Nowhere Slow: A Spell of Remembering, Woven in Eight Leaves

In the final entry of his series from Pohnpei, Jonathan Gourlay encounters the island’s devious ailments and powerful cures.


The first leaf makes everything smooth

The flower of the likehdou blends from sunset purple at the edges to a deep bruised color in the middle. The thin, floppy green leaves surrounding the flower look like gecko feet. I don’t know and can never know exactly what the witch does with the eight carefully-plucked leaves of the likehdou plant. They end up mashed inside a small sack made from another leaf and tied together with a thin strip from a coconut frond. She whispers to the leaves. She lays her hands upon my wife’s pregnant belly. This will make everything smooth, she says. My wife swallows the medicine.

We drove to the Pohnpei State hospital, walked across the parking lot, and squeezed through a break in the chain link fence to get to the witch’s feast house, a tilting, dirt-floored, bamboo and plywood structure. My wife, Popo, would never put herself in the hands of a Filipino doctor without first getting local medicine.

Ten minutes after receiving the medicine, Popo is in the birthing room of the hospital. I have been barred from entry but can hear… nothing except a nurse laughing. Pohnpeian women don’t make noise when giving birth. Never contradict this statement near a Pohnpeian woman unless you want to be punched in the arm. The door opens and the nurse hands me a plastic bag of bloody gunk. This is the placenta, I guess. I leave the hospital and drive, the placenta in the passenger’s seat, back to Popo’s family. I bury the placenta behind the family’s house. This is where Popo’s ancestors are buried, presumably along with their placentas. And so before I ever meet my newborn daughter, I have already dug the first dirt of her grave.

The second leaf will make you healthy

For such a short, lumpy woman, Popo’s mother is formidable. Her glance is piercing and her smile is disarming. She has had seventeen children. Every morning before sunrise, for eight days, she prepares a cold bath for our newborn daughter. The cold water is mixed with the ground bark of a fig tree and other leaves and flowers. I awake in the gray early mornings and watch her bathe the screaming child in a red plastic basin. Popo’s mother sings. Then she brings the whole basin to her lips, 10 pound baby and all, swallows some bathwater, and spits it back upon the child. This child, my little Peanut, never gets sick.

The third leaf will make you forget

Popo’s mother has strong medicine. Her specialty is forgetting.

Illustario is a pudgy man whose daily costume is nearly always a dingy red track suit and several gold chains. He comes to Popo’s mother with a problem: he walked in on his wife having sex with her boss. It sounds cliched, I know. But the Pohnpei State government offices, even with their weak air conditioning and thin walls, are more active than most college dorms with all manner of fornication. The offices provide neutral space, like the coral-dredging sites, where anything can happen without upsetting a landowner. So this deputy minister of finance or whatever was screwing a secretary, Illustario’s wife. Not a notable event except that Illustario saw it. Illustario found it difficult to be around his family with the image of another plump middle-aged man screwing his large, diabetic wife. He found it hard to function at all, in fact, with this bothersome mental image popping up in his mind while he was at work as a high school counselor. (Never mind the stories about him and the students.) For four days Illustario came to our house, drank half a gallon of brown potion and got a therapeutic massage. Then he forgot. His family life went back to normal. In payment Popo’s mother received, on the fourth day, a fifty-pound bag of rice, sugar, coffee, and five bags of plain donuts.

The fourth leaf only works if it is the kind of leaf that works

There is a bright red growth underneath the nail of my pinky finger. A boil? I’ve had those by the dozens and it doesn’t feel like a boil. It’s angrier, redder, sharper… the pain is unbearable. I lie in bed with this pinky injury, feeling ridiculous. Popo and her mother say that this is bad magic. Somebody doesn’t like me and they’re playing magic. There is little other explanation for my recent unrelenting bout with staph infection and now this… whatever it is growing underneath my fingernail. Popo’s mother applies a poultice of pounded limenkasar leaves to my boils. The poultice draws the greenish white pus to the surface of the skin and forms the eye of the boil. But she pronounces my finger beyond her capabilities.

So we drive up a mountain until the road becomes two deep, muddy ruts. We get out and walk, following a haphazardly thrown up electric wire into the jungle. Up here is where the old man lives. This old man is going to cure my pinky finger.

The old man lives in a small shack with his wife. His wife has lost both of her legs to diabetes. She is lying on a wooden platform, a place she has not moved from in months. She props herself up with her hands to greet us. Behind her a television is blaring a DVD of a Benny Hinn revival meeting in Fiji.

