The scorching heat was unbearable. Leela could not feel the air-condition in her old Myvi – her old faithful, a car she has been driving last 13 years. Her glasses grew misty, no thanks to the sweat on her forehead.
She slowed down to wipe her face briefly with the towel she had always kept in her car. A brief respite.
The month was August. From May to September, her country experiences the south-westerly dry wind from Indonesia; particularly Sumatera. The dry wind not only brought heat, it also brought with it smoke from land burning which happens before the next planting cycle. That was the practice in Sumatera, which inconvenienced neighbours like Malaysia and Singapore.
The whole issue was compounded by the current Covid-19 pandemic which had swept the entire globe without mercy. The government had been very strict in implementing control measures. One of that control measures had brought her driving hurried in the scorching heat to her village, 5 kilometres outside sleepy hollow town of Batu Pahat. A new cluster had been detected at a neighbouring village and authorities have locked down all the seven villages in the vicinity.
Leela was a single mother with three school going children. They stayed with her parents at one of the seven villages, one that is closer to where the army was said to have placed barbed wires. She must enter the area by any means as she had purchased groceries upon hearing the detection of the new cluster but had some work to be completed at her office. But a friend had called and told her that the army was already placing barbed wires on the roads leading to the villages. There were two government roads that led to the seven villages and numerous tracks through the adjacent jungle. Leela has no plans to track to her parents’ place, she must get through the barbed wires, anyhow.
She waited for the traffic light to turn green before making the final turn towards the road that led to her village. Her heart sank as she turned. The army had already placed barbed wires on the road and extended into land on both sides of the road. Leela stopped her car. If it is the police, she can negotiate, but this is the army. They were known to be very strict. A couple of armed personnel were manning the barbed wires from both sides.
Leela was distraught. Her dad had called her in the morning to say that they were running out of supplies. So, she had rushed to the closest supermarket to buy whatever she could lay her hands upon with the little money she had, but it looked like the groceries may not reach her family. For a brief moment she had thought of bribing the army personnel. Nah, she told herself, she would rather try talk her way through.
The army personnel scrutinized her as she walked towards him. `Encik (mister), can you let me pass through, I need to drop off groceries at my parents’ place. They are aged and my three children are with them.’ The army guy just shook his head. It was a no. The government was very strict at EMCO (Enhanced Movement Control Order) areas. No in or out movement. She looked around to see if there was anyone else whom she could talk to. There wasn’t any on her side. Dejected she walked back to her car. By now her kurti top stuck to her back drenched in sweat. She took a bottle of water and took a sip. What can I do, she asked herself. What could she do? The adjacent land both sides of the road consisted of secondary jungle. Could she risk walking through the tracks and attempt to reach her village? Where would she leave her car? Would the authorities find out?
Leela got into her car and made a u-turn, turning back towards where she came from. She drove slowly, checking both sides of the road to see if she can spot any track that could possibly lead her to her village. None. She sighed. She drove on.
There it was! A small track hardly visible seem to appear out of nowhere as she took a corner. Yes! And there was a small space next to the road where she could possibly hide her car. She reversed her car and stopped at the clearing, trying to park as close as possible to the vegetation that covered the track. At the same time, she didn’t want to risk her tyres getting stuck anywhere on the ground because no one knew what lurked beneath all that secondary jungle plants.
Leela alighted from her car and picked up her grocery bag. She was thankful that she had the mind to use the sturdy grocery bag from Village Grocer. All the grocery, except the bag of rice, was stuffed into the bag. She lifted the 5 kg rice pack onto her shoulders and started walking down the almost invisible track. I must be crazy to even attempt this, she thought. It was already evening, around 4.30 p.m. The secondary jungle provided her with much needed respite from the scorching sun. Leela was not wearing footwear suitable for trekking, as such her progress was very slow. At one part she almost stumbled down the small hillside. Steadying herself, she walked on.
After an hour of trekking, she did not seem to be any closer to any village. The thick vegetation had brought darkness sooner though it was only about 5.30 p.m. She soldiered further hoping to see some indication that she was near her village, any village. But the vegetation was getting thicker and thicker, like a real secondary jungle. Leela had also been scratched by a few prickly plants; blood oozed out of one wound on her arm. Wait, she thought. Blood would attract animals. What if there were tigers around? Or leopards? Or wolves? She shuddered as she walked on.
