by Matty Groves
“I say,” said Miss Evans, looking over the jalopy’s windshield. “Is that Kaoru Watu?”
“‘At’s it, miss,” the cockney driver said. “Th’ main village of the ‘ill tribe is just on top of that ‘ill.”
The hill, a rolling green mass capped by the set, shorn, eerily regular bands of rice paddies, almost sparkled in the last light of the sun. The verdure was still glistening with the afternoon rains that had lifted, like a heavy curtain, perhaps half an hour before.
Miss Evans felt like she had been travelling constantly since London, by steamer (steamer! In this day and age!), by train, by car, by pontoon plane, and now, finally, by the island’s only truck. The thought of taking her clothes and effects from the vast, heavy trunk, and of beginning her fieldwork in earnest, thrilled her. Her first real foray into the bush.
Her work. She would have to be more observant. Dr. Bennett was lecturing her in the back of her mind. She tried to commit the moment to memory, her initial impressions. Rice paddies, therefore agricultural…unlike many hill tribes across the world with access to valley peoples like the Hlao. She could discern at a distance that the buildings were on stilts, which indicated that the monsoons brought heavy floods with them. There were several large, long buildings, and a few small ones…if they were homes, that was good evidence of a strongly clan-based family, as opposed to nuclear families. The large buildings were arranged somewhat haphazardly on the side of the mountain, as clear a sign of private ownership to Miss Evans as if they built fences. The environment of the hill people was, of course, monsoonal and tropical. Miss Evans sat forward and tried to peel the wet khaki from her back.
She turned to the Hlao bigman who sat in the jalopy’s back seat next to her trunk. She’d conducted extensive interviews with him, but just to be sure…
“Pardon me, Big Man.” She addressed him in his native language, only vaguely mangling it. “Is there anything else of importance that I must know about the Zhiva?”
The bigman thought in silence for awhile, while Miss Evans waited patiently. His people had long ago learned comfort during silences.
“They are a silent people, of many secrets.” The bigman said. “One came to live in my house, as my servant. I have never known one to degrade herself like that. She would not talk of what happened in the village.”
Finally, the jalopy dove into an indent (one could scarce call it a valley) where the main village stood, and forded the little stream running through the commons. The Hlao man and Miss Evans both dismounted the automobile, while the cockney blithely lit a fag. Zhiva emerged from doorways and fields, assembling in the village square to see what the crowd was looking at. The Hlao bigman cleared his throat, and began to introduce Miss Evans as a guest of the Hlao and the Empire.
As the Hlao man addressed the assembled Zhiva, curiosity gave way to fascination. The dark islanders, most who had never seen a white woman before, gathered to behold her slender, pale form and her strange clothes. Most of them were naked, or clothed in the barest of necessities: the women wore skirts which appeared to be woven bark or reeds, and the men wore loincloths or short pants of rope. The women’s slender breasts glistened in the hot sun, their dark areolae shining. Many of the men, she noted, wore complex tattoos, which her research had said indicated clan attachment. Slowly, several began to approach…the children, not yet completely socialized and subject to their whims, came up and touched her reverently. She knelt, and addressed them in Hlao, where they began to giggle and ran back to their parents. As she rose, she saw the woman.
Around the outside of the crowd, a girl with long, black hair and guarded eyes. Her face was calm and reposed, as if she had dropped a mask, all her attentions focused on the pale stranger. Like the other women, she was bare-breasted, and the broad set of her shoulders shone like smooth, hard mahogany in the tropical sun. When she met Miss Evans’ eyes, she dropped her gaze and slinked along the side of the crowd.
Despite the clammy heat, Miss Evans felt a cool fluttering, like a chill breeze, in her belly.
I must, she thought to herself, gain that young woman as an informant.
Miss Evans buried her broad, pronounced brow in one hand, and sighed. Three hours of informal interviews, flitting from one end of the village to the other; she idly wished she’d spent a few more afternoons on the country track or in the river back at Oxford. And the natives! Miss Evans was an anthropologist, but even the redoubtable Col. Lawrence would not have borne this! Her Zhiva informants always stood and sat so close to her, as close as lovers, touching her now on the shoulder and now on the cheek and now on the knee. One of the women had put one arm around her shoulders, and stroked her thigh in a most familiar fashion, certainly not sisterly. And they had, to a man, had asked where her husband was. Their shifty refusal to meet her in the eye only added to the aggravation. But she had one more interview to go and, thank God, the woman had agreed to meet with her at her field residence, which the natives had dubbed the Wood House. It was a cabin that the English surveyors had assembled in advance of her coming, boasting a small woodstove, Western-styled furniture of bamboo, and a mattress with the thinnest sheet she could bear to have. She dabbed at her brow, untied her dirty blonde hair and reset the ponytail.
The creak of the screen door announced the woman’s arrival. It was her, the woman with the guarded eyes. She was a dark, slim girl, with fine black hair like threads of silk. Her skin had a healthy, golden glow from generations under the tropical sun. She had a tiny mouth, with full lips, which inexplicably reminded Miss Evans of some hothouse flower that hadn’t bloomed yet. But her dark eyes were what drew Miss Evans to her, how fleeting her gaze, the slightest of creases between her brows, the hunted use of eye contact, the reticent gestures…this young woman behaved more like Miss Evans’ maiden aunt than a strapping specimen of undiminished savage humanity. She even sat a comfortable distance away.
“Ke-ko.” Miss Evans tried to form the native greeting, its exact etymology still uncertain.
The woman looked up at her, startled, her dark eyes to Miss Evans’ baby blues.
“Khe-ko.” She said, clearly and distinctly, their gaze fixed on each other. She blinked, turned away, and switched to Hlao, “You say wrong.”
Miss Evans smiled, delighted that anyone in the village would actually try to correct her. She absently ran one hand through her blonde hair.
“Khe-ko.” She said, before using Hlao herself. “Thank you. Please, sit.”
Miss Evans gestured grandly, as the natives did. To her mind, like an Italian.
“How well do you speak Hlao?”
“My uncle marry Hlao woman. I sleep with them.” Miss Evans raised an eyebrow. Her other informants had stayed with their parents until marriage…unless this woman was an orphan. After marriage, they were notably neolocal.
“How are you called?” Miss Evans asked, navigating around the question of a name, which many local tribes believed held magical power. She tugged at her sweaty shirt, where perspiration was already showing. A scandal in London, to be sure, but going without knickers and undershirt here was really the only way she could manage. She undid one more button.
“My uncle call me Lani.”
“And the village?”
She looked directly into Miss Evans’ eyes. She wondered if this was some native power play, and met them. There was something in them, like a dark cloud passing before the sun, something intriguing…
“The village call me Maru.”
Miss Evans paused before speaking.
“That’s a Hlao word.” She said. Bitterness. “How do you say it in your tongue?”
“Haga.” Maru said, still meeting Miss Evans’ eyes.
“I am called Miss Evans. I have come from far away to learn about you and your village.” Miss Evans said. “I do not know how to speak. I know the tongue of my people and the tongue of the Hlao. Will you help me learn?”
Maru blinked, startled, and stared out the window. The salty breeze relieved the heat, a little. She turned back to Miss Evans with a coy little look.
“Misevans, I do not know why you want my help.” She said, turning serious. “I am mina.”
“Mina?” Miss Evans asked. “Another name?”
“No.” She bit her lip. “I am outside-person. But not born outside, put outside. Like dead woman…put outside.”
Miss Evans’ brow furrowed. Here was a mystery which could unlock the whole culture.
The silence that followed would have unsettled even a Japanese.
“You were not born outside.” Miss Evans said at last, fiddling with her pencil and notebook. “Where were you born? Do many young women live with their uncles?”
The questions poured forth. Miss Evans had expected to have a ten-minute interview with the young woman…with Maru…but the unexpected windfall of Maru’s Hlao was too good to pass up. She stayed the afternoon, answering many of the questions Miss Evans asked and giving her basic lessons in the Zhiva language. Her parents were dead now, and most of her childhood friends were now married and, for undisclosed reasons, would not speak to her. When her fate as a spinster became clear, she took up residence in her uncle’s home and assisted his wife in the daily chores.
