Back There in
the Grass by Gouverneur Morris
It was spring in the South Seas when, for the first time, I went
ashore at Batengo, which is the Polynesian village, and the only one on
the big grass island of the same name. There is a cable station just up
the beach from the village, and a good-natured young chap named Graves
had charge of it. He was an upstanding, clean-cut fellow, as the fact
that he had been among the islands for three years without falling into
any of their ways proved. The interior of the corrugated iron house in
which he lived, for instance, was bachelor from A to Z. And if that
wasn't a sufficient alibi, my pointer dog, Don, who dislikes anything
Polynesian or Melanesian, took to him at once. And they established a
romping friendship. He gave us lunch on the porch, and because he had
not seen a white man for two months, or a liver-and-white dog for two
years, he told us the entire story of his young life, with
reminiscences of early childhood and plans for the future thrown in.
The future was very simple. There was a girl coming out to him from
the States by the next steamer but one; the captain of that steamer
would join them together in holy wedlock, and after that the Lord would
My dear fellow, he said, you think I'm asking her to share a very
lonely sort of life, but if you could imagine all thethe affection
and gentleness, and thoughtfulness that I've got stored up to pour out
at her feet for the rest of our lives, you wouldn't be a bit afraid for
her happiness. If a man spends his whole time and imagination thinking
up ways to make a girl happy and occupied, he can think up a whole
lot.... I'd like ever so much to show her to you.
He led the way to his bedroom, and stood in silent rapture before a
large photograph that leaned against the wall over his dressing-table.
She didn't look to me like the sort of girl a cable agent would
happen to marry. She looked like a swellthe real thingbeautiful and
simple and unaffected.
Yes, he said, isn't she?
I hadn't spoken a word. Now I said:
It's easy to see why you aren't lonely with that wonderful girl to
look at. Is she really coming out by the next steamer but one? It's
hard to believe because she's so much too good to be true.
Yes, he said, isn't she?
The usual cable agent, I said, keeps from going mad by having a
dog or a cat or some pet or other to talk to. But I can understand a
photograph like this being all-sufficient to any maneven if he had
never seen the original. Allow me to shake hands with you.
Then I got him away from the girl, because my time was short and I
wanted to find out about some things that were important to me.
You haven't asked me my business in these parts, I said, but I'll
tell you. I'm collecting grasses for the Bronx Botanical Garden.
Then, by Jove! said Graves, you have certainly come to the right
place. There used to be a tree on this island, but the last man who saw
it died in 1789Grass! The place is all grass: there are fifty kinds
right around my house here.
I've noticed only eighteen, I said, but that isn't the point. The
point is: when do the Batengo Island grasses begin to go to seed? And
You think you've got me stumped, don't you? he said. That a mere
cable agent wouldn't notice such things. Well, that grass there, and
he pointedbeach nut we call itis the first to ripen seed, and, as
far as I know, it does it just six weeks from now.
Are you just making things up to impress me?
No, sir, I am not. I know to the minute. You see, I'm a victim of
In that case, I said, expect me back about the time your nose
begins to run.
Really? And his whole face lighted up. I'm delighted. Only six
weeks. Why, then, if you'll stay round for only five or six weeks
more you'll be here for the wedding.
I'll make it if I possibly can, I said. I want to see if that
girl's really true.
Anything I can do to help you while you're gone? I've got loads of
If you knew anything about grasses
I don't. But I'll blow back into the interior and look around. I've
been meaning to right along, just for fun. But I can never get any of
them to go with me.
Yes. Poor lot. They're committing race suicide as fast as they can.
There are more wooden gods than people in Batengo village, and the
superstition's so thick you could cut it with a knife. All the manly
virtues have perished.... Aloiu!
The boy who did Graves's chores for him came lazily out of the
Aloiu, said Graves, just run back into the island to the top of
that hillsee?that one over thereand fetch a handful of grass for
this gentleman. He'll give you five dollars for it.
Aloiu grinned sheepishly and shook his head.
Aloiu shook his head with even more firmness, and I whistled. Fifty
dollars would have made him the Rockefeller-Carnegie-Morgan of those
All right, coward, said Graves cheerfully. Run away and play with
the other children.... Now, isn't that curious? Neither love, money,
nor insult will drag one of them a mile from the beach. They say that
if you go 'back there in the grass' something awful will happen to
As what? I asked.
