The Little White Birds of Olotele


This story about a little Samoan girl will be more enjoyable if you can pronounce the Samoan words correctly.

For the word:

You say:

Samoa

saw-moh-a

Mala

moll-a

Olotele

oh-loh-tay-lay

fale (house)

fall-ay

sami (sea)

rhymes with Tommy

siva siva (Samoan dance)

see-va see-va

matapisu (small shellfish)

mah-ta-pee-soo

utu (lively, like a flea)

oo-too

Mala opened one eye and saw that dawn had lighted the sky. Then she opened the other eye and carefully turned her head from one side to the other. All about her she could see the rest of the family still sleeping on the stone floor of the fale. This was good!

Holding the edges of her sleeping mat closely, she rolled like a cocoon to the open side of the fale. Last night she had put her mat close to the open side so that she could slip out early and alone. She even had a good-sized rock waiting to put on her mat so it would not blow away.

She straightened up and glanced around the village. No fire smoke yet rose, no dog had begun wandering, no pig was yet rooting, and only one chicken was out scratching.

Mala smiled her special secret smile as she silently stole past her friend Fea’s fale, and then just as she was about to slip into the dim shelter of the forest, she heard her mother’s voice, soft and clear, calling, “Mala.”

Instead of answering, Mala dropped to her hands and knees and disappeared under the broad taro leaves. Finally she stood up and reluctantly turned back toward home. By this time many people were awake, and Mala tried to slip back without being seen in order that no one would know she had left her fale early so she would not have to do her share of the work.

But she was too late. Her mother was already caring for the baby, and her big sister, Lila, was ready to scold. Mala hung her head in shame and embarrassment.

“You don’t like to tend the little ones or cut the grass or gather firewood or carry water or gather coconuts or learn to make mats and baskets. You’re a lazy girl, Mala! You don’t like to do anything.”

Mala’s head came up in a flash. “No,” she cried, “that is not true. I like to do many things.”

“Oh? What many things do you like to do?”

“I like to play with the baby. I like to serve my father his food and go to Church meetings in my white dress. I like to sing in the bus going to town, and I like to swim in the sami and try to catch fish. When it’s dark and the grownups are singing and dancing, I like to go in the shadows and dance siva siva too. And most of all I like—”

Mala faltered and stopped because everyone was laughing at her. Even Lila was shaking her head and saying in her grown-up voice, “I think with Mala it is useless to try. I give up on her.”

Embarrassed, Mala dived into her father’s arms and hid her face against his chest. She was glad she hadn’t finished telling her likes, for what she liked most of all was to climb high to the top of Mount Olotele in the early dawn and play with her friends, the little white birds. The birds were so used to her that they would swoop down in a soft flutter of wings and catch the crumbs she threw to them. Then they would play together, girl and birds, darting among the trees and chasing and calling one another.

“My father does not laugh at me,” Mala whispered to herself, safe in his arms. “He taught me how to be friends with the white birds when I was just a little girl.”

Then Father turned her face to his. “Eat some banana, child,” he said kindly. “Then do your work before you play. Today you are to go with your mother and sister and gather matapisu. The good matapisu are at Sliding Rock, but you know that is a very dangerous place.”

“I know,” Mala said, her eyes round with wonder that she would be allowed to go there. “I’ve never gone there before because you have told me I must not.”

“That is so,” Father agreed. “But I think you are big enough now. I am trusting you to be careful. I am also trusting you to work hard,” Father continued. “You can climb the rocks easily because you are small and utu. Go now and help your mother.” And Father gave Mala a hug.

The flat stretch of shore called Sliding Rock is a smooth rock shelf. A low cliff rises on the land side. On the sea side the ocean waves slap at the rock when the tide is low, but when the tide is high, the great waves bash like thunder and come churning hungrily up and over the rock all the way to the cliff. When the tide is high, only a strong swimmer can pull out through the wild waves and swim around the high jutting point, Black Rock, to the quiet tidal pool on the other side.

On Black Rock point Mother and Lila found matapisu most plentiful. Mala soon learned how to pry the little umbrella-shaped shells just right so that she could flip them into her basket.

Mother and Mala worked together.

“I will climb down the ledge, Mala,” Mother said. “You stay here to hand my basket down.”

