Tag Archives: JLeahy memoir series

The Big One – JKLeahy Memoir Stories

The Big One – J.K. Leahy

(A special tribute to some of the powerful women that influenced my life).

With Ma Yang. JKLeahy Watercolour 2018.

My line stretched beyond the width of the fat river. The water was slightly brown-greenish – you could see fish swimming under the surface. There were plenty. Debris from two other smaller river mouths came towards us and unfolded to the current that spread across the wider larger Socwa river. The 250gm nylon fish line pressed an unseen line on the glassy surface. We were in the swamps of Wagang Village, Lae, Papua New Guinea. I felt good my hook and bait was close to the other side. Maybe it will catch the big one.

It wasn’t a race between Ma Yang and I. It was a process of an apprentice with her teacher. And the apprentice in her final learning stages before graduation. The river had risen and covered the mangrove and pandanus roots and low-lying branches are now touching it.  A mix aroma of wild tree flowers hung in the air, but the sweet pandanus penetrated the balance. With the deep current, yellow and peach awaho flowers flowed in a line that meandered through the low-lying branches like ballerinas in their fluff skirts. The flower centres popped out like mini umbrellas in deep maroon and gold flecks.

At eight, I was in primary school. But in my fishing years, I was ready to enter university, so we were there to start that course. This location is not for kids as my aunt would say.

“Only for those who are special” she said with a wink.

I knew my aunt had many secret fishing places. But if my mother knew Ma Yang had brought me here, my aunt would have been in trouble. Mother was mostly away and she would never take me to such places; she said “gaming sac” – meaning bad place, and they were full sorcery and other spirits lurking in the shadows.

Our teacher – my late grandma Tinang.

My lead fishing teacher was beside me, and together we carried our old rice bags, roughly cut at one end and filled with bait (shrimps).  The bait were all alive. We had a bush string each for our catch tied to the bag and dangled in the water. My teacher carried a knife. Sometimes we carried a roast banana or kaukau. Dry biscuits were okay, but they made too much noise when we snapped them with our teeth.

“We can pack them, but eat them on the beach after”, she said earlier this morning.

Ma Yang and I had planned this fishing trip for days. Yang yang means yellow in my mother-tongue, Bukawac. (Aunty Yellow was nicknamed “yellow” because of her skin colour).

Today the river swelled. Lup suc means the river had fattened with partially salt, debris and waste from rotting leaves, swamp and other fish life that would provide feed for the ‘kol pis’ in pidgin which means ‘cold fish’ – these are several breeds of swamp river fish.

I suddenly felt a tug and reeled in a cold fish. It was scaly like a python with brown green and bluish undertones. My aunt looked at me to say, ‘well done!”, but it’s all in the eye-talk.

The mosquitoes were biting, but the adrenaline from the fish bites created some tolerance to the annoying buzzing and bites. Sometimes without feeling the sting, when I took my eyes off the line,  I saw mozzie bellies getting bloody and tight, then the mozzies would fall off and fly away.  To constantly smack the mosquitoes meant an intrusion to the balance of the stillness, and the fish would move away.

Mamang eng – be silence as Ma Yang often warned when we entered a sacred place. Every great fisherman knows that”. With the mosquitoes, she said if we put up with pain and irritation, we would truly master the art of fishing for cold fish.

I put some water on my brow to keep me cool. It was lovely under the trees but still hot. My next shrimp bait was peeled and neatly tucked over my earlobe like a cigarette – Ma Yang did the same.

The youngest of the sisters, Aunty Giuc.

We had travelled to this spot along the beach away from the village and deep into the swamp. Aunty Yangyang always picked a new spot for fishing, because she knew. I know she learnt it from her mother and my grandmother. My aunty’s mother was my grandmother’s sister. I was always excited at the anticipation of what mystery and beauty we would discover next and the fish we would catch there. My teacher never told me where we were headed next until we got there. That was part of the lessons – I had to pay attention to the land marks and work out how to get there on my own in the future. We used only shrimp baits for cold fish. We caught the shrimps the day before in a separate stream not far from our small village.

Travelling waist-deep through the wetlands and thorn bush, sharp objects, shell fish and branches and often stepping on kalum (thorn snail). This small snail is dangerous.  Its tiny spikes broke  off into your foot when you stepped on it. This often  got infested, and can immobilise you weeks, if not dealt with early. It is funny because the word kalum also refers to ‘havoc’ in our language. The more difficult the journey, the more fish we caught, at least that’s how I saw it.

