'Zunu ... aaaaaaaa!'
A guard leaning against a tree jerked upright at the sound of the faint cry in the distance, and instantly fitted an arrow to his long bamboo bow. Motionless, he peered intently across the darkened waters of the lake but the moon's feeble light failed to help him. He hardly dared breathe as he strained his ears to catch the call again.
'Zunu ... aaaaaaaa!'
Again the cry of war broke through the normal nocturnal noises and this time there was no mistaking it. Throwing back his head he gave the warning cry.
'Oo! oo! oo! oo!'
The cry echoed back from the other end of the village as the other guards took it up. They were now running through the island village shouting warnings. The majority of the men rushed out of their houses with weapons at the ready for they had not been asleep. Sleep was a luxury they could not afford at night lest they be caught by headhunting raiders. Day time was safer.
'Zunu ... aaaaaaaa!'
Gesi woke with a start as he was dragged to his feet by his mother's sister, Magupa. With shouting crashing in his sleepy ears he clung desperately to her. His father brushed past them and disappeared into the darkness.
'What is happening?' Magupa shouted.
As the dim forms of people ran past them there was no answer and Gesi began to cry. He was six years of age. His mother stumbled out of the house, grabbed his arm and turned to flee down the path that led across the narrow channel into the bush. On previous occasions they had been awakened by the screams of their fellow villagers being slaughtered and flight was the only escape from the headhunter's knife. Gesi only too readily joined her.
'This is no raid!' Magupa called after her sister. 'What raiders announce their coming over the waters of the lake?'
Gesi's mother stopped her headlong flight. What Magupa said was true. The other women who had been carrying and herding their children down the path stopped also. But some were taking no risks and continued their flight across the narrow channel to the safety of the mainland.
'Zunu ... aaaaaaaa!'
'That cry is coming from down the lake.' Magupa realised.
The men's shouting had stopped and, to Gesi, Magupa's voice seemed very loud in the deathly silence. She picked up a coconut palm frond torch which was used for night fishing and lit it from a nearby fire. The light was reassuring and Gesi's mother slowly and uncertainly retraced her steps. Gesi took Magupa's proffered hand. The three moved over to where the men were tensely straining their eyes to see across the surface of the lake.
The moon had partially appeared but the immense expanse of water that made up Lake Saru, adorned with water lilies, wild rice and numerous other plants, was still shrouded in semi-darkness. Who was calling? It was not a normal raid. Was it a trap to entice them out of the village? Was someone trying to warn them of impending danger? Cautiously they began inspecting the land around them and not just the lake.
'Put out that light!' a man shouted at Magupa.
This she promptly did. What was the darkness hiding? Why didn't the moon come out from behind those clouds? She remembered the night a few years ago when they had discovered a party of headhunters in the village. Alertness had saved them on that night. But this was different. Who was calling?
'Zunu ... aaaaaaaa!'
'That is Samaypa's voice!'
Everyone agreed and immediately a canoe was launched to meet them. Only last week Gesi and the other boys had been splashing in the water when Samaypa, his wife and six other people had left on a friendly visit to the Suki village of Duru on the south eastern shore of the lake. What had happened? Surely the Duru village people had not attacked them for they were of the same tribe. Maybe enemy raiders had attacked them and were chasing them now. No! Impossible! No enemy would dare chase them right into the heart of the much feared Suki people's land where they would be outnumbered by the four villages of Gwibaku, Duru, Ewe and Ibebi.
'There is the canoe!'
The hazy outline of a canoe was silhouetted against the moon's faint reflection off the water. There was only one canoe. Where was the other that had departed with them? A heaviness filled their hearts as they imagined the worst. The canoe that had been launched to meet the paddlers drew alongside and there was a hasty consultation. Then across the water the breeze brought the answer their minds had been fearing.
'Tenabu ... Atkamu ... Tawera ... have been killed by the Duru people!'
A roar of anger and grief echoed back from the crowd and they surged down to the shoreline to meet the canoes. Tenabu's youngest brother, Abasi, began to cry and the mourning wail broke from the lips of many. An old man cursed the Duru villagers then quickly scanned the crowd around him. Raising his star shaped club he struck at a woman, who collapsed with blood flowing from her crushed skull.
