Kira Dreyer Messell
“Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee.”
Wherever you look, the jungle will deceive you. A venomous snake is camouflaged by moving leaves. A tiger materializes out of nowhere. Half withered leaves drop from tall trees, exhaling a last sigh before they cover the ground. They stir the stillness like flapping birds in flight.
Under all its green serenity, the jungle oozes with mystery. It can swallow and decompose you. In the midst of solitude, the jungle is awake with spirits. They wait behind every corner to confuse and lure you. There’s the Hantu Gala, thin as a pole hovering above the trees with his long legs apart. He’ll squeeze you between his thighs once you pass under what you thought was a natural bamboo gate. And the Panandom spirit waiting to drown you in the deepest part of the river as you quench your thirst. The Hantu Punjut takes children lost in the woods. They will never come back, which will teach them not to stray, though they’ll never get a chance to use their new insight.
Belian knows them all and claims to control them. As a bomoh he too considers himself a species of the woods and master of all things living in his wild garden. Every plant has a purpose and every animal its specific role to play. Even the spirits are part of the great chain of being. If you introduce crops from the outside villages, they will either be smothered by the indigenous plants or merge with them to create more diversity in our diet. Belian believes that every species has the potential to absorb foreign matter and change. It is all part of evolution, he says. Whatever succumbs in the jungle will quickly be replaced by something new. Take Sambar, for example, Belian’s faithful servant and adopted son. Abandoned in the jungle as an infant, probably by a single mother, he has now replaced Belian’s dead son. And what about me? Didn’t I literally fall out of the sky just to prove his evolutionary theory and help him foster his project?
Right now Belian is preparing his dramatic performance while he waits for obedient Sambar to bring home tonight’s prey. Belian will make our guest see what he wants her to see. Smoke blurs the facts. Darkness envelops his stage. The moon shines through swaying trees for illumination. It will be captivating.
I blend in with the jungle and watch Sambar play his flute. He doesn’t know I’m following him. The small clearing has been picked well and makes his music resonate amongst the trees, which obscures where it comes from. And there she is. Catch of the night and my new apprentice. The youngest till now and hardly more than eleven years old. He has lured her from a village wedding. Satin shoes and a pink tulle dress shine against Sambar’s earthen colours. Silly girl. She looks around, already lost. Sambar circles around her and plays tunes of longing. The music imitates the sounds of the jungle; a bird’s call; the growl of a tiger. Sounds that mirror the mysteries of her surroundings. Sambar’s notes float in the wind and glide down his narrow shoulders, long hair and lean body. Rhythms travel across the ground and crawl along the spine of the jungle and up through her satin feet. His gaze follows. Sambar has stared at the muddy river and the gnarled tree trunks until his eyes reflected their colour and depth. It’s too easy to drown in them, and most girls are blind to their own foolishness. Did she not listen to the women’s tales? Don’t go into the woods alone; never follow a stranger; girls who stray from the path will lose themselves. To her left the river, to her right the hills. The sound of water echoes against the cliffs. From my branch I sense both her reluctance and a childish curiosity. The smoke emerging from Belian’s settlement deceives her into believing her village is near.
Lianas wreathed with poison ivy weave a portal to our hidden home. Sambar leads the new girl through the night. Belian has heard the flute and is ready for tonight’s visitor. The girl will be attracted by the beat of Belian’s tambourine, matching the rhythm of her own heartbeat. It will give her a sense of reccognition. Once they reach our settlement, she’ll be met by Belian’s small body stomping around the central bonfire chasing his own shadow. Gutteral sounds, coarse chants and high-pitched singing follow his staccato dance. Belian has earthen jars of ground turmeric and hematite. For dramatic effect, he paints his face with yellow stripes. His curly hair is flattened by a tiger’s head, its pelt falling down his back like a king’s robe. With his broad flat nose he looks like the tiger’s dark fragmented twin. A loincloth made from softened tree bark hangs around his hips. Around his neck a leather band with animal teeth looks like an extra broad mouth. The better to eat you. Smoke from the central fire covers the area in an invisible ominous cloud. It circles around the singing birds and lends them angelic forms. The pebbles peeping out from the ground sparkle against the fire like precious stones. Belian is a master of deceit. When the sun rises and smoke lifts off the ground, the glittering stones turn out to be nothing but morning dew on hard sand, the musical birds are simply caged, and if you listen carefully, you realize their songs are desperate cries.
