Short-story for International Literacy Day

A trip to the river

BY ISSABELLE VILAU

Crystal Rapids, Sogeri – Photo uploaded by Malum Nalu December 2 2019

‘Hurry up, come on lets go!’I heard my big brother Angna, screaming on top of his lungs ordering, everyone to get of of the house.

‘Were coming’ my cousins and I responded, as we all ran out the house, with our bag of clothes and a bilum of roasted kaukaus.

The blazing midday sun was directly over our heads, relentlessly shining bright yellow lights on the ground as we walked out of the house. The blue sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds that drifted lazily in the breeze, as the roads shimmer in the heat of the tropical midday sun.

My family and I had just arrived in to the village yesterday afternoon, to spend the Christmas Holidays with our family from my mothers side. I always liked coming to the village, especially during Christmas, as it certainly the Best Time of the Year! Christmas is no doubt the best time of the year, because that is the time I usually had the most fun, usually because there no school and no rules. This year was no exception, more so this year was more exciting because my family had not been to my Mum’s village for the last five years. And we had just arrived in the village yesterday, for a family reunion, and I was looking forward for the many adventures I was going to have in the village.

At around 11am this morning, my parents, my uncles and aunties had left my siblings, my cousins and I at village and went to do some shopping. The nearest town was about an hour drive from the village, and they went to do the shopping for Fridays Reunion Program, which was three days away. Before they left, we asked them several times if it was okay for us to go to the river.

‘We just arrived yesterday, after a long five years and its not safe to go to the river yet!’ my mother snapped at us, in her high-pitch voice as she pointed directly at me and my siblings with her long sharp finger.

‘How could it, not be safe?’ I wondered to myself, starring blanking back at her. ‘There’s no tribal fights going on, and the river is mostly filled with kids playing and having fun’

‘And don’t you all dare taking Mani to the river!’ she added, pointing to my four year old younger brother, playing in the corner.

‘Why not?’ Nhol, one of my cousins asked

‘Because I said so’ my mother replied, shaking her head at Nhol, looking at him like his question was the most stupidest question she ever heard in her life.

Then she turned around and looked at all of us from head to toes, paused for a second and stared us down with death stare. Her stare was so cold and sharp, it was like a pointy dagger piercing through our souls and murdering our hope of going to the river today. She just stood there like a disciplinary teacher at school, scanning us with her deadly and authoritative glare getting ready to punch somebody’s tooth out, if they dare to ask her another stupid question.

‘Lets go!’ my father called out from his car, tooting his horn loud enough for the whole village to hear.

‘I am coming!’ My mum yelled back as she grabbed her bilum from the chair, walked out of the house, and ran to my dad waiting for her in the car.

‘We’ll see you in the afternoon’ my Mum said, her anger disappeared from her face as she cheerfully waved goodbye to us, as they drove away.

We all stood there in front of the veranda, smiling back at them and waving goodbye looking like good obedient children.

‘Well who wants to go to the river? Ally asked, as soon as my parents car was out of out sight.

‘Me! Me!’ everybody loudly screamed, and shoot their hands-up to the sky.

‘Wait! lets do our chores first!’Angna announced to about 13 of us siblings and cousins standing next to each other. ‘And I’ll be the one to decide if we should go to the river’ he added

Angna is the eldest sibling in my family and he is also the eldest brother among my cousins. He is the first grandson to my grandparents, and the first nephew to my uncles and aunties. Since he is the eldest, everybody usually puts him in charge when there are no adult around, so today he was put in charge of looking after the children.

And let me get this straight, being in charge is completely different from baby-sitting. I think Angna enjoy his temporary position a little to much, because as soon as the adults are out of the house, he thinks he is the Commander in an army and starts ordering people around to do things.

He wanted us to do our chores first so he stood straight and tall in front us, his hands folded under his chest as he starts shooting orders at us.

‘Hey, you fetch some water from the drum, and wash the dishes’ he ordered some of my cousins ‘Do your job properly, I want the dishes to be spotless and sparkling from a mile away!’

‘And you people, chop some woods’ he added, pointing to my cousins brothers

‘And you broom the house, wipe the windows and mob the floor!’ he said, continuously shouting orders.

Everybody listened to him, without question and started doing the chores allocated to them. I was busy helping out with the chores when he screamed.

‘Ginna bring me a glass of water,’ I annoyingly turned around to see him, noticing that there was a bottle of water on the table next to him.

‘There is a container of water next to you, get it yourself!’ I replied, shaking my head in disapproval and rolling my eyes at him.