As my line raced across the flat surface, I pulled. Before I pulled out the fish from the river, there is a dance. The kol pis likes to jerk the line a couple of times and then let go. After a few jerks, it pulls hard and that’s when you know, you have got it. Aunty Yangyang taught me to not hesitate but also, not pull too soon. If you do, you lose the fish.

After years of fishing with Ma Yang, I learnt that some of the kol pis like eboob and ewayum took the lines like the ocean travelleys and made a dash for it.

I took my fish off my hook and I put the bush rope through the gills and dropped it into the water. It was now swimming again with the others I had caught.

Ma Yang was very quiet, but she had her eye firmly on the dark corners opposite us. We had fished for most of the afternoon and had been there for almost six hours already, but she was set on catching the big one. The big one is called “ee oc”. Both our catch lines were about a metre long. This would feed several households.

The big cold fish usually came at the end, like the grand finally and often this fish would come before or after you catch an eel. They co-existed  in nooks of tree roots in swamp holes – both this fish and the eel. When my aunts and grandma and I catch these with our hands, you stick both hands into the holes and gently move along the belly of the eel to find the other. In my learning days, my grandma would find them and guide my hands to feel through the thick swamp. It was exhilarating, but all done in complete silence.

The sun was setting, and it got cooler. I had questions, but I was taught not to ask questions on the job. Anything I needed to know would be asked while we were walking home or by the fire at meal time. No-one spoke when we were ‘in the zone” and the fish were biting.

It was almost time to go home, but I was not tired. As the sun threw its last rays of a golden pink powder over the open space and green scaly pandanus – its reflection came closer to us under the awaho tree. She touched  the water and I looked at her. Ma Yang’s fish line raced across the water and cut in a straight line as if a knife was being inserted into a cake. My teacher flexed her large, dried palm fish rod. It bent completely to the weight of what glided in large curbing circles in front of us.

She glanced at me. The finally dance began. I knew, the big one was here, but I must keep still.


Ma Yang died a few years ago after a long illness – there is an earlier post about her. I miss her. 

The Ownership of the Yam Hole – My Oral History

The Yam Hole – JK.Leahy memoir series

A yam garden in PNG. Public Domain image.

Currently, the case of the Yam Hole (Ambisi) is an ongoing dispute amongst our people in Wagang Village, Lae, Papua New Guinea. The national government is negotiating with the villagers to build a large fisheries wharf on my village. Wagang is a small coastal village less than 20 minutes drive to the heart of Lae City. This is the story about the site of the proposed development which is referred to as Ambisi, or the Yam Hole. The Yam Hole is my family’s inheritance, but due to foul play, the authorities have been negotiating with other people who have claimed to own the land referred to as the Yam Hole. With the permission of my Uncle Ahe Max Mambu, I am proud to tell you this oral history and a story about the Yam Hole as told by my late grandmother Geyam Baim to me. This story was told to my grandmother by her mother Geyamtausu Baim and her aunt Awelu Hampom. In one of the flash fiction stories I wrote in Monday’s Finish the Story, I made a reference to this story in Scatterings of the Blood River (Budac) and how a child was discovered.

My grandmother told this story almost every evening and in between other stories after our dinner. When I was 15, I presented the story of the Yam Hole to a large crowd of Lae City residents in the Lions Club Youth of the Year awards. It was in 1980. I represented Busu Provincial High School in the Lions Youth of the Year challenge. In the competition, an outstanding student was picked from all high schools and tertiary schools to give a five-minute original speech of cultural significance. After a gruelling week of interviews in an elimination process, the final test was to give a five-minute speech in front of business houses, leaders, and distinguished guests of the Lions Club (a large charity organisation) in a 3-course dinner event.

That evening, I borrowed a batik skirt, a white cotton blouse and a pair of sandals from my high school principles’s wife. I did not have anything of such quality and was specifically instructed that it was a high society gathering and I must not even wear slippers. Most children owned a pair of slippers or jandals, which we wore to school. None of my family members had any fancy clothes, let alone shoes of any kind. Despite not having anything smart to wear, my family was excited because I would make this speech about our ancestry. I tried to practice my speech in English because in Bukawac, I knew it by heart. It was after all, out family history.

My speech, although based on the Yam Hole and our family’s oral history; featured my great-grandmother and her sister and how they fought the white men/Australian administration and German missionaries to settle and remain in our village. The two sisters were not prepared to give this land away because it was fertile, had clean drinking spring water and completed with two large rivers circling the entire village portion of the land. Part of this land is where Lae city sits on and part is where our village is.

