I found myself following the ebony-skinned, strangely-clad man over a trail that was only faintly distinguishable through the thicket of low hanging trees. We were now at least three miles away from the small village where Dan and I had spent the previous night, and the distance was beginning to trouble me. I had a feeling of danger in me; it had started as only a faint alert in my gut, but now my entire body felt instinctively on guard against unseen nemeses. I reasoned to myself, every great story to tell has danger entwined in it. I kept up with the briskly walking native man. It certainly wouldn’t be wise to let myself lose the only ally I had in this impossible forest.
We had set out on this trail because I inquired, through translation, of course, about the cause of the peculiar behavior of a few of the other natives. It had impressed me, much more than it had Dan, when we spoke to two native men at the entrance gate of the village, and were told precisely what our emotions and thoughts were. How could those men have known those things? They were good observers of people’s feelings. No, that’s not right; Dan was mistaken. The native man now leading me was our volunteered guide, and he had told me that the only way I could understand was to see for myself what the source of their power was. This place had a name, but our translator told me that there were no words to put it into English. He seemed apprehensive to speak even its tribal name, Por Lucimot, so I asked if there was something bad about the place.
“It is not for the faint of heart, and it is not to be visited by outsiders, for certain.” My, how dramatic! The translator did confess that no one had ever been killed or even hurt at all, aside from minor injuries incurred from accidents over the dense jungle, when visiting the place. I wasn’t about to be kept from an adventure without good reason.
Before beginning on the journey, my guide insisted that we go to visit an elder at the back of the village. We went into the man’s very small round shack, which was decorated with red-and-white-painted dried, round leaves, about the size of a dinner plate and evenly distanced across the outer walls. The leaves each had a different symbol; I couldn’t see anything recognizable in the symbols, save for the one to the right of the door, which resembled a white eye with a red pupil and red tears falling both up and down from the corners. The top of the shack was unique apart from all the other shacks in the village. It had what appeared to be a short round chimney built into the middle; all the other shacks had flat roofs. The inner shack was very plain, the walls only the bare mud and dry leaf mixture all the other shacks were made of. As I entered, there were two elliptically shaped mats on either side of the floor. They were died crimson. Immediately across from the long-leaf composed door was a box constructed of small sticks and a dark colored twine, and it was covered with a thin slab made from the same long leaves as were tied together for a door, but they were caked together with mud similarly to the walls of the structure. There was no hearth to explain the chimney, but the ceiling, too, was unique. It was completely covered with some sort of thatch or canvas-like material, and there was a flap which was held over a circular hole in the ceiling covering by a round-ended, curved stick which was placed through a line of large button-size holes that were cut along one third of the perimeters of the opening and the flap.
The elder wore only a loincloth and had around his neck two clay and twine necklaces. His head was cleanly shaven, and his face was bald, also. The man, who was of the estimated age of about 37 or 38 years, appeared to recognize my guide, who bent at the waste and faced the hardened dry-mud floor. I did the same. The elder spoke a few syllables to my guide, and he rose from his bow, and motioned for me to do the same. The elder spoke again, and my guide responded with what was probably about five sentences worth of gibberish; my translator stayed back with Dan at the family shack hosting us honored and cherished guests. The youthful elder seemed to be pleased at my guide’s words. He directed us both to sit on the two mats on the floor, my guide at the elder’s right, and I at his left, as he faced the now closed leaf door.
The elder, whom my guide had referred to as Kotunka enough times for me to catch the name, opened the stick box and withdrew a small clay jar about the size of a canned soda. He removed the top from the jar, setting it on the floor, and placed his forefinger inside, with which he brought out a small mound of white powder. Kotunka put the jar down on the floor, next to the lid belonging on it. He lifted my guide’s face by the chin and lined his forehead and the bridge of his nose with the powder. He then did the same to me. After this, he picked up the jar and lid, combining them properly, and turned again to the box behind him. Kotunka exchanged the jar for another, larger jar. From this jar he drew out, in a similar fashion as the powder, a red dye. It appeared that it might have been the same dye used on the large round leaves adorning the outer walls. He applied the dye to our faces just as the powder, but this time drawing the line horizontally under our mouths, above our chins. The red line on my guide’s face extended just past the corners of his mouth and then sharply turned downward at each end, for the added length of only about a centimeter. I presume my paint was drawn the same; as it felt to be the same. Kotunka returned the dye as he had the powder, and then dusted his hands with the previously retired powder before turning back to us. He touched my guide’s shoulders and kissed his head. His face hovering just above my guide’s head after the kiss, he spoke what sounded to be a question to my guide.
