Delve into the first chapter from Anbara Salam's feverish and atmospheric debut novel.
Delve into the first chapter from Anbara Salam's feverish and atmospheric debut novel.
Beatriz knew it was wrong to hate a missionary, but when it came to Marietta, she couldn’t help herself. Marietta liked to hum. Interminable, tuneless humming, like the dirge of a bluebottle. Bea was acutely aware of quite how often Marietta felt the need to serenade the Lord. Marietta sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in the garden. She droned ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ in her bedroom. She whined ‘Jesus, Mi Lavem Yu Tumas’ under her breath while they ate supper together. Upon interrogation, Max claimed he hadn’t noticed, but Bea didn’t believe him. The noise filtered through the cracks in the bamboo walls, and crawled right into the ears. Mission House was simply not built for two people, and one hummer.
When Marietta and Max were out witnessing, Bea found the normal sound of the jungle a blessed relief. The tickling of ants stirring in the earth, the rain in the palms. She accomplished the housework with unusual gusto. She scrubbed their clothes in the bucket. She picked large curls of rat droppings out of the rice sack, chopped firewood with her bushknife, and swept their bedrooms for scorpions. And then, invariably, she would catch herself launching into a half-remembered chorus of ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, and curse the God who had chosen Marietta as His missionary.
Marietta appeared in Bambayot on a Wednesday afternoon. That morning, Max had been further north along the coast, visiting a tiny village in the shadow of a waterfall. He was climbing the hill towards Mission House when he saw her sitting on the stump outside the front door. As Max’s shadow fell over her, she looked up and smiled, exposing long yellowed teeth. Marietta was a short, portly woman in her late fifties with a round face and silvery hair. Max realized he was having trouble not looking at a protuberant pink mole on her left cheek.
She shook Max’s hand so vigorously her gold cross necklace trembled over her breasts. ‘More missionaries in my village,’ she said. ‘Well, praise the Lord.’
Max smiled, though her immediate and exclusive claim to Bambayot fluttered around in his chest.
Bea was up ‘on top’ in the hills picking naus fruit, and Max felt clumsy trying to entertain this unexpected guest. In the kitchen, he dropped the pot so hard it bounced, and chuckled pointedly to cover his embarrassment. He heard a stool scrape in the living room, and Marietta materialized behind him. She took hold of the pot and dismissed him with a pat on the arm. Whistling, she strode outside to draw water at the pump. Back in the kitchen, she settled the pot over the fire, blowing on it gently until the embers glowed. Max realized she must have lived in the house ‒ their house ‒ for years.
She muttered to herself, ‘Let me see, they were here. Where did I leave them?’
Max cleared his throat. ‘The cups are hanging from the hooks on the left wall.’
‘So they are, thank you.’
Within minutes, Marietta was back, carrying two tin mugs of black tea. She sat down on the other stool at the table with a groan. After a minute of silent blowing and sipping, Marietta exhaled. ‘So, Pastor. You must tell me everything. How long have you been on the island?’
‘Around four months, I suppose.’
‘Goodness.’ Marietta whistled through her teeth. ‘As long as that? I did hear about a new whiteman, but I didn’t realize it was so long ago.’ She looked off into the distance.
After another sip, Max cleared his throat again. ‘I hope you won’t think this an odd question, but ‒’ he paused, realizing he didn’t actually have a question ‘‒ but well, we had no idea there was still another missionary on the island. Have you been away for a long time?’
Marietta gave him a flat smile, ‘I guess Filip never mentioned me?’
‘No, not at all,’ Max said.
‘Quelle surprise,’ she said, raising her eyebrows. ‘Yes, I have been away for a while.’ She stifled a yawn, and stretched a little, folding her arms behind her head, pointing her breasts towards Max as she did so. ‘I left for the East at the end of the last dry season, and that’s where I’ve been,’ she said.
‘Ah. East,’ Max parroted.
‘Yes,’ she shook her head, as if he had said something insightful. ‘East. It’s been an adventure, I can tell you. You’re familiar with Chief Liki, of course?’
Chief Liki was a renowned sorcerer on the east coast. Most villagers on Advent Island were wary of the East. It was widely regarded as a swampy wilderness, governed by leaf magic, and populated by vampires. Even people who had lived their whole lives in the mountains of Central had never ventured to the East. This was partly due to fear of the vampires, and partly because there were no roads. Instead, a couple of tracks wound along tight precipices that disintegrated into mossy footholds, gouged into cliff faces overhanging deep gorges. The hillsides leading to the East were so steep that during the monsoon season, people in Central called it ‘the brown rain’. The slopes became a waterfall of noxious, slippery mud that coated the mountains, and made the route impassable for months. The terrain was mostly slimy cliffs, tabu hilltops, and patches of dense jungle whirring with mosquitoes. To make matters worse, there was no significant land mass between the east of Advent Island and South America, and winds blew straight off the ocean, smashing nightmarish waves on to black rocks. The climate was so dire, villagers huddled together inside one smoky thatched hut for months on end until the rains stopped. Max looked at Marietta again and felt a nudge of admiration for her. It was no mean feat for anyone, let alone an elderly, clearly unfit, lone, white, Christian woman, to travel to the East.
