art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Henry, Caesar of the Air, His Life and Times, or, The Book of Qat: Part 4
by Lavie Tidhar
They joined him as he walked through the forest and crested a hill and came in sight of the ocean again. One at first, and then another, and another, until all eleven walked with him, Tangaro the Fool and Tangaro the Wise and all the others, his brothers. Why Qat would have changed his appearance to the shape of a vui, a pale ghost, they did not know. Above their heads a single bird followed, high in the air. Occasionally it alighted on a branch and crowed and chuckled. The forest gradually gave way to cultivated land, fields of manioc and yams and trees of narafika and limes, of coconuts and grapefruit and watermelon bushes spreading out across the fertile ground with their sweet and heavy green-striped load.
They came to a village but it was very quiet, and they could see no one outside. "Where are these people hiding?" said Tangaro the Fool irritably. But Tangaro the Wise said, "They are not hiding--" and showed him the signs.
Doors had been torn out of huts. Clay pots lay broken on the ground. The village was lifeless, and when they reached the nasara, the open space of assembly for the village, they saw the remnants of a large fire, and in the ashes bones.
There were many bones, crunched bones, broken bones, bones with the marrow sucked clean out of them. There were thigh bones and fingers and skulls, and Henry felt sick, and his brothers fell silent, all but for Tangaro the Wise, who said, heavily, "Qasavara has been here."
He listened to the soft sighing of the breeze as it passed through branches and leaves. There was a music there, a music of wind and leaf. They had left the ruined village and pressed on, the blue sea sparkling in the distance.
They could trace the passage of Qasavara through the forest. Broken branches, torn out roots. A trail of destruction. His feet left deep marks in the soft ground. They were larger than a man's. Much larger.
It seemed a madness to Henry, all of a sudden. It seemed to him that he was caught inside a dream, a bad dream where the shadows thickened and a darkness dwelt between the trees. His brothers were black and he was white and out of place here, in this land of dreams. Tenuously, he grasped for something he could no longer quite recall. Another identity, another life, somewhere beyond the setting sun. As night fell they lit a fire. Tangaro Nokalato went and fetched a head of kava, a thick and tangled grey beard of a plant, and they chopped up the roots and took turns chewing them, spitting the resultant liquid into coconut shells and passing it around.
The kava put its lethargic spell over Henry. He sat very still under the trees and thought of Iro Lei, but already her image was fading from his mind, the way ghosts do. But was she the ghost, he thought, or was it him?
The only illumination was the light of the stars. The wind sighed softly, sadly as it passed. "Henry," it whispered. "Henry..."
Henry, he thought. It was a curious name. Someone else with that name had once come to these islands, and was lost there, and they were the same. He drank another shell of kava and slept, and his sleep was deep and dark and uninterrupted. In the morning they walked again, heading for the nakamal of Qasavara.
They found the place as night was falling. It was on top of a hill, overlooking the sea. the setting sun had burned the horizon. Flames licked at the sea. Qasavara's nakamal was wide and spacious, built of sturdy burau wood and covered with a shiny fresh natangura roof. Qasavara himself came to greet them.
He was a giant, with naked feet planted firmly in the earth. His grin split his head from side to side. His teeth were as white as the underbelly of seagulls. Giant teeth, with spaces in between the bones. Qasavara did not wear a nambas, disdained the use of a penis sheath. His engorged penis flopped freely between his legs. The brothers muttered to each other but said nothing to the man-eater.
Qasavara welcomed them in. "Guests!" he said, his voice booming, while his tongue lolled between his teeth, a red and hungry appendage with little patience for niceties. "You will sleep in my nakamal and share in my kava," he told them. "stay, and be at ease. I am Qasavara."
That night when they lay down to sleep Henry was disturbed. "We will not sleep here," he told them. He went and knocked on the beams of the nakamal, and they opened, and he and his brothers went inside and slept there. "But you mustn’t tell where we’ve been," he warned them, and they all nodded solemnly.
In the night Qasavara came to the nakamal, and pounced on the sleeping men, but they were not there. Frustrated, he tore at the coverings and roared his anger--but his guests were nowhere to be seen.