The last man to try it, said Graves, in the memory of the oldest
inhabitant was a woman. When they found her she was all black and
swollenat least that's what they say. Something had bitten her just
above the ankle.
Nonsense, I said, there are no snakes in the whole Batengo
They didn't say it was a snake, said Graves. They said the marks
of the bite were like those that would be made by the teeth of a very
Graves rose and stretched himself.
What's the use of arguing with people that tell yarns like that!
All the same, if you're bent on making expeditions back into the grass,
you'll make 'em alone, unless the cable breaks and I'm free to make 'em
Five weeks later I was once more coasting along the wavering hills
of Batengo Island, with a sharp eye out for a first sight of the cable
station and Graves. Five weeks with no company but Kanakas and a
pointer dog makes one white man pretty keen for the society of another.
Furthermore, at our one meeting I had taken a great shine to Graves and
to the charming young lady who was to brave a life in the South Seas
for his sake. If I was eager to get ashore, Don was more so. I had a
shot-gun across my knees with which to salute the cable station, and
the sight of that weapon, coupled with toothsome memories of a recent
big hunt down on Forked Peak, had set the dog quivering from stem to
stern, to crouching, wagging his tail till it disappeared, and beating
sudden tattoos upon the deck with his forepaws. And when at last we
rounded on the cable station and I let off both barrels, he began to
bark and race about the schooner like a thing possessed.
The salute brought Graves out of his house. He stood on the porch
waving a handkerchief, and I called to him through a megaphone; hoped
that he was well, said how glad I was to see him, and asked him to meet
me in Batengo village.
Even at that distance I detected a something irresolute in his
manner; and a few minutes later when he had fetched a hat out of the
house, locked the door, and headed toward the village, he looked more
like a soldier marching to battle than a man walking half a mile to
greet a friend.
That's funny, I said to Don. He's coming to meet us in spite of
the fact that he'd much rather not. Oh, well!
I left the schooner while she was still under way, and reached the
beach before Graves came up. There were too many strange brown men to
suit Don, and he kept very close to my legs. When Graves arrived the
natives fell away from him as if he had been a leper. He wore a sort of
sickly smile, and when he spoke the dog stiffened his legs and growled
Don! I exclaimed sternly, and the dog cowered, but the spines
along his back bristled and he kept a menacing eye upon Graves. The
man's face looked drawn and rather angry. The frank boyishness was
clean out of it. He had been strained by something or other to the
breaking-pointso much was evident.
My dear fellow, I said, what the devil is the matter?
Graves looked to right and left, and the islanders shrank still
farther away from him.
You can see for yourself, he said curtly. I'm taboo. And then,
with a little break in his voice: Even your dog feels it. Don, good
boy! Come here, sir!
Don growled quietly.
Don, I said sharply, this man is my friend and yours. Pat him,
Graves reached forward and patted Don's head and talked to him
But although Don did not growl or menace, he shivered under the
caress and was unhappy.
So you're taboo! I said cheerfully. That's the result of
anything, from stringing pink and yellow shells on the same string to
murdering your uncle's grandmother-in-law. Which have you done?
I've been back there in the grass, he said, and becausebecause
nothing happened to me I'm taboo.
Is that all?
As far as they knowyes.
Well! said I, my business will take me back there for days at a
time, so I'll be taboo, too. Then there'll be two of us. Did you find
any curious grasses for me?
I don't know about grasses, he said, but I found something very
curious that I want to show you and ask your advice about. Are you
going to share my house?
I think I'll keep head-quarters on the schooner, I said, but if
you'll put me up now and then for a meal or for the night
I'll put you up for lunch right now, he said, if you'll come. I'm
my own cook and bottle-washer since the taboo, but I must say the
change isn't for the worse so far as food goes.
He was looking and speaking more cheerfully.
May I bring Don?
If you'd rather not?
No, bring him. I want to make friends again if I can.
So we started for Graves's house, Don very close at my heels.
Graves, I said, surely a taboo by a lot of fool islanders hasn't
upset you. There's something on your mind. Bad news?
