“That’s better. Evan.”
“We can continue now.” I turned again, and he yelped my name once more, and I spun around. “What is it?”
“Do not walk further. There is a trap for leopards.”
With the tip of his rifle Dhang poked at the ground in front of me. Magically it opened up before him. He brushed aside a network of branches and vines artfully covered with leaves and straw. Below, at the bottom of a six-foot pit, sharpened stakes stood at attention.
“Oh,” I said.
“You must keep sharp eyes. If one were to fall within-”
“Shall I walk ahead?”
“Perhaps you’d better.”
The narrow jungle roads had been difficult enough even in a Land Rover, but they were ever so much more tedious on foot. It was late afternoon now. We had been walking for what seemed like forever, and were making very little discernible progress. We would have made considerably less progress if I had fallen into a leopard trap.
This was not the first time Dhang had proved useful. Earlier he had whacked the head off a snake with a neat flick of his machete just as the snake had prepared to assault my ankle. And another time, with the sun high in the sky, he had paused to scurry up a tree from which he had tossed down an excellent mangolike fruit. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. The fruit was a welcome change from wormy rice, and we feasted on it.
We were reasonably well equipped for a trek through the jungle. From the guerrilla camp Dhang and I had each taken a machete and a canteen of water. He had a rifle and I had a machine pistol with a full clip in it. The car had yielded up a few treasures, including my flashlight, which the guerrillas had discarded when it failed to operate.
So our equipment was sufficient unto our needs, and Dhang, who was miraculously able to distinguish between jungle trails that led somewhere and jungle trails that did not, and who kept a sharp eye open for leopard traps and pit vipers, was a more than competent guide. Even so, I was a long time shaking the sensation of being in the wrong place. The little village campfires in the rice-growing Thai midlands had been friendly places, places of ease and contentment. The jungle was different. It was dense, it was overgrown, it was blindingly green, and it was alive with any number of animals that emitted menacing noises, some from far away, others too close for anything resembling comfort. I was a long time shaking the feeling that I was in an area that had very obviously not been designed for man’s habitation, a hostile environment through which one ought to make one’s way as rapidly and guardedly as possible.
And this, of course, was the wrong way to travel. A traveler ought to merge with the landscape through which he moves, becoming as one with his surroundings, rendering the actual process of the journey as effortless as Zen archery. Man, I have found, is a surprisingly adaptable creature; he may have any number of homes, being wholly at home in each in turn as the occasion demands it. I had lived and traveled in this fashion throughout most of central and eastern Europe and the Middle East, in lands that were worlds apart from 107th Street. I had slipped across borders, leaving one language on one side and picking up a new tongue on the other. I had found all of this somewhat easier than I had suspected it might be. But the jungle was a new world, one I had evidently not known in any prior incarnations. I wanted only to fumble through this endless haystack of jungle as quickly as possible, locating a needle named Tuppence and returning posthaste to civilization.
The first night, Dhang shot three small animals and skinned them while I got a fire going. The creatures were built somewhat like rabbits but had small ears and less powerful hind legs. Dhang hacked them into pieces the size of chicken legs, and we cut green sticks from a tree and roasted the meat en brochette. The meat was lean, with a close grain. The slight gamey taste was not at all objectionable. We demolished all three of the little animals. I wondered what they were and if we would be able to get more of them some other time.
I sat cross-legged on the ground. Dhang was busy foraging for more dry wood. He walked along in a half-crouch, stopping now and then to scoop up a fallen twig or branch. He came back with an armload of wood and set it down a few paces from the fire.
“We must keep the fire burning all night,” he said. “It will keep animals away, and bad spirits.”
“Can’t we go any further tonight?”
“It is not good to travel at night. Evil spirits abound. And leopards, which hunt at night. And one can see nothing, and the great owls hoot in the tops of the trees and bats fly. The earth opens beneath one’s feet, the sky falls down in a clap of thunder, and the world is evil and dangerous. At night the wise man stays in his hut.”
“But we do not have a hut.”
“We have no hut, Heaven, so we remain by our fire. Here.”
“Betel. Chew it, and your sleep will be better.”
“What does it do?”
“It improves sleep, and it flushes the worms from one’s intestines.”
“Sleep is of no importance to me,” I said, “and I have no worms in my intestines.”
“And does it not blacken the teeth?”
“It does, yes.” He looked hurt. “You do not wish betel, then?”
I thought for a moment. Among its other properties, betel nut contains some substance with a mild narcotic effect, and it occurred to me that such an effect might be a help through the long night. Then, too, there was the When-In-Rome aspect – if I wanted to fit into my surroundings, I might as well chew betel nut like everyone else. I couldn’t shrink in size or change my skin color or the shape of my eyes, but I could at least have blackened teeth.
