Sample text for A tortoise for the Queen of Tonga / Julia Whitty.


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Counter A Tortoise for the
Queen of Tonga

She died in the palace gardens in 1966, of extreme old age and a
heart that had swelled insupportably from nearly two centuries of
loneliness. For a day no one noticed, not because she was neglected
but because her metabolism was so inert that immobility did not
arouse suspicion. The crabs discovered her first, hordes of frenetic,
land-dwelling red crabs with pincers for cutlery. The dogs found her
next, but because they neither bayed nor howled, they kept the secret
to themselves. Only when the pigs got wind of it and began to squeal
with excitement did the queen"s gardener rouse himself from the shade
of a casuarina tree and stroll with detached curiosity toward the
community of living things that had gathered to feast on the remains
of the tortoise.
"Tu"iMalila is dead," the gardener announced to the queen"s
secretary.
"Your Royal Highness," said the queen"s secretary to the
king, "Tu"i Malila is dead."
"Royal Wife and Queen," said the king to the queen, "Tu"i
Malila is dead."
The queen did not rise from her wrought iron chaise under the
banyan tree, but she did signal to her ladies in waiting to stop
swirling the palm-frond fans around her head as her huge moonface
quivered and her dark eyes filled with tears.
For more than two decades, long after the pigs had been spit-
roasted and the umu ovens had been dug for the funeral feast, which
drew nobility from all over Tongatapu, the giant tortoise lay where
she had died. In the course of time her empty carapace became as much
a feature of the palace gardens as the huge Norfolk Island pines and
the red gingerbread gables of the wooden palace. Generations of
princes and princesses played hide-and-seek behind her shell, until
in 1988 she was moved to the new Tonga National Center outside
Nuku"alofa, where her remains were displayed alongside portraits of
the monarchs. Visitors wondered at the vast parchment of her shell,
its surface scarred, chipped, burned, and in places worn as thin as a
fingernail from her encounters with pirates, explorers, missionaries,
kings, queens, and hurricanes.

Captain James Cook bought the giant tortoise in 1776 from a Dutch
merchant in Cape Town, South Africa, as he embarked on his third and
final voyage of the Pacific. She was not yet an adult, although she
was probably thirty years old, her skin young and supple with the
soft patina of sea glass. The Dutch merchant had bought her from
English pirates, who had manhandled her from her home on the atoll of
Aldabra, off the coast of Africa. She spent weeks in the dark bellies
of various ships, trussed, unwatered, and unfed, panicking at the
strange motion of the sea, the perpetual blackness, the stench of
men, the attacks of sea lice and rats. The sailors did not treat her
as a living thing. They kicked her, or carelessly dripped hot lamp
oil on her, and laughed.
She retreated into a hallucinogenic state in which she could
see in her mind"s eye the yellow light of Aldabra, the turquoise sea,
the opalescent sky decorated with the black kites of soaring frigate
birds. In that quiet world the rumble of surf on the barrier reef was
punctuated only by the trilling calls of terns or the scratching of
crabs scrambling across the rocks or the soft thud of giant tortoises
settling down for a nap. Most afternoons brought showers and thunder,
but even those were soothing sounds marking the passage of day toward
night. Nothing she had known in her native home could have prepared
her for the din of a wooden ship in rough seas, crowded with men and
livestock.
Captain Cook took her aboard along with a menagerie of sheep,
goats, cattle, horses, and chickens, which turned his ship,
Resolution, into a floating ark. The giant tortoise was considered a
particularly valuable part of his oceangoing savings account, because
she could survive up to a year in the hold without food or water.
When called upon in a time of need, she would become turtle soup.
The sailors lowered her into the dank hold and the hatches
dropped down onto darkness. Resolution plunged south into the
mountainous waves of the Roaring Forties, where the ship began to
leak, squalls tore the mizzen topmast off, the horses tap-danced
nervously, and the sheep shivered and died. When a fog as dense as
smoke settled over the sea, Resolution and her companion ship,
Discovery, maintained contact with each other by the steady firing of
their guns.
Months later the ships reached the tropical islands of Tonga,
where William Bligh, the young master of Resolution, oversaw the
tricky business of getting the tortoise onto a launch. Two sailors
ran the deck winch while three others waited below in the open boat.
The tortoise emerged from the darkness with her head drawn deep into
her shell and her eyes squeezed shut.
"A dozen lashes to any fool who drops it," shouted Bligh as
the sailors heaved. But the ropes shifted, the knots slipped, and the
tortoise crashed onto the boat"s thwart, chipping a bony plate on the
left side of her carapace.