Miss Evans had worn her pencil to nearly a nub by the time Maru had to go prepare dinner.
“I do hope to see you again.” Miss Evans said in Hlao, fanning herself with her notebook. Maru was fanning herself as well in the stifling heat of the Wood House, her skin covered in a sheen of sweat. They sat together lazily, shoulder to shoulder and nearly touching, against the rough wall. Maru pushed off and rose, and Miss Evans rose with her.
“As you.” Maru said, running her hands into her long, dark hair and stretching. “You want eat, you come me home.”
Miss Evans took the door and gestured for Maru, who thanked her and went on her way.
Miss Evans watched the young woman walk along the volcanic ash of the village soil, her bronzed shoulders shining in the last rays of the sun, lingering there a little overlong with a rapt look. She produced another pencil and started interpreting what she could of Maru’s testimony; she mentioned the native word for spirit, maraka, only three times…a quick sketch of Maru’s kinship diagram as she understood it…notes on Maru’s intended cuisine…
It was long past nightfall when Miss Evans finally set her notebook aside, excited to have a head start on her year in the field.
“Shamba.” Maru said, pointing at a passing dog.
“Shamba.” Miss Evans repeated.
“Rei.” Maru said with a grunt as she lifted the water pail that Miss Evans had given her.
“Rei…water?” Miss Evans asked.
“Ka mala. Vo an rei!” Maru replied.
Miss Evans muttered the Zhiva apology and hefted the other pail of water. Together, they marched up the bank to the house of Maru’s clan, now mainly consisting of her uncle, his wife, and Maru herself. The Hlao woman, tall and dark with wiry hair, stood at the door flap, waiting for them.
Miss Evans set down the pail next to the hut door. She blushed, and deeply, when Maru’s aunt took her hand gently and embraced her. She could feel the woman’s bare flesh against her, and although she had become more blasé about seeing it around the village, she still couldn’t quite handle having it, well, pressed on her. Fortunately, Maru’s aunt picked up on her tension, and let her go. Miss Evans found herself with one hand clamped around her other arm, and tried to relax her muscles.
“You do much good work for us.” Auntie said. “Sit, sit, eat, eat! I insist!”
“Oh no, I really-” Miss Evans started, but the aunt threw one brawny arm over her shoulder like a cowl and moved her to the firepit, plopping her down next to Maru. Maru’s uncle, an ephemeral man of wispy hairs and perfect dentition, grinned broadly at the foreigner’s shocked expression. It distorted his tribal tattoos in a way Miss Evans found vaguely unsettling.
“When you try be kind,” Maru said, “you ask. We no ask.”
“We don’t ask.” The aunt said, correcting Maru’s Hlao. Maru shot her aunt a dirty look before continuing.
“We be kind, we command.” Maru said. “You ask, you sound like little girl.”
The Hlao aunt snickered. Miss Evans took a deep breath.
“Vo an pin!” Miss Evans said, demanding food. The old man laughed and clapped his hands. Maru patted her on the shoulder approvingly and then fished something out of the pot in the firepit, half-buried in the hot stones. That pat on the shoulder, somehow, had felt better and yet heavier than her aunt’s too-familiar arm.
Maru handed Miss Evans her lunch, something she’d seen around. It was rice and fowl, heavily spiced and wrapped in a leaf. She was still trying to untie the cord around her meal when a rich, odiferous rice ball appeared in front of her face. She looked up to see Maru holding a rice ball to her mouth with two fingers.
“I can feed myself, thank you.” Miss Evans said irritably in Hlao.
“We good people.” Maru said. “We kind people. We give you food. You guest. You take food.”
Miss Evans bit her tongue, took another breath, and took the ball of rice, meat, and tongue-searing spices in one gulp. Her mouth burned around Maru’s finger, covered in spice. Something in the dish changed her taste, as if her mouth had been scoured with fire. There was nothing, and then tingling, and then the strangest and most indescribable tastes raced across her limp tongue.
She smiled weakly, her eyes watering. She took a long drought of the bowl of yoghurt sitting at her left hand.
Maru leaned over, and Miss Evans could feel her hot, scented breath on her ear. Her chest hitched.
“You give food now.” She whispered. Miss Evans looked down, opened the leaf, and split her ball into three, and popped one into the aunt’s mouth, one into the old man (to his indescribable childish delight), and one into Maru’s mouth. The old couple thought nothing of it, but Maru nodded at her with a satisfied air as she chewed.
Miss Evans herself smiled. At least Maru understood how hard it was for her to be an outsider, to learn like a child all over again.
“Good you learn.” Maru said. “Seilaan festival, soon.”
“Seilaan?” Miss Evans asked.
The aunt nodded.
“Seilaan, we’ll have a big fire in the middle of the village, and give cakes and the Old Man will tell stories. Much dancing with men. Maybe you find husband there.”
Miss Evans blinked. “How soon?”
“One moon, maybe two.” Maru shrugged, her face hidden behind her hair. “It come, we know.”
Everyone understood this to be the end of the discussion. Miss Evans had never seen Maru like this.
A month or two…that was around the summer solstice.
The old man and his wife proffered their rice cakes to her. Miss Evans smiled gamely. At least it would be good material for her notes.
Miss Evans had always hated cooking at home in Bristol, but found it here to be a hobby to her liking. It was private, it was properly English, and it took a long time. Her initial experiments at replicating bubble and squeak ended with a fire chain smashing pots of water on her poor stove. The first few attempts at frying up some of the fry from the creek had taken hours to clean, as the native plant oils smoked at far lower temperatures than good beef lard. Finally, after a visit to the lowlands and the port, she managed to acquire some decent peanut oil and a whole bag of American potatoes. The peanut oil, she decided as she sampled her results, was an acceptable substitute in cookery.
After three months, she had successfully made fish and chips.
Now, Miss Evans paced up and down the tiny space of the Wood House, whistling an old English murder-ballad tunelessly, her heart a-flutter. She’d made a second batch, and it had come out all right…but this was something else. She’d even gotten real newspaper to wrap it all in. The lamp was lit. She nervously lit it again.
What would Maru think?
“Kheko.” Came a voice from the door.
“Kheko.” Said Miss Evans. “Come in! Come in!”
Play Italian, she reminded herself. She found it oddly natural, now, to stand broad and gesture large…especially when she was nervous.
I must be overcoming my culture shock, she thought, taking Maru by the shoulders and escorting her into the Wood House. Her hands tented over Maru’s skin gingerly, as if she were still afraid to touch the girl as familiarly as she and all her kin touched her.
“I make food.” She said. “I make food.”
“You made Zhiva cuisine?” Maru asked, cocking one eyebrow and giving her a coy look. Miss Evans hoped she would still smile like that after trying her meal.
“No.” Miss Evans said, and felt herself suddenly at a loss for words in English, Hlao, Zhiva, French or Latin. She sat Maru down, went to the kitchen. With trembling hands, she took the newspaper, came back into the living room, and sat just opposite Maru. She’d shoved the bundle into Maru’s hands before her voice came back.
“Thank you.” Miss Evans said, in halting Zhiva. “For you. Me race, me food.”
Maru cradled the newspaper cone in her hands almost like an Englishwoman would hold a bouquet of flowers. She gingerly set it in her lap, yelped a little, then set it in front of her, between their Indian-crossed legs. She carefully took a chip from it, looked up into Miss Evans’ gaze despite herself, and slowly brought it to Miss Evans’ mouth. With some dignity, Miss Evans took the chip, and felt Maru’s outstretched finger against her lips. Here, now, just the two of them, something about it felt…
…I must be overcoming my culture shock, she thought, rather more forcefully than necessary. The chip tasted greasy and heavy and heavenly, and she swallowed eagerly.
Maru’s eyelashes fluttered, and she met Miss Evans’ gaze, turned one hand over so the pale palm showed, her fingers outstretched. Miss Evans took one of the greasy battered fillets from the unraveling newsprint, and carefully set it in Maru’s waiting mouth, between the white, shining rows of straight, healthy teeth.
