Smoke and Fire
By Alana Hicks
With Illustrations by Karan Singh
I grew up believing in magic. It was in the air, but it wasn’t the breeze, which smelled like heat and sweat and constant change and constant sameness. It was the still.
In PNG the spirits are at their liveliest at midday. A time of day when the wind moves only in the swish of the meri blouses of the ladies walking around Seven Mile Market. It moves in the small hands holding long sticks, waving and near-missing low hanging, not-quite-ripe mangoes.
The magic brings fear, and I’ve always felt the fear. The two storey, five bedroom house we grew up in groaned with bad memories, made before we ever lived there. A man once killed his wife with a machete in what became my dad’s study. With one possession, he killed another. I had nightmares. I say to Mum now, “I was never a good sleeper was I?” She doesn’t remember it that way. “You were fine,” she says. Parents get busy. The things that loom large for a kid are not so big to them, so they forget. But I can’t forget the demons dancing at the bottom of my bed, the heat clinging to my hands and feet, binding me to their presence.
Sleep paralysis, I now know. It happens when you become conscious somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. You see, you want your body to be completely relaxed – this stops you from acting out the absurd pantomimes of your dreams. But if your muscles are all disengaged but your mind is switched on, well, it’s terrifying. You lose the ability to control your body. The trick I established was to keep screaming in my mind until the body synced up. Then I would sprint to my parents’ bed and toss and turn between their warm bodies until, eventually exhausted, I would drift away.
I always thought my nightmares might be tied up with the superstitious beliefs of the land. Mum told me stories about vada tauna doing puri puri to make people sick, as retribution for past grievances. I heard stories told with such conviction that they became truth to my young mind, but somewhere in it all, the truth, you realise, is entirely subjective.
I still believe in magic, but I don’t believe in the fear that drives men to torture women whom they suspect of being witches, by burning their genitals with hot pokers, severing limbs, burying them upside down so that their souls can never rest, or simply expelling them from their homes and families. That is not the magic I believe in. I’m more into good, easy card tricks.
Dahaka believes in magic. When she gets home from school her mother has moved all the furniture into completely different configurations. The big black shelf with the big black bottles that clatter every time you run; the giant cane thing with the don’t-touch-that-glass-bowl-full-of-leaves-and-dust on top; the TV. The big heavy TV. The giant cube that takes up a third of the room with its noises and voices and faces. All the furniture has moved and she did it with magic. There is no way that a single woman can move all that furniture around. Her forehead is knotted; she moves with purpose. She swats at Dahaka with a stick broom, says “Get away from there, I haven’t swept that yet!”
Dahaka prepares some porridge the way her brother taught her, with ice cream and milo, and sits down to watch grainy pictures float across the screen and into her dreams. Her mother makes magic.
Papua New Guinea is a small island northeast of the Arafura Sea, west of the Pacific Rim, centre of small-town, big-time corruption thriving on gold, copper, coffee, drugs, arms, people. Despite being one of the world’s least liveable places (according to The Lonely Planet), it is also one of the world’s most resource rich.
PNG shares its sweet potato-shaped landmass with West Papua, known also as Irian Jaya, occupied by Indonesia under some dodgy doings that the world permits. Merdeka meaning ‘freedom’ in Bahasa Indonesia, is a prize for which the West Papuans are fighting a losing battle, or a privilege so many of us take for granted – but that’s a whole other story.
My mum was born with one tongue, Koitabu from the village she was born in, but she also learned Hiri Motu, the language of the province, Tok Pisin, the dialect of the market, and English, which was insisted on in school. Her notepad was a plot of dirt, her marks written in chalk on her back. Despite her promising intellect, school was cut short as a result of being a woman, which led somehow to the broken engagements, the broken jaw, the head shaving, and more – but we’ll get to that later.
I was born in 1982. Huey Lewis had his explosive hit ‘The Power of Love’ and the power of independence had been bestowed upon PNG just seven years earlier. The natives only met white folk some fifty years before I was born, in time to assist with war and become entrenched in racial, social and cultural politics. Due to the terrain of the country, which was stubborn and difficult to traverse, many languages developed autonomously. As a result there are over eight hundred languages which even I, a witness to the multilinguistic skill set of the native people, find pretty hard to believe. But it’s true.
