Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pure Blood

Lagi walked slowly through the shade, listening to the ocean whispering to her from just beyond the coconut trees. It was low tide and the water was quiet. The soft sounds gave her comfort and she knew she would be able to think without interruption. Despite the peaceful waters, her mind and heart were racing. Sefo had asked her to marry him! This should have been an exciting day, but Lagi was nervous. She needed time to think.
When Sefo walked into their fifth grade class, he had on his brown uniform lavalava and his white collared shirt. His white slippers were brand new and, like any new student, he was very shy. He looked almost the same as everyone else in the class and yet there was something different about him. He had an afro hairdo and he was dark, much darker than the Samoan boys Lagi had grown up with. Being around the same people for most of her life, Lagi was interested in this new student but she couldn’t ask him anything. Every time she would try to ask him a question, he would just smile and put his head down.
Sefo continued to be the shy kid, even into high school. He would always smile at Lagi but never talk to her. One day, during their senior year, Sefo was in the library looking for a book. Lagi was in there helping the librarian sort magazines when Sefo walked up to her. At first Lagi didn’t hear him but when she turned, there he was asking her if she could help him. Lagi was surprised and they went in search of his book. From then on, Sefo would say hi to Lagi whenever he saw her on campus and for some reason, this made Lagi extremely happy.
After graduation, Lagi went off to college at the University of Hawai’i. During her first week of school, Lagi was sitting in the library getting a head start on a research paper for her history class.
“Hi, Lagi,” a voice said from behind.
Looking up startled, Lagi saw Sefo, smiling at her with that shy grin she remembered from high school.
“Sefo, hi!” Lagi answered in surprise. “Are you going to school here, too?”
Sefo nodded his head and they were inseparable from then on. The four years of college seemed to fly by full of studying, socializing, and spending as much time as she could with Sefo. They could talk all day and still have more things to ask and say the next day. Lagi had never been so happy and content.
Lagi was able to keep her relationship with Sefo from her family in Samoa the entire time she was away but she knew the day would come when she would have to tell them. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of Sefo. Quite the opposite! Lagi was proud of this quiet, intelligent, loving man and she was thrilled to have him all to herself. She just wasn’t sure how her family would react.
Her full name was Fetuilelagi, which means star in the sky. Her grandmother carried that name and it happened to be the taupou name of their family, a high chief’s family. Lagi looked like her grandmother with her long, wavy brown hair and dimpled cheeks. People would always say she looked just like the old lady, and acted like her, too. Lagi’s grandmother always told her when she was finished with school, the family would give her the taupou title and all the responsibilities that came with that name.
The problem was that Sefo was part Tongan. Lagi’s family always boasted that they came from a pure Samoan bloodline and that they would keep that bloodline pure. Lagi had seen some of her cousins give in and marry someone their family chose simply so they would avoid being kicked out and ostracized. This led to a trail of broken hearts and lost dreams and now Lagi was in that same situation. Sefo had become an extremely important part of her life. How could she give him up?
The Stan Sheriff Center was packed with family and friends who came to watch the commencement ceremonies. Lagi and Sefo had majored in different degrees so their colleges were separate. Their last names were different as well so they didn’t get to see each other during or after graduation. After Lagi’s family took pictures (it felt like hundreds), they went to her uncle’s house in Waimanalo to celebrate. When Lagi was finally able to get away, with the excuse of joining her friends for some extended celebrations, she found Sefo waiting in front of her dorm.
“We need to talk,” Lagi said quietly.
Sefo looked worried but nodded. They found a quiet spot on campus and Sefo waited patiently as Lagi wrestled with what she had to say.
“Sefo, I love you,” Lagi began.
“I love you, too,” Sefo replied but Lagi stopped him with a wave of her hand.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve had to say,” Lagi began again. She proceeded to tell Sefo about her family, the fact that she was going to be the family’s taupou, and the dreaded ‘pure’ bloodline.
Sefo listened calmly until Lagi was finished. He wiped her tears and held her close. After what seemed like forever, Sefo looked at her.
“Marry me, Lagi,” he said suddenly.
Lagi looked at him in surprise.
“I don’t care about your family’s ‘pure’ bloodline. I will do anything I can to make your family accept me!”
Lagi smiled at him wearily. She wanted to believe everything he said but she had seen her family get their way too many times to believe her dreams would come true. She felt torn between her family obligations and her love for Sefo. Lagi felt like she was being ripped apart and the outcome looked bleak.
“We could always run away and find an uninhabited island to call our own.” Lagi knew Sefo was trying to make her smile but she couldn’t when her seemingly perfect world was unraveling.
Lagi’s final days in Hawai’i were spent packing and saying goodbye to family. When they were on the plane back to Samoa, Lagi fell back against the seat, exhausted; emotionally and physically. She had barely seen Sefo and only had a few spare minutes here and there to call him. Her family in Hawai’i who knew of him were sympathetic but did not want to get involved in what they knew would be a huge upheaval in the family so they kept quiet. During the five hour flight, Lagi spent a lot of time thinking about how she would present her case to her family.
As Lagi sat on the sand, the sound of the waves were soothing, like the Samoan lullabies her grandmother used to sing to her when she was little. The rhythm of the water reminded her of times that were not so complicated, times when all she had to worry about was her siva for her village, or studying for Faife’au school, or playing in the rain with her cousins. Her tears began to flow freely and they made the sunlight dance across the water like the glow from the shells on her tuiga. Why did she have to choose; her place in her family and the future of wearing that tuiga or sharing her life with Sefo? Why couldn’t she have both? Did anyone have a Samoan bloodline that was truly ‘pure’? What did it matter? Finally, Lagi realized what she had to do. She wiped her face on her lavalava and stood up. This is what I have to do in order to ensure my happiness and my family’s pride, Lagi thought. It just has to work!
