The End of the World

Haruk spread his arms wide as his wives dressed him. They strapped on his ceremonial penis-gourd, the one decorated with parrot feathers. They draped him in heavy beads of turquoise, so many that his chest looked like a river.  They wiped white clay down his arms, white in welcoming and solidarity with their visitor. They tied the plaited grass skirt about his waist. And last, they set his teak sandals before him, so that he could step into the shoes of his forefathers.

The tribe amassed at the beach. Though Haruk was the only one allowed to speak with the visitor, everyone loved the spectacle. Children chased each other through the legs of their elders. Old men and women sat in the shade, fanning themselves with broad leaves. The story-weaver was ready with her bag of fibers and her beads of power. She had a red bead of courage in her hand and she turned it over and over in anticipation.

Haruk’s chief wife Shalay laid out the speaking mat. Like all other adult women, she had blue curled lines like tusks tattooed on her chin. She lowered her eyes demurely as her husband stepped onto the mat.

Far away, there was a silver flash as the visitor departed for the shore. A few of the men had seen it up close, once. A great silver canoe, one that could hold the whole village and still spare room. Haruk had known that any people who could make metal float on water were powerful people, and had met them in peace. His predecessors had not been so kind. Farud, his second cousin, had met the long ships with arrows. This brought a wave that swamped the village, ruining farmland as far inland as the burial grounds. Haruk himself had deposed him.

The speck born from the boat grew into a sickle-moon shape. This boat was plain wood, but a fascinating color. Haruk had been unable to glean how the colors did not wash off in the waves. Once a shy distance from the shore, the figure in the boat stood up and waved. The whole tribe waved back.

The white friend was a man like them. He had taken off the white skin once, far enough from shore that no harm would come to them. His skin was pink with heat, his hair fine and brown and his eyes an ugly green like the Perch they fished for. The skin kept bad spirits in, white friend explained, spirits that rode upon his back from his home.

“Wecome, Jess-up,” Haruk boomed as the white friend drew into the waves. The men caught the mooring rope he threw and dragged him up on the sand.

The white friend Jessup was not much taller than Haruk himself. The bulbous mouth of his mask made his words even harder to to understand.

“Greetings, Lord of the Mountain,” Jessup said in his clumsy, thick-tongued way. He had come a long way since the first meeting, even if he still chewed the people’s words like coconut pulp.

Haruk gave him a greeting gesture. Jessup repeated it clumsily. He had been so eager to learn from the very first that they excused his missteps, even when he tried following the women to the lagoon to watch them do woman things.

“How is Great Island,” Haruk said politely, “have you changed chiefs?”

Jessup squirmed a bit. The heat made the white skin uncomfortable. It squeaked when he moved.

“Not well,” he managed. “Chief. I must impart something of you.”

The chief dug his toes into the speaking mat. “Please speak, friend. Let us two make tragedy into fortune.”

Jessup struggled with his words. The skin was chafing at him, anyone could see. The tribe had not dispersed down the beach as they did in the past, they drew in closer.

“You know that I wear this skin to keep my spirits from…escaping you?” Jessup sneezed. Haruk immediately stuffed his soul back in his body.

Jessup paused, looking at hauk’s actions, then went on.

“There is a bad spirit,” he said, “huge bad. It sickens our people. It dangers our island. I come to tell you this may be our last visit.”

“Jess-up,” Haruk said sadly, “I know you. You do not wish evil on anyone. Please let our story-weaver cast protection on you so you may visit again?”

The story weaver stepped forward, albatross feather in her hand like a sword. Jessup waved her down.

“Not understand. Big bad spirit. We…greet other people. Small people like you. Before, on other island. No white skin, then. Other people die. All die. My people want to spare you that.”

Haruk took it all in. “I see you speak from the heart, Jess-up. We shall miss you.”

“I miss you.” Jessup was struggling, wavering on his feet. “I want to spare you red-spot curse. Terrible, terrible spirit.”

Haruk laughed out loud. “Oh, the red-spot sickness? Is that all?”

Jessup swayed. “You know this?” His words sounded congested.

“Oh yes. It struck in my father’s time. Very bad, many children die. But the ones that grew were stronger. It comes back once in awhile, but never kills. We are strong against it now.”

It was many words, complex words, that Haruk had to repeat a few times before Jessup understood.

Jessup stepped closer. “But this spirit bad. Blood comes in urine and tears. Flesh rots.”

“Yes, quite terrible, I know.” Haruk reached out to steady Jessup. “A terrible thing to behold. I myself caught it as a boy. But now you see me, fit and strong.” Haruk rapped his own chest with a thud.

Jessup sank to his knees. “Im-yoon,” he said, clawing at his mask. He repeated the word over and over. Im-yoon. Im-yoon. Haruk wondered if it was a protection word. Muttering his own secret protection word, he helped crack the faceplate of the mask.

Beneath it, Jessup had the look of a frightened boy. The red spots covered his face, some swollen boils that had burst. Red crust gathered at the corners of his eyes. He was more pitiful than ugly now.

Despite his ugliness, Haruk gathered him up.

“Do not be sad, Jess-up,” he told the white friend, “you will rest next to my father and his father before him. You will sleep like a warrior, and wake at the world’s end. I will even have Shalay put an extra travel stone in your bag.”

Jessup looked up mawkishly. “Already world-end for me.”

Haruk gave him a pat on the back and signaled to the men to pick him up. Jessup lasted until nightfall, when the last of his fluids ran out. They buried him in a plain straw mat, for he had no house-emblem to distinguish him. Haruk himself put a stone into Jessup’s bag.

The men set out to the great silver canoe, where it sat pinned by some unknown means to a single spot in the bay. The top of it was too high to climb, but they could see from a distance that the other Great Islanders were in the same state as Jessup, lying prone where they had fallen. Eventually a storm uprooted the ship, and they watched it drift away to the horizon. The white friend and his silver ships became a story Haruk told his grandchildren.


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