Good Reading : September 2007
He grinned over his shoulder, and the grin made my belly cold. He joked when most afraid. For ten, fifteen steps I watched his plaits. Instead of sweeping his back as one with each step, they clashed, tangling and untangling. His gait was jerky. As he was ahead of me on the path, so he was ahead of me in his mind, to the dangerous arguments night would bring. Bege did not wait for eating to finish, he stood in the centre of the longhouse and shouted that the intruders were men and that he would not run from them a second time. Nor would he sit listening to the words of any who argued otherwise, he would rather share the watch at the landing place and listen to mosquitoes! Any man who thought like him would find him there! He stamped to the verandah doorway with his bow and arrow bundle and shook the ladder with his descent. None stood, but the eyes of some of the younger men followed him, and per- haps later, when the whole longhouse was not looking, the same men would slip away. But for now they sat.When the ladder’s vibrations died my brother rose. He did not claim the orator’s place as Bege had, he spoke from the apron of his hearth. ‘We are yet alive. Hear me and remain so. He is brave, my cross- cousin.The heads that until stolen hung from his rack attest to the raids he has returned from. But too often he reasons with his tongue. Each of you knows this. He and six more, we’ve seen the vessel. As last time, it breathes smoke, it labours against the current. Once more it brings spirits.Whether the same vessel, the same spirits, those questions must be debated.When they’re decided we will know also what our actions must be.’ The eyes of two of the younger men still strayed to the doorway as my brother spoke. But the rest watched him, and when he sat and took up his leaf and dipped his head again to his sago and fish, I saw one nod. Like them, I had never heard him speak with such restraint. His tone held the authority of our dead uncle. Later, when he spoke at the men’s hearth, he was once more my brother. The soft ones led by Aiyamo argued that as two canoes might look similar at a distance, so too might the spirits’ vessels.The thudding and the smoke- pipe were no proof if all their vessels possessed smokepipes and made the thudding.We should wait and let them declare their intentions. ‘And last time!’ my brother hurled from our side. ‘Have your memories rotted like wet-stored yams?’ Aiyamo stared into his lap as other voices joined my brother’s. No man there had forgotten on whose tongue the decision to appease had its birth. He cleared his throat and looked at my brother. ‘We suffered as you did.’ ‘Then why do you speak this shit of “waiting” and “intentions”! You yourself carried Agaia in your arms. Did you carry him back?’ Tears jumped into Aiyamo’s eyes. On the instruction of the soft men, we had spread mats at the landing place in full view of the river.We stacked packages of fresh sago. At the sides, separate heaps of yams and taro, each as tall as a man’s knee. Behind, hung from a post, two wallabies, singed and gutted, and the hindquarters of a boar.To cook them, bundles of dry firewood. And for after eating, tobacco. All this awaited the spirits, a feast if each had two mouths, two stomachs. But as surety the old men ordered inside all but themselves so they might bring from concealment the spirit board Agaia, the father of croco- diles.They returned to the longhouse and announced that he was erected on the path from the landing place.The women and children gathered at the rear door, we men emerged with our weapons onto the verandah. And these thieves? From a blue sky they threw into the square howling fireballs! Running like animals, we fled to the lagoon, the women’s canoes, and crossed to the far shore.We returned next day to a longhouse plundered end to end. Every arrow and spear, every drum. Netbags and lime-pots. The totem boards from every cubicle wall. Every trophy rack stripped bare of heads. Even the bones of the loved dead in their bark cocoons.We entered a longhouse hollow as a skull, our footfalls loud in its emptiness. In amaze- ment we walked to the landing place. Had they come by some other path, missed the gifts? No. All was gone.Two canoes were gone. And Agaia was gone, uprooted from the ground and taken. Nothing respected. Nothing. This extract is taken from the first chapter of the novel Dead Birds by Australian author Trevor Shearston, which tells the story of a clash of conflicting cultures when an Italian naturalist and explorer and his crew head up the Fly River of Papua New Guinea in search of new specimens in 1877. Dead Birds, rrp $22.95, is published this month by ABC Books. 52 goodreading ı SEPTEMBER 2007 BOOKBITE From a blue sky they threw into the square howling fireballs! Running like animals, we fled to the lagoon, the women’s canoes, and crossed to the far shore. We returned next day to a longhouse plundered end to end.