‘Soldier, I said I want my glass of water in the next second, or your not going to the river with us!’ he angrily ordered as he stood stationary at where he was positioned.

I ran as fast as I would, grabbed a glass of water and brought it to him, because I did not like the idea of getting left behind.

‘Here you go Sir!’ I said in a nice, sweet voice and a full smile, as I gave him the glass of water

‘Now drop down and give me twenty, for being so disrespecting to me before!’ he ordered

‘Arr! I hate that guy!’ I though to my self as I dropped down to do my twenty pushups.

I did not want to argue with him, because he might order me to do another 20 more push-ups or he will make me stay at home, while they will be going to the river, so I just obeyed him. I quickly did my push-ups, while my cousins were laughing at me and went back to complete my chores.

After, we were done with our chores, we went to our rooms, got our clothes and towels and walked out of the house, wanting to go to the river.

‘You all know that, we’re not suppose to go to the river!’ Angna teasingly said, walking around the house inspecting the chores we have just done.

When we heard that, we were all mad that he made us do our chores and now we are not going to the river. Our faces suddenly turned sad, like a dull gloomy day, and the rainstorms from our eyes were ready to poured down in vain and watered our cheeks any second now.

‘Wsshh! We’ll be bored to death if we just say here the whole day!’ Mani, my little brother and the youngest in the group exclaimed in frustration.

‘I have never seen Larr River before, I wanna go!’ he bagged Angna, as his cute chubby cheeks burned up in red from anger.

‘You know we can quickly go to the river, have a swim and come back!’ one of my younger cousin suggested looking at Angna with sad puppy eyes, hoping for a good response.

‘Yeah we should do that!’ everybody wholeheartedly agreed, bagging Angna to approve of the idea.

There was a long silent pause, and then Angna finally responded ‘Well I guess, a quick swim wouldn’t hurt’ he said smiling at us.

‘Yay!’ everybody screamed and jumped for joy, their tears instantly disappeared from their eyes, and happiness lightened up their faces.

‘And you all Promise, you wont say a word about us going to the river if our parents asked’ he questioned us.

‘We promise!’ everyone excitedly cried out in unison as we grabbed our bags and towels from the ground.

‘Hey where are you all going? We heard our grandfather Pap, called out to us from his little hut, in his clam quite voice.

My grandfather usually goes to his garden very early in the morning and comes back at 1pm or 2pm. We thought he was not at home and we wanted to sneak off to the river, but he must have gotten home early.

‘We are going to Uncle Nain place’ Angna lied, nervously biting his lip and holding his breath, as we all looked to Pap’s hut, anxiously waiting for his response. We looked to his hut and saw white cloudy smoke slowly raising up from the grass roof of his hut, and heard him putting his teapot on the fire.

‘Okay, but make sure to be home, before your parents come!’ he replied

‘Yes we will’ everybody cheerfully screamed, as we run towards the dirt road leading to the river.

When we arrived at the river, it was almost full. There were kids running here and there, some sleeping on the big rocks on the river banks, trying to get themselves warm after spending hours in the river. Some were playing tags and some were splashing and playfully fought with each other in the river. There were screaming and shouting and you can hear the sound of joy in their voices, filling up the atmosphere. At the river bank, there were a several mothers doing their laundries, while others were washing the dirt from sweet-potato they have just harvested from their gardens.

When we saw how fun the river was everybody quickly left their bags at the river bank, and dove straight into the river. I did not know how to swim, so I left my bag of clothes at the side and went swimming in the shallow area of the river.

‘Hey Ginna, its your turn to ride!’ my cousins yelled at me after a while in the river, holding up the black tire inner tube.

‘I don’t want to!’ I replied ‘Somebody can go ahead’

‘It’ll be fun!’ my brothers insisted ‘The river’s not that deep, you’ll not drown’

But I just sat there, a little hesitant with the thought. After a few minutes of considering the idea, I decided to go for a ride on the tube.

‘I want to try” I said to my cousins, as they gave me the tube.

I nervously jumped into the tube, and my cousins pushed me into the river. The tube slowly moved away from the shallow waters, and I was now in the deep area of the river. The rushing waters of the river rocked me back and forth and suddenly my hand slip and the tube overturned, leaving me hopeless as I feel straight into the deep.

‘Oh No!’ ‘Today will be the day I die’ I thought to myself as I was being pulled under the pressure of the rushing river.

I tried to swim but shore, but could not. “Where is everyone? Do they even saw me falling into the deep?’ I asked myself ‘I should have been rescued by now’ those seconds felt like an eternity and my lungs were running out of breath.

