THE MORNING was chilly with mist hugging the ground and the coffee trees surrounding the village.
Inside the houses, the cold penetrated the blind walls and dug deep into blankets and bones.
Yasiiname, shivering on the pitpit bed, pulled the old gaman blanket over herself once again. She curled her legs in an effort to cosset herself within its feeble warmth.
She had done this so many times. Most mornings she had to throw back the blanket, emerge from the warmth of the bed and meet the cold morning to go to school. Today, was different.
Her last day of school, at least this school, had been yesterday. The compulsion to throw back the blanket was gone. She pulled it over herself again, making sure no drafts crept in from between the pitpit blinds. She wanted to wait for the cold to disappear before crawling out to face the day.
‘Jasii-girl! Yasiiname! Are you in there?’
It was the voice she had dreaded each morning for all these years. ‘Fathers can be terrorising,’ she muttered in a low voice so Ha’namo could not hear.
‘I don’t need to get out of bed now!’ she called back.
Yasiiname pulled the blanket in tighter. The cold air would sit in the bowl of the valley until the sun came above the mountains to chase it away. She would wait for the sun. She deserved it. Surely Dada could spare her a morning in bed?
She had been a slave to the drudgery of having to do the same thing each morning since starting school.
Get out of the blanket, brush past chilly dew clinging to kunai and mimosa, scramble over clumps of bush and around the morning pigs getting their early worms, making her soggy even before she got to the creek.
The cold stream of water from the dangling bamboo pipe woke every cell in her body and the threat of frostbite. And the pool at the bottom of the waterfall swirled in a backwash that was black, deep and scary.
She was not going there this morning. She had been at it all of primary and high school. So, on this morning at least, she had earned a sleep-in.
‘Where is Yasiiname? Did she sleep here or what?’
Yasiiname groaned and rolled tighter inside the blanket.
Yesterday, Graduation Day, had brought a huge surprise. To be called to receive the top prize for social science was something she wasn’t expecting. And her head had popped when it was announced from the podium that hers was the top mark in the province.
Shocked at her name being called, she had sat paralysed until prodded from behind to stand up and move. Through the glaze of this shock, she spotted the smiling face of her Adonis. He was immediately in front of her as she began her aisle walk - the dashing young fellow who left her heart in tatters. He beaming broadly at her.
She would have fainted there and then, but held her head up and continued robotically to the podium.
Now in her bed, curled in the gaman, she could not remember the applause or the strut back, all pomp and pride in her gait. She had been on cloud nine. Yeah, and it had been for him. She knew then she was in love.
She flushed at the recall of the nights of passion they shared just a few weeks back. And the mornings, when she crept back furtively to the house. Some mornings she had been reluctant to wash. She wanted his smell to linger forever.
‘People are coming. Go wake up the girl.’
‘Yasiie girl, please do wake up!’ it was the plaintive voice of Sukale, her mother.
The sound of axe on dry casuarina rang through the village – the signal that a mumu was planned. It was followed by the sound of stone on stone meaning the pit was excavated.
‘You slumber like that and your debts will grow like a mushroom without you knowing it. Come on girl, wake up.
‘We are preparing the day for you and you sleep like a baby. Girl, wake up, your Aunty is bringing the pig and we need you to see the pig.’
Yasiiname tried to imagine her Adonis was next to her. Instead the cold air bit into her and she grudgingly rolled the blanket away, angry there was no Adonis and angry at the people outside. She wished they had made the fire inside the house. That would have chased the cold out.
‘What have mushrooms and debts to do with the day? The man is crazy,’ she muttered to herself.
She picked up the dress she had worn to be with the Adonis and put it to her nose. The smell of smoke from the dry casuarina they had used to make a fire had permeated it, and there was the discernible smell of his Brut perfume.
She buried her head in the dress where the aroma was strongest and inhaled it, savouring the memory it brought. She would make a beeline for him later in the day.
It was a pity she had been unable to escape into the Adonis’ arms last night, Well-wishers from the village had come throughout the night to make small talk and enjoy the limelight with her.
She wished Ha’namo would not be so abrupt with her now. She understood, though, that she was obliged to see the size of the pig that Auntie would bring and to record it as her own debt that she was expected to repay some time later in her life. That was their way, a traditional dictate.
She held the dress fleetingly to her heart one more time and then hung it on the pitpit blind.
Yasiiname walked outside into the mist-shrouded morning and saw her father put the last of the stones on the mumu mound, the smoke from the pit already thinning the mist. Sukale was squatting and peeling kaukau. Behind her was a small fire with a teapot. In a tray on the ground were some cups and a mostly empty packet of sugar.
Today would be her day in the village. The ground in front of the house and around the mumu pit had been swept immaculately clean. Even the dark green leaves on the coffee trees had an extra sheen this morning.
She made a cup of sweet tea. She forgot the strainer and tea leaves swam in her cup.
‘Make me one too, if you will,’ he father called. ‘The whole family is coming and you want to sleep like a baby. Those who did not come last night will come. We need a lot of water for the tea and plenty of sugar or lemon leaves or mapanuho’.