“Apum. Tet lovani.” My guide seemed to confirm Kotunka’s question. Kotunka left my guide as he turned to me, and my guide stood and walked out the door. I’d have liked to follow, but I was pretty certain that I was not supposed to leave yet. Kotunka touched my shoulders as he had my guide’s, kissing my head, and spoke the same question to me as he had my guide.
“Apum. Tet lovani.” Kotunka laughed heartily immediately after I spoke. Confused, I looked up, and, still laughing, he lifted me by my right arm, and motioned for me to step outside. The ritual seemed to be finished. It had taken about five or six minutes, I thought.
It had occurred to me when I figured out Kotunka’s name that I never actually learned my guide’s name. When he had greeted us the day prior, he had made it very clear to our translator that he had been appointed by the elders to guide us during our visit to their village, and had thereafter directed all of our transactions so readily that it hadn’t occurred to me to ask his name, and he’d never offered it. I wanted to know now, though, particularly if I was to set out on a journey with the man. When I cleared the door of the small shack and returned to the sunny wilderness, I was relieved to find my guide waiting, watching the door for my exit. He looked inquisitively into my face for approval of the just passed errand, so I smiled to him.
“Wait!” I exclaimed, as my guide had already begun to turn to lead me away. He did, exhibiting confusion across his brow and eyes. I pointed to the shack and asked, “Kotunka?” My guide nodded. Great. I then pointed to him and asked, “You?” My guide shook his head and frowned. Of course, he thought I was declaring his name to be “You.” I tried again. I motioned again to the shack and said again, “Kotunka,” this time not awaiting a response. Then I pointed to my chest and said, “Alex.” He already knew my name. I paused for a moment, to see that he perceived my meaning; he did. I pointed at him, and did not speak.
My guide showed understanding in his eyes and chuckled with embarrassment for not having understood earlier. He said, “Apum.” Now I was the one who was embarrassed. It was clear why Kotunka had laughed at the end of the strange ritual. My cheeks reddened, but there was no way I could relate the cause of my embarrassment to Apum.
Apum did not seem concerned with my apparent condition, and proceeded to resume his lead onto our journey. “Long way,” he surprised me with a few words of English. He led me through the village as we’d come, and we passed near my temporary residence, but did not return to it. Instead, we continued on toward the gate. We didn’t exit the village through the gate, though, but we did exit the village. Just past the gate, along the dirt street that crossed in front of it and against the perimeter of the unsettled jungle, were two mud mounds built up about three feet apart, each with round painted leaves attached, similar to those attached to the elder’s building. The mounds had trays built from sticks and mud attached just below the leaf signs. Between them was what might have been the mouth of a rough path. Apum removed a clay and twine necklace from the two he wore, and laid it on the tray of the right mound. He removed the other, and gave it to me, motioning that I do the same as he had, at the left mound’s tray. I did. Apum stepped over the threshold ahead, with me right behind.
Apum was a lean, but strong-looking man. He wore just a dark colored loincloth as all the men in the village appeared to wear. His black hair was curly, and cut to stand only about a centimeter from his scalp. Apum seemed to have a perpetual energy that was, at times, very tiring. His pace at this time would have been annoying, but, in fact, I was as eager as he to reach our destination. “Long way,” he’d said. I could hardly keep my patience.
The path we were on was hard to see, but not terribly strenuous to cross over. Apum seemed to know very well where he was going, so I was not concerned. After covering what might have been a quarter of a mile, I observed that the sunlight was cutting through the foliage overhead much less efficiently than it had only minutes earlier. In fact, it appeared much as night around us. I looked down at my wristwatch and pressed a yellow button on its side. The face lit up to display two twenty-seven. The day was yet, and there was no storm to be heard nor smelt. A faint alert beckoned from my gut; something wasn’t right.
