I’m on my way to the funeral of a Head Man who was murdered by witchcraft. I know so, because everybody says his death was so mysterious that it had to be so. Even the fancy doctors in the capital of Suva. Even all the villagers in Vulaga. Even the pop stars of Fiji, I’m talking like the Elvis, the Aretha, the Adele of this country.
And it just so happens that on the exact day that the Head Man died, scientists found spooky spinning objects in the Milky Way, according to the BBC. I can’t help but wonder if it’s all connected.
The dead Head Man’s daughter is my friend, Ma. She’s one of the women in Vulaga (island in Lau Group) that sang me ancient songs, and took me octopus hunting, and to the top of a mountain, and into a cannibal cave. And she told me stories about her ancestors, and we drank fresh coconuts, and we danced in the middle of the afternoon, and we laughed every minute of the day. And the day I left Vulaga she had a lemongrass tea party in my honor and all of us wore fresh flower necklaces and lipstick.
I got the call about the funeral while I was anchored in Natadola. It’s on the Coral Coast, south side of Viti Levu, and the village is full of horses. High on a hill top, above it all, sits a Magic Rock. When villagers beat this Magic Rock with a stick, it calls the waves. They call the waves when they want to surf or thwart enemies from reaching their shores. A fourteen year-old-villager with pumpkin eyes told me all about the Magic Rock. He swore up and down that the magic of the Rock is most magical, swears it’s how he surfs on days that start out flat-watered.
I hear that the Magic Rock is made of obsidian and I believe in the power of it, because I believe in Magic. A glass-eating Vodou spirit named Kriminal once erased my video tape, and an Ethiopian man once told me my future with the soles of his shoe (everything he said came true), and I once chased away a boatload of evil spirits with a prayer. If all that can happen, then a Magic Rock can conjure a wave.
Anyway I can’t see the Rock because the funeral is in Suva and I’ve got to leave Natadola quick to get there. The funeral should be in Vulaga, but right after Christmas they helicoptered Ma and her Pa out of Vulaga to a hospital in Suva. That’s where her Pa died and now there’s no way for Ma to get the body back to Vulaga, and no way for her family in Vulaga to get to the body in Suva. Ma’s penniless in Suva and surrounded by distant cousins and cousins of more distant cousins. It’s a mess.
So you see I must go to this funeral for Ma. Ma’s one of my favorite people in Fiji. Ma’s as sweet and wild as a honeycomb. If you met her you’d think so too.
Suva is the capital of Fiji. It’s the biggest smoke of all the Big Smokes. Everybody says anchoring there is frightening due to the crime, and the pooty water, and they said you can feel the barnacles latching onto the bottom of your boat (probably because the barnacles want to escape with you to anywhere but Suva).
Chris and I left his boat in Denarau and are now driving on the wrong side of the road to get to Suva. We have four hours to go. Look alive! I’m seeing feral goats, women selling hot corn on the side of the road, green mountains, wild birds of paradise, papaya trees, 1970s buses on their way to Rugby Town, cemeteries, pigs, people bathing in rivers, umbrellas, and road kill.
We arrive. Suva is sort of dismal. All cities kind of are. As soon as a city gets so big that it has to manicure nature into patches and parks and put people in shoeboxes, it’s troublesome. Anyway, I’m not here for the place, I’m here for the people.
I shower the fuzz off and go meet up with Talei and Nem. They are famous musicians. Every stranger knows them. I feel like I’m sitting next to Johnny and June Carter Cash.
When COVID hit Talei and Nem moved to Vulaga, where Nem is from and where his blood runs royal. They happen to be in Suva to play a few shows and the timing is a real blessing because back in the village of Vulaga, Talei and Ma are best friends.
When I ask Talei why she moved to Vulaga she says, “Fame doesn’t matter. Your real value in life is your connection to nature.” She says, “When a fruit falls from the tree, what happens to it?” I say, “It withers into a mushroom?” She says, “That’s right, and that’s what happens to humans when they get disconnected from nature too. It’s only a matter of time until they shrivel.”
Talei says a real Fijian never kills nature. She says we’re supposed to walk on earth barefoot, and that Fijians call shoes “Vava” which means “Piggy backing on earth. Disconnected. Dead.”
I take my shoes off cause I don’t want to turn into a mushroom. Talei and I are sitting at a picnic table, getting gnawed by mosquitos and drinking ice cold Fiji Bitters. Nem is playing the guitar.
