Some years ago, never mind how many exactly, my Grandmother and I took two planes and a boat back to Niue, the island of her birth. It was a particularly humid February that year we returned, and Avatele, the village in which she had spent a by-all-accounts blissful childhood, was in an uproar. As a matter of fact, the entire island was found to be in a state of agitation. Admittedly, this was something not terribly difficult to achieve on a sleepy island populated by less than two-thousand people and without a single jailhouse to its credit!
The vexation of the locals, we were soon to find, was due to the disappearance of one of the most valuable items in the Huanaki Cultural Collection, Niue’s sole museum. The artifact in question was a headdress several centuries old and boasting a bloody history whilst in the possession of an ancient Samoan chief.
Now, the theft of a valuable item might not be of particular interest to a city-dweller such as yourself, but you must understand: Niue is a small island. Its closest neighbours are Tonga and Samoa, but it is totally unlike them in its relative obscurity and terrain. A raised coral atoll, Niue has none of the tropical beaches that have made its sister island famous. Instead, its rocky base is perforated by numerous caves, some quite dangerous to explore. At night, humpback whales can occasionally be heard slapping their fins with great force against the waves. Niue is also underpopulated, the islanders having left by their hundreds for more cosmopolitan shores, and so the island is peppered with barren houses bent by decrepitude. The combination of loneliness and the reclamation of nature in Niue is so strong that the type of superstitions held by the locals are, in my opinion, inevitable.
It was my Great-Uncle Joseph whom was providing our lodgings for the trip. A rotund and amiable fellow with a penchant for Werther’s Original toffees, he operated a delightful inn situated between a taro plantation and a rather breathtaking view of the South Pacific ocean. At night, Uga, or coconut crabs, frequented the grounds of his property in search of food waste and he would inevitably spend much of the early morning shooing them away with a dingy old broom.
Two days into our trip, Grandmother and I were enjoying an afternoon tea of hot buttered scones and hot coffee in the west drawing room. Aunt Sophia had recently had the inn renovated and consequently the inn-house had been transformed to something reminiscent of the French riviera style in which it had originally been built. As I was topping another delicious scone with a dollop of jam and fresh Chantilly cream, I was startled by a horrible wail, of such frequency and duration as to shake the entire room. Aunt Sophia, whom had been dozing in a plump pink armchair beside me, soft brown hands resting on her voluptuous belly, immediately sprang into the air with a shriek. Her eyes were wide and frightened as she hurried to the window to peer out at the quiet expanse of grass and trees stretching into the distance.
“What is it?” I asked her worriedly, coming to stand beside her.
“Tupua,” Sophia whispered.
“’Tupua’?” I asked curiously. I admit, I am not terribly well-versed in the language of my forebears and this word was unfamiliar to me.
“A monster,” My Grandmother translated from behind me, apparently unfazed by the terrible cry we had just heard and heaping more sugar than strictly necessary into her jet-black coffee. “A demon.”
“One of the artifacts at the museum was stolen a week before you arrived,” Sophia said to me, still in hushed tones. Her large dark eyes darted from left to right as if searching for assassins. “A headdress, belonging to one of the ancient chiefs. As soon as it disappeared the screaming started.”
My face must have registered some confusion to her, for she clutched at my hands with her own bejeweled ones, face feverish with conviction. “It is the tapua who screams, from deep within the island. It is the guardian of the island and the sacred taoga – treasures.”
My Grandmother chuckled. “You are even more superstitious than your father, Sophia. The tapua will not harm you – unless it was you who stole the headdress, hmm?”
Sophia shook her head, still practically trembling with fright. She had to be coaxed back to her chair and remained alert with terror all the way through dinner. Uncle Joseph corroborated his daughter’s tale that evening, informing us in greater detail of the headdress’ disappearance and its remarkable qualities. As my Granduncle regaled us I could tell my Grandmother was becoming more and more intrigued, a sure sign that we would soon become personally involved.
Sure enough, the very next day I found myself accompanying and chauffeuring my Grandmother as she went from place to place pestering the authorities about the unfolding case. The headdress was several centuries old, belonging to one of the first chiefs of Niue. As indicated by the museum’s frantic curator and the photographs taken of the object, it was of similar make to those headdresses found in Tahiti and Samoa.