Belian has baskets full of colourful jungle birds. I weave the baskets from wild pandanus while it’s Sambar’s job to call the birds out of the sky. They land on Sambar’s shoulders, tilt their heads and tune in to his melody. Out of nowhere comes Belian and caresses them with a large hand. Snap, and faster than a blink, the other hand wrings their necks. Only the prettiest are placed in my baskets. Lately, he has taught me how to weave larger bamboo cages for the girls. Belian has cages full of village girls. Always adolescent girls, he says, because they’re still soft and can be molded. Just wait and see, Belian says, they will change to mirror their surroundings. To look like you.
“Once you’ve outgrown your wings I will let you out,” he tells them, “just like Sayap.” He doesn’t tell them that I was never caged. I was sixteen when I first came here. I don’t know how old I am now.
When I first met Belian he was leaning over me while I gained consciousness. He grinned, revealing pointed teeth filed triangular. I tried to move away from his too dark face too near my own. I had heard stories in the village about cannibalistic Negrito tribes and saw myself roasting over a slow fire. Belian only took me to his settlement, wrapped my broken wing in soothing herbs and bandaged it with palm leaves. Then he pointed towards the sky. A V-shaped formation of birds flew over our heads. He grinned again, blood red betel juice colouring his teeth, and thrust both arms in the air. As if pulled by a magnet, one of the birds descended towards us. A big black swan landed at his feet, rolled onto its back and instantly died. He took out his parang and freed it of its wings with a single cut. For you, he said, and attached the black wings to my back with strings of strong bamboo. “Just till your own ones have healed and grown large enough to carry you.” And they did. Out of my sore back the initial small grey feathers kept growing under Belian’s watchful eye, until they were an imitation of the borrowed swan’s feathers.
Belian once told me how he remembered me well and had been waiting for me. I was his proof of mutability, he said, and he had seen me in a vision too, riding on the back of Garuda. Ever since the night I was born, Belian had been expecting me. The night of my birth, my father had summoned him to come. Quickly. My mother’s bleeding wouldn’t stop. Only the bomoh from the jungle could save her now with his chants and herbs. Belian usually gave labouring women bitter potions to ease their pain. He also cleansed their bodies with lime juice to keep the evil spirits away. This time, he was too late. All he could do was ensure mother didn’t turn into a pontianak, the much feared black bird with a female white face, raven black hair and beady eyes. Pontianaks were known to lurk around houses eager to possess the bodies of dying mothers. Belian danced around my mother’s body and chanted. Raw eggs placed under her arms prevented her from lifting them and flying away, since a mother’s instinct always is to protect a fetus from harm. Needles were put into her palms to prevent her from opening and clenching her fists to aid her flight. Glass beads were poured into her mouth to prevent her from shrieking the hideous, mocking laugh of a bird-woman. As protection for the newborn child he placed a white feather close to my heart, before I was wrapped tightly in a clean sarong. Later on, when the women unwrapped me, the feather was gone. ”Clever,” Belian said and nodded approvingly.
She could have saved herself, he told me, by catching and eating the soul bird from the jungle. Pregnant women shouldn’t defy the spirits and take rituals lightly. If only she had come earlier.
Throughout my childhood, every night, when I closed my eyes, my mother came to me. She rubbed my itchy back with ointments and sang me to sleep or told stories; about the Princess who spent so much time in solitude she turned into a fairy; or the woman who spent every second year as a swan, forcing her lover to change form too. She told me about women surprised by angels at their windowsill, giving birth to half humans later on. She warned me about the Kertau, a killer goblin with a deer’s head.
I’ve been brooding on my mother’s stories ever since I first met Belian. I wonder whether I’ve left any stories behind in the village. I also wonder which tales this girl has heard.
The flowers in her hair are withered, as are the petals in her small basket. A flowergirl at a wedding. Sambar occasionally plays at village festivities. That’s where he meets them. Then they’ve walked through the jungle for a while. Her tulle dress is already ripped and dirty.
