by Nicholas Belardes
Pooja and her sister Kesa finished their waitressing shift at Sagamon’s, a little run-down restaurant on the outskirts of Suva on the island of Veti Levu. The indo-Fijian sisters lived nearly ten miles away through sometimes windy roads, which they did with their new papermaker friend Vijay, taking him to the gut of the jungle.
All laughter and tears, Pooja chuckled like a girl much younger than her twenty years as she stopped the car under a giant palm leaf close to their family’s wooden shack.
Vijay, only a few years older, was slow to step from the vehicle. He was nauseous, and not about to discuss the fact he’d just been driven backwards at upwards of seventy miles per hour.
“Watch out for Tiny Gomez,” Pooja warned as he exited the car.
If his churning stomach wasn’t enough. Now he had to watch out for some crazy dog, or a mischievous child waiting to smack him in the knees with a stick. Vijay took a weary step. He was still in shock, still in a state of surprise that a car could only drive in reverse.
He searched around. There was the family follae, white with faded yellow trim surrounded by a verandah. He was on solid ground. He let out half a smile.
Eggplant-colored towels hung over the railings. An elderly woman sat in a rocker, her old eyes hidden in shadow. Two children, also Indo-Fijian, ran toward a billow of smoke wafting from the back yard. Piles of junk littered the front including a refrigerator and washer and dryer. A yellow four-door Chrysler Mayorca had a tree growing through its back window.
Immediately Vijay was beaned with a piece of fruit that ricocheted off his right ear. “What the hell?” He covered his head and ducked.
“What did I tell you?” Pooja chortled. She found a stick and threw it into the tree. “Tiny Gomez! Go away! Throw fruit at the kids!”
“Ohwoo,” came a low growl. A young black howler monkey darted from the palm into the boughs of another tree where it hung for a moment twitching a long tail. The monkey’s face was wide and furry with eyes bright as glassy fruit. Its lips puckered. “Oooo Oooo, Ohwoooooo,” Tiny Gomez called, then scurried onto the roof out of sight.
“I never heard of a monkey around here.” Vijay rubbed his ear. “They don’t normally live on the islands.”
“They say he came from the Dakuwaqa,” Pooja laughed. “The shark-god brought him in a rainstorm two years ago.”
Vijay knew this probably meant he escaped from an animal collector. He continued to watch for a furry head to pop back over the roof.
“He hates when I throw sticks at him. Hurts his feelings,” Pooja snorted. She never stopped giggling. Her little motor of laughter was constantly running. “You’re lucky. Usually he pisses before he throws anything. Come around back, paperboy. We got food. Might even be some dancing if you’re lucky.”
In the back yard an ember-filled cooking pit shot smoke through a grill made of chicken wire. On top a pig roasted. A patina of butter dripped along the pig’s mottled, brownish-red skin. It glistened among potatoes, yellow onions, tomatoes, mango and papaya.
Three men by the fire stopped talking when they saw the sisters and their friend.
“The tall guy is Uncle Frank,” Pooja said to Vijay. “The round-faced one is Uncle George. Uncle Mike used to have hair. It got burned off in a house fire and never grew back.”
Pooja picked up a young boy trying to run past and kissed him on the head.
“Auntie Pooja, you’re gooey,” squealed the little boy, wiping his mouth. His hair was long and he had a swarming fire in his dark eyes.
The rest of the children ran around the cooking pit at least five times, singing, “Mister Pig’s not home today! Mister Pig was cooked today! Mister Pig’s my dinner today! Oh, Mister Pig!”
Pooja put the boy down. He screamed and ran. “I’ll get you if you come back,” she laughed.
“It’s done I think.” Uncle Mike poked the pig with a stick.
“Just a little longer,” said Uncle Frank.
“Why?” Uncle Mike said, “Will it come back to life if we take it off now?”
“I don’t want it dancing around like these children. Let it cook.”
Vijay, who was ethnic Fijian, began showing Uncle Frank some of his paper samples. He never could turn down a possible sale and Pooja said her uncle might be interested. Thin sheets in Vijay’s hands formed chitinous scales, membranes, as if fragile butterfly wings had floated down to his palms, slipped between his fingers.
“Will it wipe shit off a goat’s ass?” Uncle Frank asked.
“You will have to buy two sheets for that. Two ply.” Vijay held together two pieces of paper from the stack he brought from the highlands of Namosi, an area where the population is sparse, dotted with remote encampments and shantytowns, including Vijay’s mountain village, Wainilotulevu. He told Uncle Frank that Tasmanian missionaries had ensured him paper would be his fortune.
