou,” then knocked on the chipped-paint frame and called her name again. Ronnie had come to the bottom of the steps, into the sunshine. A large tan cat was rubbing itself against her legs.
“Come on in,” Marylou said from within, and I did. The only light was from the front windows, but it was bright enough to fill the room. The ceilings were unexpectedly high and the doors and windows were tall, lending the space a memory of a more dignified colonial past. There were no curtains, shutters, sails, nor native woven blinds at the open windows, no mats on the floor; but everywhere there were shells.
When we first moved into the house above the beach, the girls had gone through a shell gathering phase. I liked it. It would occupy them for hours. A sort of competition arose, and I had to dedicate a side porch to their mounding collections. A year or so later though, when I silently bagged and returned all their booty to the beach, none of them complained; they were on to something else by then. Marylou obviously had need of such a mother.
Shells, patterns made by different color shells had been glued to just about every surface from baseboard to above eye level. There were pieces of driftwood encased in shell armor, chair and table legs that glowed like mother of pearl, moraines of shells along the walls, rising higher in the corners. A breeze ran through the room, raising a wisp of dry reef smell.
Marylou was resting on a makeshift couch against a wall away from the windows. She had raised herself part way up, leaning on her cast. Beside her on the floor was a partly drunk bottle of vodka, its clear glass and liquid a receiving and transmitting prism for all the light that bounced around the room. “Come on in,” she said again, and I turned to see Ronnie standing in the doorway, her head cocked to one side like a bird looking at its reflection in a glass.
The damaging tree limb—formerly part of a banyan that umbrellad half the house—had fallen on the other room that Marylou occupied, her bedroom. There were fewer shells there. It was in this room that she needed help. The tree limb had been removed, was now a jumbled pile of hacked branches just off the edge of the veranda; but we could see lots of sky through the caved in ceiling and crumpled rusty roof irons. Marylou wanted to move everything she had in that room into the main room before it rained again. The room already had a deserted, no-longer-in-use aroma—the smell of spores and mold and rotted wood. A smell like the inside of an old empty suitcase forgotten in an attic—and the room was almost as empty.
Ronnie and I hauled out some cardboard boxes that had been piled beneath an eaten-through tarp, kicking them first to alert any resident rats or centipedes of our intentions. We didn’t open or look inside the boxes, but some were heavy and some were light. Two boxes I’m sure were filled with phonograph records; I’d moved boxes like that before. There was a trunk that we had to drag because it was too heavy for us to lift, and from some very fancy salvaged shelves we moved Marylou’s meager piles of clothing and scraps of fabric. There was a suitcase with wheels that Ronnie rolled out and parked beside he trunk. We left the piles of shells.
Beneath the single bed with its shredded mosquito netting where Marylou had been sleeping when the banyan limb fell on her we found an assortment of mismatched flip-flops and an open flat box of photographs. Ronnie started looking through the photos, but I stopped her and spread a piece of cloth over the box before placing it on the only table in the other room, beside the bowl of stew I had brought and then forgotten.
In our movings we uncovered a half dozen dusty bottles of booze—gin, vodka, and Canadian whiskey. None were empty; none were full. I had Ronnie line them up along the wall beside the door to the other room. As she did so, she studied their labels. She asked me what “proof” meant, and I didn’t know exactly, except that the higher the number the more intoxicating it was. She asked me—in almost a whisper—what intoxicating meant. I told her poisonous.
Marylou hadn’t moved. Supine again on her couch, she gave vague directions where things should be redistributed. Now she seemed tired. The afternoon light was creeping out of the room and the bottle of vodka was gone from the floor, tucked now between her waist and a cushion. Her eyes were closed.
“Well. I guess we’ll be going,” I said. “There’s some cold stew here.”
She stirred and lifted her head. “Ain’t hungry, but thanks.”
I had been looking for our axe around the house and veranda, the axe I had loaned the man the day before to cut her loose from the tree limb, and I hadn’t seen it. So I asked her if she knew where it might be. She remembered the axe but had no idea where it was.
“I guess that fella made a gift of it,” she said, “to himself,” and laughed, a short gasping half laugh ending in a long series of coughs.
“Well, can you remember his name?” I asked
“Yes, I remembered it yesterday,” she said, then closed her eyes as if to dismiss us. The jungle birds had begun their dusk songs by the time Ronnie and I reached home.
