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The Man who Turned into a Cassowary

[Can a man turn into a bird? I suppose if the question were put to a Darwinian, he would reply, “Well, certainly a bird could turn into a man, given sufficient transitional forms. And theoretically, a man could turn back into a bird, since there is nothing in Darwinian theory that forbids the evolution of simpler life forms from more complex ones—though somehow this particular transition seems unlikely.” But if the Darwinian were asked, “Can a man turn into a bird within the space of a few heart beats?”, I think, assuming he deigned to reply, we could be confident of the main thrust of his answer. “Human beings do not turn into birds, in case you haven’t noticed. Now go away and bother someone else.”

Before I went to Papua New Guinea as a lay missionary (from 1974-1976) I read a book with the dramatic title Savage Papua, A Missionary Among Cannibals. The book was published in 1954, and its author was a French priest, André Dupeyrat. One of the more exciting chapters was called “The Man Who Turned Into a Cassowary.” While in PNG I became slightly acquainted with the cassowary, a big vicious bird, prized as an exotic possession, and sometimes used as part of a bride’s price or a war debt. I also enquired about Père Dupeyrat, but only one person had ever heard of him, and he had no useful information. I guess this was to be expected, since the missionary, who had been labouring in a different part of the country, had returned to his native France at least two decades before. Recently I came across the book on my brother’s bookshelf and re-read the aforementioned chapter. I enjoyed it as much as the first time.

It occurred to me as I was reading this startling account that here was an instance where a useful dialectical principle, articulated as follows by Anthony Flew in an interview with Joan Bakewell, might well apply: “It’s a point of argument which I think very important: to see that what is reasonable for people to do in the face of new evidence depends on what they previously had good reason to believe.” Or think they have good reason to believe. Though the belief system of the two missionaries in this story allowed for the existence of evil spirits who sometimes give power to human beings who honour and obey them, this aspect of Christianity is usually neglected nowadays, when it is not simply dismissed as superstition. This was the case even then. So naturally, and very reasonably, the missionaries started off as sceptics, no doubt taking for granted Carl Sagan’s dictum, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Moreover, it was not only common sense that demanded scepticism. For a man to turn into a bird would be a disturbing occurrence for anybody, whatever his belief system. In the case of our missionaries such a development was also a damn nuisance, since it complicated and increased their evangelical work. It is pretty clear from Dupeyrat’s account that nothing would have pleased them more than for scientific scepticism and “rationality” to carry the day. But it was not to be. Despite their best physical and intellectual efforts—much of the account is taken up with recounting and analysing the evidence—they were unable to resolve the puzzle to their satisfaction.

In his conclusion I think Dupeyrat shows admirable restraint. He does not assert that a man turned himself into a bird, although the evidence stubbornly points in that direction. Since he is not in a position to deny the evidence, he makes some general statements that are consistent both with his world view, and that can accommodate the facts as he understands them. Now consider testing Flew’s precept in the following way. Assume that Dupeyrat is an honest and accurate witness. Assume furthermore that after reading his account you must render one of three possible judgments: 1) Utterly Implausible; 2) Barely Plausible; 3) Quite Plausible. Now, try to evaluate the evidence twice, first from the standpoint of an emotionally neutral agnostic (i.e. you haven’t the slightest emotional preference for either naturalism or supernaturalism), and then as a hardcore metaphysical naturalist (i.e. a reductive materialist). Do the two judgments match?]


I was once more making an expedition with the curé. Now, it was true, I had tried my wings and was allowed to go off alone, but we still made fairly frequent trips together, like two old black toucans which, like the ravens, always fly in pairs. Besides, these shared journeys were a necessity. To live perpetually alone among natives proves in the end as wearisome to mind as to body. One is separated by several thousand miles from any center of culture and civilization, severed from the ideas and events that agitate and change the rest of the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing, even quite the contrary. But the lack of any cultural or intellectual interchange, and the easy way one slips into the laziness and lassitude almost inevitably encountered in primitive countries, mean that the mind grows blunt and rusty. All these factors, in addition to the generally harsh conditions of existence, might well reduce the isolated missionary to the mentality and level of his primitive and wretched charges, whom he is nevertheless expected to educate and guide.

We had reached Mondov’Imakoulata—a charming little mission station situated in the territory of the Mondo tribe, and dedicated to the Immaculate Virgin. It consisted of a single-roomed house, built however with proper planks, and a church built of palm trunks with a roof of glinting corrugated iron. It lay only two hours distant from Fané-les-Roses, in the direction of the great central range. Built on a tiny plateau which overlooked the whole upper valley of the Auga, Mondov’Imakoulata served four villages, of which one quite close by was called Mondo.