Captain Cook accepted a gift a day from the Tu"i Tonga, the king of
the islands of Tonga, which Cook called "the Friendly Isles." He
accepted a sacred red feather bonnet, bowls of intoxicating kava to
drink, and exquisite paintings on bark, called tapa. In return, the
king took few gifts, showing no interest in the novelties that his
people borrowed with infuriating regularity from Resolution: cats,
muskets, buttons, nails, anchors. The king did not care for such
things. He accepted only one small glass bowl, some livestock, and
the tortoise, which Cook calculated that he would no longer need now
that the ship was sailing through lands of plenty. "For my wife,"
said the king, turning and awarding the tortoise to the queen.
The queen adored the tortoise from the start: her lustrous
shell, her eyes as darkas mirrors, the way she stretched her long
neck and tilted her head and hissed. It was a soft and undemanding
sound, yet one that never failed to catch the queen"s ear, even above
the sibilant hissings of the court.
Nearly a year had passed since the tortoise had been taken
from Aldabra, and by the time she arrived on Tonga she was emaciated
and dehydrated. The queen understood this at once and began to feed
her by hand, offering tempting gardenia blossoms, fe"i bananas,
coconut milk, and, wonder of wonders, the tart fruit of the
Polynesian screw pine. This screw pine was so much like the one on
Aldabra that when the tortoise ate it, the yellow flesh frothed up on
her lipless mouth and damp rings formed around her
eyes. "Faka "ofa "ofa," said the queen, recognizing the tortoise"s
favorite, and she promptly summoned slaves to bring in screw pine
fruit from all over Tongatapu and, toward the end of the fruiting
season, from as far away as Vava"u. The tortoise responded to these
feasts by swelling back into her skin so that the wrinkles and sags
disappeared.
The queen admired the tortoise"s girth. The queen was also
stout, the stoutest person in the islands other than her husband.
Serendipitously, the tortoise met all the criteria for Tongan
royalty: hugeness, ponderousness, dignity, silence. Soon the tortoise
began to join the king and queen on their stroll down the beach each
morning, their three stately bodies drifting in corpulent elegance
from the shade beneath one palm tree to that beneath another. To an
outsider they looked like a trio creeping against a hard current
under water.
"The tortoise lives faka tonga," the Tongan way, said the
queen to the king. "We will call him Tu"i Malila," King Malila. The
royal title guaranteed the tortoise"s future. Of all the animals that
Cook bestowed on or lent to the Tongans, only the tortoise escaped
the cooking fires.

In early summer the seabirds known as sooty terns returned by the
thousands to Tongatapu, swirling in on the long red streamers of
sunset, calling wide-awake, wide-awake. By twos and threes, Tongans
sat on sand esi, resting mounds on the beach, staring out to sea and
admiring the lines of the birds" wings as they hovered, then plunged
through the surface and rose with shiny fish in their bills.
Each afternoon, as slaves cast webs across the shallows and
gathered jewel-colored reef fish for the royal tables, the tortoise
joined the queen on the shore. While warriors drove canoes with
synchronous cuts of their paddles and girls slithered naked through
the water and the king bobbed on the waves, nude, brown, enormous,
buoyant, with terns butterflying around him, the queen"s ladies in
waiting removed her ta"ovala, her pandanus-mat clothing, and guided
her by the elbows to the water"s edge. With each step her flesh
rippled, rolls of fat cascading into motion up and down her body. The
king raised his head from his pillow on the waves and watched
admiringly.
Following the queen"s lead, the tortoise learned to swim,
sinking until only the crown of her shell remained dry, her long neck
snaking up through the surface each time she took a breath. She let
the warm water flood the secret folds of skin in her armpits, under
her tail, inside her shell. Although in Aldabra she had been
surrounded by the sea, she had never entered it before, and here,
dipping her head under, she studied its wonders: the queen"s
buttocks, huge, dimpled, swaying in the surge, the king"s hair
dangling like the tentacles of a jellyfish. Clouds of neon-blue
chromis rose to the surface to greet her. Needlefish skimmed the
mirrored underside of the waves.
Sometimes sea turtles flew past, thrusting long flippers
backward in graceful arcs. They were not tortoises, and yet they were
so similar that the tortoise found herself pistoning with her legs,
trying to follow into their blue world. But she was a creature of the
land, with feet, not flippers, and would never be able to dive. She
could only thrash at the surface until white bubbles boiled up,
blinding her.

