My friend, Kaifas, had a solemn expression as he told me the few things one-eyed Wetiyaf said just before he died. ‘“I can’t see where I’m going,” Wetiyaf said during the night. “The trail is dark. I’m afraid of His court.”’ Kaifas paused from telling me what he had heard when he arrived to Wetifyaf’s village for the funeral. He turned his face away. I knew Wetiyaf’s death hit him hard. I had just returned to Hewa after spending three weeks away, and I also was struggling with what had happened in the village while I was gone.
Kaifas continued. “As he was dying, he called for his niece, Kogwam. He wanted her to help him see the trail that would help him avoid God’s judgment, but by then his thoughts were clouded and it was too late.”
Traditionally, the last words of a dying Hewa tribal person are scrutinized to determine which spirit was guilty of causing the death. I have often despised the long post-burial conversations that hashed and re-hashed the last words of the loved one, because they were often twisted and turned so they could be used to blame a woman or her children of being possessed by the spirit that supposedly caused the death. Sometimes I was shocked at how the last words morphed and became exaggerated as they were repeated from one person to another, or appalled because I knew some of the stories were outright lies in order to promote the agendas of the remaining relatives. I had heard stories that sometimes the relatives of a recently deceased person would pound on the dead person’s chest, or pull his hair, or roll his head back and forth, hoping for some sound they could use to feel justified in placing blame for the death on an innocent woman or child.
Now, as I listened to Kaifas telling the story of Wetiyaf’s last words, I was deeply saddened at his lost condition at his death, but also relieved to hear the villagers were not able to use his words as a way to place blame on someone else. The hard part to reconcile in my mind, though, was how over the years, Wetiyaf had made the two-day hike to the village I lived in, several times asking for a missionary to come live in his village. I had passed on his request when I visited churches in the States, but then later had to explain to Wetiyaf that no one was coming. I told him he needed to move from his village to live with us in order to study God’s Word, but he never did, stating our dialect was very different. The Hewa believers invited him to attend our Creation through Christ presentations, but he held out, hoping someone would come live with him and explain it to him in his own dialect. He waited too long, and now it was too late.
Please pray the Lord will raise up more workers for the harvest here in PNG, and also to the other unreached places of the world.
Wetiyaf was on a hike when it hit. At first the pain was in his groin and he dropped to his knees, sweat dripping from his forehead. His greying hair betrayed his years but it wasn’t his age that made him stop on the middle of the rugged trail that paralleled the raging river. He had experienced the same symptoms before, but at that time the young men had been able to carry him on a bark stretcher to the missionary medical clinic, and he was pleased by a quick recovery. He was not expecting a second attack. Sure, Susan had warned him, telling him he had better arrange a flight to town to have a doctor look into his condition, but the antibiotics had cured the sickness, or so he had thought. Now he wrenched in pain, struggling not to fall over on the boulders under the vine draped trees at the river’s edge.
The men who were hiking in the canyon with Wetiyaf stopped and stood over him. “Are you okay?”
Wetiyaf only groaned. One of the men crouched down to look in his face, fear showing in his wide-eyed expression. He then looked around, his eyes darting to the deep shadows of the thick underbrush at the base of the trees, half expecting to see the evil spirit that was attacking.
Then Wetiyaf dropped to his side, pulling his knees up into a fettle position. His one good eye wide, his brow creased and his mouth dropped open. “I can’t,” he gasped. “I can’t go on.”
The men looked at each other, then down the trail where the raft was waiting for them. They had been panning for gold on the river’s edge for a week, and were anxious to get on the log raft they had built to float down toward their village. The raft was just down around the next corner, waiting on the edge of a sand bar. Wetiyaf was taking short and staggered breaths that sent chills down their spines. They had seen this happen to others, and they knew it would likely not end well. “Come a little further and you can float down the river with us.”
“Home,” he managed. “I have to get home.”
“But you can’t make it up the mountain in your condition. And besides, your niece and the others left over an hour ago. You can’t make it up the steep slope by yourself.”
Wetiyaf groaned, and then forced another word. “Home.”
The men looked at each other, and then a few of them stepped up the bank and whispered among themselves. Only a few minutes later, one headed down the trail with a couple more following. Then the others also left the man where he was laying on the jungle floor.
Wetiyaf lay for a while, and then as the pain subsided he was able to straighten his legs. His back and shoulder were aching from the uneven stones, and soon he pushed himself up to sit. He looked around, hoping to see someone had stayed to help. The roaring water drowned out all noises and would have made it impossible for anyone to hear if he called for help. He searched from where he sat until he found a stick that would work as a cane. He used it to get himself to his feet, and then slowly turned to follow the trail back up past the tiny hut they had built when preparing to pan for gold. Only God knows how he managed to keep going up the steep mountainside and eventually reach his village just before nightfall.
