Beyond the Reef

by John B. Rosenman

Aimarr knelt in the morning sunshine, peering through the wall of the house in which his brother's wife labored to give birth. On the Pacific island of Nauru, where women were known for their beauty, Oango was widely viewed as supreme, and her splendor did not dim even in the pain of childbirth. He pressed his eye closer to the hole he had made, longing for her with an intensity equalled only by his concern for her welfare. What if something went wrong and she died giving birth? Even though his brother Dobague had won her from him, Aimarr could not stop loving.

Eigarawa, Oango's mother, glanced at Dobague. "Where is Aimarr?" she asked. "He should be here, or at least waiting outside."

Dobague scowled. "He wanted Oango."

"Still--he is your brother." Eigarawa stroked her daughter's forehead as she writhed in pain. "He was hurt when you took her from him."

Dobague shrugged. "I always win. Aimarr should marry Eiru. I know she wants him, and it would be a good match."

Outside, Aimarr stiffened at his brother's casual words, which seemed to summarize his whole life. For as long as he could remember, Dobague, a year older, had always surpassed him, whether it was at games, fishing, or in the pursuit of women. Finally, with his good looks and effortless grace, Dobague had taken from him the woman he loved, and now Oango, who should have had his child, was giving birth to Dobague's.

In the house, Oango squeezed her lovely eyes shut and bore down again with all her strength. Aimarr saw Eigarawa ease the baby's head out. Then the baby simply slipped free, and she held it up. A boy, and before she could even spank him, he was crying lustfully!

Minutes later, the placenta or ibi came out onto the birthing mat.

Now, Aimarr knew, was a crucial time, for if the ibi died, the child would be sick and would soon die too. Child and ibi were linked, parts of a whole, and until it moved, all joy and celebration must wait.

Anxious moments passed. "Mother," Oango finally asked, "does it move?"

"Wait, child."

Aimaar waited too, remembering his brother's words. I always win, he had said.

Oango's mother took a mouthful of sea water from a coconut shell and sprinkled the ibi lightly. She watched it intently, then sprinkled it again.

Aimarr held his breath while the future hung in the balance. Then, before his eyes, the ibi stirred and quivered.

Jubilation erupted inside the house. Dobague sighed, then gave a ringing shout and embraced Oango. All three smiled joyously, as, no doubt, their ancestors smiled in the world of spirits.

Aimarr turned and left before news reached the village and well-wishers came. Despite his anger at Dobague, he felt immensely relieved that Oango had survived.

* * *

Wrapped in her mat, Eiru stood at noon over the earth oven, letting its perfume-scented steam penetrate her breath, hair, and entire body, removing even the faintest disagreeable odors. May this make Aimarr desire me, she thought, for she had tried every adornment imaginable to catch his eye and heart. She had sipped fragrant perfumes so that even her breath and perspiration were aromatic; washed her black hair, smooth skin, and white teeth till they shone; worn headbands made of iridescent butterflies and necklaces composed of colored beads, shells, and frigate-bird feathers, and still he had not noticed her. Despite all she had done, Aimarr remained obsessed with his brother's pregnant wife and blind to Eiru, who adored him above all else.

Leaves and flowers baked on hot rocks, scenting Eiru from head to toe but failing to sweeten her thoughts. If this too failed, she would be forced to see an itsibemin about making a love potion. Despite her beauty, she knew she was no match for the haughty, peerless Oango.

In the distance a frigate bird soared on outswept wings. Watching it, Eiru thought of how she had long wished to be free, able to sail beyond the sunset and explore unknown realms.

She sighed, not knowing which was greater, her yearning for Aimarr or her desire for freedom, and dropped her eyes to study the reef, beyond which women could not venture. For men it represented the boundary between shallow childhood and the deep currents of manhood. Tonight, she thought, she would boldly cross a boundary of her own and seek to claim Aimarr's heart as never before.

