Borneo, Borneo Rainforest, Borneo Tribesmen, Cannibalism, Death, Decapitation, Horror, Humor, Indonesia, Jungle, Jungle Adventure, Love, Malaysia, Marriage, Murder, Sex, Short Story, Taman Nasional Betung Kerihun
The time had come for Ellen Stewart to make a choice and choose between the two men whom she was travelling with. It was one of those crises which a woman is usually alert about avoiding. Of course, there had always been men in her life who would tear each other to pieces like wild animals if they knew of each other’s existences. It was as if her love life was a huge wandering forest and the men in it were like animals which had to be kept separate, padding contentedly about within their own little territories. But today two paths were set to cross and only one of these men could come away as the victor.
The soft conspiratorial intimacy that she shared with one of these men, whenever she was alone with him, would have to be forever discounted as illegitimate. Becoming unfamiliar to herself, she would have to put on a hard face and speak with a voice so cold and thrilling that it would sound almost like a hiss in her ears. She would have to break a man’s heart and leave him horribly alone.
There was her husband, Rufus, whom the jungle heat had transformed into something almost electrifyingly ugly and wretched: a bulging slippery bladder in peeling khaki which bustled along on waddling legs, whilst the tiny head planted on top chanted abuse to itself and shouted querulously at their backs. Although too big to keep up, Rufus nonetheless gave chase, crashing along through the jungle in a sort of perpetual scamper. His face was bathed in perspiration and it peeped over his bladder body, like the moon over a hillock. She had told him more than once to go at his own pace, that slow and steady wins the race, but he was always restless whenever it seemed that he was falling behind. This may be a figure of squelchy unloveliness, Ellen reasoned, but she could not begin to calculate all of the vast and subtle ways in which her life would be altered if they were separated.
Then there was the fifteen-year-old Penan boy who was their guide. He was far ahead in the path with a towering rucksack on his back, but he was still somehow flopping along without any apparent energy. He was as skinny as the bough of a ban tree and as sweet as a drop of honey. As her eyes rested on him, the honey drop seemed to swell in front of her, somehow reminding her of those honeypot ants which are munched on by jungle tribesmen: a dainty, perfectly slender body, ballooning irresistibly.
Ellen began to totter onwards. If you are ever going on a walking holiday again, she scolded herself, you will have to ensure that everybody walks at the same lick. It was ludicrous that they had been all strung out so and that she was stranded between two men, one far too fast and the other far too slow.
“Slow down,” she called. The Penan’s head dipped back and he paused.
When Ellen approached him, she was irritated to find that her breath had been left somewhere back in the path behind her, like a hat which had blown off. Suddenly a sort of squeak had been ruthlessly exposed within her breathing and she breathed harder, trying to smooth it away. She despised herself for being caught out so foolishly. I’m not unfit, she protested to whatever god was nominally listening, it’s just that circumstances have crept up on me. The Penan came to greet her and he took her hands respectfully, not commenting on her conspicuous struggle to breathe. She was now sucking at the oxygen in the air as if through a bong.
Forget about it, she thought. She immediately entwined herself around the Penan and her arm snaked behind his back.
The boy froze, automatically becoming taller, like he had all at once recalled that he had a body. Ellen, willowy anyway, felt unexpectedly girlish in being dwarfed by this teenager. Her hand arrived at his waist and it helped itself to a fat pouch of flesh, so that it was filled like a cup. She wanted to murmur seductively into his ear, but she did not so far trust her rasping voice to sound seductive.
She must speak before he did. “Come into the jungle with me. I’m desperate for you.”
They tore away from the path, as children might do, and he was now racing obediently alongside her. The foliage fell back behind them like a curtain and then they had stopped in a clearing and the jungle had somehow quietened. Her husband was so far behind that he would have not seen them leaving the path. He was sure to bustle past their hiding place, continuing to strain and shout at the empty path ahead.
The boy’s rucksack slithered down on to the ground and fell over. His arms leapt up, liberated, and he was suddenly as free as a dancer. Then, amazingly, he was dancing on the spot, with knees bending and fists pivoting. Ellen laughed and pressed a hand to his chest to still him.
Next, she was doting over his stomach muscles, tracing them with her fingers, as if she was drawing circles in water. He stood tense and expectant, not responding to her body, but no doubt uploading into his head that teenaged boy’s list of things that he wanted to do to her. You are so lovely, she thought, because you are so dim. You have not yet had to scheme against whining girlfriends and devious employers. All that your head has ever done is dream.
They kissed, their tongues darting like young things, like featherless chicks in a hot secret nest. He nosed forward in several tiny steps but in a single caper she had deftly manoeuvred him so that he found himself lying on the forest floor. Pleasure chased surprise across his face, as he was kissed, once and then twice, on the brow. She patted his shorts, wondering where his erection was.
“There are some condoms in the rucksack,” Ellen recollected. She sat up and eyed him roguishly. I am still sprightly for an old lady, she told herself. I still have tricks up my sleeve – I can still wow a silly boy like this one. Her spare hand located the rucksack and then it was squirming inside, through an intractable jumble of unhelpful bulges and half-familiar lumps. Finally, however, she had found the wrapping.
