by Karl Luntta
He sat on a fallen palm tree on the beach, dazed, the pain in his ankle peaking, maybe turning the corner. He’d already begun to think of it as a foreign thing, not part of his body, no danger to him, nothing to worry about. At least he’d begun to will it so. Out here in the middle of nowhere, no doctor, nurse, no clinic on the island, things could go south quickly, and with little flourish.
Winnie lay on her back next to him, languidly fanning the sand with her arms and legs, squinting at the sky.
“What do they call it when there are no clouds in the sky?” she said. She croaked a bit, her voice still husky from the scream.
“You can’t make a snow angel in the sand,” Kevin said. His voice was gravelly as well. From his scream, from her screaming.
“I am an old woman,” she said. “I have seen things. Many, many things. But I’ve never seen snow and I have no reason or desire to see snow. So I will make do. With sand.”
“That’s another thing,” he said. “You’re an old woman. Sand angels are for children.”
“And what, you’re a young man?”
“I think of it as advanced middle age.”
“Whatever. So anyway, what do they call it when there are no clouds in the sky?”
“It means it’s a good day to be alive. It’s a good-luck day. We’re lucky.”
“But I mean in science, when there are no clouds, what do scientists call it?”
“Don’t know. Cloudless?” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “You are useless for a white man.” She looked over. “How is your leg?”
“Your father, if I remember the story, was a white man. He must not have been entirely useless. There’s you, for example.”
“And my brother,” Winnie said.
“You have a brother?” He’d begun to tremble again. It was like a fluttering, wild bird inside him. He breathed deeply, trying to get a grip on it.
“Had. I had a brother.”
“Sorry,” Kevin said, and now his hands were shaking.
Winnie looked up from the sand, squinting. “It’s the shock,” she said. “What did you call it? The shakes. You will be fine. Just need to get you to a nice cup of tea.”
“Maybe. I should step into the water. Seawater is good for healing things like this, yes? Or at least keeping them clean.”
“No. The sea is not clean at all, and the salt will make it burn so much you’ll scream for your mother. Again. Stay away from seawater.”
Winnie stood up, with some effort. Her hip or something, he thought, bruised in the fall from the motorbike. And she was not a young woman. They both walked, limped, back from the beach to the roadway where the motorbike was on still on its side, clicking, the heat rising from the small motor. The offending coconut, green and unscathed, lay behind the bike, as if it had always been there, as if it hadn’t just caused the accident, as if it simply belonged on this dusty marl road, this sliver of land, this atoll, this place.
Winnie looked down at his ankle, where she’d plugged the wound with small leaves from a bush off the road and wrapped it with the calico bandana she always wore on her wrist.
“The bleeding has stopped I think,” she said.
Kevin felt the sticky bandana against the wound, didn’t look too closely. Nothing to be gained from worrying it. Will it away. It was a deep gash in his leg, down to the bone probably. It needed stitches, which would never happen unless he did it himself, or Winnie figured out a way. Pretty much it. He shivered again, the shock wearing off, or the blood loss kicking in, either way that cup of tea was looking good.
It had gone down like this: They were motoring from Matang to Abamakoro at the tip of the island of Nonouti, where they worked with a small co-op of women who wove pandanus and coconut palm mats and sold them to tourist shops on Tarawa, the Kiribati capital. Winnie, local and fluent in both English and Kiribati, worked for the islands’ trade council and acted as the liaison between the co-ops and Kevin, whose twenty-three years with USAID had dropped him in Kiribati to run the program. To prop it up. To give people something to live for. The co-op women were poor, overburdened with children and their work in the villages, and most had husbands whose subsistence fishing and small plots of taro provided some food for the families and not much else. But there wasn’t much else to be had anyway, so the point was just about moot.
Winnie had sat on the back of the small scooter behind Kevin, her hands gingerly holding the fabric of his loose shirt as he puttered along. She wore a light summer skirt, he was in shorts, they both wore sandals. Their legs and feet were exposed as they moved down the roadway, such as it was, like every other islander on a motorbike. They were doing forty kilometers an hour when the fat green coconut dropped onto the road from one of the many palms that loomed over it. It thumped down on the marl right in front of the bike, and Kevin had reacted, badly he knew now, hitting the brakes hard and swerving. He lost control almost instantly, the veering accelerated, and Winnie bailed off the back of the bike, screaming. Her momentum shoved him forward until he ran up the side of the road and dumped the bike, the motor plate slicing the hell out of the inside of his leg, just above the ankle.