It sounded as if the click of a gun, or was it? Leela stopped in her track. What happened next was out of her imagination. A hand clasped her mouth and pulled her into the vegetation beside the track. She fell onto something, someone, her grocery bag flew to the ground and her bag of rice spilled its contents.
Then she heard the roar. She almost stopped breathing. She saw a striped body walking by underneath the shrubs; a tiger! She froze. Too scared to remember the hand on her mouth.
Slowly, the hand on her mouth eased.
`Kau buat apa sini? (What are you doing here?),’ a gruff voice demanded near her ears. She just froze.
`What were you doing here, in the jungle,’ the voice asked again. Leela attempted to turn to look at the person who owned the voice. The hand that clasped her mouth held her head from turning.
`I..I wanted to go to my village…children hungry,’ she managed to stammer. The hold on her head eased a little.
`Don’t you know that these seven villages are under lock down?’ the voice asked.
`Yes, I know,’ Leela answered. `But my children and parents need food. Army did not allow me to cross the barbed wires. So, I tried trekking through the jungle.’ She sobbed.
The hand left her head and she heard leaves ruffling behind her and before she could think, she was yanked to her feet.
`Which village?’ he asked as Leela turned to see a man in army fatigue, grey hair and sandy beard.
`Kampung Permai Tiga,’ she said. He picked up whatever remained of her rice bag and the bag of groceries and started walking towards some direction, as if he knew where he was going.
Leela followed, trying to keep up.
The flash of lightning and the thunder that followed made Leela jump. The bearded man stopped and looked up to the sky. Then he looked at Leela.
`We can’t go to your village now. It is going to rain heavily. The other part of the track will be flooded.’
Leela just stood there looking at him. `Come,’ he said as he changed direction. She wasn’t sure whether she should follow. Leela hesitated.
`You can’t make camp here,’ he said sarcastically and walked on.
Raindrops started pelting through the leaves. Big drops. Leela’s wound on her arm started burning. She struggled to keep up with the bearded stranger. Who was he?
He seemed to know his way around the jungle. Suddenly, he stopped and pushed some branches and undergrowth aside. Leela watched, astonished. The was a rustic wooden staircase hidden behind the shrubs! She tried to look upwards but raindrops pelted her face making it impossible to keep her eyes open.
He started climbing the rough steps, holding one side with one hand and the other held the groceries and rice bag, signalling her to follow.
Leela tried to climb the wooden stairs, but it was impossible as the shoes she was wearing would not cooperate. She stood helpless and the bearded man has disappeared upstairs.
Just as she thought she wanted to try climbing again, she felt roughly thrown over a strong shoulder and the body that carried hers was ascending the stairs!
At the top, Leela could not believe what she saw. It was a huge tree house, roughly built but spacious, and had all that one could ask for in the wilderness. There were some battery like things on one corner. Solar-power, may be, Leela thought. There was a small kitchen like counter with a faucet where the bearded man washed his hands. He then disappeared behind some curtains and came out with some rags and handed them to Leela.
`Dry yourself,’ he said and walked to the kitchen to cook some food. He lit a small travel sized gas burner and heated up a few cans. Leela looked up as she dried herself. There were tarpaulin covering the house and sound of rain was very loud, though no water leaked inside.
He turned off the burner and poured the contents from the can into two tin plates and gave one to her. Leela looked at her mobile phone. Only one bar battery left and no signal. Her parents would be very worried. He seemed to have read her mind. He gave her his mobile, one that looked different.
`Satelite phone,’ he said. `Call them, tell them you are safe. Need not say more.’
Leela made the call to her dad. Her dad was worried. She promised to drop by the next day. Then she felt the tiredness set in. The wooden long chair she was sitting on became her bed. She just stretched out and slept.
The breathing was heavy and her face was heaving up and down as the chest moved. It was pitch dark. For a moment she could not fathom where she was. The silence was deafening. She tried to move but felt an arm encircle her body from the left. Where am I? She realised her face was hidden in the crook of a neck. Slowly, she remembered. Yes, she was with the bearded man at his tree house.
