Lafai Turtle and the Shark

Lafai Turtle and the Shark

[Note: Your Editors originally acknowledged that the story of “The Turtle and the Shark” has more than one version; while the lovers are the more prominent version, in another, less prominent account of the events off the coast of the beautiful beach at Vaitogi, (now) American Samoa, a mother and her child, suffering from starvation, sacrifice themselves but achieve immortality in their newer incarnation as sea creatures. We are now especially pleased that Estlin Miller has given us these re-tellings of the two most prominent versions to augment the original versions published in 1980.

Estlin’s re-telling follows here, while the original Lafai rendition follows. Estlin writes:

The Turtle and the Shark

Note before reading…

As is the case with oral storytelling, narratives can take their own shape depending on the orator and the listener. Over time a myth may take on different details in order to accommodate the context of location, time period, social status, economic status, etc. While these details may vary in importance to the story, they remain observant of the myth’s intended message(s) and ending, such that the core of the story remains faithful to itself.

The central figures of this story vary from source to source; two young lovers and mother and daughter being the pairs most often presented. There are variations in age (sometimes the mother is young, other times old) and specific details that will be omitted or molded depending on who tells the story. For the sake of capturing this myth as wholly as possible, I’ve kept the creative details that seem most consistent across each variation.

The Lovers:

In the village of Mulifanua, there was a great chief who had a daughter. He was fiercely protective of her, as she was his only child. In her childhood, the girl made quick friends with a boy in the village, and they quickly became inseparable. They did everything together: playing in the lagoon, fishing, even bathing. This was fine, of course, until they grew older. It was clear to the other villagers, if not yet to them, that their friendship was blossoming into something deeper, and the chief became concerned. His daughter was of high standing while the boy was not, and as they came of age the chief made it clear that his daughter would not be allowed to marry the boy no matter how great their love.

To prove his seriousness on the matter, he made plans to marry her to the son of another powerful chief who lived on a nearby island. Not only would this put an end to the foolish dreams of his child, but it would also create a powerful alliance between the two villages. He was pleased with his plan, and told her as soon as the preparations began. His daughter, however, was heartbroken upon learning the news. She knew her duty as the daughter of the chief, but she also knew her heart, and knew she could not live a life without her lover and closest friend.

That night, she waited until her family was asleep to sneak out of her fale’ (house or dwelling) and find the boy. He was asleep outside, so she woke him gently. Together they went quietly to a clearing by a waterfall, where the girl began to cry as she told the boy of her father’s plan. He listened, and soon began to cry, too, when he realized what the chief’s plans meant. If she married another man, life would have nothing to offer him anymore. For a moment, they sat hugging each other. When their crying quieted, the boy pulled back and looked at the girl.

He said, “I might have a plan.”

“What is it?” The girl asked. She decided then and there that she could not marry anyone else, though it broke her heart anew to think of her father and how furious he would be.

“I’ve known for some time what the village thinks of us,” he said, “That they disapprove of us being more than friends, just like your father. So I hid a fishing canoe where no one would find it.”

“No one asked about it?” The girl wiped her tears from her cheeks as hope filled her chest.

“I told my family that I’d been fishing out beyond the lagoon when a strong wave tossed me out and smashed the canoe against the reef. They were beyond angry, but I’d gladly endure the punishment over again, for now we have a way out!”

“So that is why you’re not allowed to fish anymore?” The girl asked.

“Yes,” the boy said. “But it will be worth it when we are together, far from this village.” He looked into her eyes, finding reservation lingering in them. He waited, afraid to push her. He knew the battle between her heart and her mind was fierce, and he didn’t want to kindle hope if it would only shrivel and die.

“Will we be safe from my father?” She asked at last.

“I know of an island far from here. It will take a day or two to reach it, but we will be safe there,” he said. Then after a moment he added, “I understand if you cannot come with me, but I must go no matter what. You are my life, and without you there is nothing.”

“Then I will go, too. As I am your life, you are mine. We are one,” she said.

The boy felt his heart fill with love, and they shared a kiss before he became serious again.

“We must leave tonight, while there is still time. I’ve seen the villagers preparing your father’s largest voyaging canoe, and we may not have another day before you will be taken,” the boy said.