It took me at least a week to notice how often Ronnie was gone from the house. She had always been one to disappear, but now her absences were longer. The first time I asked her, casually, where she had been off to, she just shrugged her head and said, “Up in the jungle.” It wasn’t until I saw the first small bright shells in her room that I guessed where she was going.
So, one late afternoon as I was fixing dinner and she came into the kitchen looking for a snack after being gone for a while I asked her, “How’s Marylou?” She was leaning into the open refrigerator (whose light never worked) looking for something. She paused a few seconds then said, “All right, I guess.”
I thought that would be the end of the conversation, but Ronnie fixed herself a bowl of cereal and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Did you know that Marylou had two husbands and two kids?” she asked.
“Well she did, or does. She says she never divorced or deserted anyone.”
“Yeah. I saw all their photographs. The kids look really dorky.”
“I don’t know. I think they’re grown up by now. They both live in Oregon, I think. Or maybe Ohio.”
A long silence as I stirred spices into something on the stove and Ronnie munched Cheerios.
“I brush her hair. She can’t do it because of her arm,” she added. “A lot of her hair comes off in the brush. Is that all right?”
“Yes, that happens when people get older and sick.” I always feel like a fool when I say things like that, like burying dead puppies and pretending there is a doggie heaven that they’ve gone to. What am I protecting any of them from?
“And we look at her pictures.”
I ventured over the line: “Ronnie honey, I’d like you to tell me when you go up there.”
She got up and dropped her cereal bowl into the sink. I’d mucked up again. Back peddle. “Maybe I could go up there with you and see if she needs anything, or send something up with you.”
“Marylou says she doesn’t want anyone’s help, no handouts.”
Ronnie’s back was to me, but she wasn’t looking out the window above the sink. There was a long frozen minute, then she retrieved her bowl from the sink, fixed herself another bowl of cereal, and headed off toward her room.
“Dinner in about an hour; don’t ruin your appetite,” I scolded into the now empty room, feeling useless.
Then, one Saturday morning soon thereafter, Ronnie vanished. She didn’t get up to do her chores, and when I went to wake her, her bed was empty. The other girls hadn’t seen her. I walked up to Marylou’s, but there was no one there. I noticed on the way back that her almost dry laundry was spread on the streamside rocks. I spent a fretful morning, trying to do housework, snapping at then hugging the other girls. In mid-afternoon the dogs let out a half-hearted chorus of barks, and I went out to the porch to look again for the twentieth-some time that day. There was Marylou, stooped by the weight of her cast, plodding up the track from the beach road. Then a few yards behind her Ronnie appeared, also trudging slowly, carrying a clinking box of bottles.
Ronnie looked up to see me and gave me a smile that was one third hopeful, one third defiant, and one third brave. Her going to the effort sent my heart out to her. She knew she was in big trouble, but she cared enough to initiate the dialogue of consequences with a smile. A smile that quickly faltered and deserted her face, which she turned back downward. I waited for her to come to me. It was such a relief just to see her safe. She came home straight away from Marylou’s.
She came home with a gift, a gift for me from Marylou. It was a shell unlike any other I had ever seen, the size of a football, with coral-shaded thorns, something almost prehistoric. I took it and put it away in a low kitchen cabinet where plastic containers were kept and had a talk with Veronica. After she was sent to her room for the rest of the day, I took out the shell and looked at it, then went and pulled a shell book off the shelf.
It was some sort of spider conch, genus Lambis, but I wasn’t sure which species. Creamy white with irregular coffee-colored markings. What I had called thorns the book called spiny protuberances; there were six of them spread a bit like legs. My first impulse was to give it back. All Ronnie had said when she handed it to me was that, “Marylou wants you to have this. I think it’s her fanciest shell.” Now I just wondered why.
What is it about gifts that I dislike so much? It’s not just the bother of getting gifts for someone else, it’s the bother of receiving them as well. With the girls’ birthdays and Christmases I’m fine. I know their small desires and I am happy to try to fulfill them with appropriate “surprises.” But I had always had trouble with buying gifts for their fathers, for instance, just as they all had trouble finding the right thing to please me. The awkwardness of the presumption, the clumsiness of the presentation and acceptance, the sense of shifting obligations. Gifts overturned the comfortable status quo.
