The tall one is so handsome, she thought. My father will be so proud. I hope he lets him live. For a little while, at least.
Here is chapter four based on the true story of mystic healers “so ethereal of spirit they left no footprint where they stepped.” Search “The Courtesans of God” by Thornton Sully (that would be me)for previous chapters.
I invite any of you to submit your completed novels to be serialized a chapter at a time, and we’ll put a link to your Amazon page or your website as we post each chapter. Easy-peasy. No strings.
A conspiracy of vines was all that anchored the highest branches of the trees to the denser jungle far below, or the trees would surely have grown past the soft silver clouds of Borneo and into heaven itself. It was well known that from these very branches God made his first descent to walk the earth and explore all that he had made.
Before she had ever known of Sarafina Madrigal D’Cruz, or even that there was a world other than her own, that jungle woman had seen fourteen years pass, and much of it from these tall trees. On this particular morning she had made a nest for herself thirty feet above the damp floor of the rain forest, in the rungs of God’s own ladder.
Beneath her the undergrowth glistened, as sunlight evaporated the morning offering of rain. The vapor lifted from each leaf like cool, lazy smoke, and carried with it the sweet smell of deep brown earth mingled with the scent of animal and the bloom of hyacinth. A thousand butterflies floated in the air like falling petals of flowers in a light breeze, drifting on the breath of God. A thin trail bent its way past the trunk of the tree, formed by the convergence of two opposing slopes. The girl could detect all movement below from this vantage point, and yet, from below, to anyone looking up, she appeared to be only a part of the spiral of branches, a leaf against the sky.
On the rain-worn stub of a broken branch she hung her kit, a pliant basket laced to a wooden harness, on which was strapped her blowpipe and quiver of darts, ready in an instant to take down her prey of choice. The spear of which she was so proud and with which she was so precociously adept lay cradled in her lap, and her parang dangled at her side in a sheath made from the hide of an animal she herself had killed and butchered.
She reached into the basket and pulled out yet another ripe mango, and leaned forward, oblivious to the height, to keep the first bite from spurting on her bare breast, just washed clean and still beading with drops of fresh rain. She sucked the pulp and tossed the seed, and gathered her long black hair behind her, in a swirl, a cushion, and laid her head against a crotch in the branches. One leg dangled lazily and the other propped her firmly into place—her place—in the branches, in the jungle, in the world.
And the world was hers. She was quite content to daydream from her nest, and as far as she could see was the land of her people. She wondered if the mountain beyond the valley was really gray, for green was the natural color of the world. The distant pinnacles were white, no doubt the broken shells from the rookery of eagles. Someday she would journey for a closer look, but for now her father forbade her from hunting outside their valley, or from approaching the settlement of Miri where the river replenished the sea.
Her father, Jon the Poet, was quite proud of her. He had long ago conceded that she had a man’s spirit, and rather than discouraging her boyish tendencies, instead tutored her in the ways of the hunter. She could throw a spear as far and as passionately as any man, and it had long been taken for granted that when Miri, named for the village forbidden to her, went hunting, she would return with the weight of a kill upon her shoulders to divide among her tribe.
She loved to hunt, and she loved to race her perahu along the faster currents of the river, banking at the eddies and coves where she tended the nets that invariably snared fish for her. To the endless list of her adventures she had recently added the startling pleasure that young men provided, and it was this that fancified her dreams high in her loft. She pursued and conquered them in spite of their pretended shyness. She loved the way they would touch her skin, and she loved the feel of their manhood pressed deep into her youthful and powerful hips, and she loved the flirtations and teasing.
It was not quite mid-day, though time had little significance for her. Her valley was so abundant with game that she could stay out almost until the blush of sunset and still be assured that she would find something worthy of a kill on the way back to her kampong. Indeed, she had passed up an opportunity to take down a small boar, because she had come across it so early in her outing. Had she killed it she would have been compelled to return prematurely, before she had her fill of adventure, for the squeal of the dying boar would attract a leopard, or even a tiger, the other predators who shared hunting privileges with the Iban in the valley.
