By Paul Vincent Tatireta
The status of grandmother Kautakarawa was difficult to fathom but I suppose the best way to categorize her identity was to give her the title of a sorceress. She certainly was somewhat of an enigma.
Even her name, which literally meant ‘she who awakens heaven’, had a strange spiritual aura to it. When you looked at her intently (and everyone often did), there was something about her that was mysterious and intriguing.
In physical stature, she was quite ordinary for she was no more than 5′ 4″ tall, a bit plump for her height, with a kind and frown-free face, black-brown eyes and a ready smile (second nature to our people), which always showed her rather uneven and not so gleaming teeth.
She always spoke softly and slowly even when she was admonishing either me or Tony, and was always careful not to offend or arouse anger.
No, it wasn’t in her physique or her debonair manners that she was regarded with a certain amount of awe and deference by all the islanders on Marakei. It wasn’t even because of her age that she was so admired, for there were many elders in her age group who were regarded with far more esteem than she was.
Neither her physical attributes nor her age commanded total respect; It was instead her association and preoccupation with the spirit world; her uncanny but very real ability to see and communicate with spirits.
The fact that she could see the ‘anti’ or ghosts in recognizable form and converse with them was a feat which was regarded by our people as something akin to being a demigod.
It was an accomplishment worthy of the highest praise and recognition; a feat, though worthy of being emulated was impossible to attain, for it was not a skill that could be passed on casually from demigod to a son or daughter or even a grandchild for that matter.
She knew that she alone possessed this inalienable power and like her ancestors before her, had sworn to safeguard it. From what I had heard during a casual talk by our neighbours and sometimes from the exaggerated versions told by my playmates, it was clear that the ‘sorceress’ did possess unusual powers and she was worthy of everyone’s admiration and respect.
It was not so difficult, therefore, to appreciate the fact, that the ‘sorceress’ lived all by herself on an islet in the convex-shaped top part of the atoll. The islet was not very large but it was spacious enough to be covered by a combination of saltbush, ironwood and a few coconut trees.
From a distance, the small islet looked unusually green which bespoke of the existence of fresh water under the permeable sandy soil. This in turn was a telltale sign that the islet was sitting atop a rather large coral outcrop which reached above the high water mark.
The outcrop would inevitably be intermittent which allowed water to collect in the hollowed spots.
For anyone not accustomed to living alone, the prospect of living on an isolated islet without companions would have been a frightful experience and not many of our people chose to live a solitary life of that kind. They were all attuned to the ways of the spirit world and none of them cherished the idea of being harassed by ghosts.
It was therefore to be expected that fuelled by their own fear of ghosts, they could not but wonder at the audacity and fearlessness of the in choosing to live a solitary life like that on an islet.
No doubt, their minds wondered how she managed during the nights… with all those ghosts prowling around.
It seemed, however, that the ‘sorceress’ enjoyed living alone on her islet, for she stayed there right up to the time of her passing away. She had a well dug for her by her father who used to go and visit her occasionally to help her with the more difficult tasks around her islet.
She also kept pigs, which she fed with coconuts and scraps of fish and swamp taro, brought to her sometimes by her father.
Nevertheless, the water surrounding the islet was full of fish and crustaceans and like all the woman folk on Marakei, the ‘sorceress’ was an expert with no equal, when it came to gathering the generous bounty of the lagoon waters and mudflats.
She occasionally left her islet on the pretext of wanting to visit her relatives in Rawannawi village or to visit our parents, but Tony and I knew that it was mainly on our account that she left her beloved islet from time to time in order to spend time with us.
I couldn’t fathom the reason why at the time, except that Tony and I also longed for her, but now, after personally experiencing my own gravitational pull towards my grandchildren, more so than to my now grown-up children, I have come to understand the possible reason why.
As one grows older, a stronger attachment forms with one’s grandchildren and though this phenomenon is also difficult to unravel, it seems to be related to a subconscious distancing from the inevitability of growing old and a preference for being young. As such, one’s mind develops a liking for young children, perhaps in the disillusioned hope that somehow one may become or feel young again.
Whatever the answer is, it doesn’t really matter. What mattered was that Grandmother the ‘sorceress’ loved us and she loved to spend quality time with us and us, with her.
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