Tag Archives: Memoir Writing

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 Carménère Moment – Short Story


The Carménère Moment©JLeahy Short Story 

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Picture by Barbara W, Beacham

Mondays Finish the Story with Barbara W.Beacham

“The only residents remaining in the small town of Miners Hill are spirits.” Uncle Joseph said.

A tear rolled down his wrinkled tired face. The Eastern Belt explosion left several hundred dead last week. The town was evacuated. I watched another tear form and my eyes salted.

“My first thoughts were Josepha, Maria, and Antonia”.

“Where were you?”

“We sat for dinner. I went down to get a bottle of wine from the cellar – only minutes away”, he covered his face with bloody bandaged hands and wept.

My 50-year-old uncle cried as I rubbed his shoulders.

“I…I heard a single explosion, it sounded so far away. I thought it was the daily blasting at mine site. I should have come up. Antonio wanted a Carménère to celebrate Maria’s first communion. I couldn’t read the labels…suddenly I heard the crumbling, screams upstairs and everything went black”.

“Don’t cry, please uncle. They are with God now”, I whispered, as I cried with him.

(150 words)

 

Famished Eels – A Short Story Winner by Mary Rokonadravu


In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing the 2015 winning stories for Africa and the Pacific: ‘Light’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) and ‘Famished Eels’ by Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji). To listen to podcasts by all the regional winners and read the regional winning stories for Asia, Canada & Europe and the Caribbean, please visit the Commonwealth Writers website.

Podcast from the story-teller

I have read and wish to share the Pacific winner’s short-story. It is one of the most beautifully told short-story I have read. I would recommend you read the whole story from the link I have provided at the end of this passage.

Famished Eels

cropped-flying-eel-long

After one hundred years, this is what I have: a daguerreotype of her in bridal finery; a few stories told and retold in plantations, kitchens, hospitals, airport lounges. Scattered recollections argued over expensive telephone conversations across centuries and continents by half-asleep men and women in pyjamas. Arguments over mango pickle recipes on email and private messages on Facebook. A copper cooking pot at the Fiji Museum. Immigration passes at the National Archives of Fiji. It is 2011.

Fiji, with Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, had just registered the ‘Records of the Indian Indentured Labourers’ into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, when my father, the keeper and teller of stories, suffered a stroke. Fate rendered his tongue silent. He cannot read or write – he first set foot in a classroom at fifteen, and was told by a nun he was too old. He ignores my journalist and doctor siblings to select me, the marine biologist, to finish his task. I am off the coast of Lifou in New Caledonia counting sea urchins when the call is relayed.

He hates me for not becoming a journalist, I say to myself.

I will be on the Thursday flight, I tell my older sister.

She meets me at the airport and drives me down to Suva. It is past midnight. We pass eleven trucks overloaded with mahogany logs between Nadi and Sigatoka. A DHL courier truck. A quiet ambulance. She smokes at the wheel, flicking ash into the cold highway wind. We pass a dim lamp-lit wooden shack before Navua. Someone is frying fish. We both know it is fresh cod. We remain silent as we are flung into the kitchen of our childhood at Brown Street in Toorak. We stop to sip sweet black tea from enamel pialas in Navua.

Come on tell me, she blurts. Who you seeing now? Is it a dark-skinned Kanak? Is that what’s keeping you in Lifou? Do you speak French now?

Screw you, I say from the back seat.

He wants you to do this because you won’t lie to him, she says. The rest of us may. Just to make him happy. Just give him what he wants to hear. But you won’t. You will find out and you will tell him.

Screw you, I say again, more to myself than her.

All his life, my father has sought one thing only – to know the woman in the photograph. To know the name of her city or town in India. To know that at some juncture in history, there was a piece of earth he could call his own. All he had had was a lifetime of being told he was boci. Baku. Taga vesu. Uncircumcised.

A hundred years was not enough. Another five hundred would not be either. In a land where its first peoples arrived a couple of thousand years before the first white man, the descendants of indenture would forever remain weeds on a forsaken landscape. A blight.