She watched Maru chew slowly, hoping that she liked the dish.
“What do you call this?” Maru asked in Zhiva.
“Fish and chips.”
“Good taste. Needs spice.” Maru said simply, smiling in the lamplight. Miss Evans held up her tin salt shaker, and shook some into her palm.
“What do you call this?” She asked. Maru leaned forward as if she were going to sample it, as if she were going to wrap her lips and tongue around Miss Evans’ fingers, and Miss Evans’ hand shot back as if she’d been burned. She flushed, and apologized. She didn’t hear what Maru said when she tried some on her own palm, her ears burned so badly.
Maru poured on the salt (“zhiwa“) and soaked the newsprint completely in vinegar (“koko rei“), and then pronounced English food to be to her liking. She took another fillet, and offered it to Miss Evans, who ate the soggy mess with delight. There was something about this, sitting alone here with Maru and the lamp and the moon and the fish and chips, that was just luxurious…she could not have felt richer if she were the rightful Queen of all Britain and Empress of India. She felt oddly giddy, like her mother when she’d cinch her corset too tight, almost like champagne had flooded her braincase. By the time they were finished, she and Maru were licking and sucking the grease and vinegar off each other’s fingers with delight. Maru’s fingers tasted, and felt, wonderful. Then her laughter stopped, and her hand disappeared, and now Maru was covering herself and blushing.
“What’s wrong?” Miss Evans asked, watching the blush spread down to…
“I’m sorry.” Maru said in Zhiva, awkwardly getting to her feet. “I’m sorry, dear, I have to go, I’m not- no. No. no. no.”
She was still muttering ‘no’ as the door shut behind her, leaving Miss Evans alone in wonder.
Miss Evans stood, still out of herself, and mechanically cleaned up the remains of dinner while her mind whirred.
What in Heaven was that? She asked herself. At last, she took the lamp and set it on the desk, and opened a notebook to record the experience. As Dr. Bennett had always told her, writing her initial observations during or soon after the event observed was absolutely vital. She included a few sketches of Maru’s body language while she was perturbed, and was quite pleased with how completely and accurately she captured it.
Dr. Bennett had taught her to draw, too. Naomi Bennett had taught her much, in the classrooms at Oxford or in her teak-paneled office over the seemingly endless cups of tea and, later, glasses of sherry. She was a Jewess of some accomplishment, imposing, imperial, and tall, yet, in that office, could be the warmest and most sisterly friend a young woman could hope for. In her sophomore year, when she hadn’t the money to pay her rent, Miss Evans had boarded at Dr. Bennett’s apartment, eating the strange food and watching in wonder when Dr. Bennett brought her to her temple one Friday night.
Miss Evans smiled to herself. If ever she knew she wanted to become an anthropologist, it was after that stay. She got up, poured herself a glass from the bottle of sherry she’d been rationing, and sat back down. Such different customs, even in staid old Oxford.
Taking a sip, Miss Evans crossed her legs.
How warmly Dr. Bennett had embraced her when Harold had left her for that public-school trollop. They’d stayed up for hours, discussing men and their ways across the world and sipping …
…yes, this very sherry.
Amazing, she thought. It seemed almost as if it were the night before.
Her eyes fell on her worn copy of Coming of Age in Samoa, and her leg began to sway at a faster beat. One night, during her graduate studies, she came to that teak office and the conversation had turned to Ms. Mead’s work. They were perhaps two sherries in by that time of the evening, sitting side by side in the two vast armchairs set along one paneled wall with the sherry between them, and Miss Evans had wondered aloud whether any young women of England behaved like the Samoans, with or without secrecy.
The look Dr. Bennett had given her, sidelong, quizzical, and mysterious…why, Miss Evans could probably draw it there in her notebook, next to the sketches of Maru.
“Once,” she said, “when I was spending the night at a girlfriend’s, I could no longer contain my curiosity about her body, which she’d always hidden out of Victorian modesty. I asked her if, as proof of our friendship, we could touch each other’s developing breasts. She refused, of course. I was overcome with a terrible desire to kiss her, which I did, suddenly and impulsively. She was shocked and feigned disgust, but she let me continue to stay the night on the promise that I never repeat the gesture.”
She’d turned away from Miss Evans, then, looking out the window where the rain was running rivulets down the pane. Miss Evans was shocked, herself, and did not know what to think or feel. She still saw, like a doubly-exposed photograph, Dr. Bennett’s mouth hanging before her, and something about it drew her, like a mystery.
“I wonder where Ruth is, now.” Dr. Bennett wondered aloud. “Surely married somewhere.”
“I…” Miss Evans had begun, her face hot. “I had perhaps better go.”
Miss Evans had risen, and mumbled some thank yous. She had felt unbearably hot. Dr. Bennett rose with her, apparently unaware of her discomfort, and went to get the door for her. She’d been aware of the smell of the place, the sherry and musty books and something of Dr. Bennett’s house, the smell of matzo…
“Good evening, Miss Evans.” Dr. Bennett had said. Quickly, and without thinking, Miss Evans had leaned over and kissed her. Dr. Bennet’s…Naomi’s…lips were pliant and yielding, before curving into a soft smile. Miss Evans’ head jolted back as quickly and suddenly as she’d come forward.
“I-I-I’m terribly sorry, I have to go.” She said, running into the night.
Miss Evans downed the last of her sherry, and felt a pleasant, tingling warmth spread through her body. Of its own accord, her leg ceased swaying, and relaxed.
Maru had been right, when the seilaan festival came, everyone knew. The women plaited their hair and brought out their dazzling, riotously colored skirts for the occasion. The men walked tall, their tattooed skin glistening with scented oil. The old men of the village gave orders, and the young men assembled a great bonfire in the town square. And Miss Evans’ pencil would not stop.
To Miss Evans’ surprise, an effigy of a man, made of wood and smelling of cinnamon, was brought forward near sunset. She turned to one of the clanheads standing near her (Sea-Turtle, if her notes on the tattoos were correct) and asked.
“Sea-Turtle,” she said, “you tell me man-of-wood why?”
Sea-Turtle cocked one eyebrow at the little pale woman.
“He is the big maraka, he brings the rain.” He said, speaking clearly for the dim foreigner. “We give him back his body, he gives us his tears.”
Miss Evans’ eyes were bright in the twilight, her pencil flitting across a page she could no longer clearly see.
“Misevans, seilaan vasai!” Maru cried, waving broadly. Sea-Turtle huffed, looked at her the way Miss Evans would have regarded an Irish, and pointedly went on his way.
What was that? She wondered.
Miss Evans rose from her seat and greeted Maru. She wore an intricate layered skirt, a brilliant woven riot of colors that started just below her navel and stopped just above her knee, something which shocked and nearly titillated Miss Evans even after so many months among the Zhiva. Her hair had been coiled into two cute little buns like little rice-cakes just above her ears, which only accented the beautiful symmetry of her long, slender neck. Miss Evans felt an almost irresistible urge to run her fingers along that curve, just once, down to the shoulder and folding back again across the clavicle…
“How are you, girl?” Auntie said, throwing her great arms around Miss Evans’ slender shoulders. “You be careful tonight, there are some men, I think, who maybe fancy a mina woman?”
Everyone laughed politely.
“No, I’m sure I’ll go home alone tonight. But you!” She turned to Maru, resplendent in her Technicolor dream skirt and bright smile, and switched to Zhiva. “You more beauty what Sky-goddess! Many men want you.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the little group, and the air seemed filled with empty spaces and the far off shouts of men.
“What’s that you have there?” Maru’s uncle finally said, pointing to her camera box.
“A! This, ummm…picture-box. We say ‘camera.'” Miss Evans said. She knelt down to unlatch it and pull out the camera. “Very new. Leica II. German.”
“Kamara…” Maru muttered, kneeling down next to Miss Evans.
“You dance tonight.” She said in Hlao, with a sotto voice.
“I don’t know how.” Miss Evans said.