“There goes my dance,” Pooja grinned. She had the same white teeth as her sister but everything else about her was rough, worn. Kesa on the other hand seemed pressed from delicate leafs in Veti Levu’s Edenesque jungles.
“Three sheets are good for kava spills in the kitchen,” Vijay said, desperate to think up non-traditional uses for his paper.
“I might buy some for the kids,” Uncle Frank laughed. “They can draw pictures of Pooja dancing.”
Pooja liked that idea, flipped on a nearby radio and started dancing with some of the children. She knocked her booty against the head of a little girl who kept swinging her thin little hips, trying to keep up.
“You’re knocking all the kids crazy,” Uncle Frank shouted.
“I’ll knock you crazy.” Pooja turned to Vijay. “Come on, paper boy. I thought you wanted to dance?”
Vijay wasn’t listening. He was explaining to Uncle Frank why he sold paper. “I worked five years in the copper mines,” he said. “My body can’t keep up and I don’t want to blast dynamite or dig cut pits in the Waisoi Valley. Let the dumber generations with the strong backs do the work. I’m a businessman, a paper creator.”
“I think I would wrap fish in that paper,” Uncle Frank said.
Vijay was about to say something he would regret when Pooja interrupted.
“You know why you don’t sell paper?” she said as she swung her arms. “You don’t listen to your customers. You don’t find out what they need. You think complaining is the answer, talking about your stupid copper mines and paper pressing.”
For a moment everyone thought Pooja was magical. As soon as she stopped talking a rainstorm began dumping heavily onto the cookout.
“Look what you did,” Uncle Frank said to her.
“Grab the pig!” Uncle Mike yelled. Droplets smashed on his head scars in a smouldering mist.
Uncle Frank scrambled to grab the chicken wire. He started dragging the cooked pig out of the pit. He and Uncle George placed it in a large aluminium pan and surrounded it with vegetables.
Vijay ducked beneath an awning with Kesa. Pooja continued to dance with the kids, getting soaked in the rainwater.
“This is fun,” a little girl declared.
“We’re going to melt. We’re all sugar,” Pooja said.
The little girl laughed. “I don’t want to melt.”
“Too late. We’re all going to become cake icing. Better shake faster,” Pooja screamed.
“You’re an angel for putting up with her insanity,” Vijay said to Kesa, still reeling from the backwards car ride and the challenge of trying to sell Uncle Frank a ream of paper.
Kesa looked at him as if no one had ever compared her to an angel, or anything ethereal. Her shoulder brushed against Vijay while rain fell like countless jungle gobbets shaken lose from the canopy. Had she always been in her sister’s shadow? Had she always been the quiet one? Vijay was about to ask what she really thought about the world just then when a woman approached.
“Kesa, get your sister out of the rain.”
“She’s right in front of you, Mom,” Kesa said. “Why can’t you ask?”
Her mother searched Vijay. “Who is this man? Why is he here?”
“He’s from the restaurant.”
“Now you and your sister are bringing men home?”
“It’s not like that.” Kesa nudged me. “This is my mother, Paayal.”
Paayal turned to Vijay. “You can eat our food. But don’t touch my daughters.” “Hello,” Vijay said.
“No touching,” Paayal huffed as Tiny Gomez cooed in the rainy trees above them.
Vijay scanned the canopy in case the monkey decided to start raining piss. “I wouldn’t dare,” he said.
Paayal grunted at Kesa. “Grandma Sally has something for you to take to Shaman Charlie. Do it before you eat.”
“What is it this time?” Kesa asked. “More magic Triton shells? I hate the way they sound.”
Paayal hushed her daughter. “You do not speak of it. You have less brains than a child sometimes.”
“Vijay knows many people here are afraid of curses and monsters from the deep.”
“He won’t understand our mermaids and dinosaurs. Our legends belong to us.”
Kesa was still defiant. “Tell that to Dad.”
“Do not say that,” Paayal raised a finger. This was clearly an off-limits discussion.
“Your father knew there were dangers at Totoya.”
Kesa wasn’t about to stop. “He broke tradition in the Daveta Tabu . . .”
“I’m not talking about this now,” Paayal interrupted. “Go see Grandma Sally.”
If Kesa was angry Vijay couldn’t tell. Her eyes were sparkling as she glanced at the smouldering fire.
