The People in the Trees (Hanya Yanagihara)

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June was a month unlike any I had experienced, and at the end of each of its days I would go to bed early, if only so I could think for a few minutes about all that I had seen and felt. As it happened, I had skipped my graduation and departed for Hawaii two weeks before I was to meet Tallent. My last night in Cambridge (which even before I left was vanishing from my memory, as cleanly and swiftly as salt in hot water), Owen had come up from New Haven to see me. Our goodbyes had been unsatisfying—he was brusque and seemed obscurely angry with me—but he did agree to keep for me some things (books, papers, my winter coat, heavy as a corpse) that I wouldn’t need on my travels. We agreed to write to each other, but I could tell from his expression that he was as dubious about that ever happening as I was. It was only after we had shaken hands and he had left with a trunk packed with my things to catch the last train back that I thought about what my life would be like so far away from Owen; it was true that we spoke less and less as we grew older (a detachment that seemed as inevitable as it was mysterious), but he was the only one who knew me, who retained memories of me from each year of my life, because it had been half his life as well. But this regret too quickly dissipated, so eager was I to begin my new existence—it was easy then to believe that my life until this point had been only a long, tedious rehearsal, a thing to be impatiently endured and withstood: a simulacrum of a life, not a life itself.

I had a train ticket to California, and from there I took a ship to Hawaii. In those days, Honolulu was still very much a quiet colonial outpost, with all the attendant flourishes and clichés, and as the boat pulled into harbor, you could see on the dock groups of fat, jolly musicians plucking their plinky songs on their ukuleles, and barefooted boys, half Asian and half something else, smiling and begging for the disembarking passengers to throw them pennies.

It had been arranged that I would stay in a dormitory room at the local university, but because I had arrived earlier than anticipated, the building was fully occupied, and no bed was available until the next evening. And so that first night, after storing my luggage at the dormitory, I took a taxi to the edge of Waikiki, where I walked to Diamond Head on the sand, one beach giving way to the next. Beyond me I could sometimes hear the sounds of bars: groups of men laughing at something, the chingy-changy music. I stood periodically and listened to the dry palm fronds chattering against one another like bones, and to the ocean, its remorseless, lonely conversation with itself, a sound that—though I did not know it at the time—I would not hear again for months to come. I walked with the moon above me, which here seemed to glow whiter and rounder and brighter than it had in Boston, and when I grew tired, I lay under a tree and slept, as I had seen other shadowy forms doing as I made my slow way across the sand.

The next day I ventured to the city’s downtown district, past its pretty colonial buildings. The grandest thing I saw, though, was not a structure, not even the humble, squat palace once occupied by the humble, squat queen, but instead the trees outside it: ancient shower trees, their leaves peachy petals that swirled about them in snowy, gentle cyclones. In Chinatown, I walked around the frayed shapes of sleeping men, the soles of their feet black and crisscrossed with channels and cuts, until I found a bar with an open door. It was not a good place, this Chinatown, with its sad saloon-shuttered buildings out of whose dark interiors poor jazz seeped like poison. But the sun was hotter than I had anticipated, and I was very thirsty.

The bartender was so flat-faced it appeared as if someone had held each of his ears and pulled in either direction, and so sun-darkened that his skin had become glossed and smooth, like a chicken that has been broiled in butter for too long. He was Chinese, I guessed, or at least some sort of Oriental, for his eyes were hooded and narrow, although his black hair was wavy and coarse. I ordered a glass of seltzer, and he watched as I gulped it down. “Where you from?” he asked finally.

“Boston,” I said. I noticed he was missing his left thumb, although he was able to move the stump back and forth, which he did rather expressively, like a dog would its bobbed tail.

He was unimpressed by this information, but there was no one else in the bar for him to speak with, and when I finished my glass, he refilled it without my asking. “How long you here?” he asked.

“Not long,” I said. Now that I had had something to drink, I was able to concentrate on the room, which was low-ceilinged and dark and lacquered, the wooden counter sticky from years of smoke and spilled liquor and cooking grease. “I’m on my way to U’ivu.”

To my surprise, he nodded when I mentioned U’ivu, and when I asked him what he knew, he laughed and said, “Good hunters. Boars.” He refilled my glass again. “Scary.” It was unclear whether he meant the people or the boars. Then, almost gently, “They are very violent there.” I waited for him to say more, but he had begun to hum a meandering, wistful tune, strangely moving in the ugliness of the bar, and when it became clear that he would say no more, I finished my drink and paid and walked back out into the sunshine.

I passed a few more days like this, taking taxis to various beaches on the island, marveling at how they first appeared to be uniformly, indistinguishably lovely but eventually revealed themselves particular and distinct: one had sand so fine that even after beating out my shirt and pants, I still found myself dusting it from my clothes and shaking it from my hair the next day; another was booby-trapped with tiny, unseen pinecones dropped by the fringe of gawky, shaggy ironwood trees that edged the beachfront, so that each step contained a small, unavoidable pain; another had sand the color and texture of wet, raw sugar, making it sludgy and sticky to the touch. One afternoon I went to the library downtown, where the librarian helped me find an old, cloth-covered book on U’ivu. It turned out to be a picture book, a Hawaiian-language primer published by the Honolulu Missionary Academy in 1871, each page containing a simple woodcut and a few lines of text. Because it was in Hawaiian, I could not read it, but the pictures—a boar, its eyes beady and black, its tusks as extravagantly curled as an old-fashioned handlebar mustache; the king, smiling and fat and shirtless, clutching what looked like a long feather duster; a knobby torpedo I took to be a sweet potato—made it seem once again more, not less, fantastic, a place that indeed existed only in children’s stories.

And then finally it was the day I was to meet Tallent. He had sent a telegram to the hall where I was staying at the university, informing me of his arrival time and suggesting that we meet in the lounge area at six p.m.; we would leave the next morning at eight. The flight to the Gilbert Islands would take nine hours, followed by another three-hour-long transfer to U’ivu.

I was nervous before meeting Tallent, uncomfortably so; I was not usually anxious about meeting people, and after all, I had been requested, I was a doctor, I was (I told myself) essential to his operation. Yet this was a false sort of confidence, because as I was aware but unable to admit, it was Tallent who had allowed me to even dream of this adventure, and without him I would be back in Boston, jobless, grounded, scrabbling for a second-rate internship at a third-rate hospital. Shortly before six I got dressed (I had even brought a suit, one of the first things I would later discard) and went down to the lounge, which had cool cement floors and two orange-cushioned bamboo sofas separated by a dirty woven-palm mat.

There was already someone sitting there, bent over a book, and as I walked toward him, he looked up.

There is really no satisfying or new way to describe beauty, and besides, I find it embarrassing to do so. So I will say only that he was beautiful, and that I found myself suddenly shy, unsure even of how to address him—Paul? Tallent? Professor Tallent? (Surely not!) Beautiful people make even those of us who proudly consider ourselves unmoved by another’s appearance dumb with admiration and fear and delight, and struck by the profound, enervating awareness of how inadequate we are, how nothing, not intelligence or education or money, can usurp or overpower or deny beauty. As the months I spent in Tallent’s presence dragged by, I would alternately be tortured by and find solace in his beauty, and would find myself by turns surrendering to it, enjoying my proximity to it, and, less happily, trying to argue against it, as fruitless and pointless an activity as trying to convince yourself that sugar is sour.

“I’m Paul Tallent,” said Tallent, unnecessarily, as I gaped at him. I mumbled a hello. We shook hands. “So you landed all right, I see.” I made a grunting noise. We were standing at the edge of the filthy mat, Tallent an inch or two taller than I. I stared at my shoes. “You’re ready to go, then,” he continued. I nodded. “Well, I’m very happy to have you on this mission,” he said. He had a particular way of talking, I noticed—there were no question marks in his sentences, no exclamation points, and yet his voice was not toneless but rather shaded and rich and somehow substantial, something that conjured a dense forest of variegated trees, all lush and stately and grand. It was a voice that betrayed nothing—not approval, not happiness, not fear or anger—but that might make you crazy with its promise of mysteries. I wanted to hear him speak some more, but I was also afraid to ask him anything, was suddenly unable to say anything at all. “Well,” said Tallent at last, no doubt worried by my monosyllabism, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

At that moment I realized what I could have said to him—“Would you like to have some dinner?”—but he had already walked away, of course, and I was left standing there on my own.


I was able to study Tallent more closely on our flight.[21] The plane was a military vessel, so hugely bulky and bloated in its hangar that landed and Tallent stirred, I was exhausted and exhilarated, abrim with a sweet, private sadness. “Next stop, U’ivu,” said Tallent as we disembarked, and I thought he sounded happy; I was happy too.

From the Gilberts we were flown above U’ivu in a buzzing gnat of a plane, its loudly whisking propellers so vigorous that the trees, stalky clumps of date palms, blew backward as we descended. The plane dipped around a bend, over and along a long, curved stretch of mountain range, and for a second, suspended over the frayed, tender line where the ocean met the land, I looked toward the horizon and found myself unable to determine where the sky ended and the water began: it was all a dazzling, indistinct wash of blue, an audacious blue with no name, so insistent and unvaried I had to close my eyes.

U’ivu, as I have mentioned, is a group of three islands, but only two were officially inhabited. The first was U’ivu, the main island, baguette-shaped, about twenty miles long and half as wide, split lengthwise by a single, unbroken mountain range called Ta’imana. This was where the king lived, as well as the majority of the country’s 35,000-odd occupants. Sixty miles to U’ivu’s east was the second island, Iva’a’aka, the same approximate shape and size but whose entire northern side was made inviolable by a wall of cliffs; even from the sky I could see how the waves slapped against them into fat white plumes, like handfuls of feathers being tossed into the air, and see the haloes of broad-winged birds that circled their sharp lava-rock peaks. But the rest of Iva’a’aka was low green hills, and so it was here that the country did most of its large-scale farming: we flew over acres of neatly stepped fields, the soil freckled with barely distinguishable dots of green and gold.

“Taro,” said Tallent, pointing at one and then, at another, “Sweet potato.”

“How can you tell from here?” I asked him. The fields with their rows of vegetation looked the same to me.

He shrugged. “I can,” he said, and I felt somehow ashamed of myself for having asked.

We passed over some huts, simple structures with what I could tell even from the air were palm-leaf roofs, and an occasional wooden house, but most of Iva’a’aka’s farmers were seasonal, and the island had few full-time residents. Only the plantations’ overseers—for all of these farms were owned by the king, and their produce was given to the government, which then distributed it to the U’ivuan citizens—lived here year-round, Tallent explained; the pickers and growers and gardeners worked on Iva’a’aka only for three-month shifts before returning by boat to their homes and families on the main island. The plane sank in the sky, and as I looked down again, I saw a blur of deep brown streak through one of the fields. “Boars,” said Tallent, and I turned in my seat to look back and stare at them. There they were, the famous U’ivuan boars, and even from a distance one could tell they were monstrously large. There must have been a hundred of them in the pack, and I could see the dirt spraying up around them, an echo of the water breaking against the island’s cliffs.

“And that is Ivu’ivu,” Tallent shouted to me, and I followed where he was pointing. The angle was not ideal—I saw a slant of black mountain, its façade brushed with vegetation—and I crouched in my seat to try to get a closer look at the place where I would be spending the next few months of my life, at the Forbidden Island that would now be our home.

But then the plane turned again and descended once more, and we were above U’ivu. “This is the south side of the island,” Tallent called over the noise of the propellers. “We’ll land here.” And so we did, bumpily, juddering over what I would later see were small hillocks of grass and soil; the runway was no runway at all, just a long stretch of plain earth—that was how few planes landed here.

As we were lifting our bags out of the plane, I saw a short, round figure walking toward us, and when it was about a hundred yards away, it hollered “Paul!” and I realized it was a woman.

“Esme!” Tallent called back, and I was upset and unnerved to see him smile, to see his face fall momentarily into happiness.

The woman came closer and the two all but flung themselves into each other’s arms. Then there was a quick exchange in a language I couldn’t understand but that sounded like pops of gunfire, followed by the two of them laughing, the first time I had heard Tallent laugh.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Norton,” Tallent apologized (it seemed that he would call me Norton and I would call him Tallent, though neither of us had formally established this). “Esme Duff, this is our doctor, Norton Perina. Norton, this is Esme Duff, my research associate.”

“Oh,” said Esme, “Norton. Welcome! Welcome to U’ivu. Have you ever been to the Pacific?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, you’re in for a big surprise! Many big surprises, actually,” she said, laughing.

“I’m sure,” I said.

“Esme is the real U’ivu expert,” said Tallent, while Esme smiled and preened. “She speaks the language much better than I do[22] and has arranged all our guides, everything. She’ll be indispensable to you.”

“I’m sure,” I repeated. And in that moment I promised myself two things: first, that I would hate Esme Duff, and second, that within a few months it would be I, not Esme, whom Tallent would consider the expert.


I was very kind to allow myself such a generous timeline to usurp Esme in usefulness and knowledge, for the next few days were bewildering and dizzying. For one thing, it was soon revealed that there were no cars on U’ivu: from the field where we had landed (which, Esme informed me, had been kindly lent for our use by the king, who sometimes used it to practice boar hunting—a dozen boars would be rounded up and released, and the king would charge around on horseback, hurling spears at their ridged, humpy spines) we hoisted our bags onto horses, which had also been lent by the king and which had been tethered to palm trees at the far edge of the field. Even the horses—which were about a half foot shorter than the horses I knew, stumpy-legged and broad-shouldered, more like ponies—were unfamiliar.

As we made the half-hour ride toward town, I learned of all the things U’ivu did not have. There were no roads, for one—trails, yes, with patches of grass and struggling flowers tamped down by horses’ hooves—nor was there a hotel, or university, or grocery store, or hospital. There were, dismayingly, churches, quite a few of them, their white wooden spires the only thing taller than the palms, which cast stripes of black shadow against the dirt but offered no comfort from the sun, which washed the sky a hard, glaring white. I asked Tallent—who was managing to look graceful on his small horse—if there were many missionaries on the island, but it was Esme who answered, telling me that although a hundred or so had made their way to U’ivu in the early 1800s, most of them had died in a terrible tsunami that had destroyed the northern half of the island in 1873. The rest returned home soon after, and U’ivu was once again left to the U’ivuans, the way it had been for the thousands of years prior to the missionaries’ arrival.

“The U’ivuans won’t build their homes on the northern side by the sea—they consider it bad luck,” she said. “But the missionaries wanted those views, and they paid the price.”

I said I was surprised by the number of churches—I had counted four in about twenty minutes—which also seemed to suggest a high conversion rate. But this time it was Tallent who answered. “They weren’t as successful as it appears,” he said. “The U’ivuans enjoyed the novelty of the churches, and when the first one—St. Jude’s, just beyond that crooked frangipani tree—was built, a great many of them came, including the king at the time, the current king’s grandfather. They thought it was funny, I think. So the missionaries took this as a sign that they were ripe for conversion and built more. There are five—right, Esme?—on this side of the island, and there were an additional three on the north side, but the tsunami destroyed those.”

“Did the U’ivuans help in the construction?” I asked.

“No. The missionaries had to do everything themselves. The king gave them the land and the wood—if you look at them, you’ll realize it’s all palm wood, a difficult and impractical material to build with, and the construction is poor—but he refused to let them employ any of his people. They were lucky to get even that.”

“No one tells an U’ivuan what to do,” Esme called out from the head of the line. “We know that well by now.” She laughed, sounding smug.

“No one tells the king what to do,” Tallent clarified. “Every privilege we have here—the mission we’ll undertake, the guides we’ll have—is with the king’s permission. He is involved in everything that goes on here, and nothing can be done without his blessing.”

But we would not meet the king this time, he said. A daughter was getting married, and His Highness was too busy with the preparations to see us. I would have liked to meet the king, to see his wooden palace, but I was happy for one thing, at least—Esme hadn’t met the king either, and so was unable to inform me of all that I was missing: a mansion with dark floors that gleamed with oil, a bevy of silent wives seated on palm mats like a clutch of nesting doves, the king with his fierce, knowing smile.


My first night in U’ivu was spent in an arid, stifling hut whose ceiling was made of dried palm fronds plaited together so snugly that although I heard the rain clattering on a sheet of stray aluminum outside (what its eventual use might be, I had no idea), the only moisture inside came from my own sweat, which was intense and seemed to worsen as the sultry night crept by. I was on my own—it was unclear to me (and I did not wish to discover) whether Esme and Tallent were sharing a hut or slept separately—and all night my mind buzzed, and I worried and was unable to close my eyes without seeing the herringbone pattern of the ceiling floating behind my lids.

The next morning, the three of us hauled our supplies to a small launch with a diesel engine unconvincingly appended to the rear. A man, our captain, his skin a burnished walnut (although I think his shine was due not to superior health but to perspiration, a layer of which seemed to slick everything he touched), watched us climb in and then started the engine with a sharp tug and nosed the boat toward Ivu’ivu.

Had I known how long it would be until I would once again see the relative sophistication of U’ivu, I might have turned around and watched the land as I was dragged from it, but at the time I was too busy staring at Ivu’ivu, which seemed, curiously, not to draw any closer even as the water pleated away from beneath us. It was a dreary day, I remember, and the sea appeared as a flat disk of tin, storm-colored and dull. Above, the sky was the same sullen gray, and the spray on my tongue tasted of metal as well. I stared into the sea and once saw, or thought I saw, some swift shadows shimmering underneath the surface, but when I looked back down after having called Tallent’s attention to them, they were gone.

