WE SHALL CALL HIM JOHN. He began life as an infant of no special talent. None envied him. Tow-headed, thin-skulled, bow-legged, he carried all the stigmata of the middle-class child. It is true he grew into a rebel. Such things happen. Tallness became him. Broad shoulders. He ceased moping when he discovered he could lash out. His quickness, it is said—we
have said it—saved him more than once. Yet his life was erratic, stumbling, with none of the distinguishing rewards that graced his lesser contemporaries. Shall we examine that also? Is there room? Is there time? Is there reason?
We are not deceived, in this place, by the false cheeriness of visitors. The visions they bring, rough, unfinished, are no more relevant to the present inquiry than the hasty pudding faces they don for each visit. Yesterday one of them said: Surely you wont bring all these things with you? He gestured at one pile of revered artifacts. What? we cried, riffling with thumb the stacks of drawings, the pages of manuscripts, the things not ended
or not begun
, cardboard and flimsy, fine rag and merest pulp. Surrender this—any of this? We prefer to emulate John’s stance as one September morning he greeted the sun rising over Mount Kinebalu—yes, he was there, and unquestionably some remnant of his presence remains, a bit of dirt in one corner, a creak, once felt, in a wooden floorboard and never forgotten—his stance, we say, feet apart, arms swinging wide, ready to grapple with any emergency, a deft turn to the left,
an eye swiveling right,
always alert. There was something of the heroic about him. We give him his stage: wooden floor, Mount Kinebalu beyond his window, the sun rising, gecko lizards on the ceiling, sweat running down the walls. He was alone, of course. What man could do it better? Balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to fend right,
A man of vigor!
He slips away. We follow at a distance. He pauses at the river. The river is next to the tamil—
the market. Savages—we may call them savages—ignore him. He tests, with a booted toe, the liquidity of the water. He stands at the edge, the sun casting his shadow, casting the shadow of Mount Kinebalu, casting the shadow of each savage, he stands, toe stuck into the water, leather turning black, we say it, he stands.
It is of little interest to the rest of the world his true name. Yet to utter it would cause to ripen a fruit best left unplucked. We are not ready to go further than that.
It was his custom to wander. We may describe on a map his journey.
“This place called Lahad Datu—it is a town?"
“A bay—a promontory, I think—”
“But it exists? It is quite real?”
“Will you point it out?”
He passed Lahad Datu one morning, in the company of pirates.
“A pirate clan?”
“That’s it, a clan—Moros—from an island—”
“It says here ‘Sibutu.’ Is that correct?”
“Sibutu, yes. His name was Haji
“His—that is, the pirate chieftain’s.”
“His name was Haji
is a title, actually. It means—”
“We know what it means.”
The Moro looked covetously at John’s typewriter, a black Underwood. John looked covetously at the Moro chieftain’s daughter, a girl with greasy black hair and a moonish face. Could a trade be arranged? John was reluctant to part with his machine, which had served him so faithfully for so many years, for so many miles. In truth, the Moro chieftain, a man of thick fingers and burly thighs, was perhaps reluctant too. A daughter is a daughter, after all. The Haji
eyed the black machine, John eyed the moony girl. Then they—that is, John and his typewriter—were loaded into a kumpit.
We believe this to be a shallow draft smuggler’s vessel. Wooden beams, small cargo hold, a phut-phut of an engine.
“You passed Lahad Datu?”
“In the kumpit?”
“In the kumpit.”
Portuguese men-of-war in the shallow bay. Phut-phut-phut. Greenish seawater.
“Were you sick?”
“Sea-sick? No. Tired, perhaps.”
Tired? We allow a soured smile. His eyes droop, just a little, face muscles slackened. Pallor in the hollows of his cheeks. And thus he arrived in Borneo. The town was Sandakan, or perhaps Tawau. He would remember, in any case, the smell of dead fish, the mountains black and green, the whitewashed buildings, an immigration officer who didnt bother to conceal his distaste for John, for Borneo, for the world. A voyage then to Kudat on a Straits boat—deck passage, of course. Chinese laborers in tee shirts and underpants squatting in the hold, shoveling white rice into their mouths. What else? Dead fish, his own sweat, the stink of the sea, the slap of each wave, the chanting cries of yellow women. He visited a town below Mount Kinebalu. He could see the mountain beyond his window. What else? A river nearby, the tamil,
savages with betel-red lips, a water buffalo with numb eyes. He tested the water with a booted toe, standing there, ignored by all, his shadow slipping into the water, a shadow as black as the blackening leather toe of his boot. What else? Is there more? Shall we continue?
It is useless to speculate on what might have been.
