Two For Tanner

Page 11

I suppose I dreamed. I didn’t sleep, but exhaustion and the narcotic agent of the betel nut combined to produce something that could only be categorized as a dream. My mind slipped into new channels, part memory and part fantasy. I had long, silent conversations with myself. I closed my eyes and let an endless parade of images play through my mind like a surrealistic movie. It lasted for quite a while. At any time I could have stopped the dream by opening my eyes and sitting up, but the dream was pleasant, and I more or less controlled it, as one is said to be able to do when smoking opium. Eventually I did sit up and open my eyes and spit out the remains of the betel nut, and the dream went away, and I waited for the sun to rise and for Dhang to wake up.

We spent the following night by the side of a swiftly flowing stream. We caught several small fishes, dug a hole, wrapped the fish in wet leaves, then put them in the hole and covered them with a layer of earth. We built our fire on top of them and let it burn for a long time. The fish baked beneath the fire, and when we pushed it aside and dug them up, they were perfectly cooked, tender and flaky and delicious. We ate well and talked of women, and then Dhang slept while I treated myself to another betel-inspired dream.

By now our conversations were devoted almost entirely to sex. Dhang would say, “Tell me about the women, Evan,” and I would feel like George telling Lennie about the rabbits. But I would talk, and he would listen intently, interrupting now and then with a question.

Dhang’s original approach to lovemaking was only slightly less primitive than the jungle around us. As he understood it, one located a woman, threw her down on the ground, removed her panung, kneed her in the stomach until she opened her legs, and then raped her. If one had a wife, of course, matters could be more simply managed; then one’s woman submitted voluntarily to rape, and force was unnecessary.

The concept of mutual cooperation in lovemaking was a new one to Dhang. At first he didn’t know what to make of it and was not certain whether or not I was telling the truth. For a while I felt like a Peace Corps worker explaining the American governmental system to a Borneo tribesman – at first my listener thought the whole business was unnecessarily complex and then he began to realize its infinite possibilities.

So I taught him as much as I could, given the circumstantial limitations. One of these was language. While my command of Siamese was fairly good, there were certain words that simply do not turn up on Lingua-phone records. I made do by teaching Dhang the English equivalents. He had the excellent verbal memory of the illiterate; when one cannot rely on reading and writing, and when one’s mind is generally uncluttered with excess facts, one learns to remember what one hears. So Dhang learned the English words for the more interesting parts of the body and the functions they performed, and, since it seemed unlikely that he would ever have to worry about conducting himself properly in polite English-speaking society, I didn’t bother teaching him euphemisms. Instead I taught him good old four-letter words.

Of course there was another handicap. For the time being, as long as we were stuck off in the jungle, his education was hopelessly academic. It was a little like learning to swim in the middle of the Sahara desert. On the theory that a picture was worth a thousand words, I scratched occasional pornographic graffiti in the earth with the tip of the machete. But a live model would have been worth at least a thousand pictures, and I had the feeling that, unless we found one soon, Dhang would begin frothing at the mouth.

Still, he slept well that night. Perhaps the betel nut helped. By the time he awoke the next morning, I had caught fresh fish for breakfast. We ate, washed ourselves in the stream, and pushed onward. For a stretch the jungle trail was overgrown to the point of impenetrability, and we had to hack our way through a dense cover of vines and shrubbery. But eventually the growth thinned out, and we made fairly good time again. By midafternoon we reached a large clearing in the jungle, the village Dhang had told me about. Some forty huts were pitched around the perimeter of the clearing. In the center all manner of activity was going on. A youth was carefully slitting the throat of a buffalo calf, a trio of old women were washing clothes, and another woman was grinding rice to paste for the preparation of rice cakes. The village came to life at our appearance, with men emerging from the huts, most of them armed with spears or machetes.

Siamese was not spoken here. Dhang talked with one of the village leaders in a dialect of Khmer. I could not follow the conversation completely but managed to catch the gist of it. Dhang explained that we came in peace, that we were not bandits, that we had destroyed a bandit camp to the south and were forced to flee for our lives. This won us a good deal of sympathy. He went on to tell how we were attempting to rescue some black persons who had been recently captured by the bandits. If we could enjoy the hospitality of the village for the night and if we could be informed about the black people whom the bandits had abducted, we would be eternally grateful and would offer up prayers for the souls of all the villagers.

The chieftain clucked over this and said that he had heard of the black persons and had not believed that they existed. He looked covertly at me and said that he had seen white persons before and thought that they were most unusual, but of course he knew that there were such persons. He had never known that there were black persons, however. Yet he had heard of black persons only recently and he would be glad to summon the villagers together to find out what was known about them. But in the meantime he suggested we relax and sample the hospitality his humble village could provide. As we could see, he said, it was an evening of feasting; they had slaughtered a calf to celebrate the first night of the Week of Tears and Sighs, which commemorated the death by fire of the infant sons and daughters of the gods. There would be meat for all that evening, and speeches and singing, and rice cakes and betel nut, and it would honor them that we might participate in their celebration.

