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Cannibals to Christians: The Story of the Peace Child (chapter two)

By Don Richardson
Missionary and Author Fattened with Friendship (an excerpt from the book Peace Child)

Parental Warning: This excerpt contains graphic images of real events that may not be suitable for children.

The midmorning sun had drawn beads of sweat from Yae’s forehead by the time he reached the entrance of the Hanai tributary leading into Haenam’s territory. He left the shimmering two-hundred-foot-wide channel of the Kronkel and soon felt his skin cooling in the deep shade of the Hanai River’s narrow jungle-walled course. He stooped to drink while still standing in his canoe, scooping water with his hand. But he did not drink the water from his palm. Rather he tossed each scoop into the air and caught it in midair with his mouth.

Any other way of drinking water from the river was beneath his dignity. It could also be dangerous. Harmful spirits lived in the river, and if one did not drink in the prescribed way, they might invade one’s body through the act of drinking.

Yae straightened up, and his eyes probed the bushes over-hanging the river ahead of him. There it was! The leering skull of a hapless Kayagar killed by Nair, one of the most feared warriors of Haenam.
The skull hung suspended from a branch, its eye-holes filled with bright red seeds embedded in black tree gum, giving it a most menacing appearance. Fluttering feathers hanging from each earhole gave an impression of hair. Nair had hung it there as a warning to enemies of Haenam.

Yae smiled as he recalled how the sight of that skull had made the hair crawl on the back of his neck when he had made his first tense approach to Haenam seven months earlier. Steeling his will, he had forced himself to keep plying his dugout past the skull and eventually had broken out onto the grassy plain where Haenam presently resided. The people had regarded his lone approach calmly, while Kauwan stood at the water’s edge, welcoming him with outstretched arms.

As Yae beached his canoe and stepped ashore, Kauwan had suddenly lifted his bow and a handful of arrows out of a bush. Separating one arrow from the others and waving it in his right hand, he had turned his back toward Yae and faced his own people. With a mighty guttural shout he then leaped straight in the air and began to race back and forth between Yae and his own people.

He shrieked a formidable challenge, punctuating it with fierce grunts of simulated anger. “My friend is welcome! He has come because I myself invited him! Who is there who might want to harm him? He will not be harmed! My hand is strong!”

This was a customary display of force called saravon, a means of reassuring a guest and at the same time giving pause to anyone who might intend hostility. Without this display of saravon, Yae would have felt very uneasy indeed. The men of Haenam had watched calmly from their porches. Most of them were sitting with one leg flat on the floor and one knee upright, each one resting his chin on the upright knee.

After the saravon, Kauwan had embraced Yae warmly. The other men of Haenam then descended one by one from their houses and followed Kauwan’s example in embracing him—except the men of Kangae, who were waiting for reparation before they expressed any good feelings toward the stranger.

Kauwan had led Yae up into the Haenam manhouse, the eighty-foot-long chamber which was the central structure of the village and where women might enter only by invitation. Kauwan had given Yae the place of honor on a new grass mat in the center of the long, rambling structure.

Soon Yae was surrounded by a circle of some twenty of Haenam’s leading warriors, men like Maum, Giriman, Mahaen, Nair, Kani and Warahai, men whose names were feared by Sawi, Kayagar and Asmat alike. They had taken turns plying him with polite questions about his relatives. Behind them sat the younger men listening in respectful silence. Presently freshly toasted sago grubs cooked by the women in the family houses were brought in and served to Yae on a platter rich with intricate ancestral designs. He had waited courteously until his hosts had also been served and then began to eat with them.

Yae had noticed that gradually the conversation had turned to the matter of payment for the still unavenged grievances the Kangae clan held against Mauro. But Yae was ready. He had produced from his sack a number of stone axeheads, large sea shells, and other valuables which people of his village had sent with him to settle their debts with the Kangae clan.

A man named Giriman grinned with pleasure as he had gathered up the treasures and carried them out to the Kangae people, who were still waiting in their homes until payment was made. Meanwhile Kauwan produced the chunk of smoked pig’s liver he had promised to reserve for Yae, and Yae had placed it in his sack to eat later.
Soon Giriman returned with the people of Kangae, who had touched hands with Yae and assured him that they had accepted the payment. They then joined the assembly, listening eagerly to every word.

Next followed a period when the Haenam people had heaped compliments upon Yae, saying they had heard of his prowess in fighting and hunting. After this the conversation turned to the wretchedness of both the Kayagar and the Asmat and the need for common respite by both Haenam and Mauro moving closer together and away from their enemies.