Slowly, excruciatingly, the island came into view. We had approached it from its backside, which faced U’ivu’s south and which made it appear as inhospitable in its physical reality as it was in my imaginings. This was the part we had seen from the air in our descent: a vast, sheer cliffside of, I was told, almost six thousand feet, rising assertively from the waters beneath it, which collected at its base in a thick, beery foam. It was so covered with layers of greenery—trees tiered upon layers of grasses, and mosses, and snaky snarls of succulents, all of them colored those improbable parroty shades of green you encounter only in jungles—that it was only when we drew closer that I could see the stone underneath, which was slate-black in some parts and the pale gray of wet newsprint in others and was revealed only in small gaps. If you looked directly up at the sun, it was possible to see, blurred against the white sky, a feathery skyline of trees at the island’s peak. As the boat turned and headed eastward into the sun, the island sloped steeply downward and began to appear as a massive wedge of cake that had been tipped to its side. But perhaps in compensation for the physical dimensions of the land, which became more pregnable the farther down its length we traveled, the plant life grew wilder and denser, so that the forest pushed all the way to the very edge of its earth, and the water surrounding it was covered with a busily kaleidoscopic skin of its leavings—wind-tattered hibiscus flowers and sunburned mango leaves, hard little nuts of unripe guavas and scraps of ferns—so thick that you felt for a minute frightened of the jungle, its voracious appetite and ambition, its hunger to consume every surface it encountered.

A half hour later we had reached the far side of the island, and here, although there was no beach, land and water met on equal level. Our captain, who had not spoken a word to us throughout the journey, dropped a homemade anchor, a lidded tin pail full of jangling nails, about twenty feet from shore. The water was the complex green-of-many-colors of a dirty tourmaline, but so clear that I could see clouds of glassy minnows darting under the boat, casting pale smears of shadow onto the ocean’s sandy floor. We could not pull closer to shore, not only because there was no shore to be had but because of a series of large boulders, their faces smooth and impassive, that punctuated the waters. As I waded toward the island, my supplies strapped to my back, I passed one that was pitted with small shallow pockets, each of which cupped a glossy, bristling black sea urchin. The last yard or so before land was fiercely pebbled with stones, the water’s surface scummy with handfuls of vivid red seaweed, as if it were the ocean’s last attempt to assert itself before the might and force of the jungle, which was here tauntingly dripping long tails of a peculiar, thick, three-sided cactus over the feeble waves.

There was a shivering in the bushes before us—rather as if in some castaway movie—and then, emerging from the thick of the forest (again, as if in a movie), three men, all U’ivuans. All of them were dressed in that inimitable blend of modern and native—a man’s undershirt worn with what looked like a beaten-bark fabric sarong; a pair of drooping, sacklike pants worn by a man whose nose was, I was excited to see, actually punctured with a thin, reedlike bone; a limp cotton shirt atop nothing at all but a curious penis guard made of loops and loops of woven dried vines—that is particular to places whose relationship with civilization is a new or evolving one: I would see it in the Brazilian jungle, and later in Papua New Guinea, and again in Nagaland. After the boat captain, they were the second, third, and fourth U’ivuans I had met, and after all the stories of their ferocity, I was surprised by their size—the tallest came just to my shoulder—and by the flat ugliness of their faces, the way their noses sprawled sloppily across their cheeks, the way their skin shone like an old grease stain, the way their lower jaws seemed to punch forward from the rest of their features. They were neither fat nor thin, although their legs were corded with stringy muscle and their thighs were enormous, the thighs of people who had spent their lives climbing up and down steep mountainsides.[23]

The tallest of the three, the one wearing the cotton shirt, approached Tallent, and the two of them rubbed their noses against one another, hard, before beginning a low, staccato conversation in U’ivuan. The other two men stood staring at us fixedly—Esme, who’d been the last to struggle through the silty muck of sand, now stood a few feet from me, flapping a loafy hand at her face in a weak effort to cool herself—and although they did not appear to be hostile, something about the stillness of their attention made me not want to let my eyes stray from theirs, and I found myself staring back, dizzy in the heat, while little gnats busily orbited my head like planets.

We each had our own guide. Tallent’s was the tall one, Fa’a, and Esme’s the one in the sarong: his name was Tu. Mine was Uva, the man with the bone in the nose, and as he passed before me to hoist my rucksack onto his back, I caught a glimpse of what looked like carving on one end of it. My knapsack was very heavy, but when I reached out to help Uva adjust it on his back—his skin was as textured as rhinoceros hide—he sidestepped me slightly and rocked his shoulders until the bag centered itself between his blades before turning and following the others, who had disappeared between two large trees so thickly pelted with moss that it was impossible to see the bark beneath. He, like his fellow porters, had only a small soft cloth bundle of his own, about the size of a pillow, slung by a fragile rope across his chest.

We walked. There was no path, and so Fa’a, leading the way, pushed back saplings and bushes and leaves the size of frying pans, each of us catching and pushing them behind us in turn as we passed. I was unnerved at how quickly the jungle had swallowed us, at how insignificant our presence was within it; fifteen minutes or so into our journey, I turned around to look at how far we’d come, only to see that our path had already been obscured by armies of trees. Above and around us, the air was vivid with conversation—honks and clucks and shrieks and chirrups—and even after only a half hour, the sky had been all but blotted out by the treetops, the blobby swatches of blue growing tinier and more infrequent with each step. Uva and the other guides were barefoot, the bottoms of their feet crusted and puffy, but Tallent, Esme, and I wore heavy-soled boots, and with every footfall I could hear unseen creatures skitter on the ground beneath us. The trees’ roots had braided themselves into a slippery latticework, and I had to concentrate on the floor below lest I tripped and fell; in my peripheral vision, all was richly dark green, and so close I felt as if I were walking through a narrowing, furred tunnel, an illusion enhanced by the sunlight, which became ever more inconsistent, dribbling through the dense treetops in trickles.

Our route, which had been uphill, grew suddenly steeper, and the air at once cooler and moister—so thick was the vegetation that there was no breeze, which only made the trees and bushes around me seem more unreal, more like statuary, although all around us was their smell, a complicated and insistent perfume of loam and rot and sugar that made the back of my throat ache—and still we did not stop. Above me, Esme swayed, and Tu grabbed her arm, swiftly and gently, and although she nodded and kept walking, when I passed her I felt and heard her breath, as hot and loud as a horse’s after a long race. I was carrying nothing except for a small rucksack, but the air had begun to feel as substantive and thick as soup (I thought, ridiculously, of chowder, its pearly buttermilk sheen, its surface a wrinkled skin), and when Tallent announced, after we’d reached a shallow plateau at the top of a particularly steep passage, that we’d stop for the day, I wanted to cry with relief.

We dropped to the ground, the three of us, while Fa’a—after speaking with Tallent, who listened and then nodded—and the other two guides veered right off what I had come to think of as our path (although there was no path) and vanished into the forest. I drank the water in my canteen, which had become as warm as the air around me and therefore left me parched; Esme lay down and rested her head against her bag and closed her eyes. Around me the jungle hummed, a low, ceaseless buzz, as if the entire island were some sort of mysterious appliance plugged into an enormous yet invisible energy source.

I must have slept. When I woke, I couldn’t tell how late it was—if such a thing mattered here—although the gloom did seem deeper, more urgently alive. Mats of woven palm had been laid out about three yards from each other, and our bags placed near them; between the first two, Esme and Tallent sat, talking quietly.

“Good evening,” said Tallent, looking up as I walked over. “Have some dinner.”

He, unlike Esme and I, had carried two bags, and from the larger he drew a packet of crackers. On the ground, lying bright and disconcerting against the moss, was a can of Spam, its tin lid peeled back like a bedsheet and the meat beneath a slimy, nauseous, feminine pink.

“I’m not hungry,” I told him.

“You should eat,” he said. “You’re hungrier than you know, and tomorrow’s another long day. Besides, we should eat these crackers before they get too soggy—nothing stays crisp in this humidity.”

“By the time I left U’ivu the last time, I was longing for crackers,” Esme said, but her voice had lost its triumphant smugness. She seemed not yet to have recovered from the day’s exertion; her face was still an unattractive, splotchy red that made it look stubbled.

So I accepted the crackers, which were floury and mild, and spread some cold meat on them. As I handed the empty plastic wrapper back to Tallent, who shoved it into an outside pocket of his bag, I listened to its lively crackle, which made me think of burning wood. “Shouldn’t there be a campfire in cases like this?” I asked them. I even smiled at Esme, who was too busy hacking off pieces from the brick of Spam to notice.

In answer, Tallent took up a nearby branch and held it to the tip of the flame from his lighter. But the fire almost immediately fizzled, leaving behind a sulky curl of weak smoke. “Oh,” was all I could say. Of course. The wood here was too wet.

“Don’t worry,” said Tallent. “Once we reach higher ground, Fa’a tells me, the forest will clear and everything will be much drier.”

I walked a couple of minutes into the forest behind us, in the direction Tallent had pointed, where I found a thin stream, silvery as a snail’s slime, creeping over the surfaces of a series of notched gray boulders. I relieved myself against a tree that disappeared, branchless and almost comically erect, into the canopy above us, and washed my face in and drank from the water, which was cool and tasted faintly salty, oceanic, as if it had been mixed with fistfuls of ground-up seashells. When I returned, Esme was asleep on her mat, another mat pulled over her, her boots lined up at her feet. Tallent, though, remained where I’d left him, his knees pressed against his chest, his head and neck pitched forward a bit, staring into the forest at something I couldn’t see.

“How was it today?” he asked as I sat down.

“Fine,” I said.

“I realize,” he began, and then stopped, looking down at his hands. “I realize I haven’t told you very much about what I’m—we’re—doing here. You were very good to have come. Or very crazy. Or desperate.”

I laughed, but he didn’t.

“The truth is, I don’t know, really, what we’ll find,” he continued. Another long silence, which I would come to know meant that he was thinking carefully about what he would say—not because he was afraid that I’d misinterpret him, but because he was the sort of person who never spoke unless he was certain; he was not interested in speculation or theoreticals; he never said anything unless he knew it to be true. Which is not to say he was incurious, or arrogant, or sloppy, or that he never doubted, or rethought things dozens, hundreds of times—nothing of the sort. But he did his wondering, his imagining, in silence; to engage someone in his uncertainties was, I think he felt, presumptuous, and perhaps even rude.

And yet he was uncertain; he didn’t know what he’d find. He was not a man who operated on hunches and intuitions, and yet this time he had—he had guessed at what he might find, and he had asked me to follow him based on that guess.

This did not offend or alarm me. Science itself is guesses: lucky guesses, intuitive guesses, researched guesses. I had worked for people who were certain, and it had felt disquieting, and dangerous. And so I had been happy to come here (well, perhaps not happy, but certainly not worried; although Tallent had not been completely incorrect—I had been desperate as well) not knowing the full story. I suppose this sounds foolish now, unrealistic, but when you are young, planning seems less important, less essential, than it becomes when you have things to protect: money, research, a reputation.

And so I settled back to wait.


It took some time for him to begin.

“As a doctor,” Tallent said, “what do you want the most? You want to cure diseases—you want to eradicate illnesses, you want to prolong life.” (Actually, I had no interest in any of those, at least not in the way I believe Tallent meant it. But I did not contradict him.) “But what I want—and this will sound childish, but it is ultimately why we are here, and it is an interest many of my colleagues share, even if they are too grand to admit it—is to find another society, another people, one not known to civilization, and, I should say, one that does not know civilization.”

After this came a long disquisition about the discipline of anthropology and its various practitioners and heroes and miscreants and theories, which I mostly ignored, but which I listened to enough to learn that Tallent considered himself—though he did not use the word—something of a maverick, someone who would reshape the field entirely.

But then he said something that would intrigue me for those many months we were on the island together, and to which I would never find definitive answers. “I know what it’s like to be studied,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be reduced to a thing, a series of behaviors and beliefs, for someone to find the exotic, the ritual, in every mundane action of mine, to see—” And then he stopped, so abruptly that I knew he had just revealed something he had not intended to, and that he, who was not an incautious man, was wondering why he had done so, and regretting it as well.

“What do you mean?” I asked, and I kept my voice as gentle as possible, so as not to startle him, so as to lull him into continuing.

But of course he was not a pet or a child, and it would take more persuasion or cleverness than merely a quiet voice to overcome his better instincts. “Nothing,” he said, and fell silent, and I was at once aware of the loud, buggy air, and that I had been holding my breath.[24]


It was Tallent who spoke next. “I want to tell you a story,” he said, and then paused.

I would grow accustomed to this as well, his way of beginning and then stopping, of great, paragraphs-long speeches that would end, abruptly, in silence, sometimes for minutes, occasionally for hours. But this time his silence was brief, and when he spoke again his voice was strong, and the story that emerged was delivered less as a speech and more as a recitation, as if he were a wandering storyteller whom I had encountered in a dark piney medieval forest, not a humid jungle, and I had given him a coin and a slab of black bread to bewitch me, for a moment to transport me from this world.

“Many years ago, many, many years, before the age of man, there was a great stone, a god, named Ivu’ivu, who ruled alone over a vast kingdom of water. He was very powerful, this god, and his dominion contained everything below the surface of the sea—his was a kingdom of tail-whipping, tooth-bared sharks and gigantic, blind-eyed whales and fleets of fish and fields of swaying sea grasses that brushed against his base like nymphs’ hair.

“But Ivu’ivu was lonely. All around him he saw couplings, beasts that joined and bred and glided by him, trailed by their offspring. Even the loneliest, the most solitary of his subjects—the hermit crabs with their whorled, spotted shells and the creeping, prickly starfish—were surrounded by children. Being a god, Ivu’ivu was not worried about mortality, but he thought he would like someone to be with, with whom he could discuss the burdens and difficulties of being a god and a king, with whom he might give birth to his own race of children. But for this he would need another god, his equal.

“Ivu’ivu had a dear friend, a turtle named Opa’ivu’eke, who was almost as old as Ivu’ivu himself and who, because he could live both below and above water, had traveled far and wide and had many marvelous tales about places Ivu’ivu had never been. He regaled his friend with stories of the air and the land, where there were as many creatures as were underwater but who flew instead of swam—Ivu’ivu had to ask the turtle to explain flight to him many, many times before he was able even to begin understanding what it was—or who walked, or ran, or crept on two or four or a dozen legs.

“One day Opa’ivu’eke was telling Ivu’ivu about his latest journeys, and the god could not help but sigh. ‘What is wrong, my friend?’ asked Opa’ivu’eke.

“ ‘Ah, friend,’ replied Ivu’ivu, ‘I am lonely. All around me I see happiness, companionship. I too would like a companion, some children. But I need another god, and there can be only one ruler of this world.’

“The turtle was silent for a long time. Then he bade his friend goodbye and swam away.

“Some time later the turtle returned, again with wondrous news, but this time even more wondrous than the god could have hoped. On his most recent trip above water, Opa’ivu’eke had talked to another friend, A’aka, the god of the sun, and explained to him Ivu’ivu’s desire. A’aka, it emerged, would like to meet this powerful god of the water about whom he had heard so much. And so a romance began between the god of the water and the god of the sun, with the turtle their messenger. It was he who ferried comments and compliments and questions and chants, spiraling into the cold black depths of the water to deliver A’aka’s words to Ivu’ivu and then, his flippers fanning through the currents—which Ivu’ivu calmed to make his friend’s journey easier—up to the surface, where A’aka would pause in his course in the middle of each day to listen to the news from a world he could never visit.

“Within time, three children were born: the first a boy, named Ivu’ivu, after the god of the sea; the second a girl, named Iva’a’aka—the Daughter of Stone and Sun; and the third a boy, U’ivu, whose name means simply Of Stone. Half of all three children lived below water, like Ivu’ivu, and half of them lived above it, like A’aka. They floated in and were cooled by the watery kingdom of one father and warmed and nourished by the heat of the other. Always they were sustained by their parents’ love and devotion. And so when they too grew up and became lonely, they turned to A’aka, who blessed them with their own children: mankind. And as long as the humans were kind to their parents, A’aka made sure that their crops would always grow, and Ivu’ivu promised that the sea would always be full of fish and that they would always be able to sail his waters, because men, after all, were his descendants as well and therefore his to cherish and protect.

“As for Opa’ivu’eke, he lived a long, long life, long enough to see his friends’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren grow and prosper, long enough to give birth to his own children, who bore his name—Stone-backed Animal—and who on land preferred to live atop and in water around the turtle’s favorite child, his godchild, Ivu’ivu. Opa’ivu’eke was not a god, of course, but he was, and is, always honored not only by his two friends but by all his friends’ descendants—for his devotion and selflessness, of course, but also for his noble duties as a messenger. This is why, when a man is lucky enough to find an opa’ivu’eke, he must make a sacrifice to the gods and also eat some of its flesh himself. To do so is to send a message to the gods, a prayer for the one thing that A’aka withheld—with Ivu’ivu’s approval—from his grandchildren: immortality. And maybe one day the gods might answer them.”


Tallent stopped talking and we both sat for a moment without speaking. I am sitting on the child of a god, I thought. Two gods. It was preposterous, and yet I felt, despite myself, a tremor ripple through me.

