SERPENT IN PARADISE

Noumea Harbour, New Caledonia, 1923

Oh, now really, this is too much! fumed Jules Vincent Brieulx, High Commissioner for the whole, elongated island mass of New Caledonia. I am a very important man - do they seriously expect me to take an interest in hysterical fantasies?

The High Commissioners daughter, Blanchette, looked up from her newspaper and petit-dejeuner. Bright sunshine already washed the pale walls of the Imperial Palace, promising - or perhaps threatening - another beautiful day in paradise.

Whats the matter now, Papa? she sighed.

Well, look at this, he flung a note in her direction. Its some nonsense about a sea monster - seems a week ago a couple of Kanak women from Gadji were frightened by something they saw in the water, and now the damned tribal council is petitioning me to investigate personally. I mean, what do those monkey-men think I spend all my time doing?

Papa! Blanchette snapped, affronted. That is no way to speak of the natives.

Yes, youre right, bebe, he shrugged. I apologise. Its just - havent I got enough on my plate, with the government back home demanding taxes and tributes? Cant these people see Im doing my best for them?

The best you can do for them is give them their independence, said Blanchette coolly.

Now, look: dont you start, Brieulx wagged a finger. I get enough of that from your mother,

thank you very much. Its thanks to this imperialism that you all so despise that she gets to go gallivanting about up-country, feeling important, and you can spend your days lounging about the place reading scandal-sheets.

Blanchette pulled a face. She unfolded the note, studied it.

But this happened near Able Point, she muttered, half to herself. Thats not far from Noumea itself

I know - thats why its such a bloody pain. I cant ignore it, its almost in my back yard.

So why has no one else reported this?

Obviously, because it never bloody happened! the High Commissioner snapped, exasperated. Its two half-barmy native females getting worked up over nothing at all, and the chiefs are just using it as an excuse to cause me trouble. Hell, what am I going to do?

Blanchette looked up at him intently.

Send me, she said.

Brieulx stared at his daughter. Even now, after twenty-two years a father, he found it difficult to process that he had sired such an exquisite creature. The porcelain perfection of her skin, unscorched by the tropical sun; the vivacious blush of pink in her high, subtle cheeks. Huge, deep-blue eyes, clear and seemingly unblinking; a long, dignified nose; wide, slender, sensuous lips. A cascade of soft, shimmering, sandy-brown hair falling about her face, neck and shoulders. Some day, some man was going to come and steal all this away from him - whoever he was, he would never be worthy.

Please? she added.

When Blanchette looked at him this way, eyes wide and slightly pleading, he could deny her nothing. On the other hand, she was the greatest treasure in his life, precious beyond reckoning.

No, he said at last. Blanchettes hopeful face fell, and she pouted bitterly.

Its not fair, she muttered. Youve just been complaining about me sitting about the palace all day, and now when I propose actually doing something Even Maman gets to go visit people - why cant I do my bit?

Because I dont want you going into native areas, Brieulx replied tersely. I cant have you mixing with men who wear penis gourds and what-not - theres no telling what might happen.

Blanchette gave an ejaculation of disbelief. Papa! They are not savages, not anymore.

So you say. All I know is, they revolted once, they might well revolt again - while you are here, I intend to protect you.

By cocooning me inside all day?

If necessary, yes.

Fine, she shrugged. Ill just sit here reading the same trashy papers over and over again, while you do important things like investigate sea monsters - Im sure the authorities back home will consider that an appropriate use of both our times

Again Jules Vincent stared. She was just like her mother - beautiful, clever and devious. What

was worse, she wielded the indefensible weapon of logic.

All right, he said slowly. You go, you get statements from these women; you put them in a file and then we forget about them. Understood?

She leapt up, throwing her arms about him and kissing him on both cheeks.

Oh, thank you, Papa! You will not regret this

Oh I will, he thought to himself. I am sure I most definitely will

*

To Gadji, and into the Kanak village: the sudden, exposed sensation of being the only white face in sea of black. They stared at her, appraising, before retreating from her approach as if she were some sort of pariah, or leper - perhaps, in their eyes, she was. Men, brown and magnificent, wearing loincloths and headdresses and very little else; women, some garbed in a vaguely European manner (though far more colourful), others defiantly, shamelessly bare-breasted in long skirts of woven rush. And bizarrely, twas Blanchette herself - a fully clothed Frenchwoman - who most felt naked amid all this bare flesh.

