Fiction

LORD OF ROANONGA

HUGH B. CAVE January 1 1949
Fiction

LORD OF ROANONGA

HUGH B. CAVE January 1 1949

LORD OF ROANONGA

HUGH B. CAVE

WHEN Kahohe found the smashed landing craft he did not at first realize its possibilities. He had stopped at Little Te-e to look

for cowrie shells.

He was not sure he would find cowries on Little Te-e. No one ever bothered with that barren little lump of island, but he had promised Toti, his sweetheart, some fine fish, and his luck had been terrible. A gift of shells for a necklace would put things right.

His eyes popped when he drove his prau into the purple shadows of the grotto and discovered the boat there. Unafraid, he climbed aboard to explore it. During the Americans’ stay, when the calm waters of the lagoon were a seaplane base, he had seen many such boats.

This one was no good any more; its rusty sides were half eaten away. But it contained twenty or more metal barrels, painted black and still intact; under the platform at the stern were some boxes.

From the looks of it, the boat had broken loose in a storm—a long time ago, naturally—and had been blown here. And here it had lain undiscovered because no one had set foot on Little Te-e since. The entrance to the grotto was hidden by trailing vines.

Kahohe broke open the boxes and found parts of airplane engines in them. Very nice, but impractical. He could not wear them for ornaments —they were too heavy—and he did not expect ever to own an airplane. He turned to the barrels. With a chunk of coral he broke a hole in the top of the rustiest one and put his hand in.

He smelled the wet tips of his fingers and made a face. Gasoline! What good was gasoline to a young fisherman of Roanonga?

Then he remembered.

WHEN he reached the main island, he went straight up through the village to the house of No Toes Rooea, at the far side of the taro field on the muddy bank of the river. No Toes was making a breechclout of coconut hair.

Kahohe sat and talked—about fishing, how poor it was, and the heavy rains which had hurt the gardens. He asked about No Toes’ foot, part of which was inside a giant clam on the bottom of the lagoon.

Then he said, “I have been thinking. I am to marry Toti, as you know, and there should be at least one gift that will surprise her. If the price is low enough, I might be persuaded to take off your hands the worthless engine left to you by the Japanese.”

“What would Toti do with a boat engine?” “Show it to her friends, I suppose. What dó you want for it?”

Kahohe knew the price would be steep, because there was not another outboard motor on Roanonga. He was shocked, though, when No Toes calmly demanded his belt of sharks’ teeth and his Japanese rifle for which there were no bullets. What if, after he paid so much, the motor refused to run?

Nevertheless, he agreed, and No Toes brought the motor out of its hiding place.

It was in good condition, as good as the day the Japanese had presented it to No Toes for some obscure service. No Toes had rubbed it with coconut oil and kept it wrapped in bark cloth. Even the tools in the small canvas kit were shiny.

Kahohe triumphantly carried his new possession to the cove where his boat lay and went to work. He was hungry but refused to heed his stomach. He had promised to call on Toti, but forgot. When darkness dropped over the island and a fat moon climbed out of the sea, he was still not finished.

“Well!” exclaimed a voice that startled him. “So here you are!”:

Knee-deep in the water, adjusting the bracket he had fashioned to the prau’s outrigger brace,

Kahohe looked up. His nod was brief.

“Have you forgotten me altogether?” Toti asked. “I have things to do.”

Frowning, she walked into the water to watch him. Whatever he did was of interest to her. She was not the prettiest girl in Roanonga—the very pretty ones, such as Oonatoa, daughter of Mamorik, paid attention to more important men than Kahohe. But Toti was quick and intelligent and she was curious.

She watched him fasten the outboard motor in place. “What is it for?”

“Tomorrow you will see.”

“Tell me now.”

Kahohe motioned her into the boat and boosted himself in with her. The beach was deserted, but he made certain they were not watched before taking up his paddle.

He paddled out of the cove and around the point to a smaller cove beyond, where people from the village seldom went. With an eye on his precious motor, he tucked the prau into a sheltered place where even the gleam of the moon failed to find it. There he took Toti in his arms.

