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Serpent in Paradise (Dea Birkett)


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  "What's that?" I said, as a crab ran across the kitchen floor.

"A crab," said Dennis.

I meant what sort of a crab was it. He didn't even think I knew what a crab was.

There was something I wanted to clear up concerning the fishing trip.

"People ever drowned down Isaac's?" I asked Dennis.

"Plenty," he said cheerily. His acceptance of it annoyed me.

"Then why do you fish there?"

He shrugged. "Wha place else?"

"Tedside?"

"Frankie fell down Tedside," he said.

"St. Paul's?"

"Some time back, two men drown."

"The Landing?"

"Only get small white fish or buhi down the Landing, cos of oil from em boats."

Dennis was sitting at the table while I mixed the Alternative Pastry for a chicken and arrowroot pie I was making for supper. I had taken the recipe from Irma's Picture Cook Book, another handy publication produced by the Adventist Church, which Irma had received as a gift from a former pastor's wife. I read:

Alternative Pastry

4 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 ozs butter substitute
1 cup whole-meal flour

"Power es-e-on," said Ben, as he did every day, even though the power came on at the same time each morning and each afternoon. Perhaps Ben made this comment because, in a place where the supply of everything was so uncertain, he feared that, one day, the electricity would fail. It just wouldn't be there--the freezers wouldn't begin to growl, the arrowroot pie wouldn't be baked and the billy wouldn't boil. And each morning, Ben expressed his surprise and relief with "Power es-e-on."

"The power is on, Debbie, for your coffee," said Irma. She had interrupted herself delivering a monologue about the hardships of living on Pitcairn, due to one of the two televisions in the big room blowing up in the middle of a miniseries.

"It's such a problem on a small island. You can't get things fixed," she said, echoing "small island," "small island," "small island" as she searched for the comfort of a surface to dear.

"Steve. Steve. You se there?" The sound of Glen's voice on the VHF brought Irma to a standstill, as if she were playing musical chairs and the music had just stopped.

Steve came through. "Glen. Go to twelve."

Dennis reached the VHF just before Irma, and switched to channel 12. They both stood looking at the machine. Steve and Glen exchanged information about a fishing trip. I carried on with my recipe.

1 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat water and lemon juice. Gradually pour over chopped shortening in basin. Stir briskly until mixture is light and creamy. Add the combined dry ingredients. Mix lightly with fork to form a soft dough. Bake in a very hot oven.

Which oven? I thought, looking about Irma's electrical appliance store.

I had been baking without eggs for about a month now, although there were still three dozen eggs in the fridge closest to the kitchen. Irma had checked them occasionally, congratulating me on not using up her last supply. But I was beginning to wonder what we were saving the eggs for, if not to eat them. So the next day, while Irma was at the commercial radio station, following The Picture Cook Book I decided to make upside-down sponge cake, which required two eggs.

I cracked open the first. The yolk bobbed black in the bowl, and the stench was overwhelming. I opened a second, then a third, then a fourth, and all came out stinking and rotten. I kept on cracking eggs, finding just three good ones in the first dozen. Thinking they would all go bad pretty soon, I decided to crack open the second dozen as well, and at least eat the few good ones while we could. In all, I managed to save six eggs. I abandoned my plans to bake upside-down sponge cake, and decided instead to make the eggs into an omelette for supper.

When Irma came home I was chopping peppers. She saw the bowl of yellow yolks on the table.

"What's that for, dear?"

"An omelette!" I said. "When I cracked open the eggs, they were nearly all rotten. I managed to save half a dozen. So I thought we could have an omelette with them!"

"But now we have no eggs, dear."

"They were rotten," I said, thinking she hadn't understood.

Irma opened the fridge door and peered inside, as if she could conjure up the rows of eggs just by wanting them to be there. But there was just an empty shelf. It struck me that I had never seen a shelf at Irma's that wasn't jam-packed.

Irma's distress was obvious in the tightening of her mouth and the untypically slow, soft way in which she closed the fridge door.

"We. Have. No. Eggs," she said.

"We didn't have any eggs. We only had rotten eggs. This"--and I held up the bowl of yellow yolks--"is all we've got left."

I was trying to make things better, by explaining, but I was only making things worse. A lack, a shortage loomed up before Irma and made her anxious. It hadn't mattered that the eggs were rotten; at least they were there, lining the shelf of her fridge. Empty spaces frightened her. You never knew when you would be able to fill them again.

"It se aw-right, dear," she said, "I'm not hungry," and went out to the duncan, looking as if she might be sick.

I'd fallen into a pattern of spending my days cooking, weeding, washing and joining occasional fishing trips, and in the evenings sitting on the veranda working on my basket and listening to the conversation. One morning my gentle routine had been broken by a call to public work. Public work was an alternative tax system. Instead of having islanders pay a percentage of their income to the Administration, which would have been impossible to enforce and in most cases amounted only to cents, men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were required to answer any call to public work-repairing the longboat, clearing the roads or maintaining the molasses and arrowroot-making equipment. Recently the men had begun to grumble: now women were earning a wage (Look at Olive! She'd been island secretary for five years, earning more than two thousand dollars!), they should have to do public work.