It would be easier if she went slowly, and so she proceeded in a kind of transport, like a magician suavely running through an effortless demonstration. She pulled out the travel pillow and the boy’s eyes watched as it floated through the air and on to his face.
Then she came down on him with everything she had.
She had knocked over the rucksack to pin down his right arm. Ellen was briefly reconnected with a vague memory of something which might have occurred to her earlier in life, of wrestling with a monstrous fish in the open air, or of plunging about on the back of a panicking horse. Alas, these moments in life are too few and far between, and the memory was of no use to her now. She had known that there would be no way of anticipating and calculating the boy’s power. Yet she had positioned herself as best she could, sitting on his chest and bearing down with her modest weight against his recoiling body and its single waving arm. He appeared to be waving to attract her attention, as if to call the game to a stop. By the time that he realised what was happening, she had firmly secured her grip in the death lock.
It was like pushing down an enormous lid on to an overflowing drain. She had kept this power within her all morning, doting on it and stroking it, whilst it had seemed to accumulate, purring angrily to itself as it intensified. If she grew impatient, she would make a mistake, and so she cleared her mind of everything and just waited. She waited and waited and waited and then the wind was rumouring in the branches overhead and a bird was chattering volubly nearby. Surely she could at last relax her arms, but she continued to press down on to the now-frozen head and to wait, as though for a piece of inaudible music to end.
Her fingers finally let go of the pillow and it rested uncertainly on the Penan’s face, perched on his nose.
She leaned forward to reposition the pillow. Next her free hand had found the knife and she had dug it into his neck. For a while she disinterestedly hacked a line around the side and then she was working into the interior. If he hadn’t been dead before, he would be dead now, she assured herself. He had had an altogether generous life, her mind began to sing as she sawed. It was academic to call it murder, really. Growing up would have naturally required that this dopey fifteen-year-old boy be murdered anyway. His whole life had been a childhood, enjoyed in this beautiful jungle, and he had handed it back clean, unpolluted by the later disappointments. The Rufus disappointments.
The head was being steadily dislodged. His blood was lying all around them like a dark cloak, miraculous in its volume. When the head’s attachment to the body seemed flimsy, she had the impression that she could have torn it away with her bare hands, but she continued to file at it in little nicks. The head eventually rose in her hands, curiously weightless, and, still keeping the pillow over the face, she flung it into the jungle.
It was always the same whenever she had tried to throw a tennis ball over the wire fence to some young men in Edinburgh’s Meadows. Her muscles, when put on the spot, were surprisingly limp and useless. The ball never went a third of the distance that she assumed it would. On the other side of the world, the same fate had befallen the Penan’s head. It tumbled and then stopped abruptly, on its base and under some low branches. It was facing her and if she had peered into the undergrowth, she could have still made out the expression on its face.
Best not to think about that: there was work to be done. When Ellen stood up, she was alarmingly shaky on her feet. She was going to retrieve the pillow, but she immediately changed her mind and lurched towards the rucksack. I am going to vomit! – the thought struck her with the force of a revelation – but the impulse left her as soon as she had squatted down to prepare for this.
There was a small frying pan packed in the bottom of the rucksack and almost everything had to be taken out before it could be extracted. Once this was done, she poured some olive oil into the pan and put it on the jungle floor. Then she began to dig ribbons of flesh out of the Penan’s arm. She dangled each of them in the air to inspect them, before arranging them neatly in the pan.
That familiar but always solemnly dismal smell was seeping from the boy’s waist. He had obviously voided himself when he was dying. This was not, she complained to herself, very appetising.
She stood up. “Rufus!” she called. “I want you!”
Her voice sounded clear and unearthly when compared to the noiselessness of the last few minutes. What had been the boy’s last words? She found that she did not know; it seemed an oversight that they had not been recorded.
There was a long pause and then Rufus was at last wading through the undergrowth, exclaiming at the heat. All at once, Ellen realised that he had never before sounded so kindly and innocent. She was now horribly afraid. What had she done?
But she mustn’t lose her nerve. She mustn’t abandon the road that she had so thoroughly laid out for them.
“I’ve killed the guide,” she explained, matter-of-factly. “I want you to clean the remains and build a fire.”
My goodness, she should have prepared better for this. Now that Rufus was here, it was impossible to imagine him ever condoning the murder and the cannibalism. Ellen had been too preoccupied with the straightforward problem of how to physically kill the guide, to ponder its altogether more unreadable implications. Rufus blinked and next he was an instantly haggard and perplexed figure. He gazed about, at the jungle clearing, at the headless body which lay like an island in the long pool of its blood. He started to appeal to her to be honest with him, to tell him what was really happening, but he promptly stopped. He stared at the body as if it was an apparition rather than a dead man. She froze as he screamed and then she simply couldn’t unfreeze herself. Fear was crawling all over her body like a swarm of cold insects. She was horribly afraid and alone. What had she done?