I glide from tree to tree and follow them to our settlement. Sambar’s flute cries tunes of hopeful longing. He senses my presence and occasionally casts upward glances. The girl trots after him and even seems to hum along. She has lost a shoe now. She won’t need that kind of frills out here anyway. Soon she will feel uncomfortable in her satin and polyester and prefer a plain sarong like the rest of us. I wonder what she is expecting from her moonlight walk. Shouldn’t she be looking over her shoulders by now and wondering how she’ll find her way back?
Belian starts his ritual, as soon as they enter through the portal, showing off for our new guest. With a piece of branch he combines claws from birds with earth from an ancient grave, tiger excrement, a feather from a raven, a strand of my hair, black pepper and a drop of his own blood in an earthen jar. He announces every ingredient to gain magical control over it. The girl stares and seems awed. Good. I might as well approach her and make friends. I usually take care of them in the beginning and make them feel comfortable. It’s important for them to have a role model, Belian says. Unlike the other girls, this one isn’t shocked when I unfold my black wings in front of her to make an impression. “Can I touch?” she says and without waiting for an answer walks behind me to fondle my feather coat. At first it confuses me, then I’m charmed by her curiosity and relax my feathers while I gently divert her to our tree trunk set up for Belian’s dramatic performance.
Belian dances around the fire, sometimes wrestling with his tiger robe, sometimes caressing it. I watch her reaction, but she seems more interested in the shadows moving in the cages. ”What are they?” she asks me. How can I explain. Usually they find out for themselves. ”Did you ever think about why we have shoulder blades?” I answer. She frowns, pauses and then nods. ”And you thought they were nothing more than that. Just shoulder blades.” She nods again. ”Well, they’re not,” I say, ”they’re leftovers from our former shape.” Her jaw drops. Belian hits his tambourine loud and insistently to get our attention. Then he invokes the spirits of both Shiva and Allah with all his archangels. We watch him in silence while she keeps peeping towards the girls in their baskets. ”So they’re angels?” I can’t resist, ”They’re the off-spring from archangel Mikhaael’s tears. His hair has a million faces and a million mouths. Every time one of the faces weep a child is born. Belian is just helping them to realize who they are.” She stops her questions. I relax again and redirect her attention towards Belian’s performance.
After the welcome spectacle, I take her to one of the huts. Split bamboo bound together by rattan twines and thatched with attap shield us from uninvited guests. I’ll sleep next to her on the woven mat and guard her tonight. In the beginning they’re usually scared and whine. Outside Sambar lulls the girls to sleep with lazy lullabies from his flute. I’ve covered their cages with colourful sarongs. The moon shines through the pattern of the fabric and creates a shadow theatre. It comforts them and silences their twitter. The girls sigh and smile dreamily when Sambar plays and stirs their secret dreams with his flute. That’s how they end up here in the first place, tempted by the sounds of yearning and romance. I know how they feel, although it wasn’t Sambar who lured me here.
The itching of my back and the roughness of the trees initially drove me into the jungle. The smooth surfaces in the house couldn’t relieve my swelling red back. Hard lumps formed under the skin creating an unbearable pressure, as if knives were cutting their way out of me. I hid under loose shirts and developed a hunched posture like so many tall and skinny teenage girls. I hid in the jungle and scratched against tree bark until my skin cracked open and left wounds refusing to heal. Stiff grey baby feathers forced their way out. Nothing remotely similar to the fluffy, insubstantial softness usually associated with feathers, but prickly affairs causing snaring clothing and hiding. Still, I felt an immense relief. After the internal suffering finally burst out, I was eager to try my frail wings.
Following the jungle river upstream, the river banks gradually become steeper. I experimented with running down the slopes, sliding in earthy sand only to take off for a few seconds and glide, feet lifted off the ground, my body carried downwards by miniature wings. I ventured further into the jungle, to free body and feathers from the constraint of bulky clothes, knowing the women from the Batek tribe wouldn’t notice another half naked being.
I never realized Belian was lurking in the treetops. If he doesn’t want to be seen he’s impossible to detect. He takes on the colours of the jungle and prefers to distance himself from animals creeping on the ground. From above, he watched my doomed attempts to overcome heavy gravity and lift to featherlight flight. Is it really possible? He might have thought, watching my clumsy attempts and still uncontrollable wings. After my crash, it was his lack of shock and his expert healing of my wing that made me trust him.
