In the late 1970s, I was working as a freelance photographer and had a stint for many years touring the Pacific islands. I was working on an ill-fated photo journal of how the islands had changed since modern civilization had set on their shores. I met a lot of unforgettable characters in my travels, but nothing would compare to the feisty Queen of Pearl Island, known by some as "Pip."
Pearl Island is not on most maps, nor it is included as part of French Polynesia or any other surrounding waters. It's a small island, off the better traveled currents, with a lazy lifestyle not uncommon to such places. Most of the people there are still living off the land, but there is a place for visitors to gather known only as "the pub," or "Monkey Pub" because of a stuffed monkey near the front door. Here one could find some of the most illegal hooch and engage in barter and trade away from prying eyes of the law.
Of course, such a place would seem to be a haven for drug runners, and many have tried to take over this island and her sparse population. But the legendary island queen keeps the peace. There have been many tales of her tight rule and her amazing strength and fierce warrior nature. I had already heard a few stories about an older woman with amazing strength, red hair striped with parrot feathers, and Maori tattoos. But until I landed my sloop in the harbor of Pearl Island in the summer of 1977, I had assumed many of them were tales exaggerated at her expense.
My first encounter was shortly after my sailboat docked in the peaceful harbor. The jagged cliffs were accented with white beaches and flora so green, it seemed almost unreal. The island is a mismatched combination of vertical heights and flat spaces that is unlike any other island I have ever seen. Its history was murky, but there was an apparent pearl trade after World War II which gave the island its name. The only civilized feature standing amid the stilted huts was the famous pub. I must admit, I was a little surprised at the pub, and when I say civilized, I am giving that adjective a broad interpretation. It was a strange European style cottage with red sides and small white windows. The roof had a steep slope, and was bedecked with all manner of driftwood, boat parts, shells, and assorted flotsam in what seemed like a strange college art project. It sat on its own dock higher than the rest of the grass huts, with an extension that jutted out into the bay before it abruptly ended in a ragged broken edge.
I got in my small dingy and rowed up among the other longboats on the shore. Up a ladder made from bamboo, I climbed up to the main entrance and entered a dark world of nautical history. The front door had a stuffed monkey wearing pants and suspenders. He was holding out a horseshoe like he was offering it to anyone who comes through the door. A small bronze plaque underneath only said, "Hr. Nelson" in child-like chicken scratch etched into the discolored metal.
The place inside was filled with unmatched tables and chairs, and almost every square inch of the wall was covered with assorted novelties and art from around the world. There were maps, charts, pictures, knick-kacks, and parts from various ships. I was told that the place was made entirely by hand by the queen, who used lumber from a ship called, "Hoppetossa." The only relic of this ship is a large piece of lumber with that name that lies faded and almost hidden behind the bar, lurking among dirty liquor bottles.
I looked around in the dim light provided by only three small windows and a few portholes. I approached the barkeep, an older man who introduced himself as "Tom." Tom was short, fat, balding, and had meaty hands like sledgehammers. I was a little surprised he was Caucasian, and in any other place he might had fit into a Elk's Lodge meeting in Minnesota. I introduced myself, and told him what I was doing there.
"You'll want to clear it with Pip," he said. "She's the ruler around here. No one wanders the island without Pip's approval."
"Pip Pip!" some sailors cheered in a corner, upon hearing her name.
"Pip Pip... HOORAY!!" some other sailors said.
"I WILL NOT HEAR FROM YOU AGAIN!!" Tom warned, holding out a jagged kitchen knife. The pub fell silent.
I ordered a drink, something with gin, I think. It was sour and nasty. I asked Tom if I could engage in trade, as I was used to getting fresh supplies in exchange for tee-shirts, pens, and tools.
"Truth be told, we got everything we need. Right here." Tom said, plunking down a thick finger on the split wood that made the bar. "Food, water, shelter, and currency. We need nothing more."
"Do I need to pay harbor fees?" I asked.
"No. But I'll tell you, if you have no business here, you leave. Right away. Got that?"
I nodded. I had dealt with his kind before. Often they had little patience, which was good because it meant incessant bartering options could get them to mellow out a little as long as you kept both hands in plain sight and didn't try to trick them.
"I'll take what you have to TRADE!" said one of the sailors, putting his arm around me to steady himself. He reeked of gasoline, cheap vodka, and body odor.
Tom was not amused. "You best sit down before--"
"Before WHAT??" the man asked, pushing me aside.
The pub was quiet before, but now if felt like it got even quieter. I had barely been on land for ten minutes, and already it looked like I was going to be in a fight. Not that I couldn't handle myself, but a few days prior, I had injured my shoulder in a rigging mishap and didn't wish to strain it further.
"Let me buy you a drink," I offered.
The man acted like I hadn't said a word. He focused on Tom as best as his weaving stance could manage. "Before Pip comes and protects you? Nobody ain't seen her in months. You sure she's still alive?"
Tom looked nervous. "Sit down before I gut you like a fish. I told you boys one drink and leave, and you have outstayed your welcome."
"I think..." said the man, turning to his mates at a table which has just stood up, "... I think we need to teach old Tom here a lesson in hospitality." The entire table's worth of sailors moved forward. Sailors at other tables exchanged glances, but did not move.
"Leave," Tom said. "Now." There was a clicking noise that was the definitive sound of a gun being cocked. But Tom was not holding a gun.