He was screaming at her, before he could no longer seem to connect to her and he had slipped into screaming at himself, as if he had stubbed his toe. He was pacing back and forth, snarling and laughing. In horror, she drank up the sickly beam which was plastered across his face, the eyes which somehow shone unseeing.
Ellen had to dredge up a voice from somewhere, but to her alarm and dismay she was powerless to speak. She had to explain that there were four days until the helicopter returned, that they were completely lost in the jungle, and that their food provisions had run out. Finally she cowered in front of him, wringing her hands, and insisted in a faraway voice that he had eaten all the doughnuts.
She heard her own voice rising and she adjusted it, trying to keep it slow and calm. “The energy snacks. You ate half of them in the first day. We have no food Rufus.”
Rufus was bellowing about how they had run out of food. Why hadn’t she packed enough?
“We had enough. We had enough for a week.”
He was gone, leaving behind the faint sounds of him rampaging through the jungle, as though he had been picked up and carried off by a whirlwind. She should have prepared better for this, she despaired. It was vital that she be confident and practical, that all of their options were put to Rufus in clear language. But that reasoning voice, which had been up until now dispassionately weighing up these options, appeared to have been wholly shed. Ellen sat down on the forest floor, totally stunned. He would come back, of course. He would come back sheepish and chatting away about a new, different subject. Without her needing to suggest it, he would fall in to building the fire. Maybe she could deal with the guts and shit – this would be a suitable concession.
He would have to come back – he didn’t have the maps and he probably didn’t have enough water.
She toppled over on to her side and lay on the bare ground. It would soon be time to stir herself again, to get going again, but at the moment she could summon up nothing more than a dull pity for herself. She felt so tired. The feeling of inertia descended so low as to almost blot her out. She heard herself calling for the Penan boy to come and hold her. Of course, this was absurd, but she continued to listen to a voice which resembled her own calling out thickly overhead, calling for the boy to come.
The jungle noises drifted along, serene and immaculate. She eventually turned her head from the ground. She could not lie here all day. The smell of shit seemed to be striding around the clearing, herding all of the normal air out of the way. She sat up and then jumped into a crouch.
Ellen was unable to look at the darkened head down there in the bushes, but at the same time she could not turn away and leave it to itself. On her feet and quickly snatching a handful of items from beside the rucksack, she made off, following the path that Rufus had taken.
She realised that they were in new territory. She and Rufus had never had an argument as deep or as full as this one. In fact, every earlier argument now resembled a tantrum by comparison. He had slept around now and then, and she had consequently enacted, or he had allowed her to enact, spiteful little displays of revenge. His sleeping around had been hurtful, but it had in time appeared like trivia, or like an excess energy which had to be periodically, almost ceremonially, burnt off.
Perhaps with the death of the Penan, they had finally, after all these years, reached a bedrock of incompatibility. An innocence which had once seemed eternal had been ended. They would never joke together again; they would always be tense and watchful in each other’s company. Suddenly Ellen wanted to grovel at Rufus’ feet, to weep openly, to crumple and cringe before the brilliance of his goodness. How could she ever wear her meanness, this aching inferiority, in front of him?
She heard him crashing through the jungle some distance off, exclaiming and despairing. She changed course, not wishing to face him again so soon.
The jungle continued like an unending jazz bassline – lively and engaging at first, but gradually becoming monotonous, and ultimately featureless. After tramping through its dreariness all afternoon, Ellen reached the next longhouse at dusk. She sensed that Rufus had already arrived and so she sat on the veranda and waited for him to show his face.
He was surely sitting inside somewhere, waiting for her to enter. As the last drops of day bled from the sky, the noise of the jungle rose. Millions of overturned clockwork toys were grinding away, with their tiny plastic wheels spinning in the air.
She eventually became aware that he was watching her from the door. “Did you use your religion?” he demanded in a flat voice.
They seldom spoke about Ellen’s witchcraft. Whenever they did, Rufus usually assumed a jocular tone, referring to it in the way that an atheist husband might tease a Catholic wife.
She shook her head.
“Did you eat any of him?”
She murmured plaintively and shook her head again.
He sighed, now sounding more familiar. “And there’s nothing for us to eat?”
“It’s all gone,” she replied. “Everything is gone.”
For a moment, she thought that he was going to disappear inside again. They had to go to bed, they had to wash, they had to make frantic preparations for the coming days of hunger. But she continued to wait for his judgement, like a servant who was dependent upon the unknowable whims of a king.
“There’s no food inside the house,” he told her. “I’ve checked. No tins. Only water.” He stiffened in front of her, his face suddenly a panic. “Should we go back and take from his body?”
All at once the air was singing. She felt herself smile and then she had relaxed. She sat up, a feeling of liberty swiftly spreading all over her like a great rosy blush.
“We will have to use my religion,” she answered. “I don’t know how. The boy was not killed in a way which might be useful in this respect.” She stood and drifted towards him, her hand coming to rest on his shoulder, in its old place. “We won’t die in this jungle,” she promised.
[Part 4 will take place “At Tea.”]