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2. Atile’i’s Last Night
The people of Wayo Wayo thought the whole world was but a single island.
The island was situated in the midst of an immense ocean, far from any continent. As far as island memory reached, the white man had once visited the island, but nobody had ever left and brought back news of another land. In the beginning, people believed, there was nothing but a shoreless sea, until Kabang (the word for “God” in the Wayo Wayoan language) created the island for them to live on, as if placing a small, hollow clamshell in a tub of water. The island followed the tides, floating around in the ocean, which was a source of sustenance for the people. But some of the ocean’s spawn were the avatars of Kabang. The asamu, for instance, was a black-and-white fish sent to spy on people, and to test them. For this reason, it was counted among the creatures that could not be eaten.
“If you are so careless as to eat an asamu, you will grow a ring of scales around your navel, a ring of scales that you could never finish peeling off your whole life long.” Leaning on a whalerib staff, the Sea Sage hobbled over and sat under a tree every day at dusk to tell the little ones all the stories of the sea. He talked until the sun dipped below the waves. He talked until the boys became youths, and until the youths endured the rite of passage and became men. His speech carried the smell of the sea, and there was salt on his every breath.
“So what if we grow scales?” one boy asked. The children here all had enormous eyes, like the eyes of a nocturnal animal.
“Oh my child, people can’t grow scales, just like a sea turtle can’t sleep with its belly to the sky.”
Another day, the Earth Sage took the children to the field in the hollow, to the place where the akaba grew. One of the only starchy plants on the island, the luxuriant akaba, a word that meant “shaped like the palm of a hand,” seemed to raise innumerable hands in supplication to the sky. The island was small and the people lacked farming tools, so pebbles were piled around the plots, to keep the soil moist and to serve as a windbreak. “You must love the land, my children, and ring it in with your love. For the land is the most precious thing on this island. It is like rain, like the heart of a woman.” The Earth Sage showed the children how to arrange the rocks. His skin was dry like cracked mud, and his back was arched like an earthen mound. “In all the world, the only things worth trusting in are the land, the sea and Kabang, my children.”
At the southeast corner of the island was a coral lagoon, a good place to catch fish with thrownets or to collect clams. To the northeast, at a distance of ten husks (ten throws of a coconut husk) there was a cay, a coral reef that was fully exposed at ebb tide. This was where the seabirds flocked. The Wayo Wayoans hunted the birds with gawana. To make a gawana, they tied branches into a tool that had the virtues of club and spear, with one end blunt and the other end sharpened to a point; then they passed a rope of saltgrass through a hole in the blunt end and tied one end into a noose. Armed with a gawana, a fisherman would row his talawaka near the cay and let the ocean current carry him along, pretending to ignore the birds as he prayed to Kabang. When he drifted within range he would hurl his gawana. Blessed by Kabang, the noose would slip, just so, over a seabird’s neck, and a deft flick of the wrist would impale the bird on the pointy end. Blood would trickle down from the point, as if the gawana itself had suffered a mortal wound. The only resistance the albatross, the booby, the pelican, the petrel and the seagull could put up was prolifer-ation. When the birds stopped in spring to build nests, people would feast on eggs, wearing cruel and satisfied smiles on their faces.
As on any island, there was never enough fresh water on Wayo Wayo. The only sources were rain and a lake at the center of the island. Consisting mainly of fish and fowl, the diet was salty, giving the people a thin and dark appearance and often leaving them constipated. At dawn they would squat over pit latrines, facing away from the sea, often getting teary-eyed from the strain.
The island was so small that most people could set out after breakfast, walk all the way around and return not long after lunch. For the same reason, people were accustomed to a rough parlance of “facing the sea” or “facing away” to orient themselves, and the only way to face away was to face the hillock at the center of the island. People talked facing the sea and ate facing away. They conducted rituals facing the sea, and made love facing away, so as not to offend Kabang. There were no chiefs among the people, only “elders,” the wisest of whom were called “old men of the sea.” The front door of the home of a family in which an old man of the sea had lived faced the shore. Adorned with shells and carvings, Wayo Wayoan houses looked like capsized canoes. They stuck fish skin to the walls, and the whole community would gather round and build a coral fence out in front to block the wind. The islanders could neither walk to a place where the sea could not be heard nor have a conversation in which the sea was not mentioned. In the morning, they greeted each other, “Are you going to sea?” At noon they asked, “Shall we test our luck at sea?” And at night, even if the weather had been too rough to go fishing today, they exhorted one another, “You must remember me a story of the sea.” As a rule, the Wayo Wayo went fishing every day. Fishermen who met on shore would yell, “Don’t let the mona’e steal your name!” Mona’e meant wave. When people bumped into one another, one would ask, “So how’s the weather at sea?” Even if a gale was blowing, the other had to reply, “Very fair.” The tonality of the Wayo Wayoan language was sharp and sonorous, like birdsong, with each utterance ending in a light trill and a plop, like a hungry seabird that swiftly dives and breaks the waves in search of prey.
