Malu lay dying.
He felt his body falling apart, decaying and decomposing like a rotten fish. The hunger pangs which had plagued him for so long had now disappeared and had been replaced by the lightheaded and giddy feeling of escaping thoughts. He tried to grasp them as they mischievously fled his mind, only to have them disappear or evaporate through his fingers. He smiled. He’d forgotten almost everything. Was he to die in this deluded state? A state devoid of purpose, devoid of reason.
The sun was relentless. His face and body blistered, salt and sea toying with him, breaking him apart centimetre by centimetre. His internal organs complemented the sun’s torture, burning him from the inside, kicking him hard whenever he moved, screaming when he did not. Malu felt himself shaking, shrinking and shrivelling up all at the same time.
The puffy white clouds of the Pacific looked on impassively, stacking themselves so high Malu struggled to see their tops. The sky cosseting them was so blue he wondered whether it was a mirage, a fantasy, or some foolish trick designed to soothe his passing.
A cooler wind picked up. It was blowing from the south. It felt good. Malu closed his eyes.
“Malu, Malu, I’m here.”
Malu didn’t recognise the voice. The voice was calm, it sounded kind and warm. Was he hearing things? The voice came from nowhere, was it real?
“It’s me. I’ve come to help. I’ve been watching you; my heart is weeping.”
“Oh, it’s too late. I’m going to see my love, Hiva. I didn’t find her, but she found me. She is calling, can you hear? Soon we will be together again.”
“It’s not too late. Do not be fooled. What you believe is just an illusion. Hiva has not found you, death has! It has stalked you like a shark for days, and now it has fooled you into acceptance. Be strong, Malu, do not listen to the voice. You still need to seek. You need to seek understanding and reasoning. Only then will you find Hiva, find true peace.”
“I’m tired. I am near the end. I can’t go on.”
“Yes, you can. I have sent the wind. I’ve admonished the sky! I’ve convinced the clouds to gather and smother the recalcitrant sun. I’m looking out for you. You will soon feel revived, I promise.”
“Why would you do this?”
“Because I care.”
“Who are you again?”
“I am Maui.”
“Oh, not Jesus?… I prayed to Jesus.”
“Is the European God so much better that you forget and neglect the legends and teachings of our people? Our people lived well before the arrival of the Europeans. Generation after generation of kin lived happy and contented with our own deities. Did Jesus teach you about the ocean, how to navigate by the stars, or to sail and fish? Did Jesus give you and every other thing the mana they wield?”
“You say I should seek understanding,” Malu interrupted, “but I have searched! Searched far and wide for so long. There is nothing, there is none. People live, and people die. That’s all. I am ready to die.”
Suddenly the sea became angry, the boat rocked and nearly tipped.
It began to rain. Malu opened his eyes and mouth, savouring nature’s gift.
Maui’s voice thundered above the wilding weather.
“You will not die, Malu. I’m watching you. Continue your journey. Continue your search. You must seek Tangaroa.”
“Tangaroa, Tangaroa,” Malu whispered before quickly falling into a deep sleep.
When Malu woke, he sensed he was alone again. He wept.
Although the boat was moving, the sea was calm. He thought he might be caught in a current.
Night fell quickly. He shivered, then licked some moisture off the sail. He felt stronger, so he wicked and funnelled the remaining moisture into an empty water bottle. Satisfied he’d harvested all he could, he wrapped the sail around his body and drifted off to sleep.
Tangaroa sensed Malu’s presence before he appeared. He’d watched him with much interest and looked forward to his arrival.
“What do you want?” Tangaroa asked without speaking.
His deep mellow voice reverberated inside Malu’s head, tempting him to speak.
Malu woke, stood up and stepped forward.
“What do you want?” Tangaroa asked again.
Malu couldn’t see him, although he could hear him. In the distance, he also heard drums beating a frenetic rhythm. It was the heartbeat of his people, those who had gone before and those who remained. He scanned the horizon.
A vision appeared, wailing black-birded islanders gnashing their teeth, pulling their hair out and scratching their arms. They were being transported to South America, only to die soon of disease and heartbreak. They disappeared over the horizon as quickly as they were captured.