“That is the first story a young U’ivuan learns,” said Tallent quietly. “It is almost as old as these people are—thousands of years old, and it has never changed. They have no written language—or at least they didn’t until the missionaries—but everyone knows it. This symbol”—he traced a circle on the ground with a stick, and through it a straight vertical line—“means turtle, and you find it on ceremonial stones and dishes from hundreds of years ago, from people who have made an offering of one of Opa’ivu’eke’s children to Ivu’ivu and A’aka, hoping that they will be the one who will be granted the exception, who will finally be allowed to live as a god.”

He was silent again.

“But there is another story now, one that is not old at all, one that has in fact emerged only in the past century or so. For many years the grandchildren of Ivu’ivu and A’aka made their grandparents and parents proud, and why not? The humans were brave and resourceful. They were excellent hunters, superior fishermen. They protected their parents against all invaders and properly respected both of their grandfathers. And although years, more than anyone could recall, had passed without anyone finding one of Opa’ivu’eke’s children to sacrifice, neither god seemed to be offended, and all passed in harmony.

“But then, slowly, so slowly that no one noticed for many years, things began to go wrong. The people of U’ivu felled many trees and did not replant. They allowed people who did not belong on the islands—ho’oalas, or white people—to live among them. The ho’oalas brought with them great beasts made of iron that churned up the soft soil of Iva’a’aka, and great nets with which they scooped vast quantities of seafood from the ocean, more than could ever be consumed. They made waste, mountains of it, and what was not left on the land—on top of their parents!—the humans shoveled into the sea.

“From below and from above, Ivu’ivu and A’aka grew first alarmed and then angry. Ivu’ivu sent towering waves to batter his children, and A’aka wept to see him do so, for although Ivu’ivu intended only to scare the humans into respect, by destroying them he also destroyed part of the gods’ children—chunks of all three of the islands crumbled into the sea. But still that did not change the humans’ ways. And so A’aka sent blistering waves of sun, ceaseless, remorseless. During the months that he normally retired and left the skies to his sister, Pu’uaka, the goddess of rain, he instead stayed on, hurling sharp daggers of burning light to the ground. And now it was Ivu’ivu’s turn to cry, for although A’aka’s efforts caused the humans’ crops to shrivel and many of them to die, he knew that his children were scalded and scorched and parched and that they longed for fresh water.

“The gods knew that not all of the humans had forsaken the old ways, and they felt sorrowful that they could not separate and save the good from the bad, the righteous from the disrespectful. But still the humans continued to ignore the gods and the agreement that they had made with their grandparents so long ago. And so the gods were forced to continue their punishments, the tidal waves, the fierce droughts. A’aka asked his sister to join his efforts, to subject the humans to torrential rains, rains so terrible that many-hundred-year-old trees were uprooted and slid groaning into the sea, and that waterfalls overspilled their canyons and turned creeks into barreling, angry rivers. With each attack, the gods watched their children grow weaker and smaller and more depleted, and with each attack, their sorrow grew.

“As did their anger. And so the gods decided that they had no choice. One day, after many years, a man named Manu’eke—Kindly Animal—was fishing in a cool stream high atop Ivu’ivu when he saw swimming in the shallows, unbelievably, a turtle. Quickly he grabbed the creature and rushed home to his village. There he killed it, and in his eagerness and haste and perhaps poor manners, he ate the entire animal without sacrificing any to the gods, his forefathers.

“That night he dreamed that he had been turned into a god, that he was the first to be allowed to live forever. But oh! The gods were furious. They saw what Manu’eke had done, and they knew that if a human could forget to offer some of this sacred creature to them, as was their right, then man had fallen very far indeed. And so they decided to punish Manu’eke by giving him what he most desired, eternal life. But a horrible life. For after his sixtieth year—some say earlier, some say later—Manu’eke became less and less human. He forgot what it was to be a man. The people he had once known became strangers to him. He spoke in a voice no one recognized. He forgot to keep himself clean. He became a creature that was not quite an animal, not quite a man. He was driven from his people and never allowed to return.

“And so Manu’eke wanders the jungles still, not one thing and not another, a memory of a man, an example of the gods’ wrath and their warning as well. He reminds us of Ivu’ivu’s and A’aka’s power, that life is theirs to give and theirs to take, and that they are always watching us, ready to take or give the gifts that men most desire.”

Here Tallent stopped, and once again I felt that shiver. Around us the night seemed to have grown darker still, so dark that I could not even see Tallent seated right next to me, so dark that his voice seemed to become something tactile and textured, a curtain of deep-plum velvet hanging between us.

And then I felt yet another shiver, but this one more frightening and colder, because it was in this moment I realized: this story, this myth, memorized by Tallent from who knows whom and secreted and cultivated and petted and caressed until he was able to almost sing it, perfect in its pauses and rhythms, was why we were here. He meant to find Manu’eke; he meant to give meaning to a fable; he meant to hunt down a creature that loped through children’s nightmares, that populated campfire tales, that existed in the same universe as stones who could mate with planets and father mountains and men. Suddenly my existence here seemed surreal, and the quest—even the word quest was something out of fictions and fantasies, in which an object, magical and imbued with improbable powers, is sought by a group of feckless heroes—we were to undertake seemed tinny and cheap.

And yet—and this was even more frightening still—I could also feel something within me come undone. Even today, all these decades later, I cannot explain it with any greater accuracy. I found myself suddenly imagining a long, fat, chalked line stretching across a flat burned earth. To one side was what I had known, a neat-bricked city of windowless structures, the stuff and facts I knew to be true (I thought, unbidden, of my staircase, its names of those wiser than I, and was at once embarrassed for myself, for finding myself in this situation, in speechless thrall to an anthropologist). And on the other side was Tallent’s world, the shape of which I could not see, for it was obscured by a fog, one that thinned and thickened in unpredictable movements, so that I could discern, occasionally, glimpses of what lay behind it: nothing more than colors and movements, no real shapes; but there was something irresistible there, I knew it, and the fear of succumbing to it was finally less awful than never knowing what lay beyond that fog, never exploring what I might never again have the opportunity to explore.

And so I closed my eyes; I forgot my senses; and I stepped over the line.

“Is Manu’eke real?” I asked, and immediately berated myself for doing so. You are forgetting yourself, buzzed some high mosquito whine of a voice within me. Be careful; you are forgetting yourself. Remember who you are. This is not how you think. Remember what you have been taught.

But I couldn’t. I tried, but I couldn’t.

He sighed. “Nobody knows,” he said at last. “Older U’ivuans, of course, swear he is. But no one knows where he was meant to live—U’ivuans say Ivu’ivu, not surprisingly—or what became of him. Or rather, there are many theories about what became of him. That he dove into the sea and never returned. That he vanished. That he grew shriveled and hairy and small and turned into a monkey. That he became a stone. The only thing that remains consistent is that he never dies in these stories—he may disappear, he may transform, but no one claims to have seen him die.”

I thought about this. “Do they still sacrifice turtles?”

“Ah,” said Tallent, and for the first time I heard approval in his voice. “Now that—that is a good question. The question, really. No. No, they don’t. At least, not on U’ivu. Opa’ivu’ekes are very rare these days. You rarely see them in the water, much less on land. There is a subspecies of them, a smaller freshwater turtle that they seem to resemble, and you sometimes—once in a great while—will find them on Iva’a’aka or U’ivu. But the islanders are scared of them now and avoid them. They are prized, and it is good luck to see them, but no one dares touch them. No one except—”

“The Ivu’ivuans,” I guessed.

“Allegedly. Yes.”

He was silent again, this time for a very long period.

“There is a story,” he began, and then stopped, began again. “It is said that there is a tribe of U’ivuans who live deep in the jungles of Ivu’ivu. It is said that they keep to the old ways, that they still sacrifice to the gods. It is said”—and here I could feel rather than see his head turn toward mine—“that they never die.

“I have never seen these people, this tribe, myself. But when I was last here, three years ago, studying the U’ivuan family structure—very interesting in and of itself—I met a man who said he had been to this island before, that he had seen a man who was not a man. Who looked like a man and moved like a man but who flailed and could not speak, who screeched like a monkey and, though he seemed strong and healthy, was without sense.

“This was distressing enough, but what was more upsetting still, he said, was that the man was followed by another, and another—a whole group of men and women, all normal in appearance but all incapable of making meaningful conversation. All they could do was jitter and babble and laugh at nothing, the neighing laughter of the brainless. The U’ivuans value conversation, you know, and to be without it is to be mo’o kua’au—I suppose the nearest translation is ‘without throat,’ although kua’au can also mean ‘friends’ or ‘love.’ So, without friends. Without love.

“The man, who was a hunter, left these strange people and hurried back to his home on U’ivu. For months, years, he tried to persuade his friends and family to return with him to the Forbidden Island and find these people, to see if he could help them and to learn who they were. But the U’ivuans, who are already wary of Ivu’ivu, as it is Opa’ivu’eke’s children’s favorite grounds and therefore sacred, refused to accompany him.

“But this man, this hunter, could not forget what he had seen, no more easily than he could explain what compelled him to return to the Forbidden Island, which in truth frightened him. These people haunted him. The man could think of nothing else.

“And so when this hunter learned that someone had finally believed him—albeit a ho’oala—and was planning to find these people, he asked to come along as translator and guide. He would bring two cousins of his whom he had, over many discussions, finally managed to convince.”

“Fa’a,” I realized. “He was the hunter. The storyteller.”

“Yes,” said Tallent, and again I felt rather than saw his face turn toward me in the dark. “We are going to find these people. If they exist, we’ll find them.”

“Immortals,” I said, and I could hear my own skepticism.

But if Tallent heard it too—and he must have—he didn’t remark on it. “Immortals,” he agreed, his voice inscrutable once more. And then he fell silent for the last time, and I sensed the darkness drawing itself around me like a warm and heavy cloak.


For the first week or so after that night, I tried to keep track of what time it was and whether it was night or day. (My watch stopped working the second day; moisture had crept in through its joints and laced the face over in cobwebby patterns.) But quite soon I realized that doing so was pointless—so thick was the foliage that the sun became unnuanced and unreliable. You could not say that it had vanished, really, or that the light had faded, because there was no direct light in the jungle. There was only darkness and the absence of darkness. One was night, the other day.

Looking back on it now, of course, I realize how extraordinary those first few days were, before I became immune to the awes of the jungle and even grew to despise them. One day—it must have been our third or fourth—I was trudging uphill as usual, looking around me, listening to the conversations of birds and animals and insects, feeling the floor beneath me gently buckling and heaving with unseen layers of worms and beetles as I placed my feet upon them; it could feel like treading on the wet innards of a large dozing beast. And then there was for a moment Uva at my side—he normally walked far ahead of me, in a pack with Fa’a and Tu, darting forward and back to assure Tallent that all was safe—holding his hand out before him, signaling me to stop. Then, quickly and gracefully, he sprang toward a nearby tree, indistinguishable from the others, thick and dark and branchless, and scrabbled up it quickly, turning his wide feet inward to cup its thorny bark. When he was about ten feet or so up, he looked down at me and held out his hand again, palm down—wait. I nodded. And then he continued to climb, vanishing into the canopy of the forest.

When he came down, he was slower, and clutching something in his hand. He leapt down the last five feet or so and came over to me, uncurling his fingers. In his palm was something trembling and silky and the bright, delicious pale gold of apples; in the gloom of the jungle it looked like light itself. Uva nudged the thing with a finger and it turned over, and I could see it was a monkey of some sort, though no monkey I had ever seen before; it was only a few inches larger than one of the mice I had once been tasked with killing, and its face was a wrinkled black heart, its features pinched together but its eyes large and as blankly blue as a blind kitten’s. It had tiny, perfectly formed hands, one of which was gripping its tail, which it had wrapped around itself and which was flamboyantly furred, its hair hanging like fringe.

“Vuaka,” said Uva, pointing at the creature.

“Vuaka,” I repeated, and reached out to touch it. Under its fur I could feel its heart beating, so fast it was almost a purr.

“Vuaka,” said Uva again, and then made as if to eat it, solemnly patting his stomach.

“No,” I said, horrified, “no,” and he tipped his head at me curiously and shook it at my poor taste, I suppose, and then walked off toward the tree again, where he tossed the monkey upward, and I watched it latch onto the bark and hurry up, a flashing pulse of sun.

Later, from Tallent, I learned that the vuaka was an early monkey, a sort of ur-monkey, and that they lived in enormous colonies in a certain kind of tree that was also endemic to U’ivu. The U’ivuans considered them a delicacy—they scalped and then roasted them by the dozen on long twigs and ate them like kebabs—but the tree, the kanava, grew only in thickly forested areas, the kind that no longer existed on Iva’a’aka or U’ivu. In fact, these days the kanava (and therefore the vuaka) could be found in great quantities only on Ivu’ivu, but nothing, not even the lure of fresh vuakas, could induce the U’ivuans to this island.

Tallent laughed. It was something he rarely did. “Fa’a may be here to find the lost tribe,” he said, “but the others? I think they’re only here for the vuaka.” It was too wet to roast them, of course, but Tallent said the men would skin them and cure them with salt they’d brought from home for exactly this purpose.

I knew it was sentimental (not to mention pointless) to feel pity for the poor, pretty vuaka, and I didn’t want Tallent to think I was weak, so I said nothing. But that night, lying on my mat, I thought of the vuaka, its huge, sad eyes, the glorious streak of gold it had made as it vanished into the dark above us, and felt for a moment a despair so profound that I was momentarily unable to breathe.


But soon even the forest—what I had initially seen as its diversions and newness, its unsullied perfection and possibility—became wearying. Where I had once seen mystery, I now saw instead only repetition: the constant damp, the constant half-light, the constant pattern of trees and trees and trees, an unbroken grove of them reaching into eternity. I longed to see the sky above me, blue and sticky with clouds, or the sea, its anxious, roiling energy. Here we knew it had been raining only because the trees—so incessantly thirsty I thought of them as stands of throats, greedily swallowing every drop they could—sweated water, which disappeared into the pelts of moss that clumped around their bases, and because the ground grew squelchy and spongy. At the shoreline, any seedling that had been dropped by birds could live—I had seen mango and guava trees, and others I could not name but recognized anyway—but this deep in the forest the plants were more ancient and native, and I knew none of them. This ought to have been exciting, but it was not; the total absence of familiarity can make a place seem alien and unconquerable, and you turn your attention and curiosity away from it to avoid growing frustrated.

Then there was the matter of the jungle’s profligacy, which I began to resent, as if it were an overdressed woman parading her entire cache of sparkly jewels before me. I felt as if the jungle were constantly showing off to itself—every rock, every tree, every surface that would stay still was trimmed, bedecked, baroque with greenery: there were fistulas of bushes wrapped with creeping vines and spotted with moss and lichen and trees draped with great valances of hairy, hanging roots from some other unseen plant that lived, I imagined, high above the canopy. Things flew up from the floor and trickled down from the treetops. It was an exhausting performance that never ended, and for what? To prove the imperturbability of nature, I suppose—its unknowability, its fundamental lack of interest in humanity. Or at least that’s what it seemed like at the time: a mockery. It was absurd, I knew, to wake each day and resent the jungle and my own insignificance in it. But I couldn’t help it. I began to think I might be going a little—well, not crazy, I suppose, but that I might be losing touch, as they say now. And then I felt childish, and ashamed.

On and on the jungle went, so unceasing in its excesses that I eventually became numb to them. A creature, its malachite-dark back diamonded with scales, skittered across my feet, a wraithlike monkey shrieked from a tree, and I did not stop or ask Uva or Tallent what they were. There were so many shades and tones of green—serpent, aphid, pear, emerald, sea, grass, jade, spinach, bile, pine, caterpillar, cucumber, steeped tea, raw tea: how inadequate is our vocabulary for color!—that I feared I would lose my ability to distinguish anything else. Fa’a’s loincloth, a bright crimson, burned my eyes, and yet I found myself staring at it as much and for as long as I could bear, as if trying to fix its redness in my mind before it too began to be interpreted by my eye as yet another shade of green. At night I dreamed of green, great floating blobs of it, morphing gently from one shade to the next, and in the mornings I woke feeling beaten and exhausted. During the day my thoughts returned to visions of deserts, of cities, of hard surfaces: of glass and concrete and chips of mica glinting from asphalted streets.

There was also, still, the problem of Tallent, whom I could barely look at and around whom I was trying to become more fluent and less stuttery. He stayed up late in the evenings, writing in his notebook, and from my mat I’d watch him as the darkness filled the air like bats. He was careful never to use the flashlight unless we really needed to—to relieve ourselves, for example—and so even after the light disappeared completely he would continue to write, and I would lie there, as still as I could, listening to his pen skritching across the page; for some reason this was a beautiful image to me, Tallent writing without any illumination to guide his way, and when we were walking, I would sometimes close my eyes and turn it over in my mind, savoring it like a candy. On those long hikes, I also tried to make—and sometimes succeeded in making—interesting observations to him, but whenever I managed to do so, there was Esme, ready to offer her own opinion on whatever the subject was.

Esme was a difficulty of a different sort, of course. Aside from her bossiness and smugness and general possessiveness of Tallent (which, frustratingly, I was still unable to determine whether he noticed or not, and if so, whether he cared), there was the simple fact that she was unpleasant to regard. With each day her hair grew wilder and less manageable, until it floated like a penumbra above her puffed face, and her skin, as I’ve mentioned, had taken on a more or less permanent rash. This ought not to have bothered me, but it did.