The old man takes my hand, puts his ancient lips near my diseased pinky and whispers. I want to giggle. An old man has never spoken to my pinky before. The pain is great enough, however, that I’m willing to go with it. He blows on my finger then lets go of my hand and looks at me. Is it over? Was that it?

“You have ingin,” the old man declares.

“What’s ingin?” I ask.

“It’s what you have.”

He fixes me in his gaze. I guess the treatment is over.

“But what if my finger doesn’t get better?” I ask.

“Then it’s not ingin,” he says.

My finger got better, proving that it was ingin.

The fifth leaf will calm your heart

When Popo came to live with me she brought with her a small green basin with two changes of clothes, some cheap perfume, and a four-year old daughter. This daughter, Polynn, hated me with impressive passion and vigor. No amount of candy, toys, DVDs, or bribes of any kind would keep her from scratching me if I got near her. Popo’s mother volunteered to take her off of our hands, but I was as obstinate as the child. I dragged her, kicking, screaming, clutching the seat of the car into our house. I made her a room with blinking red lights, a Little Mermaid bed, and more toys than she could have ever dreamed of. She wanted to sleep on the cement floor with her grandmother and play with a stick and a flip-flop.

We took Polynn to the kitchen of the Pohnpei State hospital. The cook was making the meals for the patients: some kind of white corn-starch soup, rice, a banana, bread, and a juice box. The thick, squat little cook smoked while cooking. He turned off his stoves and approached Polynn, cigarette dangling from his mouth in Robert-Mitchum fashion. He picked her up in his wiry, strong arms and began to rock her back and forth. He shook Polynn a few times, dropped her back on her feet, told us to crush the roots of a rehdil plant and place it in her mouth before sunrise. For eight days we brought her back to the hospital kitchen. Each time the cook picked her up, swung her about, shook her, squeezed her legs then gave her back to us. We paid him in rice and donuts on the fourth day and eighth day.

Polynn still preferred the cement floor to the Little Mermaid bed, but she no longer hated me. I was her baba. She was my little girl.

The sixth leaf is a lie

I like to say that I have “man’s sickness.” It’s the kind of sickness you get from doing man’s work: catching fish, whacking at the jungle with a machete, and building your own house. I like the sound of man’s sickness to explain my every ache and pain. In reality, I’m sure it would be impossible for me to contract man’s sickness, given that I do so little man’s work.

The half-naked tough guy with wavy gray hair who is fondling my testicles doesn’t believe that I really have man’s sickness. OK. But at the same time my back is killing me and I can hardly walk.

“Where does it hurt?” he asks.

I begin to explain about how I was trying to push my Jeep out of a ditch (Popo really should not be allowed to drive) and I threw out my back. But each time I begin to explain, he just laughs at me and says, “Why are you lying?”

I explain that I’m not lying, my back really does hurt.

“Why do you lie to me?” he laughs. “Point to where it hurts.”

So I point to my back.

“You’re a liar. It doesn’t hurt there.”

“No really. It really hurts there.”

“No it doesn’t. It hurts here.”

He digs a knuckle into the bottom of my foot.

“Yow!” I scream. “You’re right! It hurts there!”

“See, now you’re telling me the truth,” he says. “Why do you lie to me?”

So this laughing guy massages my leg up to and including the testicles. (Popo says this last bit was not really necessary.)

“I can also treat impotency and depression,” he says.

He takes eight leaves of the weipwul and heats it in a fire underneath a coconut shell. While he does this he tells about his recent trip to Guam where he massaged a stroke victim back to the use of his legs. He’s very proud of this exploit. Then without warning he slaps the hot leaves on the bottoms of my feet.

“Where does it hurt now?”

“My feet!”

“See, you tell the truth now. No more lies,” he says.

The next day I can walk again. The pain in my back is gone.

The seventh leaf will help you see clearly

The Pohnpeian secretaries at the college where I work are hatching a plan to slip some magic in our coffee pot. They cast a little spell into eight mashed leaves. The spell causes divorce. But, they think, what if other people drink the magic coffee? There would be a divorce epidemic among coffee drinkers in Faculty Building B. They can’t think of a way to make me think clearly.

