The White Man’s Proof (part 8 of Magic Island)

This is part 8 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 7 here.

Back in Port Vila, I took a cruise with Peter Whitelaw, owner of Sailaway Cruises, to Havannah Harbor, the other side of the island.  Peter is an Australian who sailed into Port Vila in 1980.  A cyclone suddenly hit and his boat was destroyed.  He’s remained in Vanuatu ever since, becoming one of those craggy but happy-go-lucky expatriates that you read about in Hemingway novels.  When I told him of my interest in magic, Peter gave me a warning.

“This is a very secretive society,” Peter said.  “Like an onion, you must peel it back in layers.”

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

And then Peter told me about black magic.  Whenever anyone dies at a young age or gets sick unexpectedly, Peter says, the ni-Vanuatu assume that someone cast a curse on that person.  In fact, he said, there is currently someone on trial on Espiritu Santo for killing three people by black magic.

When I researched the court case in the local newspaper, The Post, I was puzzled that the Vanuatu legal system was taking such claims of black magic seriously.  Then I discovered the most mysterious aspects of all: The man has confessed.  Why would a man confess to killing three people if he hadn’t?

In other Post articles, I discovered other surprising cases.  In one, a black magic group cast a spell on a teenage girl by hanging a black cat over a fire and chanting her name.  Later, they killed her.  Then, to cover up the crime, one of the group transfigured into the form of his sister “from the waist up,” and he successfully took his sister’s place for two days.  The legal system, astoundingly, is allowing such claims to be presented as fact in court.

This is truly a magical land, in which the realm of what is believed possible is far greater than what James Randi and the Skeptics Society might believe.  However, the Western mind does tend to reduce everything to explanations.  In my final days in Vanuatu, I was increasingly aware that most of my eyewitness accounts of magic came from ni-Vanuatu, people who are predisposed to magical rather than skeptical explanations.  Is a Western eyewitness more reliable than a ni-Vanuatu eyewitness?


That’s when I heard Peter Whitelaw’s story.  Peter is a white man, an Aussie with a B.S. in electrical engineering, and thinks deeply about all things, whether cultural, political, or scientific.  A couple years ago, one of his ni-Vanuatu boatmates told him that he was being dogged by a curse that had been placed on him.  Peter was skeptical, of course.

But then one day, the mate was eating in the galley when his plate split into pieces in front of them all for no reason.  The shards and food all fell to the floor.

“This happens all the time,” said the ni-Vanuatu man with a besieged look on his face.


A ni-Vanuatu fixing food in the traditional way.

When we perform magic in the Western world, standing onstage with our magic wands, most people consider what we do “just tricks.”  But there is a whole world out there, hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples, perhaps billions, who believe that the world is more than just the concrete and the verifiable.  They are willing to place magicians on the same pedestal upon which stood the ancient gods.

They believe that ghosts and spirits are all around us.  They believe that magicians can perform feats beyond all imagining.  They believe that the world is, like the waterfall at the base of Mount Yasur, evanescent and malleable and wondrously surprising, that it is, in a word, magic.

And who am I to disagree?


(This is the end of this series.)

A Moment to Be Afraid (part 7 of Magic Island)

This is part 7 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 6 here.

The next day, we toured Iwner, a kastom village.  There, for an admission price, they show tourists the old ways.  It is a fascinating tour.  A ni-Vanuatu guide with a bare chest showed us around and described what life is like in this primitive village in the jungle.


Over 85% of the vegetation around us is used for food, medicine, shelter, or in other ways, he told us.  A woman in a grass skirt gave us each shredded coconut wrapped in some kind of leaf, and although we hesitated, we finally ate it so as not to offend.

After the 40-minute tour, in a large clearing in front of a huge banyan tree, where the dead spirits reside, over 300 villagers in grass skirts and painted faces began performing a tribal dance.  When asked, I joined in, trying to mimic what they did, although I was always a second or two behind.  Over 300 people were stomping the dirt with their feet—one, two, three!—and you could feel the tremors in the ground.  They were asking the gods to bless the yam harvest, and the dust rose up in response.

Finally, when the dance was over, Belden asked the chief whether I could perform a show for the villagers, and he consented.  The entire tribe gathered around me, everyone from elders to fit young men to teenage girls to little children.

