“Masta, bigpella sorry: one school girl, crocodile bin take away ‘im long Torovina.”
“One of the girls from our school? Which one? Do you know the name?”
“Baronika…that one class six.”
“Veronica … oh Veronica … was she eaten up? .. Did she die finish?”
“Altogether … Crocodile take her away…yesterday in afternoon…not come back.”
Veronica – I don’t play favourites – but Veronica is … was … the girl who made a smile hard to repress. From the start it was her name – the German missionaries had given her the name ‘Veronica’ despite the fact that the local Nakana people can’t pronounce the V sound. She ended up with ‘Barrr..ronika’ which was always announced like a car spinning its wheels, getting traction, then speeding off. Not one of the brightest students study-wise, she stood out with her afro hair salt-bleached to a halo of red, as well as her capacity to dish it out. Docile like the rest of them in class – she was the under-sized empress outside it. I confess that I’d played to her sovereignty on occasions: at work parade I’d give my instructions to Andrew, a hulking but dim student from the same village. When he relayed those instructions to the group, I’d eavesdrop to see Veronica berating him soundly then issuing her own commands which everyone would obey without query…Veronica …Veronica promised an altered future. Fiery Veronica … an expression of the difference this school makes.
I’m waiting for some police boys to arrive from Sarava. Apparently the plan is to shoot the crocodile before it escapes from the Torovina lagoon and heads back out to the Solomon Sea. There’s no road to Torovina, so they want me to take my boat. Mackenzie is arriving now in a police utility – six police boys sitting with parade-ground spacing and rigidity; Mackenzie is the Kiap, patrol officer, for this sub-district. “I want you to take some of these boys around to the lagoon – we’ve got a few hours of light to shoot this bugger – the locals are scared that he’s gonna take a couple more of their kids.” Not a word about how it was one of our students, how we might be a bit shaken by this – just a terse command … typical.
Three of the police are detailed to come with me. Mackenzie and the others are taking the pick-up to the ridge above Torovina, then proceeding on foot. “There are two tracks: take the one on the eastern side – that leads to the lagoon and you cross that by canoe. I can send one of the year six boys to show you the way.”
“I know the way to Torovina.” Mackenzie replies curtly with all the authority of his military-style moustache, “Maybe I can get another boat up there; just be careful at the lagoon mouth – it’s a bit hairy at low water.”
“The tide’s coming in actually … I know the way to Torovina lagoon.”
I try to demonstrate my difference by offering the police a cigarette. They decline but there’s a hint of a smile. There’s a corporal named Pious, a highlander, and two one-stripers: a Sepik called Marka and another fellow – I can’t work out where he’s from, but he’s not a salt-water man – goes by the name Pangi. Despite his inferior rank, Marka seems to take charge: he hands his .303 to Pangi while he sits cross-legged up on the bow, there he can spot any lurking reef and guide us through the shallows at the lagoon’s entrance. I glance at the rifle: I used one of those World War I surplus weapons when I was in the school cadet corps – maybe this relic is the one my grandfather slung sixty years ago … anyhow … if you’re going to dispatch a big saltie, a .303 is probably the best option.
At the bar there’s enough water to allow us to motor in with a little help from a following wave. We turn north into the tidal expanse that separates the village from the coconut plantation on the ocean side. There’s another boat drawn up below the place where they keep their canoes: it looks like the copra-carrying boat from Sorensen’s plantation up the coast. Yes, there’s a fifty horsepower Evinrude hanging off the stern – a much better prospect for crocodile hunting than my fifteen foot plywood half-cabin. We motor in carefully until the outboard kicks up. A couple of locals pull us over the last thirty yards. Mackenzie is there but he doesn’t bother to come down to meet us. I can’t see Sorensen, that’s probably a good thing since its three o’clock and the old man would have been well into his second bottle of scotch by this time. The police boys line up and march over to where Mackenzie is holding court. He’s got a great holster on his hip – it goes down to his knees almost – it must be a John Wayne style .45. Kiaps can choose what sort of revolver they use and how they display it. You know that old saying about cow-cockies: the bigger the hat, the fewer acres they own. It’s a bit the same with patrol officers: the assured ones slip a small pistol in their pocket and negotiate with the locals – the insecure ones brandish a weapon the size of a blunderbuss and issue orders. Here’s Jacob – he’s one of my former students, must be in second year high school now – I ask him to take me to Veronica’s parents and he leads me to a flailing group of women who are keeping up a collective lament.
It’s clearly a women’s space: I nod my “Mi sorri tumas” to the closer attendants. Veronica’s mother does not meet my eyes.