Occasionally, the people went hungry, the weather was too rough, or two of the villages would come into conflict; but no matter how he spent his days, everyone was skilled at telling diverse stories of the sea. People told tales at meals, when they met, at rituals, and when making love. They even told them in their sleep. A complete record had never been made, but many years later anthropologists might know that the islanders had the greatest number of sea sagas of any people on Earth. “Let me tell you a story of the sea” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. They did not ask how old people were, but simply grew tall like trees and stuck out their organs of increase like flowers. Like the obstinate clam they just passed the time. Like a sea turtle each islander died with the curl of a smile at the corner of his mouth. They were all old souls, older than they appeared, and because they spent their lives staring at the sea they all had melancholy miens and tended to get cataracts and go blind in old age. When they were ready to go, old folks would ask the youngsters by the bed, “What’s the weather out at sea like now?” People believed that dying while gazing at the sea was the grace of Kabang. Their lifelong dream was to arrive at the moment of death with an image of the ocean in the ocean of the mind.
When a boy was born, his father would select a tree for him and carve a notch for each resurrection of the moon. When there were a hundred and eighty notches, the boy had to build a talawaka of his very own. Years before, the anthropologist S. Percy Smith had described the talawaka as a “canoe.” Actually, it was more like a grass boat. The island was too small to have enough trees with trunks thick enough to be made into canoes. Students of anthropological history smile at Smith’s mistake, but nobody would laugh at him, as anyone who saw a talawaka would assume it was a dugout canoe. A talawaka was made by weaving sticks, rattan stems and three or four different kinds of silver grass together to form a frame and applying three coatings of plant pulp. Peat from the bog was used to plug any remaining cracks, and the craft was waterproofed with sap. A finished talawaka really did look like a finely finished canoe made by hollowing out the trunk of a sturdy tree.
The finest and sturdiest talawaka on the island was made by a youth named Atile’i. Atile’i’s face had the typical traits of his people: a flat nose, profound eyes, shining skin, a sad, slouching spine and arrow-like limbs.
“Atile’i, don’t sit there, the sea fiends will see you!” hollered a passing elder upon seeing Atile’i sitting by the shore.
Once, like everyone else, Atile’i thought that the whole world was but a single island drifting on the sea like a hollow clamshell in a tub of water.
Having learned the art of talawaka construction from his father, Atile’i was praised as the most skilled talawaka-maker among the island youth, even more skilled than his elder brother Nale’ida. Though young, Atile’i had the physique of a fish and could catch three ghostheads on a single breath. Every girl on the island pined for Atile’i and hoped that one day he would waylay her, throw her over his shoulder and carry her off into a clump of grass. Three full moons later, she would discreetly inform Atile’i that she was with child. Then she would go home, act normal, and wait for Atile’i to arrive with a whalebone knife and a marriage proposal. Maybe that’s what the most beautiful girl on the island, Rasula, was hoping for, too.
“Atile’i has the fate of a second son. What good is a second son who can dive? Atile’i is destined for the Sea God, not for Wayo Wayo.” Atile’i’s mother often complained in this vein, and people would nod knowingly, understanding that raising an outstanding second son was the most painful thing in the world for any parent. Atile’i’s mother grumbled day and night, her thick lips trembling, as if the more she bemoaned her son’s fate the greater his chance of avoiding it might be.
Unless an eldest son died young, the second son seldom married and went on to become an “old man of the sea.” Upon reaching his one hundred and eightieth full moon, he would be sent out to sea on a mission of no return. He could take no more than ten days’ worth of water and was not allowed to look back. Hence the saying, “Let’s just wait until your second son returns,” which simply meant, “Perish the thought.”
With flashing eyelashes and sparkling skin, covered in crystals of salt, Atile’i looked like the son of the Sea God. Tomorrow he would brave the waves in his talawaka. He climbed the highest reef-rock on the island and gazed down at the distant swells, at the white creases in the fabric of the sea. The seabirds flying along the shore reminded him of Rasula, who was as nimble as the shadow of a bird in flight. And like a shore pounded by the waves for many eons, his heart, he felt, was about to break.
According to custom, Atile’i’s admirers laid ambush at dusk. Atile’i had only to wander past a clump of grass and some young maiden would accost him. Every time he hoped the girl in the grass would be Rasula, but Rasula never appeared. Atile’i made love over and over again to the girls in the grass, for this was the last chance he had to father a child and leave some small part of himself behind on the island. In fact, as a matter of propriety and morality, he could not refuse their propositions: the girls of Wayo Wayo could ambush a second son on the night before he went to sea. Atile’i broke his back making love to the girls in the thickets, taking no pleasure, intent only on nearing Rasula’s place before dawn. He had a feeling he would meet her there. Each girl along the way sensed that once inside her Atile’i was in a rush to leave. Hurt, they all asked, “Atile’i, why don’t you love me?”