The tortoise felt her loneliness most in the season when the sea
turtles came ashore. Although their realm was the ocean, they
returned to their birth islands once a year to lay their eggs. On
moonless nights they dragged themselves up the beaches, tears
streaming down their cheeks, to flipper open nests in the sand. The
sight of their smooth shells evoked ancient needs in the tortoise,
and she found herself drawn to sandy plateaus on the island, where
she dug her own holes and laid clutches of infertile eggs. On summer
nights she felt an irresistible attraction to fields of volcanic
boulders, which in the darkness resembled giant tortoises. Her shell
recorded the first of many deep abrasions from squeezing in between
them.

The queen was admiring the smoky luster that reflected from the
tortoise"s shell when the news arrived. "The Captain Cook is dead,"
said the king to the queen. "He has died in the islands far to the
north." The queen had never been to Hawaii, but she knew about it.
"He died in battle with a king," said the king. "He was
cooked on a slow fire and eaten, and some of his bones are now kept
in a stone langi, a tomb, where they are worshipped."
The queen nodded. It was a fitting end for a grand enemy, and
the king himself could expect no better in battle. With her hand
resting on the tortoise"s neck, the queen remembered Cook"s white
wigs and frogged jackets, his kindness in leaving her Tu"i Malila.
She wondered what he had tasted like.

Late every summer, the Tongans gathered on the beaches as a slice of
the moon tumbled slowly through the sky and watched the sea turtles
squeeze out clutches of jellylike eggs and cover them with sand.
Cutting into a few select nests, the Tongans gathered eggs for the
royal table: for the king, who liked to pop an egg into each cheek
and squeeze it against his teeth until it burst and the salty proto-
turtle fluid gushed out, and for the queen, who preferred to roll one
around on her tongue until the outer membrane grew as thin as tissue
paper and the inner jelly dissolved. As the eggs were aphrodisiacs,
the king was soon roused to a tower of passion. Taking their cue, the
queen"s ladies in waiting discreetly removed her ta"ovala while the
king"s valets helped him shed his.
Afterward, when the tides of the winter solstice washed away
the sea turtle tracks and the spring equinox brought the flowering of
the poison-fish tree, the queen gave birth to her sixth child, her
sixth son. The queen was disappointed. Sons were wonderful, worthy,
strong, and often handsome, but they were not daughters. So she did
what many a daughterless Tongan family did: declared her youngest
child fakaleiti, like a lady. He was called Lini, a girl"s name, and
he was dressed like a girl and put out to play with the girls. The
queen crooned to him about skin potions and hair ornaments as she
taught him to weave flowers into garlands and arranged for him to
learn to dance the tau"olunga, the slow, sinuous solo dance of the
women.
As he grew, Lini learned to seduce men with the cant of his
slim hips and the smolder in his pretty eyes. The king didn"t mind.
The queen had already given him five manly sons. He had other wives,
and through them other sons. His seed was broadcast plentifully.

Years passed, and Lini and the tortoise became inseparable, spending
their mornings together roaming the island and their afternoons
napping beneath a cool banyan tree. Lini lay on his side, his vala
skirt pulled up over his head, dreaming of warriors, their skin
oiled, the muscles on their backs flexing as they rowed through the
surf. The tortoise slept with her head and legs tucked tightly into
her shell, dreaming of tortoises bedded together in sand bunkers. In
her sleep she was able to transpose the sounds of surf and birds and
even Lini"s snoring into the rumblings and belchings of giant
tortoises.
"My daughter," said the queen one day, sinking onto her
haunches and shaking Lini awake as her ladies in waiting shooed flies
away with fans of white tropicbird feathers. "The Englishman named
William Bligh, who first came here with Captain Cook, has returned.
But some of his men threw him off his ship, and when he sailed here
in a small boat, our men fought his and one of his was killed."
Lini nodded. It was only right that Tonga"s warriors would
respect their guests" strengths and exploit their weaknesses. The
queen dug bright yellow beloperone flowers from a fold in her skirt
and offered them to the tortoise, who hissed, remembering the ships,
the cruelty.

In winter the humpback whales returned to Tonga from Antarctic
waters, breaching and tail-lobbing among the coral reefs, singing
epic songs that set the surface of the lagoons vibrating. The Tongans
sat on the beaches or floated in the waves, listening to the
whistles, rumbles, whoops, gurgles, trills, and flutters of the
giants. Lini joined the other girls in diving to the bottom of the
lagoon and collecting cowry shells to string into wind chimes, which
would echo the songs of the whales on dark nights. The tortoise
rested in the shade beneath a palm tree, listening to the whales and
remembering how in Aldabra they sang so loudly that flying fish
erupted from the water and soared onto the beaches, where the
tortoises stepped gingerly around them.