This was the moment to be afraid.  I was surrounded by black faces in war paint, people who believe in the old ways, people who dance to please the gods.  And I didn’t have J.K. Rowling writing the script to ensure a happy ending.

Roll2014Taking a deep breath, I performed the sponge balls, the trick that always seems most like real magic.  After each magical moment, there was an audible “Ohhhh!” as 300 people expressed their astonishment at the same time.  A few superstitious elderly Iwners laid back with a conflicted, suspicious look on their faces, like maybe I’m the real thing, like maybe I’m going to put a curse on them, like maybe I’m a devil who’s come to make their ears long like cow’s ears and slaughter them all.

Roll2015Then I performed some rope magic, a vanishing trick, and finally, a feat of magic that tends to freak out even skeptical Americans.  They loved it all.  Once again, I saw the familiar alternating current of excitement, then trepidation, excitement, then trepidation.


When it was all over, I walked toward the Land Cruiser, and every ni-Vanuatu’s eyes were on me, and I felt what Copperfield must feel when walking down Park Avenue.  As we were driving away from Iwner, once again over bumpy dirt roads, heading back to our bungalows, Belden finally spoke.

“These people have not seen such a thing before,” said Belden.  His eyes betrayed some deep emotion, perhaps awe or, perhaps, gratefulness.  “You have shown them a very great thing.”


At Tanna International Airport, waiting in a crowd of ni-Vanuatu for the plane that will take me back to Port Vila, I saw a Mormon missionary, dressed in the familiar white shirt and tie, and short blond hair.  I struck up a conversation, and discovered he was from Utah.

“What do you think about the magic here in Vanuatu?” I asked.  “Is it real?”

“Most of it is just superstition and tricks,” he said.

“What do you mean, ‘most of it’?” I asked.

But he waltzed around my question, talking about kava, about sleight of hand, about naïve audiences.

Roll2018“But do you believe that some of it is, for example, the work of Satan?”

“I believe,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “that Satan’s power is real, and that if you look for Satan, you will find him.”

I wondered, chatting amiably with this young man from the Utah technology tribe, how much difference there really was between his beliefs and those of the ni-Vanuatu.

(The final installment, part 8, can be read here.)

Chief Tom’s Magic (part 6 of Magic Island)

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.

Sunset as seen by the Evergreen Tribe

Sunset as seen by the Evergreen Tribe

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.)

Into the Wild (part 5 of Magic Island)

This is part 5 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Part 4 can be seen here.

A flight to Tanna is a flight away from all modern security concerns.  We boarded a 10-seater plane, without any kind of X-ray screening, and one of us sat next to the pilot.  If he’d had a box cutter, we would’ve all been dead.  Once we landed, the Tanna International Airport was no larger than a steakhouse.  There were no customs agents of any kind.  And once we hopped into the shuttle bus, we discovered that the road from the airport to the accommodations was unpaved.


The Tanna security checkpoint

The Tanna airport

The Tanna airport

The next afternoon, a group of us hopped into a Toyota Land Cruiser and made for the volcano.  I sat in front with the slender ni-Vanuatu driver named Belden, who said he was 26, although ni-Vanuatu rarely keep track of their birthdays, and often simply guess at their age.

Belden, my driver

Belden, my driver, who doesn’t look 26 years old to me.

First, we rumbled across bumpy dirt roads through the Whitegrass Plains, past wild horses, boars, and goats.  Later, we reached Middle Bush, still on dirt roads, passing village after village of thatched-roof buildings, natives carrying bows and arrows, black children in old donated clothes running up to the truck and waving happily at the Caucasians, kids stopping their soccer game to wave and yell at the Caucasians, all these black faces and white smiles and bugs and dust and no electricity and no signs, virtually no signs anywhere.  When it rains, this place must turn into one big muddy mess.


As we passed through village after village, Belden told me his life story.  Belden, it turns out, studied at a university in Tonga and received his A.A. in South Pacific History before the scholarship money from his tribe ran out.  Upon his return, Belden was set up in an arranged marriage, which is the custom in Vanuatu, but he surprised everyone by refusing it, insisting on marrying a girl whom he truly loved in a neighboring village.