But in recent years there were others, uninvited others, who stalked the same hunting grounds. The girl in the branches of the meranti tree sensed before she heard, and she heard before she saw, a column of soldiers grunting and stumbling their way up the trail beneath her. This was not the first time she had seen the Japanese, though none had ever seen her.
She and her brothers had twice entertained themselves by lighting fire to their make-shift encampments, and watched them panic to put the fires out, which was always too late, leaving them to sleep the night in the rain. Her brother had even taken a head, which he proudly presented to his father.
As a Dayak, a native, she would be a rare prize to the Japanese, who captured indigenous people to use as guides in this unfamiliar territory. But the Dayaks would usually permit themselves to be captured, and then ‘guide’ their captors into thick, wet jungle, only to escape and leave them stranded. It was great sport.
Several years earlier Miri and her brothers were awed by the sight of a British paratrooper floating down to their village on the strings of a cloud, with a bold proposition for their father, whose reputation was well-known even in the civilized town at the delta.
Money could be used on market days in Miri to trade for a vast array of goods the Dayaks could not make for themselves. The soldier had brought samples. Chocolate. Pocketknives. Knit shirts. Tin cups. Cigarettes.
And money would be theirs on a regular basis at the rate of ten ringitt for each Japanese head they delivered.
It was an easy bargain. The Ibans, a more prominent race of Dayaks, had no love for the Japanese, who slaughtered people indiscriminately and with no explicable ritual, and they burned countless acres of jungle if rumored to contain even a handful of British or Malayan soldiers. The taking of heads was already a tradition of the tribe, a trophy of the combat that occasionally flared into ritualized skirmishes with bordering clans. The British soldier shook the hand of Jon the Poet and drank from his cup, and the Japanese became the Iban’s prey of choice.
And the prey of choice, to Miri’s amusement, was now clustered beneath her tree, smoking cigarettes and blowing smoke into the beleaguered faces of recently captured Malayan Regulars.
Miri counted perhaps two dozen prisoners, bound to each other neck-to-neck with coarse rope, like the beads of a necklace, and their hands were tied behind them at their wrist and elbows. Some of the prisoners looked very worn and barely able to walk. Fortunately for them the Japanese were far from adept at hiking a jungle trail, and even if unfettered by their train of prisoners they would have made slow progress. A few of the prisoners, with nervous rifles trained at their backs, were given parangs to hack away the fresh growth that choked the trail.
Miri turned herself into bark and to branch, and was confident she could not be seen against the mid-day sun. The Japanese rarely looked skyward anyway. Their work was on the ground. There were only five of them, and so many prisoners to watch. Only five, thought Miri, as many as I have darts in my quiver.
Most of the prisoners had any initiative to escape beaten out of them, but some of them seemed to be alert, and scanning for opportunities. One soldier, taller than the others and toward the end of the column, looked up and detected movement against the sky. For an absurd moment he remembered being spellbound by the shadow puppets as a boy in his home in Sentul, back in Malaya. He had the good sense to drop his head before he was seen staring, and when he discreetly looked for a second time, the silhouette against the sky had vanished.
A Japanese soldier flicked the stub of his cigarette and stood to relieve himself on a prisoner squatting in exhaustion. This must have been the cue, thought Miri, that their rest was over, for in a moment the other Japanese stood, prodded the prisoners, and the column moved on.
The girl in the trees, still in the trees, decided to forgo the pleasures of the hunt in favor of following the contingent of prisoners. At the very least she could entertain herself by inventing new ways to annoy the Japanese. She could see no harm, either, in permitting herself to be seen by the soldier who had seen her silhouette. She anticipated their course, and would place herself strategically ahead of them, revealing herself covertly to the tall prisoner who intrigued her by the way he carried himself, bound though he was, like the others. There was a tint of maroon to his skin, distinguishing him from most of the Malays she had seen in her life whose skin was more like a muddy river. His hair was closely cropped, his forehead high, and his jaws and cheeks rather angular. Miri smiled to herself, when she realized she found him handsome. She admired his head.
