With a conch knife Matamu deftly split the poisonous tuber, took one half in her hands and began to work it across the coral grater in her lap, producing a fibrous pulp. This pulp she pushed through the hole at the top of the snake-like matapi basket, which hung from the roof of the palm-thatched hut. Her daughters, who like all children were happy to help with chores provided a game could be made of them, were seesawing on the wooden lever attached to the bottom of the matapi basket, which caused it to contract rhythmically, squeezing the poison out of the pulp.‘Tell us a story!’ they cried.
Matamu was powerless in the face of her daughters, whom she adored. Also, she was a gifted storyteller (even among the Lacono of the island, who were aficionados of the art form) and rarely refused a request for a story.
‘What story would you like to hear?’ she asked with feigned curiosity for she knew exactly which one they wanted. With each bounce on the lever they shouted one word: ‘Tuani! And! The! Turtle!’
Matamu smiled, scooped another handful of cassava pulp unto the matapi basket and began: ‘A long time ago when the world was in its infancy, the Lacono people lived far across the water. One day, Yocahu, the giver of cassava, became angry with the people. He reached down and with a mighty swipe of his conch knife, cut the people loose from their fields. Everyone knows that birds are birds and the sea is the sea but humans also feel the forces that lift the tides and compel the swallow each year to fly to the sunrise. So when Yocahu cut the Lacono loose, they drifted across the ocean.’
‘One day the sun did not rise and instead there came a huracan. The sea became a dragon and the waves became its teeth and it reared up to crush the Lacono in their tiny canoa. Everyone was terrified except Tuani, who was still a young girl no older than you two. The dragon writhed and thrashed its tail but Tuani slept as if she were rocking in her hamaca. And while she slept she dreamt of the goddess Atabeyra who told her to watch and wait.’
‘The next day the dragon lay down on its back and the huracan moved away, but still the people were frightened because they were lost and didn’t know where to go. We will surely die on the sea! they wailed, but Tuani waited quietly at the front of the canoa. Soon there appeared a turtle. Tuani recognized Atabeyra and persuaded the others to follow her, which they did for three days and nights. Finally they reached a forested island, rounded on top like a turtle’s shell and when Tuani set her foot on the white sand she knew she was home.’
After a moment the two girls begged Matamu to tell it again but once was enough, besides, most of the juice had already been extracted from the cassava. Fashioned into cakes, the pulp would be dried and cooked on a clay griddle, but that was a chore for tomorrow. Matamu sent the girls off to play and went to find her husband.
Blessed with rich fertile soil, freshwater springs and easy access to an inexhaustible supply of flying fish with which to supplement their diet, the Lacono had found themselves with a surfeit of leisure time on their hands. In the early days of the settlement they had filled this time with rituals of personal ornamentation and the production of ornate pottery and elaborately carved canoa. But gradually over the years the ease of life on the island had tempered this industriousness into a much slower paced lifestyle. Pottery and canoa became simple and functional and grooming habits relaxed so much that men took to wearing long beards. Now they dedicated their free time to singing and telling stories and taking astoundingly long afternoon naps in hamaca under the shady cabbage palms. It was in this last activity that Matamu found her husband Bela deeply involved.
‘Get up, you oaf,’ she said. ‘I’m asleep,’ he mumbled. ‘I am going for a swim and you are coming with me.’ ‘I am already swimming with you in my dreams. Isn’t that enough?’
At this, Matamu rolled her husband out of his hamaca and sent him crashing to the sand where he pretended to snore.
‘You are fat and lazy as a manatee,’ she said and covered his nose and mouth until he gasped and chased her down into the sea. After a good deal of wrestling, Bela surrendered and the pair fell exhausted into a hole in the rocks that formed a natural bathtub (a feature that would later inspire settlers from England to call this spot Holetown). Matamu and her husband were floating contentedly side by side when something on the horizon caught her eye. Though hardly more than a speck, the dark shape cast a portentous shadow over her mind and filled her with dread.
‘Bela,’ she whispered. ‘We must tell the others.’
From the cover of the trees the Lacono watched apprehensively as a group of pale men climbed down from the giant canoa into a smaller boat and rowed towards the shore.
‘They are Karifuna,’ one man hissed, by which he meant the cannibals who several times over previous generations had raided the island in search of men to fight and women to kidnap.
‘Those are not Karifuna,’ replied a man old enough to remember. ‘These men are pale and cover their bodies in cloth. Besides, the Karifuna never had a canoa like that.’ He pointed at the sailing ship.
‘As you say,’ Matamu whispered. ‘But just the same, I have an uneasy feeling. We should hide in the gully until they go.’
Her husband, who had learned to trust Matamu’s intuition, nodded in agreement.
‘No,’ said the chief boldly. ‘These men are strangers and we will go down to meet them and discover that they want. I will take six men with me. The rest of you will wait here.’
The Lacono had no knowledge of war but neither were they cowards. Six men volunteered to go with the chief, including Bela, whose pride did not allow him to stay behind despite his misgivings. After a final embrace, Matamu looked on as he and the others followed the chief down the sand to where the pale men were coming ashore. The strangers did not attack immediately as she had feared, but merely observed the Lacono men and talked animatedly among themselves. She had just decided they might be friendly after all when, at the order of their leader, the pale men assaulted the Indians. Those at the tree line could do little else but watch in horror as their men were overpowered and forced onto the small boat.
That night, hidden in one of the deep shady gullies that crisscrossed the island, Matamu and the others huddled together and desperately questioned each other as to what to do next. The shaman, the most influential of the group now that the chief was gone, decided to seek guidance from the protector of the dead, the dog-spirit Opiel-Guaobiran. The others watched in expectant awe as he prepared himself for the ritual.
To purify himself he took a swallowing-stick made of bone and inserted it into his throat until, with a wracking heave, he vomited up the contents of his stomach. From inside his bag he pulled a small zemi statue of the dog-spirit and knelt on the ground before it, where he crushed the leaves of the cahoba plant with a carved stone roller. Through a Y-shaped tube he snorted the crushed plant into his nose.
The Lacono jumped back in fright when, all at once, the shaman began to shake and leap around the zemi figure while a torrent of strange words poured from his mouth. Then, just as suddenly, he collapsed to the earth. Matamu rushed forward to help. Exhausted, he looked into her eyes and hissed, ‘Opiel-Guaobiran waits for us.’
At that moment from the shrubs at the entrance to the gully one of the men who’d been captured burst forth. Matamu let out a cry of joy, believing that her husband and the others had escaped. But it was soon apparent that this man was alone. Between ragged breaths he told how he had jumped overboard when the pale men were distracted and had swum for his life towards shore.
‘What of Bela?’ Matamu shrieked.
‘Bound,’ the man said with tears in his eyes, ‘and taken away.’
Late at night, in snatches of restless sleep, Matamu dreamt. She dreamt of an ancient turtle who, with infinite sadness, led her and her daughters away from this island, away from their home, and across the sea.
The next day there was no sign of the sailing ship. A week passed before the man who had escaped from the pale ones became ill. He would be the first to fall victim to the deadly influenza the strangers had brought with them.
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Source: Ian R. Clayton, Originally on Barbados.org