by Simon Rowe
Oscar De Vries watched the last of his trucks pass through the port gates and head for a row of old wooden warehouses at the end of the wharf. He ran his big hand through his crew cut and frowned.
“Where the hell are they,” he growled.
That it would be dark in a few hours did not worry the 55-year-old Australian coconut planter; his chief mechanic and two teenage assistants knew the northern plantation’s road well and their trip to check on the husking machines was a routine one. It was the weather report that bothered him; a tropical storm had formed out in the Philippine Sea and it was now forecast to hit the Spice Islands sometime before midnight.
De Vries lit a clove-filtered kretek and paced to the end of the wharf. A half-dozen skipjack boats were motoring back to port and he watched them putter in through the reef and on towards the fish-sorting sheds where they would unload their catches.
Behind him, two aging copra boats rocked at their moorings; both were scheduled to sail for Java in two day’s time, but without new bilge pumps and a mechanic to install them, neither would be going anywhere.
He drew on the fragrant tobacco and listened to the saltpeter crackle. Yoko, his wife, hounded him daily about his “filthy” habit—his one small pleasure. Now, as much as tried, he could not enjoy it. His gaze returned to the port gates; a hopeful few becak pedicabs lingered outside.
He flicked the half-smoked kretek into the strengthening breeze and walked to a white cinder block office at the end of the warehouses. “Morning Star Copra and Cacao Ltd.” stretched in stencilled blue lettering over the door.
The room inside was large and a ceiling fan paddled a curious aroma of rose oil and drying cacao beans about it. Behind a desk, on the far side, a Chinese-Indonesian woman of generous proportions busied herself with a ledger. Bundles of banknotes piled to one side her; a kretek smoldered in an ashtray on the other.
“Any word from Santoso and the boys, May?” De Vries asked his secretary. She pursed her lips and shook her head without looking up.
“I’m heading up to the plantation,” he said, stuffing a thermos of black tea and sticky rice cakes which she had laid out for his afternoon tea into a canvas bag. “I bet that damn truck has broken down again. Will you call Yoko and tell her I’ll be late for dinner.”
“Again?” his secretary smiled, her eyes not lifting from the ledger.
“May, you’d better finish up soon. There’s a bad weather on the way. Oh, and make sure Yoko doesn’t catch you smoking in here. You know what she’s like.”
The secretary reached for another bundle of banknotes, moistened a finger and continued counting. De Vries sighed and shoved at the door; he wished there was another reason he could be late for dinner.
There were few townsfolk about as he tooled the big white 4WD along the main street. The clap-board shops had closed early and only the Neptune Pool Parlor remained open outside the port gates for the homebound dock workers. He passed by the Telekom office, the Chinese cafe with its sunbleached red lanterns and a line of tented street kitchens manned by sullen-faced women in colourful sarongs. Beyond their empty bench seats and smoking braziers, the Alpha Mas Hotel rose like a great white elephant at the end of the esplanade. Yoko worked in reception on weekends, or whenever Japanese tourists appeared.
Built by Dutch spice growers a century earlier, the hotel bar served cold Anchor beer with a sea view, and this attracted a steady flow of Australians from the gold mining camp on nearby Halmahera island. De Vries avoided the place, “Too many young turks, drunks and smart-arses,” he grumbled.
A young, fair-skinned man caught his eye. Probably a miner, De Vries thought, glancing in his rearview mirror. The man stood outside the hotel and seemed to be haggling with a besi putih salesman. De Vries caught the glimmer of necklaces, rings and bracelets inside his opened display case. He clicked his tongue in disdain, “Wrong paradise, mate.”
Visitors, at first, took these trinkets for junk, but once the salesmen explained that besi putih, or ‘white metal’ jewelry, was handcrafted from the wreckage of American and Japanese fighter planes shot down during WWII, they stepped up for a closer look.
Relic hunters came from America, Japan and Europe paid good money for whatever the copra farmers brought out of the jungle—tin helmets, water canteens, spent bullet casings, a rusted rifle, or a bayonet if they were lucky. Reminders of the war were everywhere in town: emptied Liberator bomb casings had been transformed into flower pots which townsfolk had painted in bright colours. A set of Browning 50-calibre machine guns, ripped from a B17 Flying Fortress bomber which had crash-landed on the outskirts of town in 1945, stood in the forecourt of the police station. Their barrels had been daubed in cherry red with yellow bumble-bee stripes.
Townsfolk had General Douglas MacArthur’s Tradewind Force to thank for this bounty. After routing the island’s Japanese defenders by mid-1945, months of massing men and equipment from Australia and New Guinea followed. Then, the bulk of the Allied forces simply upped and left, abandoning their air strips, field kitchens, barracks, even cinemas, to the jungle.