Her erratic attempts to obtain directions were met with hand waves and stony silence - nobody spoke French (or, more likely, they feigned incomprehension). Once, a few months back, Blanchette had determined to learn the Kanak language - that was before her mother had informed her that there were over twenty-five of them. Inevitably her alien, intrusive, lingering presence drew attention, and she abruptly found herself confronted by two formidable warriors carrying spears. Both sported the famous penis gourds, dangling down almost to the ground - at once intimidating and rather ridiculous.

Parlez-vous Francais? she asked timidly, hopefully. One of the men gave an almost imperceptible nod.

I am looking for the house of Sacre-Couer de Foa, she continued, a touch more firmly. I am here

on behalf of the High Commissioner.

The White Chief sends women to do his work now? the warrior responded, with a slight sneer.

Our business concerns the women of the household, Blanchette snapped back. Surely, it is only reasonable for the High Commissioner to send a woman of his own on such an errand?

Logic: best weapon of them all. The men stared at her a moment, then turned to each other and conducted a brief, gabbling conversation. Then they stepped back, gesturing towards a particular building. Blanchette nodded her thanks and moved on.

The house was large by Kanak standards, but otherwise typical: circular, with a high conical roof, set amid a shading grove of whispering, nodding palms. Wooden chimes hung limply outside the door - Blanchette ran her fingers through them, creating spontaneous, percussive music. After a pause the door was slowly, circumspectly opened, and a womans face hove into view.

Madame Sacre-Coeur de Foa? Blanchette inquired.

The woman began to nod, then her face set.

Widow, she replied simply, tersely. My husband drowned, many years ago.

She was, like so many Kanak women, difficult to age. Well in her thirties, Blanchette guessed, but she could easily pass for much younger. She was actually quite striking: a high-cheeked, open

face, sweet in aspect; a tall brow above wide-set, bright eyes; an elegantly flattened nose; slender lips above a surprisingly firm chin; a restrained froth of ebon hair barely reaching her neck; skin the colour of milky coffee. She wore a shimmering green dress that on anyone else would look garish, but suited her perfectly.

I am here on behalf of the High Commissioner, Blanchette enunciated slowly, relieved that the woman seemed to comprehend French. The presence of a pseudo-Francais surname was a good

indicator, but with the Kanaks, nothing could be taken for granted. My name is Blanchette, and I wish to ask about the reported sighting of a sea monster.

The woman let out a little gasp, stepping back to admit her and quickly closing the door once she had entered. Only inside did Blanchette realise that the woman was not alone - there was another, much younger woman present, looking on with some anxiety. She too was rather striking: a girlishly ovoid face, with delicate cheekbones and a rather sharp little chin. Bright eyes above a flared, petite nose; sumptuous lips slightly parted to reveal gleaming incisors. Glowing skin of pale mahogany; heavy spirals of thick black hair falling freely about her neck and shoulders. She wore a dress of vivid orange that again seemed entirely apropos.

This is my daughter, Oni, the older woman was saying, her French laboured and accented but precise. And I am called Eshe. You must forgive us, we expected a visit from the High Commissioner himself.

Alas, His Excellency is a trifle busy with affairs of state, Blanchette smiled. But you have his daughters undivided attention. Now: which of you actually sighted this creature?

Both of us, answered the girl, Oni, coldly. And ever since, we have been in fear of our lives

*

They made her welcome, and treated her to the local delicacy of bougna, layers of sweet potato and sea food cooked in a wrapping of banana leaves. Blanchette did not consider herself a culinary adventuress, but she found herself eating the stuff with relish. And as she did so, mother and daughter steadily unwound their strange tale.

On the 22nd of this month, Oni and I rowed out to meet some fishing boats, Eshe began. As women, we are not permitted to fish, but in deference to my late husband, I am allowed to ferry the catches of others. We collected a well-full, and were heading home when, close to Abel point, we heard this sudden noise

It was a loud bang, Oni interjected, clapping her hands for emphasis. Like a shot from a rifle.