Yae had then risen to his feet and expressed his desire to return to Mauro. As he did so, he had trembled inwardly, knowing that if there was any treachery afoot, this was the moment it might be manifested. But instead they had willingly escorted him to his canoe and shouted the Sawi farewell, “Aminahaiyo!” over and over as he paddled down the Hanai River toward the Kronkel.

Yae still remembered his elation during the homeward journey that day seven months before. He had arrived home at dusk, climbed up on the porch of his treehouse and shouted loudly to all his fellow-villagers in eloquent Sawi idiom:

“Where is the anger Haenam has felt toward us? Today I have broken off all the tongues of anger! Today I have sewn up the trail to Haenam which had fallen into disrepair. I have sprinkled cool water (peace) in the midst of our villages!”

He had then punctuated his speech with the Sawi cry of triumph—”EEEHAAA!” and listened with pleasure to the excited murmur of conversation his speech aroused in all the lofty treehouses around him and in the lower houses below.

That was only the beginning. In the past seven months he had visited Haenam a total of ten times and every time he had been received with the same warm welcome. His confidence had increased with each successive visit until now, as he found himself approaching Haenam for the eleventh time, not a single qualm of unease bothered him.

He now knew most of the men of Haenam by name and felt as sure of their good will as he did of the good will of his own clansmen in Mauro. He was confident that on this very day some of them would accept his invitation to accompany him later as guests to an all-night bisim dance at Mauro. After that, they would begin working out plans for a combined raid against either the Kayagar or the Asmat.

As before, Kauwan greeted Yae at the river’s edge and led him into the manhouse. Others, whose acquaintance he had formed, came in one by one and sat in a circle around him. The conversation waxed pleasant as usual, sprinkled with anecdotes and side-splitting laughter. Food was placed before Yae and he began to eat with his hosts. Then he voiced the invitation he had come to lay before them.

Giriman was the first to respond, “You have now become an old friend of mine. Certainly I will come to the bisim at Mauro!” Mahaen also gave assurance, as did Kauwan.

Soon a total of twelve men had accepted the invitation. Yae was delighted. Then they handed Yae a length of string made of twisted tree fibers and asked him to tie one knot in the string for each day they must count off before coming to the feast.

Yae accepted the string gladly and began to tie the knots. While he was preoccupied at this task, Mahaen looked at Giriman and raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. Giriman saw the signal and passed it on to Maum. Maum passed it on to Kani, and Kani to Yamasi. By that time all of the Haenam men present had noticed the signal. Mahaen slowly moved his right hand under the edge of the grass mat on which he sat and drew forth a long, needle-sharp bone dagger, carved from the thighbone of a giant cassowary bird.

Giriman, Yamasi and Maum stood to their feet very casually and pretended to stretch themselves, while drawing long barbed ironwood spears from the overhead weapon rack. Grinning wickedly at each other, they held the spears poised over Yae while he hunched over the string, tying knots. Others in the assembly likewise armed themselves. Stone axes and spears, bows and arrows appeared as if by magic from under grass mats.
Each man who was armed stood quietly to his feet and moved closer to Yae. The only host who did not arm himself was Kauwan. He simply leaned back against the sago-frond wall, smiling at Yae and maintaining the thread of conversation while Yae tied the knots.

Yae noticed it was gradually getting darker around him, and quieter. His skin began to crawl with an icy chill, but he forced himself to look up optimistically. First he saw the weapons, and then something even more horrifying—the eyes of his hosts. Every eye was riveted upon Yae, bulging with voracious anticipation, straining to observe the expression on Yae’s countenance. Then they saw what they had been waiting for seven months to see—the change of expression on Yae’s face.

Gloatingly their eyes drank in the spectacle of serene confidence being devoured by abject terror, of cherished hope unexpectedly stabbed by black despair. For months to come they would indulge in avid descriptions of every detail they were now observing in this moment of truth. They would strive to outdo each other in depicting how Yae’s eyes became dilated, how his lips trembled, how his entire body broke out with cold sweat. The manhouse would rock with laughter at each oratorical nuance the subject produced.

As Yae sat transfixed, choking with terror, Giriman stepped directly in front of him, spear poised for the strike. Yae saw Giriman’s mouth open and heard the cruel, hissing voice say, “Tuwi asonai makaerin! We have been fattening you with friendship for the slaughter!”

It was an old Sawi expression, terse, deadly, which expressed in three words one of the deepest undercurrents of Sawi culture—the idealization of treachery. It told Yae that the men of Haenam had intended to kill him from the beginning, but being confident he would return again and again, they had decided on a long delayed execution. To have killed Yae in the early stages would have been to settle for a commonplace murder which anyone unskilled in treachery could have accomplished. But to sustain the deception of friendship over a period of months and then consummate it as they were now doing called for that special sophistication in treachery which was the elixir of Sawi legends.

