by A Sperry · Cited by 54 — There was only courage. A man who was afraid–what place had he in their midst and the boy Mafatu – son of. Tavana Nui, the Great Chief
109 KB – 43 Pages
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CALL IT COURAGE Armstrong Sperry Winner of the Newbery Medal Mafatu’s name means “Stout Heart” but his people call him coward. Ever sin ce the sea took his mother’s life and spared his own, he has lived with deep fear . And even though his father is the great chief of Hikueru – an Island whose sea faring p eople worship courage – he is terrified, and so scorned. By the time he is 15 years old, Mafatu can bear it no longer. He must conquer his fear alone– even if it means certain death. This classic tale of a young boy™s hidden strength has been a favorite of readers of all ages since its 1940 publication. 1. FLIGHT IT HAPPENED many years ago, before the traders and missionaries first came into the South Seas, while the Polynesians were sti ll great in numbers and fierce of heart. But even today the people of Hikue ru sing this story in their chants and tell it over the evening fires. It is th e story of Mafatu, the Boy Who Was Afraid. They worshiped courage, those early Polynesians. Th e spirit which had urged them across the Pacific in their sailing canoes, be fore the dawn of recorded history, not knowing where they were going nor cari ng what their fate might be, still sang its song of danger in their blood. T here was only courage. A man who was afraid–what place had he in their midst an d the boy Mafatu Œ son of Tavana Nui, the Great Chief of Hikueru–always had been afraid. So the people drove him forth. Not by violence, but by indifferen ce. Mafatu went out alone to face the thing he feared t he most. And the people of Hikueru still sing his story in their chants and te ll it over the evening fires. It was the sea that Mafatu feared. He had been surr ounded by it ever since he was born The thunder of it filled his ears; the cra sh of it upon the reef, the mutter of it at sunset, the threat and fury of its storms–on every hand, wherever he turned–the sea.
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He could not remember when the fear of it first had taken hold of him. Perhaps it was during the great hurricane which swept Hikue ru when he was a child of three. Even now, twelve years later, Mafatu could r emember that terrible morning. His mother had taken him out to the barrie r-reef to search for sea urchins in the reef pools. There were other canoes scattered at wide intervals along the reef. With late afternoon the other fishe rmen began to turn back. They shouted warnings to Mafatu’s mother. It was th e season of hurricane and the people of Hikueru were nervous and ill at ease, charged, it seemed, with an almost animal awareness of impending storm. But when at last Mafatu’s mother turned back toward shore, a swift current had set in around the shoulder of the reef-passage: a m eeting of tides that swept like a millrace out into the open sea. It seized the fra il craft in its swift race. Despite all the woman’s skill, the canoe was carried on the crest of the churning tide, through the reef-passage, into the outer ocean. Mafatu would never forget the sound of his mother’s despairing cry. He didn’t know then what it meant; but he felt that something was terribly wrong, and he set up a loud wailing. Night closed down upon them, swift as a frigate’s wing, darkening the known world. The wind of the open oce an rushed in at them, screaming. Waves lifted and struck at one another, their crests hissing with spray. The poles of the outrigger were torn from th eir thwarts. The woman sprang forward to seize her child as the canoe caps ized. The little boy gasped when the cold water struck him. He clung to his mot her’s neck. Moana, the Sea God, was reaching up for them, seeking to draw them down to his dark heart. Off the tip of Hikueru, the uninhabited islet of Te koto lay shrouded in darkness. It was scarcely more than a ledge of coral, almost awash. The swift current bore directly down upon the islet. Dawn found the woman still clinging to the purau pole and the little boy with his arms locked about his mother’s neck. The grim l ight revealed sharks circling, circling. Little Mafatu buried his hea d against his mother’s cold neck. He was filled with terror. He even forgot the thirst that burned his throat. But the palms of Tekoto beckoned with their promise of life, and the woman fought on. When at last they were cast up on the pinnacle of c oral, Mafatu’s mother crawled ashore with scarcely enough strength left t o pull her child beyond reach of the sea’s hungry fingers. The little boy w as too weak even to cry. At hand lay a cracked coconut; the woman managed to pr ess the cool, sustaining meat to her child’s lips before she died.