The Lions Club evening was also the evening I learnt to use knife and fork at a table for the first time. Each finalist Lions youth was sat at a table consisting of dignitaries and business people. Our conversations were also marked. I sat in my ‘borrowed’ clothes, the wrap skirt feeling too tight. I struggled to keep the slightly larger sandals on my feet with my napkin still on my lap while I carried on what seemed to be a normal polite conversation with very important strangers at my table. In front of me, on the huge white dinner plate, I tried to elegantly spear my dead cooked half-chicken while it gracefully danced on this huge white plate. I remembered, how crowded the table was with no room to move. It had too many flowers, candles, cutlery, glasses and people, while the food on the huge plates were in very small neat quantities. I could not really tell you which was scarier; the conversation, avoiding the glasses on the table, using the wrong cutlery, losing my borrowed skirt or shoe or catching and eating the dead chicken on the big white plate without getting any of the sauce on my white cotton borrowed blouse from the principle’s wife. I was very hungry, but I had to keep calm and keep it all together until I told the audience my oral history about the Yam Hole.

More on the Yam Hole later on this blog.


Burning Out – Short Story

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.

Kerosine/oil lattern: Public Domain image.

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”.

“I will”.

“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.

“Ampom!, Ampom!,”

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.

Scatterings of Blood River

Mondays Finish the Story by Barbara W. Beacham

The Kingdom Behind the Fog – Photo by Barbara W. Beacham

Scatterings of Blood River ©JLeahy Memoirs

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, beyond the blue fog of Torrest Straits lived many tribes in Papua New Guinea. Amongst them, a fierce warrior named Katham led the Ahe people.

Seeking fertile land Katham attacked Tikeleng, Apo and Aluki tribes for the Lahe coastline. The early 1900s battle took place near a large river. Positioned in the thick tropical forest Katham and his warriors fought till his last coastal enemy fell. Katham and two ardent followers returned inland. They crossed the river, which they named Bu-dac, meaning Blood River, because it was red and filled with floating bodies. The three heard loud splashing. Katham approached the shallow bank cautiously thinking an injured enemy was still alive.

To his astonishment, he found a toddler struggling for air and Katham picked up and hugged the baby boy. The baby threw up water and cried. Without other survivors, Katham returned home, named and raised the toddler as his son.

Based on our (Ahe people’s) history as told by my grandmother, Geyamlamuo Poaluawe Baim. Budac remains a river where our people wash daily. The toddler’s three generations are still part of our family. Our village Wagang remains in the position Katham fought for.  Thank you Barbara for a perfect picture to inspire my oral history.

A Rope Ambush

PNG xmas holidays 2006 097
Tinang and I in 2006, Wagang Village, PNG.

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.

Tinang 2006
Tinang at her home in Lae 2006.

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.

The Paper Thief

The Paper Thief  Short Story JLeahy (non-fiction)


This morning, the rain stopped about 9am. I had welcomed the last two weeks of wet weather in Brisbane. My gardens have had a good drink and everything looked green with patches of bright tropical colours all around our property. I walked to one of my gardens, closer to our street and watched our chickens dirt-scratching near the roadside. They had ventured too far out and I was concerned for their safety. Besides, when the big black rooster is leading the pack of four hens, they were capable of doing anything. They could reach the public bus stop metres away and if the rooster decided to have its way, they could all catch the bus to the city. The rooster was very bossy, cocky and unruly. Apart from crowing several times continuously in a minute to annoy, it had a way of nodding its head from side to side and flapping its wings when scolded.

Today, the five were only two metres off the street, leaving their nesting place 100 metres away. The lined gum and acacia trees had shed so many leaves. Given the recent wet weather, the ground before me was covered in a thick layer of brown and black wet, slippery soil. I stayed at a dry spot, away from the road.

A small white Mitsubishi i-MiEV pulled up slowly and parked across the road from our mailbox. It was about 30 metres away from me and about ten metres from the chickens. I could see the car clearly. I was thinking it was a learner driver or a neighbour stopping to make a mobile phone call. As I watched, the car door opened and a large woman, about 150kg struggled to get out. She made it to her feet, straightened her short dark-brown hair and put on her glasses. She was dressed in a dark blue pair of denim and a lacy white blouse; two sizes too small. She wore flat slippers with no jewellery. Her tight clothing did not restrict her walk or her air of confidence. I almost thought, I had a visitor, this woman was coming up to my house.