The men of Haenam were fulfilling an ancient ideal. Yae also was aware of the same legends that now motivated the men of Haenam. His mistake lay in thinking those legends had become divorced from real life, in assuming that the political and personal concerns of the present moment were more concrete than historical imperatives.
While the spears still poised over him, Yae’s brain began to grapple with his situation. Why had he ever come to Haenam in the first place? It was because he had trusted in Kauwan. Kauwan? Where was he now? Perhaps there was still hope in Kauwan!

A choked cry escaped Yae’s lips. “Kauwan! Where are you? Protect me, Kauwan!”

Kauwan looked down at him from between two of the armed warriors. He spoke slowly and calmly and sarcastically. “I kept telling them this was bad, that you are my friend and they should not do this to you. But Maum here has promised me his daughter in marriage if I would keep silent. Too bad, my friend. I guess I’m not going to help you.”

Yae screamed at him in anguish. “Don’t say that, Kauwan! Stand by your promise!”

He tried to rise to his feet, but Maum’s spear struck him in the side. A mighty roar of released tension reverberated around him, while other spears moved in closer. Yae sank to one knee and called again to Kauwan for mercy, while he tried in vain to pull the barbed spear out of his side.

Kauwan turned away and said simply, “You should have given me a peace child. Then I would have protected you.”
At these words, a vision formed in Yae’s mind, a pain-distorted yet tender vision of Kautap sitting cross-legged by the fire, with the still unnamed baby lying asleep across her lap. The baby! Only that baby could have saved him! But now it was too late.

A stone axe struck him from behind, just below his shoulder blade. He toppled forward onto the sago-frond floor, gasping in pain. An arrow pierced the back of his thigh, and its sharp prick aroused him to sudden rage. He roared to his feet, streaming with blood, and lunged at his tormentors as another spear pierced through the calf of his leg. They simply gave way before him, shrieking with amusement, but still they surrounded him.

Yae fell forward again and found himself looking down through a wide gap in the still incomplete flooring of the manhouse. Fifteen feet below he saw chickens cocking their heads to look up, disturbed by the uproar above them. He remembered that he had left his paddle stuck in the mud by the river. If he could drop from the manhouse and get to his paddle, he might be able to use the spear end of it to take at least one life in return for his own.
He slid downward, head first, through the gap, but the spear which had pierced the calf of his leg caught on the floor poles on either side, leaving him suspended upside down. Writhing helplessly in midair, he could only wait while the occupants of the manhouse quickly descended the stairpoles at either end of the building and came running toward him, fitting bamboo arrows to their bows. Women and children also came running, delighted at this unexpected opportunity, for the victim was now within their reach as well.

While children shot their child-sized arrows up into Yae, women raised their sago-digging sticks to club him on the head. Village dogs darted in and out among the stamping feet of the tormentors, licking up as best they could the blood sprinkling down, emitting ear-piercing yelps whenever they were stepped on.

When at last Yae was dead, someone dislodged the spear from which he hung and let his body fall, crumpling bamboo shafts under it as it struck the ground. Warriors danced wildly around the corpse, shouting various victory cries, each one boasting of the part he had played in the treachery and subsequent murder. Some bent over and began pulling arrows and spears from the torn flesh.

Then came the tall, muscular warrior named Maum with a newly sharpened stone axe slung over his shoulder. As the one who had purchased Kauwan’s silence, he claimed the right to take Yae’s head. The others made way for him as he stood over the corpse and raised the axe high. Wide-eyed children winced as the axe fell again and again, slashing through the tendons and vertebrae until the head was severed.

Meanwhile Maum’s friend, Warahai, drew near with his son, Emaro, beside him. Maum lifted the severed head high and held it in the direction of the boy. Warahai then turned to Emaro and said, “Your name is Yae!”
The name Emaro had been only a provisional name, to be used until such time as the boy could be given the name of a victim killed especially for him. While his close associates would still occasionally call him Emaro, his “name of power” henceforth would be Yae. Whatever supernatural power had attended Yae would henceforth be added to the life force of the boy named after him.

Maum then sent word to a woman named Anai that Yae’s jawbone would be given to her to hang around her neck during the celebrations called eren which customarily followed the taking of a head. When the woman received the message she cried out in jubilation and danced to celebrate her great honor.

When Yae’s corpse had ceased bleeding, a number of men lifted it and carried it up the narrow stairpole into the manhouse, leaving the dogs to lick his blood from the ground and from the bushes where it had fallen. In the center of the manhouse, banana leaves were first strewn on the floor and then Yae’s headless corpse was spread out on the banana leaves. Gathering swarms of flies immediately descended upon the gaping wounds.

