Puripuri* at Olsobip (Western District): Philip Fitzpatrick
(Published Una Voce, March 2002, page 16)
1997- 2002 – Barracuda Seismic Surveys, Fogoma’iu and Kaiam, Oilsearch, surveys for oil and gas drilling in Western Province PNG. Social mapping Omati, Aure PNG for Oilsearch and Interoil exploration projects.
1974-96 – In Australia
1972-73 – Publications Officer, Lands Dept, Port Moresby.
1971-73 – PO, Nomad, Western District. ADO, Balimo Sub-District, Western District.
1970 – OIC, Olsobip Patrol Post, Western District.
1969 – PO, Kiunga, Western District.
1968 – CPO, Mount Hagen, Western Highlands.
1967 – ASOPA, Mosman, NSW.
One day in 1970 I was sitting idly in my office at Olsobip watching the clouds travel down off the higher ranges and along the steep valley wall. Very soon the gorge at the end of the valley would be clouded over and it would be impossible to fly either in or out of the patrol post. It happened every day and I was not surprised. When I looked up the valley again I noticed a small party of men descending the scarp opposite the airstrip bearing what appeared to be a stretcher. This was unusual and I got up and summoned Imbum the interpreter and Kasari the corporal. We went outside and waited.
The bundle the little group of men carried to the door of the office was indeed a stretcher. Flattened lengths of sikin diwai (bark) had been tied to a frame of saplings and padded with ferns and grass. On this bed lay a battered looking man who I guessed to be of middle years. I knelt down and poked about amongst the foliage to examine him. He was covered with bruises and swellings. His face was also puffed up but it was his eyes that caught my attention. He looked as though he had seen a ghost. My white face hovering over him didn’t help. I patted him reassuringly on the arm and he recoiled to the edge of the stretcher.
‘What happened to him?’ I asked one of the stretcher-bearers.
The question drew an interesting response. The man started and stood open-mouthed in confusion. I lifted my eyebrows and pointedly looked at Imbum who was staring in fascination at the stricken man on the stretcher. I nudged the interpreter with my foot. He looked down at me in surprise, then, realising what I wanted, turned to the group of men. As they broke into a confused babble I examined the man’s limbs and abdomen. Nothing seemed broken and his chest, stomach and spleen seemed unharmed. Judging by the damage, I guessed he had been beaten fairly methodically with a piece of wood. He was going to be very sore in a day or so.
‘Where is his wife?’ I asked.
‘What!’ Imbum blurted.
‘His wife?’ I repeated. Imbum shouted at the babbling men. They stopped moving and talking in the same instant.
‘He isn’t married!’ one of the men relayed through Imbum.
‘Then who did this to him’, I asked. Sheepish silence. I stood up.
‘Well?’ More silence. I stepped towards them.
‘It was a maselai meri’, Imbum said quickly.
‘Oh yes?’ I replied, raising my eyebrows. ‘And where is this maselai meri now?’
Imbum pointed with his chin and whispered. ‘She’s in the forest. Maybe she’s waiting for nightfall when she can finish him off.’
‘Where did they bring him from?’ I asked, trying to hide the skepticism in my voice. Imbum consulted the group again and when the babble had died down turned back to me.
‘They found him hanging onto a rock in the middle of the Ok Kinim on the track to Bolivip. When they shouted to him he told them what had happened and they became frightened and ran away but one of them stopped after a while and said he felt sorry for the man and was going back to help him. They argued about this for a while and finally decided on a plan.’
‘Yes, they decided to make a stretcher out of bark, creep back to the river, rescue the man and carry him here as quickly as possible.’
‘So the maselai couldn’t catch them?’
‘And what are we going to do if the maselai comes looking for him tonight?’ Imbum looked blank and turned to the men again.
‘They say the police can shoot her with their rifles.’
‘Ask them what really happened’, I said to Imbum, ‘Who beat him up and why?’
Imbum looked puzzled and shrugged his shoulders. He was obviously wondering why I doubted the men’s story. I sighed. Maselai are malevolent spirits who lurk in the forest. Often they lure unsuspecting individuals into the forest and perform unspeakable acts on them. I’ve never been able to obtain a useful description of these unspeakable acts, old ladies cackle, children cringe and men look distinctly uncomfortable when I ask the question. A favourite trick of the maselai is to turn into the shape of a seductive nymph to lure men into the forest. The only way to get away from the maselai is to manoeuvre a body of water between yourself and the spirit. They won’t cross water for some reason, hence the reason the battered man was on the rock in the middle of the river.
