On the island of Guam, belief in the the spirit world endures. The Taotao Mo’na are ancestral spirits that are said to inhabit banyan trees. If you come upon these trees, you must ask permission to pass. If permission is not granted they will pinch you hard enough to leave a bruise.
It is very common to have bruises after walking in areas where these trees are found. In 1995, I lived in Guam for six months. I took these photos when I went to a little known swimming hole with some acquaintances, including the charming dude who was the inspiration for “Bub”, a character who appears in my short story below.
A few thickets of Taotao Mo’na trees dotted the perimeter. A couple of us asked permission, but the guys scoffed. We swam for a while and then sunned ourselves on the rocks. While we were talking we heard a quiet, but agitated murmuring coming from all around us. When we fell silent, it stopped. We all heard it, and tried several times to catch it by quickly falling silent. As we gathered our things to leave, I was knocked to the ground. It was as if someone had pulled my legs out from under me. The rock was dry and I was simply standing and waiting for the others. Of course, I found a bruise on my backside later. When we told some locals about the voices that we heard, they said that it is typical of the Taotao Mo’na as well. Oh, and we were supposed to ask permission in the Chamorro language. Duh.
I realize that there could be scientific ways to explain the bruises – something in the environment that leaches the nutrients that prevent bruises, etc. But the whole experience was unnerving.
On Guam, time passes in a haze for many transplants from the mainland. Those who move there to escape.
Here is a story that I wrote based on the Taotao Mo’na legend. As I mentioned above, the Bub character is based on a real dude. I have an epic photo of him that I had to restrain myself from posting. Not that he’d ever find this blog, but maybe he’s mellowed out over the years and is sorry for his behavior.
Some Eternal Evening
The darkness has begun to speak. Incoherent whispers emerge from all around, fluttering like bat wings. I curl into myself and cover my ears. I don’t dare move for fear that I’ll end up like Bub and Tanya. The precipice is so near.
* * *
“Bub!” Tanya hollered and waved her hand frantically. A beefy guy with sun-bleached hair made his way over to us. Bub’s real name was Roland or Cecil or some such inappropriate name. I wondered if I was the only one who noticed the menace that lurked behind his goofy smile. He enfolded Tanya in his embrace and led her away.
I propped myself against a palm tree and looked on as the others participated in the festivities. Tanya had talked me into coming to this motley gathering of construction workers, strippers, beach bums, military, and drug dealers. All of them sun-charred, brain dead, and hiding out from something. No wonder the Spanish explorers had called Guam the “Island of Thieves”. I scanned the beach in hopes of seeing others from the hotel where Tanya and I work. Seeing none, I sighed and resigned myself to a long night.
Bub looked like a T. Rex when he danced. He lurched back and forth, his arms drawn up close to his body, his teeth bared in a reptilian smile. He made his rounds, throwing fake punches at the guys and bellowing, “Pussy!” when they flinched. The others backed away from him, laughing uneasily. His antics weren’t funny, but no one was brave enough to criticize Bub. I hovered on the perimeter of the party, willing myself to be invisible to him. I was relieved when people began to straggle to their cars. Soon I would be back in my cozy room, curled up with my book and silence.
Tanya stumbled toward me, a bleary-eyed grin on her face.
Bub burst out of the shadows behind her and tackled her in a bear hug. “Hey girls, let’s go four-wheelin’ on the beach!” he roared. “I wanna show you this cool cave I found the other day!”
His beer stench made my eyes tear up. I grimaced at Tanya.
She beamed at him and said, “Yeah! There’s a full moon out tonight. It will be awesome!”
Bub looked at me. His eyes pulled into slits. His stringy blonde hair hung over his ruddy jowls. “What’s the matter, Sarah? Don’t be such a killjoy!” he bellowed.
The word killjoy echoed through my brain like a sinister schoolyard taunt. Bub became every leering, jeering bully condensed into one.
A violent contempt welled up in me, but I hid it behind a yawn. “I’m fine. Just a little tired.”
Tanya looked at Bub and rolled her eyes. “We’ll miss you if you don’t come,” she said.
I wanted to slap the fake smile off her face. The last of the partiers had gone, so I had no other ride home. And haoles didn’t walk anywhere after dark, unless they wanted to get jumped by drunken Chamorros. I was at their mercy, and they knew it.
“Okay then,” I said, baring my teeth in a mock smile. “Let’s go!”
* * *
The darkness shifts. Colors swirl and flash before my eyes like a macabre kaleidoscope. There is silence now. A catacomb stillness that makes my ears ring. Gooseflesh rises on my arms. I tense up, awaiting a stirring of the air next to my ear and a forceful, taunting Boo. I wish the whispers would come back.
* * *
Bub squealed out of the parking lot. Tanya and I threw our arms up to shield ourselves from the gravel that rained down on us. We sat in back of the Jeep, because the front passenger seat was torn off. The upholstery smelled of puke and cheap beer.
A large, muddy puddle loomed before us. Bub sped up and plowed through it, drenching Tanya and me in the foul water. We cried out in disgust. Bub had to pull over, because he was laughing so hard.