I estimated that we had traveled about three and a half miles from those two mounds of dried mud that held Apum’s necklaces when the forest opened to expose a stick-built structure under a blue-black, starless night sky. The building was of slightly larger size than most of the shacks in the village, but it wasn’t made of the same mud compound, and it was unusually tall for a structure of such size, maybe eleven or twelve feet. It was built from sticks and twine. It was shaped as a triangle, and the wall before us had five uncovered narrow doors, evenly spaced across the length of about ten feet. Each door had red dye painted in large spots over them, the middle door with five red spots arranged in a circle above it. It was hard to see if there was any shape to the spots of red in the darkness.
The darkness! I looked again at my watch. It was two fifty-four. It had been twelve and a half hours since I’d noticed the time last, just after we’d started on the trail. That made no sense; we hadn’t traveled that long. I reasoned in my mind’s bewilderment that the best thing to do was keep going along with the warped reality I found myself in, and hope it led back to reality.
Apum stopped at about the moment that I made that resolution, snapping me back into full consciousness, or as close to it as I could be. I looked at him, confused, and said, “What?” I knew he probably wouldn’t understand me, but he might’ve, and I wasn’t thinking about that at the time.
“Alone.” He spoke slow, and with somber discipline in his eyes. I understood, and surprisingly couldn’t muster much desire for fighting him on his command. I walked on forward, and when I was about five feet from Apum he called to me, “middle!” The middle door, I guessed. I just wanted to get the whole thing over with and get back to the village with Dan and the translator. I walked on to the door. As I stood inches from the threshold, I could not but stop, and raise my eyes to the five red markings above the door.
The lowermost was a coiled snake. The lower left image was a calf, drawn with legs to the air. To the upper left was an image of two lines, angled about eighty degrees apart, and joining to form and arrow pointing to the sky. The upper right marking was a star of five points, one of which was aimed to the ground. To the bottom right was something like a raindrop, or a teardrop. As I assessed the collection of images, my entire body felt rigid and apprehensive.
“What the hell am I doing?” I’ve got instincts for a reason, and they were screaming at me to turn around right then. I did. I didn’t question it. I had seen enough to call this an adventure, and it would definitely make a good story with what I already had to tell. For the time, all I needed to worry about was getting back. Back to Dan, who could speak English and hear my story, and the interpreter, who might be able to explain what happened, and, after all that, back home. Apum’s no good for any of…Apum. Where was he? He was nowhere to be seen.
“My God. My G-hhuch.” I lost my breath, and gagged. The air was so thick. I scanned for the trail. It was dark, very dark. I couldn’t see anything. I turned to set my bearings, and found myself completely surrounded by darkness. I could see not even the ground beneath my feet. Panic was beginning to take me. I threw my face at the noir sky and glared widely for a moment, then threw my eyelids shut. I clenched my eyes, raising my cheeks violently and dropping my brow in a lingering lunge to meet them. I gently and very firmly pressed the balls of my palms against my already compressed eyeballs from the outside of all the skin and muscle around them. After holding this exercise for a few moments, I began to see the stars light the sky again. Beautiful white lights of varying brightness across all I could see. My eyes, they tingled. The sensation spread to my head, behind my eyes, and moved in two rivers of nerve spasms through my temples, my ears, and erupting in my ear drums as what must have been the sound of my spirit screaming.
I dropped my hands and opened my eyes. I saw a sky of pure oil. I lowered my head slowly, and saw a collection of yellow stars speckled around my view. Two near in front of me, two a short gap over to the left, and higher, and two more low and in the far right of my immediate sight. I was happy to be seeing anything, crazy or otherwise, and a smile slipped across my face. After a moment, I had to blink. I hesitated as long as I could, but the blink was inevitable. When I opened my eyes again, the stars were still there. The two in front of me were especially comforting, somehow. They were brighter than the other stars. Well, they weren’t really brighter, but they were bigger. Yes, they were bigger. Bigger yet. They were moving. They weren’t stars. As they moved toward me, slowly, they developed more detail. They were elliptical, two horizontal ellipses, a fixed distance apart. I was seeing them in greater and greater detail. As they approached, they fell down my eye line, and I lowered my head to keep my fixed star. I could see two black circles in the center of each star, or whatever they were. What were they? Eyes. I was staring directly into the fierce eyes of some indeterminate night stalker. My right foot was off the ground and inching through the air behind me.