“My childhood was made up mostly with the quiet observation of the ripening of fruit, of a red dawn across a verandah sliced with palm trees, of the smell of bully beef and sweet tea, of the silence except for a distant bus backfiring like a gunshot, and then the actual gunshots.”
My childhood was made up mostly with the quiet observation of the ripening of fruit, of a red dawn across a verandah sliced with palm trees, of the smell of bully beef and sweet tea, of the silence except for a distant bus backfiring like a gunshot, and then the actual gunshots. There was also the crackling of fire and the yellowed pages of comic books, and arms lifting machetes in the dark night. Then there was the last plane to Sydney, and losing my best friend Biru.
The heat of those memories remain, and gain.
There is a noise behind her. She turns to see a small head ducking behind the screen door and out of sight. She calls out, “Biiirruuu, if you want to watch, just watch!” Two little dark eyes peer back around the corner. A small hand holds tightly onto the doorframe. Dahaka doesn’t invite Biru inside because she was told not to, but she doesn’t mind if Biru watches TV with her. In fact she likes it. Her family are vanished people and the house is too big for onepela liklik pikinini. Maybe her mother has gone to work? Her brother might be with his girlfriend or guitar. And her father is wherever he is. Dahaka couldn’t list the places he could be. He could be anywhere in the world, but he’ll probably be home later.
Dahaka is glued to the screen. She’s not paying attention to the melted ice cream threatening to spill from the bowl into her lap. Jasper the bitch is eyeing it off lazily from the opposite corner of the room. The Dr Who theme song is raising the hairs on the back of Dahaka’s neck. She is mesmerised by the swirling patterns on the box.
The stories of magic are true and false. Like all stories from home they have some fire, some smoke.
My bubu was a fierce and proud Motuan woman from the village of Hanuabada, with long black hair that never knew scissors. Her hair was as famous as her temper, as famous as her kindness. When a stranger passed by, she would send one of the kids out, saying, “Tell that man to come inside for lunch. He is too skinny.” The kids would complain that she would give all the good food away but she would scold them, “You have bread, you have water, what else you need?”
“She would lay on the floor and fan out her hair like a river flowing across the thatched coconut palm mat, and one of her four daughters would comb it. You would not step over the hair.”
She would lay on the floor and fan out her hair like a river flowing across the thatched coconut palm mat, and one of her four daughters would comb it. You would not step over the hair.
She died sitting against a coconut tree. Mum said someone did puri puri on her. Stole some of her hair and made bad magic. More likely, she died from cancer. Just because they didn’t have a word for it, doesn’t mean cancer didn’t exist. When unexplainable diseases happened, it was because someone from a neighbouring village placed a curse on the sufferer – retaliation for a stolen pig, or a raped niece.
My grandmother left behind thirteen kids, thirteen little broken hearts, my mother’s was one of them. My bubu was long gone by the time my mother met my father. Sitting on the back of a crowded open truck full of villagers, on a fateful rainy day, my dad, the white man, the student teacher, escaping enlistment in a war he didn’t believe in, put a coat over her shoulders. With one gesture he sealed her fate and his own.
Little splashes of blue dart across Biru’s wide eyes. This is the first time she has seen Dr Who. Feeling rebellious, Dahaka motions to Biru to come sit with her on the couch. Biru shakes her head and slowly withdraws herself from the doorframe, like a ghost moving through dimensions. Dahaka sighs and gets up to change the channel.
She moves the thick dial one place and a loud orangey commercial comes on with fake brown people with fake white teeth jumping on a beach. She uses both hands this time to move the dial two places to a lady with big hair and giant shoulders talking in a funny voice. She moves it once more and a cartoon koala with a high-pitched voice and overalls is walking through the bush. She stops. She watches the koala for a few more seconds. She hovers over the dial. She smiles, she sits down. Dahaka brings the plastic bowl to her mouth, tips her head back and glugs the warm thick liquid, keeping one eye on the koala.
