My sons and I enjoyed our trip back to Lae, PNG – where we come from. I had not gone back to my village for seven and my sons for eight years. It was a long time. My reasons are too complicated to explain, but I could not wait any longer to return. The best part about our return was the story-telling and catching up. This was how we did it – sitting in a circle and chewing betel nut while we tell the stories. We tried to do this at least a few hours each day.
Here is a draft of a potential chapter. I may use it in the memoir, but the story was prompted by Isabel D’Avila Winter in my creative writing workshop last week for the biggest lie I have ever told. I have not shared any memoir pieces lately, because I have not been writing much, but here it is for my readers who enjoy the memoir stories on Tribalmysticstories.
Burning Out – A short story
© JLeahy – Memoir series
The Chinese kerosene lamp burnt low. It was close to me and I smelt the kerosene cut into floral smells from the freshly washed bed sheet. In a continuous dance, its golden-yellow flame peaked in a steady poise and melted into the dark head of the small metal lamp. The lamp was barely taller than my school ruler but it gave enough light for me to see the print. The flame in the round clear glass, size of an orange, outlined the specs of paprika stains on the lamp. At the same time, the flame threw a soft orange ambiance under my sheet and even around the room.
If I moved too quickly, I could knock the lamp over and burn myself because the lamp was partially under the sheet, and next to my book I was reading. This was my private and peaceful space where I read my books. This was also against Mother’s rules.
Having a lamp to myself was a luxury I rarely had in a noisy, crowded house. My mother and I had a small room about three by three metres and my older uncle (of two uncles) and his wife shared another larger room with their five children. My grandmother and aunty shared the last one. My younger uncle was away at the University of Technology, about 20 minutes from my village. My uncle was the first man from our village to go to university.
It was a house where everyone knew everything that was going on. My family had this one Chinese lantern to use as an inside lamp and one Coleman lamp as the outside lamp. Both lamps burnt on ‘kero’ as the villagers referred to kerosene. Fire was the main source of light and there was a torch, which hardly had batteries because no one could afford them. The torch was mostly used for travelling between the village houses. It was also used to visit my aunts and uncles or for going to the pit toilet away from our house – not for reading or using as a room light. If we left the village to fish or camp, the Coleman and the torch came with us.
I knew I was using the 20 cents kerosene up but I was solving a mystery with Nancy Drew. I liked being a detective myself.
“Ampom” mother called and without saying, I knew she called me for dinner. She used one of my names that meant, light-skinned.
“Ok” I said, without moving.
In the village, kero sellers would buy wholesale in 44-gallon drums in Lae City and retail the kerosene to us in re-cycled wine or spirit bottles – charging 20 cents per bottle. It eventually became 50 cents and then a $1. That was in 1970s. Wholesalers bought kero from service stations and general stores. My cousin and I would take our bottle, a clear Vodka re-cycled bottle, and I did not remember which of my uncles drank the Vodka – to any village retailer for kero. We stood there while they pumped the kerb into our bottle but there was a special technique where the boys in the village mastered. The pump would be pressed a couple of times and stopped. The air would push the blue liquid from the drum through the transparent pump into our re-cycled bottle. You have to stop the pump quickly or it sprayed the kero everywhere. I always thought it was cool and I wanted to have a go at pumping the kero this way.
At home, every night, once the kero was put into our Coleman lamp and some in the Chinese lamp – my family gathered in our blackened old kitchen and ate their dinner.
The floor was uneven and with the weathered timber leaving gaps in between, we dropped the bones of chickens and pork to the village dogs and pigs, which fought over it. Sometimes the fights would become too aggressive and the animals would run into the fragile posts so it felt like the kitchen would drop off the side of the main house. My cousins and I would get scolded for dropping our scraps down the timber gaps. Tonight, my family were only a few metres away from me separated by a couple of walls. I turned the lantern wick higher for more light. I adjusted my bed.
Most of the kapok had fallen out or shrivelled in my pillow so I tucked some clothes under it and raised my head. I reached up with my book and turned the pages.
