Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)
Chapter 9. The Lasialap of U
Pohnpei is a five-million-year-old volcanic island cloaked in rain forest, ringed by a barrier reef and a blue, blue sea. It is thirteen miles across and 2,500 feet in elevation, high enough to have cloud forest habitat, supporting thirteen endemic birds and more than a hundred endemic plants. It is as wet as anyplace on earth, with an annual average rainfall of over four hundred inches and more rivers than any other island in the region. It is tropical and hot.
Ever since I had heard Jonathan Yang’s story about the giant eels of the island and the failed shipment of live eels to Taiwan that had doomed his friend Mr. Chen, I had wanted to go there. But I felt that without having someone who could be my way in, as Stella had been in New Zealand, it would be a waste of time. Then I met that person unexpectedly at an international conference of the Nature Conservancy in Quito, Ecuador. He was giving a presentation on the disintegration of the reefs and rain forests of Micronesia. I asked him if he had ever been to Pohnpei. He knew it well enough, he said—he had lived there more than half his life. He spoke the language fluently and was married to the daughter of a high chief.
Bill Raynor, fair-skinned and tall, originally from Lodi, California, confessed that his knowledge of eels was limited, but confirmed that the eel was very important to Pohnpeians, especially the Lasialap people of U (pronounced “ooh”) municipality, for whom the freshwater eel was a kind of totem. His area of expertise was the indigenous flora of Pohnpei and traditional methods of agroforestry. But even in his work on island plants he could not escape the eels’ significance.
“Eels are part of the hydrology of the island,” Bill said. “The Pohnpeians believe that the eels help keep the rivers open and free-moving—if you take the eels out of the rivers, the water will stop flowing.”
If I traveled there, Bill said, he would make introductions that would facilitate my research.
After a twelve-hour layover in Hawaii I was happy when the plane finally left for Micronesia. We landed on a handful of islands—Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae—before finally making our descent over the outer atolls to Pohnpei.
Bill was waiting at the Kolonia airport to pick me up when I landed and took me in his beat-up four-wheel-drive vehicle into town. He was wearing shorts topped by a T-shirt with holes. He advised me to surrender to the heat and rain.
“Be prepared to get wet, muddy, sweaty, and dirty.”
He dropped me off at a small hotel in Kolonia called Yvonne’s. Bunches of bananas hung on hooks outside the first-floor rooms for guests to eat. From Yvonne’s, Bill said, I could walk everywhere in town, and in the open-air lobby there was always an assortment of expatriate guests milling around.
Intermittent squalls were followed by blasts of sun. When the rains came, it was as if someone had opened the floodgates and then shut them just as abruptly. In the wake of the showers there was often a rainbow, sometimes two simultaneously. The endemic maroon parrots, Pohnpei lorikeets, with hints of green and yellow on their wings, could be seen flying in chattering flocks over the causeway to the airport. From there also was a clear view of Sokehs Rock, a massive basalt outcropping that is the signature geological feature of the island. Every morning at first light, colorful reef fishes were unloaded at a street market along the sea. The diversity of fishes was almost unbelievable—blue parrotfish, pink and orange snappers, wrasses in rainbow reds, yellows, and greens.
One of Yvonne’s permanent residents was an American named Karen Nelson from Wisconsin who taught English at the College of Micronesia (COM, a community college—the closest university was in Guam). I stopped to talk to her in the lobby while getting my morning coffee. She looked very tired—white skin with fig-colored shadows under her eyes—as she waited for a taxi to take her to the school. Oftentimes the taxi was very late.
“If there’s anyplace in the middle of nowhere, it’s here,” she said of Pohnpei. “There’s no tourism, in part because Continental Airlines has a monopoly on flights and they can charge whatever they want. And it takes a full two days to get here from just about anywhere.” She said her Pohnpeian students liked it that way—the thought of tourists walking through their sacred sites unnerved them.
Karen’s taxi arrived, and as she left, a mustachioed man in a kind of guayabera shirt came into the lobby and joined me for a cup of coffee. We sat on multicolored couches and chairs, watching the rain. He was a diplomat from the nearby island of Kosrae. He asked where I was from, and watched me making notes and sketching the view out of the lobby toward the sea. Seeing I was new to the island, he offered his views on Micronesian culture.
In Micronesia, he said, self-worth is based not on an individual’s achievements but on modesty, humility, and knowing that one has a secure place in the family. Attempts to get ahead are frowned upon. “The tallest tree is struck by lightning” is a popular saying. Instead of building a home bigger than the neighbors’, people endeavor to build their houses smaller.
Such modesty, the Kosraean cautioned, can be a veil for laziness. The social position about not wanting to stick out had become an excuse to do nothing. And the already languid attitude of the people was exaggerated not just by the incessant heat and humidity but by a popular narcotic drink called sakau, known elsewhere in the Pacific as kava. Most Pohnpeians viewed sakau as one of the island’s virtues (there is no dispute that cannot be settled over drinking sakau), while others felt it was impeding Pohnpei’s progress (it dulls the central nervous system).
The Kosraean grabbed the coffeepot and refilled our cups. He got a twinkle in his eye and leaned forward.
“I heard you talking about eel,” he whispered. “You know, on Kosrae we eat eel.”
“You eat—” I started.
“Shhh,” he said. “I don’t want to offend the girl working at the front desk. She is Lasialap, the eel clan.”
He leaned back, stirring sugar in his coffee.
“Personally, I love eel,” he said, “but to her it would be like eating a human. The Lasialap believe eels are people, you know.”
I asked him how eels are prepared in Kosrae. He licked his lips.
“What we do in Kosrae is, we put the eel in boiling water to take off the slime and then cook it in an um, or earth oven. We wrap the eel in a special leaf that seasons the meat. You don’t want to stop eating—it tastes really good.”
Kolonia is Pohnpei’s biggest city, though it is very small. They have no traffic problems, so there are no traffic lights. You would be hard pressed to find a stop sign. Storefronts are eclectic. You might see a shop offering “gold teeth services” (dentistry) next to a Mormon mission. Other shops sell goods carved from ivory nuts (the seed of an endemic palm), bracelets made of hawksbill turtle shells (which can’t legally leave the island), hardware, or photocopy services. There are a few places to stay and a few restaurants, representing cuisine from cultures that have occupied the island—German, Japanese, American.
The Visitors’ Bureau is on the eighteen-acre campus of the Agriculture Station, a series of bunker-like buildings shaded by giant breadfruit trees. In front of the Visitors’ Bureau is a rusty sign with arrows indicating the distance to major cities of the world: New York, 8,158 miles; Paris, 10,326; Cape Town, 10,187; Melbourne, 5,288.
Inside, a couple was bargaining with a man selling black pearls. On the back wall was an array of posters promoting everything from dental hygiene (the habit of chewing betel nut, Areca catechu, had destroyed many Pohnpeians’ teeth) to the consumption of native carotenoid-rich foods—bananas, taro, breadfruit, and pandanus.*
I asked a woman mopping the floor where I could find Edgar. She went behind a door and moments later a man appeared, dark-skinned with dark hair and wearing a light blue button-down shirt and long gray pants.
“Bill told me you might be able to help me,” I said. “I’m doing research on—”
“Oh yes,” Edgar said, fidgeting with his glasses. “Bill told me about you. I’m very busy at the moment. I do know an eel story, but not very well. There are people who know it better. You need to visit the high chief of the Lasialap. His name is Sahngoro. His Christian name is Elter John. He is also the leader of U—the nahnmwarki.”
“Can you introduce me to him?” I asked. “Well, it’s not that easy,” Edgar said. “You see, someone has to bring you to him formally, someone with a title, and there has to be a sakau ceremony. I could not bring you to the nahnmwarki because I am not a chief and I am not Lasialap. And someone would have to teach you the proper etiquette. For instance, your head can never be higher than the head of a nahmwarki. I think Bill has already asked Adelino Lorens, our deacon and minister of agriculture, if he could help. Adelino is high up in the Lasialap clan.”
“Can you tell me your eel story?” I asked Edgar. He smiled, taken aback at my directness.
“It is the story of how the eel came to Pohnpei,” he said. “In this story, the starling, called sloahk, brought a seed from another island, and that seed became the first eel, which we call kemisik. But for now, I’m afraid, that’s the best I can do. I’m late to a meeting.
“Some advice,” he added as he walked away. “There are not many keys in Pohnpei. But sakau is the key to unlock everything you’re looking for.”
I stopped to look at a poster about the forests and birds of Micronesia. There, among the cardinal honeyeater, native pigeon, kingfisher, and fantail, was the Micronesian starling, the bird that had brought the eel to Pohnpei. It was black, with yellow eyes.
In the early afternoon, Bill met me at Yvonne’s and we walked toward the sea to the office of the Conservation Society of Pohnpei (CSP), a nongovernmental organization he helped found in 1998. CSP was the first platform for environmental conservation on the island, and one of the first in Micronesia.
One of CSP’s main objectives was to prevent the further deforestation of the island. Cultivation of sakau for commercial export—to Guam, Saipan, Hawaii, and Kansas City (where there is a large Pohnpeian diaspora)—had set off an ecological imbalance that had never occurred when crops were grown on a small scale strictly for domestic consumption. Since the mid-1980s, clearing of trees (mostly for sakaucultivation) had reduced the native forests of Pohnpei by more than two-thirds, to only 15 percent of the island’s area.