Maybe it was the way I’d been brought up, in a thoroughly commercialized world where openly desiring things was, paradoxically, unclean; where everything was bought and sold and giving anything away was a sign of weakness or foolishness or bragging or attempted usurpation. And then there was always the quandary of reciprocity. What was appropriate? What should be said? I remained untrained in all that.
And yet I was aware that I was now living within an encompassing culture in which the semiotics of gift giving approached a high art form, a traditional culture in which there were no gift shops, but where gift exchange defined who and where you were. I was lost.
Late that afternoon I took the younger girls to the beach, leaving Ronnie in her room. I wanted to make up to them for being such a grouch earlier. While they played I found myself shell hunting, absent mindedly scouring, stooping, examining, and tossing away. I knew I wouldn’t find anything like a spider conch, but I wanted to find something nice for myself, my own shell. Some of the bigger ones scurried away on hermit crab legs, but except for small unremarkable cowries I could not find one that wasn’t cracked or broken. By sunset all that I had in my pocket were surf-smoothed shards of green, blue, and milky white glass, pieces of once emptied bottles.
Photo by Connie Payne
After that, things calmed down with Ronnie, as things usually do after such blow-outs. Twice after work I walked up to have a talk with Marylou about taking Ronnie to town without my permission, but both times she was passed out on her couch. I finally left her a note, neither hostile nor friendly, saying that in the future all such borrowings of my children should be cleared with me first. I didn’t mention the conch shell.
Ronnie was still going up to see Marylou and help her out, but the visits had lost their secretive thrill, so Ronnie would share with us news and observations when she returned. I asked her about Marylou’s cooking and eating arrangements. Ronnie reported that Marylou had a simple cook shed in the back, some rocks around a cooking fire with a metal grid on top and a couple of fire-blackened pots. Up the ridge a little ways she also had a crude garden—banana, cassava, even some taro and ta`amu growing. She had store bought rice and tinned meat, and she also ate “greens and stuff she finds in the jungle.” Ronnie said matter of factly. I couldn’t imagine what that might be.
As it turned out, Marylou was also quite the expert on the haunted history of her place. Ronnie wasn’t much of an active narrative bearer, but she’d give us the gist of the stories: the apparitions of green or red faces outside windows, objects vanishing or flying about the house, moans and voices and caresses, women possessed speaking with the voices of the dead. Quite a repertoire.
I asked Ronnie if Marylou was bothered by such goings on.
“She used to be, especially by the faces and the voices. But then she found out about the shells,” she said.
“Yeah, the fact that the shells keep the ghosts away, that they don’t like the smell or something. I dunno. She said it’s the same reason the people in the village make the floors of their houses out of the crushed coral and stuff from the beach—to keep the ghosts out.”
I had put the spider conch shell out where I could see it, on top of a book shelf in the front room. I glanced at it now, its weird twisted six-inch spikes, its calcified arrested look of having been caught in mid-motion.
“She believes that?” I asked.
“She says it works,” Ronnie said. “That’s why she gave you that shell, because it’s the most powerful one she has and we don’t have any shells here.”
We were not a religious family, never had been. I had been married once in a church, the first time, for all that was worth. I didn’t believe in any of it and I refused to be a hypocrite in front of my daughters. On Sunday mornings I fixed french toast and bacon for brunch, and everyone had free time to sleep late or whatever. We never went to church. Not going to church was sort of our religion. Now and then I worried about that—that never having been inoculated against religiosity, one of the girls might place her inevitable adolescent mystification there, would go to Jesus or seek the dumb safe haven of Biblical gibberish. Here in the islands—though virtually everyone else got dressed up in white and went to church on Sunday morning—we were so alone, so outside of it, that our non-participation really didn’t matter. Maybe everyone else thought that we went to some other church than theirs, or even that up in the haunted valley we practiced our own cabbalistic rites. Who knows? But, no, we didn’t exchange gifts with invisible friends either.
Ghosts and their tricks occupied pretty much the same ground as religion. In all our time in the valley we’d had no visitations nor strange occurrences. If the ghosts were actual, we were immune, and being immune we had no reason to invest any attention in them. They were our superstition-supplied guards, that was all. Their gift to us was our otherwise inexplicable safety there, the shield—the shell—of imperviousness they lent us in the local consciousness.
One mid-day Sunday a few months later, Marylou knocked at my kitchen screen door. She had recently shed her cast and was dressed in a fresh muumuu. She was as animated as I’d ever seen her. Ronnie was in trouble, she said, I had to come, now. “Bring a bush knife,” she added as she turned and headed back up the ridge. “Leave the youngsters behind.” I did exactly as she told me.
