"The Rainforest" by Michael A.W.Griffin

The noise of a helicopter reverberated from side to side of the river valley. Downdraught from its threshing blades ruffled the leaves, animals and insects, whose existence was separate from the forest floor, thirty metres below. A dead tree moved and crashed into its fellows spreading the grey graffiti of rotten wood onto the bark of living trees, spilling out nests of great centipedes and spewing into the air myriads of termites, like coffee beans. A tree squirrel, hearing the commotion, stretched wide skirt-like flaps of skin and floated down to a safer bough. It gazed at the carnage with bright eyes glittering, aware of change but showing little fear; trees often fell. Their fall left temporary spaces, enabling seedlings to feel the sun's rays as they struggled upwards, competing to fill the breach in the canopy.

The helicopter's passage, no longer a rare event over the rainforest of Batu Apoi, did not deface the Jungle canopy permanently but did leave a visible trail. Following the line of flight, swathes of leaves vibrated in the northern mangrove swamps. Among the swaying treetops, metre-wide fruit bats floundered in the folds of leathery wings, their daytime sleep disturbed. Sunlight flashed on the bright plumage of a kingfisher, soaring to a new perch and butterflies rose in clouds from the water's edge. Hooting gibbons and chattering monkeys fell silent, wary of the unknown, as the machine – with its camouflaged back and yellow underside – competed with the python until passing from sight. When the noise waned, cicadas returned to their frenetic abdominal shrieking, fearful of losing contact with each other and the forest asserted its dominance over all.

The helicopter, one of His Majesty the Sultan's army fleet, carried the Flying Doctor to an otherwise inaccessible longhouse some miles deep in the forest. Below, the rippling, tawny river moved through channels carved by torrents of water cascading from surrounding tree-decked slopes. Recent storms had engorged subsidiary streams but a single boat moved purposefully, avoiding those places where there were submerged stones at crossing-places or landing-steps near isolated, stilted dwellings.

The young man in the boat glanced skywards at the whirring monster, more with a continuing curiosity than the awe he'd felt a few years ago. He had first seen the flying machine crouching, silent, in a clearing near Koh's longhouse, after one of the lallang-cutters slashed her leg. She bled so badly that the Bomoh had prepared for her death. Word of her plight spread many miles to a district often visited by the machine and it came to save the girl. He didn't understand such magic but, since then, if they weren't too sick to endure a two-day walk through miles of jungle, others too were cured by the machine and the white-coated people. Things were changing so swiftly, the longhouse elders worried but as Koh said, more of them lived now to express concern.

The youth shifted his position and used his paddle to fend off broken branches, which impeded the passage of the small craft. Two river prawns in the bilges hid under a reed bag until his bare foot moved it. He was too preoccupied to notice them struggle for another sanctuary, crawling frantically over each other. Eventually they settled under a bundle wrapped with plantain leaves and tied with rattan strips.
Prawns, fallen from the drying tray

"Kampong Boys" by Mai Griffin

The water swirled, yellow with silt, as the current pushed the boat past the nipah palms towards the big river. The boy thanked the Gods that, although old and scarred – made by men of the village in the time of his Grandfather – it was still a strong, solid dugout. Beyond the tree with the pendant wild-bee nest and the trailing lianas, another tributary brought down clearer water from a jungle-covered ridge. Nearby, the Longhouse of Koh stood proudly. It was not as large as his father's, only eleven doors in the great hall, but was well built with new attap thatch. Strong wooden planking led to the jetty on the riverbank where the children played whilst their mothers and older sisters washed clothes.
Four days ago, a crocodile had risen from the reeds and taken one of the women. Seizing her leg, in long, leering jaws, the buaya pulled her into the depths below, where silt bubbled with the gases of rotting leaves. No part of her was found but, after the second dawn, a piece of her batik sarong was seen, stained and torn, trapped among tangled roots, near the junction of the streams. That is where he would place his bait, he decided, and then he'd float down-stream to wait. When the moon had crossed the sky and dawn came, he would take the head of the buaya.

The clear notes of a bellbird's song rang out as the dugout swung on the current and the afternoon sun burned down on him. Where the two streams met, cicadas screamed in the tall meranti tree. Straddling its web-like roots, a bright green lizard eyed a brighter blue fly on the surface of recently trapped rainwater. The new pool already seethed with insect life.