Maybe I could have returned to the village, I never tried. I was always certain my father wouldn’t let me return to Belian’s settlement. My only regret so far is that my mother never visits me at night here.
Now Belian sleeps on the ground. He prefers the open to our little huts. The girl in the hut sleeps in her ragged finery with both hands behind her head. No sobs, no whining. Sambar and I sit outside the hut and watch each other’s reflection in the moon. We don’t talk much. He only communicates through his flute. I turn my head and try to read his emotions in his eyes. He looks away and starts playing for a moaning girl again. The pain under my wings returns thousandfold to torment me. If I was a bird, he would allow me to perch on his arm and caress my feather coat. If I was trapped in a bamboo cage, he could sit next to it and play his tunes just for me. I look at my arms and hands. Skin. Hair. Nails. Belian thinks Sambar and I are different species and should allow ourselves to grow without any contact between us. I think we both just have some extra assets.
The other night I secretly followed him, just to listen to his flute. Like the girls, I can’t resist. One note and goosebumps appear under my feathers; one trill and a sigh unwantedly escapes from me; two clear notes from that bewitching instrument and my legs turn to jelly while my wings flap in his direction. I glided among the trees until he stopped to watch a herd of deer grazing in the moonlight. The stags dug their antlers in urine soaked soil and rubbed them against trees. They went on their hind legs, locked antlers and swayed and pushed like men arm-wrestling. Two does boxed as if they wanted to scratch each other’s faces. A young doe turned her head and seemed to greet him. He approached her with one of his lullabies and put his forehead against her small mossy antlers. Belian must have known all along. Any day now, I’ve heard him say, nodding towards Sambar’s lumpy forehead.
The next morning the girl has left the hut before I wake. I’m alarmed and stumble out. Belian is busy carving new images onto his totem pole. The girl chats away next to him. She interrogates him about the animals on the pole. He’s a fine woodcarver. He laughs and tells her about the thunderbird at the top. When it flaps its wings, he says, thunder rolls over the hills. The black swan is just underneath, seen from the back with its wings spread out. ”Just like Sayap,” he says and winks at me. The tiger sits on the base, carrying all the other animals. ”That’s me,” he says, ”making sure you don’t fall,” then he laughs again, “because you’re all my daughters now. We’re one big family.” I notice the new carvings taking form. Half women, half birds. “They’re taking on the characteristics,” he says approvingly in my direction, “they’re allowing their true nature to emerge.” He gestures towards the cages. He’s convinced his care and my presence brings about their transformation. As I’m the only role model around, they will try to imitate me and thus alter themselves.
When the girls first come here, he tells them they’re the chosen ones. The archangel will endow you with wings, he says, just like Sayap. And once you have filled a jar with your tears, he says, you will be ready to fly away. Their shoulder blades usually start swelling shortly after. Belian surveys how they develop inside the cages. He tells them they must learn to fly before they can leave the nest and his loving care, otherwise their wings will fall off leaving them nothing but a hollow back. He tries to motivate the girls and set them goals: “When you can fly up to the sky and cut out the liver from a black swan, you will be free.” Then his mouth splits open like a wound to reveal his red teeth.
The girls are trapped in Belian’s illusion. They refuse to see the jungle for what it is: a moist and earthy place full of stinging mosquitoes. I’m never bitten anymore, unlike the girls in their cages who scratch themselves till they bleed. Maybe the mosquitoes have decided I’m one of them; a fellow winged being or a giant insect.
All the cages are full now. It won’t be long before Belian asks me to start the next one. The new girl is still full of wonder and doesn’t seem frightened. He’ll leave her outside a bit longer. To get accustomed to us. Something in the way she looks at us makes me uncomfortable and acutely aware of details in the settlement I usually don’t mind, like the dirt on the girls’ bodies and the smallness of their cages. “Don’t they want to get out?” she asks Belian and nods towards the cages. I flinch. Nobody asks him such blunt questions. “One day,” Belian smiles his red smile, “when their wings are outgrown, they will fly up to the sky and bring me back a thousand mosquito hearts. Then they can go. If they want to.” She shudders, I frown. I notice his turmeric stripes need reapplying and that his lips are cracked.