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Sometimes now, in the hush of night, when the moon was full and its light lay in silver hands across the pandanus mate, and all t he village was sleeping, Mafatu awoke and sat upright. The sea muttered its eternal threat to the reef. The sea and a terrible trembling seized the boy’ s limbs, while a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Mafatu seemed to see aga in the faces of the fishermen who had found the dead mother and her whi mpering child. These pictures still colored his dreams. And so it was th at he shuddered when the mighty seas, gathering far out, hurled themselves a t the barrier reef of Hikueru and the whole island quivered under the assault. Perhaps that was the beginning of it. Mafatu, the b oy who had been christened Stout Heart by his proud father, was afraid of the sea. What manner of fisherman would he grow up to be? How would he ever lead the men in battle against whispers of other islands? Mafatu’s father heard the whispers, and the man grew silent and grim. The older people were not unkind to the boy, for th ey believed that it was all the fault of the tupaupau the ghost- spirit which possesses every child at bi rth. But the girls laughed at him, and the boys failed t o include him in their games And the voice of the reef seemed pitched for his ea rs alone; it seemed to say: “You cheated me once, Mafatu, but someday, someday I will claim you!” Mafatu’s stepmother knew small sympathy for him, an d his stepbrothers treated him with open scorn. “Listen,” they would mock “Moa na, the Sea God, thunders on the reef. He is angry with us all becau se Mafatu is afraid!” The boy learned to turn these jibes aside, but his father’s silence shamed him. He tried with all his might to overcome his terror of the sea. Sometimes, steeling himself against it, he went with Tavana Nu i and his stepbrothers out beyond the reef to fish. Out there, where the glass y swells of the ocean lifted and dropped the small canoe, pictures crowded into the boy’s mind, setting his scalp atingle: pictures of himself, a babe, clingin g to his mother’s back sharks cruising. And so overcome would he be at the rem embrance of that time that he would drop his spear overboard, or let the line go slack at the wrong moment and lose the fish. It was obvious to everyone that Mafatu was useless upon the sea. He would never earn his proper place in the tribe. Stout Hea rt–how bitter the name must taste upon his father’s lips! So, finally, he was not allowed to fare forth with the fishermen. He brought ill luck. He had to stay at home making spears and nets , twisting coir–the husk of
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the coconut-into stout shark line for other boys to use. He became very skillful at these pursuits, but he hated them. His heart was like a stone in his breast, A nondescript yellow dog named Uri was Mafatu’s ins eparable companion–Uri with his thin coat, which showed his ribs and his e yes so puzzled and true. He followed the boy wherever he went. Their only other friend was Kivi, an albatross. The boy had once found the bird on his l onely wanderings. One of Kivi’s feet was smaller than the other. Perhaps bec ause it was different from its kind, the older birds were heckling and pestering t he fledgling. Something about that small bird trying to fight off its more powerful fellows touched the boy’s heart. He picked it up and carried it home–c aught fish for it in the shallows of the lagoon. The bird followed Mafatu an d Uri about, limping on its one good leg. At length, when the young albatross l earned to fly, it began to find its own food. In the air it achieved perfectio n, floating serenely against the sky while Mafatu followed its effortless flight wit h envious eyes. If only he, too, could escape to some world far removed from Hi kueru! Now, once more, it was the beginning of the season of storms. Men scanned the skies anxiously, watching for the dreaded signs whi ch might spell the destruction of their world. Soon the great bonitos would be swimming beyond the reef–hundreds, thousands of them–for they cam e each year at this time with the unfailing regularity of the tides. They we re held to be the special property of young boys, since it was by killing the m that a youth learned to kill the swordfishes and tiger-sharks, progressing from one stage to a higher. Every boy in the village sharpened his spear, tested the shaft, and honed his shark knife. Every boy, that is, except Mafatu. Kana stopped one afternoon to watch Mafatu at work on his nets. Of all the youths of his own age, Kana alone had been friendly . Sometimes he even stayed behind when the others were fishing to help the boy with his work. ‘The bonitos have begun to come, Mafatu,” Kana said quietly. “Yea” the other returned, then fell silent. His fin gers faltered as they flew among the sennit fibers of the net he was making. “My father brought back word from the reef today,” Kana went on. “Already there are many bonitos out there. Tomorrow we boys will go after them. That’s our job. It will be fun, eh?” Mafatu’s knuckles whitened. His ears pounded with t he swift fury of the sea.