It has been years since she has had any male influence in her life. Her husband absconded after her third child was born, leaving her to fend for herself and her children. It has been an uphill battle but after nine years she has finally stabilized herself. Her kids have grown up, her parents were there for support and she kept away from men, till today. She was a beautiful and slender woman, no one would guess she was mother of three. Men had been head over heels in love with her but she had brushed all of them aside.
Tonight, she was in the arms of a man.
Leela could not help herself but run her finger on the contour of his face. This man must have seen so many difficulties in life that his demeanour was that of a rough neck. The lines on his face were strong. His body had toned muscles. But somewhere in him, there was a touch of softness. He could have let the tiger pounce on her, but he didn’t.
He stirred a little but the arm that held her stayed. She tried to move away but his grip tightened. What are you doing, Leela, she asked herself. But this felt good. Finally, after many years, it felt good that someone actually cared for her. She snuggled into him. Then the unexpected happened.
He was passionate to the core. A graceful lover. A man who knew his moves. In the cold jungle night, their passion heated up the tree house. Leela had never felt this way before. He skilfully guided each move. It felt really good after many, many years. It was a night to remember. Leela felt herself as a woman again. She felt her womanliness awaken. The ride to the waves of climax sent both lovers to deep sleep.
The chirping had awaken her from deep sleep. She woke up to find herself covered with only a blanket. It took her a full moment to realise what had happened the day before. She looked around the rustic room in the tree house. It was indeed a man’s room – disorganized but she liked it. His smell was everywhere. A thin cloth covered what seemed like a door to the room. It was hung on the beams that held the entire house together. There were jungle flower plants on one side of the tree, in yellow, very pretty. She has never seen these flowers before.
She left the plank bed and dressed herself. He was nowhere to be found. There was a tin mug on the counter filled with black coffee, still hot. Leela took a sip. The coffee tasted good or probably because she was hungry. She looked around; the bearded man was nowhere to be seen. Her groceries were gone, too. She became suspicious. What if he had taken her groceries to…, nah, she told herself. He would not do that. If had wanted, he could have robbed her the day before and disappeared. Why bring her to his abode?
Footsteps were heard coming up the wooded stairs. His head appeared as Leela turned.
`I sent the groceries to your parents’ home,’ he said as he opened the faucet and washed his hands.
`Why didn’t you wake me up,’ Leela asked, a little irritated.
`I would have had to carry you and the groceries to your parents’ place,’ he said smiling.
`Why?’ she asked.
`The track is still flooded, waist deep,’ he said. It was then she noticed that he was wet waist downward.
She felt silly that she did not notice it before.
`What do I do now?’ she asked him.
`You can stay here or I can take you back to your car and you can drive back to town,’ he said.
Leela was silent. She wanted to stay but she needed to get back to her life.
The choice is yours, he said.
`Did you see my parents?’ she asked.
`I left the groceries on the bench outside your parents’ house,’ he said as he handed his satellite phone to her. `Call them.’
Leela spoke to her dad and asked him whether the groceries were sufficient. Her dad said it was enough for the two weeks of EMCO quarantine. He also told her that there were three Covid-19 positive cases at their village and health officials are going door to door to test residents. He asked her to stay in town till the quarantine was over. Another two weeks before she could see her parents and children. She missed then badly. Brushing aside a tear, she stood up.
`Can you take me back to my car?’
The trek back was silent. At some places where she could not walk, he lifted her and took her across. It took them about 90 minutes to reach her car. She was relieved to see her car still in there, but the front tyres seemed to have stuck in mud.
He asked her to start the engine and reverse as he pushed the car out of the mud.
As she drove away, Leela looked in the mirror to see if he was there. There was no sign of him. Her drive home was like in a daze. 24 hours of unexpected twists and turns in her otherwise barren life. She sighed as she parked outside her office, downtown.
Her colleagues were already at work. She switched on her laptop and immersed herself into work. There were virtual meetings to attend to. Dad called in between. Lunch had been at her desk. It was 6.30 in the evening when she called it a day. Leela gathered her stuff and walked to her car. She stopped.
On her windscreen was a bunch of flowers – yellow jungle flowers. Her summer fling had dropped by and wait, she didn’t even know his name!