May 06, 2014
In this condensed excerpt (the last part of a long story called “I Don’t Kill People Anymore”) the leader Mesiamo talks about violence with Elliot, who has just had news of the My Lai massacre, and is upset. Elliot tells Mesiamo about it. Mesiamo’s been meaning to put a little fear into Elliot, because he’s not certain that Elliot isn’t connected with the miners up in the mountains. He wants Elliot to believe that if Elliot betrays the Nagovisi, Mesiamo will kill him – something Mesiamo has no intention of doing. He’s already told the reader, “These days, you can’t kill somebody just because it seems a good idea.” But as Mesiamo begins to understand more about My Lai, and why Elliot’s so upset, he sees a different strategy: to compare the American large-scale atrocity with Nagovisi small-scale killings. Mesiamo’s narrating. He likes to call Elliot “White Man.”
I said, “Because we’ve been talking about fighting and killing I’ll tell you about something that happened on the trail up beyond Lopali.”
White Man put off his sorry look. I’m sure it was because he thought he was about to learn something. We all know that having something new to learn makes him happy. When he reaches for his notebook and pencil, he’s as happy as a man reaching for his wife.
I said, “It was like this. When I was a boy, there was a fight between the mountain men and our people. Arrows and spears and knives were everywhere, White Man, and although I was only a boy I was in the middle of it. That fight was so big and confusing that although we killed five of the mountain men, we killed two of our own clan-mates by mistake.”
White Man said, “What caused this fight?”
I pushed his thigh and said, “Later. My elder brother Tanno cut through a garden and there was the mountain man Leau, running away. When Tanno chased him he threw away his spear, so Tanno threw away his spear.”
“To make it equal?” White Man asked.
I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. I said, “No, so he could run faster, and that’s why Tanno did the same.”
White Man made a noise.
I said, “Tanno caught Leau and held him. Lunta had an axe and he picked up Tanno’s spear and ran up to them. Tanno pushed Leau away” — I made a pushing motion with my hands — “and Lunta threw down the spear and hit Leau in the head with the axe, which knocked him down. Then Tanno picked up his spear and speared him. Nobody can survive an axe hit and a spearing, so Leau died there on the trail.”
I paused, and turned to look at him. “Then I ran up, meaning to take Leau’s head.”
“You!” White Man said, “A boy!”
I said, “Taking a head, yes, it’s called winato, we didn’t do it often, and yes, I was a boy. Our men gathered around Leau’s body. Some of them were shaking, some were laughing, some were weeping. Some did not favor taking the head, even when there was a death to be avenged,” and White Man interrupted me, “Your father’s?” and I said “Yes, but we’ll get to that later.”
I paused. “I didn’t take it. I should have, but I didn’t.”
White Man said nothing for a moment. Then he put down his notebook and took a deep breath and said, “Old One, about the head,” and he laughed the kind of laugh people laugh when they’re uncertain and said “Why didn’t you take it?”
I laughed. “I’ll tell you,” I said, making a motion with my hand, “It’s no secret. I stood there wanting to do it, but I had no knife. Everyone was looking at me and all I could think was I have no knife, even though I could have made a bamboo knife. I was paralyzed.”
White Man shook his head. “Bamboo knife,” he said, as if he’d never heard that word before.
I said, “Bamboo knife. I stood, unable to act, while Tanno was offering me a bamboo knife.” I paused. “I couldn’t take it.”
White Man shifted on his seat and said, “But why?” and I said, “Because I’d faltered. Because I lost my chance. If I’d shouted ‘Give me a knife!’ and someone had handed me one I would have immediately cut off Leau’s head. But that moment passed. When Tanno was holding the knife out to me it was as if he was allowing his little brother to do a man’s job.”
White Man said, “I see, yes,” and then he shook his head and said, “Old One, I can’t imagine cutting off a head with a bamboo knife.”
I said, “Cutting off a head isn’t difficult, even with a bamboo knife. It’s only slicing. You’re cutting through skin and muscle, although the windpipe is slippery and you have to pinch with your fingers” — I reached over and gently pinched his throat, and he flinched — “but at the end you do have to cut between the vertebrae.”