I knew Mother would place my food on the bench top, near the hot teapot, so it will stay warm. Sometimes grandma would place the covered food at the fireplace and they both would insist I go out and eat before bed. Both mother and daughter always respected my reading and schoolwork, but sometimes, my mother would agitate me with her calling. On this night, I wanted to finish my book.
“Ampom!” Mother called.
“Yes” I answered, annoyed.
“Come and eat”.
“Come now, the food is getting cold.”
“I am coming soon”. I turned to the next page and read faster. This was not fun, but I tried to go as fast as I could without skipping any pages.
A few minutes later, mother called again and I could tell she was getting angry. I was not ready to eat. I did not answer. I removed and turned the wick on the Chinese lamp so low, the room became dark. I shut my eyes and put Nancy Drew away. I was annoyed at my mother. I was hungry but only to find out what had happened in the story.
“Ampom!” I heard mother yell. I did not answer her.
Mother rose from the floor in the kitchen, and I heard her march to our bedroom.
She opened the door by pushing hard against the grating sand on the floor. The door did not have a lock. I had shut my eyes and twisted my body into an awkward position and pretended I was asleep.
Mother started calling my name and sat down and tried to shake me. I did not move.
Mother lifted my shoulders and my head rolled back as if I was unconscious or dead. I was supposed to pretend I was asleep, but somehow, the idea of being dead entered my head – so I went with it.
“Ampom, tisa, tisa” – Mother begged in Bukawa for me to wake up.
“Giuc – Giuc!” mother started calling her sister. My aunt was shocked by the tone of my mother’s voice and tried to ask my mother what was going on. There was no time for mother to explain. By now my mother became hysterical and started calling her own mother for help because she thought I was dead.
In minutes – everyone rushed into the small space on my bed and started pulling my hair and calling all my four names. They would throw cold water on me next to try to wake me.
I finally ‘woke’ up to the relief of my mother – who was already crying. I told Mother I lied and I was pretending to be asleep and she did not believe me. I told her; I only wanted to have some peace and quiet – and even some light to read my book. Being a nurse, she was not convinced so she gave me a thorough check up; feeling the temple, checking the eye-balls, checking the ear and the throat. And then, I had no choice but to go outside and eat.
My grandmother Geyamlamuo Poaluawe Baim (Geyam) was born on 4/4/1919. She died in 2008 while I was away in Vietnam on a university field trip. Like many others she raised, I called her Tinang which means mother. I miss her so much even though I know, she is always with me.
A Rope Ambush – Short Story (JLeahy Memoirs ©)
Dew glistened on blades and seed pockets as we walked through the thick wet grass. My sun-tanned legs were studded in pale green grass seeds. I wore my brown shorts and an old white T-shirt, ripped on the shoulders with pin holes all over. It was cooler and easier to work in. I was turning eight and tall.
“Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so”, I sang quietly as grandma and I headed for our garden. Tinang sang with me and then stopped. The morning was cool and the humidity took its time to arrive. I tried pushing the grass apart with a stick before stepping into the track so I would not step on toads, snakes or get wet. My feet were covered in mud. If we did not go to the main market in Lae town, Papua New Guinea on Saturdays, I would be out fishing or gardening with Tinang. I was glad Tinang’s elephantiasis leg did not swell up today and I knew even if her foot bothered her, she would have never mentioned it.
We had left the main road to Wagang village and were crossing the wet over-grown track to our old garden. The old and new gardens were side by side. We needed to pick up some young banana shoots, tapioca sticks and kaukau (sweet potato) leaves for the new garden. It was almost 8am. I knew the time because the ambulance had come to pick up my uncle for work at 7am and we had walked an hour from the village. We stopped to visit my aunt; otherwise it would have taken us half hour to 45 minutes. Our garden was further away than other gardens.
“Ampom Mamang!” grandma whispered suddenly.
That was a very quiet order, telling me to stop singing.
Over the birds’ songs and the wind rustling the leaves, I could hear voices and wood chopping.
“They are close” grandma said.
“Who were they?” “What were they chopping on our land?” I needed clarity but grandma’s eyes indicated – now was not the time.