Eshe nodded. We were startled, both turning together - about sixty yards astern of us was a huge animal, of a sort we had never seen before. It had a long neck, rising up perhaps thirty feet, and its head was like a horses: it even had a mane, or sort of crest, running down. It seemed to undulate upon the water, rippling like a serpent, crashing through the waves and leaving a vast wake. It - it made this strange, whistling noise, blowing vapour from its nostrils, then shooting a jet of water high into the air, like a whale. We were so frightened: I think we both screamed, then took to our oars and paddled as fast as we could towards Freycinet Isle - we capsized in the shallows, lost the catch. We saw the creature at least three more times - at first, we feared it was following us; but eventually it headed off in the direction of Noumea

I am from Noumea, said Blanchette quietly. I must inform you that neither I, nor anyone else in town, has observed any such animal.

You dont believe us, said Oni, looking directly at her. It was more statement of fact than accusation.

What I believe, Mamselle, is immaterial. My function here is simply to collect evidence and submit a report to Papa, uh, the High Commissioner.

Ah, diplomacy - Papa would be so proud. In truth though, Blanchette was struggling to keep a straight face. Frankly, the story was too absurd for words - a cross between a horse, a serpent and a whale? A shot from a gun? A whistle? Jets of vapour and/or water? Arrant nonsense: her father had often asserted that the natives were unable to distinguish fact from fantasy (though he normally meant this in the political sense) - could he have been right all along?

Is there anything more you can tell me about this animal? she asked, trying to sound neutral. Colour, for instance?

The women glanced at each other.

It was black, like us, they said, almost in unison. The colour of Kanak skin.

Blanchette bit her lip. Nonsense, pure and simple. And yet, both mother and daughter were clearly sincere about this story: even now, the memory of what they had seen - or believed they had seen - brought a light of terror into their eyes. She looked at Oni.

You said your feared for your lives - what did you mean by that? But it was Eshe who answered.

As women, living alone without husbands, we are already considered suspicious by the warriors, she said starkly. If this creature causes destruction or loss of life, we will be held accountable. We will be deemed to have brought a curse on our village, and punished accordingly.

Blanchette stared, the colour draining from her face. She did not realise just how truly she had spoken before: indeed, what she believed was immaterial; what mattered was that these people

believed it, and would act accordingly, regardless of truth.

But, Eshe added, with a sad little shrug, If it does not reappear, we will be forever regarded as fools and liars; losers of a valuable catch for no good reason. Either way, we are liable to sanction. And Oni is correct, is she not? You do not believe us - the only way you will accept this creature is to see it with your own eyes

Blanchette swallowed. Do you think that is possible?

Eshe shrugged again. There are no guarantees - for myself, I do not think such a huge animal can

remain hidden for long, but who knows? The only chance is for you to stay here for a while, to come out with us on our boat, to see for yourself these haunted waters.

Blanchette considered. Her father had expressively forbidden her from spending more than one day on this ridiculous errand - on the other hand, she relished every opportunity to annoy him.

Then I will stay, she said calmly, and was surprised when Eshes face lit up in a wholly unanticipated smile.

There is a place, along the beach, if you need to send messages, she gushed. Oni will show you the way. In the meantime, I shall prepare a bed

*

The evening sun was turning the sky unearthly shades of pink and indigo as Blanchette and Oni walked along the shore. The sea was flat calm, just the faintest trundle of dissipating waves etching over golden sands: it seemed impossible that such a benign aspect could produce a terrifying monster, but nonetheless Blanchette kept glancing out over the water, trying to imagine. And she noted how

Oni kept steadfastly to her inside, as if nervous of what the ebbing tide might produce. She noted also, from the girls sullen silence and stiff body language, that Oni did not trust her, and did not approve of her mothers invitation. Knowing something of the Kanaks intense social reserve, Blanchette herself wondered why such an invitation had been extended.

You seemed surprised that your mother asked me to stay, she said, as openly as she could. Oni gave a sharp, bitter little shrug.

Much of what Eshe does these days is a surprise, she muttered. It was her idea we start wearing these stupid dresses, covering ourselves up like nuns. Until now traditional costume has been good enough, but no more - my mother thought she was going to meet the High Commissioner, so we had to

go faux-western.

I told you, Blanchette snapped, I carry my fathers full authority in this matter.

Maybe, but can you protect us from the monster if it reappears? Can you protect us from our own people if it does not?

You really believe you will be punished for this, no matter what?

That is the Kanak way, Oni scowled. If the women do something, they are punished. If they do nothing, they are punished. The only thing permitted is to be subservient to their men, and we have no men to serve.