Lini grew into a beautiful young woman. His shoulders were wide and
strong, his hips slim, the muscles in his legs as taut as ironwood.
He flirted mercilessly with the unmarried warriors, seducing them
with stories of courageous men and beautiful women who resembled men.
Sometimes at night Lini and the tortoise sat on the beach watching
the stars circle overhead, Lini pointing out the constellations and
telling their stories. "That one is the sun god, Tangaloa, and that
is his human love, "Ilaheva. He catches her while she collects
shellfish, makes love to her, and their son becomes the first Tu"i
Tonga."
As the courtship flights of the flying foxes cast black
shadows across the moonlit sand, Lini took off his ta"ovala to run
down to the sea and strike out with strong arms for the line of
silver surf breaking on the reef. The tortoise stayed behind to stare
out at the starry horizon. Sometimes when Lini returned to shore, a
young warrior was waiting, and Lini would take him by the hand and
lead him into the mangroves at the edge of the lagoon. Alone, the
tortoise dug her bed in the sand and slept.

Year after year the seasons of the whales and turtles came and went.
At the end of a rainy season during which the king had grown from an
old man into an old, old man, he died. It took six warriors to lift
his immense corpse onto the funeral bier, and all of Tonga grieved,
not least his sons, including the eldest, the heir to the throne. To
alleviate this grief, the new king went to war with the Fijians. One
after another, the princes were killed in battle, last of all the new
king himself. Only Lini, safe at home, was left.
Lying beside the tortoise, staring at the turquoise lagoon,
the light shimmering and sparkling in the tears beading up in his
eyelashes, Lini whispered, "Tu"i Malila, now I will never be queen."
His grief echoed inside her shell.

In the aftermath of his brothers" deaths, Lini was elected king,
which required him to renounce his fakaleiti status. He asked his
mother to remain queen and awarded the tortoise a permanent seat next
to him at the royal kava circle, where she munched coconut meat and
watched kailoa war dances by torchlight. While Lini enjoyed the
dances, he refrained from war itself, devoting himself instead to
eating, a pastime beneficial to the people of Tonga, who were kept
busy growing and collecting food for the royal table. Other Tongans
prospered as they assembled the new king"s resplendent wardrobe,
which consisted of opulent red-and-green capes made from the plucked
feathers of thousands of blue-crowned lorikeets.

Many peaceful years passed. Then, in the season when the baby sea
turtles emerged from the sand to scramble to the sea and frigate
birds jostled for position in the air above, sweeping over the beach
on paper-thin wings to flip hatchlings into their gullets, the queen,
now an old, old woman, took to her bed. With her ladies in waiting
weeping beside her, the dying queen spoke to the son whom she had
always regarded as a daughter: "You must find yourself a queen."
Reaching for the tortoise"s head, she added, "And don"t forget to
bring screw pine fruit from Vava"u for Tu"i Malila."
The funeral feast lasted a week. Everything that could be
caught was roasted in umu ovens and eaten: pigs, bats, chickens,
terns, dogs, tuna, crabs. Seated female dancers performed ma"ulu"ulu
dances, moving only their graceful hands to eulogize the queen"s
life. Musicians beat sharkskin drums through the night, and priests
performed round-the-clock obsequies beside her cadaver, which lay on
a raised platform. Lini visited often. In mourning, he shed his
feather capes and sat before the funeral bier clothed only in an
ancient ta"ovala, handed down from mother to son to wife to son for
five generations. The tortoise, bedecked in shell necklaces, rested
her head in his lap.

An Englishman named George Vason came to visit Lini on a winter day
when water leaked from heavy skies and the spirals of waterspouts
menaced the horizon. Lini, acting in a way that befitted a king, said
nothing.
"I would like to marry the Tongan woman with whom I live,"
said the Englishman in his slow, accented Tongan. "If it pleases Your
Highness. Your Royal Highness."
The king worked his way down a banana, eating some pieces
himself and biting off others for the tortoise.
"I believe I am worthy, sire."
The tortoise hissed, remembering the smell of white men.
The Englishman drew back and pointed. "You know, you can eat
that thing."
But the king only reached for another banana, and George
Vason tried again. "I came as a missionary, believing in the Bible.
But no longer. Now I worship Tangaloa, the sun god. I have renounced
Christianity."
The rain moved onshore in a black wave as the king"s
attendants raised huge pandanus-leaf umbrellas, leaving the
Englishman to flinch under the hard slaps of the raindrops. The king,
looking up from his third banana, studied this Englishman with his
strange blue eyes. The man had arrived uninvited, along with nine
others from the London Missionary Society. None had converted a
single Tongan. Three had failed to survive the Tongans, and six
others had escaped to Australia. Only this man remained.
The king broke eye contact to reach for another banana. He
gave the tortoise the first bite.
"I love this woman," said the Englishman, looking down.
The tortoise ambled toward the man and reached out her long
neck to touch his knee. Without thinking, Vason patted her on the
head.
"Go on, then," said the king. "Marry. Settle here. Live faka
tonga with your woman."