The Japanese insisted on frequent stops, for their training had never fully prepared them for the rigors of packing through the thick Borneo jungle, and their skin had no natural immunity to mosquitoes. It was rather early in the day, then, that they found a patch of ground open enough to suggest a clearing for a campsite. Miri was stunned—her tall prisoner was untied and given a parang. She could hear a guard grunting a few words that sounded like Malay, and could see him gesturing with his rifle. The soldier understood and began to cut down the bamboo stalks and swath of banana leaves needed to make shelter.
Here is your chance! thought Miri. Take it! Do it now. A quick thrust and then into the jungle. You will lose them so quickly and I will find you!
Her heart raced as she wanted to think for him, to act for him, to put her thoughts and her cunning into his spirit, but she could only watch in frustrated silence as the tall one obeyed his captor, and made shelter for the Japanese. They confiscated the parang when he had finished, and tied him once again to the others, who huddled at the edge of the clearing. Darkness and rain were slow in coming. Eric Madrigal D’Cruz, the tall prisoner with the handsome face, wondered if he was still being watched.
It had been two or three hours since he had last seen the jungle woman. At first he could ascribe no motive to her behavior, but then a parasitic thought fed upon him. She was not following them. She was following him. He was being stalked. He knew of the Ibans. He knew what they did.
Before the night blackened completely Eric could see most of his companions were dozing off. Exhaustion and pain had done this to them. He, too, wished that he could sleep, but the events of the day still churned in his head. He had been conscripted along with his brother Joseph, just months before, hastily trained, and in Sarawak on the island of Borneo for less than two weeks. Indeed, it was on one of their very first patrols earlier in the day that they were captured along with six or eight others, including two British officers.
They were just disembarking from their motor launch a few miles upriver from the settlement, not yet really alert, thinking that any contact with the enemy would occur deeper in the jungle. They were wrong. The Japanese were waiting for them. As the last of the Malayans stepped off the skiff, the Japanese simply stood up in force from the cover of the thick underbrush along the banks of the river.
With all the weapons trained upon them, and with only a few yards between themselves and the river and absolutely no cover, they surrendered without a shot being fired. Their radio was tossed in the river and launch was scuttled. They were quickly marshaled over a small hill where they joined other prisoners taken days earlier to the east. It was clear that their comrades had already been ‘interrogated’ and were suffering badly from the ordeal.
Eric listened as a fellow soldier with a swollen eye and scabbed forehead quietly told him that they were being marched inland to a secluded internment camp. It was a holding tank, he said. When the camp reached its capacity, they would in all likelihood be marching again, this time down to the sea. All of them had heard about the railroad in Burma, and the Japanese obsession to complete it, and the rumor was they had been spared to work the line.
The Japanese were anxious to get away from the river. The area was thickening with guerrilla units of British and even Australians. And, earlier in the week, the Japanese had found the remains of one of their own soldiers, badly mauled and partially eaten, the work first of predator and then of scavenger. The head, vacant from the shoulders, had clearly been severed with a knife.
That very day a soldier guarding the rear as they marched simply vanished. The disappearance was so effectively accomplished that the prisoners continued to march for almost a half a mile before they even realized he was missing. It was after that incident that the prisoners were linked together, with the coarse hemp that sanded raw their shoulders and throat.
Rumors of Iban headhunters worked to the advantage of the freshly captured prisoners, sparing them from interrogation on the spot, while in such dangerous territory. But interrogation would surely come, and soon, while whatever information they might possess was equally fresh…
Eric tried unsuccessfully to will himself to sleep. The woman who followed them was surely Iban. She had to be stalking him. Still, he was confused. He was certain he had seen her smile at him. He tried to reassure himself. It had been several hours since he had last seen her.
