I expressed about as much in our conversation, and my mom immediately disagreed. “No!” she insisted. “I promise I have never experienced anything like that in my life!’ And then in the same breath she goes, ‘Except for when I saw a demon get forced out of my auntie’s body, blasting all the windows and doors open as it left the room… but it’s never EVER happened to me, ever! Except for this one time in Tutuila, with the chicken…”
Okayyyyyy, strange lady.
She proceeded to tell us her story.
My mom – let’s call her Loa – was 15 or 16 at the time, which takes us back to the early 1960s. She was born in Upolu, but her parents had sent her to Tutuila for high school, so she was living there with her older sister, this sister’s husband and their 4 young children.
Now where they lived, I gotta describe to you.
It’s in Fagatogo, a two-story house up the side of a small hill overlooking the market. The ground floor is a self-contained unit of its own, but no one lived there at the time. The staircase leading up to where Loa’s sister and family lived is completely encased (it’s walled on both sides) and starts just inside the main front door.
My mom I mean Loa was close to an uncle back in Upolu, we’ll call him Uncle Sila, who took very ill and was flown to Tutuila for better medical care. Unfortunately, he passed away not long after he arrived. Loa’s sister (plus another older sister who also lived on island) had to travel to Upolu now to take Uncle Sila’s body back, and because her husband was also away on business that week, she asked Loa to stay behind and look after her children.
So here’s my mom, still a kid herself, grieving cause Uncle Sila had been like a dad to her, too… left in charge of four young’uns (they ranged from ages 3 to 8) for several DAYS. She said she was quite a bit anxious about the assignment, but then she got her good friend from school, Keli, to stay with them and it turned into kind of a fun, extended slumber party.
The first day and night passed without incident. Loa’s sister called from Upolu the next day to see how they were – everything was fine. All the kids were fed and happy. They’d locked up the house good and safe, which means they locked up all the windows and doors downstairs, then locked the main door at the bottom of the staircase, and of course the door of the upstairs flat that they occupied.
Typical of Samoan architecture in those days, the rooms in this house are divided by walls that don’t quite make it all the way up to the ceiling. I guess it helps the air to circulate in that hot climate, but it’s also great for making sure nobody has secrets. As the babysitter, though, Loa appreciated how these short walls allowed her to listen in on the kids even when she couldn’t see them.
The second day and night were fine, too. Loa slept with the kids in their bedroom, Keli took a spare room and they all kept an eye on each other… Knowing my mom, I’m sure she also had a salu lima or another makeshift weapon on hand just for added protection.
They didn’t hear from her sister that day, though. The funeral preparations in Apia were probably keeping her very busy.
The next day was Sunday, and Loa and Keli made sure to honor the very Samoan tradition of to’oga’i – a Sunday feast. After they ate and cleaned up, everybody was settling down for their afternoon (after-feast) nap when suddenly the children screamed and ran out into the hallway. Loa rushed to see what happened, and they pointed up.
A large white chicken was strutting along the top of their wall, all confident as if it owned the place. My mom was perplexed – how did this bird get into a house that was completely locked up?
She and Keli shooed the chicken away, but it fluttered down into one bedroom that was locked from the inside.
This bedroom had once belonged to the mother of Loa’s sister’s husband, the grandmother of these children. She had died a few months earlier and, still mourning her loss, the family kept all her things as they were, locked up in this room that the chicken was now hiding in.
Loa was determined to expel this mysterious pest. She corralled the children into the adjoining bedroom and helped the eldest of them – we’ll call her Peni – to climb over the shared wall. The idea was for her to jump down into the bedroom and open its door, but every time Peni tried to lower one leg into the room, she squealed and clung even tighter to the top of the wall.
“What’s the matter?” Loa snapped.
“There’s somebody in here!” Peni cried, several times.
“Eh!” exclaimed my mom, and pushed her over into the room.
Peni landed on the bed and, screeching with fright, ran to open the door.
Armed with brooms and fans and other chicken-chasing equipment, Loa and the rest of the kids rushed into the bedroom – but the bird wasn’t there.
They looked everywhere – under the bed, behind the pusa ku (the drawers / wardrobe thing), under the bed covers even – nothing. All the windows in the bedroom were closed, the house was still locked up, nothing was getting in or out without anybody noticing, and yet somehow this bird did just that.