“Is very simple. Right, left, right, left. With boys.” She caught Miss Evans’ eye, and they shared the conspiratorial grin of girlfriends. “You like tattoo-men, no? Exotic, no?”
Miss Evans laughed, and Maru smiled.
“Honestly!” She exclaimed in English. “Maru, you have a vulgar mind.”
Now Maru laughed. It was a wonderful rich sound, like some strange Oriental stringed instrument.
“It only vulgar when I say you.” She said, her dark eyes glittering in the firelight and her smile rivaling the Cheshire cat’s.
Miss Evans felt the proximity of the woman, her living, breathing presence, more clearly and more acutely than she had ever felt with anyone.
“Look!” Auntie said, pointing to the bonfire. Maru and Miss Evans stood, and watched as Sea-Turtle held a torch aloft.
Miss Evans could barely understand what Sea-Turtle was saying, but she caught maraka, mina, mana (“power?” she noted), and the words for rain, thanks, gift, exchange, favor, and Zhiva. There were some call-response sections, which everyone but her knew by heart. She made a note to ask Maru or Auntie about it later. Finally, Sea-Turtle donned a rope mask and tossed the burning brand onto the wood pile. Several clansmen rushed to help the fire to catch, and within fifteen minutes it was burning merrily and had completely consumed the effigy of Big Maraka. This was accompanied to shouts of joy and the clanging of spears against shields.
“Now, we dance.” Maru said, taking Miss Evans by the arm.
“What? But I don’t know how!” The women were lining up on one end, and the men on the other.
“Okay, I be man. You go with women.” Maru said, pushing Miss Evans off toward the women’s line. She confidently strode over to the men’s line, despite the scattered looks that made Miss Evans blush for her.
She waited, and, left foot! She marched in line, like a soldier, towards Maru. Maru put her hands parallel to the ground, Miss Evans did likewise. As they came together, Miss Evans turned her hands up and they met palm to palm.
“Good.” Maru said. “Left, left, turn…”
Miss Evans stumbled over her foot.
“Left, left, turn…”
This time, she felt much more comfortable.
“Now other man.” Maru said, sending her on her way.
A tall, imposing specimen of savage man, resplendent and smelling of myrrh, met her palm to palm. Miss Evans felt a thrill run through her from standing so close to such a powerful creature. Left, left, turn…
He muttered something about “Ora.”
Ora? She wondered. What in God’s name is Ora?
It seemed a word full of power.
Chanting began. Call and answer.
Miss Evans never, in the long circle of men that she danced with, found the time to blush.
“Fantastic!” Miss Evans exclaimed, patting down her hands on her khakis as she rejoined Maru, Auntie, and her uncle. “Good! Good good! Good seilaan…thing!”
Auntie smiled on her as on a daughter. The chant changed.
“Oh! Is there a dance to this?” Miss Evans asked. Maru glanced at her sidelong, a fleeting look of desire and wistfulness and longing and pain, and then stared at her feet.
“Yes.” She said.
“Will you show me this one, too?” Miss Evans asked, a little taken aback at everything that look had said.
Maru swallowed, and reached up to rub the back of her neck.
“Misevans,” she said in a harsh whisper, looking out over the dancers, “you want be part of village. You want be part of village, you no with me dance.”
“It’s the marriage dance, girl.” Auntie said. “It would be…”
She exchanged glances with Maru.
“…very mina, very strange for two women to dance like fiancés.”
Miss Evans cleared her throat, in an attempt to dislodge the errant foot. She squatted down and pulled the camera out, set up the picture. Maru watched intently as Miss Evans manipulated her foreign technology. Nearby, Auntie and Maru’s uncle embraced lovingly.
“Alright, people…” Miss Evans said at last. “…watch the birdie.”
There was a horrible, ghastly darkness.
There was a horrible, ghastly light.
There was a horrible, ghastly darkness.
And it occurred to Miss Evans that she had not seen any portraits or photographs anywhere in the village.
The chanting had stopped. There was only the sound of flames. Miss Evans looked up to see the tribe standing before her, bearing fists and spears.
She chirped the Zhiva apology hopefully.
“…Misevans, what kind picture-box?” Maru asked through clenched teeth. “Make picture me? Make picture them?”
“Yes.” She said, clutching the camera strap.
“Bad mana.” Maru replied.
Auntie stepped forward, and offered deep, sincere, and incredibly intricate apologies on behalf of the stupid mina woman who did not know. Sea-Turtle replied something.
“Girl, will you throw your karama on the fire?”
“What? No!” She said, and jumped for the easy out. “It’s holy to my people.”
“Will you open the karama so their souls come out?”
“You catch soul.” Maru said. “You have in kamara box. You open box, soul come out.”
Miss Evans looked to Maru, then to the crowd, then to Auntie, then back to Maru. Finally, she looked down, and popped open the film door with a sigh. Auntie held the open camera aloft to demonstrate its open status, to the cheers of the crowd. She handed it back to Miss Evans with a hiss of, “put it away.”
Miss Evans put the camera back, and Maru knelt close and put one arm around her, the way Auntie did.
“You go, good.” She said. “You stay, no good.”
“Will you come with me?” Miss Evans asked. Maru just smiled.
The day dawned harsh and bright, the light fragmenting into a thousand shards in front of Miss Evans’ eyes. The world lurched before her, her belly hard and tight and insistent. She staggered toward the honey bucket in the far corner of the Wood House, clutching her alarmed stomach. She could hear a torn moaning, and groggily recognized it as hers. She sat on the honey bucket, and understood.
She must have drunk contaminated water, probably during seilaan. Taking care of her business, she stumbled back from the stool to her mattress. That trip, measured in feet, felt like it had nearly killed her. Getting to even the nearest neighbor, a distance measured in yards, was beyond her capabilities right then. Maybe she could fight it off and she could get more help later.
Yes, that was it. She could get help later.
She groaned again, flopped over wetly, and tried to get back to sleep.
Out of vague night-ghasts, Miss Evans woke into a nightmare, despoiling herself and soiling herself in limping across the Wood House. She smelled of sweat and sickness, and the heat had made the honey bucket fetid. She felt like she was rotting from the inside. The day felt timeless, as if the heat and damp and light and pain and sickness alone were eternal.
The hours dragged on, half-dream and half-sane, interminable, as Miss Evans organized her notes in her head, wished for the cold and clammy air of London, of low-class ruffians pressed on every side who could hear her moaning in pain. She courted a hundred handsome princes, wrote a thousand Nobel-winning papers, and felt a hundred thousand cool English rains in the hours that passed, her mind trying desperately to escape the horridness of that little house in a faraway speck of the Empire under a sun no civilized person should labor beneath where the air tried to suffocate her and the food tried to kill her and she had no friend in the world…
“Misevans?” Maru called. “Misevans, where you- Maraka jaru!”
Miss Evans could barely open her eyes. She slapped her hand around the mattress, looking for the blanket to cover her nakedness. She pulled it over her naked breasts as Maru strode boldly into her kitchen, gathered some salt, and … she couldn’t make out the ritual, but it ended with a salt cross on her damp forehead.
“Misevans, what you eat? What you eat?” Maru demanded.
Miss Evans just groaned.
“You eat bad thing, Misevans.” Maru scolded. “You no eat bad thing! No eat!”
“Yes’m.” Miss Evans muttered.
“A? You stay. My aunt, she cook strong-soup.” Maru said. “She cook. I pray maraka. I help you.”
Her hand was on the door.
“Wait.” Miss Evans said, first in English. “Wait.”
Maru looked at her.
“You rest, you-”
“My maraka.” Miss Evans said. “My maraka hate cold water. Vo an rei, you get water. Put water on fire, cook…see bubbles, stop. I drink this water. I eat food of this water.”
Maru furrowed her brow at Miss Evans.
“You maraka mina, very strange.” She said. And then she was gone.