To combat the devastation, CSP staff initiated the Grow Low Sakau campaign, encouraging farmers to cultivate the lowlands, where the forests had already been degraded. The challenge is that farmers prefer to plant their sakau in the uplands, where the soil is richer and their crops grow larger and faster. But by clearing hundreds of acres of steep forest hillsides, they were causing erosion and landslides that destroyed their own crops. Without the trees at the headwaters of streams and their shade and roots that retain moisture, the streams were drying up—which was having an ill effect on the freshwater ecosystems, including the population of native eels.*
In the CSP offices, with stunning views of the lagoon and outer atolls, Bill called the dozen or so young staff members together.
“This is James,” Bill said, addressing the circle of people around the room. “He’s visiting from the States to learn more about eels in Pohnpei. I think his time here is a good opportunity for us to consider our freshwater ecosystems, which we don’t really know a whole lot about.” Bill continued on, switching from English to Pohnpeian. As he spoke, the staff members nodded, looked at me, and smiled.
“Okay,” Nixon, one of the CSP employees, said at last. “Marciano and I are going to take you to Pwodoi, a village in the municipality of Kitti,” pronounced “Kichy.” “In the creek there is a pool where the local children feed the eels and swim with them.”
The single ring road that follows the coast around the island (completed in 1986) winds through the lush forest with intermittent and shockingly beautiful vistas of the Pacific Ocean. Because it is the main avenue for foot and car traffic and because of the road’s poor condition, it can take a good long time to get from Kolonia to anywhere else. But no one seems to be in much of a hurry.
A few miles east from town, Nixon pulled off the road and we walked down a path through the trees. In the distance I could hear a kind of percussive music, a two-tone pank penk pank penk. Eventually we came to a clearing. A rooster and some hens picked in the soil around the smoking embers of a fire. A blackened kettle boiled, steam coming out of the spout. Beneath a thatched roof held up by the hard trunks of tree ferns, two men sat at a large flat slab of lava rock. Shirtless, baring their strong deep-brown torsos, they worked rounded stones over the slab, producing the hollow and metallic sound I’d heard from a distance. They were pounding the roots of Piper methysticum, otherwise known as sakau.
The root, a beautiful Medusa-like tangle, was dug from the ground, scrubbed of soil with water and brushes, and cut into pieces (some sakau root clusters weigh as much as five hundred pounds). The pieces were placed on the slab of lava rock, called apeitehl, and mashed with round river stones. Water was added slowly to make a soggy pulp. When the root was sufficiently macerated, it was laid on ribbons of slimy bark, freshly stripped from the trunks of hibiscus bushes. One man gathered and twisted the fibers of the hibiscus, encircling the crushed root, and wrung the bulge like a wet towel, while the other man captured the fluid that streamed out in the half shell of a coconut. As the sakau was squeezed, the slime of the hibiscus bark emulsified the oils in the mashed root (which contain the narcotic agent), suspending them evenly throughout the drink.
The first full cup of sakau was handed to Nixon. He took a drink, then rotated the cup a half turn and handed it to Marciano. Marciano drank and turned the cup again, handing it to me.
“You’re supposed to close your eyes when you drink,” he said, “probably because it doesn’t look very appetizing.”
It slid and slumped down my throat, mucus-like and slimy. The cup was refilled and passed around again. Before we left, Nixon gave the man a few dollars. We got back in the car and headed along the road to Kitti. Nixon drove even more slowly, talking and laughing freely. They seemed to be enjoying their afternoon out of the office.
Sakau originated as a drink when people saw rats become dizzy and sluggish after nibbling on the root. The effects of sakau are often described as calming or numbing. Bill Raynor, who had published several papers about the plant, wrote in the book Dangerous Harvest: Drug Plants and the Transformation of Indigenous Landscapes, “The psychoactive effects of kava [sakau] are, in general, mildly narcotic, soporific, diuretic, and muscle relaxing.” They are not, as members of Captain Cook’s crew described, opium-like or hallucinogenic.
Before hibiscus bark was used to squeeze sakau, young virgin women squeezed it in their long hair. High chiefs would kneel at their feet and drink it as it cascaded down their smooth brown legs. When the Catholic missionaries first came to the nearby island of Kosrae, they forbade the drinking of sakau. It is widely believed that sakau root was smuggled to Pohnpei in a woman’s vagina—enough, at least, to start a new plant.*
I asked Marciano why the drink had survived in Pohnpei. Hadn’t the missionaries tried to forbid it there as well?”Pohnpeians are more stubborn,” he said. But in general, the reason Pohnpei had retained its early traditions better than neighboring islands was because more of its people survived smallpox.
Kosrae’s population was almost wiped out when whalers from New England first brought the deadly disease. With only about two hundred survivors, the Kosraean culture had broken down. But for some reason in Pohnpei about two thousand people survived (around 20 percent of the population), enough to carry on customs and resist the advances of the Spanish missionaries who arrived soon after the devastation.
Marciano said that most Pohnpeians were Catholic but practiced a kind of hybrid spirituality, incorporating native beliefs with Christian ones. Bill Raynor had originally come to Pohnpei as a Jesuit volunteer and soon learned that the indigenous faith had never gone away, just entangled itself about the church like a tenacious vine. He told me later in the trip, “Anyone who’s a straight, Western-style Christian should stay off the island.” Such an integrated culture left room for eels (which could easily be assimilated as the snake figure in the Garden of Eden).
At last we arrived in the municipality of Kitti and the pool of eels at Pwodoi.
Beside the street, above the creek, was a small stand where boys sold betel nut. The oval palm seed, locally known as pwuh, was chewed with lime (usually crushed coral) wrapped in a leaf of a native pepper plant, called kapwohi (Piper betel), and produced a mild stimulant effect (as well as a bright orange-red fluid).*
Nixon and Marciano bought some betel nut, and the young vendors led us down to the creek. We stood at the edge of a large pool where the water passed under the street through a culvert. One boy had a can of mackerel and punctured the top with his knife, allowing fishy juice to leak into the water. A few large shapes began to emerge from under the broad-leafed foliage overhanging the brook, and as they stirred across the light sandy bottom into a ray of sun, I saw for the first time the beautiful golden color and brown mottling of the tropical freshwater eel, Anguilla marmorata.*
One of the boys stepped into the creek and put his hands beneath the belly of a particularly large eel. Even Nixon and Marciano cringed slightly, as the eel was longer than the boy was tall. But the big fish allowed the boy to caress its body, even lift most of its body out of the water. Pohnpeians maintain that only those of the Lasialap clan can safely hold a large eel; anyone else who tried would be bitten. When I first heard this I was skeptical, as I had touched, petted, and even dived with large eels in New Zealand and never once been bitten. What was remarkable was how the boy was able to hold the eel out of water for so long with so little protest from the fish. I tried this later and was un- able to do so. There was something special about the relationship between these people and the eel.*
The following morning Bill arranged for me to meet Adelino Lorens, who besides being the minister of agriculture was a high chief of the Eel Clan (with the customary high title, soulik en dianso) and a deacon in the Catholic Church.
Bill had worked closely with Adelino on the identification and protection of Pohnpei’s indigenous plants and on the Island Food Community Project, which promoted the benefits of eating native fruits and vegetables. Bill and Adelino had identified more than forty native varieties of banana, some of which were endangered, and had posters produced that helped people identify the ones that were the most healthful to eat.
Adelino’s office was in the Ag Station just beyond the Visitors’ Bureau. He greeted me there, a handsome, soft-spoken man in his late fifties with short-cropped white hair and a gracious smile. We sat down in chairs at a long table as a brief torrential rain drummed loudly on the roof.
“I’ve been in touch with Sahngoro, the high chief of U and the Eel Clan,” Adelino said. “But Sahngoro deferred to Resio Moses, the tauk, or third chief, of the Lasialap. Resio is a senator in the Micronesian Congress, a very busy man. He said he won’t be able to meet with you during your stay, but suggested you meet with an elderly woman named Ester Alex.”
There was a long pause. A warm breeze blew through the room where we sat. Steam rose from the wetness on the ground under a suddenly hot sun.
“Is it that they are busy,” I asked Adelino directly, “or do they just not want to meet with me?”
Adelino turned his head to one side, considering my question.
“I think maybe some individuals believe that another person may know the stories better, so they defer to them,” Adelino said gently. “But also, you know, in Pohnpei, people are reluctant to share traditional knowledge. You can pass all that information to any member of your family when you are ready—and you are ready when you are near to dying.”
Adelino told me Pohnpeians believe that if they tell a complete story from beginning to end, they will die. Knowledge is a kind of energy that flows out of the body, and if you share it all, you become weak. That is why people usually share all their knowledge only when they know they are about to die.
“But you should have no trouble getting pieces of the stories about eels,” Adelino said on a more encouraging note. “And then maybe you can put those pieces together.”
I realized my approach had been somewhat presumptuous. Walking into a village and asking someone to share a traditional story was like walking into a workshop and asking a master carpenter to share all his or her trade secrets. But that did not diminish my enthusiasm or intent.
I asked Adelino, in his role as a deacon, how the arrival of Christianity in Pohnpei might have altered or weakened the indigenous faith.
“The church uses a lot of traditional knowledge,” Adelino said. “They have to in order to break through to the people. For example, we use sakau two times a year in the Catholic Church: before Christmas and after Easter. But there is more. The beliefs exist together inside and outside of the Church. The Lasialap, though Christian, still consider the eel to be a human ancestor.”
