SOUTHERN GUAM, DECEMBER 1941
“Tell me again, Roman. The story about the moon,” Tomas begs with all the might a child of seven can possess.
“It’s not just about the moon, Tomas. It’s about everything,” Roman reminds him.
“Oh. Well, tell me again.”
“Okay.” Roman clears his throat.
Millions of stars sparkle around a full moon with wisps of clouds floating by on the breeze on a warm winter’s night on a perfect example of paradise in the Pacific on the island of Guam where Roman Taitague, an eleven-year-old Native Chamorro boy, lies beside his brother, Tomas, on a carabao cart with their arms crossed behind their heads as they gaze in wonder at the night sky.
“Long ago, before time began,” Roman begins, “there were two gods: a brother, Puntan, and a sister, Fu’una. They looked out into the darkness and were sad. So, Puntan broke apart his body and made the world - made the universe! Some parts he used for the stars, the land, the animals -”
“What kind of animals?” Tomas asks.
“The fish, the birds, the carabao - everything!”
The stars in the sky sparkle in Tomas’ wide eyes at the thought. “Wow! But what about Fu’una?”
“Well,” Roman answers, “Fu’una was very proud of her brother and what he made but she missed him a lot. She threw herself into the sea and became Fouha Rock in Umatac.”
“Mama’s from Umatac!” Tomas exclaims.
“That’s right. And when a great wave broke on Fouha Rock, people were born! The first people of Guam. Ancients like Mama’s family. Here for thousands of years.” Roman closes his left hand and claps his right hand upon it, mimicking the crashing of the wave. “Chamori.”
“Chamori,” Tomas repeats in a whisper.
Roman scoots closer to his brother. With his right hand, he makes a loose fist to frame the moon and holds it up to one eye, pretending it’s a telescope. Tomas follows suit with his left hand. “And look,” Roman continues. “Puntan, he took one eye to make the sun and one eye to make the moon. So he and his sister could watch over what they made. Lighting the day and the night.”
Through Tomas’ hand telescope, Puntan’s eye shines brightly and so close it seems he can make out every crater on its surface. Back on Earth, it works its wonders beneath the ocean.
“They’re coming,” their father, Vicente, calls out.
Roman and Tomas rise from the bed of the carabao cart to take a look. Their father stands beside their older brother Alejo. Together, they wait for the ocean to offer up its bounty like their ancestors before them.
Slowly, the first few crustacean heads break through the surface causing ripples on the crystalline sea. More and more follow until hundreds of sets of legs scuttle across the sandy shores of the South Pacific isle. Called by the full moon, they begin their journey inland to the river to start the cycle of new life.
Having made their way from the water, over the sand, and past the line of towering palm trees that stand guard between the shore and the street, the crabs find their way to the road to parade before the Taitague men. Vicente bows his head. He whispers a prayer. “Taotaomona, we ask that you allow us to fill our bins with the feast the sea provides and has provided since time began.” A gust of wind through the trees lining the road provides his answer. Music to his ears. Vicente nods to his sons to get underway.
Roman hops off the cart and turns to help his little brother down. “Do you remember what I told you?”
“You have to be quick,” Tomas replies.
“But gentle. Let me show you first, okay?”
Tomas nods in agreement. “Alright.”
Shuffling all about them, seemingly oblivious to the boys’ presence, the mob of crabs continues on their way.
Roman runs his fingers through his dark hair to clear his line of sight. He needs to get this right. Leading one of them just a tad, he demonstrates to Tomas how it’s done. “You put your foot on the top of its shell like this. Not too hard because you can crush it.” Roman kneels down, keeping one foot atop the back of the crab beneath him and moves on to the next step. “Bring your hand around its back and grip it from the bottom and just where you were holding it down.”
Like a practiced professional, Roman performs his example superbly. He hurries over to the metal bins poised beside the cart, tosses in his catch, and quickly shuts the lid, trapping the captive inside. He then turns his attention back to Tomas. “Now, you give it a try. Remember: be fast or they’ll pinch you.”
As Tomas nods, he gives his bottom lip a little bite. As excited as he is to participate in this centuries-old tradition, he feels nervous all the same. “Okay. I’ll try.” Another crab crosses the path in front of them. His first potential contribution. “Not too hard,” Tomas whispers to himself. Attempting to follow his brother’s example, Tomas raises his foot over the crustacean. When he brings it down, he steps so delicately that the creature walks right out from under him. He nearly falls over trying to regain his footing.
Luckily Alejo is there to catch him. Alejo steadies Tomas once again and takes a knee beside him. With a smile, he provides a bit of encouragement, “Try again.” And a lie, “Roman didn’t catch one on his first go either.” Alejo gives Roman a wink of one piercing brown eye.
Roman had caught a crab on his first attempt on his first time out with his father and older brother and was actually younger than Tomas when he did it. But he doesn’t want to discourage Tomas so instead he focuses his attention on the other crustaceans as they hurry to cross the road into the jungle on the other side where a river of fresh water would be their birthing bed.
Tomas finds it in him to make another attempt - and this time he finds success. He hustles over to the bins and throws in the crab to join his friend before they meet their grim fate.
With their containers full and their eyelids heavy, Vicente and Alejo hoist their catch onto the carabao cart as Tomas naps soundly in the driver’s seat. Gently, Vicente lifts his son’s head to rest it on his lap so he can continue to dream on their journey home. And they’re off.
