Whispers on Rendova
Outrigger fiberglass canoes are the most common source of transportation around the islands of the Solomons.
He shouted to the driver, "How far to Betumo Village?"
"Longwe, lelebet," the driver called, a little bit of a long way. It never helped to ask.
At Betumo, Chief Betu greeted Cooper at the weather-beaten wharf and led him up the village's main road, a meandering footpath among thatched huts scattered like coconut husks at jungle's edge. No stores, no offices, no clapboard houses with tin roofs. Cooper had been in the Pacific long enough to realize primitive didn't mean idyllic. No electricity meant no cold beer. No radio, TV, movies, bars, cafés. If this took more than a couple of days, he'd go stir-crazy.
Their hike ended at the church, an open-sided, thatched-leaf barn with dirt floor. With the village men, Cooper sat cross-legged in the yard at a feast laid out on freshly cut palm fronds: charred yams and slimy boiled fish, pasty taro pudding, juicy pineapple, and black tea, pale with tinned milk, syrupy with mounds of Fijian raw sugar. No silverware. Banana leaf for a plate. He picked at the offering with greasy fingers and choked down enough to quell his hunger.
A seldom used chapel in a rural Solomon Islands' village. Most are kept in better repair.
Afterward, at Chief Betu's insistence, Cooper retired to the village guest house, a one-room, dirt-floored, thatched hut beside a clearing that served as village square. For a village hut, here was luxury: foam pad on a double bed-sized wooden platform, sheet, mosquito net. Usually, villages offered only a straw mat, no sheet, no net, nothing to keep out the rats. C ooper tried to nap. He couldn't. He had facts to gather.
Mid-afternoon, Cooper launched his investigation. He grilled the Peace Corps kid's training mates. "He's a model for us all," one guy said. Early to class. Last to leave. Meets each challenge and trumps it. Bubbles with ideas on how to improve village life.
The rumors about the girl? "She's a damn tease," another said, "but a dynamite teacher. Real Pidgin -- how the villagers talk. Speaking drills, not grammar and declensions. Now I know why two years of college Spanish didn't teach me squat."
Esme Soporo's coworkers weren't certified teachers, merely young islanders with time on their hands, assembled by the Peace Corps for two months of training. They didn't mention her classes. "She's aggressive as an American. That's not our way," one said. The others agreed.
Pastor Ngumangato delivered an impromptu forty-minute sermon. Beyond their sins, these two outsiders had soiled the village's reputation.
Late that afternoon, Derrick, the Peace Corps kid, shuffled up to Cooper's interrogation chamber, a hand-hewn palm log beside the guest house in the village courtyard. "Yeah?"
A whiff of marijuana jolted Cooper. "That's illegal here. Mandatory jail."
"What's illegal, Mr. Embassy? L.L. Bean walking shorts?"
Cooper glared. Earring. Smutty t-shirt, Cavers Do It Underground. Shaggy, muddy-brown hair, three-day stubble. Plus the bright blue Teva sandals calling attention to himself. This kid didn't have the humility needed in the Solomons. Pushy may work in America, but it's guaranteed to fail here. Expats had to blend in, not stand out. "Sit down."
Young Derrick slumped onto the log like a baggy-pants rowdy scuffing in late to class. Cooper wondered how this scraggy specimen had attracted the girl.
"We got a problem here. Tell me about you and Miss Soporo."
A grin crept from the corner of Derrick's mouth, transformed his face. Yeah, Cooper thought, an outlaw's charm. He could imagine girls swooning.
"We kissed, so what? Big fuckin' deal. I'm doing my job. Ask anyone."
Yeah, he was, Cooper had learned. But what about attitude? Cooper had seen too many cocky volunteers screw up good projects. Derrick had taught vocational ed in Idaho. Knew small engines, wood-working, pottery. Could probably fashion a water system from bamboo and palm fronds, fix every broken outboard engine on Rendova. But he needed to train locals, not do everything himself. Success in the Solomons comes from whom you involve and how you involve them, not from monuments you leave behind.
"Tell me about your night on the beach with Miss Soporo," Cooper said.
"No one's business but ours. You done? I've got two water-seal toilets to build."
A dozen questions got Cooper nowhere.
Esme Soporo marched into the clearing with her shoulders back, bare feet skimming the red earth. Two twisty pigtails, each ringed with scarlet hibiscus, poked up like devilish horns from a wild bush of black hair. High cheekbones. Flawless skin -- not as black as the women of Rendova; more a burnt umber. But clearly not a typical Solomon Islander, not with sunglasses, wristwatch, and that skin-tight "Free Willy" t-shirt.
