The End of One Road

Since the work on the renovation of the school building started right after Easter weekend, Tautua Village has become like a little busy town. The noisy outboard powered skiffs zip back and forth constantly, especially on Saturdays when the gang of ten construction workers who have boosted the local population by thirty percent go on their fishing excursions. But today something else must be going on. From when I popped my sleepy head out of the companionway in the morning until the end of our breakfast no less than seven skiffs have come zooming in over the lagoon from Omoka, all of them packed with people. The workers also don’t seem to be at the school, but are all assembled at Rio’s wharf visible from Aluna’s decks, sawing pieces of plywood and nailing something together. Beatriz has her low back acting up again, so it’s time to row ashore for a walk up and down the motu.

The news is not a happy one. Mama Tococala has died in the early morning hours. The frail lady was the eldest inhabitant of Penrhyn Island and the last time we visited her a week or so back we found her hunched almost in a bundle at the head end of her bed, where she had spent her days for at least a year now. The bedsores on her arms and legs bore testimony to the unwillingness or inability to leave her mattress, much less the house to get some fresh air. A slight smell of stale urine permeated the shady room, a length of light green fabric pulled over the top louvers of the windows kept out the gleaming sun. Her bony self was clearly suffering, but her mind was still alert and even witty. “I’m hungry!” her cranky voice would nag. Art, who looked after her husband Lacolo’s aunty, responded in playful angriness: “But you just eat ten minutes ago!” To us she explained that Aunty Tococala was constantly harassing her for food. Just to make a point she brought in some cookies and drinks for everybody. Aunty eagerly nibbled everything down and there you had it, five minutes later it’s “I’m hungry!” again. “Who are you?”, she looked into my eyes from her sagging lids with runs of dried tears, “Did you bring something to eat?” The latter question I deftly ignored, the first four times she asked me the former one I told her my name, that we were the people from the boat and that I am Beatriz’ husband, hoping she might remember her visit from before. When she asked me for the fifth time I tried cracking a joke and said: “I’m not going to tell you anymore!” She chuckled, understanding perfectly well the haunting loops of circularity in her present existence.

Due to her complete absence from the public eye we didn’t become aware of Mama Tococala’s existence until about a month ago. Looking for some way to channel Beatriz’ anxiety about her mother’s illness back in Bogota and to sweeten her impossible but cruelly nagging desire to be at her side, I had suggested that there might be somebody here in need of care and loving attention, reachable within the sphere of our present locality, instead of wishing in vain for the unreachable. Dr. Henry had mentioned Mama Tococala during some of his biweekly visits here, voicing concerns about some persistent bruises on her skin. So Beatriz went to visit her one day and came back with stories of her frail hands, the ancient songs she would hum, the sturdy sense of humor, the thin gray hair, her toothless smile, and of course her insatiable hunger. After spending her childhood right here in this at that time brawling and sprawling village, she had left for the civilized world of New Zealand once grown. After a long and childless life over there of which nobody seemed to know much about, she wanted to come home and close her loop of life on the slither of land where she was born.

We’re at Rio’s house by now and what the construction workers had been piecing together is now lined with white cloth, made to perfect measure so that the skinny lifeless body will fit snuggly inside. Papa Henry fills us in on the local customs. When somebody dies here, there is no work during the day, everything rests and everybody helps with the preparations for the funeral. The body will be put in the ground the same day. People are starting to gather at the house of the deceased and we are waiting for the minister to come from Omoka. He will do the service in church and after the burial there will be a kaikai at the house of the family. Looking at our bare legs we realize we will obviously have to go back to the boat to change into some proper clothes. But Beatriz’ back definitely needs some action. Seeing that it will be most probably a while until things are all set up and that we will then be sitting for certainly quite lengthy periods, we decide to go for the planned walk before joining the growing crowd.

Once back and in proper attire we’re taking seats under the tin roof in front of Art and Lacolo’s house. There are rows of white plastic chairs for the men and a section of mats rolled out on the ground in front for the ladies. Squeezed behind a small table to our left are seated the three representatives of the divine on the island. Papa Mauri’s impressive circumference is confined by his trademark wine red suit and his absolute local authority stands confirmed by the black collared shirt with a tiny white square under his chin. He’s a really interesting fellow; I had the chance to hold some lofty conversations with him during our stay at the hospital. The mind behind his broad face wanders freely from memories of his quite wild childhood cahsing pigs in the forest, to the theological twists of the faithful followers of his denomination, then jumps to the elaborate and ever extensive subject of the best way to exploit the local fishing grounds and ends with the engineering nightmare of his very own design concept of a vessel to roam the sea in form of a giant sphere that floats with invincible stability across roaring waves and through howling storms. When he sees me sit down he sends a sly smile my way with some funny gestures suggesting that I must have been gaining weight since we last met. His struggle with overweight and my skinniness had always been a favorite topic of fun between us. To his right sits suited in impeccable black his able right hand, assistant minister of Omoka Papa Tata, sternly serious and faithfully contained as ever. You might remember him from his daily healing visits just after sunrise also back at the Omoka hospital, where he made absolutely sure we would always get out of bed in time and put our flagrant minds on track with an early morning bible reading. Papa Rongo, the assistant minister of Tetautua’s church sustains the last corner of this holy trinity. He’s the longtime schoolteacher and retired principal here and is standing in for the absent minister who left a year ago to stand by his ill wife in Australia. The profile of his face has always bugged me with its resemblance to a certain cartoon character but I was never able to nail down which one. It must be the solemnity of the funeral rite that cracks the riddle when I look at him now with his eyes closed in sweet meditation and his mouth opening and closing while intonating yet another one of the spirit lifting hymns of the Cook Island Christian Church.  It hits me with a vengeance what a perfect real-life stand-in he is for the schoolteacher trying desperately hard to keep the wicked Homer Simpson on this side of evil.