Eight beautiful, near-naked warriors carried the king to his own
wedding on the beach. All were as brown as teak, skin glistening with
coconut oil, muscles rippling, with yellow hibiscus blossoms in their
hair. The king rode in titanic splendor on a stretcher made of
pigskin and pandanus, his vast girth smothered under mountains of
flowers and fruits as he snacked on roasted yams.
By comparison, his thirteen-year-old bride was tiny, with
delicate arms and small breasts. She could scarcely fathom her
groom"s gigantic dimensions and kept her eyes downcast. Only when the
tortoise lumbered toward her, head tilted in friendly welcome, did
the new queen raise her face and giggle in delight, showing off her
white teeth and her eyes, which sparkled in the torchlight. She stole
a glance at the king to see if he noticed her charms, but he was
admiring his warriors, who in turn were admiring her.
The new queen loved the tortoise, loved her wise, patient
eyes, her stately gait, her affection. She took to joining the
tortoise on morning walks down the beach, at first sprinting ahead
but soon slowed by the tortoise"s example.
The new queen took her royal position seriously, consuming
frequent large meals and carrying a bunch of bananas or a fistful of
crabs" legs to nibble on wherever she went. She drank gallons of
coconut milk to make her skin shine, slurped dozens of oysters, as
fat as little tongues, from their shells, ate feke and "u. and bowl
after bowl of faikakai. The underground umu ovens roared day and
night so that steam rose continually above the royal compound,
smelling of the most delicious food and keeping the queen"s appetite
keenly honed. The people of Tonga noted it, even those from
neighboring islands, and nodded their heads in approval. "The queen
is fattening," they said, "for the king."
The new queen outgrew all her old ta"ovala mats, and the king
solemnly awarded her one that had belonged to the old queen, his
mother. "This will be handed down to our children," he said shyly,
looking down. Then he added quickly, "Your feet are doing well. Even
your toes are getting fat." The queen blushed and smiled and tried to
grab his hand as he was turning to leave, but her reflexes were
slowed by her weight and she missed.
I am not fat enough, she worried as the king walked away. I
am not yet fat enough for the king to love.
Slowly she grew fatter, fatter than the old queen, until she
was the biggest person in the islands except for the king. He admired
her, but only from a distance. In vain the queen awaited his visit to
her sleeping hut, or the night when he might share a bowl of kava
with her. Undermined, she began to pine, and her appetite waned. She
gnawed on her fingernails, drummed her fingers on her knees, waved
away plates of jellied stingray, and chewed but did not swallow
platters of steamed bats" wings. She took long walks along the
beaches but without any food to fortify her, until little by little
her hard-earned pounds began to evaporate.
Listlessly the queen followed the tortoise on their evening
strolls, wrapped in confusion. One night, slumping to the ground, she
failed to see the king bobbing in the waves. As the tortoise kicked
at the sand, excavating a bed, a clutch of turtle eggs emerged.
Without thinking, the queen wiped one clean and popped it into her
mouth. Then she carried a handful down to the water"s edge, unwrapped
her ta"ovala, and waded in.
In the moonlight, with her skin shining silver-blue and the
shadows in her cleavages velvet-black, the king suddenly perceived
her beauty.
"Greetings," he called.
Startled, the queen jumped.
"What have you got?" he asked.
Glancing at the turtle eggs in her hand, the queen hesitated,
but only a moment, before wading toward the king and gently placing
an egg on his tongue. Then another, and another.
And so throughout the night, as the tortoise studied the
stars and dozed, the royal love of Tonga, like the love of whales,
played out on the buoyant bed of the sea.

Afterward the king and queen met often in the phosphorescent water at
night, and consequently the queen had daughters, one after another,
cherubic babies with hair like black gorgonian corals and laughing
eyes. The queen raised them in a feast of love, nibbling on their
toes, tickling their arms, blowing blubbery kisses into their
bellies. As the princesses grew, they slathered affection on the
tortoise, who became the centerpiece of their elaborate fantasy
worlds: Tu"i Malila, the whale god, washed up and dying and in need
of a princess to kiss him back to life, or Tu"i Malila, a handsome
prince bewitched by a lizard spirit, who would release him from a
spell if only a beautiful girl sang her heart out to him. The
princesses wore a faint saddle into the tortoise"s back from years of
taking rides, and polished her shell to a translucent sheen from
constantly caressing her with their little hands.
When the cares of state allowed, Lini joined them. Alone with
his girls and the tortoise, he danced the tau"olunga again, showing
them the slow, sinuous moves. Sometimes in the heat of midday, when
the princesses lay on their backs under a banyan tree, the sun
streaming into their eyes, Lini joined in, as they idled and laughed
and dreamed of being queens.

