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  • A Strange Ship
  • Louise Peltzer (bio)
    Translated by Kareva Mateata-Allain (bio)

One day, a strange ship came to visit. Matari'i had the time to appear twice on the horizon after the Providence left, when Captain Boughton decided to call at Matavai before going to where our cousins from Vaihi live. Oh...the ship itself wasn't strange—it was beautiful and majestic like all foreign ships—but the ship's crew, or rather, its passengers. It was the first time a paratane ship with passengers had come to see us. It contained men, of course; but unlike the crew, these paratane men were strange, even startling. Also, for the first time ever, there were women.

Let me, in a few words, tell you the story of these people.

We knew something was going to happen. The omens are never wrong. The night before had been atrocious because of violent storms and rain. I don't remember ever having seen it so terrible. Each strike of lightning lit up the fare with a roar of thunder, revealing a family curled up and trembling in fear. What had we done? Why did the atua display their anger this way? As if our misery wasn't intense enough, near dawn the gods picked up the earth of Tahiti with fury and the ground shook. We greeted the dawn with huge relief, and the first rays of sun were like caresses. The sky was pure: Ra'a, the god of the wind, had tired from his exertions and calmed down. There were no traces of his huge upset of the night before, and it was as if we had all lived through a bad dream. But we could hear the faraway roar of the raging sea's enormous waves smashing the reef and proving to us that we hadn't been dreaming. Most of the fare had been damaged, so men and women got to work fixing them.

It was at this time of intense preoccupation that we heard yelling. It sounded like an invitation to celebrate: "Pahī, pahī..." Children were the first to throng onto the beach. It took us a while to distinguish the top of the mast of the strange ship that sailed alongside the reef at a respectable distance. Distressed after a night of terror, each person felt grateful to the gods, who appeared to ask for forgiveness by sending us this ship and all the pleasures that went along with it. Some men hurried into the valleys to gather fruits; others chased chickens and little pigs. The women gathered flowers, rubbed themselves with mono'i, and competed to be the most beautiful. The children copied them.

The ship didn't enter the bay until the middle of the day, so we had enough time to prepare ourselves. Heavily loaded outriggers waited by the beach. Men anxiously awaited the signal to leave. They couldn't take off too soon or they'd interfere with [End Page 14] the navigation of the pahī. Cries of joy accompanied the clanking of the chain and the thud of the anchor as it was lowered into the lagoon. The departure of the outriggers was flawless and, as usual, splendid. Children dove into the water to follow the canoes for a while, then returned to the beach and hollered impatiently. From that moment forward, nothing was ever the same. The canoes attached themselves to the boat's hull until early evening, then one by one, they let go and slowly returned to the beach with their loads intact.

We were astounded.

Our men were silent and shy. Our women—exasperated by the lack of reaction to their charms—cursed the strangers. I helped my father pull his outrigger onto the sand, my large eyes interrogating him in silence.

"Tomorrow," he said without conviction, "tomorrow we'll go back to the boat. Today, the strangers don't want to trade, nor do they want to come on land." I continued to stare at him, not comprehending his words, so he added with a mysterious air, "The strangers don't want to come down today. It is the day of the Lord!"

The next day...