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“That will be fun, won’t it?” Kana insisted, watchi ng Mafatu closely. But the boy made no answer. Kana started to speak; he stopp ed, turned impatiently, and walked away. Mafatu wanted to cry out after him: “W ait, Kana! I’ll go! I’ll try– ” But the words would not come. Kana had gone. Tomo rrow he and all the other boys would be taking their canoes out beyond the reef. They would return at sunset, loaded down with bonitos, their faces ha ppy, their shouts filling the dusk. Their fathers would say: “See what a fine fis herman is my son! He will be a Chief one of these days.” Only Tavana Nui woul d be silent. His son had not gone. That night a new moon rose above the edge of the se a, silvering the land with a bloom of magic. Wandering along the outer beach wit h Uri, Mafatu heard laughing voices and drew hastily into the black sha dow of a pandanus. A group of boys were pulling their canoes above high waterm ark, and laying their plans for the morrow. Their voices were shrill with eager ness. “Tomorrow at daybreak” one was saying. ‘There’ll be Timi and Tapu and Viri ” “Aue!” ano ther voice broke in. “It’s work for us all. How else will we become fishermen and warriors? How else will we feed our families and keep the tribe alive? ” “True! Hikueru is too poor. There are only the fish from the sea. A man must be fearless to provide food. We will all go – every one of us!” Mafatu, standing tense in the shadows, heard a scor nful laugh. His heart contracted. “Not all of us will go,” he heard Kana scoff. “Not Mafatu!” “Ha! He is afraid.” “He makes good spears,” offered Viri generously. “He! That is woman’s work. Mafatu is afraid of the sea. He will never be a warrior.” Kana laughed again, and the scorn of his voice was like a spear thrust through Mafatu’s heart. “Aia!” Kana was saying. “I have tried to be friendly with him. But he is good only for making spears. Ma fatu is a coward.” The boys disappeared down the moonlit beach. Their laughter floated back on the night air. Mafatu stood quite still. Kana had s poken; he had voiced, once for all, the feeling of the tribe. Mafatu Stout Heart-w as a coward. He was the Boy Who Was Afraid.
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His hands were damp and cold. His nails dug into hi s palms. Suddenly a fierce resentment stormed through him. He knew in that ins tant what he must do: he must prove his courage to himself, and to the other s, or he could no longer live in their midst. He must face Moana, the Sea God–fa ce him and conquer him. He must. The boy stood there taut as a drawn arrow awaiting its release. Off to the south somewhere there were other islands He drew a de ep breath. If he could win his way to a distant island, he could make a place for himself among strangers. And he would never return to Hikueru until he shoul d have proven himself! He would come back with his head high-held in pride, a nd he would hear his father say: “Here is my son Stout Heart. A brave name for a brave boy.” Standing there with clenched fists, Mafatu knew a smarting o n his eyelids and shut his eyes tight, and sank his teeth into his lower lip. Far off in the himene’ house the Old Ones were sing ing. Their voices filled the night with rich sound. They sang of long voyages in open canoes, of hunger and thirst and battle. They sang the deeds of heroe s. The hair on the boy’s damp forehead stirred; the long-drawn mutter of the reef sounded its note of warning in his ears. At his side, Uri touched his master’s hand with a cold nose. Mafatu pulled the dog close. “We’re going away, Uri,” he whispered fiercely. “Of f to the south there are other islands.” The outrigger canoes lay drawn up on the beach like long slim fish. Silent as a shadow, the boy crossed the sand. His heart was ham mering in his throat. Into the nearest canoe he flung half a dozen green drink ing nuts, his fish spear. He gave his pareu a brave hitch. Then he picked up a paddle and call ed to Uri. The dog leaped into the bow. There was only Kivi–Mafat u would miss his albatross. He scanned the dark sky for sight of the bird, then gave it up and turned away. The lagoon was as untroubled as a mirror. Upon its black face the stars lay tracks of fire. The boy shoved off and climbed into the stern. Noiselessly he propelled the canoe forward, sending it half a leng th ahead with each thrust of his paddle. As he drew nearer to the barrier-reef, the thunder of the surf increased. The old, familiar dread of it struck at his stomach’s pit, and made him falter in his paddling. The voices of the Old O nes were fainter and fainter now.
