Malaysian Spirit Log/Para-anthropology in the Raw
We have pulled off to the side of a sticky, rutted road cut by Public Works Department through a patch of jungle, the beginning of the unfinished highway between Sirian and Simmangang. No. Unfinished is not the right word. Neither is road. This is a muddy, hardly drivable scratch through brush. A poor effort at something we might call infrastructure today. It is impossible to drive it after a big rain. That means it is impassable during the whole monsoon season. It will not be completed until the lorries of rocks are delivered and dumped and the Chinese and Malay carry them basket after basket to the road bed and place them one by one to make a cobble bed for the macadam surface. That surface will be rolled several years from now. The road, as it is now, is very much like the paths I trek on to get to the villages I visit. I’m usually at least ankle deep in mud….passing sometimes through rubber plantations, each tree with a little cup under the runny slash on its trunk, and sometimes through impossibly beautiful acres of high palmate trees hanging with ferns and orchids and so thick under the canopy that nothing can pass unless it be those that crawl on their bellies or have the strength to break through it all. Beasts and demons, perhaps. Then, as I leave the untamed and approach a village, pass the guardian totem that can call upon a hill demon to “tangle my neck” if I come bearing ill will, I see the pepper plants or pineapple fields at my side or untidy fields of red rice growing on slashed and burnt hillsides. The mud from the journey covers my boots and encases my legs all the way up my calves. I am tired and thirsty and wet clear through my clothing from my own sweat. My hair is dank. The skin over my stomach is inexplicably dry and cold. Someone cuts the top off a green coconut and I drink the water.
This time, this night, I’ve traveled in a car. We have gone to visit one of Timah’s relatives and are on our way home when someone spots a light moving through the trees just below us. No one seems afraid. But everyone wants to get out and watch. I see it too. It is ball of fire and it is moving rapidly through the brush and cover. It is higher from the jungle floor than would be a torch carried by a person. And it is rounder than the flame of a torch would be; it is bigger than a lantern or flash light beam. In fact, there is no beam nor light diffusing from the central core of it. It is just a solid ball of light. I don’t hear a noise. I don’t hear wind or branches being moved or hit. We’ve all stopped breathing as we behold this thing. Is it a hantu? I wonder. A ghost? Will it harm someone?
There are stories of shapeshifters, men and women who turn into tigers. Hantu remau. There are stories of flying eggs. I am surrounded by these tales, day in and day out. I dream them alive under my mosquito net. I hear the ghosts knocking at my door and the rattling of the WWII Japanese sword, crafted by a local blacksmith for an officer. I have foolishly hung this on a wall of my big room. (It is said it was used for beheadings and given the bloody and cruel Japanese occupation of British Borneo, this is not a far fetched story.) I hear my name being called in the night. It is that fellow from the Bidayu kampong, “kaki kosong” they call him because he wears no shoes. He has put something in the food I’m told. It is that fellow from the Malay kampong. He is in love with you. He brings love charms. They tell me this, my housemates, living with me after the Public Works barracks are swept away by the biggest flood in the recorded history of the First Division of Sarawak.
Timah was my Amah. She did my laundry and chatted amiably with me as we poured salt on giant snails or greeted the border crossing Indonesian woman who came peddling batik. But after the flood swept away the barracks, she and her husband Gorot and his bachelor brothers, Bujang and Hamdan and two or three small children came to me…homeless. My house was small and simple, made of woven palm leaves with an attap roof and no electricity. But it was divided by an open porch with a simple shower and toilet just off the porch. This layout of the house was perfect for us. They took the side of the house with the kitchen and dining area. I kept my bedroom and the big room with the chairs and table. We shared that room at night until I went to bed. There we talked and played poker and ate the peanuts that Timah roasted. Timah went around the house at dusk each evening and closed all the shutters because there was a Hindu cemetery behind the hill below my house. If the shutters weren’t closed, the ghosts would come in. Even if the shutters were closed, the ghosts would come to our doors and could call our names. If you answered and followed, you would surely die. And they were clever ghosts. They could sound like someone you knew. So they could seduce you into following them. Because of them, all the people in the barracks had been sleeping in one big room before the flood. They figured that with the others around, each had a chance of being prevented from following the voice.
I heard the voice. I heard the knocking. It was as real as anything I’d ever heard. It called to me and convincingly imitated Timah and then Gorot. But I knew it was not them. They would not wake me in the night or call out to me. They called my name. I remained silent and very afraid.
And then there was the fireball. There, in the dark. Of course in those days there were no city lights, nor much else save small kersoscene lamps, to obscure the brilliant starry skies. There were no gas stations. We carried large metal containers of gasoline strapped to the back of the car. There were no motels or hotels. There were guesthouses for traveling British officers and families. But our carload had to make whole journeys in a day or arrange to stay with relatives if there were any. Of course you could not phone ahead. Each trip was a trip beyond the pale; each mile took one further into uncertainty and danger, even if the danger was seated in your own beliefs.