‘They say it was definitely a maselai’, Imbum announced.
‘Okay’, I sighed, ‘Take him down to the medic and get him examined and then put him in the empty police house down by the store. Tell Kasari to put a guard on the door. The other men had better camp down by the river for the night. Send word up to Fiamnok at Loubip, tell him I wish to consult him on a matter of professional interest.’
Fiamnok was the Mamusi, or village constable, in the village on the ridge overlooking the station. He was a little gamin of a man who habitually wore a cane hat. He was also the chief sorcerer in the valley and we had enjoyed a friendly sort of intellectual duel ever since I had arrived at Olsobip. He often came on patrols with me, probably for nefarious reasons, but I enjoyed his company anyway.
A camp of sorts, with rough shelters, had been established for people visiting the patrol post in an area just beyond the station on a bend in the Ok Bilak. I told Kasari I wanted the group kept there until we had gotten to the bottom of what appeared to be a criminal assault. Olsobip had never had a formal gaol built. The odd miscreant sentenced at Olsobip was usually given a red laplap (loin cloth) before being handed over to the charge of one of the station policemen. They usually served out their time working with the paid station labourers and sleeping in the policeman’s cookhouse.
I thought it best to lock the injured man up in the empty police house as a form of protective custody. I guessed there wasn’t a person on the station, except for myself, who didn’t believe in magic and sorcery and for that reason the investigation would be difficult. I wasn’t sure about Kasari. He was an intelligent man with a strong practical bent but I once had to dismiss a case where he had arrested a man for theft because his evidence was based on a dream in which his deceased grandmother identified the culprit.
Towards midnight I surfaced from a deep sleep into a dream full of voices and lights. As I gained consciousness the noise and lights remained. I rolled over and peered out of the bedroom window. There was shouting and flashing lights down by the police house. I looked at my watch, it was 2.30 a.m.
‘What the hell is going on now?’ I said aloud as I pulled on a pair of shorts. A flashlight was coming up the hill towards the house. By the time Kasari reached the verandah I had fired up my Petromax lantern. The bright silk mantle lit up the surrounding lawn.
‘It’s the maselai’, Kasari said, ‘It tried to get at the man from under the house!’
‘Is he okay?’ I asked.
‘He’s scared and shivering, some of the men shot arrows at it and it’s gone away.’
‘Okay, let’s go see him’, I replied.
The night was cool and I involuntarily shivered as I peered under the house. There was nothing there except for a dozen or more long-bladed arrows sticking in the ground at odd angles. In the extra light cast by the Petromax one of the men worked up the courage to retrieve them. As he crawled out from amongst the house piles I noticed that there was blood on some of the arrow blades. Everyone else noticed the red stains and there was a collective shudder amongst the crowd. I peered at the blood, it was wet and sticky.
‘Come on’, I said to Kasari, ‘Down to the camp. Look for dead chickens or someone with cuts on them, anywhere that blood could come from!’ Kasari looked puzzled then grinned.
‘Yu tink oli giaman yumi long maselai?’ (You think they are lying to us about the maselai?) he said.
‘Of course’, I replied, ‘It’s a set up to reinforce their story. They beat the man up and got worried when he looked badly injured; they decided to bring him in to the medic but needed an alibi. I imagine they threatened him to keep quiet.’
Kasari looked doubtful.
‘Just do what I say’, I demanded and he took off at the run for the river camp, swinging the Petromax wildly as he went.
When I got to the river Kasari had the rest of the men from the injured man’s clan grouped in the firelight and was methodically going through each of the huts in which they had been sleeping. I motioned the bowmen to join their companions in the firelight. Kasari came out of the last hut and shrugged.
‘Nothing!’ he said.
I peered at the group of men. None of them had any recent cuts.
‘Give me the lamp’, I said and started on the first hut.
There was nothing, just as Kasari said. We scoured the ground and the nearby bush. Nothing. I checked the rocks by the river. Again, nothing.
‘They’re very smart’, I said to Kasari, ‘They must have expected us to come back here to check and they’ve cleaned up beautifully.’
Kasari smiled weakly. I could see the doubt in his face. Who he doubted I did not know, the man’s clan group or me? I stomped off towards my house on the hill.
‘Tell them to stay put until morning’, I said over my shoulder. ‘And keep the guard on the injured man. Don’t let these characters anywhere near the police house where he’s locked up. Give me the arrows.’