After much dispute and negotiation, Belden was allowed to make his own choice, but there was a price to pay for taking a woman from the neighboring village: The couple must eventually return a woman to that village.  Thus, when their 4-year-old daughter Marsala becomes old enough—perhaps 10—they must give her up.

“Won’t that be difficult?” I asked.

“Yes, it will,” Belden said with some emotion from behind his steering wheel.  “But it is for the good of the village.”

I thought about asking Belden about magic, but it was a sensitive subject, since the people in his village are churchgoing Christians.  Indeed, the island is teeming with missionaries from various denominations, all seeking to convert the pagans to their own faith.  The island boasts Seventh-Day Adventists, Foursquares, Mormons, Baptists, you name it.

After 2 ½ hours on dirt roads, it was getting on toward dusk.  Suddenly, from nowhere, we mounted a grey, ash-covered plain that stretched out like a Tranquility Base moonscape.  Belden sped across the plain for a few minutes, and then suddenly, the volcano rose up in front of us.

Yasur Volcano on Tanna

Yasur Volcano on Tanna

Mount Yasur is a study in blacks, whites, and greys, a huge smoking mountain wherein dwell the spirits.  We crossed a stream next to a stunning waterfall, and then sped up the back road through the thick, overgrown rainforest, heading for the top.

It was 5:30 when we finally reached the crater’s edge, and darkness had just fallen like a hammer, no lights anywhere, just the black, black night.  Belden parked the car and handed each of us a flashlight, and we wended our way up the last 150 yards of switchbacks in the dark.

A dull red glow in the sky.  That’s what Commander James Cook saw from his ship in August, 1774, and what originally caused him to veer toward Tanna.  When Captain Cook started to scale the volcano, however, the natives stopped him: The spirits inhabit the volcano, he was told, and climbing it was tabu.

But times have changed.  As we climbed the switchbacks, we began to smell the sulphur, and when we reached the top, we began walking through a thin veil of sulphurous smoke.  You feel and hear the volcano before you see it—the frightening hiss of flowing lava, the gentle ground tremors, the heat that you can feel if you squat down and lay your palm on the ashy ground.  If you believe in such things, you can feel the presence of the spirits.

When you finally peer over the crater’s edge, the colors are unexpected, modulating in fiery hues.  Occasionally, lava splashes high in the air like a Roman candle.  The scene is hypnotic, and it beckons you to stare and stare.

“Do you come here often?” I asked Belden.

“Yes,” he said.

“How many times?”

“Maybe one hundred?” he said.

Finally, it seemed appropriate to ask about the magic.  Belden was not taken aback by the question, and answered forthrightly.

“Once, I see man blong magik plant mango seed,” Belden said, “and all in ten minutes, it sprouts, it grows—how you say?—grows buds, it bores fruit, and the fruit falls from the tree.”

It sounded like a trick that I saw John Gaughan perform at the Magic Castle.  Still, he had performed it onstage, with the benefit of 19th-century European technology.

“I also see a man blong magik cracked open a coconut and poured juice over there,” Belden said, pointing to his left, “and it disappear in the air.  It appear again over there”—pointing to his right now—“in the air, and pour in the mouth of another man blong magik.

I could imagine how this trick could be pulled off, but the stage could not be examined afterward.  Belden told me of other befuddling magic, too.

I wondered about Belden’s stories, I must admit, as I had wondered five years ago about acupuncture.  I had seen Western doctors laugh at acupuncture, and I must admit that I ridiculed it, as well.  Three years ago, however, acupuncture rehabilitated my own badly injured shoulder and saved my mother from a severe arthritis that Western doctors were unable to ameliorate.  I wondered, as I had earlier wondered about acupuncture, whether Western civilization had simply forgotten these arcane, illogical, and yet magical ways.

When Belden had finished his stories, I asked him whether the church approved of his beliefs.

The tiniest smile crept onto Belden’s lips.

“I do not tell them,” he said.  “But I know it happen, because I seen it.”

With the red light of the volcano playing on his black face, I could see that his eyes were full of conviction.

(Part 6 can be seen here.)

Picking Money Out of the Air (part 3 of Magic Island)

This is part 3 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 2 here.

Collecting stories about Vanuatu’s magic was one thing; performing my own magic was something I had to creep up on.