She returned later with a vast bowl of very clear, salty soup and a steaming pot of rice. Miss Evans weakly tried to offer her the first tidings, as befitted her people, but Maru would not take food of the weak. While Miss Evans ate her lonely repast, Maru emptied the honey bucket, using most of Miss Evans’ salt supply to purify it ritualistically afterwards. Miss Evans propped her shoulders against the wall, thanking Maru profusely in all five languages she knew. Maru sat down next to her and brushed the limp strings of hair from her face, asking her what they all were. Miss Evans reached up half-playfully to brush Maru’s hair out of her face, as well.
“Get my atlas from the shelf.” Miss Evans said, when she felt a little better. Maru just stared at her, until she gestured to the pile of books on her desk. Maru, helpfully, brought the entire pile.
Miss Evans took the atlas out, and showed it to her.
“Do you know what this is?”
“It’s called a book.” She said.
“Book.” Maru repeated, using /y/ and not /U/. “What it do?”
“It…” Miss Evans started. “…it shows me truth.”
Maru nodded sagely.
Miss Evans chortled.
“Ha ha ha, ow.” She said, patting her stomach. “Yes, I guess so. Some books tell stories, some books talk about the world.”
She opened the atlas to a map of Oceania.
“See here? This is the big sea.” She said, pointing to the blue. “This right here is the island that the Hlao call Wakame Watu. Do you know Wakame?”
“And right here, this is where we are, on Kaoru Watu.” She said, tapping her finger on the book’s pages. “This is a map, a drawing of all the islands in Asia.”
“All islands?” Maru asked incredulously. She’d clearly been taken for a ride before.
“All the islands near here.”
“Even you island, you home?”
“No. My home is over here…”
Miss Evans found the hours to pass much faster in Maru’s company, as she showed her the atlas and explained about the seven continents, the British Empire, and her dominance of the seas. She took the old Great War era Army guide and showed Maru where it explained about sanitation, showed her in pictures and taught her the idea of writing. And, as Maru lit the lamp at her desk and brought it to the bedside, she took up Coming of Age in Samoa in one hand and told her the story of Margaret Mead.
“Kuaka, zoa, amaza, zan, zae, joae, tomu man.” They chanted, clapping hands and pointing to each other’s noses, eyes, hair, arms, ears, legs, and belly buttons. Maru gave a pleased peal of laughter and clapped her hands together in front of her face. Miss Evans beamed with the smile she usually reserved for her favorite teachers.
She was well along in her convalescence, thanks to Maru’s care. As near as she could tell, Maru simply left a pot on to boil in the morning and came over to Wood House, to care for Miss Evans and to be with her. Her lovely teacher had spent the entirety of the previous few days by her bedside, occasionally massaging her in the shoulders and neck (which felt simply divine) or in the stomach (which did help with her pains). They had resumed her instruction in Zhiva via delightful children’s games, involving much singing together, boisterous laughter, and an awful lot of friendly touching, which Miss Evans did not find entirely unwelcome.
“Very good, very good, you learn very fast.” Maru said. “You can sing alone, yes?”
“Kuaka, zoa, amaza, zan, zae, joae, tomu man.” Miss Evans sang, waving her fingers in the air to Maru’s amusement. Maru nodded, businesslike.
“Good.” Maru said. “Now, next part.”
“Revo.” She said, placing a single finger on Miss Evans’ lips as if to shush her. Maru’s finger felt strangely cool, and her lips suddenly hot and dry. She swallowed the urge to moisten them.
“Revo.” Miss Evans repeated, putting her finger to Maru’s lips, the ones like a budding flower. She felt her heart quicken.
“Ravu.” Maru said, languidly drawing her finger from one of Miss Evans’ dimples to the other. She could almost taste Maru’s skin.
“R-ravu.” Miss Evans said, tracing her own finger across Maru’s mouth.
“Lana.” Maru said, one hand grazing Miss Evans’ nipple through the khaki shirt. A thrill ran through her, her nipples tightening like when she went out in the snow without a cardigan…except, this time, accompanied by a warm feeling. It seemed almost like her chest had been cinched to something deep inside her, and Maru’s light caress had turned the screw. It frightened her that it was not entirely unpleasant.
Maru stared at her expectantly, and she was aware that she was lying in a little room alone with a half-nude woman who expected her to touch her breasts. Some insane, fevered part of her almost wanted to, to lay her hands on those exposed breasts that she once again felt keenly aware of. Her hands trembled in the air, half-fisted and drawn in.
“I’m sorry,” she said, as the cacophony of feeling subsided, “I can’t.”
Maru looked on, concerned. She reached out to pat Miss Evans’ head.
“N-no!” She cried rather suddenly. “I’m sorry, Maru. My people don’t touch there. My maraka don’t want women to touch other women … there. It just…shocked me, is all.”
Maru sat back on her haunches, pursed her lips and covered her mouth in embarrassment.
“Let’s play a different game, shall we?” Miss Evans said, smiling weakly.
Three or four days after her initial attack, Miss Evans was again ambulatory, and went down to the river with Maru to bathe. She had given herself sponge baths in the privacy of the cabin, but she was willing to risk her modesty for the feel of the cool water and clean air after her convalescence in the Wood House. With Maru supporting her, despite her protestations, she made it to the river before noon and the washer-spinsters. They had come to a little pool just downstream of the village, where the rocks were smoothed over. The creek was running full, even now that the wet season was finished. The rocks…Miss Evans bent down over the rocks to examine them…yes…they’d been hewn! Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Maru effortlessly glided from her rope skirt, and stood glistening beneath God’s blue sky.
Miss Evans quickly went back to examining the stones.
“Maru,” she said, glad that Zhiva custom condoned a lack of eye contact, “do your people have stories of people who were here before?”
“Yes, we – A!” Maru cried. Miss Evans looked up.
Maru had fallen into the pool. With sudden, strange strength, Miss Evans leapt directly into the water, khakis and all, and made her way to Maru. The native girl tried to rise several times, before crying out and falling back down again.
“Ora!” She cried once.
That word again, Miss Evans thought.
“Shhh.” Miss Evans said. “I’ll help you. Let’s get you to shore.”
Miss Evans bent down, submerging up to her hot, grubby shoulders, and lifted Maru off the bottom. She half-carried, half-dragged Maru to the smooth stone table she’d been studying.
“What’s hurt?” She asked. Maru pointed to her left foot. Miss Evans took one look and hissed.
She’d cut her foot open, and the wound still wept. And that looked like an ankle sprain, in Miss Evans’ untutored opinion.
“You fell?” She asked. Maru nodded.
She looked over Maru’s naked body. She had some bruises and surface abrasions on the heel of her hand and on one elbow, but nothing to worry about. That sprain and the initial cut…
“Maru, does your aunt have rice wine?” She asked. “And very, very cold water?”
“She has rice wine.” Maru asked. “Why?”
“My book tells me to put wine on a cut or it will get sick.” She said. She patted the girl’s head, running her fingers through her hair absently. “Don’t worry, this is very small. I just need to put your foot up and you leave it there, alright?”
Maru nodded. Miss Evans piled Maru’s skirt up and set her long, slender leg on it delicately.
“Misevans,” Maru said, “you tell Auntie, tell her make strong-soup, and chew moss.”
Miss Evans stopped, her training running away with her to try and analyze what she’d just heard. She cut herself off by turning to the anthropologist’s answer to everything.
It’s ritualistic, certainly religious, she told herself. Strong-soup and “chew moss…”
The way to Maru’s home seemed unnaturally short. Between pants, Miss Evans explained what happened in Hlao to the surprised aunt and told her Maru’s request.
“Boil some water,” she said, “I’ll need rice wine, and hot water, and a…”
The Hlao woman removed the moss from her mouth and offered it to Miss Evans. It looked like a wad of greenish, used chewing gum. Miss Evans could feel the color draining from her face just looking at it.
“Take it!” The old woman insisted. “Chew!”
“No!” Miss Evans cried, stopping just short of insulting her host and her host’s whole people for their savagery. “Boil me some water and get your rice wine!”
“You no need water, you take this to her!”
