I HAD THOUGHT I WAS ALONE; THE VILLAGE
deserted. I had looked up and down the streets and peered into many of the
small houses; I could see no one and there were no signs of recent habitation.
But from the thatched hut as I stood there one foot on a rock, my hands in
the air, the boy came, a small native dressed only in a pair of ragged shorts.
He wheeled a red bicycle. He held it and clumsily mounted it. The streets
here were made of crushed rock and shells gathered from the beaches.
Curbs were there outlining the street made of chunks of coral. The boy pedaled
away down the street, the tires wobbling. The sky was a very light blue, cloudless,
and down the street I could see
the lagoon where the mild inoffensive waves lapped against the bright
A boy, I thought. Is he alone here? I walked on down the
In a moment I heard the crunch of tires and, turning,
saw the boy coming down the street after me. He was speeding very fast, leaning
low over the handlebars, his black hair plastered flat on his head. His eyes
were full of darkness.
"Hey meester!" he yelled. "Look me!"
The bike came speeding by.
As he passed me I saw his front wheel wobble badly in
the loose rock. Then, in a second, it was over: the front wheel turned sharply
and the rear wheel came up, the boy gasping, going over the handlebars,
arms spread in front of him. He was a brown shape suddenly hurtling
through the air. I saw he was going to hit a rock on the side of the street.
I watched him fly through the air straight toward the rock, which was white,
as the bicycle skidded to a stop in a flourish of gravel. When the child hit
the rock he gave out a kind of grunt, and crumpled. I saw a spot of blood
on the rock. I saw, as the boy rolled to a stop, spots of blood on his face
and chest. The black eyes were very still and there was a grin locked on his
Slowly the people came from the hut. The old man put the
boy's head on his lap. The old woman squatted down beside the boy and
swayed to and fro, moaning. The young, fleshy women sat shyly beside her father
and looked at me. Two small boys came from the hut and picked up the bicycle,
inspecting it for dents.
The boy's head lolled back and forth. Two mangy dogs sniffed
at his feet.
"My name is Johnston," I said.
The father put his son's head on the gravel and stood
to shake hands with me. I shook hands with the old woman who was moaning,
and with the younger woman who took my hand gravely and shook it slowly. The
two boys paid no attention to me. One was on the bike and trying to ride it.
"I'm sorry about your son," I said.
He smiled without any teeth. His mouth was empty darkness.
The two dogs came to the fleshy woman and crouched on
her lap. She smiled at them and rubbed their fur, and they nuzzled against
her. She was wearing a man's shirt and they stuck their black noses into her
shirt, at her breasts. She unbuttoned the shirt and opened
it at one side, smiling and rubbing at the dogs. One of them started tugging
at her teat. Her breasts were big but hanging loosely almost to her waist.
The shirt was faded. As I watched, the other dog tried to push in, and the
first dog growled, his muzzle at her breast, and squirmed a little. The woman
was smiling wider now, and the second dog again tried to push in. She held
one flap of the shirt over one breast so both dogs could not feed at once.
They were both growling now, and squirming on her lap, and she rubbed them
and tickled them so they would squirm some more. Her eyes were bright and
shiny and she was giggling a little. The one dog was still tugging wetly at
her, but then the other dog nipped him on the rump, and he let out a yelp
and twisted around to snap at the offending dog. As they squirmed and rolled
together, the woman laughed and cried and bounced up and down, holding the
dogs so they wouldnt fall off her lap. There was the snap of teeth and the
snarling growls and I could hear also, as if in the background, the slow moan
of the old woman. At last the young woman pushed the dogs off her lap and
stood up, still giggling, breathing heavily. She looked at me as she buttoned
The boy shuddered once and died. Red blood trickled from
The old woman stopped moaning and went into her hut.
I took the young woman's hand and led her down the
street. I cut her a coconut and she drank a little, the liquid sloshing on
her shirt. She brushed at it and handed the coconut back to me, smiling, and
I saw that two of her front teeth were missing and that the rest of her teeth
were brown. Her face was broad and flat. She was fleshy around the waist,
with broad hips, heavy legs. I touched her belly and it felt good, soft, as
if I could feel the soft wet organs under her skin. She put my hand inside
her shirt and I kneaded her breast gently.
One boy came by on the bicycle. His eyes were flashing
and he was low over the handlebars. The other boy came running after, but
as he saw me, he stopped. He had a small chest and big eyes, and he looked
hungry, a dusky color, his feet already broad and flat.
"Got cigarette, Yankee?"
"No," I said. I did not want him to smoke.
"What you do here, Yankee?"
"Nothing," I said. I looked at the woman. She was not
The boy was grinning at me, as if in triumph.
"You not belong here, Yankee."
"Do you want me to leave?"
His grin went wider.
"You not leave, Yankee."
He had a childish voice. He abruptly turned and left.
"What did he mean?" I asked.
"No savvy," she said.
The island had a very large lagoon
almost totally enclosed. A breeze came over the quiet water and swept through
the trees, making a noise like somebody talking. A bird sang. The trees were
green and the air pressed down. From the empty houses came noises like people
living, the clunk of pans, the patter of feet, the smell of cooking. I could
hear a laugh and a shout. The empty wind touched me, came into me, and I had
never felt so empty in all my life. The island was silent again. The ground
was rough. The woman stood in front of me and her mouth was open and her black
hair on her forehead. The houses had silent windows and brown skinned people
moved like shadows with glittering teeth. There was a
whole crowd of them not-there, and, not-there, came moving down the street
at me, holding colored shields, hatchets, walking barefoot. As they came close
they disappeared. The woman stood in front of me and she was unbuttoning her
shirt. As it came open black flies escaped from where they had been clustered
around her teat. The dogs came begging around her feet but she just kicked
them off looking at me. The dogs howled forlornly and went away. She took
off her sarong and I put my face against her belly and smelled her, and the
smell was almost overpowering. She was big and heavy. Her feet were flat and
brown. My knees were on the ground and I could feel the small rocks biting
at me. They were like small animals and there were animals all around and
she was the biggest animal of all, except for me.
I could hear the people talking in the wind.
Coming up the street were the old man and the old woman.
In their hands I could see flashing knives. Coming the other way, down the
street, were the two boys and they had clubs swinging at their sides.
The woman in front of me was naked. I had my pants off.
I could see nothing. When the people came close I lay
face down on the ground. They gathered around me and I could hear them talking
gently. The wind murmured with an unbearable sadness. I shut my eyes and waited
for the gathered clubs and knives to fall. It seemed I could feel them already.
The day was suddenly very warm.
NOTES: The Village was written in 1959, while I worked
on a fishing boat in the south seas. We had just sailed through the Tuomotu Archipelego, which are a group of atolls running from the Marquesas towards Tahiti. I was twenty years old. The atolls struck me as despairing: their population had been declining for generations as their young people deserted the atolls, with their old way of life, for the bright lights of Papeete, Tahiti. The atolls themselves, with their palm trees and their vivid lagoons—filled with brightly colored fish—were entrancing. The ocean was everywhere you looked, vast, mysterious, endless. But the people! Old men and women squatting outside their huts, the children in rags, skinny dogs--they seemed hopeless, without energy, adrift, so unlike the Polynesians I had just seen at the Marquesas. Much of what I describe in the story I witnessed: the woman with the suckling dogs, the boy crashing his bicycle...
I wrote the story on my Underwood typewriter as we continued towards the Society Islands. It was first
published in Santa Monica Review in 1995, thirty-six years later…