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SHE, WHO WAS ALMOST THE BRIDE

(2017)

A famous Scene Through Other Eyes


It is a fine thing, thinks Koiapu, to be a wife of the God.

She grasps that thought, kneeling there amid the whirling dancers, her thighs tight against her ankles. The rough stone of the platform presses up through the mat of woven cane. Splinters prick her legs and she shuffles a little to the side. That earns her a swat from Mother Moani, who has just arranged a flower chain around her neck with long, delicate fingers. Mother Kuinkan holds up a flower necklace, speaks the words—may you be like a flower, to adorn Him!—and slides it over Moani’s handiwork.

The tribe weaves and leaps around in another turn, shining black and beautiful against the blue sky, and the drums pound like the breakers on the beach, pounding against the heights of the wall, against the distant green cliffs, even, perhaps, pounding up to the mountain where the God makes his home. Her home, soon.

Another flower chain slides over her head, woven together with small bones and butcherbird feathers. She can feel Father standing just behind her, like a tall trunk at the center of the whirl, on the stone steps in the shadows of the wall. His eyes are on her, he knows. Father, who quietly complains to the Mothers when he must put on his finery, who prefers to spend his time dozing in the shade beneath the woven roofs, his scarred arms resting on his flat belly, watching his sandpipers play with heavy eyes.

He is not her father now, though. Not when the drums pound and the spirit dancers wait to begin their shuffling dance. Now the feather-cloak shines brilliant in the sunlight, shimmering beneath a headdress of huge plumes, taken from the jungle beyond the wall, the fangs of their owners strung yellow and cruel across his chest.

She remembers a festival seasons past, him staring morosely at cloak, headdress and necklace, Mother Moani standing beside him, hands on her hips, waiting to help him put it on. “It’s hot,” he said, in his sonorous voice. “It’s heavy. And the mites in the feathers—they bite, Moani. How they bite.” He kept complaining until Mother Moani swatted him, bit his shoulder and said, “Brave man! You will wear it even so.”

And he did. As he does now. There are things that must be done, here in the village Beneath The Wall, where the high huts and longhouses crowd against the beach and the farmers work the crop-mats that hang from the ancient stones. When her father does them, there is no sign of the sleepy man in the longhouse.

Koiapu rushes back into herself, feels how wide her eyes are, the squeezing in her chest, and exhales, straightens. I will be a wife of the God, she thinks, a little desperately. When they bind me to the pillars he’ll come and take me in his huge hand, and I’ll live in his longhouse inside the mountain. And we will have good harvests and luck in hunting, even beyond the wall.

***

This she had learned at the knees of her mothers, when the coals glowed dull red on the dark sands of the beach, and the stars shone, and striding toothed birds came darting along the surf to pick at fish bones. She’d danced there as a girl, dancing to the sound of the waves, her fat legs kicking, before she ran to huddle against them in the dark. “Remember, sandpiper,” Mother Kuinkan said, stroking her head. “Everything beyond the wall is the God's, and his alone—every thunder-beast, every butcherbird, every man-taker.”

“Even He Who Shakes The Trees?” Koiapu had asked.

“Even an old cruel thing like him,” Mother Moani said, pulling her close. “We can’t go there without the God’s leave. That is why we wed our daughters to him, sandpiper. So he will give us luck against his beasts.”

“Will I marry him?”

Her mothers had looked at each other in silence a long time.

***

And now here she is, and they are draping the flowers over her shoulders, her chest, her hair. The drums are pounding louder, working up into a frenzy, and the tribe is swaying around her, lanky young men swaying and clapping and leaping, young women keeping pace, feet stamping the bare white soil. She sees the young men looking over the young women, and the young women are staring back, bold and challenging. It is a wedding, isn’t it, she thinks. It’s my wedding. Weddings make weddings. And she does not think: I could be out there, dancing on the sand. She catches that thought before it forms and forces it down, like her father forces on the feather cloak.

Instead she thinks about Latai, who went hunting with his brothers beyond the gate, boasting how he would come back with feathers and teeth and good white meat, but who came back torn open, savaged. Baru, who always had a kind word for her, who wrestled so beautifully in the dusk, Ariki with his hot eyes. Men who had walked through the wall to hunt or pick the heavy, stinking fruits, and who had never come back. Or little Tikile, dragged from her parent’s hut by a lone butcherbird that had somehow come over the wall. They’d killed it and burned it, feathers and all, and buried its sickle claws deep beneath the tree roots. But it was too late.

