Warning: some blood and gore
Since the time I was able to walk I also started learning about the jungle, our ways…and their ways. The first thing I recalled thinking was that we are all humans and what a wonderful thing that was to be.
That happy aura-fog that surrounded my baby mind had cleared as my desire-to-be-bigger-mind developed. I prayed stupidly for instant bigness as I stood on our playground, a mere ten years old, frozen in terror as the big boys came on a-runnin.
Our playground was a tamped down earthen field, from my small view, it was miles long. It would seem I was helpless; they would overtake me at their whim. I was small. They were big. The boys of our tribe that strove for leadership were mean and relentless.
A tall thin boy ran at me, skin nearly black like mine, longish hair flapping behind him like nubby rat tails, a snarl on his alpha dog face. I learned alpha-ism from the wolves in our world. Us males were expected to follow suit. Wolves ate their own, as one late European explorer had aptly noted in his observatory journal, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” The big cats of the jungle do also, but you see, every part of the animal is eaten: flesh, innards, brains…the black graveyard birds usually get the eyes before they’re chased away, returning later for the tongue often left between clenched jaws, and other scraps and bits clinging here and there.
I noted that the tall gangly boy who had targeted me would have run faster, more efficiently, if his stick-y arms weren’t flailing with the elbows pointed this way then that, but rather with arms tucked close to his sweat sheened body, pumping by his side, elbows pistoning high in front and swiftly back.
At about halfway across the playground, two other boys joined him with war cries, he snarled at them, “mine!” But they only laughed and kept on. As they drew closer, their grinning mouths revealed freshly sharpened teeth. They were 12. The teeth filed in preparation for their thirteenth year, umkhuba peralihan, their rites of passage, in which they shed their baby fat and security blankets.
The boy to the left of tall fierce Harimau, was shorter, his stubby legs pumped harder, his leather loincloth flapped against the jugglies that bounced impressively below it. He had a belly like an overturned pot. The boy to the right was nearly as tall as Harimau, his rat tails were lighter in color, like wheatgrass in the fall, and longer too, tied together with a thong at his neck, the tails nearly whipped his bare bum. His loincloth was tan fabric like my own, perhaps even cut from the same late European explorer’s shirt. Mr. Smith once called Harimau “a loose cannon.”
I’d gone clothless until age five, when I first studied the art of running fast. The open vastness of the playground was safe enough but when allowed to run through the jungle at top speed I soon discovered just how sensitive those juggly parts were; whipped by low bamboo stalks and buluh and brek, normally soft as scrubbed cotton cloth… but at a speed turned to punishing, spanking, slapping devices of torture; my parts had swelled like coconuts and peeing hands free was practiced all the next week.
I asked my mother to fashion me a protective covering. I even preferred one that tucked my sensitive parts into a hammock that tied in the back. Kids had teased me and chased me. But they fell mute as they watched my backside disappear into the dense foliage and ancient black stalked bamboo.
Upon returning to the playground, I had found my companions tenderly rubbing their loose cloths and eyeing my own unscathed and safely tucked up bundle.
Now, as these khubas came at me, their eyes wildly rolling white with black spots, like crazed undernourished panthers.
I became a palm squirrel, using my small size and quick light feet to my advantage. I ducked down low and ran straight at them, now only ten feet before me. I ran between their brown stick-y legs, as if dodging young bamboo shoots. By the time they realized I was now behind them, I was halfway across the dirt yard. I felt their six eyes drill hotly into my back, I dodged left and leapt into the jungle.
They roared with frustration and crashed in after me. I headed straight for the punishing waist high land reeds, the kuat buluh, that grew in a yellowing and punishing field. As I leapt to a low hanging kapok branch and climbed up into the umbrella of its dense leaves, I heard air sucked in through pointy teeth, and grunts…and the keening of panthers no more, but more like the prey in their paws. A hundred feet up I rested and observed the pathetic little bent over creatures holding their jugglies and picking their way back through the trails they’d trampily made.
I climbed to the top where Garanga Monyet my capuchin friend sat lazily pulling apart a grapefruit. The old greying monkey placed each pinkish segment onto her tongue as delicately as a fine French lady at afternoon tea. She was not alarmed by my sudden appearance in the least, as if I was just one of her multitude of grandchildren. They were off undoubtedly to forage and frolic until dark. Their poor eyesight, much like my own, made us both night sleepers.
Garanga Monyet, fierce monkey, was like a great auntie who’d taught me about climbing and foraging and camouflaging. She offered me the last piece and though the juicy fruit would soothe my parched mouth, I declined politely. “No Garanga, it is your last…I couldn’t”
“Ooh ooh, wee wee, aruuum.” She held out another grapefruit from her side, it’s sunny yellow peel still intact. She grinned, revealing wicked amber canines all of us Garang Suka Kaum were envious of.
I said, “thank-you then.” And reached for the sour-sweet fruit segment.