The last person to practice pure Pohnpeian religion died in the 1950s, but according to Bill and Adelino, the people still make the old religion fit. Plant magic is still practiced. One of the CSP employees, Valentin, is a deacon in the church in Madolenihmw but also an expert in the use of plants, specifically children’s medicine. In the Pohnpeian language every plant has both a common name and another that could be described as its spiritual name. The spiritual name is known to only a few people and gives them influence over the healing powers of that plant.
That afternoon, Serlene, the office manager at the Nature Conservancy, took me in her car to Palikir to see Dr. Rufino Mauricio, the island archeologist and historian. Serlene was lithe and pretty with olive-brown skin like a Gauguin woman. As she drove, she talked about her aunt’s farm and all the animals they had, and the delicious smoked bacon she made from their big, healthy pigs.
“I like the taste of dog most of all,” she said, raising and then lowering her eyebrows in succession—the Pohnpeian manner of indicating the affirmative (as opposed to nodding the head).”More than pigs,” she added gleefully. “They are really good. We raise dogs as pets, but we usually don’t eat our own dogs. We eat our neighbors’ dogs.” She laughed again. “If a dog ever bites someone or hurts someone, we eat it.”
“Would you ever eat eel?” I asked.
“Never!” she said, shocked at the mere suggestion, laughing at me.
Palikir, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, is not a city at all or even a town; it’s a campus of government buildings ringed by cement columns molded and painted to look like the basalt logs of Nan Madol, one of the only outstanding stone ruins in the Pacific.
Mauricio met us in the Department of Archives and History and took us upstairs into a small library, where we sat across a table from him. He was gracious with his time and did not seem hurried.
“The eel came to Pohnpei in the seed of a plant that ended up in the ocean, in the reefs off the island, and it traveled in the water up the river, in through the mountains,” Mauricio began, a bit ambiguously. “As it traveled, it charted the lineages of the Lasialap clan, giving birth to different subclans.”
Mauricio said that it is typical for the history of a clan to be spun around the life history of an animal. He did not want to speculate as to how this fish had come to be important to the people, but somewhere along the way members of this clan became quite close to the freshwater eels. “And I think they actually take care of them,” Mauricio said, “if I’m not mistaken. They consider the eel, you could say, their totem.”
Though Pohnpei had no book with traditional stories about eels, Mauricio assured me that such tales existed. Even for him these stories were difficult to collect—not only because they were closely guarded, but also because they were disappearing. The younger generation was distracted by media other than oral storytelling—television, radio, and the Internet.
“It’s a challenge our office is concerned about,” Mauricio said. “Like the rest of Micronesia now, we on Pohnpei are experiencing rapid change—thought-wise and in attitude.” One bright spot was the advent of CSP and the young Pohnpeian staff who cared about preserving the island’s wilderness as well as the traditional knowledge of native plants and animals.
Mauricio felt that Pohnpeians had always been careful stewards of the land. He believed that one reason they built Nan Madol on the reef and not on the island proper was because the land to them was sacred and not to be disturbed. That was also the reason he gave for the people eating sea fish but not freshwater eels. “I think for the most part in Pohnpei we don’t bother the eels too much,” he said. “We just let them live. They always say, for a stream to flow year-round it must have eels.”
Before Serlene and I left, Mauricio offered another tidbit of an eel tale.
“I know in one of the stories,” he said, “a large eel had a place in a tidal channel, and when villagers went out in their canoes to go fishing, she would appear and ask, ‘How many people are in this canoe? ‘ So they would say how many, and she would ask them to drop one as a kind of fee so they could pass. This kind of story is from Madolenihmw.”
“Do you know any other stories like that?” I asked.
“One other thing that I’ve seen,” Mauricio said. “Sometimes when it rains, the heavy rains, you’ll be walking along the trails and you’ll run into small freshwater eels. So people would believe that maybe these guys fell down from the sky. I think maybe the water level of the river rises up and the eels get stranded. I’ve seen them far from the river, in the roots of trees.
“You know,” he continued, “some years ago there was one young woman, their house was right on a stream. People knew that she had cancer and was dying. People would spread rumors like, ‘In the morning we found a freshwater eel with the girl, dead.’ I don’t know what the point of that is. But every once in a while you have a story like this.”
The next day, I stopped by the offices of the CSP to say hi to Nixon and Marciano. They were out, but a staff member named Leinson introduced himself, and volunteered to take me to see one of the island’s tallest waterfalls, called Sahwartik, on the Lehn Mesi River. Then we could have sakau in his village, Enpein, in Kitti and try to find people willing to tell us eel stories.
“I think it is interesting, what you are trying to do,” he said. “Maybe I can help you.”
Sahwartik Falls was on the west side of the island near Leinson’s village. To get there we had to take a small dirt track that climbed the mountain from the coast and the main ring road. The road got smaller and smaller the higher we went, and the jungle denser. It felt worlds away, even from little Kolonia.
We parked the car and hiked down a steep hill, holding on to branches of trees and vines as we went. The Lehn Mesi River, Leinson said, had been carved out of the ground by the body of a giant eel. We could hear the currents tumbling over stones at the bottom of the valley.
Turning leaves with his feet and exposing rich dark soil, Leinson showed me how, imperceptibly, we were walking in a “farm.” Crops—sakau, yam, and taro—were embedded in small clearings in the forest. What the untrained eye would never recognize as cultivation is what Bill had described to me as agroforestry.
Further up the trail we could hear the crashing sound of Sahwartik Falls, and as we drew closer we could feel the cool mist breaking the humid forest air and then see the tall stream of water falling. Leinson took off his shirt and jumped into the deep pool at the base of the hundred-foot falls. I followed, and after a swim we sat on the rocks near the pool in the cool spray and watched a black tern-like seabird called a noddy circle the pool in broad turns. It felt strange to see an oceangoing bird on a freshwater stream, but the sea, I was reminded, was never far away.
It was getting on toward four o’clock and Leinson was itching to get to the sakau bar. We left the falls and headed back up the trail to the car.
As we walked, Leinson reiterated the importance of sakau in the culture of Pohnpei.
“If there is a tragedy—for instance, you hit someone’s child on the road with your car and kill them—you meet with the family and drink sakau. It is the only way to get forgiveness. If you meet someone you want to marry, you ask the entire family permission over sakau. If you’re sharing an important story, it is done while drinking sakau.”
Along the road back down to the sea we stopped at a sakau bar in Enpein. Being from that village, Leinson knew all the men and women gathered under the shelter of a thatched roof near the peitehl. He introduced me to the village chief, Herbert Mikel, a former Micronesian senator. Leinson told Mikel why I’d come to Pohnpei and that I’d come from the States. Mikel asked where; I said Connecticut. Mikel nodded. He rubbed his chin, taking it all in. He told Leinson, in Pohnpeian, to tell me that he had a brother who taught at Eastern Connecticut State University. All the women were laughing. Mikel spoke perfect English but wanted Leinson to get used to translating for me—if he was to take me around to meet the old people who would tell us stories about eels, he would have to sharpen his skills. Mikel gave Leinson a tidbit of a story, about the river called Lipwentiak.
“The eel went up the river, and saw a man-eel with a belt full of birds, and she got scared and turned around and carved a circular hole in the river.”
That was it. Everyone was laughing and passing around the coconut shell full of sakau. Two men behind the peitehl were stripping hibiscus bark. Two more men at the peitehl were pounding sakau. Mikel offered me a drink. The sakau in Enpein was extra gelatinous, Leinson explained, because they used more hibiscus bark to render the drink. People seemed to be getting pretty stoned, the women and the men laughing, laughing. I had drunk only enough to get a mild effect. I had not yet drunk the amount required to make my forehead and spine go numb, as was described in the literature.
Some corner of my mind heard a parrot cackling. When I turned around there was a beautiful young girl standing there, a deep mauve bird with a bright yellow beak perched on her hand. It spoke in her ear. If you were an avid birder and were dropped unaware into this scene, you would know this was the island of Pohnpei, because the Pohnpei lorikeet lives here and nowhere else. There was something magical in that, something so specific to place, very much like the stories we would hear in the coming days.
Eventually Leinson and I said goodbye to the chief. I had promised Bill that I would join him for dinner and sakau that evening in Kolonia. Sunday, in the early afternoon, I would meet Leinson back in Enpein.
“I will ask some people about stories,” he said.
“How will I find you?” I asked, as he didn’t have a computer or cell phone, or even a land line. He waved his hands in the air. “It’s a small village. Everyone knows everyone. Just drive up and ask for Leinson Neth.”
He walked into the forest, and I drove back to Kolonia.
I was late getting back into town. I stopped to get Bill at the Nature Conservancy offices. He said that if we were going to the sakau bar we wouldn’t have time to sit down for dinner, so we picked up some fried chicken on the way. There was some urgency getting to the sakau bar, he said, because the first squeeze was the most potent. As the evening wore on and the root was repeatedly mashed and squeezed, and water added slowly, the drink became thinner and weaker.
We met up with a friend of Bill’s named Tony, someone from Bill’s former life when he first arrived on the island as a Jesuit volunteer in the 1970s. Even though they lived on the same small island and had once been best friends, they hadn’t seen each other in years. We sat at a long table with other local people, and as the sun went down, cups of sakau were passed and refilled and passed. Stories rolled out, volleyed back and forth from either side of the long table.