It featured a woven crown decorated with preserved pandanus leaves, the front decorated with a cluster of affixed shells and black pearls. By far its most notable element, however, was the large golden coin woven into the arched crown section of the headdress. Neither Polynesia nor Micronesia can lay claim to any gold deposits. The coin in question probably originated from what is now Taiwan, and was transported across the seas by the Lapita people.
The Huanaki Collection had not been burgled. Instead, the door had been opened neatly, presumably by use of a key, and the exhibition case dealt with in similar fashion. All evidence pointed to the curator, David Ahokava himself, but the old fellow had an airtight alibi. He and the rest of his staff had been enjoying an evening at Niue’s sole hotel. In lieu of a great many other sources of diversion, the Friday night dinner and drinks at the resort had become a popular pastime for many. Eyewitness accounts corroborated his claim and so the five constabulary on Niue were left to wrestle with a theft they had become convinced was somehow supernatural in nature. The curator had, in fact, lost his key on the night of the headdress’ disappearance, and it had not turned up either.
My Grandmother, an old gossip to the last, was determined to corner Mr. Ahokava so she could pry details out of him. He was a regular at the resort’s restaurant, having a proclivity for their banoffee sundaes. For several nights, she lingered on in the hotel bar until the late hours, while I, her reluctant companion, nursed successive glasses of soda and bowls of kumara chips. After a few nights of this stakeout, the man himself finally walked through the lobby and slid down into a plump armchair. David Ahokava was such a regular at the hotel that the waitstaff, upon seeing him enter, immediately made arrangements for his preferred ice cream treat.
Grandmother nodded to me and together we left our barstools and plopped down opposite the curator on matching armchairs.
“I hope you don’t mind if we join you?” My Grandmother asked in a friendly fashion.
“Of course not!” David said politely. “Are you visiting family? I haven’t met you before.”
“Yes, yes, my Granddaughter and I are here to visit my brother, Joseph. He owns the Dawson Inn.”
At that, David beamed in recognition. “Au e? You must be Edith.”
“I am,” Grandmother laughed. “This is my Granddaughter, Marina.”
David extended a chubby hand for me to shake, and I reached out to take it politely.
“You don’t look Niuean,” He remarked to me. “You’re very fair-skinned, aren’t you? Are you a half-caste?”
“My husband was a European,” Grandmother explained. “And my daughter’s husband was as well.”
“She has your eyes and hair,” David said with a smile.
“We hear you’re the curator of the museum,” I said mildly. “Have the police found the headdress?”
David’s brows dipped sadly. He had a very round face, a flat nose, and a crown of luxuriant brown hair which rested naturally in tight curls. His thickly-lashed dark eyes were small and often appeared shiny, like he was about to cry. “No, no, dear…They haven’t found a thing.”
“It’s terrible,” Grandmother sighed. “The thief stole the key right from your pocket.”
“It was my fault,” David sighed. “You know, many times I have dropped my keys. Someone always would find them and give them back to me eventually. This is the first time something like this has happened. I just don’t understand why anyone would do such a thing!”
“Money, of course,” Grandmother said, nodding in empathy. “The world is full of crazy people. Stealing and murdering all the time, running around drunk. We’re lucky here in Niue, that we don’t have to worry about that sort of thing.”
“Except for now,” David said gloomily.
“Except for now,” Grandmother said in agreement.
David looked very sad indeed, however his expression immediately brightened when a cheerful looking waiter set down an enormous pile of ice cream scoops before him. The dish was so overloaded with cream, chocolate and wafers that it was barely visible under the dessert.
Practically clapping his hands together in delight, he picked up threte spoons and offered two to Grandmother and me before digging in with obvious relish.
“Please,” He said in-between bites of sugary goodness. “Have some. It’s my favourite. They do the best ice cream here. You can’t get it like this anywhere else on Niue.”
I grinned, leaning forward to sample the sundae for myself, when an horrible cry resounded in the room. It seemed to me as if it were emanating from hell itself. It was an unearthly scream, full of as to be hatred, so low in pitch as to be inhuman. As the cry continued, it abruptly escalated in volume, such that the waiter staggered backwards in terror and even my Grandmother looked perturbed.