Not another one, Cooper thought. These girls streamed into Honiara from the villages, got caught up in a world they didn't understand. Development made city life easier, provided amenities unknown in the bush. Decent housing. Electricity. Running water. A central market -- no more trudging through the jungle to the gardens for food. They hung around and bummed off relatives or friends, lost their sense of themselves. Partied. Discovered beer and an insatiable desire for material goods -- make-up, jewelry and seductive clothing, ghetto blasters. Too many of them c ouldn't handle the sudden freedom from tribal and clan taboos. Girls had begun to haunt Honiara's three hotels, sell themselves to foreign businessmen and tourists. The Solomons now had AIDS.
"You're Mr. Cooper, yes? Welcome to Betumo Village." She curtsied, then offered her hand. She had a stevedore's grip. "You like my t-shirt?"
Cooper felt his face redden. He glanced away.
"A Piskoa guy gave me it." She twirled, short skirt flaring, and the scent of some exotic perfume swirled over him. Another city-bred fancy. No wonder she had the kid zinging.
"Isn't it a bit out of place in an SDA village?"
She grinned. "It's a modern. The village men praise it. Even Chief Betu."
Cooper imagined her with young Derrick on that beach, lips inviting, voice cooing. Her come-hither would thaw an embassy Marine. Cooper envied the Peace Corps kid his youth. But that's the problem: youth. Village life served up a solitude these kids had never faced. Without the American smorgasbord of daily diversions -- TV, CDs, computers, magazines, concerts, malls, sporting events -- village life suffocated them. They had to learn to sit and talk, one-on-one, day after day. Like the Graces, Solomons women reeled the young Americans in -- not only with their dark beauty, but with their eagerness to listen. This wasn't going to be cut and dried as Cooper first thought.
"I need to ask some questions, Miss, about --"
"Of that dance, it's a nothing. We met at the cove, a dozen or so, including also two other women teachers. Only we teachers and village boys, no waetmen. We storied, and drank Pepsi-Cola. We danced to a cassette-player, each apart and without touching man-to-woman. It's in the limbo that jealousy arose, for I bested all, even the men. I'm an excellent dancer. Watch."
Boys walking through a Solomon Islands village.
She sprang up, and the packed-earth clearing became a polished dance floor. She coiled, leaped and arched, her supple body glistening. Bending backwards, she wriggled lower and lower under an imaginary rod, fuzzy hair dusting the ground. Like a cobra, she uncoiled and began anew. Movement pulsated through her as if movement itself were her exotic twin.
Slit-drums pounded in Cooper's senses. No wonder village men salivated at tales of that night. Here was a sultan's favorite harem girl, an orgasmic dance mandated for royal eyes alone. Yes, guilty, dead guilty. Cooper discreetly rearranged himself.
She collapsed into a rubbery heap, breath rapid, then lifted her head. "You see, I bend without falling, nor do I lose the beat. I'm a skilled dancer, yes?"
She'd lured him into some ancient inner sanctum, in a rite unknown to expats. He'd been tempted to swoop her up, carry her limp form to the bathing pool, cleanse her, revive her -- revive them both -- then spirit her away. But Cooper knew to control his emotions; things overseas were never what they seemed.
"Impressive. But a bit daring for the village, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, it's true I wore pants, not grass skirt as custom demands. But that speaks to my favour. Pants are more modest to dance limbo. Nor were they Spandex, as some rabis gele, nasty girls, wear them in Honiara. After, we came back to the village, chatting stories, nothing more. No one condemned my dance until they gossiped me with Derrick, the Piskoa boy."
Cooper studied her. Most likely she wasn't the Candide she pretended to be. Cooper had learned how to work the islands' cultural taboos. She wouldn't expect a direct challenge. "The gossip is true then?"
"Oh, no, sir. Derrick studies hard and speaks well the Pidgin, above the others. Also, he's an inquisitive. He asks about my people, the Lau. Of my passion for teaching and dance. He listens." She prattled on. Islands women, even many professionals, lowered their eyes and mumbled when talking to expats. Not Esme. She held his gaze.
"Thus I walked with Derrick until every star faded," she said. "We talked of so many things, and interesting. At Kombi Point, we kissed. I'm coming twenty and vibrant of life. What's more natural than a kiss?
"We strolled unseen, but if some gossips say they spied upon us, I would answer, My body's a temple, pure and chaste. Does one desecrate a temple by taking a gentle rubbing of its motifs? No. Touching creates a living memento of what the eye and mind covet. Yet, it removes nothing from the temple nor stains it. Such an act is a creation. It pleases even God.'"