There were more serious problems with Esme as well. Late one night I walked to the stream—the same one I mentioned earlier; its source seemed to be high in the mountains, where we were headed—and saw a crumpled blossom on the jungle floor. Against the dark, it was gloriously, impossibly white, the white of fresh paper, and at its center was a splash of deep burgundy. Here the flowers were waxy and indistinguishable as flowers: where there should have been stamens there were grossly suggestive plasticky lips upon which bugs alighted to rest; where there should be leaves there were aggressive, thrusting planes. But in that white flower I was reminded of the blooms I had grown up with: sugary peonies, as frilled and shirred as ballet skirts, gauzy clumps of asters. It seemed the loveliest thing I had seen for many days, and I stood there staring at it.

But as I continued stumbling over to the creek, I saw that the flower was no flower at all but rather a crumple of tissue, at its heart a smear of blood. I felt a sort of fury—first, rightly, that Esme should be so careless with disposing of her own trash, and second (and I admit less defensibly), that she should have spoiled for me an image so soothing.

Back on our mats, I poked her awake. “You have to be more careful,” I told her.

She was slit-eyed, wild-haired. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Your waste,” I said. “I nearly stepped in it.”

“Leave it alone, Perina,” she said, and flopped back over onto her other side.

“Esme!” I hissed. “Esme!” But she was already feigning sleep, and I dared not speak louder for fear of waking Tallent. “Esme!” I shook her shoulder, and under her shirt her flesh was repulsive, a quaking blancmange, its surface pimpled with perspiration.

The next morning we ate breakfast (more Spam, scooped out of the tin with the splintery slices of a hard yellow papayalike fruit that Fa’a had found and cut for us) in silence, with Tallent writing in his notebook and even Esme, for once, wordless. I did not look at her, but around her seemed the sickening scent of menstrual blood, a tinnily feminine smell so oppressive that it was a relief finally to begin the day’s climb and to find it vanishing slowly into the odors of the jungle. And from then on I was unable to look at her without thinking of oozing liquids, as thick and heavy as honey but rank and spoiled, seeping from her every hidden orifice.


After some days of walking (I am sorry, but the exact length of time eludes me now as it did then; it could have been five days or fifteen), we entered one afternoon a different sort of place. I cannot describe it any better than that, except to say that the very quality of the air seemed to change: one step behind us was the jungle we knew, sodden and creeping and thick with secrets, like something in a fairy tale, and in the next was someplace else. Suddenly the air was drier, the trees less assertive, the sun—the sun!—visible, actually casting shifting, fuzzy-edged parallelograms of light across the elaborately ferned and twigged forest floor. Above me I could see a crochet of spiderwebs stretched between two trees, glinting like a tangle of jeweled necklaces.

Fa’a said something quickly and excitedly to Tallent, who in turn told us that we were little more than a day’s walk from the place where Fa’a had seen his people. He had marked the location by scratching a large X with a stick in the bark of something called a manama tree. The manama’s bark grew in scales, Tallent said, and when pierced it wept a jammy sap that dried in a crust of hard blemishes: we would know it when we saw it.

But now, he announced, we would rest, and we did at once, all six of us dropping our bags on the ground. It was good, and odd, to lie there, to have survived the jungle (even though later I would have to admit that the jungle was without any real dangers, that then was really the time to feel frightened), to feel the sun creeping over our faces, to hear the first faint birdcalls; their music seemed like fairy song, so strange and beautiful was it, so otherworldly.

We slept then, all of us, even the guides, and when I woke and saw the others’ still bodies, I thought for a minute that they were dead and I was alone in this strange, sunlit place, surrounded by trees I did not know the names of and birds I could hear but could not see, and that no one would ever know I was here or remember I had ever existed or would ever find me. The sensation was fleeting, but what I would remember is how quickly, like a breath, I moved from despair to resignation, how well equipped the human mind is to readjust to its realities, to soothe oneself of one’s deepest fears. And then I felt proud, I suppose, of my very humanness, and briefly invincible, and sure that I would be greeted with nothing in the next day that I could not bear.

I walked in the direction of the stream, which had become perversely wider and more powerful the farther uphill we climbed, a clear, quick channel of cold water, its taste, oddly, more intensely sealike than it had been at the lower elevation. I drank from it and then sat at its bank, watching it move over pebbles, admiring the small orange flowers that trimmed its edge. And it was then, sleepy, daydreaming of nothing, that I saw something move from beneath one of the boulders that lay across the river: a dark form, no more than that, like the shadow a cloud casts when it scuds over the sea. But as it grew closer it began to take shape, and I saw it was a turtle, the ridge of its peaked and bony back breaking through the skin of the water, and knew at once what it was.

“Opa’ivu’eke! Opa’ivu’eke!” I was shouting, and I could hear the others running toward me.

I say I knew it was an opa’ivu’eke, but it was only because we were on its land; otherwise the turtle, at first glance at least, was nothing remarkable. It was perhaps somewhat smaller than I’d imagined—about the circumference of a hubcap—and its feet, not surprisingly, more flipperlike, more like a sea turtle than I’d pictured.[25] Then I regarded it more closely—it had stopped its journey downstream to tread water, its legs paddling slowly against the current—and noticed its carapace, as humped as a dromedary’s and a beetley, glossy green, so green it was almost black, and divided into neat squares, the border of each as well defined as if it had been wrought from metal by a chisel. But it was its head, a small, oddly shaped cashew of a thing on a long, telescoping neck, that made me consider it further. I had never to that point been in the habit of imbuing animals with human traits or human intelligence, but watching the opa’ivu’eke, I was discomfited by what I suppose can only be called its expressiveness. I looked in its bagged, drooping amber eyes and felt, if only briefly, that Tallent’s story was true, that this was an animal possessed of wisdom and fortitude, and that we were its guests and certainly not its superiors. Behind me I could hear the three guides murmuring something in unison in U’ivuan, a low, chantlike hum like crickets’ song, and after a few moments, in which we all remained perfectly silent, the turtle blinked its eyes at us and then, almost haughtily, continued its swim, head still held aloft, finlike feet parting the water in neat furrows.

We stayed and watched it leave, but once it was out of sight, the three guides began talking quickly, and I saw in their faces excitement and fear.

“This was the first opa’ivu’eke they’ve ever seen,” Tallent told Esme and me in a quiet voice, and we observed the three men telling one another about the experience they’d just witnessed, all of them speaking so fast that it seemed they were trying to expunge themselves of the memory rather than cement it.

We three—even Esme—said nothing, only watched them, and although at the moment I found their behavior, their near panic, curious, later I understood it: gods are for stories and heavens and other realms; they are not to be seen by men. But when we encroach on their world, when we see what we are not meant to see, how can anything but disaster follow?


The hours we walked following the turtle sighting were strange ones. I had never thought of our guides as particularly voluble—in fact, they were often so far ahead of us on our daily hikes that I, shamefully, thought of them rather little at all—but today they walked with us, near us almost, as if for comfort and protection (somewhat worrisome, as with the possible exception of Tallent, we were ill-equipped to protect them from anything), and their silence was not so much a quiet as it was a complete absence of noise. Unlike us, they did not pant as they trudged forward, they did not stop to wipe the slicks of sweat off their brows; they seemed in fact to need less breath than we did, to be immune to the jungle’s heat. But this afternoon I was made to realize that the sounds they did make—little chirrups back at the unseen insects that peeped and scraped from the sky, the airy whistle they gave one another to announce their location—had been a part of the jungle’s soundtrack after all.

It was in this silence that the thing fell from the sky, something wet and heavy that landed with a juicy, suggestive thwack, like one slab of raw meat falling smack against another from a very great height. This startled the guides into talk once more (I fear I may have shrieked a bit), and they clustered around the thing, which turned out to be a fruit, though not like any fruit I had seen before. It was disgustingly priapic, about eighteen inches long and fat as an eggplant, and that particular sugary newborn pink one finds only in tropical sunsets. But what really distinguished it was the fact that it was moving—something was forcing its thin, unspeckled skin to swell into small bulges before smoothing flat again, the ripples undulating up and down its length. The guides began their excited all-at-once chatter again, and Tallent, hurrying over, joined in their chorus.

“It’s a manama fruit,” he explained. “They only grow at this elevation. It means we’re close.” Then he took the thing from Fa’a’s hand and with his penknife slit it down the middle. Out of the cut squirmed a large writhing mass of grubs the approximate size and color of baby mice, which fell from the fruit to the ground and began wriggling off; against the moss of the floor they looked like rivulets of suddenly animated ground beef, worming their way toward some sort of salvation. (Esme looked sick. I don’t mind admitting I felt a little sick myself.) “They’re hunono worms,” Tallent continued, and for a moment I found his serene equanimity, his apparent inability to be repelled by anything nature might hurl at him, somehow inhuman and slightly suspicious. “They live in this fruit for their incubation period, and when they’re mature they explode at once from it as butterflies, the most beautiful butterflies I’ve ever seen.” He smiled at us. “They’re a delicacy, if you can find them, but so is the fruit,” and scraping the last of the grubs away with the blunt edge of his knife, he cut a slice of manama for us both. I wasn’t looking forward to eating it, but what choice did I have? Esme was already bringing hers to her mouth. The insides were the same color as the skin, barely sweet and slightly fibrous, and had the meaty, elastic chewiness of tendon. When Tallent offered me another slice, I shook my head, and he shrugged and handed over the rest to the guides, who began tearing off hunks with their fingers. Against the dun of their skin, the fruit looked even more vulnerable and fleshy, and I felt a thrum of illogical fear.

And so we continued, the manama fruit falling with greater frequency the farther we climbed, each time landing with the same unnerving violence. I chanced looking overhead at one point and found I could see only their bottoms, so that the sky seemed punctuated with floating tumors, attached to nothing but suspended overhead like strange pink moons. Gradually too the other trees—like the kanava, which had heretofore been ubiquitous—began to be replaced by the manamas (whose bark really did grow in tiered, scalelike crusts), until eventually we seemed to be surrounded exclusively by them and the air seemed to smell faintly of something human and unclean.

But just as I was beginning to despair of Fa’a ever finding his tree, the one he had marked, Uva gave a call and pointed at a manama trunk upon which was a great swath of blood, a ragged and almost comical splatter-paint smear of it. As we moved closer, I saw that it was not blood but something living, so that it almost appeared a raw, exposed organ, as if the tree turned out to possess an anatomy of its own. Oh god, I thought, can nothing in this jungle behave as it ought? Must fruits move and trees breathe and freshwater rivers taste of the ocean? Why must nothing obey the laws of nature? Why must everything point so heavily toward the existence of enchantment? And so it was not until I—reluctantly, wearily—moved directly up to the manama that I saw that it really was just a tree, and that what I had taken for a thrusting heart, a heaving lung, was in fact a teem of butterflies, their crimson wings spattered with a pallid gold. These, of course, were what the grubs had become, and when Tallent chased them away with his hand—I watched a little sadly as they scattered and for a moment hovered around and above us in an assaultive cloud—I saw that they had returned to the tree that had once sheltered them to feed on its sap, which, as Tallent had promised, had hardened into a mass of opaque, glassy bubbles.

We had made it. This was the tree, this was where Fa’a had seen his not-humans, this was what our days of walking had led us to. But this sense of accomplishment was diminished by what I very soon sensed was the lack of a real plan. Surely, I thought, slightly hysterical, this had been better considered? Were we simply to wait by this tree, as if children in a fable, for these hypothetical half-humans to appear before us like walking dreams? I had a vision of us all turning around, en masse, and heading back down through the thickets of the jungle, entering once again its wet, clammy embrace, until we reached the shore, and then—what? We would somehow return to U’ivu, and then Esme and Tallent to California, and I—to nothing. I found myself experiencing that same sense of dislocation I had had at Smythe’s house, and wondered bitterly when in life I would be able to tell with certainty when the circumstances around me were a hoax and when they were simply unfortunate.

Finally, after conferring for a long time with Fa’a, Tallent announced that we would camp here for the night and continue the next day. Neither Esme nor I asked him for more details—I believe we were both afraid to, and besides, neither of us was in the habit of challenging him—but meekly laid down our things. He sounded defeated, I remember, which I found perversely satisfying, although really I should only have been alarmed: it was, as he had said himself, his hunch that had brought us here, and without him I was nothing more than a silly, directionless boy stuck in a forest populated wholly by madmen and myths.

That night I dreamed as usual, but perhaps because of the reintroduction of sunlight into my waking hours, or perhaps because I was still stubbornly clinging to the mistaken belief that I had reached some sort of significant threshold, or perhaps because of the strange manama fruit, whose ploppy cannonball drops broke the night in an irregular symphony, my visions were of earthbound things, a slideshow of all that was dear and typical and so mundane that I had never thought to miss them: a plain leather boot I had once owned, its sole flaky with dried sod; the elm that had grown outside our house, which seemed to represent all that was stately and dignified; a shirt that had once been my father’s, its chambray faded to a blue so pale it was almost white—and Owen, his face floating planetlike against a rippling sheet of silky black, his expression unreadable but, I somehow intuited, full of pity.

But pity for whom? I wondered, even in my dream.

For me?


The next day we woke, ate, and sat. Or rather, Esme and Tallent and I sat, and the guides trundled off somewhere. It was becoming clear that in the absence of a plan, we were to sit and wait, like dogs, until some event chanced upon us.

Who knows how long we sat? Hours, of course, but how many? During all this time we occasionally heard the scuttle and slide of the guides, and in between furtively looking at Tallent (who was writing more furiously than ever—about what? I wanted to ask, since nothing of any anthropological interest had happened that I could discern) and avoiding looking at Esme, I lay on my back and tried to count the numbers of a particular vine (stringy, slightly dusty-looking) that had tangled itself into a snarl on one of the manama trees’ branches above. Looking back on that day, I cannot—still—help but feel a bit embarrassed about this. Adventures really are wasted on the young, I’m afraid. I should have used that time for exploring, spelunking through the underbrush (now much more accessible and appealing than it had been a couple of days before), pawing through the forest floor for unidentified plant life (I physically ache now to remember how many grasses, ferns, flowers, trees I had never seen before and could have spent the afternoon recording), even attempting to follow the guides on their obscure and single-minded missions. Instead I remained supine and counted vines. Vines! All along I had prided myself on my curiosity, what I considered the unslakability of my intellectual thirst. And yet, once placed in a situation in which almost everything was foreign, I did nothing, saw nothing.

The problem with being young and in a singular place is that one assumes that one will inevitably find oneself in an equally foreign and exotic location at some later point in life. But this is very rarely true. For most of what we see in our immediate surroundings is in fact replicated elsewhere in the world with a sort of dull exactness: birds, animals, fruits, sky, people. They may look different from place to place, but their fundamental behaviors are essentially identical: birds tweet and flap, animals prowl and bleat, fruits are insensate and inanimate, the sky fills and empties of clouds and stars, people wear clothes and kill and eat and die. On Ivu’ivu, as I had observed multiple times, none of these things happened the way they were supposed to, and yet I was too inexperienced to fully comprehend how truly remarkable that was. (In retrospect, maybe Tallent did. Maybe that was what he was always logging in his book: not anthropological observations after all, but a documentation of the place’s sheer oddity.) It is only the old who can look around them and marvel, for it is we who know how alike the world really is, how all of its problems and wonders have already been recognized and recorded.

I would like to be able to say that after waiting, the morning draining away from us, we were suddenly surrounded by Fa’a’s people, who arrived as unexpectedly and dramatically as, say, the manama fruit had. But that is not what happened. Instead, finally, after conferring with a head-shaking Fa’a once more, Tallent announced that we would split up in different directions, each of us with our guide, to, as he vaguely put it, “explore the area and look for clues.” He and Fa’a would go north, uphill, and Esme and I to the east and west respectively. We would meet back at the tree when the sun was directly overhead.

As I recount this story I am astonished anew by how patchy, how makeshift a solution this was. But again, at the time it seemed the most sensible, the most practical, the best thing to do. In illogical situations, one clings to any idea that seems at all logical, even if it is only a scrim, translucent and flimsy, that shields the lack of serious planning behind it.

And so we went off, all of us, I am certain, less than convinced that anything would actually happen. Fa’a’s people, indeed! How did we know they even existed? But you saw the opa’ivu’eke, I reminded myself, while another voice inside me rebutted, You saw a turtle, nothing more. A turtle, whom you have made into a god. You are as lost as the rest of them now. And to that I had no response. The voice was right. I was.


It was Fa’a who saw it first.

This we learned later, much later, when the sun had almost set and the entire forest was awash, ghostlike, with an eerie reddish light, the air seeming to thicken with a bright haze of blood. We had been waiting, Esme and Tu and Uva and I, for Fa’a and Tallent to return, and as time passed Uva and Tu became increasingly anxious, taking turns running uphill while the other stayed behind to guard our things and us, as if we were prisoners, or children (which to them I suppose we were no better than).

And then finally they were before us, walking down the slope, Fa’a calling out frantically and rapidly to the others, Tallent behind him, and behind him someone else, a third person, and we stood, all of us, and watched them emerge from the trees. I saw fear on the guides’ faces and knew it was echoed on my own. But I am getting ahead of myself.

After leaving us that morning, they walked, Tallent and Fa’a, past the butterfly tree (which, although none of us had said it aloud, we had begun to consider the demarcation line: below it was land we knew, above it terra incognita. Although this was of course nothing more than a contrived organizing principle, for the fact was it was all terra incognita—what lay past the tree was no more conquerable by us than what lay before it) and into the jungle beyond. A few hundred yards in, the copses of trees had thinned out further still, although their canopies had became more massive and umbrellalike in their reach, making the air increasingly dark and cool, muted in light and muffled of sound. I had been using the words interchangeably, but here was truly more a forest than a jungle, the bewitched forest of fairy tales, where huts made of glossy black licorice and lardy white frosting appear in clearings and talking wolves trot upright in old women’s bonnets. Around them too the plants had changed: gone were the rapacious fly-eating orchids, the saucy, vulgar bromeliads, the squat cycads, and in their place were frilly wedges of sober-colored mushrooms and whorls of tightly closed ferns.