'That is revenge for Atkamu!' he screamed in anger.
The dead woman had been born in Duru village but had married a man from the village of Gwibaku. Since a Gwibaku had been killed by a Duru, so a member of that village must suffer in return. A head for a head. Another man immediately raised his bow and fired an arrow into the chest of his pregnant wife. She screamed and clutched at the merciless shaft then fell to her knees. A blow to the head and she was silent.
Instantly a man grabbed his wife around the waist, swung her onto his shoulder and ran down the path that led across the narrow channel separating the island from the mainland. Plunging into it he splashed his way across and disappeared into the dimness of the other side.
But for his quick thinking his Duru born wife would have joined the other two bodies on the ground as the third head in payment for those of Tenabu, Atkamu and Tawera. There were no other Duru born people in Gwibaku so they had to be satisfied with two heads for the moment. Beheading knives were quickly produced and the heads were severed from the bodies. A dark stain spread across the ground.
As the canoes slid to a halt on the muddy shore in the grey pre-dawn light, the death wail ceased and everyone crowded around to hear the tragic story. It had happened at Ikaba where the eight Gwibaku people had been drinking and dancing with the Duru people. Atkamu had been speared from behind and Tawera had been beheaded where she sat. The rest had escaped into the jungle while Tenabu had tried to fight them off but there had been too many. The killers had not come from the Suki village of Duru but from the village of the same name amongst the distant Arufe people of the south.
A shocked gasp burst from many lips and all eyes turned and stared at the two bodies lying in the pool of blood. What a ghastly mistake! The horrified silence was shattered as the death wail revived with greater grief. The heads were given to representatives of Ewe and Ibebi villages. Let others dance the joyous dance of the heads. Gwibaku would be dancing the mournful dance of death.
Only six big rains had passed since Gesi had been born and he tightly clutched his mother and Magupa as he looked down at the inert forms of the two women. There was a lot of blood and he did not like it. Afraid, he gripped their hands, and looked up questioningly at his mother. There was no answer. She and Magupa turned and walked with him back to the houses.
Life for the Suki people was one of constant fear. If it was not fear of headhunting raiders, then it was fear of ghosts, or fear of 'tamki' (magic), or fear of breaking taboos, or fear of one another, or fear of death, or fear of Awkati who lived in the sky and would not hesitate to maim or kill anyone who offended him.
They returned to their house, which consisted of a paper bark roof and large pieces of tree bark tied to the posts on three sides for walls. Scattered around it were about 20 similar houses. Gesi's mother rekindled the coals into a flame. As Gesi warmed himself beside the fire he thought how good it would be to sleep again, to forget his friend Abasi's cries and the sight of those bloody heads.
But there was no hope of sleep with the wailing all around him. It would continue till midday at least. Gesi's father came into the house and without a word put on his white egret feather head-dress, slung his war club over his shoulder and returned to the large group of mourners with his bow and arrows. Tenabu was his clan brother and although they had not got on well together, he must mourn. A large circle formed and the drum began its mournful beat. Round and round they shuffled, bewailing the loss of their relatives.
At the southern end of the village, attracted by the blood, the dogs were converging on the corpses of the two women. One of the men chased them away calling to the non-dancers to help remove the bodies. After loading them into a canoe they paddled around the island village up into an inlet where the wild rice grew thickly.
Here the women were thrown into the water and pushed down into the rice stalks with the paddles; an easy grave for an embarrassment. The first rays of the sun were beginning to give some character to the formless sky; lighting up the edges of the clouds with a dull red glow. Observing this one of the men commented,
'The blood of the dead are calling for revenge.'
Hour after hour, without a break, the mourners moved round and round the centre of the village crying for the ones they would never see again. No more would they drink, dance, and hunt together, they cried. Their helplessness weighed heavily upon them: death was an enemy they could not defeat. They could only cry.
Gesi's mother reached up into the rafters and took down a plaited bag. Squinting her eyes against the smoke of the fire she began searching through a pile of fibres, and found some dark purple which would be ideal for the mourning cape which she would have to plait for her husband. When finished it would cover his head and back as far as his buttocks, which were covered by a set of tassels.