I was quickly falling into the bottom of the river, and I knew this was my last breath, so I started saying my last prayer. Suddenly I felt a cold hand grabbing me by the my wrist and pulling me out of the water. I slowly opened my eyes, panting and shivering with shock and realized that it was Angna. He had a big grin on his face, and was trying to hold back a giggle as he took me to the bank of the river. I quietly sat on a rock and saw all my brothers, sisters and cousins laughing their hearts out at the fact that I almost drowned, and some started teasing me.

I just sat there, hardly being bothered by their teasing or laughter. I was just glad that I did not die today. I sat on the rock shaking from the cold and the shock from almost drowning so I turned to my right to get a better feel of the suns ray on my soaking wet body. When I turned around, I saw Mani running towards a lady about 10foot away from me. She had her back towards the river and her face facing the thick green forest next to the river bank. She held out her hand waiting for Mani to come to her. She wore an unusual white gown fully covering her body and a hood of the gown loosely hanging off from her shoulders.

‘Mani?’ I yelled, but he did not seem to hear me. He kept running to that lady and hold her hand as they walked towards the forest.

‘Mani? Wait!’ I yelled at him, getting up from the rock I was sitting on and ran after them. My heart was pounding in my chest and I took off running like ‘Flash’ to get my little brother from this weird looking stranger.

‘Ginna? Where you going? Wait up!’ I heard my cousins screamed after me, but I kept running. The thought of losing Mani was overwhelming my heart was beating faster and faster and I started crying. I could see my world falling and crushing hard on the ground, somehow turning into an isolated desert somewhere in a vast empty land.

‘I’d rather die, than loose my little brother!’ I said to myself, as I kept running

When I turned the corner to reach them, I saw Mani and the stranger disappeared into the tress.

‘Noooooo!’ I screamed my heart out at him, sobbing uncontrollably.

‘Hey what is wrong with you!?’ I heard my cousin sister Tyna confusingly asked, as she grabbed my hand and pulled me back from going into the forest

‘She took Mani!’ I replied, tears freely running down from my face, wiggling my hand around trying to let go off her grip so I can run after Mani.

‘Who Mani?’ she asked sounding more puzzled ‘Mani is right there, playing in the river?

I was surprised at what she had just said, I stopped sobbing and quickly turned around. I looked up the river to where my cousins where playing and saw Mani laughing and playing with the other kids.

‘Oh Mani’ I said crying feeling relived that he is still here. I ran to him, pulled him out of the river and hugged him with my life.

‘You okay?’ my brothers and cousins asked, looking confusingly at each other, as they gather around Mani and me.

‘I thought I lost you!’ I said looking at Mani and hugging him again and again, and wiping tears from my face.

Mani confusingly looked at me, wondering why I was crying and hugging him. He did not seem to be bothered by my concern for him, and was trying to wiggle out of my hands and go back to the the river.

‘She thought she saw someone taking Mani, that’s why she wanted to run into the forest’ Tyna answered my brothers question and pointed to the spot I thought I saw Mani going into.

‘Whoa!’ Everyone gasped in surprised, some shocked and some scared by that thought

‘Let me go, let me go!’ Mani screamed into my ear, as he managed to unlock my strong grip around his little body, pushed me aside and ran back into the river.

‘You should just go home and get some rest’ my brothers instructed, and went back for a swim in the river. They all seemed unbothered by my heart-wrenching experience.

‘It has been a rough day for you’ I head some of my idiotic cousins commented sarcastically and quietly giggle as they ran back and joined the other kids playing in the river.

‘Yeah I guess I need some rest!’ I quietly said in agreement with my brothers and cousins, as I stood up from the rock I was sitting on.

As soon I stood up, I suddenly felt the hand of tiredness and exhaustion creeping up on me, like a thief and stole my excitement of playing in the river. I weakly crumbled to the ground, picked up my towel and walked back to home in my wet clothes. When I got home, I changed into some dry clothes went into my room and straight to bed, sleeping peacefully like a child.

‘Ginna! Ginna! Wake up!’ I got startled and woken up by one of my cousins ‘It’s Mani, I think something is wrong with him’

I quickly got out of bed and I checked the time on my phone, it was almost 8pm. I got out of my bed and followed my cousin sister to Paps house, rubbing my eyes trying to shake off the sleep still clinging on to me. When we got outside, I saw that night have already fallen, and I have slept thought the afternoon and missed dinner.