As we headed up the ridge behind her place, for the first time I saw the cook shed and further on the garden that Ronnie had described. Beyond there was a root-stepped trail that wound through the jungle. I scrambled to keep up with Marylou, who had hiked her muumuu skirts up around her waist. At one point she stopped and waited for me to catch up with her at a place where a fallen tree interrupted the trail.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The old graveyard,” she answered. “Come on.”
Ronnie had told us once about the old graveyard. It was part of the haunted history of the valley. Marylou’s mission house and other surrounding buildings long since reclaimed by the bush had once been—had been built as—a school to train native girls how to be good wives to native pastors. At some point, maybe fifty years before, some sort of epidemic had swept through the school. Many of the graves, Marylou had told her, were from that epidemic—girls from other villages and islands whose bodies, because of the quarantine, had not been returned to their families but had been buried there. Marylou said that the villagers said that the ghost things in the valley were the result of these girls, their restlessness from not being buried in their own villages. What made the spirits unmanageable was the fact that they didn’t belong there, weren’t at home.
Just as this place wasn’t really our home either, it struck me as I followed Marylou’s paste-white, blue-veined legs through underbrush where there was no longer a discernable trail.
“Faster this way,” she called back to me.
A couple of times I slashed with the bush knife at vines or branches that slowed me down. Then we were standing on a wide level space on the ridge side, where the canopy opened up a bit. At first it looked like just more jungle only a little brighter. Then I saw the lines of low, coral-slab-sided graves. The trees and weeds had been cleared from them. Red ti plants traced a ragged perimeter. I took a step forward that crunched rather than cracked or snapped and I looked down at a border of broken shells that stretched to rough corners marked by cairns of empty old bottles. It was very still there, no rustling breezes nor jungle bird songs announcing our intrusion.
Marylou was breathing heavily, grabbing breaths like someone gulping water. She was soaked in sweat.
“Ronnie done this,” she said, then bent over with a heavy cough. When she caught her breath again, she said. “She’s been coming up here for a couple of hours every so often to clean up. What day is today any ways, week wise?”
“Sunday,” I said.
“Yeah, that would be right.” Marylou stood up straight and nodded. “She always said something about church going when she came up here. She done a good job. Come on.”
We crossed the ambiguous graveyard. There were no headstones, no markers, just different sized oblong mounds enclosed by stones and weathered, green-molded plates and chunks of coral. Black lizards slipped from their sunning spots upon the stones. A lone jungle bird called out some sort of warning verse to his fellows.
“There,” said Marylou; and there was Ronnie. At first I could see just her face and head clearly. Her eyes were closed. She was sitting up, her back against the trunk of a coconut palm tree on the further edge of the clearing. When I got to her, I could see that she was breathing, her head rising and falling just perceptively with each labored breath. She was tied crudely to the tree with vines that had been looped repeatedly under her arms and around the trunk. I touched her face, which was wet and warm. Her eyes stayed closed. Then I turned on Marylou, who had followed me.
“What have you done to her?” I had no idea how my voice sounded, only that it was loud. I repeated myself, “What have you done to Ronnie?”
Marylou didn’t flinch. “She done that to herself, I guess,” she said. “That’s how I found her right before I went to get you.” She was staring at Ronnie, not looking at me. There was a squint of concern in her eyes.
I looked at Ronnie. Though her upper body was lashed to the tree, her arms and legs were free, and she held the end of one vine tightly with both hands.
“She done that to herself to keep herself there,” Marylou said. “She’s afraid.”
“Afraid? Afraid of what?” Now my voice was loud and incredulous.
“Afraid of what’s got her,” Marylou said matter of factly. “Here, give me that bush knife.” And, taking the machete from me, she began to slice through the vines. “You hold onto her,” she said.
I pulled the vine leaves and cords from around her as Marylou cut them away, until Ronnie slumped forward into my arms with a low uninterpretable moan. Her eyes were still closed. I held her close to me. She wasn’t feverish, and her breathing relaxed into something like sleep. I smelt her breath. There was no hint of alcohol.
“Do you think you can get her to walk?” Marylou asked, standing there dripping sweat, with the bush knife still in her hand.
I tried to lift her, waken her, encourage her; but she was just dead weight.