The Shaman had come to her father in the longhouse after Tikile’s body was set adrift on the surf, his face serious and set. Koiapu listened as she helped her mothers turn the spit, a great hunk of frog-crocodile roasting and bubbling over the flames. “The God has been without a wife too many years,” the Shaman said. “He’s getting impatient, Paeia. It’s time.”

“Not yet,” Father said, in his slow voice.

“It’s time,” the Shaman insisted. He crossed his arms, a slender figure hung with rattling bones and animal-skin pouches and the ceremonial wrap across his hips. “I know it. You know it. My own sons saw He Who Shakes The Trees take Ariki. When was the spirit last so close to the wall? The God is forgetting. We cannot let him forget. We must wed him again.”

“Not her,” her father said, so quietly, so slowly she was barely sure she’d heard it. “Not her.”

The Shaman squared his shoulders, and spoke the old words. “I’ve spoken with the spirits and cast the signs. Koiapu, daughter of Paeia, who dances in the sand. I know you’re listening, clever girl. The God has chosen you.”

And her father said nothing, staring with the heavy silence of black clouds hanging over the blue sea. The Shaman looked at him and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I am. But it must be done. She is a good girl, and she will make him very happy. And it is a fine thing to be a wife of the God.”

***

Another flower garland slips over her head. The young dancers of the tribe retreat and the spirit dancers come, clad in furs and masks that wrap their arms, come to shuffle and spin for His glory.

Soon she will rise, her hands on her mothers’ arms, and she will walk through the great gate in the great wall, and they will tie her hands, and she will be married. The ceremony is almost over. There is a little thrill of excitement burrowing through the fear: soon she will walk beyond the wall for the first time in her life. She will see the dense jungle, the flowers, smell the heavy scents on the breeze as He takes her away. Soon now. Very soon. Keep your back straight, Koiapu! You are your father’s daughter, his sandpiper, and you must make him proud.

But Father chokes a gasp behind her, and she cannot help herself—she turns. He is no longer ramrod straight, a rock compared to the people swirling around him. He is leaning forward, arms stiff in shock. And the dancers are turning to follow his gaze, freezing in place, crouching in uncertainty. The drums have gone silent. The sea breeze brings a new scent, harsh and ugly to the nose. Koiapu looks out, a stone dropping in her stomach.

There are strangers on the beach.

There have never been strangers on the beach that Koiapu can recall. Not true strangers. Once, when Koiapu was little, an outrigger was blown through the reefs by an errant wind. Inside were men with skin the color of coconuts, who spoke with a strange burr. They had looked at the wall with awe and at the high mountains above with terror, for they knew the tale of the Skull Mountain and the God within. But they were men, and they stayed a few days to patch their canoe and refill their water, and in return they left a few keepsakes of their own. And Mother Moani had explained that they were the far-sailors, who mapped the stars with their eyes and crossed trackless oceans, and that they came from time to time to trade.

These men are not like them. They have skin as pale as seashells. Cloth covers their bodies, layers and folds of cloth, and their faces are hairy. The breeze blowing behind them carries the salt smell, the fire smell.  Several of them grasp short staffs with the ready ease of a man holding a spear, while one of them looks up from a black box on three legs that clicks and whirrs as he moves his hand. He gabbles something in a strange, fast tongue. One of the strangers turns to run as her father’s attention falls on them, only for another to grab him roughly and hold him, the entire band drawing closer together. One of them shivers, and Koiapu sees that it is a woman, a woman with hair the color of sunlight, eyes wide and white as her skin. But that is not the strangest thing: there is something long and grey glinting out beyond the breakers, a great canoe, bigger than any she’s ever seen.

“Caru. Longoa. By me,” her father says, in the silence. The two men run up, holding hastily snatched hunting spears. Together the three of them stalk toward the strangers, her father moving in slow, measured steps, his feather cloak sweeping down the stone stairs and across the sand. The Shaman comes after him, shoulders tight with fury.

