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Sunday, 24 October 2010

Nohu -- by OffsideinTahiti

(translated by Zephirine)

Captain Terenui parked his car in the Moorea gendarmerie compound. He left his wife to go and open the door of the commanding officer’s house, and made a detour to the guard-post to look in on the duty officer and check that all was well before going to bed. They had just come back from an evening spent with some friends, which had made a very pleasant ending to the week. He liked Sunday evenings. The excitements of the weekend had calmed down, the drunks went to bed early, and calls to the station switchboard were rare.

However, he found the duty officer taking a phone call. Captain Terenui waited until he had hung up and then looked at him questioningly. The duty officer explained as he noted it down in the register.

“The undertakers. Something irregular about a burial permission. They want us to send somebody, who shall I wake up?”

Captain Terenui glanced at the wall clock. Past eleven o’clock. There’d be trouble. And he needed everyone to be fresh in the morning for the co-ordination meeting with the coastguards. He drummed his fingers briefly on the counter and then decided.

“Let them sleep, I’ll go. Apart from that - quiet?”

The duty officer nodded reassuringly.

He got back in his own car and drove at a steady pace through the darkness. The wind was stirring the palm trees above the deserted ring road. Twenty minutes later, he was parking in front of the building which served as a combination of mortuary, funeral parlour and coffin-making workshop. There was only one other vehicle in the parking space. Captain Terenui checked his reflection in the window of the car. The yellowish light of the street lamps wasn’t flattering. He had put on some more weight. He smoothed down the tails of his flowered shirt, thought to himself that it wasn’t the most appropriate outfit, and headed for the side entrance, where a ray of light showed around the door.

The undertaker, an abrupt, angular Chinese, was waiting for him in the large, completely tiled room. Captain Terenui absorbed the double shock of the harsh light and the strong smell of formaldehyde, behind which floated other, less definable odours. There was only one body, laid out face down on a stainless-steel table at the other end of the room. He didn’t feel like going to look at it straightaway. A brief glance was enough to tell him that it was an elderly woman with grey hair. A green surgical sheet covered the lower part of the corpse from the small of the back downwards. She had her head turned to the side. Towards him.

“We don’t normally work this late. But we got the body in during the evening, and we thought, with the heat…”

The undertaker handed him the death certificate. His eyes went straight to the bottom of the document. Referring to the item ‘Medical or legal obstacle to burial’, the ‘no’ box had been ticked. He immediately looked for the doctor’s signature. The name meant nothing to him.

“Delpierre, who's he?”

“The new GP. I’ve called him too.”

At that exact moment, Doctor Delpierre pushed the entrance door open, stood still for a moment on the threshold and then walked rapidly towards them. He was very tall, pale, the completely bald top of his head surrounded by a coronet of grey hair. He was obviously far from pleased to have been disturbed on a Sunday evening. The undertaker made the introductions and then led them over to the steel table, continuing his explanations:

“My assistant called me. He was just starting the embalming…” He turned toward Captain Terenui and took on an expert tone. “That means we draw off the fluids and gases…”

Captain Terenui interrupted him with a gesture. He knew. As he walked towards the corpse, he was trying not to look at the shelves of glass jars. He hadn’t had a drink, because he was driving, but he had had too much to eat.

The undertaker continued. “We clean the body at the same time. That was the point when he saw the marks. I thought it was better to call you.”

“What marks?” The doctor interrupted brusquely.

The undertaker indicated the woman’s back. In the muscle running alongside the spinal column, a little lower than the left shoulder blade, there could clearly be seen a little round black mark, with a second one, even smaller and less noticeable, just underneath.

The doctor was already leaning over the body, adjusting his glasses.

“Shit.” He rolled his sleeves up. The undertaker went to get him a pair of latex gloves.

Captain Terenui cleared his throat. “You hadn’t seen them?”

