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Simplicity & economy make this early short story sing

PHIL FITZPATRICK

Nepatae illustrationJOHN JOB, A HIGHLANDER, was completing a degree in politics when the following story was published in Ondobondo No 4 in mid-1984.  It was his first published work.

While reading through some of the old Papua New Guinean literary journals I’ve come to the conclusion that the modern writers of today are probably more skilled and accomplished than their forbears. 

John’s story, however, stands up well after the nearly 30 years since it was first published.  The reason for this, I think, is because of its simplicity and economy.  Making a story flow simply is a difficult skill that many writers fail to master. The fine illustration is by Alois Melelkit Posai.

 Nepatae, My Lost One

JOHN JOB

People keep all kinds of pets these days and for many reasons.  Some people have pets because they are just fond of them.  Others have pets as companions and for comfort.

I was about seven when I had my first and only pet.  My parents had left early one morning for the mission station to get medicine for my little sister who was ill with malaria.  I felt lonely at home so I decided to go to my grandmother’s place, about a mile away.  I took from the kitchen a small knife and a piece of kaukau my mother had left for my breakfast.  About halfway from grandmother’s place, the path crossed a little hill.  A long strip of clay halfway down the hill was a favourite spot where I always stopped to rest.  This time, using my knife, I started to cut all kinds of shapes and images out of the clay.  The feel of the knife slicing through pieces of clay and around the curves of figures was especially pleasant to a sad and lonely child as I felt that day.

I stayed carving for about twenty minutes and then continued walking until I came to grandmother’s house.  There I stayed until nearly four o’clock when she said it was time to go.  She told me a shorter way home through a coffee garden and over an old kaukau patch, which brought me to the main path only a hundred metres from my house.  I asked grandmother to walk with me as far as the coffee garden and she did.

As we were walking, we heard a frightening noise several yards ahead of us.  The noise sounded like a mixture of flapping wings, hungry grunts of a pig, cries of panic-stricken chicks, and the rustling of dry coffee leaves.

We raced down to the noise and what a terrible sight: scattered feathers, one chicken leg and one wing of a mother hen.  Apparently, a pig, which had run off when it heard us, had been digging for worms in the coffee garden.  A hen with twelve or thirteen chicks was also scratching for worms in the soil the pig had overturned.  The pig must have turned on the birds and we saw the remains.  We searched diligently and found two chicks that had managed to escape.  The rest were eaten by the pig.  I told grandmother that I wanted to look after the little helpless birds and she agreed.  I put them into my string bag, said goodbye to grandmother, and continued walking home.

I had sad and mixed feelings about what had happened.  Feeling the two chicks in my string bag made me think of myself.  I was imagining myself on a lone journey home, my mother killed, myself left to die of hunger in the night or to be eaten by ghosts and evil spirits.  These thoughts took hold and scared me terribly.  I patted the chicks and then ran all the way home!

Just seven months later, my little bird was a big rooster.  The other chick had died several days after I got home.  I named the survivor Nepatae, meaning lost one or lonely one.  He was a big bird with splendid feathers.  Nepatae’s wings and tail feathers were all black but bits of white and red mixed with the black down his neck and breast.  His tail was thick and long and curled at the end.  I can see him even now, standing with pride in all that colourful splendour.

Regarded as one of our family, we gave him the best of all that he needed.  He was fed from a plate and ate only at family mealtimes.  My father built a cage next to my bedroom window and here he slept.  He woke us every morning with his crowing, just like an alarm clock.

Nepatae was a very proud bird, strutting around trying to show off.  I think he regarded my mother as his mother.  And me and my family regarded him more as a human being than a bird because of his mannered behaviour.  Even the visitors commented on his good behaviour.

Because I had no brother to play with, the rooster was my playmate.  He came with me wherever I went, either walking behind or in front of me where the paths were narrow, or beside me if the path was wider.  Sometimes I carried him on my shoulder.  If we were to cross a bridge, he flew over to the other side and waited, flapping his wings eagerly as I crossed.  Such were the activities and circumstances that brought us so close together.

