Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam

Delve into the first chapter from Anbara Salam's feverish and atmospheric debut novel.

Things Bright and Beautiful

Beatriz knew it was wrong to hate a missionary, but when it came to Marietta, she couldn’t help herself. Marietta liked to hum.

Eventually, she wished to translate the Bible into their language for use in witnessing. Marietta was always up at daybreak, and they drank black tea at the table while the last cockroaches sleepily wound down around the table legs. They went out to witness together, visiting villages in Central and along the west coast. Marietta had a veritable second stomach for kava, and cheerfully ignored the strict tabus that prohibited kava drinking for either women or churchmen. ‘Witnessing begins at the watering hole,’ she would say, nodding her head from side to side as if it were a Bible verse. After perhaps the thirteenth time she delivered this aphorism, Max began to wonder if it actually was a kind of paraphrase, and guiltily flipped through Leviticus one evening after Marietta had commenced her cacophonous snoring.

Bea, meanwhile, tried her hardest to keep her opinions about Marietta to herself. But she interfered with the housework in a way that should have been a blessing, but felt like a curse. Marietta fussily chased Bea away from the kitchen, and recommenced banging pots and pans together with the cheerful buoyancy of the terrible cook. She was out with Max all day long, and in the evenings, after a walkabout, Marietta came back to the house and dropped on to her stool with tumultuous sighs. Bea never understood why, with all that walking around, Marietta never got any less fat. After eating supper, Max and Marietta retreated to the vestry, and Bea followed the departure of their only hurricane lamp with narrowed eyes. She would be left in Mission House alone with their preciously rationed candles.

It became obvious, as the weeks passed, that Marietta was not going anywhere. In the evenings, once the muffled sounds of wheezy breathing could be heard, Bea and Max argued in low voices.

‘But she doesn’t even contribute ‒’ Bea gestured vaguely with her hand.

‘Beatriz!’ Max looked shocked.

‘Well, it’s true.’ She fixed him with a look, knowing full well Max was not as holy as all that. For weeks they had been feeding Marietta from their stores. All the money was donated by Max’s church, and his savings from when Marybelle’s was sold. That’s all they had, and when it was gone, there would be nothing.

‘We can’t ask her to leave,’ Max pre-empted, before she could suggest it.

‘Why not?’ Bea tipped her nose up.

‘Bea! This is a Mission House! Moreover, it was her Mission House before we even arrived. We can’t ask her to leave her own home, for goodness’ sake.’ Max glanced nervously towards the room where Marietta slept, pausing every few words to listen for any change in the snoring.

Bea made a whining noise, and curled her head against the top of his thigh. ‘But why? Why does she have to be here?’

Max rubbed his fingertips into her scalp and sighed, worried that if he said anything diplomatic she might fly into a temper.

Bea looked up at him. ‘I don’t want her here. She’s so . . .’ and Bea, normally so quick with insults, trailed off, exhaling through her nose. ‘She’s so big,’ she finally murmured.

Max gave her a quick kiss on the forehead, feeling a strain pull through his spine.

But Bea was right, Max thought to himself the following day, while strolling down to the coast, smoking his pipe. Marietta was just so big. Everything about her was big. Big voice, big appetite, big opinions. Her bigness expanded to occupy space he hadn’t even known was available in their tiny hut, in their tiny village. And there was a slight change, in Bambayot. A slight, but absolute change. Aru might not have mentioned her, but he certainly seemed to have no problem heeding her counsel. There was not one single incident of dark praying while Marietta was back from the East. No chanting. No screams in the night. Max watched her carefully, as she delivered the sermons on Sunday in his stead. As she spoke, her bare feet wiggled in the dirt on the floor of the church. He must have an awful lot to learn from her, he thought.

And as the days turned into weeks, it became clear Max would have to find a way to keep Bea and Marietta apart. The humming had reached epidemic proportions, and when it rose unbidden from Marietta’s bedroom, Bea’s eyelids visibly twitched with irritation. Marietta only addressed Bea in the loud, slow voice that Bea suspected she must once have used on her Latina maid. One Sunday, after church, Mabo-Mabon asked Bea if Marietta was her mother, and Bea had shouted, ‘No!’ so loudly that even Mabo-Mabon had raised her eyebrows in amusement.

Mealtimes were particularly difficult. There were still only two stools in Mission House, and until Willie, the self-declared village carpenter, could be bothered to carve a new one, two stools there would remain. Marietta always sat on the far stool, on the right, Max on the stool at the head of the table, and Bea perched awkwardly on an upturned crate, which left her half a head lower than Marietta and Max, and in direct eye contact with their mouths. Marietta ate hungrily, stopping to clear her throat in an unnecessarily gruesome way every other mouthful. Each time she cleared her throat, Bea paused, her spoon in mid-air, waiting for Marietta to spit out whatever she had dislodged, but she just swallowed, and Bea shuddered inside. And it was always God talk. Bea sat, patiently eating, while Marietta and Max lectured each other about the fulfilment of the Holy Spirit, or the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Or else they talked about the island.

‘And is it true he has his own currency?’

‘Yes ‒’ Marietta coughed and swallowed ‘‒ now this is interesting ‒’

That phrase had a special power to make Bea’s spirits drop.

‘‒ he only permits the use of “the Liki”, can you believe it?’ Marietta raised her eyebrows.

