"W here did you learn such perfect English?” Itzik Rubin asked with undisguised envy. He had spent two years trying desperately to pick up the language without much success. Finally he’d gone and spent a month in New York. And here were these two youngsters from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, speaking English fluently.

“It’s our mother tongue,” Joe explained. “Or close to it. Our entire village speaks the language — a souvenir from the missionaries who descended on us in the 1930s.”

“When the spirits of the dead came back,” Bernadine added in an amused tone.

“Yes, when they came back from the Darkness,” said Joe.

“Is that some inside joke?” Itzik asked, pushing the tray of watermelon toward them.

“No, it’s what happened to the people of our tribe 80 years ago,” said Joe. “One day, just after a big procession, while the tribesmen were taking off their ornaments and their feathered headdresses, they heard cries of shock. The villagers were horrified — three spirits of the dead had come to visit Yango Bay. They were the color of a skeleton. Obviously they were ghosts, because as everyone in Yango Bay knows, all humans have dark-brown skin. Only spirits have skeleton-colored skin.”

“Hmm… I’ve got skeleton-colored skin, too,” said Itzik, scrutinizing his pale palms.

“Yes, but the people of our tribe didn’t know you,” said Joe with a smile. “If you had come to Papua with those three missionaries from Australia, they would’ve thought you were a ghost, too. Our tribe had no contact with the outside world until then. A human was someone who looked like them. Anybody else was categorized as a spirit, especially if they were the color of a skeleton.”

“S’iz gut,” said Itzik, smiling back at Joe. “And then what happened?”

“The people of the tribe started trying to make out who was who among the three spirits. One of the spirits had a scar on his face, so they all thought it must be the spirit of Naodomba, the elder of the tribe who had died not long before. He had a scar on his face, too, and it made sense that his spirit would have a scar as well.

“It took days for them to realize the truth: These weren’t spirits, they weren’t dead, and they didn’t come from the Darkness. They were a new kind of people our tribe hadn’t known before. It was a tremendous culture shock for them.” Joe picked at a watermelon slice. “Imagine, the world didn’t begin and end with Papua. There was a whole world of tribes out there. And there were people of all colors… even the color of skeletons.

“Once those first three missionaries found us, more kept coming,” Joe continued. “We were a paradise for them. You realize — we were a whole nation of dark-skinned, primitive natives to whom they could preach anything they wanted. They could teach them English and the Bible, open schools for them, civilize them.”

“And destroy their culture,” Benadine interjected.

“Quit that, will you?” said Joe. “The medical equipment you’re planning to bring there will destroy their culture, too. And what a wonderful destruction it’ll be! Until now, their culture has been that one out of every twelve babies dies, and you’re going to go and destroy all that.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 669)