Dead bodies were now floating around his boat. Malu felt sick. They were the bodies of his kin. All were floating face down, their bloated corpses bobbing gently. Malu’s heart stopped. Please do not let Hiva be one of them. He closed his eyes, trying to hide from the grotesque cadavers.
Then he watched a French missionary being piggybacked onto Filemu. Men from another island were carrying his luggage. The priest rode on the back of the strongest man.
“I come in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” he proclaimed, holding up a little polished stick with a man on-top.
The villagers looked on in amusement.
The missionary smiled. The villagers were friendly, topless, and there were many fine young women with firm bodies to satisfy his fat syphilitic body. He was going to enjoy converting these heathens.
A final vision flashed into Malu’s consciousness. A giant red brick building was pumping bilious green smoke through skyscraper chimneys into greying skies. A massive warehouse door slid open, unleashing a haunting screeching noise. It was the scream of the ocean, the turtles, and the fish. A conveyor belt now extended from the factory’s belly, poking through the wide-open doorway like a Meccano phallus ejaculating sways of plastic into a wailing sea.
Suddenly Malu’s visions were shattered by bright light. He tried to open his salt and pus-encrusted eyelids. They stung, and he had to prise them open and rub them vigorously. Squinting against the morning sun, Malu cursed Maui under his breath.
“Malu, Malu, what do you want?” Tangaroa asked again, now agitated.
“I want my dreams back,” Malu shouted without speaking.
Tangaroa smiled. “What makes you think I have your dreams?”
“You stole them. You steal everyone’s dreams!”
“How can you steal things when they belong to you?”
Malu paused. “W…wh…what?”
“You can’t steal what you already own: can you?”
“You steal everyone’s dreams.”
Tangaroa laughed. “Who told you that?”
Tangaroa laughed again. “Maui is a fool. The self-proclaimed trickster and so-called protector of humans is the spreader of half-truths and nonsense. Sorry, he has led you astray, Malu.”
“How do you know my name?”
“I know everyone’s name. I see every dream and know all their custodians, every single one.”
Malu shook his head in disbelief.
“I’m not surprised,” the voice in his head said. “You still think your dreams belong to you, don’t you?”
“It is my dream, and it does belong to me! I want it back.”
“No, Malu, it was never your dream. You never owned it. It was mine, I lent it to you. When you no longer needed it, I took it back. Dreams are not infinite. There are only so many to go around. Your dream had served its purpose, so I took it back. Someone else now has your dream.”
“No, it can’t be. I demand it back. The dream was unfulfilled.”
“There has been no miscarriage of justice, but tell me, what exactly was your dream?”
“My dream was children. My dream was a long life with Hiva. She filled my soul. She was the beat of my heart, the song in my head and the smile on my face.”
Tangaroa’s tone softened. “Malu, you have experienced great loss, although you have still experienced great joy and love. Some people never feel this. Be grateful for the gifts already bestowed upon you. You have not lost everything.”
“No,” Malu screamed. “I do not mourn for what I have lost, but for what I will never have.”
“The future is unwritten. What exactly is it that you will never have?”
“Children with Hiva: we dreamed, wished and prayed for this. We wanted children of our own. We wanted many. We wanted seven! Every day we prayed to be blessed. Every pregnancy brought us hope and expectation, but we were cheated. It never happened, and now it never will. The gods have betrayed us!”
“Malu, your dream was not to be. You will never be blessed with children, but you do not need children to feel fulfilled.”
“No, this is not so. I demand Hiva be returned to me. I demand my dream be realised.”
“Do you know what you ask?”
“I do,” Malu answered. “I do.”
Tangaroa looked down at him with pity. “If you truly want this, you must undertake another far more dangerous and frightening journey. This journey will change not only your life but the lives of your kin. Nothing may ever be the same again.”
“Where do I need to sail?”
“There is an unknown dimension, lying outside the realms of the afterlife and beyond the known universe. It is bigger than the ocean or the sky and exists far beyond the reach of the gods, Jesus, the imagination of dreamers and the calculations of physicists. It is a place where even the Christian devil fears to tread. It is the most desolate, desperate place imaginable.”
Malu gulped. “Where is this place?”