So why is it your mother never remarried? Surely Eshe has had offers, and wouldnt that afford a measure of security?

My mother has spirit, Oni intoned darkly. Even my father knew it - he always deferred to her

far more than any of the other men in the village did to their wives. Shell never find another to give her such free reign - shed rather be a free outsider than an accepted slave.

And what about you, Oni? Blanchette countered, in what she hoped was a friendly tone. You are young and beautiful - surely there are many would-be suitors lined up at your door

Oni stopped walking. She seemed nonplussed, either by the compliment or the imagery. She turned, faced Blanchette directly.

Tell me something, Mamselle High Commissioner, she spat. Is your father always trying to match you with potential husbands?

But of course, Blanchette replied, staring her down. My mother, too..

And how many of them have you accepted?

Why, none, Blanchette giggled. Not a one of them has been remotely worthy.

Just the faintest crease of a smile appeared at the corners of Onis lush mouth.

Then we understand each other, she said quietly, and continued on her way.

*

Blanchette couldnt sleep. Oh, her bed - a thing of matting and soft muslin screens - was comfortable enough, but the unfamiliarity of her surroundings, the sense of adventure imparted by merely being away from the palace for a night, and the increasingly strange nature of her mission all conspired to make her restless and slightly febrile. At last she could bear it no longer, getting up and

making her barefoot way out of the house and down towards the beach. Moonlight and starlight conspired to paint everything a cold, dusty grey, except the sea which glittered a billion fluttering diamonds to match the bejewelled sky.

She was more than a little surprised to see another, dark figure lingering upon the shore; and even more surprised that she recognised it. Sand like fresh ground flour compressed between her toes as she walked over to where Eshe stood, watching the whispering waves. Her expression, near as Blanchette could read it in the darkness, was wary but not unwelcoming.

Could not sleep? she asked, her smile a sudden firefly glow of pearly teeth.

Just unfamiliar surroundings, is all, Blanchette replied. And thinking about tomorrow, I suppose. How about you?

Eshes dress rustled faintly as she shrugged. I do not sleep so well, ever since well, ever since our monster. Sometimes, I come out at night, to watch for it - crazy, no?

So what will you do if you see it again?

I do not know. That first time, we were so frightened, Oni and I, fleeing for our lives. But the more I think upon it, the less frightening the creature seems to be - I think maybe we are more frightened of ourselves than we are of it.

This struck Blanchette as a most peculiar statement. In her mind it chimed with something Oni had said.

Your daughter told me you have only just adopted western dress - that you did it because of me.

Eshe gave a bright but truncated laugh.

In a manner of speaking - we were trying to make ourselves respectable for the arrival of important white men.

Blanchette laughed in turn. Well, you have acquired yourselves an important white woman, and she does not care how you dress.

Thank you, but I feel we must maintain our modesty, at least for the time being

Oh? Blanchette couldnt help herself asking. Why so?

Eshe was silent for several moments - she seemed to be struggling to formulate an answer.

Ever since the monster, things have not been right between Oni and myself. We used to share

everything, live each others lives, be completely open in all things. But over this past week it feels as if something has come between us - some barrier or tension. We cannot even look at each other like we used to - oh, I cannot explain it; I suppose I am hoping that your presence will alleviate it in some way. But in the meantime, I know that it is important for us to dress like

Nuns? Blanchette interjected.

Nuns, Eshe giggled. That would be Oni talking, all right - for all she protests about how we are treated, she loves the traditional ways; almost as much as she loves to mock westerners.

Strange, she didnt mock me, Blanchette commented quietly.

Then you have already made a breakthrough; and your father showed great wisdom sending you on

this mission

*

Morning burst over New Caledonia, blue and gold and paradisiacal. If Eshe and Oni had qualms about retracing their fateful route, they showed little sign as they uncovered their boat, dragging it with practised efficiency down to the water. Blanchette was the timid one as she stepped aboard, taking up her indicated position just ahead of the fish well. Her offer to help with paddling was politely - and in Onis case somewhat derisively - declined, and she sat like some colonial queen as mother and daughter took to their oars and pulled decisively out into the shallows. The shore receded with unexpected rapidity, until Blanchette could clearly see Noumea behind them. But turning her head against the boats rocking motion induced a vague nausea, so she fixed her attention straight ahead, where it belonged - out to sea.

