Read time: 17 mins

When this island disappears

by Dennis Kikira
16 July 2023

Waves – the anguish of the sea gods, in pitch black midnight, squirt squalls of salt spray. Its bitterness biting the eyes, lips and breathing. Who can see through the night as the sea unleashes its anger in deep swells? The only sound: thunderous ripples conforming to the direction of wind. Each attacking like a gigantic mountain, lashing against Kira’s canoe, showing no remorse for the battered fisherman. But Kira must orient his canoe towards the direction of the wind to maintain balance. The wind rages forth, adding more lumps to the waves. Kira remains unperturbed, his paddle clenched firmly in one hand, in the other his fishing line, rigged. 

Such is life on the island. All men must level up to avoid being ridiculed. A man who has never waded in salt water is deemed weak. A man must taste salt and prove his strength against the waves. Weak men are unfit to marry women – women are not attracted to them. Their flesh is like ripe breadfruit. Their bones are soft, like swaying coconut palms. But Kira is poised and muscular. An adept fisherman with a hoard of technique. Even at his age, he has gained prestige above other fishermen. And every older man of the island lauds his father for his authentic resemblance. 

The old men often said some fish feed in different seasons, but all fish feed when the new moon hangs above the horizon. Yet, the sea seemed fruitless, almost as if the fish had departed with the setting Sun. Feeling displeased, Kira clamped his paddle onto his outrigger. He must replace his bait, he thought. But just in case, he hoisted his string once more to feel. The bottom weight remained unchanged. He took a deep breath, feeling cautiously. Just as he emptied his lungs, a snap seized the string from beneath. Kira gripped tightly, breathing hard. At arm’s length, he heaved his string as fast as he could. But just as the fish emerged beneath his canoe, it made a massive jerk and shrugged off. Kira cursed, shaking uncontrollably as he felt the empty string weightless in his right hand. ‘Stupid fish with its lips and teeth like an old woman.’ Kira knew it was a giant grouper by its brisk discharge. 

In the not so far distance, the island – lit with kerosene lamps – half-glowed like a floating tourist vessel against the darkness and wind. The pile of houses simmered in concrete silence. Even the mating dogs had subsided to sleep; no sound but the lone colony of flying foxes that squealed and hovered over the village breadfruit trees. 

Kira, despite having swallowed several gusts of salted air, could not be drawn to sleep. A devoted fisherman, he was undeterred, focused and determined. The elders called him a fisherholic. They joked that when Kira dies, his canoe will be affixed to his gravestone instead of a cross. 

Kira affixed another bait and before tossing it over, his eyes skimmed the open sea. What remained mystical to the islanders was the declining catch they had experienced over the years. Not anymore in popular fishing spots. Not even on new moons. The marked tracks of the turtles on the reefs had also disappeared, even from sacred fishing sites. The oracles of the old men had become futile. 

Just as the last rays of the morning star curled towards the west sea, the eastern sky unzipped to orange clouds. The seagulls squawked to welcome the morning. Kira could be induced to sleep, but he remained vigilant. ‘There are fish that feed during the early hours of the morning’, he reminded himself. A few punches of waves jabbed against his canoe to keep him awake. 

As Kira scooped another hoist, he felt an unusual mass on his bait. Its gravity almost obedient. ‘Eel or starfish?’ Kira guessed. A few more furls, and the object surfaced. Lifeless as it emerged. Kira looked closer. ‘Damn it’, he gasped. ‘It’s a plastic bag.’ It is a long-held belief that weird catches imply infringement of fishing rituals, especially when people kept asking about their whereabouts when out fishing at night. 

Kira assumed the underwater current had drawn the plastic to his bait. He undid the bag to hurl it at sea. Just before he did, the label caught his attention. It read, Palisades Centre, NY, United States. ‘New York?’ Kira thought. ‘How could this be possible?’ In his mind, he calculated the distance from New York to the island. Then he imagined the power of the ocean currents. He was convinced to keep the bag. He would take it home. It would be an interesting story to tell his children. His mind switched to visitors who had come to the island some years back. It was a government delegation. They had come to talk about the impacts of climate change, global warming, sea level rise and the government’s resettlement plans for the islanders. The islanders listened attentively until the agenda of resettlement surfaced. Then, heated debate took over. The delegates felt like live fish thrown onto fire as the islanders revolted. 

