art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat: Part 2
by Lavie Tidhar
Her name was Iro Lei and he first met her at dusk; it was on the shores of the island, with Vanua Lava visible in the distance.
There had been a full moon, and the fish could be seen swimming over the reef. The fish were silver and white and the sea was dark and yet translucent. The light of the moon was very bright. Iro Lei's hair was dark and stood out of her head like a halo or a cloud, he couldnít tell which.
In the distance great tam-tams beat, the sound reverberating through the thick forest at his back. He lived with the uturgurgur, ate with them and slept with them and learned their manners. They took him on foraging raids through the forest, away from the safety of their nambanga tree. Sometimes they would raid the villages of the men who were like him but with dark skin. Like the uturgurgur the women of the villages wore grass skirts and the men wore penis sheaths, which were called nambas. Once on such a raid a woman saw Henry as he went, accompanied by the little people, and she screamed. She had thought him a vui.
Mostly the uturgurgur avoided the big people. The forest offered enough for all. It was only with a sense of mischief that they came to visit the big people, putting a scare into the women, stealing small bright objects or coconut husks. Sometimes, as they went through the forest, they would pause and painstakingly arrange the flowers of the burau tree in concentric circles like the cooking ovens the big people used to make laplap. The making of laplap was slow hard work. The long hard bodies of the manioc and wild yams would be peeled and rubbed clean and ground to a paste and mixed together to form a glutinous mass that would be cooked for hours under coals, covered with leaves. The uturgurgur loved laplap as much as the big people did and would steal it when they could. Finished, the laplap was cut into slices and coconut milked over it. It was almost tasteless yet it filled the stomach, and Henry joined in with the thefts and ate his share. At other times they ate the narafika fruit, a bright red pear-like fruit, that grew abundantly, and the nangai nuts, which came in hard green shells, and river prawns that changed from bright red to pink when boiled, and wild fowl that darted through the foliage. The moon rose and fell and rose again, grew fat and thin and would then disappear and the nights were then very dark.
There were people living on the coast and people living on the slopes of the mountain, but no people lived at the top. In the dark nights Henry saw the flames rise from the volcano very clearly.
The uturgurgur feared the volcano, and so did the big people. It was a place of ghosts.
It was on the coast one night, with the fish glinting silver close under the surface in the light of the moon, that he first saw her.
She had been alone in the house when her husband's brothers came. It was the same game. There were eleven of them, and Qat made twelfth. They were all named Tangaro: there was Tangaro Gilagilala, or Tangaro the Wise, and Tangaro Loloqong, or Tangaro the Fool, and then there were Siria, and Nolas, Nokalato, Noav, Nopatau, Noau, Nomatig, Novunue, and Novlog. They were always playing tricks on Qat and now theyíd decided to kidnap Iro Lei, and so they overpowered her and took her to the sandy shore and went off in their canoes. They were sailing to Gaua.
She didnít fight them for they were her husband's brothers. They sailed across the rough sea that separated their home of Vanua Lava with the island of Gaua, and in the distance she could see the flames of the being that lived inside the volcano. There was magic in Gaua, old magic, and she felt herself responding to it.
The brothers boasted that they had trapped Qat inside a nutmeg tree. Iro Lei kept her own council, but she knew few things could hold Qat for very long. As they were sailing an empty banana skin came floating up to the canoes.
Tangaro Gilagilala, Tangaro the Wise, saw the skin and said, "This is Qat's banana skin. He is following us," but his brothers silenced him. "He is trapped yet, or dead!" they said. A little later a second banana skin came floating up to the boat, and again the argument broke out.
She tried to block them out. She listened instead to the whispering of the winds, and the crashing of the waves. They told her stories of the islands. They were always the same stories but now a new note of uncertainty had been added. A vui, they whispered, had come to Gaua. He was white, like a ghost, but he was flesh and blood. He was a little like her, perhaps. A name, whispered in salt, came on the winds. Henry, they moaned. Henry.
But she did not know any such stories, about a ghost with such a name.
She heard Qat's sounds, knew the noises of her husband well. He had shrunk himself and made himself small and sailed behind them, inside the empty shell of a coconut. It was always so. A little while later the coconut came close to the canoes and one of the brothers picked it up, wrinkling his nose. "What's that you have there?" Tangaro the Fool said. "It stinks."