We walked into Pap’s house and I noticed all my siblings and cousins quietly sitting in a circle around the fire place. The house was oddly quiet and the silence was defending. I confusingly looked at them, wondering what was wrong with them and notice that their faces was filled with terror.

‘Ginna I heard what happened at the river!’ Pap said, walking out of his room ‘Aillim have taken the spirit of your brother’

‘What?’ I confusingly asked ‘What is going on! where is Mani?’

‘He is my room, with your grandmother’ he replied comfortingly ‘But he had not been able to talk and move his body since he got back from the river’ He added as he sat in the circle with my siblings and cousins.

I heard Mani crying out in pain and I wanted to check if he was okay, but Pap looked at me and instructed me to sit down, as I took my seat and he started talking.

‘Mani’s spirit has been taken by the Spirit at the river, so Ginna and I will go to the river to bring him back’ he said across looking to me.

Everybody’s jaws dropped down to the floor in shock and we all sat sill, looking like lifeless sculptures on an sculptors canvas, puzzled at what grandpa had just said. We all were aware of the stories that our elders used to tell us, growing up. We would sit around the fire place, close to our parents and fighting off the cold hugs of the highlands winds. As our elders would tells us of the many legends of the land, and one of the many legends told was the story ‘Aillim’.

Aillim was the daughter of the first Chief who lived in the village a very long, long time ago, and she was the most beautiful young women in the village. When she got married, her husband built them a very big house next to the river. She was kind and generous and everyone in the village adored her. As time goes by, she was not able to bore any children to his husband so her husband left her. He quickly got married to another women, and the people in the village started despising her. She become so unhappy and would cry herself to bed every night and would burn or cut herself to let out the pain she was feeling inside. One day she finally had enough of the pain and hurt so he drowned herself in the river and died.

Legend has it that her Spirit still lives in the river and walks around the river banks to take little children. So whenever, children are done washing or playing in the river, they walk up to the a hill looking down on the river, and they would called out to their spirits at the river, saying that its time to go home now. If they do not call out to their spirits at the river, Aillim will take hold of their spirit to be her children and their body will crumble to death at Mid-night. I have always heard that stories, but I never thought it was true. I thought it was some made up stores, our elder tell us over the fireplace to keep us away from the river.

‘We tell you these stories not to frighten you, but to protect you and help you uphold the values of our tradition and culture’ Pap’s said, reminding us of the importance of our tradition and cultures.

After reminding us of the importance of doing the things tradition has taught us. Pap instructed Angna and 3 of my cousin brothers to chopped 3 bamboo tubes behind his house and to get 10 hens from the chicken cop, to use it as a ritual to bring back Mani’s spirit.

‘Okay Ginna lets go” Pap said, as he took the the three bamboo tubes my brothers and cousins jot and put the ten hens into a bag, and gave me it to carry.

‘The rest of you, don’t go to your houses!’ he said, looking at the group of kids standing in front of him ‘I need you all to stay in my house, until we come back!’ ‘Okay’ everybody said and ran into his house.

It was around 9pm, the air felt cold and damp on my skin, as I lifted the chicken bag and put it on my head, to carry it. I heard the tiny insects loudly singing their night ritual songs, calling sleep to come fill the land. I suddenly felt the grip of fear filling my being and making me a little hesitant to make this journey.

‘From this moment on, you will not speak or ask any question’ Pap instructed ‘I know you are scared, but just do everything I said and we will bring Mani back’ He added as he starting walking towards the dirt road leading to the river.

Before we went to the river he made a quick stop at a small creek. The cheek has a small fountain of water coming out from pieces of rocks, and that water is usually used for drinking and cooking. I was following Pap, shivering form the nights cold and wanted to ask why we are at the creek but it seem as though I have somehow lost my voice. So I just stood there looking at him, chanting some soft but eerily scary traditional ritual songs, while fetching the water into one of the bamboo tubes. He then pulled out a long green leave from his old bilum and tie it around the opening of the bamboo tube. After he was done wrapping the leave around the bamboo, he started walking to the river. When we got to the river, it was sounded awfully quiet, without the joyful screaming of children. The only sound was the loud roaring of rushing water crushing against each other, and flowing sharply down its path. It sounded loud, insistent and intrusive and I was caught off guard, instantly felling anxious and scared.

‘Put the bag here’ Pap said, to me as I took the chicken bag off my I head and put it on the ground. I stood there looking at him, as he searches through his bilum and pulled out, something looking like a dried-up plant leaf.

‘Eat this!’ he said, lifting my chin with his hand, to open my mouth.