Max and Marietta chortled.

Max shook his head. ‘What an egotist.’

Bea watched him with disbelief. Why did he always have to speak so pompously when he talked to Marietta? Max didn’t behave normally when he was around her. He was trying to impress her. And she was flattered by his deference to her authority as the island know‑​it‑​all.

‘Now, “the Liki” is nothing more than young namele leaves punctured with holes. But you can’t buy anything with actual currency ‒ only these leaves!’ Marietta continued.

‘And they say money doesn’t grow on trees,’ Max quipped.

Marietta snickered again.

‘I don’t understand,’ Bea heard herself saying. ‘How is that any different to our money?’

Max and Marietta both stared at her.

 ‘What’s that, my dear?’ Marietta asked.

‘I mean ‒ our money is from paper, also from trees.’

Max and Marietta shared a look, and Marietta stared down at her plate, grinning to herself. Bea saw a flicker of humour dilating Max’s nostrils.

‘No, my dear, it’s just a saying,’ he said.

Max and Marietta exchanged another look of suppressed hilarity, and Bea had to restrain herself from smashing her plate on the table and walking out. Stupid little Bea wasn’t a missionary. Sitting here, taking smug looks from her husband and this awful, annoying woman. Max read mutiny in Bea’s expression and maintained a polite silence for the rest of the meal.

In the early evening, Max and Marietta went to the village nakamal, the men’s traditional drinking hut. Women were not supposed to even look too hard at the path to the nakamal, although apparently Marietta was an exception to the rule. Perhaps, Bea thought bitterly, she was so old and fat she didn’t count as a woman any more. Bea, in a desperate act of rebellion, spent her evenings reading on Marietta’s stool, resting her feet on her own crate. She kept the fire going, and sipped endless cups of watery tea. In the beginning, in the days before Marietta, the night-times had been the worst. The sudden blanket of darkness yanked over before you had a chance to strike a match, the unplaceable movement of insects in the house. Now, the early evenings perversely became her favourite part of the day. The wind breathed heavily into the jungle, boys on the beach strummed aimlessly on a ukulele. Bea would pick up one of Max’s books and pretend to herself she was reading it, while pausing every few minutes to gaze out of the window. The village was quiet, the hush of kava settled upon it. Faint smudges of light from fires could be seen as women cooked for their families. There was the soft giggling of girls sent to lay food on the path to the nakamal, the beats of a ching drum as the girls alerted their fathers to the arrival of their taro.

Max spent all his time with Marietta, together in the vestry, or out on walkabouts. Before, Bea went with him on his witnessing missions. Yes, it was boring, but she at least had a chance to leave the village. Now, it was always Max and Marietta, Max and Marietta. They traded the death tolls of Pacific battles, and prayed together for the poor heathen souls in Korea. They snapped Bible verses back and forth and bickered imperiously about theologians with German names. Those private conferences, shared jokes, pious remonstrations ‒ they were all the influence of Marietta. There was something about Marietta, thought Bea, as she scrubbed her clothes furiously in the bucket; there was just something all wrong about her. Something inherently bad about the way she cleared her throat like that. About the way she picked island cabbage fromher teeth with her finger. About Marietta’s colossal grey brassieres hanging from inside her room ‒ what had been her own room. About the way she pushed the floppy lock of hair back from her face, over and over. Why didn’t she just pin it back? Bea brushed and brushed. Bea dropped the brush into the bucket and cried hot tears into the knees of her skirt. She wiped her face with the back of her forearm, picked the brush up again, and sighed. It would be fine. Maybe Marietta would go back East. Maybe she would go back to Australia. Eventually, she would leave and they could be alone again.

Max was starting to regret his own insistence that Marietta stay with them indefinitely. At home, her presence was unavoidable, as if the moment they entered through the door of Mission House, she grew to be three times her size. Marietta’s body was like an exclamation mark. She would just appear, and announce herself. Corpulent. That was the only word for her. Her sniffing and wheezing, her heavy breathing as she moved about the house. She bathed only once a week, and the dank, goaty smell coming from her clothes repulsed him. She scratched under her arms at the dinner table, so he could hear a rasping sound from where fingernails met hair. Her very footsteps began to irritate him. She had a flat-footed way of walking, where each tread slapped heavily down on the floor all at once. It woke him up in the morning before the sun had even risen. Max became convinced she was walking like that deliberately, to remind him he was lazily dozing in bed while she was already up and about, ready to start the day in the service of the Lord.

When they walked up the hill to the villages on top, and out of respect for Marietta’s impaired leg, Max slowly made his way up the path, he would hear a honk behind him, ‘No, not that way ‒ this way is much quicker. Really, Max, haven’t you been this way before? I’m amazed.’ Marietta knew the villagers by name, and Max was forced to trot along behind her as she talked animatedly in badly accented but fluent Kunu, asking after the health of old people, murmuring appreciatively over people’s pigs or new wives, confirming rumours and gossip. Max stood towering over her shoulder and mimed comprehension, sucking at his pipe, desperately trying to pick up any words he could. He could have asked Marietta for lessons,but she assumed he already knew more Kunu than he  did, and he was too ashamed to declare his ignorance. Sometimes, he wished she would just go away on a walkabout, and stay away.

In a way, Max got his wish, because almost two months later, he killed her.

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