The doctor answered sharply, defensive. “I didn’t have any reason to undress her. Eighty-three years old, history of serious heart problems – the nephew showed me a prescription as long as your arm - and all the symptoms of an infarction. She was found sitting with her head on the kitchen table.” He spread his hands as if to say “you know what I mean,” looking at him over the metal frame of his small half-moon glasses.

Captain Terenui took a quick look at the death certificate which he still had in his hand, to check if infarction was given as the cause of death. The name of the deceased caught his eye, and he stood very still for a moment.

While the doctor was putting on his gloves, Captain Terenui leaned round to see the woman’s face. Her eyes were closed, her expression set. He hadn’t recognised her. It didn’t surprise him. It was years since he’d seen her. He stared at her face and still had trouble believing that it was the woman he’d once known, there, underneath the mask of death. On the certificate, the name, address and age left no doubt. It really was Auntie Moea.

The doctor’s voice distracted him from his thoughts.

“What the fuck is this thing?”

The two other men were leaning over the wound. The doctor spread the skin with the palms of his hands in order to examine the marks. The undertaker ventured: “Insect bite?”

“If it’s a spider, it’s not a species native to here… anyway I hope not.”

Captain Terenui joined them and leaned over too, nudging the undertaker aside with the imposing bulk of his shoulder. There were two holes, like two vaccination marks. The flesh at the edges of the holes was black and rotting. The skin around the injury had red marks and some visible, but not pronounced, swelling. For a moment he was silent, perplexed, then he suddenly remembered where he had seen this before. Before he had the time to think, the word escaped him on a quiet breath.


Still leaning over the wound, the doctor asked: “Nohu? What’s that, nohu?”

As there was no answer, he lifted his head towards Captain Terenui. His gaze met only a row of glass jars on shelves. The Captain was already halfway to the door. As he went out, he heard the undertaker say to the doctor:

“Nohu, in Tahitian, means scorpion fish.”

Captain Terenui slid in behind the wheel and set off northwards on the ring road, thoughts whirling in his mind. The nohu was an extremely ugly fish, which spent most of its time sitting at the bottom of the sea on the coral, and could even bury itself in the sand and live without water, between two tides, its poisonous dorsal spines ready to strike down anyone rash enough to step on them. That was what had happened to his father when he was a child. And he had seen his father – a big bruiser of a man - weeping with pain. He could still remember the look of the wound, the black trace of the poisoned tissue. The affected limb had swollen up enormously and turned first red, then blue. His father had survived, after two days of fever and agonising pain. He had completely recovered, but for an elderly person with a weak heart…

Auntie Moea had been a neighbour of his parents, back in the day. He hadn’t seen her since he had come back to take up his new post on his native island. He’d seen Alphonse, of course, her nephew, his childhood friend. But the space which had grown between them had left him feeling depressed. He himself had gone off to the lycĂ©e, in town, then to France and the army. After that, the gendarmerie and the slow climb up the ranks through a succession of provincial barracks. Now he was in charge of the brigade, at home, on his island. The island that Alphonse, on the other hand, had never left. He had been left with Auntie Moea as a kid, she had brought him up. She had no other family apart from some distant cousins on another island, Terenui couldn’t remember which. She was a tough woman, harsh and authoritarian. He dragged a picture of her up out of his memories, and it seemed to him that she had always been old. He and Alphonse were inseparable back then, and they’d both had a good share of scoldings and smacks round the ankles with the broom from the old woman; but he had also spent, on their bit of land next to the beach, the sunniest hours of his whole life. He and Alphonse were cousins without having a drop of blood in common, except from the shared cuts and scratches of childhood.

He had slowed the car down well before he got there. He realised he wasn’t sure where the place was, and that gave him a shock. He put it down to the darkness and the fact that Moorea had changed: more buildings, more fences… He found his way at last by the tall silhouette of the big badamier tree which had provided all the cool shade of their early years, and parked the car. It seemed to him that the wind had strengthened again.