The force of the main river had slackened considerably, making it easier for the youth to move away from the junction. He steered to a partly submerged trunk and fastened a cord to a sturdy branch, paying out slack to let the boat ride on the current until the line was taut. Yawing gently, it then stayed in the centre of the stream.

For bait, he'd taken five live fowl from the strings tied to the stilts under his father's longhouse. They had been tethered next to a trussed deer and wild pig, his contribution to the feast at Koh's – should he be successful. His people would still feast on them, even if it was to mourn his failure, but he would not be there to join the dancers. After severing the heads, he had folded the fowl in wide strips of banana palm. Now, unwrapping the bait, he threaded one carcass onto an iron hook to which, halfway along its length, a rope was fastened. If taken, either the hook would penetrate as it struck, or the shaft would jam across the beast's throat. He tore the palm leaves into narrower strips, used them to tie the other dead birds separately onto small bamboo rafts and floated them into the wide space where the streams met. Each float, with its feathered bundle, had a line to the hook and a trailing streamer of rattan mooring it lightly to up-stream bushes.

Baits set, he slapped the water three times with the flat of his paddle and spoke quietly – first to the river spirits, then to this particular crocodile. He reminded them that this was inescapable destiny. The young hunter did not doubt that the beast he sought was the killer – the one that must be taken, before other women and children were seized. He completed the tribal hunting courtesies by acknowledging the forest spirits; performing with the confidence of a shadow player, he had absolute faith that the deities watched and listened. Having done all he could to solicit support, he released the dugout to float a little way downstream where he re-moored and settled to a long vigil.

The young man's name was Tedong. Unlike his brothers, his ears weren't pierced by boars' tusks and he used few ornaments although his hair, dressed with coconut oil, was long. Its black strands gleamed from much combing by Koh's daughter Tepi when preparing him for his mission. Women were not party to all the ancient rituals but she knew he must succeed. She had lingered in the shadows below the longhouse when Koh, in his position as Pawai, their chief, asked Tedong, "How many enemy heads hast thou taken?"

The words were said jokingly, almost with embarrassment – the government had banned the Hunting many years ago – but all knew the rites performed by their forefathers before being recognised as men. Tedong had understood and raised his eyes to the beams. There, the smoke of the longhouse fires continued to darken the rattan baskets in which, huddled among the roof-timbers, their stained, sightless contents grew even browner. The human skulls were like dark, grinning gourds. Tradition still required them to be brought out as gruesome ornaments for Great Feasts. Catching this killer buaya would prove to Koh that Tedong was a man and he knew, when near Tepi, that being a man, for her, was equally important.

Just before dusk, two helmeted hornbills flew over him and perched in a dead tree at the water's edge. The white spattered branches told Tedong clearly that, for them, this was a favourite place. His ancestors had treated hornbills as Gods and, even though the great brahminy kite had now taken over the role of avian deity, it was good luck to start a hunt with the tajai as friends. Their cackling laughter and exchange of opinion took his mind off the hunt and he lay in the gently rocking boat, half-dozing until dark.
His thoughts, mostly of Tepi – her smile and her firm body – were interrupted by visions of the spirit calendar at his father's longhouse. It was carved into the entrance post to which the notched-log ladder was fastened. Twelve months, each with the same number of days, were scratched there providing a guide to the approved activity for every day. Some squares pictured parts of the scorpion, each warning of disaster. Nobody would undertake a new venture on a scorpion day. Today however, the calendar showed two circles – the sign of fruit. It was a good day to receive gifts, to sow rice or to marry.

Dreaming of Tepi and their marriage, Tedong lapsed into a hunter's sleep.

He awoke to hear splashing.

It was dark, with the deep velvet darkness that descends after the moon goes. Had the crocodile taken the bait? It was impossible to find out safely until dawn. Stretching his limbs, he waited, but every nerve was tense as he strained to listen beneath the forest noises. A distant nightjar clucked. Nearer, he heard dead branches dropping into the swamp as monkeys stirred ... a sound similar to the splash of a crocodile sliding from a bank. The plopping in the shallows was probably spear-like mangrove pods falling, to stand upright in the mud ... or had a snake released its muscular grip on an overhead branch and fallen close to the dugout?