Bill had been a wayward youth looking to get as far away from home as possible. From the time he was two years old, he said, he knew he was going to live somewhere else. When Bill first moved to Pohnpei from California and worked as a teacher at a local high school in Madolenihmw, the road around the island had not yet been built. To get from Kolonia to Madolenihmw you had to take a boat. Telephone numbers were only three digits. He drank a lot, slept with a lot of women, and got into trouble with his boss, the late Father Costigan. But as months and then years went by, he fell in love with the people and the place, especially the agricultural way of life. He learned that although the people lived by the sea, they were not seafarers; they ate sea fish, but primarily they were people of the land. A self-identified “aggy” who’d worked back home on artichoke and pumpkin farms, Bill became fascinated with the Pohnpeians’ gift for growing things and their knowledge of native medicinal plants. “Here was this place where the most celebrated person was the one who could grow the biggest yam,” Bill said. “That was for me.”
He got his master’s degree at the University of Hawaii, studying open-pollinated plants native to Pohnpei. In the course of his research he walked a good part of the island, from the lowlands to the cloud forest at over two thousand feet. He slept under the trees, contracted rare diseases (including elephantiasis), went to every funeral, counted every yam, measured every tree, and identified every plant. He learned the language, married a local girl (the daughter of a high-ranking chief), and never went back to California except to visit his parents or for the Nature Conservancy.
“He’s the guy on the island who knows the names of all the breadfruit and banana varieties, the endemic palms and cinnamons,” Tony said of his friend Bill.
“That’s how I got my title, sou madau,” Bill said proudly, “master of thinking and planning. By growing a big yam.”
Tony passed around a bottle of cheap whiskey to double the effect of the sakau. As the coconut shell was passed, the discourse flowed like a river—sometimes trapped in a tangled eddy, sometimes ripping in flood, but never returning to where it had been.
“The virtue of the coconut shell as a cup for sakau,” Bill said, touching its rounded underside, “is that you can’t put it down until it’s all been drunk.”
My mind turned inward and I could no longer talk. I thought about the whalers, missionaries, pirates, and tattooed Irishmen who had come here to this island—the Spanish, the Germans, the Japanese. Some thousand years before, the Pohnpeians had constructed the mysterious stone palace of Nan Madol. Those people (their genes at least) were still here, shedding waves of settlement like dead skin.
I was a little slow the next morning, everything still moving at quarter speed. I sat on the balcony outside my room, took a deep breath of the salty humid air, and sketched a few items I had collected—a seed of the oah palm, the leaf of Barringtonia asiatica, a native banana with a rusty orange peel called karat. I ate a greasy Pohnpeian donut and drank a few cups of coffee. I was still feeling languid. I had forgotten home. I myself felt endemic.
Bill was in pretty bad shape from the drinking the night before. He had to interview a few people for a job opening and was not looking forward to it. He said he had some good news on the eel front, though. Adelino was going to take me back to his village, Awak, that afternoon, and his son Allen would accompany me to see Ester Alex, the elderly woman who’d been mentioned to me as having an eel story. I had yet to hear a story that was more than a fragment.
I had finally come to terms with the fact that daytime was dead for storytelling in Pohnpei. So I loitered near the markets by the water, watching the fish come in—yellowfin tuna, in whose bulbous bodies and globe-like eyes you could read the sea. The fishmongers were cleaning the tuna and throwing bits of fish heads and guts into a drain in the sidewalk. As I walked by I heard a mysterious splashing and slashing. I could not help but look down into the darkness below the steel grate. There were eels, big ones, in a small bit of moving water in the street gutter.
I continued up and down the streets of Kolonia, admiring handicrafts and other curiosities, and before I knew it, it was time to go see Adelino at the Ag Station.
We drove, with one of Adelino’s employees at the wheel, the twenty minutes from Kolonia to Awak. The way around the east side of the island was more exposed to the sea than the drive around the west side to Kitti.
Awak was a sea-blown village, with broad views of mangrove islets. We pulled into the sandy lot of a weathered blue and white Spanish-style church—the church of which Adelino was deacon. I insisted that the driver take some money for gasoline, which was quite dear on the island. Adelino acknowledged my offering as very generous.
A beautiful creek tumbled down the mountain behind the church, breaking into two branches that flowed around it, embracing it on its own little island. We stood on a bridge on one side of the church looking into the currents. Adelino pointed to some cement pilings on the bank and a monster eel lying straight and still between them.
“When I was a child,” Adelino said, “the old church was here, on these pilings. During services, we could hear the sound of the river under the wooden floorboards. The eels were never far away.”
The existing church, surrounded by tall palm trees, gleamed white against a menacing purple-black storm cloud. The ocean behind us was blue and choppy.
Leaving my bags in the church parking lot, I followed Adelino to the home of an old man who lived beside the river. His name was Manuel Amor. The man pointed out that the river here, the Kepin Awak, was tidal, and that the big eels could come and go as they pleased. He said when the eels got really big they went to the ocean and never came back—he believed that they were eaten by big sharks. He had a bowl of dishwater with a bit of fish meat suspended in it, and as he poured it into the river, big eels with wide heads, long nostrils, and strong, muscular bodies appeared from the sides and bottom of the pool. Some village children materialized from behind the house and stood at the edge of the pool. I had an underwater housing for my camera, and held it just under the water where the eels gathered, to take a few pictures. The eels were curious and nosed the camera housing and my hands. I thought it would be really embarrassing, not to mention painful, if one of the eels grabbed hold of my hand, so I pulled the camera out and stepped back from the pool.
Adelino next took me to his home. He said he was very busy preparing for services on Sunday, and in addition, the next day he was entertaining a visiting archbishop. But he was gracious nonetheless. We sat down on the front steps of his home, half hidden in the jungle. He said that his son Allen would be arriving soon and could walk me from the church down the road to visit Ester Alex.
Adelino leaned forward and asked me how I had come to find out about Pohnpei and the Lasialap people. I told him I’d been in coastal Maine doing research on the glass eel fishery when I met a Taiwanese eel dealer named Jonathan Yang. Yang first told me about the island, and shared a story about his friend Mr. Chen, who had died mysteriously after trying to export big eels.
Adelino nodded, as if the story meant something to him.
At that point Adelino’s son Allen arrived, a handsome, wiry young man. Adelino excused himself and Allen and I began our walk along the road to the home of Ester Alex.
In the waning sunlight sea birds called vigorously from the jungle on the west side and the deep mangrove thickets on the eastern, ocean side of the street. The homes of the people, nestled in the jungle, looked ragtag and simple. Most Pohnpeian homes are open on the sides, with a wall that may go as high as the knee—the people sleep in the open, surrounded by nature. Within, the homes are clean, pots stacked neatly, cement or dirt floor swept. I walked with Allen for about a mile, and by the time we got to the home of Ester Alex, it was nearly dark.
Her house was very small, with a corrugated metal roof held up by tree fern posts on a poured concrete floor. Erlinso, Ester’s son, put out a seat for his elderly mother on their front porch, then sat next to her, translating as she spoke. I was excited to be hearing my first eel story from a Lasialap. The soft chortling sounds of caged lorikeets, the voices of children, and the night sounds gave texture to the air. Erlinso, a schoolteacher in Awak who taught English, spoke softly and slowly, with many pauses. The pauses were partly to let his mother complete her sentences, but also, it seemed, to let the breeze and the night sounds flow freely in between the phrases.
“You know, there was a story about eel.” Erlinso pronounced eel with an h, “heel.” “A long, long time ago, there was a couple in Kitti. One day the wife went out fishing with a fishing net. So when she dipped the net in the water and lifted it up, there was a small rock, or stone, in the net. She took the rock and threw it away, and she moved away from it, maybe ten or twelve feet away. And then she put the net in again. When she lifted it up, the same stone was in there! And then she picked up the stone again, and threw it away, and she moved to another place. And the third time she put the net in the water she lifted up the same rock.” His voice expressed the amazement and exasperation the fisherwoman must have felt when she pulled up the rock a third time. “And then she put the rock in her basket and went home. When she got to her house she showed the stone to her husband. And the husband advised her to put the stone in a small well—they used to drink from that well. And then one day, they found that the stone had cracked open, and a small fish came out—an eel.
“They used to feed the fish in the well,” Erlinso continued, “and when it got bigger, they decided to kill that eel. And so, unfortunately, the fish heard about their plan. They planned to kill the eel, but the eel heard them … she was a ghost. So she moved from there, from the well, into the forest and finally landed in Madolenihmw, and she gave birth to a woman, and that woman was Lasialap. And so we are descended from that woman. Our clan is known as Lasialap.” He paused, and it seemed as though the story was over. Then his mother spoke again.
“And then the eel went out to Kosrae,” he said, translating. “Have you been in Kosrae? The eel left Pohnpei and then went to Kosrae, and then, in Kosrae, the eel gave birth to another woman. That woman came back to Pohnpei. The nahnmwarki of U, the uncle of Adelino Lorens, he is descended from that woman that came from Kosrae. Then, after that, the eel moved from Kosrae to Pingelap and then from Pingelap to Yap, and then from Yap she came back to Pohnpei and died in Nett.* There is a mountain in Nett. If you look at that mountain, it looks like an eel.
“So, we the Lasialap, we really, you know, respect that eel. But you know one bad thing—some people, from Kosrae, they came out here and killed some eel to eat. If we didn’t make a rule, then very soon the freshwater eel will disappear and all the waters will dry up.” Ester stopped speaking and stared at the floor, her sunken mouth closed.
“So, the freshwater eel is a human,” Erlinso continued on his own. He wiped his face with a rag and lifted his eyes to look at me. “You know, they used to whistle just like you.”*
“The eels whistled?” I asked, wanting to make sure I’d heard correctly.