The island scents waft through the air on the tradewinds like perfumed incense as they pass homes and ranches on their ride with the sounds of rustling palm leaves and breaking waves in the distance composing a song to lull them to sleep. On the back of the cart, Alejo and Roman ride alongside the bins to make sure they’re steady and there are no escapes. “You did well tonight. Teaching him,” Alejo praises Roman.
“Then again, you had a good teacher yourself.”
Roman’s smirk makes his brother laugh. But despite the joke and the surrounding peaceful atmosphere, Roman is unsettled.
“Hey,” he calls to Alejo who turns his attention back to Roman. “Why does Dad ask the taotaomona for permission to fish, hunt, or go into the jungle, and then thank God when we eat?”
“Because the taotaomona have been asked since the beginning of time, like in your stories,” Alejo answers. “Since before the church came and told us not to worship our ancestors anymore. Habits can be hard to break.”
The rhythm of the wooden cartwheels running against the ground quiets as they slow to a halt.
“What if he didn’t ask? What if he didn’t give thanks?” Alejo suggests. “He’d rather not know.”
“But what does he believe in?” Roman inquires.
“Who?” Vicente asks as he comes around to the back of the cart.
“No one,” Roman lies.
Vicente stares at him quietly, allowing his son to take it back.
“You,” he concedes. “Do you believe in the taotaomona or do you believe in God?”
“Who says I cannot believe in all of it? In Puntan, Fu’una, the taotaomona, God - they’re all the same.”
Roman exchanges a confused gaze with Alejo. “What do you mean?” Roman asks looking back at his father.
“In your creation story, the gods sacrifice themselves for the world, so that people might exist. Live.”
“Uh huh,” Roman nods weakly.
“What did God do? He created the world out of the darkness and then gave his only son so that we could be forgiven for our sins.”
“And the taotaomona?”
“What are the taotaomona?”
Roman sits up and confidently delivers his answer, “The spirits of our ancestors. The spirits of those long gone.”
“Angels are the spirits of the ones we’ve lost, aren’t they?”
A smile lifts Roman’s full cheeks. “Yeah.”
“It’s the same story, son. Just told differently,” Vicente assures him. “It’s a story of life coming from nothing. Of love filling the emptiness. So, I see nothing wrong in saying that I believe it all because it’s all true.”
Roman allows the idea of the old world and the present day wash over him. He had never thought of faith on the island in that way; in fact, it had always been a source of great confusion as if the people here were stuck in between two planes of existence. He had never before thought the two of them could blend so seamlessly.
“As true as your mother will be upset if you don’t get to bed,” Vicente states.
Roman climbs slowly from the back of the carabao cart and brushes off the seat of his pants while Alejo shuffles the tin canisters to the edge. “I can still help,” Roman insists.
“No,” Alejo disagrees. “You need your beauty sleep. And to take Tomas to bed.”
Roman shoots Alejo a dirty look. “I was talking to Dad.”
“And he spoke with my words,” Vicente intervenes. “You have school in the morning and I have to go to Agana.”
“Yes, again. Now, off with you.”
“Fine,” Roman says under his breath. He takes the hand of a groggy Tomas who is leaning against the carabao as it snacks on a patch of grass at his feet. Slowly, he leads the seven-year-old up the concrete steps to the side door of their large wood and clay house where their Chamori mother, Maria, waits with open arms to welcome them home.
Maria takes Tomas in her arms and carries him inside. Roman shakes off his shoes before following her in. As he crosses the threshold, he lets out an enormous yawn that proves his father and teenage brother right.
The Taitague family home is by no means comparable to a mansion in its size but when so many others in Inarajan and the rest of the southern villages live in houses with as little as one or two rooms with thatched roofs and walls, no modern appliances, and no indoor plumbing, it might as well be called one. Vicente’s education had earned him a position as principal at their village school and his esteem in the community had garnered him an appointment to village commissioner by the United States Naval Governor bringing in two sources of income providing them the opportunity for such luxuries and a great deal of honor and responsibility.
Once changed and ready for bed, Roman drags his feet into the room he shares with his brothers. Furnished with two beds, a dresser, and little else, it is almost full to bursting. Few others in their village had more than mats on the floor where they rest their heads.
On the bed nearest to the door, Maria sits pulling a thin cotton sheet over her sleeping babe. The island, even at night, is far too hot for much else. She pushes away wisps of hair from Tomas’ face, saying in a voice as sweet as honey, “So much excitement for such a little boy. How did he do?”
“It wasn’t easy at first,” Roman admits. “But he got the hang of it, I think.”
“Good. And you?”
“I’ve had years of practice. I’m a professional.”
Maria kisses Tomas on his forehead and rises from the bed slowly so she doesn’t disturb him. On her way out, she blesses Roman with the same token of affection. “Good night, sweetheart.”
“Good night, Mama.”
Roman hops into the bed where Tomas is resting and gets comfortable himself under the blanket. He steals a final look at his loving mother before she pulls the light cord, engulfing the room in darkness with only the glow of the moon and the stars peeking through the bottom folds of the window curtains. Roman feels the exhaustion overcome him. Hugged by the mattress, he welcomes sleep, welcomes the accompanying dreams of the gods and their creations, of wonders beyond imagining in a land of enchantment and magic.