He walked past Auntie Moea’s house, a plywood and corrugated-iron cabin built at the edge of the water. It was closed, dark and quiet. One could have believed that the old woman was sleeping peacefully inside. Alphonse no longer shared the house with her. He had built himself a wooden shack a bit further along, on the beach. He lived on the fish he caught and what he grew in the small vegetable patch that he cultivated for them both.

Terenui approached the shack, the sound of his footsteps on the sand covered by the rattling of the palms in the wind and the deep bass of the ocean rollers breaking on the reef. An oil lamp was burning inside. The shelter had no door. Terenui went in without announcing himself, and found his friend sitting at the table, a bottle of rum in front of him which he had already made a good start on. He noticed that Alphonse seemed surprised to see him.

“Celebrating already?”

Alphonse answered him in Tahitian, asking why he wasn’t speaking in their own language, the way they always had.

“Tonight, I’m speaking French, and so are you.”

Terenui lowered his heavy bulk onto the bench on the other side of the table. He put his big hands on the greasy oilcloth.

“You playing policeman, then?”

“And you, what are you playing at?”

Alphonse shrugged. He poured himself a shot of rum and then reached over to take a dirty glass from beside the sink. He put it in front of Terenui who pushed it away at once.

“I’ll tell you what you’ve been playing at today. You’ve been playing fisherman, and you caught a nohu.”

Alphonse took a gulp of rum. Then he clicked his tongue, looked down and sighed.

“How you know? I said to the doctor it’s her heart. I showed the medicines, he signed the paper that they can bury her. Didn’t undress her.”

“Chinese, he saw.” Terenui ran his hand over his face. Talking to Alphonse was making him forget his French. He started again, making an effort. “The Chinese guy, the undertaker. He saw the marks when he was cleaning her up.”

Alphonse shook his head, seeming disappointed. He spat on the ground.

“Why did you do it?”

Alphonse shifted on his chair, uncomfortable. “We have a row.”

Terenui waited. But there was nothing further.

“That’s all?”

Alphonse made a movement with his chin, impossible to interpret. It could have meant yes, no, or fuck off. He folded his arms defiantly.

Terenui raised his voice. “Come on, you’ve been having rows for fifty years! What happened?”

Alphonse avoided his gaze. He cleared his throat, and started again, more hesitantly. “This time, we have... bad row. After, she shows me this.” He sighed and leafed through a pile of old papers on the table. He pulled out a yellow ticket. A ferry ticket.

“She says tomorrow she’s going to town.”

Terenui lowered his head and stared harder, to make him carry on. A note of anger crept into Alphonse’s voice.

“To change the will. Give everything to them from Huahine!”

Terenui sank his face in his hands. A gust of wind, stronger than the others, shook the hut, which creaked all over. Terenui opened his mouth to speak, but Alphonse didn’t give him time.

“Fifteen years! Fifteen years the doctor says it’s her heart, she’s going to die from her heart. Every morning I wait to see. And every morning, five o’clock, she gets up and calls me to go buy her bread.”

“And she gives you the money to buy yours.”

“Yeah, yeah. And every day I go catch her fish. And open her coconuts for her. You know how long I'm doing this.”

Terenui made a tired gesture. He was feeling his own anger fade, even while the fisherman‘s was swelling up like a sail in the wind. Alphonse pounded the table with his index finger.

“Suppose the cousins from Huahine come. Where I live? Your place?”

Terenui had no reply. The corners of Alphonse’s mouth went down in a rictus of contempt. He shook his head slowly and then pointed to his own chest.

“Fifteen years, heart…” His hand cut the air with a stab from an imaginary dagger. “So with nohu, I sting! Like that, pffft, quicker.” He rubbed his palms together as if to clean them.

Terenui shook his head as if he refused to believe it. He looked Alphonse straight in the eye. His old friend held his gaze. A spark of malice suddenly lit in Alphonse’s black eyes.