Mackenzie strides over: “Come on, we’ve only got a few hours of light left.”
I ignore that to seek out Veronica’s father who is standing slightly apart from the main throng – detached in more ways than that. He appears dazed and uncomprehending of that which is unfolding. This time my solicitation is acknowledged: “Thank you teacher – you must kill this crocodile now – we must find out who has done this.”
A quick confab with Jacob gets me up to speed with what’s going on – something I should have registered earlier. Nobody here dies of natural causes, leastwise not unless they’re over fifty years old. Things like heart attack or stroke (or even accidents or misadventure) are attributed to ‘poison’. Somebody has laid out some magic potion to cause the heart attack or the stone-fish jab. Jacob tells me that there is a man in the village, name of Monona, who hails from Poporang, somewhere down near the Shortland Islands. He stands accused of making the magic that has induced a crocodile to snatch Veronica. The talk is that once the crocodile is killed, they will have proof positive of this man’s involvement. Jacob points out the accused: a shirtless fellow, his lighter skin marks him out from the Bougainvillians whose proud claim is that their skin is ‘all the same arse belong saucepan.’ The light-skinned outsider is sweating and gesticulating wildly, but carefully avoids offering violence or insult to his persecutors.
I take my information to the ever-impatient Mackenzie. “Things are pretty stretched here – another hour or so and I reckon the villagers are going to string this bloke up, crocodile or no crocodile. I reckon that you should take him back to Sarava and stick him in the calaboose there as some kind of protective custody.”
Mackenzie shows no inclination to act on any suggestion of mine, especially one that impinges on his encompassing role of policeman, magistrate and coroner: “No … I don’t want to hide that bloke away and have the whole village think that I’m protecting a guilty man … This talk about poison is a load of bollocks … What we do now is prove to these people that magic is not involved – this is just a case of a girl being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ll keep two of the police boys with me to guard this bloke here and then you blokes go and shoot this croc – they tell me that he’s still about – they can then carry on with all their hocus-pocus until they learn that this magic business is a load of crap. Then … and only then …we’ll take this bugger out and boot him back to the Shortlands or wherever he comes from. First up, you gotta get the croc – you’re pissing about and wasting time.”
There’s no point in arguing. Marka and Pangi come with me, back out onto the broad expanse of the lagoon. It’s apparent that they know the full background to the situation. It’s also apparent that the Sepik-born Marka has a pretty comprehensive understanding of crocodiles: “No Masta … no good looking for that crocodile out there (pointing to the east where the lagoon empties into the sea). That crocodile not eat all that school girl – not altogether – he take that girl, put’im under the water, eat it all up later. We go look-look over there. Maybe that crocodile like to sleep in the sun little bit – we go look-look over there.” Marka indicates the mangrove stretches to the west as a place where the body might be snagged and the low mud-flats to the north where the crocodile might take the afternoon sun. “That crocodile don’t like to go back to the salt water – he come inside here to eat and find girl crocodile. He go all the way along river looking for girl crocodile.” I must be showing some incomprehension so he holds the fingers of his left hand in a ring shape while he thrusts his right index finger into the ring: “You savvy masta?”
I nose the boat into the spaces between the mangroves, the low branches sweep the cabin top. I’m fearful that the iron-strong mangrove wood will break the windows, or the haphazard roots will shear the propeller. Marka is insistent: “More, more yet Masta.” We peer into that slimy profusion for signs where a croc might have dragged himself over the mud. A tide has washed in and out since Veronica was taken but still there might be indications where the shoots have been flattened. We check those tangle points where the roots arch and dive into the sludge at the very edge of the mangroves’ dominion, looking for some strand of fabric, anything to suggest that a mauled, torn body might be snagged underneath – my stomach churns at the thought … Please … I don’t want to discover that. What if we stumble upon the croc’s larder and he’s nearby keeping watch? This is a boy’s-own adventure gone savage. Marka’s taking command allows me settle a little – holding his rifle while he scrambles over to the bow gives me some primeval security.
We keep prodding and looking and listening … Marka shoots an accusative glance as I slap the voracious mosquitoes or sandflies. I’m half-glad that there seems to be nothing to suggest that the croc has used this place. I’m waiting for Marka to suggest we try another section of the lagoon when we hear shots from the northern side: the loud crack of a rifle followed a full second later by the muffled echo. One shot, then a second and third; maybe a minute passes and then another. We can see Sorensen’s boat over near the tidal flats. It looks like they’re leaning out the side of the boat but I can’t be sure – I should have brought binoculars – none of us can make out any sign of a crocodile.
