Could this man, Barnaby Allen, have written something so wonderful and terrible at the same time? Yes he could, and he did:
CHAPTER I: SANDAL WOOD ISLAND, THE FEEJEES. 1813
History consoles us, prisoners of the mundane, with stories of great men and the trajectory of their lives, from being simply ordinary, to reaching blazing notoriety. A few remarkable people are destined to glide, to dip, but then soar again into the sphere of worldly memory. Perhaps cast eternal, they exemplify endeavour, daring, and brilliance. Some become gods. If their career has adored evil, we recall the horrors, obsessively disavowing the perpetrators, but seldom admitting that they fascinate us. Denunciation disguises the fetish. Time may idolise even these odious lives. Others however, achieve a kind of greatness but lack the celebrity; history has looked the other way, impatient with their inconsequence, their lack of constancy to the line legend craves. Their deeds pass, forgotten in a generation; the name slips. Minor players: no gods here. Theirs has been an uneven life; no envied ascent, despite their ambition. Bravery, or rather reckless courage, some say, brands their lives. They clutch at the edge of fame’s plateau, only to slip off into some oblivion- yet they do leave a mark. It is good to tell of such and to picture one who imagined and risked all; who freed himself to overcome remote omnipotence, and paid the price with ignominy.
Na Vokai watches and waits; and waits, all that afternoon drenched, unblinking but shivering, as storms of warm rain send glassy bullets, furious, off the Pacific reefs, exploding above him, and below, where finding their mark, form ruddy in the sodden carnage that now fills his gaze. Behind a sweating, malachite screen he sits, imperious, unmoved either by the pummelling from above or the hideousness below his perch. Raindrops, not insignificant like those of northern lands he has never known, batter at immense leaves and tear at his hide, intent, on his demise. Na Vokai though can wait, and wait, languid, knowing this rain too and the bloody carnival below will, by sunset, pass into another day. He knows it well. This is the way of life.
About him, the barrage batters the jungle. Trees and vines and slithering things shiver from the warm, drumming rain; the parrots, on these occasions, are silent. The storm and the shouting below drown out all other sounds anyway. The old Iguana sits immobile, adorned in the gorgeous green of his fort, resilient under siege. Nature and the unnatural, crash all about him, but he, now secretive, umbrellaed by giant awnings and stout trunks, unseen yet seeing all, is venerated on this island. Enchanted, fused with the bark he so lazily straddles, Na Vokai relishes all this, counting it his own creation. And not without reason. His tree is known and feared. Oblations will be brought. The knees of resplendent black warriors and their slaves will bend and, from the bowed heads of outstretched bodies, entreaties will be uttered. To him! Thus, all that stirs in this realm is known to and only ordained by the gracious god, Na Vokai.
Beyond the tree of Na Vokai lies the beach and the gods of the sea in a lagoon forced by the storm into a thrashing, grey-green lava with rising smoke, sheeted rain hitting the waves, its spray sparking off the rocks. One might make out sails through this smoke, a boat perhaps, though for now, that is uncertain. The storm blows inland over an ancient village lying on a grassy plain, with steep uplands behind. In the obscured light one may glimpse huts with shaggy thatched roofs, tugged and battered like the jungle around them. There’s a high-placed totem house, and steam rising off the extinguished fires with near-naked women and children standing nonchalantly watching it all. Some boys play in the rain, naked like their sisters, rolling in the mud, celebrating as only children can, the gala heaven has gifted them. Suddenly the sky lights about them, and terrible thunder subdues other sounds and the children scream, delighted, running back to their mothers, ecstatic with the thrill of fear that possesses childish minds. With imagined dangers averted, the children rally to charge out again!
More of the boys and youth seem to be running toward the plain now. Away from the village and toward the grey sea, to the left, is a high rocky hill, a gaunt outcrop nearly impossible to scale, yet there are indeed men at the top. White men. On the plain below thousands of warriors and their chiefs, with threatening muscles, wide noses and high hair, towering men, swarm about, their hair shaking off water like so many pearls to be trodden into the mire by their thousand feet. Some have dyed hair, a bizarre orange, crimped, though God knows how, to stand in erect strands; devilish and bizarre. Bones and braids decorate their heads and black-blotched bodies, each armed with spears, clubs and axes. Axes of iron too. The heads move in a singular direction, heaving onwards, a giant spotted salamander of black and orange, its tail swaying and lashing, the mouths as one mouth baying and screaming. This is a beast impelled.
