The church was the only concrete building in the village, and it would not have been constructed if it were not for the zealous determination of Reverend Tui-Maloka. One Thursday, whilst in the midst of his evenings prayers, the Reverend had felt the Holy Spirit enter his body through his mouth to impart a gift of vigour and assign him the task of building a House of God worthy of its namesake. He was so taken by the cause that he resigned from his post as caretaker of the Iguana sanctuary situated on the other side of the island and immediately sat down at his desk, where he would spend an entire fortnight preparing a sermon on the subject of ‘The Temple’. Late on Saturday evening after the first week of feverish work, Reverend Tui-Maloka found himself hunched over a half-written masterpiece and could not satisfy himself with the idea of preaching on the subject until he felt that God had certified the brilliance of his work. Without a complete message for the next day’s sermon, he believed he was left with no option but to feign sickness, and in the morning arranged for the church’s single bell to be sounded in short bursts of 4 - the town’s established signal that the pastor was ill and that no service would be held until the following Sunday. After a second week of work during which he only really left his desk to sleep and urinate, the Reverend was able to preach such a convincing message that the tithes and pledges of voluntary labour collected after the service were enough to begin construction of the new church immediately. The bags of cement and stacks of iron roofing arrived within a week, carried from the mainland in three wooden fishing boats. Although he was unaware of it, the Reverend’s sermon was so effective that almost half of the congregation - who ordinarily demonstrated their faith in the same manner as they did their domestic habits - had felt the undeniable breath of God, swearing to themselves that they would renew their relationship with Jesus and pursue his teachings wholeheartedly from that Sunday forth.

The Reverend had never quite managed to preach another sermon that matched the potency of his pinnacle work on the importance of the Temple. He was unable to inspire even enough generosity of tithes to generate enough extra funding to repaint the exterior of the building. The first coat of white paint had become chipped and discoloured, just as the faith of the congregation had slowly returned to its default state of flat religiosity. The survival of the church most likely owed itself to the significant social role it played in the community. Integral to village life were the community notices announced at the conclusion of every service, and also the Sunday lunches that took place in the church courtyard. These festivities would invariably continue well into the evening, and were often so wild that Reverend Tui-Makola would hear of no other topic as he patiently listened to the following week’s confessions in his dilapidated booth, on which he had no money to carry out the necessary repairs. The wooden shutters of the church windows had never been replaced since the time that the Reverend had become so impassioned whilst preaching that he tore them off their hinges, which has his way of demonstrating the necessity of opening up one’s soul to receive the winds of the Holy Spirit. Many of the pews had become unstable with age and had to be replaced with woven mats, which worked out well because the children liked to sit together at the front below the altar and look at the long hairs in Reverend Tui-Maloka’s ears and nose. There were patches of palm thatching covering holes that had been torn in the corrugated iron roofing during the cyclone seasons. Rather than seeming old and neglected, the building reflected the abundance of village life that had centred in and around its walls on each day of the five years that had passed since its creation.

This particular Sunday, the Reverend’s wife Adi Tui-Maloka had just finished reading out the week’s community notices with her characteristic level of enthusiasm - only comparable to that of her husband during the landmark sermon with which he rebuilt the church. Among the announcements was one she had included herself; that the raffle of an Indian Lute would be taking place after Sunday lunch, and that tickets would be available until thirty minutes before the winner was drawn. When she had finished all of the announcements, Adi Tui-Maloka joined the rest of the congregation as they spilled out into the courtyard as fast as the only door at the back of the church allowed them to. Only Reverend Tui-Maloka remained in the building, as was his ritual after every Sunday service. Usually he was enthusiastic about the routine of changing out of his suit jacket, squeezing the juice of a whole lime into a large glass of ice water, and drinking it slowly as he counted the week’s tithes. However, over the past three weeks he had become increasingly confused and disillusioned at this final stage of the post-service ritual, owing to a steady decline in the amount of tithes collected. The Reverend was starting to believe that he was losing touch with the spirit and lacking in inspiration, when in reality the reduction in giving was merely the result of his wife’s community raffle.