The ground hit me with the full surprise of any solid object that might have hit me in that total darkness. I had tripped as I’d tried to step backward. In that instant the pain in my hip and left oblique muscle were at the front of my mind. My mind was redirected in the next instant. Two more solid objects hit me, and I clenched my eyes. Two equal weights of at least eighty pounds a piece were pressing against my chest. Steam warmed my cheeks and nose. I opened my eyes. Those beastly stalking eyes were returned. Large as silver dollars, they were inches from my face. I lay motionless. The eyes kept their gaze into mine. Mine were closed again. I kept them closed, and the creature did not move, nor did I.
After what I felt must have been twenty minutes, but might have been two, one of the weights on my chest doubled, as the other faded to nothing. Then, the remaining weight did the same. I opened my eyes slowly, and they were the only ones I could soundly account for in my vicinity. I climbed first to lean on my side, turning my head on a stiff neck to assess my surroundings again. I thought I might have seen a glowing red light, and I stood to look at it. It was nine glowing red lights. They were laid out in the same pattern as the markings above the five doors of the triangular structure. Oh, they were the markings above the doors. I walked with newfound determination toward those doors.
After a walk that took far longer than I’d have liked, which is, to say, a walk that took any time at all, I was back at the threshold from which I’d earlier fled. Without hesitation, I stepped through. It was bright. Not bright, but it was lit. Candles on the floor lit the room I was standing in.
I was surrounded in crimson. The walls were of caked mud, and completely covered in more of that red dye. The floors were as the walls, and the ceiling was of the same thatch as the elder’s ceiling, but without the chimney flap, and dyed red. The candles providing the ambient ballet across all I saw were seated all around the perimeter of the room. Six evenly spaced along the floor’s edge at each wall. Two were placed on either side of the line of doors. Five more candles were standing in a line on some sort of simple clay candelabra, a small box shaped item with five round holes in the top, supporting the burning candles. Those five candles lit from the floor before it an imposing statue, located in the corner of the room, where the two doorless walls met.
The figure was a ghastly one. Made of what looked to be bronze or polished copper, it was as a man, but with the head and hooves of a goat. His unclothed body was entirely covered in the same representation of hair etched into the head’s surface. His pose, too, was peculiar. He sat on a bench, or something, which was no larger than his posterior. His feet, or hooves, flat on the ground, he held up his right hand to show his palm forward, with fingers upright and connected. On his palm was an etching. It was the same as the image on the elder’s mud shack, the eye with tears flowing up and down from the corners. The inner engraving was colored. It was colored just as the elder’s sign, but with a black dye, or perhaps burn, where the elder’s graphic leaf had been colored white. In the figure’s left hand he grasped something dagger-like. The butt of the tool’s handle was against his left thigh. The blade was about eight inches long, and almost conical. Its shape was somewhat elliptical, with each end of the ellipse coming to a point, making for two sharp edges.
As I stood in that room, my gaze took commitment to that statue. It mesmerized me, and frightened me. Somehow, that statue had a living presence; I sensed it. I stepped cautiously forward, approaching the goat-man from across the room. As I grew close enough to see them, I looked at, or into, the thing’s eyes. They were red also. More of the same red dye. No. They were brighter. They might have been glowing. They were. I tried to turn my head, to close my eyes, just look away somehow. I couldn’t. I was fixed in place.
I looked away. I looked down at the candelabra, and with my two hands lifted the two candles from either end. What was I doing? I had no idea, but I couldn’t stop. I had no control over my movements. I had little control over my mind. The emotions I should have felt, rage, fear, hysteria, were not in me. No emotion was in me. I was just watching myself move before that statue in some dark dance, wholly detached from myself. I held both hands up straight in front of me, straight in front of the being before me, posing the candles erect and at an even height to his outstretched palm.
My vision went black, but for the light of those two candles. It was dark as it had been outside, but I did not scan the circumference of my position’s view this time. I did not try, though I’d have found it impossible. The lights before me seemed to be morphing. They did morph. They were eyes, much as those of the creature I’d encountered outside. They did not frighten me, though. I watched them, and they moved closer. Closer, closer, in line with my own eyes, they neared. They grew closer yet.