“I am going to be an important man,” he said, rubbing his nose on her cheek.

Toti sighed in his embrace. “Who cares?” “When we marry, you will have the biggest house in Roanonga.”

“One room is all I want. The one you are in.” “You’ll be proud of me!”

“I am now.”

Kahohe lay back, dreaming. She loved him, he knew, but he was not fooled. When he was important she would love him more.

THE SUN was just appearing when he reached Little Te-e the next morning. At that hour the lagoon was a thing of beauty, the calm water stretching like a golden smile to kiss the shores of low green islands. Kahohe was too excited to notice. Such things, anyway, were for women. Would his motor run?

In the gloom of the grotto his hands shook as he scooped gasoline from the drums and filled the small tank. He spilled some and was annoyed. The precious fuel must not be wasted, for when these drums were empty there would be no more, unless, maybe, he could journey to some distant place still occupied by white men—Abemama, say, or Aranuka.

With his lip between his teeth he wrapped the cord and pulled it. Only a sputter—but that was something! He tried again, again, again, jerking sharply as he had seen the Japanese do when they used similar motors to travel among the islands.

A roar, a growl, and the prau lurched out of the grotto as if towed by a mako!

For a time Kahohe was content to play with his toy, rumbling round and round Little Te-e while learning to master its whimsies. Then he laid a straight course for the far end of the lagoon. Boldly he chugged out through a gap in the chain of islands to brave the deep roll of the open sea. When at last he throttled the motor down and put out his lines, he was far beyond the usual fishing grounds.

He beat back and forth slowly beyond the reef. For bait he used the tough flesh of hermit crabs, and when his supply was exhausted he fastened slivers of pearl shell to the round bone hooks. It was incredible! His arms ached from hauling fish into the boat!

And what fish! Not the puny things commonly caught inside the lagoon, but fine silver-green uluas, some of them longer than a man’s leg!

He stopped at last because the boat would hold no more. On the way home he gathered cowrie shells at Little Te-e, because he had been too excited to look for them the day before. When there was danger that the motor might be heard on the main island, he used his paddle and once more hid his prau in the cove beyond the point.

The first person he called on

was Mamorik, chief of all Roanonga. On Mamorik’s floor he laid two fish so long and fat that

even

Continued on page 30

Continued from page 9

the chief’s daughter, Oonatoa, came forward to admire them.

“What are these?”

“The gods of the sea smiled on me,” said Kahohe.

Mamorik hefted the fish and nodded his approval. His daughter looked with more interest at the fisherman and her appraising glance caused Kahohe to blush. This amused her. Her low laughter followed him as he departed.

Kahohe then carried two handsome fish to the house of No Toes Rooea. “How long since you tasted fish like these, No Toes?”

“A lifetime!” exclaimed No Toes, drooling.

“Lhave a hunger, too,” said Kahohe slyly. “But for taro.”

It was simple. Kawaii had pawpaws, the best'on the island. Old Maka, who lived with a plump wife and eleven children, had plantains. By the time Kahohe had disposed of his surplus fish, he had acquired so much food that there was scarcely space under his humble roof to store it.

His fame had spread. He was stopped and stopped again to answer questions.

He answered truthfully enough. “I went beyond the lagoon and fished outside the great reef.

“But,” they said, “it is so far!” “Far?” chided Kahohe. “What kind of talk is that? I left at dawn and was back again in midafternoon!” Would he have more fish to trade tomorrow?

“Not for food,” said Kahohe. “I have so much food it is spoiling. Tomorrow, though, I begin to build a house.”

He was late getting to Toti’s because he had to explain how big his house would be. He was filled with importance when Toti came to the doorway of her own poor dwelling and looked at him.

“Something has happened,” she said, squinting. “You are different.”

“I am beginning to amount to something.”

“I’m not sure J like it.”

He laughed and lifted her in his arms, then set her down and produced the cowrie shells. They gleamed in the moonlight like bubbles of sea fire on dark water. Toti clapped her small hands.

“They are beautiful!”

“You shall have hundreds more.” “But I can wear only one,” she insisted.