When the basket was nearly full, Mother called for Mala to take the basket. “The tide is coming in,” she explained, “and I must climb back up before the waves reach me.”

But Mother soon discovered that climbing up was not as easy as getting down had been.

“It’s no use,” she called to Mala. “The tide is too rough. Call Lila to come quickly. Maybe she can reach her arms over to help me. I’ll get beneath the rock crevice out of the spray till she comes. Hurry, I’m afraid I’ve stayed too long.”

“Lila! Lila! Come quickly. Mother will soon be in the sami.

Lila could not hear Mala’s words, but she knew that her younger sister was frightened. Lila scrambled up and ran to see where Mala was pointing.

The girls flung themselves down as Mother crept out and held herself against the rock. All three strained to reach each other’s hands, but it was no use!

“Run, Mala,” Lila screamed in her ear. “Run for Father while I stay with Mother; I can’t run as fast as you.”

Down over the rocks Mala dashed and scrambled, ignoring all the cuts and bruises on the way. Off across the watery Sliding Rock, slipping, skidding, falling, up and on she went. Finally she was over the treacherous Sliding Rock and racing up through the forest. Vines and bare roots seemed to reach for her nimble feet.

What a long way it is to Father, she thought, and the same long way back to Mother. And then Mala ran even faster—as if the sea were right at her heels.

As she came crashing through the forest, dogs began to bark, pigs ran squealing, and chickens squawked and flopped out of her path.

The people came running to see what was happening. Mala’s father dropped the net he was mending and caught her in his arms.

“Mother!” gasped Mala, “Black Rock! Go, Father—the sami will take her. Run! Run!”

Father let Mala go and ran, shouting to Grandfather without slowing down or looking around. Grandfather dropped the coconut he was husking and ran after Father!

Women and children babbled with questions, but Mala sank down exhausted and weeping in Father’s net. Then as if the net were hot, she sprang up again, gathering it frantically into her arms as she sobbed, “No rope! They have no rope!”

With the net held in a big wad against her chest, she staggered and stumbled away from the fale. Then, getting her balance, she fled through the forest, calling for Father and Grandfather to wait for the net. Already the two men with their strong legs were deep in the forest, and so Mala had to run with the net herself.

When she reached the sami, she could see them far ahead splashing across Sliding Rock, now awash with water. She could see Lila almost lost in spray at the top of Black Rock. Mala’s heart went stone cold, realizing that the waves must be beating at the rock where Mother crouched.

Taking no chances and praying with all her heart, she made her way carefully to the highest places and finally to the top of Black Rock. Looking like a straggle of seaweed, she flopped close to Grandfather.

Grandfather and Lila were holding Father’s legs while he slid farther and farther over the edge of the rock, trying to reach Mother’s hands. Seeing the net, Grandfather shouted and dragged Father back. In an instant the net flew up and out like a round wing of gauze. It flew over the cleft of the rock and landed between waves exactly at the right instant.

It seemed almost forever before Mother’s precious head finally appeared over the edge, and the two strong men carefully pulled her up as she clung to the net. Mother was scraped and cut and half-drowned, but she smiled gratefully.

In the cool dark that evening, friends came from all over the village to hear Lila tell the whole adventure again.

“And after Father and Grandfather pulled Mother out of the sami, we had to get away fast,” recounted Lila. “They carried my mother in the net, for she was sick and badly hurt. The doctor said she must stay in the hospital at least a week.”

“I’m going to help Lila take care of the children and the house,” spoke up Mala.

“Good!” Lila smiled and put her arms around Mala. “I’ll need my sister to help. She is a very brave and clever girl, this Mala. Besides, she’s not fat like me. She is skinny like a spider, and she can run very fast.”

“She can run faster than a spider,” one of the boys laughed. “When I saw her come out of the forest, scaring the dogs and chickens, I thought she was a crazy wild pig.”

Everyone laughed. Then Mala’s father lifted her onto his lap.

What a nice place Father’s lap was for his weary and aching little girl. Snuggling close, warm and happy and sleepy, Mala heard her father say, “I do not think this girl runs like a spider or even like a wild pig. When I saw her zooming out of the forest this morning, she was not running at all. She was flying through the forest like her little white bird friends on the top of Olotele.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Virginia Sargent