Next morning on a trip to Motu Tabu, one of the bird islands, Eddy was plainly uncomfortable about the expedition. "Don't mess with any birds," he told me. "Don't kill any. Don't eat 'em." It would be much later before I realized he wasn't making a case for conservation but was taking the Gilbertese name for the island—the Forbidden Isle—seriously.
Once we were on the white sand beach of Motu Tabu, it was plain that nothing would be easier than to harm the entirely fearless creatures. "Tameness is hazardous to their health," Anderson said laconically, something the first European sailors discovered when they found big, gannetlike birds sitting in the heliotrope trees waiting patiently for their necks to be wrung and so named them "boobies." Now, as we picked our way through the ground vines among the nesting terns and noddies, they showed no inclination to fly off, nor did the extravagantly handsome red-tailed tropic birds feeding young as big as themselves, nor did the broiler-size booby chicks, fluffy and wacky enough to star in
. Translucently white fairy terns whirled overhead, then fluttered close to examine us. Out on the bonefish flats, now stripped by the tide, a golden plover from arctic Alaska was overwintering like a fly-fisher from the U.S.
We'd met Katino Tebaki, the local conservation officer, when we landed on Motu Tabu. Anderson said, "He and two assistants have to look after all of Kiribati, not just Christmas, and they don't even have a Jeep. All over the world conservation is tough, but on this poor and isolated island it's murder."
Katino, of a new generation of Gilbertese, had trained in England with the Nature Conservancy and in Hawaii with the Fish and Wildlife Service. As he cradled a tropic-bird chick on Motu Tabu he said, "Richard's told you about the cats, but the islanders eat birds, too, and it is hard to blame them because their fish and coconut diet is so monotonous. But at least there's no market now for the tropic-bird tails they used for ladies' hats, because they've gone out of fashion." I caught a sharp look of anguish on Eddy's face that I would understand later, but now Katino was bending to release a blue-gray noddy from entangling vines. "A lot of them die this way," he said, "but more by the cats."
When we returned to the boat there were bonefish in the shallows like idlers on a street corner, and blue, flashing trevally came raiding the tiny snappers that fed under coral ledges. "Fish tomorrow," Eddy said, "but I'll see you at the dancing tonight."
At ordinary tourist hotels, the local folklorique show tends to be tired and commercial. At the Captain Cook, though, the dancing was frenetic, savage, the Micronesian choruses overlaid by a shouting soloist giving the theme, as a shantyman did on the old sailing ships. Meantime, I thought I recognized the face of the girl who was wildly stamping and gyrating out front. "You met her at the farm," Eddy said.
On Christmas, where there is no soil to speak of, I'd been to see a tiny establishment where cabbages and tomato plants were grown semi-hydroponically, in moldering coconut husks carefully contained in rusting file cabinets left by the military. "That's Mekara," Eddy reminded me. "Best dancer on the island"—and now I recalled the shy girl who had appeared with a wheelbarrowful of what, at 50� a pound, was probably the dearest cabbage on earth. I also recalled Mekara's sad story: When the Christmas Island dancers were scheduled to perform in Honolulu, each had to fill out a visa application for the U.S. consul in Fiji. Mekara had been too honest on a previous application. Under "purpose of visit" she'd written, bluntly, "Marriage." She didn't make it to Honolulu.
Eddy disappeared, returning with cups of toddy, a slightly sparkling drink made of three-day-old sap from palm trees. It was as strong as Burgundy. "Tomorrow," he said, "we'll go for a big trevally, my way. You can get bonefish as well, in the lagoon, back at Y-site."
Y-site—the stark name was yet another military inheritance—was deep in the inner lagoon. "Not too many peoples know about this way to fish, but some peoples know." He chuckled mysteriously and took a little more toddy. "Tonight I'll make special oil," he said. "For magic."
"Magic?" I asked.