“How are you today? Feeling young I hope?”
“Eeeee-oo.” It translated to “Meh.” She shook her grey head slowly and rubbed the wirey tufts of fur on her knees. It was the same gesture my grandmother did every morning while uttering, “Oh this damp. Oh my poor legs. Oh my aching knees. An’ don’t even ask about my hips.”
“Where is Muda Terbang?” Her oldest grandson, Young Fly.
“Ooh oo, GAAA! Oo gooom.” She painfully stood and gestured with her long, graceful white finger, wet with pinkish juice, towards the island’s cove. That was where our tribe, the Garang Suka Kuam, had two sentries high in trees like this one, on either side of the river’s mouth opening.
Alarmed, I said, “visitors?”
She nodded the upper part of her stove shaped body and sat down heavily. I grabbed the closest east facing vine and leapt, not without some fear, I needed much practice still. Muda Terbang was my patient teacher and though I’d been hoping for a lesson, the only thoughts in my head now were of the visitors.
We learned much from them as they came from all over. Our small island was centrally located, many tall, multi-sailed vessels swam regally past, in what had become a fine shipping trade route. Rarely did any stop here, the captains had bigger, more worldly destinations, more worldly cargo to trade. We had little to offer them although a few now and then came, out of curiosity. Fine by me, I was just as curious about them…and learned so much.
The last man who had stopped here was the English explorer. The one whose shirt now protected my jugglies. He knew some of our language, it had been fun learning his. He had written many terms into his notebook, the one now a prized possession of mine, terms he called “clee-shays.” I recalled my favorite one, “what goes around comes around.”
My swing and catch was successful! Elated was I to swing and catch all the way to the shore! Unfortunately, it was stopping I hadn’t yet mastered. I flew out over the rocky cliff, too terrified of ending like a brown-skinned bag of stick-y bones to let go. Naturally, I swung back again and thumped into the tree trunk, “Oof!”
A voice from far above, “I felt that! You okay?”
After a few seconds getting my wind back, I called up, “I’m okay!” And climbed up into the leafy branches.
At the top, Merah Gatek said, “More lumps?”
“Down here,” I said, rubbing my bum. “Not my head this time. Where’s the ship?”
He didn’t ask how I knew, he accepted that I gleaned much from the animals around us. He said, “that way,” and pointed left, where the cove was.
“They’re coming ashore!”
Across the cove in another tall tree, Laut held two long wooden poles together then apart, his left one pointing down, when both poles lowered towards our tree, Merah said, “They’ve landed.”
He stood and signaled with his own poles behind us, to Daging, my older brother in another tree a half-mile away and over our village; he raised a single pole in response, indicating he understood.
Laut said, “Go on home now, your mother will worry.”
I leapt from the branch, clutching the vine tightly until ten feet from the next, freefalling that distance like a bird.
The tribe was gathered and armed and decorated with bones and feathers, faces painted. Mr. Smith would have disapproved, shaking his white-jowled head, and clicking his fat pink tongue, “You get more ants with honey…”
I agreed. But it was the elders’ way to appear frightening. “Stubbornness leads to strong will.” They felt it gave them the advantage. Us modern thinkers felt it was “just asking for trouble.”
The sun was setting low over the jungle canopies like a runny egg yolk. In mere minutes it was gone. The white face paint glowed in the natural ultraviolet light as the dark skins melted into the shadows like chocolate in a pot. The men and khubas, tween-agers, carried wickedly sharp spears, some short ones all of wood and some long ones with razor-sharp polished heads of obsidian.
We had guns, taken from the Europeans and Portuguese, but the thunderous noise they produced hurt our ears and disturbed our Gods. I was allowed to join the welcoming party but not allowed a weapon. If things got tense, like fighting tense, I was to run home. It was understood that if something should happen to Daging, I would become the head of my household, to look after my mother and younger sister. My father had lost his head in one such skirmish with the Japanese fishermen who came last summer. They were not interested in trading, they were interested in the abalone that encrusted our east facing cliffs in the cove. Father’s body was never found, the currents at the river’s mouth are fierce, we burned just the head, it was a small pyre and quick funeral.
The three khubas who had chased me earlier pointedly ignored me now, looked right through me, smirking. The potbellied one stood with his hand subconsciously cupped over his loincloth. Much to my chagrin, my mother came and kissed my cheek while patting my head. “My big little man.” Nerves tingled hotly beneath my dark skin. The khubas turned away, snickering. The men went first, into the jungle, in the direction of the clearing by the cove where the visitors were sure to be camped. The khubas followed, then me last.
Though stealthy and quiet, I found their pace unnervingly slow and longed for the trees and vines. High above us, the lorises were awakening, their large red eyes glowed. Owls and nightjars flapped overhead, hooting and whistling softly. Frogs and slimatar beetles clicked and buzzed.