The trip was pleasant but uneventful. A long, lazy zigzag out to Abel Point, back and around Freycinet Isle, tracking in towards Noumea. Blanchette wondered if her father might be keeping one

wary, disbelieving eye on the waters; she wondered if she should wave in the direction of the Imperial Palace. She wondered also if she should ask Eshe and Oni to simply drop her back home - it was

becoming clear that, even if it existed, the monster was not disposed to put in an appearance on this calm, quiet Sunday. But she decided against it - for whatever reason she liked these women, wanted quite desperately for their story to be true. And they themselves were clearly in a mood to pursue all avenues: with dogged determination and astonishing strength they pressed on, past Noumea, towards the picturesque strait that lay between Maitre Isle and the islet known as Tabou. At which point, it happened.

Something rose in the water ahead of them, a great dark column surging upward to an immense height before curling over and smashing onto the sea; ribbons of glittering droplets scattering like beautiful, broken glass. In spite of herself Blanchette screamed; but the Kanak women were clearly

not about to be frightened again and with smooth, almost instinctual manoeuvres turned away from the sudden surge of violent ripples. Before Blanchettes disbelieving eyes a second column, thinner than the first - she assumed it was the creatures tail - thrust up from the water and whiplashed down again with a thunderous noise and an eruption of agitated spume.

Their determination as ferocious as the creatures movements, the Kanak women kept pace with their quarry, its progress delineated by the occasional jet of vapour issuing from the waves, just as Eshe had described. At one point both columns appeared above the surface simultaneously before crashing back down, but at no point was Blanchette able to get a clear impression of the overall shape: was the beast actually serpentine, or was there some massive body hidden below the water? Its size, too, remained frustratingly difficult to gauge: that it was immense, there was no doubt. Blanchette realised quite suddenly that she was no longer frightened; she was simply awestruck and electrified by this phenomenal display.

They observed the creature three times before its progress began to outstrip that of the tiring women,

and it sank definitively beneath the sea. It was slow, slightly aching crawl back to Gadji, but Blanchette did not notice. She spent the whole trip in a state of beatific shock, trembling and grinning

uncontrollably; by the time they beached the boat she was flat-out giggling in a manner that bordered on maniacal.

I saw it, she kept repeating, over and over. I actually saw it

And it was obvious to her now, no way could hers be the only pair of white eyes to be clapped upon the creature. Something so large, so obvious in its movements (it had seemed to her to be almost in distress) had to have been observed, from Freycinet, from Maitre, from Noumea itself. People must have seen it: so why were her companions the only ones to come forward?

Once they had beached the boat - Blanchette actually able to lend a hand to her exhausted hostesses

- her immediate instinct was to rush and despatch a cable to her father in Noumea. But then she saw the cold eyes of the warriors standing by, appraising their (her?) every move, and Onis chilling words returned to her. And though she was dying to tell the entire world of her adventure, she decided that, for now, it might be better to wait

Safe in the house, over fine traditional food there was an almost celebratory air among the three women - the easy familiarity that comes from shared experience. They talked through the incident endlessly, Blanchette listening rapt to Eshe and Onis comparisons to the previous encounter - a true believer now, all doubt and scepticism washed away. She was so proud of them: she appreciated full well how frightened of the creature they had been that first time; yet today they had pursued it as doggedly as whalers chasing rorquals, no fear shown whatsoever. She expressed that pride in gushing terms, knowing she might come across as patronising, or slightly crazed, but unable to help herself. And then Eshe brought her suddenly up short.

I suppose you will be leaving us tomorrow, she said simply, sadly. Blanchette felt her face go slack, suddenly cold and lifeless.

Why why do you say that? she stammered. Eshe looked at her strangely.

You have all you wanted - you have seen the creature with your own eyes, and you have our full accounts. Surely that is enough to convince your father - there is no longer anything to keep you here.

She was correct, of course - completely correct. But Blanchette didnt want her to be correct.

I - I dont think I can go yet, she stammered. I mean, what about the two of you? Would my continued presence not dissuade the men folk from taking action against you?

Eshe shrugged. I doubt you would prove an obstacle to our warrior class, were they minded to take action. At least the creature is proved beyond doubt now, so all we need hope is that it does not bring misfortune upon our village or our people. Regardless, Oni and I will survive.