And as far as the intestinal worms were concerned, well who was I to decry the vermifugal properties of betel? I thought of the bowls of wormy rice I had recently ingested. I imagined the effect they might now be having upon my alimentary canal. And, with words of gratitude, I accepted the proffered slice of betel nut.
The betel nut is the heart of the fruit of the areca palm, boiled, sliced, dried, and wrapped up in a leaf of the betel vine. Dhang handed me such a leaf-wrapped slice, and I popped it into my mouth and chewed. It had been flavored with turmeric and cardamom; underneath this flavoring, the nut itself had a slightly bitter taste. I chewed it like a stick of spearmint, and my mouth was suddenly overflowing with saliva. I spat, and the saliva was a deep ruby red. For a terrible moment I thought I was bleeding to death. Then I realized that a rich flow of ruby saliva was a by-product of betel chewing and no cause for alarm.
Beside me Dhang chewed solemnly on another piece of betel, sighed, spat, closed his eyes, and resumed chewing. I fed the fire with scraps of the wood he had collected. It was very dry and burned with little smoke. I chewed and spat and chewed and spat.
“Soon we will reach the village,” Dhang said.
“Tomorrow or the day after. A village in the north country where they may know of your friends. It is not a camp of bandits but a village that lives at peace. The young men from the village join the bandits, but the others are not molested. Perhaps they will have word for us.”
“Why did you join the guerrillas, Dhang?”
He looked intently at me, then arced a stream of red saliva at the fire. It hit the mark and hissed. “They told me to come,” he said, “and I went.”
“They forced you to go?”
“Not force.” He considered. “They said there would be food, and all of us would be together as brothers.” Chew. Spit. “There was nothing of interest in my village. They said that if I went with them, I would be issued a rifle. I had never had a rifle and could not get one in my village.” Chew. “I thought perhaps” – Spit. – “that there might be women. My village was small, and of the women in it many were my cousins and sisters. I have never had a woman. Never. I thought perhaps with the bandits – but no, nothing. It was very disturbing.”
I shifted the wad of betel nut to the other side of my mouth. I chewed and spat. The bitter taste had become rather pleasant by now. When I was a boy I chewed tobacco once and, as I recall, vomited. I decided now that betel was certainly superior to tobacco. I could see, in fact, how people could get accustomed to it. I was already feeling oddly at peace with the world around me. Chew. The sense of surrounding hostility was easing up. Spit. The tension was going away. I kicked off my shoes and wiggled my toes. I watched the flames dancing in the fire.
We went on talking, Dhang and I. He was, I guess, about nineteen or twenty years old, though he did not know his age in years. He had lived all his life in the jungles of the north and knew virtually nothing about the world around him. He could not read or write. He had no political orientation whatsoever and did not know whether the bandits were Communists or not because he did not know what Communists were. He knew there was a king in Bangkok, and that the king had many soldiers, and that the bandits and the king’s soldiers were sworn enemies. He had been told that when all of the king’s soldiers were dead, there would be rice and fruit for all of the people in the land, and on that day the bandits would become the leaders of all the people. Whether or not such a situation would be good did not seem to have occurred to him. Good and bad, in Dhang’s frame of reference, seemed to be largely subjective; such a turn of events would be demonstrably good for the bandits, just as it would be bad for the soldiers of the king.
Politically unsophisticated as he was, Dhang found my own motives perfectly sensible. A girl who was my friend and lover was held prisoner by bandits, so I would go to rescue her. That was logical, because friends took care of one another and loved one another and sacrificed themselves for one another, because that was the whole purpose of friendship. By the same token, Dhang and I were friends and would strive to keep one another from harm. And, by extension, he would help me rescue Tuppence, and I in turn would help him find a woman. Such behavior, to Dhang, was eminently justifiable.
But to more knowledgeable men, to men like Barclay Houghton Hewlitt and the Chief, a journey of hazard and hardship demanded a more complex purpose. Barclay Houghton Hewlitt thought I would undertake a trip to Thailand so that my government might be better informed in respect to Thai guerrilla activity. The Chief thought I would hop around the world so that Africans could cut in on the Chinese opium trade. These were motives that they could appreciate and that simple little Dhang would find wholly incomprehensible.
On reflection I decided that I rather preferred his world view.
We talked on, chewing betel and spitting and feeding our little fire, while the night life of the jungle came awake around us. The noises, ominous to me earlier, were now nothing more than jungle music, the pleasant rhythms of life and nature. Dhang sighed, spat out his piece of betel, stretched out on his back, and closed his eyes. I lay down on my side and went on chewing betel nut. My mind wandered, and time slipped gently by, and I chewed and spat and chewed and spat.