The morning Sun steamed across the sky. Kira must hurry home. His children must have fish for breakfast and take some for school lunch, a duty he ensured every morning. Kira packed his fishing gear and paddled towards the shore. As he approached, a boat emerged from the direction of the mainland. Kira surveyed the passengers. He could recognise some islanders, but not the stranger who had accompanied them. As the boat was rowed ashore, the stranger was ushered to the house of the paramount chief. The garamut was beaten and the cone shell blown to welcome the visitor. Another call was to attend the meeting in the evening. 

Back at the house, Hesa, Kira’s wife, looked worried. ‘Somi came to the house. I couldn’t tell him where you were to avoid infringing the fishing ritual’, she said.  

‘Oh, that old Somi. He thinks his lungs are still young, and he never quits smoking.’  

Hesa interrupted, ‘He was not looking for newspaper to roll his brus; he came regarding the visitor.’ Kira grinned.  But Hesa continued. ‘He says you will be accompanying the visitor to Port Moresby. The visitor is a cone shell buyer, and he has come to ask the Chief about the clan’s cone shell which he says is worth millions of kina.’  

Kira choked as if he had swallowed a fish bone. 

‘Is this a joke?’ he laughed.  

‘It’s true, Kira. They said millions, but they did not tell exactly how much.’ 

Kira still couldn’t believe it which provoked Hesa to raise her voice. ‘Stop being Thomas! The Chief has come to seek my permission. But what can I say? I’m just a woman. I cannot say anything against the Chief’s wishes.’  

As the Sun set that evening, the garamut was beaten and the cone shell blown to brisk people to the tsuhana, the meeting house. The steaming kettle on the open fire lured the village chiefs to arrive first, for hot tea. Women and children followed while the young giggled amongst themselves, masked by the dark. 

The cone shell, known as the tutuhil, is an instrument used by the clan to reach its people far and wide. It is the village messenger in ceremonies and in times of war or grief and loss. The evening of the meeting, the tutuhil was decorated on a raised platform at the centre of the village tsuhana. It was laced with beroana and paiou, shell money to signify the clan’s status. 

Once everyone had settled in, some sitting while others stood, Somi rose from his seat. He was a reserved and humble chief, who smiled like the ocean when he was happy. But when certain matters disappointed him, his voice would crush like angry waves against the rocks at the beach. People’s hair rose as if to flee their skin. Some ducked to avoid the chief’s words as they rattled like lightning and thunder, almost setting fire to their ears. 

They had anticipated the worst, but, this time, the chief emitted a pleasant smile. He properly fastened his laplap as he usually did before speaking. Then he scanned the audience that had gathered, including those half-seen in the dark. The audience lowered their heads as if Somi had seen their sins. He cleared a cough to begin. 

‘Everyone must know why we are gathered here tonight.’ They nodded. ‘My hunkatun. See the veins on my neck and the grey shades on my eyes. What does it mean? You can hide in the dark from me tonight, but you will not hide forever as old wisdom says you too will hop on the same mona. He paused and ran his eyes over the audience once more. 

‘Tonight, I am very concerned. I do not know where the future of this island lies. In my time as your chief, we have faced so many challenges. We are catching less fish every year. The turtles have left our reef. Where have they gone?’ Somi turned towards the elders, spoilt and high in their hot cups of tea. As if to ignore the question, they continued sipping, gulping at their cups. ‘We do not know’, Somi continued. 

‘Yet people have come to tell us our island is sinking. Most of these people have come with bad news – none has come with good news.’ He paused and again secured his laplap around his waist before commencing. 

‘But today, I am pleased to introduce you to our visitor. He has come from the city. I believe,’ nodding into the direction of the visitor, ‘that after all the bad news, we now have some very good news.’ 

Jona, the visitor, nodded and smiled back in agreement. 

‘I will now hand over to the visitor to tell us more about the purpose of his visit.’ Somi stepped down and invited Jona to introduce himself. 