“It is the place of reason and understanding. Here you can learn the true meaning of everything! You cannot sail there. It doesn’t exist in physical form. Close your eyes, and I will escort you, although I must leave you there. I cannot enter.”
Thirty-Five Days earlier
Malu checked the sky. No sign yet, apart from usually languid trees bending and swaying, forced backwards against their will by an agitated breeze. The forecast was terrible. Tropical Cyclone Jessa was approaching rapidly. It was predicted to hit as a Category 5 storm, with warnings of widespread destruction, sea surges and flooding.
Storms had come and gone before, blowing over the lazy idyll with frantic puff and plenteous rain. It’ll be just another storm, Malu thought, be wild for a few hours, and move on. They always do.
He decided to go to the market anyway, it would save his wife Hiva a trip. Best to be cautious, you just never know.
He looked to the sea and saw a swell building beyond the reef. Soon it would crash over the coral, filling the lagoon. Then on the tide, it might sweep over the beach and into the village. Five years ago, the islanders worked together to build a 2-metre-high concrete sea wall around the islet. It had already been breached twice since. Malu hoped this time it would hold back the ravenous ocean.
He half-smiled, pleased the E.O. ruled no one was to go fishing until the day after tomorrow.
He walked past the Sami Sousou Hotel, the only Hotel on the islet. Mr Jensen and Malu’s cousin Luaki were shuttering the windows.
“Greetings, cousin,” Luaki called out.
Malu smiled and waved. “Good morning,Luaki.”
Mr Jensen didn’t look up; he was too busy hammering wooden braces across the ranch slider door of the front bar.
“Where are you going, Malu? Shouldn’t you be at the church or at home?”
“I’m going to the store. I want to make sure we have extra provisions, just in case.”
“Well, go quickly. The weather is getting worse. This one might be bad!”
Malu smiled and waved his farewell. Luaki was right. The weather was getting worse. He shuffled off quickly, the wind now threatening to drown out Mr Jensen’s incessant hammering.
Pua smiled as Malu entered the store. There was no customer service on the islet. Everyone spoke straight, got to the point! Apart from Mr Jensen, everyone was kin. Pua was Malu’s sister-in-law.
“Be quick, Malu,” Pua said, “I want to shut up. I need to gather the children. They say it’s going to be bad.”
“Yes, I heard that too, but hope for the best. Will you shelter at the church?”
“Your brother says no,” she replied. “No means no!” She rolled her eyes, “He’s as stubborn as an octopus and hard-headed as a Moray eel. Your poor mother!”
“Hah, you should take a leaf out of her book and slap him around the ear! She speaks to him in a language he understands… fear! If he doesn’t listen, she slaps the other one. You should try it.”
“Oh, I wish, Malu, unfortunately respecting your elders doesn’t always translate into respecting your wife. I would constantly be hitting him, and with ringing ears, he would never hear anything!”
Malu smiled, diverted his eyes.
He sighed. The store was nearly bare, the ship wasn’t due until next week, but most importantly, it was out of alcohol, no cold beer, no hot spirits. He needed a drink, and it was the hot stuff he craved most.
“Four packets of cigarettes, please, some rice, some canned beef and biscuits. Oh, and I’d better take some bottled water. You want me to talk to my little brother? He might listen to me.”
“It’s okay, Malu, but thanks. While deafness might be the domain of young men, defiance is the empire of their wives. Don’t worry. I’ll keep your precious nephews and nieces safe, I know how much you dote on them. As for your brother, well, the wind might blow, the rain might fall, but he will always do as he pleases. It will be his choice whether he swims, blows away, or gets a slap.”
“Be safe, Pua,” Malu said, packing his supplies in a recycled plastic fishing crate.
She smiled, whispered “Thanks,” then asked, “Are you and Hiva going to the church?”
“Yes, but I’ll collect my parents and take them there first.”
“Hurry, go. The wind is getting worse.”
Pua was right. Hot angry air threatened to steal the crate out of his arms as he exited the store. Malu glanced toward the hotel. Mr Jensen’s hammer was frantically attacking the window frame of the dining room. Luaki was standing by, trying to hold onto the wooden boards being used as bracing. Malu felt sorry for Luaki. He knew he would be anxious about his younger brother Tanafa.
