Derek White
Who Catches Who Sleeping
New Prose From the USA

        We were taking our time strolling back to our anchored yacht in Levuka, when an unkempt Fijian woman with a long loaf of bread and a can of cocoa powder tapped me on the shoulder. She ignored me ignoring her and tugged on my arm again. Then she lifted up her shirt and rubbed her dark belly in wide circles. Whether her gesticulations implied a question or a statement was not clear.
        The woman was Melanesian with a moustache and had a stream of sweat running straight down her forehead. Her nappy mushroom of hair was matted lopsided and she smelled of kerosene and fish. She motioned for Jessica and I to follow her. We shook our heads no and smiled, but she insisted. I couldn’t figure out if she was asking for food or offering it to us. She didn’t seem all there, but we didn’t want to come off as close-minded. After all, we were travelers with an open-ended agenda and needed an excuse to shake out our sea legs.
        We followed her through a maze of shanty alleys to a wood and tin shack that was no different than all the others. There was an old man sitting on a stool near the doorway decapitating fish with a machete. When we greeted him, he said a word that sounded like “which” and started laughing without ever looking at us.
        The house was on stilts, jutting out over Levuka bay. We paused for a second to see if we could spot our boat, then followed her inside. In places you could see the muddied water between the unfinished slats on the floor. Our lollipop-headed hostess ordered us to sit down on palm-frond mats, but we were reluctant. The mats had a funny smell and milky smears all over them.
        We were saved by a brouhaha of children and pets that barreled in to the room and bounced all over us. A few of the kids looked mulatto. The children showcased their puppies, holding them up by their necks. They demonstrated how cruel they could be. The more we tried to teach them to be kind, the more they laughed and playfully tortured their pets just to appease us. Our hostess with the moustache and mushroom hair laughed hysterically at our reactions. Then all of a sudden she stopped laughing and left the room.
        A skinny kid reached up and punched me on the shoulder. “She like you,” he said. His accent was pretty good.
        “You speak English?” I answered. “Do they teach you it in school?”
        “She want you. To go. After she.”
        The rest of the children were laughing. The kid that spoke was the hero. We didn’t know what to believe at this point. The children quickly lost interest in us.
        Jessica and I were about to leave, when our lollipop-headed hostess returned and motioned for us to come into another room.
        “We must be going,” I said, “but thank you.” We started to make for the pile of fish heads beyond the open doorway.
        The woman’s face melted to a look of anguished confusion. She grabbed my arm and pulled me back in.
        “Okay, okay. We’ll stay a little while longer.”
        The other room was painted light blue and had tasseled pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary all over the walls. Some other women ceremoniously filed in and sat down on the floor, so we followed suit.
        We had nothing to say as we didn’t speak a word of Fijian and none of them spoke English. We just all looked at each other and smiled. An exceptionally large woman was breast-feeding a blonde infant. She had huge dark nipples caked with dried milk. We weren’t sure what we were waiting for. The awkward silence was punctuated by the sound of the machete lopping fish heads outside.
        Propped in the only window was a mannequin torso with a circular bulls-eye on the belly. Just to make conversation, I pointed to it and asked, “what’s that for?” My cheeks were starting to hurt from all the smiling.
        Nobody even attempted to answer me. Our lollipop-headed hostess got up and left the room without saying anything.
        “One of them could be a seamstress,” Jessica speculated.
        “Could be,” I answered. I continued to look around the room and smile. “I wonder where the men are at?”
        “They are probably out fishing.”
        “Or drinking kava.”
        A few days before we took shore leave on another Fijian island where we were treated to a kava drinking ceremony. On that island we only saw men, except for the two virgin girls that chewed the kava root and spit it into a wooden bowl. Women were not allowed to drink kava. At the time, we wondered what the women were doing while that was all going on.
        Our crazy hostess appeared long enough to shoe a mangy dog in to the room. The dog had a mannequin hand in its mouth. The dog bee-lined towards me and Jessica. One of the women jumped up and intercepted the dog. She pried the artificial limb out of its mouth and shoed the poor dog back out of the room. She apologetically mumbled something over and over.
        “Its okay,” Jessica said. “We’re fine with it.”
        “Wife?” the woman asked me, pointing to Jessica with the mannequin hand.
        “No,” I said. “Not yet.”
        The woman looked away at the mannequin torso in the window then looked down at her own hands.
        “This is really weird,” Jessica whispered out of the corner of her smiling mouth. “I wonder if they have ever had anyone else over like this.”
        Then our lollipop-headed hostess returned—dramatically sober as she stared down at the floor and shuffled her feet. She stopped and removed her flowered sari. She was naked from the waist down. An unkempt bush of pubic hair concealed her sex, all the way down her thighs. She spread the sari out on the floor and proceeded to lay down on her side, like she was posing for a Gauguin painting. Within seconds she was asleep.
        Once she was sleeping, the woman nursing the child pointed at the crazy woman and drew imaginary circles around her temples with her finger—the universal sign for mental illness. It was all bordering on hysterical, but we didn’t know whether it was okay to laugh about it.         The other women weren’t laughing.
        Jessica whispered, “are they expecting anything from us?”
        “I can’t think of what,” I said.
        The woman holding the mannequin hand pointed at the sleeping woman and said, “witch,” but it was unclear whether she was asking a question or making a statement. She made a motion like she was writing something in the air. Jessica instinctively reached into her backpack. This felt like the customary point in a travelers encounter where addresses were exchanged, promises were made, and both parties said goodbye to never see each other again. Jessica pulled out a ballpoint pen and a scrap of paper and handed it to the woman. She only took the pen.
        Then the woman holding the mannequin hand started writing on the stomach of the sleeping crazy woman. It was hard to see the blue ink against her black skin. She drew a circular target centered on her belly button, and a wandering line leading away from the circle towards her overgrown bush. Then she inscribed the letters “WOMBAHAHA.” The crazy woman slept peacefully through the whole ordeal. It was then that all the other women started laughing hysterically, and we did too just to be polite. After all, we had followed her this far.