What follows is one more version of a local ritual of social connectivity, which leaves me stunned every time I witness it with its precise conciseness, its organic orderliness, its natural intensity, and since it happens all in native Maori, I’m probably only getting a small fraction of its meaningful dynamics. We’ve sat amongst the Tautuans during their meetings on Sunday afternoons, where the contest is on for interpreting Bible verses, at their school committee meetings where opinions about issues are expressed, after the performance of our theater play at the school where it lasted for almost an hour and half and aside from acknowledging our work and the students’ amazing performance the kids where inspired to take charge of their future, and now again here at this collective intent to transcend the frightening experience of death. One by one they raise from the chairs, mostly the men, but we have seen women participate occasionally and brilliantly at that, and after an introductory sentence acknowledging the audience and, if there are, any distinguished guest, they set out to deliver a veritable oral essay, a passionate and well-structured speech. Most start out in a soft, almost inaudible voice, then slowly work up the intensity, climb up the ladder of passion rung by rung and end up taking flight from the last one in a clear-cut hyperbole of inspiration, soaring weightlessly with their gaze transfixed on a distant but clearly visible guiding light emanating from the darkness of commonality. Their lofty exercise in self-expression is completely without the slimy fanatic sludge of self-importance that so often accompanies all those way more business savvy motivational speakers in the United States, who in the light of their humble but content colleagues of common but true life here appear like fat and sweaty insurance salesmen, smudging impeccably white contract forms of elaborate legalese with the fatty fingerprints of frozen fear. Today it seems to be fittingly about elaborately reconstructed memoires of times way back, when today’s oldies were fickle little children trumping each other constantly in innocent mischief. Although my linguistic intuition makes me belief that there is also some mockingly frivolous bashing going on and a knocking at the well incrusted picking order of who is who on the scale of the island’s seniority. I mean, these guys, most of them approaching their seventies, have been fussing about each other and wrangling with each other for a good two thirds of a century by now and are still having fun at tickling each other’s trigger points. Today the ritual goes on and on, some taking a second go at it while the first refreshments are passed around in trays carried by the adolescents dressed in white shirts and ironed black pants. I’ve seen them working hard since the morning helping the family of the deceased prepare the meal for the guests that are still trickling in. So long the string of speeches continues that I’m wondering if Mama Tococala’s spirit who must by now be floating weightlessly in the empty ether’s echo and enveloping the heavenly doors of every able bodies’ perception might wonder a little bit annoyed about the ease with which her presence in the collective consciousness is already silently slipping away towards oblivion and the unavoidable forgetting, and her death like so many other of equal social and political insignificance is only serving up a pretext for the living to turn their sights away from the frightful fact that their very own point of time will come to be grabbed by the neck, shoved nose first over the edge and pushed down into the abyss of gaping uncertainty.

Finally towards mid afternoon with the sun starting to burn blisters on my back, the session of thoughtful sharing comes to the inevitable conclusion and in the living room next-door the white draped coffin is now diligently nailed shut with the painful banging of a carpenter’s hammer. The last chance for the dead physicality to protest and reemerge amongst incredulous relatives is gone for good. No such history making exception happens and the coffin sails out the door, floating heavily on at least a dozen shoulders of potent young males over coral gravel to the whitewashed church standing in the blazing tropical sun with its sky blue window frames. Papa Mauri’s sermon is brief but spirited, in spite of his soft almost sweet sounding voice. The hymns sound especially powerful today carried aloft by the reinforced ranks and I do sense at a moment a flock of white-winged angels ready to float in the high and pointed windows behind the altar from above the palm trees visible beyond. They fail to materialize though, maintaining the balance of reason and soon the casket floats back out the aisle of the wooden place of worship. Once more burdened by the bright white weight of the blazing South Pacific sun it makes its way down the last and terminally final leg of its journey from the church of a now here at the end clearly pitiless god to the earthen graveyard just beyond the last houses, eager to swallow and transform to dust what life had so energetically wrung from its soil. There lies one graveyard just next to the church. It sports fancy faux marble tombstones and gold embossed letterings. It is clearly for those who seek privilege even after their earthly existence and our frail and ever hungry lady’s remains are promenaded right past it. There are at least a dozen other smaller graveyards with weathered dark grey concrete graves next to simple piles of dark coral slabs throughout the village and some isolated graves are found even in out in the woods. My guess is that each family calls a burial ground their own. Mama Tococala’s final resting place is at the end of a row of eight existing graves, the space for the coffin down in the ground has been walled off with walls of concrete bricks. Bags of cement and a mixer on wheels are waiting behind a mound of yellow coral sand that in turn lies next to the row of youngsters leaning with hands and chin on the handles of their shovels, ready to do the ultimate chore of inhibiting resurrection.

Two more hymns and many handfuls of sand later the attention clearly returns to the duty to sustain life. Everybody gathers again under the tin roof and the meal is served. Hashed corned beef, white rice, sweet bread and a donut are served on plates. While Beatriz undertakes yet another desperate search for some fork or spoon everybody else digs in eagerly with bare hands for a bit of a different interpretation of the term finger food. After the long day we might all be unwillingly sharing a hint of Mama Tococala’s craving for palpable edibles during her last lonesome weeks and days. The light green fabric seen from the outside of the room in the corner of the house where she had just yesterday been lying seems to be flapping slightly in the late afternoon breeze and acute remembrance forces up one last lingering loop of lucid senility. “I’m hungry! Who are you? Did you bring anything to eat?”, a cold and trembling voice whispers void of sound. “No, ya ain’t! I don’t have to tell you anymore! I did, but I can’t share it with you, my dear!”, would be my answers if I had a voice.

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