Tanafa was delivered last and could easily have remained there. Cerebral Palsy romped over his motor function and faculties. However, Tanafa embraced his life with the joy and grace of a Polynesian love song. Everyone adored him. Barely able to walk, he would limp, scramble and crawl to the most unimaginable places. There were very few places you could be alone on Filemu, but Tanafa knew them all, spending hours looking out to the sea as if it were a shop window to edification and understanding. With a smile almost as wide as the islet itself, soft white drool pooled in the corners of his mouth. And when he vocalised, excited droplets sprayed from his face. No one minded.
From young to old, everyone on the islet had a job, and Tanafa’s was the most precious and important of all, for, within his million-dollar smile, he carried the islet’s heart and soul. His job was to be the chock that held kin together; this role was even more important than the Executive Officers. Even Mose Tavita, the current E.O., said so.
Malu jogged across to the hotel. Yelling would be pointless, so he ran right up to Luaki.
“Do you want me to find Tanafa and support him to the church?”
Luaki grinned, “Thank you, cousin. You have always been so good to us.”
Malu knew he needed to hurry. Holding onto his tray of provisions would slow him down, so he raced to his boat, which he’d already pulled back from the landing into the centre of the village. He’d tied it up against the school’s jungle gym. After the church, the school was the second highest point on the Islet. He placed the tray in the boat and covered it with the de-rigged sail. Then he set off to find Tanafa.
He found him sitting, back to the gusts on the far side of the islet. Malu picked him up then carried Tanafa to the church. Delivered safely, Malu then raced off to escort his parents back to the sanctuary of the Chapel of St Peter Chanel. The sky darkened, the wind picked up, and Malu noted the reef had now been breached. The lagoon was full of whitecaps. He had to race.
Now rain started hammering the islet. The cyclone’s powerful sweeping arc hurling itself against the village. As he approached his parent’s house, he found their elderly neighbour Mrs Lafu lying on the ground. She had fallen, and the wind was so strong she couldn’t get up. Malu helped her up, threw her over his shoulders and trudged onward toward his parents.
His mother’s face was thunderous as he blustered into the house.
Too anxious to scold him, she said, “Your father is too frail to make it to the church. His hip! I will stay here with him. He will never make it.”
“No, Mother!” Malu protested, “I will carry him. This is why God gave humans two shoulders. Stand close behind. I will try and shield you from the wind. Quick, let’s go.”
When they finally reached the church, Malu scanned the huddled villagers seeking out Hiva.
“Is Hiva here?” He asked in fear.
“No,” Pua replied. “I tried to persuade her to come with me, but she said she would wait for you to collect her.”
Malu’s heart filled with dread, instantly sprinting back out of the church to face the cyclone again. Struggling against the elements, domestic debris and uprooted trees flying recklessly toward oblivion, he finally managed to get within thirty metres of his house.
The roar of the wind, the pelting of the rain and the crash of the ocean against the sea wall overwhelmed his pathetic attempts to yell to Hiva. He rested momentarily, trying to stabilise himself, hanging onto a double-jointed and groaning palm.
He’d just steadied himself when a huge wave crashed over the sea wall. It was the biggest wave he’d ever seen. It traipsed wantonly over the islet, drowning the land, stealing anything it could. Gritting his teeth and holding tight, Malu desperately clung to the palm. He watched and screamed as he saw his house, with his beautiful wife inside, get dragged off its foundations. As the wave retreated, the house was flung like a toy over the sea wall into the turbulent lagoon.
Horrified, Malu could only watch and wait. When he felt he could, he waded back to his boat. He couldn’t give up. He had to try and rescue her. Hiva was a strong swimmer—if she’d managed to get out of the house, she’d have a chance of survival, but only if he rescued her and rescued her quickly. The water was almost a metre deep at the school. Deep enough to launch.
Within minutes Malu had driven his little boat over the sea wall and was being bashed about in the lagoon. Waves punched over and around him, the wind and rain spitting at his audacity. It was the most vicious assault Malu had ever experienced. He frantically searched the lagoon, praying to Jesus for a miracle. None eventuated. Vision was almost impossible. He couldn’t see Hiva or his house anywhere.