White Man nodded his head, and wrote in his notebook. I don’t know what he wrote but I’ll tell you I thought he was writing to calm himself.
He asked, “How many people died, then?”
I said, “Five of the mountain men, and four of us, even though two of our dead, we caused their deaths.”
White Man started tapping his fingers on my bench. I don’t know that he’d ever stopped moving some part of his body since I started about the head. He said, “So it wasn’t even?”
I said, “That’s it.”
He nodded his head.
I said, “Perhaps it was a good thing that we mistakenly killed two of our own, because that made the deaths even and we had no more trouble with the mountain men.”
I drew on my cigarette and blew smoke out my nose.
“Four against five,” he said, “you said it wasn’t even and then you said it was.”
“Later,” I said, although I did think he’d already worked it out. He should have, because that part was simple.
“Yes,” he said, “I’ll wait. Dead men on the trail, one with no head, even or not even, and I don’t know yet what caused the fight.” He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. He was seeming himself again.
I said, “White Man, yes. I told you it had to do with my father, but not in a simple way. It was like this. My older brother Andeko sickened and many of us believed it was from sorcery. We did something called pekupeku, which happens when there’s a death from sorcery. You have to kill someone.”
He said, “Anybody?”
“Yes, anybody,” I said, “My uncles Nawa and Kuiai believed the Lopali poisoned Andeko. They went to Lopali and the first person they saw was a woman named Madiawa, so they speared her.”
White Man started shaking his head again. “Speared her,” he said, “Yes.”
I said, “Speared her, and when Madiawa was screaming and coughing and dying her little daughter Wanga ran to her. Kuiai grabbed Wanga by her feet and bashed her head against an almond tree until she died. All this took only a moment. Kuiai and Nawa came back to Wapola, and that was the end of pekupeku.”
I paused, but he said nothing, so I continued. “With only one death to avenge they should have stopped with Madiawa, but we and the Lopali quickly agreed about compensation and the matter of Andeko’s death by sorcery was put to rest.”
White Man looked as though he was trying not to show his shock and unhappiness. I was sure he understood the reasoning, that one person was as good as another, but even so hearing about a child bashed to death against a tree was hard for him.
He spit and said, “The head-taking made sense to me and the idea of pekupeku makes sense to me, but a woman standing innocent in her village, suddenly speared doesn’t seem right to me. I have to say.”
All I said was, “According to pekupeku she wasn’t innocent,” and when he said nothing I said “I think you’re unhappy because of Wanga, the child.”
He made a face and said, “It’s true, because of the way Kuiai killed her,” and I said, “Why?” and he said, “As if she wasn’t important enough to waste a spear thrust on, and also because the child did nothing to anybody.”
I reached over and took his forearm gently and shook it. “She didn’t, but her people killed my brother with sorcery. I’ve already said that killing Madiawa should have been enough.”
He didn’t speak, so I said, “White Man, these things happened a long time ago, before the Japan War. It’s not the same as what your soldiers did,” and White Man said, “No?” and I said, “No, because everyone knew who killed Madiawa and Wanga, and there were only the two of them.”
White Man didn’t respond.
I said, “These were people we knew. Do you see? Kuiai smashed Wanga against the almond tree, and she was no stranger to him.”
White Man said nothing. He nodded his head. Indeed, what could he have said?
I continued. “From what you’re saying, White Man, your soldiers in Vietnam wanted to kill people, but they didn’t know who those people were and they killed as many as they could.”
He said, “It’s true, it’s true. I’m still not used to thinking about counting how many people you need to kill.”
“You aren’t,” I said, “and you never will be, because it isn’t your way.”
I was silent and so was he. I could hear him breathing. After a moment I said, “When you talk about this in America, don’t forget to say that nobody has been killed here since the end of the Japan War.”
He shook his head and slumped down again. He said, “I won’t.”
That night, when I was thinking about what happened, I felt sure that I’d put some fear into him. But more important, I made him wonder who was the fiercer and more bloodthirsty, his people or mine. Perhaps that gave him something to think about, that his people took no care to make killings even, and ours did. If he did something that caused his people to fall upon us, he knew they would not stop until they killed as many of us as they pleased.