I slowly and hesitantly opened my mouth as he placed the dried leaf in my mouth. The leave instantly dissolved on my tongue, like an ice-cube left out in the sun. It was bitter and tasted horrible, I wanted to spit in out but my mouth would not allow me. I uncomfortably stood next to grandpa making all kinds of faces and unwillingly swallowed the horrible taste of that leaf.

‘Now help me help kill these chicken’ Pap ordered, as he finished building a small alter with rock on the bank of the river.

I nodded my head and quickly went to help him. I held the wings and the legs of the chicken, and he held the head with one hand, chopped the chickens head off with his other hand.

‘Bring me the empty bamboo’ he said pointing to the bamboo tube.

I walked behind him got the bamboo tube and gave it to him. He was singing and chanting ritual songs as he collected the blood of the chicken into the bamboo tube.

After we have killed all the chicken, he placed it in an orderly manner on the stone alter.

‘This is for you to take and make a trade’ he said handing me the three bamboo tubes. ‘The first bamboo is chicken blood and the second has a mixture of secret dried leaves, spice and perfumed leaves, and some traditional salt’ he added

‘When you find Mani, take him and leave these two bamboo at the place you find him’ he instructed ‘The last bamboo is water, when you find Mani, have him to drink some and some for yourself’

I stood there listening to his instruction without saying a word. The full moon was high up in the sky and cast a bright light on us, lighting up the river banks like a spotlight standing in a football stadium. I looked up to the rive and saw Mani sitting on a the biggest rock on the other side of the river.

‘Mani!’ I called. As I ran up to the river suddenly forgetting all about Pap. I went to the shallow area of the water and started crossing the river, with the three bamboo tubes tightly wrapped around my arms.

‘Mani what are you doing!’ I called out to him. He sat on rock hugging his legs and resting his head on his knees, he somehow did not seem to see or hear me.

When I got to him, I realize that he looked so tired and exhausted. He was awake but did not have the energy to talk. When I touched his shoulder, he hands and legs dropped down and his head was just hanging down from his neck like a dead person, struggling to stay alive. I quickly left the chicken blood and the spice leaves with the traditional salt next to the rock and lifted Man’s head up, to drink the water from the bamboo tube. He seem to be asleep and also awake, like he was in between two different world and is undecided which way he should go to. He was weak and struggled to keep himself awake as took a sip of water from the bamboo tube I was holding.

‘We are going Home’ I said to him, as I drunk some water from the bamboo, picked him up from the rock and carry him. He weakly placed his lifeless hands around my neck and put his heavy head on my shoulder as I carried him cross the river. When we got to the other side I saw Pap standing a few meters away form the stone alter, getting ready to go home. When he saw us coming he turned around and started walking. He was about 8meters in front of us, so I did not bother calling him to wait for us, I just followed him and walk back home.

Mani was unusually heavy, it felt like I was carrying a hundred people at once. I was feeling thirsty and constantly running out of breath, so I was continuously drinking from the bamboo tube. After slowly walking up for the river and through the bushes and small hills, we finally arrived at home. When we got home, everybody was sound asleep on the floor, some sleeping comfortably on the mattress and some sleeping peacefully on the bamboo blind next to the fire. We quietly walked in and Pap instructed me to leave Mani outside his room door, so that he can take him in. I was exhausted I left Mani at Pap’s room door and walked over to where my cousin sisters were sleeping and lay down next to them, realizing that it was almost 12 mid-night.

‘Papa, where are the kids!’ I heard my Mum’s voice calling from outside, but I was too tired to wake up to see them.

‘Everyone is with me’ I heard Pap called back and walked out of his room to open the door.

‘Why is everyone here?’ I heard Mum asked ‘And did they went to the river?’

‘No they did not!’ he lied, ‘I was telling them some stories waiting for you all to come, and they fell asleep’

‘Okay then we’ll see them tomorrow’ my Mum, uncles and aunties replied, as they said good night to Pap and went on to their respective houses.

I heard Pap quietly closed the door shut and slowly walked back to his room, the dogs were peacefully sleeping outside and the whole house was so calm and quiet. I willingly let myself fell into the thick comfortable hands of the mattress on the floor. I put my head on the soft fluffy pillow, letting the anguish and anxiety of the day diminish into the distance. My eyes voluntarily closed, as I felt the warm arms of sleepiness cuddling me, with the most inviting blanket on her hand. Eventuality, I heard the hand of the wall clock move no more, as I float into the dream world, awaiting what adventures tomorrow holds for me.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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