The Continuing Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010
After my encounter with the crabs, I stayed around the ship for awhile, resting in my corner and contemplating what it means to be a plastic skeleton in a world of flesh and blood.
Me, contemplating my identity in Nai'a's salon
Thanks to Leonid Sagalovski for catching me unawares
When I was first manufactured, the scientific supply company called me X17Z23856HS, but when I went to live with Grandpa Tom, he started calling me Gerald and the name stuck. Over time, I learned that he had named me after Gerald Gallagher, a young British colonial officer who had been in charge of the colony established on Nikumaroro in 1939. Listening to Grandpa Tom and the other TIGHARs, I learned that this Gerald had died on the island in 1941, and was buried there.
So after a few days sitting around with the laundry, which Suliana and Richie piled in my corner of the salon to be sorted and claimed by the TIGHARs, I decided to visit the ruins of the colonial village and see if I could find my namesake’s grave.
“I can’t help you much,” Frederick said when I told him what I had in mind. “Like that sharklet said, humans stay on land, or ought to, and I suppose that’s where the village is. We turtles only go ashore to lay our eggs, and about the farthest we go inland is the edge of the beach. Crabs go all over, though, so one of them might guide you.”
“I think I’ll give that a miss.”
“Suit yourself. I can take you to the landing channel, where the TIGHARs go every day; I think that’s close to the old village.”
A few minutes later, we were paddling up a long channel through the reef flat, and then clambering up the beach.
“There used to be a big tall stone thing here that the old people built; it was all white – very interesting.”
“I guess it was to guide their boats in.”
“Maybe; impossible to say what makes people do what they do.”
Thanking Frederick for the ride, I walked up the beach and into the woods. It was dark, but since I don’t have eyes anyhow, that didn’t matter. The woods were full of sound – palm fronds scraping against each other in the wind, the occasional “thump” of a coconut falling to the ground, and the constant scurrying sound of crabs.
Not far inland I came on the remains of an old wooden building with a tin roof, collapsed on the ground. I was puzzling over what it might be when I heard a squeaky voice from somewhere near my feet.
“It was the Gardner Cooperative Store. Gardner is what the humans called this place before the wise ones taught them that it was Nikumaroro.”
I carefully backed up a pace or two, scanning the ground. No crabs. No birds, no eggs. But…
“Right here, Mister Bones. By your left calcaneus.”
There, by my left heel (How did he know its scientific name?) was a little ball of fur.
“Oh! A mouse!”
“NOT a mouse, if you please; I’m a Polynesian RAT -- Rattus exulans, and I exult in that fact every day.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon.”
“Apology accepted, but please don’t let it happen again. There are no ‘mice’ on Nikumaroro.”
“My colleagues and I are the only mammals here, not counting the occasional transient Homo-supposedly-sapiens.” Our ancestors were great voyagers who came here by canoe long ago.
“We are approximately eight-hundred-ninety-seven in number, we R. exulens – give or take the passing elderly and the newborn, and those who fall victim to the cold-blooded killers.”
“Crabs, yes. Especially the beastly Birgus latro. But enough of that. What brings you to the sad, flattened remains of the Gardner Cooperative Store, established 1940 but not on this site?”
“Uh – I’m looking for the grave of Gerald Gallagher, but how do you know so much….”
“Sorry, we haven’t been introduced. I doubt if you could pronounce my R. exulens name, so just call me Polly. And you’re the Gerald those booby birds on the beach squawk about, eh?”
“Why, yes; word travels fast. But…..”
“How do I know so much? We Nikumaroro rats are university educated; Nikumaroro University is just along the trail over there toward the lagoon. It’s where the young humans used to go to school, and when they left – back in 1963 – they left all the schoolbooks. All rotted away now, more’s the pity, but we – our ancestors, that is – had time to – er – consume their contents, and we’ve passed down the knowledge from generation to generation. We hold classes regularly to share and update our knowledge.”
“Well, that’s truly remarkable, and I’m very glad to make your acquaintance. Do you know Ismael?”
