Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia – November 1998
It is said that long ago God became angry with Kosrae. He laid her on her back in the middle of the Pacific, where she went to sleep and became an island.
The Sleeping Lady’s form fills the truck’s bug-splattered windshield. I stare at the lush volcanic mountains that make up her body. A slight indentation in the head mountain gives the impression of a mysterious smile.
The hotel manager pulls the truck into the parking lot. She hands me a paper bag full of green-skinned mandarins. “I picked them this morning. Welcome to Kosrae.” She smiles, showing large, betel nut-stained teeth.
I thank her and follow behind as she leads me to my tiny bungalow. I sit on my front porch and eat a couple of the mandarins. I’m relieved to see that the other bungalows are deserted. An unaccompanied woman traveler always incites scrutiny. Or pity. She is someone who must be rescued from her solitude.
I look out over the ocean, which seems to unfurl and wrap itself around the globe. I feel like I could reach out and stroke its smooth rind. Gentle waves crest and fall, etching ornate grooves in the sand. I want to curl up on this distant shore and lose myself forever.
It is said that Kosrae was menstruating at the time she was punished. In the dense jungle between her thighs a red soil can be found. Only the bravest men dared go there to collect this special soil, which they used to mix a paint for their canoes.
I’m awakened by soft singing. I lift my head and peer through the thin curtains. A woman sits with a small child next to a palm tree. Her black braid is as thick and long as my arm. I shake off my sleep and walk out onto the porch.
The woman smiles at me and picks up her child. She walks to the porch and sits down. I stiffen a bit, wondering what she might want. But the childlike innocence of her smile tells me that no one has ever been mean to her. Tears sting my eyes. Such trust in people vanished in me long ago.
She asks me about my life. My answers are short, evasive. I don’t want to talk about the busy life that awaits me, even though it is a good one. The impending marriage with all of its bewildering preparations. This kind of domesticity isn’t supposed to happen to women like me. I lean my head against the wooden railing and fall silent. After a while, the woman begins to sing again to the child. They hold hands and walk down the beach. I watch them until they shrink to tiny pinpoints, and then disappear.
At sunset I walk to a restaurant that’s situated in the middle of a mangrove channel. By the time I get there, darkness has fallen. Small lights illuminate the path across a wooden bridge. The restaurant is empty, except for a table of Micronesian women. I smile at them, but their faces are full of disapproval. I sigh and sit down at a table across the room. Once, I would have smiled sheepishly and tried to win them over. A lone woman traveler shouldn’t be perceived as a threat. I brush off their scorn and look out at the black night. Anxiety grips me when I think of the long walk back to my bungalow. I forgot that there are no streetlights here.
Eventually, curiosity gets the best of the women. “What brings you to Kosrae?” one of them asks me.
“I’m doing the island-hopping tour on my way back to America. I was just visiting my fiancé, who lives in New Caledonia.” I don’t add that it’s my last solo adventure before settling down.
At the mention of a fiancé, they relax visibly and smile. They offer to buy me a drink, but I decline. I’m about to lose my independence, but that doesn’t mean I have anything to say to them.
“Is it safe to walk alone at night?” I ask when I pay my bill.
“It’s fine,” the woman says with an amused look in her eyes. “But I will call someone if you’re afraid.”
“No, that’s okay. Thanks.” I walk up the path and turn down the lone road. The meager lights recede, and panic grips me. I walk gingerly, not wanting to trip. I stop for a moment and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Moonlight illuminates tall, slender palm trees that form a canopy over the road. A slight breeze rustles the palm fronds. They sound like the most delicate of wind chimes. My breathing slows. I have nothing to fear here.
A few minutes later, a truck pulls up beside me. My heart begins to race.
A man leans out the window and smiles. “The lady from the restaurant called me. Let me give you a ride.”
I hesitate for a moment. Now that my fear is gone, I want to savor my night walk. It would be rude to refuse his kindness, so I climb into the truck. The man introduces himself, giving me both his first and last name. I tell him mine. He asks me the usual questions about my life. I answer them in a monotone voice – I live in a big city, I work in an office, I am getting married soon. He listens intently, memorizing details. He will tell everyone he knows about me. He will be important for a few minutes, maybe even hours.
“I’ve come to see Lelu,” I say, changing the subject.
“The village will be quiet in the morning,” he says. “Everyone will be at the funeral in Utwe.”
“It must be someone important if everyone is going.”
“It’s a young man who killed himself. Second one this month.” He shakes his head. “The young men think they have no future. They see the videos from America and think they’re missing something. They lose their faith in the Lord.”
A contemplative silence fills the truck. When we pull up to my bungalow, he says goodbye, using both my first and last names. I search my memory for his first name, but unable to remember, I say, “Goodbye, Mr. Hamilton.”
His face slackens slightly, but then he shakes it off, as if used to visitors forgetting his name. I stand on the beach for a few moments and stare up at the strange constellations. I hurt that nice man’s feelings. It’s such a small thing to remember someone’s name. I lower my eyes and peer out over the ocean, searching for the horizon. Vertigo washes over me and then dissipates.
Kosrae bore three children, two sons and a daughter. Before she was laid to sleep, she told the oldest son that he was to live in Lelu, which means “lake”. The other son was to live in Tafunsak, which means “half wood, half human”. And her daughter was to live in Malem, which means “half lady”. Her daughter’s child was to live in Utwe, which means, “where things come from”. And this is how the four villages of Kosrae came to be.
The rising sun casts a shadow over the Sleeping Lady’s slopes. Now it seems that her smile is sad. I turn and cross the stone causeway that leads to the small, man-made island of Lelu. In the thirteenth century, Lelu was the capital of a vast Pacific empire. It was the home of the King and all of the aristocracy. It is one of the archaeological wonders of the Pacific.
I walk through the village, looking for the ruins. A woman sits on a pandanus mat, a large bucket in front of her. She wrings soapy water out of a sarong. I smile and wave. Her glare hits me like a slap, so I look down at the road. She’s not obligated to be nice to me, and I feel presumptuous for expecting her to.
Large basalt walls appear at the end of the road. I step between them. Stillness hangs in the air, though I can still hear faint noises from the village. I walk through the crumbling maze, running my hands along the porous rock. Banyan trees have woven their roots through the gaps in the walls. Empty beer cans are strewn along the sides of the path. The place smells faintly of urine. My steps are timid, self-conscious amid such ancient grandeur.
I kneel in front of a hollowed-out stone that was once used for grinding sakau, a sacred drink. Rainwater has pooled in the long, banana-shaped groove. A dog emerges from the foliage, startling me. Most of its fur is gone. Just in front of me is someone’s back yard. Angry voices – a man and a woman – erupt inside the house. A baby begins to cry. I stand up and look for the way out.
The sun is high in the sky when I begin the long walk back to my hotel. Tonight I leave for the Marshall Islands, my last stop before Hawaii, and then home. My solo wandering days are nearly over. This thought fills me with an unexpected relief.
A white truck pulls up beside me. The man offers me a ride, desperation in his eyes. I shake my head. His shoulders slump, but he smiles and waves as he drives away.
The Sleeping Lady lies exposed in the afternoon sunlight. A figure of perpetual immobility. I look out over the ocean and wonder if the men who killed themselves felt the shores constricting around them like a noose.