Year by year the seasons of the sea turtles came and went, followed
by the rains, then the trade winds. Constellations cartwheeled across
the sky, told their stories, dipped from sight, told them again. Lini
grew old, then older, until one night during the season of the
humpback whales he died peacefully in his sleep. The queen followed
not long after, in the time when the land crabs migrated by the
millions from the forests to the sea.
Afterward there was drought, and sometimes wildfire. Once a
fire singed the edges of the tortoise"s shell.
Occasionally typhoons roared in from the west, shattering the
perfect tempo of living.
The years came and went with the fluid rhythm of the
barracuda in the lagoon: finning into the outgoing tide, backpedaling
against the incoming. One after another the kings and queens of Tonga
rose up, then disappeared from the face of time.

The tracks of the sooty terns blew away on the southeast trades as
the footprints of pack rats braided across the beaches in their
stead. The Tongans had never seen rats before and were disgusted at
the way these wingless bats came into their houses, taking away fish
hooks and feathers and leaving old clamshells behind in trade.
Palangi kovi, the Tongans called them: lousy foreigners.
The Wesleyan missionaries, whose boats the rats had arrived
in, also came with the seeming purpose of taking away those things
the Tongans loved and replacing them with those they didn"t, such as
clothing. At first the people mocked the missionaries, teasing them
and threatening to eat them. But then the king, George Tupou I,
developed a weakness for sermons and converted, abandoning his
ta"ovala for a black wool suit and top hat.
In keeping with his new religion, the king outlawed the
worship of the old gods and ordered the Christianization of all the
islanders, which included the mandatory wearing of clothes. The
Tongans vented their frustration by killing the rats. The tortoise,
visiting the beach each day, stepped slowly around piles of dead
rodents, remembering the creatures aboard Resolution so many years
before, who had nipped the flesh on her tail and under her legs.
Capitalizing on the power of the rats, the missionaries
threatened the Tongans with stories of a grisly, rodent-laden place
called hell. Rebelliously, the Tongans tried eating the rats, but
soon discovered that they made better fishing lures and set them
alive on lines in the water, where their thrashing attracted the
fatal curiosity of octopuses.
The first Christian queen, the wife of King George Tupou I,
gave up daytime swimming, as it required too much unveiling of skin,
and the eyes of the Wesleyans were everywhere. But at night she and
the tortoise went down to the beach, lumbering in secret from
mangrove to mangrove until they could launch themselves on the waves,
as buoyant as ships, water splashing over the queen"s enormous body
and the tortoise"s giant hull. With the sound of sermons droning
onshore, the queen sighed. "I have my doubts, Tu"i Malila," she
whispered, "about churches and the like." The tortoise, now withered
with age and sun, stretched out her neck and let the water trickle
into the private folds of her skin, listening in perfect silence. "It
just doesn"t seem that we need heaven," said the queen, "when we have
Tonga."

Out of nowhere, an island erupted from the sea to the north of
Tongatapu, breathing smoke, cinder, and pumice. Fonuaf "ou, new land,
the Tongans called it, and families set out in canoes with picnics to
see. King George Tupou I and the queen chugged out aboard a steam-
driven pearl boat, both solemnly dressed in black, as black smoke
dusted the skies ahead of them. Beside the king stood Shirley Baker,
an Englishman who had come to Tonga as a Wesleyan missionary and
climbed the ranks until he"d become the king"s confidant, and now
prime minister. The queen found Mr. Baker"s perpetual oratory
tiresome and missed the company of Tu"i Malila, who could not be
enticed aboard any boat for any amount of gardenia flowers.
As the new island hove into sight, sulfuric and dismal,
Shirley Baker declared it "God"s magnificent work." The queen, hiking
the black wool dress over her wide hips so her feet could breathe,
commented to the king that she thought it looked more like the work
of the devil, whoever he was.

As it always had, the season of the humpback whales came and went,
the whales lolling at the passes into the lagoon, flippers shivering
in the air, then flopping back to the surface with slaps that rang
like cannon fire. One year the whaling ships came and responded with
cannons of their own, firing deep into the recesses of blubber and
bone, and blood washed ashore on the waves.
Year after year the ships returned, until the whales were
gone for good and the whaling ships disappeared, and the Tongans who
were born too late ever to hear the songs of the whales made the old
people mimic them, made them screw up their faces and flick their
tongues in and out of their mouths and whoop and gurgle. But without
the amplification of the sea the sound was unconvincing, and the
young people came to doubt that such operas had ever been sung.
Eventually only the tortoise remembered. Staring out to where
the golden feet of the sun danced on the water, she recalled the
power of the leviathans who had lifted the ocean onto their backs and
fountained it into the air.