“Yes. The people, they get mixed up, they thought people were doing that, but it was the eel. You know, when the nahnmwarki of U dies you will see the freshwater eel walking on the road. Just the day before the nahnmwarki dies, usually we see the eels dancing on the road, and that’s a sign that something will happen, especially to high-ranking people. We the Lasialap, we don’t play with the eel. We really honor that fish. When the sun is too hot and the small wells are drying up, sometimes we take the eels and bring them to the ocean so they don’t die.
“Well,” Erlinso said suddenly, putting his hands on his knees and motioning for us to get up. “Thank you for coming.” He shook my hand.
Allen and I walked back to the church and his father’s home on the dark road. Everyone in the village, it seemed, was out walking on the road: boys and girls, young men and old women, dogs and chickens. The street is a village, a social landscape.
On the way back, Allen spoke openly with me. He told me that his grandfather had been the nahnmwarki of U, and when he died, they went up into the mountains and dug a big sakau plant for the ceremony. “I was just a boy,” Allen said, “but I was old enough to go with them. When they brought the sakau back to the village, here to Awak, they prepared to chop the big root in half. As the man raised his machete to strike the root, an eel appeared. I saw it, standing up on the tip of its tail, in the middle of the stump. The people carried it down to the river and let it go.”
Adelino had told me that he was spending the evening with his family at a retreat by the ocean. He said they got together a few times a year, ate, drank sakau, and camped by the ocean, but he did not ask me if I wanted to come. As Allen and I continued on the road to the church, I was wondering when he was going to say goodbye. But we continued talking and had gone beyond their home, and soon turned onto a sinuous path made of piled coral that wound through the flooded mangroves. I was surprised when Allen mentioned that we were going to meet up with his family, and I wondered when his father had had a change of heart and decided to have me there.
The mangroves were dense and it would have been hard to see the path were it not made of bleached white coral. There are no sand beaches on the island of Pohnpei (part of the reason it has never become a tourist destination), just on the outer atolls; the edges of the island are mostly mangrove forests that flood at high tide, so if you want to be near the ocean, you generally have to build a platform of coral or stone.
We came to the other side of the mangrove thicket and the campsite where Allen’s family was spending the night. A ceremonial open-air structure called a nahs was perched near the water, and Adelino and his extended family were seated under its roof around a peitehl, pounding and drinking sakau. Adelino welcomed me and introduced me to what he described as his entire extended family. He asked me to sit next to him. All the men were shirtless, and I followed suit. The two young men at the peitehl were preparing the hibiscus bark to squeeze the sakau. One laid out the long strips of hibiscus bark, folded at one end. He evened out the fibers of the slimy bark on the lava stone and loaded it with a mound of crushed root, then held the bark at both ends and twisted, squeezing the root wrapped inside. At the end of the squeeze the man was straining his muscles as the other held out the coconut shell to capture the fluid. The coconut shell was passed to Adelino, and Adelino passed it to me. He said, “This is the fourth cup. We are honored to have you here. Please drink.”
Beneath the nahs was spread a feast, but it was all covered and it didn’t appear that anyone was eating yet. The cup was filled and passed and filled and passed. As we drank more, conversation slowed. I wondered what had encouraged Adelino to ultimately invite me to this gathering. It could have been that he finally understood my passion for the eel—or it could have been that he wanted to somehow repay me for giving his driver $20 for gas.
“We knew this man from Kosrae,” Adelino told me, “who came to Pohnpei and married a Lasialap. One day, when his wife was away, he could not resist—he killed a big eel and ate it. The next day he felt sick, and a month later he died.”
Adelino did not speak further, just stared. The night was silent now. People had drunk enough that they stopped talking.
Later in the trip I heard the same story about the Kosraean who ate the eel, but from a different source, a woman named Shelly who was born on the Pohnpeian atoll of Mwoakilloa. She said that her husband’s auntie had married a Kosraean. He lived in U because his wife was Lasialap. He saw the eels in the stream near their home and always talked about eating them.
“His wife wouldn’t let him,” Shelly said. “She was really against it, she didn’t want him to eat them. But one day he went behind her back and caught one eel and cooked it and ate it, but didn’t tell his wife. A few days later, he started to get sick, and ended up in the hospital. His sickness only got worse, so they took him home to Kosrae, where he died. They said he had spots on his skin like a rash that resembled eel skin.”
Serlene, at the Nature Conservancy offices, followed Shelly’s story with her own. One day when her husband was a kid he was out in a stream and decided he’d try to kill eels for fun. He speared one, then another, and he was about to spear a third when he fainted. They took him to the hospital, where he was very sick for days. They said his vomit smelled like eel.
I did not want to overstay at Adelino’s family gathering. I got up and took a walk by a kind of man-made enclosure, a pen of water circled with coral. There were a few big sea turtles in the water, and children ran around the periphery, chasing the turtles, which swam gracefully in the moonlight.
Bill had spent the morning readying soil for planting and was covered in dirt and sweat. He’d inserted plant cuttings at intervals in the dark mounds of soil. The cuttings were wilted, and I wondered out loud how they would recover.
“We don’t water anything,” Bill explained, grabbing a hoe from the soil and leaning it against a tree. “Any time of year, it is sure to rain soon.” Rain it did, and Bill’s cuttings rose from limpness toward the sky.
The night before I had walked to the Village Hotel in Awak, clambered to my room—a freestanding hut in the jungle—in the dark, and woke to one of the most beautiful ocean views I had ever beheld. From the ridge was a stunning view of Sokehs Rock, far in the distance, and in the foreground, in the tops of the palm trees, cardinal honeyeaters flittered in and out of the fronds.
Bill’s house was in the municipality of Madolenihmw, at the opposite end of the island from Kolonia. He had invited me to stay the night, go to church with his family the next morning, and then visit Nan Madol.
We walked down a steep path below Bill’s house. It was jungle, but not dense, with taro, tomatoes, sakau, eggplant, yams, different varieties of banana, breadfruit, and avocado. We stayed out for part of the day through several heavy showers. As the sun was setting and a delicious sea breeze started to blow, Bill walked me back to his house.
Bill and his wife, Beli, lived in an open communal-style home of cement blocks covered in plaster and painted salmon pink. Beli is a dressmaker, employing two seamstresses. She is a direct descendant of the nahnmwarki of the Breadfruit Clan. Besides the house they also have a large open nahs for big family gatherings.
In the home and the nahs, children, men, and women had gathered just before dark. They ate blue parrotfish, taro, chicken, and rice out of bowls with their hands, and staked out territory for sleeping.
“If you’re not a social person,” Bill said, “you won’t survive in Pohnpei.”
A few young men appeared with a sakau root and began washing, cutting, and pounding it on the peitehl. Simultaneously, children and adults began watching a Japanese horror movie on a television hooked up to some remote power source. You could not escape sakau if you wanted to.
The next morning we walked to the church, across the street from the school, now closed, where Bill had had his first job on the island. Like the church in Awak, this was on the ocean, and the doors and windows were wide open, allowing the fresh morning breeze to flow through. I recognized the man leading the service in front of a large congregation of adults and children in colorful blues and greens: Valentin, an employee of CSP whom Bill had said was knowledgeable about plant magic. Bill had explained that there were three main divisions of social structure, church, government, and the traditional system, and “if you are high-titled in all three, you’ve got it made.” Valentin was one such man.
After the service we headed for Nan Madol, the stone ruins sometimes called the Venice of the Pacific (because canals of sea water once coursed between the buildings). There was no sign indicating the turnoff from the main road. Bill drove down a weedy track to a small kind of house that belonged to the family who claimed to own the land and the reef beneath the ruins. A man collected a few dollars as an entrance fee, and Bill asked him in Pohnpeian about eels.
“That guy,” Bill said, “he says he has a story of a big eel that lives in the mangroves. But that’s all he will say.”
Nan Madol was the political and religious seat of Pohnpei under the Saudeleur Dynasty (ruled by one man, the Saudeleur) until at least the sixteenth century. Covering 150 acres, Nan Madol consists of ninety-three man-made coral islets. The area was occupied as early as 200 B.C. but the structures of giant basalt crystals that make it one of the most magnificent architectural feats in Oceania were probably not built until the twelfth century.
It is said that priests fed dogs and turtles to a giant moray eel that lived in the coral footings. The eel, named Nan Samwol, was considered a guardian spirit of Nan Madol.*
“At a time determined by divination and the change in agricultural seasons, the priests performed an extended ceremony of homage, supplication, and atonement called Pwung en Sapw. The ceremony culminated in the offering of a turtle as tribute to Nahn Samwohl, the great saltwater eel that dwelled in a shallow pool on the islet of Idehd in Nan Madol. Nahn Samwohl’s acceptance of the offering indicated that Nahnisohnsapw [the principal god of the saudeleur] was pleased with the conduct of human affairs on Pohnpei.” So writes David L. Hanlon in Upon a Stone Altar: A History of the Island of Pohnpei to 1890.
It is believed that the pentagonal and hexagonal basalt crystals (some twelve to fifteen feet long) that make up Nan Madol were quarried from lava outcrops at distant parts of the island. A cornerstone on one part of the ruin weighs more than fifty tons, the average being well over ten, so modern people have naturally wondered how the ancients got them there. Some say they moved them on bamboo rafts, but bamboo, according to Bill, is not native to the island. The islanders say that a magician flew the stones across from Sokehs Rock, where much of the basalt was likely quarried. Archeologists have tried to determine what kind of rafts they may have floated the stones on but have come up with no feasible method—certainly none that’s been successfully tested.
