by Mike Sweeney from The Storyboard – Spring 2005
I was off in the bush with my buddy Camilus, gazing at a big Tong tree, discussing at length which direction the tree, which was begging to be converted into my new floor, would fall once I applied my chainsaw to it. It so happened that we had a perfect record for the day. Every tree we attacked decided to get even by falling in the direction opposite to what we had intended, thereby trapping my chainsaw and forcing Camilus to free it with his axe. His patience with me was wearing thin, and it was becoming more difficult for him to cover it up. His main goal was to keep me from getting lost in the jungle and do everything possible to prevent me from ending up beneath one of my felled victims. He was fast getting to the point of deciding it would be easier to let nature take its course and just arrange for Linda to get a new husband.
As I knelt down to gain a clearer perspective of the landscape, I felt a sharp, burning sensation in my right elbow. “Yeow!” I cried in Mum (which in English means “Yeow!”). Jumping up, I worked myself into a series of contortions trying to view the damage to the back of my arm.
“What got me?” I bellowed, pulling my neck out of joint trying to see my elbow over my right shoulder.
“Salat,” Camilus smirked.
“What’s salat?” I roared, futilely twisting my arm around for a better view.
“That bush over there,” he sniggered.
Forcing my attention away from my inflamed appendage, I looked where he was pointing (with his chin) and saw nothing but dense green foliage. I remembered back to my days in Pacific Orientation Course, when the director said something about a plant that made poison ivy feel like skin balm.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The one that cooked your arm,” he replied. He seemed to be enjoying himself far more than the situation called for.
“They all look the same to me,” I said.
Camilus did the Mum equivalent of looking to the heavens. “Mike, salat is very dangerous. You can really mess yourself up with it. You need to be careful not ever to touch it.”
As the burning sensation in my arm began to spread, I pondered what possible strategies I could employ to help me avoid something that I couldn’t recognize.
“Well, Camilus, if you tell me what it looks like, I’ll do my best to steer clear of it!”
“Well, yes, Mike, it’s like this. There are several different kinds of salat, and they all look different.”
“Okay, so tell me about them all!” I stammered, running around in little circles.
Puckering his lips and assuming an exaggerated pose he began teaching. “Well, some have little leaves, and some have big.”
“Right,” I said, “Big or little leaves.”
“And some are dark green and some are light,”
“Check? Dark or light.”
“And some are on vines and some on bushes.”
“Got it,” I said, thinking that he had pretty well covered everything in plain view already.
“And if you look closely, most of them have this fine fur on the leaves.”
“OK, furry leaves.”
“But you usually can’t see that until it’s too late.”
“Thanks for the warning,” I said.
“But the best way for you to avoid salat at all times is …”
“Stay out of the jungle.”
So saying, Camilus picked up his axe and started back to the village.
And that, dear Reader, is why I now spend my days on this computer.
Mike was a Bible translator for the Mum language group. He also served as PBT’s Assistant Director of Language Affairs. He and his wife Linda lived in the village of Katiati. Their two boys, Christopher and Ryan went to school at the Ukarumpa International High School.