We at last rounded a rocky mountain face and peeked through pakis and soft damp plants. Three torches lit the tamped down grass meadow and six pale, canvased tents sat side by side behind a large fire over which six scrawny rodents were roasting on spits.
The faces of the two people cooking were yellow skinned and slit-eyed, with long black hair in single braids. They wore what Mr. Smith had called pajamas.
A fat, white-faced man strode from the largest tent and barked at them. They bowed and nodded silently…slaves then, their master the big loud man. The captain. Two more white men came from other tents and sat with the big one. They passed a bottle between them.
The eight others who were treated like slaves- the oarsmen- also passed jugs around. This was not good. The Japanese had been doing the same and had been irrational and hot-headed. Our leader, Mamut, pointed out the rifles leaning against the tents, about fifteen feet behind the white men who were laughing and talking excitedly.
Mamut whispered, “If they go for the guns, we pierce them. No hesitation.” That last was meant for the khubas, the warriors in training. He added and fixed me with kohl-circled eyes, “Tupai, you run home.”
I said, “Ya, ya. I know the plan and will not disobey.” I glared at Harimau, he was known for disobedience.
We surround them stealthily and silently. The eight rowing slaves tense as they sense our approach. The Chinese cooks hold up wooden utensils and back away from the three privileged white men.
The fat man in the center stands, wobbles, falls…flounders, then rises slowly. The one on his left is taller and wiry thin, with a scraggly black beard. The other’s head is shaved, he stands with his pals and grins crazily, displaying blackened teeth. They are greasy and disheveled and drunk.
Our four elders stride courageously out before the white men. They too grin, revealing their pointy, sharpened teeth.
The greasy smiles fade as they sober, their eyes flick in the direction of the rifles behind them. The cooking-slaves had backed away and were now huddled with the rowing-slaves.
The fat captain raises his hands and pats the air in a “calm down calm down” gesture. He speaks far too quickly and impatiently for us to follow the words, but we get what he’s saying regardless.
The scraggly man’s face and body language betray his intentions. Even I can see that. As expected, he lunges for the guns. Malii, who’d crept around behind the tents, spears him through the throat. Black blood spews like a geyser and splatters the captain’s bare chest. Baldy uses this distraction to raise a pistola from his backside, fires, and takes off half Malii’s head in an explosion of thunder and cloud of black gunsmoke. Brains and white bone spray.
Daging glances at me angrily. I was blowing it. My brother’s fire-scalding look unfreezes me and I turn to run…an oarsman is there! He grabs my arms and lifts me to him. He is slabbed in hot, wet muscle and he may be the worst thing I’ve ever smelled…until he breathes in my face.
Daging hasn’t seen this yet, he hurls his long spear at an oarsman rushing an elder with a flashing blade held high. The machete comes down, the elder dodges it and uses the man’s momentum to impale his belly on the elder’s short spear at the same time the long spear punches through his heart.
Daging retrieves his spear as a bullet catches his upper arm. Furious, he whirls and hurls the spear towards the tell-tale black cloud. From behind the gunsmoke, a scream like that of a little girl.
Daging sees me at last.
The remaining oarsmen take off into the jungle after the fleeing cooks. Two of our fastest warriors take off after them, grinning excitedly. They will execute the bad men and let the cooks live and be free. The smelly man bear hugging me to his chest has crossed to the fire pit. The fat captain has Laut’s sharp black obsidian point pricking his neck, rivulets of blood run into his greasy, blood-soaked chest hair, glistening black in the firelight.
A stalemate. All my fault.
I catch the eye of Harimau who cowers behind a fat palm, he holds a short spear in his shaking hand. I blink and roll my eyes upward. This is Harimau’s chance to redeem himself, and mine as well. No one is looking his way, his light-haired friend is moaning and rolling in the dirt ten feet from him, one of his legs doesn’t roll with him, a shard of white bone protrudes.
Harimau, tosses his spear to me, I catch it, and impale the smelly man’s head from under his wobbly chin flesh.
The point of shiny obsidian enters the captain’s throat, nearly decapitating him.
The smelly man falls backward while dropping me into the fire.
I roll out and around in the dirt. Daging rushes to me, he uses his loincloth to put out the fire on my head.
The next evening, we mourn the two brave warriors who died, the smoke from their pyre fills the jungle canopy above.
The smell of the charring bones is not unpleasant.
The tribe sits in a circle on woven vine mats, a feast spread before us. My newly bare head is slathered in a cool, healing mud. The younger children giggle and point, but I don’t care. The brave tribesman, Laut, who slew the fat man has the honor of carving the roast on the planks before us. He serves me first, my favorite part, but I politely wait for all the others to be served before digging in.
I lift the roasted hand to my mouth. Even the man’s fingers are fatty. They are charred and crunchy, the bones brittle and marrowy in my mouth, they are my favorite parts. I recall another of the late European’s cliches “…You are what you eat.”
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