After a dramatic pause, the drunken sailor looked around with a raised eyebrow. At first, he backed off, nodding, but then suddenly pulled out a machine gun handed to him by one of his mates. Without any further things to add, he started firing into the bar. The violence was so sudden, I barely had time to duck. Tom moved quicker than anyone that fat should be able to. Liquor bottles shattered and splinters of wood flew around like bees. And as suddenly as it had started, the shooting stopped. The mixture of liquor, fresh sawdust, and gun powder stung my nostrils.
"So... Tom," said the man. "How about you go down to the cellar and bring us some new liquor...?"
Tom nodded. But as he got up, a voice pierced the air.
"How the HELL is making that AWFUL racket?" It was a voice that sounded like an older woman scorned. And that is when I first met who I assumed could only be Pip.
Physically, she's not that imposing. A older woman, a little on the skinny side, she wore only a mu-mu and a pair of mismatched sandals. Her red hair was French braided back, mixing with gray and some colors that looked a little like child's finger-paint. The right side of her face was decorated with Maori tattoos, but the left side was scarred with a sun-wrinkled smile and freckles that was both evil and wicked with a childlike moxy.
Everyone else but the sailors who stood showed signs of fear. Many went under their tables and tilted them like shields. I stayed on the floor near the bar.
Pip looked around, and eyed the damage. "This... your work?" she asked, thumbing towards the splintered wall behind the bar where wisps of sawdust and smoke were still twirling in the rays of sunlight from a window.
The sailor with the machine gun aimed for her, but before he even got to fire a round, Pip had somehow ran herself across the pub and punched the sailor in the sternum with a deep "crack." He flew across the room, smashing apart several tables until his spine slapped against the wall with a meaty thump. There he lay still, slumped down along with a few flakes of plaster and collage of old photos in a broken frame.
I looked back at Pip. Pip was holding onto the machine gun, looking at it. Despite the heat of the barrel sizzling her flesh, she held onto it without a flinch, and when she was satisfied with whatever she was looking for, she bent the barrel at a steep angle as if it were made of softened wax.
"Which one of you guys is going to pay for the damage your friend caused?" she asked, tossing the gun aside.
"I am not afraid of you," said one of the other sailors, but his voice told otherwise. He must have been as stunned as I was. I had heard of this old woman who could toss a man several hundred yards offshore into a target as small as a floating barrel. But I didn't believe a word of it. Up until now.
"That makes TWO of us," Pip said. Some other patrons managed a chuckle. "How about this, how about I let you live and you fix up my pub?"
"You can't fight all of us...!" one said.
They were dead wrong. In less than a minute, the other six sailors were scattered about the pub in various states of unconsciousness. It happened so fast, it was like a blur. She tossed the men around with such ease, it was like she was casually throwing bales of hay. One of the sailors managed to fire out a shot from a pistol which was now shoved pretty far up his ass. And not once did Pip stop grinning like it was all a game to her.
"Tom. TOM?" Pip called out when the dust settled.
"What are you doing on the floor? You missed one of my best fights in years!" Pip lit up a pipe and puffed thoughtfully. "I wish my father was here to see this. He'd approve."
A few natives started to come in through the front door.
"Glad you're here," Pip said. She didn't look at them, but kept staring thoughtfully at the ceiling blowing smoke rings. "Take these fine men back to their ship. Strip anything of value off of it, including the engine, drag it out to sea, set off a signal flare. I am sure the Navy would like to treat these gentlemen to some warm milk and coffee buns."
Pip then looked down at me. "And who might YOU be?"
"Ma'am?" Pip asked. There was a chorus of mixed chuckles in the pub. "Now there's a gentleman for you. He thinks I am a fine and chawming lady!" She puffed her pipe some more, whispering, "Chawming... chawming..." to herself. "What business do you have on my island?"
"I have come here to photograph and document island life throughout--"
"I have seen THOSE people. National Geographic wanted to do a piece on me, you know. The red-headed Swede who rules an island full of cannibals. I found them to be quite boring."
I didn't know what to say. I watched the natives drag the unconscious sailors outside. "Um... well, I was hoping I'd be allowed to photograph the island culture. See, I am doing a series on Kurra Kurra and--"
"I am pleased you called this place by its proper name," she said. "But the fact stay the same, I would rather not allow this place to be photographed. You ever see a tourist? Puffy, swollen Englishmen. Or worse, Germans! I can't stand those people, fouling up our waters and paying off our natives like servant boys."
"Wait, you're Swedish?" I asked. "How did you end up here?"
Pip looked at me. "My father was king. When he went to Heaven, I was made queen."
I snorted. "Ephram?"
"And just what's wrong with the name Ephram? Dozens of famous kings were named Ephram. Six of them were Portuguese."
I thought for a second. "You're having my leg."
"Nope, cannibalism was outlawed here when my father ruled," she stated, wiping her finger in the fresh sawdust of the bar.
"No one under the House of Braganca was named Ephram," I protested.
"You can ask the current president, Amórico Tomás," she said.
"He was overthrown in 1974. António Eanes is the current pres--"
Pip's eyes watered up. "I wondered why he hasn't written back. Poor Amórico."
"I heard he's still alive in Brazil."
Pip's face wrinkled up. "Ugh, Brazil! He can HAVE it."
Before I could respond to that non-sequiteur, Pip suddenly said with enthusiasm, "Follow me, I want to show you something."
"Leave your camera!"
"Can I leave it on my boat?"
"If you insist..." she said, and without hesitating, grabbed the camera off my neck and tossed it out the door. As I ran after it, I saw the strap wrapped around my sloop's bow pennant, slowing winding down like a tether ball.
"Where we're going," she said, dragging me by my ear, "cameras are MOST unwelcome."