Memories from the Childhood of Stella Corbin
Translated by Matthew Evans-Cockle
The green wood home rises on the hillside that runs down to the roadway and then, still further, down to the riverbank where the sensitive growth lies thick upon the pebbles. The river tarries in our green valley before coming to that perilous instant when it must brave the ever-surging channel, thence to lose itself in the Pacific.
In front of the house there lies an open space lined with hibiscus and cagnas. This is where the natives gather, on those holidays when they come to “love” or render homage to our parents. At the chief’s call, the whole village, hut after hut, forms a long cortège, singing as it advances. While the men present the gifts; long yams, great bunches of bananas, poultry, occasional relics from some previous era, assegais, axes, ancient coins; the women and children fan out on the left. Festive costumes in gaudy colors, frizzy hair spiked with flowers.
Special day for us children. Motionless on the steps, and done up in our Sunday best, we sit listening to the speeches waiting for the final song to start up and liberate us as well as our somewhat less restrained young native friends.
And then the games would start all over again. Racing upon the grassy slopes, a fishing party with my brother on his boat and above all the secret game I share with my sister Francine, the game we call “little girls fallen from the sky”. As prelude to this game it suffices to whisper a little magical phrase for a world of marvels to suddenly appear before us. Ke wi ma wi? Where are you going? And just as abruptly, we would find ourselves propelled into our universe, where everything arranges itself for our pleasure. Our noble realm? The old orange tree at the paddock’s entrance. We would climb it, jubilant over the many butterflies fluttering around our tree. Through the leaves one could see the farm and its hen house. Which was a familiar and reassuring landscape. But off on the opposite side lay the forest, disturbing because home to wild boar. By good providence, between the forest and our orange tree there rises an enormous boulder immobilized in its descent as though by magic. Is it there, perhaps, to mark a frontier? So long as it doesn’t serve to conceal the terrible boar, which is the one possible danger. Towards sundown, frightened, we watch our boulder’s growing shadow and our agitation hides from us another source of concern: the call to supper, that imperious return to the banality of the everyday world and the fading away of our enchanted universe.
At night the frogs, and small lizards enter our room. Hanging from the curtains, they hold their assembly and their murmuring swiftly transports me to the Niaoulian myrtle woods with their tenacious perfume. In that far off place, there is a family that showers us with gifts. There is a long drawn out war, news of which is cabled to us by telephone. This is the grim hour when anxiety becomes clearly legible upon the parents’ faces. When I am alone, faced with the task of relaying the information in such cables, it requires enormous effort to retain the names of the areas in which the battles are taking place, but my geography is cursory at best, I confuse regions and have difficulty imagining this other world, until the day when a first trip to the town of Noumea, and its school, gives me a taste of what the eventual and definitive departure will be like two years later.
Goodbye verdant paradise where once I frolicked, disheveled and barefoot with my young native friends.
Familiar objects suddenly heap themselves in great trunks, which invade all the rooms. Beneath a pile of sheets, a hiding place, I slipped one of my favorite books, alas only one! I am, however, incapable of likewise dissimulating my large doll, a prized possession. It had been decided that it should remain at the missionary station for the successors’ children. Confronted by this forced renunciation I felt my universe crumbling. To leave, to abandon that which one has cherished, could this then be life? Could another catastrophic turn of events be such that one day my parents would be obliged to abandon one of us in turn? The very idea terrified me. Anxious, I follow along. It is a mere two days after our departure from the port of Noumea, on the open ocean, that my brother, no doubt annoyed by the crybaby at his side, tells me with the self assurance of the elder brother who has already been to France: “One doesn’t cry on one’s way to Paris”. To which I responded: “my life is over”. And oh how salutary the peal of laughter I thereby provoked with all my grandiloquence. Indeed, as though by some enchantment, my fear leaves me. My eyes eventually settle upon the other children playing upon the ship’s bridge. Seized by a sudden curiosity, I want to join in their games, to discover their world.
Little by little, the curtain falls on the paradise of childhood as we drift towards Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, the Point of Good Hope, and as, from the upper deck, we contemplate the Southern Cross, disappearing behind the horizon as the Polar star rises.