The Ancestor’s Song
By Jackson A. Helms
“If you go into the villages, you need to know what’s fady,” the driver said.
“People have superstitions. If something is not allowed it’s fady. If you violate a fady you will be punished.”
“What’s fady around here?”
“There is no fady in the city. We’re more developed.” He paused. “But there are some who still believe. My grandmother believes it’s fady to work in the morning on a Tuesday.”
“Do you work on Tuesday mornings?”
The driver laughed. “I work every morning.”
The passenger looked out the window. They drove east through fuzzy green rice paddies. Red clay farmhouses, accessible by narrow mud walkways, sat atop earthen mounds in the center of each paddy. She turned and saw the chaos of Antananarivo retreating behind her. The capital’s jumbled houses and narrow alleys clung desperately to rocky outcrops towering over the sea of rice.
She was happy to leave the city. She had spent her first days in Madagascar searching for a driver. Now, finally on her way, she looked forward to a few hours of traveling. She hoped the driver would not expect her to be social.
“My name is Nest,” he said. “Like a bird.”
“That’s a good name. I’m Elaine.” She looked back out the window, trying to imagine life as a Malagasy rice farmer.
“What music do you like?”
“Oh, I like just about anything.”
Now she imagined the island’s first farmers. They sailed here across thousands of miles of open sea, bringing their language and crops with them. From their Asian homeland those seafarers had colonized countless islands across the Pacific—Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island. Crossing the Indian Ocean, they planted their Asian culture here off the African coast. Supposedly the language of some Dayaks in Borneo is so similar to Malagasy that –
“Do you like films?”. Nest interrupted her thoughts.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Have you seen Jurassic Park? It’s my favorite. I think you’ve heard of it. It’s an American film.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s a good one.”
“Are the dinosaurs real?”
Elaine turned her gaze from the farms outside and met Nest’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “What?”
“Are the dinosaurs in the film real? They look real.”
“No, they’re not real. Dinosaurs used to exist, but they all died long before there were people. Except for birds. Birds are dinosaurs. But the other dinosaurs, like the really big ones, went extinct a long time ago.”
“Then how did they have them in the film?”
“For Jurassic Park I think they used robots and models and animation. Most movies today use animation, with computers.”
“Ah, America is so developed.”
“I don’t know. People are the same everywhere.”
Her mind turned back to Madagascar’s first settlers, the clearers and burners of the forest. They had lived alongside, and hunted to extinction, giant lemurs and dozens of other vanished animals. Eggs of the 10-foot tall elephant bird, roc in Arabian mythology, were over a foot long and their shells could still be found across the island. She had seen one on display in the capital.
The plateau they were crossing gradually expired into a series of jagged ridges. It was here that Elaine finally saw forest. In the sterile landscape they had crossed to get here—two hours of driving—they had not passed any natural vegetation. Not an acre of woods, not any riverside jungle. Just farms, paddies, and cow pastures, crops planted right up to the riverbanks. But here some of the steeper slopes avoided the plow.
Her destination would be similar but larger. A forest haunted by a remnant population of the world’s largest lemur, the indri. Seventeen larger lemurs, some over 300 pounds, had already gone extinct. But the indri, dubiously bumped up to first place and next on the chopping block, still lingered. It had been eliminated from most of its range and now clung to existence in only a few isolated forests. But it was still technically alive.
“That’s tavy.” Nest nodded toward the disheveled farmland at the forest edge. Rough fields studded with blackened tree stumps, the remains of recently burned forest, graded into older and more established farms. “Tavy is when they burn to farm. They’re planting coffee and mangos and bananas.”
“There’s some forest there too. It’s the first we’ve seen today.”
Her enthusiasm for natural areas was not shared by Nest, who continued undeterred. “Have you tried coffee from Madagascar? It’s very good. The soil here is rich because it comes from the forest, and when we burn to make tavy it makes the best coffee. Our zebu—that is what we call beef—is also the best.”
“I’ll have to try it.” Elaine had little interest in sampling cows, or coffee, or anything else that she could get in any city back home. This was Madagascar, and after monotonous days of city and farmland, she just wanted to see forest. But today she would settle on the tourist lodge at its edge.
Elaine put down her spoon and looked up. The waiter, standing attentively in the shadows, interpreted her sudden movement as a summons. Elaine waved him off and continued listening. The mournful sound trickled in, carried weakly on the wind from beyond the forest’s edge behind the restaurant. It hung on the air, like a long hopeless yelp, and then cut out.