Oh, no, he said. She's coming. It's other things. I'll tell you
by and byeverything. Don't mind me. I'm all right. Listen to the wind
in the grass. That sound day and night is enough to put a man off his
You say you found something very curious back there in the grass?
I found, among other things, a stone monolith. It's fallen down,
but it's almost as big as the Flatiron Building in New York. It's
ancient as daysall carvedit's a sort of woman, I think. But we'll
go back one day and have a look at it. Then, of course, I saw all the
different kinds of grasses in the worldthey'd interest you morebut
I'm such a punk botanist that I gave up trying to tell 'em apart. I
like the flowers bestthere's millions of 'emdown among the
grass.... I tell you, old man, this island is the greatest
curiosity-shop in the whole world.
He unlocked the door of his house and stood aside for me to go in
Shut up, Don!
The dog growled savagely, but I banged him with my open hand across
the snout, and he quieted down and followed into the house, all tense
On the shelf where Graves kept his books, with its legs hanging
over, was what I took to be an idol of some light brownish woodsay
sandalwood, with a touch of pink. But it was the most lifelike and
astounding piece of carving I ever saw in the islands or out of them.
It was about a foot high, and represented a Polynesian woman in the
prime of life, say, fifteen or sixteen years old, only the features
were finer and cleaner carved. It was a nude, in an attitude of easy
reposethe legs hanging, the toes danglingthe hands resting, palms
downward, on the blotter, the trunk relaxed. The eyes, which were a
kind of steely blue, seemed to have been made, depth upon depth, of
some wonderful translucent enamel, and to make his work still more
realistic the artist had planted the statuette's eyebrows, eyelashes,
and scalp with real hair, very soft and silky, brown on the head and
black for the lashes and eyebrows. The thing was so lifelike that it
frightened me. And when Don began to growl like distant thunder I
didn't blame him. But I leaned over and caught him by the collar,
because it was evident that he wanted to get at that statuette and
When I looked up the statuette's eyes had moved. They were turned
downward upon the dog, with cool curiosity and indifference. A kind of
shudder went through me. And then, lo and behold, the statuette's tiny
brown breasts rose and fell slowly, and a long breath came out of its
I backed violently into Graves, dragging Don with me and
half-choking him. My God Almighty! I said. It's alive!
Isn't she! said he. I caught her back there in the grassthe
little minx. And when I heard your signal I put her up there to keep
her out of mischief. It's too high for her to jumpand she's very sore
You found her in the grass, I said. For God's sake!are there
more of them?
Thick as quail, said he, but it's hard to get a sight of 'em. But
you were overcome by curiosity, weren't you, old girl? You came out
to have a look at the big white giant and he caught you with his thumb
and forefinger by the scruff of the neckso you couldn't bite himand
here you are.
The womankin's lips parted and I saw a flash of white teeth. She
looked up into Graves's face and the steely eyes softened. It was
evident that she was very fond of him.
Rum sort of a pet, said Graves. What?
Rum? I said. It's horribleit isn't decentitit ought to be
taboo. Don's got it sized up right. Hehe wants to kill it.
Please don't keep calling her It, said Graves. She wouldn't like
itif she understood. Then he whispered words that were Greek to me,
and the womankin laughed aloud. Her laugh was sweet and tinkly, like
the upper notes of a spinet.
You can speak her language?
A few wordsTog ma Lao?
Aba Ton sug ato.
Nan Tane dom ud lon anea!
It sounded like thatonly all whispered and very soft. It sounded a
little like the wind in the grass.
She says she isn't afraid of the dog, said Graves, and that he'd
better let her alone.
I almost hope he won't, said I. Come outside. I don't like her. I
think I've got a touch of the horrors.
Graves remained behind a moment to lift the womankin down from the
shelf, and when he rejoined me I had made up my mind to talk to him
like a father.
Graves, I said, although that creature in there is only a foot
high, it isn't a pig or a monkey, it's a woman, and you're guilty of
what's considered a pretty ugly crime at homeabduction. You've stolen
this woman away from kith and kin, and the least you can do is to carry
her back where you found her and turn her loose. Let me ask you one
thingwhat would Miss Chester think?
