When you are a child, things can seem simple and beautiful. You may know something more and you can sense it, but you are afraid to ask. You pretend to only understand what you could because you knew – you were told only what you needed to know. As you grow and your mind opens more, you lose that innocence and protection of your thoughts. Your older mind sees the ugly side to those things such as people and how they treated others or bad places and bad things.
This story is about a friend of mine. Many that knew our small village, Wagang, on the Coast of Lae, Papua New Guinea may remember Mucga. She was a distant aunt. We had a special relationship which no-one really understood but sometimes, friendship and love do not need any explanation- they can just exist. My story is for Mucga.
It was a crispy morning about 9 o’clock. The blue sky threw dancing crystals on the Budac River. The river had a lazy flow today. My eyes could see through the water to the other side of the bank and the river was full of fish feeding on the mud and shell fish on the beds and mangrove roots. A slight breeze rustled the pandanus and swept the long green leaves over the golden ripe seeds. Already the seeds were attracting insects and birds with its sweetness. The breeze gathered sand and dried leaves bounced quickly along the hardened sandy bank to the river then floated back gently.
I had to be first to get to Budac before all the other children so I can catch enough dinner. The fish did not tolerate crowds nor noise. It was the main river used by Wagang villagers, just along the coast of Huon Gulf in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea.
I set up my trap, an empty 500g Nescafe coffee jar and waded into the water. I had filled it with a quarter cooked rice and water. With the labels and lid removed, it was one tall glass cylinder. The rice grains were twirling around in the clear bottle as I filled it to the brim to let out the bubbles, holding it under water. I took a deep breath and just as I went under water, I heard singing;
‘Musawa ke se leng geleng gwec, oh geleng gwec ngademu geo sasa, geo kesuc
Oh geoc ke soc o Bukawa.
(The giant easterly was drenching in the ocean as she swept and stirred the sea dirty and rough – outwards and then inwards and finally she arrived at the shores of Bukawac).
Bukawac is a coastal sub-district down the coast. It would take more than three school lunch breaks to get there by a motor boat. On foot, it takes nearly a day.
Muc ga! I yelled out loud.
She was startled and stopped on her next deep breath before her second verse. Mucga looked over the water at me. In our culture, we would sing while we worked. With the corners of her lips turned downwards quickly, I upset her because she wanted to sing to help me catch fish. Then suddenly, she gave me a very big grin and stood up. I had seen this grin too often and knew what it was for.
‘Are you catching OUR fish?’ she asked coyly as she walked up to the bank near me. Quickly my annoyance turned into a smile. Mucga had mental illness at a very early age. She was a grown up now, but I would not know for sure how old she was. The children in the village called her ‘longlong’ in pidgin. She would act funny and talk funny. Most times she was like a child. Mucga can go from a normal conversation to an extremely angry or sad mood and say very bad words like “Satan” and the “K” word which is really the “C” word.
When I was growing up, I would hear her cry and scream and an ambulance would come and take her to the Angau Hospital. I heard the adults say she was in Ward 9. I didn’t like it went she was beaten. I knew she was mis-treated. She would be gone for weeks so I would fish alone at Budac. In her good days, Mucga would tag along. My mother told me not to fish with other children because they used many bad words. Often the children would torment me and call me names. A couple of those words were “bastard”, “white bastard” and “sting” which was a pidgin word for stinky. I often wondered if they meant that I smelt funny because I look different or that I was lighter.
My cousin Elsie Joseph who was younger then I would fish with me sometimes. I loved her. We always had fun. She was often sick with head Malaria. My other two friends did not like fishing.
When I asked grandma about Mucga, grandma said Mucga’s spirit was not at rest. If Mucga’s spirit was rested, it would stay calmly inside her and Mucga would be herself. The restless spirit was something Mucga was born with and we have to accept her.
Mucga’s walk was up and down and sometimes sideways with her bad foot dragging behind her. This foot would draw a line on the sand as she went. Mother said it was because leprosy ate her leg. I always wandered how leprosy chose to eat Mucga’s leg and not everybody’s leg. Mother said that when you wear another person’s shoe and they have leprosy, that leprosy would eat your feet too, then your leg. That always worried me because in my head, I had pictures of people trying to walk without their feet and legs.
Mucga stood in front of me. Her sore feet pointing at me and every now and then she marched quickly to chase the flies off.
I can catch OUR fish, I stressed, but only if you stop singing. You know the fish don’t like singing or noise and if you keep singing to the big easterly wind, that wind will come, I said.
Mucga’s usual troubled eyes were reflecting the dancing happy crystals from the water. She was happy, thinking she was helping me. Mucga looked straight at me again with her 20 year-old eyes and then nodded. She had a slight smile and I saw her teeth – never been touched by beetlenut stain.
At seven, I had never felt any animosity from this woman. I felt like hugging her. Mucga had always frightened children and adults alike in my village. She would scream and launch at them when they abused her. I was glad she did. They all deserved it.
Mucga tried to smile, showing just a handful of teeth this time and I knew she would wait there for me – the whole day. I also knew, there was no guarantee the singing had stopped.
I waded further into the river and eight metres from the sandy bank, water quickly came up to my neck. My feet stirring up mud and the softness indicated that I was deep enough. I let myself into the water and with two kicks I steadied into position and placed my coffee bottle ‘trap’ on the river floor. The bottle’s mouth faced the bank. With a gentle wave of my right hand underwater at the mouth of the jar while holding the jar with my left, I encouraged the rice grains out in a trail along the body to the mouth of the coffee jar. It is the bait.
If I placed too much rice outside the jar, the fish will fill their stomachs outside the jar and then leave. This is a routine I have expertly mastered in my many years of fishing with coffee and jam jars.
Now the fish would innocently come for the rice and follow the trail to the back of the bottle. When the fish discovers it is a trap and starts to panic and struggle to turn to get out of the bottle, I dive in, close the jar mouth with my hand and swim to the shore to empty my catch on the bank. The whole process is repeated until I had enough fish. Sometimes my cousins or aunts would give me an extra bottle but rarely do the fish get trapped simultaneously.
When I returned to the bank, Mucga started singing again and the wind picked up.
MucGa – nem we tom. I called to her – don’t sing, you will make the wind come, the water rough and scare the fish.
She nodded and looked down; peeling at her sore toes. Her very faded floral cotton dress hung loosely and her skin was palely dry. I looked at her contrasted wet black tight curly hair; a rough cut closely to her ears. It was not fetching. That haircut would have been forced and she would have fought her barber, I thought.
Lost in five minutes of thoughts, I suddenly caught glimpse of scales flashing and ran and dived into the river to my coffee jar. When I got out to catch my breath and held up the fish in the jar, Mucga was jumping up and down making strange noises. She was in already dancing in my waiting spot. I came up to her; water running down my shorts and T shirt and emptied the fish onto the wet sand. As the fish jumped, she jumped and started singing out of tune.
I told Mucga – Ok you can have the first one, but please, be quiet. I refilled the bottle and walked back into the water. This routine went on for a few years. At the end of each day, we split the fish.
Just before I reached ten, my aunt told me Mucga had died in the Angau Hospital, in Lae. I took my fishing tackle that morning and made my way to the river. The Easterly blew hard and I sang her song loudly. I wanted to frighten the fish, rustle the leaves and scare the birds in memory of my friend.