Nowhere Slow: A Song from the First Heaven

Jonathan Gourlay smells sweet as he sits half naked at the center of a feast house on the island of Pohnpei.

Before the stones can sing, before the sakau root can be mashed and strained through hibiscus bark, before the sludgy liquid can be caught in a coconut shell for ceremonial offering, the sakau plant must enter the feast house whole. Everything brought before the chief in the feast house must be whole, complete. If our chief wants a cigarette, bring him an unopened pack. If he wants a beer, bring him a six pack. So we heave whole sakau plants on our shoulders and enter the feast house. The long, thin, yellow-green stalks of the sakau plant lead to a Medusa’s head of crazy roots. From these roots we will squeeze peace, rest, and the kind of dreams that only those with Pohnpeian mud in their guts and a dark Pohnpeian sky over their heads can dream.

Sometimes a human part of the jungle seems to be sitting in my room at night, watching me in the form of eyeless, yellow-green man: a ghostly presence that won’t leave the land. The sakau root draws us together as an extended family tied to one specific place on the island, a clan. The members of the clan have titles, Soulik, Soum, Madau, followed by a place name — a ridge, a rock, some piece of land won in a war a century ago. When you get that title, and the sakau is offered to you, you effectively become that piece of land. And when you die you will haunt the place and disturb the dreams of those that sleep on your land.

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Inside the feast house everyone sheds their names and can only be addressed by traditional title. As I enter into the dark feast house, I am nameless. Without a title I have no place in their culture. Like the ghosts in my dreams, I am not quite fully there. So the Pohnpeians of the Pwudoi clan are forced to make up fake title just so they can talk to me. It’s embarrassing for them not to have to way to address me. They decide to call me “Duke of America.” I am humiliated by this title. It’s a joke title that highlights the distance between us.

So as I stand before the chief, I decide that I will do everything right. I will be more Pohnpeian than Pohnpeians. I’m holding my machete in one hand like a Pohnpeian, balancing a long sakau plant on my shoulder like a Pohnpeian. I am going to address the chief in Pohnpeian, on my knees on the chief’s platform like a Pohnpeian. The only problem, I realize, is that I will be wrong. Where will I sit? The feast house is stuffed with a chaotic mass of men, women, and children. As I stand in the center, there is a raised platform on three sides. Bluish smoke from the hot stones of a nearby earth oven wafts in through the open side of the feast-house. Large women in colorful skirts sit along the sides. Babies clutching plain doughnuts are curled in their laps. Sweaty and shirtless men surround the six huge sakau stones that are balanced on old tires and placed in two rows on the dirt-floored center area.

On the back platform is the leader of the clan, the chief. Our clan chief is a chubby, mustachioed man. He sits cross-legged and shirtless, beneath a faded poster of a white Jesus. Next to him is the other chief. There are two-lines of chiefdom, one for talking-chiefs and one for quiet, more powerful chiefs. Where you are in these lines is governed by shifting, byzantine rules. Beneath the two chiefs in the hierarchy are a wild tangle of clan titles, chiefdom titles, starter titles, newly minted titles, titles with legends attached, titles for widows, titles for children. I tried to help them put this system on an Excel spreadsheet but there’s something about it that resists that kind of cell-based classification; the system can only be stored in the minds of the elders. The chief whispers to me when I greet him: “I hope you are ready for your title.”

I am terrified. The bravado I had before has fled. The truth is that after years on Pohnpei I can enter a feast house, say hello, and then scramble for a seat. That is the extent of my mastery of the feast house. The total complexity of the feast house is known only to a few in the clan. Each wooden post, each stone, each place in the feast house has a name and a function and a set of rules guiding how to act.

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What am I doing wrong? Perhaps I didn’t greet the chief with his exact title in the exact language required, or I forgot to take off my flip-flops before I went up the stairs to the platform, or I stood up on the platform (only one man, a sort of feast-emcee, is allowed to stand on the platform) or I hung my legs over the platform, or I put my feet on top of (instead of underneath) one of the four large taro leaves that girdle the sakau stones. Younger, unschooled Pohnpeians are frightened of entering a feast house. There are myriad ways of being wrong and only one way to be right.

Did I mention that our sakau plants have an even number of branches? In some clans it has to be odd, but for us it’s even. My first test is in cutting the branches off of the sakau root. Normally, I would cede this task to one of my betters — which is basically any Pohnpeian over the age of seven. But today the chief has let it be known (quietly, of course) that I have to do things on my own. Do I cut the sakau branch at an angle away from me or toward me? I know it has to be one complete cut. I also know that everyone is watching me. I raise my machete (Am I doing that right? Am I pointing it the wrong way?) and — thwack — the machete cuts through the sakau stems cleanly.

I am told to sit at the front sakau pounding stone on the chief’s side. This stone has a name. All the stones have names. The names change depending on who is present in the feast house, but it’s enough to know that this is an important stone. I am sitting awkwardly on a flattened slab of wood. My friend, a deacon at the Catholic church, hands me a heavy, rounded stone and tells me to take off my shirt. I have rarely felt as white as I do at this moment.

As we wait for the sakau root to be cut and cleaned and dispersed to the stones, men bring in food for the feast. Everything enters the feast house whole. A pile of screaming pigs are led in to the feast house before being taken out and slaughtered. Enormous yams, cases of frozen chicken, coolers of reef fish: all are brought to the center of the feast house. The feast emcee calls on various titled men to stand by the piles of sometimes squirming food and give long-winded speeches about the year that has passed since the last clan feast. Then the yams, chicken, fish, and pigs are sliced, chopped, sliced, and cooked. Later they will be handed out, title by title, to clan.