* * *

Aimarr stood gazing out to sea in the afternoon. It was not just the birth of the child that continued to torment him. Dobague's casual, contemptuous words rolled in his ears like the eternal surf. Though he'd suffered a hundred defeats at his brother's hands, Aimarr had never felt so sad and empty, for today he'd finally realized that his whole life was meaningless.

Footsteps. He turned, seeing Dobague marching toward him, his mighty chest swelling with the pride of fatherhood. Aimarr studied him with envy. Truly Dobague was blessed, for he was so much taller and more muscular, so much better looking than other men.

Dobague smiled as he joined him. "I thought I'd find you on the shore."

Aimarr turned back to the sea. He kept his eyes on the horizon, thinking of how often he'd yearned to leave this island and see what was beyond the reef.

"I have a son," Dobague said.

"I heard."

"And yet you have not come to see him."

With an effort, Aimarr turned. As always he had to look up at his brother.

"I will come later," he said. "I am happy you have a son."

Dobague folded his muscular arms. "It is time you married, Aimarr. Eiru would make you a good wife. "

I had Oango first! Aimarr wanted to shout. You took her away! But he had never confronted his brother before about anything because he knew he would only lose.

"Maybe I won't marry," he said finally.

Dobague burst into laughter. "Why not, little brother? Don't you think you're man enough?"

Aimarr stared blindly at the horizon as Dobague turned and walked away.

* * *

Moving through the night, Eiru knew such wanton behavior could cost a girl her virginity and bring disgrace. But she could no longer resist her love for Aimarr. They were kindred spirits with a mutual yearning to explore the world and see other lands.

She paused on the shore, gazing out to sea. Though women wielded most of the authority, only men could venture beyond the reef and claim their manhood by fishing in the deep sea. And only men could participate here on the beach in the sacred frigate bird competition. Once, as a child, she had watched from hiding as men hurled slings far into the air to catch the birds. She had felt both terror and excitement, for frigate birds were messengers to the living from the ancestral dead.

Eiru heard a cry and looked up, seeing the wide wings of a frigate bird high in the moonlight. With majestic grace, the bird descended. Settling on a man-made perch, it turned a regal head in her direction. In the moon's silver light, Eiru saw its snowy crown and long, powerful beak change into the wise, ancient face of her ancestor, a woman who had died so long before, that her spirit had become a divinity. Eiru whispered, "Old Mother."

"It has been long," Old Mother said, her voice the murmur of distant waves.

Eiru approached barefoot on the sand, and bowed respectfully before her. "Not since I was a little girl," she said. "I've often wondered, if I was only dreaming."

"We are all dreams," Old Mother said, her white hair streaming in the wind as she left the perch and settled lightly to earth. "And I have come from the realm of spirits to tell you of a choice."

"A choice?"

"You love a man," Old Mother said, her face an endless maze of wrinkles. "You want him deeply."

Eiru moaned.

"Soon," Old Mother said, "you may have him."

Eiru's heart soared with joy. "This is true? Oh, I--"

"But to have him, you must choose on the coral sand. A most difficult choice, my daughter."

Eiru trembled. "What do you mean?"

"A difficult choice," Old Mother repeated, as if that explained everything.

Eiru wished her ancestor wouldn't be so closed-mouthed. She stepped closer, wishing to show respect but desperately needing to understand. "Please explain," she said, "what do you mean by a choice? "

Her ancestor raised a pale hand as if to answer, but then her form changed into that of the bird again. Eiru watched it rise gracefully and climb toward the moon. When she could see it no longer, she sighed and left the shore, heading directly toward Aimarr's house.

* * *

Aimarr walked swiftly in the ghostly sheen of moonlight. It was time he confronted Dobague, told him how cruel and arrogant he was!

Soon he saw the thatched roof of Dobague's house. Nearby stood the new coconut tree under which Dobague had buried the ibi. The tree symbolized the child. If it grew graceful and strong, so would he.

Suddenly Aimarr saw a way to get revenge. He could dig the ibi up and give it to a magician who would use it to control the child's entire future. Yes! And by so doing, he, Aimarr could cause Dobague to be miserable for the rest of his life. Teach him what it was like to lose something.