My skull grew warm. From nowhere a wave of heat rippled through my brain, and, thereafter, through my whole. The eyes before mine might have become brighter. They weren’t brighter. They changed from yellow to a yellowed shade of white, but they were actually dimmer. They looked as though they were reflecting light rather than emitting it. I squeezed my eyes tight to focus on the eyes before me. The eyes I looked upon shrank vertically, to match my own muscle movements. They looked, actually, much more like the eyes of a man than they had. No. No! It was impossible! The eyes I saw were my own. Was I now standing before a mirror? I was surprised to find that I had control of my arms, and I reached forward first, to feel for the mirror that I saw in front of me. It wasn’t there. Next thing to do, I tried to slowly and carefully touch the floating eyes that were staring at me, as I at them. Just when my right index finger might have grazed the surface of the right eye, they both were gone.
The sun was throwing its first rays over the horizon. I stared, not at the sky, but at the twin structures being drawn in silhouette from the bottom up. A devilish grin crossed my face. Oh, how regal they were, self-announced kings of the world. They sat in their comfortable cars with their CD’s playing their favorite music, and they drove to their movie theaters, and their gyms, and whatever places they wanted. They made theirs whatever they wanted. They built their happy lives with such ease, all because they gave no regard to will of Allah. They profited from commercial blasphemy and all sorts of sinister unspeakable delights. They built up a government and threw in their moneys, and they sent their governments with their massive well-paid military to watch the rest of the world. They thought they were better, because they were richer. They thought their wealth and self-perceived superiority gave them the privilege to watch over the outside world. They said they would see that we could make ourselves like them, make ourselves better. We were already better, better than them. They would learn.
They would learn the cost of their decisions, of the decadent, sinful lives they led. They would learn soon. The driver of the car I was sitting in asked me what I was thinking. I didn’t know him well, but I knew I could trust him, and he me. I told him, pleasant thoughts; I was thinking pleasant thoughts. I was. The fist of Allah was finally to fall upon the infidels, and they had no clue.
We were coming upon the bridge. My cellular telephone was ringing. It was the call. I took it; the exchange was brief. I had confirmation. I chuckled, but stopped. My driver looked at me through his rearview mirror. His eyes asked a question he could already determine the answer to. My eyes confirmed anyway. He chuckled softly, but more freely than I. I could not refrain then, and exploding into laughter. He joined, though with more restraint. We both knew, then. The infidels would pay.
My head. Ughh. Why did it feel so beaten? Where was I? Someone. There was someone there, speaking to me. They called me “Alex.”
“Alex, wake up man! Are you alright, man. Wake up!”
I opened my eyes slowly. A man stood over me. I was on the ground. The man looked scared. I knew him. He was my friend. He was Dan. I was Alex. He was calling my name, talking to me. Dan, my friend Dan, was talking to me.
“My God, are you okay? Thank God you’re alive. Can you move?”
“I think so. Unckhuh! Mmm. Yeah, kind of.” I carefully lifted my upper body with my arms, the balls of my palms pressing the grass for support, and my finger tips spidered for balance.
“What happened to you? You look like you were in a fight. Where’s that dude, the guide? Did he come back with you? Wait, did you get into a fight with him?!”
“No! No, man, and slow down. Give me a second here, to get my head in order. I was dreaming. It was very strange; I was someone else, and I was in New York. It didn’t make any sense.”
“Never mind the dream. What happened to you?”
“Oh. Right. I was… hmm. I don’t remember very well. I was walking through the forest with Apum and…”
“Apum?” Dan was confused and apparently bewildered by this statement. Oh.
“I forgot, you don’t know. Apum, that’s our guide’s name. I was walking behind him, and I looked down at my watch. That’s the last thing I remember. I guess I must have passed out from fatigue or something, but I don’t remember feeling tired. What else could have happened, though?”
“Yeah, I guess. Why don’t you come inside before we continue, though?” When Dan said that, I looked around at my surroundings for the first time since I’d awakened. The grass under my thighs was the grass in front of the shack that hosted us. This wasn’t where I’d been. Apum must have brought me there. I stood on surprisingly tired legs. They burned, as if I’d been running, and I was already eager to get off of them. I followed Dan’s direction into the shack, and sat on my bed as quickly as I could conquer the distance to it.
“So, where is Apum?” Dan looked at me with yet more confusion.
“I thought you’d be answering that question.”
“Didn’t he bring me here after I passed out?”
“If he did, I never saw him. I just stepped out the door this morning to find you out there on the ground. You looked dead, with that blood on your face. Geez, man, it looks ritualistic, or something. It’s like it’s drawn under your mouth in a pattern. At first, glance, though, it looked like you’d been drinking blood, or eating raw meat, or some crazy thing.”