Then, the chilling truth dawned on me. I recognised her and that car. I remembered her face. She had often sat in the car and sent a child to run across the road to take the paper. I had watched from the distance. I always wondered what they were taking, and then, our newspapers went missing. She must be the newspaper thief!

It has been almost eights months of the paper going missing and I have never been close enough to speak to her. Our gate is quite far from the house. I had suspected, the thief did their deed during my daytime work hours. The paper was gone before I got home in the evenings.

Westside News delivers the Wednesday weekly newspaper on Tuesday mornings. If I were lucky, the paper would still be there when I checked the mailbox area. Most times however, the weekly paper would be gone.

The woman looked around casually, and then crossed the road towards me, unaware I was watching her. She came up to my mailbox and with some difficulty she bent down and picked up the paper that was delivered this morning. When she got back up, her eyes caught me and she stopped, still holding the paper in her right hand. She gave me a wry smile. I stared at her. She reminded me of my black rooster with that look of arrogance and superiority. She looked hard at me, almost as if to say: “Well now that you have caught me, what are you going to do about it?”

In return, I gave her my disgust look with: “Thief, don’t ever let me catch you stealing my paper again, you have no idea what I am capable of”. She turned away. I was not surprised by her behaviour. I thought to myself, she is a pro, she is good at it, but, how many papers has she stolen each week and what did she do with them? In silence and after that ‘exchange’ between us, the woman strutted across the road and got into her little white Mitsubishi, and drove off with my paper.

Short Story: The Christmas Opal

Picture: http://www.aussietreasurechest.com.au

Draft (Opening Chapter – JL Memoir series)

The Christmas Opal

I looked at it. The black briefcase sat by the door. It was Saturday, mid year, 1988. The mid morning light through the slit in the curtain, drew a right angle across the exposed top corner. This did not lightened the case colour, only, it darkened what remained of the briefcase in the shadows. The thick heavy-backed curtain kept the case concealed. There was a twirling spectacle of dust stirred by the slow-moving fan. The dust particles moved between the dark case, and the top of the opened window. This twirling dust caught my eye briefly as this spot of light was the only light in the room today. From the dark interior, it was hard to tell that the sun was high, the sky was blue and it was 36 degrees outside. The unit had trapped dust but how do I get it out? I was limited to what I could do, and what I could not do. My boundaries were quite clear as they were bashed into me several times over four years. I also knew whom not to speak to and where not to go. Sometimes I felt like a trapped animal and sometimes I was just like a chipped, trapped dog in a yard with electrical fencing all around and someone watching from the shadows.

It was getting hotter and I felt thirsty. I took a step to the briefcase. It was bulky, large, and square, with gold fittings like a pilot’s or a travel case . It had black strong rubber wheels and gold clasps that snapped shut. I looked at the briefcase and did not touch it, afraid.

I have heard him snap-shut the clasps and the lock so many times. He liked that, the strict, military-type barking of orders and routine snapping of things into place. Orders for curtains to close when night fell. Open curtains, he said, meant, I was sending out invitations to be seen, to be looked at, by strangers and our neighbours.

“What if it’s a trap?” I almost whispered, delaying my urge to open the damn briefcase. My curiosity tugged at me one more time but I refrained from touching it. I could never imagine what could be held inside this large dark briefcase.

I went upstairs to the bathroom and washed my face. It was hot. Then I returned down the stairs and sat down at the last one. My legs were weak, but I was not hungry. My eyes went back to the case.

It could fit a small gun perhaps, but he already had a sewn-off rifle. I remembered him removing, caressing and dressing the gun with a soft towel and placing it like a baby in its cuddle spot, in his car. He was excited by his newly acquired possession. Apparently, he got this gun from his cousin, and that was a piece of information I needed to know. I thought to myself, as I poured myself a glass of water, to cool down. What a cunning backstory to cushion my fear that he had access to a gun or weapons, any time, from his relatives.

I stood up and walked the few steps to the front door and peeked outside. The car-park was still empty.

He had stored the rifle in his car booth, under the spare tyre. A fine hiding place, where betel-nut chewing, sleepy, corrupted Port Moresby police were too heedless to look during roadblocks.