A gust of wind blew through the room, forcing open the shutters with clanging rattles and knocking a table carrying a tray of utensils to the floor with a crash. The sound caused David to jump in his chair, and a dollop of custard and ice-cream landed on his shirt and pants. He didn’t seem to care, and instead stared, wide-eyed, to the open window adjacent to us. I followed the line of his gaze, standing to come closer to the window. Beyond the hotel courtyard and the single road which led to it was a rolling crest of hills. The hills led to a line of trees, still swaying in the sudden wind. It was a dark night – too dark to see what David had begun pointing at fervently with a shaking hand.
“It’s there!” He hissed to me. “The tupua! The tupua! It’s coming to kill me!”
Grandmother frowned at him. “If you are not the thief, you have nothing to fear from it.”
“But I was irresponsible,” David wailed. “The headdress was in my care. I lost it, and now the tupua comes to punish me.”
“There’s no such thing as a tupua,” I argued. I meant to sound soothing, but the words sounded different as they hung in the air. Perhaps my nerves had been frayed by the cries.
“Yes, there is, young lady,” David said to me with conviction. “There is. I have seen it. It came to me last night.”
“Well, now, that’s settled then. If it were really there, you would not be sitting here. You’d be dead,” Grandmother asserted.
“It was dreadful,” David whispered, eyes affixed to the window. “It was – tall. Too tall. As black as anything. A mouth for a face – no eyes…No eyes!” He yelped, apparently seeing something in the dark that I couldn’t, and abandoned his seat, backing up to the bar. “I see it! I see it everywhere!”
Before I could say a word in response, he turned on his heel and fled, rushing from the hotel and to his waiting car.
Grandmother hurrumphed, muttering something in Niuean. She plunged her spoon into the abandoned sundae. “Bloody idiot,” She remarked idly. “What a waste of good ice-cream.”
“Tau he gutugutu,” My Grandmother muttered to me a few nights later, as we slid into our matching single beds in the cozy guest room. “I asked the police chief if it had occurred to him that one of the guests at the resort had stolen the key and made off with it. It would not have been difficult to do, what with Niue’s customs being what they are. An airport with no walls, and full of chickens!”
“Why don’t they just ask the New Zealand police to look into it? Surely such an item would have been noticed when the thief made their way back to Auckland,” I replied in the dark, eyelids heavy with sleep. I had been much tired of late, as had most of my family and the rest of the Alofi community, given the never-ending wails which haunted our sleep. The sounds were rumbling and inhuman, and, in my case, accompanied disturbing nightmares in which a dark figure pursued me up an infinite winding staircase.
“What makes you think they went to Auckland?” My Grandmother asked. “Several boats departed the day after the theft, bound for the shores of Vanuatu, Rarotonga and Fiji. That would be a far better place to hide than New Zealand for any thief fleeing the scene.”
“If that’s true,” I yawned, voice rough with fatigue. “Then perhaps it is lost for the time being. I would much rather they get to the bottom of these terrible screams…!”
I think it was then that I fell asleep, for I do not remember what my Grandmother said in response. I dreamt, again, of the stairwell. It was as black as the room it had been placed in, and wound up and up ceaselessly. A single point of light shone from the ceiling but it never seemed to come any closer. In fact, with every breathless step I took up the stairs the little light seemed to fade a little bit more. It seemed very important that I keep climbing. There was a presence behind me at every step, an presence which suggested fatal consequences should I stop running. Its fingertips brushed my spine, and I jerked awake to a pitch-black room.
It took a few moments for the tension in my body to recede, aided and abetted by the comfortingly regular sounds of my Grandmother’s snores. I exhaled deeply, rolling over onto my opposite side.
Standing there, just a few inches from me, was a dark figure, leering down at me with teeth which seemed to shine in the dark. I tried to scream but couldn’t – I was fixed in place by terror and some other force I cannot describe. It felt as if my body was being stretched over a rack, stretched to a point just shy of painful. The figure was skeletal in shape, with broad shoulders tapering down to spindly arms and six-fingered hands. The face was skull-like, but entirely lacking in eyes. The dominant feature of its face was a rictus containing rows of teeth as long as my finger.
It’s cold and heavy breaths, stinking of rotting flesh, wafted down onto me as I lay frozen and helpless. After several moments of this, the tupua raised one of its hands and gripped me forcefully about the neck. What happened next I cannot describe, for I have no memory of it. All I know is that in one moment I was in my bed and the next I was standing at the mouth of a cave.
