It’s near dusk, hot and windless, and I’ve just surfed an excellent but hazardous reef in front of a small thatched hut. Two hours earlier, by boat, I’d been deposited here by my host from the neighboring atoll, and he’s due back at dark. After stepping onto the beach, there’s a man waving his arms for me to go over to the hut; I walk over to say hello and perhaps chew a little betel nut before my host returns.
“You look good fo’ eat.”
The man smiles creepily, exposing red teeth. He says his name is Kito. He’s a dead-ringer for comedian Dave Chappelle, with a lower, huskier voice. We’re sitting on the cool sand beneath some palm trees in front of his hut, a few yards away from a disturbing (to me, anyway) pile of human skulls.
You see, Kito’s father loved people — enough to kill and eat them. He was a classic Malaita Province cannibal and those skulls were his prized possessions.
“Me fadda kill wid big knife.” Kito swipes a index finger across his neck. “He cut here. He headhunta. He want you head, so he kill you. Den he eat.”
Apparently, if Kito’s dad was alive, he would have killed me instantly. All flesh would have been scraped from my head, and my skull would have been set at his little shrine for worship, clustered with the island chief’s personal collection.
Back in the day, the acquisition of human heads afforded islanders considerable prestige, and in gaining the victims’ souls, the physical and spiritual welfare of the hunters’ tribe was guaranteed — to possess a skull collection was to enhance one’s place in the spirit world.
For centuries, the Solomon Islands were considered to be the most dangerous place on Earth. Malaria, saltwater crocodiles, cannibalism, and fearsome nude headhunters were enough to deter most travelers. Head-hunting was indeed heady: big wooden canoes carrying 40 men were dispatched, and, upon return, brandishing fresh, blood-dripping heads, the hunters were received ceremonially, the heads revered.
The way Kito looks at me with his blazingly bloodshot eyes leads me to think that perhaps his dad’s cannibalistic genes have been passed down. Or maybe he’s just very stoned off betel nut.
He has a sharp machete, which he uses to hack open a coconut. He does this with force and precision, almost angrily so, like he’s releasing pent-up energy. His face hardens, his brow tightens, and the veins in his neck start to swell.
“Me fadda cut here, like dis”—whack—“gettin’ himself bloody. Man taste good.”
Man taste good. Okay. Interesting!
He hands the coconut to me. “Fo’ you, Meestah Michael.”
I take a drink from the coconut but can’t really enjoy it as Kito reaches over and slowly runs his dirty finger over my Adam’s apple. “He cut here, Meestah Michael. You know? Fo’ da head. He no eat head, but you body good food. Leg ‘specially.”
His other hand clutches the machete, its long wet blade glistening with coconut juice.
“Really?” I ask sarcastically. Clearly this guy is out of his mind. “Yeah, I guess that’s the best place to cut a guy’s head off. Say, you got any betel nut?”
“He put you head ova dere, with da skulls. Den he take you body and cut it in pieces. Den he cook you ova dere.” He points at his firepit. “Me neva cook a man dere.”
“Oh, that’s awesome. No need to do that, eh? Haha, I mean, nobody eats people anymore, right?”
“Yiss. I know dem. But dey not do much now. Dey go to jail if man get killed in da village. Or maybe not, if no one know about da kill. No one know if I kill.”
I chuckle. It’s getting dark. Kito’s mouth hangs open and he drools slightly. He still grips the big knife. He looks hungry and daring and suspicious and wild. He’s the only person who lives on this islet, and suddenly it occurs to me that it’s just a bit weird the lone resident has a pile of human skulls in his front yard. Is that really Daddy’s collection?
“No one know if I kill,” Kito repeats softly.
Four seconds later, my host’s skiff skims around the islet’s corner and veers up onto the sand in front of Kito’s hut.
“Great! Well, hopefully that all works out for you, Kito.”
He smiles sheepishly, waves at my host, then whips out a cell phone as we motor away.