In the early afternoon
We crested the ridge
The sergeant and I
Behind us the mountains
Citadels of the Min
Before us the great plateau
Rolling green and unknown
Hiding the elusive Kanai
Our ragged patrol
Weary and footsore
Followed the river
And there in the longhouse
Under a blue black sky
Shivering and frightened
The past met the future.
THEY KNEW we were coming. For several days they had seen the smoke from our cooking fires. They knew who we were and what we wanted but they were still afraid.
As we drew closer they discussed what they should do. In the end they decided that caution was the best policy.
One old man volunteered to stay behind. He was largely crippled by age and painful bones and would never be able to keep up with the rest of the group.
When the young boy they had posted to watch for us came running back to the longhouse to excitedly tell them we had reached the river and were crossing, the old man’s wife gently stroked her husband’s face.
She then picked up her bilum and turned to the others and with a tear running down one cheek joined them.
They lingered for a few moments on the edge of the clearing and then disappeared into the deep green forest.
The old man watched us with rheumy eyes as we worked our way up the narrow track towards the longhouse.
It took us a while to work out how to talk to him. Finally one of the carriers thought he knew enough of the old man’s language to converse.
We asked him whether it would be alright to pitch our camp in the clearing behind the longhouse. He thought about this for some time before agreeing that it would be okay.
After the tent sails were up and the cooking fires were lighted I went with the carrier and the interpreter to talk to the old man. We took him some cooked taro liberally sprinkled with salt and a mug of sweet tea.
He told us that they knew all about us. The people further down the river with whom they traditionally exchanged brides had been visited by a patrol several years’ earlier and had told them everything.
During one such bridal exchange they had seen the steel axes and bush knives that the patrol had left behind.
As the old man chewed the salted taro and sipped the sweet tea he politely wondered whether we had brought such things with us.
I touched him on the knee and stood up and called to the sergeant. When he came he carried a shiny new axe and handed it to me. I placed it in front of the old man and indicated by sign language that it was his to keep.
In the morning the sun was shining and there was a mist on the river. The trees around our camp dripped with condensation.
I was drinking my first cup of tea when the first few figures appeared on the edge of the forest. I stood up and signalled for them to come forward. They eventually stepped cautiously out of the shadows.
The old man who had hobbled from the longhouse to sit by our fire waved at them enthusiastically.
There were about 30 of them.
During the night they had sent the young boy to spy on us and make sure that the old man was safe. He had reported that all was well and they had decided to chance coming back to the longhouse to see us.
The old man’s wife was the first to approach. She looked up at me nervously and then went to check on her husband.
We handed out several more steel axes and little bundles of salt.
By the evening everyone was relaxed and chattering. A couple of the men brought kundus from the longhouse and another tuned up a bamboo Jews’ harp. One of the younger men even had a set of pan pipes.
An impromptu singsing took shape and the women began to sing in a soft humming fashion. The sound was mesmerising.
In the morning, I thought, I will do a head count and appoint a village constable. In the meantime however I would enjoy the moment.