JOHN KAUPA KAMASUA
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Steamships Short Story Award
Dedicated to the eternal memories of the old people who had a part to play in influencing my life’s journey
THE MORNING air was quiet for many miles around. The sharp cries of the cicadas somehow stopped for a while, and no wind blew the leaves. Only a moment later children’s voices could be heard from the direction of the garden.
“Kemi stole the bananas! Kemi stole bananas from Kondo’s garden!” shouted the children as they dragged Kemi to the entrance of the men’s house (hausman) in the village.
“Usher in the suspect for he must speak for himself, and if found guilty pay for his sins,” commanded the village chief. It so happened that the men were still sitting in their beds and did not feel the need to hurry to their chores for the day, it being a weekend.
“He did not sin. He only stole some bananas from Kondo’s garden. We caught him in the act,” said the leader of the group. “Not like the sin in the Bible.”
“Whether you break the law of the Bible or steal from the garden, it is still sin,” old Ere-Yopa corrected the children.
“Will he be punished?’’ cut in little Sirua-Kainam sheepishly.
“Ah...yes he will receive the worst punishment for his crime,” advised the chief.
“What will be his punishment?” the child with the dimple wanted to know.
“OK that’s enough. We will deal with him but the rest of you can go out and play now,” said the chief as he looked at the small boy.
The children reluctantly piled into a line and left the hausman. Soon their playful voices could be heard above the cries of the cicadas. The elders turned to the boy sitting cross-legged in front of fire place, crying quietly.
“What can you say to this story,” the chief asked the boy.
“I was eh…hungry and took only some bananas from the bunch. I was going to pay her later. Honest,” stammered Kemi.
“Still taking things from people without asking is wrong. You must be punished,” advised the chief. The child flinched and dreaded the pain of the mukale cane that was coming down on him hard. But the old men had other plans.
His immediate punishment they decided would be for him to fetch drinking water from the creek. Then he would collect dry twigs to start the fires in the night. And finally as penance for his stealing, he would help Kondo for a day in her garden. The old men gave him some water bottles and sent him on his way.
The old men decided that Kemi would move into the hausman and live with them. He would eat his meals with them and follow Ere-Yopa everywhere. Ere-Yopa quickly made a space for his bed, and found an old wooden box to keep his belongings.
The child was different for he did not have a normal upbringing. His mother was barely out of her teens when she befriended a carpenter boy from Finschafen who came to build new classrooms for the Primary School near the village. But the carpenter returned to his family when the classrooms were completed before Kemi was born. At his birth, the nurse asked for his father’s name to enter on his card. His mother had thought for a while and blurted out Kemi, and it was his maternal grandfather’s name. His mother left him when he was only ten months old with his grandmother, and ran away with a man from Tari. They never came back to the village since. Thus the boy grew up with his grandmother until the age of six, when the old lady died from a cold.
When the boy returned from the creek, Ere-Yopa was the first to meet him at the door to break the news: “The elders have decided that you will sleep in the hausman and take your meals with us. See I have already found you a sleeping space, and a box to keep your stuff.” It was next to Ere-Yopa’s bed.
Ere-Yopa took him under his wings and kept him close. They went everywhere together, and it was often quite a sight to see them returning from the coffee plots or the gardens.
Sometimes he cooked his meals and washed his own clothes but the boy found his new life adventurous.
He sold a bag of coffee once after picking and drying the beans and bought a Dunlop. It was his first shoe ever, and it was the original Dunlop. He loved his shoe but he loved reading even more, and spent all the spare time he could find reading.
He would come straight to the hausman from school, and change into his leisure clothes. Then he would collect drinking water for all the old men, then collected wood and sometimes twigs for the night fire. If he had time, he helped old people with their water or firewood. He ran errands for other people in the village, and often asked people if they needed any help. For his generosity he seldom went hungry. The village folks would bless him with gifts when he least expected them. And he excelled in school.
The years passed quickly and Kemi progressed through the grades at school, and found himself in Grade Six at Mu Lutheran Primary School.