The sun stopped falling when it reached the tops of the trees, the network of branch and leaf too finely woven to let it drop any further, and there it remained like a golden egg in a nest, fading as indigo crept silently into the abdicated sky, and shy stars began to reveal themselves above the treetops. The first rain of evening washed any traces of light still trapped beneath the canopy, and the world became very, very dark, a private blackness known only in the jungle of Borneo.
Exhaustion had infected everyone and was more potent even than fear. The prisoners fell together in the open, oblivious to the light blanket of rain falling upon their shoulders. A single guard stationed himself beneath a large meranti tree, while others of his kind slept in the small shelter Eric had made for them. The sentry examined the sky and adjusted his cap, which was slightly torn at the brim. Much of the rain was deflected by the contorting branches above him.
To the sentry’s way of thinking, they had made good progress during the day, and it was highly unlikely that the British would attack at night. They would be helpless to navigate, assuming they even had word yet that they had lost a patrol. The British would do the sensible thing and wait until morning to follow, for although the jungle was difficult by day, it was absolutely horrifying at night to those unaccustomed to its power.
But the Ibans … that was another matter. The sentry adjusted his cap again, nervously. There was no way of telling if they were still in Iban territory, and very little was known of their ways. They were told that Ibans had a natural prohibition against killing by night, that the soul of their victim could escape in the darkness. But it was an unreliable rumor, extracted by torture from a Dayak. The uncertainty kept the sentry awake, and a battalion of mosquitoes kept him alert. With his bayonet he provoked the small fire to flame and smoke—the flame by which to see his prisoners, the smoke to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
The prisoners were certainly less of a threat than the mosquitoes. Cinched together as they were, one could not move without starting a chain reaction that would rile them all. No one dared move, even if they fell from the branches of sleep into wakefulness. The sentry reasoned that the narrow trail that led back to their point of origin would be impossible to follow at night. To submit to the wilderness alone would be almost certain death, and he was sure there were no heroes in the lot. Any will power that may have survived their interrogation would certainly have been suffocated by the stifling trek through the jungle.
The rain let up, just a bit, and the sentry re-stationed himself at the bottleneck to the trail, a demonstration of cunning, he thought, if by chance one of his own sleeping comrades should awaken and check on him. He squatted on his haunches, and could see that all his prisoners were asleep but for one, who was staring at him with terror in his eyes. The sentry congratulated himself on inspiring the appropriate fear, and smiled sardonically as he lit another cigarette.
Smiling, too, was the daring Iban girl who stood erect not three feet behind him. She had never left, and from over the shoulders of the sentry she gestured to the spellbound prisoner to keep silent.
Eric closed his eyes and swallowed hard, afraid he would give her away. He opened his eyes and was equally startled to find the girl had vanished once again, just as the sentry inched his way backwards to lean against the accommodating tree. The night was an hour deeper into darkness when Eric felt the hands of the invisible one upon his spine, slipping like a bead of rain down a leaf to his hips, where his hands were bound. A small pocketknife, courtesy of the dozing guard not fifteen feet before them, was taking tiny slices at the coarse hemp, and in a few moments his hands were free, and blood surged through his aching wrists once again.
He could feel reassuring hands ease their way between the back of his neck and the loop of rope that sand-papered across his skin and left it burning, and in a moment, the jungle woman cut him free of the noose. He kept his eyes straight forward, on the sentry, and all the while Joseph slept with his head on Eric’s lap. The Iban girl cut Joseph free, too, without his even knowing it, complying to the subtle but urgent gestures from the man she had chosen to rescue. Eric awakened his brother cautiously, certain they would break the fragile sleep of the guard.
But it was an elusive mosquito that woke the guard, who abruptly slapped his cheek to kill the tiny predator. At this, the guard convinced himself that he had not really been sleeping at all. He stood, and stretched, and a cursory glance to the clustered shadow of prisoners told him that all was in order.
He stoked the fire once again, and fueled it with a few small branches peeled free of wet bark, before returning to the relative comfort beneath the tree. It would not be until daylight that he would discover that there were two fewer prisoners in his charge.
