An entry in the Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
FROM generation to generation, my people on Manam Island in Madang Province have passed down a legend about a mermaid named Matiti.
The word matiti means mermaid in our language. And, in our society, we strongly believe mermaids do exist.
There once lived a cruel and violent man in our village. The people disliked him very much and the young girls and pretty women were discouraged by their parents from marrying him.
Unfortunately, there was an unmarried woman who no one wanted to marry. She had a skin complaint but was otherwise pretty and kind. She was also the only child of a tribal leader. The young woman’s name was Matiti.
Her father was worried about Matiti not getting married, because this would cause the leader’s line to no longer exist. That left the father no choice but to arrange her marriage to the cruel man.
The father asked his wife for her consent but she refused because she believed matiti’s life would be in danger.
So Matiti’s father asked Matiti herself if she was willing to make a sacrifice for her father’s heredity. Matiti told her father that she would think about it for a month.
Somehow the cruel and violent man heard rumours of the arrangement made by Matiti and her father and, within a month, he became a very good man.
He became the talk of the village when he started grooming himself and took part in village activities. Soon the villagers respected him and he earned their admiration.
So Matiti consented to her father’s request.
With love and happiness glowing within her, Matiti became more beautiful every day. She even got rid of her skin disease.
Before the month was over, her father made the marriage official and Matiti got married.
All the young men and women envied this marriage because Matiti looked so beautiful in her traditional attire. Her parents gave her a wedding reception fit for a queen.
Within the year, Matiti gave birth to a bouncing baby girl. She was so pretty and was the apple of her parents’ and grandparents’ eyes. They loved her so much. Matiti’s husband was happy and forgot his cruelty. The little girl grew with love and affection and helped her parents and grandparents.
When the girl was seven years old, Matiti gave birth to a baby boy. She finally had the heir to her father’s tribe.
However, this made Matiti’s husband upset and he became violent and abusive once again.
Matiti knew in her heart that her husband would eventually kill her. But she loved her two children dearly and did not want to tell her parents about her ordeal.
Matiti and her daughter did all the household tasks and gardening. Her husband just sat there in the village chewing betel nut and expecting Matiti to bring him everything.
This was too much for her so she started quarrelling with him. He was so happy because this was the opportunity for him to get rid of her.
One day, he asked her to follow him to get breadfruit. Matiti willingly went with him, thinking her husband had a change of heart. When he climbed and got the breadfruit, he would shout to find out where Matiti was standing and would throw them at her head.
Matiti started collecting them but he kept on throwing them at her. She could not take it anymore and shouted at him to stop. Instead, he got angry and started hissing abusive words. Matiti collected the breadfruit, put them in the bilum and went home.
She cooked the meal and got everything ready for her husband. When he came back, she quietly gave him his meal. After eating, she took her children to the beach. On the way to the beach, Matiti started telling her daughter about the marriage and her father’s cruel actions and abusive words.
When they reached the beach, she told her daughter to take good care of her brother. She also told her to come to this spot every evening with her brother. The girl was confused and started asking questions.
Matiti quietened her by putting her fingers to her lips. She hugged her two children and they cried together. With tears in her eyes, Matiti repeated, “Look after your brother, and come to this spot every evening.”
Then she jumped into the sea and swam away. From then on, every evening, the girl would bring her little brother to the spot where they had parted to meet their mother who would feed the baby and give them fish to take home.
The father would ask where they had got the fish and they would lie and tell him that some men they had helped on the beach gave it to them. This continued until the boy was one year old.
One day, the father decided to hide and follow his two children. While following at a distance he heard his daughter singing;
Avinun nau (Dusk is falling)
Hai wara i kam (It is high tide now)
Na em i stat long krai (And he is crying)
To his surprise, he saw Matiti swim towards the two children. What were once legs was now a fish tail.
He ran towards her with tears in his eyes and tried to grab her but she was too quick for him, jumped back into the sea and swam away forever as a mermaid.