“That is the song of the ancestor.” The voice startled Elaine. She had not seen the woman approach. “Sorry to interrupt your meal. I am Barsama, the owner here. How is the food?”
“The food’s great.” She shook Barsama’s hand. “My name is Elaine. What did you call that sound?”
“The song of the ancestor. It’s the call of an indri lemur. Here we believe the first people were indris. Then some of them decided to leave the forest and live on farms. Those people became us. The indris are the people who stayed in the forest. So they are like our ancestors, and they sing sad songs because they miss us.”
“I’m actually here to look for indris.”
“Do you have a guide?”
“Not yet. A friend recommended a man named Dedi.”
The woman paused. “Yes, Dedi was the best guide. Sadly, he died last year.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Dedi loved indris and always knew where to find them. He even carried a staff that was carved like an indri’s head. He said he wanted to live in the forest with them.”
“What happened to him?”
“He went into the forest alone and didn’t come back. His friends went to look for him, and found his body with a large machete cut on his head. We never learned who did it. Dedi was popular with tourists, and earned a lot of money as a guide. Maybe someone was jealous.”
“Geez.” Elaine molded her face into what she hoped was a concerned expression. “So what should I do?”
“I have a friend who is a guide. If you would like, I could ask him to meet you here in the evening. He can help you arrange everything.”
“Sure, that’s perfect. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Enjoy your meal.” Barsama turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
Elaine picked up her spoon, tilted her head to catch the end of a particularly long indri call, and bent back to her meal.
Elaine returned to the restaurant that evening to find a man waiting for her. Alert, wiry, and standing a head shorter than Elaine, the man was difficult to age. He could have been in his late 30s or maybe even 50s. He introduced himself as Elaine approached.
“Good evening. My name is Deux. Are you Miss Lane?”
“Yes, I’m Elaine. What was your name again?”
“Deux, like the number two. Barsama told me you needed a guide.”
“Yeah, I do. Are you the friend she recommended?”
“I am. When would you like to leave?”
“As soon as possible. I feel like I’ve been waiting for days. Is tomorrow too soon?”
He gave a reassuring laugh. “Tomorrow is no problem. It’s easy. I will take care of everything, and tomorrow night you will be sleeping in the forest.”
Deux agreed to meet Elaine early the next morning with provisions and a couple porters. She handed him a stack of bills to buy supplies, then sat at a corner table, picked up the menu, and indulged herself with thoughts of the upcoming hike. She had done it. She had made it to Madagascar, found a remaining chunk of forest, and if all went well, would soon be face to face with the world’s largest surviving lemurs.
They set out the following morning. Deux took the lead, and Elaine followed close behind with her pack. Two porters trailed them, one hefting a nylon sack filled food and cooking supplies. The younger of the two—Elaine thought he could not be older than sixteen—carried on his shoulders a rattan basket containing three thin and noisy chickens. They would carry them into the forest alive and slaughter them as needed.
Even though the forest here was legally protected, farmers had cleared all the easily accessible areas for crops and pastures. The forest edge hung a few hundred meters beyond the road, like a ragged black curtain marking the farthest extent of the settlers’ fires. Recent rains had flooded the pastures. That, and the quickly rising tropical sun, would make crossing the open area the most difficult part of the day’s hike.
Deux moved with the ghostlike stride common to experienced guides the world over. He half ran along the packed red dirt trails, and seemed to wade through the marshes without wetting even his flipflops. Elaine managed not to lose sight of him as he sped ahead of her, and somehow stayed ahead of the porters, although she suspected this was just because they did not want to pass her.
Elaine lifted her eyes from the trail and stole a glance at the forest edge ahead, now a wall of solid monotonous green. Jungle, she thought. Not in the romanticized melodramatic sense that was just a derogatory word for forest. This was jungle in the technical sense, jangla, impenetrable thickets at the edges of clearings and riverbanks. Elaine examined the tangle of shrubs, climbing palms, and five-meter high pandanus with leaves like serrated tentacles. Beyond that wall lay the beckoning shade of the forest.
A frantic shout from behind caused Deux to run to the rear. Elaine turned in time to see the two porters disappear into the trailside pasture grass. Instinctively, she crouched and scanned the landscape for threats, and slowly became aware of Deux’s voice calling her name.
“Lane! Miss Lane!”
“I’m here!” Elaine stood up.