He knew the Daveta Tabu. The sacred passage through the reefs surrounding the island of Totoya. The journey is taken in complete silence. If a man or a woman utters a single word along the way, the ocean rises and waves steal their souls.
“I never knew that’s what happened to your father,” Vijay whispered.
“He was close to the bay of Totoya when he disappeared,” she said. “It was a long time ago. He knew the risk.”
Most Fijians did. Vijay learned as a boy about the dangerous journey. A tribute had to be paid to the infant son of the Roka Sau Kubunavanua, whose mother was the Tongan princess, Siga. The child was conceived on the Burotukula, a magical jungle hidden between Tonga and Totoya—a land filled with beautiful maidens, golden plants and animals. Some elders said the floating island was only a glimmer of lights appearing at night and sinking at dawn. Siga and Kubunavanua left the island when she was far along with child. She gave birth while in the Daveta Tabu. Rough seas made for difficult childbirth. So the boy died. Grief-stricken, the Kubunavanua buried his son among the reefs. He then declared the area royal bloodwaters. He said that every passing soul must observe the route as kings by silently bowing their heads. When the passage is taken at night, women may lie sleeping. Men must sit, take off their hats, and be quiet.
Kesa continued: “He was stolen by the sea along with several other men somewhere in the middle of the passage. Some say the men were talking, that a storm caused high waves to break over the reefs, smashing their boat like fists. All that was brought back were the branches of a young Cibi Cibi tree he’d been seen carrying from the market that day, and some say an ear. Mother won’t talk about it but people gossip.”
Tiny Gomez peeked over the edge of the roof. “Oh arroo,” he pointed. “Let’s go find Grandma Sally,” Kesa said.
“Kedere rawa ni lako vata,” Grandma Sally said to Kesa. “Bring him to me.” She spoke slowly from the dark of her bedroom. Two other women were there too. They stood silent, ghosts staring from the blackness.
“Your grandmother is Fijian?” Vijay asked.
“Pooja and I have much islander in us,” Kesa said. “It was quite the scandal many years ago. Our family has been here a long time. We serve the island in many ways.”
Grandma Sally’s round face was twisted in a grin. She smelled faintly of sea glass polished by the surf. “Makawa yava. Makawa liga,” she said to Kesa. “Will bring bula.” The old woman touched her fingers to Vijay’s chest. Then she turned back to Kesa. “Makawa ucu. Marau.” She said the last word as if she was saying it to the sun, as if in the sky there gazed an eye above a mouth whose lips were hidden in the sea. Then she handed Kesa a brown paper bag.
“We have to go,” Kesa said to Vijay.
A few minutes later Pooja, still dripping wet, started their maroon Lincoln Continental.
Vijay wanted nothing to do with it.
“Just get in the car, paper boy,” she said.
Vijay wore an enormous frown. “I won’t get in that backwards thing.”
“My mother might cook you if you stay,” she laughed.
“I’m not getting in. You drive like a maniac.”
“It’s only eight miles to Sagamon’s by foot where you left your scooter.” She put the car in gear and swung her arm around the backseat.
“Okay. I’ll go,” he said. “When I’m dead, my sisters are going to have to work the mines. No one in the family knows how to sell paper but me.”
Kesa was already in the car holding the bag Grandma Sally gave her.
Pooja laughed as a stick smacked off the back windshield. Two more followed along with a steady stream of monkey piss. It splashed and drizzled hot and yellow down the glass right in front of Vijay.
“I think Tiny Gomez misses you already,” Pooja cackled. She strained to see as she drove the car backwards down a small hill around two trees and a bathtub, bumping through a ditch onto the road. “Who can see through this monkey piss?” she giggled and squinted.
The car hurtled backwards into the dying red sun.
“I was told by our village shaman that I would be rich,” Vijay moaned, “that I was on a path toward my destiny. Right now all I see are vomit bags.”
Though Vijay’s stomach was a swirling burn he imagined running a finger along her neck, across her dark shoulders, her reacting like the ticklish blades of Nggamea, what his family called the sensitive grass.
Kesa was no longer laughing. Instead, she strained to be heard over the car engine. “Our paths are like the stars,” she said. “Which one should we look at? Which one should we follow? The farthest star cannot be seen. So it isn’t a guide, though our path can be there. The nearest is the sun. Even to gaze upon it will consume us. A constellation can mislead our dreams. But a single star is like moonlight on waves, beckoning. Only then will we have clear sight as we make our way into the milk of the universe.”