He had stubbornly remained in Fiji through three military coups and one civilian takeover. Everyone had left. He remained the one who rented out flats until his brothers’ houses were sold. He supervised brush-cutting boys on hot Saturday mornings. He was the one to call the plumber to change faucets in grimy, unscrubbed shower recesses. He was the one who kept receipts for oil-based butternut paint, bolts and drill bits; photocopied them faithfully at the municipal library and mailed them to Australia, Canada or New Zealand. Each envelope had a paper-clipped note: OK. It was the only word he learned to write. I received Christmas cards from him saying the same thing: OK. The handwriting on the envelope changed depending on who the postmaster was at the time.

His younger brothers send out family newsletters on email. There is only one photograph of my father they use, a blurred profile of him holding a beer. They use the same caption – ‘Still refuses to use email.’ I wish to click Reply All and say ‘fuck you’ but there is a distant niece in Saskatchewan on the list – she writes me regularly for shark postcards and she knows the scientific names of eleven types of nudibranch. She recorded herself reciting it like bad poetry and put it on YouTube. I am the only one who knows this. She insists I use real handwriting, real stamps. She hates pancakes, frogs, flatlands. Her handwriting yearns for water. Salt water. Sea. In her milk tooth grin I see the next storyteller – the one to replace the man who has gone silent. She is ten and wants three pet octopi.

I was born to be a bridge. All I see are connections. I bridge between time, people and places. I study migratory species. Tuna fish stocks. Whales. Sea urchins in between. Cephalopods. I was nine when I picked up my first cuttlefish bones on a tidal flat in Pacific Harbour. For years I thought it was a whistle. I wrote out the names of the world’s oceans, seas, currents and fish in longhand, unaware the lead scrawlings were placing miles between my father and me. He watched me from across the kitchen table. My mother had died bringing me into the world. He washed okra with patient fingers. Boiled rice. Warned me he was going to slice red onions.

Make sure you buy land, he whispers. When you grow up, buy a small piece of land. Build a house just for you. Promise me.

Promise. But my eyes were already on the Kuroshio Current. I was already reading the voyage of Captain James Cook and the transit of the planet Venus. Hearing the howl of winds at Tierra del Fuego. No one told me that as recently as one hundred years before, ships had cut through the rough straits with people carrying the makings of my teeth in their genes. They almost never happened. Almost.

Keep writing, he says in our old kitchen. As long as someone remembers, we live.

My sister drops me off at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital.

I won’t come in now, she says. I still smell of cigarettes.

My father is asleep when I reach out to hold his hand.

Famished Eels Continues here

A Nut, Causing Havoc


Betel nut – the fruit of the areca palm, is a nut well-known and used as a cultural practice in Western Pacific Islands.

Betel nut
The green nut. Google Pics.

In Melanesian cultures such as Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, betel nut was traditionally shared in gatherings. Betel nut is chewed in India, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries. Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia as well as West Papua and Thursday Islands, are not traditional betel nut chewers or growers. Betel nut is also chewed in Micronesia. In the Melanesian pidgin (PNG Tok Pisin to be exact), betel nut is  called buai. The nut is chewed with Daka and Kambang – mustard and limeOver the years, in PNG, the betel nut has become a commercial product, creating an economic lifeline for many squatter dwellers and low-income earners, including villagers. It has also created havoc and health problems.

dsc_0031 sharing betel nut
My friends having a chew at the opening of my art gallery, Pacific Art Gallery, in Brisbane. Pic: Mari Ellingson, Island Meri Blog

Traditionally, in PNG, the betel nut has a cultural significance and a ritual is followed at gatherings. Perhaps it could be compared to how the Kola nut in used in Africa but in a less formal way.

Both the green and older, orange-skin nuts are chewed when a family receives visitors. They sit together, exchange the nuts and chew the betel nut with mustard and lime.  Greetings and stories including family news are exchanged before serious business is discussed. It has been suggested that the origins of chewing betel nut dates back to the Lapita culture when the first Melanesians came to settle.