My mother never taught me her language. Or languages. Her reason was that she didn’t want me to be disadvantaged. She wanted me to speak real good English. So I learned my mother tongue from the TV. Mum was afraid that knowing PNG customs and traditions would somehow affect how much of the white stuff I would pick up. She thought that the white stuff was the important stuff.
It’s easy to see why she thought that. Village life was hard, especially for women. My mother was arranged to be married three times. The first was to Igo, a fisherman, and she couldn’t stand the smell. The second was Goata, he got her cousin-sister pregnant, so he had to switch. The third time, I don’t remember what happened. She just said no I guess. Each rejection (even the one that wasn’t her fault) led to her head being shaved so that she could be properly shamed.
When my father saw her on the back of that truck he fell hard. I don’t know why. I’m not saying she wasn’t intelligent, funny, beautiful and magical, but she wasn’t exactly the easy option. She was the pastor’s daughter, the smart one, the one who could dance. The one who would bring in a lot of pigs, shells and rice as bride price. He was a scrawny bellbottom-wearing, mustachioed boy from Sydney, with aspirations to be a boxer, but not a soldier.
It would be years before the white side accepted the black side. The white bubu never really did accept her. Mum would have to stay in a hotel, while Dad took us kids to visit. But the black and white grandmothers maybe had more in common than they realised. They were women of an era when women were poured into moulds – housewife, homemaker, mother. Both women had a sickness they couldn’t defeat. The white one went so far as to try to cut the hard lump of her disease from her breast with a knife. The Glaswegian fireball that travelled alone as a teen to a new frontier, had no fear. The women were hard and strong. All fire, no smoke.
“Both women had a sickness they couldn’t defeat. The white one went so far as to try to cut the hard lump of her disease from her breast with a knife. The Glaswegian fireball that travelled alone as a teen to a new frontier, had no fear.”
The security gate opens. Dahaka can hear the heavy wire being pushed against the gravel, the creak of the bolts being undone. The sun has gone down and none of the lights are on yet. Dahaka’s face is illuminated in the TV’s reflection. Her eyes are dark hollows. She glances up at the window that looks onto the front garden. The bars cut horizontal lines into the silhouette of the hibiscus bushes. Curious shapes are vaguely moving, the bars are dead still. Footsteps crunch up the driveway. Dahaka starts to shiver. It’s still warm but there is a subtle coolness from the sea drifting in.
Someone opens the screen door. A shadow stands in the doorway. The jaw of the big man is pointed towards Dahaka, “Biru stap long we?”
The shadow sways when he says Biru’s name again, as if an invisible hand has nudged him. Dahaka points, just points, in the general direction of the back of the house. The shadow understands and turns. He sways on the turn and she fears for a moment he will topple backwards. Then he’s gone. Dahaka is gripped with the anxiety that she has done the wrong thing. She is afraid.
Along the coastal region, among the Motuan people, a girl becomes a woman through the visual motif of tattoos. A code which is embedded with thorns from something like a lemon tree, using pigment made from the charred remains of the candlenut, is read by men to understand that the girl is ready to be taken as a wife, or read like a map by people from other villages to tell where she is from. The thing about tribal tattoos is that the memory of the pain washes over you like any trauma, like grief, or the yawning shock of childbirth.
So my mother tells me. She touches her ink sleeves and shuts her eyes remembering the first tapping, the bleeding and the wiping of the blood. The pain when they go over it the second time is so profound that the sensation remains 50 years later. I can’t remember if Biru had tattoos. She must’ve kept them hidden.
I’m not sure how I feel about the tattoos. When I was 26 and ridiculous, I wanted to get the traditional tattoos my mother has. I wanted to have my tenuous link to my culture solidified in representative ink. My mother fought me quietly on this front. It wasn’t the raucous disagreement like when I wanted to get my motorcycle licence. There was a heavier weight to her resistance. Something about the arranged marriages, about the beatings she took for being seen with a white man, about her education being stripped away, about the lack of control over her own body – these events were all tied up in those thick black patterns on her forearms.
