by Beth Montgomery
They say evil spirits walk the bush round here. Sometimes people hear them: the rush of a sudden breeze, the crunch of twigs behind you when no one is about, the cry of a strange bird.
Outside my house there is a track that joins our village to the next. People always walk this way, machetes in hand or bundles of taro across their bent backs. Children scrubbed clean for school hold plastic bags for their pencils and books and small parcels of warm kumara or dried fish for their lunch. All my long life I’ve watched people come and go. I know their names and their stories and they all know me. I am the carver.
But Pini never walks past my house. He is different.
Pini lives on the far side of our village. Each morning his family goes off to the garden and leaves Pini behind. Pini sits on a rock and nods his head over and over, muttering to himself and tapping his bunched hands against his thighs. Beside his mother’s bush-kitchen he walks from one pawpaw tree to the next and back again, smiling at nothing. His teeth are white and square and even. Pini has walked this route for more than twenty years, day after day, and the ground outside the hut is worn as smooth as stone.
One day it surprises me then to see Pini go past my house in his jerky, stiff-fisted walk. His mouth is open and his shirt unbuttoned. I call out to him, “You going where, Pini?”
He never answers. He doesn’t seem to hear me. I go about my business, chipping away at my latest flying fox carving and think nothing more of Pini.
At sunset Pini’s father comes to my house, his breath short and his face worried.
“Have you seen Pini?” he asks. Fear swims in his eyes.
I tell him what I have seen and the man’s eyes gaze down the shadowed path that curls into the jungle. “That way?” he says, and the lines in his face grow deep.
I take my flashlight and follow him down the track. Soon others follow and we call “Pini! Pini!” into the dark. We walk for hours down side tracks and over rocks, past huts that glow with the yellow haze of kerosene lamps. The whole of our village is awake and calling, “Pini, Pini!”
But the night has swallowed Pini.
The next day people go late to their gardens as we search again and call for Pini. Old women check their bush-kitchens and some men take the steep track to the beach where our canoes are moored. Everyone returns without news. At night we all pray for Pini to return.
A heavy cloud drifts above the village but rain does not come.
That night Pini’s father and uncle ask me to walk with them to the next village where the Kastom Man lives. I agree and we take the wide track that Pini must have taken. Our ears tune into the usual sounds of the night: the peep of small insects, the flap and screech of a flying fox, the far-off hum of the waves. We are midway along the track between the two villages when I hear an unnatural rattle behind us, soft like the dried seed pods a musician shakes.
“Did you hear that?” I ask Pini’s father and uncle. Their wide eyes tell me they had.
“Evil spirits?” Pini’s father asks.
I cross myself and say, “We must hurry to the Kastom Man’s hut”.
By the time we reach the Kastom Man’s village our leg muscles are tight and shaking. The old man welcomes us to his hut. It is dark inside but for the circle of lamp light by the mat on the floor where he tells us to sit.
“We’ve come to ask about Pini”, Pini’s father says. “Is he still alive?”
The old man is thin and bony and lame and his teeth are betel-nut black.
“I must talk with the spirits. They will know”, he says. His voice is low and soft, like the murmur of water over rocks.
We chew betel-nut with him but leave no clearer in our minds than before. The Kastom Man said he would go out in the bush alone and call to the spirits in the morning, for it is too dangerous at night. And the spirits will tell him what has happened to Pini. We must wait but I know Pini’s father has had enough waiting. He walks home in silence, his fears eating him from the inside.
The next day goes by. Dark clouds rumble in the hills above our village but the rain does not come. There is no news of Pini. In the late afternoon I see the Kastom Man limp along the path back to his village.
“Hey, you go where?” I call to him.
He hobbles over to my hut. I offer him some sugarcane and we sit together chewing the sweet stringy wood.
“I have just come from Pini’s house”, he tells me. “The news is bad. This morning I summoned the evil spirits. They said Pini had gone, passed into the next world.”
“Did the evil spirits take him?” I ask.
The Kastom Man nods. “They did not know him. He was a stranger walking that track”, he says pointing towards his village. “So they took him away.”
I know he speaks what he hears from the spirits but I still want to find Pini’s body and I know Pini’s father would want that too.
That night I find it hard to sleep. The heavy sky will not burst and the warm air sucks at my lungs so that I cough and sweat and struggle. Then I am in the forest by the side of the stream where my daughter goes to rinse our plates and cups. But she is not there. Instead it is Pini who sits by the stream. His clenched hands are wet and they tap at the smooth rocks leaving wet marks.
He must hear me approach because he turns to face me and his open mouth laughs but his jaw is all wrong, too narrow and hairy and his teeth are too many. He stands to greet me but as he lifts his jerky arms, dark skin unfolds from his side like wings. I am frightened and stumble backwards and shout. But my cry is a wheeze and I wake gasping for breath, my legs tangled in the bed-sheet.
I sit some moments in the dark, catching the remnants of my dream as I struggle to breathe and cross myself. “He is alive” I say, and I don’t know why I know it except that I feel it in my belly. So sure am I that I tell my daughter and son as soon as they wake.
“We must search again”, I say to them.
“But it sounds as if he is possessed by demons”, my daughter says. “He might attack us.”
“We could ask the Tasiu to help us search”, I say. The Tasiu are holy men who fight evil spirits with prayer and holy water. They have wooden staves they take with them into heathen villages where they exorcise black magic from the people. A Tasiu raises his staff against evil just as Moses raised his staff over the waters of the Red Sea.