Like many customs and practices associated with objects, food or places, this buai heritage has changed. Betel nut has become a commercial product in PNG. Medical books record it as a drug and the nut’s commercial trade has even affected the Consumer Price Index. In the last two years, according to the PNG Health Department, diseases associated with chewing has increased in numbers.

img_26641 betel nut
http://puppriss.wordpress.com/page/3/ George buys his supply at betel nut market.

City Ban

Rubbish from betel nut trade, including skin and spit stains created not only health problems but a physical havoc and embarrassment to authorities. Buildings, walk-ways and government property had permanent spat and stained marks all over. These marks often shocked foreign visitors who thought these were blood stains. Controlling sellers and buyers became a nightmare for authorities.

The Port Moresby Governor Powes Parkop declared a ban on the sale of the nuts in Port Moresby City in October 2013. This ban was reinforced in January 2014. The sale and chewing points were re-located to outskirts and villages away from the capital. A task force roamed and confiscated the nuts and arrested sellers and even chewers. The governor said this ban was purely for commercial sellers of betel nut that made the city dirty. The cultural usage was not affected.

The Nut in the Coffin

While the ban had cleaned the city, sellers continued to smuggle the betel nut into the cities to sell. Last year, at a police roadblock, a friend who runs a trucking service recalled a story where betel nut smugglers packed a coffin with the nuts. The smugglers pretended they were a group of mourning highlanders. It was customary for highlanders in PNG to cover in clay or mud when they mourn. The clay-covered smugglers told the police at road-block that they were returning from Gulf Province to Port Moresby City with a body to bury. The police knew this route too well and despite this theatric, the police forced the travellers to open the coffin. Inside the coffin, the ‘dead’ nuts were all confiscated.

Health Effects

Studies have been conducted and doctors have warned excessive use of betel nut causes mouth cancer and even death due to high blood pressure and other related diseases.

Health officials in PNG say 25,000 people die annually from mouth cancer and the figures of oral cancer relating to betel nut chewers is rising amid the controversial ban.

Betel nut D707979
The powerful combo. Lime powder, mustard sticks and betel nut. Google Pics

 Chewing the Nut

When you chew the nut with mustard and lime, it creates a chemical reaction which results in a bloody red substance in your mouth. This makes the face and body of the chewer warm and sometimes they would sweat profusely, depending on each individual chewer and how their body reacts to the nut. There are different species of the nut. Some are more bitter and stronger than others. For example, in Markham Valley in Lae, the fleshy meat of the betel nut is quite sweet and you can chew the nut on its own or with lime and mustard without feeling any strong reactions. The Markham nuts are mild compared to other nuts grown in North Solomons Province, the Buka buai as it is known.

betelnut Solomon Is
Solomon Islands betel nut chewer. Google Pics.

First time chewers have reported being extra alert, a mild feeling of euphoria, quickening heartbeat, high blood pressure and sweating or feeling very warm.

I know betel nut well, having grown up with it all my life – it is part of our culture. Often in large singsing, (cultural dancingthe nuts are strung like beads, coconut oiled and hung like a necklace.

To the nightmare of my mother, who was an educated nurse, I chewed betel nut most of my childhood with my grandmother. It was my late grandmother’s way. My grandmother called it a ‘medicine’. I had my own bag of betel nuts with my lime pot and my mustard supply. My grandmother’s teeth were permanently blackened by betel nut chewing. She believed, it kept the (western) doctor away. I found her words funny because she herself was the traditional doctor. We also planted the trees and grew the mustard to chew. My grandmother and I made lime powder from kina shells. When we had extra, we sold it at the local market. I was lucky to have Colgate and a toothbrush (and my mother) so I have white teeth today. If ever you want to try this, make sure you are with someone who knows how to chew the betel nut very well.

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.

The Sorcerers’ Watch


The Sorcerers’ Watch

JLeahy memoir series – opening chapter/short story

We buried him this afternoon. He had died a week ago. There were a few hours left before the sorcerers would come for his remains. That’s what his father said. We needed to get to his grave before dusk and guard the grave until dawn. His father, mother and I left for Karogo’s graveyard after the last of the gathered family members left.