IT WAS a magnificent house, set importantly by itself in a grove of coconut palms, with a view of the village and the lagoon. The most wonderful thing about it was that Kahohe himself built none of it. Other hands raised the timbers and bound them with hau bark. Other fingers plaited the palm leaves and stitched the flattened bamboo. Kahohe only walked about saying, “Now do this” or “Now do that!”

When the house was finished, all Roanonga came to admire it, and Kahohe said to Toti, “When Nukunu and No Toes and the others have finished making me a garden, with pawpaws and plantains, taro and mangoes and breadfruit and yams and all the other things an important man should have, we’ll be married.” Standing small before him, she touched his chest with the tips of her fingers. “You are getting fat, Kahohe.” “Good! I was too skinny.”

“I liked you better that way.” “Nothing seems to satisfy you lately,” he retorted. “Sometimes I wonder if we will be happy together.”

“I am frightened.”

“Foolish woman, what is there to be frightened of?”

“You.”

“Go home,” Kahohe said angrily. “When you talk nonsense I lose patience!”

For a moment Toti gazed at him in silence, her hands and lips trembling. Then she turned and walked away. Kahohe was surprised. He had expected her to sit beside him and tease him until his mood changed, as she had in the past when his fishing luck was bad.

He would have called her back. But approaching from the village was the tall, spare form of old Mamorik, chief of all Roanonga, and at Mamorik’s side walked his beautiful daughter, Oonatoa.

KAHOHE received them and showed them his house, politely refraining from pointing out that it was a bigger house than their own. Mamorik told him he had done well and departed to call on a woman who had been made ill by eating a poisonous puffer fish. Oonatoa smiled, sat on the steps and said, “You are a great man, Kahohe.” Kahohe was tongue-tied.

“Not every man,” she went on, “could take a dead machine and breathe life into it.”

Startled, he faced her. “Who told you?”

“No one keeps a secret long from a curious woman. Especially when it is shared by a weakling such as No Toes Rooea. I even know where your boat is hidden. I have watched you hide it.” Kahohe moistened dry lips and looked at her in awe.

“Sit here,” she said, “beside me.” He obeyed.

“There is nothing to fear,” she said. “Even if all Roanonga knew your secret, you would be safe. Our people do not steal or destroy another man’s things.”

Kahohe had not thought of that, but saw she was right. He breathed again. He noticed how lovely she was, sitting on his veranda step as if the new house were her house. Her nearness made him tremble.

“You have a fine house,” said Oonatoa then, moving just a bit closer so that her smooth thigh touched his and her black hair brushed his shoulder. “Soon you will have much more. Is it not tiring, though, to go fishing every day?”

“Tiring? I like to fish!”

“But surely not every day, when it would be so easy to let another do it for you.”

Kahohe thought about this. Pay someone else to do his fishing? Why not? Suppose he went to No Toes.

Would No Toes be kind to the motor, though? The mere thought of an accident to his beloved motor made Kahohe shudder.

He shook his head. “I would not dare let another use my boat.”

“The man who worked for you as your fisherman,” said Oonatoa, “would be the second most important man on Roanonga. Do you think he would be careless with such a privilege?”

Kahohe was awe-struck. She thought of everything!

The waves licked at the beach and a sweet-scented breeze rustled the palm leaves. When Oonatoa spoke again, after a long stillness, it was as if she addressed the moonlight.

“The cowrie shells you gave Toti are pretty. She must be very happy, Kahohe, and very proud.”

“You shall have a necklace, too!” “Like hers, Kahohe?”

“Bigger!”

Rising, she smiled at him—with eyes as well as lips—before turning to greet

her father, who was returning along the beach.

SINCE there was no longer any need for secrecy, Kahohe brought his motor out of hiding the next day and allowed the people of Roanonga to admire it. To impress them he raced his boat up and down past the village. Then he drew No Toes Rooea aside and propositioned him.

No Toes was enthusiastic.

“To run a motor such as this,” No Toes said shrewdly, “one needs gasoline and oil. Oil can be had from coconuts or candlenuts, but you did not tell our people, I notice, where you obtained the gasoline—or where you keep it.”