“It’s the chickens, Lane.” Deux called from some hidden dip in the pasture. “They escaped from their basket. Wait in the forest.”
Elaine continued along the trail, chuckling at the thought of three men chasing those skinny chickens through the tall grass. She found it hard to believe they would ever catch them.
She paused at the foot of a small hill to catch her breath and adjust her shoulder straps. The forest edge waited at the top of the rise. Why hadn’t she borrowed Deux’s machete before she went on ahead? The sooner she found a way through the layer of jungle, the sooner she could drop her pack and rest in the shade while she waited for the guys, probably three chickens lighter, to catch up.
As she crossed the lip of the hill, Elaine saw a dark tunnel where the trail penetrated the forest edge. Relieved she would not have to bushwhack after all, she ducked into the narrow opening. Deux must bring people here often, she thought, then jerked her arm as pain shot through her elbow. A drop of blood flowed from a straight slash through her skin.
“Dammit,” she cursed herself, more with disappointment at her clumsiness than with pain. “Come on, Elaine. Pandanus.” She had brushed against the serrated edge of one of the spiraling plant tentacles.
Elaine shuffled to a large fallen log, dropped her pack, twisted her body to wipe the bloody elbow on the side of her shirt, and plopped down in the leaf litter to nap.
It was raining when she woke up. No, not rain, but something else falling on the leaves around her. Elaine flicked her eyes upward to see a dark shape snuffling through the tree tops, occasionally dropping bits of fruit rind or knocking loose dead leaves and twigs. An indri? Not likely, too small and dark. Maybe some other lemur? Elaine hazily rooted through her pack to retrieve her binoculars. But sudden footsteps spooked the visitor into fleeing, its presence attested only by a dampening wave of ruffled vegetation.
“Bonjour, Miss Lane!” It was Deux, newly arrived from the pasture.
“Bonjour! How are the chickens?”
“The chickens are here.” He waved his hand toward the rattan basket on the young porter’s shoulders. Elaine was disappointed to see it was again full of live chickens. The hens’ great escape had been a brave, if ultimately futile, effort.
“So what’s the plan? Do you think we’ll find any indris today?”, she asked.
“No, not today. It is already late. To see indris you must find them in the morning. We will rest here, and then go to our campsite. In the morning we will find indris. I promise.”
The porters set down their load and sat beside Elaine. Deux doled out a snack of peanuts, individually wrapped cheese wedges, and milk biscuits.
“Deux,” Elaine asked after eating a few biscuits and cheese, “Yesterday my driver from Tana told me that if you go anywhere in Madagascar, you have to ask about fady.”
“That is true. Every place has fady.”
“So what’s fady here?” Elaine began shelling a peanut.
“There are two. One, it is fady to piss near the water. It makes the river dirty.”
“That’s a good one,” Elaine said.
“Two, it is fady to kill an indri. People here call indris babakoto. It means ancestor or family. Killing an indri is like killing your friend, and it brings bad luck.”
Elaine thought about the hundreds of miles of farmland she crossed to get here, and the recently burned stumps and new pastures just beyond the forest’s edge. “But you can still cut down forest to make tavy?”
“That is different. It is not killing.”
“But it still kills indris.”
“Yes, but it is not killing. It is only fady to kill indris yourself.”
The young porter suddenly interjected something to Deux. He did not speak English, but had picked up on the discussion of fady and babakoto. A quick discussion followed, ending with the older porter shushing the teenager.
“What did he say?” Elaine asked.
“Gino says a family killed and ate a babakoto two nights ago. But it was far from here,” he reassured her, “maybe five kilometers.” Elaine listened silently, though she knew that five kilometers was not far for an indri or a human. “Fidel says it is just a story. He says the people here do not hunt. They are farmers.”
They reached their campsite on a small ridge an hour before sunset. The ground was mostly clear and Elaine assumed Deux, or some other guide, used the site regularly. She walked a short way into the woods, dropped her pack near a flat spot, and used her knife to clear away a few seedlings. But before she could begin piecing together her simple two-person tent, Deux called her back to the group.
She arrived to find Deux’s tent already erected about twenty meters away. The porters’ shared tent parts were laid out near a used fire pit, next to the sack of food and cooking gear.
“Gino will collect wood for the fire,” Deux informed her. “But first we need to have a fomba ceremony. It is like a prayer. We talk to our ancestors. We thank them, and ask them to forgive us for anything we cut or take from the forest.” Elaine nodded. “You don’t need to say anything. Fidel will do it.”
