The Courtesans of God, Chapter Six

The river which God thickened with mud to slow the advance of time

Two Malayan Regulars! This had the makings of a very good story.

Literati,

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Chapter Six

 

The first to be relieved by Miri’s appearance was the milk goat. It trotted happily to her side and conveyed its annoyance at the two young boys who had been “hunting” it all day long as it rambled freely about the village in search of discarded vegetables.

“Miri! Be careful!” The smaller of the two boys raised his spear. “It’s a tiger!”

Miri looked sympathetically at the trusting goat. “Ayuh! I never see a tiger with a bell around its neck.”

“We put it there to warn everybody when she comes!”

“Good idea. Hey, you think maybe she want to eat these two?”

“Maybe. They look pretty skinny.”

“I know,” said Miri. She looked over her shoulder to see Joseph and Eric making half-hearted attempts to smile bravely at her two cousins, Abo and Atai.

“Why you didn’t come back last night? Everybody is looking for you,” said Abo.

“…And your papa is plenty mad!”

“I was hunting,” said Miri, her voice playful. “Just look what I caught.”

Caught, thought Eric. My god.

The two boys, whose combined ages could be counted on two hands, raised their pointed wooden sticks with mock valor. Forgotten was the “tiger” that trotted ahead on the widening path, no doubt causing panic within the village.

“Prisoners!” concluded Atai.

“Yes. Of course.”

At this Abo, the ferocious four-year-old, took up position in the rear. He

knew all about prisoners. A quick jab to the buttocks would keep them in line! Miri started up again, while the other little warrior ran ahead. Miri’s arrival was already sending ripples down the long corridor, that bloomed of ripening vegetables brightly lit with sunshine.

Their current settlement was on the fringe of the highlands, and crops did quite well. Higher from the valley floor, the Melanau had a very slight breeze to keep them cool, and an abundance of streams in which to bathe and catch fish, and the underbrush did not have the stifling density as it did further down the slopes. This was home, and it was not at all unpleasant.

With Atai proudly dancing and skipping in the lead, and Abo dutifully bringing in the rear, Miri and her two finds marched through patches of yams and sweet potatoes, neatly fenced off to keep out the goats and small, wild deer that were so abundant on the slopes. Chickens scattered in every direction as they marched, and butterflies and swarms of fluttering children joined the entourage. Squarely ahead of them at the end of the clearing Eric could see the only structure, the long house held in the sky by a network of a hundred stilts.

By now, everyone knew that Miri had returned. When dusk had arrived the night before, and Miri had not sauntered in, a few of the elders had begun to take notice. And when the dusk caved in to the weight of the black night and she still had not shown, no one could invent a believable explanation for her delay. They worried about her, as one. The entire kampong had been sleepless, and at dawn Miri’s father had sent out the trackers.

And now the women, and the men made fragile with age who had been stooped in the gardens stood as Miri approached, with that cocky walk of hers, and they followed behind her. Two Malayan Regulars! This had the makings of a very good story.

The commotion could be felt all the way to the long house, and a few of the dogs, then all of the dogs, began to bark. The veranda began to fill from the many doors that faced the approach. Thirty or forty people had come outside to investigate the noise. A young girl who had been running ahead of them was calling “Papa! Papa!” and she ran up the steps, skipping two at a time, and scampered across the veranda and disappeared through a doorway in the center of the house.

Miri’s moment of triumph, one of so many, youthful triumphs, was upon her. She walked forward in as manly a way as she knew, strutting and swaggering, making herself bigger with each step. She brought her entourage to a halt in the open space ten yards from the long house, and planted the butt of her spear in the ground. She did not speak—no one spoke—but she growled once at the dogs that inched towards her prisoners, and the barking stopped. Then, in the void, she called, “Papa!”

She had an audience on the veranda above her now, all leaning on the rail for a better look. What has that girl done now, they thought.

“Papa. Come look!” He knew, of course, that she was waiting. I will keep her waiting just a moment longer, her father thought to himself. From the private shadows of his room he could see her, and he exhaled deeply, expelling the worry that had been feasting on him through the night and mid-morning.