Princess Salote, the eldest granddaughter of King George Tupou I,
liked to ride belly-down on top of the tortoise, skinny arms and legs
hooked under the edge of the tortoise"s shell and laughing and
giggling as they made infinitesimal progress toward the beach. Salote
and the tortoise went everywhere together. During each Sunday"s choir
practice, the tortoise climbed the wooden steps of the royal chapel
and lodged herself inside the small doorway while Salote sang, a
cappella, hymns imported from England. It took all twelve choir
members to dislodge the tortoise from the door at the end of each
practice, the tortoise"s shell sawing an ever-deeper track into the
frame, until one day she sawed her way through and ambled to where
Salote sat, eyes flickering steadily between heaven and the tortoise
as she sang.
Salote tended Tu"i Malila, rubbing coconut oil into the
tortoise"s leathery skin, scrubbing her shell with fish scales,
cleaning the spaces between her toes with musk parrot feathers
brought from "Eua. The tortoise lay with her head in the princess"s
lap and listened to Salote"s elaborate stories of the love between
beautiful nuns and handsome priests. Sometimes, when the princess and
the tortoise rested together under the huge arms of the mape tree,
the princess confided to the tortoise how she would like to become a
nun when she grew up and renounce the royalty of Tonga in exchange
for the royalty of heaven.
When news came that the island called Fonuaf "ou, or new
land, had disappeared, families set off in canoes with picnics to see
where it no longer stood. Salote went out aboard a packet boat with
the king, the queen, a clot of cousins, and a photographer from
Scotland who had come to the South Seas to make his reputation, à la
Gauguin, only to find everyone clothed in whalebone and cotton and
not a breast in sight. By the time they arrived at the place where
Fonuaf "ou used to be, all were seasick. The royal party lined up,
clutching the rail, and the photographer exposed a single shot of
them, queasy and green against a snarl of whitecaps. From the side of
the king"s deathbed in the royal palace, Salote looked out the
windows and saw the sooty terns fanning the blue sky with black
wings. Within moments of his death the news was radioed to the outer
islands, and canoes full of nobles began arriving at Tongatapu. For
three days the men huddled in the gazebo of the palace gardens before
emerging with a decision: as there was no prince to become king and
the old queen had already passed away, Princess Salote, eighteen
years old, would become queen.
She appeared at her coronation wearing an ancient ta"ovala, a
red-and-green lorikeet-feather cape, and a small golden crucifix at
her brown throat. The people of Tonga were impressed. Despite being
female and as skinny as a sea snake, the new queen appeared
spiritually weighty. Standing beside her, bedecked with garlands of
hibiscus, the tortoise wove her long neck back and forth.
The coronation feast lasted two weeks. Spring lamb was
shipped in from New Zealand, sides of beef from Australia, and the
king of England sent a silver chafing dish. Queen Salote sat in a
wicker throne at the head of the royal table as the shadows of palm
fronds sawed back and forth across the lawn. She fed the tortoise
cubes of mango from her own plate, eating little herself. The members
of the coronation party could not fail to notice the new queen"s
minimalist appetite, and they urged the royal cooks to try harder and
invent new dishes on the spot. But the queen only smiled and shook
her head, demurely rejecting her own earthly appetites.

Queen Salote established schools and medical clinics across the
islands and personally taught children to read. In the evenings, when
her work was done, she swayed in a hammock in the royal gardens, an
arm draped over the side, caressing the tortoise"s neck. Alone with
Tu"i Malila, she allowed herself to dream: of saints and martyrs and
lives selflessly renounced. In keeping with this, she cared not for
herself, only for others, and although she was greatly loved by the
people of Tonga for her humanitarian efforts, she also confounded
them, because she would not fatten, marry, and have children as a
queen should.
One year during the season of the sea turtles, when the
tortoise made her private pilgrimage to the fields of volcanic
boulders, the queen followed, wandering through the maze of stones,
watching the tortoise lumber through the tight angles and past the
dead-end alleys. She listened to the low screech of sound as the
rocks carved the tortoise"s shell, and afterward let her fingers
peruse the new etchings in Tu"i Malila"s carapace, feeling their
sharp edges.
Pondering the slow decades of the tortoise"s unresolved
sorrow, Salote made a decision. As she too could never change the
circumstances of her life, she would let her unhappiness sink away
like a tadpole in a dark pool, alive but awaiting transformation.
Little by little she began to eat more, making the weekly rounds of
her maternity clinics accompanied by an attendant with a basket of
pickled "ota "ika. She taught reading classes with an array of
fingota fresh from the lagoon spread out on a blanket at her feet,
and swung in her hammock at night with a packet of warm manioke
balanced on her chest. Slowly she grew stout, so stout that when she
sang in the choir, her chins bobbled like wattles and her voice took
on the timber of a low wind in the taro fields.
On summer afternoons she and the tortoise swam in the lagoon,
the queen resplendent in a huge Indian cotton bathing dress that
swirled like loose ink in the water.
Eventually the queen fell in love. She married and had
children, one after another. The tortoise reveled in the affection of
a new generation of princes and princesses.
The years came and went like the fingerling waves inside the
lagoon, tickling the stilt roots of the mangroves, then stepping away.
The seasons of the moon tumbled through the sky.
The island called Fonuaf "ou began to rise again, and the
Tongans watched its fiery progress from the ferry that now ran
between Tongatapu and Niuafo"ou.