The cave was one of the underwater variety which lined the borders of Niue’s coast. The tide was out, but was still high enough to reach my knees, and cold enough to send a chill down my spine. There was no illumination from within the cave and yet I felt an irresistible urge to venture inside. In spite of the obvious dangers, in spite of my lack of equipment, training or physical prowess, I waded inside. It was just as dark inside as outside, and so I pressed one hand against the stone wall to orient myself.
The surface was smooth, and the cave had evidently been carved over thousands of years by the relentless tides rushing in and out of the channel. I stumbled, fell, splashed into the water and kept going. I cannot explain what possessed me to do such a thing. It felt larger than simple curiosity but as if I were being called deeper into the cavern by a primordial instinct. I’ve often reflected on that night and perhaps it was the tupua who was guiding me through. Whatever the cause, light began to appear deeper in the tunnel and I rushed towards it.
The dim glow was coming from behind a pile of large rocks which seemed to have been placed there deliberately. It was heavy work, but I managed to pull several of them loose to expose the small opening behind them and the gory tableau within.
The body of a man was inside, his right leg lying at an unnatural angle and one pale hand still clutching a flickering torch. The body was headless. Blood was still dripping from the torn tendons of the wound, so fresh that it had not yet congealed and carried with it the strong scent of iron. The man’s fingernails were ripped and, in some cases, missing, suggesting a failure to climb up the shaft behind him or remove the rocks keeping him in.
The shaft in question, when I climbed up, led to a long-grassed hillock alarmingly close to the edge of a cliff. When I emerged it was occupied by my Grandmother, Granduncle and several members of the police.
My Grandmother later told me that she had awoken to see the open window and me, sprinting as if my life depended on it, across the field. She’d rallied her brother and the police to go after me, winding up at the mouth of the cave’s secondary entrance.
From what I could gather, the young man in question, by the name of James Wade, had been a guest of the resort, along with his brother. They had both come from rather unscrupulous backgrounds and were looking to make an easy buck out of a museum which they knew to be relatively unguarded. They had stolen Ahokava’s keys and stolen the headdress, that much was obvious.
The police could not quite figure out how James Wade had ended up headless in a cave. The theory went that the two brothers had arranged for a boat to provide their getaway, and had decided to wait inside one of the caves to avoid detection in the hours between the theft and the pick-up time. However, James Wade had fallen and injured himself, and his brother, Samuel, had been avaricious enough to turn on his sibling. He had barricaded James inside, leaving the fellow to howl and lament and he fruitlessly tried to escape. The sounds we had heard were thought to be his screams echoing through the maze of caves and filtering up through the surface openings.
But why, the police wondered, had the body been headless? This, they had been unable to deduce, apart from speculating that Samuel had outright killed his brother and hidden the head somewhere else.
I believed differently. You see, in many South Pacific cultures, including Niue’s, the head is the most sacred part of the body. Desecrating or stealing the head of a corpse steals the ‘mana‘ or power, of a person, and condemns them to wander purgatory in a headless, tortured state. I never told the police about this supernatural explanation, but it was certainly shared by many of the islanders regardless. It was said that tupua had taken the head as vengeance and compensation for the missing crown.
My Grandmother and I returned home and we both went on with our lives. The case of the headdress had endowed and excited my curiosity and so I continued to investigate on my own working with customs officials and contacts within the police. A few months later, I was informed that there had been a gruesome murder in a small town not far from Christchurch. The murder had taken place at a nondescript roadside motel, a stop-over point for visitors headed to and from the airport. The victim had been a man calling himself Daniel Forde but turned out to be Samuel Wade himself. He had constructed a fairly convincing identity as an antiquities dealer in the months subsequent to the murder of his brother.
Samuel Wade had been in the possession of the headdress, as well as a one-way ticket to Singapore where we later confirmed he had a black-market buyer for it. His body had been discovered headless, with no evidence of forced entry and no evidence of a struggle. The head was never found and the matter remains unsolved – as far as the police are concerned, anyway.
The headdress was turned over to me and I immediately returned it back to Niue where it is now in storage at the Niue Public Service Building in Fonuakula, Alofi. It is no longer exhibited to the public but I’m told that occasionally it can be viewed when a special appointment is arranged.