He guessed she’d been sucked out of the lagoon and over the reef. He gunned the boat toward the open ocean, thumbing his nose at the elements, nonchalantly ignoring the likely outcome of imminent death. He didn’t care. He had to save Hiva. It was his fault she was taken. It was his fault. He should have saved her first. To lose her now after everything they’d gone through would be too much.
He bargained with Jesus, believing that if he died, Hiva died too. “Let me live,” he screamed, “Let me live, and I will search for Hiva, dead or alive, until the day I die.”
Eventually, he ran out of gas, rigging his sail when the wind dropped, sailing across the lagoon, reef, and around the islands. Malu kept his promise, searching for Hiva day and night.
His father had always told him, “You must never give up.”
After four days, he cried, giving up hope of finding her alive. He headed out to open waters.
The girl danced with the grace of a sea slug.
Her limbs faked enthusiasm, attacking the choreography with the lustre and elegance of a dying fish. Malu had seen thousands of them flopping all over the bottom of his father’s boat. He chuckled. The girl was definitely a fish out of water when it came to dancing. Out of step and out of time, she’d missed out on the rhythm gene so apparent in women of his kin. She was the first female he’d ever seen who couldn’t dance! He smiled at her clumsy attempts to keep up with the woman beside her, whom he thought must be her mother.
The woman, either embarrassed by Malu’s amusement or shielding her daughter from his gaze, dragged the girl to dance behind her. Malu cocked his head, trying to see around the girl’s mother’s broad, graceful, and beguiling hips.
“Ouch,” he cried out after his mother sitting next to him slapped his ear.
“Show some respect,” she snarled.
His brothers and father laughed. Malu blushed.
The tempo of the drums picked up, then suddenly stopped. The women started singing now, a joyful chorus of familiarity and tradition wafted over the Island. Before diverting and deferring his eyes, Malu noticed the girl trying to peer behind her mother’s back. Their eyes met. Malu smiled. This time, the girl blushed.
Malu and his kin had travelled to the Island of Faavava. They were there for the wedding of his cousin Sami, who was marrying a local girl. Weddings were a highlight of Island living. Almost everyone loved singing, dancing, feasting, and catching up with kin. Faavava was located 30 kilometres across the sea from Filemu, and it had taken nearly four hours to make the crossing in his father’s overloaded tin runabout.
The weather blessed the betrothed, for there was no rain today. The forested volcano stood passively and proudly behind the festivities, a handsome guardian watching over the beauty and sanctity of the colourful occasion.
As the elders carved the spit-roasted pigs and as the steamed vegetables were carefully extracted from the ground, Malu sidled up next to the girl.
Usually shy and retiring, he found just enough courage to speak.
The girl smiled. “I know,” she said. “I’m Hiva.”
Malu blushed again. The girl reached for his hand. “Let’s swim.”
She led him to the lagoon, quickly stripped off and dived in.
As a child, nudity was part of Island life. Bodies were bodies, boys were boys, and girls were different. Although this girl was different again. Like his mother instructed, he tried diverting his eyes but found he couldn’t. She was beautiful in every sense, and from that moment, he knew he’d forever lost control over his heart and eyes. She was exquisite. Malu felt faint.
Hiva swam fast and far, Malu unable to keep up. He wondered whether the girl was a living incarnation of Moana-Nui-Ka-Lehua. While the girl couldn’t dance, she could swim like a dolphin!
She stopped, turned and tread water, “Malu, come on, let’s chase the mantas.”
She pointed to a series of dark smudges flying beneath the water’s surface, just above the sand. Malu knew he was missing out on the feast, the highlight of the year. He didn’t care. Hiva was far more attractive and tender than any spit-roasted pig he’d ever had.
Malu arrived at the place of reason and understanding. It was dark, and he was suspended in a void of nothingness. There was no boat. He had no body. Nothing surrounded him. He tried to yell and call for help, but he had no voice. He wanted to cry but had no eyes. He was alone, neither cold nor warm, neither dead nor alive. He waited. Nothing. He wasn’t sure whether time was passing or whether it, too, had been suspended. He waited longer. Nothing was happening.
I want Hiva. I want children. I want my dream.
“You want what?” a voice accused.
“I want Hiva. I want children. I want my dream.”