“Papa!”

Still, he hesitated. Let her see that I am not overly anxious about her late return, he thought. He eyed the two limp soldiers standing weakly behind her. He stepped to the threshold of his door, in the direct center of a row of at least a dozen doors, and all eyes were now upon him.

Eric nudged his brother, and whispered.

They couldn’t make out his face. A half a dozen wind chimes dangled and spun in the slight breeze, hung from the beam that supported the roof, obscuring the man about to make his entrance.

Eric watched the hypnotic sway of the wind chimes, lulling his exhausted senses. Then it occurred to him—the chimes were soundless. He squinted in the bright sunlight, and stared up into the dark shade of the veranda for some time before he could focus….

…Not wind chimes at all…

(“Oh my God!…Joseph!)

(“Yes! I see them, too!”)

Jon the Poet stepped through the narrow opening of his room, taking his place, the place of a chief, among those crowding the banister. He suppressed a smile. His favorite daughter had returned unharmed. He leaned forward on the rail, gripping it with two very powerful hands, the natural conclusion to his very muscular arms. Making room for his vast shoulders, he delicately slid the tether on the rail above him, on which hung not a wind chime, but a head shriveled to the size of a man’s fist. “Where have you been!” he bellowed, convincing everyone of his wrath except the one he intended to scold.

“Hunting, of course.” She stood her ground. Miri could see him studying her soldiers.

It was an easy situation for Jon the Poet to assess, and he didn’t really need an explanation from her. The soldiers would be in her company only if she had stolen them from the Japanese, and she would have taken the long way home to avoid being followed.

“You better come up inside,” he said, begrudgingly.

Miri smiled to herself. She had been forgiven.

Jon the Poet pivoted and entered his quarters without waiting for her or looking back. He grinned when he stepped inside and no one could see. Safe! And with two soldiers in tow!

Miri looked over her shoulder at the two brothers. “Come on,” she said, without much passion. Eric could feel in his heart that this was not an instruction, but an order. He did not comply; he obeyed.  Old women and young girls poked and tugged at him as he and his brother trod up the steps behind the jungle woman and into the den of Jon the Poet and his many children.

His quarters were no different from any of the others, in spite of his exalted position. The floor was made of loosely fitted planks of either ulin or banquiri, two very durable woods but hard to cut. Several layers of woven mats spread upon the fairly level floor, and they could be conveniently rolled aside for housecleaning, which consisted of sweeping dust and leftovers from the afternoon meals through the cavities in the floor to the pigs corralled directly beneath the dwelling. It was terribly efficient. A hole in the corner served the same function for human waste.

The floors were strong enough to support a slab of flat stone in a corner, on which a flame, small but constant, squatted on its haunches beneath a slowly boiling kettle suspended from a tri-pod. Jon the Poet had already assumed his place in the opposing corner of the room and took up his pipe, when his daughter entered. Joseph and Eric still had the notion that the woman might somehow be their protector, and stepped in behind her to avoid the inquisitive stings of the tribe that had swarmed upon them like mosquitoes. Several small children wormed their way through the crowd and entered the chamber without invitation. The smallest boy nestled by Jon the Poet, his father, who stroked him lovingly.

“Well…” he began, “it looks like you have had quite an adventure.” He started his pipe.

Miri relieved herself of her pack and set it down before her, and sat down. She tugged at Joseph and Eric to sit as well, and before she began her tale a middle-aged woman entered with an urn and tin cups. She had taken it upon herself to cook and help raise the children Jon the Poet had sired after his wife died. She smiled at him as she knelt down and ladled out a serving to her chief. He took a sip without taking his eyes off the two bewildered strangers.

“Have some of this,” said the man with the pipe, and the power. He didn’t bother to ask his daughter if they could understand dialect.

“Thank you, sir,” said Eric, who had been handed a cup. He sipped, as did Joseph. It was like swallowing hot daggers, and the Jon the Poet was amused as he saw their faces boil.