Oh, that doesn't worry me, said Graves. But I am
worriedworried sick. It's earlyshall we talk now, or wait till
Now, I said.
Well, said he, you left me pretty well enthused on the subject of
botanyso I went back there twice to look up grasses for you. The
second time I went I got to a deep sort of valley where the grass is
waist-highthat, by the way, is where the big monolith isand that
place was alive with things that were frightened and ran. I could see
the directions they took by the way the grass tops acted. There were
lots of loose stones about and I began to throw 'em to see if I could
knock one of the things over. Suddenly all at once I saw a pair of
bright little eyes peering out of a bunch of grassI let fly at them,
and something gave a sort of moan and thrashed about in the grassand
then lay still. I went to look, and found that I'd stunnedher.
She came to and tried to bite me, but I had her by the scruff of the
neck and she couldn't. Further, she was sick with being hit in the
chest with the stone, and first thing I knew she keeled over in the
palm of my hand in a dead faint. I couldn't find any water or
anythingand I didn't want her to dieso I brought her home. She was
sick for a weekand I took care of heras I would a sick pupand she
began to get well and want to play and romp and poke into everything.
She'd get the lower drawer of my desk open and hide in itor crawl
into a rubber boot and play house. And she got to be right good
companysame as any pet doesa cat or a dogor a monkeyand
naturally, she being so small, I couldn't think of her as anything but
a sort of little beast that I'd caught and tamed.... You see how it all
happened, don't you? Might have happened to anybody.
Why, yes, I said. If she didn't give a man the horrors right at
the startI can understand making a sort of pet of herbut, man,
there's only one thing to do. Be persuaded. Take her back where you
found her, and turn her loose.
Well and good, said Graves. I tried that, and next morning I
found her at my door, sobbinghorrible, dry sobsno tears.... You've
said one thing that's full of sense: she isn't a pigor a
monkeyshe's a woman.
You don't mean to say, said I, that that mite of a thing is in
love with you?
I don't know what else you'd call it.
Graves, I said, Miss Chester arrives by the next steamer. In the
meanwhile something has got to be done.
What? said he hopelessly.
I don't know, I said. Let me think.
The dog Don laid his head heavily on my knee, as if he wished to
offer a solution of the difficulty.
A week before Miss Chester's steamer was due the situation had not
changed. Graves's pet was as much a fixture of Graves's house as the
front door. And a man was never confronted with a more serious problem.
Twice he carried her back into the grass and deserted her, and each
time she returned and was found sobbinghorrible, dry sobson the
porch. And a number of times we took her, or Graves did, in the pocket
of his jacket, upon systematic searches for her people. Doubtless she
could have helped us to find them, but she wouldn't. She was very
sullen on these expeditions and frightened. When Graves tried to put
her down she would cling to him, and it took real force to pry her
In the open she could run like a rat; and in open country it would
have been impossible to desert her; she would have followed at Graves's
heels as fast as he could move them. But forcing through the thick
grass tired her after a few hundred yards, and she would gradually drop
farther and farther behindsobbing. There was a pathetic side to it.
She hated me; and made no bones about it; but there was an armed
truce between us. She feared my influence over Graves, and I feared
herwell, just as some people fear rats or snakes. Things utterly out
of the normal always do worry me, and Bo, which was the name Graves had
learned for her, was, so far as I know, unique in human experience. In
appearance she was like an unusually good-looking island girl observed
through the wrong end of an opera-glass, but in habit and action she
was different. She would catch flies and little grasshoppers and eat
them all alive and kicking, and if you teased her more than she liked
her ears would flatten the way a cat's do, and she would hiss like a
snapping-turtle, and show her teeth.
But one got accustomed to her. Even poor Don learned that it was not
his duty to punish her with one bound and a snap. But he would never
let her touch him, believing that in her case discretion was the better
part of valor. If she approached him he withdrew, always with dignity,
but equally with determination. He knew in his heart that something
about her was horribly wrong and against nature. I knew it, too, and I
think Graves began to suspect it.
Well, a day came when Graves, who had been up since dawn, saw the
smoke of a steamer along the horizon, and began to fire off his
revolver so that I, too, might wake and participate in his joy. I made
tea and went ashore.
It's her steamer, he said.