“Can’t say that I do. Is he one of your TIGHAR friends?”
So rats don’t see ghosts either, I thought. “No, no, just someone I met. Anyhow, can you….”
“…show you the way to the H. sapiens Gallagher’s grave? Certainly; I can show you ALL the sights of the village of Karaka – named after him, you know, but sometimes called Ritiati after the former High Commissioner… well, are you coming?”
Polly leads the way to the village
Polly scurried off to the north, and I tried to follow, slipping on coconuts and stumbling through piles of fronds. It wasn’t long before she came hustling back and hopped up on my shoulder.
“With fronds like this, who needs enemies, eh? We enjoy word-play. If it’s acceptable to you I’ll ride up here and guide you; otherwise you’ll lose me in the deadfall.”
“Very much obliged indeed, Polly. It’s really pretty thick in here.”
“True. You might want to do what the TIGHARs do – break off a palm frond and wave it in front of you as you go; it knocks down the spiderwebs.”
I followed her advice, having already gotten my head festooned in webs and several spiders in my mouth.
“The TIGHARs are quite amusing to watch,” she went on, “stumbling through the forest waving fronds in front of themselves. They look like some sort of mad religious procession. Now look down to your right; do you see that line of flat stones standing on their edges?” I did.
“That’s one side of the street we’re walking up – the old Sir Harry Luke Boulevard. Named for the High Commissioner who visited here in 1941. Seven meters wide, lined with those coral kerb-stones, and long ago paved with crushed coral. All grown over now, of course.”
“I’ll say.” We were skirting a thick patch of Scaevola, and several clusters of coconut palms.
“Now, here,” Polly said with pride in her voice, “is one of Nikumaroro’s engineering marvels, designed by the great Jack Kimo Petro – truly a sapiens – and built by the colonists under his expert supervision.” She pointed her nose at a dilapidated – but intact – concrete structure with a peaked roof.
“The cistern, without which the human colonists and their coconuts would have died of thirst. The roof collects rainwater, which flows through those gutters around the sides and into the interior. Holds 20,000 gallons, and even now it’s almost full. Now, just keep going north….”
I stumbled on, and soon came to a low stone wall with a sort of gateway in it.
“Now we’re entering the Government Station. This is where the colonial government – in other words Gerald Gallagher, plus the clerk, the policeman, Jack Kimo the Public Works Officer when he was here, and a few other local officials – lived and worked. Most of the colonists lived in thatched houses over there….” Her nose twitched to the right. “All vanished into the bush now, of course, though easily accessible by us R. exulens. Here, go left and let me show you the dispensary.”
What Polly called the dispensary was made up of two high concrete platforms, evidently old building foundations, littered with medicine bottles. Farther to the north there was a place where storm waves had obviously driven into the village, wiping out parts of the street and any buildings that might have stood there.
“It happens more and more often these days,” she commented. “The sea’s getting higher for reasons that we debate but have yet to work out, and the storm surges come farther and farther inland. Here’s where the great Jack Kimo Petro used to live….”
The great Jack Kimo’s place was relatively clear of vegetation, though it had clumps of coconut palms. Also a big square water tank, some gear wheels, and what looked like a picture I’d seen of a cement mixer.
“Did Mister Petro make it so clean and neat?”
“Even Jack Kimo couldn’t do that. Anyhow, he left during World War II – you know about World War II, don’t you?”
“I’ve heard of it.” The TIGHARs actually talked about it a lot.
“Big fighting, but nothing much happened here – except there were some sailors who lived down at the far end of the island….”
“The Coast Guard.”
“Is that who they were? Heavens; I didn’t know that. What else can you tell me about them?”
“Not much. They were here to operate a radio station of some kind….”
“Ah, of course; that accounts for all the electronic items the colonists collected after the sailors departed in 1946. Very interesting….. Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, Jack Kimo left during the War. The place is relatively clear of vegetation because the TIGHARs cleared it a couple of years ago. Then dug very neat little square holes in the ground, made maps, wrote a lot of notes that we’d have loved to get our paws on, and went away. Sadly, we don’t know what they were doing, or what they found.”