Lagi’s mom smiled at her in encouragement as the family gathered for their meeting. This was the meeting to discuss Lagi’s taupou title and what the family would need to do to prepare for the occasion. Lagi’s grandmother patted her on the leg, thinking her granddaughter was nervous because the time had finally come for her to take over. Oh, grandma, Lagi thought. If only you knew what was going on in my head.
Sefo wanted to be there. They argued, their first argument, but Lagi stood her ground. She wanted to face her family alone. Sefo felt he would be able to convince them he was worthy enough to be part of their family but he respected Lagi’s wishes that he stay away.
The family began their meeting with their normal song and prayer. The singing echoed off the walls as the family blended together in perfect harmony. Lagi’s heart beat fast and she could feel the song within her, giving her strength. During the prayer, she silently prayed for the right words.
The family leaders began to speak and the longer the meeting lasted, the more Lagi’s confidence began to waver. What if her family wouldn’t listen? What if they made her choose? Could she choose? As the meeting came to a close, Lagi knew this would be her only time to speak. She looked over at her grandmother and smiled sadly.
“I am sorry for speaking without being asked but I have something I need to tell the family. May I speak?” Lagi’s heart pounded as she waited for the elders to grant her permission.
The family leaders looked surprised, some of them even taken aback, but Lagi’s grandmother spoke quickly.
“Yes, Lagi, you may speak.”
Lagi took a deep breath and began to tell her story. She could see the faces of the elders of the family and they did not look happy at all. She had to make them understand how much Sefo meant to her and how much her family meant to her. She thought she would break down in tears but she found herself speaking with a courage that she knew came from a long line of strong women. She was Fetuilelagi! When she finished pleading her case, she looked around the room at the solemn faces.
I did everything I could, Lagi thought. Now it’s up to the family and fate. As Lagi looked down at the floor, she heard someone begin to laugh. It wasn’t a mean laugh, it was a heartfelt, familiar laugh that put Lagi’s mind at ease. She looked to her side to see her grandmother smiling and laughing, daring the family elders to say anything.
Lagi felt better but she was also confused. Why was her grandmother laughing? Why wasn’t she scolding her or telling her to get out and give back her name? She found the courage to look around the room again and saw the rest of the family smiling in a knowing way. What had she missed?
Lagi’s grandmother patted her on the leg and said, “I knew we gave you the right name because you’re just like me! Lagi, when I was your age and ready for the taupou title, I also wanted to marry a boy who was not quite ‘worthy’ of this family. When I asked the family, they were ready to kick me out of the fale! But it was my grandmother who came to my rescue, just like I am doing today. You see, your grandfather was part Fijian. He was able to hide it by saying he spent a lot of time at the ma’umaga.”
Lagi stared at her in amazement.
“How did you convince the family to let you marry him?”
“Your grandfather was a great man and he promised he would keep it a secret. He never knew his Fijian family so he didn’t mind. Plus, he loved me enough to do this for me and my family. But enough of this ‘pure’ bloodline nonsense! No one is ‘pure’ anyway. Our ancestors came from the same place so we’re all the same people!”
Her grandmother looked around at the family and said, “Are we going to let this girl marry this Sefo after she receives her taupou title?”
Lagi secretly smiled because her grandmother’s question was more of a command, daring anyone to challenge her.
The family elders saw her grandmother’s determination and chose not to argue with the old woman. They gave Lagi their permission to marry Sefo and demanded that he come to the house the next day to sit and eat with the family.
Lagi couldn’t believe her luck! After she hugged her grandmother a thousand times, she ran off to call Sefo.
Lagi could hear the waves crashing on the shore, so different from the mild, peaceful waves she encountered earlier in the day. As she ran past the coconut trees onto the open sand, she saw Sefo standing facing the ocean. His head turned towards her and his smile lit up his face like the moonlight. She ran into his arms and held on tight. After Lagi told him all that had happened, she waited breathlessly for him to respond.
Sefo, with his slow, quiet smile, said, “I had faith.”
Sefo watched as Lagi walked to the edge of the crowd. Her ‘ie toga was wrapped tightly around her body and a thick piece of siapo was secured around her waist. Her body, glistening in the sun from the coconut oil, stood straight and majestic. A light danced in his eyes and he looked up at her tuiga. The pale fuiono that fit around her forehead was adorned with cowry shells and mother of pearl. The lauulu was thick, made from generations of family hair, with the ‘ie ula sitting bright and red on top. The lave stood high, showing her taupou rank, and her ulalei lay secure on her neck. Sefo’s eyes were drawn to her face as he saw her look over at him and smile. As he looked around, he saw her family looking at her with admiration, but theirs couldn’t match the pride that swelled in his heart.
The village began to sing and Lagi was escorted out onto the malae by two of her uncles. Her beginning bows were low and deep, acknowledging the chiefs, the faife’au, the family members, the visitors, and finally the village. Her movements were slow and graceful. Sefo didn’t understand the meaning of all of the moves but he did recognize some of them. He saw as Lagi bent her knees low and stretched her arms out to her sides, signally the flight of the gogo bird as it searched for fish over the wide expanse of ocean. As she scooped her hands and squeezed her fists, he recalled the beginning of the ‘ava ceremony, and when she lifted her hands with that invisible coconut cup, he saw her walk forward as if to serve the ceremonial drink to those who were worthy. The villagers’ song gained speed but Lagi’s movements remained smooth and delicate. The final refrains of the song floated into the air as she made her final bow. Lagi was glowing, not only with the happiness and pride of her taupou title, but Sefo could see in her eyes the love and joy she felt about him; her strong, quiet, steadfast Sefo.

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