Early on, Don Macquoid arranged a performance date for me at The Waterfront Restaurant for Tuesday evening.  He contacted the newspaper, as well.


The next day, while standing at the hotel registration counter, I performed a coin trick for a pretty ni-Vanuatu girl.  A crowd gathered, including all the counter staff, several bellboys, and a couple security guards.  After the coin work, I graduated to borrowing some silverware and bending a few of those with my mind.

I waited for them to throw me in a pot.  Instead, they just gathered around, eyes wide open, astonished as no Westerner over the age of 11 can be astonished.

“I’ll be playing at the Waterfront on Tuesday,” I said.

“We’ll be there,” one of them said.

“Can you tell me if my baby will be a boy?” one young woman asked.

I placed my hand on her belly for a minute, pondered, and then answered: “Yes, a boy.”

Later, I performed on the street, true to my street beginnings, in the open market to a crowd of 100 poor, uneducated ni-Vanuatu.  They did not throw me in a pot, either.  Over the next few days, I performed to strangers all over Port Vila—in restaurants, in retail shops, even on public sidewalks.

By Tuesday evening, word had gotten around and there was a huge crowd gathered at The Waterfront, a mixture of expatriates, ni-Vanuatu, and tourists who just happened to be in the restaurant.  With a microphone hanging around my neck, I went through my whole comic stage show.  Two months later, Macquoid later told me, his customers were still talking about it.


I performed several tricks, the centerpiece of the show being The Silence of the Lemons, which can be seen in another context here.  Most Westerners enjoy this show, but ultimately conclude that it must have been just an elaborate trick that is simply impenetrable to them.  It seriously bothers some people, especially engineers, egotists, and bona fide geniuses, all of whom stake their entire identities on being able to figure things out.  These types come up to me days after my performance, their eyes red and fatigued.

“I’ve been staying up nights thinking about your tricks, dammit,” one husky egotist said.

But Westerners rarely go to the place where they believe—actually truly believe—that I can magically penetrate an uncut lemon with their own bill: It is just a sublime puzzle.

The ni-Vanuatu, however, are different.  After this show, as well-earned sweat was rolling down my neck and I was walking among the audience and shaking hands, I saw a different expression on the faces of the ni-Vanuatu in the audience.  One ni-Vanuatu stopped me and asked me to teach him a trick.

“It’s that trick where you….” and then he started laughing as he thought about it, his middle-aged eyes crinkling, “…that trick where you…” and once again, he devolved into laughter, “…where you pick the vatus [Vanuatu coins] out of the air.

It was the trick that I had performed at the hotel registration desk.  This man had seen an immediate application to the trick: He, too, wanted to pick coins out of the air.  To him, it was real.  I was a rich white man, and that’s how I became rich.

[Read part 4 here.]

In Search of Real Magic (part 2 of Magic Island)

This is part 2 of the article, “Magic Island,” originally published in the New York Daily News.  Part 1 was published here.

If you want to see Vanuatu, you must first fly into Port Vila on the island of Efate.  It is a bustling town of 36,000, but nothing like a real city.  There is a two-lane main street along the shoreline and a few quaint restaurants and shops.  The streets are populated with black-skinned ni-Vanuatu, Australian tourists, and the expatriate merchant class.


I immediately set out in search of eyewitnesses to the feats of man blong magik, or magic men.  I asked around everywhere.

At the Botanical Gardens, I talked with Paco Mete.  He is the host of an outdoor museum that gives historical and cultural information about Vanuatu.  Paco is an eloquent young Melanesian man with an airtight mind, and when asked, told of two examples of real magic that he has witnessed firsthand.

“Once,” said Paco, “right here at the gardens, I see man blong magik cut a coconut in two, and then, suddenly, clap the two halves back together, healing it.”

I smiled and nodded, but still, this fell into the realm of trickery, since the magician Michael Ammar regularly performs the same feat with a lemon–as a trick.

The second, however, was more intriguing: During that same ceremony, Paco saw a conch shell grab onto a leaf as if it were a hand.

The incident sounded vaguely hallucinogenic, like the willow tree whose branches try to kill Harry Potter in Azkaban, and so my mind immediately went to kava, the local drink.  However, I had to be careful with such suspicions, because virtually every feat of magic can be discounted by labeling it a kava dream, and that would render all magic false before even examining it.