Irma, as always, was the most articulate on this controversial issue.

"Women's lib on this island, you see, dear," she explained, "has gone all wrong. Now the women have some of the highest-paid government jobs, but don't have to do public work. Royal, for example. She earns a lot. She has a widow's pension and her government job. Yet she doesn't have to do public work. She makes a lot of carvings. While the men are doing public work, she can make carvings and earn money. The women can trade on the ships while the men have to unload cargo. It's not right."

Terry, who was working on a carving as Irma did the washing and I kneaded the dough, suggested that everyone should pay tax on their government job, but not on the sale of their curios.

"The women have it easy," said Irma. "While the men work, they can do anything!" She raised her arms, wet from wringing the clothes, to emphasize this astonishing, and appalling, truth.

"It's the same in New Zealand," said Irma. "They have this thing called doll."

"The dole," I said.

"Well," she explained. "People who work have to pay tax for those who don't work. It's not fair. So I think they should put a stop to it."

Irma--as assistant radio officer number two, public relations officer, and typist--had a taxable income. But she was near retirement, and too old to help clear roads. So I offered to do public work in her place.

Often Irma seemed grateful, but I never knew whether she wanted me to think I was pleasing her or whether I really was. But her delight at my offer to work was genuine. The burrows on her face stretched and turned upward, and, for the first time outside her shack, she looked like VR6ID.

"People will see you," she said. "I like people to know that you work, dear. It's good for them to see. No one can say I don't want to work." And she smiled so unaffectedly that I smiled, too, pleased that I was behaving, proper Pitcairn.

When the bell in the Square struck three times one morning, Ben, although seventy and no longer making money except from the sale of his carvings, quietly went and picked up his hoe, pulled on his taumata and waited on the veranda for Dennis and me. He shuffled up behind me on the back of Dennis's bike, and we headed west up a path I hadn't taken before. The road curved up to Garnet's Ridge, at 1,100 feet the highest point on the island.

We arrived at a huge road, at least ten feet across, a real superhighway. Some of the island men were leaning on wooden implements at the road edge, talking to others who, at the most, seemed only to be playing with the vegetation.

Ben slid off the saddle--he couldn't jump--and went to the verge, where he began to snip-snip away at the fern and weed. Each time his bamboo handle brushed against the lantana, the small yellow and scarlet flowers released a strong, sweet scent. But the head of his hoe was so small and the crunchy vegetation so stalwart that Ben just tickled it. But he kept on patiently snip-snipping away at each defiant fern, until a few inches of verge were cleared and there was a clear drain down the side of the road for when the rain came.

Once the islanders, nearly three hundred strong, controlled the vegetation. There were large areas of cleared land, well-defined gardens, sharp-edged roads where the red clay met the green vegetation. But now, with the population down to fewer than fifty, the vegetation was in control. Leaves, twine, stems and branches grew over roads, almost obscuring them. Hibiscus and lantana rapidly claimed buildings not continually shorn; the lower walls of the courthouse were smothered in it. Rose apple trees, which grew like weeds, had dammed Brown's Water. Gardens were continually encroached upon, so that corn would lose the light and the beans be choked. If the vegetation wanted something--an islander's food, an islander's home--it could take it.

Ben weeded in silence, never halting the tap-tap of his hoe. But the young bucks had a more aggressive technique, swinging their tools and cracking bawdy jokes.

"It make em stiff," said Trent. "All em digging."

"I se stiff all ha time," said Nigger, obviously not referring to his muscles. I noticed that a slight sweat had spread over his forearms, like dew. It seemed a long time ago and far away that I had brushed another's damp flesh, comforted by human touch.

The good joke provided an excuse to stop work, and all the men had lowered their tools and looked toward Nigger, ready to catch the next one-liner.

"Might be why Worree no do public work," chipped in Glen. "He nawa stiff."

Worree was the nickname for Tom Christian. Tom, the island intellectual, disliked getting his hands dirty. But Perry was there working in his stead, attacking the lantana systematically and with vigor.

To my surprise, the pastor joined in the ribaldry, even putting up a name for inclusion in a list of Pitcairn men who were "nawa stiff." Sometimes he lifted up his video recorder from the front basket on his bike and filmed those of us who were working; but most of the time he was propped up on his hoe, laughing at someone else's story or telling one himself. Most of his tales were about fishing, to which he was devoted. He would often spend a day Down Rope or at Tedside with Nigger, Len and Glen, a line in hand. He was also known to be a voracious nanwe eater, having beaten all previous Pitcairn records by devouring twelve whole fish in one sitting.

Talk turned from sex to ships. Someone said that a Swedish ship was going to call Sunday noon, and again I wondered what made them say this. Information on Pitcairn seemed to emerge from sources I had not yet fathomed, as if plucked from the heavy air.