Upon soil that had never been dry or even felt the sun, Miri, Eric and Joseph slithered off into the insatiable darkness. More time had passed than distance, but Miri sensed that it was safe to sit up and confer, if only in whispers. The language of the Ibans was like Malay, though heavily salted, and the girl even spoke a few words of English she had stolen on forbidden adventures into the delta settlement on market days.
Her instructions were basic, terse. Be silent … Follow me … Do as I do. They could stand now, the camp was a half an hour behind them, and Miri led them for another half an hour through trail-less underbrush. Very little distance had actually been covered, for no light had been trapped under the canopy at sunset by which to maneuver, and the moon, obligated to glow for heaven, spared little of itself for the world beneath the tree tops.
“We’re lost,” Joseph whispered to his older brother. Miri turned around, dumbfounded that they would leave a trail of words hanging on the leaves for anyone to follow. She put her hand over his mouth, until he understood, and then she turned and stepped into the first water pooled under branch and vine, a swamp. Their clumsy escape route had left a trail so obvious to her Ibanese thinking that even the Japanese could follow it. The swamp would put an end to that, or at least slow them down. She doubted that the Japanese, who needed shelter from rain and even oil against mosquitoes would willingly immerse themselves in these wretched waters.
It was well past midnight, Eric reckoned. How can she see in this darkness, he thought. Apparently she knew what she was doing and was never more than an arm’s length ahead of him, and his brother never more than an arm’s length behind. No one spoke, but they all shared the same thought, now. Snakes.
They were chest-deep in black water, each agonizing step sucked them into the mud. Only the network of overhanging branches kept them from sinking into death, and they pulled themselves forward. Each branch in the harness above them seemed too delicate to support their weight. They would hold one branch firmly, while testing the next, and their progress was very slow. Eric groped in the darkness above him, guided only be the sound of the woman ahead of him. His fingers located a looping branch and as he shifted his weight the branch contracted within his grasp, when he felt it slither, not really a branch at all. He let go his grip and started to struggle and sink, but Miri had reached the incline at the bank of the swamp, and was able to seize his wrist while she stood in shallow water.
“Aeihh!” In the darkness and panic Eric thought her grip was the jaw of the snake, and he flailed at the water. Miri held tight and threw herself towards the bank before losing her grip, but her momentum put Eric into shallow water and Joseph managed to pull himself ashore by reeds bent down in his brother’s confused struggle.
Miri threw herself upon Eric to stop his thrashing, but it felt to him only like the snake was pulling him down. Miri backed off and let him play it out, angry at the noise he made. “Hush!”
In the darkness Eric scrambled for the sound of the voice. He could make out the form of Joseph and the girl, and fell towards them. “A snake!”
“Yes, I know,” said Miri. There was no point in explaining. Eric was panting and she let him catch his breath before she spoke again. “Stay here. I’ll be back for you.” Eric was on his back and raised himself just enough to nod, and Miri slipped back into the swamp and was gone.
“My God!” said Joseph. “Who is she!”
“I have no idea, but she was following us all afternoon.”
“She won’t leave us here, do you think?”
“I should think not. She went through bloody Hell to get us out of there!”
“Eric! She must be Iban!”
“Of course she is! What do you think!”
“I’d rather take my chances with her than with those Japanese buggers! She saved us, didn’t she?”
“Yes…but for what?”
“All I know is we’re dead men if she doesn’t come back. I can’t get us out of here, even in daylight.” Eric was right.
“Where do you think she went?” asked Joseph, his eyes scanning the darkness for any hint of movement.
“She had a kit with her earlier, and a spear, I think. She must have stashed it somewhere.” And on this score, Eric was also right. In about twenty minutes Miri returned, having covered the ground that had taken the three of them together over an hour. She had retrieved her backpack and weapons, and the two soldiers stood as she approached, almost as if standing for review.
