On our island, no woman may cook on a fire that was lit by a man.
No one may touch the foot of a chief.
“Who made these rules?” asked our chief’s son, while we sat cross-legged around the kava bowl, watching the green-bottomed clouds drift monotonously across the lagoon. “Why may I not sit with a woman who is eating a taro root? Why may I not share a mango with my sister’s husband’s brother?”
Out of politeness, we pretended not to hear him. Calling the chief’s son a madman would be taboo.
Only a married woman is allowed to eat guavas, and only an unmarried woman is allowed to eat breadfruit. Our songs tell of an island, far to the west, where the unmarried women eat guavas. If we ever found this island, we would have to kill the people there. But we would not be able to eat them, since their flesh would be unclean.
Because I belong to the crab clan, I must never eat a crab. Crabs are inhabited by the spirits of my ancestors. I am not even supposed to look closely at a crab, or wonder how they taste. There are certain words that sound like “crab” that I must avoid bringing up in conversation.
The chief’s son asked, “Why may no pregnant woman eat dog meat?”
It was an idiotic question. The chief began to scowl, but after drinking a swig of kava to dispel his anger, he replied calmly, “If a pregnant woman eats dog meat, the result will be tsunamis, famine, volcanic eruptions, and infertility.”
The chief was sick. Some said it was because he had shared a mango with his sister’s husband’s brother, others that it was because the shadow of a woman of the bat clan had fallen across his table. No one dared suggest the gods were punishing him for the impieties of his son.
“If a pregnant woman eats dog meat, the result will be shark attacks, leprosy, and droughts.”
We watched a puppy chase a piglet around the holes left in the sand by the coconut crabs. Red-tailed tropicbirds cruised overhead, and lizards clattered in the bushes.
“The world is mostly water,” the chief observed. “One must journey far in any direction to find land. If we do not follow the rules designed for our protection by the gods, the same gods who at the beginning of time dragged our island up above sea level with a fish hook dropped from the blue vault of the sky, what is to stop them from letting us all sink once more beneath the waves?”
Even his son saw the force of this point. Conversation flagged as we sipped kava in the frangipani-scented breeze. Part of me wondered whether crab tasted at all like lobster and whether, when the chief died and his son succeeded him, I would ever get to find out. Such are the thoughts that arise when a chief’s son asks unhealthy questions.
Years later, when his death was near, the chief called out for red snapper and yellowfin, but there were none to be found.
This was a bad sign, and then the chief died.
At a chief’s funeral, one eats only leafy vegetables from the northern side of the island. But when we looked, there were few leafy vegetables to be found there, and this was a worse sign.
Decked in garlands of heliconias and gardenias, looking uncomfortable on his father’s seating-stone, the chief’s son seemed transformed. He was scrupulous to the point of exaggeration about not watching while the women ate. His new chiefly tattoos had filled him with seriousness. “Someone has broken taboo,” he kept declaring. “That is why my father died.”
In the days to come, our new chief spent his evenings staring out to sea, eating only the most chiefly foods, while his wives anxiously chanted his genealogy.
“Someone has broken the law,” he muttered.
But which law? The men plant the taro, and the women plant the yams. There is a balance that must be preserved. Women may not eat any red fish. Anyone who consumes pig and turtle flesh on the same day will go blind. Coconuts cannot be harvested until a month before the autumnal equinox. The larger clams, from the shallowest waters, are reserved for the chief. Women may not eat eels or octopus or plantains – although perhaps that goes without saying.
On our island, we are never alone, and can do nothing unobserved. I journeyed surreptitiously to a cove on the far side of the island, where crabs are plentiful.
I waded out into the deepest waters, and gathered some of the smallest clams. When I looked back, the new chief was watching me from the top of the liana-strung cliff, silhouetted against a hazy topaz sky. My heart beat fast. The day before, he’d had an unmarried woman thrown into the volcano for eating guavas.
The beach was crawling with crabs. They resembled lice on the body of a dead dog, yet still I longed to taste one. The chief turned to stare at the mist-shrouded volcano, then back at me, raising a hand in reproach, as if he could read my secret thoughts.
Wherever I went from then on, he seemed to be nearby. He had put on a lot of weight since becoming chief, and was proving much stricter than his father had been in his interpretation of our laws. One morning he ordered a boy beaten to death, for falling into a sacred fish trap.
Afraid he might blame me for his father’s death, I loaded a canoe with gourds and calabashes full of water, and paddled away, seeking the island to the west where unmarried women ate guavas. Chanting to the ancestral spirits for help, I paddled westwards, as fleecy clouds traversed the green-purple sunset. A pair of manta rays followed in my wake, which was a good sign.
Yet on the third day, clouds darkened the sky. A strong wind arose from the west, and the sea grew rough.
Bailing furiously, I chanted the praises of the gods.
When the wind subsided, I checked my course by a star, and paddled on towards an arc of magenta clouds.
It was on the fifth day that I saw the sea breaking on a reef. I judged the land to be further away than it was, because I could not see any trees. By the time I realized the land was closer than it appeared, being treeless, strong currents were dragging me there. I was powerless to prevent my canoe from foundering, where the huge waves struck the coral.
With cuts on my arms and legs, tangled in seaweed, I struggled ashore, shouting friendly words in case any men were hidden there.
But the atoll was deserted, a taboo place, an abode of demons. This, I thought, was the likely fate of a place where unmarried women had eaten guavas. In a place where everything was permitted, nothing would be truly sanctioned. This was a place the gods had forsaken.
Besides a few stone statues, there were no inhabitants here besides the crabs. I was almost to weak to catch one.
I had not eaten for days. For hours, too tired to do more than crawl, listening to the surf break on the lava, bitten by sandflies, I pulled myself towards one crab after another, as they sideways-scuttled away from me.
A barracuda idled in the current. If I died here, the crabs would eat me. There were no trees here to build myself a new canoe. I would remain here forever, unless men from my own island came to look for me here. Even then, they might kill me, if they suspected me of eating crabs. I caught one at last, in the shadow of a huge, menacing statue. A plume of water erupted through a natural vent in the rock, and a rainbow formed in the spray.
Crabs are not easy to shell and eat, and this one tasted nothing like I imagined. It tasted of the ocean, of the forbidden kiss of a woman of the bat clan.
Watching a thick black rainsquall creep towards me across the water, I knew a typhoon was on the way. The blue part of the sky shrank to nothing. There was a silence so deep my ears trembled.
Within hours, the wind was strong enough to blow all the crabs out to sea.
Now I cling to the statue, mouth open to make sure I will get enough to drink, muscles spasming. I can see nothing through the hard-hitting torrent of rain, and the taste of crab is in my mouth. Lightning flashes blue and orange. Each wave seems large enough to submerge the whole atoll.
I understand now what it means to be free of taboo. The gods punished our island because we followed our laws too strictly. The gods set punishments for following the laws in the wrong way, for breaking the laws in the wrong way, and even for following laws in the right way. But I have broken the laws in the right way, and the punishment for this is the worst of all – I am now a god.
And I am calling to the other gods to release their fish hooks, letting every island they ever raised sink once again to the ocean floor.
James Warner’s short stories have appeared in Narrative, Ninth Letter, Agni Online, and elsewhere. His non-fiction has appeared in OpenDemocracy and the Rumpus. His novel All Her Father’s Guns was released this year by Numina Press.