Miri began her tale. It seemed so unremarkable to her that she embellished her heroics to hold her father’s full attention. She kept him spellbound. Everyone crowded outside the door to hear, stood flesh against flesh, parting only to let in more children. Miri was talking too rapidly for Eric to understand every word, and he began to feel the brew he had swallowed confiscating whatever was left of his senses. He was oblivious to his cup being filled a second time. And a third.

“Stand.”

It took a moment for Eric to realize that he was being addressed. He had no idea that Miri, who had finished her tale, had just surrendered his fate and that of his brother to Jon the Poet. The chief wanted a good look at them. Eric stood and faced him. Burnt air filled the room and the chief continued to make smoke with his pipe. Joseph also stood, but Eric realized that Jon the Poet was more interested in him. He had always drawn more attention, even as a boy, for being so tall. He did his best to stand rigidly, as if at attention. No one, including Jon the Poet, had ever seen anyone stand that way. It was so strange. It seemed so unnatural.

Eric’s gaze slipped through the smoke and he inadvertently stared at the Iban sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him. Deep purple tattoos rippled across dark brown skin when he moved, each tattoo documenting an important event in his life. And, by this measure, Jon the Poet was a very important man.

As a young man he had been well loved and respected, even by those outside his clan, for his beautiful singing voice and his way with words. He could mimic almost any bird that sang, and he entertained everyone at night with ballads from their own mythology, half spoken and half sung. He was so disarming that he was often chosen to arbitrate disputes within families or among quarreling friends. He would sing the solutions to their disagreements, invoking the spirit of the animals or birds whose voice he had assimilated, so that his judgments were very well respected. Song, music, was the tongue of God.

One day, long ago, his clan, the Melanau, had a disagreement with a neighboring Iban tribe regarding hunting territory. Each of the tribes did their best to respect the territory of others, and would not trespass. But one hunter had pursued a boar, a large male, for almost half a day, following a trail of hoof prints and droppings.

The boar had entered Melanau territory, but it seemed reasonable to the hunter that since the trail originated within his own tribe’s domain he could rightfully pursue it.  And this he did.

He found his boar, dead. Jon the Poet was extracting a dart from its hide as he approached.

The hunter insisted the boar was his. Jon the Poet diplomatically informed him that he himself was meant to have the boar, and in his narrative of song and story he explained how in a dream the night before he was visited by a hornbill, who had promised him a successful hunt if he would follow in the morning. The bird materialized that dawn and led him to the place of the kill, and instructed him to wait for the inevitable arrival of the boar.

The errant hunter listened passively to the story, but continued to insist that the boar was his, that it strayed falsely into Melanau land. It was the fault of the boar, not his.

Jon the Poet listened to his explanation, and repeated his own claim, to the hunter who was becoming increasingly agitated and rude.

After hearing Jon the Poet’s best song, sung in his best voice, with his best intentions, the hunter could not agree that the freshly killed boar belonged to anyone but him.

And so Jon the Poet, with his best song, sung in his best voice, explained that his best intention was now to kill the hunter, which he did reluctantly, but promptly. He returned to his village with the boar, and with his first head, the wind chime that swung on the veranda outside his door. In a few weeks time he was declared chief, without much ceremony but with general good will. His first tattoo immortalized his courage soon afterward…

Eric began to totter from the concoction of fear and fatigue and very strong drink.

“And what shall I do with you?” mused Jon the Poet out loud, though he had already decided.

Eric was stunned. Jon the Poet spoke English. A man with a child on his lap, and with a passion to kill. So civil, thought Eric. And he’s going to kill us.

Do with us?” His wits momentarily returned. “My people will reward you for saving us!” He felt suddenly hopeful.

“Yes. I suppose they would.” He stood and went to his window, and plucked a cluster of rambutans from a branch that brushed up against the longhouse. He tossed it to Eric who almost caught it, and walked over to stir the flame-scorched cauldron. “But what have they got that I do not have?”

The last thing Eric remembered before passing out was a head that oozed to the surface of the cauldron stirred by Jon the Poet, who hummed himself a tune.