They had been walking for about an hour, they thought, when they heard a noise: nothing interesting, nothing large, just a crinkling like paper high above them. Two days before, they would have thought nothing of this; it would have been another family of vuakas gamboling across a kanava branch, or one of those vexing toucanlike birds whose aggressive, phosphorescent yellow feces streaked the tree trunks like oil paint. But here the animals were silent, furtive—they had seen enormous fleecy sloths the size of Labradors hanging sleepily from branches, and witnessed spiders, their backs daubed with glittery blue specks, picking their prim, careful way across spun-glass webs—and the sound here was of no sound, of a place holding its breath, an edgy, bitten-back quiet, as if it would at once explode with the color and noise of a great party. And so hearing this, they stopped, listened. Tallent found himself counting, nonsensically, as if once he reached a certain number, something would be revealed to them.

He had reached seventy-three when Fa’a grabbed his arm and pointed, and he saw it climbing down the trunk of a manama about fifty yards to their left. It was not a skillful climber, nor particularly graceful, and yet when it began to emerge, he mistook it for a sloth, not a human; unlike a human, who would have shimmied down feet first, this creature led with its arms, which encircled the tree in a tight grip, the rest of its body following limply and uselessly behind. The manama’s branches are sturdy and level and grow from almost its base to its very top, but the animal did not take advantage of them, did not use them, as a human would, as a ladder. Rather, it continued to slither down, snakelike (although this was difficult, as the manama’s bark made slithering all but impossible), and whenever it encountered a branch, it seemed to pause, confused, clearly unaware that the branch could be used to its benefit. At the bottom of the tree, when its head had touched the forest floor, it paused again, and then flipped over onto the ground and for a long moment simply lay there on its back, its arms and legs spread open, not making a sound. Fa’a held out his arm to keep Tallent from advancing (not, as Tallent said later, that he needed to; he was too spellbound to think of moving), and for a few minutes the two of them stood frozen, staring at the thing on the floor.

When it finally stood, it did so in stages, first moving to a sitting position—which it did without the use of its elbows, but at once, from the waist, as if attached to the end of an invisible pulley—and then, after another pause, abruptly to its feet. And then it began to walk, and Fa’a and Tallent stepped behind a tree to watch it.

It was a little shorter than Fa’a, maybe four feet or so, and a woman, with used, drooping teats and a hard-looking, rounded stomach and Fa’a’s wide, flat feet, although hers seemed wider still, the ends of her toes pooling fleshily into the earth. She was very hairy—her pubic hair was a dense, rooty tangle, and the hair on her head appeared a solid block of black, so matted and snarled was it. Her legs too were dark with fuzz, and on her back was a fine pelt. Things clung to her hair: chips of leaves and smears of dirt and fruit and shit; Tallent saw a hunono worm nestled in the hair above her vulva like an extraneous organ. Her movements were human, he supposed—they watched as she bent (again, stiffly at the waist) to retrieve a fallen manama fruit, which she bit into violently, the hunonos oozing through her fingers and smearing into a pink paste around her mouth—but somehow poorly practiced, as if she had once, long ago, been taught how to behave as a human and was slowly, steadily forgetting. And then, in another of her abrupt gestures, she turned and stared directly at Fa’a and Tallent, and while Fa’a shrank behind the tree, making a low hissing noise of horror and repulsion, Tallent stepped from behind it and, ignoring Fa’a’s scrabbling, beseeching hand, made his way toward the creature.

He was slow, careful, aware by now that her movements began without preamble, and came within about ten yards of her before he stopped. All this time she had watched him approach, the wriggling manama fruit still in one hand, the worms still dropping from her mouth and palm, bouncing off her stomach and falling to the ground, her mouth stupidly, grotesquely open, her eyes not moving from his face.

Tallent walked a step closer. The creature watched him. He made another step. Still nothing. One more and he would almost be able to touch her. And so he made another.

And then she began to shriek, a noise that went up and down, up and down, moving in register from growl to keen to shrill to squeal, and then back again and up again. Behind him, he could hear Fa’a calling to him, “Come away! Come away!” but he did not, and remained there, a few feet from the thing, his arm still stretched toward her, her hand still squeezing the manama, the worms still dropping to her feet, her voice the only voice in that quiet, awful, haunted forest, going on and on, horrible and arrhythmic and ceaseless.

Then it was over. She closed her mouth and the sound stopped, the jungle seemed to echo with it, and then she was eating her manama fruit again, and all he could hear was the sound of her slurping and lapping at it, all he could see was her pink tongue thrusting into the cavity of the pink fruit, the pink worms listing from the corners of her mouth like cilia. She seemed to have forgotten he was before her, and he spoke to her, a few simple words in U’ivuan—Hello. Who are you?—and when she did not answer, he walked backward toward Fa’a, and she did not watch him go.

“Fa’a,” he whispered, “give me one of the cans of Spam.”

He prised the lid off with his fingers, slicing himself in his haste, and began digging out the meat with his nails, walking toward her again as he did so. When she was once again within his grasp (or, he fleetingly thought, he within hers), he laid down a chunk of the meat and took a step back in Fa’a’s direction, leaving a hunk of pink flesh (the same color pink as the manama, he realized, although he had never made the connection before) every foot or so, until he backed into the tree behind which Fa’a stood, his eyes wide.

It took her some time to notice it. She had finished the manama fruit—she had been remarkably thorough with it, her broad, flat tongue sucking at the skin with such force that Tallent could see her cheeks pulling inward, like a purse—and stood for some time, breathing heavily as if she had just expended a great effort, her hard stomach puffing in and out.

When she turned, she stepped into the Spam, and Tallent watched it spread, slow and thick as lava, over the mud of her skin. For a while she seemed once again oblivious, a staring, panting statue, her tongue lolling out stupidly, her eyes fixed on nothing. And then she looked downward, very casually, as if admiring a new pair of shoes, and saw the meat, and quickly dropped to all fours and began sniffing the food avidly, her nostrils making wet, exaggerated snorts. She did this for some time, revolving around the pile on her palms and feet (like a pig) before settling onto her haunches (like a monkey) and conveying the soft meat to her mouth with the flats of her hands. After consuming the first installment, she rested and belched, and then, not standing from her squat, waddled to the next pile and began her ritual—stare, stare, sniff, sniff, eat, eat, belch—again, until she was close to the tree, so close that Fa’a and Tallent could smell her, a composty odor that was less noxious than one would have expected, and then Fa’a pounced upon her, grabbing her around her waist with both arms.

He had expected her to struggle, to fight, but she only turned and looked at him and drew her mouth back, her head tipping on its stem and her eyes widening, as if all three actions were connected, and although both Tallent and Fa’a waited for her to start screaming again, she never did. The moment passed. Her mouth snapped back into its normal dumb shape, her eyes regained their hoods, her head lolled forward; she was a marionette, her strings had been slackened, and she was ready to be returned to her box, where she would patiently await the next person to give her life.

Fa’a released her—she sat down, hard, not bending her knees—and he and Tallent stared at her again.

“This was what I saw,” Fa’a told Tallent. “One of these. But there were many of them—men, women. But she is like them—they stood and stared and made noises at nothing. But where are the others? Why is she alone?” He was worried, although whether for the creature or for themselves, alone in a forest, perhaps surrounded by dozens of these not-humans, Tallent could not discern. He could sense, however, that Fa’a was exhausted and frightened; he had perhaps half thought, half hoped that he had conjured these people, and the proof that he had not—that yet another myth had come to life before him—was bewildering and terrifying.

“Let’s go back,” Tallent told him gently, although he knew he would be bringing this woman with them and that her very presence would unsettle poor Fa’a. But there was no undiscovering her now; Fa’a had led him here, and now he was tormented by his knowledge.

And so they began making their slow way downhill, Fa’a first, silent and jumpy, then Tallent, and following him—they had thought they would need to coax her with more Spam, but she followed quite naturally, her mouth held in its strange jack-o’-lantern grin, her teeth sharp and bony, like glints of flint—the creature. She sometimes wandered off, or stopped still to stare or scratch at herself, and then Tallent would walk close to her and beckon, which she seemed to understand, for she would resume walking.

In his desire to move far away from the creature and get back to his compatriots, Fa’a had bolted ahead, and so when he cried out, Tallent could at first not see him and stumbled after his voice, tripping over ridges of tree roots and slipping on floes of moss, until he saw what Fa’a was pointing at—a spear, about five feet long and slender, stuck into a manama tree, the sap frothing around it like foam. They pulled it out, the two of them grunting, fighting against the manama’s grip, and saw how sharply its end had been carved, how it had pulled clean from the tree in one solid piece.

Fa’a had been uneasy before. Now, for the first time in all the time Tallent had known him, he looked petrified. The U’ivuans are master spear whittlers, and no adult man is without his spear: they are used to hunt boars, to hunt octopuses, and once, to hunt humans. But as any U’ivuan knows, spears are never, ever to be left behind. A U’ivuan’s spear is his soul—Ma’alamakina, ma’ama, as the saying goes[26]—and if a warrior should die in battle, one of his comrades will rescue his spear from wherever it has fallen and return it to his family. It is the one possession about which U’ivuans are sentimental, although perhaps that is too weak, too cozy a word. So maybe this: it is the one thing that they truly cherish. Everything else is la, meaningless.[27]

So it was no wonder that Fa’a was scared: an abandoned spear, one longer than he’d ever before encountered, left like an omen in this unearthly, unfriendly place. And it was even less of a wonder that Tallent was so excited, although he said nothing to Fa’a at the time: here was his proof, as much as the creature who stood beside him, making her wet sucking sounds again, that something lay above them, a different world. All he had to do was find it.


We would call her, unimaginatively, Eve, the first woman of her kind, and while Tallent talked with the guides, their voices low and urgent, Esme and I led her to the river to wash her.

I will say this for Esme: she was good with the woman, more tender than I would have thought. Eve was scared of water—its coldness, its wetness—and when she felt it on her skin, she began to shriek and howl, and Tu came bounding over to make sure that Esme and I were safe.

We started with her back. Our washcloth was a white rag that I realized unhappily was one of Tallent’s undershirts (how long had it been in Esme’s possession?), and with every drag down Eve’s spine it changed colors, from dust to dun to brown to black. I was careful not to scrub her too hard, but Esme was more aggressive, rubbing her skin as if its very pigmentation were a layer of debris that might be stripped away. Still, she was matter-of-fact in her duty, not cruel, and as she swabbed the cloth between the woman’s breasts, under her arms, prising apart her crossed arms to reach her abdomen, she narrated what she was doing—“Now we’ll just wash your elbows, and then your forearms. You’re very strong, aren’t you? And now your hands, and then we’ll move on to your neck”—as if she did this every day, as if Eve were nothing more than another in a number of shivering half-human beings she had cleaned in a jungle, in a cool river that ribboned its way out of our sight.

As for Eve, she was more patient than I had expected, but when we started combing out her hair, picking apart the clumps with a manama twig, she began to growl, the noise burbling up from her throat, and showed us her sharp little fangs, and Esme stepped away from her, her palms held before her in surrender. So we led her, cleaner (but not much improved, appearance-wise), back to the others, and forced her into a sitting position.

Later we fed her—well, Esme and Tallent and I fed her; the guides would not. She took the slippery bits of Spam from our palms, sometimes with her mouth (her puckering lips, wet and vaguely vaginal, kissed against me) and sometimes with the flat of her hand; she seemed not to use her fingers—and waited until she fell asleep flat on her back, all of us watching her by Tallent’s flashlight. There was some discussion about whether we should restrain her, and in the end we bound a long length of rope around her wrists and wound it around a nearby tree. We left her enough rope to be able to move her arms, but not so much that she’d be able to untie herself. While we were trussing her, she shat herself, licking her lips and sighing in her sleep, and in the dark her shit was an odd shade of magenta, like something fetal, sour and bilious from all the meat. And although the forest eventually became too black for any of us to do anything except lie down, I am certain that none of us except Eve slept that night; we could only hold ourselves flat and still, listening to her contented grunts and snuffles, her sighing groans, and waiting for the sky to brighten with sun.

The subsequent days were busy ones. I left the planning of next steps, the ventures up into the forest beyond and back, the gathering of food and the plotting of routes, to the others and instead concentrated on Eve. She was fifty-two inches tall, cobby and solid, and I guessed that she had had children, maybe quite a few: her breasts had been sucked dry, and the nipples were calcified warts, gray and tough as elephant skin. I could not do a vaginal exam—I tried, but she screamed and thrashed so violently, so extravagantly, that not even the guides and Tallent, each of whom was assigned to hold down a limb, could keep her still—but guessed she was postmenopausal, though I have to say I gathered this mostly from estimating her age, and from the amount and density of her body hair; I had no other U’ivuan women to compare her to, nothing to tell me whether they were all this hirsute or Eve was an exception. Her teeth, as I have mentioned, were pyramidal, spiky, but her gums seemed to be in good shape: when I pressed upon them, they were firm and dry, and her breath did not smell of rot. At the base of her skull, half obscured by her snarly hair and the rings of flesh around her neck, was a small, crude tattoo, smeared like an inkstain, of the symbol Tallent had once drawn in the dirt: the sign of the opa’ivu’eke. When I showed it to Tallent, he reached out to touch it but then stopped just before making contact, his fingers hovering above the mark, Eve’s hair falling about his knuckles.

She was indiscriminate in what she ate, but she knew what was food and what was not; she would not eat the pile of grass we placed before her as a test (although she did spend a few minutes sniffing it, so intently that little shavings of it whisked up her nostrils, making her hack), but whatever we ate, she would eat too. She was hungry in the morning when she woke, and hungry again at midday, but otherwise undemanding; during the day she would forage for food, and when she found it, she would eat it right away. We always had something for her to eat upon waking, but one day we withheld it and watched as, after staring and panting for a while, she hoisted herself upright and began her search, moving her foot in sweeping arcs across the jungle floor, scraping leaves and moss and grubs into a pile that she would then sort through, eating the grubs and leaving the rest. But although she knew what was edible, she seemed unable to distinguish flavors: later we tried the grubs, which were plump and squirmy and a greasy, candle-wax white, and found them almost unbearably bitter, a taste that made you squinch your features and cough, your saliva deserting you in protest. Eve, however, could eat handfuls of them, chewing them with a sturdy, steady rhythm that seemed almost comically militaristic in its consistency, swallowing them in great noisy gulps. By observing her, we discovered that the jungle was much more edible than we’d thought; so distracted had we been by the manama that we had ignored the grubs, and the fragile, veined, lettucelike leaves that clustered sweetly at the trees’ bases, and the pale, puddingy sacs of eggs some unknown insect had deposited in the shallow scoops where one thick tree root merged into the next. We didn’t enjoy any of these new discoveries, necessarily—the leaves were crunchy like seaweed but tasteless and the eggs viscous, a thick silky clot of mucus—but we did marvel at Eve’s ability to find them, especially because according to the guides, these were not things that a U’ivuan would normally think to eat, much less identify.

Temperamentally, she was placid enough until she was not. Sometimes I knew what might upset her (I had assumed my attempted vaginal exam would probably be a failure), but sometimes I did not—she would be agreeable, letting me examine her throat, her mouth, submitting to my tape measure, which I wrapped around her waist, her thighs, her skull, but then she would turn on me, baring her teeth and snarling, her eyes pricked open so wide that the irises seemed to be floating in a jellied egg of white. And then, just as suddenly, she would recede, return to her stupid, dreamy state, her tongue—an unnervingly bright, pretty peony pink—thrusting between her dark and scabrous lips. They never failed to alarm me, these abrupt turns of hers, although after the first few times I no longer saw malice in them, only boredom. She was restless in her own way, Eve; she woke each day without any apparent memory of the day before, and her patience for and with us was limited. Her curiosity was saved only for food and for the search for food.

At night, after we had fed and bound her—Tallent and Esme and I were in favor of letting her sleep unfettered, but Fa’a had protested strenuously, holding aloft the found spear as argument and speaking so rapidly that Tallent, mostly to appease him, had acquiesced—we talked, sharing the day’s discoveries. The guides (who now slept near us) walked every day deeper and deeper into the jungle beyond, for hours at a time, looking for signs of other abandoned spears, of other Eves, but had so far found nothing. Their minuet with the jungle, their parries and retreats, were doing us no good, and we knew that soon we would have no choice but simply to enter it and move up the island until we found what Tallent hoped for and Fa’a feared.

I would recount my day’s observations of Eve, and although I could sense Esme wanting to interrupt—her impatience, her need to interject, clogged the air like something living—she remained silent, letting Tallent ask for clarifications, letting him question me and react to the things I had seen and recorded.

“How old do you think she is?” Tallent asked one night.