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All around, as far as the eye could reach, were was tes of leaden water. The canoe was the moving center of a limitless circle o f sea. The boy shuddered. His fingers gripped the paddle convulsively. He tho ught of Kana and the other boys–what would they say when they learned that he had disappeared? And Tavana Nui–would there be sorrow in his father’s h eart? Would he believe that Moana, the Sea God, had claimed his son at last? It was an ominous, oppressive world at this season of storm. Half a mile distant a whale heaved its varnished hulk to the surface, t o throw a jet of vapory mist high into the air; then it submerged, leaving scarc ely a ripple to mark its passage. A shoal of flying fishes broke water, skim ming away in a silver shimmer of flight. A dolphin sped after them, smoot h-rolling in pursuit, so close that the boy could hear the sound of its brea thing. This world of the sea was ruled by Nature’s harsh law of survival. Mafatu knew the sea with an intimacy given to few. He had seen fleets of giant mantas whipping the lagoon of Hikueru to a boiling fury; he had seen the might y cachalot set upon by killer- whales and torn to ribbons almost in the blink of a n eye; once he had seen an octopus as large as the trunk of a tamanu, with ten tacles thirty feet long, rise from the mile-deep water beyond the barrier-reef . Ai, this sea! Mafatu opened one of the green drinking nuts and ti lted back his head to let the cool liquid trickle down his parched throat; more r efreshing than spring water, cool on the hottest days and as sustaining as food. The boy scooped out the gelatinous meat for Uri and the dog ate it grateful ly. The ocean current which held the canoe in its grip seemed to have quickened. There was a wind rising, too, in little puffs and g usts. Now the canoe keeled over under the sudden attack, while Mafatu scramble d onto the outrigger to lend his weight for ballast; then the wind dropped as suddenly as it appeared, while the canoe righted itself and the boy breathed freely once again. He searched the skies for Kivi. His albatross might ha ve been one of a thousand sea birds flying against the roof of the sky, or he might have vanished utterly, leaving his friends here in solitary space The bird had led Mafatu out through the reef-passage at Hikueru into the open ocean, an d now, it seemed, had deserted him. A storm was making, moving in out of those mysterio us belts, which lie north and south of the equator, the home of hurricanes. T he wind shifted a point, bringing with it a heavy squall. Mafatu lowered the sail on the run and gripped the steering paddle with hands that showed white at the knuckles. All around him now was a world of tumbling water, pig in the h ollows greenish on the slopes. The wind tore off the combing crests and hu ng the spray at the sky.
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Like advance scouts of an oncoming army, wind gusts moved down upon the canoe, struck at it savagely. So busy was Mafatu wi th the paddle that there was no time for thought. He called a prayer to Maui, Go d of the Fishernen: “Maui e! E matai tu!” Somehow the sound of his own voice reassured him. U ri lifted his head, cocked his ears, and thumped his tail for a second. The ca noe rose to the swells as lightly as a gull and coasted like a sled down the frothing slopes. That skill had wrought this small canoe! This dugout, hewn from th e mighty tamanu tree. It swooped and yielded, bucked and scudded, one with t he fierce element whose back it rode. The sky darkened. A burst of lightning lit up the s ea with supernatural brilliance. An instantaneous crack of thunder shatt ered the world. Lightning again, striking at the hissing water. Mafatu watche d it with fascinated eyes. Now it was all about him. It ran to the end of the boom in globes of fire that exploded and vanished, and in the awful moment of i ts being it revealed mountain shapes of dark water, heaving, shouldering . How long could this frail craft of wood and sennit resist? Under the co mbined attack of wind and sea it seemed that something must inevitably give w ay. The wind shrilled a fiercer note. Spray stung the boy’s flesh, blinded his eyes, and chilled his marrow. The sad went first-with a split and a roar. Fragmen ts swept off on the back of the wind. The cords that held the mast hummed like plucked wires. Then with a rending groan the mast cracked. Before Mafatu could leap to cut it clear, it napped off and disappeared in a churn of black wate r. The boy clung to the paddle, fighting to keep his canoe from tuning broa dside. Water swept aboard and out again. Only the buoyancy of tamanu kept the craft afloat. Uri cowered in the bow, half submerged, his howls drowned by th e roar of the elements. Mafatu gripped his paddle for very life, an unreaso ning terror powering his arms. This sea that he had always feared was rising to claim him, just as it had claimed his mother. How rightly he had feared it! M oana, the Sea God had been biding his time. “Someday, Mafatu, I will c laim you!” The boy lost all sense of time’s passage. Every ner ve became dulled by tumult. The wind howled above his head and still Mafatu clu ng to the lashed steering paddle; clung fast long after strength had vanished and only the will to live locked his strong fingers about the shaft. Even dea th would not loose the grip of those fingers. He held his little craft true to the wind.