It started to bleed quickly, a thick, scarlet stream that came from deep inside. He smelled it before it began to hurt, then it stung like a fire ember. By then Winnie was up and over and flipped the bike to its other side, and stared down at his leg. Blood pooled on the white stones and mud of the road.
“Broken?” she’d said.
“Don’t think so,” Kevin said. He sat up.
“Let me get something,” she said, and glanced into the bushes by the side of the road for a moment, then headed in.
She came out with a fistful of light green leaves, tiny ones, and held them out to him.
“What’s this?” he said.
“Salvation,” she said, and smiled. He couldn’t have said why he thought it at the moment, but her teeth were near perfect, an alabaster white. She plunged the leaves into her mouth, and chewed.
“I’m afraid to ask,” he said.
After a moment she spit a green glob of masticated leaves into her palm, and rolled them gently into a ball, taking care not to squeeze out the juice.
She leaned over and shoved the leaf ball straight into the gash, and held it there for a second. “Hold it,” she said, and she stood and untied the bandana from her wrist, and leaned back in and tied it gently around the green wad and his leg.
“This will stop the bleeding.”
It did, almost instantly, as if a spigot had been turned.
“What?” he said. “What the hell?”
“Well, look at that,” she said. “We’re not doctors here, but we get hurt, we have babies, we get sick. And we save lives.” She squinted. “Mostly.”
“So I’m not going to bleed to death.”
“Not today. Can you stand? Let’s sit on the beach for a moment and calm down.”
Kevin propped up the bike, turned the key and, with his good foot, kicked the starter. The motor sputtered and caught.
“Should I drive?” he said.
“Of course, you’re the man,” she said, and tilted her head, quizzically.
“But I’m going into shock. Extreme blood loss, that sort of thing. Don’t know what kind of a driver I’ll be.”
“Couldn’t be any worse than you were before,” she said.
“Please,” he said, “don’t feel the need to hold back on the humiliation.”
“I stopped the bleeding, did I not?”
“Get on, then.”
They puttered, slowly, to the co-op hut, about eight kilometers down the road.
“Maybe,” he said to the wind, thinking about it. “I’m just wondering here.”
“Maybe what?” she said from the back.
“Maybe I should have been the one to chew the leaves. You know, my own germs and all that.”
She leaned into him. “Are you saying I’m germy?”
“Well everyone has germs, especially in the mouth. That’s what I mean, my own germs would have been fine. My germs, my leg. Would have reduced the chance of infection.”
“I have no germs,” Winnie said, and he could tell by her grip that she was pouting, but just a bit. “And there will be no infection. “
“I was thinking out loud, that’s all,” he said.
“We’ll change the leaves tonight.”
“I didn’t mean anything, really. I was just thinking about it.”
“You will have no infection. It will heal well. Perfectly, even.”
“How do you know?”
“Tuna,” she said.
“Whatever you want to eat, it’s fine. Except tuna. Tuna will bring on the infection.”
“So I stay away from tuna,” he said.
“That’s right. Whatever you do, until this is healed, no tuna.”
“Fine by me,” he said. He resolved to believe it, for no reason other than Winnie had said it. Salvation, she’d said.
“And next time chew your own damn leaves,” she said.
After the day’s work, after the pandanus mats had been boxed and stacked for distribution to the mainland, after the profits from last week’s shipment had been counted and distributed to hand clapping and cheering — Kevin had done none of this actually, he’d lain down on a mat with his bad leg elevated on a stack of unused cardboard, the pain now a constant thrum and occasional twinge, and received much attention, clucks, and sympathy. And advice. One of the older women, Maana, ambled up to him and patted his forehead, not unaffectionately, and whispered, “No tuna” — they had taken off for their village of Buariki, where they bunked in with different island families.
In the early evening he sat with his host Taatoa, a weathered, walnut of a man of indefinite age, hands scarred by years of fishhooks and lines, sipping tea and trying to make some sort of conversation. Taatoa spoke almost no English, except apparently for the phrase “No tuna,” which he’d said while wagging his finger.
