Grimble, Sir Arthur - Goes to the Place of Dread
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Sir Arthur Grimble - A Pattern of Islands
When I had finished my routine work on the island, I naturally wanted to see the Place of Dread, so I called the Native Magistrate along one morning and asked him to find me a guide.
I have never seen a face change and darken as swiftly as his did at my simple request. He stood dumb for a while with downcast eyes; then, still looking at the ground, 'Do not go to that place,' he exclaimed, and again, on a higher note, passionately, 'Do not go!' The edge on his voice made it seem almost as if he had said, 'I order you not to go.'
'But why?' I said irritably. 'What's all this nonsense about Nakaa's place? What's all the mystery? Shall I offend anyone by going?'
'Nobody will be offended,' he replied, 'but do not go. The place is perilous.'
'But why perilous for me, a Man of Matang?'
His only reply was to vwap himself away in a cloak of silence. So I tried another line: 'You're a member of a Christian church. You surely can't believe still that souls go that way to Heaven or Hell. Or do you?'
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.
I should of course have made up my mind in all decency then to find the place for myself. The island is a straight, lagoonless ribbon, and I could not possibly have missed its tapering northern end. But I was cussed: 'Please find a village constable who isn't afraid to be my guide,' I said, 'and send him to me here.'
He looked at me mutely, spread his hands in a hopeless little gesture, and left. The constable, a giant of a man with bushy eyebrows and a grimly smileless face, appeared within the next half-hour. He said before we started that, as I was a stranger, I must take the western path going northward, just as the ghosts of strangers did, and that I must be careful not to look back.
'And if I do look back?' I said.
'If you look back and see a ghost,'he replied, 'you will be dead within a year,' and marched off ahead of me without another word................
It was past two o'clock when we started for home down the eastern path. My friend told me that his proper place going south was in the rear, and dropped forty paces behind. Perhaps he just wanted to keep out of my sight as well as the sound of my voice; anyway, it was I who led the way against the traffic-stream of local ghosts.
After ten minutes walking, with thirst at concert pitch, I stopped and croaked back at him (he would not come near), 'Are we out of Nakaa's grove yet?'
Not yet, he shouted back, there was still a mile or more of it. It was then that an unpleasant little worm within me turned. I made up my mind to disregard his scruples and ask anyone we met, anywhere, to pick me a nut. And there, in the midst of that peevish thought was suddenly a man coming along the track to help me.
Across the arc of a curving beach, I saw him appear round a point. I could follow every yard of his course as he came nearer. My eyes never left him, because my intent was pinned on his getting me that drink. He walked with a strong limp (I thought that might make it hard for him to climb a tree). He was a stocky, grizzled man of about fifty, clad rather ceremoniously in a fine mat belted about his middle (a poor kit for climbing, commented my mind). As he came up on my left, I noticed
that his left cheek was scored by a scar from jawbone to temple, and that his limp came from a twisted left foot and ankle. I can see the man still in memory.
But the question is - did he see me? He totally ignored the greeting I gave him. He did not even turn his eyes towards me. He went by as if I didn't exist. If anyone was a ghost on that pathway, I was - for him. He left me standing with one futile hand flapping in the air to stay him. I watched his dogged back receding towards my on-coming guide. I was shocked speechless. It was so grossly unlike the infallible courtesy of the islanders.
He was just about to pass the constable when I found voice again: 'Ask that chief to stop,' I called back, 'he may need some help from us.'
It had struck me he might be a lunatic at large: possibly harmless, but we ought to make sure of that. But the din of the surf may have smothered my voice, for the constable didn't seem to hear. He passed the newcomer twenty yards from where I stood, without a sign of recognition.
I ran back to him. 'Who is that man?' I asked.
He stopped in his tracks, gazing at my pointed finger. 'How?' he murmured hesitantly, using the Gilbertese equivalent for, 'Say it again.'
I said it again, sharply, still pointing. As we stood dumbly looking at each other, I saw swift beads of sweat - big, fat ones - start out of his forehead and lose themselves in his eyebrows.
Then it was as if something suddenly collapsed inside him. It was horrible. 'I am afraid in this place!' he screamed high in his head, like a woman, and, without another word, he bolted out on the beach with an arm guarding his eyes. He disappeared at a run round the point, and I didn't see him again until I got back to my quarters.
But there he was when I arrived, on the verandah with the Native Magistrate. I saw the two of them absorbed in talk, the constable violently gesturing now and then as I approached the house. But they stepped apart as soon as they heard my footsteps, and stood gravely collected when I entered, waiting for me to speak.
I plunged head first into my petulant story. The sum of it was that the constable had witnessed the discourtesy of the man with the limp, and was now trying his silly best to shield him from censure. It might be very loyal, but did he take me for a fish-headed fool? To pretend he hadn't seen the fellow . . . well . . . really! And so on. I was very young.
The Native Magistrate waited with calm good manners for me to run down, and then asked what the man was like.
I told him of the twisted foot, and the belted mat, and the scar.
He turned to exchange nods with the constable: 'That was indeed Na Biria,' he murmured, and they nodded at each other again.
'Na Biria?' I echoed. 'Is he a lunatic?'
He dropped his eyelids, meaning,'No.'
'Then bring him to me this evening.'
He looked me straight in the eyes: 'I cannot do that.'
'Cannot? What word is this . . . cannot? Is everybody here dotty today? Why cannot you bring him?'
'He is dead,' said the Magistrate, and added as I stood dumb, 'He died this afternoon, soon before three o'clock.'