They joined Fidel in a semi-circle around the base of a moderately sized tree. Buttress roots flowed from the ground up to the tree’s side, forming a series of wedge-shaped hollows around the lower trunk. A perfect dwelling place for small animals or other spirits.
They squatted respectfully as Fidel murmured a short prayer. When it was finished he filled a plastic cup with rum from a bottle and took a drink. He passed the cup to Gino, who drank and passed it to Elaine. She took a sip and passed to Deux. As he tilted his head to finish it, the cup slipped from his hands, ricocheted flatly off a buttress root, and came to a stop in a pile of damp litter in one of the dark compartments at the tree’s base.
Elaine remained motionless, trying to maintain the demeanor of a respectful outsider to this fumbled rite. Gino and Fidel looked expectantly toward the guide.
After a moment Deux laughed to relieve the silence, bent to the cup and brought it to his mouth a final time, making a confident show of draining the last clinging drops.
His recovery appeased the porters, who hopped up and went to gather firewood. Deux began silently erecting the porters’ tent, and Elaine left to finish setting up her own.
She emerged later to find two chickens tethered under an overhanging boulder on the edge of the camp clearing. A glance toward the fire revealed the naked body of the third, lying in splash of blood on a flat-topped rock. The smell of burning feathers wafted from the low fire.
“Tonight, we will eat the first chicken,” Deux said. “The chickens there,” he gestured at the tethered hens under the overhang, “will eat the food we throw away, and we will kill one tomorrow and one the day after. This way the food is always fresh. There are no refrigerators in the forest.”
Elaine smiled politely at his joke, then went to rinse her hands in a creek.
Elaine wanted to keep sleeping but her bladder would not cooperate. She slowly opened an eye. Still dark. There might be time to go back to sleep after pissing. She sat up, pushed her sleeping bag down to her waist, and put on a shirt. Then she lay back down and wriggled her legs out of the sleeping bag and into her hiking pants.
Keeping one eye closed, both to preserve her night vision and to emerge as little as possible into wakefulness, she grabbed her water bottle, wrestled her way out of the tent flap and switched on her headlamp. She wandered a short way into the trees, scanned the ground to make sure it was clear, and switched off the light. She closed her open eye and squatted in the darkness, half dozing to the pleasant sound of urine drumming on the leaf litter. When she finished she reopened the one eye, tipped a splash of water onto her hand and rinsed herself.
She pulled up her pants, took a few steps toward her tent, then switched on the light to find a glowing face staring back at her.
Elaine let out an incoherent cry and launched her water bottle at the apparition.
“Shit, it’s just you, Deux. You scared the crap out of me.”
She placed a calming hand on her chest as her water bottle rolled to an ineffectual stop near Deux’s feet.
“I’m sorry Miss Lane. Is it time to go?” Deux, who had no watch, was apparently taking his time cues from her.
“No, I was just pissing. It’s still early. I’m going back to sleep for a while.”
“I see.” Deux rubbed his bloodshot eyes and returned the way he had come.
Elaine leaned against a tree for a minute and let out a last quiet “shit,” then fetched her water bottle and returned to the comfort of her sleeping bag.
At sunrise she rinsed off in the creek, this time searching out a spot far from camp. She wanted to avoid a repeat of last night’s creepy experience. She shuddered again at the memory of Deux’s tired red eyes appearing at her vulnerable moment. Then she pushed the image away and lowered herself into the cold water.
She followed the sound of the porters’ voices back to camp. As she approached she felt the conversation speed up and get heated. She had wanted to learn Malagasy, but after a week all she could manage was an occasional misaotra—thank you. It was hard to force herself to learn the new language when most people spoke to her in French or English. Here in the forest her language deficit was a severe handicap. Unable to speak directly to Gino or Fidel, she had to field her questions to them through Deux. And there was no hope of understanding camp conversations in real time.
Elaine arrived at the clearing to sudden silence. Deux sat alone on a log with his back to her, while Gino and Fidel squatted on the opposite side of the low fire.
“Good morning everyone.”
The porters responded with uninterested nods and began fiddling with pots and cooking gear. Deux turned around and cheerfully asked if she was ready to see indris.
The two of them left camp, Deux and his machete leading the way. After minutes of silence, Elaine asked how Deux was doing.
“I’m fine. It is good to be walking in the forest. It is like medicine for your mind.”
“Gino and Fidel don’t seem happy. It sounded like you were arguing earlier.”
