The Christmas Choir
by Jane Downing

The evening stars lost their brilliance to the rising sun as she crept above the eastern horizon, hauling in the new day behind her. Not long after the "Morning Star" hove into sight.

Jiron was on the lagoon edge caring for her little cousins—supervising their antics as they bathed in the tranquil water—when the vision transfixed her imagination. She was not alone. As a body, one face with a hundred astounded eyes, the children of Jabwor island watched the Mission packet enter their lagoon and their lives. It was indeed a vision sailing high on the tide, sails billowing like clouds, regal and defiant above the waves. The canoes of their fathers hugged the water, obeying the laws of nature. The missionaries had arrived with the Law of God.

The whole community was intrigued at the arrival. They crowded the shore to see the ship's cargo carefully unloaded into dinghies and rowed ashore. It was not a totally unfamiliar sight: the trader's ship came, but scarcely once each breadfruit season, and this was not it. Red-Faced Joe himself stormed down from his shack cursing. It was an ill-fated trader who woke to discover the missionaries invading his island. No longer would the souls of the locals be so clearly his to convert to liquor and tobacco and firearms. They'd be in the church meeting place with all that incessant singing when they could be out harvesting coconuts for copra—the gold of the Pacific. He cursed and blasphemed and rushed back screaming for his woman to get his shirt from the chest, quickly.

He, and Jiron, and the island, had simultaneously caught sight of a fluttering figure leaving the great masted ship, but it was red-Faced Joe alone who'd ever seen a white woman before.

Jiron tried to describe Mrs. Stanley to herself in the night's darkness—a conjuring trick to send her own tired limbs into satisfied sleep. She climbed up into the thatched sleeping area of her family's home, lay on her woven pandanus mat and closed her eyes. But she could not think to what she could compare the other-worldliness of the white woman. Jiron was twelve, soon to be a woman herself, almond eyed, with thick dark hair past her waist, and strong and healthy limbs. But Mrs. Stanley was pale, the colour of the sand on the beach, her hair, piled high on her head, was as pale, and her eyes were as blue as the water on the oceanside of the island. She smiled, she talked in a strange fast language, and she was clothed from neck to toe to wrist. Very quickly, very secretly, Jiron had touched the garment as Mrs. Stanley followed her missionary husband to a shaded grove. The cloth was as soft as the wind; it's colour more pure than the white sands—like the flesh of a young coconut—like the interior of a beautiful trochus shell—like the colour of her dreams.

Jiron and her closest friends spent as much time as they were allowed away from their duties watching Mrs. Stanley. And she watched them. In time she pointed to a tree, a flower, a tool, and they said its name slowly for her to repeat again and again through their giggles. She was always busy doing strange and fanciful work. As Mr. Stanley gathered a team of men to build a sheltered meeting place in which to preach, his wife stayed close to the strange house that sat squat on the ground, enclosed all round, with the cooking oven trapped within the walls. There she cooked, she sewed and she planted a magical garden. The innocent and meek girls were told which plants were for eating, but Jiron only had eyes for the leafy bush Mrs. Stanley transplanted from a rusty flour tin to the sandy atoll dirt. She called it a rose and tended it with the greatest love

As the moon's phases passed the missionaries and their God became as much a part of everyday life as Red-Faced Joe. While Jiron and her friends continued to teach Mrs. Stanley their language she taught them about a place called heaven and a kind man called Jesus who loved children. They learnt to talk to Him with words called "The Lord's Prayer". And then she taught them how to sing in melodies quite unlike their own. They loved her very much

Many people went to the big church once the chief of Jabwor island and of all Jaluit atoll, said they could. They discarded their fine mats tied about the waist and entered the church in white man's clothes from the trade store: trousers and shirts and long white dresses that covered from neck to toe to wrist. Jiron and her friends had no money to buy dresses so they had to sit at a distance under the breadfruit trees. They listened as if to angels singing

Then a time came when Mrs. Stanley was too busy to teach them every day. She told them kindly that Christmas was coming, the most special day of the whole year, and she had to prepare. It was the day Jesus was born, one thousand eight hundred and seventy three years before: that was as many years as grains of sand you could hold in your fist: that seemed like time before time began

Every day the white lady now spent her time with her husband and the printing press that had come off the "Morning Star". They translated hymns and carols from their language to that of their new flock, each word laboriously typeset, each page exaltedly printed. The men who could now read would lift up their voices high in praise of the Lord on Christmas Day

Jiron could not read but she knew she wanted to do something to please Jesus and God, and especially Mrs. Stanley. She wanted to sing in the church on Christmas Day. Only no-one was allowed in dressed as she was with two fine pandanus mats from the waist, one for the front, one for the back, and nothing to cover the breasts that were beginning to form.