“One thing at a time,” Kahohe laughed.

While others worked in the hot sun, Kahohe sat on his new veranda and rejoiced in his new-found importance. He was never lonely, for the beautiful Oonatoa came daily to visit.

He bought a slender prau with twin bamboo outriggers from white-haired Wotho, who made the finest praus in Roanonga. In it he paddled Oonatoa to secret places where for hours on end they talked of love while watching the bright birds and butterflies in the branches overhead.

His house was finished. He built another, in case a hurricane should blow the first away. His garden was done; he extended it. At last there was nothing at all he wanted beyond food, and since he could not trade all his fish for food, he was faced with a problem. But Oonatoa solved it.

“Nukunu has a pig he wishes to trade,” she said one day. “You do not need a pig. You have four in the pen at the end of the garden.”

“Then I will send him away.”

“No, no! Give him the fish he asks for. They would spoil, otherwise. But refuse his pig. Tell him you will accept one later, when you need one.”

Everything—-she thought of everything! Soon the people owed him not only pigs but yams and taro, pawpaws and pia and ti and even hours of labor!

“You are lord of Roanonga,” Oonatoa said, her gaze proud and possessive. “Even my father, the chief, has less than you.”

All because of a motor and a few drums of gasoline, Kahohe thought. What would he do when the gasoline gave out? Go to Abemama for more? It was a long way. No one had ever traveled so far—no one living, at any rate. There were tales, handed down by wrinkled grandmothers, of men who had sailed their praus that far in the forgotten past. Still it was a long way.

He was not worried. The drums would last a long time. What did trouble him—now, right now—was the fact that he was not sleeping well. Sometimes at night he scarcely closed his eyes. And instead of growing plump, as an important man should, he was steadily losing weight. His ribs showed.

ONE morning while walking the beach alone, he saw Toti searching with a sharpened stick in shallow water and paused, unseen, to watch her. He had not seen her since the day his house was finished.

It was pleasant to watch her. She was not beautiful like Oonatoa, but she was sure-footed and quick as a tern. He saw her spear a sea urchin and open it, holding it against a coral ledge to cut loose the sun-colored flesh.

She looked up and her gaze traveled coldly over him. “Well!”

“Let me help you.”

“Help me? I am hunting for things to eat. Others do your hunting.”

“Let me help,” Kahohe insisted. “I have nothing else to do.”

She shrugged. “I have only one spear. You will have to make one for yourself, if you still know how.” But when he had found a bamboo clump and cut a stick, she was waiting.

Toti regarded him curiously. “How j is it you are alone today?”

“I am often alone.”

“Not so often,” she said. “Tell me —when will you and Oonatoa marry?” “The marriage price is high.”

“For an ordinary man, perhaps. Not for you.”

Kahohe lay back with his hands under his head and looked at the sun through the sago leaves. He was tired. Before, he could have walked from one ' end of Roanonga to the other without breathing hard, but now he was limp.

“I can’t marry anyone,” he admitted glumly. “Something is wrong with me.”

“Wrong? You are sick?”

“What it is, I don’t know. Perhaps it is some ailment of the] white men, which stung me when I opened the drums of gasoline. You know how their doctors talked of germs. Yet No Toes Rooea handles the gasoline, too, and he is not sick,.”

Toti looked at him. “Have you ' spoken of this to Oonatoa?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why speak of it to me?”

“I don’t know,” Kahohe retorted, losing patience again. “I don’t know why I speak to you at all, after your foolishness!”

He stood up and flung his spear and watched it hiss into the' sand at the water’s edge. Then he strode angrily away.

HE DID not get any better. He ate j more; he lay in the sun more; he j moved his mat to another room of the j big house where the breeze from the sea j was a nightlong caress-—yet. day by day | his ribs were more easily counted and j his weariness increased.

He came to hate the big new house, especially the veranda. He went for long, lonely walks. Sometimes he looked for Toti, but many days passed ¡ and he had grown mean and morose j before he met her again.

“The sickness is worse,” he told her.