Nepatae taught the other fowls around the yard at home to keep out of the kitchen and never to scratch near the house.  Digging in the garden was strictly forbidden and Nepatae enforced this rule by ruffling many a feather.  He gave the other roosters a good hiding if any of them tried to face him to get his hens.  Consequently he was the father of most of the little chicks that ran around the yard.

But my good times with Nepatae came to an abrupt end one rainy afternoon.  My father decided to take the whole family to the mission station for the day.  Because the mission station was a busy place with many vehicles and people, we decided to leave Nepatae at home.

My mother, who always took Nepatae to the garden with her when I was away, thought that this time my rooster might go to the garden, find no one around, and become frightened.  She suggested that Nepatae be locked with the other birds inside the fence.  So my father closed the gate, locking Nepatae inside.  I imagined I could hear him protesting and saying, “Please don’t leave me alone!”  I did see him make several attempts to squeeze through holes in the fence, but each time he got stuck because of his big frame.  As we walked away, Nepatae was crowing and cackling his loudest, making a final plea not to be left behind.  In fact, those were the last sounds I heard him make.

We returned home well into the night, shivering with cold from the rain which started just after we left the mission station.  My first thoughts were to get Nepatae.  I couldn’t find him.  I immediately sensed something was wrong.  I called for my mother’s help and together we searched, but there was no sign of him.

After a weary and sleepless night, we discovered in the morning that, as big as he was, Nepatae had managed to fly over a ten foot fence.  Freeing himself from the fence, he had taken the road that led to our garden.  Not finding my mother, he started searching, eventually getting lost, a true Nepatae.  He ended up about two miles from my home where he was killed by a band of young boys, roasted and eaten.  My mother and I learned of this much later.  Grief and sorrow filled our days.  Many times the thought of Nepatae brought tears to my eyes.  I cried with as much sadness and grief as when my grandmother had died.  My Nepatae, my rooster, my companion, was dead.

Comments

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Steve W Labuan

Phil Fitzpatrick summarised John Bob's story as "Simplicity & Economy make this Short-Story Sing".

1. Is the smooth flow of narration in 'Nepatae my lost one' significant to the theme of the story? and 2. What is the theme of the story?

First, how did John Job keep the story smooth and simple? We can see John Job has dissected his story-plot into about three stages in time. Each stage was presented via vivid synchronic descriptions of ordinary events.

Then by chronologically assembling these plots, Job was able to capture the full diachronic description in one smooth flow of moments in the lifetime of Nepatae the rooster its friend.

Second. Why keep the story smooth & simple?

We see that by dissecting events of the story over-time and by telling them all in the present, the story was able to illustrate in a natural way his theme for the story - he shows the obvious bond between variables in nature, how these are related to each other, their smooth change in time, and of man's supreme influence over them all from time immemorial of many a grandparents to this present one, and to parents of this present man, and to himself (you and I) who is directly steward over his land, his bush, his animals, his family, his neighbours, and his world.

The idea of balance in nature is depicted in how the story was told.

Theme? Well, as smooth as life, the character invites the readers' emotions to identify with nature, to love nature, to be protective of nature.

He even demonstrates by reflecting the emotional needs we feel in us by exposing them to us, of his feelings growing up with the clays, animals, gardens, his granny, parents and with Nepatae; as well his feelings for disturbances to the usual ways as in the deaths of granny and of Nepatae.

The reader was successfully made to feel s/he too can relate to the character - and in doing so s/he is already related to the environment in the similar humane way - loving, caring, protecting the environment, as well as the need to respond quickly when there is imbalance.

Now we all agree, that whether deliberate or not, the smooth and simple device used by John Bob rhymes with the smooth process of life, and was significant in exposing the theme of the story. Something we should continue to maintain.

Now it is easy. What is the theme of the story?

Francis Sina Nii

Agreed Steve. It's smooth and flowing ... a beautiful piece of writing. The ending makes me feel sad too. Thanks Phil for reproducing all those early writings which are not only reflective of the people's way of life, perceptions and responses to changes etc but also an insight into the development and style of literature in those early years - a wealth of knowledge and information to learn from.

Steven Gimbo

Very nice. Well written, simple and smooth to the end.

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