With the dark fibres she would work into it a series of diamond designs. The Suki had once had eternal life but then death had come and men had become mortal. These designs, the old men said, had been handed down to them from that tragic time. Magupa moved into the circle of light given out by the fire.
'Genapa!' she sighed with emotion, using a word for sorrow, 'two women killed for nothing.'
Sizeya, methodically plaiting the fibres, made no reply. This was life and it could not be altered. Gesi sat down on his mother's lap which bulged with an unborn child. Her time was close. He planted his foot on her plaiting and she hissed at him so Magupa pulled him onto her own lap. She hugged and kissed him. There was no conversation as the tragic events of that morning hung heavily upon them. Another log was put on the fire and Gesi watched it as the flames gently stroked it.
Magupa had moved in with Gesi's family when her parents had died a year or so before. Normally girls of her age would have been married by now, but her lack of physical development and a disagreement amongst the clan leaders as to whom she should marry accounted for her still being single. Just a few days ago there had been a whisper that she would marry one of the older men. Magupa had been disgusted, and Gesi could not forget the curse she had uttered on hearing of this rumour.
As he stared at the fire, its colours changed from red, to blue then to a bright yellow as the log began to burn. But the bright light did little to brighten the sadness of their hearts.
Two women killed and it turned out to be a mistake. The men had only hurt themselves. The one who had fled with his wife would not be seen for a long time, if ever. They would probably go and live in the village of Duru. Even there he would not be sure of his own safety for they might take his head in revenge for the killing of the two women.
In the centre of the village the dancers continued their slow circular movement. There was Tenabu's widow crying for the husband she had last seen fighting for his life at Ikaba. Gesi's father had once wanted her for a second wife but Tenabu had objected and won the argument over her. Now he was required to mourn for this man who had been his rival.
Tenabu's youngest brother, Abasi, looked out of place as he danced with the adults. Tears were rolling down his cheeks as he cried for the one who had been a father to him since his parents' early death. In his hands were Tenabu's arrows. Atkamu's baby boy, Kunawaba, lay asleep on the lap of a friend while his mother danced the dance of death.
He would never feel the sorrow of his father's death for another would marry his mother and be a father to him. Children died so often that there were many who would grasp the opportunity of adopting an orphan.
Gesi became aware that the sun had risen and the first twitches of hunger were beginning to appear in his stomach. Looking up at Magupa, he suggested hopefully, 'Let us go and have a look at the fish traps.'
His mother hissed again at him. 'Sssss, that is taboo. Men have died!'
Gesi sighed. this would be a day of complete inactivity. Then tonight ... Gesi shivered and clutched at Magupa as he remembered the nights of terror that followed other deaths. She started.
'What is the matter, little Gesi?'
He hesitated, but Magupa would be understanding. 'I am frightened of the women's ghosts.' he replied. The girl and the women looked around nervously. There was nothing near now but tonight the ghosts would come.
The sun continued its upward climb and the dancers moved round and round. They were growing tired and their voices had become hoarse. Some broke from the moving circle, scooped up hot ashes and rubbed them on their stiff legs in an attempt to revive them, before returning to their dancing duty. Towards midday Gesi's mother took down a bag containing sago and began preparing a meal. The end of the dance could not be far away.
Laying down some long leaves she filled them with the sago powder, bound them up and placed them on a platform just above the coals. The sago in the bag was almost gone. As Gesi watched, the green leaf wrappings slowly turned brown as the heat penetrated through them to the sago. The drum stopped and the hot and weary dancers moved slowly back to the houses. Gesi watched as his father approached. He was a big man, tall framed and powerfully muscled. Grass streamers were plaited into his long well-greased hair which flowed down over his shoulders and was bound in a queue at the back. Across the top of his forehead, keeping the hair in place, were a series of head bands of sea shells, coloured seeds and plaited material.
Through his ears hung large ear-rings made from cassowary feather quills, while criss-crossed on his chest were two bands of sea shells traded from the Arufe and Aramba people of the south. Small intricately plaited bands were bound around his neck, the tops of his arms and calves. Covering his genitals was a large white sea shell while his buttocks were partially covered with a small grass skirt. Gesi was proud that this fine warrior was his father.