His rage rose, sweeping everything aside. Spotting a large seashell by the house, he snatched it up and crept to the man-high coconut tree, where he knelt and began digging as silently as possible.

Soon he was able to lift the tree and set it aside. He resumed digging at once.

Though the earth was loose, and his progress easy, sweat dripped down his bare chest. Teeth clenched, he labored deeper in the earth's womb.

Despite his anger, Eiru's face entered his mind, and he remembered all her efforts to attract him. Foolish girl! With her beauty, why hadn't she found someone else?

Suddenly he stopped. The fit that had seized him vanished, and he was sane again. Stunned, he looked down at his dirt-covered skin.

Moaning in shame, he dropped the shell and covered his face with his hands.

* * *

Eiru found Aimarr's house bathed in moonlight and empty when she brazenly went to the door and peered inside. Panic struck then--she must find Aimarr soon or lose him forever.

Oh, why had her ancestor been so mysterious? Why couldn't she have told her just a little more?

Eiru ran desperately off into a night snarled in shadows. After the magical encounter with her ancestor, it seemed strange and dreamlike.

Later, approaching Oango's house, she felt her ancestor's spirit guide her. Then she froze. Who was that, digging in the moonlight?

She crept behind a heavily laden pandanus tree and peered out, recognizing Aimarr. She had found him!

Eiru started towards him, then stopped. Why was Aimarr lifting that small coconut tree from the earth? She watched him set it down and resume digging, and a terrible fear grew in her soul. Aimarr - the man she loved--was stealing his nephew's ibi to spite his brother!

With the knowledge came misery. Aimarr's shameful deed not only proved how much he still loved Oango, but also how small and mean he had become in his suffering. She had thought Aimarr was like the sea, so much deeper than his shallow, good-looking brother.

She turned and started to leave.

* * *

When Aimarr lowered his hands from his face, he saw Eiru leaving. He stiffened in shock, then climbed out of the hole.

"Eiru, wait! I couldn't do it."

She turned, looking at him uncertainly. "I am glad. "

He started to say something, then realized there was no need. He and Eiru had always understood each other.

Squatting, he started to push the earth back into the hole.

"Let me help you," she said, coming closer.

"I did this, I should make it right."


He looked at her. Even from where he crouched, he could smell her exquisite fragrance. His eyes filled with tears.

She joined him, and they worked quickly. When the hole was nearly filled, they planted the tree together. Aimarr gazed into her moonlit eyes and felt a sweet pain, as if something inside him were about to be born.

"Eiru?" he said, and touched her, surprised by the depth of his feeling. She came to him then and they clung together, her tears moist on his cheek.

Someone came toward them in the darkness.

Dobague materialized from the shadows, looking like a great dark god. He stopped when he saw them. "What are you doing here?"

"W-What are you doing here?" Eiru asked defensively. "You know it is taboo."

Dobague sighed and approached. "I miss my wife." He swelled his muscular chest. "And," he said proudly, "my son!" He basked in the achievement, then turned to Aimarr. "You never did come to see my child."

"I am happy for you," Aimarr said evasively.

"So am I. If only our parents were alive to see him! We have named him Eaeo, which means strong." Dobague grinned, then slowly frowned as he saw the dirt on Aimarr's body. "What have you been doing?"

Aimarr turned quickly and walked away. Eiru followed.

"What were you doing?" Dobague called.

Aimarr did not answer.

"Do you hear me, Aimarr?" Dobague shouted, following. "Why are you here in the middle of the night? "

Aimarr marched onto the beach, hearing the soft lapping of waves. He headed toward his canoe, tied to a coconut tree.

"Aimarr, answer me!"

Aimarr swung to face his brother.

"I tried to take the ibi," he said.

Stunned, Dobague stared at him. "Why? You're my brother. Why would you do such a thing?"