Paco recounted more chilling feats, as well.  Sometimes, Paco said, magicians have been known to sneak into people’s homes in the middle of the night and perform secret surgery.  The victims wake up the next morning and walk around as if nothing is wrong.  A couple days later, however, they drop dead.  If an autopsy is performed, the doctor finds that his guts are filled with nothing but leaves.

Another feat requires the magic man to boil a black cat live.  He then places one of the cat’s bones in his mouth.  Then he can walk around invisibly, like Harry Potter donning his invisibility cloak.

Everywhere I went, people encouraged me to drink kava (piper methysticum)People see strange things when drinking kava, although it’s not a hallucinogen; in fact, it’s legal to purchase even in the virulently anti-drug atmosphere of the United States.


The kava plant

When I checked with my acupuncturist back home, I discovered that technically, kava is a euphoric and a soporific, which means that it “makes people feel mildly euphoric and then sleepy,” according to Laraine Crampton, L.Ac., one of the authors of Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology (AOM Press 2003, $90), with a private practice in Santa Monica, California.

Kava begins as a local leaf that young virgins prepare by chewing it into a mush.  They spit it out, water is added, and it is filtered through coconut fibers into a final product.  Kava bars abound on the islands.  After drinking kava from a half-coconut shell, you can see and even talk with the dead spirits, according to local lore.  First, your mouth becomes numb.  If you turn away from other people and stare into the distance, the spirits appear to you.  Within minutes, all of the questions that bother you will be answered, they say.

“As with any euphoric, it may open you up beyond your normal boundaries,” Crampton said to my surprise.  “If, by the term magic, you mean being in touch with other realms, then I wouldn’t rule out magic.”

In my search around Port Vila, I stumbled on Don MacQuoid, who runs The Waterfront Bar & Grill.  He’s actually quite a knowledgeable magician, having grown up in Southern California and studied in the ‘70s under the legendary magician Jules Lenier, who passed away several years ago.  MacQuoid claims to own nearly every magic instructional video and DVD in existence, and performs lots of great tricks for a visiting American.


Macquoid is a real find.  He was an early investor in Apple and cashed out with a fortune.  He bought a yacht and cruised the world with his wife for a couple years.  He landed here six years ago, buying the Waterfront after fifteen years of sailing around the world with his lovely wife Donna.  From time to time, he invites prominent magicians to perform at the Waterfront.

After one particularly strong performance, the ni-Vanuatu employees were convinced of the magician’s genuine powers.  That night, a young boy fell sick in their village, and the next day, the employees refused to go to work, blaming the magician’s black magic.

“I had to bring in a village klever,” MacQuoid says.  “I paid her $60, and her job was to walk around the restaurant and discover the source of the curse on the young boy.  Finally, she found three black stones in a planter that she said were to blame.  She replaced them with three white stones, and suddenly, everything was right with the world again.”

Sometimes, Macquoid has put the ni-Vanuatu’s own beliefs to good use.  One of his ni-Vanuatu employees, for example, injured his arm.  It healed, but the employee didn’t heal psychologically, refusing to use the arm for everyday tasks.

One day, Macquoid decided to take matters into his own hands.  He ordered the employee to sit down and close his eyes, and then loaded some fake blood into his arm under a layer of rubber cement.  He took out Harry Anderson’s trick, “Knife Through Arm,” and began “cutting into” the employee’s arm.

“Open your eyes,” Macquoid said.

When the employee did, he was stunned, his eyes wide with alarm.  Macquoid rocked the blade back and forth, the blood running down his forearm.

“Those are the evil spirits,” Macquoid said.  “They’re leaving your body.”

Belief is a powerful thing.  Today, the employee’s arm is as good as new.


From books, I happened upon other magical stories.  The Lonely Planet Vanuatu guidebook says that magic is especially strong around volcanos, for example, and that there are nine active volcanos in Vanuatu, two underwater.  Magic is believed to be strongest on Ambrym and Epi, remote islands that the travel agents warn me not to visit.  There are barely even accommodations on that island, they say.