The canoe had been stocked well with taro, coconuts, and other necessary goods. No one, not even the elders, knew how soon the voyage would take place. “Where is your canoe, then?” She asked, and so he led her hand in hand to the cove where he’d hidden it. He had also hidden his fishing net, a fishing line, and his carved hooks, along with a small coco mat. Just before they left, the girl grabbed a bunch of bananas while the boy husked a few coconuts he knocked from a tree. Then, with their supplies and food ready, the lovers climbed in the canoe and the boy paddled them out into the lagoon. The sound of the waves crashing against the reef greeted them as he paddled out. He knew the reef well, and reassured his lover that they would make it out safely. Navigating with the stars and relying on his own skill, the boy paddled the canoe safely out of the reef and into open water, where he then located the current that would carry them to the new island. As the first meager rays of light dawned over the boy, the girl felt at ease with her decision. She knew she would follow him anywhere in the world if it meant they could stay together. Exhausted from the day before, the girl draped the coco mat over herself and fell asleep.
The boy checked his course and kept paddling, and since the canoe had no sails, he would have to do the work himself. If he kept a strong, steady pace, he felt sure that they could make it to the new island by the next day. He daydreamed of the new life he and the girl could have on this island, and only took a few short breaks to drink coconut water and eat. The girl, not wanting to distract him with talk, instead sang to him as they sailed into the night, keeping in her mind and her heart the songs of their elders.

As the moon rose, the boy saw what he hoped were clouds in the distance. This was a good sign, since clouds usually gathered around the mountaintops of islands. He pointed this out to his lover excitedly, showing her how close they were to their new life. They embraced each other warmly, and the boy shared his dreams for their new life as she shared her own. With the stars high in the sky, the boy once again checked that they were on course, and went back to paddling. Not wanting to distract him now that they were so close, the girl once again fell asleep under the coco mat. As the boy held course, he felt the air around him and the ocean beneath him begin to change. The wind grew stronger and more erratic, and clouds gathered to block out the stars.

Just as rain began to fall, the boy changed course and woke the girl from under the mat. Without needing to tell her, she began to bail rainwater from the canoe using a coconut shell, working as he paddled to keep them on their new course. As the storm grew stronger, the boy heard the sounds of waves breaking and hoped it meant that they’d reached a reef. He put down the paddle and helped the girl bail water. Without warning a huge wave came and flipped the canoe, tossing the lovers out as well. They quickly found each other and began to swim as hard as they could in the direction of the breaking waves. The boy had been right; there was an outer reef against which the waves were crashing. Once they found a break, the two were aided by a large wave that washed them into a lagoon, and from there they swam a short distance to a small beach. After checking each other for injuries, they only had minor cuts and scrapes. They hugged each other, deeply relieved to be safe, and fell asleep like that on the sand.

In the morning, two young children discovered them on the beach and woke them up. The lovers followed the children to their village, which rested atop the high cliffs. They were taken to the village’s chief, who greeted them and welcomed them to the village of Vaitogi. They were given food and water, and asked only for their story in exchange. As the lovers told of their journey, the chief was touched by their love and commitment to each other. He told them they were welcome to stay and call Vaitogi their home.

The couple were beyond grateful, and as such they contributed to the village in every way they knew. Their happiness with each other meant that their daily chores were filled with joy, and the village was happy in return. However, this happiness could not last.
One morning a young villager came running up the path, shouting, “A great voyaging canoe is coming!” The couple heard this news and their hearts sank. They had suspected this day would come, and had discussed it many times. They had known it was only a matter of time before her father began to search for her.

Vaitogi’s chief stepped out of his fale’ and called to the elders and his warriors to prepare the village for war. The couple walked with the chief to one of the high cliffs that looked out over the small beach where they’d been found. Indeed, approaching the island was her father’s great voyaging canoe.

“You two are part of our family, and we will not let you be taken,” the chief said to the couple. They felt immensely grateful, but they knew in their hearts that they could not let the kindness of Vaitogi and its people be returned with war. The boy took the girl’s hand and turned to the chief.

“We are forever grateful to you and the people of your village,” he said. “But we cannot let your people pay for our love with their lives!”

The couple stepped back and toppled over the cliff’s edge, plummeting down to the water below. It was then that something strange happened. Though such a jump should have meant death, it is believed that a generous god had seen and admired their love so much that they turned the boy into a shark and the girl into a turtle, in order that the lovers might swim with each other forever. It is said that when the people of Vaitogi sing the song of “Fonuea” from the cliffs, a turtle and a shark can be seen swimming near the beach.

Mother and Daughter – Two versions

A mother and daughter lived in the village of Vaitogi. They were incredibly hard working and contributed much of their lives to the wellbeing of the village. They were enthusiastic about daily tasks, generous and quick to share, and they were also known to be kind to everyone. They often could be found volunteering at the church. One night, with seemingly no cause, the village caught fire. The path down from the cliffs to the beach was blocked by burning plants and fale’. As everything burned around them, the mother realized there seemed to be no way out but to jump from the cliffs and hope for a safe landing. Without a moment left to consider, the mother and daughter grasped each other’s hand and leapt from the cliff.

Instead of meeting death when they hit the water below, the mother and daughter were transformed into a turtle and a shark. It is believed that they were rewarded for their good deeds and their unshakeable faith in God, who transformed them so that they could swim together in peace in the waters of Vaitogi.

