In Tanimbar, something around fifteen people a year are killed by buffalo. An English naturalist I had met in Saumlaki had insisted that they were peaceable, even shy, creatures, and that they did not attack unless provoked. Nevertheless, it paid to be circumspect whilst walking at night, and these impressive creatures were still the object of considerable fear.
How Tanimbar came to be populated with buffalo in the first place remains, like many things, a mystery. One scholarly account makes the claim that they were brought to the islands by sea, lashed into dugout canoes with ropes. I suspected that the author of this theory had never stepped into a dugout canoe, let alone one with a buffalo lashed into the stern. The thought of being in such a flimsy craft in the open sea, with a buffalo as cargo is nightmarish to the point of being inconceivable. The Tanimbarese have their own stories to account for the presence of these lumbering beasts in the islands. Some involve underground tunnels or feats of magic, but this tale from Lorulun tells of how they became about as the result of a forbidden love affair.
This story appeared in my philosophy book “Finding Our Sea-Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories“, back when I was exceedingly interested in the philosophical significance of talking fish.
Once, when there had been no buffalo in Tanimbar, there lived a young man of low birth. One day he was walking on the shore and he saw a girl fishing on the reef with a spear. She was beautiful, adorned with richly coloured ikat cloth, the daughter of a noble family. The two of them spoke and they fell in love. Knowing that the girl’s parents would never give their consent to the match, they decided to elope into the forest.
On the appointed night, the young man crept up to the maiden’s house. Noble houses in those days were raised upon stilts to deter snakes, rats and other vermin, the entrance being up a short ladder and through a trap-door. The young man crept under the house and called softly to her. His beloved, who had not slept a wink out of fear that she might miss him, slipped out of the house and descended the ladder to where he was waiting. Taking each other’s hands, their path lit only by the light of a full moon, they stole deep into the thick forest, on fire with a passionate longing. Eventually they came upon a beautiful glade. The grass was soft and in the centre of the clearing a pool of dark water reflected the moon. The two lovers walked to the pool’s edge. It looked clear and cool. With trembling hands they stripped off each other’s clothes until they stood pale and naked in the moonlight.
Just as they were about to leap into the water, out of the pool jumped a fish with a loud plop! The fish did not, as is usual, fall back into the water, but remained hanging in mid-air, fixing them both with a beady and rather supercilious glare. The couple stood open mouthed as the fish began to speak.
‘Do not bathe in this pool,’ said the fish, ‘It is a sacred pool, and I warn you to keep clear.’
With this piece of advice, the fish fell back into the water with another loud plop! and was gone. The lovers looked at each other, hesitating for a moment, but who has ever heeded the advice of a mere fish? What advice, however, wise, will turn the hearts of lovers in the heat of their passion? The couple plunged into the water.
As soon as the water touched their skin, they felt their pale young bodies began to blacken and swell. Their skin seemed to be thickening, turning leathery. They felt their snouts pushing forwards and growing in size. Their arms and legs started to change shape, and from the bases of their spines, tails began to protrude. Their breath became ill-smelling and rasping, and from their temples emerged pairs of pointed horns. The lovers tried to cry out in horror, but the only sound that came from their mouths was a hollow bellowing.
The two buffalo stood in the pool, snorting in bewilderment. Then they climbed out on to the bank to stand, dripping and confused, in the glade. Taking no notice of their discarded clothing lying on the ground, with a flick of their tails they turned and trotted into the forest.