‘Thank you, Chief Somi. A great pleasure to come to this beautiful island. My name is Jona Gamogamo; just call me Jona. 

I work for online marketing of the rarest and most expensive shells. Online marketing is done through your mobile phones via the internet. I have come to your island because you have the most treasured cone shell on Earth.’ He nodded towards Somi. 

Somi nodded back to convey pleasure and gestured to Jona to continue. 

‘Therefore, you might wonder how much your cone shell is worth on the international market. Does anyone know?’  

The whole village went blank. 

‘Before I tell you…’ He paused. The elders murmured with impatience. ‘I have requested your chief to appoint someone to accompany me to Port Moresby to meet with the buyer. Your chief has appointed Kira.’ 

Everyone looked at Kira. 

‘Now I am going to tell you more about your cone shell and how much it is worth. Your cone shell is known as the female triton cone or the titan charonia. This cone shell is worth forty million US dollars in the world market, which is equivalent to 150 million kina.’ 

The whole village was speechless. It seemed as if they had diamonds on the island, but they didn’t know about it. 

‘We have made all the travel arrangements’, Jona continued. ‘Tomorrow morning, we are heading to Buka and flying to Port Moresby on the next day. If there are any questions or comments, I am happy to answer them now.’ 

Somi rose from his seat, cleared his throat and again secured his laplap. 

‘My hunkatun’, he spoke as he addressed his people. ‘I am lost for words. I never knew the cone shell would be worth this much. Neither did our ancestors know. As you know, the cone shell has been used for many generations by our clan. What does it mean? The spirits of our land can conceal certain things from us when they are displeased. But they can also reveal them back to us to show forbearance. There could be more on this island, I believe, which we have not discovered yet. I often have sleepless nights, trying to understand how we can save this island from the rising seas. Or at least, how we are going to feed our future generations. I believe that if we can sell the titan Charra…tti chraa—’ 

He paused after trying to sound scientific. The villagers grinned but swallowed their laughter. Jona corrected him – ‘It’s pronounced ti-tan cha-ro-nia’ – saying it slowly, trying not to offend the chief. But Somi abruptly concluded, concealing his mistake with confidence. 

As he sat, Muta, a very outspoken woman, stood up. Men feared her voice. The very instant she rested her left hand on her waist and stretched out her right hand, men knew they would be cooked. She had a voice that plunged like roofing iron. And her right hand would swing above their necks as if to behead them one by one. 

‘We, the women, are also happy for the news’, Muta reiterated. ‘But we have one problem. Regarding men and the satan-et—’ She was interrupted by the audience bursting out in laughter. 

‘Sorry, it’s in-ter-net.’ Jona corrected, repeating slowly.  

But Muta stood firm, the mockery giving her more courage to speak. ‘You men can laugh, but this concern is meant for you’, she fired. ‘Because you do nothing better on your mobile phones but just waste time viewing those adults.’ 

She paused, considering the children. Then with more convenient words, she stormed. ‘Watching movies that are only good for adults on the satan–net.’ 

The men felt like naked fish fluttering on the sand. The women all agreed. The men murmured and condemned Muta’s words in front of the children and elderly men. But the elders also smiled because they had seen too. 

‘Women cannot raise their voices in such manner to tarnish men’, a male voice disproved. 

‘Women have the right to speak; it is our right to speak!’ a female voice rebutted, snapping like a parrot amidst the women. 

As the commotion continued, Somi intervened to maintain order. 

‘We have spoken enough. If there are no further comments in relation to this cause, I am prepared to close this meeting, given the proceeds from the sale of the cone shell will be shared equally.’ 

At the rear corner, Tsora, amongst the elders, stood up to speak. He was the village opposition, as always, in every meeting. He’d smother a good fire and ignite a bad one. He’d dispute every decision. They feared him as the village sorcerer and blamed him for the death in the village.  

‘Those of you pursuing this sale will face the full brunt of nature. You will perish, even before this island sinks completely. The spirits will crumble your bones. The stains of the death are coated on this cone shell. Why are you giving it away? You chiefs have lost your place and your identity.’ He stopped and walked away. 