Taatoa felt remorse for the accident, and some responsibility, that was clear. Kevin knew it well — he was the American living with the islander’s family, which made the both of them famous in their own ways, the subject of gossip and rumor, and not a small amount of envy.
Kevin’s thoughts shifted to the beach, to Winnie on the sand in her salt and pepper hair, fanning her thin, outstretched arms to make the angel, and at that moment she appeared from the shadows and entered the raised platform hut, calling out a greeting, “Ko na mauri.”
“Mauri oh,” Taatoa said, and shifted, making space for her on the mat. She crawled in and nodded, and sat cross-legged.
She opened her palm. A fistful of small, light green leaves. She said something to Taatoa, and he called out over his shoulder.
“Hold these,” she said to Kevin. “How is the leg?”
“It hasn’t fallen off yet,” he said. “I’m ahead of the game.”
She leaned over and untied the red bandana, taking time to peel it back from the leaves in his wound. A young girl, Taatoa’s daughter, maybe granddaughter, Kevin hadn’t yet been able to sort it out, appeared at the side of the hut with a bowl of warm water just off the fire, and a bar of soap and washcloth.
“Let’s cleanse this,” Winnie said.
“It’s infected,” Kevin said. He felt the cooling warm air breeze past the wound.
“No,” Winnie said. “But it’s not pretty.”
“So it goes.”
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. This could have been worse. Broken leg, something like that.” She dabbed at the raw wound with the cloth and soap. It began to bleed again, a pink, translucent trickle.
“I know, sorry. Or maybe if you weren’t there, I’d have been bleeding to death on an isolated road on an isolated island in the middle of the South Pacific.”
She concentrated on the gentle washing, then glanced up, her eyes searching somehow. “Don’t say that. You’re being dramatic.”
“I meant to say that you did in fact save me. Saved the situation.”
“Yes. But don’t say that.” She went back to the dabbing.
They’d worked together for three months now, an eighth of his contract on the island. Then it would be another posting, another co-op, another third-world, ragged-poor group of village women doing what they could to keep their heads above water. But Winnie. He knew she spoke English, perfectly in fact. She never spoke of a husband or ex-husband, or children, or, at her age, grandchildren. But then, neither did he mention his failed marriage, or a daughter in Seattle who he hadn’t seen in three years.
Dabbing. He felt a nearly overwhelming need to know, to finish knowing.
“You said you had a brother.”
She paused for a moment, as if a moment had come. He sensed it in her, in her quickened cleaning of the wound.
“We’re all sorry,” she said.
“When was it?”
“It was a long time ago, in the war. The big war. With the Japanese.”
“You must have been young.”
“I was eight when it happened. He was,” she hesitated, “something. Maybe twelve, maybe thirteen. Funny, I can’t remember. We were children.”
“What was it? I’m not probing. I just wondered.”
“Here,” she said, and pointed to his hand. “Chew those leaves. Don’t swallow. Get your own germs on them.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“The Japanese occupied the islands, we were called the Gilbert Islands back then. Tarawa, Betio, you know those names now, but you remember them from history, yes?”
He nodded, tasting the bitter of the leaves.
“Their main base was on Tarawa, but they occupied many of the smaller islands, too. This was one of them. They landed here and forced us all to work. Building their camps. Made us do everything. Except the cooking. They wouldn’t trust the cooking to islanders. They took the women, too. I didn’t know why at the time, but they took them. They were away in their camps.”
She held out her hand. “Leaves.”
He spit them out, careful not to squeeze the wad, and handed it to her.
“Your lovely germs,” she said, and smiled.
“All mine,” he said, sputtering out a couple of stray leaves that had stuck to his teeth. “Your mother?”
She nodded slowly.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She began to repack the gash. “So my brother and I stayed with an old couple in the village, an auntie, who took care of us.”
“Your father, where was he?”
“Papua New Guinea,” she said. “He was a coastwatcher. With a radio. He was a New Zealander. He and the island men, and Australians, too, coastwatchers. They hid in the hills along the coastline, all over the islands, and radioed in the Japanese movements, troop numbers, things like that. They were heroes.
