Earth, Magic, Wind, Fire: A short story by Ita-Marie Ralago

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Earth, Magic, Wind, Fire: A short story by Ita-Marie Ralago

Fiction by Ita-Marie Ralago

This feature appears in the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators x Bengaluru Review Special Issue: Step Outside the Frame, September 2020.

Earth, Magic, Wind, Fire

I don’t mind staying late at work, the sun throwing its rays through the windows of the museum, illuminating my lone shadow. When everyone has gone, I dust away from the many lingering fingerprints on the glass, left behind by visitors. Disappearing amongst the artefacts; I take solace in the bilibili or run my fingers along the sacred masi, rough against the grain. It is the history gallery though that is magnetic at the end of a day. In solitary, I precariously open the display cabinet, where the yaqona bowl sits next to the war clubs. Tata says that our family is bound to these artefacts. Lani knew this too; she was smiling, all teeth, as she sauntered over.

“Seri, I’m tired. Can I just go home?”

“Lani," I said, shaking my head. “That’s twice this week!”

“Oh, come on sis, I know you like to have your alone time,” she said with a smile.

After she left, I circumnavigated the museum, stopping at the painting of the first explorers. It was a grand image, in black and white; a juxtaposition of muskets and war clubs. I leaned in to clean a smudge from the frame, my reverie jarred by the echo of footsteps.

“Lani?”

Silence. Only the wind crept through, chilling my spine. I craned my neck, trying to see past the bilibili. A loud banging rattled the building, my footsteps adding a staccato as I ran towards the history gallery, towards the war clubs. Shade spilt across the marble, my shadow chasing me, and the banging stopped. I reached the display cabinet. The yaqona bowl was spinning. One of the war clubs hung loosely from its hook. On the other side of the museum, I heard the footsteps start up again. A door closed, and a brief shriek of laughter reverberated throughout the museum.

Lani arrived first, followed by my manager Saki, and then the police.

“So, you’re sure all the exit doors were locked Miss Taulagi?”

“Yes, sir. But that’s not all.” The sergeant looked up; eyebrows raised.

“The yaqona bowl was in the cabinet. But it was spinning. And the banging noise I heard; I know it sounds crazy, but I think it was the war clubs. One of them was dangling from its hook when I got to the cabinet.”

I felt Saki shift, taking a few steps back. The sergeant’s eyes widened. Next to me, Lani made the sign of the cross, muttering prayers under her breath. The sergeant broke the silence.

“Right,” he cleared his throat. “Well Miss Taulagi, I think I’ve got everything I need from you,” he said backing away. “Saki, Lani, a word please.”

Elongated shadows decorated the walls, and I was left next to the bilibili, cold, despite the blanket Lani had left me.

Growing up, I knew I was attuned to the environment. Perhaps more so than others. I could read the tides; I knew if a full moon was coming earlier than expected. Tata even started asking me when he should plant, and when it would rain. Our crops were continuously lush and bountiful. Tata was thrilled. But after that night at the museum, my intuition no longer seemed like a gift. Instead, adding to the curse which had allegedly settled. The sergeant had heard the story of the spinning yaqona bowl once before, twenty years ago. He had listened as a woman recounted the terror of the footsteps in the museum. And he had attended the scene of her fiancée’s death; in mysterious circumstances. And when whispers of a curse became more than heresy, he had stood at the dock and watched her sail away to Vakadu, bound for the village of Aitasiri; home to people bound in the old ways.

I sat in the back on the way to the docks, as the sergeant gingerly manoeuvred the car through traffic. I had stopped listening to his nervous chatter, concentrating on the ocean. The waves were dark. It looked like rain.

“Miss Taulagi? Miss Taulagi we’re here,” he said, turning in his seat. Hand on my elbow, he marched me to the boat.

“It’s not for forever, you know. People forget things. When they do, you can come back.”

We reached the galley. I peered at him through the midday sunshine. Turning to go, I sang over my shoulder, “Be careful getting home sergeant, it’s going to storm.” Stifling a smile, I watched him inspecting the sky as the boat gathered steam. The mainland grew smaller, a cluster of clouds covered the sun. The wind tormented the far-off trees, their branches thrashing.

The rain was torrential when the boat docked in Vakadu. I surveyed the welcoming parties and saw a small girl standing under a palm tree, a fixated stare. She walked towards me, the whites of her eyes gleaming in the storm.

“Are you Miss Taulagi?” she asked in a low voice. I could only nod. “Come,” she growled, leading me up a twisted rocky path. The storm raging, I struggled up the track, reaching a plateau, and a waiting land-rover. A man appeared at my elbow, making hand-signals to the girl, who reciprocated. She turned to me.