“Okay then, you stay here with her, and I’ll try to find some help to move her,” Marylou said, heading off back across the graveyard. Then she turned and came back and laid the bush knife beside us. “Might need this,” she said and left.
I leaned back against the tree that Ronnie had been tied to and pulled her up to hold like I hadn’t held her in a long time, her head resting against my collar bone, her body limp. There were no marks on her. Her clothes—long jeans, a t-shirt and a work shirt, sneakers—were all as they should be. A sweet smell came off her, which after a while I identified as the smell of the vine because it was on my hands as well. We sat there like that. I made my legs comfortable beneath her weight. I waited.
I felt Ronnie’s pulse—first in her wrist, then on her neck. It was regular and strong. I stroked her hair, felt her skull for contusions, and spoke to her, but there was no response.
“My daughter is in a coma,” I told myself, “and we are here in the jungle beyond any reasonable help.” But instead of the expected panic, something else settled in—a relaxation that started in the muscles that held her and spread to my brain, a luscious tiredness that made the tree trunk behind my back and the broken ground beneath my legs seem soft. I held her closer. I watched the birds return to the canopy above, pairs of white fairy terns and solitary olive honeyeaters. Ronnie murmured and stirred, then resettled herself more comfortably against me. I closed my eyes to think.
Tapa by Leslie Wood
They had to awaken me when they arrived. Marylou was shaking my shoulder. About ten feet behind her stood the man who had once made a gift of my axe to himself, wearing a shirt and a lava lava. For a moment I didn’t know where I was. My right arm and leg were asleep beneath Ronnie.
“You okay?” asked Marylou.
The man came and lifted Ronnie off me, then, stooping, curled her over his shoulder in what my dad used to call a fireman’s carry but at that moment struck me as the way an Indian would carry away a dead deer. Without a word, he turned and headed across the graveyard to the trail out. Marylou helped me up, picked up the bush knife from where she had laid it, and we silently followed him.
The distance to Marylou’s house seemed much shorter going back. I was still in sort of a sleepy daze and a couple of times fell so far behind as to actually lose sight of them on the trail. The sun had slipped down behind the western ridge, leaving the valley in its secondary light, and for some reason I was thinking about Veronica’s father, whom neither of us had seen since she was two years old. I thought of him carrying her down the tricky trail. I felt safe thinking that—his broad back, strong hands, cocky self-assurance. I could see him running through California surf with two-year old Ronnie riding on his shoulders, hanging on to his kinky afro mane for all she was worth, breathless with happiness.
When I got to Marylou’s they had already taken Ronnie inside. No. I wanted them to take her on to our house, where I could put her in the car and drive the fifteen twisty miles to the hospital. I went up the steps and into Marylou’s one remaining room. A pile of sleeping mats had been placed in the middle of the floor, and Ronnie had been lain face-up upon them. There were two women I didn’t know arranging and undressing her. No, this was all wrong. She needed a medical diagnosis, drugs or something, a doctor’s care. I protested to Marylou, insisted that we keep on to my house.
At first she said nothing, ignored me as she moved things out of the other women’s way. They, too, ignored me. One of them snapped an order in their language to the man, who nodded and left. I felt like I was talking inside a nightmare where nobody could hear me. Then Marylou came and took me by the arm and pulled me out onto the veranda.
“Now listen,” she said. “We ain’t going to take her to that shitty hospital. What your Ronnie’s got can’t be cured by shots, pills, tubes, and bright lights. What she’s got can only be cured where it was gotten, by people who know what it is she’s got and have fixed it before. Now shush up. This is serious. I want you to go fetch the pillow she usually sleeps on, and if she’s got a special blanket or doll or something she always sleeps with, bring that too. Just do that.”
I did that. When I got to my house, another woman, someone I vaguely knew from the village, was in the kitchen, fixing tuna fish sandwiches for my other two girls, who were sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with her. The woman smiled and nodded. The girls said, “Hi, Mommy.” I got Ronnie’s pillow and baby quilt—her “blanky”—and left.
When I got back to Marylou’s, they had Ronnie stripped down to her panties and t-shirt, lying on the mats. Marylou took the pillow and quilt from me and placed them beside Ronnie. “Something familiar for her to come back to,” she said. The other women nodded. There were now four of them. One was massaging her legs with oil from an old Coca Cola bottle; another was holding her head and softly massaging her temples. The one at her head seemed to be in charge. She instructed one of the other women to drape a lava lava over Ronnie’s midsection and thighs. They all spoke softly and moved purposefully, seriously, like some sort of bush EMS team. Not knowing what to do, I sat down on the floor by the door, my back against the wall, and watched, feeling totally helpless.