We are losing the light, already the mountain spine has become a silhouette, the smoke from towering Bagana the same orange-grey as the clouds. As we get closer to the planter’s boat we see that there is a sense of excitement. It’s not agitation. I still can’t see any crocodile – it has to be a big one, a true salty: surely they haven’t shot a three-footer and think that they’ve got the killer. Closer in, we can see that the action is on the far side of the boat, obscuring our view. Swinging our boat around their bow, I catch the first glimpse of the croc: all I can see is the expanse of its back – enormous! Marka immediately takes charge. I don’t want to display my utter ignorance of how to proceed once you’ve shot a crocodile maybe seventeen foot long, so I examine the carcass with what I hope passes as scientific interest. There are two bullet wounds in the shoulder and neck, there’s another in the skull behind the eyes – obviously the coup-de-grace – there is not a flicker of life left in the beast. Such a demonised animal, yet there is something proud and pitiable in the way it bleeds and sags into the muddied water. I try to assert a bit of white man authority: “He’s too big. We can’t get him into a boat. We have to tow him back to Torovina before it’s too dark – use the anchor rope from this boat.”
“Masta, suppose crocodile sink down in the water: we must float him.” I marvel at the way Marka addresses me in an undertone, almost apologetic that he hasn’t mentioned this critical detail before. “Right, get that empty fuel drum, see if you can tie it under his shoulders, we need something else under those back legs.” Marka appears genuine in his admiration of my initiative. A pair of fishing net floats is produced from the plantation boat. By the time Marka has bound up the jaws with a hundred yards of my best fishing line and the beast has been made buoyant, the thick blue darkness of the tropics has dropped on the lagoon, blue-black darkness mingling and mistaking water, land, air. The crocodile is dead. The fear of the hunt has subsided, there’s just a moment of calm before a sense of exhilaration: clammy shirt, boots sogged with mangrove mud, trusty .303 at hand, feeling very Hemingway, before the guilty recollection of what this is all about.
We follow the plantation boat back to Torovina inlet in absolute darkness. The crocodile, feet outstretched, streamed phosphorescence. Arrows of underworld light shoot across the beast then diminish in the depths – this is a time and a world where the only light is the spirit glimmer trailing from the slain crocodile. Pangi is awe-struck: what greater proof do you need that this crocodile glows with sorcery… dead yes, but still possessed: life had kept concealed all that spirit force, now death releases all those spectre shapes, the whorls and eddies of ghost energy
Upon the beach, next to where they drag the canoes, they’ve raised a bonfire – not the meagre collection of sticks that the Bougainvillians customarily use for cooking – this has logs piled crossways, six or more layers high, like an Indian funeral pyre. Villagers descend upon the crocodile, twenty men competing for a hand-hold, pulling it up the lip of the beach before turning it over onto its back. The light of a spirit lamp encircles the scene, a theatrical spotlight identifying those who have a principal role in this grisly autopsy, Mackenzie at the centre. I step back from the incrimination of the light, nevertheless, the stench of the entrails finds me there. Hundreds of eyes watching the dissection and the probing, none more concerned than Monona, trembling at the very edge of the light. Something has been found! Veronica’s uncle announces the discovery to the villagers. It’s all in Nakana so Mackenzie and myself, plus the police boys, have no inkling as to the significance. Jacob tells me that they found a piece of an arm-bone that bit just above the wrist, undeniably Veronica because there was part of a coloured bracelet – the sort schoolgirls thread from Chinese trade store beads – this is accepted as positive identification of Veronica by all, including the kiap. Hush is maintained while the women come to collect the small collection of remains; I’m drawn to tears myself when I see Veronica’s mother collecting them in the school’s yellow and blue lap lap – there’s the screen-printed shield that I designed two years ago. As the women depart, the execrations of the village men increase; Veronica’s uncle, guided by a grey-headed, toothless ancient, prise open the crocodile jaws so that they can place a package inside: it’s one of those palm basket things that they make from coconut fronds – God knows what’s inside – they take great care in securing the palm bag upon the most prominent yellow fangs. At a signal the croc is lifted upon the pyre, the ancient addresses the accused in pidgin: “You made the magic that caused this crocodile to take the life of the young girl: now we have made magic – very strong poison – and we will have payback … now.”
The cursing begins anew. Monona holds up his hands as if to shield himself from the weight of these verbal assaults – his protestations become dejected.
There is a possibility that some young hothead might make it a point of honour to deliver his own violent payback, so Mackenzie decides to assert some authority: he calls for quiet, (I don’t think it’s necessary for him to slap the revolver on his hip as a signal to order), then proceeds to draw a square in the sand, each side about three yards long. “Nobody touches this fellow … nobody comes inside this place.” He places one Police Boy at each corner of the square; you can see in their basilisk faces that they too are convinced of this man’s guilt. Mackenzie quits the square himself – I hope he doesn’t come over to where I am.