Turtle boats came from abroad, waiting on dark nights for the sea
turtles to swim ashore and kick open the hollows of their nests. The
fishermen followed, scooping the turtles from the beach, trussing
them and tossing them on their backs into the bottom of dinghies, and
rowing them to the ships offshore.
Eventually the visits of the sea turtles became rare, and
rarer, until they stopped altogether. Then the old people of Tonga
entertained the young with stories of turtle eggs, how different love
had been when those were around.
The tortoise sat on an esi mound staring out to sea as the
queen, floating on the waves, offered bleeding-heart flowers and
handfuls of late-season screw pine fruit as enticement. But the
tortoise never again entered the water.

The queen flew to England for the coronation of the English queen. It
rained incessantly on the queen of England"s cold island, and the
skies were black from coal smoke. Underground trains ran everywhere,
carrying wet people from unheated homes to unheated offices, while
the queen of England lived in opulence in a grand palace bedecked
with crystal, silver, and gold. But she had no tortoise. Sensing this
lack, the queen of Tonga shared her snapshots with the queen of
England, showing her pictures of turquoise seas, wild orchids, and
Tu"i Malila, King Malila, older and wiser than the wind itself.

Sleepy with age, the tortoise napped much of each day in the shade of
palm trees in the palace gardens while royal grandprincesses and
grandprinces painted her shell with felt-tip pens and slid down her
back into the soft cushions of sand castles at her feet. Surrounded
by the voices of the children and the snoring of the queen beside
her, Tu"i Malila dreamed of giant tortoises who, in her aging memory,
had come to resemble volcanic rocks.
The queen, grown as ancient as a wave-worn coconut, dreamed
her own nearly forgotten dreams, until one day in the rainy season,
as the irregular thud of dropping mangoes kept time with peals of
thunder, her sleep slipped effortlessly into death. Not only the
people of Tonga mourned. Heads of state from around the world sent
flowers aboard airplanes that bumped to ground on Tongan runways made
of white coral rubble.
The tortoise accompanied the funeral procession to the royal
cemetery, her shell bedecked with gardenias. But when the mourners
filed away, the tortoise stayed behind, listening to the water drum
against her shell. She stayed there through the night, and the next
one, and the next. She stayed until the end of the rains, when the
geckos started chirping and mating on the underside of every palm
frond in the islands. Then she wandered back to the palace gardens to
be near the new queen.
Fading in and out of sleep through the cool days of the dry
season, with the new queen faithfully feeding her fe"i bananas,
coconut milk, and the blossoms of the calceolaria shower tree, the
tortoise drifted through the many memories playing inside her shell:
the sounds of guns firing in the fog, the sight of a young man
dancing the tau"olunga, the burning torches of kailoa war dances, a
young girl"s white teeth. Deep in the core of her dreams was a memory
of something long ago lost, now finally forgotten.

After the screw pine trees fruited and faded, the land crabs arrived
and cleaned out the tortoise"s massive hull with busy pincers. Later
the pack rats came to carry off her bones. For the next two decades
she lay where she had died as the palace gardeners carefully weeded
around her remains and the royal princesses and princes, passing her
empty shell on their way to school, told stories about Tu"i Malila,
whom the younger ones could no longer remember. Each afternoon the
new queen came to visit, sitting alone beside the tortoise"s giant
carapace, dusting it free of flower pollen, polishing it with coconut
oil, her fingers delicately probing all the old scars, cracks, nicks,
and chips, the hieroglyphs of history.

Copyright © 2002 by Julia Whitty. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Animals Fiction, Human-animal relationships Fiction, Nature Effect of human beings on Fiction