When an Ioomi man first feels the undeniable
stirrings of love for a woman, he checks his pulse, swallows
his fears, and confides in his closest friend and
The confidante follows his friend around for
a week or two, observing the reactions of the man to his
“Is she not beautiful?” the man says to his
confidante as they watch the woman bathe beneath one of the
many cool and fragrant waterfalls that wash over this remote
volcanic island. “Does she not swim with the grace of a
fish?” the man says as they watch the woman dive for
mollusks in the limpid sea.
The confidante watches carefully, silently
remarking the proof that his friend is in love: the glassy
eyes, the breathless words, the trembling hands.
He is also watching the girl, for he knows
that in the next life it will be he who must love her. That
is the cycle of love and death in the Ioomi world.
When the confidante has gathered his
evidence, he pays a visit to the ooli, a kind of love
“My friend is lovesick,” he tells the ooli.
“Are your friend’s eyes glassy, like the
evening sea that pines for the moon?” asks the ooli.
“His eyes are glassy and he pines for a
woman,” answers the confidante.
“Are his words breathless, like the branches
of palms that pine for the wind?”
“His words are breathless and he pines for a
woman,” answers the confidante.
“Do his hands tremble, like the earth that
pines for Mahooi,” asks the ooli, referring to the
god of the volcano.
“His hands tremble and he pines for a woman.”
“Then you have correctly diagnosed your
friend’s illness. Well done,” says the ooli. “Now
it is time for the cure. Do what is required, and may you
be shown the same kindness in your next life.”
The confidante has known all along it would
come to this. Now it is he who must check his pulse and
swallow his fears.
“I know the cure for your bursting heart,” he
says to his friend, who then embraces him and responds
knowingly, “You are the one I can count on. I will one day
repay you in kind,” one day understood by both to
mean in the next life, when their roles will be
And then the confidante retreats to his hut
for a period of contemplation, in which he must determine
the best method to sacrifice himself for his friend’s love
and secure for his friend the wife he so desires.
In the old days, a confidante’s role was much
easier: he simply threw himself into the hot lava pools that
bubble at the mouth of the volcano. Some say that the
method changed when an eruption by Mahooi was attributed to
an overflow of love sacrifices. Even Mahooi can only accept
so much love, they say. Others say the change came simply
out of boredom, that the confidantes demanded greater
Now, each new generation of confidantes seems
to want to outdo their predecessors. Generations ago, a
popular method was to dive head first from a tall coconut
tree. Not long ago, confidantes found ingenious uses for
fire, burning themselves on a stake, tripping face first
into a bed of hot coals, or rowing out to sea in a burning
canoe. The current rage is to swim with bleeding fish tied
to your waist, inviting the sharks to eat you.
Once the confidantes were given their
creative freedom, people naturally began to judge them on
style. The more frightening, original, and painful the
death, the greater the declaration of love, and thus the
greater attraction a woman feels for her fiancÚ.
The confidante considers his options for the
marriage proposal, weighing tradition against originality,
and at last he reaches his decision.
Some days later, a group of young friends,
male and female, are gathered around a typical beachside
fire, tasting sweet fruits while a mako shark crackles over
the flames. The lover eyes his beloved, palms sweating. He
doesn’t know when his love will be announced, but he knows
it will be soon; the girl, on the other hand, may have no
idea that the boy is even interested.
Suddenly, the group hears a stirring in the
top of a palm, and in the next instant, the confidante
appears against the blue sky in a swan dive so graceful that
those watching cannot believe the earth would dare stand in
his way. But it does, and his neck is broken, though not
until he has crashed through the roasting shark and sent a
plume of cinders and sharkmeat over everyone.
When the ashes settle and the young people
stand up, the identities of the newly engaged couple are
finally revealed by the names the confidante had carefully
tattooed to his feet, one on each: Pua and Pulani.
Pua takes Pulani’s hand. They are pleased
with the spectacular combination of the tree-fall and the
fire-leap, both of which pay homage to tradition, while the
shark, of course, alluded to the new style of the current
generation. The couple feel a humbling but cozy sense of
their place in history but also the freshness of the new.
It is love that connects them to both.
Pulani accepts, of course.
In theory a woman may reject the dramatic and
bloody marriage proposal, but Ioomi beliefs are such that it
would be a great sin against nature. The Ioomis say that
the marriage is destiny, that in this life the woman must
marry the man who chooses her, just as in the next she will
marry his confidante. And the cycle continues.
The women, like the men, are divided into two
groups, though unlike the men their roles remain the same
from lifetime to lifetime. A woman may either be a lali,
the first wife and the object of her husband’s lifelong
devotion, or a lulani, a second wife and companion.
Generation after generation, the lali
is coddled and adored by her husband, beginning with the
love-sacrifice that proclaims publicly his love for her and
serves as a marriage proposal. Once married, the lali
performs no household duties and is showered constantly with
gifts and affection. Her husband must provide her with
whatever she desires.
A husband naturally grows weary of serving
his first wife by himself, so he soon seeks a lulani,
a second wife, to assist him with household duties and to
bear children. Thereafter, a husband sleeps only with his
second wife, who becomes a partner to him, though never an
object of devotion.
By all accounts, a husband’s relationship
with his second wife is far closer and seemingly more
satisfying than his relationship with his lali, who
remains an eternal flame that burns symbolically but
generates little heat. And yet a husband will speak in
wistful, glowing terms of his lali even as he stands
holding the hand of his life partner, his lulani.
The life of a lali is perhaps the
strangest of all. She lives like a queen in her own house,
every whim satisfied by her fawning husband, yet she is
denied the satisfaction of a loving partnership like that
which exists between a husband and his second wife. Neither
may she have sex with her husband. Ioomi taboos strictly
forbid a husband from having sex with his lali; to
consummate the relationship, they say, would surely despoil
their love. Yet rarely does a lali remain a virgin,
because there is no law preventing her from sleeping with
any other man. Such behavior is usually frowned upon, but
no man would dare get angry at his lali, even if he
caught her in the act. Many lali, in fact, relish
this wrinkle in the social fabric, satisfying themselves
with a great many men in an Ioomi village, at all hours of
the day, in every possible setting, and using every position
known to the Ioomis.
Pua and Pulani marry just three days later,
while the oiled, well-preserved body of Pua’s confidante
receives the seat of honor, front and center.
As the ceremony concludes and the interested
parties wander back to their huts, a lali reaches out
of the bushes and grabs the first handsome man she sees.
“A man may kill himself for love but a woman
may not,” she says. “I must do something for love.”
And then she takes his hand and pulls him
into the bushes with her, laughing with delight, while
behind them, just offshore, a man thrashes about and screams
as he is slowly disemboweled by frenzied sharks.