“And the Japanese hated them. They knew where their sympathies were. They were the enemy. And the coastwatchers in turn hated the Japanese, for what they were and who they were. And for what they did to us, all of us. All this I understood much later, not at the time.”
“The war saw a lot of hate,” he said, and felt foolish for saying it.
“All wars are hate,” she said. “That’s what it comes down do. But they were worse. They were evil. Pure evil, as bad as it can be.
“One day,” she said, “we heard the whistles blow, and the soldiers came into the village, shouting at us — who could understand them? They were screaming and gesturing with their guns, and I knew it was bad. Fury on their faces, hell fury.
“We found out later that a Japanese troop convoy ship had been bombed, Australian planes if I remember, just off the coast of Abemama. So the Japanese must have thought that a coastwatcher had seen the ship and alerted the Americans and Australians. Which was probably true.”
“So now the Japanese were angry,” he said.
“More than that. Murderous. So they herded us down to the beach.”
He hesitated for a moment. They both did. “Winnie, you don’t have to finish this,” he said.
Taatoa sipped his tea quickly, as if he were anticipating something. It was at once a furtive, anxious gesture.
“No. It’s started. You should know. I don’t know why exactly, but you should know it.”
“Only if you want it,” Kevin said, feeling an intimacy in the story, the telling of it. The truth of it.
“It’s odd, the thing I remember now it was early evening, with a wind coming in off the lagoon. A quiet wind. It’s like that sometimes. Everyone’s cooking fires had been lit, then left alone as they marched us down to the beach. I walked with my brother, he was holding my hand. The sun was setting and it shimmered across the lagoon, like a light from a ship far out at sea, coming to save us.”
“Aunties, old men, children, even babies, all down to the beach. Maybe one hundred of us.” She sighed, tying the bandana back over the chewed leaves in the gash.
“When we got to the beach they started to separate us, we didn’t understand why. Into two lines. They just shouted in their language, this revolting language, and pointed with their swords and guns, ‘You in that line, you in this line.’ We couldn’t understand what the two lines were for, or what they wanted from us.
“But soon it became evident. They were herding the mixed race people, mostly half-whites, into one line, the pure islanders in the other. Taatoa was there, too. He was young, like me.” She gestured to him, and he again buried himself in his tea.
“The whites were in one line, the rest in another. They hadn’t got to my brother and me, we were in the islanders line, the brown line. There must have been six or seven in the whites line. Then there was this talking in our line, people were whispering under their breath, ‘Look, they’re saving them, the whites, they’re going to kill the rest of us.’ Because what else did we know? Whites were always privileged, whites had everything. Always had everything. Not us, not my brother and me. Our father was white, but he was gone most of the time, even before the war. We were just islanders, brown people, of no consequence. So the Japanese were going to kill the islanders and of course spare the whites. Simple calculation, we had no way of knowing otherwise.”
“Were they killing anyone?” Kevin said.
“They were herding us, trying to keep us in line. Then some island people got it in their minds to save themselves. They panicked and darted over into the line of the whites. And the Japanese pushed them back, but they still came, then more, and even more, and the Japanese were hitting them with the butts of the guns, but they got up and again ran around to the back of the whites’ line. And the whites saw this and they panicked, too, and they started to dart over to the brown line. And soon the Japanese couldn’t hold it back, it was, what do you call it? Chaos, people running back and forth, guns being fired into the air, the Japanese shoving their bayonets at everyone.”
“Jesus,” he said.
“Yes. My brother, he was still holding my hand, he said, ‘Winnie, we must go to the whites’ line. We must go there to save you.’ His eyes were wide on me, a big fear in them. And of course it scared me. Our mother was gone, our father was who knows where. But he was making these sorts of decisions and he was just a little boy. And I would have gone with him. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move.”
Taatoa called out, and Kevin recognized “tea.” He glanced at the night sky, a billion stars so bright they lit the lagoon like crystal fire, the lights of a rescue ship.
“I froze. I just froze on the sand. I told him, ‘No, they will kill us.’ But he looked at me hard, as if that would make me go with him, and just then Taatoa stepped up between us. And my brother let go of my hand, and turned and rushed off, off to the whites’ line.”