‘And you were there for the whole of the rainy season?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Well, you can’t cross the roads until it’s very dry.’
‘I imagine.’ Max sipped his tea.
‘And there was my leg.’ She patted her left shin.
‘Yes, darned tropical ulcer. Horrible. The whole thing was swelled up. Could hardly move. It was months before anyone could walk up to the North and get antibiotics. Pus everywhere. A whole scoop came out in the end.’ She exhaled in a laugh, still rubbing at the shin.
Max couldn’t help but look at her pale leg, exposed under a canvas skirt. It was covered in sparse grey hairs, and marked with an inverted round scar, as if a large lipsticked mouth had given it an open kiss. He made a noise of non-committal sympathy. ‘Is it healed now?’
‘Oh, yes.’ She took another gulp of tea, brushing hair back from her eye.
‘And for the whole of this duration, you were staying with Chief Liki?’
‘What was it like?’ Max asked.
She shook her head slowly. ‘I would barely know where to begin. That place is in bad need of the light of Christian leadership, I can tell you. He’s a difficult man.’
Max leant forward in his chair. ‘And were the people ‒ were they receptive to the Word?’ This was the reason why he had come to the New Hebrides, this very reason. To think there were still villages, here on the island, which had never heard the Word. It was the last frontier. His chance to carve out another kingdom for the Lord.
Marietta had not answered. She had pursed her lips, and was breathing heavily through her nose. She cleared her throat. ‘Liki is not likely to allow Christian worship, no. But he allowed me to stay there, to preach, with no harm done to me. We met every so often, he wanted to ask me questions about the new religion. But really, he seemed to think he was preaching to me!’ She gripped her knee in emphasis. ‘You see, he thought I would go back South and spread the word about his wonderful leadership.’ She laughed again.
‘What kind of leadership is that?’ Max pressed his fingers against the tin mug, now it was cool enough to touch properly.
‘Well, he’s a sort of ‒’ she paused, then caught Max’s eye. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been speaking Pansi for so long, my English is a bit rusty. What’s the word ‒ he controls every aspect of life?’
‘A dictator?’ Max filled in. ‘An autocrat?’
Marietta slapped her knee, ‘Yes, exactly. That exactly.’ She opened her mouth to continue, but the door swung open and Beatriz appeared in the door frame. Her face was flushed, and she was carrying an island basket with the strap braced across her forehead, so the knot stuck up from her hair like a straggly headdress.
Bea half stepped forward, and stopped abruptly. She looked between Max and this strange white person. Max was perched on the edge of his stool, one elbow leaning on the table, and the woman had paused mid-sentence.
Bea felt suddenly like she was intruding. She started to say something but only opened her mouth and then closed it again.
‘Bea!’ Max stood quickly, his eyes bright. The sitting woman smiled at Bea with enthusiasm.
‘Bea, this is Marietta Hardwood ‒ the old missionary,’ he said, holding out his left hand.
Bea took hold of Max’s hand, unsure why he was greeting her with a formal handshake.
Max read the confusion on Bea’s face, as it occurred to both of them he had meant the ‘last’ missionary, and not ‘old’. They looked at Marietta with a synchronized glance of simultaneous panic, like two small birds. Marietta smiled and waved the comment aside, leaning back on her stool. Max hovered, glancing between Bea and the remaining stool. Bea removed the island basket from around her head, and rubbed the indent it had made in her skin, settling uncomfortably into a half-perch on the window sill. Marietta was gazing at Bea with friendly curiosity. Max desperately wanted to return to their conversation, but was conscious a polite time would have to pass while Bea’s entrance was acknowledged.
‘Well, I must say, this is lovely.’ Marietta grinned her yellow grin.
Bea twisted the strap of her island basket in her fingers and smiled back at her uncertainly.
Marietta turned her head to Max. ‘Just lovely to see a young couple working together in the service of the Lord.’
Max nodded humbly.
‘And where have you been?’ Marietta addressed Bea again, in a perceptibly louder voice, the tone of a headmistress questioning a pupil.
Bea’s stomach constricted. ‘Natsulele,’ she said. Max’s eyes were pleading, so she added another smile.
‘Witnessing?’ Marietta asked, enunciating each syllable.
Bea was taken aback. ‘No ‒ with a friend. For storyan.’
‘Oh, storyan, that’s nice.’ Marietta leant back on the stool. ‘Nothing like a good old storytelling session to lift up the spirits. It’s so important to keep up friendships, you know,’ she said to Max.
Max nodded sagely. He heard Bea’s voice behind him. ‘Are you visiting for long?’
Her expression was the picture of innocent hospitality, but Max knew better.