Cooper snickered. He searched for clues she was putting him on -- coy smile, twitter, some flirty movement. None. "Interesting notion, but you've violated custom," he said. "That makes you guilty even if you haven't done anything. But the real question is, How far did you and . . . did you and the Peace Corps boy have intercourse?"
"Oh, my, sir, no! I know to control the sexual. Every Lau girl preserves her virginity for marriage. I refused him to remove my clothes nor touch my womanhood."
Images of the girl's dance churned in his mind. He wanted to call it an ethnic dance, a modern interpretation of some ancient rite. Too big a stretch. Still, he was an American diplomat, not some priggish church deacon offended by the Twentieth Century. Who was he to fault her because she didn't share this fundamentalist village's hang-ups? "Absolute truth?"
"As I swore it to Pastor Ngumangato. Whispers arose only when Robella rubbished me. She knew nothing, only that I went away without her. One weekend she and a married teacher canoed to Gizo and drank beer. Others rubbish Robella, but not I, even that she screeches, 'Send Esme home. She shames us all.' Forget Robella. She's a squawking parrot. She'll answer for her sins, for whispers outrace the fastest canoe, even a seaplane, onto every island, into the very ship where her husband labours.
"It's true that custom demands a man and woman be chaperoned. But these are modern times, not the past. No custom prescribes relations between an American and a girl of Malaita, nor of a Lau girl who teaches waetmen, university graduates all."
Esme had an answer for every question. It didn't really matter, though. What was truth but differing
perceptions of reality? Still, he couldn't let young Don Juan threaten alliances that had been so painstakingly built.
In the end, Cooper had to deep six the kid's brief voyage to the Solomons without letting him become a pawn in national
Cooper turned in early. He couldn't keep up a city pace in the village, not in this heat.
Sometime in the night, he awoke to a series of staccato bursts from the moonless dark outside his hut -- that grisly old guy's voice, the chief's adviser. A chorus of grunts, then silence, broken by an unintelligible flourish in the local dialect. Cooper recognized the chief's deliberate baritone. The adviser fired a new salvo. Cooper squinted through the mosquito net and out the cut-out square that served as a window. Chief and his council hunkered in a rough circle, not five meters away. Clouds roiled across the sky. Cooper could make out shapes, but not faces.
From Mytinger, Head Hunting in the Solomon Islands.
This billowing mosquito net gives an idea of Cooper's sleeping quarters.
The tent-like mosquito net sucked up body steam, recycled it into the muggy trapped air, mummy-bagged him in stifling heat. He flopped onto his back, tried to squiggle into a tolerable niche. He tugged off his boxers, careful not to pull the net-tent loose. Bugs could eat a man alive. One mosquito and he'd go nuts tracking its high-pitched whine, dreading the moment it sunk its snout into his blood, riddling him with malaria. Naked did help. Evaporating sweat cooled him. Outside his window, the jabbering drummed on.
Cooper rolled over, propped himself on his elbows. Chief Betu hammered at some point, voice rising. Cooper listened, hoping to intuit meaning from tone. All gibberish.
His mosquito net quivered, sagged, then tightened. He heard breathing. A hand grazed his arm. Cooper jumped, scooted into the corner.
"Don't be alarmed," a woman's voice said.
Village women did this, slipped into a visitor's bed. It was so common, they had a name for it -- creeping. On moonless nights, a girl would steal in, make love, leave without showing her face. Peace Corps studs bragged about it. "Oh, yeah, happened to me in Tamboko." "Ah, Marovovo!" They were full of it, Cooper had thought, them and their Lotharian fantasies.
Or it could be a throwback to pre-Christianity. Village men knew the loneliness of a married traveler. They would send a woman to satisfy him to prove the village's hospitality. Cooper had read that. She could be an emissary from Chief Betu.
No wistful fantasy here: a woman's scent embraced him. Had he seen her as he strolled the village? The shy one, peering from a half-shuttered window? Chief's eldest girl, that lissome tease? Chief's daughter would be a perfect gift, the ultimate token of respect.
Cooper had to get rid of this intruder. How? Cry out: Help, help, there's a woman in my bed! He'd be hooted out of the Solomons. Besides, what if Chief Betu had sent his daughter? No sane man insults a chief, not in his own village. Cooper had learned in the Solomons to accept ways that were not his own.
Cooper squinted at the shadowy girl beside him. Small. Bushy haired. But he couldn't make out her face. He rummaged around for his mini-Maglite.
"No light." Strong hands wrestled the Maglite away, pinioned him by the wrists.
"Sorry," he whispered. "I just wanted to . . . check the time." The steamy air had become musky rich and Cooper recognized the perfume. "My God, what are you doing here?"