Talei tells me how all the houses around Suva shook when that volcano erupted in Tonga. She tells me how shook Ma is over her Pa’s death. She tells me how the most important thing a person can bring to relatives of the deceased is a whale tooth. How that tradition was brought to Fiji from Tongans. How nobody has even brought Ma a whale tooth. How Ma needs that tooth as a blessing. How the tooth is what will clear the path for her Pa’s spirit.
I want to bring a whale’s tooth to the funeral, but Talei says they cost thousands of dollars. She says, “When a Fijian house gets robbed, the first thing people look for is the whale tooth.” That’s how important and expensive they are.
Talei tells me other things too, like how somewhere in the sky there’s a floating mythological island full of owls. She tells me more things too, but I can’t write them down, I have to sing them to you otherwise they will cease to be true.
I wake up at six in the morning to make it to the funeral. I pick up a woman named Aggie on the side of the highway. She’s friends with Talei and she’s also a musician. She’s the Aretha. She’s got big fake blond hair and she’s wearing an entire bottle of perfume and as we drive we’re passing billboards with her face on them! She’s the queen of some chicken and ice cream shop, so she’s everywhere, bigger than life, eating fried chicken.
We meet Talei and the Fijian Elvis outside the church. The three pop stars are wearing black and white. I’m a nobody and I’m wearing purple floral. It’s all I’ve got. We’re latecomers. We take our shoes off and step inside the one roomed church. It’s packed like sardines. There are no chairs or pews. Everybody is sitting on the floor. The women all have palm leaf fans and the closest relatives to the Head Man wear matching tweed skirts. Some of the men are wearing sunglasses. Everybody looks groovy. I see Ma. She’s way in front with her head down and by the way it’s moving I can tell she’s crying.
I don’t know what the preacher is saying, but Talei says she’s preaching things like “Stick with Jesus and you’ll find salvation.” We’re in the slums. Where the houses are small and run close together and fifteen family members sleep inside side-by-side. Right next door to the church is a deli and out the church windows I watch as people buy cokes and beers.
At one point everybody stands up and starts singing and it’s loud and glorious and I can feel the presence of angels ringing all around me. Then the service ends. I run up to Ma and she puddles in my arms and I drink her tears as men carry her Pa’s casket out of the church and women follow with flowers.
The graveyard isn’t far away. A prison guard checks each of us for fever before we enter. Every tomb is decorated in tinsel garland or ribbons and they all have a curtain of colorful fabric surrounding them. I like to watch it all blow in the wind.
Prisoners dig the graves in the cities of Fiji. I watch four men in orange jumpsuits with blue aprons and rubber boots, shovel and dig and drop the casket in. The preacher says a prayer, then the prisoners cover the casket in dirt. It’s bizarre.
If witchcraft is believed to have killed someone, they are to be buried with a papaya under each armpit. As the papaya rots, the witch who put the witchcraft voodoo on the deceased will get sick. The witch has to come to the cemetery and drive a spear through the casket to save themselves from death. Relatives of the deceased will camp out at the cemetery and wait to see who done it.
Ma’s family in Vulaga requested that the body be buried with papayas, but nobody in Suva would do it, so now we won’t ever know who the witch is. Some of the villagers in Vulaga think that Ma’s maternal grandmother is the witch behind it. The thought is so widely believed throughout Vulaga, that the woman’s own son, Ma’s maternal uncle, put her on a boat and banished her to another island.
When I ask why anybody would kill Ma’s Pa like that, they tell me it’s all about power. Because he held a high position in the community, a spell on him will make the witch more powerful. They tell me that a lot of people practice witchcraft in Fiji. They tell me some people are so good at it that they can levitate or fly or teleport! They tell me some people even use witchcraft to make it rain money.
I’m gonna start looking at people all suspicious. Like they’re all witches. Like they want to put a spell on me to make themselves fly.
After the funeral Ma and her distant cousins go get grog doped on bowls of kava. They will spend the next 100 nights in mourning. I give Ma money so she can take the next boat back to her family in Vulaga and mourn with them. Without a whale tooth, it’s the least that I can do.
Talei and the pop stars take me to eat at a food court in the mall. It’s like any mall everywhere. They’re eating plates of fried chicken and rice and I watch Aggie as if those chicken and ice cream billboards are coming to life. And I wonder how many witches are flying invisibly above us and salivating over the power of the pop star’s stardom. And I wonder how much more powerful those witches would be if they just took their shoes off and made love to a tree.