We walk with dawn at our backs towards the promise of flowers, red flowers laced with a tragic love story. I have heard two versions of this tale told by village elders:
In one, a village woman fell in love with a chief, but was forbidden from marrying him by custom. When her wedding day with another man arrived, the woman fled up the hill we now climb with a knife in her hand. People from her village pursued her, and at the peak she stabbed herself. Rather than blood, streams of red flowers flowed from her chest. They bloom every year in December, a reminder of the woman’s suffering.
In the second telling, her lover was a man of low status who her family detested. The two escaped up the hill together. The villagers, noticing their absence, pursued and killed them both as a matter of honor. The lovers’ wounds form a blood-red chain of intertwining red flowers that bloom on vines every year.
“Horticulturalists from New Zealand and Australia have tried to take specimens of the flower back to their countries to grow,” the second storyteller chuckles from his belly, “but all the flowers died. Taveuni is the only place that tagimoucia can survive.”
Three of us trudge up the hill: myself, Eleni, and a gangly guy in orange basketball shorts. He doesn’t talk much and we never learn each other’s names. The light is pinkish and fresh in the haze of early morning. With each step I wake up into my body and my voice.
Talking is a good way to keep from thinking about the enormity of the hill that surrounds us. On a particularly steep slope, Eleni turns to me and huffs: “You won’t believe this, Devi, but back in 2003 a whole group of kids snuck out of their village at dawn and walked up here alone.”
As if on cue, a light rain begins to sprinkle on our arms and day-bags. Looking up, I see nothing but cloud and the long legs of our companion some thirty steps ahead. I gave up long ago trying to keep up with his exuberant strides.
“I think about them in this rain,” Eleni shivers. “They were so young. Ten kids, the oldest not more than eleven years old. They wanted to see the lake for Fiji Day.”
Lake Tagimoucia, nestled in volcanic rock, is Taveuni’s pride, named for the telltale flowers. Barring a daylong, circuitous bus trip to the north, you can only see the lake’s shores from the top of the hills that surround the main harbor. We would be able to see the lake from the summit of the hill we are climbing, were it not for the thick fog.
“When is Fiji Day?” I ask, eager to change the subject. The forest around us seems haunted, suddenly, with more than the breath of raindrops.
“September tenth? No, October tenth!”
Our footsteps leave squelchy marks in the soil. A few minutes pass without comment.
“But the kids,” I have to ask. “What happened to them?”
“My grandmother, the one who just passed away––she was one of the first who found them. Search parties were called off after a week, and it was a month before anyone heard of them. Then one day, a raggedy group of kids stumbled into the village.”
We stop walking for a moment to take a drink of water.
“They were cold. She welcomed the kids into her house and wrapped them up in blankets straight away. When my grandmother called the police to say that ten lost kids had showed up in her village, they thought it was some kind of joke. She had to persuade the officer to come and see for himself. Then she did what Fijian women do best: she gave those ravished children something to eat.”
Eleni pauses, the tang of the memory clear on her face. “The whole island celebrated their return. Everyone feasted. Our joy changed even the taste of the air.”
We have only been walking for an hour, and already my stomach is hollowed out with hunger. Eleni digs in her shoulder bag for a mango and tosses it my way. I peel off the skin and let the juice trickle down my arm to the elbow while I eat. We continue walking in silence.
“And all the children, they all came back alive?”
“They all came back alive.”
Several false-summits later, we find the flowers.
The fog, by late morning, is dense and our bodies are coated with a film of rain. I can’t see more than five feet in front of my face, but somehow the guy with the orange shorts has catapulted himself up into a tree, machete in hand, to bring back a few of the tagimoucia flowers. They are smaller and more stunning than I had expected, each bloom a story.
The farther we climb, the more the barriers between us disintegrate. The guy with the orange shorts starts to open up, though I am still too shy to ask his name.
“See up there?” I follow the line of his finger up to the tip of a cloud where a metal structure barely points through the fog.
“That’s the Digicel tower. You can’t see the Vodafone tower, but it’s over there.” He tugs a faded navy blue beanie over his ears and launches into a story.
“The fist time I came up here I was a teen. My friends and I woke up and just decided to go. There’s a saying among the elders that if you plan to come, it will rain; if you wake up with the idea on your lips, the weather will be good. It was a clear day, windy too. We climbed up the service rungs on the Vodafone tower, took a picture with my friend’s cell phone for proof, and walked back to our village by the sea.”
I nod, in awe. After climbing this high, the last thing I can imagine is scaling a cell tower.
“I haven’t come up here in a while,” he continues. “It is a holy place.”
A few mangoes later we climb back through the cloud. I lose my footing and almost fall several times, only just managing to stay standing by some grace of rock and tread. Eleni, without fail, has a story to distract me from the descent:
“A man from my village went fishing one day with his two kids. They were chasing the big ones, far out beyond the main reef. The fish get bigger the farther out you go from the shore.”
The clouds have just started to lift, or we have descended far enough to be out of their tendrils. I look out at the sea, squinting in the sunlight, imagining the pan-fried fish we will eat for lunch. My t-shirt begins to dry itself of sweat and rain. If I almost close my eyes, I can see the little boat.
“Their engine cut out and they couldn’t make it back to shore. The man and his kids drifted to sea. Everyone was praying. We sent out a search party but after a few days, they were declared missing. Weeks passed. No word.”
I stop to steady my feet. Eleni looks out at the water.
“One night my mom and I were praying for their return and we heard this whistle at the door. It was exactly like the whistle that the missing man used to make when he was coming over for tea. We rushed outside and searched everywhere but couldn’t find a thing in the dark. But my mom said, right then, that the man and his kids were still alive. They had to be.
“Sure enough they were found somewhere up near Samoa, far away from Fijian waters. They had been living off of fish for a whole month.”
A truck passes us, ambling up the mountainside, just as the story ends. We walk for another hour in near-silence, until a rumble from behind announces the same truck’s descent down the loose gravel. The driver pulls over so that we can hop in the back seat of the cab. The guy with the orange shorts opts to take a spot standing up in the bed.
“More fresh air,” he mumbles.
We bounce our way wordlessly towards home.