“Better than a ditch,” Vijay barked.
“Shaman Charlie taught me that,” Kesa said. “He’s wise. He knows the universe. He senses the imbalances in us and can see starlight even when cloudy.”
“Oh,” Vijay nodded.
About twenty minutes later Suva proper surrounded them. Streetlamps—blue and green sparkled across the final edge of daylight. Along the tall hotels lining the waterfronts were shadows like serpents rising from the sea. Cars honked. A soldier smiled. He’d seen them driving backwards how many times? Pooja laughed again. Kesa did too. This, after all, was their city.
Pooja slowed down just outside Hedvakata Café.
“There’s Shaman Charlie,” Kesa said. “Charlie!” she waved.
Shaman Charlie wore cotton pants, sandals and a white T-shirt. He had long grey hair and beads around his neck. He sipped a coffee and grinned as they passed.
“Go around again,” Kesa said. “I see a space opening.”
Pooja stepped on the gas.
The car tore around one corner and then another. Pooja zipped around a bicyclist who was balancing a box of cans on the handlebars. She flew around a van, darting past a stop sign without slowing.
“I hope no one sees me speeding,” she said. “My luck never runs out. Do you have luck, Vijay? I mean real luck?”
Vijay started to talk but then bit his tongue, tasting blood.
Pooja had swerved hard. The car sailed to the left, but not far enough.
It smashed into the back of a banana truck, whipping Vijay’s head against the window as fruit exploded against metal and glass. When Pooja overcorrected, the car flipped onto its side and slid to a stop.
A couple minutes passed before Vijay woke, his head throbbing. Everywhere lay sheets of paper. He sighed and touched a sticky patch of
blood on his scalp.
“Help me out of here,” Vijay said from his vellum tomb. “All my paper is ruined.”
Pooja was on top of the car staring down at him. “I thought you were dead, paperboy. Give me your hand.”
“Not completely,” he said, hopping out of the car and onto the street. Bananas covered the street in piles.
Pooja began cursing at the banana-truck driver, waving her fist in his face. Kesa sat on a curb still cradling the bag.
“Are you okay?” Vijay asked.
Blood ran down her arm in a rivulet of darkness.
“I had them on me.” She lifted her eyes toward Vijay. “Where is Shaman Charlie? Where is he?”
“I don’t know.” Vijay was confused, in pain. He felt like he was dreaming. He then noticed her left hand. She was holding a severed blackened ear. “What’s that?” he said. Had she lost an ear? Was it Pooja’s? He reached up and checked to see if either of his ears were missing.
She dropped the ear into the bag, which hung open in her lap. Inside were shriveled fingers and ears, what looked like a nose. “I had them all over me.”
“Where did you get these?” Vijay asked. He grabbed her shoulder and asked again.
“We are the gatherers,” she said dryly, staring at nothing. “My family . . . Shaman Charlie distributes to those in need of blessings. I thought . . .”
They could hear sirens now. “You thought what?”
“That the gatherers were blessed.”
Vijay slipped next to her, afraid to touch her or the bag.
“I had them on me,” she said again as Shaman Charlie walked through the darkness.
“Pooja is very angry.” Shaman Charlie’s voice hovered like a shroud.
“I had them on me,” Kesa said to the shaman.
He put a hand to her head. “The ear? The finger? The nose? Some, your ancestors. Some, your enemies. Don’t be afraid. They weren’t afraid of you.” He grinned and took his hand away. “Pooja is the tongue that lives on,” he said. “Yours are the eyes that see. The blessed remains of the ancient ones are here because your family continues to give what our ancestors have provided. Dreams.”
The shaman glanced at Vijay briefly. “The reefs everywhere are dangerous.” He nodded then took the bag from Kesa and handed her a wad of money.
She took the cash and tucked it away as Shaman Charlie re-entered the dark, a whispering blackness where starlight hangs like shrivelled artefacts in the sky.
Nicholas Belardes writes fiction, essays and poetry. His collection Ranting Out Loud: My Life, Pop Culture & How We Sometimes Don’t Get Along is forthcoming December, 2016. You can find his graphic narrative series “Wastoids” currently running weekly in Barrelhouse. Other fiction appears in Carve Magazine and Pithead Chapel. He also authored one of the first pieces of twitterature, Small Places. You can find him at nicholasbelardes.com and on Twitter via @nickbelardes.
Photograph by Chris Isherwood CC 2.0.