“Who are you?” Father booms. “Why have you come here?”

Koiapu begins to rise but Mother Moana’s grip on her shoulder is like stone.

“Wait, sandpiper,” her mother says. “Don’t move.”

The strangers are speaking among themselves. A thin man comes forward, his narrow face marked with a band of hair beneath his nose. “Greetings,” he says, his accent strange, choked. “We friends. Friends! Friends! Friends!”

“Friends give warning when they come beneath the wall,” her father says. “Friends do not walk into sacred rites uninvited. You cannot come here now and say you are friends.”

The thin stranger gabbles again with his band and then waves at the silent assembly. “What...this...for?” He points at Koiapu, his white finger gnarled, and she shivers. “Who... that girl?”

“Today we wed Koiapu the sandpiper to the God,” her father says, slow, formal. She cannot see his face but she knows it must be thunderous. What must be done must be done; it cannot be interrupted. It cannot be stopped. “The great God!”

The great God, murmurs the crowd.

“The great God,” Koiapu echoes.

The Shaman is stiff with rage. “He Who Shakes The Trees take them and their bone skins! This wasn’t for them to see. Paeia, get them off the beach! They must go now.

Her father’s hand snaps out to cut the Shaman off. He considers the strangers in silence, and all Koiapu can see is his broad back and shoulders, the headdress plumes high and proud against the blue sky. “Look,” he says after a moment, and there is a strange note to his voice. “Look at that. The woman they have with them—look at her hair!”

The Shaman looks. “What about it?”

“Sunlight hair,” her father says. “Think! Sunlight hair and bone skin. What finer wife could we give to the God? Such a wife would keep his attention years and years!”

“He will not take her!” the Shaman says. “Don’t be a fool. There’s still time to go through it again—”

“He will,” father says. “Strangers! You call yourselves friends. What would you take for a sunlight woman?” He is pointing back to Koiapu. “Stay! There are six fine young women Beneath The Wall who need husbands. Let the sunlight woman be a bride to the God. It is a fine thing to be.”

The strangers are stirring, backing away. The woman’s eyes are very wide, and Koiapu cannot be sure but she thinks they might be blue, blue as the sea. “No,” the strange white man says. “Woman...stay with us.”

“Will she?” her father says, and there is something in his voice Koiapu has never heard before. Something dangerous. Koiapu catches her breath. Beside her, her mothers are frozen like statues in the stone.

“We back...tomorrow,” the stranger says. He is pacing backward, an arm back, the strangers shuffling back toward the water. The young men are massing beside her father, tense and ready. “Tomorrow. Goodbye.”

And the strangers go. Her father watches them retreat back to the beach, rowing their fat little canoes back to the great grey canoe out beyond the pinnacles. Then he sweeps back, climbing up to Mother Moani and Mother Kuinkan.

“We will have that one,” he says, speaking in a voice that cannot be argued with.

“Can you do such a thing?” Mother Moani says.

Mother Kuinkan is shaking her head. “The spirits said—”

“I would never give the God such a poor gift,” he says in a loud voice. He is standing over Koiapu now, looking down at where she kneels on the stone platform. Then, quieter; “I would not give him a little sandpiper when he might have sunlight. You understand, don’t you, my daughter? Do you understand what I am saying?”

Koiapu nods. Her head is pounding. It is as if the drums have taken up again, even though the men who beat them are clustered together, talking in low voices, looking out at the stranger’s craft out on the waves. “I...I am not to wed him?”

“No,” her father says, casting a hard glance at the mothers. “No. You will wed a simple man. You will dance tonight on the sand, as we give the sunlight girl to him. Stand up, Koiapu.”

“Stay!” snarls the Shaman. He comes up the stone steps, bones clacking. “Paeia, I understand your thoughts in this. I do. But the spirits have spoken. She must wed Him. If she does not—”

“Strangers have seen the ceremony!” her father booms, loud enough to be heard across the beach. “They have spoiled the great God’s wedding! It’s only right that he have the sunlight girl.”

The Shaman opens his mouth to object but the look on her father’s face stops him cold. He looks down at Koiapu. “Well, Koiapu, daughter of Paeia? Will you let a strange woman wed the God?”