Gesi's mother handed her husband the cooked sago, informing him 'We have only enough sago for today.'
The big man nodded and flopped exhausted to the ground. Quickly he bit off a mouthful of the hot sago. Gesi had already eaten but he came and sat on his father's leg, asking for some of his. A couple of dogs picked up the smell of the freshly cooked sago and came sniffing around for scraps. The sago still above the coals caught their attention but Magupa anticipated them and, stick in hand, lashed out at them. With a yelp they retreated to a safer distance.
'Our sago trees at Idigwagi will most likely be declared taboo since he is dead.' Gesi's father pointed with his chin in the direction of Tenabu's house. No one dared mention the name of a dead person. The ghost might hear. 'If everything goes well tonight, maybe we will go tomorrow and make sago at Smelling Fish.'
When the ghosts of the women come tonight, who was to know what might happen? They might not live through it. When Gesi's father had finished eating the sago, he rose and walked off towards the unmarried men's house. This was the public meeting place and the other men were assembling to discuss the matter of revenge.
The younger men were demanding that they put on the pink war clay straight away and catch up with the killers before they arrived at their own village. The older men had different ideas. The noise of the discussion rose to thunderous proportions as each voiced his own opinion at the same time. A short stocky ugly man stood to his feet and the talking gradually came to an end.
'Listen!' he shouted. Everyone was listening, for Kimse's quick temper was well known. He spat out a mouthful of dull red betel nut juice, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and proceeded.
'To catch those killers we would have to cross the land belonging to the Pepeka village men.' He paused to let this piece of information sink in. Pepeka was another Suki village 30 kilometres to the south of Lake Saru. 'Don't you remember that during the last wet season I killed those eight Pepeka men?'
Everyone nodded. How could they forget this outstanding personal victory equalling the legends of their ancestors.
'What would your reaction be to find Kimse's village men crossing your land?' Kimse shouted. 'Your heads would adorn their houses in no time. We will wait for two big rainy seasons to pass and then invite the Pepeka men to join us on a raid on these killers.'
'Good!' Another agreed. 'If we go now they will be expecting us. But if we wait they will grow lax and forget about us.' He flicked his first finger behind his ear, indicating the removal of their heads and his lips parted in a big smile. 'Then they will be our meat.'
The other men roared with laughter as they anticipated the slaughter. Fighting with other tribes was a major part of life. The majority of it had been, until a few wet seasons ago, with the Zimakani people who lived further up the Fly River at its junction with the Strickland River. For as far back as the old men could remember there had been war with them.
But just a couple of years before, the Zimakani men had met with them on the river and sought peace and an alliance against the Ari people who were moving in from the east. Remembering the deadly effectiveness of their raids, the Suki men agreed. So on the set day these life-long enemies had faced each other across a small creek named Sigisi, the dividing mark between their lands, and peace was declared. The leading men of each group had dived into the creek, met halfway, kissed and exchanged names. This had meant the cessation of hostilities between them but it did not remove the fear of attack, for neither knew how far each could trust the other.
Long before the sun had set the men and the women picked up their sleeping mats and moved to the unmarried men's house which was surrounded by a large circle of fires. Attached to the house and in another circle outside the fires on the ground lay the protective 'eyse' branches. Here they would watch and wait out the night. Gesi could sense the fear in the atmosphere and snuggled closer to his mother. Magupa lay close to him on the other side so he realised he should not be worried, but who knew what ghosts would do, even to a small boy?
In the men's section he could see his father. Attached to his arms and hips were strange looking abjects. They must be his 'tamki' charms. His mother had told him that it was forbidden to look at them, but that did not stop him. He knew where his father kept them so one day he would have a secret look. Those who had recent arguments with the dead women occupied the centre of the circle along with the men who had killed them. It would be these for whom the ghosts would come looking.
Some were lying on their mats but only the children would sleep tonight. The ones appointed to keep the fires going sat amidst huge piles of wood, determined to keep bright light in front of them. As darkness increased around them, all ears listened and all eyes moved constantly back and forth around the village. Gesi looked down the village where every house, tree, bush and object was bathed in an eerie yellow fire light. Even their own house seemed different.