That evening, the grave and dignified Josepa, who was catechist for the region, together with two village notables and three old men from Mondo, had arrived to keep us company. The conversation soon grew animated in the comfortable intimacy of our little house. Outside, the night was dark, a thick darkness without moon. Whenever there was a momentary silence one could hear the rumble of mountain torrents, and the wind rustling and rattling through the foliage of the great trees. Meanwhile, as we sat by lantern light, with our guests squatting around us, we talked of a hundred and one items of local gossip. The talk happened to turn to someone who had recently been much in the public eye—a certain Isidoro Ain’u’Ku.

Isidoro was still a young man, a member of the Ilidé tribe who lived near the sources of the Dilava. Extremely intelligent, and full of verve and energy, he had been one of the first to take instruction when Father Norin and Father Bachelier had visited his village for the first time a few years earlier. In a very short time, he had grasped their teachings and had passed his catechumen’s examination brilliantly. Then, after the compulsory period of probation, he had been accepted for baptism.

Before giving him the sacrament, however, the missionary had asked him: “Are you married?” Ain’u’Ku had replied in the negative, and all the villagers had confirmed his assertion.

In actual fact, he had been married, but against his will. For while he was still a child of no more than fifteen months, his parents had chosen an even younger girl child to be his future bride. For a long time, he had thought of her as his sister—a sister whom, besides, he could not bear. Growing older, and realizing the truth, he had refused to accept her as his wife.

Unfortunately, they had already lived together beyond the age of puberty, and he had thus given at least tacit, and in any case, public consent to the union. And even though a pagan one, his marriage was indissoluble. Now that he had become a Christian, he was obliged to take back his legitimate wife, who, for her part, had also been converted.

When he learned of this decision, Ain’u’Ku argued for a time, and ended up by shouted furiously:

“If that is how it is, I shall no longer belong to God—now I shall go and place myself in the devil’s hands! . . .”

He kept his word.

For nearly a year, he disappeared from view. In the mysterious depths of the forest, he went through his novitiate as a sorcerer, guided by some hierophant who taught him the magic rites and formulas, the incantations, and the various ways of killing people. He appeared once more in his own village, thin, gaunt, and sunken-eyed, but with the title and already the reputation of sorcerer. And as he was very subtle, clever, and enterprising, his renown, and the fear it inspired, rapidly spread.

“Father, we tell you this is the truth,” said one of the old men. “Ain’u’Ku has the power to change himself into a cassowary.”

The cassowary is a bird rather like the ostrich. It is strong, stupid, and voracious. One can hear a cassowary coming along the forest tracks from a long way off. As it runs, it beats its side with short wings, producing a sound rather like the chuff-chuff of a railway engine that is still getting up steam. Its huge feet, armed with redoubtable claws, strike thudding echoes even from the spongy and elastic floor of the forest.

We could not help laughing when our other guests earnestly seconded the old man’s story. We had heard all those ancient legends about men who turned into beasts before—for did not Europe as well as Papua have its tales of werewolves and other lycanthropic monsters? Rather indulgently, we set about delivering them from these backward notions. Suddenly, one of them made a sign, and we all fell silent. From far away, we could just hear the sound of a cassowary running.

Now the interesting thing was this: everyone knows that cassowaries do not travel by night. Nor, for that matter, do the Papuans. There are too many dangers lurking on the rough mountain trails as they wind along the precipices, and even worse, there are the spirits of the forest. The notion that someone might be playing a trick on us was thus ruled out. Besides, the practiced ears of our guests, and even our own hearing, could not have deceived us. It was without doubt a cassowary.

“We were talking about Isidoro,” someone murmured in a strangely altered voice. “He must have heard us. He’s coming. . . .”

At this point, it should be mentioned that Isidoro’s village, Ilidé, was beyond the main range of mountains, on the opposite side to its western slopes on which was perched the little mission station of Mondo. Thus, the journey from Ilidé to Mondo, even for a Papuan, entailed a good five hours of steep climbs and almost vertical descents over a series of razor-backed ridges, plunging ravines, and narrow gorges, the whole way lying through dense virgin forest at altitudes varying from three thousand to nearly eight thousand feet.

We shrugged our shoulders. No one could possibly make such a journey by night, unless he took pains to light his way with resinous torches and advanced with great caution—a process which would stretch the traveling time to at least ten hours, instead of five.

Meanwhile, the sound of the cassowary drew rapidly nearer. Soon, we heard clearly the drumming of its massive feet on the clay floor of our small courtyard. Then, abruptly, it ceased. A few seconds later, our door was pushed open and someone entered. It was Isidoro.

“I heard that you were here,” he declared, all smiles. “I have become bad, but you are still my fathers. I have come to see you and to say your name” [i.e., to welcome you]. “Give me a little tobacco to eat”—[that meant, to smoke]—“so that we can talk comfortably together.”

He squatted down before us, shredded up with his nails the hard little wedge of tobacco I had given him, rolled it in a scrap of newspaper, then lit his cigarette with my lighter. We began to talk of one thing and another. Our Mondo friends, gray with fear, said nothing.