Yes, said I, and we've got to decide something.
Suppose I take her off your handsfor a week or sotill you and
Miss Chester have settled down and put your house in order. Then Miss
ChesterMrs. Graves, that iscan decide what is to be done. I admit
that I'd rather wash my hands of the businessbut I'm the only white
man available, and I propose to stand by my race. Don't say a word to
Bojust bring her out to the schooner and leave her.
In the upshot Graves accepted my offer, and while Bo, fairly
bristling with excitement and curiosity, was exploring the farther
corners of my cabin, we slipped out and locked the door on her. The
minute she knew what had happened she began to tear around and raise
Cain. It sounded a little like a cat having a fit.
Graves was white and unhappy. Let's get away quick, he said; I
feel like a skunk.
But Miss Chester was everything that her photograph said about her,
and more too, so that the trick he had played Bo was very soon a
negligible weight on Graves's mind.
If the wedding was quick and business-like, it was also jolly and
romantic. The oldest passenger gave the bride away. All the crew came
aft and sang The Voice That Breathed O'er E-den That Earliest
Wedding-Dayto the tune called Blairgowrie. They had worked it up
in secret for a surprise. And the bride's dove-brown eyes got a little
teary. I was best man. The captain read the service, and choked
occasionally. As for GravesI had never thought him handsomewell,
with his brown face and white linen suit, he made me think, and I'm
sure I don't know why, of St. Michaelthat time he overcame Lucifer.
The captain blew us to breakfast, with champagne and a cake, and then
the happy pair went ashore in a boat full of the bride's trousseau, and
the crew manned the bulwarks and gave three cheers, and then something
like twenty-seven more, and last thing of all the brass cannon was
fired, and the little square flags that spell G-o-o-d L-u-c-k were run
up on the signal halyards.
As for me, I went back to my schooner feeling blue and lonely. I
knew little about women and less about love. It didn't seem quite fair.
For once I hated my professionseed-gatherer to a body of scientific
gentlemen whom I had never seen. Well, there's nothing so good for the
blues as putting things in order.
I cleaned my rifle and revolver. I wrote up my note-book. I
developed some plates; I studied a brand-new book on South Sea grasses
that had been sent out to me, and I found some mistakes. I went ashore
with Don, and had a long walk on the beachin the opposite direction
from Graves's house, of courseand I sent Don into the water after
sticks, and he seemed to enjoy it, and so I stripped and went in with
him. Then I dried in the sun, and had a match with my hands to see
which could find the tiniest shell. Toward dusk we returned to the
schooner and had dinner, and after that I went into my cabin to see how
Bo was getting on.
She flew at me like a cat, and if I hadn't jerked my foot back she
must have bitten me. As it was, her teeth tore a piece out of my
trousers. I'm afraid I kicked her. Anyway, I heard her land with a
crash in a far corner. I struck a match and lighted candlesthey are
cooler than lampsvery warilyone eye on Bo. She had retreated under
a chair and looked outvery sullen and angry. I sat down and began to
talk to her. It's no use, I said, you're trying to bite and scratch,
because you're only as big as a minute. So come out here and make
friends. I don't like you and you don't like me; but we're going to be
thrown together for quite some time, so we'd better make the best of
it. You come out here and behave pretty and I'll give you a bit of
The last word was intelligible to her, and she came a little way out
from under the chair. I had a bit of gingersnap in my pocket, left over
from treating Don, and I tossed it on the floor midway between us. She
darted forward and ate it with quick bites.
Well, then, she looked up, and her eyes askedjust as plain as day:
Why are things thus? Why have I come to live with you? I don't like
you. I want to go back to Graves.
I couldn't explain very well, and just shook my head and then went
on trying to make friendsit was no use. She hated me, and after a
time I got bored. I threw a pillow on the floor for her to sleep on,
and left her. Well, the minute the door was shut and locked she began
to sob. You could hear her for quite a distance, and I couldn't stand
it. So I went backand talked to her as nicely and soothingly as I
could. But she wouldn't even look at mejust lay face downheaving
Now I don't like little creatures that snapso when I picked her up
it was by the scruff of the neck. She had to face me then, and I saw
that in spite of all the sobbing her eyes were perfectly dry. That
struck me as curious. I examined them through a pocket
magnifying-glass, and discovered that they had no tear-ducts. Of course
she couldn't cry. Perhaps I squeezed the back of her neck harder than I
meant toanyway, her lips began to draw back and her teeth to show.
