This is a story of my people, the Meuram people of northeastern Erub Island, also known as Darnley Island, in the eastern-most Torres Strait, we call Zenadh Kes*. Three other tribes on the island border our au nener (traditional neighbours) Samsep, Saisarem and Peiudu people; west and the south west of our land respectfully. The Samsep, Peiudu and Meuram share everything to this day.
As was the tradition, the koiet baba (principle chief) of the people sent the Meuram hunters to sea to kill the first mating female turtle of the season and celebrate the occasion with feasting, dancing and song. The hunters set off in their two au narr (large canoe), sailed by Desarr with lead hunter Damoi, and accompanied by pazar (crew). The village chief and people stood on the beach at Keirari, the main Meuram village. Wishing them success was Bonau, Damoi’s favourite wife with her children following. As they left the shore sailing east there was a weird, foreboding atmosphere, like none they had experienced before.
Many miles out at sea the hunting party spotted sirwarr (mating turtles). Damoi stood up in the bows of the canoe, ready with the wap (harpoon). Approaching the female turtle, Damoi leaped out of the boat, harpooning her through the shell. Then disaster struck. Damoi got tangled in the amo (coiled harpoon rope) along with the alba (accompanying male turtle), and the tangled turtles, towing the leading canoe continued to drag the canoe out to sea until the highest hill on Erub could not be seen. In the end, the hunters cut the rope, hoping Damoi would free himself. But their effort proved futile. Sirwarr, albe and Damoi all went to the ub (ocean floor) in a tangled mass, to the deepest part of the sea, saam karem. When the turtles finally came up for air again, the hunters found Damoi dead. The tangled turtles submerged once again and Damoi disappeared. Desarr ordered the hunting party to paddle further out to sea to find him, but unfortunately, Damoi’s body could not be found.
Now realizing their reserves of drinking water entirely gone, the hunters concentrated on struggling against the strong fast easterly currents to return home. Without wind, the woven sails were useless. So, they paddled on until they were too exhausted to continue. For safety, they paddled towards Kerged, a small coral cay, rising out of the water. Beached, they could just make out Erub to the west and Mer (Murray Island) to the southwest, the miserable and exhausted men collapsed in their canoes, silently waiting for death to come.
As Desarr lay on the bow platform dying, a toleh (sandpiper) flew back and forth to the top of the sand cay several times before he noticed that the bird was bobbing up and down while standing on a small field of zorr (pumice stones). Curious, Desarr struggled up to the top of the coral cay and pushed the pumice stones apart. Much to his amazement, he discovered fresh water beneath the floating stones and called to the others about his marvelous find. From that moment forward, toleh was acknowledged as the spirit of Damoi, saving them from certain death. The word toleh translates as‘person within’.
In preparing to leave the island and return to Erub, the Meuram hunters found an unusually large izerr (bailer shell) on Kerged and filled it before setting off for home the very next morning. When the hunters had gone some distance from Kerged, they drank from the izerr. To their surprise the water remained at same level. They came to realize that this was “zogo ni” (sacred story water). Traveling further west they had soon arrived at their ged nor (home reef) and approaching Keirari from the east they could see their families lining the shore, welcoming them.
During this whole ordeal, the village witch doctor (zogo le) predicted that a tragedy would befall the tribe – but that something positive would eventuate out of this misfortune. As soon as the canoes were beached the sad news of the death of Damoi was announced and the Meuram people went into mourning. Damoi’s wives rubbed themselves with ash and grieved aloud, but Damoi’s favorite wife Bonau believed he was still out at sea and would one day return. She waited for him at the reef’s edge, crying endlessly, until she changed into a huge brain coral, (Bonau) where she remains today.
Finally, the men of the village took the magic izerr shell and strung it up with kolap lagerr (woven rope) in the branches of a shady wongai tree where the water glittered from afar from great distances in the sun and moonlight. The powerful magic of Zogo ni was jealously guarded for its healing properties for the sick and its abundance of water in contributing in making the gardens of Keiriri prosperous for many, many years.