“Your dream is dead and gone.”
“No, I demand it back. It was not spent.”
“Do you understand the consequences if your demand is agreed?”
“No, but I don’t care.”
“Think, Malu, are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Malu started gently rocking. He looked down. He was now back in the boat. His body had returned, and he felt relieved. He looked over the side, then cried out when he saw the floating bodies had returned.
He screamed, “Go away! Please go away!”
The bodies drifted closer, one now knocking against the side of the boat. Malu grabbed an oar in panic, trying to push the body away. As he prodded the corpse, it slowly rolled over. Dead eyes stared back at him. The body was of a deformed smiling young man. Malu recognised him immediately.
“No, no, no,” Malu cried, “Oh no. Oh, Tanafa, please no.”
Malu’s wails woke Tanafa from his watery grave. For the first time in his life, Tanafa’s precious smile turned to sneering anger, then he rolled over and disappeared into the deep blue.
Thump, thump. Two more bodies lapped against the starboard side. Malu pivoted, oar ready. His mother and father were floating, hand in hand, eyes closed. As he gently started to push them away, their eyes opened wide. They stared at him, accusing him. He could tell his mother wanted to slap him. He turned away in shame, and then they were gone.
Malu counted four more bodies floating around the boat. He recognised them as Luaki, Mr Jensen, Mrs Lafu and his brother.
Horrified, Malu curled into a tight ball at the bottom of the boat. “Make it stop, make them go away,” he pleaded.
“Seven bodies for seven babies,” the voice erupted in his brain. “Your choice! Do you still demand your dream be returned?”
“No, it can’t be. I saved them. I saved them all. I made sure they were all safe. Hiva drowned because of this.”
“Seven bodies is the price for seven babies. What do you want to do? Answer me now!”
Six days later
Malu refused to be carried onto the beach. He’d only spent five days in the Main Islands hospital before discharging himself and organising transport back to Filemu.
“I want to go home,” he said to the doctor from New Zealand.
“You are still weak and recovering; stay a few days longer, regain your strength. You have a strong heart, but you have been through much. You were not within days of dying, not even hours. No, you were within minutes of passing. If you had not been found when you were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Malu wouldn’t have a bar of it: he needed to return home. He had to make sure his visions were just tricks of his mind. He was petrified that what he’d seen might be true.
As the boat approached, the skipper throttled down, and the steady rhythm of drums pierced the air. The drums were joined by women dancing and singing, welcoming him home. Tears filled Malu’s eyes. He could see a pig on a stake; they would feast for his return.
He had lost so much weight his kin hardly recognised him as he stepped off the boat. They had all gathered by the landing, smiling, laughing, excited to see him. They cheered loudly as he approached, the children stampeding their favourite uncle and adult. They hugged his legs.
He watched his brother tapping excitedly on the biggest drum, he saw Tanafa riding on Luaki’s shoulders, grinning broadly, spittle drooling from his mouth. Malu had never seen anything so wonderful. He waved.
Mrs Lafu and Mr Jensen were standing side by side, smiling, as were his parents, who gazed on him lovingly. Malu knew his mother would soon slap him for causing her so much grief and concern. It would be the sweetest slap.
The adults now rushed and surrounded him. Hugging, kissing him, slapping his back. Malu suddenly felt like a fraud. He loved his kin and was pleased to be back, but his heart was empty. Despite what the doctor told him, he knew his heart had taken a blow from which it would never recover. Feeling weak, eyes closed, he collapsed on the sand.
He sensed his kin stepping away, giving him space. He felt two gentle hands touch his face. They were soft and familiar. He looked up.
They both burst into tears.
“Oh, you stupid man, I thought I had lost you forever.”
“I thought you were dead. When I saw you washed away, I searched and searched but couldn’t find you anywhere. When I couldn’t, I decided I could never live without you.”
“Oh, you stupid, stupid man,” Hiva blubbed again. “Before I was washed away, I escaped the house. I ended up in the lagoon hanging onto a coconut crate. After two days, the current had swept me close to Faavava. I had to swim a long way, it took a long time, but I made it.”
Wiping the tears from his eyes, Malu stood and kissed his wife.
Tangaroa was right, he thought. Who needs children when there are already so many blessings?