After a short while Marylou sat down next to me. She was still sweating profusely and looked totally drained.
“That’s Fa`asina,” she said, nodding toward the woman at Ronnie’s head. “She knows what has to be done.” She took a swig from a bottle of vodka and offered it to me. I shook my head. I was numb again. I watched Fa`asina. Somehow I would have expected a woman like that to be older, but she was younger than I, in her mid-thirties maybe, ageless, as the village women sometimes were, full and round in her features and body. Sometimes I felt as if she were watching me out of the corner of her eye as she caressed and pulled the skin on Ronnie’s face and murmured indistinguishable words. Daylight was dying, and someone lit a kerosene lantern. The next time Marylou took a pull on her bottle of vodka and offered it to me, I took a mouthful of the burning stuff and slowly swallowed it, feeling the fire run down my throat and through my chest. There were more women now, and outside on the now dark veranda more lanterns were lit. Hours passed. Marylou got up and shuffled off to her couch to sleep, leaving her bottle of vodka beside me. I took a few more drinks, seeking the liquor’s calmness and remove. But the women around Ronnie, especially Fa`asina, never ceased running their hands over her and murmuring. I guess I drifted off.
Then suddenly a man’s gruff voice filled the room, speaking in the native language—the angry, emotion-strained voice of an old man—and I was wide awake. The whole room and veranda came to silent attention. It was Ronnie speaking, raised up on one elbow, her face constricted and red with rage, her free fist waving in the air. Fa`asina leaned back, letting her go. The other women around her pulled back.
It was an angry speech, not a word of which I understood. I got up to my knees and cried, “Ronnie, Ronnie,” and several sets of strong arms lifted me up and whisked me out the door. From the lawn, held back by unknown arms, I listened to the old man’s vehement oration. I could still see Ronnie speaking, sitting up now in the lantern light, her squinted eyes flashing about the room. Then the speech ended as abruptly as it had begun, and Ronnie slumped back into Fa`asina’s catching hands. Coconuts thudded into the earth around us, a volley of them released from the bordering trees, and a strong sea wind swept over us.
Fa`asina and three other women now redoubled their massage of Ronnie, pouring on more oil, rubbing leaves into her skin. Without looking up from Ronnie’s face, Fa`asina barked out a series of commands, and about me everyone bolted into action. Softer arms now held me. Torches were lit. The man who had taken my axe now stood six inches in front of my face and told me that now I was needed and must come with them. I looked about for Marylou, who was nowhere to be seen in the present hubbub. I nodded.
Ahead of us, a torch-lit procession was already heading up the ridge trail, back toward the old graveyard. Shadowed hands helped me along, and soon we were there. Smokey coconut leaflet torches surrounded the graveyard; off on one side a fire had been started. I sat to rest on a fallen tree. Then past me were carried Marylou’s blackened cooking pots, filled with sloshing water.
No one was singing or chanting. No one was even speaking, though I got the feeling the entire adult village was there in the smoke and the discontinuous torch light. The man who had taken my axe squatted before me, his face again too close to mine, and he told me, “You find grave.”
I looked at him, dazed and bewildered, speechless.
“You find grave him got your daughter,” he said softly, taking my hand and pulling me up.
I wanted to cry. I had no idea what he meant, but I knew it was of great importance. I stood up, feeling everyone’s eyes upon me. The graveyard was filled with shadows and smoke, and off to my right Marylou’s water-filled cooking pots had been placed on logs above a now leaping fire.
I stepped out into the graveyard. If ever I had wanted the gift of insight it was now. What was it I was supposed to find? And how? I stood there. I said a prayer for help to Ronnie. Then I turned back and took a torch from someone standing there and walked out among the graves. I noticed that no one else had set foot in the graveyard. Whoever else was there stayed well away from the boundary of shells and red ti plants.
The footing was uncertain in the flickering glow of my loosely bundled torch, whose smoke stung my eyes. I held it out at arm’s length away from me. Though Ronnie had cleared the graves themselves, the paths between them were still a tangled mass of creepers and roots over rubble and rocks eroded from the raised mounds. I noticed with surprise how small some of the graves were—children’s graves, no more than three or four feet long. There seemed to be three rows of graves. I found a sort of aisle between two of the rows and tripped and stumbled down it. I had never felt so totally alone.
