“Bonjour…” they answered in unison. They both wore a uniform common to middle-aged Marquesan women: a stained, triple-XL-sized t-shirt and basketball shorts that are two sizes too small. They smoked tobacco in skinny, hand-rolled cigarettes. Their arms were tattooed. One woman wore a fresh flower behind her ear. They smiled easily.
“Oui, c’est bon.” The closest woman said with a smile.
“Sil vouz plait.” I said to them as I approached, holding up a finger for them to wait a sec. I dug around in Windy’s backpack and pulled out the Ziploc bag—because it rains here, often—with the manila folder inside. The women waited for me, surely wondering.
I won’t try to write what I said, with the closed manila envelope in my hands, it ain’t pretty. But I’ve learned enough French to say yachties and friends and here and when I had trouble communicating the year my friends were here, one of the women opened her flip phone and I pointed to the numbers and she typed the year there.
Yes! That’s it. Look at these. My friends took these pictures in 1973. See these women in yellow skirts and bikini tops with yellow hibiscus behind their ear, dancing, do you know them? Yes, here, 40-some-odd years ago, these women would be in their 60s now. The name of the Hapatoni chief was Hekua, yeah?
Both women started chatting in Marquesan, smiling and pointing. Indeed they knew these women. One was the daughter—la fille—of Chief Hekua.
Is she here? Can we show her these?
One woman rested her head sideways on her hands and then pointed to the sky.
She told me yes and pointed to the cemetery near the church. She told me the woman was her sister. She told me that in 1973, she was… She put her hand down at her knees.
Again, she rested her head sideways on her hands and then pointed to the sky.
I’m sorry I said, realizing it was her father. She tried to hand the pictures back, but I motioned for her to keep them.
With her downturned hand, her fingers scratching at the air, she motioned for us to follow her.
Her house was at the end of the quay, a wood house with ornamental porch posts and bright, peeling paint. Much of the wood was rotten. We removed our shoes before stepping up onto her porch.
Wait, she motioned.
Inside pulled photos off a wall-hung tapestry, each stuck on with adhesive putty.
“Chief Hekua.” She smiled broadly showing them to us. He was a handsome man, older. The pictures were rough and tattered. She told me he died in 2009.
She introduced us to her husband and two kids, a boy and a girl who were already playing with my girls, the four of them tangled up with four puppies in the dirt off the porch. She asked if we wanted to see her husband’s carvings.
Windy was still kicking herself for leaving Atuona on Hiva Oa without buying the intricately carved warrior club she had her eye on. If this guy pulled out a carved club, she was all his. He didn’t. He laid out a short, ornamental spear with four tikis carved into it. The top half was cherry and the bottom half was a swordfish bill.
“Combien ca coute?” Windy asked.
He said a number neither of us understood. Windy fished around for a pen and he wrote a figure in French Polynesian Francs that is equal to about US$1,000.
“Yes!” I said under my breath. Even if we had that much cash, there is no way she’d spend it. She’d not bought that Hiva Oa club because it was US$160.
“That can’t be right,” she said to me.
“I’m sure it is,” I said hopefully, “look at the detail.”
“I know, but…”
It turned out there was a misplaced zero. This husband of the youngest daughter of the late Chief Hekua wanted 10,000 French Polynesian Francs for his carving, a bit less than US$100.
I told Windy the thing smelled like fish. “Are you sure you want it aboard?”
Windy handed him the note and he began wrapping the intricate carving in newspaper. Then he called the girls over and gave them each a necklace he’d carved from cow bone. Then, around Windy’s neck, he placed a sandalwood tiki necklace he’d carved. Then he gave one to me too. Then Chief Hekua’s daughter handed Eleanor a bucket to collect all of the rose apples, pamplemouse, and oranges she picked from her trees to give us. Their generosity was real.
Luckily, Windy had stuffed some random gifts in her backpack and we began pulling them out. Stuffies for the kids, a puzzle, and some kids’ clothing.
In response, the Chief’s daughter took two more pictures down from the tapestry, passport photos of herself and her husband when they were each about 20. She shared them with pride.
“Hey, a family photo!” I motioned everyone together on the porch and took some pictures of them. She said they don’t have an email address, but she wrote down their postal address. I told her I would print a photo and send it to them from Tahiti. I know she understood. I wish I could be there to present it in person. We won’t be coming around this way again for a very long time, if ever. Every westward mile we make can’t be taken back.
|This was one of two lunch tables for the kids at|
the one-room school. The other one had different
game boards carved into it.
|This little church was pretty, but they've been getting|
still prettier at every stop.
|One of their friends is the photographer, he was|
really eager to take a picture.