A rivulet of pig blood trickled underneath one of the enormous yams. Two rows of yams flanked the sides of a muddy road that led up to the feast house. Each yam was tied to a log and hung like enormous, deformed Christmas stockings between two oil drums. These giant tubers, hairy with crazed roots and as long as a small child, hung in fat clusters beside the little road. Each cluster of yams weighed hundreds of pounds. A few had to be trucked in on flat-bed pick-ups and hoisted by six men, ten men, fourteen men. The size of the yam was rated by the amount of men it took to carry it on thick poles strung through the bark-roped top of the yam clusters. That’s a fourteen-man yam. Each of these monstrous yams was dressed at the top with a garland of green vines. In spite of all the manly efforts to grow, harvest, and carry the yams to the feast, the long row of yam clusters looked something like dressed-up, shy dancers at an awkward party.
The pig blood flowed beneath the yams into a muddy crevice where barefoot children were playing. The riot of children were sliding on their butts down a muddy streak in a grassy hill and sliding to a stop underneath the yams. The morning had brought the usual downpour, but now the weather was sunny, humid, and steaming as the warm pig blood streaked across the haphazardly placed bits of cement that called itself a road on its way down the small hill in Pwudoi, Pohnpei, Micronesia, Pacific Ocean. The bloody path trickled towards the ocean, toward the open mouths of a tangle of eels, waiting in the dark maze of a mangrove swamp. It trickled across the island’s narrow circumferential road, under the cement beams of the policeman’s house, and through his small sakau market where people were sitting on plastic coolers and drinking a gray, dirty mildly psychoactive liquid out of emptied-bottles of cheap Filipino rum. From the cement edge of the market, the blood dripped into the waiting maws of the eels.
Earlier, about 30 exhausted pigs were hog-tied to logs. They were carried to the feast by boys and men. We carried the poles on our shoulders, the live pig hanging on the pole between us. Some pigs were Jurassic in noise and proportion, demanding up to ten men to carry them up the hill. A ten-man pig. One pig, like the prized yams, required a flat-bed truck in order to be hauled up the hill. As we carried them, the women danced, swishing their colorful skirts rhythmically. We whooped and hollered our way up the slippery, muddy road towards the feast house. After much practice, I perfected a Pohnpeian holler: “WHOO-hoo-hoo.” I am lucky enough to be caught performing this deeply ingrained cultural scream on video. Later, when the DVD of the event is passed around the village, I will get high praise for my mastery of local whooping.
When carrying a medium-sized pig up a muddy hill in worn flip-flops, you have to be careful about your footing. I lose one flip-flop in the mud. The traction is easier without the pretense of footwear. This is still morning, the beginning of the feast. There are still some cemented spots to walk on that are not caked in blood and mud. Later, with the road leading to the feast house impossibly slippery, a water buffalo will slide away from the eight men carrying it, loosen its bonds, flop into the mud, and freak us all out with it’s girth and anger. Those of us on the sidelines around the massive beast will be caught between precisely balanced primordial fight or flight instincts until one aging, wiry man confidently approaches the water buffalo and jams his fingers up its nose. With your fingers up its nose, a water buffalo will do pretty much anything you ask of it. The difficult area of expertise here is getting your fingers up the water buffalo’s nose in the first place. It is a precision hobby, like crochet, except with a 1000-pound horned beast.
Along with my whooping, pig-carrying brethren, I plop my pig in a great big pig pile in front of the feast house. There, the sound of an electronic keyboard pumping out a pre-set reggae beat is nearly deafening. Over the irritating Casio plunk, a young man in baggy shorts and an Akon t-shirt is wailing a local version of an old Creedence Clearwater Revival tune — “Down on the Corner,” I think. Near the pile of pigs is a heap of very hot rocks, an earth oven, where we will later lightly cook the carcasses beneath a blanket of banana leaves before hacking and dividing them up to take home. I am ever hopeful for a slab without tufts of black hair and a wobbly layer of fat, but I’m bound to be disappointed.
The feast house is dark and filled with people. Strands of smoke blow into it from the cooking area. What looks like sweaty, shirtless chaos is actually a carefully choreographed arrangement of traditional rank and roles more rule-bound and proscribed than a 19th-century drawing room. To even begin to describe it would be like explaining the rules of the road to Shakespeare or the tax code to nomadic Maasai. So I won’t enter the feast house now. Once inside the feast house, I won’t get out for hours. There is bloody work to do.
The defeated pigs, who struggled and squealed in the staging area as we tied them to their poles, look at the world with doomed disinterest. Then, at no specific signal but by general agreement, the pigs are stabbed in the gut with machetes. Their drowsy eyes fling open. They squeal almost exactly like stuck pigs. Thirty or so of them in unison. A nearly human screech of horror and pain rises above the keyboard blips and blops, like the aural equivalent of the constant struggle between the jungle and the discarded automobiles that litter the sides of the island’s one real road. The people at the feast pay about as much attention to this porcine cacophony as Americans would at the sound of bleating car horns. Which is to say, none.
The screaming pigs sound uncomfortably like the small, muddy rumped children who still fling themselves down the hill in gleeful abandon. The screams rise through the smoke, past the huge branches of the towering mango trees, up toward the jungle-covered mountains, and through the always gathering clouds of this rainy, rainy place; the pigs announce that they are here, dying, on this tiny dot in the ocean, stuck here between the blue ocean below and the gray sky above. Eventually, the screams slide back to the mud. Their life slinks away down the hill. The eel’s wait silently. The feast has just begun.