Aaron Baker

Highlands Mission




Mists open like wings over childhood’s island,

green folds riding over the Pacific,

valleys overbrimming with beech, pandanus, casuarina,

jungle specked red and orange with untasted fruit.


From air-fall to landfall, chapter and verse,

I think of the spirit moving over the deep,

the deep heaving to divide the waters.

Of elsewhere entirely, my hereditary faith

taking root in the difficult soil of Canaan.

And only here and there a cast-out prophet

in the sun-cracked wilderness dreaming of forests

where the snake made his kingdom,

mountains where no Adam walked

and which no Adam named.




Parrots and cockatoos, hawks, swiftlets,

birds of paradise, flutter in and out of shadows.


The first mammals, Melanesian swine, swam ashore

bringing unclean spirits from the country where they were driven,

by a word, from the mountains into the sea.


They waited along their paths for Nopu,

father of the tribes, to enter the Highlands with his bow,

bamboo knife and stone adze.


Nopu’s dog was their enemy and they hated,

from hiding, the bright circle of men at their fires.




Who can say where such spirits will settle

in their long migrations through roots and raindrops,


whose tongues they will touch, whose hearts?

The land lies like the body of a sleeping lord,


giving and withholding its favors.

Tossing restlessly, burying whole villages in mud.


I sat with an old woman who gave me a roasted

sweet potato at the edge of her garden.

Having no common language, we chewed

with the abstracted thoughtfulness of those Corinthians

at communion whom Saint Paul addressed saying


For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily

eateth and drinketh damnation to himself,

not discerning the Lord’s body.




News came from Mount Hagen of two missionaries

dragged from their jeep and hacked to death with machetes.


At night, the old sorcerer came down from the hill

and walked through the forest with a flaming stick.


“It is good magic,” assured our house-girl Ditowagle.

“It silences spirits.”

“Perhaps she’s right,” said my father.


He returned to his study, leaned over a lantern.




Creation, we tell ourselves, looking to the lip

of the mountains, the rain’s slant across fields.


At what place should we enter it? The river’s long

motion, the bats flying, accurate in their hunger,

through the deep forest whine of mosquitoes.


At what places have we entered already?


Shadows shift through the rows of coffee trees at the yard edge.

The sorcerer’s brand burns beneath the cross on the hill.



“Highlands Mission”  is from Mission Work (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).