For the past month Adi Tui-Maloka had been setting up a small table in the church courtyard during the Sunday lunch, on which she displayed the grand prize of an Indian Lute. She had acquired the string instrument as an unexpected gift from a Fijian-Indian vendor in the marketplace on the mainland. The Hindu vendor, who sold cosmetics laid out on magnificent fabrics that changed colour each week, had given the gift as a thank-you to Adi in return for her generous act - spanning over a decade - of insisting on never taking back her $1.20 change from the $8.80 it cost her to buy the box of square-shaped bars of soap that her husband insisted upon using, because they were easier to hold than round ones when he was lathering himself. The Hindu vendor had been so intent on imparting the gift that Ado Tui-Maloka felt obliged to accept it on the spot, in full knowledge that doing so would ruin the careful strategies she had employed in her usual market-routine, which consisted of purchasing no less than the precise maximum load of goods that she was capable of carrying, as a way of minimizing the frequency of necessary trips to the mainland marketplace. She was forced to tear open two of her sacks of rice and empty the contents into the hollow sounding-chamber of the instrument so that she could sling the collected load over her well-built shoulders for the trip back to the island. To the surprise of Adi Tui-Maloka, the gift had provoked a surge of interest in the village, sparked by rumours that the Hindu vendor was a mystic and a healer who had assembled the instrument herself and used the music as a way of curing stomach ailments - which were common amongst the population, owing to the unfortunate habit of the village goats of wading into the only freshwater stream on the island to defecate. The goat-shit phenomenon remained entirely unexplainable, and had been maintained over generations of the animals’ offspring – surviving even the year that they were slaughtered for a Christmas lunch after the Sunday service, and replaced with a whole new family purchased from a farmer on the mainland. Adi had no use for the instrument herself, and had the idea to harness the villagers’ interest as a way of raising funds for the purchase of a water filtration system. Rumours about the instrument had been so widely accepted that in the weeks leading up to the drawing of the raffle, members of the congregation had been withholding their usual tithes for the purpose of buying raffle tickets from Adi Tui-Maloka after the service, thus sparking the Reverend’s self-doubt and a rapid decline in self-confidence.

The church courtyard was really just a large square of sandy earth with some grass at its fringes. At the far end facing the church was the bell, covered by a small round roof of thatching that the Reverend had fashioned himself. In the centre there was a fire around which a pack of men were gathered as they removed the wire drying-racks that during the week were loaded with sea-cucumbers. During one of her trips to the mainland markets, Adi Tui-Maloka had come across a Chinese man who used them to produce a traditional medicine that he would export to Japan. He offered such a good price for the creatures that Adi Tui-Maloka began trading with him the following week, after convincing the village children to follow a weekly schedule of wading in the reefs at low tide to collect them. The men replaced the drying-racks with four pigs on spits, and they would remain around the fire until nightfall - rotating the animals, talking very little, and laughing whenever the opportunity presented itself. Clutches of women were seated on woven mats to talk and eat yams cooked in coconut milk - occasionally shouting scolds at their children who were playing games on the grass at the edges of the courtyard. Fluttering amongst the villagers was Adi Tui-Maloka, carrying a banana-leaf basket and exchanging raffle tickets for the appropriate amount of money. Adi had hand painted the numbers on each ticket herself, using a system that combined the name of one of the twelve disciples followed by a numeral from 1 to 9. The initial batch of 108 tickets had sold out in just two weeks, causing the Reverend’s wife to spend a sleepless night at his desk painting a further run of tickets including the numerals 10-20.

Early in the afternoon, Adi Tui-Maloka sounded a single ring of the church bell to signal that the winner of the raffle would be announced. Reverend Tui-Maloka had changed back into his suit jacket for the purpose of drawing the winning ticket – a task he graciously accepted at the invitation of his wife, who really only had the intention of minimising her responsibility for any disappointment the winner might experience should they discover that the instrument was lacking in healing powers. Aside from the elderly, who had trouble moving about, most of the village gathered tightly around the church-bell to listen to the announcement of the winner. It was the culmination of weeks suspense and speculation – the height of which had seen some of the teenagers forging a run of 9 imitation tickets under the title of ‘Acts’ which they convinced some of the younger children was the name of another of the disciples who wrote in the Bible after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Adi Tui-Maloka was forced to make an announcement at the end of a service to say that the counterfeit ‘Acts’ tickets were invalid, that money should be returned to the buyers, and that the only official tickets were those purchased from her personally. Reverend Tui-Maloka only added to the suspense of the moment - by taking up the opportunity of having such an eager audience before him - to preach a brief message emphasising that the only acceptable greed was a hunger for God. He announced the winner only after closing his impromptu sermon in prayer, and proceeded to draw the ticket ‘Matthew 17’, from the banana-basket. The winner was Sawaii Valoui, a young girl of 14 years whose family’s hut was not far from the Tui-Maloka’s. She was visibly happy about the victory, but still a touch shy in her approach to the Reverend as he offered a winning handshake with his right arm and held out the sitar in his left. Sawaii Valoui displayed admirable tolerance and composure as she was swarmed first by her family and friends, and eventually the entire village - yet not once did she allow anyone to take the instrument from her. Nobody was disappointed after they had seen the prize up close, even though, despite its intricate detailing and mysterious appearance, the small Indian lute was actually just a miniature version of a traditional sitar. By the time the initial novelty had worn off and the crowds around Sawaii had subsided it was late in the afternoon, and she had politely endured listening to 7 dinner invitations from those families who had members that were suffering from stomach ailments. Only then was she able to detach herself from the festivities and withdraw to the palm-trunk seat at the edge of the cassava plantation near her home.