Yasiiname could already tell what the day was going to be like if they were going to have tea made of mapanuho.
There would be good things said about her and her name would draw sweet praise from the villagers and her peers. She was the only one from the village to have been awarded a prize at yesterday’s graduation.
She had also been given an envelope inside which was her letter of acceptance to the new national high school. This news would be broadcast at the mumu and her blood was hot with anticipation.
‘I did not get the first prize’, Yasiiname had protested.
‘But the news of you going to the national high school is the big news. It is first prize because it is first for this village. It is a step towards university.’
Yasiiname looked at Sukale. Her mother was a beautiful woman and Yasiiname was told that she took after her. It would bring her mother untold joy if she could get to university. It would repay her for all the early mornings she woke up to cook kaukau and take her to school.
Yasiiname knew she also was beautiful, and there was a long list of boys who had wooed her. She was shorter and slimmer than most of girls, but the boys never minded.
Loud noises erupted as Auntie Rosa appeared, pulling a rope with a pig teetering on the end of it. The pig was reluctant and putting up resistance. Ha’namo took off the bundle of banana leaves that straddled Aunty Rosa’s head and accepted the end of the rope.
Ha’namo cleared his throat and called, ‘Eh, Yasiiname, my girl, you see this pig. I think it is a good pig to begin celebrating your success. Your mother is very proud of your success. We have high hopes for you. It will be the start of bringing good things to our house.’
Yasiiname looked at the pig. It was a male – chubby, black and white with tusks just beginning to form. Rosa’s children, her cousins, were still small but already here was an obligation. This was the start of her debts that would have to be to be repaid.
‘Vultures,’ she hissed to herself. The vultures were coming in for the spoils even before they had been gotten. Where was Rosa all the times when parties should be had but Ha’namo and Sukale could not afford them?
The gathering grew as Yasiiname’s extended family came with their contributions to the mumu. Several small pigs and many chickens were slaughtered and cleaned. One family came with enough sugar cane to feed the whole village.
As they arrived, she was showered with congratulations. Ha’namo kept asking Yasiiname to record everything that had been brought to the feast, which she did on a piece of paper. If this did not stop, she rued, she’d be swamped in debt before she could even start high school.
The crowd and intense activity did not hide her desire for her beau. She wished him around and made arrangements for him to come to their yard. She had spent a good part of her growing up in Paliyo and Mamito’s house and she talked her father into inviting them to the mumu even though they were from the other clan.
It was in Paliyo’s house where she had started her liaison with the young Adonis and she knew the Paliyo entourage would include him.
Contented, she busied herself assisting at the mumu. She helped fetch water from the creek, swept away the rubbish and cleaned around the house.
The aroma of cooked pork spread throughout the village and mothers with crying children mingled around the mumu. A table with a clean sheet was at the front to display her certificate and letter. There were also large two dishes with a huge pork backbone and a couple of chickens.
Uncle Jowari began the proceedings with words of thanks to her for bringing pride to the family. She was going to be the first female from the village to go to the new national high school. Several girls had previously gone to technical school or teachers and nursing colleges from Year 10 but Yasiiname was entering into something new for the village – going on to Years 11 and 12.
‘Going to the national high school is the first step to getting a place at one of the universities,’ Uncle Jowari said. ‘It warms my heart to be the one to dish out this food in celebration of this achievement.
‘Look after yourself; do not do things that will return you back to this village. Ehe'q, look after your body and watch where your throw away your rubbish.’
Yasiiname half listened to the cautions, a smile escaping as her uncle spoke about boyfriends.
‘Ehe’q, boys are only for making babies, babies that they will not necessarily want to look after or take as their own,’ he said.
‘You are going to a foreign school where boys from everywhere will be. Some will have strange customs and some will have no land. Some will not have respect for your elders. They will be an impediment to your schooling.’
She rolled her eyes. If only her uncle knew of the boys she had played with and courted since Grade 5 when she had given her first kiss to a boy in the classroom in broad daylight after a dare by her friends.
She had lost her virginity two years later in Grade 7 and had active courting nights since. She had her first period at the beginning of the year in Grade 10.
Boyfriends. She rolled her eyes again. If only her uncle knew.
Uncle Jowari hoisted up the second dish for Paliyo and Mamito and to thank them for letting Yasiiname live with them resulting in Yasiiname excelling in her school work. There was a round of applause and happy shouting of whee haha in gratitude for them. It was rare that a girl from one clan would find a house in another clan.
Mamito took the dish gratefully while Paliyo gave his reply: ‘We saw from her early days in primary school that she was clever. But our house is a house for all the village children and she was no exception. We only ask that she remembers us when canes become our third leg.’
Yasiiname was only half-listening, distracted by her beau who was standing behind Paliyo. The Adonis looked at where she sat in honour next to the table. Yasiiname saw his crooked smile and smiled back weakly, planning the night. The voices faded out and she was in cloud nine.
It had started soon after her final exams. He had returned from his college on the coast, filled out from good food. He had made a beeline for her despite the other girls eyeing him.