My aching joints gave me small comfort as I forced them to help me walk quickly up the main road, away from Saroa Village. We were near Rigo, Central Province, Papua New Guinea and in this region, witchcraft and sorcery were rife. We walked inland, headed for the small hill where Karogo and some of his deceased family members had been buried. Other villagers buried their dead in their backyard, gardens and other special places; something I was not used to. In my village, we had one cemetery for everyone.

The heavy rain and dense humidity kept the soil on the road, wet and slippery. The red clay had been washed frequently down the hills by the torrential rains leaving earthy red lines meandering through rough patches of grey and black gravel. I placed my feet carefully away from the soft red mud and in between the milky puddles. I wore thongs and these flipped a backsplash of sand and muddy water onto the dress. My clothes and looks were the last things on my mind.

For a few minutes, I stepped off the main road and I walked along the greyish clay roadside track. The muddy track was imprinted with hundreds of footprints from local traffic. I passed a few thongs left stuck in the mud and this made me want to smile. A pair of thongs was a priceless footwear. Obviously the toe parts of these pairs came apart so the thongs had been abandoned. Karogo’s father was ahead and his mother was walking behind me. I knew the couple had planned to be in this position, to protect me.

I walked as quickly as I could because it was getting dark very quickly. The moon was still rising but night creatures were already on the scene, I could hear them.

Today had flown by quickly like each day in the past week. The funeral only ‘formalized’ the death certificate. Karogo was long gone and this absence was so stark in this strange village. This place was an hour’s flight and several hours on the road, south from my home town. Apart from his immediate family, I did not know anyone. That did not bother me. I wasn’t afraid to spend the night in the graveyard. I knew I was a stranger and as his father told me, “you are a target, so you must follow everything I say”.

“Ok” I said. My own family had taught me how to handle any kind of situation with sorcery. It was always best to follow local rules as grandma would say. I had really wanted to go to the graveyard. That may have sounded crazy, as it sounded to me, but I needed to know what the sorcery-watch was about and I wanted to see Karogo again. Fear was not my issue. I could face the sorcerers or anyone from the dead.

It was not fear, as I had said, it was my anger. Karogo’s death made me very angry. This anger was so strong, that I felt cold and hardened inside. I started to feel older and stronger than my 17 years. I had insisted to his parents to take me to the grave tonight.

The torch slipped out of my tired hands and dropped into the mud almost tripping me.

“Shit!” I cursed and picked it up quickly. I quickened my pace to reach Solomon, Karogo’s father. As I caught up, my mind went back to the funeral again. My eyes salted and I wiped them quickly.

This morning about 9am, while the pastor was preaching, trying to cover his eulogy and bring closure to Karogo’s 18 years of living, I had felt every vein in my heart burst into tatters. Our past three years together were a mixture of child-play and maturing into adulthood together. Then, there were the mysteries in his life that I now could never ask anyone about, ever.  He was beautiful inside and out, but he had secrets.

In the front pew, among strangers today, I felt I had been thrown off a plane into a strange place where no one understood my language or me. People were just staring at me, even in church, while the pastor was preaching. To find comfort amongst the staring pitiful eyes, I had looked down at the bright red roses on my black polyester dress. The hem had come apart but the dress kept together. My “Gypsy dress”, Karogo had called it. We were together when I bought this Gypsy dress at the second-hand store in Lae. I was on two weeks mid-year holiday from Year 12. The dress cost me 50 cents. It was strange to feel at ease for a moment while looking at the red roses on the Gypsy dress. I wanted to see Karogo alive in my memories about the dress but only briefly I saw him before my eyes moved and focused on the coffin. The roses in the wreath on his coffin were alive. Karogo wasn’t. He laid there, just like he could have been on the day-bed at his father’s house. His eyes were shut, but he wasn’t sleeping in the opened, beautiful, rosewood coffin.

My dress was the only item that connected us briefly and at that moment in the village church. I sat amongst hundreds of strangers. Mourners, children and adults, dressed in white,  kept sneaking glances at me, probably feeling sorry for the young widowed girlfriend. I had cried inside and begged for my heart to stop right then. Yet, above the haunting Perovetta hymn at the funeral service, I could hear my heart still beating while I tried to understand why death could come to a life so young and promising.