Deux waved his hand dismissively. “They are idiots.” He pointed to his head with his free hand. “They have nothing in their brains.”
“Why do you say that?”
“They want to go home. They say they are afraid! I hired them for two nights, but they want to leave today. Lazy.” Deux turned around, and casually waved his machete toward her. “Why didn’t you call me earlier? If I had more time, I would have found better people to hire. Friends that I could trust.”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t plan ahead. I didn’t know any guides here.”
“It’s okay.” His smile returned. “This happens all the time. You and I will still enjoy the forest.”
“We’ll stay one more night, and leave tomorrow afternoon?”
“Yes, we will.” Deux froze. “Listen” he whispered.
An indri song floated in the air and was joined by another. Soon several indris were calling repeatedly to each other. The calls seemed to come from every direction, meeting and overlapping around their heads. Each call was a slow whine, like a drawn out toy trumpet note, some descending, some ticking upward at the end.
Elaine froze and let the songs move through her. She was thousands of miles from home, and now the indri calls pulled her even further away. Further back. In her mind she again traveled to the island’s first farmers. She watched them penetrate inland from the beaches over generations, imagined their first encounters with indris. She thought about the animals those people encountered and drove extinct over the centuries. The elephant birds, Malagasy hippos, lemurs even larger than indris. Elaine knew the indris were communicating with each other, but the songs seemed like messages for her from her own history—from the babakotos.
Deux nudged her and pointed upward. An indri leaped into view from the periphery and landed on a nearby trunk. It did not jump or fall into the tree, but rather shot in horizontally as if fired from a gun. Coming to a stop with its arms gripping the smooth trunk, it pointed its doglike head at her. Its yellow-green eyes met Elaine’s. Before she could fully process the brief tête-à-tête, the animal was off. Bouncing from tree to tree like an errant ping pong ball, the tailless lemur was a hundred meters away in seconds.
“Let’s go” Deux said, and trotted after the indri.
Elaine followed, running off the trail and angling downward along the side of a ridge. She reached back to steady her bouncing pack, and lost her balance. Her right foot slipped leftward underneath her on the slick incline. She landed heavily on her hip, and straightened her left leg to ride in a controlled slide down the rest of the slope. As soon as she hit the bottom she was up and after Deux again.
He stopped and waved her over. Elaine arrived panting and dirty to find Deux calmly holding up three fingers. She looked around to see two indris nearby and a third in the distance. She had no idea which of them was the one they had pursued. The indris were quiet now. They still called occasionally, but the songs were interrupted by feeding breaks as they foraged for young leaves.
It was over in fifteen minutes. The far indri disappeared first, followed by the other two, and Elaine had no desire to pursue them further. She had had her moment. The forest was quiet again save for the buzzing of cicadas.
“That was amazing, Deux. Thanks for finding them for me.”
“I told you it was easy. I think we can find them again tomorrow morning, before we leave the forest.”
He ambled back up the ridge, carrying his sandals in his free hand to allow his toes better purchase in the muddy incline. Back on the trail he put them back on his feet and shot a smile toward Elaine. “Now we eat.”
Elaine smelled the boiling chicken as they neared camp. The scent seemed to agitate Deux. He picked up his pace and stalked with hasty strides, energetically swinging his machete. Bursting into the clearing, he barked a question at the porters. Gino stepped back submissively, while the older Fidel responded in a quick quiet tone.
His answer enraged Deux, who stepped closer to Fidel, towering over him now. Deux began to shout, and Elaine watched in horror as he lifted his machete above his shoulder. The blade whistled downward and embedded itself with a thud into a nearby tree trunk. Deux stamped away in silence.
Fidel stared after him a moment, then gathered up his gear and began walking away along the trail out. Gino flashed Elaine an apologetic look and ran to join the other porter. Elaine watched them disappear, then looked around the camp. A pot of stew simmered over the fire. Deux’s machete was still half-buried in the tree—the one with the buttress roots where they had performed the fomba.
She pulled the blade free, turned to set it near the fire, and saw that Deux had returned and was sitting calmly on a log.
“They are idiots,” he spat. “If they don’t want to stay two nights, okay. But it is only noon. They should stay at least until the evening.”
“It’s not a big deal. It’s just a few hours.”
“But they cooked all our food.” He waved his arm at the rock overhang, now conspicuously devoid of any tethered fowl. “We were supposed to cook one chicken today and one tomorrow.”