As they sat out the night under the coconut tree, she had felt his touch and it was exhilarating and spuinking – a word she had coined to describe the feelings she began to feel for him. It was instant and rapid, this spuink.
It was not long before he had carried her to his house. He had so much energy and she was truly spent for the next couple of days. But she craved him and went to his house every night. In his house far from the village they did things that they couldn’t have done standing against the coconut trees.
She hungered miserably and could feel her body exuding an irritating yearning for more of the spuink.
When Unca Jowari finally finished the presentation and gave her a dish of food, her mind was elsewhere. But she accepted the food with the meaty part of the back bone and the head of the pig that Mama Rosa had brought. Some present it was. She looked at it with disdain. Presents were wrapped, not dished.
What was his present? He had said it, after the night of spent passion: ‘From me to you with love, a graduation present’. That, she thought, is better present than this dish of food.
A thought came upon her. Her period had been due a few days ago. But it hadn’t come. Her Home Economics teacher was specific on this. ‘If you miss a period, you must be pregnant if you had allowed a boy to…..’
All the girls in the class had laughed at this idea that schoolgirls were into sex.
‘Girls, girls, it is no laughing matter. Girls, one way or the other, do miss a period. And girls do allow boys. If you did, don’t feel embarrassed. I let it happen when I was in Grade 7.’
Every girl had blushed. She couldn’t have done her first one in Grade 7. Not this teacher. She was still single and not likely to fall prey to the other species and be in yoke to them.
The girls had felt reassured by the knowledge that they would not be the only ones doing it now that the teacher, who they thought was so godly, could admit to having been in that situation.
It was a comfort, too, that girls from any society can find themselves in situations they cannot get out from and are forced into doing it. It was important for the girls to fully understand their bodies and to be very careful.
Here they were in Grade 10 thinking they would not be found out.
‘And it only has to be the one right occasion. So girls, get rid of the notion that you have to have many trysts to fall pregsy.’ And they had laughed again at her pregsy word. The rest of the lessons were a whirlwind of pregsy statements as the class joked incessantly.
They knew very well that some of them would be married off immediately upon graduating. ‘Yeah, being pregsy did happen and will happen to every one of them, and they were involved with boys and ...ahh.’
For her now, time was of the essence. When was the one right occasion? She scratched her head. She could not remember. Diaries and notebooks were not for her.
She sat down squat onto her chair again trying to keep time, trying to confirm in her mind that she was not running late for her period. The praises and debts heaped on her started to feel a bit sour.
She sat squirming throughout the talk as the reality of being pregsy seeped into every pore of her body, replacing the fun-filled enduring spuinking touches the loving Adonis had sunk into them. She tried hard to remember the home economic lessons about her cycle. But everything was a blur.
Pregsy! That laughable word was not an option for her. But she could not ignore the enormity of it, if she was, in fact, pregsy. The world began to take on a gloomy hue. She sat transfixed in the old three legged chair.
What was going to happen if these people now wanting her success were to know that she was pregsy? She could just hear, in replay, the words that had floated over her just then about looking for boys. Ehe’q, they cautioned, boys will only be interested in making babies.
She looked down at the end of the footstool where her feet had been running brushes with the soil. She wished the soil would open up for her and drag her into the innards of the humi. She wished they had told her earlier that some boy would have spuinking touches that cut through to the heart before the ... ahh making babies bit.
Did someone mention that her going to year eleven opened a path to good living? It was a start to going away from the backbreaking mundane task of making kaukau mounds to grow enough to feed unappreciative people.
This was the boy that she’d stand up to her father for. She’d murder her father if the boy asked for her hand and her father said no. But alas, she could not do so after all the accolades today.
She could not go to the new school if she was pregsy. Damn that teacher for this new word. It was tormenting her now and with glee, like an ‘I told you so’.
The new debts and accolades today were going to be a non-event and a case for much back talking, back stabbing and fodder for the gossip mills in the village.
And she would not be in Aunt Rosa’s good books for a long time, because she had brought and given away her prized pig – for nothing!
Her going places will be zilch, zero.
The only place she was thinking about now was the pig’s hut on the other side of the village. She’d hide there for the duration of the time it takes to bring this child into the world. So much for the euphoria and the spuinkings.
She swallowed the bile that was retching up in her: from me to you – with love, a graduation present. It was now wrapped up in the prospect of a child and a future that was going terribly wrong.
Adonis - Handsome young man (Greek mythology)
Ehe’q - Caution (Tokano language, Goroka)
Gaman – From gavman (Pidgin). During colonial times, the Australian Administration blankets which were known as ‘government blankets’
Humi - The red soil that lies under the black soil which denotes strong cultural and spiritual ties. The dead are buried in the red soil (Tokano)
Kaukau - A root tuber which is a staple in Papua New Guinea
Mumu - Ground oven used for cooking, especially communal cooking
Mapanuho - lemon leaves plant (Tokano)
Pitpit – Cane used for making beds, blinds, walls and much else
Spuink - A lovely sensation, usually sexual (slang)
Pregsy - Pregnant (slang)