I told him it was difficult to say with any authority, but I thought she was maybe around sixty,[28] given the gray in her hair, the condition of her teeth, the wrinkles that pulled her lower abdomen into a sorrowful, pleated dog’s face, and the way she relied more on her sense of smell than on her sight, for it had begun to occur to me that her porcine behavior, the way she sniffed everything so deeply and at such close range, may have been a necessity, a skill learned to compensate for her impaired vision. Even in the dusk, when the grubs she so enjoyed glowed whitely like stars, she was unable to pluck them from the ground without first scraping them into a pile and then sorting through the pile, bringing her face close to each object. But of course it was impossible to say; I had no way to verify my hunch, and she had no way to communicate with me. But this nearness of vision seemed to be her only potentially serious disability—besides, obviously, her lack of language and general forgetfulness—and one commensurate with her age. In all other ways she was in good, even excellent health, especially for someone who by all evidence had been living on her own in the jungle for an unidentifiable length of time. She ate well and slept well and shat well. Her limbs were strong and her calves were complicated with muscle. Her hearing was remarkable: she could hear a manama fruit’s windy whistle as it fell through the air, something I would never have thought to listen for myself. Each morning when I took her pulse, I was impressed anew by its steady thrum, like the faraway echo of some primitive drumbeat. (Later, when I was older, I would remember with awe and envy another quality as well—her apparent lack of loneliness, how she seemed to need no one and nothing except food, how our company seemed not to disrupt the unchangeable patterns of her everyday existence.)

“Sixty,” murmured Tallent.

“I could be wrong,” I added quickly.

“No,” said Tallent. “I think you’re probably right. Sixty, though. That makes me wonder.” But he said nothing more, and after waiting for a while for him to continue, Esme mumbled something about getting ready for bed, and I went with her to lay out our mats, leaving Tallent to sit and think his private thoughts, the nature of which I could only try and try to envision.


The average U’ivuan woman is fifty-three inches tall, the average U’ivuan man fifty-six. The average U’ivuan family has four children. U’ivuans are stocky and blocky. They have wide feet (which make them good swimmers), long thighs (which make them good trekkers), thick arms (which make them good throwers), and small, square hands. The women, like all women in tropical climates, begin menstruating early (as early as eight, though usually around ten) and are finished with menopause by forty. As a race, they are known for their excellent auditory sense and their exceptional sense of smell. They are prone to tooth decay. The primary cause of death among both men and women is dysentery, probably from their habit of drinking the same water in which they bathe. The average age of death is fifty-two.[29]

Of course, I did not know any of this when I examined Eve. So the next morning, when Tallent asked me to examine the three men as a sort of imperfect control group, I thought nothing of it. I suppose what was surprising to me was how similar—superficially, at least (though superficiality was all I had)—they were to Eve: the state of their gums, for example, their general flexibility, their good hearing and quick reflexes. They submitted to my exams tolerantly, opening their mouths obediently when I opened mine, taking deep breaths as I pantomimed filling my own chest with air. I even improvised a vision test, in which I drew thick black marks on sheets of notebook paper and then stood about twenty feet away; the men showed me by holding up their fingers how many marks were on the page.

“How are the men?” Tallent asked me that night.

“In good health,” I answered lamely.

“How old do you estimate them to be?” he asked mildly.

“Eve’s age,” I replied. I was very certain about this. “Sixty, give or take. Tu is perhaps a few years younger; his teeth are a little less worn, his vision a little sharper.” I did not add that the vision test had surprised me; all three men’s results were poor, poorer than I had anticipated. At first I thought that they had not understood the test, but when I stepped closer to them, it became clear that they knew what they were to do—they were simply incapable of doing it.

“Ah,” said Tallent, and was silent for a bit. “You’re right about Tu—he is younger than the others.” He paused again. “Tu is forty, Uva just turned forty-one, and Fa’a is forty-two.” He said this without triumph, only a sad kind of wonderment.

Then it was I who had nothing to say. “But … they can’t be,” I said uselessly.

Tallent smiled his brief, melancholy smile. “They’re elders in this country,” he said. “They are what forty-year-olds look like here. The question is”—and he nodded in Eve’s direction—“why a sixty-year-old looks like a forty-year-old.”

“Well,” I admitted, “then there’s a simple explanation. I’m wrong. She’s not sixty. She must be closer to their age.”

“I don’t think so,” said Tallent, and he called over to Fa’a, who, once he saw where Tallent was heading, came only reluctantly. All of the guides avoided Eve, but Fa’a perhaps most assiduously. He stopped a few feet short of her, and when Tallent pushed aside her fat beaver’s tail of matted hair to show him the mark, he craned his neck forward, lifting his heels and lowering his torso like a crane rather than taking one step closer to her.

But when he saw the tattoo, his reaction was immediate. For a moment he froze in that strange stance, his hands still held behind his back in a parody of an English gentleman, and then slowly moved closer to her. As Tallent had that first time, he let his fingertips just hover over the mark and then jerked them away as if he’d been burned. His jabberings to Tallent sounded furious, and although I could not understand his words, I could guess at their meaning—What is this? Is this a joke?—and, through Tallent’s soothing, low tones, his reply as well—No, it’s not a joke. Be calm. Be calm. (Even all these days and conversations later, U’ivuan still sounded to me like a blur of glottal stops and aggressive u’s chopped up by the same three or four graceless consonants. Many years later, in Maryland, I would stand on a playground watching some of my newly arrived sons and daughters be taunted by the neighborhood children, who would scoop their hands under their arms, chasing after them and making noises like cartoon gorillas—“Oo-oo-ah-ah! Koo-oo-ka-ah!”—and would not be able to stop myself from agreeing with their interpretation.)

Fa’a stamped off; he and Tallent seemed not to have resolved their argument.

“Why is he so upset?” I asked.

Tallent sighed. “He recognized Eve’s mark,” he said, pointing at Eve, who was now lowering herself to the earth with a series of hoggy grunts, “as I knew he would. The mark of the opa’ivu’eke is given only to those who reach the age of sixty. It is given in a special ceremony, which is followed by a great feast.” He was quiet. “I have never witnessed it myself.”

I didn’t understand. “But why would that agitate him?”

“Because U’ivuans don’t live to be sixty.”


“Fa’a doesn’t know of anyone. His great-grandmother, the longest-lived person in the known history of his village—that’s what he kept repeating, over and over—was fifty-eight when she died. He has never heard of anyone who has lived to sixty. It is an impossible age, and a coveted one. So you’re right, Norton. Eve is sixty—at least—and we need to figure out why, and how, she has lived this long.”

Esme arrived then, back from the stream, and Tallent told her of what had happened. I sat near them, half listening, but really I was looking at Fa’a, who was standing slightly apart from his cousins (who, as Tallent had predicted, were greedily devouring their salted vuakas, moaning with delight and relish) and looking up into the forest beyond. And suddenly, watching these short-lived creatures eating another short-lived creature, all of them spending their days searching only for a taste of something delicious, the jungle seemed a very sad place to me, and I longed to urge Fa’a to enjoy his vuaka while he could; he was forty-two, after all, and would surely not return to this island. But instead I only watched the three of them as if they were figures in a diorama, while in low voices behind me Tallent and Esme puzzled over how an Ivu’ivuan could have possibly reached the ancient age of sixty.


The forest was as Tallent had described it—hushed and mossy and magical—and in it I could feel both its lull and its danger: it was dangerous because it lulled.

I knew the forest was having its effect because of the way the guides’ behavior changed around Eve. They weren’t exactly friendly or casual—I could still see their small fingers tighten almost imperceptibly around their spears when they drew closer to her—but they talked to her in U’ivuan, and sometimes even reached out to stroke her skin, a gentle skimming pet of a touch, never lingering, never with any pressure.

Only Fa’a remained aloof, his gaze upon her inscrutable, although it was also he who came to me one night after dinner and, pointing at Eve, said, “Iv” (that was how he and Tu and Uva pronounced her name).

“Yes,” I said, “Eve.”

“Iv,” he repeated, and handed me a stick, mimed writing on the ground.

He was the only literate one of the three of them—Esme said his father had for a period attended one of the missionaries’ schools—and he watched, curious, as I etched in the dirt her name in large capital letters.

“Ah,” he said, “Eh-veh,” saying it as a U’ivuan word.

“Eve,” I corrected, but he smiled—the first time I had seen him smile; he and Eve had the same arrowheady teeth—and shook his head. “Eh-veh,” he repeated, and from then on she was Eve to us, Eh-veh to the guides.

And so we worked through the days in a sort of not unpleasant half-truce, each of us taking turns leading Eve—she was so forgetful, her attention span so limited, that we kept the rope knotted loosely around her neck like a collar—laying out her food, waiting as she dropped to the ground and sniffed and snorted. One evening, after we had stopped for the day and were eating our own meal of manama fruit and Spam and shirs of velvety tree mushrooms that we knew, thanks to Eve, were edible, she suddenly heaved herself to her feet and began her flat-footed stomp into the woods beyond. Eve was capricious, her interest in things unpredictable and often perplexing, and there was always something both funny and irritating about how purposefully she would head off in one direction or another, one of us trotting dutifully behind, only to discover that the object of her fixation was nothing more exotic than a manama fruit trembling with hunonos or a steady drip of water pocking against a large flat leaf.

I was on Eve duty that night, and so I wearily had to leave my dinner and follow her, the long end of her leash trailing behind her like Rapunzel’s braid. Her gait was so galumphing, so graceless, that I always found myself underestimating how quickly she really moved, and by the time she stopped at the edge of the clearing we’d chosen, I was panting and covered the last few yards slowly.

She was staring into the forest beyond, all blackness and shadows, but again, I thought nothing of this: she could spend literally hours staring at nothing, her mouth agape, her eyes dull as coins. “Come, Eve,” I told her, and it was when I bent to retrieve the loose end of the rope and coil it around my hand that I saw it: a gleam of pale, fatty yellow about two feet beneath me.

I stepped back, and the yellow disappeared before winking once more into place. Time then seemed to yank into a long, zinging string, vibrating with a terrible, indiscernible significance as if it were itself alive, a witness to what I might do next.

I was terrified, of course. The others were not far behind me, maybe only a seven-minute walk, less if they moved quickly, but in that moment I was unable to think of them, unable to think even of Eve, although I could hear her loud, regular breathing, hear the saw of her fingers as she rubbed them over her scalp. The only thing I could concentrate on was that lozenge of yellow, which seemed to blink and tease like a firefly. I thought suddenly of Greek mythology, of Hades, and that beyond this clearing were not trees but the waters of Acheron, and that the yellow smear was Charon’s flickering lantern.

But I had to know, I had to know. And so I stepped forward, my hands stretched before me like a blind man’s, groping in the dark, certain that my foot would land in the river’s cold, fudgy muck.

My fingers closed around the first thing they encountered, but so lost were my senses that it was another second or so before I was able to identify it as an arm, a disembodied arm that I could not see but that had somehow taken shape within my grasp, or so it seemed. And then I found my voice and screamed, and Eve screamed with me, and the arm screamed too, and from behind it came other screams, all of us so loud that I could hear the forest wake and rearrange itself: bird wings, bat wings, a chorus of flapping, of insects’ patter, of colonies of unknown, hidden beasts being roused from their idyll and scuttling from one unseen tree branch to another, our noises an insult to the forest’s perfect crystalline calm.

They were with me in what seemed no time at all: Tallent and Esme and Tu and Uva and Fa’a, all of them, and then they were pulling at me, working my hand loose from the arm and pulling the arm itself from the copse of trees beyond, and I saw it was a man, Eve’s height, also naked, his face covered with a fantastic beard, his mouth still open in a scream, that yellow light his teeth, the brightest thing against the black of his face.

Behind him were arms, legs, hair, bone, and as Esme soothed Eve and Tallent the new man (but who would comfort me?), the guides were plucking from the darkness person after person, until there were seven of them standing before us, four men and three women, naked and creatively half clothed, clean and slovenly, talking and not.

Really, we realized later, when we had assembled them at our camp, there was little to distinguish them as a group, other than they were all Ivu’ivuans, and all (we checked) bore the mark of the opa’ivu’eke on the backs of their necks. They were also, as far as I could determine, all in good physical health; their pulses (after they had calmed themselves) rhythmic, their teeth and gums strong. None of the men had spears, and their absence made the guides cluck and chatter to one another; to them it was a fearful deformation, as if their hearts were beating outside their chests. It was a very long night, examining them, talking to them, with Eve, tied to a tree a few yards off, forgotten for the moment, although she seemed not to take offense.

They all knew Eve. The apparent leader of the group, the one I had grabbed, was named Mua, and like the others he appeared to be around Eve’s age, a little older perhaps. But he—again like the others—was unlike Eve in one crucial way: he spoke. They all spoke, all coherently, some intelligently, others not so. But I will return to that in a moment. The important thing was that they had been looking for Eve (whose real name, it was revealed, was Pu’u, flower); she had wandered away from their group.

They seemed for the most part happy to let Mua represent them, but then some of them would start talking, their voices lapping over one another like waves, and then the guides—who until then had sat silent and staring and frightened, their fingers wrapped around their spears—would start answering them or talking among themselves, and poor Fa’a would be swiveling his head back and forth from one of us to the next, trying to follow the various scatters of conversation.

Finally, finally, we made them lie down, and soon everyone was asleep, even Tallent, and the forest resumed its impassive quiet. Only Fa’a and I stayed awake, the two of us on guard for the night, sitting across from each other while the others—eight now instead of one—sprawled in a misshapen ellipse between us. They were singularly ungraceful sleepers, their mouths yawning open, their hammy thighs twitching like a dog’s, and in slumber they appeared a strange hybrid, their bodies those of sturdy children, their faces those of someone much older: a crone, a wizard, a sorcerer. Once I looked across the way toward Fa’a, who had not spoken a word since we had begun our watch. I could barely see him, so near total was the darkness, but he must have sensed that I was looking at him, for he bared his teeth at me in a gesture that felt reassuring, not malevolent, and I saw a flash of dingy white, proof that he was there with me and that we were seeing the same thing and living the same dream, however unlikely it seemed.


The next day belonged to me, and so while Tallent and Esme began, with Fa’a’s help, to interview some of the subjects, I was left to give the rest of them basic neurological tests—simple, crude things, but no less interesting for that (and besides, they were the best I could manage). I had Tu, who spoke a trace of English, assemble three things I knew the names of, and placed them in turn before each subject.

“Name?” I asked, sitting on the peaty ground before one of these squatting dreamers with my notebook and ridiculous fountain pen (why, I thought, as the ink smeared and perspired across the damp pages, had I brought a fountain pen?).

“Ko’okina?” asked Tu.


They were Mua, Vanu, Ika’ana, Vi’iu (these were the men), and Ivaiva, Va’ana, and Ukavi (these were the women). Ivaiva and Va’ana were sisters, fraternal twins, I guessed. Ivaiva was plumper and her face jollier, and Va’ana somehow dignified, or as dignified as one could be in her state.

I presented them with an object. “What is it?”

“Eva?” Tu translated.[30]


The next one: “Eva?”


The next one: the spear Fa’a had found. When I produced it, Tu recoiled for a moment, but then recovered and asked bravely, “Eva?”


“E, ma’alamakina,” Tu agreed. (Later I would learn that the name for spear was actually just alamakina but that both men had preceded the word with the honorific ma.)

And then I moved on to the next person. When I had interviewed all of them—Va’ana, despite her keen, intelligent eyes, misidentified the manama as something called a ponona (Tu drew a sharklike creature on the ground before me, jabbing at it and repeating “Ponona, ponona”), and both Vanu and Vi’iu were unable to name any of the objects—I sat again in front of Mua and asked him to name the objects I’d shown him (communicating to Uva what I needed required the help of both Tallent and Fa’a).

He remembered the hunono and the alamakina but not the manama. And it was the same with the others: they could not properly remember the objects that I’d shown them less than an hour before—only Ukavi got all three words correct, and recollecting them took her a full five minutes, most of which she spent staring at a tree, as if the items themselves might suddenly appear before her. Their results were so poor that I was forced once again to borrow Fa’a, whom I instructed to rerun the test. He had a low, gentle voice, Fa’a, and although I could not understand what he was saying, I imagined from his quiet, coaxing tone that he was offering them encouragement: What did you see? You remember. Tell me.

But his results were no better than Tu’s, and indeed, I could see that some of the group were growing tired, their eyes slipping away from Fa’a’s before he even began to speak.

There was so much I was unable to test. I could not ask them to read a sentence and repeat it back to me, for they did not know how to read. (Some U’ivuans, Tallent had told me, could still read ola’alu, their prehistoric hierogylphic alphabet, but when I had Tu trace some basic symbols on a piece of paper—man, woman, sea, sun—they stared at them uncomprehendingly.) I could not ask them what day it was, for, embarrassingly, I no longer knew myself. Besides, the difficulty wasn’t simply that their memories were poor; it was that their attention spans were so brief.

But although they all suffered from mental impairment, their physical condition was, like Eve’s, impressive, their reflexes sharp, their balance and coordination excellent. Without warning, I tossed the manama (its surface long broken and lively with worms after so much handling) to Mua, who reached out and caught it quite naturally before throwing it back to me in a lovely, clean arc. And like Eve, they all had impressive hearing: I stood two feet from Ukavi and rubbed my fingers near her right ear, only to have the other seven—and Tu—turn quickly in the direction of the sound, which seemed to me no more than a whisper. They were sensitive to smell, to touch—I traced a fern tip down the sole of their left foot, and they jerked it away as if I had cut them with a blade—but like the others, their vision was poor. As I widened the distance between Mua and myself for our game of catch, I noticed at one point that his eyes were closed, and I realized he was listening for the sound of the fruit parting the air, not watching for it at all. At the last second, he stretched out an arm, and the manama landed with a thunk in his palm, flesh striking flesh.