A little bit shaken, the bunch eventually settled down, got through the rest of the day and prepared for bedtime.
That night as Loa was dozing off with the children in their room, Keli – a bit of a bookworm – was reading by lamp-light in the spare room. She suddenly jumped up and ran to where Loa was. Startled, my mom asked asked her what happened.
“I think the chicken is under my bed!” Keli told her.
They all rushed to investigate, and sure enough, this fat white chook was now under the bed in the spare room.
They cornered the bird and Loa grabbed it by its legs. Holding it out in front of her, she made her way to the door and chucked it down the staircase – much to the delight of the children, I’m sure.
But Loa instantly felt guilty for some reason. Maybe she thought she’d injured the bird, or she didn’t like the idea of it wandering around in the dark downstairs… But she asked Keli to help her. They went down to where the chicken was still clucking about at the foot of the stairs, then they put it in a good-sized open box that they’d lined with newspaper and stuck it in a little room that was under the staircase.
They never saw it again after that night – not in the box, not in the room under the staircase, not anywhere downstairs with the locked doors and the screened windows.
Around 3am the next morning, everyone was fast asleep when the phone rang. A sleepy Loa heard Keli get up to answer it, then she heard her saying, “O la e moe.” She’s sleeping. Then, “What?” and again, “She’s sleeping.” But a minute or so later, Keli was nudging my mom awake.
“The phone is for you,” she hissed.
“Who is it?”
“It’s a man!”
“What does he want?”
“He wants to know why you threw him down the stairs.”
When Loa got to the phone, though, all she heard was the dial tone.
Half an hour later, the phone rang again. Same thing.
“It’s for you, again,” said Keli. “He wants to know why you threw him down the stairs when he just wanted to visit you and the kids.”
No one was on the line again when my mom tried to talk to him.
The phone rang yet again a little while later, but the girls refused to pick up this time. It rang four or five times in total that night, and I can only imagine how their hearts must have raced with each ring, but they did not answer it.
With the reassuring light of day, though, they felt safe enough to pick up the phone when it rang the next afternoon. It was Loa’s sister.
She apologized for not calling the day before, asked how everyone was – but didn’t give Loa time to tell her their chicken story – and then proceeded to describe everything that they’d been busy with since they arrived in Upolu for Uncle Sila’s funeral.
Included in her report was this story that their own father had shared:
Loa and her sister’s dad (my grandfather) lived at the time in their village kua, far away from the main town area of Apia, back where their only form of communication with the rest of Samoa was by radio. The night before Uncle Sila’s body arrived back in Upolu, it was by radio that the Old Man learned of his brother’s passing.
With a grief-stricken sense of urgency, he immediately set off to talk to his other brother, whose house was in a bushland area on the outskirts of their village. It would be an hour-long walk through rough terrain in the middle of the night, with only the dim light of a kerosene lantern to lead him… or so my grandfather thought.
Not long after his journey began, a white chicken appeared from nowhere and strutted a few steps ahead of the Old Man. This bird then stayed with my grandfather the entire way to his brother’s house – can you imagine that? A random chicken, pure white against the pitch black island night, somehow knowing where the Old Man was headed, leading the way on his hour-long trek.
My grandfather never saw that bird again after he arrived safely at his brother’s place.
This story, my mom’s tala aitu about the chicken, is probably the earliest I’ve heard that marks a family tradition which never seems to fail:
When a loved one dies, in the time before his or her burial, we always notice a new animal suddenly hanging around. With my grandmother it was huge dove-like bird perched on a branch just outside her kitchen. With my uncle it was a gecko – something we rarely see in New Zealand – fixed in one corner of his living room ceiling throughout the entire funeral.
For my dad it was a big beautiful cat, of all things, which leads me to believe that our dearly departed don’t have much choice over the animal that appears. My dad was never a cat person, and I don’t know that anybody would want to be represented by a chicken.
Evidence, folklore and my mom suggest, however, that it was through this silly but beautiful white bird that Uncle Sila was bidding his final farewells.
P.S. Maybe someday I’ll tell you my mom’s story about the demon and the blown out windows…