As he watched he thought he saw some of the trees move. Quickly he closed his eyes and moved closer to his mother. But his ears picked up the rustling of the palm leaves and his mother's closeness did not give him that secure feeling he had hoped it would. The silence was broken by a deep throated call in the bush opposite the island village.
'Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm ... Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm ... Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm ... '
Involuntary gasps rose from many lips as all turned in the direction of the bush. Again the call floated across the channel.
'That is just a bush hen!' a man declared, trying hard to convince himself as well as his hearers. He was not readily believed for this call had been on many occasions associated with ghosts. Had not they heard it often near the grave of one of the men? The ghost may have entered a bush hen or be imitating its call.
Sightings of ghosts at night were common. One man had had a terrifying experience when he was walking back to his village just at dusk. Just as he was passing the grave of a woman who had died in child birth he was attacked by her ghost. As she chased him through the dense bush she threw the ghost of her dead child onto his back. The minute he felt the thing clutching at his back he pulled out his cassowary bone dagger and stabbed at it.
But it had no flesh and blood so he struck himself. With blood pouring from his many wounds he tried to hide but the baby on his back kept calling out, revealing his position. Finally he managed to shake the thing off and, with blood still streaming down his back, fled to the village where he gasped out his horrible story.
In the circle of fires one of the women screamed and pointed towards one of the houses. Yes, there was something definitely moving beside it. Others began to cry out in terror. It was soon seen to be a dog but the crying did not stop, for everyone felt that the ghost in the bush hen had now crossed to the island and was in this dog.
'The ghosts have come.' shrieked a woman.
Gesi buried his face in his mother's bosom while the crying around him grew louder and louder. His mother gripped him tighter. Several men stood up and threw pieces of wood at the dog which retreated behind a clump of grass. The crying died own but all kept the clump of grass under strict surveillance. Ghosts inhabiting animals were common.
One man had shot a cassowary but when he went to pick it up it was nowhere to be seen. Another cassowary had been shot three times but had kept on running. Obviously there had been ghosts in these animals. When the crying stopped Gesi looked up at his mother. Her grip on him had not relaxed and her eyes were huge and staring.
'Mother, has the ...'
'Don't talk!' she snapped. 'The ghost might come back.'
Although there was nothing in sight the tenseness of the incident remained. Gesi lifted his head a little and watched the people around him. Their eyes never stopped moving, darting back and forth, inspecting every object in front of them. For the adults there was no sleep. Harmless objects, such as a pile of wood, began to assume sinister and malevolent features in the dim light. Even a coconut lying on the ground seemed to move and be menacingly alive.
The next time Gesi awoke there was screaming and confusion all around him. A clattering noise had come from a nearby house and immediately all declared the ghosts were inside. But the noise did not recur or if it did it was drowned in the crying. A man leapt to his feet and pointed at the top of a nearby coconut palm.
'There is the "seygar" bird!' a man cried.
They knew what that meant. This little bird always whistles when it sees someone approaching. What had it seen? The whistling was coming from within the village itself. Were the ghosts back again? They were coming to get them! An old man with hands shaking lifted up a bundle of crocodile teeth 'tamki' charms and pointed them in the direction of the bird. He peered into the darkness, seeking to see what the 'seygar' bird had seen.
But the darkness held its secret. A man beside him tightly held a lawyer vine hoop which his father had said would protect him from ghosts. Just throw it over the ghost, his father had said, and it will flee. But would it work against this one? This was the great unknown about their charms that terrified them the most of all. How much protection would they give if that ghost at the dark end of the village attacked them now ...?
In the eastern sky a faint glow appeared and the sigh of relief was unashamedly audible. They had survived yet another night of terror. As the light increased, their courage revived and first two, then another pair ventured outside the wall of fires and 'eyse' branches. When Gesi's mother returned to the house she immediately prepared the remaining sago for a meal.
He watched her, noticing that she could barely keep her eyes open. Gesi's father arrived and ate the sago without any enthusiasm. Gesi wanted to ask questions but sensed that no one was in the mood to answer them. Finally his father broke the silence.
'When we go to make sago this afternoon, we will take all our belongings. We cannot stay here any longer.' he said. 'The ghosts are angry with us.'
They always moved the village after a death.