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By Louis Becke
We waited until the tide had fallen still lower and until the whole surface of the great sweeping curve of reef stood out, bare and steaming, under the bright tropic sun. Westward lay the ocean, blue and smooth as a mill pond, with only a gentle, heaving swell laving the outer wall of the coral barrier. Here and there upon its surface communities of snowy white terns hovered and fluttered, feeding upon small fish, or examining floating weed for tiny red and black crabs no bigger than a pea. Eastward and across the now shallowed water of the lagoon was our village of Leasse, the russet—hued, saddle—backed houses of thatch peeping out from the coco—palms and breadfruit—trees; beyond, the broken, rugged outline of the towering mountain range, garmented from base to summit with God’s mantle of living green; overhead a sky ot wondrous, un—specked blue.
We were all sitting on the rocks, on the margin of the best and largest pool, smoking and chatting, when at a sign from Kusis, who was the head man (or local chief) of the village, the women took their bundles of oap and laying the plants upon smooth portions of the reef began to pound them with round, heavy stones, brought from the village for the purpose. As each bundle was crushed and the sticky white juice exuded, it was rolled into a ball, used like a sponge to wipe up and absorb all the liquid that had escaped, and then handed to the men and boys, who leapt into the pool, and dived to the bottom, thrusting the balls of oap underneath every lower ledge and crevice, and then rising quickly to the surface and clambering out again. In less than five minutes the once crystal water had changed to a pale milky white, thousands upon thousands of tiny fish, about half an inch in length, and of many hues, began to rise to the surface; then others of a larger size, which the women at once scooped up with small nets; then presently, with much splashing and floundering, two or three of the handsome red fish I have described, with a great leather—jacket, came up, and, lying on their sides, flapped helplessly on the surface. Other kinds, of the mullet species, came with them, trying to swim upright, but always falling over on their sides, and yet endeavouring to lift their heads above the water, as if gasping for air. Then more big leather—jackets, some of which shot up from below as if they had been fired from a mortar, and, running head—on to the rocky wall of the pool, allowed themselves to be lifted out without a struggle. It was most exciting and intensely interesting to witness.
Presently up came a half—grown hawkbill turtle, his poor head erect and swaying from side to side; a boy leapt in and, seizing it by its flippers, pushed it up to some women, who quickly carried the creature to a small pool near by, where it was placed to recover from the effects of the oap and then be taken ashore to the village turtle—dock to grow and fatten for killing. (The “turtle—dock,” I must explain, was a walled—in enclosure–partly natural, partly artificial–situated in a shallow part of the lagoon, wherein the Leasse people confined those turtle that they could not at once eat; sometimes as many as thirty were thus imprisoned and fed daily.)
Out of this one pool–which I think was not more than fifteen yards across–we obtained many hundredweights of fish and three turtle. All fish which were too small to be eaten were thrown into other pools to recover from the effects of the oap. The very smallest, however, did not recover, and were left to float on the surface and become the prey of large fish when the incoming tide again covered the reef.
I must here relate an incident that now occurred, and which will serve to illustrate the resourcefulness and surgical knowledge of a race of people who, had they met them, Darwin, Huxley and Frank Buckland would have delighted in and made known to the world. I shall describe it as briefly and as clearly as possible.
I had brought with me a knife–a heavy, broad—backed, keen—edged weapon, which the Chinese carpenter of our wrecked ship had fashioned out for me from a flat twelve—inch file of Sheffield steel, and Kusis had, later on, made me a wooden sheath for it. In my excitement at seeing a large fish rise to the surface I used it as a spear, and then, the fish secured, had thrown the knife carelessly down. It fell edge upwards in a cleft of the coral rock, and Kinie, the pretty twelve—year—old daughter of Kusis, treading upon it, cut her left foot to the bone. Her father and myself sprang to her aid, and whilst I was tying the one handkerchief I possessed tightly round her leg below the knee so as to stay the terrible flow of blood, he rapidly skinned a large leather jacket by the simple process of cutting through the skin around the head and shoulders and then dragging it off the body by holding the upper edge between his teeth and then with both hands pulling it downwards to the tail. In less than five minutes the sheet of tough fish—skin was deftly and tightly wrapped round the child’s foot, the handkerchief taken off and replaced by a coir fibre fishing—line, wound round and round below and above the knee. The agony this caused the poor child made her faint, but her father knew what he was about when he ordered two of the women to carry her ashore, take off the covering of fish—skin, cover the foot with wood—ashes, and bind it up again. This was done, and when we returned to the village an hour or two later I found the girl seated in her father’s house with her injured foot bandaged in a way that would have reflected credit on a M.R.C.S.
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