Tanya laughed, but it was a flimsy sound. I sat there stone silent, my contempt turning into a slow burn rage. KilljoyKilljoyKilljoy ranted through my mind. Bub composed himself and pulled back onto the road that led to the sparsely populated side of the island. He switched on the radio. Island rap blared out of the battered speakers. Tanya leaned forward and took a swig of Bub’s whiskey. He reached over and tousled her hair. I unclenched my jaw and settled back into my seat. This is what I got for going out with them.
* * *
I could have tried to crawl out of here, feeling my way along inch by inch. But it’s been too long now. I passed out from shock when Bub and Tanya vanished into the void. I awoke to vertigo, which has left me disoriented and nauseous. The primeval damp envelops me like the stale breath of some giant beast. Why didn’t the abyss take me as well?
* * *
Bub swerved onto the beach. On the radio, a Don Ho-esque voice crooned “Some Enchanted Evening”.
“Enough of that shit,” Bub said. He turned off the radio and headlights. The moon hung low in the sky, a plump, pearly orb. It cast a spectral glow on the waves. The only sound was that of the sea swishing against the Jeep’s wheels.
“God, what a beautiful night,” Tanya whispered.
I nodded. Maybe this would make up for Bub’s nonsense. It’s true that I never would have seen this had I stayed home.
“Isn’t this Chamorro land out here?” Tanya asked.
“Chamorros don’t come here because they say it’s haunted,” Bub answered. “Inbred pieces of shit.” He let out a loud belch and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He pulled onto a narrow strip of land that wound around the side of a cliff. A tuft of clouds obscured the moon. He turned his headlights back on. “I’ve never been out here at night before.”
“How’d you find this place, anyway?” Tanya asked.
“Me ‘n Surfer Don came out here one day before he went back to the mainland. He’s the only person who knows about this place, other than the Chamorros. And they won’t even talk about it.” He pulled around the side of a cove and shut off the motor. “Okay, now we walk.”
Bub leaned over and riffled through his glove compartment. He pulled out a battered flashlight. “The batteries are pretty new in this. I think.” He laughed quietly.
Tanya’s mouth curled into an unconvincing smile. I turned away as if I hadn’t seen it. She didn’t deserve my reassurance. Bub led us up a short path. A small thicket of Taotao Mo’na trees spread their cobwebby tendrils around the base of a cliff. Taotao Mo’na meant “the people before history”. The trees were said to be their dwelling place.
“Hold this, will ya, Tanya?” Bub handed the flashlight to her and pulled a couple of the trees aside. “Okay, this is it.”
* * *
Laughter now. It whips against me as punishment for surviving. I whimper and try to shield myself. I was happy when Bub was taken and not me. And I can’t, I won’t conjure up any remorse for him. Tanya’s face haunts me, though. She didn’t deserve to die like that. The darkness constricts. I gasp for air. If only I were brave enough to throw myself into the pit.
* * *
“Wait a minute,” Tanya said. “Aren’t we supposed to ask permission first?”
I looked at her and nodded, surprised that she knew about the legend.
“Oh, I forgot about that,” Bub said. He pulled his dick out of his shorts and pissed on the trees.
“Bub!” Tanya gasped.
I bristled and turned away.
Tanya grabbed the flashlight and plunged into the tunnel. Bub shoved me aside and followed. I reached out and stroked a branch.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, hoping they wouldn’t hold me responsible for Bub’s desecration. Then I followed them inside.
The ceiling pressed down on us. “I hope it doesn’t get any smaller, because I’m not crawling on this slimy ground,” I said.
Bub turned to me. The flashlight glow cast an orange halo around his head, throwing most of his face into shadow. “Don’t worry, you fucking sissy,” he snarled. “It opens up soon.”
“Oh wow!” Tanya gasped. “Check this out, you guys.”
The cramped tunnel opened up into a subterranean cathedral. Stalagmites shot up from the ground like organ pipes. Multi-colored mineral deposits shimmered in the light.
“I have something even better to show you,” Bub said. He took the flashlight from Tanya and slipped into another tunnel.
Tanya and I scurried after the fading light.
I stopped. “We should count the turns.”
She pushed me. “C’mon. We need to stay with the light.”
Bub stood at the end of a long corridor. Stalactites hung from the ceiling like fangs. A black chasm gaped behind him.
“C’mere, girls,” he said. I fell back and let Tanya pass. He put his arm around her and bellowed, “Look out! You might fall in!”
“Stop fucking around, Bub!” she screamed. “That’s not funny!”
Bub’s raucous laughs boomed in the stillness. He let her go, but she hadn’t regained her footing. She teetered for a second, her face frozen in a look of hurt disbelief. Then she fell. Our screams were a chorus of betrayal and shock. Tanya’s scream receded, and then vanished.
A long instant of silence, and then Bub turned to me. “I didn’t mean it,” he whined. “I was only goofing around.”
A white-hot rage tingled through me.
The petulant look on his face dissolved into silent menace as realization crept into his brain: I was a witness. He took a step toward me.
I ran up to him and pushed. Over he went, squealing like a boar. I threw my head back and screamed, “Killjoy!” My laughs leaped into the pit and echoed back up to me. Then I looked down at the flashlight that was rolling, rolling towards the edge. And over.
* * *
The darkness enfolds me in its embrace. Melodic chants caress my mind. The air stirs, a soft, tickling breeze like a sleeping lover’s breath. It beckons me forward. And I crawl.