An entry in The Crocodile Prize
People’s Award for Short Stories
IT rained that morning, not Bougainville’s usual downpour of cats and dogs but a light, incessant drizzle, the sort that can drive one over the edge.
The grey, almost dark appearance of the heavens added to the sense of sombre depression that hung heavy in the air, as though in sympathy with the events that were unfolding.
Green breakers pounded the beach keeping the banana boats shore-bound except for those ferrying people to the village.
A sense of claustrophobia, added to by military operations on the island, did nothing to dispel a pervasive sense of gloom and powerlessness.
The military had made the relatively simple task of moving the body to the village the day before almost insurmountable.
At each checkpoint all the males accompanying the body were subjected to a body strip and search, including one at sea by the crew of a naval patrol boat.
The desire of the relatives and friends of the dearly departed to mourn in private solitude was shattered by the barked order of the military for all males to remove their shirts.
So there they stood exposed before young men drunk with the exercise of the power of the M16s and SLRs in their hands.
At the village, the landing of the boat was made precarious by the breakers pounding the shore, further draining the emotions of the mourners.
Landing boats at the village was always difficult but during high tides in bad weather it was extremely tricky. But the boat was eventually pulled in and the wailing began.
The special son of the village had died on Saturday and this was now Tuesday morning. During the night the sparse village population had doubled perhaps trebled. People were there for the burial. The village had not seen such a gathering in recent memory.
Nobody slept that night. A communal rite was observed, the women surrounding the body in a circle of light from the hurricane lamps; the men and boys drifting around the edge of the light. No one gave instructions: it was understood on such occasions that economy of words was sufficient.
The mourning continued through the night, sometimes rising to a crescendo then subsiding to a whimper interspersed with periods of silence.
The older women wove sad dirges asking why. The wizened maternal grandmother asked why younger people go ahead in the natural progression to the grave. She repeated her question, almost as a complaint, to any younger person who would stop by.
She would say it was she who needed the release of death, not her grandson. It was unnatural and unreasonable, totally unfair.
Why? Those village people who had gone beyond primary education could be counted on the fingers of one hand and the deceased had gone beyond a first degree. His achievements seemed irrelevant as his body lay cold and beyond reach of the living.
He had represented the dreams and aspirations of the younger members of that village and a host of surrounding villages.
He was a special son of the area who had risen above the barriers and obstacles to achieve more. The older members of the village held him in high esteem; he had reached such status that the older folks would listen and pay attention to what he said.
In the last 1 years of his life he had succumbed to illness and pain and discomfort had been his constant companions. Regardless, he lived as if he would exist forever: planning, working, accomplishing all that pertains to an active life.
Thirty -six years he had lived and now his body lay cold and unresponsive, hemmed in by the sides of the coffin, nonetheless exuding a sense of peace. He had gone beyond the realm of human experience.
His life could be compared to an unfinished symphony, indeed the symphony had barely begun. The Christian memorial service conducted by the pastor, a former classmate, was simple, sad and full of reflections on his life and hope for resurrection and reunion.
Then followed the slow, solemn march on the shoulders of his friends, classmates and relatives - the last journey to his resting place, a plot of land not far from the village.
At the plot there was no debate about how his body was going to be positioned nor had there been earlier discussion. Unspoken village wisdom prevailed and he was laid to rest with his head toward his sister and his feet towards his mother.
After the body had been committed to mother earth, the people slowly drifted back to the village and to the places from which they had come. They had fulfilled their kinship obligations and there was nothing more they could do except leave.
The angry sea could not hold them back even though it was pounding the shore in a continuous barrage of breakers making it nigh on impossible to launch the banana boats.
Left behind was a young widow and two fatherless boys and a host of memories: memories of what was and what could have been.
An ancient sage once said the end is better than the beginning. Can this be so? Was yesterday better than 36 years ago when it all began for him?
Ahead stretches the gaping chasm of time, relentless, unforgiving and eternal.
That little plot of land a stone’s throw and a bit from the village is sister, brother, mother and father and, in the end, me.