From a distance things are actually unclear. A group of warriors, at the head of the mass hold and drag out a white man. He is tall and bloodied, gripped by this half-dozen, whilst the mob of warriors bawls and jeers, bodies pressed on bodies, clamouring to lay hold, even just to touch him. There is a steady, slow clapping or stamping of feet- it is difficult to tell which prevails. One may just see him by his blond hair, a contrast to the bawling, convulsing black-orange that surrounds him. He lifts himself now, looks back, shouts, something, and then turns the other way, to look to the sea but says nothing, his mouth open in shock, though not, as best as can be judged, in fear. No, maybe not frightened. He does not struggle and seems to be accepting, unbelievably accepting, as he is struck at will: but one cannot be so sure perhaps. There may be fear there, cowing him, collapsing his resistance. The thickness of the packed bodies around him writhes and obscures, each man, it appears through this curtain of rain, struggling to reach him, to taunt or adulate, to strike. It’s hard to tell.
Moving closer, we hear the warriors distinctly, mocking. “Cheli. Lako mai, lako mai Cheli!” His beard is a dirty, reddish colour. He is dishevelled yet still commanding, his blue eyes fixed. The group is nearer the village now. A drum, called lali, adds to the melee. They stop by a small waterhole that serves as a well. The white says something about a chief. No clubs. There will be no bashing; no bones will be broken, as befits a chief. The man is pushed down by his head, his arms held outstretched, and legs gripped together to prevent struggle. His head plunges deep into the pool. Villagers watch through the rain from their hill. Children, heartless, stare, pointing and laughing. They stand soaked with runny noses, fingers stuffed in mouths, the black skin on their legs pocked with fleshy, creaming sores. They’ve never seen a white man killed. Some of the girls hide their faces in their mothers. The older ones gasp, and point, giggling. The man struggles and comes up for breath. The crowd exclaims! Women have drawn nearer, to watch, nursing babies, unconcerned but entertained.
Still held, the man kicks. Now he appears to be elsewhere. Of what could he be thinking? His death? His parents? His children? His own childhood? What does a man think of, knowing he has but a minute to live? The immediate, or the past? How he came to be here, one might conjecture, how overtaken by this situation. This barbarism. So far from home. Ah, home! Why? What choices led him here? What of fate’s slightest twists, its subtle coincidences, led him to this? How seduced so? Wait. He is saying something now. It doesn’t make any sense! Sounds like, “marry, marry.” About his wife perhaps- the wind and all the shouting… it’s so unclear. No, no. One cannot discern. We’ll never know his last words although people hear them now and he has spent his whole life speaking words. But these last words, most important of all, perhaps an anguished distillation of a whole life, are being drowned. Last sayings, lost. But he’s elsewhere, for there is a sadness. A sense of recollected tranquillity? Voices from long ago maybe? Just an impression. Can’t say. There’s no way to know.
The storm thunders, the sky illuminates and for a moment rain falls as scattering silver. Through the veil the man looks briefly at his executioners then turns and glances back to the sea. He focuses, his eyes lustrous, as if transfigured by a realisation; he sees something, God only knows what, and there is a flicker of a smile. He is gripped by his captors though, and thrust head down again into the waterhole where he is held forcefully. In time, there is no movement. The body is pulled out of the water, hands and feet bound by unknown hands, and then cast, rudely, to one side. The crowd cheers, shrieks of “mate”, dead, are heard; it recedes and the shouting grows quieter. This is a reticent lull at the celebration. It is as if the guest of honour at a party had left the house unexpectedly. The storm eases, and the rain lessens. One can see the outline of an anchored ship far out there, standing lifeless upon the slate-coloured sea.
Up on the high rock though, the figures of men move and someone is heard calling out through the wind, his hands clasping his head in what seems to be profound horror; as if he is fighting himself and wrestling cerebral anguish: “Charlie! Charlie! No. No! Not after all this! Oh my God… Charlie Savage!” Or so the story goes.