Aimarr felt a lifetime of suppressed anger surge within him. Anger that, like this love for Eiru, he had not even known he possessed until that day.

It poured from him in a confused torrent, all the rage and bitterness, and yet the love, too, which he felt for Dobague. But before he could finish, his brother screamed with fury and smashed him with his fist. Aimarr struck the sand and struggled up as Eiru frantically tried to stop his brother. Dobague swept her aside with a massive arm and charged, swinging with all his might. "You tried to kill my son! You tried to destroy my family!"

"No. I couldn't do it!" Aimarr cried, retreating. "I'm sorry, forgive me!"

But Dobague wouldn't listen, and Aimarr put his arms up, trying to protect himself from the crushing blows. Retreating, he knew Dobague had every right to be enraged.

A particularly heavy blow crashed against Aimarr's skull, staggering him. Desperate, he turned and attacked for the first time, unleashing a series of punches against Dobague's body. To his amazement, his brother retreated. Rearing back, Aimarr drove a fist against Dobague's chin, knocking him backwards to the sand.

Dobague lay on his back a long moment, then struggled up onto his elbows. In his brother's eyes, Aimarr saw surprise that matched his own.

"Dobague, are you all right?"

His brother shook his head. "Aimarr . . ."

Aimarr rushed to him. "Are you hurt? I'm sorry! "

Dobague coughed. "Aimarr, what--what you said about envying me for all my victories..." He gave a bitter, humorless laugh. "Oango, my wife, thinks I'm dull."


"She shows no respect. Calls me a selfish little crab."

Aimarr gaped in amazement. Was this his brother?

Dobague gazed up as if seeing him for the first time, then slowly raised his hand. "Forgive me, brother. I did not know."

Aimarr squeezed his hand. "Forgive me," he said. "I was terribly wrong."

Turning, he gazed out to sea, toward the unknown, which had always called to him. Then he went to his outrigger canoe and started to untie the rope.

"Aimarr, what are you doing?" Eiru asked.


"When will you return?"

"I won't. I have fresh water--hooks, lines, and a little bait. I'll be fine."

"You're mad," Dobague said. He tried to rise, then reconsidered. "Brother, don't you remember what we've been told? You have to sail for weeks even to find an anthill!"

"You're not really leaving, are you?" Eiru asked.

He placed his hand against her cheek. "I must."

She pressed his hand. "But why? You have made peace with your brother. You can stay here. And with me. "

What she said was true. And yet he felt as if something inside him had finally been set free, something greater than his love for Eiru.

"If you want," he told her, "you can come with me."

"No," Dobague said. "It is certain death!"

"Eiru," Aimarr said, "remember when we talked of our longing to see what was beyond the reef?"

"We may die!"

He took her hands in his. "I've fished and survived on the sea all my life, Eiru. I'm a good fisherman. We will live. I know it!"

Eiru inhaled the night air. "So that is what she meant."

"Who?" Aimarr said.

"Nothing. Just a choice I must make on the coral sand." She pulled him close. "You must teach me all the things that are forbidden to women--how to paddle a canoe, steer by the stars, fish in the deep sea."

"I will. We will become as one."

"Then I shall go bid farewell to my family. "

"If you see them," he said gently, "you will not come."

She hesitated. All her life, she had longed for this. The whole world waited for her out there, undiscovered lands she could not even imagine! And yet, she felt her heart wilt.

Eiru knew Aimarr was right. If she went to her family, she would never leave this island or see Aimarr again.

She turned to Aimarr's brother. "Dobague, tell them I love them." She stooped and held up a handful of sand, letting it trickle through her fingers. Then, quickly, so as not to change her mind, she went to the canoe. Together they carried it into the sea and climbed in. Aimarr waved to his brother and started to paddle away.

Dobague finally managed to rise. "Eiru," he called, "you can't go. It is forbidden for women to travel beyond the reef! "

But only silence answered him. Alone in the moonlight, Dobague watched the paddles flash until he could no longer see them.

Copyright 2003 by John B. Rosenman. All rights reserved.