In the first volume of the Ancient Tahiti series, Tepua, the daughter of a chief sails from her coral atoll home toward her planned, and ritually mandated, marriage. But she never reaches her destination because a violent storm damages her vessel and leaves her stranded on the shores of Tahiti, a land previously unknown to her. She is made unwelcome because of her foreignness and is victimized because of her weakness and innocence, but her spirit is strong and her will to survive and thrive is boundless.
The world of Tahiti is very different from the one she has known, beautiful, savage, and mystical by turns. But she is determined to build herself a new life and, in the process, she will change the destiny of all for generations to come.
The Ancient Tahiti series, which continues with Sister of the Sun and Child of the Dawn, is perfect reading for fans of Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, Linda Lay Shuler's She Who Remembers, and other novels set among pre-historic cultures.
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Daughter Of The Reef
Ancient Tahiti: Book One
By Clare Coleman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Clare Bell and M. Coleman Easton
All rights reserved.
WIND gusted against plaited sails, speeding a two-hulled voyaging canoe on a course between coral atolls. The young men and women aboard wore headdresses decked with seabird feathers. Their skirts were finely woven from dried leaves of pandanus palm. Painted bark-cloth capes fluttered brightly as the passengers chatted of the wedding festivities to come.
The wind strengthened as it raced across the sea. Spray flew in sheets from the twin bows, and the deck that stretched over the twin hulls tilted steeply. Several young women shrieked, more from excitement than from fear, while everyone scrambled to counterbalance the boat. But one did not join them, for tradition demanded that she remain in her seat.
Tepua-mua, the eldest daughter of a chief, sat rigidly on her seat of honor in the middle of the deck. Her four-legged stool was lashed to a raised bamboo platform, making her the center of attention. Those who glanced at her saw a tall, slender girl at the verge of womanhood, a face slightly too narrow to be called beautiful, and glistening black hair that flew back in the wind.
That morning Tepua had been proud and happy to be sitting so high while the canoe glided across her home lagoon and out into the placid sea. Now she wanted to be down on the deck, instead of up here on the platform, where height intensified every buck and heave of the boat. The wind tore at the feathered crown in her hair and whipped the long robe of bark-cloth about her legs.
She stared down at the knotted backs and arms of the men working the sails, and then beyond, to the water, whose color had gone from a peaceful blue to an ugly gray green. Over her head the boom of the rear sail arched upward like a bow.
How the weather had changed since this morning. When Tepua had mounted to her place on the canoe, the lagoon had been warm and calm, the white beaches dazzling. Along the shore, gifts from two families—her mother's and her father's—had been laid out for all to see.
These presents for the bridegroom's kin included pearl-shell fishhooks, wreaths of rare feathers, and rolls of bark-cloth from distant Tahiti. For the wedding feast the families had collected plump fowls, heaps of clams, and boatloads of coconuts. Best of all, they had obtained a dozen pigs from traders. Pork! Tepua's mouth watered at the thought of that costly delicacy, so rarely offered to women.
Now, atop her seat on the sloping deck, she worried whether she would even reach the feast. She watched a priest standing at one bow waving a bundle of sacred red feathers at the sky. She could not hear him, but knew that he was intoning a prayer to soothe the spirits of wind and water.
The crew struggled on with the steering oar and sails. Tepua felt useless as she watched them. She was as tall and strong as some men, for she was descended from Tapahi-roro-ariki, a chiefess of strength and renown. From childhood Tepua had drawn the bow and thrust the spear for sport, in the manner of noble families. Why remain here, idle, when she could help? She slid forward on her seat to step down.
A hand stopped her, an ancient hand. Tepua glanced into the rheumy eyes of Bone-needle, the woman who had attended her for many years. "No," Bone-needle said. "Stay where you are."
Tepua thrust out her arm, making a fist to show Bone-needle that her limbs had strength. "I can hold a sail as well as I can a bow," she said.
"You have skill for the bow. You have none for the sail," the ancient noblewoman answered. "You must stay in your place of honor and show your faith in the canoe master. He will take it as a deadly insult if you do not."
Tepua gritted her teeth and tried not to slide off the smooth wooden seat as the swaying threw her from side to side. Under her breath she said a small prayer to the spirit of her ancestress.
The cords that tied the platform to the deck creaked loudly as each wave struck the boat. Tepua shaded her eyes against glare from the heaving seas and searched the horizon for other canoes in the wedding party. There they were, behind her, diving through wave tops, in winds that threatened to tear sails from masts.
She shivered from cold, for her bark-cloth robe was thin and already softening from repeated drenchings of seawater. First fear and then anger intensified her trembling. She hated being forced to sit here. She could help if the crew let her, even if the task was only bailing. But she was obliged to stay in her seat, though it meant she had to cling like a coconut crab.
Even if the wind breaks this seat from its lashings and tosses me overboard. She bent down toward Bone-needle, speaking directly into the aged woman's ear. "Why is the storm still chasing us? Does this mean the gods disapprove of my marriage?"