Voices float in from the back door. Plastic bags rustle, the fridge door opens, there is the familiar sound of Dahaka’s mother’s voice chastising her brother for something or other. Dahaka runs into the kitchen, “Where have you people been?!” Dahaka’s mother is defensive, “I was at the shops, I told you when I was leaving, I asked if you wanted to come and you said no.”
No one is listening.
Dahaka’s mother yanks the teenage boy from the fridge, “You can wait, you’re not starving, eat some bread!”
Her mother is unpacking kau kau, sago, yams and 2 minute noodles. Dahaka’s brother is not listening. His head is deep in the fridge searching for a pre-dinner dinner. “There was a man,” starts Dahaka.
“There was a man,” starts Dahaka, then her brother says, “Bread with what?”, “Bread with bread”, “He was looking for Biru.” “Bread with bread?”, “Should we check on Biru?”, “Bread with water”.
No one is listening.
The memories of my childhood in that wet, hot, illogical place play out in my mind like projections of super 8 film onto a dusty wall – glitchy and broken, with traces of ghosting. The more I replay these scenes the more the film degrades until it’s comically obligated to burst into flames.
Biru was as skinny as me, and I was pretty skinny. My brother said I would have to run around in the shower to get wet, is how skinny I was. She lived in the little house behind our big house with her brothers, uncles, cousins but she was our main haus girl. She washed our clothes, did the gardening, went to the market sort of thing. Her mother died sometime long before I understood what death was.
She seemed to want to know me, without the judgement I felt from the full PNG girls at school, or the constant curiosity of the white kids. Being mixed race was still a weird thing at the time. Like somehow your black-skinned mother struck it lucky, or your anglo father must’ve fucked up. So much is kept from you as a kid and you are left to interpret these complexities in the playground.
Biru and I would journey around the garden, pulling down unripe fruit like guavas and rambutan, our mouths distorting with the bitterness. We would collect the akuri nuts, the orange shells the size of a seven-year-old’s fist, and smash them with stones until the tiny little canoe-like nut would emerge, broken.
Biru liked to smash many nuts and when she had a pile next to her she would sprinkle a little salt on and then consume luxuriously. My method was to pick at the broken nuts in their damaged husks and consume them as soon as each husk was open, wanting to immediately know the flavour for a few unsatisfying seconds. Biru always shared with me.
One time, I came out from the back door of the kitchen, and I saw Biru with a stone. Her arm was rising and falling. It was the wet season. The air was always moist and monsoons hit our pacific neighbours. Sometimes hard, sometimes soft. Life was brimming from every tree, bush, and creek. The underside of my cubby house would be clustered with caterpillars. The mango tree would be weighed down with the promise of deliciousness and after a big rain, the tadpoles would float down the concrete guttering which rimmed our backyard, on their way to becoming little adult frogs. Biru sat near the edge of the running water scooping out tadpoles and smashing them with her stone.
“It was the wet season. The air was always moist and monsoons hit our pacific neighbours. Sometimes hard, sometimes soft. Life was brimming from every tree, bush, and creek.”
Dahaka sits with Biru the house girl on the back step. The sun bounces off the little spots of wet skin, making her swollen face sparkle like a polished watermelon. Biru holds her stomach, her body closed. Dahaka sits next to her, scratching shapes into the concrete step with one of the small stones scattered around her feet. She looks at the garden, looks at the water tower, looks at the stray dogs sniffing each other’s rectums. She looks anywhere but at Biru.
Dahaka is seven. Five years younger than Biru. Biru’s hair is knotted like the little buds of the Siale before they blossom, but not white, black. She was usually much more talkative, always keen to practice her English on the half caste, no language, full English-speaking Dahaka. Dahaka babbles, “It was a big bus, probably the biggest bus I’ve ever seen. That’s pretty big you know. I’ve seen a lot of buses. Do you know how buses work? They have a lot of wheels and…”
Biru lets out a sound like when you step on the tail of one of the stray dogs. Dahaka sits up straight, stares hard at the two small stones lying in front of her. She pushes one to touch the other. She tries to balance one on top of the other. It falls.