But I dont want to go! Blanchette snapped petulantly, aware how pathetic and childish she sounded. I want to see the creature again - I want to study it, to divine whether it is truly serpent, or animal like a whale. I want to learn all its secrets: to chase it down in your boat, to be part of your household, of your lives

She broke off, feeling foolish and distinctly non-imperial. She stared directly at Eshe.

Do you want me to leave? she asked tremulously.

Eshe smiled, and shook her head.

Of course not, she replied, with a quick glance at Oni. Since you arrived, it has felt like you belong here, and after today, it is obvious that you do. If it is down to us, you may stay as long as you

want, forever if need be. I just thought, perhaps your duty would be to return home as soon as possible.

It would, thought Blanchette - it absolutely would. But what she said was, My duty is to remain

here, at least for the time being. I feel it in my heart

And the smiles that issued from both mother and daughter only hardened the conviction that she was

right.

*

She had mentally prepared herself for another feverish, sleepless night, but as it was the moment she retired the days excitement caught up to her, and she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Yet in her final moments of consciousness, an idea bubbled up from her subconscious, breaking the surface of her mind as decisively as any surfacing monster - and it was still there, bobbing like a buoy marking sunken treasure, when she awoke late the next morning.

Leaving her bed, Blanchette felt curiously nervous and excited. Some of it was doubtless residual, childish electricity at having seen a real live monster; part of it was the ongoing pleasure of cocking a snook at her fathers intentions. But mostly, it was the illicit, dangerous thrill of what she was about to propose; even though it was, in native terms, utterly ordinary.

In the filtered, faintly dusty light of the houses living space she caught sight of Eshe and Oni, momentarily oblivious to her arrival. They were looking at each other, in a manner that struck Blanchette as ineffably peculiar: as if they had somehow become entranced. Perhaps it was an illusion, but when they acknowledged her presence, it seemed that Eshe did so with relief, Oni with a fleeting trace of annoyance.

Am I interrupting something? she couldnt help asking.

Of course not! Eshe gushed, a little too heartily. We were just discussing how long to let you lie - it seems yesterdays events completely exhausted you.

Blanchette was chagrined.

Yes, I - I suppose they did. I cant think why - all I did was watch; you two did all the hard work.

Nonsense, Eshe grinned. Oni and I are used to the effort, and such a slight passenger as

yourself could hardly slow us more than a barrel of fish. Now: you require something to eat?

Maybe later. Actually, I - I wanted to ask you both something. Or rather, to propose something

They both looked at her, eyes bright and expectant. Blanchette drew a deep breath.

I am not an Imperialist, she said in a rush. I do not believe France, or anyplace else, has the right to dictate how you people should live. It aggrieves me that you felt the need to change your costume, your customs, either for my father or for me. What I am trying to say is, I should very much like you to revert to your normal manner of dress

Mother and daughter exchanged a glance, and again Blanchette felt a pang of tension. Looking back at her, Eshe gently shook her head.

I do not think that would be a good idea, she said softly.

I know, Blanchette sighed. But what if I were to subscribe to your traditions? Would that make it easier?

And before they had a chance to respond, she reached up, slid the straps of her nightdress from her shoulders and let if peel away from her upper body. There was the sweetly subversive sensation of air upon the pale tumescence of her breasts; she could feel blood filling her nipples, making them stiff and tingly. She almost shivered: this was the naughtiest and yet most natural thing she had ever done. The women stared openly a moment, before breaking into bemused chuckles.

You are prepared to dress like a Kanak woman, Mamselle Brieulx? Eshe gasped.

I am, said Blanchette firmly.

Not just in the house, Oni teased. Are you prepared, as a white woman, to be seen like that about the village? In full view of everyone?

Blanchette stared her down. I am, she repeated. Beyond the glitter of amusement on Onis eyes, she thought she saw a dawning light of respect - and beyond that, something even brighter, almost frightening in its intensity. Oni got decisively to her feet.