The chiefs lowered their heads and licked their wounds like dogs from Tsora’s revolt. There was complete silence until Katoa rose up to speak. 

‘I believe this is the modern-day era, and everything nowadays costs money. We need money to survive’, fiddling his thumb and pointer as if counting money. 

‘With this lots of money, we can buy a ship; we can send our children to school anywhere. We can buy land somewhere else. Let me tell you, Jona and Kira,’ –he looked at both of them – ‘once you sell the cone shell, bring back my share when I am still alive. And whilst the rest of you can decide to dwell on this island, I am taking my old woman to live in Dubai.’ His wife objected, and everyone broke into laughter. 

Once the laughter had subsided, Somi concluded the meeting. He ordered two pigs to be slaughtered. One to show appreciation to Jona, the other for the hats, a sacrificial offering over an open fire to petition and appease the spirits. 

In sorrowful unison, the women gathered at a special place at the far end of the village to perform the hats and sabis. Hasu, Kira’s father’s sister, was appointed to perform the rite. As the women sang, begging the spirit of the Sunahan to set the fire alight, their song echoed deeply into darkness. Women sang and wept, the weight of their song drawing sorrow and eventually igniting flames in the fireplace to signify that the spirits had now been appeased. Singing and mourning continued into the night as the slaughtered pig and taro vanished over the fire. 

The village napped in naked silence. A nascent retreat to wake with the crows. Hot air spanned out from the steaming sea and dipped into each hut. It was stale – smelly and stuffy to sleep. The stars whitened the beach as Kira and Hesa sat by the seashore to catch the night breeze. It was their last night together. The serenity of the place reminded them of their first date. As they cuddled, a shooting star fired up the western sky like a burning arrow and shot through the clouds as if to pierce their hearts. Hesa was anxious and overwhelmed with the uncertainty that had been drawn for her by the village women. 

‘Kira, I have heard stories of men leaving the village, leaving their wives and children. These men have never returned.’  

Kira tried to comfort her, but she continued in deep sobs. ‘I know after you have sold the village fortune, you will have a lot of money. And there is always evil with money.’ 

Her sobbing grew heavier as tears flooded her eyes: ‘Please think about me and our children.’  

‘I promise’, Kira replied. ‘I will think about you and our children. I am not going alone. I am representing our island and clan like an ambassador. And I will not do anything against your wishes or the wishes of the clan.’ He joined her tears. As the moon sank, they cuddled more, the stars above, comforting their sorrows and insecurities. 

The next morning, the village had awoken before sunrise. The beat of the garamut had summoned everyone to be gathered at the beach to bid farewell to Kira – and the cone shell. As a departing ritual, the village women wept and chopped taro on the beach as a sign of loss and grief. At that moment, Somi approached Kira, and before handing over the ceremonious cone shell, he whispered his words of farewell. 

‘May the spirits of the eagle clan protect and guide you, son.’ 

He cuddled the cone shell firmly, raising it closer to his chest like a baby about to be handed over for adoption. He smiled hesitantly as if to disapprove. Then he nodded, handing over the cone shell and bursting into the loudest sob among the mourning women. The whole village joined in at the sight of Kira hugging his wife and children and eventually hopping on the boat. As the outboard motor revved at full throttle, Kira raised the cone shell above his head to blow it once more as an omen of farewell. The mourning got louder, the waving slower, as the boat disappeared over the horizon. 

The flight to Port Moresby was fast. Upon arrival, Kira and Jona were ushered into a taxi. As they drove off, the smell of betel nut-stains on every street, squatter settlements on hillsides piled up behind rusty roof fences. The fine buildings were gated with razor wire, the people inside never to be seen. They entered a heavily guarded gate. ‘This is our hotel’, Jona explained. ‘This will be your home until we finish our business.’ 

The buyer arrived, flanked by his guards. Kira felt nervous but pretended calm. The buyer asked if Jona had brough the cone shell. Jona nodded. They shook hands, chatted briefly, and Jona handed over the cone shell. The buyer received the cone shell and handed over the money bag to Jona. Then they left immediately with the cone shell. At that moment, Jona invited Kira for a drink at the hotel bar. Kira agreed to have one. It tasted bitter at first sip, but just as Kira finished it, Jona gave him another one. The bitterness now tasted better. The island music echoed from the DJ’s console. Kira’s leg began to follow the beat. The drums sounded almost like the garamut. Kira rose from his seat and joined the dancing, paddling, mimicking the eagle in flight. More beer flowed in as the partying continued through the night. Kira promised himself whatever happened that night would stay in Moresby. 

