In the morning, when the world is wet with dew, it is because Star is crying.

Long ago, Star and Sand had a contest to see who was greater. The one with the most children would win. Sand counted first. He counted all the stars, then he lay down so Star could count, but Star could not count the grains below the surface. Sand won.

Even today, Star weeps from shame.

Papua New Guinea myth

Bikman steadied his nerves. After fasting for three days, he was now prepared to enter the land of the dead. But the rain forest glistened in the light of his headlamp, revealing a heavy dew. Star cries so hard tonight. This is not a good sign. Chills ran through him as he stumbled back into the shadows to steel his resolve. No, I must do this! Tomorrow is John Frum Day. If I do not act now, it will be too late.

Settling on the wet ground, Bikman switched off his lamp, then wrapped his gnarled hands around a gourd filled with bitter tea-a concoction known only to Ngala shaman. Wincing, he drank.

A rasping chorus of small, pudgy marsupials stopped him.

Cuscus are warning me. I have visited the dead too often. But I have no choice. He gulped down the elixir and waited for its morbid effect.

Soon his ears began to ring as his heart beat slowed to a ponderous pulse. His tongue swelled and he started to gag. Stars spun dizzily while darkness enveloped him. A penetrating cold numbed his feet while his hands became enflamed. Clutching his stomach, he fell to the ground retching violently.

Earth and sky had become one, blending into a suffocating mass. Bikman writhed wildly, flaying his arms as if he were digging himself out of a grave. Once again

bile surged up his burning throat, searing it with toxic fire as his muscles wilted over freezing bones. Stay calm. This will pass. At last his tongue began to shrink and relax although his mouth felt packed with dust. Now a strange serenity embraced him. I am in the twilight between life and death.

Bikman opened his eyes. Earth and sky were in their proper place. But the night was cobalt blue; the forest distorted as if he was viewing it through a raindrop. Pungent odors accosted his nostrils while ghostly trees danced in moonlight. Crimson flames flashed erratically as energy poured from his temples, tethering his soul to weathered skin.

Bedazzled by his waking dream, he began to remove a barricade of logs to expose the forbidden tomb. As he worked, he spied a lime-green dragonfly perched on a liana vine, fluorescing in the moonlight. He closed his eyes then opened them again: the dragonfly was gone.

Bikman repeated this action again and again. Sometimes the dragonfly appeared; sometimes not.Now I am of two worlds. Dream is reality … reality is dream. He paused . I must make my choice.I will choose the world with the dragonfly-he is my totem.

Pressing his ear against the cold, damp earth, he listened for spirit voices. A faint hum, soft as the susurration of gentle rain, beckoned him to enter.Moist clay and rockclawed his gaunt shoulders as he squeezed through a narrow gap, then wriggled into the forbidden cave.

Although the cavern was devoid of light, his sharpened senses allowed him to see. Lively shadows pulsed before him, guiding him to his rendezvous with the dead.

Soon the tunnel narrowed, forcing him to crawl on his hands and knees. Sharp rocks bit into his flesh. He ignored them. What is pain to a shaman? It is proof I am alive. The dead feel nothing, yet they know everything.

He shuddered. I am but a thief, stealing their knowledge while I live. Surely they know this. I dare not anger them more. They are already jealous of me.

Air grew fetid as he entered their burial chamber. Here great rows of dingy skulls lay before him, grinning maniacally with fleshless mouths-leering as if sitting in judgment.

Bikman knelt reverently before them. Speaking in an ancient tongue he said humbly, “Thank you, my people. At dawn it will be John Frum Day. I have prepared the ceremony as you asked.”

Spiritvoices rustled like dry weeds. “Your wish has been granted. Wealth will rain from the sky.”

The shaman bowed respectfully. “I am most grateful–you were my last hope.”

Troubling winds whirled past him, cutting him short. Voices hissed, “Now be warned. Masalai have awakened.”

Bikman stiffened with fear. His voice grew hoarse. “No Masalai! I will stop the ceremony.”

“Too late. All is in motion.”

Now Bikman began to plead. “I did not ask this for myself. I only want to help our people.”

Harsh laughter stung his ears as the skulls’ macabre grins broadened. “Do you not know that it is gift enough to be alive? You come to us again and again, expecting favors. We do all we can for you and still you are not satisfied.”

He hung his head as a lone voice scolded, “Once granted, wishes bring consequences. A shaman should know this-especially you, who calls himself Big Man.”

At that moment a ghostly groan roared, then faded like a wreath of smoke while phantom shapes rippled across the cavern walls as if a stone had been thrown into still water.

Bikman’s heart trebled its beat. He begged for pity. “I meant no harm. Please believe me!”

Their answer came asa frigid wind that made him tremble with shame. “What must I do?” he implored.

Silence. The spirits were deliberating. At last he heard a tentative voice. “Help the old one.”

“Yes, yes! I will do whatever you wish.” Overwhelmed with exasperation, he cried, “But there are many old ones.”

The spirits laughed again, as if mocking his ignorance.

“I do not know who you mean!”

“He who seeks the stars,” they sighed.

“No one can do that.”

“Leave us!” they snarled. “You try our patience.”

“Please tell me-“

Now his ancestors were enraged. “You are a fool. We have had enough of you.”

Bikman stood his ground. “You must tell me!”

Their response came as a bone numbing frost that chained him to the cavern floor. Gathering all his strength, he broke free and scrambled down the tunnel. Menacing cackles chased after him as the cave grew black. I am blind!

He turned on his lamp, but felt it stripped from his head. Soon he lost his footing and crashed to the ground. Groping on his hands and knees, he searched desperately for a way out.

Charnel breath prickled his neck. “Now you will understand how precious your life was,” a voice jeered.

His hair stood on end as a cold mist encircled him. Again he gasped for breath. I am dying! I am a dead man!

Bikman awoke to the sound of his own chattering teeth. Shivering from cold, he examined himself.I am muddy. My fingernails, they are split. Oh no! My headlamp-it is in pieces. It was a great gift. He took a deep breath . What does it matter? I am alive-that is gift enough.

He staggered to his feet to bask in the amber rays of the rising sun. Their warmth anointed him, heralding a brilliant new day. Rubbing his hands against his arms, he savored the fresh, mountain air.

Now he turned back to the tomb, only to find it strangely pristine, as if he had never entered. Bowing his head he said, “I will do what you ask-I will not disappoint you.” Still, the spirits’ cryptic request puzzled him. Who seeks the stars … how can anyone do that?

Bikman squared his shoulders.

It is getting late. I will deal with that later . He headed toward his village. Soon the ceremony would begin

. For better

and for worse, he would finally meet John Frum.

Published in Stories