Isidoro, who appeared quite fresh and at ease, stayed nearly an hour. We did not, at any point, make any mention of the cassowary. Nor did he.

“I am paying a visit to Mondo,” he said, finally getting up. “I am going back there to sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

We shook hands, and he departed.

Scarcely had the door closed behind him, than we heard once more the thudding of the cassowary’s feet and wings.

I leaped outside. The night was black as ink. I could see nothing, and my shout received no answer. But beneath the black sky with its sparse spangling of winking stars, under the loud rustling of the wakeful forest, could be heard, unmistakable and baleful, the dying thunder of the cassowary’s running feet.

It became imperative to throw some daylight on this mystery. Otherwise, the superstitious beliefs that held our villagers in thrall would only be confirmed and strengthened.

Without waiting further, we set off for the village of Mondo by lantern light: it was no more than five minutes’ walk from the mission station. There, we at once visited the communal hut where travelers are received, and then ruthlessly went into each smaller hut, questioning its inhabitants. We knew our Papuans and they knew us. They knew—and openly admitted—that we were not “Whites just like the others,” to whom one could tell any tall story. I do not need, therefore, to go into details. We were quickly convinced of one thing: not only was Isidoro not at Mondo, but he had not been seen in the village for a long time, nor for that matter in the surrounding district.

We decided therefore to set off at dawn the next day for Ilidé. We arrived there toward noon, panting, perspiring, and exhausted. The first person to greet us, wearing a broad smile was Isidoro.

We were careful not to show the least trace of astonishment. The villagers themselves were certainly surprised by our unexpected visit, but we found some plausible excuse, and in the most casual way possible, pursued our detailed and rather anxious investigation. Even then, we were forced back to the conclusion: Isidoro had remained in the communal hut of the village on the preceding evening, smoking and gossiping, until “two pipes after the hour of the ghélélé”—that is to say, until after seven, for it is at about six-thirty that the mountain cicada salutes with his strident cries the coming of twilight. He had said that he was going back to his own hut to sleep. Others had seen him enter it, but not come out again. Early next morning, he had appeared on the veranda of his hut in the usual way, yawning and stretching. There had, in short, been nothing unusual in his whole behavior.

The bare facts, however, gave rise to much more troubling conclusions. Isidoro had been in his village the previous evening until after seven o’clock. By about nine-thirty that same evening, he had been in our hut at Mondo. Let us recall at this point that it was physically impossible to cover the distance between these two points in less than five hours, above all at night. For the return journey, it is true, the time factor presented less difficulty. Even then, there are limits to human endurance, above all among the Papuans who, for lack of rich and sustaining foods, have little stamina. Even supposing he could have made the journey by night, which in itself was highly improbable, and counting the time he had spent with us, Isidoro would have had to accomplish in about nine hours a return trip which, by day, would normally take at least ten, and by night at least sixteen hours.

It was a complete mystery. However, the next day, while I was alone, Isidoro came to see me. I had grown weary of turning the problem over and over in my mind. Looking him straight in the eyes, I asked him bluntly:

“Where were you, the other evening?”

“With you, at Mondo. You know that. You gave me some tobacco. We talked. We talked about different things. We shook hands.”

“Yes, but you deceived me. You said you were going to sleep at Mondo. No one saw you in the village.”

“Oh! . . . That was just an av’ur’elafé [a manner of speaking].”

“Yet the people here say that you were with them, in this village, until quite late that same evening, and early the next day again.”

“Yes—there they speak the word of truth—av’akai

“In that case, perhaps you flew like the birds to come and see us?”

His face darkened and his eyes grew fierce. His mouth twisted into a grimace of smiling hatred that I had never seen before, as he said jeeringly:

“You, a priest, have powers to do extraordinary things. I wanted to show you that I, too, have such powers.”

And abruptly, he departed.

It has been said that in those countries which, in our atomic day and age, are still sunk in the Old Stone Age, the mysterious forces which we vaguely sense but can never grasp in tangible forms are much more active, and hence more easily perceptible, than elsewhere. The case of Isidoro seems to confirm such an opinion. During the twenty odd years that I lived in the thick jungle of the Papuan mountains or beneath the burning tropic sun of its hostile shores, I more than once witnessed incidents, which, to say the least, as in the case of the cassowary, gave food for much reflection. I hasten to add that even in “civilized” countries, one finds—only here in a more pondered form—the same intense uneasiness in face of that “beyond” which acts in, upon, and around us, and oppresses us because our reason is powerless to apprehend it. But can reason ever succeed in doing so? Between knowledge and faith, there will doubtless always be that shadowy margin which, on the one hand, may certainly make us doubt the validity of our rational processes, but which on the other, may also bring us powerful reassurance as we cling to true faith.

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