I didn’t sleep very well and woke early feeling determinedly seedy. Fiamnok arrived in the morning, stamped his feet and threw me a shuddering salute. I ducked involuntarily and saluted back. I presented him with the bunch of arrows. He sniffed one of the more bloodied ones and then popped the tip into his mouth. He sucked for a moment and raised his eyebrows.
‘It’s not human blood but it’s not chicken or pig either!’ he said.
He grinned devilishly as he withdrew the wet blade from his mouth. I decided I didn’t want to know how he could recognise the individual tastes of blood, especially human.
‘Bring the man here and get a basin of water’.
He made the order casually but I was surprised at how quickly the interpreter jumped up. The power in this little valley was complex and I had no doubt that my standing was not necessarily at the top. Fiamnok smiled pleasantly at me and I knew I was out of my depth. I looked at my watch. It was time for the morning radio schedule with the ADC at Kiunga. I padded up the office stairs thinking that I understood as much about puripuri as Fiamnok knew about two-way radios. I waited patiently as the ADC Kiunga worked his way around the various patrol posts and base camps. I wanted a bit more of his time and was happy to wait till last. Finally he said
‘Olsobip, Olsobip, Kiunga, do you copy Olsobip?’
‘Olsobip here’, I said, ‘You’re coming in strength five.’
‘So what’s up?’ he replied. I explained the situation.
‘I need some advice, I couldn’t find anything in the ordinances or standing orders to hold anyone, let alone charge them with assault,’ I added. There was silence at the other end of the radio.
I waited for a minute or two and then called again. ‘Kiunga, do you copy?’ Still silence. I called again.
‘Olsobip, are you still there?’ came the ADC finally.
‘Olsobip here’, I replied, ‘What do you advise?’
‘Olsobip, Olsobip, Kiunga, do you copy?’
‘Olsobip here?’ I replied loudly.
‘Nothing heard Olsobip, where have you gone?’ the ADC finally said. I twanged the mike. The aerial pinged perfectly. I tried again. Nothing. They couldn’t hear me!
‘Anyone else copy Olsobip?’ the ADC asked.
‘Nothing here’, the OIC Ningerum chipped in. His was the closest radio and I never had trouble communicating with him.
‘Maybe the maselai got him!’ I heard from the Nomad River radio.
There was silence and then all I could hear through the static was laughter.
I stomped back down the office stairs. Fiamnok was sitting cross-legged on the grass in front of the injured man. Between them sat an enamel basin filled with water. A small crowd stood at a respectful distance. Imbum stood up and came over to me.
‘The Mamusi is going to ask the man about the maselai’, he explained. ‘If the water moves the man is telling the truth, if it stays still he is lying.’ I looked at Fiamnok, he looked serene. The injured man, on the other hand, looked distinctly uncomfortable. The cunning old bugger, I thought, of course the water won’t move, then the man will have to come clean!
Fiamnok put the question. It was short and to the point. Imbum interpreted.
‘Did a maselai beat you up?’ Fiamnok asked. The man twitched nervously.
‘Yes’, he said.
We all looked towards the enamel basin. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a ripple appeared in the centre of the water. It bubbled and burst and a series of concentric ripples broke on the basin rim. No one was within a metre of the basin. Fiamnok stood up and the injured man followed suit. I was perplexed. Fiamnok bowed slightly and spoke.
‘It was a maselai!’ he said.
There was a sigh, almost of relief, from the crowd. I thought quickly. The old bastard could have set the whole thing up, but why, it didn’t make sense. I dismissed the idea.
‘Thank you very much’, I said to Fiamnok, ‘Your help is much appreciated.’ He gave me a sympathetic smile.
‘Take the man to the medic’, I told Imbum, ‘When he is well he can go.’
When the crowd has dispersed only Kasari and I were left. I walked slowly around the basin, scuffing the ground as I went. There were no sticks or strings in the grass. I knelt down and tipped the bowl up slightly, careful not to spill the water. There was nothing there either. I looked at Kasari.
‘Come here’, I said and positioned him opposite me with the basin in between.
‘Tell me the truth corporal’, I asked, ‘Do you believe it was a maselai?’
Kasari thought for a moment. He knew what I was up to.
‘I don’t know’, he said finally.
The water stayed perfectly still.
*Puripuri – sorcery
(Philip said that the above is factual and the names real – the ADC Kiunga was Barry Creedy. Arthur Marks was at Ningerum and Robin Barclay was at Nomad.)