Wetiyaf’s niece, Kogwam, and the others had arrived much earlier. They had already dug sweet potatoes from the garden for supper and were baking them under the coals of a fire. That was when one of them heard the muffled sound of someone yelling. One of the boys ran outside and saw the beaten man struggling up the last incline to where the palm leaf roofed hut stood. It’s Wetiyaf,” the boy yelled. “Something’s wrong!”
Kogwam and the others rushed out the low doorway into the fading light, and she gasped when she saw him collapse on the dirt clearing outside the front door. She screamed and dropped to his side. “What’s wrong? What happened?” She scanned his tattered shirt and loin cloth, looking for blood or signs of a fight.
“It’s . . .” he couldn’t manage an answer.
“Here, quick, lets drag him in the house before the spirits finish him off,” said Jek, tugging on one arm in an effort to pick him up. “Quick, get his other arm and legs.”
The men hoisted him up and rushed him through the doorway where they laid him near the fire. “Quick, fan the fire back to life. We’ve got to scare the spirits away.”
As soon as the fire was blazing, the men turned their attention back to the old man. “What happened?”
“Pain,” he said. “Really hurts.”
They surrounded his body and bent over, watching as his hand motioned over his groin and up his stomach to his chest. “From my legs up to my heart, it all hurts.”
Everyone sat helpless, not being able to do anything for him. “It’s that woman,” someone said.
All eyes turned to where the young man, Umboi, sat. “No, don’t say that,” answered Inok. “None of that.”
“But you know better. I told you to get her out of here as soon as possible, but you were slow to make her go.”
“No! Inok yelled. “We sent her away as soon as we could.”
The house fell silent, but then Jek turned to his peer. “Wetiyaf, speak up. Who is eating you?”
“No, no,” he groaned. “It’s not a spirit.”
“You need to tell us,” Jek insisted. “We can’t allow someone to get away with this.”
Kogwam, scared by the conversation, dug the sweet potatoes from the ashes under the fire and passed them out. She set one on the stones that outlined the fire pit in case Wetiyaf might be able to eat later that night. The villagers ate their supper in silence, only mumbling one thing or another, never taking their eyes off Wetiyaf for long. Eventually one after the other lay down on the floor, drifting off to a restless sleep, interrupted by Wetiyaf’s groans.
Then, long after the fire had retreated into the coals, Kogwam woke to his voice. “It’s dark,” he said.
Kogwam quickly sat up, reaching to push the smoldering embers together with a set of split palm tongs. She stood to take wood from the drying rack and then blew on the coals. Soon a little flame was dancing up around the new wood, eager to grow. Kogwam hoped the fire would diminish Wetiyaf’s fear of the spirits. Then she heard his voice again.
“The trail is dark. I can’t see where to go,” he said.
Kogwam looked to see her uncle’s good eye wide open, starring into the flames.
“I don’t know what is waiting for me.”
“Can’t you see the fire?” she asked.
“I can’t see the trail.” His voice was odd. Distant. As if in a dream. His good eye sightless. Then he called again. This time louder. “Kogwam. Kogwam,” he called. “Tell me where to go.
“I’m right here. I lit the fire for you. You’re right here in the house. Not on a trail.”
Without answering, Wetiyaf’s head dropped back to the slatted floor, his eyes closed as he drifted from consciousness.
Kogwam sat in fear. She wished her uncle had listened to God’s words earlier, before his mind was gone. She knew it was too late.
In the morning the villagers woke, but Wetiyaf didn’t move from where he lay on the floor. He drifted in and out of consciousness, but was not coherent enough to speak. He only groaned as the pain grew more intense.
Later in the evening the men surrounded Wetiyaf again, fear on each face. “We should kill a pig,” said Jek. We have to satisfy the good spirits to get their help.
“No!” Inok said. “They are only trying to trick us so we will be even further from God.”
“But, he’s going to die.”
Inok sat silent. He also hadn’t moved from his village to the village where the missionaries taught, and only knew small parts of the Bible stories. For the first time in his life he felt desperate to find out more about God. Maybe the others were thinking the same thing as no one went to search for a pig to offer to the spirits.
Later, during the night, Kogwam was woken again by her uncle’s voice.
“He’s going to be angry.”
She sat up and rekindled the fire, looking around to see who might be mad.
“I’m afraid of my day in His court. Show me the trail.”
Kogwam could see he had not opened his eyes. Is he dreaming?
Those were his last words. He stopped breathing on Tuesday, and the villagers surrounded his lifeless body and cried. They sobbed and then wailed, Kogwam screaming his name. They sent runners to the nearby villages to inform people of his death, and continued to wail all through the night. Then, the next day they buried his body.
As I listened to different ones tell me Wetiyaf’s story, my heart broke for him and others like him who have asked for someone to come learn their language so they can be taught in their own village. Please join me in asking the Lord of the harvest to raise up many new workers who will answer the call to take the message of the cross to the places where it has not yet been.
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