Yoko had lost her father to these islands in 1945. Japanese Imperial Army records showed that his battalion’s radio contact had been lost on this very island and he was officially listed as “Missing In Action.”
De Vries’s own uncle had served in the mop-up operations which followed. He had stayed on after the war to farm copra and cacao and before dying, had gifted his plantation to his favourite nephew. It was a gesture Yoko had embraced. They sold up their ailing mango farm in Queensland and started life anew in the Spice Islands.
That Yoko’s father had disappeared here 65 years earlier was purely coincidental; De Vries was not a superstitious man. But for Yoko it was a ‘sign.’ She had a reoccurring dream that her father was ‘calling’ to her from a dark, water-filled hole somewhere in the earth. The water would gush louder and louder until finally his voice was drowned out and she would wake up.
De Vries lit a kretek and put his foot to the floor. He took the coastal highway, hugging its contours in and out of small coves and inlets. Lush fields dotted with grazing oxen ran up to the roadside and ramshackle farmers’ hamlets came and went between them. Their inhabitants lived simply, poorly, with the salt wind in their faces and the jungle breathing down their necks. At the entrance to his plantation he pulled over, switched to 4WD mode, and let the big wheels find traction among the potholes. Taro palms slapped the grill and swarms of bugs spread like jam across his windscreen as he sped down the plantation’s dirt road. Coconut trees marched away in neat rows on each side, their crests rustling in the strengthening wind.
How long before the storm hit? He had no idea.
A wide stream appeared and the road turned sharply. The crook marked the northern border of his plantation. Across the water the jungle reared up in a monstrous, verdant wave. He feared the day it would over-run him, when the seed-carrying birds and the fertile soil of his plantation would conspire against him to give the jungle a foot hold. So long as he had a cheap supply of local workers to beat it back, his business would survive.
Warm, moist air rushed through the windows. He smelled rain. And something else. Woodsmoke. The workers’ hut lay over the small hill ahead and he guessed he would find his men there waiting. The Toyota burst easily through the roadside foliage. However, at a dip in the road the overhanging vines momentarily hid the road from his view and as the vehicle sprung from the hollow De Vries let out a gasp. He jammed his foot down hard on the brake. The tires dug in and a wave of earth showered the road ahead.
Less than a metre from the hissing engine stood the old plantation truck. A pair of long brown legs protruded from its leaning chassis. De Vries released his grip on the wheel, exhaled.
“Oi! Santoso!” he bellowed from the cab. He could not tell if the legs belonged to a man who was alive or dead. They wriggled out and from them his chief mechanic unfolded. A pair of bloodshot eyes fixed on the planter.
“No good, boss. Axle broken,” Santoso said.
“Where are the boys?”
“Cookin snails. Down river.”
“Bring ‘em in, Santo. We’ll come back for the truck tomorrow.”
The man gave a nod and slipped into the forest as De Vries set about transferring tools and cans of diesel from the crippled truck. A sudden wind gust tore through the canopy, showering the road with leaves and deadwood. Then came rain—in droplets that could fill a shot glass. They pelted his body with an intensity he had never known and the roar was deafening.
He scrambled into the 4WD with Santoso and his two assistants close behind. For a while they sat in silence, sodden as sewer rats, watching in awe as the forest floor danced around them.
“Not getting back in this,” De Vries said finally.
“The batu putih across the river, boss. There’s a cave…,” one of the boys piped up. De Vries shook his head. He hated the jungle, but caves he reserved a special dislike for. He was about to reply when they heard a loud whoosh and felt the vehicle rocked violently.
Peering out through the steering wheel he grimaced at the huge epiphyte which had written off the hood of his vehicle.
“Christ!” De Vries breathed. “Alright, out of here.” He grabbed his bag, a torch and a poncho, and with Santoso and the two boys leading, pushed along the jungle path to the river. There they halted and stared in disbelief: what had been a meandering waterway moments earlier was now a raging torrent.
“There!” one of them shouted, pointing to a fallen tree that had bridged the rapids higher up. A limestone escarpment rose on the other side. “Yoo see the cave?” The boy guided De Vries’ gaze up the rock face with his bush knife.
Not even Santoso dared look down as they inched across the log and up the escarpment to the cave’s mouth. De Vries wondered how the youngster had be able to spot the tiny opening from so far downstream. One by one, they squeezed through.
The sound of the wind and rain barely registered inside. De Vries pulled out his torch and sent the beam probing. The boys chattered excitedly. The cavern had no visible walls; stalactites drooped from the ceiling and strange stocking-like forms floated among them.