One of Vanuatu's volcanos

One of Vanuatu’s volcanos

If you meet a magician, the book says, he may not even shake your hand, since magicians feel themselves superior.  (In my experience, the same thing is true in the States.  Or maybe it’s something in my approach….)

One intriguing eyewitness account comes from Isles of Illusion, a book by an anonymous author who’s identified only as Asterisk.  He was a colonial Englishman who was stationed on the islands in the late 19th century, and wrote back to his brother in England about his experiences in letters that were never meant to be published, but which one of his descendants deemed fascinating enough to put into print in 1913.

Asterisk didn’t believe in the ni-Vanuatu’s magic, so when a native told him that he was being pursued by a demon, Asterisk was skeptical.  But then one night, he saw the native being dragged through the jungle by no one, by an invisible person.  It may be historical, but it is an eyewitness account, nonetheless.

[To read part 3, click here.]

Magic Island (part 1)

2014 marks the 10th anniversary of this article.  Versions of it appeared in the New York Daily News and other publications.  It chronicles an experience that changed my life.

In Vanuatu, a string of islands in the South Pacific, the natives all live a secret life.

At Le Meridien resort, a fit young Melanesian man in a grass skirt and headdress opens the door of your taxi with a warm smile, but he is not what he seems.  Neither is the husky Melanesian bartender at Breakas Resort, where you swim up to the bar and order a Margarita while gazing at a stunning beach.  Nor the slender Melanesian who drives you three hours over dirt roads and through primitive villages to the active volcano of Mount Yasur; here, nobody is what they seem.

13 smaller

The people of Vanuatu, men and women with dark faces who settled this island chain beginning in 1400 B.C., are called ni-Vanuatus, meaning literally, “people of Vanuatu.”  Beginning in 1603, Westerners arrived and brought the typical onslaught of civilization, including technology, written language, and most importantly, a logical and pragmatic philosophy of life.  But throughout the centuries, the ni-Vanuatu have resisted.

Today, nearly all ni-Vanuatu believe in a world in which magic, real magic, is a literal fact of life.  On Ambrym Island, they will tell you, there are magic men who can fly, transfigure into animals, and walk around invisibly.   Dead spirits reside in banyan trees, which can be seen beside every highway, and which are illegal to cut down without the clearance of a magic man.  And if you don’t watch out, practitioners of black magic will cast a curse on you, and the results can be serious, even fatal.

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

The banyan tree, where spirits are said to reside.

During my trip to Vanuatu, I was toting around the third Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and midsentence realized, to my sudden delight, that ni-Vanuatu believe with all literalness in the world outlined by J.K. Rowling, a book that delights Westerners, but only as an imaginative childhood fantasy.

I was inexorably drawn to this magical land, being a professional mage.

But how would the ni-Vanuatu react to my own magic?


I had heard of the American soldier who was stationed on Vanuatu during WWII, and to whom they had later named a religion: the John Frum cult, named after the sergeant’s own name, “John from America.”  I had heard how some ni-Vanuatu now worship John Frum every Friday night, praying for his return as an evangelical Christian might pray for the return of Christ in the clouds.

But I had also heard of the Christian missionaries who had been eaten by the ni-Vanuatu in the 1800s, and of documented cannibalism on the islands as recent as 1987.


A ni-Vanuatu holding a human skull.

I wondered if, after seeing me pull a coin from a ni-Vanuatu ear, the villagers would throw me in a pot or start a David Frum religion.

Strangely, I was not afraid.

[Read part 2 here.]

To Kiss a Stranger

The idea of Other is a powerfully frightening one.

Consider the act of kissing someone.  If your significant other kisses you, it makes you smile.  It can lift you to the mountaintop.  Or, if you’ve just been fighting, it can bring you to tears.

Patrice and David kissing NYears Eve 1a smallerBut if a stranger kisses you, the moment might haunt you for years.  It might be considered a crime, either harassment or worse.  Your emotional reaction might be repulsion, panic, or even violence.

In the photo above, my fiancee was kissing me, but there was clearly a subtext.  Perhaps you can see it in my face.  It was New Year’s Eve.  I had decided to break up with her in September, but had forestalled the date because I’m the kind of card player who holds.  On January 4, I would deliver the final news and she would explode, cursing and accusing.  Go ahead, look, you can see that she had already become Other.