“It’s not blood.”
“It’s not blood. It’s face paint. Well, it’s something like that. Kotunka did it.”
“Man, what the heck are you talking about?”
“Sorry. Kotunka is the elder. We, Apum and I, visited him to prepare for our journey. He put the red paint and white powder on our faces.” Dan raised his eye line just slightly, apparently noticing the powder on my forehead for the first time. “I feel tired. Do you mind if I sleep, and talk about this later?”
“Oh, no; sorry, man. I didn’t realize. Yeah, we’ll figure things out after you get some rest. I’ll be close by.”
“Thanks.” I stretched across the bed, closed my eyelids, and slept, atop the thin blanket, clothed, and unwashed.
In a round shack apart from the other shacks of the village, Kotunka sat in silent meditation, his eyes shut. On the ground outside the entrance to his shack lay a large stone, which typically rested behind the shack, but for when Kotunka would occasionally move it around to the front to signify that he should not be disturbed. Above Kotunka’s downward facing head, the round hole in the shack’s thatch ceiling was uncovered. The sun shone in, warming Kotunka’s neck and shaven head.
Kotunka’s palms were pressed together and positioned upright against his chest, his fingertips touching his clenched lips. Between his tightly opposing palms was a thin layer of blood, the same tiger’s blood he had used to mark the faces of Apum and his guest. Kotunka began to hum very quietly, varying pitch in a slow, hypnotizing rhythm, and effectually mesmerizing himself.
After the completion of his prayer-song, Kotunka, with eyes still closed, turned his face to the brightly shining sky above him. He disconnected his palms, and held them, side by side, above his face, toward the sky. The blood covering ignited, and burned for about three seconds. From the short-lived flames rose a small cloud of black smoke.
After he felt the active burning cease, Kotunka opened his eyes and lowered his hands, to see the small patch of dark smoke disperse into the sky. As quickly as the smoke was gone, the sky began to darken. The few white clouds occupying the bright-shining sky seemed to grow greyer and larger. A low bellowing thunder rolled, and Kotunka allowed a tainted grin to sneak across his face, as his eyes reddened with the expression of his own inner companion. Across the village, other eyes and lips reddened and curled upon sight of the newly dimmed heavens.
“I still can’t figure what happened to you. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Sorry man, that’s all I can tell you. I’m just as confused as you. Hell, I’m more confused, I expect. And after that dream…geez, I’m just glad to be back to reality.” I’d told Dan about the dream of New York, but I hadn’t told mentioned the other dreams, the ones in the woods. I still had to figure out just what was real, and what was a dream. No. No, that wasn’t it. I didn’t want him to know. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to share that with no one. It was as though something about that experience was infinitely personal and intimate, more so even than any sexual exploit or medical embarrassment. It was deeper. It was, somehow, a part of my soul, and nobody was allowed to see it. I didn’t know whether they were dreams or real experiences, but it didn’t matter. They were mine.
“You still seem kind of out of it. Are you sure you had enough to eat?” Dan offered a plate of the green paste and thin brown sauce that our hosts had provided us. I was, in fact, hungry yet. I’d eaten a fair amount of the stuff, which was actually quite appealing to the palette, already, but my constitution begged for something more substantial. I wanted meat.
“What do you think the odds are of finding some meat around here?”
“I don’t know. They haven’t served any meat to us yet, save for that appetizing insect platter they served at dinner last night, but who knows. This is only our second day here, after all.” Dan was right. It was only our second day there. When he said that, I was hit with the acute realization that I wanted out. More than that, I had to get out of that village. I felt as though I’d been trapped in that village for an eternity, and every fiber of my being was focused on getting out. Moreover, it occurred to me that my desire for meat was connected to my need for escape. I wasn’t going to find any meat in that village without killing an animal myself, of that I was certain. I didn’t have any reason for believing that, but somehow I knew it to be true. I felt so much new knowledge, knowledge for which I had no explanation. I knew a great deal about the people in the village: how they married, their political and social hierarchical structures, funeral proceedings, everything, really. But, right then, I wanted meat.
“Hey Dan, what do you think of heading home?”
“Are you kidding?! We only just arrived yesterday! We’ve got next to nothing to write a report on, unless maybe you can tell me what happened to you yesterday. And, even then, I doubt that’d be enough for us to make the report on.”
