To Waitemata Harbour:
You have such
You hold the islands
on the tips of your
fingers, lightly so
you never submerge
them. Firmly enough that
they don’t float away.
If a person could hold
another person like that –
there would only be
– Sarah Quigley
Viliame asked the three of us, ‘would you like to take a ride on the bilibili?’
We said yes. We didn’t think too much about supplies, there was some debate about taking the camera. Viliame took enough mangos to keep us all fed.
We got on and pushed out, til we were some meters from shore. The ocean was still, peaceful in the quiet of the reef.
We three took turns replacing the key words of proverbs with the word mango:
‘a dime a mango’
‘you can’t teach an old mango new tricks’
‘plenty more mangos in the sea’
Viliame didn’t get our humor but he laughed anyway – a sturdy sort of laugh, quite different from our shallow giggling. We asked if he like the jokes. He said, ‘No. But I am happy to see you are happy.’
We just sat there on the bilibili raft passing the time, the four of us.
At some point, I heard a far off drumming, ‘what’s that sound Vili? Coming from the villiage?’
‘That is the lali. It is beating to tell the villagers that it is time to pray, time for lotu. Everyone will stop now, in the koro and pray. We are doing this for one month.’
One of us had the good sense to ask Vili if he would like for us to stop too and pray.
‘Vinaka, yes’ – Viliame thanked us and prayed in a low, deep Fijian drone.
We sat in Vili’s prayer, upon his village raft, mango strings stuck between our back teeth, ocean water friendly and warm around our bodies.
The lali began to beat again and it was time for back to work.
Viliame asked us, ‘where would you like to go – where can I take you on this bilibili?’
It felt like the wrong question.
How could we know, the three of us? So fresh to this village, so clearly of a different place. It wasn’t just our pale skins – the way we wore our sulu, the strange inflections that haunted our attempts in the vernacular, revealed us every time. We weren’t tourists – so few tourists came to the Ra province that we had found ourselves in – but we weren’t local either. We couldn’t suggest a path through this water, we didn’t know it.
Viliame, on the other hand, knew the whole situation intimately. He had lived here all his life, generations upon generations of his family had swum in and fished this body of water.
Yet he had asked, and it seemed impolite to turn his question back on him.
So we took the freedom to choose that he foolish gave us; I waved vaguely in the direction of the coast line, where I thought the water from the reef met with a stream winding back into the hills.
Viliame accepted this suggestion and began moving the raft towards the stream.
He took us up the stream, through the murkier waters, criss-crossed with mangrove. He navigated a tenuous path for the three of us.
Viliame pointed out some of the beauties of his stream – the flowers, the edible fish, the good places to bathe. We screamed in mistaken fear at all the wrong things – spiders that were friendly, fish that were gentle. And, quite symmetrically, we tried to touch, and eat, all that we should have avoided.
Viliame just laughed and gently stared us the safer way.
At some point Viliame told us it was time to go back to the koro, and he took us.
We arrived: red with sun burn, and overfeed on mangos. But otherwise at peace with ourselves and the world.