“We will go to Aitasiri now.” As the car lurched up the mountain, I felt their stares in the rear-view mirror, and I realised what was bothering me. I was soaked after the climb, and the girl was bone-dry.

The first thing I noticed about Aitasiri were the trees, the tallest I’d seen. The second thing I noticed was the villagers — many of them spoke with their hands.

“No tongues,” was the gruff reply of the girl when I asked.

After I had been in Aitasiri for a few days, the girl reappeared; or rather, I saw her standing under a palm tree directly across from my window. I motioned for her to come inside, but she shook her head, beckoning me to follow. She led me deep into the belly of the village, to a nondescript hut. I was met by an older woman, barefooted and dressed in black, a bone running through her nose.

“You must be Miss Taulagi,” she purred, flashing a barrage of gold teeth with her smile. “I am Vasiti, they call me the Tevoro.”

“I’ve heard," she continued, “that you have arrived from the mainland, armed with a gift.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I stammered.

“Oh, come now, no need to be bashful Miss Taulagi. I heard it on the wind” she said with a cackle. “I can help you harness it.” Outside, I felt the air swell. Making my excuses, I stumbled out of her hut.

I took a wrong turn, finding myself on an overgrown path, leading south, towards the ocean. After every bend, I anticipated water but still, the path snaked away from me. Palm fronds illuminated my path, their vitality a juxtaposition to the earthy jungle floor. Tearing through the foliage, the soil gave way to pure white sand and pristine water, playing host to the sun. I didn’t see the boat immediately, a colossal mechanical thing lurking daringly close to shore. Melting back into the jungle, I followed the shoreline as it arched closer to the boat. Tree stumps peppered the terrain, a cemetery. A metallic taste lingered on the air. The adjoining beach was alive. Trees were piled high, stripped, now just logs. Men surfaced in diving gear, hauling in chunks of coral and seaweed. A mechanical jangle emanated from the boat, harmonising with the whirr of an excavator.

It was dark when I reached the edges of the village. Crossing the footbridge, the girl was waiting for me, the whites of her eyes fluorescent next to the fiery torch. Bathed in candlelight, Vasiti’s hut was different. Warmer, almost. She was stoking the fire when I arrived and sat demurely, drawn to the flames.

“You have found the hidden beach. You saw the trees. And you have seen the white man.” The fire spat sparks into the air, releasing me.

“We are going to stop them. You must help.” Vasiti gestured towards a yaqona bowl and placed a handful of soil, and the roots of a palm tree in my hand, along with a small war club.

“We must brew something. The girl will show you.”

As the wind whistled outside, the poultice took form. Vasiti positioned herself in front of the fire, chanting, with a war club on her right side, and the tabua on her left. Sleep eventually ensnared me, and I drifted off, lulled by the crackle of the fire, and the harmony of Vasiti’s incantations.

I awoke with a start, to the early fingers of dawn creeping over the village. Only golden embers remained in the firepit. The girl was standing over me. She led me back down to the footbridge where Vasiti was waiting, holding the war clubs and the yaqona bowl.

“You will take us to the beach Seri,” she said, reaching into the bowl and producing a handful of the poultice. Smearing it across the face of the girl, she reached for me, and I ducked instinctively.

“You need it.”

I let the poultice slide over my face, feeling her fingers work it into my pores. Nearing the beach, the air was clear, metallic-free. The birds were silent, the stillness pervading, generating new energy.

“Hurry Seri, we must get there quicker,” Vasiti pressed. The girl felt it too. I noticed as she vibrated through the jungle. Reaching the beach, Vasiti’s eyes were bright.

“The boat is over this way, and the trees.”

“No, Seri”, Vasiti said, spinning away to the right. “We must go this way.”

She picked her way over the rocks, towards a clifftop. Her voice low, she started chanting, and the girl began beating the war clubs. I felt the shift. The wind whistled through the remaining trees and the swell increased as Vasiti’s chant intensified. As the sun rose, the incantations reached a crescendo, and Vasiti finished with a shriek. The girl beat the war clubs on a rock. And as the swell intensified, we watched a white man ran madly through the jungle, hurling his body blindly from the clifftop. Vasiti hissed, and then was silent as one by one, the visitors launched themselves on to the rocks below, to be swallowed up by the ocean.

Passing back through the jungle, Vasiti stopped to smear the poultice on the stumps of the trees. Holding the war clubs, I watched her with the yaqona bowl, reverently touching each tree.

“You were the woman,” I said. She looked up at me. “You were the woman who worked in the museum on the mainland.”

She chuckled, teeth gleaming golden in the sunlight, and stared past me, yaqona bowl in hand.

***

Ita initially penned this short story for a University course about writing across cultures — the brief was to write a piece about the Other.

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