Sawaii Valoui had never liked cassava, a feeling that was developed even before she had tasted it, because of an immediate and overwhelming suspicion that the vegetables were the shape of evil. Whenever she saw them, Sawaii was reminded of a series of powerfully unsettling dreams in which forms the shape of cassava would appear ominously in the midst of a scenario beyond words, from which she would awake in disorientation and terror. As punishment for refusing to them, her father had forced her to spend three weekends planting a cassava crop in the small plot near their home. For unknown reasons, the crop had grown in such profusion that pruning the plants in an effort to control them had become more of a task than the estimated yield of the crop was worth. Sawaii Valoui’s father was forced to make an early harvest, and found that the cassava roots were of a size never before seen in the history of the village. Even the cut stalks of the harvested plants sprouted into bushes so dense that the plot of land had to be abandoned to the growth as if it were a plague of weeds. Only after this did he accept his daughter’s fear. He not only agreed that she would be allowed to avoid the vegetable but also ordered his wife never to serve it in the home unless it had been cooked in holy water from the basin beside the church.

It had taken years for Sawaii Valoui to become comfortable with the idea of going near the plot of overgrown cassava, because the flaky bark of the trunks seemed exactly the same to her as the cracked skin of demons. She was older now, and had come to terms with her fear enough that she was able to enjoy using the wooden bench as a quiet place to sit by-herself. She remained there on the seat until midnight with her newly acquired prize, and as she introduced herself to its functions she reflected upon her present situation in relation to the conclusion of the same day prior. Sawaii had the habit of engaging in such reflections in bed at night, just as she felt herself on the threshold of being awake and sleeping. She would review the events of her day, and think about the potentialities of the following day. If she was able to manage it before slipping into slumber, she would speculate as to her most probable situation at the exact time the following day. On this particular day, a Sunday, she found herself in circumstances so unusual that she thought it would be most sensible to begin her reflections before reaching her bed, in case she was left without adequate time to fully come to terms with her state of affairs. She was interrupted only once - by her father - who noticed her as he was returning home beyond drunk, insisting that she pluck the strings whilst he exposed his belly to the instrument and listened as attentively as his state of intoxication allowed him to. Unfamiliar with established sitar techniques, Sawaii grasped the instrument with the entire palm of her left hand - moving it up and down the neck - and brushed the strings in sweeping motions with the four fingernails of her right. The sound this produced was immensely interesting, and the young girl’s prolonged first attempt at self-instruction was fuelled by her own astonishment at the incredibility of what she was able to produce. By midnight (when she would lay down in bed beside the hollow instrument and fall asleep almost immediately) Sawaii Valoui had become something of an expert with of the instrument, in her own personal style. The music was light and atmospheric and, as she gathered confidence, it exhumed something like the sweet odour vanilla and coconut milk. She played in the darkness, accompanied only by the evening insects, the ocean, the moist island breeze in the palm leaves, and the sound of the stars you can only hear if you stand long enough in the same place beneath them to observe the path they take though the sky.

Because of his old age, the Reverend Tui-Maloka was in the habit of leaving his hut during the night to urinate under the stars. On clear evenings he swore that God would perform the miracle of filling his bladder without his having had anything to drink, as a way of communicating with him through the splendour of the night sky. He always stood with his legs as far apart as his old joints allowed him to, because he could not tolerate the feeling that splashes of his own urine made on his bare feet. With his head back and his attention fixed on the subject of the universe, a breeze carrying some of the sound produced by Sawaii Valoui’s sitar passed him by - along with a backing-track of island accompaniments – which the Reverend interpreted as a stirring of the heavens. He was so affected that his senses became blurred and he interpreted the audio sensation as a visual one: an extremely vivid effect produced as he stood contemplating the vastness of the heavens. He believed that God was only really hinting at his own immensity when he created the highly suggestive yet ultimately elusive celestial bodies, for human observation. Reverend Tui-Maloka was utterly convinced that his intimacy with the Holy Spirit was renewed through the encounter, and he returned to his marital bed refreshed and invigorated, so much so that he woke his wife with caresses and made the first attempt at love-making since the night they had shared after the opening ceremony of the new church. The following Sunday, the buzz of the raffle had subsided, and the congregation had returned to their regular tithing habits. Energised by the encounter with Sawaii Valoui’s sitar, the Reverend preached a well-prepared sermon and was unsurprised at the increase in tithes, certain that it was the result of his renewed inspiration and definite reconciliation with the Holy Spirit.

july 2009