“Racer snake skins,” Santoso said. “No dangerous, boss.”
De Vries stifled a shiver. The cave floor was spongy and littered with the bones of small animals. A sharp odour of guano filled the air. “Bats,” he grumbled. “I hate bats.”
Within a few minutes the flicker of a small fire Santos had built from fallen tree roots pushed back the darkness and the four wet bodies encircled it. De Vries produced his thermos, poured out some black tea and passed it with the sticky cakes to his men. Darkness was falling and the world beyond the cave mouth was one of tumult as the storm bore down on the island.
From somewhere in the depths came the sound of gushing water. De Vries felt a sudden urge to pee. He rose from the fire and walked a short distance towards the sound. On a ledge beside a large boulder he laid the torch and began to drain himself. He shook off, zipped up and as he reached for the torch he lost his footing in the guano.
“Shit!” he hissed as the torch fell with a clatter into a crevice. The beam projected out like a stage light into the darkness. He hoisted his ample belly onto the boulder and inched forward. At the edge he reached down. Then instinctively he stopped. Below his fingers a spider-like creature clutched the rock, its tail arching menacingly. He withdrew his hand, reached for the kreteks in his chest pocket and lit one. He drew deeply. From the other pocket he pulled a toothpick, plunged it into the filter and dangled it downwards. The scorpion’s pincers wavered as it sized up the glowing red tip, then it slowly retreated back into the darkness.
De Vries wiped sweat from his brow. He reached for the torch, but again his thick fingers fumbled it and the beam shifted. This time, where the light pooled on the rocks, a long and slender object protruded. He waited, watching for movement, then after a few moments he reached out, gripped and tugged. Grit showered the rocks below as he heaved the object into the torchlight. Clutching one end, he pulled on the other and the two parts separated with a dry click. A menacing curved blade crept into the light, dark stains along its ragged edge.
Santoso’s voice reached through darkness, “Yoo alright boss?”
“Good as gold,” he lied.
He returned the blade to its sheath and slipped it beneath his trouser belt. He was about to turn back when a draft grazed his face. He hesitated for a moment, aware of a new odor in his nostrils; it was warm and heavy with the smell of ancients. He stepped forward into the darkness, picking his way around the boulders until Santoso’s fire lay far behind him, no brighter than an ember. The boulders grew in size and soon they crowded in on him like a great wall. He cast the torch beam up the dripping monolith before him and stepped backwards. Something nudged his foot.
The torch light picked out two boots. They lay half buried in silt and from their shrivelled soles, a man—what was once a man—extended, his head and hands long-relieved of their flesh by the cave dwellers. De Vries cast his beam around. There were others, scattered like puppets at the base of the wall. He reached down and tapped the chest pocket of the man who lay at his feet. A centipede scuttled out. Gently he teased from the empty spaces between the bones a small leather wallet.
It did not give up its contents easily: cards and documents crumbled at a touch. But from the last fold, a photo fell to the dead man’s chest. Beneath the grainy light, a young woman and a girl stared back at him. They wore kimono and the woman’s hair, oiled and swept back into a shining hive, stood impressively on her head. His gaze shifted to the child; there was something oddly familiar in her calm, confident expression—an expectation in her eyes that something magical was about to happen. He replaced the photo in the wallet, slipped it into his chest pocket, and with the sword tucked beneath his belt, crept back through the boulders to the fire place.
The boys lay fast asleep but Santoso stirred, lifting his head from a stone pillow.
“Long piss, boss,” he said.
“What you find over there?”
“What you talkin bout?”
“Tell you in the morning, Santo.”
Th mechanic grunted, stoked the fire and returned to his pillow. Rain sprayed through the cave’s entrance and the wind wailed like a crazy woman through vents and fissures in the rock as the storm raged outside. While Santoso and the boys dozed, De Vries’ tossed and turned; his mind would not give in to his fatigue. Who were the fallen men? The woman and child?
He became aware of a light but persistent tapping on his shoulder. He flung himself up, his first thought the scorpion. Santoso’s bony face grinned back.
“Storm gone, boss. We can go home.”
De Vries blinked. He rubbed his eyes. Had he not slept all night? His hand moved to the sword beside him, then to his chest pocket. He stumbled towards the cave mouth and into the streaming white light of day. From the wallet he drew out the photo and stared at the young girl.
It was Yoko.
Editor’s Note on Bones:
Bones is not the first piece Eastlit has published by Simon Rowe. His other work is listed below:
- The Pilgrim appeared in Eastlit September 2013.