“The best explanation I’ve heard,” Bill said, stopping on the path in the mangroves, “is that there was a lot more magic here back then.”
Bill had kept up a running commentary about Nan Madol history as we traipsed along the path through the jungle, but once among the ruins, now overgrown with palm trees, vines, and mangroves, we walked in silence.
It was a warm day, and it was refreshing to wade around the ruins in the shallow lime-colored water. The palace buildings were extraordinary, the texture and patina on the basalt “logs” making them seem almost like a dark steel sculpture. For a while I lost track of Bill, and I was alone among the breadfruit trees and palms and the bright red cardinal honeyeaters.
Just after noon on that clear bright Sunday, I left Bill’s home and drove around the south side of the island to Kitti to meet with Leinson Neth. Among the CSP employees, he was the only one who seemed genuinely keen and determined to help me. I think that was partially due to his own curiosity about eels and their deep and old relationship with his people.
I drove into Enpein as Leinson had instructed and asked a group of boys in the street where I might find him. Within minutes Leinson came walking down the street toward me. He had a plan: we were going to see his uncle.
We drove to the church grounds, where people were getting out of midday services. At the deacon’s house we found Leinson’s uncle, Lorenso Gilmete. He was seated on the ground, in the shade of the front porch, legs folded, picking at calluses on his feet and grumbling in a low, gravelly voice. He appeared to be drunk, periodically licking his lips. This did not look promising.
Leinson, good-natured and kind, motioned for me to sit near his uncle. He mentioned in English and then Pohnpeian why I had come to Pohnpei.
“Hmmm,” his uncle grumbled, then laughed. He said a few more words in Pohnpeian, and laughed again. I got the feeling he was mocking me. He said something to his wife, Leinson’s aunt, standing nearby, and she laughed, too. Leinson kept a stone face. I asked him what his uncle was saying. Leinson was probably too polite to say exactly.
Lorenso motioned for a young boy to bring some food. The boy made a plate for me of boiled yam. It was white and semisweet, mashed with coconut milk. The old man laughed once more and asked me if, in my travels, people had been reluctant to share their stories. I told him yes, that some had. I respected that he might not want to share, though inwardly I would be deeply disappointed.
The old man leaned back against a wooden railing and asked if we could talk about eels the next morning. Leinson looked at me and shrugged. I put on my most disheartened look. Leinson threw a pebble into the dirt. The uncle changed his tone.
“Do you like music?” he asked me in English.
“Yes,” I said. I thought he was going to play his radio, but instead he started rocking forward and back on his haunches and broke out in song. In a lilting cadence, an earthy bass, he sang in Pohnpeian for about a minute and then stopped.
When his uncle had finished singing, Leinson smiled. He said the song was about kemisik, the eel. “It is a reminder of how eels first came to Pohnpei,” he said.
The song was the prelude to a story; the song and the story fit together like a puzzle, one part being insufficient without the other. “The song refers to what is to come,” Leinson said, adding that it was very hard for him to understand some words because the song was in local dialect.
Leinson’s uncle followed the song with a few words to his nephew.
“He wants us to give him a ride to the sakau bar,” Leinson said. “And then we will take him to his house.”
“Did he say if he was willing to share a story?”
“No, but I think we should do as he says.”
We drove Leinson’s uncle and aunt to the sakau bar. He said to come back in a few hours, right before dark. While he was drinking, Leinson and I would go up a small road into the forest to visit an old woman who, he’d heard, lived by a stream with a monster eel.
We left the car on the roadside and walked through the jungle up a narrow path that skirted a small stream. The pools in the stream were dark and shaded, the water cool and crystal clear. After about ten minutes we came to a clearing and a small thatched-roof home. An old woman, thin and frail, stepped out of the home to greet Leinson and me. She’d been expecting us.
She was very hospitable, offering us a seat and signaling to her granddaughter to make us tea. She herself sat on the ground, and so Leinson and I did, too. She told us that there was an eel in the small creek near her house that had become too big, and she feared that it might hurt her granddaughter. Her granddaughter, a young and beautiful girl, washed their clothes in the pool where it lived. The old woman said that eels were people.
“You see me, you see the eel,” she said. “They are the same thing.”
She told us that she had recently thought about trying to move the eel or even kill it. Her parents knew magic to move such an eel, but she didn’t have the full knowledge—her parents, she said, had hidden part of the knowledge from her. She really loved the eel, but she was scared because she didn’t have a full understanding of how to treat this creature, and feared one day she’d offend it and something bad would happen.
“My parents, they used to be able to talk to the eels,” she said. “My mother could tell it to go away.”
Leinson suggested that we go to the pool where they did their wash, to see the eel she was talking about.
When we got to the edge of the deep, narrow pool in the jungle, Leinson knelt on the bank and opened the top of a small can of mackerel, drizzling fish juice in the water. It was not long before a huge eel came out from under the roots of a tree. I had never felt very afraid of an eel before, but this one seemed erratic and unpredictable in its behavior. It took the food near the bank slowly and cautiously, then jerked its body backward into the dark depths. Another eel, about a third the size of the one we’d been watching, came up behind the big eel, vying for a flake of the white-fleshed mackerel. The giant eel turned suddenly and grabbed on to the smaller eel’s side, twisting around, wrestling it, their bodies intertwining and frothing the water in the pool. Leinson stepped back and so did I.
“He’s saying, ‘This is my house,’ ” he said.
Once the eel had chased the smaller eel downstream to the tail of the pool and through the riffle into to the next pool, it returned to the bank, staring up at us expectantly like a dog, even pushing its nose up above the water’s surface, showing its small eyes and horn-like nostrils. Though I had swum with big eels, I would not have gone into the pool with that eel; it was too strange.
Leinson and I walked back to the clearing to say goodbye to the old woman. We sat down with her momentarily. You could tell the eel made her nervous, like having an unpredictable neighbor.
She told us that many years ago her sister had an eel they were feeding and it got too big, so they decided to kill it. She thought the eel was becoming too dangerous for her children, and she was carrying another child. Her older brother came to kill it, and the eel chased him up the river. For days, no matter what pool of the stream he went to, even high up in the mountains, the eel was there. One day, he killed the eel. Soon after, her sister gave birth to a baby with closed eyes. When they brought the baby to the man in the village who had the knowledge of plant magic, he said it was because they’d killed the eel. Somehow he was able to open the eyes of the child. Leinson had heard that story before. The child in the story was the father of a CSP employee, Primo Abraham.
It was coming on evening when we began walking back to the car. The air had a peculiar stillness, a suspended weight, as we drove to the sakau bar where we’d left Leinson’s uncle, Lorenso. He was sitting at a table with some other people, laughing and generally engaged with the group. When he saw us he asked if we could buy him a six-pack of beer and a few glass bottles full of sakau for the road. I did so.
Lorenso and his wife got up and came with us, and we rode in silence to their home. The old man instructed me to drive downhill from his home to the nahs. Like most nahs I had seen, it was a metal-roofed meeting area with tree fern columns and a U-shaped platform of cement, outfitted with a peitehl in the middle for pounding sakau. We parked the car and walked into the shelter of the structure. Lorenso made himself comfortable on the platform, seated as if on the stage of a theater, and set his six-pack of beer and bottles of sakau beside him. By this time it was dark, and Leinson turned on some lights around the nahs,one hanging precariously like a spotlight over his uncle. The jungle sounds grew louder and louder, as if someone was steadily raising the volume.
Lorenso asked Leinson to pass him a plastic cup, and poured some sakau for himself. The old man then told me to turn on my digital recorder, that he was about to begin his story.
He began, his eyes closed, with a chant. He sang the entire song that he had sung before, the song that preceded the story and was woven into it.
As Lorenso Gilmete told his story, I had no way of knowing what was being said because he spoke it in Pohnpeian. When I looked at Leinson, though, I could discern from his facial expressions that he was engaged with the story and found it meaningful. There were all kinds of sounds coming from the dark forest that surrounded the nahs—frogs, birds, insects. And then toads started to assemble, almost magically, from underneath the platform where Lorenso sat—first one, then more, until there were about two dozen. They were probably attracted to the insects that were drawn to the lights, but it looked as though they’d come to listen to him. This was the theater where stories were told. This was the place where the story lived.
I realized that a translation, no matter how thorough, could not capture it. Still, if I was going to put it down, I felt better that a relative of the teller would be translating for me. As he did, pieces of the story I’d heard previously, tidbits that people had shared, fell into place.
When, days later, we finished the transcription in my room at Yvonne’s, Leinson thanked me for coming to Pohnpei to carry out this investigation, for otherwise he would never have heard his uncle’s story. I uploaded the digital sound files onto Leinson’s computer.
“I will share this with my son,” he said, “and he will share it with his children.”
As with many indigenous stories, this one is incomplete without a familiarity with the landscape and the creatures that inhabit it. Certain geological features mentioned, such as a large stone ledge at the top of the mountain, can still be seen today, although components of the story are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Such stories have practical reasons for existing, acting as maps, with landmarks that punctuate a journey—much like Aboriginal songlines in Australia—or as aids to teach practical knowledge, like the best time of year to fish off a certain reef.
Though the recording of an indigenous story could be considered a failure, I feel that it is valuable to have these tales, if for no other reason than that they are rapidly becoming extinct. With that in mind, here is an approximation, a fragment, a fiction.
