And neither of them could realize that they were falling, not only in love, but also into this cavity of misunderstanding.
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“Where’s my brother!” Eric was flat on his back, the floor hard beneath him and the features of the room a-blur. The woman, the girl, towered over him, tall as a tree.
The words fell from her lips, gaining momentum as they dropped like coconuts upon his head. “Oh, my God… What was that drink?”
“Jus’ our drink,” she said, concealing her amusement.
Eric rolled his throbbing head to get a bearing. He was no longer in the quarters of Jon the Poet, but stems and leaves, so close to an open window, told him he was still aloft in the longhouse. The sky was the soft black of midnight. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Not long.” It had been two hours.
Eric managed to prop himself up on his elbows, and at that moment Miri sat down on the floor by him. An infant flame illuminated the room from a corner, and smelled of pitch. Miri gestured to an urn and a ladle she had brought, and Eric looked at them suspiciously. “Water,” she assured him.
“Thank God for that!”
She knelt beside him on the floor, and encouraged him to let himself fall into the cradle of her lap. She held the ladle to his lips, and helped him swallow. Then she set the ladle down and he slipped her cool hands upon his forehead. He could feel her moving, slightly, under his weight. Desire began to growl and murmur in his chest, as it had the night before, when her bare skin was wet and silver in the moonlight. He recalled that moment vividly now. He closed his eyes and saw himself, standing on the escarpment near her, wanting to touch her. And then he heard his mother speak his name, and the vision collapsed.
Miri opened her hands, broad and surprisingly smooth for a woman so coarse, and let her palms drift upon Eric’s breast. She felt his muscles stiffen, and watched his eyes clamp down, as if shutting something out. She stopped stroking him, content to cup her hands over his chest to capture his warmth. She grazed, by accident, over his nipple, and felt its texture change to her touch, becoming firm and almost rough, like the skin of a lychee.
In the darkness of his own creation, Eric saw only his mother. Her unavoidable face was aflame and she tested a rattan cane against the air, assuring herself of its swiftness and sting. He remembered that beating, often. The skin had taken weeks to heal, and though he did not realize it at the time, his mother had forever fused shame to desire, like a scab on a wound, on that afternoon of boyhood curiosity so long ago at the family plantation in Sentul.
But the girl behind him, beneath him, knew nothing of this, and began again to coax the stiff muscles of his shoulders, and it felt desperately good to him. This is wrong, he thought. This is wrong! But at the moment Miri began to withdraw, as she sensed some struggle within him, he astonished himself by reaching up to capture her hand before the moment could escape. He pressed his hand upon hers, encouraging her to touch, and investigate.
He had been holding his breath, the way an animal does that hides in the brush. He at last exhaled, deeply, but only when he could no longer contain himself. He opened his eyes and his mother was gone, and in her place there was only Miri, who stroked him gently, who kissed him lightly, and who offered, without speaking, to let him do the same…
…When next he saw his mother’s face, the black sky had become gray, and the gray sky had become blue. He could see her as she was, years before, with the furious cane in her hand and the outrage in her eyes, and he could see her now, standing at his feet with her dagger looks. But over the course of the night, she had lost her power to shame him, and he dismissed her from the room. Miri was nestled under his arm, asleep, and a thin sheet covered them both. Eric found himself wanting her to be awake, wanting to talk to her, wanting to profess love. He felt very pleased with himself.
Children ran past the door on the veranda. A few of them stopped and peeked in at them, before scampering off to the more important business of the day. Eric heard parangs slashing firewood in the trees behind him, and could smell bananas frying from a room down the way. He waited patiently, then impatiently, for Miri to awaken.
Sparring butterflies entered the room through the window behind him and caught his attention. He could almost feel them fan the air with brilliant strokes of gold and purple. He wanted just then to awaken her, to show her how beautiful they were. They fluttered out and it was too late, but he could feel her begin to move. “Good morning,” he whispered, hoping she would hear. She did not answer.
Please, be awake, he said to himself. There is so much to say.
Sunshine, warm and soothing, had chosen to enter, and investigate. It moved slowly over the sheet that covered them both and it grew stronger, as if pleased by what the two of them had done in the night and rewarding them with its comfort. Eric closed his eyes. It was all too good to be real.
“Good morning,” she said, in her best English.
She was awake! His pulse quickened and his eyes flashed open.
The truth was, she had been awake for some time, but was content to lie in Eric’s arms without speaking. With no intention to arouse or resume their passion, she let her hand graze and explore as she had the night before, and she kissed his flesh here and there before settling back down in the crook of his arm.
“Miri? I…I… I’ve never done this before—with anyone.”
“Done what?” She raised her head and was truly perplexed.
“This?” She genuinely had no idea what he was talking about.
“Yes! Confound it! This! I’ve never made love to a woman before.”
“Oh! That’s terrible! Are there no women where you come from?”
“Well…yes, only…well…” Then suddenly Eric realized the obvious. “You mean you’ve done this before!”
Miri was dumbfounded. “Of course! I’m a woman!”
Eric, who a moment before was certain he had so much to say, said nothing. Miri settled back down in his arms and left him staring at the ceiling. She did not know his age, only that he was slightly older than herself, and she began to wonder how it could be that no woman had ever approached him. She lifted her head, suddenly very curious, and she straddled him where he lay, as if to break his stare upon the ceiling rafters. “But you’re so handsome?”
What Eric did not know of the Melanau, and what Miri could not know of the rest of the world, was that the rules of courtship were reversed. Miri was astonished that no one had laid with such a handsome boy, and had no idea that sex implied some sort of obligation beyond the moment of pleasure. Eric, for his part, was unaware that in the culture of the Melanau, it was the men who remained aloof, and that the women were free to pursue and to bed whomever they fancied. And neither of them could realize that they were falling, not only in love, but also into this cavity of misunderstanding.
What they had done in the darkness, they did once again by sunlight, filling the room with the sounds of their pleasure, so immersed in each other that they were oblivious to the occasional stares and giggles of the curious who passed by the open door to the veranda. When they were done, they settled into each other’s arms once again. I have found my bride, thought Eric. I wonder if breakfast is ready, thought Miri. They began to talk to each other.
“I was wondering…” he found it hard to ask, but the question was slowly killing him. “I mean…you’ve done this before. You would know.”
“Am I…I mean…was I…was I as good at this, as the others?” He was too young to be embarrassed by the question.
“You are so strange, you, and your brother.”
“What do you mean?”
“Last night, before I came in here, he asked me the same thing.”