Borneo, Borneo Rainforest, Borneo Tribesmen, Dreaming, Dreams, Heart Attack, Horror, Humor, Indonesia, Jungle, Jungle Adventure, Malaysia, Marriage, Nightmare, Short Story, Solar Eclipse, Taman Nasional Betung Kerihun
All at once, Ellen was taken aback by her husband’s appearance. “You look seriously unwell,” she told him sharply.
She shivered at his croaking voice; it was as if his ghost was suddenly walking alongside her. “When I was in the air, I thought that my heart had stopped. It was literally like a clock had stopped and I was hanging on the next tick. I was hanging in the air and, I swear to you, my heart was not beating. I couldn’t breathe – I was choking.”
This sounded melodramatic to Ellen, but she wasn’t going to gainsay her husband. “We have to go gently,” she urged.
Last year Rufus had suffered a cardiac arrest. When playing golf with some colleagues from the university, an impressive and then increasingly unignorable pain had begun to ring out in his chest, until Rufus was walking frantically across the golf course, straight through other players’ games, as if he could outrun the sensation. Before he had collapsed, he had briefly believed that his heart was chasing him around the golf course like a dragon.
There had been surgery to sluice away some of the gunk surrounding the beleaguered organ. The doctor had subsequently asked, with a blandness that denoted routine, whether Rufus would take exception to the sharing of his selected medical information with a local heart disease charity. Rufus had not taken exception. Three months later, the charity had sent him a letter with the news that he had won the “Shirley Carrington Memorial Prize.” This, along with its substantial prize money, was awarded every year to the patient in the Central Belt with the highest cholesterol. Lady Carrington turned out to be a monstrously obese local Tory grandee who had died from a heart attack. The Prize had been established by her Conservative Association.
Rufus had wanted to go skiing with the money. His wife had advised that they do something less strenuous.
“My heart could stop instantly,” Rufus was now maintaining, his eyes bleary. “In ten years’ time or in the next second. And what if it had stopped on that bridge?”
“We’ve been over this,” Ellen sighed. “Unless you are forever handcuffed to a paramedic, we simply cannot guarantee that anybody will be about if you have a heart attack. If we stayed in Edinburgh and you had an attack while I was at the shops, you would be just as alone as we are out here in the rainforest.”
They walked on beneath the chattering jungle. Alarming noises swooped in the trees overhead, or else they trickled brightly through the canopy like water droplets down a windowpane. Rufus was becoming increasingly wretched, shrivelling up into that visible invalid who would need constant petting and reassurance. Ellen tried to get him to take an interest in the passing scenery. She led him up to inspect sickly-smelling, ungainly flowers, a blinking frog whose tan body clenched the jungle floor like a disembodied hand, and some curled up fruit peel which, when it finally thought that it was unobserved, sprouted thousands of racing orange legs.
The Stewarts sat down for dinner an hour before the sun set. The crowd of animals that had been following them settled safely out of throwing distance, rather like visitors at the zoo who are watching a chimps’ tea party. Ellen puzzled over how so many animals – which by now included a pigmy elephant and a whole herd of deer – could ever hope to share a few doughnut sprinkles on the forest floor. Surely half of these monkeys would get squashed in the stampede.
“They know that I’m dying,” Rufus said sulkily.
Ellen chuckled at the solution to the mystery. She was about to insist that she would never leave his body to the animals, but she suppressed this in time. Infuriatingly, he had almost caught her out.
The longhouse appeared just as they thought that they must have passed it. The aimlessly meandering structure, spun completely out of battered wood, floated high above them like an ancient junk when viewed from the seabed. On climbing the steps, they followed the trail of rooms around in search of life, opening every door, until they eventually reached the last innocent corner and the end of the house. It seemed too fresh, as if everybody was merely out in the garden, but it must have stood here undisturbed for months. They each selected a bedroom with a bed in a tent of filthy mosquito nets. There was a tap for washing under and a hole in the floor which had been apparently demarcated as a toilet.
The jungle at night is a single unbroken chord; the mixed notes of insects rise like a million flutes, frogs clink like the steady tapping of cowbells.
Lying in his bed, Rufus dozed fitfully. The jungle now seethed around the longhouse, the sound pressed down like soup bubbling under a gigantic lid.
Then the air was running clear. Rufus sat up stunned – it was morning. The longhouse was filled with a rich pearly light. A magnificent feeling glided through Rufus’ body and down his limbs, like light rippling along a sword blade. It was a surge of absolute freedom; the surprised realisation that Rufus could leave his bed this morning and do anything he liked. It was as if mental chains which were normally in place had been, in some generous caprice of the unconscious, removed, leaving Rufus’ psyche weightless and pure.
Ellen was waiting at the door of his bedroom. His wife always looked somehow noble when she was naked, a noble, serene figure. She smiled without emotion, as though she was somehow looking at him and yet not seeing him. She then beckoned.
He was following her down the corridor, scampering heavily like a small child in his lime-green pyjamas, out of the longhouse, out into the airy morning.
To his amusement, there were about thirty naked and half-naked men waiting for him below the balcony. His gaze ran along the row of brown bodies and the tiny sound of descending piano keys struck up in his brain. He giggled. Rufus then began to pause over the headdresses. These were adorned with horns and feathers; it seemed vaguely as if each tribesman had chosen his own totem. The antlers of a deer were slotted into one dense headdress; another offered the likeness of an elephant’s trunk, pinched out of reeds and sticks. Most of these headdresses looked like a brief shower of rain would cause them to slip apart.