“You know that people can’t pit their hearts against the sea.”
Atile’i finally made it with pale fishbelly dawn on the horizon. A pair of hands appeared from inside the grass and lightly drew him in. Shivering like a seabird ducking beside a boulder to dodge a flash of lightning, Atile’i could barely get an erection, not because he was exhausted but because the look in Rasula’s eyes was like a jellyfish’s sting.
“Atile’i, why don’t you love me?”
“Who says I don’t love you? But you know no man can pit his heart against the sea.”
They cuddled for a long while. Eyes closed, Atile’i felt like he was hanging in thin air, gazing down upon the open ocean. He gradually became aroused, tried to force himself to forget that soon he would go to sea, wanting only to feel the warmth inside Rasula’s body. At dawn, the villagers would all go down to the shore to see Atile’i off. Except for the Sea Sage and the Earth Sage, nobody would have noticed that all through the night departed spirits of second sons had been coming home. They all wanted to ride with the youth whose skin sparkled like the son of the Sea as he piloted the talawaka he had fashioned himself, carrying a “speaking flute,” a final gift from Rasula, as he rowed away to the fate he shared with them, each one, the fate of every Wayo Wayoan second son.
“Astonishing. . . . A wonderful novel which deserves a very wide audience.” —The Independent (London)
“We haven't read anything like this novel. Ever. South America gave us magical realism—what is Taiwan giving us? A new way of telling our new reality, beautiful, entertaining, frightening, preposterous, true. Completely unsentimental but never brutal, Wu Ming-Yi treats human vulnerability and the world's vulnerability with fearless tenderness.” —Ursula K. Le Guin
“An earnest, politically conscious novel, anchored in ecological concerns and Taiwanese identity. . . . [Wu’s] writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy. . . . There may be walking trees, miraculous butterflies and deer that morph into goats, but this is a novel anchored in the gritty mess of what it means to remember and to exist as an individual. . . . Beyond the book's ecological and scientific attributes, you can see a deft novelist's hand at work.” —Tash Aw, The Guardian
“A striking book. . . . [Wu's] characters are not just full and round but, in their every small detail and stray thought, seem to stretch their own skins, swollen with a complex humanity. . . . It is science fiction . . . in the way that the best Margaret Atwood books are science fiction. . . . At the same time, it's [also] in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magic realism. . . . I read it on the train, on my couch, standing on the street outside a beer garden with a couple of liters already in me and in my car while I drove. . . . I couldn't put it down. . . . I missed the story when I wasn't living inside it. Because as distant and foreign as it was . . . The Man with the Compound Eyes felt like home.” —Jason Sheehan, NPR
“The depiction of Atile’i’s magical realm and his innocent wonder at this unfamiliar and murky world is imaginative and moving.” —Financial Times
“I'm fascinated by The Man with the Compound Eyes, which is rich, dense and dripping with life. The book sings in the key of fable, but with the timbre of reality.” —Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Fictional Universe
“Wu’s rollercoaster of a story is about wilderness, wildness, wonderment, love. . . . I couldn’t put it down, and over the course of several days I felt that I had ventured into a new, uncharted territory concocted by a Taipei visionary. Part South American magical realism, part Margaret Atwood rollercoaster of the imagination. . . . [The Man with the Compound Eyes includes] perhaps the best writing to ever come out of a Taiwan novel. . . . The English translation . . . is superb and sensitively captures the nuances of Taiwan’s Aboriginal cultures and languages.” —Taipei Times
“This is a brilliant story. I wept at the description of the dying whales and the approaching tsunami. I've been bemoaning of late the lack of omniscient storytellers, and they work best with a whimsical and fantastical narrator like this. I think this work will be a classic. A haunting and evocative tale, beautifully told." —Hugh Howey, author of Wool
“Beautifully written and beautifully translated. . . . [Ming-Yi] guides us to see the entirety of experience as bumping flotsam in an unending ocean of life colliding and making a mess of things or making something new. . . . Lyric, simple, soft, the story crests and recedes and comes back again.” —The Bloomington Sun-Current
“A gift. . . . Ming-Yi is a naturalist as well as a storyteller, and it is perhaps his greatest achievement that this novel creates a sense of solidarity not only between his human characters, but also between [the] humans and the animals and plants he describes with such fidelity and with such inspiring belief in the reality of their wisdom and power.” —FullStop
“[The Man with the Compound Eyes] has charm. . . adventure, horror, awe, and a heavy proenvironmental theme. . . . Offering a heady dose of realism, surrealism, and magic realism, with several shots of allegory, award-winning Chinese author Wu offers a work for ‘literary fiction’ readers, but not in the snobbish sense. It's really for any curious, intelligent reader not tethered to the best sellers lists.” —Library Journal (starred review)