This is part 6 of “Magic Island.” Part 5 can be read here.
The following evening, a group of us sat down with Chief Tom Numake of the Evergreen Village. We were sitting in the velvety semidark on the terrace at Whitegrass, the waves of the broad, black coastline lapping somewhere in front of us.
Chief Tom is an important man on Tanna, a member of the Council of Chiefs, which has significant power in running the country of Vanuatu. He carries himself with great authority, and takes himself quite seriously. For three hours, while we sipped Australian wine in the candlelight, Chief Tom went into great detail about kastom, which is pidgin for “custom,” meaning the old, indigenous, pre-white-man ways.
Eventually, I asked him about magic.
“A magic man can turn into a dog, squirrel, flying fox,” Chief Tom said in a firm, authoritative tone. “If he doesn’t like another man, he can wait till the man go fishing, then turn into a shark and eat the man. A magic man can turn into a cat and climb in a window, and if you touch this cat, you will die.”
I had just read a passage in Azkaban about men turning into, alternately, a rat and a wolf, shapeshifting creatures that J.K. Rowling refers to as animagi.
“And devils are real,” Chief Tom continued. “When you come across a devil, your ears become long like a cow’s ears, your hair becomes colder, and you start shaking.
“I know the magic men on Ambrym, and they can fly from island to island—bam—in two seconds. And you can go flying with him. You hold on his pants and close the eyes. You hear singing and then you start flying. You fly straight—straight through buildings and mountains and whatever stands in your way.
“But if you open your eyes, you get stuck inside the mountain or the building or whatever. I know this is true.”
“That would be great,” I said with a grin, but then I caught myself, hoping Chief Tom wouldn’t take my grin as sarcasm.
“If I had known before that you wanted to fly, I would have arranged for you to fly,” Chief Tom said with not a trace of humor.
Chief Tom went into great detail about magic men, devils, flying, and curses. Then he described what magic men use to communicate instead of telephones.
“They use marigolds,” Chief Tom said. “They talk into a flower on Tanna and somebody in Ambrym can hear them. In fact, we can use these marigolds to talk to people in the United States. Have you ever seen someone in the United States with a flower behind their ear? Well, that’s the talking flower.”
(Part 7 can be read here.)