“No”, I told myself in realisation. He would not trust me with a gun inside the house. It has been almost four years. I was not dead yet, but something has happened to me. I was no longer myself nor was I the 19-year-old virgin from strong Lutheran faith. I was no longer the traditional Papua New Guinea village-innocent girl that he had conquered. I believed that he knew this. I believed he knew I had changed and this meant one thing – my days were numbered.

I collected the large pillows and took them outside. The colourful coleus amongst my tropical plants in the pots cheered me up. The pillows were heavy and only for show. No one used these pillows; they sat and collected dust on the New Zealand sheepskin leather, which covered parts of the downstairs/lounge. Under the cream sheepskin was a large olive-green, black and white carpet. The carpet looked Moroccan. The lounge was a sombre decoration completed with a collection of prints that I thought were depressing. Curly haired, empty, pale and ghost-like maidens, stared down from sepia prints. They showed no particular emotion, yet, their eyes looked sad. Whoever drew these miserable women, sold them to the right person, that was my view.

I picked up the last pillow and went out the back. I shook bread crumbs off the pillows into the backyard and laid them on stacked sandy-brown pavers, lined with pot plants. There were three of the pillows. Regaining composure, and letting my aching body breathe fresh air, I stepped inside. I thought of cleaning the windows but it meant, I would open the curtains. He liked them shut.

“It keeps the sunlight off the artwork,” he said sarcastically. I wondered if I was the artwork he referred to. Not the monochrome of beautiful and sad curly-haired pale women with very large haunting eyes.

I crossed the small lounge to the front door. Remaining inside, I opened the door enough to look outside. I kept my hand on the handle. I dare not step outside, someone might see me and report back. No-one was there. The normal raucous of the compound seemed to have disappeared. The compound area of 1000 square metres encased three blocks of cream concrete airline employee residential units. They were all quiet. His unit was in the first block, second last. The Talis tree outside, in full bloom had seduced bees and insects and a few city birds watched for their own meals. The wide, long leaves were turning yellow,  orange and red, like autumn colours in the movies I had seen. The Talis tree usually housed wives and babies of employees under its cool shade. Today, the shade was abandoned.

I pulled back into the unit, closing the door behind me and locking it. I felt the coolness of the ugly 1970s brown tiles on my feet even when the air inside was hot. I looked at the case again. I had nowhere else to go today. The order was to stay home. I stared at the briefcase again. It was Christmas Eve. He left it there. Why had he not taken the briefcase to work? I decided to ignore the briefcase. This was a test and I was very tired.

I completed and took the washing out and hung it. I returned inside the hot two-bedroom brick unit and counted seven small presents I had bought and wrapped. I felt ashamed. I told myself, I was weak and revolting. I was pathetic. I bought these presents – for what? I hated him. My hands were sweaty, I was trembling and my heart beat faster as I thought of what lay ahead. Three things could happen this Christmas. One, I could be dead. Two, there could be a resolution to this relationship. Oh, the third thing…I could kill him. The third was pathetic and I knew it.

My eyes glazed over with tears as I laid the presents under the green, fake Chinese-made Christmas tree. The tinsel and the plastic brush leaves scattered and messed up the base. I did not care. I hated fake things. I let the tears come, that’s was all I had. The tree had red and white bells with some glittering reindeer. I was very careful not to trip the tree over even though, I did not like it. Then, I picked myself off the floor and went to the briefcase and opened it. I felt my face burnt with excitement and fear. My trembling hands worked swiftly over books, papers and travel documents. The smell of planes mingled with the strong smell of vinyl.

My hands touched a small box. It was a dark blue jewellery box with sharp edges. I pulled it out, unafraid anymore. I opened the lid and it stayed ajar. Inside, immaculately placed in white cushion padding were a set of Australia’s beautiful white Opals. There was a pendant with matching earrings. The settings were in gold. It was a perfect Christmas gift for a woman, I thought, marvelling at its beauty. I remembered these opals from the Brisbane duty-free shop. The white opals were my favourite from all the other colours but it was not something I would ask for. I looked at the stones, mesmerized by their beauty, even from the mouth of the dark briefcase. Briefly, I thought of the depth of the earth where they came from and years the stone took to form and evolve into such luminous work of art. I thought of the person that spent laborious hours grinding, polishing and shaping them. I made jewellery so I knew the work involved. The light sipped into and was trapped in the stones, lighting and reflecting layers of intricate colours. The Opal had a sense of innocence, purity, and tenderness. Suddenly, I felt cold and quickly placed the small box back in the briefcase and snapped it shut. Deep down I knew, these Opals were not for me.