Terry, who had said nothing so far, mumbled, "Last time one Swedish ship call third June, 1989. Ha captain good 'un. He give me big waterproof. But ha Filipino steward mean as a brute," and everyone stopped to listen, because Terry was always right about the ships.

There were a few lengths of dear verge at the edge of the road when Steve decided that our work was done for the day. It was about midday, and time for breakfast.

Perry ambled up, throwing one bare muscular leg in front of the other instead of stepping. He was naked from the waist up, tanned and glistening with a light sweat, which made his hairless chest seem as if it had been oiled. His skin was so flawless, his tan so even and his smile so fixed that, although his shape was that of a perfect male, he was not sexy. I no more wanted to touch his perfect body than if it had been molded from plastic.

"Would you like to walk back with me?" he said in perfect English and, although an invitation, coldly.

"Sure."

My legs were pockmarked with mosquito bites, some still ripe, others tipped with a tiny scab. My hands were blistered from the hoe, my hair dirty from the earth. My sweat didn't sit on me in a thin film, like oil; it soaked my clothes, it ran down my legs. It made me feel uncomfortable. Unlike Perry, I wasn't able to cultivate the appearance of someone who was lounging on a South Pacific idyll. I looked battered and harassed. I looked like I had spent the morning working on a road.

Perry strode confidently down the path.

"Are you enjoying Pitcairn?" he asked.

"Sure."

"I am enjoying Pitcairn. It is what I expected." He said this with more than a soupçon of self-congratulation.

"Not the videos, naturally," he said. "I was not expecting the videos. But the rest. Yes. Certainly."

It had taken Perry more than three years to reach Pitcairn and, if nothing else, he should have been given a prize for persistence. His license to land had been referred back several times. For Perry was an unashamed Paradise-seeker, and had put this on his application. He had been searching for a primitive island where he and his girlfriend could buy a piece of land, build their own home and settle down. Perry was twenty-five, although he looked like a teenager; his girlfriend was fifteen.

She had remained behind in Germany while Perry had paid a yacht three thousand dollars to take him from Tahiti to Pitcairn. He was to lay the foundations for their new life together, and then return to Germany to claim his bride. By that time, she would have celebrated her sixteenth birthday and be old enough legally to marry him. He showed me a picture of her that he carried in his pocket. She was indeed a schoolgirl, and a very pretty one. With long blond hair and a coquettish smile, she was the picture of an ideal partner for the perfect Perry in Paradise.

When his application had been turned down for the third time by the Council, wary of Paradise-seekers, Perry decided to write an open letter to the Pitcairners. The letter--in which he offered to work full-time for any family who would agree to invite him to the island--was pinned up outside the courthouse. Tom Christian snatched up the offer.

Now Perry lived with Tom and Betty, fishing, weeding, trading, doing Tom's public work and helping to dig their new well. He was a good worker, and freed Tom from the manual, menial tasks he so disliked, to talk on his ham radio and write his diary. Perry also helped Betty in her garden every afternoon. I had heard that the broccoli he had planted just a month earlier was beginning to sprout.

"How do you find fitting in here?" I asked, tentatively. Perhaps he would confess to me, a fellow stranger, a slight feeling of unease, a knowledge of the difficulty of being accepted in such a small place. Despite all outward appearances, Perry might yet prove to be a confidant.

Perry declared, in a matter-of-fact manner, that he had had no problem at all. He had found it remarkably easy to be accepted into the community, and had found everyone most welcoming.

"Yes. Most welcoming," I echoed softly.

We were walking down Jack's Tatties, passing Royal's house. She lived on the edge of town and her home had a suburban feel about it, set back from- the road with a big front garden leading up to her door.

As if from nowhere, Royal appeared in her driveway.

"Wut a way you?" she greeted. She looked us up and down, and strained her neck so she could see back up the path.

"Good 'un," we chorused.

"Wa sing yourley doing?" Royal should have been a police interrogator. She was always so disconcertingly direct that it made me startle then flounder, and then feel guilty for no more than not having an immediate answer, and then blush, and then appear as if I were trying to hide some crime I had just committed, or was even in the throes of committing.

"Making babies," said Perry, thinking to crack a Pitcairn-style joke and we walked on.

"God!" I said, hoping we were out of Royal's earshot.

Perry laughed, although it was very dry for a laugh.

"God!" I said again. I had visions of Royal mounting her bike speeding down to Irma's, throwing herself through the bananas and de daring to anyone who might be on the veranda-Nola? Charles? Charlotte? Terry? Dennis?--"I bin see Debbie and Perry comen fer Garnet's Ridge. They se fucking!"



In 1910, Harold Burdett Christian, age seventeen, and Lavis Johnston, age twenty-six, son of a Mangarevan trader, were drowned at St. Paul's.

A buhi is a moray eel. (I caught one, once.)

taumata--archaic Tahitian word for a hat made from plaited coconut leaves. On Pitcairn, the word is used for any pull-on hat, such as Ben's.

Wa sing yourley doing?--What are you doing? What are you up to?
 
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Excerpted from Serpent in Paradise by Dea Birkett. Copyright © 1997 by Dea Birkett. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.