“We’ve got to find higher ground,” she said, clearly the one in command, her language halting but not her intent. She led them away from the swamp, and the ground became firmer under foot. Mercifully, they passed under a waterfall, which washed them of the bad waters of the swamp that left them wanting to peel off their own skin. Taller trees thinned out, and a thin sliver of moon guided them up an escarpment. They reached its peak—at least a hundred feet, reckoned Eric— and pivoted to see below them the dew of the moon, the damp, silver glowing mist, conceal all but the tallest of trees.
Rain showered briefly and stopped, and in the interlude between perils Eric had his first moment to study the courageous girl who freed him. She was clothed only in a beaded loincloth, and she was not only brave, but beautiful. A hint of moonlight revealed that. Her shoulders were smooth and round, and her hair, long and wet from waterfall and rain, clung to her skin and concealed her breast. Joseph was watching her also, staring, really, and when Eric noticed this, he himself turned away, uneasy.
His skin still itched. He scratched his forearm and then by moonlight he could see the new horror. He had picked up a swath of leeches from the swamp, they all had. He began to slap and dig indiscriminately, and Joseph did the same. Miri tried to stop them, but they were oblivious to her.
She turned to her kit, and shot a word at them like a dart from a blowpipe. “Stop!”
For a moment they were stunned, and in that moment to their amazement she pulled out a tin canister, something made by a machine, in which she kept dry a small block of salt, bargained from the Chinese in Miri. She broke off a small chunk and ground it with the butt of her parang on a flat rock, and she sprinkled a few granules to a leech on Eric’s forearm. The leech instantly retracted its slimy barb and fell writhing to the ground.
Miri broke off another chunk of salt and handed it to Joseph, but she attended to Eric herself, curious to feel his skin and reward herself for her audacity. She pulled his wet shirt over his shoulders, and his lanky form glistened in the moonlight. He was thin, but muscular. She drew her hair behind her head and bent down to unlace his boots, and Eric was immobilized. No woman had ever done that.
Joseph struggled with his own boots, and undid his trousers. Leeches were everywhere. Eric was still unable to move as Miri undid his buttons and tugged at the leggings to his pants. He huddled over in his nakedness, and crossed his arms over his manhood. Then Miri worked salt over most of his body, and gave him a crushed handful to treat his more private parts.
Not until all the leeches had dis-engorged Eric did Miri tend to herself, and then, as an afterthought, she handed him some salt and turned her back and gestured for him to salt the leeches beyond her reach, as she had done for him. Moonlight and raindrops had transformed beautiful bronze skin into beautiful silver skin, the skin he had been invited to touch. He felt himself drawn to her, and quickly diverted himself, with words.
“I … am Eric,” he began tentatively. “Eric Madrigal D’Cruz, and this is my brother, Joseph.”
“I am Miri,” she said unhesitatingly, “daughter of Jon the Poet.” She assumed that everyone had heard of her legendary father.
“I am … we are ... very pleased to make your acquaintance.” He was halfway through his formal introduction before he realized how silly he sounded. The woman had just saved their lives.
“Do they know we’re gone?” Joseph asked of her.
“They were all asleep,” she said.
“I think the Sergeant Major saw us,” said Eric, “but our people would hide it as long as they could.” Eric could see by her alert responses that she understood English, though she spoke it with hesitation. She clarified herself at times with a word from her own language, so close to Malay. He became aware also that she let her eyes wonder freely, everywhere, and he was suddenly quite conscious of his nakedness. He turned as properly as he could, stood up and pulled on his trousers, cueing his brother to do the same. The girl seemed either quite at ease with her own near nakedness or oblivious to the impact it had on the two young soldiers from the Malay Peninsula.
Their escape was a scant three hours old, and they incredibly had covered only half a mile. Miri permitted no more talk, and as soon as their boots were laced they proceeded down the backside of the escarpment, to the fringe of thick vegetation once more. Miri insisted, once more, that they crawl beneath the underbrush, rather than trampling it and drawing attention to their trail. After about fifty yards she deemed it safe to stand. They were under the trees again, the canopy so dense that even the sickle-shaped moon could not slice its way through. But the jungle itself seemed iridescent, magical, glowing from within.