Taatoa looked down at his teacup, cross legged, the wet night air and smoke of a dozen cooking fires wafting through the hut.
“So by then the Japanese had had enough, or they gave up. There were four in the whites’ line at that moment, just four. Two old aunties and an old man, a cousin of my father. And my brother. And the Japanese, they said something, barked their orders out, and other soldiers came out from the crowd and they grabbed the four and pulled them down to the shore, where the water meets the sand. Then they made them get down, pushed them right down to their knees, next to each other. And they bent them over, still kneeling. Then the four were crying, crying so hard, like whales moaning in the night. Now they knew, we all knew, what the lines were for. And we saw it all, the moon was bright. The swords came out.”
“I don’t want to hear it anymore,” Kevin said. And he didn’t, he knew it as he knew the gash in his leg was a real thing.
“No, I have to. It’s started.”
Taatoa had begun to snuffle, small fits and heaves of his back, his head down.
“If I don’t finish it they will die,” Winnie said, “truly die.”
“What was his name?” Kevin said.
“John. It was my father’s name.”
“Did they say anything, the Japanese?”
“They made a small speech. In Japanese, a declaration or something. No one knows what it was.”
“You know what it was. But I don’t have to hear it. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be a coward. It’s all I have left of him.” But she had no conviction in her voice.
“I don’t believe I’m a coward,” Kevin said, “and I don’t believe you are. But it’s enough.”
“Let me finish,” she said, clearing her throat. “I have to. I owe him this.
“They were kneeling, all of them sobbing when the swords came out. And John, suddenly John erupted, he screamed out loud, louder the rest, then jumped forward, straight into the ocean. He was up and running through the water, fast, so fast it was as if he were on top of it. And still yelling out as loud as he could. The Japanese were so startled by it, that a little boy could break free like that, they couldn’t think, they couldn’t react.”
“He got away?”
“He just screamed and ran. Then he dove into the water. A big splash, and silence. Only the small waves shimmering in the moon. The Japanese were stunned, but when they reacted it was with their guns. They shot into the water, blasting bullets around where he went down, but the people, my people, began to cheer, to clap. They were shouting Go John! Go, swim away John!”
“And the other three on the beach jumped away themselves,” she said, “and ran back into the crowd while the Japanese were all at the edge of the lagoon, shooting the water. So we all turned and ran. Back toward the village, into the bush, into the night, away from the lagoon. All those men, shooting at a little boy.
“I hid behind a coconut tree for a moment, looking across the water, but I didn’t see him. The bullets were splashing the water, but he never surfaced. He was always good at swimming underwater, he could hold his breath for days. But I never saw him. The Japanese never saw him. He was just gone.”
She looked at his wound, and it wasn’t until she did he felt it twinge again.
“We finally realized the Japanese must have given up. The shooting stopped, and they never came back up to the village. They went back to their camp. They were defeated by a small boy.”
“So, what happened to him, to John?”
“He was gone. He just swam out to the ocean, maybe far away. To wherever safe is. They never found him, no one did. In the end, I choose to believe my brother was the bravest of us all.”
She stroked the skin around his wound gently, with her fingertips.
“You haven’t eaten any tuna, yes?”
“Yes. No, I mean. You know what I mean.”
“It is healing.”
“It usually does,” he said.
She cocked her head sideways. Just a bit. “You know where it happened? That night?”
He shook his head.
“The place we crashed the scooter. Right there, that was where our village was. But after the war, we had no heart for it. Everyone packed up one day, suddenly, as if we’d been told by God to do it. We walked down the road and started a new life and a new village. This one.”
“So, that beach where we rested?” he said.
“Yes. Yes, that beach. I still go there at night to smell the lagoon. It’s peaceful. Sometimes I hear the whales sing. And sometimes I lay down to make an angel.”
And Taatoa picked up the battered tin pot and tipped it over Winnie’s cup, pouring steaming tea that purled like a wave retreating from the sand.
Karl Luntta is the author of the novel Know it By Heart (Northwestern University Press/Curbstone, 2003) and short story collection Swimming (SUNY Press, 2015). He has published fiction in journals including International Quarterly, North Atlantic Review, Talking River Review, Baltimore Review, Northeast Corridor, and Toronto Review.