We both stood still and listened. We could not see anyone yet. I knew the noisemakers were not our villagers. They spoke a different language and sometimes in conversation, they would speak pidgin. This meant, “they” were outsiders, most likely the squatter settlers. We called them Kaii. This word means foreigners. Tinang and I had no idea how many they were.
Tinang signed that we would take a short cut through the trees and hide in the bushes near our coconut trees. The trees were planted as a landmark close to the boundary of the Martin Luther Seminary. This spot had some vines and thick undergrowth. Beyond the seminary, our tribal land was occupied by hundreds of illegal squatter settlers. They came from Morobe Province and the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Many settlers had lived there for up to three generations and claimed the land as theirs. Often, there were fights between villagers and the settlers.
As grandma and I got closer, the sound of chopping became distinct. People were talking and laughing. They joked and laughed as they went about their business.
Through the thick undergrowth and heavily entwined creepers, we counted seven adult male. Three had ‘weapons’ – two knives and one axe. Grandma and I only had one bush knife. I looked at her and then I watched the others break the dry firewood and stacked them on bush vines – prepared to be tied into a bundle.
Tinang made eyes to be quiet and move quickly. She was almost sixty, but she could move quickly even with her bad leg. She cut a long creeper and removed all the leaves. It was strong and several metres long. Then grandma cut the second one and did the same thing.
Two of the men started playing and chased each other and one jumped almost into our secret hiding place under the vines. I froze. The man fell two metres away, got up and ran and playfully pushed his friend over.
His friend tripped over some Hessian bags and fell. It was the first time I noticed the old brown bags were filled with food. We called these bags “copra bags” because our people sold their copra in the bags. I counted seven bags and four bundles of bananas. They could not get anymore bananas because I knew from last week, only four were ready to harvest. They did take a lot of sweet potatoes and tapioca. They also had taros that I could see from the open bags. They men harvested our gardens for themselves and now to top it off, they helped themselves to our firewood. They must have begun this thieving trip very early this morning I thought and I felt very angry.
I looked at grandma and she was very busy tying ropes in different parts of the bush – it was like, she was setting up a rope trap. I wondered how we would catch these grown men in our rope traps. I was afraid.
I lifted my chin in a question to grandma and made eyes at the ropes. She signalled me to wait and see. Once she tied the two creepers on all the small Aducbo trees, she brought their ends to one spot and told me to stand there and get ready to pull. I grabbed the robes and took my position. She worked under the vines and tied all the trunks of small trees in a semicircle.
Tinang cut two more strong thick vines and quietly under the cover of the vines, she creeped around to the opposite of the spot where I was. She winked at me and smiled. I knew she was up to something and although I was afraid of the men, I was confident she had a good plan.
After she tied the ropes at her side, grandma returned to me and asked.
“Are you afraid?”
“No Tinang” I said and smiled at her.
She hugged me. Then she whispered in my ear that she will give me a queue when she starts yelling abuses – I must, in my loudest and scariest voice scream and be very abusive as well and pull the two ropes at the same time.
The words I was to scream out were; ”What are you doing? What are you doing on my land?” “We will kill you, we will get you! We are coming for you!”
Grandma returned to her position and she stared hard at me and nodded, I nodded back and she started pulling the trees and screaming abuses. All the trees became alive in a semi-circle. I was surprised.
Caught off guard too, the men ran in my direction and I started doing the same thing. The ropes yanked the small trees – making noise and in an ambush, leaving only two escape routes. One gap led back to the garden and one led to the opening facing the Martin Luther seminary. Fleeing back in the direction to the garden, the men realised their mistake, turned and ran to the seminary. Tinang and I kept screaming and shaking pulling the trees and bushes until we were sure the thieves were gone. Then we hugged and laughed until we cried.
We inspected and confirmed the bags of food were harvested from our gardens. The thieves also left their two bush-knives and an axe. There were some dirty ripped smelly shirts, which we threw into the trees to hang as flags to celebrate our successful ambush.
Together, grandma and I carried the bags to new hiding places. Then we took the axe and bush knives and went to get my uncles to help carry our harvest home.