The brush twisted itself together in every direction, and Miri handed her pack and spear to Joseph and Eric, freeing her to clear a path with her parang. Eric’s admiration for her grew when he shouldered her pack. This is heavy, he thought, and how she managed to be so nimble and quick through the brush and trees and still carry all her gear amazed him.
“Forgive me,” she said, when she first raised her blade.
She looked at him and realized that he probably did not understand. “At night, the spirit of the jungle climbs up through the roots of the trees and grass to hunt. It will bleed if it’s still in the leaves … but I have to do this.” She let fall the blade and made passageway for them. For this sacrilege the monkeys who until then had been sleeping in their harness of vines and branches scolded her, and birds made flight to inform the gods. And if, by chance, the gods were uninterested in the news, the Japanese would surely know in what direction to begin their inevitable pursuit.
The trio had not gone far before Miri realized that this would not do. She could not remember ever needing to chop a path for herself. On her own she could slip through the jungle like a stream, disturbing nothing, stopped by nothing. But it was different with these two behind her. The monkeys above would not stop screaming insults, and Miri brought everything to a halt at the base of a rotund meranti tree, and waited for the silence of the tree dwellers, who seemed to be on every branch, on every tree, but mysteriously vacant from this tree alone.
She gazed upward and slapped the trunk a few times with the flat side of her parang.
“What is she about?” whispered Joseph, not wishing to break her concentration.
“Damned if I know,” said Eric, speaking no louder than necessary.
Miri slipped her parang back in its scabbard and began an effortless ascent. She was soon out of sight.
“Gone up to get a bearing, I should think,” said Joseph.
“In this darkness?” Still, he could think of no other reason for her to make the climb. She’s an animal, he thought. Maybe she sees in the dark. A few minutes passed.
“I’d sell my soul for a cigarette about now,” said Joseph.
And a beer, mused Eric, but before the thought became words he heard the snapping of the branches above him. Something heavy was falling fast, and he and his brother hit the ground and shielded their heads, just as the convulsing body of a python at least fifteen feet long fell between them, followed instantly by its neatly severed head, the size of a husked coconut.
In a few minutes Miri was on the ground again. Her parang was in its scabbard and she casually informed them “We sleep up there tonight.”
“In that tree!” whined Joseph. “You’re not getting me up there!”
“Do what she says!”
“No! I’ll take my chances on the ground!” The dead snake had stopped twisting.
Eric took the first branch with a little help from Miri. “Don’t be stupid! Get up here!”
Joseph was resolute. Stubborn, thought Eric. He will die, thought Miri, but she turned her attention to Eric, and led him higher into the tree. It was quite safe. There was room for them to sit together on a huge branch halfway up the tree. “How did you know about the snake?”
“No monkeys in the tree. Has to be a snake. I see him when I slap the tree and he moves his head against the moon.”
Amazing woman, thought Eric. Her thigh was pressed against his own as they sat.
“Come,” she said. “A little more high.” She had found a hollow in the trunk on her first climb, deep enough for her to stash Eric. She wedged him into place with her spear, to keep him from falling forward in his sleep, before she herself climbed higher.
She had much to think about, as she hung her pack on the stub of a broken branch, and found a limb that faced the direction by which they had come, by which the Japanese would come. She was angry at herself for having made so much noise, though the night had absorbed much of the sound. And then there was the dead snake at the base of the tree. It could not be long before the scavengers would come in, and, in turn, the predators. But her two soldiers needed light to make their way, and maybe even sleep, and she had no choice but to wait for dawn. The tall one is so handsome, she thought. My father will be so proud. I hope he lets him live. For a little while, at least.
She draped herself over the limb, like a tiger, and settled down for the evening, ending the day as it had begun, nesting in the rungs of God’s own ladder.