“I think I am dying.”

She touched his ribs and frowned at the dullness of his eyes.

“Perhaps I have eaten something that poisoned me,” Kahohe said.

This time it was Toti who whirled and walked away.

NO TOES ROOEA came home the next afternoon with a fine catch of uluas and Kahohe laid them on the bamboo table in front of his house where he did his trading. He was still angry. He would demand a high price for these fish.

But no one came to trade.

When it grew dark, he knew something was wrong. He went to the village. The first man he encountered was old Maka, father of eleven children —a man who needed fish if ever one did.

“Thank you, no,” the old man said firmly. “There is a curse on the ulua. They make people ill.”

Bewildered, Kahohe went through the village, talking to this one and that one. It was the same everywhere.

“The ulua are not good any more. ; They are poisonous!”

“Who has been poisoned?” Kahohe : demanded.

“Toti has been poisoned.”

“Toti!”

Enraged, he went to her house. ! Standing over the mat where she lay with her eyes shut, he accused her, in ¡ front of her mother and father and

those who had followed him, of scheming to ruin him.

He was an important man now and could afford to shout, even in another man’s house. “Stop pretending!”

Her eyes opened slowly to look up at him and they were the eyes of a sick girl. Hut Kahohe would not believe it. “You hear?” he shouted at those who crowded close. “Nothing is wrong with the ulua! It is only the talk of a foolish girl!”

To his side stepped Oonatoa, as scornful as he. “Only the talk of a jealous girl w'ho is angry because the man she wants will soon marry another.” Melting against him, she smiled for Kahohe alone. “How soon, Kahohe?”

Kahohe was too angry to know . better. “I speak to your, father tomorrow!”

Hut the eyes of the girl on the mat were closed again and she did not open them.

Kahohe shook himself loose and returned to his house, muttering. Sat on his veranda and watched the stars come out. Saw the moon climb. The night was half gone and he was still sitting there when a shadow moved at the foot of the steps. It was No Toes Rooea.

“Kahohe!”

“What is it?” Kahohe demanded, rising.

“She is sick. Very sick, Kahohe. She calls for you.”

“She is a cheat!”

“She calls for you, Kahohe.”

NO TOES went away and Kahohe paced the veranda. Up and down, up and down, clenching and unclenching his hands. He would not go. He j would not! Even if she were really I sick, it was no accident—she had poisoned herself deliberately, so as to i blame the ulua and ruin him. Let her I be sick! He would not go!

No one spoke to him when he entered I her house. The old men of the village were there, huddled about her, whispering. They were not called unless a sickness was serious.

I “What is it? What is wrong?”

“She is dying, Kahohe. You can do nothing. Go home.”

“Hut you can make her well!”

“All we can do we have done.” j Kahohe looked at her dry lips and hot eves, her lifeless hands and small still breasts. She breathed—he could I see that. “Do something!”

“Do what? If we had some of the i white doctors’ medicine and knew how to use it . . . but there is nothing more we can do by ourselves. Go home.”

There was a white doctor at Abemama. A long way. such a long way! Kahohe went back to his house and sat on the veranda steps and looked at the sea. The great wide sea gleaming in the moonlight. Such a long way. It was not possible. A man would be the biggest kind of fool!

He leaped to his feet and hurried inside. Refore he had finished carrying provisions from the house to his prau, he was out of breath from running.

As he walked into the sea with his boat, a shadow halted on the path by the house and the voice of No Toes Rooea called out to him. “Kahohe! Where do you go this time of night?” “To get the white doctor and his medicine!”

TO THE house of the sick girl ran No Toes, trembling with his news. “Kahohe has gone with his motor to the white man’s island!”

They heard but would not believe. In any case it would make no difference. Even if Kahohe reached his destination, which was impossible, and

returned—twice impossible!—he could not get back soon enough. “She is dying,” the old men said sadiy, gazing at the small form on the mat.

One by one they departed until only old Maka who had eleven children— remained. He moved closer. No Toes lingered to watch him.