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There was a wave lifting before the canoe. Many the boy had seen, but this was a giants monster livid and hungry. Higher, higher i t rose, until it seemed that it must scrape at the low-hanging clouds. Its crest he aved over with a vast sigh. The boy saw it coming. He tried to cry out. No soun d issued from his throat. Suddenly the wave was upon him. Down it crashed. Ch aos! Mafatu felt the paddle torn from his hands. Thunder in his ears. Wa ter strangling him. Terror in his soul. The canoe slewed round into the trough. T he boy flung himself forward, wound his arms about the mid-thwart. It wa s the end of a world. The wave passed. Stunned, gasping, Mafatu raised hi s head and looked about. For a second he could not believe that he still bre athed and had being. He saw Uri wedged under the bow, choking for air. He pulle d the dog free. Then he saw that his string of drinking nuts had vanished. His fish spear was gone. The knife that hung about his neck by a twist of bark h ad been torn away. Even his pareu of fiber taps fell from his body as water soaked i t through. He was naked, defenseless, without food or weapon, hurled forward on the breath of the hurricane. Numb of all feeling, empty as a shell, s till he clung to life, and the hours droned by. So gradual was the storm’s easing that at first the boy was unaware of it. The wind was blowing itself out, moving off into the em pty spaces of the world. Uri crept toward the prostrate boy, quailing beside him , whimpering softly. Night came and passed. There was no morning mist to dim the splendor of th e sunburst across the swinging seas. Far away the wings of an albatross c aught its gold as it wheeled and planed against the roof of heaven. The only hin t of recent storm lay in the rough and tumbling waters. As the sun climbed throu gh the hot hours of morning, it burned into the boy’s body like the sac red fires of the great marae of Hikueru. Mafatu’s skin blistered and cracked. Hi s tongue swelled in his throat. He tried to call out a prayer to Maui, but his voice was thick; the sounds which came forth were no more than a hoarse cry. Th e canoe, stripped of sail and meat, without a paddle to guide it in the swift racing current, twisted and shifted in the rushing waters. As one hour merged into another there came moments of fitful, choking slumber, a growing agony of thirst for the boy and his dog. The sun burned into them like an inescapable eye. The current which hel d Mafatu’s canoe fast in its grip was bearing it swiftly on toward its mysteriou s destination.
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And thus the day passed, while night once more desc ended, bringing blessed release from the sun. Now the air was luminous with promise of another da y. Out of the sultry mists the sea emerged, blue and violent. With the coming of this new day terror raised its head. Mafatu tried to fight it back, to deny its existence; but it gripped his heart with clammy fingers, tightened his throat . He flung himself flat on the floor of the canoe and buried his face in his arms. He must have cried out then. His voice was but a hoarse croak, yet it stirred Ur i to life: the dog’s ragged tail gave one feeble thump. With the ghost of a whimper the animal laid his hot nose against the boy’s hand. The brave thump of his dog’s tail touched Mafatu pr ofoundly. He caught the animal to him, while a new assurance, a new strengt h, flooded his being. If Uri could have courage to die, surely he, Mafatu, could not do less! In that instant he heard a whir and fury in the sky above, a beat o f wide wings. Looking upward, the boy’s dulled eyes made out the widespre ad wings of an albatross, circling above the canoe. “Kivi!” Mafatu cried hoarsely. “Ai, Kivi!” Even as he spoke, the bird wheeled slowly then flew off straight-ahead for the distant horizon. The boy noticed then that the sea current was carrying him almost due south-west. Kivi’s flight moved in exact parallel. Once more it seemed as if his albatross were leading him onward, just as he had led the canoe out of the passage of Hikueru. Mafatu scanned the rim of the horizon; it looked as hard as the cut edge of a stone. But suddenly the boy’s heart gave a great le ap and he started forward. It couldn’t be! It was a cloud. But the sky was clo udless. Far off in the sea- shimmer lay something that was neither sea nor sky. The swells, lifting higher, now revealed, now concealed it. That shadow on the horizon–it was land! The boy flung himself forward, shaking uncontrollably. He seized Uri in his arms and lifted him up, laughi ng, crying: “Uri I Uri! It’s land. Land!” The dog sniffed at the air and a little whimper bro ke from him. What island could this be? Was it Tahiti, the golde n island, whose language was akin to that of Hikueru? Or was it, perhaps, on e of the terrible dark islands of the eaters-of-men?
109 KB – 43 Pages