In the morning he came to them again, all smiles. "I looked for you last night," he said, "worrying for your well-being. Yet when I came I couldn’t find you. Where did you go, my friends?
None of the brothers answered--none but one, Tangaro the Fool, who said, cheerfully and brightly, "We slept in the beams of the nakamal, Qasavara!"
"Did you now?" said Qasavara, and grinned, and his red tongue slid like murky water over his bleached-white teeth. "Did you now."
That night they shared kava with Qasavara, and when it was time to sleep Henry rapped on the side-post of the nakamal and it opened for him, and they slept inside. Again Qasavara came, and this time he ripped open the beams of the nakamal, but still he could not find them, and roared his anger, and at last left.
So it went for two more days, and Henry felt trapped in the dream, his actions those of another man, the outcome as known to him as to its other silent players. And so, on the fourth day, he went up to Qasavara and said, "Where is the woman you have kidnapped? Where is Iro Lei?"
And Qasavara laughed and said, "The woman I chopped up and planted, upside-down, with her head in the ground and her open legs sticking out, and she grew and became kava."
The bitter taste rose in Henry's throat. It was his love he had shared with Qasavara--his love in a coconut shell. Fear and anger surged through him, overwhelming thought. He rushed at the giant, and a battle was begun.
Qasavara had the strength of several men, but Henry's power was in his desperation, which did not acknowledge pain. A morning fire roared between them, that Qasavara had built, entire tree trunks smoldering in the flames. The heat made sweat come pouring down Henry's body. It entered his eyes and nearly blinded him. For a long time they fought, leaping and punching across the fire, the giant man-eater and his punitive enemy, until both were bruised and cut, and their blood flowed freely and fed the flames.
There was a great oak tree some distance away and at last Henry, growing weary of the fight, made for it, running sure-footed ahead of Qasavara. "Rise," he commanded the tree, rapping on it with bloodied knuckles. He motioned for his brothers, and one by one they began to climb the tree.
As they climbed, the tree lengthened. Higher and higher it rose, Henry's brothers climbing along the trunk one after the other, and last of them Henry himself. The tree stretched and grew towards the stars.
Henry climbed, and climbed.
Behind him, a roar of anger, shaking leaves and branches loose. The tree continued to rise, higher and higher. A heavy body mounted the trunk, pushing itself upwards with fury. Henry looked down.
The huge form of Qasavara, the man-eater, was ascending the tree rapidly behind him. Hor a moment their eyes met. Henry grinned. Qasavara's mouth was open in wordless fury.
Henry looked past him.
Down, down on the island of Gaua. Down on Mount Garat belching smoke and fire into the air. Down on the lake and the giant waterfall where eels tumbled down a rock-face along with the water. Down, down on the river carrying the sulphur water down to the sea.
Evergreen mountains. Isolated villages. The light of small fires.
And up there, high in the air, with the tree bending down now with the weight, this giant tree pulling down low now, falling towards the nearby island of Vanua Lava. And over on that island a hill burning in white light, Surevuvu, the hill of the dead. Up there in the air, the criss-crossing paths of the spirit roads. Up there, and he heard her voice, laughing, close in his ear... "Henry, my Henry. Caesar of the Air."
And then Iro Lei was gone, and he saw a single bird circling lazily, and laughing, crowing out, "Qat! Qat!" and then it, too, was gone, above the peaks of Vanua Lava which were coming closer and closer, as the tree dipped farther and father down--
His brothers, dropping down to the ground one by one like dark ripe fruit--
Qasavara panting behind, gaining on them--
Henry reaching the top of the tree just as it reached Vanua Lava. A bridge between the islands, an immense tree bent in the dark--
Henry jumped off the tree--
His feet found purchase on hard ground. Vanua Lava, the moon shining over Mosina Bay. The tree, relieved of its cargo, pulled back from the ground--
Shooting back up, Qasavara hanging on for dear life, screaming, a passenger on a one-way journey back--
The tree shot up and flung Qasavara away. The man-eater flew through the air until he disappeared from sight.
The ground rushed towards him. When he hit it he became a stone.
Not again, Qasavara thought.
This story was first published on Thursday, July 26th, 2012