Well, she announced, If the High Commissioners representative endorses it, I for one am tired of being a nun

And she reached behind her neck, slipping the bow that held her shimmering dress in place. Like a tangerine avalanche it slipped down her torso. Onis breasts were high and full, blessed with broad conical nipples the colour of fired earth - Blanchette could not resist a lingering look, for she had seen so few of other womens bosoms. Oni caught her gaze, and her eyelids fluttered shyly - they exchanged a smile that felt to Blanchette disproportionately intimate. Then, as one, they turned expectantly to Eshe. Expression like hurried clouds flickered across the womans face: surprise, mild horror, uncertainty, resignation. She too rose, and with a lowering smile unfastened her verdant dress. Unveiled, her tawny breasts were ripe, hanging, crowned with jutting nipples the colour of coffee unground.

So there they were: three women, six breasts bared. And all any of them could do was giggle with the anticlimactic absurdity of it.

Oni and I will make ourselves properly presentable, said Eshe at length, and I will look out a spare skirt for you, Mamselle. You are absolutely sure about being seen like this?

Blanchette nodded. Yes. And the sooner the better, before I lose my nerve. I need to go and cable my latest report to the Palace.

I will go with you, Oni interjected. If only to deflect the mens eyes from your lily-white skin

Just for an instant, Eshe seemed slightly crestfallen at this suggestion, but she gathered herself quickly.

Very well. You accompany our guest, while I must go gather some provisions. We will all of us reconvene at meal time

*

When she had first walked into the Kanak village Blanchette had been fully clothed, but felt naked. Now she was, to all intents and purposes, actually naked; yet it felt disarmingly normal. Oh, there were stares, to be sure - stares of vaguely hostile curiosity from the women, or more-or-less open lust from many of the men. But it didnt matter: Blanchette felt comfortable in her own, exposed skin; as a white woman, she would ever be an outsider in this place, but after all that had happened in just two days, she felt herself very much a part of things.

It helped immensely to have Oni at her side. Petite, proud Oni: she had begun to imagine an almost sisterly bond with the Kanak girl; something that, as one without siblings, was deeply novel. If any mans gaze lingered a little too leeringly upon her, Oni would see them off with a glare: there was clearly something about this young woman they both respected and feared.

You are very brave, Mamselle Brieulx, said Oni, as they threaded their way among the huts.

Pshaw, Blanchette countered. You and your mother are the brave ones, chasing monsters across the ocean. I am merely a passenger, a tourist

Oni glanced across at her.

Bravery comes in many forms, my friend - if it did not, you would not have come here in the first place.

My friend - Blanchettes heart leaped at the affirmation, and she glowed inwardly all the way to la poste. Her message - that she would be delaying her return to Noumea for an unspecified number of days, in hope of further monster sightings - safely despatched, she and Oni were strolling easily along the beach, back towards the house, when trouble abruptly manifested. Seemingly from nowhere, a brace of warriors materialised in their path. They directed their words - all in incomprehensible Kanak - entirely at Oni, but it was clear from the way they gestured with their spears that Blanchette herself was the subject of conversation. She nervously held her breath as Oni responded, in an easy but slightly mocking tone, watching as scowls of disapproval flashed across the mens faces. Eventually, with unconvinced grunts they stood aside, but still leaving only the tiniest of gaps for the women to squeeze through. Blanchettes face burned as she felt herself brushing against a thick-set male figure - she kept her head down, staring at the sand beneath her feet, until they were well clear.

What was that all about? she finally muttered.

They said that you insult us, Oni replied tersely. That by adopting our mode of dress, you are mocking us with your milky white breasts.

And did you concur?

Of course not, Oni snapped, genuinely affronted. I said that you showed us more honour than

any white man ever had: indeed as a woman you honour us more than most Kanaks of their ilk.

Blanchette considered. Theres going to be trouble if I stay here much longer, isnt there?

Oni shrugged. It seems to me, ever since my father died, trouble has been living somewhere in our home. If it chooses now to come into the open, better if you are with us, I think.

By the time they reached the safety of the house, Blanchette found she was shaking. Eshe had not yet returned - her absence had a strangely palpable quality, as if the place was somehow denuded without its mistress. Blanchette and Oni lingered uncertainly, now become nervous and diffident in each others presence, as if they were visitors who had only just met.

What you said, before, Oni suddenly blurted. Did you mean it?

Blanchette was nonplussed. Mean what?

Oni lowered her eyes in a manner that seemed to Blanchette quite charming.

When we first talked when I was rude to you. You said - you said I was beautiful: did you mean that?

Of course, Blanchette blinked. You are a very beautiful young woman, Oni.

Oni looked up, her smile a perfect pearly crescent.