Interestingly, one marker of a Vaitogi tribal tattoo is to have a shark and/or turtle embedded in it. This version also says that singing a song at the cliff’s edge will allow the singer to see a shark and turtle swimming together.

In the village of Sealega, Savai’i (Western Samoa) there lived an old blind woman named Fonueau and her only child, a girl named Salofa. It is unclear whether or not her child is also blind, but I suspect she is meant to be. They lived together peacefully, until one year a famine struck their village and the surrounding land. Because she was blind, Fonueau wasn’t able to find food for herself and Salofa. To her despair, her family cast them out, seeing them as burdens to the rest of the village.

After several days spent in pain from hunger, Fonueau and Salofa smelled the delicious aroma of yams baking in the village’s ground ovens. They waited for food to be brought by the villagers, thinking that since there was food they could rejoin the family, but when no one came they were confused and deeply hurt. Fonueau knew that they were being forgotten and disregarded by the villagers, and she didn’t want herself or her child to die a slow death of starvation. After thinking about their situation, she decided the only option would be to take Salofa and leap from the cliffs. She hoped that the sea would be kinder, more forgiving, than her family had been.

To her surprise, when they hit the water their bodies transformed. One became a turtle and the other a shark. With their new forms, Fonueau and Salofa swam away from their village, glad to be leaving a place where they were disregarded and unloved. They swam to several villages and were rejected by each, until they arrived on the shores of Vaitogi. They resumed their human forms and went to meet the villagers there, who were said to be compassionate and generous. Indeed, Chief Letuli and his people welcomed them immediately with food and clothing, both of which Fonueau and Salofa were thankful for. Chief Letuli also welcomed them to stay and make Vaitogi their home, which Fonueau and Salofa did for a brief time. But no matter how hospitable and generous the people of Vaitogi were, both women felt the pull of the ocean, and knew that it was calling them to return.

Heeding this, Fonueau and Salofa told the villagers how grateful they were for their kindness and generosity, but that they had to return to the sea. In return, however, Fonueau promised to make the village waters their permanent home. She taught them a song which the villagers could sing from the rocky cliffs, and promised that when they sang it she and her child would come visit. With that, they returned to the ocean as turtle and shark, and could be seen swimming together when their song was sung.

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The Turtle and the Shark

The Lafai version proceeds as follows:

Long, long ago, when the cannibal king Malietoafaiga at Malie had established his sway over Western Samoa, there lived on the south coast of Savaii a young couple. The name of the woman was Fonuea; that of the man has been forgotten. Fate would have it that the young man was designated by lot to become the next victim of ‘Faiga’s cannibalistic appetite. As he was newly married, he felt very miserable, indeed. He managed to conceal his feelings, for a greater evil would have come upon him had he dared to escape his fate, thereby endangering the safety of his whole village, since, if he ran away, his whole village would be punished.

However, when he was alone with his beloved young wife, they earnestly plotted together to find a way out of the impending calamity. Their mutual love must have been great, for they decided to brave the terrors of the deep and to escape from Savaii to Tutuila.

When the day came to leave family and friends, they both set out, gaily dressed, in their paopao (boat) to present themselves to Malietoa – at least so it seemed from the direction pursued by their boat. As soon, however, as they were out of sight, to the east they turned and thanks to favourable winds and weather they reached Tutuila safely. Here they lived for many months with the high chief Letuli of Tualauta, whose kindness never wavered. The thought, however, of being forever unable to repay Letuli’s hospitality, cast a shadow over their young lives. Apply to their respective families they could not, for so far their whereabouts had not been discovered, and the common belief was that both had been drowned while paddling to Upolu. Moreover, they feared that sooner or later the secret of their disappearance would be revealed and bring misfortune on their benefactor Letuli and his family. For these reasons they resolved to make an end of their lives by jumping into the deep sea. This resolution became more and more fixed in their minds.

So, one day they went to the ironbound coast just beyond Vaitogi and, after having implored their family gods to bless Letuli for all he had done for them, they threw themselves from a high projecting cliff into the foaming sea. But lo! a merciful god had pity on them and accepting the offer of their lives but in part, he changed the woman, Fonuea, into a turtle and her husband into a shark.

In later years it was observed that whenever the name of Letuli was mentioned within their hearing, both turtle and shark would approach the coast, raising their heads out of the water as if to thank Letuli for his past kindness to them. The Vaitogi people later on composed a song referring to this incident. Whenever the village children now sing this song, the turtle and shark approach the coast, show themselves and then return to the deep.

The Children’s Song

Fonuea, Fonuea, hie your pace, (hie means to slow down in Scottish)
That we may see your kindly face ,”

“Is then Letuli there above?;
“Yes, here Letuli stands, my love”;.
Then rain may fall or sun may burm ,
We’ll both come up and then return.
Ye breakers, let us now go there, For
always he has been so fair.
“Oh, how pretty, pretty, pretty.”