A strong and mysterious ocean current washes
east to west around the island of the Shumi people. The
current is notorious among sailors, both because its
strength can push an unwary captain off course and because
of the junk that gets drawn into it, some of which can ram
and cause great damage to even a large ship. This “junk”
can be both natural and man-made, everything from trees to
car parts. Sometimes things that aren’t supposed to float
will be drawn to the surface briefly, like whales coming up
for air, before they descend to the unknown depths, not to
be seen again for many years. It is recorded in the minutes
of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee that the crew of the
freighter Woosop claimed to have seen a World War II
tank surface beside their ship and turn its turret toward
them before sinking again. What’s not recorded is that,
following this incident, the crew of the Woosop
developed a compulsive interest in history, so much so that
they earned a reputation for raiding the history sections of
libraries in their ports of call. Several of the crew went
on to become published and respected university historians.
It’s not known whether that WWII tank ever
reached the island of the Shumi, but many other things have,
and the Shumi consider each of these a gift from the sun.
In exchange, the Shumi give equivalent gifts to the sun by
day’s end. The gifts are symbolic of the mutual goodwill
between Shumi and sun and also a reminder of the great
alliance that helped save the world.
Long ago, it is said, the sun and moon
competed for control of the sky. The moon in those days was
equally as bright as the sun, and the almost constant
daylight was distressing to the Shumi, who found it
difficult to sleep. Also, the efforts of the moon and the
sun to outshine each other made the temperature
uncomfortably hot. The Shumi were an irritable people in
those days, and no one knew what to do about it.
Then, one day, the sun sent one of its winged
messengers down to the Shumi to request their assistance.
“If something isn’t done soon,” said the
winged messenger, “both the sun and the moon will burn
themselves out. Then the whole world will wither and die in
The Shumi pondered this and were scared.
“Listen,” added the winged messenger, “the
sun has no personal resentment towards the moon. The sun
only wants what’s best for the world.”
“Well, if the sun wants only to save the
world, why doesn’t it simply shut itself off?” asked the
“That is not the way of the sun,” said the
winged messenger. “Or the moon, for that matter. Both are
fighting for victory, and if either were to give up, the
victory of the other would seem empty—and so would the
The Shumi couldn’t argue with that. Besides,
they knew that the behavior of the sun and moon was beyond
“What is needed is a great victory,” said the
winged messenger. “And such a victory depends on your
The Shumi felt no animosity toward the
moon--at least no more than they felt toward the sun. In
fact they found both the sun and the moon rather irritating
because of the heat. Nevertheless, the Shumi decided to
ally themselves with the sun.
The great battle waged for months. The sun
and moon fought with light and heat, and the Shumi fought
with rocks, shells, and coconuts, all of which they threw at
the moon from battle stations high in the tallest palms.
Eventually the projectiles took their toll on the moon,
whose light faded and whose weaknesses were exploited by the
sun and its assigns.
Finally, the moon was killed and the great
victory attained. The Shumi felt proud when they looked to
the sky and saw the moon’s carcass and the battle scars left
by the Shumi projectiles, but they were saddened, too,
because they had never harbored any ill-will toward the
moon, at least no more than they had toward the sun.
So when the winged messenger descended to
offer its congratulations, the Shumi had a suggestion.
“We would like to honor the moon’s memory,”
“You took those words from the sun’s mouth,”
said the winged messenger.
After some negotiations, the Shumi came to an
agreement with the messenger, who then read it back to them:
“Each day from now on, the sun will send you gifts, and you
will in turn send gifts to the sun. This exchange will
remind us of our great victory, and the goodwill generated
by the exchange will be our way of honoring the moon, who
fought bravely and who never meant any personal harm to
either the sun or the Shumi.”
And so the sacred custom began. Each
morning, several Shumi are sent out to the rocky eastern
shore of the island to collect the gifts the sun has sent
them that day. Not anything that washes up is a gift from
the sun; the sun is unlikely to send them a coconut, for
instance, since the sun knows the Shumi have plenty of
those. Same goes for seaweed, palm fronds, and shells. But
tires, buoys, splintered hulls, bottles and cans, rope, and
drowned dogs are clearly signs of the sun’s generosity. The
Shumi collect these items, usually one or two each morning,
but sometimes as many as seven or eight when the sun feels
especially generous, and carry them back to the village,
where they are put on display for all to see and appreciate.
The elders then have the rest of the day to
come up with a suitable gift. Sometimes their response is
as simple as a palm frond or an article of clothing. Other
times, they are challenged to find more complicated
offerings, as when they once received a crate full of
chickens, two of which were still alive. On that day, the
elders debated for hours because they felt they must respond
with something special. They decided on a gift of three
living snakes, a man’s infected pinkie finger, and the split
ends from a woman’s braided ponytail, which they bound
together with vines.
Each sunset the gift or gifts are taken
ceremoniously to the west end of the island, down a wide
sandy beach and far out into the shallow waters, where they
are tossed toward the setting sun. Cheers rise from the
shore. Gifts have been exchanged; another day has passed.
Unfortunately, the gift exchange is not the
only consequence of the great victory. As the Shumi walk in
silence back to the village, the ghostly disk of the moon
rises up before them. Secretly, many feel a deep sense of
guilt. None will say it aloud, but they suspect that they
may have killed off the moon just to save themselves from
the annoying heat. In a moment of weakness, they let their
irritability get the better of them. Now, their daily
tribute to victory and to the moon’s bravery feels like an
empty gesture—not so different, they suspect, from the
emptiness the sun had warned would follow a quick surrender.
But there is one difference. Tonight, as it
does every night, the pale moon will haunt their dreams,
glowing dully like the staring eye of a drowned dog. There
is meaning to it.
The Shumi wonder if this is the meaning the
sun had in mind.