The cleaning crew, librarians, secretaries and even various vice presidents are all united in hoping that I can break the spell that Popo’s mother has cast upon me. This spell causes me not to understand what is going on. Popo runs around every night and yet I don’t seem to register this fact. I’m in a daze where what is normal keeps shifting around. It just seems natural that my fate is to be sucked dry of money, thoughts, dreams, while Popo spends her nights partying at the Skylight Hotel, crashing our car. More than once she has ended up in jail, where she likes to yell at the guards about the affairs she knows they’re having. They’re glad to be rid of her in the morning.

There was no magic, no remedy, no special herbal concoction that caused my mind to realize what I surely already knew. No, it was an American who has that direct quality of Americans that is the opposite of magic. He said that he was my friend and therefore could no longer listen to people laughing at me because my wife is running around with some guy and spending all of my money. He said it in simple sentences that I could understand. I had to leave. Take my daughter, Peanut. Say goodbye to Polynn. Run away.

The coffee was suspiciously bitter that morning.

The eighth leaf will make it all work out fine

After I ran away with Peanut I couldn’t sleep. I was scared that a truckload of Popo’s relatives would come to my new house in the night, machetes at the ready, and steal Peanut away from me. So I slept curled around her like a dog with its pup. I had an escape plan: slice through the window screen with my machete and make a run into the jungle. I slept in ten minute bursts; always at the ready to protect her. I could not send Peanut back to the muddy swamp, drunken uncles, and absent mother we had just run away from.

At the college most people thought I did the best I could, considering that I’m a foreigner at the whim of local magic and unable to beat my wife. One of the librarians told me, while I attempted to check out a book, that a real Pohnpeian man would have beaten on the problem until it got better. If I really took my marriage vow seriously, I would correct my wife when she strayed. That is what she would expect her husband to do. The secretaries, my true friends, understood that my dazed look, lack of sleep, and constant fear of losing my daughter had to be dealt with. So they made an appointment with a witch who lived behind a small store that sold canned meat and Safeway grape soda.

Three secretaries, my father, who had flown in from America, and I went into a cement feast house on a humid afternoon. There lived a happy old woman, her three obese daughters and various grandchildren. The secretaries explained everything to her — every little detail about my marriage, the adultery, the wrecked cars, the magic that had been played upon me. And I sat in the center of the feast house, mute. I was desperate to keep my daughter yet felt helpless. I was numb. I felt constantly stuck between a sob and a scream, ready to lash out at the air or fall to the ground in helpless despair; I wanted only one thing — to be free and to have my daughter. Could this woman help me?

She ordered her daughters to fetch various plants, seir, probably pwetepwet, and others that are secret. What happened next is a blur. I remember the quiet face of my father. It seemed surreal that my father should be here, of all places, on this dot in the ocean, at the exact moment that I needed him. My friends are serious but confident. They sing, I think, a hymn of some kind. It’s sung in a high caterwaul that makes my skin prickle. The witch puts her magic concoction, a little wad of leaves about the size of a quarter, in my mouth. She mentions Jesus and I think that’s a little odd. It’s like my father, the pastor, giving me communion as a child. I feel as helpless as I did as a child who knelt before his own father to be fed the body of Christ. I remember the communion wine, how it warmed me and protected me. I didn’t know then that was just what alcohol does. Funny. The mystery was fermentation. Communion had long since become an awkward family occasion, not spiritual. I was a non-believing American who had placed his trust in a Pohnpeian witch with a sack of leaves.

“Everything will work out fine,” she told me.

And with those words: relief. Genuine relief. To be surrounded by friends and family. To be touched, massaged with oil, fed a magic potion and told simply, that it will all be fine. This was exactly what I needed. And that night I sang the song that I sing to my daughter every night. She was two years old then. I held her in my arms and we walked in the moonlight through the high grass in front of our new house to where we could see the ocean. She asked me to sing “Peanut Went Swimming.”

The truth is that I only know one tune, a tune I picked up as a child in church: “God Has Smiled on Me.” I just change the words to whatever Peanut did that day. And so the atheist and his daughter sing a church tune each night. And the two of them are free. See them, there on the hill overlooking the mangrove swamp and the ocean. The ocean calm out to the reef and beyond that chaotic until the horizon where the moon bursts from behind the clouds and throws a purple light like the flower of the likehdou onto the high grass and wild orchids of the hillside.

Everything worked out fine.

“Peanut went swimming,” I sing. “Then she saw an eel. Peanut went swimming. Swimming with an eel.”

“Again,” she says.

“Peanut went swimming. Then she saw an eel….”

Her eyes half closed now. Her head resting on the man’s shoulder. She’s almost asleep.

“Again,” she whispers.

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.