It was her brother Lelej who gave her the idea and her friends were more than eager to join in the plan. Lelej was sailing to Ebon, the island at the centre of their chain when it came to importance. In Ebon they could get money, and with money they could buy cloth, with this they could sew a dress, and with a dress covering from neck to toe to wrist they could go to church and sing for Mrs. Stanley on Christmas Day

When she went to say goodbye to Mrs. Stanley Jiron was amazed. The one flower on the rose bush had finally opened its petals to the sun and was more beautiful than any flower she'd ever seen. It looked as velvety to touch as soft coral and was the colour of blood, yet when Mrs. Stanley said she could touch it gently she pulled back in dismay. On the stem hidden by the leaves were thorns as sharp as shark's teeth.

Ebon was like a garden, fertile and abundant in food. The households of the inhabitants ran along the lagoon as in Jabwor, but also amongst the coconut fringe Jiron could make out stores, foreigner's houses and bigger buildings that were a factory for pressing coconut oil, a church, and a school that taught the people about God so they could go out and teach all others in the atolls of the Ralik and Ratak chains. In the lagoon they passed many outrigger canoes like the one they came in, and smaller ones that stayed within the sheltered lagoon, and not one, but two, masted ships that came from an unimaginable place far away. They came for copra oil and beche-de-mer, bringing ironware, canned food, gin, tobacco, the sought after cloth, and many rough white men who Mrs. Stanley would call riff-raff. At least one ship arrived each cycle of the moon disgorging the men. Jiron and her friends were lucky that two were in Ebon lagoon.a The land felt uncertain under her feet after the day and full night of the ocean journey. It had gone well. The winds had been with them and Lelej, though still young, was practised in navigation by the currents and the stars; his father had taught him much before he had died. Lelej disappeared into what seemed a milling crowd to the eyes of the inexperienced girls.a While they waited on the unknown shore the four friends played with their sleek, striking hair, rubbing through coconut oil slightly scented with sandlewood which drifted to Jabwor rarely. They helped each other search carefully one more time for lice, and finally adorned their beauty with flowers and combs made from the mandibles of fish. Jiron's greatest friend was proud of her comb, the tentacles of a lobster, and displayed it well for all to admire.a Despite the activity Jiron was nervous. She found it hard to hide her shaking hands and kept her eyes lowered.a How she wished those moments had gone on and on and that the next had never come. Lelej returned with it all arranged. He sailed them out to the smaller of the trading ships and handed them to the crew. Jiron held back in belated uncertainty but Lelej urged her forward with the threat of a sound beating if she did not go.a In the nights after, Jiron tried to describe to herself the first time she'd seen Mrs. Stanley, a conjuring trick to clear her mind of the horror and put her aching limbs to sleep. It had not been like the games with the boys on Jabwor, no subtle flickering of the eyelids to show interest, just a proprietorial grab. No gentleness.a But it was quickly over. Only five nights, then Lelej had a grand number of dollars. He bought lengths of calico and cotton for the girls, and tobacco for himself. On the return journey, tacking into the wind, he complained the traders had "businessed him", had cheated him from extra ounces of tobacco. But the girls were happy to plan their beautiful dresses.

The thatched church was crowded to every corner on Christmas Day. People had gathered from all the islands of Jaluit for the celebration. They came with curiosity and met ample extraordinary sights to reward them. Even Red-Faced Joe was there in the church, scrubbed and smiling.

It was during the second hymn that Mrs. Stanley noticed Jiron, the young woman she had christened in her mind as Rose. She stood with her friends in a line along the western posts of the church, their hair neatly tied back from its usual wantonness, their brown girlish bodies dressed befittingly in pretty white cloth covering from neck to toe to wrist. Tears came to her eyes and pride fluttered in her humble righteous heart: she had converted these heathen girls to the ways of Almighty God and Gentle Jesus. As their voices soared joyously in the songs she had taught them, she thanked her God for their souls and their pure Christian lives.

'The Christmas Choir'. was first published in Paris Transcontinental 8, 63-68, 1993.:

Bibliographic citation for this document

Downing, Jane (2000). The Christmas Choir.
URL: http:/

Jane Downing P.O.Box 3080, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) Jane Downing 2000
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