“I can’t. Remember yesterday, I mean. But, uh, I think I learned enough from Apum and Kotunka about the villagers to put this report together, no problem.”
“That’s ridiculous! We planned to stay here for two weeks, to incorporate ourselves into their society as completely as possible, so that we could write a report that would knock Dr. Doonesbury out of his chair. There’s no frickin’ way we can do that with one night’s experience. Heck, the only thing I could think of to write about is the food and hospitality. Oh, and that you disappeared with some native named Puma for an entire day, and showed up passed out and naked the next morning with no memory of the previous day, but there are a few mornings from back at the dorm that I might describe similarly. I’ve got nothing on the social system of the villagers here, which is kind of what we need for a Sociology report, don’t you think?”
“I know all about their social system, I’m telling you. Just listen.”
“There’s no way you can have enough information, even if you did nothing but talk to those two native dudes all day yesterday. But go ahead; show me what you’ve got.”
“Alright, their families are unique. Children are rarely raised by their parents, but rather by designated family-like groups, called unkas. Groups of designated adults, composed of two men and two women, operate large homes unto which children are submitted almost immediately after birth. These homes operate as schools where the children learn everything from hunting and farming to sexual practices and religion. They’re urged to be sexually active as earlier as age twelve. They don’t acknowledge couples, and, in fact, discourage sexual exclusivity. They…”
“That’s messed up man. Wait! How did you even interact with native dude at all? Wasn’t there a major language barrier?” I hadn’t even thought about that. I was trying to play this all off as though I’d learned everything I knew from Apum and Kotunka. I was just going to have to play it off with a less sturdy explanation.
“Wow, I… hmmm. I hadn’t even realized. There was something…something happened. When Kotunka put the face paint on us, I guess, was the catalyst. After leaving the hut, the one where we met Kotunka, I could just understand Apum. I don’t know, it didn’t strike me at the time, but I had no difficulty communicating with him. I don’t suppose we were speaking English; I don’t know if we were speaking the natives’ language, or something else. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it before!” It was no less fantastic than the truth, really, but I wasn’t hiding the truth for its lack of believability. I was hiding it because it was too personal.
“Bullshit! Okay, I guess I’ve gotta believe you, but, I mean, crap, man! That’s a lot to freakin’ swallow! How can you not want to stay after something like that?”
“How could I not want to leave? This whole place is giving me the heeby-jeebies, man. I just want to get out, and get back home. I don’t feel safe here.” That was another lie. The village really didn’t bother me, apart from feeling like a cage. In fact, I felt more comfortable even than before in the midst of these villagers, now knowing everything about them. I could even speak their language, but I didn’t see the need to mention that to Dan.
“Well, okay, you make a strong case. Do you think you can handle staying just one more night, at least, so that I can work on my own research a bit?” That would do. I mean, I wasn’t irrational. Well, I guess I was irrational, but I was satisfied that Dan was willing to leave as soon as tomorrow.
“Yeah, I think that’d be okay. If it’s alright with you, though, I’d kind of prefer to stay in and rest today. You do your research; I’ll be here.”
“Of course, man. I expect you want to get your head straight. Heck, I need to get mine straight. I’ve got to do some research, though. I can’t let the entire report be fueled by your research, can I?”
I offered a smile. “No, I guess not.”
The airplane touched asphalt at 9:23 PM CST, in Birmingham. I was still rubbing my eyes clear, having just been awakened by the loud “ding” followed by the flight attendant’s amplified voice instructing the passengers to fasten their seatbelts. She could have let me sleep for that one; mine was still fastened from take-off, since I’d pretty much slept through the entire flight.
Dan, in the seat next to me, appeared much more alert. He was very eager to be home. He’d had some qualms about leaving with no more an investment of time than we made at the village, but after he’d seen what I had to contribute to the project, he’d grown more satisfied with the plan. In the time since I’d recorded all of my knowledge about the remote village, Dan had talked about little else than how impressed our classmates and instructor would be with our results. We were bringing home entirely new information about the village long hidden on a recently discovered island a couple of thousand miles east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. I was bringing home something more, too. I don’t know what it was, exactly, but I had grown somehow through my experience at that village; I could feel it in my heart, in my soul, even.
