The coastal village of Matala prided itself on being a community that worked together. United to carry out village projects. Their village had won first place in the Teuila Festival National Dance competition, for the last five years running. Their cricket team was unbeatable in Upolu. And they were awarded certificates every year in the beautification campaign organized by the Samoa Tourism Authority. Before the ma’i came, Matala was a beautiful village to drive through on the way from the airport to town. The road lined with white painted stones and neat rows of mini yellow frangipani bushes and pink teuila. They had a wooden sign that stretched over the road, decorated with Samoan flags that fluttered in the breeze – AFIO MAI. WELCOME TO MATALA. And on the other side, TOFA SOIFUA. Matala had two churches with half the village attending one, and the other half going to the other. Two was a nice number. Too many churches led to conflict and competition.
When the lockdown was first announced, their people living in Apia for work, came home to be with their families. Of course they were welcomed. But they brought the sickness with them. It spread. Adults got sick and died, choking on the fluid in their lungs. It was like 1918 all over again.
The people of Matala organized. They did not look to the government to save them. They did not wait for police and rescue services that never came. They knew they were not the only ones in the country with the ma’i. The Village Council met and decided they would close Matala off from the rest of the country. Stop anyone else with the virus from entering. They blocked off the one road in and out. They knew they needed to separate the sick from the uninfected, so they also sectioned off several houses. All those showing any signs of sickness were placed there, with food and water. Then there was a roster made for the uninfected to don masks and go outside the barrier to tend to the sick every day. It was difficult for people to separate from their loved ones, but everyone in the village agreed, even those who were sick. They knew it was best for everyone.
The village leaders thought they were making the right decision. To put their sick outside the barricade but still close enough that they could be cared for. But their compassion proved deadly. Because when the sick changed to Tagata Oti, the village became their first targets.
The people of Matala watched from the barricade as their aiga changed. One day they were family – wives, husbands, grandparents, and cousins. The next, they were ferocious meaola with yellow eyes. The Tagata Oti ate the flesh of the still sick and weak ones, the unchanged ones, and those on nurse duty for the day. The screams were something the surviving villagers would never forget. Several of them tried to save their loved ones. They scaled the barricade and ran to stop the slaughter. But it was no use. They became prey as well. It didn’t stop there. When the Tagata Oti were done with the sick they came for the village. They climbed the barricade.
The people of Matala rallied to fight them off. They came running from their work on the plantation, with any and every weapon they had at hand. Sapelu still sticky with the sap of bushes in the plantation. Shovels crusted with brown earth. Axes that tasted of poumuli trees. Even long handled brooms used by the women to sweep up cut grass and dry leaves.
It was a hard thing to fight the Tagata Oti. To chop and hack and hurt your own. They wore the faces of loved ones. But their eyes? There was no alofa there. They only wanted death. The villagers were only food to them.
The only ones who did not fight, were the children, too young to wield a weapon. Even the women fought the Tagata Oti.
Lonise was the leader of the Women’s Komiti. A middle-aged woman, large in stature and heavy in build, who moved with ponderous slowness and tended to breathe loudly when she walked too far from her house. She was a master craftswoman, maker of ie toga, fine mats that sold for many thousands of tala. Not a fighter. But then, an apocalypse makes warriors of weavers.
She stood atop the barricade, brandished a sapelu, hacked at the arms and heads of the Tagata Oti when they appeared. Her eldest son Iulai, a young man of twenty-five, had been among the sick sent out to the quarantine houses. Her husband Etu wasn’t sick but he had gone with Iulai to watch over him. They had hoped their son would recover, somehow overcome the virus. Lonise had wanted to be the one to go with Iulai. She was his mother. She should have been the one to go with him into the darkness. But her husband wouldn’t let her. Etu said she had to stay and take care of their family. Their five other children. “I will go with Iulai. Care for him through the ma’i. Then we will come home again.”
They hadn’t returned.
Lonise thought of her young daughters back in the fale as she fought against familiar faces. Her hand did not falter, her intent did not waver. She was determined that her remaining children would not come to any harm.
But then a young man she knew and loved, climbed over the top of the barricade. Iulai. His face stained with blood, his shirt sticky with remnants of torn flesh, he snarled when he saw her, eyes alight with gnawing hunger. The baby she had labored for thirteen hours to bring into the world. The little boy with a mass of riotous brown curls that she never wanted to cut, the boy who used to hug her tight and promise, ‘I don’t want to grow up. I’m going to be little and stay with you and Dad forever!’ The young man who proudly brought his pay envelope to his parents every Friday, from his first job in Apia, working for a palagi carpenter. The job where he got infected with the ma’i.
Lonise stayed her hand. She cried as she spoke his name, as she hoped her son would recognize her. She wanted him to be who he was. But Iulai did not know his mother. He was Tagata Oti. And she had to keep his sisters safe. So Lonise slashed with the sapelu. Steeled herself against his wild shriek of pain. She cut again and again as Iulai fought against her. Tears ran down her face as she hacked at her son, as she stepped forward to shove him back off the barricade and watched him fall to the rocky ground below. He lay there for a while and twitched, eyes wide open, staring up at her, jaw still snapping.
The villagers held the Tagata Oti at bay. The people took turns to stand watch. They tended to their wounded. Five people had been bitten and by the next day, they were hot with fever as the ma’i raced through their veins. A decision had to be made. The sick could not be allowed to remain in the village. There was no disagreement as four of the five were escorted out of the barricade. Only weeping as families bid their loved ones goodbye.
The other one, Siaosi, a fifty-three year old matai and father of six, chose another path, while he still could. In the early hours of the morning, he slung a rope over a branch of the closest tamaligi tree, and hung himself. His wife wailed and tore at her clothes when they found him and cut down his body. Her sisters comforted her. Loto tele, they said. Your husband was a strong and courageous man who loved his family enough to leave them.
Siaosi set a precedent for the people of Matala. As the weeks passed and the village fought to protect themselves, many others climbed the tamaligi tree. They had learnt from their mistake.
When you are bitten, you don’t wait. You end it before you become a danger to your family.
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