So this was the Carpenter’s house, I thought; I’d heard Gary talk about it. He’d been in charge of the dig there. I almost told Polly, but she was already urging me on.
“Over there to the left is the wireless station – blown over in a storm before I was born, and the TIGHARs cleared and mapped and dug around there, too. And straight ahead…” (We were going east now) “…is the Rest House.”
What I saw was a huge pile of rotting coconuts.
“Yes, well, that’s the TIGHARs again. When they cleaned up the wireless station they dumped the detritus on the Rest House. I heard one of them say they’d recorded it, and the stuff would protect it from the elements. It stirred up a lot of insects and things.”
“That must have been nice for you rats.”
“Oh, indeed; a veritable feast. Anyway, underneath there’s a big cement platform with holes for the upright posts; it was quite a large, handsome house, all thatched, I understand. Burned down long before I was born.”
“So this is where Gerald Gallagher lived?”
“Yes, he certainly did, and where he died; very tragic for the H. sapiens. If you turn around and walk that way – no, a little to the right – you’ll see his grave. It’s right in the middle of the parade ground.”
“I’ll take your word for that.” The parade ground was grown up in coconut palms and scaevola just like the rest of the village. But there, with a palm at one end, was the grave monument – like a tiny cement house on a coral platform.
Gerald Gallagher's Grave
“You see that big log there on the ground, with the cross-piece and the big pulley? That was the flagstaff. He was buried at the foot of the flagstaff, where the Union Jack would fly over him every day. It’s so romantic and tragic!” Polly sniffed; I wondered whether rats could cry.
On the end of the monument, facing the coconut tree, there was a brass plaque; it looked pretty new. I stood silently and read what it said:
“In affectionate memory of Gerald Bernhard Gallagher, M.A….”
“That means ‘Master of Arts; it’s an academic degree.”
“Ah, yes. ‘Officer in Charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme’…
“That’s where we are; the Phoenix Islands. And the Settlement Scheme was the plan to colonize the islands. The acronym is…..”
“PISS; yes, I know. ‘who died on Gardner Island, where he would have wished to die, on the 27th September, 1941, aged 29 years.’”
“Such a young man,” Polly sniffed. “In the prime of life for H. sapiens.”
“’His selfless devotion to duty and unsparing work on behalf of the natives of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands’…”
“They were a British colony then, God save the Queen; now they’re independent as Kiribati and Tuvalu.”
“Ah, yes. ‘…were an inspiration to all who knew him, and to his labours is largely due the successful colonization of the Phoenix Islands.’ But of course, the colonization wasn’t a success, was it?”
“No, sadly. It would have been far better for us – R. exulens, that is – if we still had a human colony here, but they all went away.”
“That means Rest In Peace. And he has. Some people came after the colonists left, who said they were charged with digging him up, but they didn't; they just took the original plaque. One of my ancestors knew a relatively trustworthy B. latro who burrowed down to check, and he’s still there. Probably looks a lot like you.”
I found that strangely touching, and would have shed a tear if I had tear ducts. I read the rest of the plaque:
“’Erected by his friends and brother officers.’ And then it says it’s a reproduction, re-dedicated in 2001 by TIGHAR. I didn’t know they’d done that.”
“Back in my great grandfather’s time.” Why did everyone else have great grandfathers? "They held a ceremony – laid a Union Jack on the tomb and made speeches, and their leader sang a song; Great Grandfather said he had a very nice voice.”
“Yes, he does; that’s Ric. Well, so that’s who I’m named after…..”
“After whom you’re named, you mean to say. Quite an honor, indeed. And I’m honored to meet you, Gerald.”
“And I to meet you, Polly. Thank you so much for guiding me here. It’ll be light soon, so I’d better get back to the ship….”
“Oh yes, quite. It’s just a short walk now to the beach where those boobies flap around and your machine friend lies buzzing. I’m so glad to have met you, Gerald; your story will make a great addition to our archives!”