It was exactly at that second that I recalled the legend Graves had
told me about the island woman being found dead, and all black and
swollen, back there in the grass, with teeth marks on her that looked
as if they had been made by a very little child.
I forced Bo's mouth wide open and looked in. Then I reached for a
candle and held it steadily between her face and mine. She struggled
furiously so that I had to put down the candle and catch her legs
together in my free hand. But I had seen enough. I felt wet and cold
all over. For if the swollen glands at the base of the deeply grooved
canines meant anything, that which I held between my hands was not a
womanbut a snake.
I put her in a wooden box that had contained soap and nailed slats
over the top. And, personally, I was quite willing to put scrap-iron in
the box with her and fling it overboard. But I did not feel quite
justified without consulting Graves.
As an extra precaution in case of accidents, I overhauled my
medicine-chest and made up a little package for the breast pocketa
lancet, a rubber bandage, and a pill-box full of permanganate crystals.
I had still much collecting to do, back there in the grass, and I did
not propose to step on any of Bo's cousins or her sisters or her
auntswithout having some of the elementary first-aids to the
It was a lovely starry night, and I determined to sleep on deck.
Before turning in I went to have a look at Bo. Having nailed her in a
box securely, as I thought, I must have left my cabin door ajar. Anyhow
she was gone. She must have braced her back against one side of the
box, her feet against the other, and burst it open. I had most
certainly underestimated her strength and resources.
The crew, warned of peril, searched the whole schooner over, slowly
and methodically, lighted by lanterns. We could not find her. Well,
swimming comes natural to snakes.
I went ashore as quickly as I could get a boat manned and rowed. I
took Don on a leash, a shot-gun loaded, and both pockets of my jacket
full of cartridges. We ran swiftly along the beach, Don and I, and then
turned into the grass to make a short cut for Graves's house. All of a
sudden Don began to tremble with eagerness and nuzzle and sniff among
the roots of the grass. He was making game.
Good Don, I said, good boyhunt her up! Find her!
The moon had risen. I saw two figures standing in the porch of
Graves's house. I was about to call to them and warn Graves that Bo was
loose and dangerouswhen a screamshrill and frightfulrang in my
ears. I saw Graves turn to his bride and catch her in his arms.
When I came up she had collected her senses and was behaving
splendidly. While Graves fetched a lantern and water she sat down on
the porch, her back against the house, and undid her garter, so that I
could pull the stocking off her bitten foot. Her instep, into which
Bo's venomous teeth had sunk, was already swollen and discolored. I
slashed the teeth-marks this way and that with my lancet. And Mrs.
Graves kept saying: All rightall rightdon't mind medo what's
Don's leash had wedged between two of the porch planks, and all the
time we were working over Mrs. Graves he whined and struggled to get
Graves, I said, when we had done what we could, if your wife
begins to seem faint, give her brandyjust a very littleat a
timeandI think we were in timeand for God's sake don't ever let
her know why she was bittenor by what
Then I turned and freed Don and took off his leash.
The moonlight was now very white and brilliant. In the sandy path
that led from Graves's porch I saw the print of feetshaped just like
human feetless than an inch long. I made Don smell them, and said:
Hunt close, boy! Hunt close!
Thus hunting, we moved slowly through the grass toward the interior
of the island. The scent grew hottersuddenly Don began to move more
stifflyas if he had the rheumatismhis eyes straight ahead saw
something that I could not seethe tip of his tail vibrated
furiouslyhe sank lower and lowerhis legs worked more and more
stifflyhis head was thrust forward to the full stretch of his neck
toward a thick clump of grass. In the act of taking a wary step he came
to a dead halthis right forepaw just clear of the ground. The tip of
his tail stopped vibrating. The tail itself stood straight out behind
him and became rigid like a bar of iron. I never saw a stancher point.
I pushed forward the safety of my shot-gun and stood at attention.
How is she?
Seems to be pulling through. I heard you fire both barrels. What