I think you are very beautiful too, Mamselle Brieulx, she said earnestly.

Oh please, call me Blanchette, came the over-casual response. But Blanchette could feel herself

blushing hotly at this compliment, in a way she had never done when it issued from a male. She was vividly aware of her bare breasts; vividly aware of her aching nipples, still helplessly distended; most vividly aware of Onis gaze flickering shyly over her bosom.

Mamselle I mean, Blanchette, Oni hesitated, biting a lip like a slice of succulent fruit. I

wonder if I might?

What? Blanchette whispered, a catch in her throat, heart and pulse pounding just as they had in the warriors presence. Onis look was sweet as a schoolgirls and eager as a puppys.

I wonder if I might touch your breast? she said in a rush. Blanchette drew a breath, held it - twas at once the most brazen and most beguiling request that had ever been made of her. When it came, her permissive nod was subtle, borderline unconscious.

Onis dusky fingers reached into the space between them, alighting in feathery trembling upon pale, pliant flesh.

Oh, she breathed, So white and soft - so warm

Blanchette could not respond. Her heart was hammering audibly, humiliatingly: almost as humiliating as the upward curl of her enraged teats, like rosebuds on the point of blossom.

Can I she finally managed to croak, Can I touch you?

She did not wait for formal permission, as none was needed. Her fingers trembled as they brushed the coppery curve of Onis high bust - the girl shivered almost imperceptibly, and it seemed to Blanchette that the deep umber cones of her nipples were noticeably ripening. They looked into each others eyes, hands poised provocatively yet shyly upon each others breasts: deep blue boring into

near black, and vice versa. They smiled with the ludicrousness of it, even as they shivered at the

immensity.

I want to kiss you, Blanchette blurted, as though the words had escaped from her - a sudden violent flutter of wild birds. Onis bright eyes went dreamy as her smile widened.

I would love you to kiss me, she sighed.

They shuffled awkwardly together, like drunken dancers, hands moving awkwardly onto their shoulders. As they leaned in their breasts pressed softly, shivers of electric sensation arcing from the distended nipples, making them draw sharp breaths as their mouths met, sealing them in sweet, seamless vacuum. To Blanchette, Onis lips felt plump as cushions, ripe as tangerines, sweet as sugar cane - her hands drifted upward, into the frothing, crackling tangle of Onis tight ringlets; drawing the girls face on to her as her own slender lips explored the wet-and-dry lushness. Her heart thundered; heat flared upon her skin, and beneath it. Parting her lips a fraction, she slipped the tip of her tongue into the voluptuous bow of Onis mouth, feeling the lips give a little, touching a smooth wall of incisor. Dizzied with sensation, awash with passions previously unstirred, she could not help pressing with her tongue: intently, almost forcefully. She gave a gasp of pent-up breath and disappointment as Oni pulled back.

Again they regarded each other: Blanchette could see the puzzled set of Onis face, the churning emotions like storm clouds in her dark eyes. She was aware of a heat radiating from the girls body, in precise analogy of her own; could see the faint glistening of incipient perspiration upon mahogany brow and neck. She brought her trembling hand forward, onto Onis cheek, softly brushing. Onis expression resonated expectation, fear and hope in a tangled, alluring synthesis - Blanchette let her fingers drift slowly: down the side of the girls face; the silken side of her taut throat; over her strong rowers shoulder; onto the bony, pulsing brown edifice of her breastbone. All the while Onis eyes tracked her own, asking questions to which Blanchette had no answers - at least, none that made any

sense. Blanchette attempted a reassuring smile, found her lips had become frozen, numbed with the intoxication of Onis kiss. She let her fingertips descend once more to the soft dun curve of Onis

breast; the upturned, coppery nipple at once supple and stiff beneath her touch: Onis eyelids fluttered; she gave a sharp, delicate gasp. Still unable to smile, unable to speak, Blanchette took Onis wrist in her free hand, guiding the golden digits to the milky swell of her own bosom. From deep in her throat issued a soft moan as fingertips brushed her aching nipple - the sensation both soothed and enflamed all the more. The look that passed between them seemed to have a turbulence, like the waft of heat from a

guttering candle.

What are we doing? Oni whispered hoarsely.

I dont know, Blanchette replied, mildly stunned that she still had a voice. But I dont want to stop - do you?