The light of the spirit lamp has gone, now there’s just the flaring light of the pyre, reflecting in the sweating faces and bared teeth, it’s demonic, somehow exaggerating the surrounding dark. The fire gives the crocodile new life – it’s seething and jerking in contractions, now it’s arching upwards in grotesque supplication. Burning hide sends an acrid reek rolling across the sand. In his square of containment, Monona seeks to deflect the insults and accusations that are flung into that space; with only the occasional protest, his eyes downcast, he turns on his heel as if he wants to spiral down into the sand like a soldier crab. I am in mind of a medieval trial by ordeal. Some of the village men are starting to light dry coconut fronds as torches. They flare and pulse for thirty seconds, adding to the surreal, macabre, out-of-my-depth feeling. Monona is starting to twitch: his head, shoulders, elbows convulsing. He is sweating profusely, he may have pissed himself – if you didn’t know the situation, you’d say that he was in the end times of malaria. He should have water, but I’m not game to broach Mackenzie’s square, or the villagers’ trust.
The convulsions worsen, Monona falls awkwardly, yet still he tries to hold himself upright, vainly trying to control the spasms, as if his wretchedness is a sure sign of guilt. Now there’s a hush. Fire-lit faces turn upwards as a kokomo bird flutters across the moon, every wing beat distinct suggesting a visitation by the angel of death. Only a few seconds, twenty beats of those deathly wings, enough to confirm a curse. The four sentries, stationed at the square’s corners, have all turned inwards to witness the final act in this death-play. The accused man writhes upon the ground, struggling against unseen bonds, his bloodshot eyes now rolled back. I try to read Mackenzie’s face in the fire-glow – a resolute show, indifference even, but surely underneath is the same hesitancy that is assailing me. There’s no jeering now, just an expectation. From the square comes a cowed-dog whimpering, interspersed with random grunts of pain, sometimes accompanied by an arching of the back and then a stiffening of his torso. Apoplexy gives way to an ebbing twitch – Monona’s limbs have lost their electricity. This is a dead man.
“We should have taken him to Sarava at the outset. What do we do now?”
“How was I to know that he had a weak ticker? We’ll have to wait ’til morning.” Mackenzie turns to the police corporal: “See if you can get something to cover him up – don’t let these buggers touch him.” Already the crowd has dispersed, their silent departing perhaps indicating a degree of complicity and guilt. We slump down on different sides of a canoe hull. He faces toward the body and the still glowing fire. I face toward the east, willing the sun to rise.
First light filters through the coconut palms on the ocean edge: tropical delight on one side – on the other a place clearly touched by evil. The grey sand all churned; charred palm fronds stuck in ominous angles; blood-splats of betel juice; village dogs disputing whatever bits of croc that can be wrenched from the carcass; the skull still pointing skywards, jaws a little agape, like an ebony carving. I try to avoid it – somehow thinking that the horror of last night could be altered by some counter-magic – but my eyes eventually rest on the corpse. A none-too-clean piece of cloth covers the upper torso. The limbs contorted declare that this was not a passive death.
The tide is running out. Only the police boys are there to wedge the body under the half-cabin of my boat – there’s no dignity involved. Once over the bar, we cut the glass-flat surface at twenty knots or more. The faster I quit Torovina, the sooner I can return to some sort of equilibrium. Marka and Pangi accept a cigarette, their faces shaped in a ‘a job well done’ attitude. I marvel at those crisp blue shirts – after all the mud and blood and fire and magic and … I look down at the crooked feet poking out from the cabin space … and the death.
At Tonelau, the whole station already knows the news from Torovina. Some of the schoolkids keep a wide-eyed, respectful distance as we take the body from the boat. Siassi brings one of my bedsheets so we can fashion a shroud. Unbidden, the children collect banana leaves and palm fronds so that we don’t have to lay the body upon the dirt. One of the girls – actually she’s a friend of Veronica’s – has created a cross from woven palm. She gives it to me to place upon the corpse. When Mackenzie arrives, we make sure that the green underlay is placed on the bed of the truck before the body is lifted aboard. “Will his body be returned to his family in the Shortlands?”
“Hell no … that’s not even Australian territory… I’ll say that he’s Catholic and get Fr Dugden to plant him in the church plot at Sarava.”
“And the cause of death? What are you going to say was the cause of death?”
“Natural causes.” Then a bit of a pause: “You know there’s no such thing as poison, don’t you?”