BY LAURIE MEINTJES
HE SAID he had never seen a White man's ghost and I told him he was lucky; that a White man's ghost is very bad business. His eyes widened.
It all began earlier that morning when I emerged from the hauskiap and saw the clay figurine glaring up at me through cowrie-shell eyes from the bottom step. Someone was meddling with my karma. I bent down for a closer look and Constable Wagi, who was standing nearby, called out in alarm, "No ken holim, kiap; em samtin nogut tru!" I quickly pulled back; perhaps this voodoo doll was the real thing.
We were on road detail south of Namatanai, New Ireland, with several New Hanover prisoners who had been scraping away at the Muliama Bluff so that the Boluminski Highway could push further down the east coast. It was blood-racing work (I know because my patrol police and I often chipped in just for the youthful hell of it) and some of the prisoners were beginning to think of home and how they might get back there. Was one of them responsible for my malevolent little visitor?
Constable Wagi was anxious that we find the culprit, before nightfall at the latest, and get him to defuse the magic. Nobody in the camp would be safe otherwise. So, more for Wagi's peace of mind than mine, I sleuthed around and discovered that a prisoner (let us call him Bosmaris), disgruntled over his rations, had thought to cast a spell on me so that I would fall sick and return to Kavieng. How this was going to fill his belly, I was not sure. I don't think he was either.
"Salim i go bek long Kavieng," Wagi urged, after he had drawn me aside so that Bosmaris could not hear us discussing his fate. He spat on the ground to seal his judgement of the fellow, and I noticed he looked round first to make sure that Bosmaris wasn't watching. You cannot be too careful when a sorcerer is about! But I was reluctant to send him back to Kavieng because I knew that his mates would quickly catch on and that a whole line of voodoo dolls would be visiting me by the next morning.
So I decided to fight magic with magic and called the man over. He came, looking more surly than hungry, and I asked him to tell me again why he had left his mischievous handiwork outside the hauskiap. He told me.
"And what if your magic works so well that I get sick and die?" I asked.
He didn't answer. Perhaps he was hoping that the magic was already working and that if he said too much its power would be broken. I must be kept in the dark for as long as possible.
So I changed tack and asked him if he had ever seen the ghost of a Black man. I used the Pidgin term maselai which is a nasty kind of ghost, the kind you never want to see.
"No," he said.
"Do you know what a Black man's ghost looks like?"
His eyes widened and the surliness drained out of them. It was time for the strong medicine.
"Have you ever seen a White man's ghost?"
The eyes grew even wider and he shook his head, No.
"Are you sure?"
He said that he was.
"You are lucky. The White man's ghost is very bad business and brings more troubles than there are trees in the forest."
He didn't say anything to this, but looked away from me and stared at the jungle-covered hills. I think he was counting the trees.
I tell him I feel a bit sick, that my head hurts, that I might die in the night and then he will see his first White man's ghost.
Bosmaris swallowed and his face went as ashen as a dark skin allows, his eyes switching between terror and urgent solicitude for my continuing good health. He was very sorry to have troubled me, he said, and assured me that it had all been a big mistake and would never happen again and that I would live long enough to see many grandchildren.
I dismissed him with a wave of forgiveness and for the rest of our stay at Muliama I was his best friend. I probably still am.
And, yes, I now have grandchildren and am looking forward to many more.