Stark naked, Cooper had a damn hard-on. He twisted away from her, ransacked the bed, snatched up his rumpled boxers, bunched them over his exposed self.
"Aeii, don't be afraid. From here I can hear them debate, but remain unseen. Nothing more." Esme spoke matter-of-factly, as if welcoming him to her Pidgin language classroom.
Typical Solomon Islands leaf house.
Cooper wriggled into his boxers. At least he was decent -- village men, even the chief, went shirtless. But if anyone found her here, he'd be dead. The girl ignored his whispered pleas to leave. He scrunched himself into a corner, as far from her as possible.
"Only because I am Lau, a girl of Malaita, they're doing this to me," she said. "Even so, it's not right. Nor Christian."
Cooper's mind raced. Sneak out? No, she'd still be here. Someone would spot her. Besides, he had nowhere to go.
She jabbed his knee. "Do you think it's right?"
"Shhhh! Quiet." Damn window. No glass. No shutters. Cardboard-thin thatch.
"Yes, I know it. I'm a carved statue." She turned back to the debate.
Cooper knew he had to do something. But what?
She grabbed his hands. "Shhhh! You must be quiet."
He realized he'd been cracking his knuckles.
Outside, the old guy's voice crescendoed, then died away. Minutes passed. Beyond the village, the jungle chirped and wheezed and cawed and inched forward. The pungency of damp e arth and decaying jungle faded beneath Esme's delectable scent. Finally, Chief Betu spoke, and Cooper heard murmurs of agreement.
"No!" The girl clawed at the window. "Banish me from this island? Banish me?"
Cooper shot forward, wrestled her down, clapped his hand over her mouth. "Quiet!"
She nodded. Cooper pulled his hand away, and she flopped onto her stomach.
"They said they will banish me to Malaita. They'll kill me, my brothers will."
Cooper knew the Malaitan reputation, especially Lau. Women had no rights. Her family would blame her, probably beat her half to death. "Don't worry. I'll convince the chief to reconsider. He'll listen to --"
"Aeii, and Derrick also. Tomorrow they'll take us by canoe to Munda. Also you."
"To guard us. They fear we will run away. You must escort us to Honiara."
Cooper pictured himself flying into Honiara, errant lovers in tow. Ghemu no doubt would be at the airport, press corps at his side, cameras snapping. I promised I would bring an end to this, he would say, poker faced, phony piety masking a smirk. No way!
The girl moaned, fell silent. His knees ached. He sat down and stretched out his legs. She shuddered and began crying, softly. He stroked her arm. She quieted. Her bush of hair against him was soft as mohair, her arm silken. Somehow, he had to prevent this.
Cooper's back ached. The girl had squirmed around until her head lay in his lap. Her breath came in sniveling gasps. Her leg twitched. Chief Betu's voice boomed from the powwow outside his window. Cooper had to sneak her out of here, but he couldn't risk startling her. What if her twitching were a bad dream, and she awoke screaming? He tucked his hands under her head, lifted gently. She rolled onto her side, flung an arm around his waist.
Cooper laid a hand on her shoulder. She relaxed. He stroked her arm, let his hand creep down her side, up the curve of her hips. Her skirt was bunched at her buttocks. He laid his hand on bare thigh, and she sighed and curled her top leg over his legs.
No, this girl's a child. She sure didn't feel like a child, mature breasts hot against him. He tried to pretend she was a long-lost daughter, that she had skinned a knee and come to him to wipe away her tears.
He stroked her thigh. "Yes, Esme?"
"They're coming to wake you. Chief Betu said it."
"The Chief?" He pushed her away.
"Get down. He'll see you."
He lay back. They were entangled like vines, and she wouldn't let go.
"Cooper!" Chief Betu's voice. A shadow appeared at the cut-out window. "Ho, Cooper!"
Cooper felt Esme sliding away. He turned to the window. "Wha . . . what is it?"
"We have decided. You must confer with us." Chief's head poked through the window.
"Now?" Cooper tried to sound groggy. He propped himself up on his left elbow. Maybe, just maybe, he could shield her. He arched his body as high as he could and he felt her flatten herself behind him, then tuck her head under his arm. She made no sound.
"Go away, Derrick. We'll solve this tomorrow."
The chief laughed. "No, it is me, Chief Betu."
"I will rouse him," another voice called. The old guy, the chief's adviser. Footsteps padded toward the cut-out doorway near the foot of Cooper's bed.
Esme's lips brushed his ear. God, she was nibbling! "Tell them you're without clothes," she whispered. "They're strong Seventh Day. They'll be ashamed to enter."
"Ho, Cooper, wake up. We must talk," the adviser called from the open doorway.
