I looked out the kitchen window and washed my plate. The moon was growing full but barely visible behind the clouds. It glowed soft and bright, illuminating the cumulus nimbus like a lamp behind a window curtain. The crickets, frogs, and dogs fought each other for the reigning soundtrack of the night.
We’d concluded another night of kava drinking and gathering of friends and relatives in David’s honor. (Over a week of consistent visitors and more were still expected to come). With the funeral right around the corner, we were preparing for the service as well as an influx of guests. Felix and I spent most of the day at the Suva market purchasing food and grog for our future guests.
When we returned, Ro Mereani had a favor to ask of me. “David’s sister is unable to fly down for the funeral. She lives in England, you see.” she explained, her hands twisting around a stack of printer paper, “But she sent an e-mail with a few words she would like spoken at the funeral. And you are a good reader and speaker. Will you represent her during the service and read her tribute to her brother?” She handed me the stack of papers with the speech. The words felt heavy in my hands; there were so many of them.
I accepted, of course, but immediately grew anxious about it. Since The Skirt Debacle with the chiefs, I was on my best (and most conservative) behavior. A hundred different ways I could flub up the speech flashed through my overly creative imagination. I didn’t need another reason for the chiefs to raise an eyebrow at the strange European girl. But the funeral would not be a day about me or my insecurities. I needed to get over it.
I searched the patches of sky for a familiar star pattern. Even the stars are different here, I thought. I dried my dish with discontent.
It’s not that I minded sitting in on the ceremonies of tribute to Talei’s father, or helping with the laundry lists of tasks left to complete before the funeral. Fijians were extremely welcoming of me and my unusual presence. But it was emotionally heavy work. And I felt out-of-place. And lost. And confused. And and and…
I guess you could say I was in a constant state of discomfort, never feeling fully at ease.
I put my plate away, nodding recognition to ants marching from the cupboard down the counter and out the door, carrying their spoils of sugar granules and bread crumbs. At least I was getting used to the sight of creatures I would’ve thrown a fit upon encountering in my house back in the States. This was the tropics. If you didn’t have bugs you didn’t have food.
My stomach sloshed with grog and restlessness. I said goodnight to Ro Mereani and Felix and quietly made my way to the spare bedroom. I stared at the ceiling for a long time pondering my feelings on my situation.
Even with my new-found anthropological approach and ‘cultural experiment’ attitude, I knew on some level I was disappointed. I had come to Fiji with a very high expectation of how I was going to spend the trip. It involved a good amount of bumming on a beach and surfing. Of course, no-one ever said that’s what Fiji would be like. But one showing of Endless Summer II and my mind was convinced that was all it could be.
I was at a loss for how to help and felt like with even all that I was doing it wasn’t enough. And I was angry with myself for being disappointed. And I felt strange observing such an intimate moment when I had no part in it.
I sighed and rolled over, pulling the sheet up to my chin. “Talei, what have you gotten me into?” I whispered. The words fell heavily off my lips and soundlessly on the floor.
It took longer than usual to fall asleep. But eventually my thoughts drifted off to the rhythm of crickets chirping. The dogs and frogs had long since tired of their game and gone to bed themselves.
In the middle of the night, I heard footsteps in the room.
I froze, not daring to open my eyes. Had Felix snuck in to grab something? I listened carefully. No, I could hear him snoring through the door. I heard an echo of laughter. I opened my eyes to witness the moonlight pouring in through the windows, creating a spotlight for the figure smiling down on me.
Talei’s hair, neck, and wrists were dripping in pearls. Her eyes sparkled in the moonlight. She crouched over the mattress letting her curls fall near my face. I didn’t move. I watched her breathlessly. I was surprised at her presence but not afraid. She looked ethereal with that glow about her. Or was it the light reflecting on her gossamer gown?
“Talei,” I whispered, “Why have you brought me here? Why did you choose me? It’s all wrong.”
Her rosy lips spread into a toothy grin and she laughed. I could hear it echo but it was faint, as if the sound were passing through water. She brought a jeweled finger to her lips and murmured, “Shhh.” I could almost hear her taunt, I know something you don’t know. Then she winked and my eyes felt heavy. I drifted back to sleep.
I woke with a jump in the morning to the sound of Ro Mereani starting the wash out back. I lay motionless in bed, recounting what had happened in the night. What the hell was that? I turned my head to the spot where she had stood. Was it a dream? Or did I have one of those paranormal encounters you see on SyFy?
I sat up and wiped a bead of sweat from my brow. I checked my phone. Not even seven in the morning and it the humidity was already suffocating.
My mind started racing. I threw on clothes while I attempted to collect my thoughts.
There must have been some purpose to her visit, even if it was just a dream. What did it symbolize? Had I conjured a mental image of her because I was longing for guidance? While it was the most plausible answer it didn’t sit right.
It had all felt real enough. And why had she been so cheeky? What was with her laughing? Did she think this was funny? I suddenly felt angry. My drowning in this moment was funny? Or was it funny that this was all happening at the same time?
The thought stuck with me for a moment and I thought back to what Ro Mereani had said to me the day her husband died. She seemed so convicted in her words. “Hilary, I think Talei was waiting for you to arrive to take her father to the other side. And I think he was holding out to meet you to know that Talei enjoyed her last few weeks on this earth. Yes. That was it.”
I bit my lip. I thought that coming to pay my respects to my deceased friend was heavy enough, but did she know something I didn’t know? How the hell was I supposed to do her bidding if she only laughed at me? And what if I failed her?
I looked to the door. And what the hell was I going to tell her mother?