They also, not inconsequentially, looked very healthy, healthier in some ways than a sixty-year-old in the States. Yes, the women’s teats were stretched and obviously depleted, but their faces were smooth, and the men’s hair still mostly black—like the guides, they wore it twisted into a plush knot at the base of their skulls—and all of them had extravagant blooms of pubic hair, so thick that from a distance it was a bit of a shock, as if some volelike creature had grafted itself onto their skin. Like the guides, they were muscled and dexterous, if not necessarily quick: they had Eve’s affectless, slump-shouldered stump, which made them appear curiously resigned; theirs was the shuffle of people leaving the factory after a long day of numbing work, or slouching down the aisle toward their prison cell.

It was an exhausting day, and it wasn’t until the air once again grew blurred and thick with nightfall that we were able to talk with Mua. Anyone who saw him with the others would immediately have been able to single him out as the leader; he looked at you directly, unlike the others, whose gaze drifted from you uninterestedly almost instantly, and he was the cleanest and, though this ought not to have mattered, also the most competently and fully dressed. Ika’ana and Ukavi and Ivaiva all had some semblance of clothing, though they seemed to interpret it more as decoration than as utility: all Ika’ana wore around his waist was a necklace woven from some vines, from which dangled five sharp teeth (human? I wondered), and Ukavi wore a short band of stiff, fibrous, frog-green cloth draped uselessly around her neck like a scarf. Ivaiva had some of that same cloth—later, when I felt it, I realized it was not as brittle as it appeared but instead had a soft, fawny texture—tied in a strange lump around her right upper thigh. But Mua wore his cloth fastened around his groin, and although it covered not much of anything (his pubic hair made a bristling hedge above it), it seemed the closest approximation to practicality.

“I’m going to ask him some questions,” Tallent told me. “As he answers, I’ll translate, and I need you to write down what I say as accurately as possible.” He looked at me, his face unreadable. Tallent had chosen me to help him; Esme, along with the guides, would be watching over the others in the clearing uphill from us, and was already busy leading them to the stream for some water. “All right?”

“All right,” I said. I felt, for some reason, frightened, both of what I would hear and of not rendering it correctly. It seemed—though Tallent had said nothing of the sort—that there was something crucial and irreproducible about this interview, this moment, and I had the sudden image of myself in the foggy, gray-haired future, standing before a rapt audience and telling them, “This is where it began. This is where I learned the great secret,” though of course I had no idea what secret I was even supposed to be desiring to learn.

“Let’s begin,” said Tallent, and took a breath and turned to Mua, who tipped his head attentively, ready for what might follow. And so I raised my pen.


“My family was not like the other families,” said Mua. “Other families here on Ivu’ivu, they are born on Ivu’ivu and they die here, and it is the same with their parents and grandparents and everyone in their family. Ivu’ivu is their world, and there is nothing else.

“But my father was not from Ivu’ivu. He was from U’ivu, and there his family were planters. They planted makava trees—do you know what those are? They are like manamas, but the fruit is smaller and pinker and the flesh is sweeter. But they don’t have hunonos, so people here don’t care for them as much.

“One day, a day in the year the great king died, my father’s mother grew very sick. She groaned and tossed from side to side. The pain seemed to come from her stomach, which was large and hard. For a day and a night she thrashed and screamed, and my father—he had twelve o’anas then—didn’t know what to do. His father was away in the makava grove, where he spent every lili’aka harvesting the crops. The grove was not too far—my father could have reached it in a day if he hurried—but it would mean leaving behind his five younger brothers and sisters, and his mother, through her moans, had made him promise to watch over them. So what could he do? Nothing. He had to stay and watch his mother flop on her mat like a suffocating fish.

“On the second night, my father’s mother’s screams grew louder, and the neighbors who had come to hold her hand and slap her cheeks, calling her name so that she would come back to herself and rid herself of whatever was inside her, decided they had to have someone perform ka’aka’a. This was a very old practice that involved cutting away the flesh of whatever ailed you and burying it. My father’s father’s father was a ka’aka’a practitioner, and when I was a child, my father would tell me how he watched him once crack a woman’s skull like a coconut with a blunt piece of wood held to one side of the woman’s head, which he struck with a rock repeatedly. The woman’s insides oozed out, and then my father’s father’s father stitched her back up with tava thread, and after that she had no more pains in her head ever again.

“At that time in my father’s village there was only one remaining ka’aka’a practitioner. There had once been many, but then the ho’oalas arrived and there were fewer. The ka’aka’a practitioner came over and chanted to my father’s mother, and the neighbor women held her down as she bucked and shouted. My father and his sisters and brothers were made to wait outside their hut, but there was a small window, and because my father was the tallest, he was just able to peer over the edge and watch as the ka’aka’a man took out a long stick, maybe from my father’s father’s makava grove, where he was harvesting crops because it was lili’aka, and which he had carved into a sharp point. And my father watched as he held it high above his head and then drove it into the stomach of my father’s mother, who screamed so loudly that my father promised that the roof of the house shook and trembled.

“The ka’aka’a man carved a large wedge of flesh out of my father’s mother’s stomach and held it again above his head, chanting to A’aka and Ivu’ivu to save my father’s mother, to heal her and comfort her. Then he wrapped the piece of flesh in some tava cloth that he would have pounded that morning and asked one of the neighbor women to bury it under a kanava tree. My father’s mother was screaming and screaming.

“Just as the neighbor women were leaving the hut—and by this time the entire village had gathered outside, chanting for the sick woman, and some were preparing to leave and retrieve my father’s father, whose groves were a day away if they hurried, and where he was harvesting makava fruit—my father’s mother’s screams became louder, so loud that the animals of the village, the pigs and chickens and horses, began screaming too, and my father said the whole world seemed made of sound and nothing else. He was tired from standing on his toes to look in the window, but he lifted himself up again in time to see the ka’aka’a man reach into my mother’s stomach and lift something out of it. From my father’s perspective, it looked like a great gleaming wodge of pale fat, the kind that the women would render from horses and cook with. But then it slipped from the ka’aka’a man’s hands and fell to the ground, where, to my father’s alarm, it cracked like a stone, shattering into many shards on the earth.

“Then there was a great uproar, and the ka’aka’a man was pointing at my father’s mother and saying that she had had an opa’ivu’eke inside of her and that she had been carrying a god inside her all along. When the villagers heard this, they started rushing into the small hut to see proof of the opa’ivu’eke, and when they saw what remained of it, its shell broken in pieces, they started wailing, and the men rushed home to get their spears. It was unclear, my father said, what they meant to do. Was his mother a demon, as some said, for carrying the god, or was she to be worshipped for doing so? Why had she not said anything? What did it mean that she was carrying an opa’ivu’eke? Nothing like this had ever happened before, and so they did not know whether my father’s mother was good fortune or bad, whether she must be slain or healed. Lost in all of this was the ka’aka’a man, who surely bore much of the blame for breaking the god but who had somehow managed to slip away, but not before convincing the others—for ka’aka’a men are known for their ability to persuade people, for their gifted tongues—that he deserved all of the glory and none of the blame for what had happened.

“But before the villagers could decide what to do with my father’s mother, she died, and the people, who were angry at how she decided her fate before they could, set fire to my father’s house and then ran after my father and his siblings, the women leaping out of trees, ululating in that fierce way women have, to scare my father and his sisters and brothers into running in one direction, then another, whereupon the women’s husbands would leap out and stab them with their spears. But my father, because he was the oldest, was the fastest runner, and after he saw his second sister die, he ran as fast as he could toward his father’s makava groves, where he was harvesting his crop.

“He ran and ran, and eventually he came upon a great hog lying dead on the side of the path. This was strange, because hogs normally kept to the jungles and always traveled in packs. Sometimes a sick hog might wander off by itself, but it was very rare.

“Even though the hog appeared dead, my father was wary. Many remarkable things had happened already, and the sight of the lone hog did not seem a good omen. He slowed his pace and walked carefully toward the hog. But as he grew close he cried out, because it was not a hog at all but his father, burned so black that my father had mistaken the little dried flakes of skin that were lifting in the breeze for a hog’s sharp quills. My father said that later he would remember most vividly how his father lay, with his arms and legs bent and tucked into his body, how the fire had been so complete that his legs seemed to have fused into one large trunk. He knew that he must have been on his way home and attacked by some of the village men who had seen the turtle that was inside my father’s mother.

“Now my father was an orphan, and alone. He had begun the day as the oldest child of six, with a father who had makava trees and a mother and sisters and brothers. But now he had nothing. He could not return to his village, and he knew no one else who might help him—his father’s and mother’s siblings had died long before, and there was no other person he knew in the world.

“My father crawled into a kanava tree not far from his father’s charred body. That night he dreamed that Opa’ivu’eke came to him and told him that his mother was cursed for carrying one of his descendants in her womb, but that my father could reverse this curse—if, that is, he left behind everything he knew and traveled to Ivu’ivu, from which he could never return.

“The next morning my father awoke both frightened and determined. U’ivuans simply did not go to Ivu’ivu—Ivu’ivu was, my father said, a land inhabited solely by gods and spirits and monsters. Sometimes he had listened to the adults of the village tell stories at night about Ivu’ivu, about how in the dark the island came alive and roamed the seas, its huge bulk cleaving the waters and upsetting the tides before returning to its spot before dawn. He had heard stories of how trees there talked in whispery rushes, how stones slid silently across the ground, how there were plants that fed on flesh. Everyone had claimed to know some foolish person who had once gone there to explore and who had never returned.

“But my father knew he had no choice, and at any rate, he knew from what had happened to his father that while Ivu’ivu held the likelihood of danger and death, remaining on U’ivu guaranteed it.

“My father went down to the shore. He had nothing to trade, nothing to give, and even if he had, there were very few fishermen who would venture as far as Ivu’ivu—the trip would take almost a day, and that, and their fear, meant that convincing someone to carry him by boat would be impossible. Oh, my father thought, if only I could fly! If only I could swim like a dolphin! And then he thought of the turtle’s dream and felt anger, and then despair. How could he fulfill such an impossible command?

“As my father stood near the shore, very sad, he suddenly saw something dark sliding beneath the water’s surface. My father assumed it was a school of the skinny, silvery fish that anyone could scoop up with a bit of homemade net and then cook over an open fire, their bones so fine you could eat them whole. But then, to my father’s great astonishment, the thing rose, and my father saw that it was an enormous turtle, the biggest he had ever seen, both taller and wider than he was, its feet as large as lawa’a ferns, paddling the water in brisk, forceful strokes and staring at my father with its slow yellow eyes. My father was so amazed he found himself unable to move, but then the turtle waddled the top half of his body onto land, and my father understood that he was to straddle the turtle’s back and the turtle would take him to Ivu’ivu.

“My father had never felt exhilaration like the kind he experienced riding atop the turtle. The turtle swam gingerly through the shallows, careful not to scratch his feet on the great oceans of coral, but once they were in open water his swimming became swift and powerful, and they passed groups of sharks, pods of whales, and once a magnificent fleet of other opa’ivu’ekes, hundreds of them, each as big as the one he was riding, who lifted their heads from the water and stared at him as if in salute with a multiplicity of glowing eyes.

“In no time at all they were at Ivu’ivu, and as my father was climbing off the turtle’s back, he was for a moment certain that the turtle, who had been watching him with his big eyes, as large and yellow as mangoes, was going to speak to him. But the turtle did not, only blinked at my father and turned and swam back to sea, while my father kept his head bowed in the turtle’s direction, in respect, until he could no longer hear the turtle’s strokes, only the sound of the waves.

“For the next many days, my father walked. Although he listened as hard as he could, he never heard the trees speak to one another, and although he stayed awake as long as he could, he never once felt the island make its nighttime perambulations. But he did see flocks of strange birds, their plumage bright blue and yellow and red against the forest, who swaggered through the trees in bustling, clucking groups, and branches so thick with chattering vuakas that they sagged under their weight, and makava groves so wild and tangled with fruit that his father would have wept to see them.

“After a very long time, my father reached a village, and there, although it was not easy—the people were suspicious and thought him a ghost—he was finally welcomed, and on his fourteenth birthday given his spear. And eventually he made a family.

“But even after all these years, no one ever believed my father was from another place. They did not believe in U’ivu. And why should they? They could not see it. My father’s claim that this island was one of three that made a country called U’ivu was information they had never heard before and had no reason to believe. To us Ivu’ivuans, Ivu’ivu is the world, no more, no less. For many years I myself did not believe my father’s stories—I thought they were tales he had made up to amuse us. But eventually I began to think he might be telling me the truth after all. Why? Well, first, my father is a very honest person. I have never known him to insist that something is true when it is not. And second, he has told this same story for so many years now, I can only believe in him, and because he is my father, I must.”

You must remember that the entire time Mua was speaking, I was looking only at Tallent. I could not understand Mua’s words, of course, so I tried to interpret how Tallent was reacting to them by watching his face. It was not very illuminating. I have to imagine that Tallent was changing some of the words as he went, making Mua’s sentences lovelier and more complex, but I was unable to gauge his reaction—his voice only strode onward, his tone calm and unchanging, even when Mua’s voice pitched up in excitement and then crested down. Later, when Tallent and Esme and I read over my notes and things were explained to me and put into their proper context, I would marvel at just how calm he had remained, how well he had been able to compose himself, when with each sentence Mua spoke he must have felt himself moving closer and closer to a discovery he had not even known to imagine for himself.

Only once did I hear Tallent’s voice change, and much later I would wish that I had been watching him more closely at that moment, that I had thought to seize the image in my head and preserve it in wax, so that I might always be able to look upon it as one of those rare moments in which one senses the plates of the world shift beneath one and life is forever altered: on one side of the buckling earth is the past, and on the other side the present, and there is no soldering the two together ever again.

“I’m going to ask Mua when his father died,” Tallent murmured to me, his eyes still on Mua. “Mua, e koa huata ku’oku make’e?”

Mua responded quickly, tossing his arm toward the group, and as he did, I saw Tallent grow absolutely still, and in that instant—as strange as it will sound—I had the sense that he was trying to shrink into himself, to pitch himself backward into the soft floor of the jungle, which might open like the mouth of a great beast and swallow him, gently, whole.

“He’s still alive,” said Tallent, and then he looked at me, and in the night—we had been interviewing Mua for at least an hour by then—his face, under the copper of his skin, was as pale as bone. “Vanu is his father. Mua says we can speak to him if we like.”


It took an entire day of Esme and Tallent talking—to each other, to me—to make me fully comprehend the implications of Mua’s story. By this time we were moving again, the dreamers (as I had come to think of them, for their somnambulists’ drool, their dopey half-glaze of clarity, as if they were slogging through a thick sediment of sleep) separated into three groups, bound together by their wrists with a long string of vine which was fastened to the waist of one of the guides. We were headed—again—uphill, but in no particular direction, for Mua was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to explain to us where his village was. But uphill seemed the only possibility; to our left and right, the forest had once again closed in, the tree trunks nudged together so tightly that only the faintest ringlets of ferns could penetrate the millimeters between them.

Of course the first thing I had done after Tallent had finished translating was to pluck Vanu from the group (he had been sleeping and flicked away my hand several times, grouchily, before I was able to rouse him) and bring him over to Mua. I watched him as Tallent tried to negotiate a conversation between the three of them. Did he look—even as I was thinking it, I couldn’t believe I was even entertaining the question—older than Mua? Maybe, I thought; if Mua looked sixty or thereabouts, Vanu appeared maybe five or six years older. And was there a resemblance? Perhaps—both had the same flat cheekbones, the same jutting lower jaw, the same low forehead carved up with horizontal grooves like a bit of bark. But on the other hand, they all looked the same to me, and had I brought over Ika’ana instead of Vanu, would I not have been able to see a similarity as well?

But later, when I was speaking with Tallent—or trying to, at any rate; Esme, who had been so slow throughout most of our ascent, was now trotting after us like a small white dog—and telling him of my observations, I was informed that I had missed the more important information, information that, as Esme seemed pleased to tell me, I could not have understood the significance of.

The first thing was, apparently, the matter of the king. “Do you remember when Mua said that his father was twelve in the year the king died?” asked Tallent.

“Of course,” I said. “But that could be any king, right? The current king’s father, perhaps?”

“It could have had he just said ‘the king.’ But he didn’t. He used a particular honorific, ma, which is used only in association with one particular king—King Vaka I, the king to unite the islands. And when did King Vaka I die?”

I said nothing. Of course I didn’t know.

“In 1831,” chirped Esme from nowhere.

“Right,” said Tallent. I had the distinct sense then that he and Esme had been practicing this call-and-response the night before, and I resolved right then that I would not participate in their little theater. “And do you remember, Norton, how Mua spoke of the ka’aka’a healer?”

“Yes,” I said, and had again a vision of the healer holding the stone baby aloft in his hands, his chants and the women’s cries filling the close, tiny hut.

“Well, ka’aka’a was outlawed by King Vaka I’s son, King Maku, in 1850, upon penalty of death. So—”

“Actually, 1849,” said Esme, all but panting with excitement.

“Sorry, 1849. So that means—”

“Yes, but surely there were people who disobeyed. If this was a tradition—”

“You don’t understand, Norton,” said Esme, and so intense was the effort I expended to keep from slapping her that I felt myself grow dizzy, “U’ivuans do not disobey the king. Ever.”

“So what are you saying?” I hurried on, before Tallent could chime in with his agreement and the two could remind me how stupid I was. “That Vanu was born in 1831?”

“Actually, he’d have been born in 1819,” said Tallent peaceably.

I stopped then and looked at them. “Please,” I said. “Please don’t tell me that you believe him.”

