Village elders in Papua New Guinea were often unable to read or write, but many were gifted orators and storytellers.
The following story is based on one told to me at Finschhafen in 1974 in the lingua franca Melanesian Tok Pisin.
It is a tale that brought tears to my eyes.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Salaen was a New Guinea village man who had proudly inherited the traditional craft of house-building from his ancestors.
His small one-roomed hut, like all of the others in the hamlet, was constructed almost entirely from bamboo except for the wooden stumps and bearers which supported it three feet off the ground.
The roof was made of stitched-up bamboo leaf thatch, the walls from flattened bamboo stems woven into flat panels, and the floor fabricated from long lengths of large-diameter bamboo hammered out into flat sheets and laid with the smooth side facing upwards.
The underneath surface remained rough and in parts razor sharp…..after all, bamboo slivers could be used to slice meat if metal knives were unavailable.
One of the advantages of bamboo flooring, especially from Mrs Salaen’s point of view, was that as the bamboo dried there were numerous cracks which appeared in the floor. These were useful for sweeping dust through, or after cooking taro and vegetables on the central hearth fire she could simply pour the excess water from the saucepan onto the ground through the slits in the floor.
The family chickens eagerly gathered under the house at cooking time each day waiting for the small morsels of food which seemed to always miraculously appear like manna from their heaven above.
* * *
Salaen was also a traditional man with his simple choice of clothing. He possessed only a single garment. One colourful laplap which was fastened around his waist to cover the lower half of his body.
Mr and Mrs Salaen, in true Melanesian style, often had their little house full of relatives and friends at meal times where they would all sit in a circle on the floor around the fire.
It was at one of these gatherings that Salaen gained considerable notoriety, but almost lost something a lot more important to him in the process.
* * *
It was a very hot evening on the tropical coast, and, made even more uncomfortable by his proximity to the roaring fire, Salaen gradually eased the laplap higher up his legs for ventilation and cooling purposes.
In a regrettable moment of miscalculation he raised it too high and one testicle fell out and down through a narrow slit in the bamboo floor.
For half an hour he casually attempted to release it without flinching or drawing attention to himself, but no matter how hard or scientifically he tried, the errant ball refused to rejoin it’s twin on top of the floor.
Every time he tried a different manouvre the sharp bamboo lascerated and bruised it even more until it was twice it’s normal size and the colour of an over-ripe plum.
He tried with great subtlety to prise the hole wider with his fingers, but the floor would not budge in any direction because six other people were sitting on the same length of bamboo.
* * *
The sudden appearance of three twitching fingers under the floorboards caught the attention of Roger the rooster who had been waiting patiently under the house for scraps of food to appear.
He had seen fingers before and knew them to be inedible, but in his state of hunger the dangling object accompanying the fingers certainly appeared to offer several gastronomic possibilities.
He sprang up and pecked it gently. Nothing. It just kept hanging there. Then he took a flying leap and took a sizeable nip out of the side of it with his beak. Still nothing, but he thought that it moved a little and made a strange grunting noise when he did it, but no matter how often he flew up and grabbed hold of it in his beak he just could not release it from whatever mysterious force held it in place under the floor.
Even when, in a final concerted effort, he launched himself skywards and latched onto it with such force that his entire body dangled precariously from it for at least ten seconds the damned thing still refused to come loose.
Unbeknown to Roger however, the forces of the universe were at this very moment conspiring against him.
Salaen had smuggled a length of firewood kindling from his side of the hearth and wedged it into the bamboo floor, widening the hole sufficiently to allow the complete retraction of all his equipment.
Ashen-faced, he excused himself from the gathering and hobbled to the door where he grabbed his recently sharpened machete which was kept on a shelf above it.
He limped silently down the steps and crept under the house.
Roger was still there, gazing upwards at the crack in the floor.
What sort of merciless Chicken God would giveth and then taketh away?
Roger never even saw it coming.
RIP. Roger. 1972-74
* * * * * * * * * * * * *