My son nods. It is agreed then and my son leaves that day to fetch the closest Tasiu. I work on my flying fox carving and try not to think of Pini, but the dream comes back to me over and over. Pini’s teeth and wings haunt me.Does my dream mean Pini is possessed or taken by the spirits? Or am I wrong and Pini lies dead in the forest? The Tasiu will know if my dream is prophetic. But even as I think this I know in my very soul that Pini is alive. I feel it as sure as the splintered wood under my fingers.
The Tasiu work in pairs. They always do. They wear a uniform of black shirts and short trousers and their feet are bare. Each has a white and black sash around their waists. They greet me with warm smiles and ask to hear my dream. As I tell them the story they do not shift or fidget. Their young faces listen and once my story is over they agree that we must go and retell the dream to Pini’s father.
I feel ashamed to tell Pini’s father of his son’s appearance in my dream. I don’t want to raise false hopes, but I tell it anyway and the old man wipes a tear from his eye.
“You think he is alive?” he asks, and grips my bony fingers.
I look across to the Tasiu who both nod. “I am sure of it”, I say.
“We will pray”, says the older Tasiu.
We bow our heads. As the Tasiu pray I am only half concentrating on their words. I think how we should check the stream again around the site that was in my dream. I mumble my “Amen” and we stand ready to move out.
But before we emerge from the hut the beat of running footsteps comes to our ears. It is a woman, Celia, a hardworking mother of five. From her ragged clothes it seems she has come straight from her garden. She is breathless when she reaches us and her eyes are wide like those of a captured possum.
“Brothers, brothers”, she calls out. “I must speak with the Tasiu.”
“What is it?” they say.
“An evil spirit calls, crying and moaning like an injured thing.”
“Where is it?”
“Near my garden . . . where the path runs close to the stream.”
“Can you lead us there?” one of the Tasiu says gently.
The woman’s eyes skip about, then she looks down. She wrings her hands on the hem of her grimy shirt.
“Can you guide us some of the way?” I say to her.
She lifts her head and says straight to my eyes the directions we need. “I cannot come”, she adds, and I hear her voice catch.
The Tasiu reassure her and pray over her then Pini’s father and uncle, myself and my son and the two Tasiu set off for the woman’s garden. The path leads back past my house then into the hills. We cross the stream twice and on the second occasion I stop and listen to the breeze.
“This is the site of my dream”, I say.
“But Celia heard the voice higher up”, Pini’s uncle says.
“Let’s wait for a while”, I say.
“But if the voice is Pini and he is hurt, I want to reach him now, not in a few hours when he may be dead”, Pini’s father says.
I nod my agreement and we continue to climb the track that winds among the rocks and ferns. When we approach the stream again it is wider and deep. There are eight big boulders set across as stepping stones. High grass obscures the far bank but a row of pawpaws behind marks the boundary of Celia’s garden. We are here.
The only sounds are the rushing of the stream as it flows past the boulders and the chirp of insects in the grass opposite.
“Should we wait here?” my son says. He is young and brave but sometimes his thinking is slow.
“This is not beside Celia’s garden”, Pini’s father says, his voice strained.
“But she said where the path runs close to the stream.”
“She came straight from her garden”, Pini’s father says. “If the voice was from this side of the stream she would have cut through the bush, not run past the spirit.” His lined face begs us to continue. He strides onto the first boulder.
One by one we follow. Across the stream we dig our toes into the red clay bank and climb onto the grass. The main path leads uphill, parallel to the stream.
“Somewhere here”, Pini’s father points ahead and we are all still. Nothing but our breath spoils the silence. We stand this way listening to the bush for a few minutes but the sounds are familiar ones: the shrill cicadas’ call, the chatter of parrots, the murmur of the stream.
Then we hear an unearthly gurgling moan.
I hold my breath. My heart pounds.
We all exchange glances and the Tasiu beckon us forward. They lead us along the track but my knees are weak and unwilling. The moan comes again, louder this time, and a breeze from nowhere chills the sweat on the back of my neck. We near a bend in the stream where there are more boulders set across to a steep rocky bank covered by a tangle of figs, vines and creepers.
The Tasiu stop our procession and the taller one holds forth his staff. “We will pray”, he says, and we stand behind the holy men as they begin to read aloud from a small battered book.
I am looking across the stream as they read. Pini emerges from the dense jungle, shadows at his sides.
I gasp. The others gasp too. I blink and cross myself. Surely there are two naked women who hold Pini between them. They are black as charred wood, with eyes like red embers.
Pini’s hair stands out big and wild. He’s still in his open shirt and cream trousers, now smeared with dirt and blood. There is a gash down his neck that looks swollen and red. His head nods and rolls as he cries out that hideous moan and beats a bent hand to his chest.
Only the Tasiu stand unafraid, chanting their holy words, small voices drowned out against Pini’s cry. The sunlight shimmers before us and the shadow women fade and drift like wood smoke. A screech fills the valley as Pini plunges forward and slides down the steep clay bank. With a loud splash he lands in the water up to his knees, waving his arms for balance.
I am shaking. I turn to the others and see the wonder in their faces. Pini’s father is crying. With the help of the Tasiu he steps across the stream to guide Pini back. Pini comes willingly, his jaw slack and his steps jerky. When he reaches our side of the stream and clambers up unsteadily I see how long his hair has become. True, he is unshaven and dirty but his springy fuzz stands out like a woman’s, and as he uncurls his hands to greet us in his bent-fingered wave I am shocked. His fingernails are blackened and long like the claws of a bird.
“Welcome back Pini”, his Uncle says, embracing him. Pini smiles showing all his teeth. They are jagged and too many.
Beth Montgomery is an Australian author who lived and taught in Pacific Island nations for seven years.Her blog can be found at aelanstori.blogspot.com.