“That’s fine,” Elaine tried to calm him. “We can just eat this today, and heat up whatever’s left tomorrow morning.”
He waved away the suggestion without looking up.
Elaine spent the afternoon reading in her tent, giving Deux time and space to cool off. She could not understand why he had flipped on the porters. It was a little annoying that they wanted to leave a day early, but so what? And if she were a porter and did not plan on staying another night, she would want to leave around noon too. It would take a while to get back to the road, and the tropical sun sets early. It was considerate of them to cook all the food before they left.
But Deux did not see it that way. And that crazy machete thing? She realized there was another reason she was giving Deux space—she was afraid of him.
This made her worry even more. In all her travels, all the guides she had worked with in other countries, she had never been afraid of someone. Was she slipping, losing her edge? Getting too old and cautious to explore?
No, this was legitimate. Even the porters were wigged out. He shouted and buried a machete in a tree! Their fomba tree, no less, where they had asked permission to enter the forest.
And now she was alone with him. Just one more night, she consoled herself. She had not come all this way, gone through all that effort to find a real Malagasy forest, just to retreat because some second-rate guide lost his cool.
A light rain drummed on the tent’s mesh top. She put down her book and crawled out into the dark to put on the rain fly.
Afterwards she wandered over to the camp clearing to reheat dinner. Deux had already gotten the fire going, and had erected a waterproof canopy over the clearing. He was maneuvering the pot of chicken over the flames as Elaine approached.
“Good evening, Miss Lane.”
Elaine caught a whiff of rum as he greeted her. His eyes were more bloodshot than they had been during their encounter the previous evening. There must have been some fomba rum left in the bottle.
“Good evening, Deux.”
“The food will be ready soon.”
“Thanks for heating it up.” Elaine figured she should try to calm Deux’s emotions. But she was always so clumsy with these things. “And thanks for organizing this whole trip.”
Deux did not respond. The rain intensified, pounding now on the canopy overhead.
“I know it was really short notice.” She gave it another awkward try. “But I think the trip has already been worth it. It was amazing seeing the indris this morning. And we’ll have some more time in the forest tomorrow.”
“You lied to me earlier.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you hired me because you didn’t know any guides. But I know that you asked about Dedi.”
“I did ask about Dedi. But I didn’t know him. I just heard about him from a friend.”
“Dedi was an idiot. But the tourists loved him. Foreigners don’t know anything.” Deux turned his bloodshot eyes towards her. “It is not hard to find indris. We all grew up in the forest.”
Elaine feared provoking Deux further, so stayed silent and tried to look concerned. Just make it through dinner, she thought, then get back to your tent.
“I can speak to foreigners too.”
“Yeah, your English is great.”
“I learned it at the mine. All this land used to belong to a French mining company. I worked there for a long time. But then the mine closed and the foreigners left.”
“When did that happen?”
“It was long ago. But then they made the land into a national park. They should have given it to us. We need land for tavy. They were idiots.”
“But now you work in the park as a guide. And there’s not much forest left. What about the indris and everything else that lives here?”
“You sound like Dedi. He never worked at the mine. He was too young. He was happy when they made the national park. Being a guide was his first job. Other people had more experience, but Dedi got all the money. All he cared about was indris. He didn’t think about people. Idiot.”
Elaine had no desire to get involved in local politics or dredge up an old murder. She ladled some stew into a bowl and began gulping it down. Deux did the same, and they passed the rest of the meal in silence. As soon as she finished eating, she muttered a lame excuse about being tired and shuffled back to her tent.
Elaine woke in the darkness, her stomach twisted with anxiety. Her dreams must have been disturbing but she could not recall them. Lazily she reached for her watch where she had set it beside her sleeping mat. Only midnight. Her bladder began to nudge her outside. But something held her back. She tried to convince herself she did not have to go, or that she was too tired to get up. But she knew she was afraid.
Come on Elaine, she thought, you have been camping for years. No reason to be afraid of the dark.
But her tent, which usually felt like a protective home, now seemed vulnerable. She was aware that all that separated her from the rain, from the dark, from anything—or anyone—was a thin nylon sheet. Her tiny two-person tent was little more than a sleeping bag, and did not really protect her from anything except being seen. If she turned on her headlamp she would not even have that, since her silhouette would be illuminated for all the world. She, in contrast, could not see beyond the enclosing tent walls. In this rain she would never hear approaching footsteps.