“Look, you savage-”
“We don’t have time, mina! I’ll fetch the wine, you chew this and take it to her, NOW!” The old woman shouted, shaking a finger at Miss Evans like she was wielding a club. Miss Evans took the offered …stuff… and put it in her mouth. It tasted incredibly maru, incredibly bitter. Maru’s aunt took a small jar of rice wine and handed it to her.
Miss Evans was indulging in a thoroughly black mood, one fist clenched around the neck of the wine-jar, when she returned to the pool where Maru lay.
“Good, you chew.” Maru said. “Two woman mana, two woman power.”
“Shut up!” Miss Evans replied, immediately feeling like someone had just hit her.
I just told off Maru, she realized, wondering how she’d gotten there. She uncorked the wine-jar.
“This will hurt a little. It’s a good hurt, I promise.” She said, pouring out a trickle of wine over Maru’s cut. Maru yelped. “Now, I’m going to take a bit of my khaki, your …”
Miss Evans took a deep breath, and a long-suffering sigh.
“You chew moss. You put on cut.” Maru said insistently.
Miss Evans stared at her as if she had a squid in her mouth.
“…what?” She said in Zhiva, the bitterness seeping into her throat.
“You put on cut.” Maru said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Shaman-moss. Strong. …I cook you water, you chew me moss!”
Miss Evans took the ball of moss from her mouth, and dabbed it on Maru’s cut. Maru took a cord from her skirt, and bound the moss to her foot with it. Miss Evans sliced a shoot in half with her survival knife and tore off a bit of her shirt to form a splint for Maru’s ankle, while Maru explained the Zhiva healing arts to her. The shaman-moss blocked the magical intrusion in the body, so that sickness could not enter through the hole. Miss Evans listened, took notes with her ears, and wondered if perhaps the species of moss was not vaguely antiseptic.
After Maru’s aunt and uncle had helped her to their home, Maru sat with her leg elevated (at Miss Evans’ insistence), sipping the strong-soup that smelled of brine. Miss Evans sat at one side, with folded hands.
“Misevans,” Maru said, “you apologize me, you apologize Auntie.”
Miss Evans could feel bile rise in her throat.
“I did what I thought was best.” She said.
“No good. You apologize.”
Miss Evan stared at her hands. She turned to Maru, looked her straight in the eye, like a proper Englishwoman.
“I’m sorry.” She said. “I was-”
“No, you quiet now.” Maru said, her dark features spelling satisfaction. “You say enough.”
Miss Evans returned to staring at her hands, idly analyzing Maru’s earlier explanation of her faith.
“Misevans, you say you make maraka.” Maru said. “You make book.”
“Yes.” Miss Evans said, not looking up.
“You apologize me, you no owe me now.” Maru said, her little mouth smiling in the corner of Miss Evans’ eye. “So I ask you now, you teach me make book? You teach me make maraka?”
Miss Evans looked up, impressed at the younger woman’s cunning.
“Of course.” She said. “I’ll teach you some English.”
“Good.” Maru nodded. “Now, you apologize Auntie.”
Maru had become taciturn, as the rice came in and the heat became less sticky. Miss Evans would call on her only to find that she had taken a very long walk down the creek, almost as far as where it met the big river. Her inquiries were met with the politest rebuffs from both Auntie and the old uncle.
She asked about Ora. Auntie told her that Ora was bad mana, a black-magic spell that opened demons from the past. She avoided asking about it again.
When Maru came to her, one evening in the twilight, they had not spoken for several days. Miss Evans was sitting at her desk, collating her notes on the seilaan courting ceremony, when she heard the only knock at the door in the village.
“Kheko, Maru.” Miss Evans said, coming to the door. “Come in, please come in!”
Maru smiled wanly at her. She’d been crying.
“Your Zhiva is getting better.” She said.
“I have a good teacher.” Miss Evans replied. “Please, have tea. Rice. Food. Chair?”
Maru just stood inside the doorway, her arms folded, her hands clenched. It was odd to see her so…unanimated.
“Maru, what’s wrong?” Miss Evans asked, putting an arm around Maru. “Come in. Sit.”
She escorted Maru to her bamboo-backed desk chair, and sat her down.
Maru took a deep breath. It sounded like an aeroplane engine in the silence of the Wood House.
“Misevans, I…” She started. She started a few more times. “I speak Hlao, or Zhiva, or…?”
“Whatever’s most comfortable.” Miss Evans said, fishing a notebook from her shirt pocket.
Maru stared out the picture window, over towards the western sea.
“Misevans, why you talk me?” She asked in Zhiva.
Miss Evans blinked.
“You’re my informant,” she said, simply, “and my friend.”
The back of Maru’s head remained impassive.
“We no talk long time. I been … away. It come around again. I know twenty-three monsoons.” She started. “They bring in rice that time, too…seven storms ago. Between seilaan and the harvest. I had … friend, she called Ora.”
Miss Evans felt her jaw go slack.
“She was older, like big sister. She from Sea-Turtle clan. We play together when we small. She hold me close when me parents die in Hlao raid. I wear dead-men white for three monsoons…all through blossoming, when girls wear colored skirts and dance courtship dance, fiancé dance, marriage dance. You remember Sata’s wedding?”
“Yes, of course.” Miss Evans replied. Two months before, shortly after Maru’s injury.
“They call me Lani then. Ora, she little-bit older me, more tall, slender, Hlao blood, so wire hair. She…like sister. She…love me. I no know how much until…”
Miss Evans knew Maru was smiling, and didn’t know how.
“She tease me, little bit, call me Wife, she say… like friends tease, yes? When I no more mourning, we go down to river, to pool, to bathe. She take off her skirts, I take off mine. I wash myself, she ask me wash her back. I take soapstone and start wash her back.
“I remember all the things…glint of sun, feel of her hot skin, baking, frizz of soapstone…she say ‘seilaan festival coming.’ Something mina in her talk, make me know we alone. She ask if I want dance with any one boy. I say I no vulgar mind, I think other things. She turn, we face to face. I ask why she ask, maybe she think of boy, yes?
“She say, she no have any boy she want dance with. I demand why, like angry duckling; my voice crack like duckling. She lean forward, I lean forward, and she kiss me, very sweet, with lips. Feel like … little bit feeling of finger on mouth after someone give first tiding. Only … more deep, like whole mountain underneath. She laugh, say that why.
“That how I know she … love me like that. Like man. Long time before we are comfortable…with each other. After seilaan. We dance with men but is nothing, flapping of gums…and after, away in darkness, she put vala, crown of flowers, on my head and we share wine-bowl in darkness. And we share kisses, lips buzz like mosquitoes from wedding wine, and smell rich oil in each other’s hair…
“We always together afterwards, like husband and wife. We bathe each other, exchange soap foam like first tidings…I love wash her neck, like smooth, curved stone… we eat together all the time. When I get rain sickness in me foot, she make me strong-soup and even drink it with me. She say me weakness, her weakness, her strength, me strength. She say if she need carry me on her back, no wait.
“Sometimes, she touch me, when we alone. We kiss, and I run me hands over her neck and her shoulders and her breasts…and she run her hands over me. She rub medicine-oil in me feet, she rub scented oil in me hair, then her hands go trail down…and I warm. Kind of tension, like air just before monsoon. She kiss me and her glossy hands go trailing down me stomach and is like lightning on the horizon…her hands reach me, and no care if me time or no, she go trailing down…and she penetrate me, the labor of a man…except men no gentle creatures and she so gentle with me…and I feel tension, storm brewing…and like that, storm overhead, and I go to place of clouds and rain.”
Miss Evans felt one hand uncomfortably close to her own place. She picked up her pencil and began writing again.
“Sometimes, she be kissing me, and she kiss me on me nipples, very gentle, like newborn child. She kiss me on me cheeks, and on me neck, and in me elbows and sometimes she start kiss me knees and then kiss up my thighs until she reach me…she nibble at me and kiss me and lap at me like yoghurt-bowl. She send me away and bring me back from place of clouds and rain, and she laugh and say I taste like strong-soup, I eat so much!
“I dance with her, I wanted dance bonfire with her. I make love to her, I wanted marry her…”
The whole atmosphere of the cabin changed. There was no more warm, electric tension before an afternoon’s rain.