It was then that he started noticing a shy but beautiful young girl in the lower grade. She would stare at him as if in a trance - a dreamy stare - then would quickly turn away. He would think of her sometimes but he was too young to understand anything. She was from the nearby Bulagegau tribe. He heard that her father worked for the Ok Tedi Mining Ltd.
Only once she came up to him, and rather shyly gave him a piece of sugarcane during a lunch break. He had only managed to murmur a thank you. He had met her gaze many times since but he was pre-occupied with his own life to even strike a conversation. He was also quite shy with girls.
And his own life seemed to be climbing a mountain, yet strangely racing towards something in a strange and interesting way he could not explain.
But there were things still lurking within the dark crevices of his mind that could not be explained. He did not know what they were, but certainly there were things there that only others could help bring to the surface.
An air of reluctance often surrounded him, and held him back from being completely free like the other village children. Something did not feel right, and this awareness came to him from deep within the marrow of his bones. Children often mocked and bullied him. His name would be called first if something went missing, or if a child cried out in pain. He often became the village scapegoat, although not that he was completely blameless.
There was the time when the children played hide and seek and did not include him despite his pleas. He had seemed almost invisible to them. And then there was the other time when he played “Water” with some children, and he was forced to sacrifice himself early so that two of his mates could “drink” and therefore remain long in the game. It was funny too in a way as both members of opposing teams had agreed.
Ere-Yopa became sick around the time Kemi sat for his Grade Six exams. And his condition gradually worsened as old age caught up with him. But he came to his graduation with a walking stick accompanied by the other old men from the hausman. He got 3 prizes and was among those selected to go to Muaina High School. The old men cheered and Ere-Yopa shed tears as Kemi walked up to the grandstand when his name was called.
This time Brigita confidently came to Kemi and the old man with some of her friends and shook their hands and admired the prizes. She wore a bright red dress and looked more beautiful than he last saw her.
School was over for a while and Kemi helped the old men to go to the Doctor at Koge Health Centre. The Doctor gave them some medicine and instructed Kemi to administer them at the right times and the correct amount. He stayed with the old man, brought his water and food, and gave him his medicine. He also told him stories of what he read in books and what he wanted to do later when he finished his education. This pleased the old men and eased his pains.
But it seemed that the old man had already lived out his years. His conditions worsened and he succumbed to his illness one early morning, three weeks after Kemi’s graduation.
As usual, the village had a funeral for three days to allow the people to pay their respects, and for the pre-burial rites to be completed. People cried little but talked more about an incredibly long life he had lived, and his generosity with his time and the things he owned. Then he was buried in the village cemetery where his forefathers had been buried before. As his coffin was lowered into the ground, Kemi cried the loudest with a sensation in his heart he had never felt before. Kemi remained beside his grave with the other old men while the villagers slowly left. Brigita had earlier brought some food to the hausman with her mother, and now stood behind him. He stood up and after cleaning his eyes came to thank her.
“He was your best friend,” said Brigita and hugged him for the first time. They talked little but sat beside the grave for a long time, while the old men just sat and stared into the distance.
After a while, Brigita whispered goodbye but said she would come and meet him at his new school. He watched her walk gracefully onto the main road, and then disappeared behind a bend.
That night in the hausman, he dreamt that Ere-Yopa brought some balloons for the village children. He took the children to a clearing at the edge of the village, and told them to blow their balloons and release them into the air. Kemi hesitated and struggled to make out if the dream was real.
As if reading his thoughts, the old man nudged him to make a wish and release his balloon. His white balloon raced into the air as soon as he released his grief, sailed above the tree tops, past the other balloons and raced ahead. It went further and further into the thin clouds and beyond on a clear day.
The children shouted his name in jubilation and hoisted him above the ground, then carried him back to the village. The old man was gone.
He looked back to where the old man once stood. He was there again but this time with Brigita at his side. He motioned to Brigita to follow the children. She came towards him looking more beautiful with each step. When he looked again, the old man was gone once more.
Dawn was already breaking. A cock crowed twice, the morning birds chirped a chorus, and the cicadas’ sharp cries pierced the morning air - all adding to the sounds greeting a new day. Kemi slowly opened his eyes, and a smile spread over his face. He looked across to where Ere-Yopa used to sleep and saw an empty bed, but knew that the old man would always be with him.