She reached up and stroked the sloping tent ceiling inches above her nose. Someone could be standing outside right now. It would be obvious from the shape of the tent where her head was. One slash of a machete could tear right through the tent and into her face.
She waited but the imagined blow never came. This is ridiculous, she thought. Why are you intentionally scaring yourself?
Still, it took several minutes to work up the courage to leave her tent. And she did not dare use a headlamp. In darkness she navigated the space outside her tent and squatted, taking comfort in knowing the rain would mask her sounds as well. Then she darted back inside.
At dawn she emerged to a dripping world. She made her way to the fire and poked at the damp ashes. They were scheduled to have one last early morning walk to find indris, then hike out in the afternoon. But Deux was nowhere to be seen. Probably hungover.
Elaine took the opportunity to bathe again in the creek. When she returned and found the camp still deserted, she took down her tent and loaded her gear into her pack. Then she sat and read, enjoying the indri calls in the distance.
By late morning the calls died away, and Elaine accepted that she had missed her last opportunity to see indris. But she would be damned if she missed out on food. She got a fire going and heated up the last dregs of their chicken and potato stew. It was noon by the time she finished eating and cleaned up. Deux’s absence had gone from awkward to infuriating. They needed to leave soon if they were to make it to the lodge by dark, but Deux had not even gotten out of bed.
She walked over to his tent, stepping loudly so he would hear her before she arrived. The tent flap remained shut. Elaine stopped a few feet away, unsure how to proceed. She hoped he was still in there and not roaming the woods nearby. But something told her the tent was empty. She nudged one wall with her foot.
No response. She kicked the tent, then reached out and shook it. There was no one inside.
She realized then that she hated him. She hated how he had creeped on her that first night, how he had treated Gino and Fidel, how he had ruined her last evening and morning in the forest, and now she hated him for putting her in this position. What the hell was she supposed to do? Keep waiting? She had to hike out soon, but needed Deux to guide her, and he was probably passed out against a tree somewhere, still drunk from the night before.
Fuck him, she thought. In the end she was only responsible for herself and her own gear, all of which she could carry out on her back. The trail was clear, and even if she got lost she had an escape azimuth. No matter where she was in the forest, she could use her compass to head due north and eventually hit the road somewhere near the lodge. Elaine returned to camp, shouldered her pack, and set out.
When she had gone about twenty meters, she turned around, shouted a farewell “Fuck you,” and continued walking.
She walked with her head down and eyes on the trail, alert to the buzzing cicadas and bird calls. She stopped for a moment to adjust her pack straps, then the air around her exploded with whining trumpet sounds. Indris. They were more hyperactive than she had ever heard them. The songs bounced at her from multiple directions and repeated themselves frantically. She searched the forest canopy in vain.
Her heart quickened and she picked up her pace. Thinking she might get another glimpse of indris after all, she carried her pack forward at a lumbering trot.
Then she froze. Deux straddled the trail ahead of her, arms akimbo. His machete hung from his right hand, but he was otherwise unencumbered. No water bottle, no pack, no sack of cooking gear. He lifted his face from the ground until their gazes met. His eyes were dark, like the hyper-dilated orbs of a deep sea fish.
“Deux? What’s going on?” No response. “I looked for you but you weren’t in your tent. So I figured I’d hike out and meet up with you later.”
Deux walked toward her, arms swinging languidly. He seemed oblivious, as if her were whacked out of his skull on some hallucinogen.
“Deux, stop! Hey! Deux!”
Deux continued his approach. Elaine took a step backward, then another. Soon she was frantically backing away with her arms up, all the while shouting to get Deux to acknowledge her, to pull him back into humanity from wherever he was. She stumbled and her pack carried her backwards. She fell into a half sitting position, anchored to the ground by her gear.
Still Deux approached. He was fifteen meters away now. His right hand gave an anticipatory twitch, moving the machete blade slightly upward. The fucker’s going to murder me, she thought.
Elaine’s hands scrabbled for the pack’s waist belt. She unclasped it and tried to stand, but the chest clasp was still secured. Fuck, fuck, fuck, she thought, as she fought to free herself. Deux reached for her with his free left hand. Then the chest clasp finally snapped free and she rolled to the right and scrambled to her feet.
She felt Deux’s fingers grasp at her shirt collar, slip away, and then curl around her right forearm. He jerked her around so that she faced him, and pointed the machete in her face.
“You lied to me. Foreigners are all the same. Idiots!”