“Joyce!’ someone had called me in the church. I remember, I did not even turn. Perhaps it was someone else with the same name. I didn’t know. I was in a daze. My thoughts were too far-gone. I had wanted to know why my chest kept moving, expanding, and contracting. I was breathing air and life, which I did not want, into me. I had wanted to stop breathing.

“Joyce!” Solomon called.

I turned my head quickly to him. I paused. He was a large, tall man with a large Afro. He combed it out neatly and sweat combined with water from his wet hair was coming down his face. He pointed a few metres ahead of me. The physical and emotional pain returned to my body once more as I stepped in the slippery, pale mud towards him.

“Come this way”, Solomon directed and I walked closer to him.

“Are you ok?” he asked, searching my face when I stopped and looked at him. We were both sweating from the walk. His wife caught up and wiped her flushed, sweaty face. She also looked at me concerned.

“Yes”, I tried to smile.

“Let’s go”, Solomon said.

We turned away from the main road and reached a small, slow flowing creek, about ankle-deep. The stones in the creek were all covered in green and black algae. We crossed the creek as the day’s shadows dissolved, forcing us to use artificial light. Solomon lit the Chinese kerosene lantern and gave me the large torch. His wife held the smaller torch. We climbed. In a few minutes, we will be at Karogo’s graveyard.

(Draft only)

The End of the broom – Part Two


This is the second part of a draft chapter I am working on and sharing with you. If you find grammar or other errors, just smile and forgive me. This chapter may change as I edit and re-write. There is still a lot to be done.

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JLeahy Memoir Series   The End of the broom

“Where is the mouth of the road?

At the entrance of the cemetery.

That’s where my body will rest and become soft.

But my spirit would fly to you,

Where I will see your face Lord”

I hummed the song in my head. It really wasn’t a good song for the start of a day. I was too distracted today.

I had to get my Saturday morning chores done. I picked up the broom; a bundle of dried brown coconut sticks, and went to the back of the house near the pig pen to sweep. In preparation for my getaway, I threw my red on the weak, bouncy, low wire clothes line that was slowly coming apart from the two ends, tied on coconut trunks. I was careful not to ‘bounce’ some of the wet clothes off; they had no pegs on them. We did not have any.

“Kalem! Kalem!” the children were calling me from the river. I waved and made hand signs that I was busy, and would join them later.

From the back , I used the coconut broom to sweep to the front yard. The bare sandy yard studded with beach pebbles embraced two houses, both of distinct characters. The larger house faced the main road to the village and the other faced the side of the larger house. There was a large hardwood tree at our entrance called Abong. Because we lived under this tree, our place was called Abonghu, which meant, “at the foot of the Abong tree”. The larger, white house, had blue trimmings and two blue door exits. With her nursing money, Mother helped her father to build this house for all of us. It happened before I was born. After I was born, when I was asleep, she hung me in the bilum on the Abong branch. The three rooms were shared with her two siblings and parents. Mother often fought with her older brother and his children over the ownership of this house. Each time, she would count the number of cement bags, timber, and roofing iron and tell them the total amount of her pension she had spent.

I tried to avoid the pig droppings as I swept. Pigs made such a ‘neat’ mess. Little black round balls looking almost as if they were rolled by hand. It did stink though. I swept past Mother and my room.

There were three bedrooms. Each room in the house Mother built housed several people. There was a lounge room, which turned into guest room when our families visited from the coast or inland. The lounge room had tired old fly-wired windows. Scrawly pen and pencil marks drawn by kids on the wall. The brown unpainted Masonite walls dropped down to unpolished evenly nailed timber hardwood floors. Various stains in years, soaked into the fibre of the dead wood giving it a distinct character. The other house was made from unpainted timber with a mis-matched stacking of planks. The roof was made from sewn sago leaves, and topped with a few iron roof sheets. The sheets had holes in them. Inside, the house was blackened by the built up of daily smoke from the fire. My grandma’s fireplace was on the verandah of this house. The two rooms had no fly wire, just cotton laplaps. The roof had holes. If your bed is positioned right, a raindrop will fall from heaven straight through the hole into your eye – shocking you. My cousin and I have tried this. It was funny.