So they threw it back in the water and she could hear Qat's laughter, as tiny as the small bubbles of fish, rising behind them.
But she was suddenly tired of taking part in their games.
They came to the shore.
The woman changed before his eyes. At times she was young and at times she was old. Her eyes were the color of moonlight. Her skin was sometimes deep as night, and sometimes pale, almost translucent, like chalk or fish bones. Her reflection smiled at him from the water. The men dragged her to the shore. She was their captive.
Before that there was also the curious incident with the coconut.
He had been sitting on the shore and staring out at Vanua Lava in the distance. Paths of light crisscrossed the sky and he could see the spirits of dead men fly along them. The lights converged on a distant hill on that other island. If he looked closely he could see the spirit-forms of shamans as they flew alongside the dead and talked to them. He called out to the spirits of the dead and asked them if they knew him, but none said they did. He held a smooth pebble in his hand and rolled it between his fingers and thought. His name was Henry. It came to him that he, too, could fly, but that must have been long ago and he could no longer remember how. There had been a large bird with strange shiny wings and he piloted it, and then there had been a sudden rush of ground, and darkness, and fire, and a lot of pain... it must have been a dream.
Then the coconut came floating on the water and bumped gently against the reef and the shore and a man stepped out of it and grew taller. The man turned his head this way and that and sniffed the air and grinned, to himself. He had an axe in one hand. Like Henry he wore a nambas, a penis-sheath, but unlike him his skin was the color of black ants. When he spotted Henry there was curiosity in his eyes.
The man walked very confidently, as if he owned everything in sight. He came to Henry and crouched beside him, and put his hands on his shoulders, and stared into his eyes. The man's eyes were a deep swelling darkness, like the sea. Then the man grinned and slapped Henry on the back and said, "That will show them. Here."
He gave Henry his axe. Henry stared at it in his hands, confused. When he looked up again the stranger was gone. There were no footprints in the sand, and when he went to look at the coconut it was empty, and didnít smell too good so he threw it back in the water.
There were eleven men in the canoes and the one woman and they dragged her to the beach even though she fought. Henry didnít know what they planned for her but there was only one course of action he could follow and so he charged them with the axe the stranger had given him. He was surprised by how easy it was to wield the axe--almost as if the weapon wielded itself. He smashed their canoes to splinters even before they had come all the way to the beach. The men shied away from him and one of them said, uncertainly, "Qat? Is that you?" which somehow made Henry furious.
When he hit the nearest man with the axe the blade went through and the man's form slowly faded. The others, seeing this, disappeared like smoke into the forest and were gone.
He was left alone with the woman. He put the axe down and stared at her. She stared back at him and smiled.
"My name is Iro Lei," she said. "And you are the vui, Henry, who came from the other realm."
He said, "Iro Lei," and then fell silent, looking at her in wonder. She held her palm towards him, her fingers splayed. In her hand was a seashell, sliced open by time, and there was a spiral inside it. "You should not be here," she said, no longer smiling. She came and stood close to him and he could smell her, the scent of wood smoke and sweat and salt water and earth, of growing watermelons and mango and sprouting seeds. "You do not belong here, you have no story."
"I do not know if I have a story," he told her. Her eyes, like the stranger's earlier, were like the sea at its deepest and darkest. On an impulse he took the shell from her and kissed her palm.
The rain caught them by surprise. In the silver light of the raindrops Iro Lei was a dancing, flickering flame. She laughed. Above her head the lightning inscribed the sky.
The sea rose, crashed against the shore. Flecks of white foam blew gracefully in the air. Iro Lei was the storm. Iro Lei was the sea. Iro Lei was dancing, between the drops. She wore nothing. She had no need of clothes to cover her. She laughed. "A new story!" she called out. Her hands were raised above her head, the swell of her heavy breasts traced by falling rain. "And will it end in ruin and despair, or joy and light?" she reached her hand out to Henry, beckoning him. He followed her in the downpour. She retreated, stepping on the water. "A fine present you made me, husband," she murmured, but Henry didnít hear. His ears were filled with the rain and the sea and the thunder. She called out to him and he followed her.
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 24th, 2012