The noises changed with the coming of the dawn and in the faint light, he saw a small bird, with long, white, streaming tail-feathers, crossing above him. As the flycatcher swerved away into the green foliage Tedong knew it was time to act. Uncoiling a length of hand-made rope, he fastened it to the head of a spear. Using his hilang, a long knife with a deer-horn handle carved in the shape of a hornbill's head, he notched the spear shaft deeply, near its barbed metal point. He was ready.

Slipping the mooring, he paddled against the current towards the junction. Although the eastern sky was golden, the early shadows were long and the riverbank still dark below the thick undergrowth. Even drawing near, it was not easy to understand what had happened; he saw none of the baits with their feather tufts. Then a shaft of sunlight suddenly revealed yellow mud, bloodstained feathers and the remnants of a raft. Approaching the bank, he saw the tracks of a large monitor lizard... so that explained the splashing in the night! The great lizard had robbed him of his bait – just as his kind often stole from under the longhouse. He looked over the water but saw neither the other rafts nor their rattan trails. Had the interfering lizard dragged them all into the tangled roots of the swamp? Tedong was perplexed, the calendar showed only this day as good for hunting before the omens turned against him... and even the tajai favoured his side of the river. What had gone wrong?

Paddling disconsolately away towards Koh's longhouse, believing the hunt to be over, he noticed a trail of rattan floating on the water. At first he assumed it had been released after the lizard's gorging, but it was moving slowly, against the current. It was his marker... the crocodile must have taken one of the baits. He prayed aloud to the spirits as strong strokes of the paddle brought him alongside. Grasping the rattan strip, he pulled it hard and sharply, to strike the hook, and thirty feet away the water boiled. He gazed in awe as a broad, pale-yellow, saurian throat twisted and threshed to the surface spilling water into the rocking boat. Then the crocodile lunged suddenly to the bottom, trying to break the line.

Tedong paid out and drew back the line and, feet braced against the dugout's side, he yanked the hook and bar, feeling it cut deeply into the monster's flesh. Now, paying out slack, he went forward. Now, straining every muscle, he pulled back. As it lunged away he let go, as it rested he gathered in the coils. The forward thrust and urgent dragging caused him to slip on the wet wood. Everything hindered his bare feet – spare spear, pieces of rattan, woven matting – and he’d thought he had cleared everything for this battle, expecting it to be hard and long.
It seemed hours before he saw the lighter underside of the crocodile. It reminded him of the helicopter, looking just as large. Frenzied, it twisted and turned in the frothing silted water, attempting to attack the thing behind, the thing holding it back. Tedong, almost in a trance, felt remote. He reacted by instinct. Aching muscles, cuts and bruises, were all acceptable trade-off for his moment of triumph. He had to win.

The distance between the adversaries grew shorter. During the struggle, Tedong slipped, slid, ached and scarcely noticed the bleeding cuts on his hands and feet. When the beast was within a boat's length, he grabbed a spear and looked for the yellow of the throat or stomach. He struck, felt the barb hold and, hauling as hard as he could, he brought the brute nearer until the fury of foam and waves rocked the dugout. A massive scarred flat head with open jaws snapped past him. A huge meaty tail lashed at the boat … feet with outstretched claws seemed everywhere.

Tedong was straining at the line when the beast suddenly rolled towards him and he slipped again in the wet boat bottom, losing his grip on the slackened rope. Kneeling, he recovered to see the crocodile trying to free both left legs, which had caught in the slack; it was unbalanced; the river spirits were with him after all. He pulled the lines tight again and although the creature continued to rake at the boat he sensed that its struggles were less... he knew the buaya was his. The fates were surely not so cruel as to deprive him of victory now.

The beast yielded slowly until it was snapping alongside and Tedong slipped a noose over the top jaw. He worked it behind the streaming blood-flecked nostrils then quickly put a loop of cord under the lower jaw. The snapping was replaced by snarls as the teeth of each jaw pressed into the sockets of the other. Tedong grasped the nose feeling the power of the neck muscles as he slipped another noose over the long slavering head, all the time the claws gouged the boat but this gradually became more desperate than vicious. He succeeded in binding the forelegs, looping the cord and tightening it across the broad, ridged back.

