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Sunday, 20 May 2012

A Walk to the Place of Dread

    In my opinion, one of the best travel books ever written was A Pattern of Islands (1952) by Sir Arthur Grimble, who gave a fascinating account of his experiences as a District Officer in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) in the years, 1913 to 1920. Sir Arthur called himself a freethinker. If so, he felt himself free to think about things outside the purview of most people with that self-designation, because in part 3 of chapter 7 he told the story of his encounter with  The Limping Man of Makin-Meang.
    Visitors to Cape Reinga in New Zealand can be shown the Spirit Tree down which Maori souls were alleged to slide into the miserable Maori underworld, known as Po, or "night". A somewhat similar  legend was (is) attached to the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of the Gilbert archipelago.
       The story went that, when anyone died, his shade must first travel up the line of islands to Makin-Meang. Going ashore there on a southern beach, it must tread the length of the land to a sandspit at the northern tip called the Place of Dread. This was not an actual place-name, but simply a term of fearful reference to the locality - for there sat Nakaa, the Watcher at the Gate, waiting to strangle all dead folk in his terrible net. The ghost had no hope of winning through to paradise except by way of the Gate, and no skill or cunning of its own could save it from the Net. Only the anxious family rituals, done over its dead body could avail for that; and even these might fail if any outsider were to break in upon their course.
    One might very well wonder where this idea came from from, seeing that it does not appear to relate to any objective external reality, and its sole function appears to be to make death even more terrifying than it normally is. Some people might quote it as an example of the dark bondage under which the Prince of Darkness holds his subjects. Be that as it may, when Arthur Grimble came to Makin-Meang, he found an atmosphere of dread hung over it like a thick pall. No-one would talk about Nakaa, but everyone knew that ghosts swarmed the island, and anyone who met one would join him within the year. However, an outsider explained to the white man that the local ghosts always travelled by the eastern route to the Place of Dread, while those from the other islands took the western beach. Therefore, if you walked along the western beach, but never looking back, then returned via the eastern one, having first ascertained that nobody was due to die that day, you could visit the Place of Dread - if you were really determined to do so.
    Grimble was really determined.
    "Do not go to that place," said the Native Magistrate, his face dark with dread.
    Why not?
    It was perilous.
    Grimble reminded him that he (the magistrate) belonged to a church, and wasn't supposed to believe that rubbish.
   He lifted his eyes to mine, crossing himself. "Not Christian souls," he whispered, "but pagan ones ... to Hell ... they still walk the island ... and Nakaa stays there ... and there is fear ..." His voice trailed off into mumbles; I got no more out of him.
    Of course, it was a small island; Grimble knew he could quite easily find his own way there. But he was feeling bloody-minded. He demanded that the magistrate find him a policeman to guide him there right away.
    The policeman told him that, as a first time visitor, he must bring a seed coconut - a big one, carried upright in his cupped hands with his elbows pressed against his ribs. As the journey along the western beach - never looking back - was five or six miles in length, I presume it lasted about two hours - quite a period to lug a coconut under the hot tropical sun. Having planted the coconut in the grove of Nakaa, he gazed out over the unexceptional promontory of coral rock and pounding surf. It was nothing to look at, but it suddenly occurred to him that "from somewhere down the chain of islands, the thoughts of dying folk might be winging their way in wistfulness and fear to the spot where I was standing." Perhaps that thought put him in the right frame of mind for what followed.
    This was long before the days of bottled water. He was thirsty, but was unable to climb 40 feet to get a coconut, and the policeman was certainly too scared to violate Nakaa's trees. So they glumly ate their bully beef and biscuit, and some time after 2 o'clock set off back down the eastern route, the policeman bringing up the rear 40 paces behind.
    Thirst bore down upon him, and after about ten minutes, he peevishly decided to ask the first person he met to climb a tree and bring him down a nut. And while he was in the midst of this thought, a man appeared around the curve of the beach - a man so distinct that, even 40 years later, Grimble could see him still in his mind's eye. He was stocky and grizzled, aged about 50, with a fine ceremonial mat belted around his waist, a scar from temple to jaw on his left side, and a twisted left foot and ankle which forced him to walk with a strong limp.
   Despite the normally infallible courtesy of the islanders, the man ignored Grimble's greeting. Staring straight ahead, he limped past as if the latter were invisible. Then it occurred to him that the man might be mentally deranged. "Ask that chief to stop," he called back to his companion, "he may need some help from us." But his voice was lost in the noise of the surf, and the two islanders passed as if each was invisible to the other.
    "Who is that man?" he asked the constable, pointing into the distance. He asked again. Suddenly, the truth dawned on the policeman. Great beads of sweat rose on his forehead. His face collapsed. He screamed like a woman that he was afraid of that place, and bolted like a rabbit down the beach. Not until Grimble had trudged back to the village did he see him again, this time pouring out his soul to the Native Magistrate.
    Grimble immediately poured out his own petulant story - of how the constable had deserted his post, and went into a full description of the "lunatic" at large on the path of the dead.
    "That was indeed Na Biria," said the magistrate. No, he was not a lunatic. And no, they could not bring him forward. He had just died, at about three o'clock. The mourners were even now performing the rituals for his meeting with Nakaa.
    And so the freethinker was left to think: had he picked up Na Biria's dying thoughts, projected onto the pathway he fully expected his soul must follow?
    And we might ask a similar question: is this not further evidence that apparitions are psychic projections, originating perhaps in a discarnate mind, which can be picked up by minds which, for one reason or another, are psychically in tune with them.
    I shall return to this issue further in my next post.

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