Old Maka bent above the girl and whispered, over and over, the same thing. “Hear me, Toti. Kahohe has gone to bring the white man’s medicine.” Over and over.

In the morning there was no sun. The sky stayed black; rain fell. As the day lengthened, a wind came out of the south, growing stronger by the hour, lifting high waves in the lagoon.

The people of Roanonga thought of Kahohe in his small prau creeping like a beetle over the sea. They shook their heads. This *was the day, they remembered, when he would have spoken to the father of Oonatoa. 'They looked for Oonatoa on the wind-swept beach, where she should have taken herself to beg the sea for mercy.

She was not on the beach.

All night the wind screamed, the rain continued. Next day the sun shone but the sea stayed wrathful. Kahohe would not come back. Everyone knew that. No man could ride a tiny prau such a distance in an angry sea. But in the house of Toti old Maka sat beside the sleeping girl and whispered.

“Hear me, Toti. Kahohe has gone to bring the white man’s medicine.”

He had never stopped whispering. He was still at her side when late the third day, after all hope was gone, a murmur filled the air and a bright speck shone in the sky. All Roanonga —all but Maka and the sick girl— gathered to watch a seaplane skim the lagoon.

Kahohe had come back! And with a doctor! Shouting like children, they bore him to Toti’s house.

WHEN he emerged, long later, Oonatoa was waiting. “Kahohe,” she said, “where is your boat? Where is the motor?”

He crossed his arms on his chest and faced her with a smile. There was a change in him: he was thin and hard again and his eyes were bright.

“The motor I threw away,” he said calmly. “It wore out. It was worn out even before I got there. Some of the way I had to paddle.”

“Worn out! And for her—for Toti! You could have been a chief!”

“I am still Kahohe. What else matters?”

She turned from him with a scornful toss of her head. But Kahohe did not call her back. He only smiled, as if amused.

He went home and took the boat he had bought from Wotho, the one with twin outriggers, and loaded it with the

treasures of his house. It was so heavy then that he could not carry it but had to get No Toes Rooea to help him. They bore it through the village to 'loti’s house and set it down outside the entrance.

“Everything I have is here,” Kahohe said to the white doctor. “It is yours, for coming. Please to try your very best to make Toti well.” 'Phis last was like a prayer.

"She will get well,” the doctor said. “And I would have come for nothing.” "In that case, my house is yours, too.”

The doctor regarded him with wonder. “You’re a brave man, Kahohe.

It took courage to attempt such a voyage. But if you are to be married soon as you told me what will your wife say about giving me all you own?”

“1 am not to be married,” Kahohe admitted sadly. “The woman 1 want will not have me. 1 was too big a fool.”

At this the old men of the village, who had come to watch the white doctor perform his miracles, blinked in amazement. One said, “Is it true? Has Oonatoa refused you?”

“This is the one 1 love.” Kahohe looked humbly at the small form on the mat. “My heart told me so when I had only the sea to talk to, with the waves high as mountains. But she hates me. She poisoned herself to ruin me.”

Old Maka, who had sat so long at Toti’s side, arose with creaking joints and peered into Kahohe’s long face. “Not to ruin you,” he said. “To save you. You would have ruined yourself.”

“I do not understand.”

“Are you still a fool? She loves you.”

“That is not possible,” said Kahohe stubbornly.

“Listen. Watch!” And bending low above her, he whispered the words he had repeated so many times in the hours past.

“Hear me, Toti. Kahohe has gone to bring the white man’s medicine.”

Over and over he whispered it, until it seemed she must hear it in the air she breathed, though her ears heard nothing.

Her lips trembled. “I hear you. I will not disappoint him.”

“Look at me, Toti,” the old man ¡ commanded.

The lids of her eyes quivered and opened. She looked into the wrinkled face. Then she saw Kahohe bending above her and her eyes opened wide and her hands rose, reaching.

“Kahohe!”

Old Maka linked their hands and stepped away. “You would think I know nothing of children,” he grunted,

“I who have raised eleven! Come, all of you! Let them alone with their love, the best medicine of all. We have a feast to prepare for the white doctor and a marriage to make ready!” ^