“We’re home! Alex, we’re finally here! Can’t you just taste the glory? We’re going to make national headlines; I know it. ‘Alabama College Students Explore New World’”
“You may be right, Dan. It’s exciting.”
Kara was waiting at the airport. I wasn’t sure of whether I should expect her, considering the suddenness of our timing, but I had hoped. The smile she beamed at the sight of me was a very welcome sight; and I found energy with which to greet her, even against the jet-lag.
A hug, a long, tight, loving hug, marked the encounter, followed by a polite, close-lipped kiss, in respect to Dan’s presence.
“Tell me how the research went! Did they try to boil you in a stew?”
“I told you, Kara, they’re not cannibals! They’re a completely isolated and self-sufficient society that’s existed for centuries without contact with the world culture we know. They’d have never survived by eating each other.”
“I was kidding, you know.”
“So was I!” That didn’t really make sense, but I knew by a communicative sideways cut of the eyes and a knowing grin that Kara understood me. I was just trying to repeal the minor offense I’d apparently delivered before I made it worse.
“Where’s the rest of the welcoming committee?” Dan had apparently used up his patience for allowing Kara and me a private moment.
“Don’t you mean, ‘Where’s Jessica?’?” Kara teased Dan about his infatuation with our friend, her roommate. It was actually kind of sad, because we all knew Jessica wasn’t interested in Dan, or, really, any singular man. “She wanted to come, but she needed to study for mid-terms,” a ridiculous statement, to anyone who knew Jessica, but nicer than the truth. “The rest of the ‘committee’ must have missed the memo about you’re early return. Good news, though!”
“Oh, what’s that?” I humored.
“You guys made the front page of the school paper this week! Of course, the article said that you’d be there for another week and a half, since, you know, that is what you said. But still, very exciting. So, why are you back so early?”
I explained things to Kara as I had to Dan. I might have been more forthcoming with her, but Dan was with us, and so I had not that option.
Kara was driving Dan and me back to our dorm room in Birmingham, which was about seven or eight miles from Birmingham International Airport, where our flight had arrived. Dan slept in the backseat, giving me some much-desired privacy with the individual who occupied all the thoughts I was then having.
I loved Kara. I loved her as truly as I’d ever known love to be true. We’d been together for over three years, and endured all the fights or confusing trials that had succeeded in killing my previous relationships. The case had been for a substantial while that, when I was with Kara, I felt good, and not in a way that boiled down to lust.
Kara had been with me when my uncle Barton died the previous year. It was a difficult time for me, and, if you’d asked me, I’d have told you that I was in no way fit to be dating anyone. Even so, as I tried to shut her, along with the rest of the world, away from myself, she pushed through my barriers and made me listen to reason. When my heart was numb, she made me feel.
Since then, I’d found myself saving her a time or two, as well, and our souls bonded through all of it. So, by then, when I looked at Kara, I saw my Kara, my love. And, as ridiculous as it sounds to someone who hasn’t known love, I knew that I could survive any blow life might deal me, with her by me to hold me up.
On that day, sitting next to Kara, finally with something resembling seclusion, I looked over at her. As I looked at Kara, my mind would only settle on one thought: sex. It was an animal feeling, and not befitting the emotions I felt—the want, somehow, betrayed the reverence I held for Kara. The inner conflict bothered me, but the winning drive was that of lust. I knew, as a fact, that I could have what my body, and something in a newfound dark corner of my mind, desired, and that was all it took to guide me from there.
Car idling at a red light, I, in one swift, sudden motion, put my right hand around Kara’s left waist, my left hand behind her head, cradling, and my lips firmly against her lips, parting, and entering. She moaned, surprised, and then her hands found a home on the right side of my face and the left side of my neck. The car in the lane to our left lurched ahead, and others followed forward, but our embrace was unbroken. Someone behind us fired their car-horn, and Dan stirred to wake.
“Aah! What the…Hey! What are you guys doing?! The light’s green. People are honkin’ their horns, for goodness! Can’t you wait ‘til we get home for that mess?”
I forced a separation, and settled back into my seat. “Sorry, man, but I guess not. We just sort-of got caught up in the moment.”
“Yeah,” came Kara’s mono-syllabic reply.
My needs were not quenched, but my senses had, for a time, regained control. Something akin to guilt struck me for the advantageous treatment of Kara, but it was matched with a sinister feeling of accomplishment—my small conquest of the taboo had given me a thrill.