"At home, all the omens were good." Bone-needle had to raise her voice against the wail of the wind. "Perhaps the wind rises to speed you on your way. Your husband has waited long enough for you. His manhood stiffens in eagerness and you are riot there to please him."
Tepua refused to accept that answer. What, after all, did she know of the man she was about to marry? The go-betweens spoke of his many virtues, but poetry was designed to flatter, not speak truth. Given the choice, she would have found a husband who lived closer to her home.
Now regret tormented her. How could she look forward to giving up her own family and friends, and taking up a life with strangers? She did not know how the customs of her husband's atoll would differ from those of her own. At home she had enjoyed freedoms that her new life might not allow. Would her husband let her swim in the lagoon whenever she pleased, or roam the shore in search of shellfish? And what if she failed to quickly give him an heir?
These worries fled as the boat lurched again, and heavy rain began pelting the deck. Surely the canoe master would seek shelter now, as soon as land came into view. Tepua looked out and saw only white-tipped waves. Heavy clouds covered half the sky.
She felt the two-hulled canoe swing around as the helmsman leaned hard on his steering oar. The crew worked both sails, pulling on lines that swung the upcurved booms about their masts. Sailing close-hauled, the canoe picked up speed, its hulls planing over the surf.
Tepua felt her trembling ease. The canoe master must have decided to seek refuge. She squinted to the northeast, trying to spot any small hump of land breaking the horizon, but saw none. Perhaps the master's eyes were better than hers. If he was guiding the craft by the direction of the sea swell, she hoped his art would prove true.
The canoe continued to beat upwind, the sails close-lashed and straining. Everyone who was not struggling with the ropes or bailing the hulls lay together under mats for shelter. The passengers had fallen quiet as they watched the grim effort to gain land. Tepua realized that the fleet was far downwind of the outermost islands her people knew. The weather and current seemed determined to drive the canoes even farther into unknown seas.
Again Tepua moved to descend from her seat, but the old noblewoman's stare pinned her. You must show your trust, Bone-needle's gaze said. It is the burden of your position.
Tepua's eyes teared against the cutting wind. She felt her headdress fly off, and she snatched at it too late. Her cry of dismay sent crewmen and passengers scrambling after the circlet of feathers and precious shells as the wind spun it across the deck.
The headdress eluded its pursuers, catching for an instant on the edge of the deck before a gust dragged it overboard. Tepua felt a clench of fright in her stomach. Had she felt divine fingers snatch the feather crown away? What had she done to anger the spirits?
Her eyes sought the canoe master, a small wiry man whose corded arms and ever-squinting eyes told of his many struggles with the sea. Would he think it such an insult to his skill, Tepua wondered, if she came down on the deck and took shelter with the others? Her wet bark-cloth robe was now plastered against her arms and breasts, making her misery worse.
The old woman's eyes still said no, but inwardly Tepua rebelled. She had had enough of being battered by the gale.
Suddenly the wind changed direction, making the great curved booms swing across the deck. As each slammed into the limits of its line, the boat lurched while men rushed to regain control. Tepua froze, one foot already touching the matting on the deck. The gods themselves must be displeased with her lack of faith in the canoe's master. She withdrew her foot, hoping that the wind might steady.
Instead the storm grew fitful, blowing harshly from one quarter then quickly shifting to another. The boat slowed as it lost direction and headway; men went to sit in the hulls, feverishly stroking with long paddles.
Beyond the forward sail she saw the boat's master and the priest conferring once again. They spoke rapidly, with worried grimaces and a glance in her direction. A crewman hurried forward, carrying an armload of young coconuts. He skidded on the wet matting, dropped one. It rolled into the waves.
Tepua saw the priest shake his head. Not a good omen. The sea was hungry and unwilling to wait.
The youth managed to deliver the rest of his burden to the master and the priest. The priest went to the bow of the right hull. Tepua saw him kneel, his robe and feathered headdress fluttering in the wind. One by one he lifted the young coconuts in offering to the storm, pierced each with a sharpened bamboo cane, and poured the milk into the sea.
Again the wind turned, now wilder than ever. It struck the sails like a fist, bending the masts, driving the left hull so deep that it threatened to fill. A crewman rushed aft toward Tepua, carrying a length of sennit, coconut fiber cord. She could scarcely see him through the curtain of heavy rain shrouding the canoe. "Bind yourself." he shouted through the sound of the storm. He thrust the cord at her. Numb with cold and fright, she took it.
She glanced down, saw people huddling under their mats and wraps about the base of her platform. Eyes looked up to her in appeal or reproach. Except for Bone-needle, these people were from her new husband's family. She had known them only for the few days they had stayed on her father's island.
Now she saw that she could not leave her place. Apart from the lack of faith it would show, the space around her was completely covered by bodies.
She reached down, threaded the cord around several pieces of bamboo in the platform beneath her, then about her body, drawing it tight so that it crumpled her bark-cloth robe and bound her to the seat. After she had knotted the sennit, she let one end, about twice the length of her arm, hang free. She had another use for this piece. It might help her find guidance that no human wisdom could supply.