The tribesmen hailed Rufus and once he had gone down the steps to speak with them, they were all suddenly on the move. Self-conscious in his lime pyjamas, Rufus roamed along unhappily after them. Soon he had passed a fat old fellow who he recognised as the supervisor from the bridge.
“English?” Rufus inquired, slowing down.
The patriarch stopped with a wheeze, fluttering his eyes at the sweat which was pouring down his face, and nodded.
“Where are we going?”
The old man smiled unctuously, frozen momentarily in his toadlike deliberation to keep up with the tribe. “These young people, these crazy young people, they wanna dance baby!”
Rufus instinctively took the old man’s arm; it seemed that they were both being left behind now. “And do you want to dance?”
The patriarch laughed. “I’m going to make trouble for them. I know what they don’t know.”
Rufus first heard the beat snuffling gently on the bark of the tree trunks and as they began to follow the sound, the naked young people around him broke into movement. Next they were spinning like tops, huge and baggy with outstretched arms, and carried with startling speed towards the source of the beat. It was like water quickening on the approach to a plughole. Rufus was jostled off the path and forced to wade through ferns. He hesitated, amazed by the power and beauty of these passing bodies as they became hooked in the rhythm. A minute ago these tribesmen had been dingy and restless – now they were as glorious as butterflies.
The tribesmen had at last stopped on the brink of a ravine and here they danced on the grass, in the sunlight, with the jungle canopy at their feet. Looking down into the ravine, Rufus saw the cause of the rhythm. Three huge boulders, set in the far slope, were pulsating in a juddering beat, a steady rhythm with a sort of jaunty kick at the end of it. Their sound was rolling around the ravine, clicking against the sides.
Rufus took another look at the dancing boulders and he was struck by how perfectly clean they were. Every stray grain of soil had been flung from their surfaces and from the cliff-face around them. The boulders consequently glistened like new plastic.
Beside him, the old man from the bridge licked his lips and he eyed Rufus knowingly. “These kids so crazy with the music that they cannot see what is coming.” He then tittered. “I had the secret information.”
Rufus was impelled to look around again and he saw immediately what had changed. The moon had somehow leapt across the sky from its position yesterday and it was now at the side of the sun. It was as if two lonely creatures that lived in the same, vast desert landscape had finally met. Rufus gazed at these two bodies and all of the feverish rhythm and dancing around him was at once reduced to an empty flapping in the air.
He tried to reply to the old man, but he couldn’t quite pull himself away from the drama in the skies.
He heard the old man chuckle with satisfaction, before he turned from Rufus to confer with some people behind him. Rufus snatched a quick glance away from the sun and saw him shrugging himself into an elaborately twisted headdress. The old man’s voice was now loud and persistent and it was cutting through everything. Although he was not speaking in English, Rufus gathered from the resultant, furious jabbering that the dancing must stop and that the young people were being extremely foolish.
Above them the moon was dipping forward to kiss the face of the sun. Straightaway the daylight began to falter and darkness was stretching over the landscape at an unnerving speed.
Rufus staggered away from the spectacle, his eyes warped and smarting.
All around him the screaming and crying was piteous and it took a moment for Rufus to realise why it sounded so lonely.
The beat had stopped. The pulsating boulders had fallen still.
They were then plunged into absolute darkness. Aside from their tangle of mournful screams, alone in this abandoned landscape, the immense bowl of jungle beneath the sky was silent.
Stupendous confusion prevailed. Rufus felt that he was choking, with the shock running over him in shuddering unearthly waves. He was bent over, ducking and diving to peep at the bedlam around him through a roaring white fire in his eyes. The young man next to Rufus had made a run for safety, but in fact he had bolted straight over the edge of the ravine. Others were wrenching away their headdresses and throwing them on the ground.
An unbearable pain was flaming like a fiery sheet within Rufus’ chest and then his whole body had caught light and his hands were scrabbling at his face pathetically. Through this agony some calm, distant part of him became aware that the fat old man was acting out a kind of ceremony in front of him. Three assistants waved fiery torches around the patriarch, swiping agitatedly at the darkness, whilst he marched a goat out of the jungle. A knife found its way into his hand. Muttering what were presumably incantations, he took the goat by the neck but his free hand was shaking so much in the firelight that the knife jumped out of it. He was left clamped to his goat and screaming for his assistants to recover the knife.
Rufus was struck by a wild impulse to plunge into the ravine and restart the rhythm of the boulders manually. If he punched at the soil around them, they might begin to chug into motion again. He was still immobilised by the pain, however, and he could only jerk his arms and his twitching hands in useless displays of action.
Time seemed to be stretched beyond endurance and then the panic had deepened dramatically. The sun should have reappeared by now; the beat should have begun again. Rufus’ pain should have ended. He looked sharply to his left and saw a faint light on the windowsill. Somehow he was back in the house. The layout of the rooms became a shooting black tunnel down which he was running in frantic search of his wife. “I’m having a heart attack!” he squealed.
The Penan stepped out of the darkness with the face of a scared child worn almost like a mask. Rufus blurted out an instruction for him to go back to bed and then stumbled past. “I’m having a heart attack!” he persisted. These would be his last few panicky seconds alive.
He froze. He wasn’t having a heart attack.
He groped for his chest and located his heart. It appeared to be having a whale of a time.
“Bad dream?” the Penan asked. “Or you stung?”
Rufus stared about in amazement at the trick, cursing his foolishness. “No, it was just a dream.”
[The Stewarts appeared previously in “Unmann’d by Folly.” Part three will take place “At Lunch.”]