“At least, she never piss us off again with her flower garlands.”

The two men both burst out laughing. Terenui took the glass he had pushed away and placed it in front of Alphonse so he could pour him a drink. They clinked glasses and downed their drinks in one go. Terenui let the searing mouthful make its way down into him. He was thinking about that time in their childhood when, to punish them, she made them sit out in the garden in the full heat, in view of the whole neighbourhood, and made them thread flowers on fishing line, for hours. Girls’work. The other boys were going off to play football, and laughed at them as they passed by. He realised that the pain of it was as sharp today in his memory as it had been at the time.

He took a deep breath and began to speak quietly, in Tahitian. Steadily, calmly, he explained it all to Alphonse. He told him they would be here in the morning, that they would ask a lot of questions. So many questions that they would quickly get his head mixed up. That they would do tests on the body and would find the nohu poison, and then they’d understand everything, because they would be pretty sure she hadn’t gone swimming, especially as her dress was dry and she was in her kitchen. And they’d find out from the neighbours that Alphonse was there when she died.

He paused for a long time. Then he told him that if he took his fishing canoe and got as far as Maiao, he could maybe hide there. At least for a while. Maybe for a long time if he kept out of sight and lived on fish. The people of the island wouldn’t give him away. They didn’t speak to the gendarmes. He told him not to worry, he would get himself taken off the case because it involved a personal friend. He’d say that he had come round this evening and found the house empty and the canoe wasn’t there. Perhaps they’d believe that Alphonse had got lost at sea. But he had to be discreet and above all he had to go now, right away.

Alphonse looked outside through the open doorway. The flame of the oil lamp flickered. He answered in French:

“There’s a three-metre swell and it’s pitch black out there, mister policeman.”

He punctuated the sentence with a huge swig of rum and slapped the glass down on the table.

Terenui swept his big hand across the oilcloth and leaned on the corner of the table to stand up. He looked one more time into Alphonse’s eyes, where the anger was now swimming in rum, and went out.

Outside, Terenui walked to the edge of the plot of land and stopped facing the lagoon. The cabins were worth nothing, but the land, a fine seaside plot with a big beach of white sand, would be worth a small fortune nowadays. He was sure that Alphonse hadn’t thought about this for a single second. It was his home, that was all.

He traced a vague design in the sand with the point of his town shoe. In the distance, the waves were breaking on the reef with a deafening thunder. He thought that if the canoe’s outboard started up, he probably wouldn’t hear it from here. He thought, too, that if at this moment he were to put his heart onto the surface of these dark waves, it would sink straight down to the ocean floor, where it could torment itself in the company of the pallid venomous creatures in the immense night of the deep.


Monday, 4 October 2010

Not So Strictly -- by Zephirine

OtherStuffers living in the UK have probably noticed the start of a new season of 'Strictly Come Dancing' on TV... it prompted me to revisit these small poems:

Waltzing is
easy you
just keep on
one two three
twirl a bit
mind his feet
try to look
charming and
hope it’s not
Tales from the
Woods again
next or the
Blue bloody

The tango is O
K if you’re a sexy type who
leans back on your partner’s
arm and then steps
swiftly to one side and
does that wavy
gesture with the ankle
(tricky that one)
not to mention when you
lift your leg be-
hind your partner’s back and
try not to look
too much like a peeing dog

called this
the fox
no fox
this way
it wanted to
by hounds
from limb while
girls on po-

one two cha cha cha
once so la di da
once used to be danced
at firms’ dinner dan-
ces by wives with blonde
hair like Doris Day
in tight kitten heels
and sequins somewhere
one two cha cha cha
how lucky we are
we’ve got a new car
and a hostess trolley

Waltz photo: Sigismond von Dobschutz
Tango graphic: Jorge Muscia
Foxtrot photo of Vernon & Irene Castle by FB Johnston
Cha cha record sleeve from