"Fire Knees" is a composite of a story told
to me several times during my fieldwork on the atolls and reef
islands of Tuvalu (Ellice Islands) in the late 1960's and early
1970's. Like so much culture addressed to original times, it
has a didactic tilt lessons for the moment from moments
long ago. The time period of this story is clearly the founding
of the islands, which by all indications would seem to be about
four or five hundred years ago as people arrived in odd lots
from other islands, mostly with ties to Samoa. Fish and probably
the ubiquitous coconut palm were the primary resources available
for human subsistence at the time. Taro, pulaka root, and pigs
were imported. Coconut trees have been imported and planted
by migrants in various parts of the Pacific. But the floating
nut has voyage patterns of its own. Cannibalism also figures
as a common theme in accounts (apochryphal or otherwise) of
early ocean voyaging and island settlement. The idea or prospect
of eating another human being is always present in social groups,
of course, however deeply proscribed, and it gets more conscious
attention everywhere under periods of prolonged distress or
deprivation. But its actual practice is also commonly exaggerated
and misunderstood, especially by Westerners who have swallowed
their own colonial mentalities whole and have a penchant for
racist or related superiority stances against the Others of
the world. The myth suggests that Tulivaepula (tulivae =
knee; pula = bright or glowing) was both big enough
to have a large appetite and to enforce it, even if it meant
eating other people. It also contains a thesis on cooked versus
raw food and gives instructions on the social and survival value
(happiness, harmony, productivity) of a more diverse diet that
includes indigenous and imported foods and bypasses the violence
and destructiveness of cannibalism. By the way, the dateline
in this poem opens another voice beyond mine. It infers that
the story was told by someone else at a particular moment a
long time ago. That builds on the often nebulous and pseudo-historical
implications of all myth and brings the content into history
per se, in this case, the history of the telling of a myth.
Whether the story and the history of its telling are true as
presented is another problem.
Fire Knees (or, Not
Funafuti Island, Tuvalu, October 10, 1492
Samumuta and Samumutai were friends. One
night they went fishing with hand nets on the reef. They could
not fail. Mesmerized by the blazing torch fixed on the canoe
prow, fish were everywhere. They streamed to the nets and were
lifted, pound after pound, into the canoe. "Tapa!" the friends
exclaimed with every haul. "Tapa! Tapa! What a catch!"
Then the rain came and put out the torch.
Samumuta and Samumutai tried to relight the
torch but it was too wet. Fumbling and grumbling in the darkness,
they scanned the horizon and spotted a fire burning on a far
shore. "Aha!" they thought. "We can relight our torch with that
fire." They paddled into the current, raised the sail, and steered
to the distant islet, eating raw fish on the way.
The breakers pushed the canoe ashore. The
two young men got out and raced toward the fire. It had a curious
glow. Each time they held their torch to it, the torch would
not burn. Puzzled, they poked at the fire with their fingers
and discovered that it was not a fire at all. It was someone's
knee! A knee scarred bright red that was attached to a giant
leg attached to a giant man, a man-eating ogre named Tulivaepula,
who was kneeling on the beach. "Here is something for me to
eat!" he boomed. "You two shall be my food!"
"Please do not eat us," said the two young
men. "We can work for you. You can see from our canoe full of
fish that we are quite capable." But the ogre resisted. He said
that he was able to do his own work and reached down to snatch
the two men and eat them. "Wait! Please wait!" they shouted.
"Give us a chance to prove ourselves!" Thinking he could eat
them and their fish whenever he chose, the ogre finally relented.
Besides, he had sore knees from reaching out into the ocean
for his own fish and he could use some rest. "Very well," he
said, "but you must fish for me every day."
The three of them lived together for a long
time. Samumuta and Samumutai did not return home. They caught
fish for themselves and the ogre under the ogre's watchful eye.
Then one day no fish appeared. No fish could be caught. The
two men asked the ogre to let them go to an islet across the
lagoon to continue fishing for all of them. The ogre resisted,
thinking this was just a ruse to escape to their homes. He reached
down to them and said, "No. You cannot go. Come along with me
and prepare the oven."
When that was done the scarred-knee ogre
made a new demand. He told the youths to wrestle and declared
that the loser would be cooked in the oven for the day's food.
They wrestled hard, fearing Tulivaepula's immediate wrath for
both of them, and Samumuta was thrown to the ground.
Samumutai hauled his friend to the oven and
put him inside. After a while Tulivaepula told Samumutai to
open the oven. The food should be cooked. He opened the oven
and there was Samumuta alive! He was not and could not be cooked!
Thankful for his good fortune, Samumuta leapt from the oven
only to reveal another surprise. In his place were many different
kinds of food: taro, pulaka root, pork, and fish. The ogre and
the two men gathered these foods and feasted happily together
from that day forward.