“But men jabber, men gossip. Some ask, maybe she give me her curse that stop her marry, yes? Maybe I catch…”
Maru searched for the right word, couldn’t find it, and invented one.
“…unmarriagableness from her.”
Maru’s voice had no joy or humor, and now well deserved the name “bitter.”
“If only they know.”
Miss Evans tried to catch up.
“We careless…we walk close, her hand around me waist like man around wife’s…we spirit away to kiss and sit close together lovers-like…we call each other with closer names than other women call each other…she bring me presents. Garlands.
“We no want walk naked and brazen in front of Chief and him clan, we only love each other very much…same like any married couple. One day, she at my house, she help me prepare supper for Auntie’s people coming see her. We leave pot of lamb in hot sand to cook, and Ora lay me down on me blanket to stew. This big part, this important part to men, when they come…I lay down, I do woman’s labor, writhing on her. But she, she…”
Maru seemed unable to go on. Miss Evans waited, the silence palpable like the tension before a storm. She made her legs stop their clenching. She was no cricket.
“…she do the work of a man, her fingers work inside me like man’s lingam. Taman of Seagull open door-flap…hah, true name him…and there we. You see it, yes? I nude, lay back on me blanket, half-flushed and breathing hard, and Ora on top of me, she kissing me, run one hand through me hair with other hand buried deep inside me, please me. You see how angry they are, yes?
“They tear her off me. I wailing, I bound and brought to Chief. I kept for ransom and they debate what do Ora. I no sin, but she … they know Heaven break and no more rains because her. Auntie and my uncle come, and pay me ransom, and take me home while I sob and scream ‘Ora, Ora!’ Auntie say me, keep quiet, or Ora doomed.
“Auntie’s people take her, everyone say, and take her far away. She go down to Hlao lands, maybe even go to Boat yard, and her foot no more touch village…and her eye no more see me. I cry for hours after darkness, and Auntie’s people eat burnt lamb and talk-talk exile. I no think I sleep until I no more tears.
“Next sunup, they give me favor and me Auntie’s people leave me see her one more time, by pool where no one see. Ora, she kiss me, once, on forehead and say me she love me…”
Miss Evans looked up.
“That’s why they call you Maru.” She said.
“That’s why they call me Maru.” Maru replied. “I no offend Heaven, but after…no man dance with me. No more. I say you whole story me.”
They sat together, in the stifling heat, with Miss Evans keenly aware of the wet splotch on the front of her khaki shorts…sweat, certainly, but irritating. At long last, Miss Evans uncrossed her legs, set her notebook aside, and rose.
“Maru…” She said. Maru turned back, looked her in the eye. She’d cried fresh tears.
I love you, she didn’t say. The words ran and hid.
“…may I take a picture of you?” She said in Hlao.
Maru just stared.
“For the book I’m writing…this is … this is as big as Coming of Age in Samoa.” Miss Evans babbled. “A functional lesbian romance! This will revolutionize the field! I’d stand to win a Nobel…”
Maru slammed her fist on the table as her brown eyes burned.
“You call me friend!” She cried. “You call me friend and you write me and want to put in one of your books for everyone in your Empire read!”
She stood quickly, knocking the chair to the ground, and with one sweep of her powerful arm sent everything on the desk…books, ink, papers…crashing all over the floor.
“I give you me heart and you write and you ask for my soul, too.” Maru said, stabbing Miss Evans between the breasts with one finger. “You … are wicked woman.”
Miss Evans watched, speechless, as Maru stormed from the Wood House. After a very long time, she slid to the ground, with her notes and papers and her dog-eared copy of Coming of Age in Samoa.
What would Margaret Mead have done?
What would Naomi Bennett have done?
What could she do?
Absently, Miss Evans began turning over her notes…some of them were strictly professional, but many were about Maru. She’d started by trying to describe “that woman,” attempting to put into words what it was that set her apart. The way she moved and carried herself, like a fawn that knew it was hunted. At some point, now lost in the flurry of the subject’s monstrous anger, she stopped using sentences and used single words and phrases.
“Curve of shoulder…”
And, later, she had dispensed with words altogether, and tried to capture subtleties of Maru visually…just how her eye crinkled when she laughed, or the precise curve of her long, lean forearm…
This spoke to obsession.
This spoke to bias.
Miss Evans thought briefly of Dr. Bennett.
This spoke to love.
She had never really slept on the island. The heat and the wet left her a light sleeper. But Miss Evans woke that morning, sprawled among her scattered notes, still wearing the day’s clothes. By the sun…her notes! All over the floor! Nearly, she did quick mental math, six months’ worth!
Six months without context. Her archaeology professor would be quite put out.
As if coming up to speed, Miss Evans remembered the previous night. She dug through the mass of books and papers and dried ink splotches on the floor (“…that one looks like Maru’s smile…”) for the one that was tiny, and green, and fit snugly in her breast pocket. She located it near the stove, and took it in hand. It burned like a hot coal.
She looked up, dazed, the tendrils of dirty blonde hair plastered to her brow. Through the picture window, she could see…
“Maru!” Miss Evans cried. She beat the mosquito netting, on a thrill pulled her knife and cut it open. “Maru!”
Maru’s head jerked around, startled into the world from where she usually hid herself.
“Maru!” Miss Evans cried, holding her notebook aloft. The soft leather bulged as if it were pregnant. It is, Miss Evans though wildly, my notebook is pregnant.
Six months pregnant.
“Wait.” She said.
Miss Evans entertained a moment of glorious clarity, of knowing and understanding not just the right thing to do, but the only thing to do. She unscrewed the kerosene lamp, lit the wick in perfect, abject serenity. She emptied the spare can onto the paper and leather, wondering at the sour smell assaulting her nose. She slid the netting aside with one shoulder, wondering vaguely what kind of maraka demon or saint she must look like. The soft volcanic ash was warm between her toes.
Maru stood transfixed, unguarded, taken aback at the new and strange.
It burned like a seilaan-night fire. It burned like the London fire. The slow, thick consumption of the notebook seemed to be the only thing in the world. The green leather twisted, turned black, disappeared into ash and dark, coiling smoke, the pages curling and slowly wearing down to Miss Evans’ fingers. She yelped, the mana broken, as the last of the mass slid from her grip.
“Akiwatu, Misevens! Your blank book!” Maru cried, running to the Wood House. Miss Evans stepped over the smouldering remains of her fieldwork, embraced Maru.
“Yes. My blank book, the one with my notes on your confession.” Miss Evans said, enjoying the feeling of Maru’s skin on her arms, her weight throwing her just a little off balance. “It’s your story, yours alone. I would be a rotten anthropologist and an awful, awful human being if I took it from you…”
She wasn’t sure how to continue.
“…and I took it from you and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I stole your soul…even without taking any pictures. But here, it’s a sacrifice, a sacrifice for your gods …” Miss Evans’ voice caught in her throat. Maru looked at her quizzically, holding eye contact. A positive sign. “…it’s for you. I’m …”
Miss Evans took a deep breath.
“I … I love you, Maru, Lani…” Miss Evans shuddered, a cold sweat breaking out under the tropical sun.
Maru stared into her eyes, reading, searching, her breath short. Miss Evans felt herself lick her lips, bite them. Maru licked her lips, unconsciously.
Mirroring, Miss Evans thought, wondering, hoping, if…
Maru leaned forward, her tiny bud of a mouth slightly open, beginning to bloom. Miss Evans felt her quick, hot, spicy breath on her lips. Maru hesitated, just slightly. Miss Evans leaned forward, just a peck, just once. It jolted her like a static shock.
Maru’s lips met hers again, feeling her out. Every movement made Miss Evans’ lips buzz, like mulled wine sliding down her throat. And, like mulled wine, it made her stomach glow.
Maru’s arms, still wrapped around her, began to move and scraped the sweaty, dirty khaki over her skin. Miss Evans felt the undersides of her own arms pressing against Maru’s body, taking in the feeling of Maru’s flesh with her palms. The mulled wine was making her head spin.