“Why not?” asked Tallent in the same calm, reasonable tone.

For a moment I did not trust myself to speak. Oh god, I realized, I have made a terrible mistake. I thought of Sereny, his gusting, benign presence, the sad and resigned look he had fixed me with when I had told him—without any thought!—that I would be delighted to fly off to an island I’d never heard of, with an anthropologist I’d never heard of, for almost half a year. I felt myself gripped by an intense desire to get off the island, followed almost immediately with a dull sort of ache—I would never escape. I was aware then of how lonely I was, here with the dreamers and the guides and Tallent, who was frustratingly out of my reach, and ugly, charmless Esme, with her round, shiny face and her khaki shorts that bunched at her crotch.

“Well,” I said, as calmly as I could, “the turtle, for one.”

“Oh,” said Tallent, waving his hand as if I were a waiter offering him a dish he did not care for. “Forget the turtle for a minute. What’s important is—”

“The stone baby,” I continued.

“But those do exist,” Esme interrupted.

“And are exceedingly rare,”[31] I finished. “But Tallent,” I pleaded—I needed to know, and I feared his answer—“you’re not implying that you really believe Vanu to be one hundred and thirty-one years old, are you?”

Tallent looked at me for a long moment before answering, and when he spoke next, his voice was gentle again. “I know it seems improbable, even impossible, Norton,” he said. “But I can find no other conclusion. And besides”—and here he swept his arm out, indicating everything that was around us: the trees with their microscopic monkeys and massive sloths, the stones bearded with green and the rocks stubbled with moss, and, ahead of us, Eve and her people, shuffling behind the guides in a slow, ragged line—“what about this place is not impossible?”

And to that I unfortunately had no answer. Even Esme was silent. After a while there was nothing left to do but continue walking, and for quite some time none of us spoke and the sounds of the jungle stepped in to supply the conversation we could not have.


So there I was, a scientist (presumably), a doctor (allegedly), and a colleague (regrettably) of two people who were convinced that a man who appeared to be 65 was actually 131.

I knew that they thought I was being rigid and intellectually incurious and boringly conservative, and I knew too that they knew I thought them ridiculous and undisciplined and dangerously fanciful. The difference was that only one of us was bothered by this. Esme, in fact, seemed overjoyed, cleaving to Tallent like a flake of fungus to a damp sapling.

It was difficult not to sulk. Even Tallent, whose ability to notice the everyday shifts of emotions normal people experienced was rather less than stellar, swung into step with me for a minute. “Don’t worry, Norton,” he said, handing me a manama fruit (bruised, bulging, busy with hunonos), which I by this time felt confident enough to admit I really didn’t like.

It was also difficult to admit that in my desire to introduce some scientific rigor and logic into the process, I had unintentionally given Tallent and Esme even more fodder for their fairy tale. I had made us reinterview all of our foundlings in a process I had hoped would help us determine their true ages. This, however, had proved more challenging than I’d hoped, chiefly because it seemed that there were very few recorded events on Ivu’ivu: they had here no notion of the king, no notion of time, no notion of history. They had never seen a ho’oala before—they continued to stare at us, alone and in groups, in silence, the bolder ones plucking at our wrists and trying to peer up our shorts in an artless echo of our examinations of them—but this piece of ignorance was of no help, as no ho’oala had ever set foot on Ivu’ivu before. Indeed, one of the most memorable events of the past decades (I couldn’t bring myself to say the word century) was Vanu’s arrival, a day that Ika’ana and Vi’iu, Ivaiva and Va’ana all claimed to remember. Each told the story a little differently, embroidered and embellished in various ways (Vi’iu’s rendering had Vanu arriving like a Micronesian Vishnu on the back of a monstrous, trudging opa’ivu’eke), but they all remembered it: skinny little Vanu, his funny, torn tava-cloth bloomers, too young even to have earned his first spear. The twins both claimed that they had been in the midst of their wedding ceremony when suddenly, disrupting the celebrations, there was Vanu, unable to move his eyes from the side of pork roasting over the fire for the feast that would follow.[32] Only Ukavi said that she had not yet been born to witness Vanu’s entry into her life. But then she did remember being a young girl and watching Vanu get married. Like the others, her memories grew more complete and assured the deeper into the past she reached.

“He’d have been about seventeen when he was married,” said Tallent later, his pen bobbing over his notebook. “So Ukavi was born shortly after he arrived, which means she’s approximately—what? A hundred and nine? A hundred and eight? Around there.”

But it was Ika’ana’s story that really made him and Esme excited. For Ika’ana, it emerged, had been born five years before the great earthquake, the one event that everyone on Ivu’ivu seemed to remember. This was a terrible catastrophe for the islands, felt as far away as Fiji to the west and Hawaii to the north. U’ivuan mythology explained it as a passionate lovers’ quarrel between Ivu’ivu and A’aka (over what, no one seemed to know), a war in which the gods, each determined to destroy the other, assaulted one another with all the weaponry they had, A’aka enlisting his siblings, the gods of the skies, to storm and rage on his behalf and Ivu’ivu riling the waters into towering waves, ones that reached so far into the sky they almost scraped the sun. After it was over, the two never fought again, in part (so the story went) because they realized their powers were evenly matched and one would never be able to overwhelm the other, and in part because their old and long-suffering friend Opa’ivu’eke had begged them to stop, and neither god could bear to see him made unhappy by them. In U’ivuan, the earthquake was known as Ka Weha: the Fight.

“I was a small child during Ka Weha,” said Ika’ana to Tallent. “But I remember how the ground beneath me split and cracked like a no’aka fruit,[33] and how my mother ran with me into a nest of lawa’a ferns and held me until the gods stopped their arguing. And I remember how when we made our way back to the village, the cooking fires had spread and the male’es were on fire, and how my mother said we were lucky it was the beginning of ‘uaka because the rains would soon be coming and we would be safe. That night we prayed and danced to the gods and their happiness, and there has never been another fight since.”

He said a great deal more, and although Tallent leaned forward, asking questions and writing and writing, he translated nothing else for me, and when I asked him what else Ika’ana had said, he only looked thoughtful and said he needed to think about it for a while.

“Think about what?” I asked, but he didn’t answer.

But anyway, the important part: Ka Weha had taken place in 1779. Ika’ana was therefore about 176.

“He can’t be,” I protested, the panic rising up again, nearly choking me.

“It’s 1950,” said Tallent, calmly but with a slight edge to his voice; he was growing frustrated with me. “He was five during Ka Weha. Math doesn’t lie, Norton.”

Math didn’t lie. But everything else did. Tallent was right about one thing, though: it was 1950. A few yards off, Ika’ana sat, slightly rheumy-eyed, eating his portion of Spam. Next to him sat Fa’a, his fingers fanning out and then closing again around his spear. And although I could have reached them in a few long strides, I still couldn’t have told you simply by looking who was the younger and who was the older, who was the madman and who was on my side.

[21] Of all the characters who have populated the last half century of anthropology, Paul Joseph Tallent (1916–?) is arguably both the most fascinating and the most unknowable. Thought to have been born to a mother of Sioux extraction, he was raised from a toddler at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage for Boys in the town of Cloud Prairie, just outside of Pierre, South Dakota (the town’s territory, if not its name, is now a suburb of the capital). St. Joseph’s was a Catholic orphanage with a disproportionately large number of Indian boys; it was known for training its charges in various vocations, including plumbing and carpentry. Tallent, however, attracted the attention of one of his teachers, a Brother Peter (his lay name was Michael Tallent, and it is from him that Tallent undoubtedly took his surname, as all of the boys at St. Joseph’s were automatically given the name of Joseph), who mentored him and secured him a scholarship to a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Pierre, St. Francis’s. Tallent excelled at St. Francis’s and went on to win admittance to first Dartmouth (A.B., 1937) and then the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in 1941 (like Norton, Tallent was granted an exemption from service, although it’s unknown on what grounds). He was indeed, as Norton notes, very handsome, a fact that contributed to the aura of heroic romance that later came to surround him.
   Tallent was immediately considered something of a prodigy in his field, first at Chicago, where he stayed to lecture for three years after receiving his doctorate, and then at Stanford, which would become his permanent academic home. While
   it seemed as unlikely as a dodo ever to fly. Tallent and I and our luggage shared room with crates and crates of supplies, but no other passengers; the engines were so loud that conversation was—I was relieved to discover—impossible, and so after smiling vaguely in my direction and writing in a notebook for an hour or so, he closed his eyes and napped.
   I had never given much thought to my own appearance—my body was, until that point, a vehicle of utility, and not something I had ever even considered possible or in my ability to change or shape or perfect. But looking at Tallent—his hair and skin and eyes the same dark-gold, brandyish hue, his many teeth remarkably white and crowded, which gave his smiles a lupine affect—I was made unavoidably aware of my own flaws: my bunchy knees, my floury skin, my floaty puff of hair. It seemed both improbable and ludicrous then that Tallent and I should be of the same species, and cruel that he should be a mirror of human perfection against which I could only catalogue my deficiencies. I spent the rest of the flight staring at him, willing him to open his eyes and yet dreading it too, disgusted by the ache I felt and yet enjoying it too. When the plane at last at Chicago he found a mentor in the renowned anthropologist Leo DuPlessix, who was at the time studying the reproductive rituals of the Hawawa people, a small tribe that lived in the jungles of Papua New Guinea; he was no doubt responsible for Tallent’s intellectual leanings and fields of interest. It is thought that DuPlessix, who died in 1943, assisted Tallent in his first trip to U’ivu later that year, but this is not documented in DuPlessix’s papers so cannot be definitively stated.
   Chief among the many frustrations Tallent’s later biographers and scholars would encounter was their subject’s lack of journals or papers of his own. Indeed, most scholars find it difficult to believe that Tallent, who was so scrupulous about documenting every detail while in the field, should not have left behind a personal diary, or at the very least correspondence. This absence, along with his work and his still mysterious disappearance (which Norton will discuss later), has naturally only heightened the intrigue that surrounds Tallent, and several historians have been at work for many years now trying to compile definitive biographies of his life. (Norton, who is among the people who worked with him the most closely and at the most significant period of his scholarship, is often approached by them for interviews and insights.) In my opinion, however, it seems a job more suited for a novelist than for a historian: among the unknowns of Tallent’s life are his sexual predilections, his parentage, the specifics of his childhood, his romantic life (if any), and, of course, the manner of his death. He has become fertile ground for conspiracy theorists of all make, and is even revered as something of a mystic among certain fringe elements of the liberal arts community.

[22] This was actually untrue. While Duff, who was at the time a lecturer in the Anthropology Department at Stanford (her specialty was Micronesian village life), had accompanied Tallent on his previous two trips to the island, she had never been known among her colleagues as a linguist, and her understanding of the language was considered by later U’ivuan scholars to be rudimentary at best. However, she was certainly not quick to correct any misunderstandings regarding her fluency.

[23] All three of the guides were boar hunters on U’ivu, where the hogs mostly keep to the forests on the Ta’imana range; they would have had great expertise not only scaling steep inclines but negotiating rough jungle terrain.

[24] Later Norton would speculate that Tallent might have been referring to a series of experiments that were conducted at St. Joseph’s around 1910 by a phrenologist named Murrow Upton, whose theories about skull size and proportion were considered quite fashionable at the turn of the century. Upton was particularly fond of saying that the Indians had been biologically ordained to lose their lands to the Europeans, which he was convinced could be proved by measuring their skulls, which he posited were both smaller and lighter than those of various European ethnicities.

[25] The opa’ivu’eke remains the only turtle in recorded history that can live in both fresh water and saltwater for sustained periods of time.

[26] Literally, “My spear, my self.”

[27] This concept of la—which Norton here translates as “meaningless,” though others have interpreted it as something closer to the Zen Buddhist concept of mu, or “nothingness”—is arguably the most important governing principle in traditional U’ivuan philosophy (not to be confused with their mythology, or their religion, which is largely animistic).
   In The Land of La (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987), the theologian David Hohlt even argues that although Buddhism never reached U’ivuan shores, the core values of the belief system are “closer to early Buddhism than the way the religion is currently interpreted and adhered to throughout Asia today.” In fact, Hohlt writes, we can see the U’ivuan philosophy as a sort of ur-Buddhism, an argument for the theory that the belief system—and, by extension, history’s other major religions—was an inevitability, that its tenets are something man was destined to create for himself.
   I myself have a la story, one I have always remembered from when I visited U’ivu, in 1972. It was very hot, and I was disoriented and groggy from the humidity, the bugs, the stenches. As I walked through the town’s circle of poor, flimsy huts, I came upon a group of three little Ivu’ivuan girls, all half naked, holding hands and moving slowly in a circle, chanting. They had the sort of high, pretty voices only very small children have—sweet even in their tunelessness—and I watched them move round and round, singing their song.
   Later, however, when I told Norton of what I had witnessed, he said he knew exactly what the girls had been chanting. A nursery rhyme, I guessed. But it wasn’t; it was the first verses an U’ivuan child learns, a chant sung at both births and deaths:

What is life? La.
What is death? La.
What is the sun, the water, the sky, the forest? La.
What is my house, my pig, my beads, my friends? La.
But what is life without my spear? O, la. La. La.

[28] Among the many things that were unique to the U’ivuans was their way of measuring time. The U’ivuan o’ana, or year, is divided into four periods of one hundred days each. First comes the ‘uaka, or wet season, when it rains literally every day, sometimes for hours at a stretch. Then comes the lili’uaka, or “small rain” season, when the air is still damp but the rainfall less frequent and the temperature warmer. The next season, lili’aka, or “small sun,” is the most pleasant: there is rain in the morning, but it burns off quickly and the rest of the day is sunny and fairly arid, or as arid as a tropical climate can be. Last comes u’aka, the hottest season, when rain arrives only in unexpected, stingy splatters and even the trees seem to wilt under the relentless sun. (Although Norton does not specify, his journeys in Ivu’ivu probably began around the end of lili’uaka.)
   Aside from these four seasons, the U’ivuans were remarkable for not measuring any increment of time: they had no sense of hours, minutes, weeks, or months; even their numeric system only went up to one thousand. A day began when the sun rose (or, in the case of ‘uaka, when the sky lightened) and ended when the sun set (or the night descended). People’s birthdays were marked by which day during the season they were born, so, for example, someone born on the seventeenth day of the small sun season would say that they had marked a year on lili’uaka oholole, or “small sun seventeen.” This means that because of their four-hundred-day year, a sixty-year-old U’ivuan would actually be 65.7 by the Western calendar. But Norton has used the U’ivuan calendar throughout this narrative to avoid confusion, as the majority of U’ivuan scholars have in subsequent studies and writings.
   The past three decades have seen an erosion of many of the most compelling and distinct U’ivuan traditions, the result of a growing interest in the country—for which Norton always found himself to blame—and a great influx of Christian and Mormon missionaries, who were able, through their twentieth-century efforts, to gain a toehold that their nineteenth-century predecessors were not. Today the majority of U’ivuans adhere to the Western calendar and are fully conversant with (though do not necessarily abide by; U’ivuans are notoriously tardy) the civilized world’s definition of time.

[29] Of course, this is no longer true. Like everyone else on the planet, the U’ivuans have gotten taller, fatter, and longer-lived, themselves participants in that modern paradox in which we find ourselves becoming simultaneously healthier and less healthy. Today the average U’ivuan man lives to be sixty-three (women typically live a year or two longer), and although dysentery has been more or less eradicated with the introduction of plumbing, the primary cause of death for both men and women is currently heart disease—something once virtually unheard-of in the islands but now, given their new, tinned-food-heavy diet and love of alcohol, depressingly common.

[30] The U’ivuans and Ivu’ivuans spoke the same tongue, but Ivu’ivuans are now considered by linguists to speak “pure U’ivuan,” the original version of the language, unsullied and unchanged by, say, Western influences. A good example of this can be found in the word for hut: in Ivu’ivu, a hut was known as a male’e, but in U’ivu it had become simply a malé, apparently changed after a protracted and heavily concerted effort by a pedant of a late nineteenth-century missionary named Daniel Makepeace, who decided he would rid the language of its distracting glottal stops and what he characterized as its “extraneous syllables.” In the Ivu’ivuans’ language was a record not only of a people without encounters with the rest of the world but of a people completely ignorant of technology, jobs, and even, largely, time. There were no words for doctor, for example (a village midwife and a village herb man administered to the pregnant and sick), or light (as in electric light), or of any country other than their own. Indeed, as isolated as U’ivu often seemed to visitors, its inhabitants at least had some idea of the peoples and innovations and cultures that existed outside their own, even if they showed remarkably little interest in encountering them in person.

[31] A lithopedion, or stone baby, is a condition in which the fetus dies in utero and, being too large to be reabsorbed by the body (as the death usually occurs after the first trimester), instead calcifies to spare its host from infection. A woman can live perfectly normally for decades, even for her entire life, while carrying a stone baby; indeed, she can even bear other children. The phenomenon is, as Norton notes, extremely uncommon, a particularly ghoulish medical curiosity, and these days all but unheard of in the civilized world.

[32] Girls were usually married at age fourteen, so if Ivaiva and Va’ana’s story was true, that would make them around 133 in 1950.

[33] A close relation of the coconut, no’akas are a round gourdlike fruit that grows on vines (like watermelons) and are about the size of a large honeydew melon. On U’ivu they’re more commonly referred to as uka moa, or “hog food,” for the resemblance the stiff black hair that covers their surface bears to a hog’s bristles.


  • 22. 3. 2024