The same had to be done with the rear legs and it was hard to avoid the threshing tail, still pounding the water and the boat. The rasp-like leather of the prehistoric skin added another weapon to an already powerful armoury but the fight was ending. Although throaty bellows still escaped through its clenched jaws, the turmeric-coloured eyes glazed as Tedong paddled to the muddy bank where the lizard had eaten. Mudskippers moved quickly out of his way, watching him with their periscopic eyes. He was ankle deep in swamp as he dragged his trussed trophy across the wet earth and finished the hunt with a single thrust from his hilang.

Tedong rested on his haunches to recover from his exertions and scanned the green canopy, aware that the whole forest was silent, its occupants awaiting the outcome of the battle. As his own heart began to beat normally, the jungle gradually came alive again. First, with distant gibbon cries then, in the meranti tree, the cicadas vibrated to a new crescendo. Butterflies appeared from nowhere to swarm on the acidic mud where the beast had died. Had they been hovering above, waiting for the fight to end? It wouldn't have mattered to them who died. If both fighters had survived, the beautiful scavengers would have floated above the river until the sharp stench of urine, from a stand of water buffalo, provided an alternative place to feed and adorn. The excitement had made him light-headed but the slap of water on the boat's hull brought him back to reality. He dragged his trophy back into the water and secured a towing line before the mud released the dugout to drift away.

Echoes of the fight still filled his ears as he started to paddle upstream to Koh's longhouse and Tepi. Before he could be seen, he paused to cleanse himself of blood and perspiration with river water. He pulled off the leeches that had attached themselves to his feet and pressed leaves over previously unnoticed wounds. They were unimportant; the scratches would heal and the aches would soon leave his muscles. Tonight, wearing a woven rattan war-helmet with black and white hornbill plumes, he would be transformed … how he would strut, carrying the ceremonial hilang with its silver scabbard, wearing the clouded-leopard coat and bearing a painted shield. He imagined the tense rhythms of the tribal musicians becoming more urgent until the blow that killed the great buaya was re-enacted. Everyone would clap and cheer – the old men drinking, smiling toothlessly and remembering their own triumphs. Later, Tepi would lead the girls to take his coat, shield and sword. They would rub oils on his body and all would be tending only him. He'd be excited, anticipating… Tedong looked up into the branches of a flame-of-the-forest tree, where the bellbird sang again. Surely, there was no more beautiful or enduring place on earth than his rainforest.

After only a few minutes, the bird's melodious call suddenly stopped. At the same moment, the cicadas checked their strident screeching. A deep hollow gurgling sounded from the direction of the next tributary upstream. Wondering, Tedong paddled towards the noise and, rounding the river bend, he saw a powered launch with its squat nose thrust into the riverbank. Three Chinese men in vests and shorts were off-loading long wooden boxes over the bows to the bank, where two more were building a shelter using bamboo poles and blue plastic sheeting.
Tedong was fearful. The bright colours and strident voices of the people disturbed him. He was unused to seeing so many strangers. The nearest town was many hours paddling down the main river. Those who came were usually Malay youths exploring or fishing, who waved as they moved on up-stream. The few who stopped to visit were always welcomed into the longhouse – the occupants were vigilant but always hospitable, so why were these intruders building huts?

The engines of the launch kept the big boat's prow close to the bank. Exhaust fumes gurgled at the waterline as the stern rose and fell while the sweating labourers unloaded boxes and large cans. Tedong lingered upstream, as near to the activity as the undergrowth would permit, without revealing his presence. The elation of the hunt had gone completely. Now he felt hunted himself and didn't know why.

The launch swung away as the last box was added to the pile on shore and Tedong stared at the black-stencilled symbols on its side, not understanding them but memorising their shapes. They reminded him of a scorpion's nest and he sensed, in them, a threat that would change his life...

Again, he didn't know why. His head throbbed.

On each case was the legend, 'International Chain-saw Company'…

© M A W Griffin1996

oilpainting by Mai Griffin