Yae’s ornaments were claimed by various men and removed from his body. Kauwan had already gone to the river’s edge and claimed Yae’s elegant paddle.

Then three men whom Maum had appointed to cut up the body came forward with razor-sharp bamboo knives. Onlookers excitedly shouted their claims to various parts of Yae’s body, and Maum gave approval to each claim in turn. Then the butchering began.

While the men were preoccupied with the butchering, the women, who could not enter the manhouse unless invited, took down drums belonging to their respective husbands, fathers and brothers, and began to dance back and forth beside the manhouse. Sustaining a high-pitched rhythmic chant, they pounded in steady unison on lizard-skin drumheads glued on with human blood. Their heavy grass skirts flounced in time to the brooding thunder of the drums. Yellow bird-of-paradise plumes flashed in the sunlight. The day was at full heat, and sweat streamed from every body. Naked children embraced each other, jumped up and down, or threw sticks in the air to work off the intense excitement which possessed them.

Those who had already experienced the taste of human flesh began to chide those who had not, assuring them it tasted just like pork or cassowary. Why should they choose to be kerkeriyap, “squeamish”?

Some of those chided replied, “Fadimakon govay! Certainly I will eat it.”

Others giggled and said, “Rigav bohos fat fadon, hava ke fadyfem gani? Why would anyone want to eat human flesh?”

Eventually all would overcome their feeling of kerkeriyap and partake, if not on this occasion, then on some other. But no Sawi could ever forget the dread of that first eating of human flesh. It marked one of the major thresholds each of them must cross in order to know the ultimate essence of Sawi existence. In the day each individual ate of that flesh, it seemed to him that his eyes were opened to know both good and evil.

After almost every part of Yae’s body had been dissected and placed on wooden grills to sizzle over the various cooking places in the manhouse, all the unmarried men descended from the manhouse. Together with the women and children they retreated to the edge of the jungle beyond the village.

When Maum saw that they were at a safe distance, he laid Yae’s head on its side, took a narrow stone and a wooden mallet and crouched over the head. Another man held the head firmly while Maum pounded the stone tool through the side of the skull. Flies swarming on Yae’s long black eyelashes struggled to maintain their places as the blows fell.

The young men, the women and the children had first vacated the area because it was apsar, “forbidden” for them to hear the sound of the skull breaking open. When the operation was complete they came flocking back to the area of the manhouse, and the celebration resumed.

Meanwhile Maum began excavating the brains from inside the skull by way of the opening he had forced. His friends brought leaves and wooden platters of various kinds to collect their share of the brains, to be eaten with the flesh when it was cooked. Maum himself would not eat of the brains.

After this, Maum performed a ceremony called yagon in which he hoisted Yae’s skull on the end of his bow and braced his bow in slanting position extending out from one wall of the manhouse. Then the cannibalistic feast began, followed by the complex rituals called eren, during which the women were invited to stand in one end of the manhouse, while Yae’s jawbone was presented to the woman named Anai, who hung it around her neck as a prized ornament.

Kautap, when her suspicion of her husband’s death was confirmed, shaved her head, came down wailing from the treehouse and threw herself in the mud of the river bank, writhing in uncontrolled anguish. She also took Yae’s stone axe and threw it in the river that his spirit might use it in the world of the dead. Other relatives killed the jungle pig Yae had tamed and raised especially for the planned feast with Haenam, in order that it also might accompany his spirit.

Then the entire village began to wail over the death of Yae. Treehouses swayed as mourners stamped back and forth from end to end. For three months no drums sounded in the village out of respect for Yae.

As for Kautap, she composed a dirge, which she kept moaning over and over as tears streamed down her ash-covered cheeks:

0 who will deal with the children of treachery?
0 who will overcome those who use friendship to fatten their victims?
0 what will it take to make them cease?”

Deeply moved by her incessant repetition of this plaintive theme, Yae’s relatives sat down to plan revenge against Haenam. The possibility of any other answer to Kautap’s question was quite beyond their comprehension. And as word of Kautap’s dirge filtered eastward through the jungle, Maum eventually heard it. By that time the dry season had ended, the relentless monsoon storms were swashing noisy blasts of rain against the sago-frond walls of the Haenam manhouse. The entire grassy plain around the village was flooded.

Maum smiled as the words of the dirge were repeated to him. His only comment was barely audible above the roar of the wind, “Who indeed can overcome us?”

Then he yawned and stretched out for a midday nap on his grass mat, pulling half of it over him as a shield from the damp, cool air gusting through the frond wall. Yae’s jawless skull, already polished to a smooth sheen, rolled against Maum’s shoulder as he drew the mat over him. He took it and placed it under his head as a pillow and was soon asleep.

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