Thank you, she thought, so hard she hoped Maru would hear, thank you thank you thank you…
Miss Evans kissed Maru’s cheek. She tasted something salty, but whether it was sweat or …
She opened her eyes. The taste of Maru’s tear still clung to her lips.
“Oh, dear…” Miss Evans muttered, in English. She put an arm around Maru’s bare shoulder and brought her into the Wood House. When the door closed behind them, Maru threw her arms around Miss Evans and peppered her face with kisses.
“I missed you, Misevens, I wanted to be here with you but I was afraid of you and your blank book and your books that tell secrets…” She looked into Miss Evans’ eyes, her gaze tender and almost hurt. “I love you, Misevans! I love you like Ora, I love you not at all like Ora, I love your…”
“Strangeness.” Miss Evans finished, mina, as she clasped Maru’s hand in her own. Maru’s other hand slid in among the wisps of hair that escaped her ponytail, her fingers dancing on the back of Miss Evans’ neck. Miss Evans prickled, the feeling was strange on such sensitive skin.
Maru kissed her again, a whole series of affectionate, playful kisses. Miss Evans’ fingers found their way down Maru’s arms and up her broad shoulders and…
…that was it, that’s what felt wrong. Miss Evans broke the last kiss, gazed into Maru’s puzzled eyes.
“Take my shirt off.” Miss Evans said. “Undo the buttons and let me be like you.”
Miss Evans took Maru’s hands again, slowly, feeling them between her own. She noted absently how Maru’s hands gently bent as she folded them around the top button of the stained khaki mess she called her shirt. Maru, and all her race, wore no shirt beneath the sun…and suddenly, more than anything else in the world, Miss Evans wanted to be closer to Maru.
Maru’s fingers slid around the top button, sometimes brushing the skin on Miss Evans’ collarbone. She fumbled a bit, feeling her way to something she had never seen before, and finally pushed the button through. A few inches of Miss Evans’ flesh lay open underneath, much to Maru’s approval. Eagerly, Maru took another button in hand, and then another and another, and by the time she reached the last button at Miss Evans’ hips, it was like she’d been at it her entire life. The bit of stained cloth fell open and fell to the floor, and Miss Evans sat with Maru, equally bare, equally free.
The inside of the Wood House, clammy as it was, caressed Miss Evans’ freed skin. Maru reached forward, gingerly.
“Yes, please.” Miss Evans said, aching for contact. “It’s all right now.”
When she laid her hand on Miss Evans’ breast, it felt like a hot brand. Her nipple lay between two of Maru’s outstretched fingers, and strained in delicious agony while Maru gently squeezed. Waves of warmth lapped at her like waves on the beach. Maru reached around with her other hand, and grasped Miss Evans’ other breast as delicately as she would hold an egg. Miss Evans felt the waves working in concert, and gasped when Maru gently pinched those unbearably sensitive nipples between her fingers.
Miss Evans heard herself make a strange little sound and melt into Maru’s arms, into Maru’s body, into Maru, wanting to roll around and revel in the sensation of Maru’s skin against her own, Maru’s sweat and hers mingling, to feel Maru with her whole body. She nibbled at Maru’s neck, just under the ear, as she writhed her chest, her sides, her arms, her neck, her belly…
As one, with one breath, they disentangled themselves. They were on the floor, now, and Miss Evans had no idea how it had happened. The world slowly came back into focus, a warm flow still quietly passing between them through their arms, now hand in hand as they both lay panting, bare-breasted, the floor’s worn wood grooves cutting into their backs. Miss Evans turned her head, saw Maru staring at her. Maru smiled playfully, and Miss Evans fancied that it was something like Ora’s mischievous smile.
“One more but-ton.” Maru said, taking the English word and making it her own. Miss Evans blinked a few times, wondering where in the world that came from.
Maru turned on her side, her arm sliding away from Miss Evans’. She pointed with her other hand to the single button at the top of Miss Evans’ khakis.
“No, Maru, no, not that one…” Miss Evans said, making no attempt to stop Maru’s hand from coming to rest on her belly, slowly sliding down it to her waistband… “I don’t think…”
Maru’s hand was already on the button, slowly working it one-handed. Miss Evans watched entranced as Maru bit her lip impishly, studying with her fingers. She didn’t notice as she slowly raised her hips closer to Maru’s fingers, parted her legs just a little more.
Finally growing frustrated with the foreign technology, Maru slid her hand back up to Miss Evans’ navel. Miss Evans sighed in surprising disappointment, her belly tense, every move of the retreat of Maru’s fingers etched into her. The retreat slowed, and reversed. Miss Evans curled up, her hips trying to close the distance of their own accord, as Maru’s hand slowly, teasingly, methodically, approached the line of fabric sealing off her lover. The tip of a finger grazed underneath it, then two fingers beneath her waistband. Flattened along her skin, Maru slid her whole hand into Miss Evans’ pants, tracing the inside curve of her thighs with her thumb and forefinger. Miss Evans held her breath, watching Maru’s grin fade and be replaced by that rapt, intent expression which she first saw Maru wear.
Maru slipped two fingers inside her.
“Maru!” Miss Evans cried, not entirely sure what to make of it. Strange and yet…familiar…
Pressure, something noted, full, hot, tingly pressure.
Miss Evans wondered whether she’d ever stop taking notes when she was pleasantly reminded of Maru’s intimate presence. Maru’s fingers stroked her playfully, knowingly, with a kind of recognition. A palpable tension wound tighter inside her. Then Maru’s thumb brushed against the nub of flesh buried deep in her thatch, and something snapped inside – she squeaked. She understood, now, what Maru had meant when she spoke of monsoons.
“More! Please!” She said between deep, harsh breaths. “Again!”
Maru’s thumb played across that impossibly sensitive spot, raising the storm to an almost painful fever pitch. More, harder…and then it was too much, and the sensation blurred together.
“Slow down…” she said. Maru stopped, let her time and space to breathe. Her clenched eyelids fluttered open to see Maru’s beautiful, bronze body. Her arm snaked down between her breasts, slender and pert. Miss Evans shifted, pushed down on Maru’s hand, and brought her mouth within range.
I wonder what you taste like there? She asked herself, before taking one of Maru’s nipples in her mouth.
Sometimes, she kiss me, Maru had said, on the nipples…
Miss Evans sucked lightly, rolling the nubbin of flesh around with her lips, the sound of Maru’s soft sighs music to her ears. Maru put her other hand on the back of Miss Evans’ head, stroking her hair and nonchalantly removing the band she’d kept her ponytail in. Miss Evans’ long, blond hair spilled out over Maru’s floating ribs and stomach. She began cooing again, when Miss Evans started lapping at the nipple…indeed, like licking out a bowl of yoghurt or cream.
Maru began to withdraw her arm from the hot, wet, steamy jungle of Miss Evans’ khakis, when Miss Evans’ firm hand took her around the forearm and stopped her. Miss Evans looked up into Maru’s eyes, and smiled around her nipple. She lowered Maru’s hand back down, but Maru’s arm stiffened in her grip. Miss Evans let go of Maru’s breast and straightened up a little, letting go of Maru’s arm. Maru withdrew her hand, damp with Miss Evans’ arousal, just long enough to take her shorts by the waistband and yank them down to her knees. Maru plunged her hand back into Miss Evans’ boiling, wet sex, and Miss Evans could feel every gentle caress.
And every gentle caress wound her tighter.
Finally, her mouth buried in Maru’s, she felt a wave of heat, almost like a blush but oh so much nicer, washing over her, a feeling like earthquake tremors. All her muscles seized, she screamed and wrapped herself around Maru, twisted and contorted with the intensity. And, finally, she relaxed, more profoundly than she ever had before.
They lay together in peace. Maru smiled a little.
“Do you know, Misevans…” She said at last, carefully working around the English. “I think I am a little in love with you…”
“I should hope so.” Miss Evans replied, tugging her love closer. “It would be very strange if you didn’t.”
Maru just planted a kiss on her waiting lips.