To my readers:  If you had enjoyed this draft, let me know. I won’t be posting the end of this chapter. It will be in my book. I shall be posting other parts of chapters as I start writing them. These last two stories (in The end of the broom) were parts of the first chapter I have ever written of this memoir. I have been writing a series of short stories in the last two years in my creative writing workshop. I am now attempting to connect them together and create a structure and a spine for the story. If this is the wrong way of writing a book – then I guess I have created a new way. Thank you for reading.

 

 

The End of the Broom


The End of The Broom

JLeahy Memoir Series

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Brooms. Credit: Wikipedia

The day was hot, thick and sticky with humidity. School was over yesterday. I was nearly nine. My mind was lost. Mother was going away. I had no idea when and for how long. She had a new job in Kundiawa, Simbu Province, Papua New Guinea.

It was so hot. I was dying to have a swim. Already, the children in the village were swimming in the river near our house. I looked down and saw them. Then my eyes caught the broom on the ground. I knew I had to get down there and sweep.

Mother trained women to sew clothes and make a living. She loved her job with the Lutheran Mission at Ampo (Lae), but now the government welfare office gave her a real job, she had said. Werner Knoll offered her this job. Werner was a German kiap who became a welfare manager and headed the office in Lae. He had told me he was my guardian. I knew being a guardian meant, he was not my father, but something like an angel.  I heard that word “guardian” used in our church. I also saw it in grandma’s bible.

I went to our room to get my red towel and walked back to the kitchen. I stood there and looked at the children. They were jumping off a platform we built on a tree, and landing in the river with a bombing sound. The water splashed everywhere. I was jealous. I looked at them but my mind went back to my mother. May be Werner could not pay us any more. Maybe, he ran out of money.

Mother and I visited Werner each month to collect money. Mother said we collected $AU20. When we arrived at the Welfare, Werner would beckon me with his pointer. He then lifted me onto his lap and pinched my cheeks. Then he pecked me on both the cheeks with his beard scratching me roughly. He had a large pink mole on his cheek. Then, he would order me to open my mouth so he would check my teeth for betel nut stains. I was terrified but I did as I was told. Mother and all the women in the welfare thought it was funny and laughed. After, Werner would tell me to  promise to be a good girl.  He would warn me not to chew betel nut and wink at my mother as he handed her a pink slip to go with to the bank. This ritual started when I was able to walk and speak.

I was to find out much later, this money came from my father whom I had never seen nor heard about. No one told me the money was from my father then, so I never knew. I had always thought Werner was related to me somehow and it was Werner’s money that he gave us. He was being kind. Mother had to bring me every time she visited Werner to get this money. I thought the whole ritual with Werner was part of the reason for getting the money. It was Werner’s rule.

“I will make a lot of money in this job”, Mother had said last night.

“Yamandu?” Really? I said, not convinced.

Mother promised me with such excitement in her eyes, I started to wonder what we would do with a pile of money. I did not think it was ever possible for us to have money except for Werner’s $20. Grandma said too much money was evil. Not many people made money, unless you had a bank; that’s what the village children said.

Mother’s job sounded ok. We could share the money with everyone. However, I was also concerned it would be too cold for Mother in Simbu. She needed to keep warm. She was smart, she could make fire in the evenings, I thought. I could not imagine how we would be apart. Deep inside, I had too many questions and felt uneasy about this job as I embarked on my own jobs for Saturday morning. I decided not to think about Mother. I went and started my chores.

“Kalem! Kalem!” the children were calling me from the river. I could see them from our house. I waved and made hand signs that I was busy, and would join them later.

