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  • from Breadfruit and Frangipani
  • Célestine Hitiura Vaite (bio)


It's twenty past one in the morning and Materena is sitting at the kitchen table.

She can't sleep.

At six o'clock she's going to get the bread at the bakery and then she's going to make the coffee. Materena yawns. She's tired, but she can't sleep and there's no point lying in bed with the eyes open.

She could go scrub the bathroom for an hour only she's too tired to scrub but not tired enough to sleep a deep sleep—the kind of sleep when you think of nothing. Materena sighs a long, heavy sigh.

She's worried. Today at eleven o'clock, she's going to court, and God knows what can happen to you when you go to court. Eh, you can go to prison. Many of her cousins have been to court and proceeded straight into the gendarme's van. Direction: Nu'utania Prison. Her cousin Mori, for instance. He borrowed a canoe, and the owner of the canoe sued him, and Mori spent two days in prison.

Materena is going to court because the gendarme caught her on private property.

Here's the story.

Behind the airport, there's some land next to the sea. That land behind the airport used to belong to the Mahi tribe, but an ancestor exchanged it for a few litres of red wine. The exchange was carried out under private seal, so nobody knows the name of the popa'ā who got the land for cheap. It's not for certain that he was a popa'ā, but back then (when the Mahi people lost the land behind the airport) the popa'ā people did a lot of exchanging with the Polynesian people—under private seal.

Materena loves that place behind the airport. She's been there six times. There's 'aito trees for shade, there's white sand, and there's the calm sea that is safe for the kids to swim in. Above all, there are lots of mussels, and Materena loves mussels. Mussels fried with garlic and onions or raw mussels with a pinch of lime juice.

Whenever she feels like eating mussels, Materena packs bread, limes, cordial, cans of corned beef, bucket, can opener, and a knife and heads off with her kids to that special place. It takes them about twenty minutes to walk from the house. When they get to the landing strip, Materena makes sure the traffic light is green and there's no planes in the sky. Then she gives the children the run signal, and they always race across the landing strip. Materena stays behind the kids and yells, Hurry kids! [End Page 128]

As soon as they get to that place, the kids go for a swim (they're not allowed to go past the rock where the warm, shallow water ends and turns into dark-blue water) and Materena gets busy digging mussels. She sits in the knee-deep water and digs her fingers into the sand. She always gets a mussel, but she only takes enough to fill up the bucket.

And it happens that Materena feels the presence of the people who used to dig mussels there, the people way before her time: her ancestors and their friends. They're sitting in a circle, and they talk and they laugh, all the while digging mussels.

Since discovering it, Materena had hoped to be digging mussels at that special place for years to come.

But a gendarme paid her a visit in his police car.

Moana spotted the police car first. He hid behind his sister and shrieked, "Mamie, the gendarme!" And Leilani covered her flat chest with her hands, as she wasn't wearing a T-shirt.

Materena stopped digging and hurried to the shore, where the gendarme was waiting for her.

"'Ia ora na." Materena smiled at the gendarme.

The gendarme just looked at her.

"Bonjour, monsieur." Materena thought that maybe the gendarme didn't appreciate the other greeting.

Again, the gendarme just looked at her, so Materena looked at him. There and then she figured out that the...