As night falls, Sambar takes his flute to go on his nocturnal hunt. I acknowledge the pain in my chest and stay with the girl. ”What is he?” she says as she watches Sambar prepare to leave. I stare at her. I’ve grown so used to his fluffy, downy lumps. He keeps touching them and I’ve seen him lean his head against a tree to scratch his forehead. I can’t think of anything to say. She points towards his other instrument, dangling from his belt, ”What is that?” I tell her it’s his blow-pipe. For hunting. To get us food. I leave out how he lures the animals to gather around him with his tunes and how he only then secures our dinner. No animal ever escapes Sambar. Belian has engraved the casing to ascertain the accuracy of his aim, while the darts, dipped in poisonous sap from the Ipoh tree, ensure no suffering. ”So he kills?” she says. I wonder whether this worries her. Only animals from the trees, I tell her, since animals crawling on the ground are considered dirty. Monkeys, squirrels and birds are Sambar’s prey and our dinner. ”Birds?” she says, ”you eat birds?” I hesitate considering her innocence. ”Belian needs their souls,” I choose to answer, ”for the girls. To help them develop.” I don’t tell her how he drinks soma juice to go into a trance and communicate with the bird souls. I also leave out how he takes out one of his fake daughters for a nightly dance of ritualistic soul extraction. How he plucks off the feathers from the dead bird and pierces them into her flesh. How he feeds her bitter leaves to make her throw up her soul. Then he summons the bird soul to take residence in the now empty girl. It’s all part of the process, he says, to help them achieve their true shape.
The girl moves closer to me and watches Belian, who’s amused by her curiosity and unaware of how deeply her questions disturb me. He puts on his tiger cape and stomps and turns around the fire accompanied by his tambourine and his singing. Just for her. ”What is the Belian?” She asks. I tell her Belian is a Bomoh who communicates with the tiger spirit. That’s why he has ilmu – knowledge – about everything in the jungle. “So is this a Kampung Harimau?”
I tell her she shouldn’t believe everything she hears. I too heard the story from the women gossiping. About tigers walking about in the form of man and only getting down on all fours outside their secret Tiger Village. They are said to have the appetite of the tiger and the cunning of man. It’s just a story, I tell her, and wonder about Belian’s real identity. ”Why the tiger spirit then?” we’re keeping our voices down. I don’t think Belian would approve of her knowing too much. He trusts me. Everything he tells me is confidential. But I can tell her bits. Just to satisfy her curiosity.
So I tell her about how Belian’s tribe used to live here, in this very settlement, but had to flee. They were haunted. A tiger kept attacking the men, punishing them for their greed. Bateks should only kill the absolute minimum for nourishment. They must obey the natural laws of the jungle; only eat once a day; never cut a tree unless it’s needed for shelter. If taboos are violated, supernatural punishment will follow. There were more attacks. They ate less and less. Mainly tapioca and jungle roots. Belian performed ritual songs and sent out his soul to communicate with the tiger spirit. Then another killing. This time his only son. ”The Belian had a son?” she says and looks towards the cages. I want to tell her they’re only his fake daughters, rocking and singing themselves to sleep.
Belian has finished his dance and lies down to drink his soma. Sambar is preparing his darts for tonight’s hunt. Nobody hears our hushed voices. The tiger spirit visited Belian at night, I continue, it challenged him. Mocked him for his weakness. The other tribe members were eager to move away. After such a grim death, bad spirits hovered over the settlement and made it impure. If the bad spirits were distracted, they wouldn’t follow the tribe to a new settlement. Rituals were performed. Chants and offerings. Belian’s wife cut into her thigh, deep, to spread a protective circle of blood around the settlement. Her wound became infected and she lost too much blood.
Belian was furious. You can’t run away, he said, the tiger will follow. He had visions, he told them, of the tiger spirit descending upon them from the trees accompanied by avenging angels. He had nightmares too, about his soul shrinking and being swallowed by the tiger spirit. So he prayed and fasted, went into trances and recited chants until finally a revelation came to him. He had to go out and challenge the tiger. He had to avenge his son by merging his own Bomoh spirit with that of the tiger’s. One the most powerful among men, the other among beasts. An invincible union.