Once upon a time on the island of Yap there was a married couple with a daughter, and they had a large kemisik [eel] living in the stream near their home. And one day, because the eel was getting big, the couple decided to kill the kemisik. But the kemisik overheard them, and told the girl that if her parents were to kill him and eat him, she should take his head and put it above the front door of their house, so the head was facing out, and then, after a time, to bury it in the ground.
So when the girl’s parents killed the eel, she put his head over the door, then a few days later she took it down and buried it, and from the head grew three things—mein-iwe, the breadfruit tree, and two varieties of banana, uht mwot and uht en yap.*
On the distant island of Pohnpei, on top of a mountain, two birds [native Micronesian starlings] were perched on a ledge overlooking the ocean. The two starlings were titled Mwahnlaipeip, a male bird, and Peinlaipeip, a female bird. [The fact that the birds had titles meant that at one point they were human.] From their high place in the mountains they could see something shimmering in the sea. So the male starling, Mwahnlaipeip, decided to fly out and see what it was.
Mwahnlaipeip flew, flew, flew—but it was too far, he could not make it, and he returned to Pohnpei. So the female bird decided to try. She flew out, and flew and flew and flew, and eventually she saw land. And when she was close enough, she saw the object that had been shimmering, the fruit of the banana. [The island she had flown to was Yap, the place where our story began with the girl and the eel.]
Peinlaipeip started eating the fruit of the banana, and while she was eating she swallowed a nut that was inside the banana. [This banana was uht en yap, or the Yap banana, which had grown from the head of the eel.] After she ate her fill, she flew back to Pohnpei. Just before she made it to land, she pooped the nut she had swallowed onto the reef known as Rohn Kitti [part of the municipality of Kitti].
Meanwhile, two young women from a village called Kepine were walking down the hillside to take their boat out fishing on the reef. They stayed out fishing until it was high tide, then started to come in. On the way back, they saw waves crashing against something, and when they went to look, they saw a small stone. One of the ladies picked it up and was going to return it to the water, but the other woman asked if she could keep the stone. [The stone was actually the nut from the banana that the starling had pooped on the reef.] She put the stone in her basket and wrapped it in hibiscus leaves. From then on, this kind of fishing basket was known as kopwou lasi [lasi is the old Pohnpeian word for eel].
When the two women had returned to shore, they began to make their way back up the hill to the village. Partway up the hill they stopped to rest, and opened up the basket to look at the stone. When they unwrapped the hibiscus leaves, they noticed that a crack had developed in the stone. So they named that place Nan Ihr, which means “in the crack.” They wrapped the stone up again, put it back in the basket, and continued walking.
Further up the hill they decided to take another break. At this place, they took the stone out of the basket again and unwrapped it from the hibiscus leaves. To their surprise, the stone had broken apart, and inside they saw what looked like a small worm. They wrapped up the little worm in the hibiscus leaves and continued walking up the steep hill to Kepine.
Eventually the two women reached a river and decided to stop for a drink. While resting by the river they opened up the basket again and unwrapped the hibiscus leaves. Immediately they saw that the little creature had grown, and what they had thought was a worm was actually a baby eel. So they took one of the big clams they had caught on the reef, scooped out the meat, and put some water from the river inside the shell for the eel. If you go to that stream now today, you can see a small pool below the bridge called Douen Lasi, or “place for the eel,” referring to the location of this event in the story. Today people call this place Pohn Kati.
From there, the women continued their climb, and finally made it to Kepine. Back home, the woman who had been carrying the eel in her basket took the eel to a small stream beside her and her husband’s home and let it go in the water. She took care of the eel and fed it. The eel grew. After many years, the eel had grown very big and they became afraid of it.
One night, lying in bed with her husband, the woman said, “Tomorrow we should kill the eel and cook it.”
They planned to start chopping firewood early the next morning to cook the eel.
But the couple didn’t know that while they were talking in bed, the kemisik was listening to them. By that time, the eel had grown so big it had outgrown the main channel of the stream and made itself a hole under the riverbank beneath their house. There it lived, and from there it could hear everything they were saying, including their plan to kill it. The couple went to sleep.
In Pohnpei, they say, by the third crow of the rooster, the sun has risen, and it is time to get up. But this morning, when the couple woke at the third crow of the rooster, oddly, it was still dark. The husband got out of bed to look outside and see why the rooster was crowing in the dark. But when he tried to go through the doorway, he bumped into something wet and slimy. It was dark because the tail of the giant eel was blocking the door. As the husband looked around, he realized what was happening, and saw that the body of the eel was draped over the rafters above them, and its head was looking down on their bed at his wife.
The husband and wife ran right through the thatched palm walls of their house and up into the forest. They ran and ran and ran up into the mountain without looking back, and hid under a large overhanging rock ledge. But the eel chased them up the mountain, and as the couple hid under the ledge the kemisik was on top of the rock, easing her head over the rim. The man and his wife didn’t see the eel and stayed for a while, until it started to rain. But what they thought was rain was actually the saliva of the kemisik dripping down over the ledge. They’d backed in as far as they could go and noticed the rain was slimy. “What kind of rain is this?” they said. Then they saw the head of the kemisik, and when they tried to run the kemisik ate them.
The eel had eaten the woman and her husband, but she had eaten too much too quickly and couldn’t move, so she lay on top of that rock, not feeling very well. While the kemisik rested on the rock, at that moment Kroumeir, a spirit who can take the form of a human or an eel, happened by. Kroumeir was like a god and a high chief, and he was being carried by his people in a cart on their way to a feast at Nan Madol palace, guests of the ruler of Pohnpei, the saudeleur. In addition to carrying him, Kroumeir’s people were bringing food and gifts for the ruler.
Kroumeir was fond of the big eel and asked her if she’d come with them to the feast. She told him to keep going, that she wasn’t feeling well. But Kroumeir didn’t want to leave, so he told his people to go ahead, that he had another engagement, and to come back for him later.
When the people came back to get Kroumeir after delivering the gifts to the saudeleur, Kroumeir told the big kemisik that he wanted her to come back with him to his village, and asked her to get in the cart so that she could be carried there. Kroumeir’s people protested.
“Why do we have to carry this ugly, slimy thing, this disgusting animal?” they said angrily. They were afraid of the eel. The word for eel, kemisik, comes from the old word for fear, kamasak. The people didn’t know that Kroumeir himself could become an eel.
Kroumeir placed a lei, a ring of flowers, on the eel’s head, but her head was flat and he had trouble getting it to stay. Finally he managed to get it to sit on top. That’s why the Lasialap people, the Eel Clan, can wear a lei on their forehead and it stays, while most people wear it on the top of the head. The people continued on, carrying the eel (reluctantly) and Kroumeir. Kroumeir was thinking that the eel would be his wife.
When they all returned to the village the people produced a big feast for Kroumeir. During the preparation for the feast and the feast itself, the people complained that Kroumeir had invited this disgusting animal. The eel overheard the people talking about her and told Kroumeir that she felt bad.
“I’m going away for a while,” she said, and left the village.
She swam up the Nanpil River, over the mountain, and down the Rohn Kitti River to the other side of the island. The headwaters of these two rivers of Pohnpei are very close, and it is possible even today that an eel could swim up and over the mountain from one side of the island to another. The eel continued out the Rohn Kitti to the ocean, where she saw some people fishing on the reef.
It was in March, during the season when many fishes were congregating off the reefs to spawn. Two boys were fishing at the edge of a big school of snappers. The eel asked the boys if she could fish with them. So they let her fish.
The big eel opened up her mouth, sucking in one school of fish, swallowing it whole. Then she swallowed a big wave that was crashing on the reef to wash the fish down. The eel then opened her mouth again and swallowed a second school of fish, and then another wave. Then she swallowed a third school of fish, and another wave—then a fourth school of fish, but not a fourth wave. She swallowed four schools of fish in all, and three waves, and thanked the two boys and left the reef.
She swam back to land and up the Rohn Kitti River. On her way upstream, she ran into an eel god named Kroumand, who was hunting for birds in the jungle in the form of a man. Kroumand had killed so many birds that he had them hanging from his ears and a belt of birds around his waist. The eel got scared of Kroumand and hid from him. Not knowing she was there, Kroumand stepped on her. She was pregnant at that time with Kroumeir’s child, and when Kroumand stepped on her she gave birth to the first Lasialap. The place where she gave birth, they call that place Lipwentiak—lipwen means “print,” and tiak “foot,” so Lipwentiak is the place of the footprint. Further upstream the eel gave birth again, but that baby did not make it. The unborn baby became a tree—lasi o dong. Lasi o dong is a large endemic tree that grows in the mountains and has a fruit called lasi kotopw. [Mauricio, the island historian, had said that Lasi O Dong and Lasi Kotopw were subclans of the Eel Clan.]
The eel continued up over the mountain and down the Nanpil River to the village again. Kroumeir could sense that she was coming and said to his people, “Make a feast! My wife is returning from fishing.” The villagers complained. They were especially annoyed when the eel arrived, because Kroumeir said she had just come from fishing, yet she did not carry anything to contribute to the feast.
The eel asked Kroumeir to tell his people to bring banana leaves and spread them out around the nahs, the traditional meeting place. The people followed Kroumeir’s command and brought bundles of broad and shiny banana leaves. The eel said to bring more. The villagers brought more banana leaves. The eel said to bring more still, and then to bring more again. When they had laid out the fourth area of banana leaves she said, “That’s enough.” That’s why, today, when there is a party at a nahs, before you spread out a feast you start with four banana or palm leaves.