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The cleaned sakau root comes to the stone. We begin the haphazard clanging of stone on stone as the six of us break up the sakau roots into stringy brown shards. One, two, three, hits with my stone and I’m feeling pretty good. Then a minute goes by, and my rarely used muscles feel like sleepy teenagers who roll over in bed in the morning and refuse to wake up. I can’t give up, though. I began with precision but with each thwack of the stone I’m losing control. My sakau is jumping all over the place, even falling off of the stone. Everyone watches. Can the Duke of America pull this off?

A high pitched and happy song intrudes upon my concentration as ten ladies dance into the feast house. They are mostly older, married ladies. It is their job to slather coconut oil on the chiefs and then on the sakau pounders. They also spray us with cheap perfume, wipe us down with off-brand Vaseline and place a garland of flowers on our heads. They sing their song, stamp their feet, shake their large behinds, and giggle like schoolgirls. The younger ladies have cell phones attached to their skirts, a new innovation. We whisper to each other that they are being “kahla,” too proud. When they reach our stone, they lavish their attention on the pudgy, hairy American with the alabaster skin. I’m sweating. I’m shaking with exhaustion. Leathery skinned ladies are caressing me. I stink like a princess. This is about as happy as I have ever been.

The emcee stands at the center of the feast-house, holds the sacred center pole that holds up the first layer of heaven and he shouts, “Sokamah!” All of the pounders at the six sakau stones begin clanging their stones in a precise rhythm. The wet, black rocks are imbued with a spirit in the form of a tone. The musical notes of each stone smack and careen off of each other, sending a loud but strangely peaceful cacophony to the skies. Can I do this? Can I smack the rock in the same rhythm as the other men? I feel the eyes of the clan on me more than ever; I must not screw this up.

Deacon, or Deek, once told me about the old beliefs. To pass from the first heaven, here on the island, to the second heaven in the sky the souls of the dead had to sing a song and walk along a twisting bridge over a great abyss. The song was your life and the song had to be good or you would fall. I now realize, as I try to stay in perfect time with the other pounders, the men who feel the song in their blood, that this is the song. This wild, repetitive, communal clanging is the journey of a Pohnpeian lifetime condensed. My tired muscles can barely take it, but I cannot stop the song. To reach the end I have to stop thinking. As one group we must decide to slow the rhythm, cease for one tense second, and then bang out a loud punctuating coda to our song.

But wondering if I am performing it right takes me out of the song and I must be in the song. The rhythm of our stones cascades down the muddy road to the mangrove swamp, where salt water eels squirm through the narrow, muddy passages. The rhythm leaps up the steep jungle-covered mountain to the cloud forest where a constant, drizzling rain drips and oozes over mossy cliffs. The song calls to old, forgotten gods and spirits. These old gods live on like the roots of a towering mango after the tree has fallen. I feel the stone in my hand and sense the water that smoothed its edges for centuries in the bed of a rushing river. I feel that I am inside the clanging song. I imagine the giant basalt sakau stone being spewed from the belly of the earth, the hot lava cooling and breaking into flat shards. I cast my self, my individuality, Duke of America, onto the stone and pound it to pieces. The song stops. Tension hangs in the air and we all come down in unison for one last, loud sequence of clangs.

Everything that follows is easy. I no longer worry about what I am doing wrong and just act. The chief hands the emcee a title scribbled on page torn from a yellow legal pad. When all of the higher titles have been served the first cups of sakau in the center of the feast house, the emcee calls me by my new title: Souwel en Palikir. Deek is holding the coconut shell cup of sakau. I go to the center of the feast-house, bow my head, take the sakau cup without looking Deek in the eye, close my eyes, and drink the sakau. My lips go numb. My head spins a bit. I am Souwel.

“That was my first title,” whispers Deek.

I try on my new name – Souwel, “so well,” or “So? Well….” It’s a title with a history, once held by my friend. I am the Souwel of Palikir. Palikir is the place where I work, about five miles away. One story I hear is that the title was won in an ancient war from the people of Palikir. The people of Palikir were guarded by an enormous chicken. Its fossilized feces are now called “Chickenshit Mountain.” I work in the shadow of Chickenshit Mountain and sometimes dream, as I sit in my faculty office, about the war for the title of Souwel of Palikir.

Another story is that Palikir means to carry something, like a child, on one’s back. I am the single father of a Pohnpeian daughter and she is never far from my arms — at the sakau markets or the feasts, she hangs around her bahba in a way that makes Pohnpeian men uncomfortable. It’s unseemly. I need a wife to carry around my child.

This is why Deek tells me that the title refers to a traditional Pohnpeian proverb: “an empty bottle makes the most noise.” This is Deek’s way of saying that I’m lonely. Deek makes up traditional Pohnpeian proverbs all the time. I think he got this one from a James Cagney movie. When Deek gives a speech for me on the occasion of this new title he tells a long joke about three virgin sisters on their wedding nights, the punch line of which is “Mom, I can’t make any noise when my mouth is full!” And everyone in the feast house knows exactly what episode of my life this joke refers to because everyone knows everything. The title has meanings within meanings. It cuts and slices through every facet of my life and names each the Souwel of Palikir. Everything brought to the feast must enter the feast house whole. Everything leaves the feast house dispersed to the clan, part of one song, the one song that is this place, the song that hangs in the air and haunts the teeming, tangled life of the jungle.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.