Elaine tore her arm free and pushed him hard in the chest with both hands. He tripped over her pack and sprawled backwards. She sprinted past him as he fell and pounded down the trail.
Deux did not follow. After a while she slowed to a jog, then a walk as she took stock of her situation. She had been so focused on escape that she abandoned her pack when she ran. She would not have been able to retrieve it anyway with Deux right there, let alone run with it. If she made it out she could come back for it later. But her worst case escape plan—go due north to get to the road—was ruined. It would be difficult to navigate across country without her compass, especially in the dark. Her only option now was to stick to the trail, move fast, and get out by sundown.
A crash exploded to her right. Deux must have gone off trail to cut her off, and now he erupted from the vegetation, angling toward her at a wild sprint. She began to run, but Deux knocked her over with a flying tackle and scrambled on top of her. He pinned her arms with his hands and straddled her. His machete, tethered to his wrist with a leather thong, trailed along the ground.
Deux’s dark eyes stared into Elaine’s from inches away. Then he screamed in rage, an endless wild yell. His sour rum breath flowed into her mouth and nose and eyes. He paused to breath then screamed again, tensing all his muscles and pouring into her his life’s anger.
Elaine struggled, but his grip was pitiless. Over and over he screamed, exhausting himself with each effort. Then he lowered his gaze from her face to search her body. He paused, then removed his left hand from her arm. It hovered over her throat before moving down to grope her breast.
Elaine pushed out her freed right arm, searching for something to grab, to push against. Her fingers wrapped around a piece of smooth hard wood.
Deux’s hand fumbled with the buttons on her hiking shirt. This was her moment. She slammed the wood against his head with a crack, then heaved against the ground with her right leg, throwing him off her left side. She scrambled to her feet, and he followed. Wielding the wood with two hands now, she jabbed the end at his eyes. He leaned back and the blow struck him on the nose and upper lip, sending him reeling to the ground.
Elaine darted off the trail, trying to put distance and concealing vegetation between her and Deux.
When she was sure she was alone she slowed down and got her bearings. The piece of wood was still her hand. It would be dark in half an hour or so. Keeping the sun to her left, she walked in a vaguely northward direction. The forest edge must be close.
She stepped right to go around a large pandanus, only to find more of the plants behind. An impenetrable thicket of stiff serrated leaves reared out of the ground like a wall of swords. She followed the barrier to the right, searching for an opening in the fading light.
A lone indri call broke the silence. It was followed by others, all of them far away, wafting in on the fading light. Then she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Deux just visible in the distance, hacking at vegetation with his machete.
In a panic she dove into the wall of pandanus. Holding her wood in front of her to protect her face she shouldered her way into the plants. The leaf edges tore her clothes and skin. But the plants did not give way. She was trapped.
“Miss Lane!” Deux shouted, and she heard the manic strike of machete against branches and vines. He was close. “Miss Lane!”
Elaine hurled herself to the ground to crawl under the arching pandanus leaves. A few meters into the thicket, she heard Deux hit the wall behind her with a crash and another shout. He began to hack a tunnel through with his machete. The indri calls were frantic now, maybe half a dozen or more animals singing to each other through the tree tops.
Elaine pushed herself onward until the leaves opened above her. Standing up, she felt a breeze on her face. Dry soil crunched under her feet. She was standing on charred cinders.
Tavy, she thought. I’m out of the forest.
“Miss Lane!” She turned to see Deux’s machete pierce through the pandanus jungle and cut the air near her face. “Miss Lane!”
Then Deux wailed in pain. His arm and machete snapped back into the thicket as he wrestled with the toothy plants. She watched him flail against the entangling vegetation, and then slowly retreat back into the forest. In the darkness it seemed like the plants themselves were dragging him away. The indris called louder and fiercer than ever.
“Miss Lane,” Deux said again, but soft now, pleading. “Help, Miss Lane.” Elaine did not move. His wails turned to sobs, then ended in an abrupt rasping gurgle.
Electric lights twinkled in the distance across the tavy. Elaine followed them to a village and stumbled to the steps of the nearest farmhouse where an old woman sat cross-legged on a porch.
A final mournful indri song sailed to them across the tavy.
“Ah, you know the ancestor?” the woman asked and pointed to Elaine’s hand.
In the harsh glow of the porchlight Elaine examined for the first time the wood she had carried out of the forest. It was not a log, but a staff, and its end was carved in the likeness of an indri’s head.
Tags: Jackson A. Helms