“Feasting,” Dhang said, translating for me. “And women, one can see that this village overflows with women. Look at that one!”

He pointed at a plump young girl, perhaps sixteen years old, her panung covering her primly from her ankles to her waist, her lovely yellow-brown breasts peering out between silky strands of jet black hair. She looked our way, stared, then giggled musically and ran away. For a moment I thought Dhang might run after her, but he somehow managed to control himself.

“You will abandon me,” I said to him. “You will enjoy the embrace of one of these women and you will not assist me with my search.”

“That is not true, Heaven,” he said. He still had trouble with my name, but he got it right about half the time. “That is not true. You know that I am your friend and that I have sworn to come with you.”

“I treasure your friendship, Dhang.”

“But perhaps we can linger in this village for an extra day. It would not mean so much, a single day. A day to exhaust ourselves with the women, and then we can continue with the search.”

It seemed reasonable enough. The village chief had evidently decided that our coming on the feast day was providential, and that we were thus to be considered guests of honor. In that capacity it stood to reason that Dhang would be furnished with female companionship for the evening. With two nights and a day to sow wild rice, he would be able to travel again and would be unhampered by the frustration that was currently knotting him up.

Of course, if he ran true to form, he would be as intent upon talking about what he had done as he now was upon talking about what he had not done. But that would at least provide a refreshing change of pace.

“We will stay,” I said, “until the morning after tomorrow morning.”

“I am grateful, Evan.”

For the remainder of the afternoon we had the run of the village. I exchanged my panung, which had grown rather filthy, for a clean one. A villager admired my American shoes. After a couple days of walking sockless through the jungle my own admiration for the shoes was considerably qualified, and I was happy to exchange them for a pair of open sandals. I knew enough Khmer to carry on rudimentary conversations and as I wandered around the village I got the hang of the particular dialect they spoke there. I wasn’t exactly fluent in it, but I could make myself understood and could occasionally understand the replies to my questions.

No one had the whole story on Tuppence and the quartet. No one had actually sighted them, but various villagers had been subjected to various rumors from men of other villages and other tribes, and the result of collating different bits of data was something like this – four black men and one black girl had been held captive by a band of notorious bandits. The bandits were not of this immediate region, but had come from the northwest, evidently in Laos. They had stolen down through the Thai jungles to make their capture and were now returning from whence they came.

Curiouser and curiouser, I thought. A kidnapping by Thai guerrillas made a certain amount of sense; Tuppence and the musicians could be used as pawns in some maneuvering between the guerrillas and the Bangkok regime. But why would the Laotians be interested in snatching a quintet of visiting Americans? I couldn’t figure it out.

I was still puzzling it out when the feast began. The slaughtered calf was run through with a spit and roasted over a roaring fire in the center of the clearing. The entire population of the village sat in a circle around the fire. As guests of honor, Dhang and I received one eye and half of the calf’s brains, along with a couple of rice cakes and some vegetable stew. Dhang seemed to enjoy his food. I had never tasted anything so profoundly revolting in my life. I ate everything that was given to me, as a proper guest of honor should, and at the conclusion of the meal I wandered off into the jungle, far out of hearing range, and spent some twenty minutes vomiting.

I returned to the village. Everyone seemed to be having a marvelous time. On one side a storyteller was amusing a gathering of children. Across the way a crowd of men and women sang and danced beside the fire. An old man sat on his haunches, playing odd music on a hollow reed.

And Dhang had gone off with the first girl he had pointed out, the plump little topless one. I saw the two of them in the doorway of one of the huts.

“You and I,” he said in Khmer, “phuck,” he said in English. “Purick in cunat.” He cupped her breast, stroked it, kissed her mouth. She seemed puzzled. He undid her panung and pulled it off, and he divested himself of his own panung, and he rolled on top of her, and she rolled out from under him and screamed, and all hell broke loose.

The elders of the village immediately surrounded him. The girl was led away by an old woman, and the men pointed their spears at Dhang and seemed prepared to kill him at once. I ran through the crowd to his side. He stood with his mouth hanging open, naked, defenseless, his only weapon a spear designed for another sort of combat entirely.

“So this is how you repay hospitality,” the old chief said scornfully. “You gorge yourself upon eyes and brains and do thus in return. We treat you as emissaries from the gods, and you behave as devils.”

Dhang was babbling that he had never had a girl and would die if he did not get one soon. It looked as though he might die regardless. All around us voices rose up in anger. I tried to get through to the chief, but I had trouble making out what he was saying. Perhaps the girl was a priestess, I thought, or someone else’s wife, or something of the sort. But why should that so profoundly disturb the entire village?

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.