All my life I had prided myself as the one who could go it alone—the girl who left home as soon as she could get away; the free spirit who didn’t need, indeed distrusted, commitments; the tough bitch who didn’t mind going it alone, sleeping alone. Of course, I knew that was just my outward image of myself, my projection, my defensive shield; but after enough years it was pretty much all I had. Aside from my girls, those fellow travelers for whom I took full and sole responsibility, from their conception up to this—this empty, hollow, echoingly vacuous inner need to have someone, anyone there beside me to share my confusion and feeling of complete ineptitude. Yes, someone, some man, who would deny his fear and give me an arm to hold on to, grab me when I tripped like this, and say “Okay. It’s going to be okay.”
I began to realize that the separate graves were differentiated not only by length but by height as well. Some were just raised earth surrounded by stones; others had one or even two interior tiers of earth edged with the coral slabs. These would be the graves of adults. Most of these graves were near the center, but I noticed one toward the end of the upper row from which a small tree had been cut, its white crudely hacked trunk rising half a foot from the earth. I turned toward it, felt drawn to it. As I approached it, something glanced the red glow of my dying torch back at me. I waved the torch back and forth to make it flame, and there on top of the upper grave tier was our spider conch shell. Ronnie must have brought it and put it there. She had to have had some reason for doing that. I waved the torch above my head, its sparks falling on and about me, and said in the loudest voice I could muster, “Here. It is here.” Then I stooped down and picked up the conch shell.
What happened next happened quickly and without me. The man who had taken my axe appeared beside me with a long straight tree limb sharpened into a pike and wordlessly started thrusting it deep into the earth of the grave, twisting the spear after every thrust to widen its hole. Then other men came, carrying the now steaming pots of water. Grasping the pots with thick pads of leaves, they carefully poured the hot liquid into the holes the pike had made. Not a word was said. Then everyone turned to withdraw. The few torches left returned to the trail down the ridge; only the kicked apart cooking fire still danced shadows around me. Someone took the torch from my hand, and someone else turned me to follow it. I held the conch shell to my chest with both hands. I entrusted myself to the care and night vision of whoever helped me down the now well-beaten trail to Marylou’s.
When we got there, everyone else kept on going down the trail to the beach road, the village, their homes. Again, all in silence. There were none of the customary words of departure or good night.
Inside Marylou’s, Ronnie was resting peacefully, her head in Fa`asina’s lap. Fa`asina’s fingers still moved softly, slowly, rhythmically over Ronnie’s temples and forehead and cheekbones. Ronnie’s complexion was flushed, and through the oil her whole body glowed with beads of perspiration. Fa`sina’s eyes were closed, but there was a look of exhausted contentment on her face.
I spent the rest of that night sleeping beside Ronnie on that pile of mats in Marylou’s only remaining room. I slipped Ronnie’s pillow under her head and covered her with her quilt. The four remaining women, including Fa`asina, slept in a circle around us, and beyond them Marylou snored but never moved on her couch against the wall.
I kept Ronnie home from school the next week and called myself in sick at work so I could stay with her. The familiar Ronnie slowly returned, though she stayed close to home. We never talked about what had happened. By Friday I was calling her Veronica again and drove to town to shop and check the mail, leaving her home alone. We had not seen Marylou.
When I got back home, I checked in on Ronnie, who was sleeping, and walked on up to Marylou’s. Her place was much as we had left it. Extinguished kerosene lanterns with soot-blackened glass chimneys still sat here and there on the veranda. Marylou was still, or again, stretched out on her couch. I knocked at the non-door, but she didn’t answer. There was an empty vodka bottle laying on the floor beside her, as prone and as senseless as she was. I sat there a while on the pile of mats where Ronnie had lain, watching her, studying her gravity-drawn bony face, not sure if she was alive or dead. Her face looked cold, but I couldn’t touch her.
After an uncertain length of time—strong end-of-day shafts of light now slicing through her room in any event—I got up and left, leaving behind me the present I had brought her from town, a bottle of Crown Royale whiskey with a ribbon on it and a card that Tracey, my youngest, had printed up with many colored crayons—“Hello, Marylou. Thank you.”