Kira woke up in the morning, still with that disoriented drunk feeling. He thought he was sitting in his canoe out at sea. Instead, he found himself sitting in the toilet with vomit stains all over his pants. Still feeling wobbly, he tried recalling everything that happened the night before. As he emerged from the toilet, he found out that everyone had left. Then he thought about the cone shell. It was now gone. He scanned the room. There was no one. Jona too had disappeared. 

Kira was confused with fear. Where had everyone gone? He had no idea, nor did he know anyone’s identity. He ran down to the reception to seek for information. Neither did anyone from the hotel know. 

Kira was puzzled about the origins and identities of the fugitives and their intention to use the vulnerability of the islanders to facilitate their scam. He hesitated over the thought that he should call the police. Instead, he thought about Somi and his family and the optimism and trust that was vested in him. He would find a way to explain, he thought. But would the islanders accept any of his explanations? He tried to weave several justifications into his thoughts.  

‘Perhaps, Tsora might have been right to not give the cone shell away. Or was this another sorcery imposed by him?’ Kira thought. Obviously, he now knew that the scam was planned. A fake deal facilitated to benefit the fugitives.  

The cone shell was never to be seen again. 

The shocking news ramped the village up like a raging storm. The village elders were slapped in the face with confusion and embarrassment, which they swallowed like bitter herbs. An irreparable loss and shame. A tragedy comparable to the spilled blood of a clansman that invokes revenge, but what could they do when the offenders had disappeared mysteriously? For once, their hopes had been raised at the promise of monetary return. The vulnerability and insecurity imposed by the threat of rising sea levels was restored, like leaks springing through the patches on a thatched roof. All was reduced to rubble, like a crushed cut nut. 

The village elders lowered their heads in shame. Chief Somi, among the other elders, was more devastated as the scam occurred under his leadership. It was a curse that would tarnish his reputation, like a fallen ripe fruit that splits on the ground. He was like a gardener who watches his crops being destroyed by wild pigs. For Somi foresaw more distrust and rebellion, disloyalty and trouble brewing on the island as a result of his failure. He isolated himself. He was overridden with distress. He skipped meals and meetings. He ignored shaving his beard. All of which degraded his health more quickly than aging. 

When Kira arrived on the island, everyone had deserted the beach. Empty as cursed – not even a stray dog left behind, except his wife and children. Despite the tragedy, Kira was delighted to reunite with his family. A slight drizzle fell from the sky, amidst the scorching sunshine. Kira knew that a sad moon would rise soon. Perhaps, it shouldn’t at this time, but the signs showed it would be inevitable. 

Somi was in his sick bed when Kira visited. He beckoned Kira closer so he could feel his hand. He forced a dry cough to speak, his tone of voice very frail. Tears trickled to his grey moustache and wrinkled chin. 

‘I am lost for words, son. Why does the world have to be cruel to us?’ He gripped tightly to enable himself to speak again. ‘When this island disappears, we too shall go down with it.’ 

His grip on Kira’s hand now loosened. His final words resonating this fate, he believed in a similar way his island would perish. 

Finally, Kira knew. One of eagle’s greatest sons had now departed, gone with the setting sun to that special place – a place where many eagle sons have been destined to retain joy, since time immemorial. 

2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist: Issue 1

Artwork ©Amitola Soriano 
Amitola Soriano is the winner of an artwork competition organised at the Hutjena Secondary School in Papua New Guinea, in response to Dennis Kikira’s short story. She is 13 years old and in Grade 9D.

About the Author

Dennis Kikira

Dennis Kikira is from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. An Environmentalist and Development Practitioner by profession, he studied environmental science and geography at the University of Papua New Guinea, and did a postgraduate degree in environmental management from the University of Queensland in Australia. An unpublished writer, Dennis has always written […]