Not long after the tadpole smashing, Mum told me Biru was leaving because she was going to be married and we should be happy for her. She got a good bride price. She was still as skinny as me. She went away. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I understood from kitchen conversations between people taller than me at the time, that she was pregnant, that she was sick. That her new husband’s family kicked her out because someone had put bad magic on her. That she was alone.
After she left, those afternoons without anyone to smash nuts with felt empty and long. I collected tadpoles and sat with them squirming on a warm flat rock, my arm raised with my stone ready to understand why someone might want do something like that. I put the stone down and gathered the tadpoles into a shoe box so I could keep them as pets.
The outside felt scarier than ever. Biru was my guide to understanding that landscape of colour and noise. It was safer inside. I watched so much TV my family didn’t need the TV guide, they could just ask me and I could tell them what was on. Blossom. Sale of the Century. Punky Brewster, Dr Who, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Monkey Magic. When I was outvoted on what to watch, I would go to my bedroom and read books on how to hypnotise people, on how to make magic with my eyes and fingers, on how to vanish into thin air or make fire with my hands. With these skills I would kill all the bad people on earth. An angel assassin. A ghost moving through dimensions of reality or a spirit with a deadly mission.
Sometimes when the demons at the foot of my bed left me alone long enough, I would have vivid dreams. One time I thought I saw Biru moving down a hotel corridor, always turning a corner before I could see if it was her. I ran after her and she kept turning corners. Finally I caught up, I reached my arm out to the back of her shoulder. She turned and her face was a smashed tadpole. I woke but my body remained asleep, out of my control. Even after we finally left PNG, the nightmares didn’t stop, they stayed for a few more years. I searched endlessly for serenity in sleep. Alcohol, weed, sleepytime tea, more alcohol, less coffee, window open, window shut, unfamiliar bodies to cling to, but not much worked.
Dahaka sits straight on the back step and Biru’s thin body heaves next to her. The black girl’s shoulders tremble and the concrete at her feet is a spreading pool of water. Dahaka studies the smoothness of the stone in the palm of her hand. She throws it into the garden. Biru’s water is falling quickly and has started to soak the canvas of Dahaka’s shoes. The shoes close with a zip, everybody thinks they look cool, Dahaka worries the water will ruin them. The water has already washed away the little stones. Biru’s voice is a storm, she is howling, her water splashes down, saturating the faded men’s polo shirt that hangs loosely on her frame. The water moves in waves against Dahaka, she wipes her face, but she feels the weight of her small body shifting.
The water is up to her shoulders already. Her body is lifting, she starts to doggy paddle, she remembers her lessons. But Biru doesn’t lift with her, her face is still visible, her jaw tilted to stay just above the rising water, face to face with the clouds, but her eyes are waterfalls. Dahaka takes a big breath and ducks under, with a squint she sees Biru’s distorted face still making water, still weighted down to the concrete step. Dahaka lifts up and up.
Somewhere between black and white, between the wet season and the dry, between wakefulness and sleep, you become conscious. Aware of your body, but not able to move it, thinking your thoughts and knowing a dark sea surrounds you. The super 8 of my childhood flickers on and off. I’m reminded when I see my mother’s tattoos, or when she complains of an old pain in her neck I know was caused by an injury inflicted when she was fifteen, by brothers and uncles in a culture rich with complex rituals and overflowing with injustice. No story ever really ends, it’s just interrupted with ad breaks and to-be-continueds and sequels and prequels and adaptations.
PNG’s children are still running, chasing, and waving sticks at unripe mangoes on a still day. And I still believe in magic. The magic of good, simple card tricks, first loves, of cracking a shell and finding a whole nut intact, the warmth of my mother, of a peaceful sleep.
Smoke and Fire
By Alana Hicks
Illustrations by Karan Singh
Designed and Developed by Jacqui Hagen
Edited by Katia Pase
Produced by Going Down Swinging, 2016
Smoke and Fire is supported by the NSW Government through Arts NSW