To get my chores done I started with the coconut broom. I picked up the bundle of dried brown coconut sticks. They were held firmly at the thick end with re-cycled black rubber from tyre tube. I started sweeping from the back of the big house. My chores had increased with my age. Each day the chores changed, but most of the tasks were the same. We shared the chores between all the women in my family. The boys and men shared theirs. My chores were cleaning, washing, cooking, and helping Mother. Sometimes I helped my grandmother and aunties. If not fishing, the girls and women would be gardening together or making art and singing. On special occasions we would prepare our costumes and dance. The evenings were for story telling, and laughter after the church service. There was an occasional women gathering or village meeting. On Sundays we went to church and cooked a feast after. If someone died, we all gathered and cried together for at least two days before we buried them in our village cemetery.  As we carried the dead to the cemetery, we sang in Yabem:

“Where is the mouth of the road?

At the entrance of the cemetery.

That’s where my body will rest and become soft.

But my spirit would fly to you,

Where I will see your face Lord”

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(Draft only, and to be continued in my memoir series).

 

Short Story – Mother’s Coffee Land


Memoir series – JLeahy

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Credit: Dr Wright picture

In the first moon of the coffee season, the bees would have long gone from the sweetness in the coffee blossom. The delicate petals of coffee blossoms would wither, turn brownie-yellow and drop to carpet the base of the trees. Here, under the tree, other insects such as ants would gather around the sticky rotting pulp. This was the picking time. My mother and her sisters would prepare to harvest grandpa’s coffee.

This is my mother’s Coffee Land story.

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A coffee plantation in Morobe Province

My grandfather’s name means “intelligent” and so he was. Kauc’s coffee garden was planted on his father’s land, miles away from our village.

To harvest the coffee beans; equipment, food, bags, water and all other necessities for processing had to be carried to the garden on foot. It was a labour-intensive method in which cherries are picked, selected and pulped by hand all day and for several weeks.

The remaining flesh from the pulping process was used as composting material for both the coffee and food gardens. Once the bean was dried, it was shelled. The coffee was now ready to sell and grandpa took it to town and in exchange, he bought sugar, rice and a small stick of tobacco. The tobacco was his treat, although he rarely smoked. My mother often wondered why he spent his hard-earned money on tobacco he did not really smoke. She said perhaps he shared it with his friends.

The coffee garden was Kauc’s pride and joy. Being a male and the second eldest in his family, Kauc owned a large piece of land. He was a devout Lutheran and a teacher. Kauc loved the land and he tried some cocoa and his coffee garden for cash.

The coffee garden, near our food garden, was situated less than an hour walking distance from our small coastal village outside Lae, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. Kauc grew Arabicas. With a high rainfall and good soil, the trees grew well and produced top quality beans. The family did not drink this coffee. They drank tea which came from Garaina, a sub-district in our province. This coffee garden was purely cultivated as a cash crop.

When the coffee berries ripened they developed a glossy sheen on its deep red shades. My mother, her sisters and my grandparents would go to the garden to pick the coffee and spend the whole day sorting and processing.

Sometimes, they would take a break and make a fire in nearby kunai (grassland) to surround and trap bandicoots for lunch. This made the long day interesting.

My mother said she would feed me milk and lay me down in a bilum (string bag) and hang the bag on a Rosewood branch. Under the shade, the cool breeze kept me asleep while she and her sisters picked coffee. My grandfather washed and peeled the red skins, revealing pale beans. The sisters would pick and bring bags of the red cherries and pour them into my grandpa’s pulper.

“He would stand there in his laplap and T shirt and just turn the handles until the machine skinned and spit the pale brown seeds out the other end. The seeds were collected and dried in the sun. He was in charge of this machine” my mother said.

The trees and in particular, the Rosewood tree became the landmark. Memories of the coffee garden surfaced in a family argument over land allocation eight years ago. My grandfather and his brother were the head of our family and clan. Both men had died three decades ago. Their sons, my two uncles who became head of our clan and land had also died. My mother remains the eldest of the family and clan. Her being a woman brought another cultural and customary argument about where she would live.

According to my cousin brothers, my mother should not have any land. Fortunately for my mother, and for the fact that she was born the daughter of an intelligent man, she stood up for her share. My mother made sure she had spoken to my uncles and got both their approvals before they died. When my uncles asked her to choose, she had marked the land where she used to hang me in a bilum, while she picked coffee with her father. This coffee garden became her land. In memory of her father, my mother named her son Kauc and I named my son Kauc.