Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Love

 

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 confidante.

The confidante follows his friend around for a week or two, observing the reactions of the man to his intended.

“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 doctor.

“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 reversed.

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 creative freedom.

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.