“And did he? Avenge his son?” the girl asks. He claims to have killed it with his bare hands, I say and hope to impress her. “They are very big,” she says, “his hands. And the cape?” I hesitate. Should I continue? So young and too curious for her own good. But then her curiosity is what brought her here in the first place. “Yes, he stripped it off its pelt and dismembered it.” That doesn’t stop her. “Did he eat it?” She whispers and I’m reminded of my own fears when I first met Belian. “No,” I say and pause, ”Not the lot. Only the heart. And the penis. Tigers have huge penises.” As expected her eyes grow wide. I enjoy the moment. “He cut it up in slices, roasted it and devoured every bit of it.” She closes her mouth and swallows. In the villages, the men only get a thin slice of macaque penis after the hunt. It makes them giddy and silly. They imitate the virility of the monkey in order for it to merge with them. Nobody eats tigers. It’s an animal of the ground. Dirty, dangerous. Belian doesn’t care. He considers himself King of all animals and master of the ferocious tiger spirit. It’s now a benevolent spirit, he says, gentle and void of aggression after its castration.
“What’s the difference between animals and humans?” She’s persistent. I pretend to be busy preening my wings, to win time to consider this. “Animals are hairier and humans can laugh,” I tell her. I think it’s a quote from my mother. She smiles her sly smile, while the macaques mock me with their silly giggles. “So what are you?” I want to tell her that we’re birds of a feather really, her and I, and that I once asked Belian exactly that question. Instead I choose to keep silent. I never willed my wings. They simply burst out of me. He told me that young people have flimsy souls with a capacity for transformation. It’s all a question of expectation, he said, and what goes in will have to come out. I look at the girl who watches Belian snore by the dying fire. She turns her head back to me, her eyes inquisitive. She’s still expecting an explanation about my nature. I shift around and avoid eye contact. I draw butterflies and circles and large eyes in the soil. I draw stick men and birds. From afar Sambar’s flute tries to soothe me. It’s no use. “Do you want to end up like them?” I say and nod towards the sarong clad cages. Some of the girls are weeping silently in their sleep. It always makes them restless when they can hear Sambar too far away. The girl shakes her head. “Let me tell you a story from the jungle,” I say and sound like my mother. I tell her how life force is in a person’s shadow and how shadows grow long around dusk. There’s a spirit in the guise of a leech that kills predatory animals by sucking their shadows. Only, I add, the spirit of the predatory animal has to be off guard or lured away first.
Belian snores like a tiger catching flies with his mouth open. A drop of saliva is trickling from the corner of his mouth. He once told me that all the fluids of the body must be protected from our enemies. They’re part of our soul in liquid form. When the girls have their monthly bleeding, he uses some of it for his rituals. “See,” I say, “a small spirit is looking out of his mouth. When he sleeps, his spirit sometimes goes hunting for other souls. If you paint his face, the spirit can’t recognize him when it returns. It will have to go back to the spirit world.” She looks at his jars of turmeric and hematite. Next to the jars his parang is casually thrown on the ground. “Will they be free then,” she says and turns toward the cages. I nod hesitantly and wonder what they will be outside their cages. And I? What will I be? I can’t go back to the village anymore, but I could stay here. Maybe with the girl and Sambar. We could tear down the poison ivy, destroy the cages and burn the totem pole. We could make our own family. “Are you coming?” the girl says as she gets up and walks towards the snoring Bomoh. An unusual grey mist seeps out of the ground.
If you see smoke and hear longing tunes, don’t fret. You’ll know I’m nearby and will steer you clear of malevolent jungle creatures. But beware of beckoning girls. They may be the fake daughters of the Belian. You should run, as fast as you can. It’s only when you succumb to their loving embrace that you realize their backs are hollow. And then it’s too late.
Kira Dreyer Messell is a Danish writer currently living in Berlin, Germany. She has been teaching languages, literature and history in both Berlin and Kuala Lumpur. Until 2013 she spent 5 years in Malaysia, where she wrote on a collection of speculative short stories. Kira holds an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Edinburgh.