The big eel told everyone to stand back. She started to gag, like she was coughing, and threw up a school of fish all over the banana leaves laid out in the nahs, and then she threw up a wave of water to clean it. Then she threw up a second school of fish and another wave to rinse those fish—then a third school of fish and a third wave. Then the fourth school of fish came but no wave of water followed. That’s because, if you remember, she only swallowed three waves of water. And that is why, to this day, parrotfish (the fourth type of fish) are so slimy behind the gills, because they came from the slimy eel and were not washed off with a wave of water. This is the species of parrotfish that the locals call mahu, which is especially slimy, the very blue one.
Once the eel had delivered her gift, she left the party and swam up the Nanpil River and over the mountain to Lehdau, in Madolenihmw. She stayed in the village of Sapalap for quite a while, living in a tidal channel called Dau Sokele. Every time a canoe went out across the channel, the giant eel asked for one fisherman to be dropped off the boat. And so she ate the fishermen in Sapalap one at a time as they went out of the channel to go fishing on the reef. And very soon those people realized that if this continued, none of them would be left. So they came up with an idea to trick the eel.
They filled a canoe with coconuts, palm fronds, and even big shells that would make noise as the wind blew through them. It was like a party on the boat. And they put a sail on the canoe and pushed it out of Dau Sokele channel toward the island of Kosrae. The canoe sailed outside of Tomwhak pass and beyond the reef to the sea.
When the eel was very close to Pingelap, she realized something was wrong. “Who are these disrespectful people, not dropping off a fisherman for me?” she asked. She continued following the canoe all the way to Kosrae, until finally she overturned the canoe and discovered the trick. “There’s no people in this canoe. It’s full of coconuts!” So she ate all the coconuts and the canoe and turned back to Pohnpei.
Unfortunately for the eel, as she was returning she was attacked by a shark. So when she finally reached Pohnpei and entered the Nett pass, there was only half of her left. She died on a piece of the shoreline. And that whole piece of land that is left over in Nett is her body.
And that is the end of the story. Ahi soai pwoat torohr wei likin imwen. Pass it on—from this house to people outside of your house.
The day before I left Pohnpei, I met with others who told pieces of the story that fit into the one related to me by Lorenso Gilmete. It seemed that unless I was the object of an island-wide ruse, the basic skeleton of the story was consistent.
I met with Paul Gallen, a high-titled Protestant minister and the uncle of the night watchman at Yvonne’s. He had the most detailed version of the part of the story where the villagers trick the eel with a boat full of coconuts.
And then I met with another man near Awak, a high-titled Lasialap named Mikel Marquez. This opportunity came about because his son, Roseo, worked for CSP. In order to sit with Mikel Marquez we had to have a sakau ceremony. Mikel had been in poor health and suffered a series of minor strokes; he said politely that he had once known the story but could not remember it now.
“You should have come two or three years ago,” Roseo said to me openly, in front of his father. Roseo went off to clean the sakau root, and I was left alone with his father.
We were seated in the nahs surrounded by a lush and verdant garden, and Mikel said, “There is an eel in the stream. Do you want to see him?” Mikel got up and walked slowly to a tiny creek that trickled through his garden. Mostly concealed by a massive stone slab was a large eel, but the water was barely deep enough to cover the eel’s body. A boy came down to the creek, seemingly from nowhere. Mikel had a word with him in Pohnpeian, and the boy touched the eel’s head. All of a sudden the eel came out of its hole under the rock slab, completely exposing its body as if it wished to be petted.
The boy slipped his hands under the eel and lifted it up out of the water, with no protest from the fish—it actually appeared the eel liked being held by the boy. Mikel told me that this was the fifth eel that had lived here in his lifetime. “When one gets old it moves away, and a smaller one comes in to take its place,” he said. “One day my grandson was poking the eel with a stick, and the eel chased him all the way back to the nahs, nearly fifty feet. Luckily I was there to see it. I scolded the eel, and it went back to its place.”
When Roseo and his friend Kesdy started pounding the sakau, they invited me to participate. I followed suit and took off my shirt, selecting a rounded stone from a box full of pounding stones near one of the posts of the nahs. It was satisfying to smash the sakau with the stone and create the hollow metallic sound that I’d first heard in the jungle. When we had sufficiently mashed the sakau, two younger men came by to squeeze it and present the drink. They were official sakau servers, designated to prepare the drink for high chiefs.
The first cup was handed to Mikel. The second squeeze went to the person of second-highest rank, his son, Roseo. The third cup was offered to Mikel’s wife, and the fourth cup was handed back to the chief, who passed it to me, which, Roseo explained, “means that he feels you are a person of importance.” Humbled, I drank the slimy liquid.
The sky grew darker and the sakau began to take effect. We stopped speaking, and the big eel in the stream started to splash loudly. No one acknowledged verbally that the eel was splashing in concert with our silence, but everyone seemed to be focusing on the sound of the splashing. Roseo was the first to break the silence. “Up to this day,” he said, “for the Lasialap, the eel is their totem. They protect and worship the eel, they look after the eel.”
We sat silently for some time again, and the eel resumed its splashing in the creek.
“I used to believe I was born from eels,” Mikel said, “but now not as much.”
I asked why.
“I think it’s the religion,” he said, meaning the introduction of Christianity. “Have you ever heard the eels?” I shook my head. “They make a sneeze, or a whistle—a melody just like a bird. I’ve seen, with my own eyes, eels walking on their tails on land. Not too fast, not too slow, just standing on their tails. They climb trees to get birds.” He lifted his hand to demonstrate. “I saw an eel going after a fairy tern in a tree ten feet off the ground. That used to happen, but no more. That eel is no more.”
As the night wore on and we drank more sakau, Mikel asked if maybe I could tell the story of the kemisik as I’d heard it so far on my trip. So I did, with my own little flourishes, as best I could remember.
“On the island of Yap,” I began, “there lived a couple who had a daughter, and in the stream near their home lived an eel. The couple fed the eel and one day it got too big and they decided to kill the eel. The eel overheard the couple and told the girl, ‘When your parents cut off my head, put it over the door to your home facing out, and then bury it in the ground.’ She was fond of the eel, and did so, and from the head of the eel grew breadfruit and two kinds of banana.”
I continued, telling how the starling saw the glimmering light in the sea and flew for it and ate the seed of the banana, and brought the seed back to Pohnpei, which became the eel, and how that eel ate the couple that had raised it, and then met the god Kroumeir and had various children that became the first Lasialap people. And the whole time I was speaking, I saw that Mikel was nodding and smiling. I was surprised how much I remembered.
I paused in the middle and looked at Roseo. “My father is nodding,” Roseo said, “because you are right. You are helping him remember the story.”
Everyone was quiet now from the sakau.
As I went on, Mikel continued his slow nodding. A few times he even stopped to correct me or to help me to pronounce a name. He seemed now to remember quite a bit, as if the story had been blocked and was released by a little priming.
Mikel added one final note. “When the eel was bitten by the shark,” he said, “she was near Pingelap, and the eel took sand from Pingelap to cover her wound. And when the eel, tired and nearly dead, arrived back in Pohnpei, she put the sand from her wound on the ground beneath her body. That’s why the shore there is called Pingelap. The shark’s name was Nahn Sou Set.”
I did not know if it had been intentional, but when I finished the story, I realized that the roles had been reversed—that Mikel had turned me into the storyteller when it was I who had been seeking the stories in the first place.
* The replacement of indigenous foods with those from the West (soda, processed meats, white sugar, white flour, white rice), the poster said, had created a public health disaster on the island: vitamin A deficiencies, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
* As Bill Raynor wrote in a paper in the Journal of Micronesian Studies,” The upland forest serves several important ecological functions. Perhaps most important is that the extensive root system and the litter layer of forest vegetation serve to capture rainfall, retard surface runoff, and improve the infiltration of the water into the soil where it is then filtered and slowly released into the streams and rivers that eventually make their way to the coastal mangroves and the lagoons.”
* Because of this, Marciano said, “the sakau in Pohnpei has an odor, but the sakau in Kosrae does not.”
* Red mouths, spit, and teeth produced by chewing betel nut would be a common sight to anyone traveling in parts of Southeast Asia.
* Anguilla marmorata is native from South Africa through Indonesia and New Guinea all the way to French Polynesia and north to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and southern Japan. It is the most widely distributed freshwater eel species in the world. As with other species of freshwater eels, no one has witnessed the tropical eel spawning in the wild. Any estimates of spawning locations are based on the capture of A. marmorata larvae. There are thought to be at least five different populations of this species, each with its own spawning area-at least one in the Indian Ocean, two in the western North Pacific, and two in the western South Pacific. Recent genetic and morphological data indicate that the Micronesian eels of this species are a separate population, distinct from all others, but its small larvae have yet to be collected.
* Although people of the Lasialap clan were from U, some Lasialap lived outside of that municipality in other parts of the island, such as in Kitti.
* Pingelap is an atoll of Pohnpei.
* In his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, James MacKillop writes, “In the west of Ireland whistling eels were thought to foretell famine. Yet at other times eels might be benevolent, such as those thought to be the guardian spirits of wells and magic springs.”
* Bill suggested to me that as island culture shifted from seafaring to terrestrial life, the freshwater eel took on greater importance than the saltwater variety.
* Leinson said that uht en yap is a beautiful banana introduced from Yap, with a red peel and orange flesh. It is often served mashed with coconut milk and is high in beta-carotene.