There are things that must be done, Koiapu thinks, looking at him. So you do the things that must be done. But what if it doesn’t have to be done? What if there’s another way? It is a fine thing to be a wife of the God, to tickle and tease him, to keep his love with the tribe and not with the beasts that they hunt. But...it is a fine thing to tread the sands Beneath the Wall, to fish and look at the long-limbed boys. And as she thinks, she feels something crumble in her, something she was holding tight when there was only the thing that had to be done. There is another way.

She does not want to go beyond the wall.

Koiapu stands up, takes the flower garlands and pulls them over her head. “Let the sunlight woman take my place,” she says as formally as she can. “I’m only a sandpiper, Shaman. I dance by the sea. I could never please the God.”

Her mothers glance at each other, faces clouded, but say nothing. Her father stares at the Shaman. The Shaman stares at them all. And behind, the tribe is gathered, waiting to see what is decided.

“I do not like this, oh chieftain,” the Shaman whispers. “I do not like this at all. I fear what comes next. Please do not do this.”

“It’s done,” her father says slowly. He turns on his heel, the cloak sweeping behind him. “Tonight,” he calls out. “We will go out to the great canoe and steal the sunlight woman, and she will be a wife to the God. And he will keep her and she will keep him, and we’ll feel his favor in the hunts for years and years.”

Beside him, his warriors are already looking to their canoes.

***

And then there is the thunder of the drums, the fires flickering in the deep velvet night, the pound and stamp of feet beneath the wall. How they all dance beside the coals! They kick out their long legs, and Koiapu dances hardest of all, leaping and whirling alongside the boys, singing as the woman with the sunlight hair struggles against Mother Moani and Mother Kuinkan, the flower garlands in disarray against her weird white dress. She dances as the warriors carry the sunlight woman out the great gates as the hot, sick smell of the jungle floods in, their torches high to frighten off anything lurking on the other side.

And what she remembers most is this: The energy in her boiling, forcing her to jump higher, run faster, knowing what she had given up, wondering what she has given it up for. But she celebrates with all the rest as the warriors hurry back inside, shut the heavy, creaking gates, and stream up the cane and bamboo ladders toward the top of the wall. They all follow, crowding the stones, looking out over the deep, hungry darkness of the trees, where the silver moonlight laps the leaves like the surface of the sea.

Her father rings the gong, once, twice. The sound is almost loud enough to drown out the weeping of the woman below, pale and tiny and white down there in the dark. Don’t weep, Koiapu thinks. It’s a fine thing to be a wife of the God. Let him take you. Let him love you, and spread his love to us. Dance for him, sunlight woman. And when I dance I’ll think of you.

There is a commotion behind her, down in the village. A cracking sound, like branches splitting. Shouts in a strange tongue. But she cannot look back. There is something coming through the black jungle, huge, almost as huge as the wall. A great sloping back shoulders aside the great trees, the wood groaning a low, eerie lament. A choking animal odor rolls over them all. And then a roar that makes Koiapu’s bones shake, a roar that could tame butcherbirds and thunder-beasts and even old He Who Shakes The Trees, with his taloned legs and coiling tail. The roar of the God she was going to marry.

And in that moment she wonders, for a half-mad second, if she has made the right decision. If she should have gone against her father, stayed kneeling, spoken up for the Shaman, left the beach Beneath the Wall. Given herself to him. And in that half mad second she sees it—a trampled longhouse and cracked gates, killing smoke on the breeze, and all of them deserted and bereft, forsaken, for He has been taken away to die in a cold distant land, far from anyone who loves him. She sees it and she does not know what she sees, Koiapu, who might have been the bride.

But it is done. You can’t question what is done. So Koiapu stands atop the wall and watches. And the great god Kong plucks up the girl with sunlight hair and goes, vanishing back into the moonlight, a stream of the strangers in pursuit, and the heavy gates close behind them.  


 

I've long been a fan of the 1938 King Kong, and yet have always been troubled by the offhandedly racist treatment of the islanders. It seemed to me that there was another story to be told: one that looked at a people living in a dangerous place, with spiritual traditions and interior lives of their own, and assumed they acted out of rational motives. And more than anything, I was curious about what the girl due to be sent beyond the wall thought of her reprieve. This is a small attempt to find out.