"Tell them," she mouthed in his ear.
"Don't come in. I'm not dressed."
The shadows disappeared from the window and door. "Oh, só-re tumas! We're sorry."
Silence, then the shuffling of barefoot men. Chief Betu's voice called, "Ho, Cooper, we
wait you in the clearing."
"We have decided," Chief Betu said when Cooper joined the council. "We will banish them. A canoe leaves at dawn."
Cooper sucked in his breath. "I can't allow it."
Chief Betu gasped. "You cannot allow it?"
"America can't. I haven't finished my investigation. The Peace Corps boy has the right to a fair hearing. Without it, the ambassador will insist he remain with the others."
"He and the girl have disrupted Betumo village. They will leave at dawn. You will escort them. What happens in Honiara does not concern us."
"Chief, you can't just . . . " Cooper stopped himself. He had no leverage here. Legal arguments were irrelevant, and Chief Betu didn't care about the American ambassador or the power struggle between Gehmu and Prime Minister Tolo. Rendova's isolation made national politics irrelevant.
"On second thought, you're right," Cooper said. He threw up his hands for emphasis. "They're more trouble than they're worth.
"But let's leave the two kids aside for a minute. I'm worried about Betumo. Imagine the talk throughout the islands: Oh, my, Chief Betu allowed such a scandal,' and, Oh, those Rendovans, they pride themselves as SDA, yet permit such behavior.' Worse, you know that even tiny whispers fly the winds of Solomon Islands. Rumors outrace the fastest canoes, even seaplanes, to every island. To banish them would be to feed an army of gossips and tarnish your village name on every island."
"True, and most troublesome," the chief's adviser said.
Chief Betu grunted. "What then? What is America's solution?"
"Don't know," Cooper said honestly. "We've got the facts. They misbehaved, but Betumo village is innocent. We've got to solve this without bringing scorn on your village."
"Sit with us," Chief Betu said. "We must deliberate more."
For two hours, debate flowed between Pidgin and the local dialect, sometimes in the same sentence, more often after passionate speeches in dialect. Each councilman spoke and spoke again. Cooper answered questions put to him in Pidgin.
Slowly, the sharp tones of disagreement faded. Heads nodded in affirmation. At last the chief stood. "Agreed then, yes?"
All nodded. Cooper shrugged.
Chief Betu turned to his adviser. "Repeat then our decision in English, that our guest fully understands."
Chief's adviser rose like a jury foreman. He had no written notes. "This then we rule," he said in fluent British English: "Esme Soporo: Confined to her quarters. The women Piskoa can study Pidgin there. She will have no contact with Piskoa men. Following custom law, she must pay compensation to Betumo village for this uproar. Two weeks pay and a suckling pig.
"The American boy, Derrick: Confined also. Chief Betu will persuade the Ministry to cancel the position for which he trains. No other post exists in Solomon Islands for someone with his credentials. The Piskoa can post him to another country.
"Piskoa training will continue as scheduled. All teachers will finish their contracts and depart together. No scandal, merely a misunderstanding has occurred. That happens when people of different cultures work face-to-face."
"Yes, I pronounce it so," Chief Betu said in Pidgin.
Cooper looked at his wrist watch. Too dark. He flipped on his Maglite. 3:51 a.m.
"Yes, morning slumbers in the east, soon to awake," Chief Betu said. "We will celebrate our agreement after we have slept. No early morning canoe trip. You agree, Cooper?"
"It's a good decision, Chief. Solves everything."
Barefoot men faded like shadows into the shadows. Cooper slumped onto the log bench. Esme would have heard the decision. The extra moments he had spent thanking each councilman and shaking each hand had given her time to get away.
A hint of pre-dawn softened the eastern sky. Cooper started into his hut but stopped, tiptoed to the window and peered in. Still pitch black. No sign of her, merely a tinge of perfume.
Inside, even with cut-out window and door, the cell-like hut was as suffocating as a crypt. Cooper stripped, tugged up the netting, dived under, made a halfhearted effort to tuck the net in, then flopped onto his back. Despite the all-nighter, the village would spring to life at first light. With luck, he'd get an hour's sleep. He closed his burning eyes. The ambassador didn't know Cooper had solved the problem so quickly. He could stay on a couple of days. Swim. Fish. Hike Rendova Peak. He'd earned that. Next week, he'd send a cable: Mission accomplished. Next assignment, please.
"Oh, Mr. Cooper, you saved me. Thank you too much."
Cooper's eyes snapped open. In the faint pre-dawn light he saw Esme inside his mosquito net, slithering toward him from the shadows. She was naked.
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