‘Well, I’m not sure. Don’t worry, though ‒’ Marietta held up her hand, with a smile ‘‒ I won’t get in your folks’ way. Last thing you need is an old biddy like me under your feet.’
Max and Bea tittered politely.
Marietta got to her feet, sighing. ‘I must declare, I’m beat. I’m going to lay down for a siesta. Which room are you two using?’
Max and Bea exchanged a glance. Somehow, Max didn’t want to admit they each had one room. Maybe it was extravagant; but he snored, and Bea was so messy. Bea bit her lip, wondering if she would have to give up the only space she had to herself. And would Max even want her beside him? She recalled the state of her room ‒ the bed was unmade, the table nubbly with spilt candle wax. By the window she’d left a glass of water which contained a drowned purple moth.
‘I’ll set up the small bedroom for you,’ Bea said, standing up and brushing the dust from the seat of her skirt.
‘When I lived here, that used to be my laundry room,’ Marietta called after her.
Bea cleared up in a hurry, sweeping everything into the trunk, laying fresh sheets on the bed, listening to the low bray of Marietta’s voice mixed with Max’s through the wall.
The next few nights were uncomfortable for both Bea and Max. Bea felt a little shy, approaching Max’s bed, her face covered in cold cream, her hair pinned up with rags. It made her feel strangely vulnerable for him to see her in such a state of domestic frumpiness. Max thoughtfully tried to make space for her in the bed, but as soon as he fell asleep, he would sprawl sideways, his thick limbs hanging over her like heavy branches. If he rolled over on to her in the night, she could hardly prise herself out from under his weight. She had to stretch her knees out into the mosquito net, and tangled herself up in it. Max snored, and his hot breath condensed against her neck ‒ as if the nights were not humid enough, she thought crossly, heaving his calf off her thigh with frustration. When, in the early mornings, Bea woke to feel the stiffening of his erection against the small of her back, she found the slight pressure oddly comforting. But she knew it was just a reflex, not an invitation, and Max would only feel humiliated by a body he could not control properly. So she pretended to sleep on, oblivious.
Max, for his part, wasn’t enjoying the new arrangements much either. He breathed in the tail ends of the rags in Bea’s hair, making him sniff and tickle. Bea pressed her cold toes up against him while he slept, slipping them into the most vulnerable corners of his body. Once asleep, she wriggled continuously, turning over and over, scratching him with her toenails all the while. And her sleep talking in Spanish disconcerted him. Once, she woke him urgently in the night, her fingers gripping his shoulder. But when he asked her what was wrong, she rolled off an incomprehensible Spanish emergency, and fell back down, still asleep. He lay awake for hours after this, a nebulous jealousy tugging at him. No matter how long he was married to Bea, she would always have had a life before him, a life he knew nothing about.
After the sixth night, Bea sat up in the early hours of the morning with a muffled squeak. Tears hung in her eyes, her hair sticking in all directions. ‘I can’t bear it any longer!’ she said.
Max sat up too, his eyes heavy.
‘How long is she going to be here?’ she demanded.
Max shushed her, but Bea could see he was wondering this, too.
‘I don’t know,’ he admitted, wiping his left eye.
‘How can we go on like this?’ Bea gestured to the bed with one hand, clutching a hollow pillowcase she had wrestled out from under his head. Max was relieved to hear she was genuinely asking his opinion, and not rhetorically threatening a tantrum.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, trying to stifle a grin.
‘What?’ Bea mirrored his smile. ‘What’s so funny?’ Putting her hand to her head, she felt curls of escaped hair loosed from the rags. She put a self-conscious palm over her face and he pulled her into him to muffle her giggles.
The next few nights were better as they established a pattern. They would fall asleep with her head inside the crook of his shoulder, and once asleep, turn to face the same direction, Bea’s head in the hollow of his neck, so he would not choke on her hair. And though she would not have thought to tell him, Bea began to enjoy sleeping in Max’s single bed. She took cautious comfort from their restful intimacy, since sleeping was all Max would want to do.
At first, Max found Marietta a welcome guest. He enjoyed, although he would never have confessed it in so many words, having someone to properly talk to. Marietta and he would sit on twin benches in the vestry and talk by the paltry light of the hurricane lamp, its pink shade abandoned like a shed skin. They shared readings from the Bible, or compared notes from his library of exegetical commentaries. They rarely agreed on anything, and Marietta was prone to long, honky sermonizing, but they were both Lewis aficionados, and sometimes Marietta would read aloud from The Screwtape Letters, performing the voices with flair. Sometimes they worked on Marietta’s pet project: a lexicography of the sand-drawing language that Chief Liki used in his sorcery school.
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.
Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ was deemed “trashy, profane & obscene” upon its publication; now, its famous line is the go-to phrase for expressing the beautiful, desperate contradiction of being human in a digital era.
After 15 years of arguments, it was a charity shop copy of a 18th-century history book that gave one father and daughter a second chance.