The Price of Remembering
by Andreea Daia
My village is just like your village, identical except for me. Same sea cliff at Orongo, same hole in the rim of Rano Kau crater, 279 steps from the Sunrise Stone. The people that came after you would call it the Equinox Stone of Rapa Nui or Easter Island. I’m not supposed to remember any of these names.
But I do.
My mom wouldn’t even know what Easter means. Part of me wants to forget it, too. Until I am reminded that, for the first time in millennia, MakeMake has offered us a chance. Sighing, I fiddle with the reed bracelet that my love made for me. I’ve been lying to my people for so long that I attach the Creator God’s name to my deceits, like a veil of benediction. My people can’t even recall what a veil is.
How can anyone fear memories when they don’t even remember they’ve forgotten something?
If my village’s Birdman learned the truth about me, my family would throw me into the sea from the stack of Motu Kau. They would probably even bait the sharks to make sure that not a morsel of flesh is left of me. Not that attracting the predators is even necessary; two or three sharks always hunt in those waters.
“Are you ready, Waihu?” I hear my brother muttering. He is afraid for me, even if he also envies me. Was your brother jealous, too, when you were chosen to represent your village in the Birdman trial? Foolish of me to even ask. Of course he was. My brother isn’t resentful because I am a girl and five years younger to boot, but because it was I, not he, who appeared in the elder’s prophetic dreams. I want to tell him that these prophecies are not what he imagines, but in the last moment I bite my tongue.
Is my voice quivering as I babble strained nothings? Better not give my family any hope in case... The possibility refuses to round itself into a conclusion. I cringe as my mom brings me Mahi-Mahi in a chipped bowl of clay. Scallops are a luxury, and fruit is scarcer every year. Still, I can’t bring myself to refuse her, because I will need all the strength I can get for today’s trial.
Did you hate them too for what they made you suffer through? This insane competition is an attempt to survive. It’s difficult to blame them when I understand our predicament better than the Birdmen. So many mouths to feed and so little food. By the time our leaders grasped this reality, we’d already slid down a slippery slope. We had no more trees to build ships in order to leave the island, and little food to survive here.
“So every year we choose the most audacious person to lead us during the year to come,” I hear my grandmother telling the story to a semicircle of children.
What folly. Neither our Birdmen nor our prophets fathom that it’s not bravery that will save us.
My father grabs my wrist and leads me to the volcano’s rim. He hides his distress in the crook of his elbow, cursing instead the dust brought by drought. Guilt besets me, as I watch my free hand. Did your hands tremble with the same unease as mine? Unease and something else I shouldn’t feel. Excitement. That’s the reason for the guilt that gnaws at my fingers. Father believes my chances of surviving are close to none, probably already wondering if there will be anything left of his daughter to bury.
As we reach the mouth of Rano Kau, he is ready to pounce on a woman who prattles, “If scaling down the slopes won’t kill her, then the sharks will pick up whatever is left of her.”
I want to throttle her.
In the distance, Afi readies himself for the trial, and I forget both my excitement and ire. My entire body quivers so violently that I grapple for my father’s arm for support. Swallowing hard, I spin on my heels incapable to look in Afi’s eyes. That’s how I want to remember him.
“Stop,” I cry to myself. I must be the next tangata manu, the winner of the competition. There is no other solution.
“It’s time,” an elder tells me, and I sprint down the slope at a speed defying sanity. I tell myself that must not allow doubt and regret to overwhelm me.
The gravel slips and shifts under my feet, rendering every step a hazard. But not for me. I remember where every stone larger than my fist is located. I could draw in the sand a map of every mouse burrow. Even so, I tap deeper and deeper into the forbidden knowledge of the past.
Do you realize that I can recite by heart the path of hundreds and hundreds of contestants who have perished here? It sickens my stomach, but I was left with no choice. Their desperate attempts, their pain as they died or were maimed won’t be in vain. I repeat that like a mantra, until my mind roams so deep into daydreaming that I stumble on an aerial root.
Just as I tumble more than twenty feet off a cliff, I glimpse in the distance Motu Iti. Agony radiates from an open cut, followed by a sensation of burning. The taste of blood from my bitten tongue passes almost unnoticed.
That root should not have been there.
Chills course through my muscles, despite the heat. Do you recall that root from your trial? There should have been only a group of three egg-like stones. How could I explain this to you when I know that my path has already deviated from yours?
I pine for your advice, but only the breeze answers me. Thank you for being here with me, my protector and companion. Without your help, I wouldn’t be able to go through this test. Your head nods with approval, and somehow I know that it’s more than just my imagination.
The distortion of events has unnerved me, but it’s what I need to bounce back into alertness. This childish behavior has to end now if I want to win.
As my newly found determination settles in, pain poisons my senses. Only through sheer luck I land on a bed of reeds, probably the work of some teenager planning a tryst. Or maybe MakeMake really watches over me from whatever constellation he transits now.
I need his help for my plan to succeed: his and Jupiter’s, Mars’, even Saturn’s. They are hanging up there in the sky, glowering at this amalgam of mythology and astrology I’m not supposed to recall. There will be no MakeMake up on the firmament for many years to come and, by that time, my people would have already perished, victims of slavery and diseases. The world won’t remember anything, except for some monolithic stone torsos, for which they have no explanation.
“No,” I yell aloud, “not if I can prevent it!”
Your widened eyes stop me from my rambles. I probably hit my head during the fall or perhaps I pretend that I forgot about the world around me. By now, Afi would have already reached the shore. He probably watches towards Motu Iti, making wishes for a happy ending. Seaweed would wash on the shore and wrap around his feet. He would plan a swimming path to Motu Iti — one of the three islets — then envision himself finding the nest of a sooty tern and bringing its egg back. Unbroken.
My teeth bite so deeply into my lips that my mouth fills with blood. Soon he will be grub for sharks, but not before a rugged rock will snap his spine.
I struggle not to dwell on that image, but the sorrow clogs my windpipe. “That’s how the Birdman contest ends for most competitors,” you try to console me. Or maybe it’s my own voice.
I’m sorry that Afi won’t make it. I know you loved him. Better efface the image of his broken body. I lean ahead to soothe you, wiping my eyes and pretending that’s only dust. Just try to think about that night when he built you a love nest of reeds.
He propped his chin on his palm, smiling at you. You scooted forward and undid his shirt. Do you remember how he was trembling, breathing too quickly? His tanned skin, stretched over firm muscle? Now your eyes stare into the void, reliving the moment when he touched your breasts. I echo the moan that left your lips, when Afi kissed your neck. I gently rock, trying to recall the color of the sky as he touched your thigh.
I could paint from memory the constellations above your heads, myriads of fireflies, blinking with promises of happiness. How they rained meteorites over the ocean, while the two of you made wishes for a happy home, full of children, and even a tame moko uru-uru kau. There aren’t any lizards left in our village, so maybe part of you has realized that you were also different.
As the night waxed, the two of you entwined in each other’s arms, making love again and again, and whispering little nothings. When the sun broke above the horizon, you ran into the ocean, sheltered by the wall of corals, so that no predator could reach you.
How I envied you for those moments. I was never allowed the luxury of enjoying them. The gift of remembering comes at a dire price; you can never bask in the love of those you’ve foreseen dying.
Still I failed that trial. I loved with abandon, even if I yanked my heart out and pretended uninterest.
Copyright © 2017 by Andreea Daia