Bob Filner, the dethroned mayor of San Diego, has been the Unwanted Other many, many times.

I’m not saying Bob Filner is excused.  What I’m saying is that it’s no wonder that nations go to war against each other.  Often, it’s just the idea of Other that is offensive.

In my new novel, my main character Cat comes home one night to find a stranger in her apartment holding a gun on her.

Suddenly, he was walking slowly towards her and the calculus began to rapidly shift, and although he was talking, she was not hearing any of it, for his gun was pointed at her now, pinning her to the desk like a straight pin thrust into the thorax of a preserved butterfly.  He took one slow, tiny step after another, until she had recoiled as far back as she could and was leaning back at an extreme angle and she felt the gun barrel against her left ribs and suddenly he was only twelve inches, if that, from her face.  He dropped his cigarette and ground it into the hardwood floor with his toe.

“If you just hadn’t turned your back on the high life, we might’ve made it work.”

His breath smelled of Jack and cigarettes.  His skin was smooth and she was close enough that she could see a spot on his chin that he hadn’t shaved perfectly.  His eyes were languorous and imposing, like dark planets.  The aura that hung about him was of a flooding amorality, like he had kicked down with boots every doorway within him that had stood between him and whatever he wanted, no matter what the thing was that he wanted, and that nothing could stop him now, not the law, not convention, not sentimentality, not anyone else’s will, no matter how strong, not people or protectors, not things or objects or emotion or anything.

“You’re everything bad that’s ever happened to me,” he said in a low, strangely tender tone.

Then, in a moment in which her vision was filled with the blue and black smudge and a smear of bright nighttime headlights and she could actually hear screaming, he leaned over and touched his lips to hers.

Consent.  In the above example, it was clearly not granted.

But in other cases, it’s not so clear.  When I was dating around, one of the most difficult things for me was determining consent.  Of course, it doesn’t do to ask someone.  You have to figure that out for yourself.  In the end, you have to take a risk and just do it.  Every so often, you get a strange reaction.

“You took a big risk there,” Polly told me in January, 1994, when I kissed her in a Mexican restaurant.

Polly had just been put out of her home by the Northridge earthquake and so had I.  She had woken up to the shaking at 4:31 am, and had wanted to run and stand beneath a doorway.  But there was broken glass all over the carpet and she had bare feet.  I had had insomnia that night, and when the building started shaking, I jumped up and stood under a doorway, too.  When I tried to return to the bed, I discovered that the bookcase had fallen onto it.  Had I not jumped up quickly, that bookcase would have fallen onto me.

We had some things in common.  But Polly had a few trap doors, such as a cocaine addiction in her past, or, possibly, she implied, her present.  So it didn’t get far before it ended, and she ultimately became Other to me.

Over the years, I’ve collected in my mind a few offensive acts of Other.  At a strategic moment, I inserted some into my newly published novel, What Happens to Us (

  • “After Dante left, Cat walked downstairs and found a curved oaken semicircle table set against an ancient granite staircase.  She slipped into her spot, a quaint little reading light illuminating her space.  She opened the book at random and read about an incident in 1282 during the time that the Frenchman Charles d’Anjou was ruling Sicily.  On Easter Monday, a French soldier made a lewd comment to an innocent Italian bride during vespers.  Her husband killed the cad, French soldiers retaliated, rioting ensued, and by morning, 2,000 people lay dead.”
  • “In 1712 in New York, a slave named Rose was arrested for speaking to a white woman.  The magistrates gave her 48 lashes at the whipping post and had her tied to a horse cart and dragged around town.  In 1743 in New York, a mob attacked a Jewish funeral, stole the corpse, and gave it a Christian baptism.  In 1689, New York governor Jacob Leisler led an early fight against the English crown, increasing colonist representation in government.  Two years later, soldiers sent by the English crown beheaded him, cut out his heart, and gave it to a woman, who held it aloft and yelled out, “Here is the heart of a traitor!”  Sometimes, it seemed that What Happens to Us was no more than a series of heads on spikes.”

Cover What Happens 1d

I should point out, however, that this novel isn’t just a listing of historical events.  It actually has a compelling story.

To download the new novel, What Happens to Us, for only $3.99, click here: