Date: September, 2015
Location: Kalimantan, Indonesia
Agent: Dr. Nyugen Tan Duc
By day, the dense tropical woods of Borneo were alive with birds and animals. Now, by night, all that remained was silence. Not the silence of the absence of life, but of an abundance of creatures lying in wait, watching two people in a small boat, rowing upstream by the light of a weak lantern and the blueish glow of a satellite GPS device.
The river sloshed against the hull of the boat as Chandra and Rand manoeuvred it up the middle of this nameless tributary. On either shore, the jungle rose like a pitch-black wall, recognisable only by the narrow line overhead, where the canopies didn’t quite hide the countless stars in the night sky. They had cut the engine a mile or so back, but the darkness magnified the slightest sound. Every time they dipped their oars into the water, a small explosion erupted. Chandra welcomed the exercise. The night air chilled the fabric of her shirt, already damp with humidity and droplets splashing up as they rowed, but the exertion kept her warm.
She squinted as she checked the GPS for their position. It wasn’t all that accurate and even dimmed, its screen scorched her retinas, but right now it displayed coordinates close enough to where they needed to be. She nudged Rand. Without further prompting, her partner switched his oar to the other side of the boat and helped her row towards the right bank.
Before long, the yellowish light of the bow lantern revealed vegetation, branches and vines instead of murky water. Chandra stared intently at the shadows just ahead of the light. It shouldn’t be long now before they reached—
Her sharp hiss alerted Rand moments before their boat hit the tangle of dead branches hanging from the tree that had fallen into the river. In their circle of light, the dead, barkless trunk stood out against the surrounding darkness. Rand steered their boat through the maze, stopping twice to cut away a clinging branch with his machete, and then drove on to the muddy embankment that began some hundred feet further upstream.
More liquid explosions echoed through the jungle as they jumped into the shallow water. Due to the lack of a jetty or mooring pole, they pulled the boat onto the riverbank. The bow lantern tilted a little under the incline, giving them a clear line of sight of this makeshift beacon, because beyond its light, the world seemed non-existent.
Rand retrieved two canes and two large canvas satchels from the boat and handed Chandra one of each. Inside the bag, she found the special torch she brought on assignments such as these. Like the bow lantern, by design it produced only a weak light, reminiscent of old-fashioned tar-and-wood torches rather than an LED. It made the contrast with the darkness less painful to her eyes, and was less likely to disturb the locals, human and otherwise.
Only ghosts travelled the forest at night. Better to blend in with them.
As they followed the wildlife trail that led from the river into the jungle, the smell of wet plants cloyed Chandra’s nostrils. Nothing about the greenery gave away what was special about this location, but after she had counted twenty steps – roughly thirty feet – the dull glow of their torches illuminated the outlines of a crooked pole with a carved figure on top. One of the remnants of this abandoned Dayak settlement.
They had visited this very place two weeks ago in the guise of freelance reporters. That was always a perfect excuse to examine every inch of a site, take as many photos as they needed, and thoroughly scout the place and the route towards it in preparation for the ‘harvest’. Remoteness and reputation had done a fine job protecting the site from tourists and other scavengers. Even their guide at the time had been too afraid to leave the boat, insisting that the village was haunted. A reputation that would cover their tracks quite well if their presence here tonight were ever discovered.
Having memorised the layout, Chandra knew exactly which structure marked which part of the settlement, how it related to the majestic longhouse that had been the heart of the community, and what they would find in each location.
Since any noise would give them away as something less frightening and more edible than phantoms, they had discussed the plan and its details before departing from their camp downstream. Rand would recover selected items from the longhouse, while she went to harvest their finds in the surrounding structures, those being two smaller huts and the wooden crypts opposite the longhouse. With everything planned in advance, words weren’t necessary and with a quick nod, Rand took off.
Before she did the same, Chandra briefly bowed to the carved effigy on its pole, as she had done when they first visited. Dayak tradition demanded that visitors stated their business before a village’s guardians, who permitted only friendly souls to enter. Two weeks ago, she had silently asked the once-proud guardian for permission. But not now. Personally, she didn’t consider claiming otherwise abandoned items as theft, but just in case the local spirits were of a different opinion, she begged their forgiveness for what she and Rand were about to do.
Quiet rustling accompanied her on her way to the first structure. She prodded the dense ferns that covered the ground with her cane to scare off snakes and other crawlers before she stepped on them, while taller plants and low-hanging branches brushed her arms in the passing. Around her, the forest giants groaned from time to time, as if they sensed what she was about to do and uttered their disapproval. Despite the relative cool beneath the trees, a fresh wave of sweat beaded on her skin.
She counted her steps to the first hut, a family’s former living quarters. It wasn’t common for Dayak communities to have huts away from the longhouse, but neither was it unheard of. The village must have prospered before its people abandoned it. But when they did, it must have been in fear, given what they had left behind.
After one hundred and eighty-four steps, she reached the hut. Like the longhouse, it was built on ironwood stilts. The jungle had invaded most of the settlement, but this structure stood firm and the tangka, the decorated notched log that served as a ladder to the elevated living space, had not been reclaimed by vines since she had cleared it two weeks ago. She stuck her cane in the mud and climbed up. But the tangkas were made for bare feet rather than military-issue boots, and Chandra nearly slipped on the damp wood several times before reaching the platform.
Something small ran out between her legs as she entered the hut’s single room. She shone her torch around to encourage any other animals to vacate, but nothing else moved. The room itself was empty, except for a small ritual corner that had been left by the former occupants, perhaps as a peace offering to assure a safe retreat. By the look of it, it hadn’t been disturbed since she had found it during the ‘photoshoot’.
The improvised altar consisted of a small box containing brass earrings and a carved statuette of the family’s ancestor or guardian. The earrings were large circles with tiny lines embossed in decorative patterns. Not unlike the bracelet Rand had given her as a present last year, and which she hadn’t taken off since. For tonight, she kept it under her shirt sleeve, but she was quite certain that combined with these earrings, it would make a nice set. Pity the client had specified that he wanted all the items they brought back.
Above the box hung a wooden ritual mask. Hardwood barely rotted, and even though its paint was flaking, it was in good condition. She cut it loose from the wall and slipped it into her hungry satchel, which fitted snugly around the hollow-eyed face.
Mentally ticking off the list of items she was to retrieve, Chandra headed out again. Without walls around her, the light of her torch faded within five feet in every direction. The second structure should be right beside this one, fifty steps at most, but even knowing it should be there, the hut remained hidden in the endless darkness. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust before she descended the tangka, her torch between her teeth to free her hands in case she slipped again. So far from civilisation as they were, even a sprained ankle could pose a serious problem.
Once she had both feet firmly on the ground, she pulled her cane from the muck and proceeded in the direction of the second hut. Only her footsteps and the buzz of insects broke the eerie silence that bore in from the void around her.
Somewhere another tree groaned, long and loud. The dark made it impossible to judge distance, but its source could only be living wood slowly tearing apart. Chandra stopped in her tracks and listened for shrieks of fleeing animals that might give away where the noise was coming from, all the while counting the seconds until the ground shook with the impact of a falling trunk.
Nothing. Perhaps just a branch breaking? It had to be, because the drawn-out screech stopped without a noticeable thud to follow. Only a vague scratching sound, like sandpaper on wood, lingered for a few seconds before that too faded away and the jungle was once more alive with silence.
Chandra waited a bit longer, ears primed for anything unusual. She breathed deeply, and the forest breathed with her. Then an odd, off-key whistle rose up through the night, making her smile. She put two fingers in her mouth to return Rand’s call with a similar sound. All was well. Time to get on with the job.
She continued on her way, only to realise that she had lost count of her steps. A small matter, since the second hut wasn’t far from the first, but more alarming was that she wasn’t quite sure of her direction anymore. Distracted by the noise and then Rand’s whistle, she had turned on the spot. She shone her torch around, but ferns were not particularly known for their distinguishing features. Her lips formed a silent curse as she stared harder. There. The imprints of her boots. She stepped into them and recovered her bearings. Fifty steps from the first hut to the second, she knew, and began walking.
Her light slid across leaves, roots, ferns and the occasional spider until, out of the gloom, the ruins of the second hut materialised. Forty-three steps since she lost her way, which together with the first stretch meant that she had miscalculated the distance. An easy mistake to make when the world ended five feet in front of your face, but not one she could easily forgive someone with her experience. Had she deviated from her intended path from the start? She glanced back, in the direction from where she believed the river to be. A black wall stared back. Even if indeed she was facing the right way, the dense trees obscured every glimpse of the beacon.
Chandra resisted the urge to whistle that other tune she and Rand used between them. She knew where she was now. No need to panic. Grab the items from this hut, move on to the graveyard, and then she would worry about finding her way back.
Poking ahead with her cane, she waded through the vegetation and stepped over cracked tree trunks that had once been stilts. They had to have been knocked down long ago, causing the hut to collapse. All that remained now was an undignified heap of broken wood. A pity, she recalled. The ritualistic carvings she had photographed were quite beautiful and would have fetched a pretty penny to the right buyer – if they had been intact. As it was, all she could salvage were two blow pipes and a small statuette. Anticipating her return to these ruins at night, she had hidden the items somewhere more accessible than where she had initially found them. Now all she needed to do was pocket the lot and be on her way.
However, at several feet in length, the blow pipes poked awkwardly from her satchel. She shifted the shoulder strap, only for the mask to stab her in the back for her trouble. She contemplated leaving the blow pipes, so they wouldn’t hinder her during the gruesome task ahead, and returning for them later. If she could find her way back here without unintentional diversions. There was a recognisable path between the graveyard and the longhouse. If Rand was still there, finding him and then the boat would be the better option.
She whistled into the night, a slightly different tone than before. Short and shrill, it stipulated the silence that returned in its wake. Rooted to the spot, Chandra waited for a reply. It didn’t come. Her heart beat in her throat as she whistled again. Tense seconds passed like hours until, at long last, Rand answered. With a distress signal.