MOEMOE (CURIOSITY), an original Tahitian legend

There is an island in the middle of the ocean upon which sits a lone banyan tree. It wasn’t always thus. Legend has it that this strange island had once been inhabited by women with beautiful voices. No one had ever seen these women but sailors would return from their travels spinning tales of hearing the tones of melancholy singing in the dark of the night. Whenever they tried to approach the island, they were rebuffed by treacherous waters. The voices were silent during the day; this island still but for the rustling and flight of brightly colored birds circling above.

There was a man in a village named Onoono. A curious sort. He had been so all his life, and he had heard story after story of this mysterious island and its elusive inhabitants equally long. Naturally, he longed to see and hear such things for himself. One day he managed to convince his mates to seek out this mystical place and away they went. They found an island encircled by brightly colored birds. Unsure if this was the place, they made landfall and decided to explore. Without warning, they were set upon by that same flock of colorful birds. Seemingly fearless, the birds flew close around the men, brushing their hair with their feathers, chirping at them lively. Onoono’s friends were unnerved by this unnatural behaviour and tried to swat away the birds, but the birds were undeterred. Onoono, however, gazed upon these creatures with wonder and noticed one bird in particular whose feathers were the color of the sunrise, and who, in turn, took special interest in him. His mates began to fear these aggressive birds and urged Onoono to leave. So enamored was he of his bird, who he called Maruao, however, that he refused. “Come back for me later,” he said distractedly, entranced by his bird. Frustrated, his mates left him and made their way back to their boat. But they had tarried on the island too long and the previously calm seas around the island had given way to a frenzy of tumultuous waves. Their boat had been destroyed by the roiling waves, dashed upon the rocks, leaving them no hope of escape. Realizing they were trapped, they went back in search of Onoono.

They found him among the flock of birds, keeping a watchful vigil on the one the color of sunrise. The men were still wary of the birds and tried to keep their distance, but as night fell the men were greeted with an unexpected sight. When the sun had dipped past the horizon and darkness blanketed the island, all the birds began to transform into women. Frightened, the men hid themselves away but Onoono stepped out from their hiding place, eager to speak with the women, excited at the prospect of learning more about them. The woman who had been his sunrise bird saw him and approached him, a smile upon her lips. Seeing the two getting closer, her sisters descended upon them in a panic and pulled Maruao away from him.

As one the women sang a song of woe. There once was a sorcerer named Tuputupua who was envious of Oro’s powers of creation. Wanting to be like the god, Tuputupua began to bring into being creatures of his own on this island. However, when he created human women, that’s when he drew Oro’s ire. “You are no god! For your arrogance, I curse your human women to live as birds,” thundered the god. But Tuputupua pleaded with Oro for mercy, “Punish me if you must, but please spare my creations. They are innocent of my wrong doing.” Taking some pity on the women, Oro cursed them to live as birds only while the sun is up, allowing them to keep their human form at night. “Beware, no human creature of yours can ever touch a human of my making. Heed this warning and I may yet be more merciful toward them. Defy this and they will suffer even worse consequences.” Many years had since passed, and their sorcerer father was dead and gone, but the women prayed to Oro every night in the hopes that he would return them to their full human forms.

Moved by this tale of sorrow, the men emerged from their hiding place and walked cautiously toward the women. The women tried to shy away from them but could not help but be drawn to them as well, fighting between their desire to meet with human men they had never seen before and knowing that a worse punishment awaited them should they defy Oro’s wishes. Free from the prying eyes of her sisters, Maruao sought out the curious man again. Though she knew it was forbidden, she reached out a hand to stroke his hair and his cheek, wanting to know if it felt like her own. Onoono was delighted and inspected her just as closely. They clasped hands and smiled at one another. Sensing that something was amiss, the sisters turned toward the couple and were aghast to see their fingers entwined. As they tried to run to the couple to separate them, all the women suddenly fell to the ground. The men watched in horror as the women began to transform into strange and savage four-legged beasts covered in fur and possessing multiple eyes. The beasts snarled and snapped their jaws then turned on the terrified men and chased them deeper into the island. Only Maruao, the sunrise bird, ran away from all of them with the Onoono trying to follow her.

The beasts cornered the men and viciously attacked them. The men tried to defend themselves, but in the end man and beast only succeeded in killing one other. Onoono, having lost track of the beast he had been chasing, stumbled upon this carnage and began to weep for his dead friends, blaming himself for the fate that had befallen them. Onoono sensed quiet footsteps behind him and turned to see the remaining beast stalking him, all traces of the woman and bird he had gotten to know seemingly gone. “Please,” he implored, “don’t kill me.” Maruao only growled in response. Onoono pulled out the knife he always kept with him as, with a howl, Maruao lunged at him.

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