Quickly she coiled the cord in her hands, preparing herself for the difficult art of fai, making string figures. Fai was well-known throughout her islands, but to most people it served only for amusement. Tepua had become unusually adept at it, able to make patterns on her fingers without conscious effort, until a final figure emerged.
The results often surprised her. At times she was certain that the spirits guided her, allowing her to see in the strings the answer to a baffling question. Now, the sea gods were angry. She needed to know what they wanted of her.
"No!" rasped Bone-needle, who had long known of Tepua's rare gift. "It is the priest's duty, not yours, to deal with the spirits that trouble us. Put that aside."
Tepua hesitated as she peered ahead, listening to the sails creak and bang. She could see almost nothing through the heavy rain. What had happened to the priest and the master? The rain curtained them from her, silenced their voices. Despite his offerings and his sacred red feathers, the priest clearly had failed. Her fingers tightened about the coil of fiber cord in her hand.
Another sailor hurried by, appearing out of the rain like a ghost. Scowling at Tepua, he defied wind and spray to climb the ladder along the mast. She caught her breath when she saw him starting to pull down the sail. When he was done, they would have only the paddlers' strength to drive the canoe.
Again she prayed to Tapahi-roro-ariki, begging her ancestress to intercede. Then, as she began to tie the cord into a loop, she heard a crash that made the boat shudder. Mixed with screams, cries, and the beat of rain came a terrible splintering. She saw the outline of the forward mast as it broke and toppled, the falling boom sweeping across the deck, dragging mats and men into the sea.
Beneath her, voices mixed in a babble of frenzied prayers. The canoe bucked and dived, caught in the roiling storm. She saw the deck timbers shift as strain twisted one hull out of line with the other. The tension broke a lashing that held her platform to the deck. She glanced down and saw another fraying. Sweating with fear under her bark-cloth robe, Tepua fumbled to untie herself.
The people around her groaned, and tried to hold her seat fast as another binding broke. The stool began to shift with every lurch of the canoe. Above her head she heard a stream of angry words while the man aloft wrestled with a sail that would not come down.
Tepua was thrown violently from side to side. The platform beneath her began to break apart as people screamed with anguish and reached up to keep her from falling. Then the boat pitched so sharply that she was torn from their hands, tossed sideways, tumbled into a swirling madness of rain and spray and sea.
For a few instants Tepua felt stunned, but the shock of hitting the water brought her back to awareness. A good swimmer, she kicked herself to the surface. Now she was free of the bridal seat, though she felt trailing bits of cord and bamboo. She spat brine and managed to suck in a short breath before another wave spilled over her.
Again she came up, rising with a swell, and searched for the canoe. When she finally spotted it, she groaned in despair. Surf poured over what remained of the deck while paddlers stroked frantically. Every wave pushed the hapless craft farther from her.
The sea pulled her down again. When she surfaced this time and glanced out, the mast looked like a tiny stick and the canoe itself a battered leaf that was rapidly growing smaller. It would not be coming back for her. The people still on board would be lucky to save themselves.
What of the other boats in her party? They had been sailing close behind and might have been blown this way. Each time the sea lifted her, she searched the horizon but found nothing.
Alone in the water, she wondered how long she could survive. Tepua had seen death often, had mourned for the loss of kin both young and old, but never had her own death seemed so near. Now as she felt its approaching embrace she cried in outrage and anger. She wept and prayed, hoping that the gods who had doomed her might relent.
But the waves kept washing over her, filling her nose and mouth with brine. Each time she kicked her way back up, she lost more strength. She knew a way of staying in the water—at least in calm seas—without tiring. As a young child, Tepua had found that she could let herself hang below the surface, her legs and arms loose, her head down except when she needed a breath. Now, though her temples throbbed and her lips trembled with chill, she tried to enter that slow rhythm: kick, lift the head, breathe, relax, and sink under. Kick, lift, breathe, relax. No. To relax was impossible now.
Rain pattered down, a rain colder than the sea. She thought about the fate of the doomed. As a noblewoman it was her right to enter the paradise of Paparangi and dwell with the other favored souls. But what if the gods had found her impious? They might send her to the place of darkness and suffering instead. No, that was not possible, she told herself. She, who had served as ceremonial maiden-to-the-gods, would surely be accepted in Paparangi. Thinking so, she lost her will to keep struggling.
When the sea lifted her, she rarely bothered to open her eyes. The coming paradise seemed to surround her. Yet once in a while, as she rose to the surface, she noticed the water growing calmer. She saw clouds starting to disperse, the sky brightening. And something unexpected—long and dark—was bobbing on the swells. A canoe?
Hastily she spoke a prayer to her guardian spirit, and then she began to swim. She lost sight of her target, halted in panic, turned to scan the waves. "Tapahi-roro-ariki," she called again. Still she saw nothing but churning water.
Excerpted from Daughter Of The Reef by Clare Coleman. Copyright © 1992 Clare Bell and M. Coleman Easton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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