The truth is, he is diminished now. His memories tangle, like burrs in his beard. He grew it—the beard—as a kind of disguise. In desperation. It formed on his face while the rest of him slipped away. It is possible to see bits and pieces of him, like the scattered bones after a banquet, left at the table of his life. But let us not be fanciful. Nor harsh. As he stood in the river, both feet chilly, boottops already overflowing, he still seemed complete. The parts were there. Beyond him—in the shadow of Mt Kinebalu—the savages stood. One of them gestured. Her lips were stained red with betel. She wore a sarong around her hips and a white brassiere over her breasts. Brown nipples were visible through the cloth. John, since that is what we call him, lowered himself face down into the water and drifted away.
Buffalo tromped past. The pirate hooked the typewriter and pulled it on board the kumpit.
The savage woman, now the moony daughter, let her fingers drift in the water.
“Were you intending to kill yourself?”
“The thought never occurred—”
“I dont think I could possibly—”
He looked like a drowned mouse. Her savage mouth sucked at his, spat out phlegm mixed with red betel-juice, and sucked again. After a while, groggily, he got to his feet. He did not know where he was. They put him ashore. He regained energy slowly, pacing from the docks to the center of town and back again. Occasionally the moony girl supported him. Her black hair, plaited in ropes, hung below her waist and smelled of camphor. At night she greased his body. They stayed—we remember it exactly—in a hotel which smelled just like her hair. At night, from the bar below, hoarse cries rose through the floorboards. She soothed him, rubbing the grease into the muscles of his calves, his ropy triceps, his skinny waist, his white buttocks. It is probable he thought she was doing him a favor. But every day he grew older.
People spoke Portuguese. Or perhaps it was Urdu. He answered their questions, as he answers ours now, with gestures and partial phrases. He did not seem able to complete a thought. We shall leave him there, as he climbs the stairs back to his empty hotel room—she has long left—his hotel room empty of everything, except the hoarse cries from the bar below and the camphor, the smell of camphor, and the beating of his own heart.
We are certain only of the passage of time. When faced with certain remarks we allow, politely, the passage of minutes into hours. We cannot be certain but there is a smell to the air—
we must not do more than remark on it—which presages a passage of another kind. The hours become days. We mark them off, keeping, like John, an alert passivity. The passage will certainly occur.
And meanwhile there is John. A woman follows him. No, she engulfs him, smelling of sweat and sour milk from her outsized breasts. It is claimed he remembers each breast emerging, handed out, as it were, one after the other, from her dirty white brassiere. Such a claim seems extravagant.
He plunged into the woman’s underbrush.
“Was the experience orgiastic?”
“Never mind. What did you do next?”
“I washed myself with some cheap Japanese sake.”
It didnt help. His skin was too porous, and she had acquired, with use, all the latest venereal diseases. She leaked viruses and spirochetes from every orifice. Perhaps that is why the river drew him: he imagined the water would cleanse his soul, if not his body. The woman, spitting through the gap in her teeth, watched as he dipped himself full length into the water. Later she would appear at his side. We have dressed him carefully in mufti, but she—as is appropriate—is scarcely dressed at all. She loiters nearby, rehearsing the poses and gestures of her profession, each thigh bruised, each breast scarred, the skin of her belly roughened from the constant chaffing. Occasionally, even now, he looks towards her, and guilty passion flares—like a burner suddenly turned up—across his face.
“And then? What were the symptoms?”
“Lassitude, despair, ennui — what did you experience?”
“Yes—yes, all of those—”
It marked him. He dragged himself across one continent, and then another, as though movement itself could sustain him.
“No one showed interest—”
And why should they? His face split by a grimace, the grimace sliding from face to throat to thorax, he scarcely invited intimacies. Or condolences. When at last he arrives in Borneo, he is like an old-fashioned automaton—a clockwork man. Is that fair? Is that accurate? His head dips, his left arm jerks, his legs move independently of the rest of his body. When he dips the toe of his boot into the water that flows between him and the woman—the woman whose lips are stained with betel—it is easy to see the metronomic quality of his movements. He is no longer real. The woman recognizes that. She winks at us, and tweaks, with her left hand, her left breast. It is possible to see every muscle of her body, as though her skin were transparent, every muscle flexing and coiling up her legs, along her spine, across her belly. The internal organs glow: spleen and liver, ovaries and pulsing thyroid. John, however, sees nothing. Face down in the river, the water penetrating the clockwork mechanism of his soul, he floats—John floats—we allow him to float, seeing nothing.
We are not deceived,
in this place, by the false cheeriness of visitors, nor the hasty pudding faces they don for each visit. They gather round, making noises like bugs on a summer night, complaining of this,
. What, they cry, these
manuscripts? And why not? A moonish face—a simulacrum with blackened gums—rises from every page. Let him be, we say. Let him be.
He stirs at last, dripping water. His visitors scatter. The simulacrum lifts herself from the page. We give both of them their due: his courage, her obscene beauty. She takes his hand. In this light she remains transparent, but victorious. He is solid, lumpish, but blind. Let them pass, we say, waving one hand, then the other. She grins back at us, as brutal as his greatest fear. Let them pass,
we say, let them pass.
The dead can do us no harm.
NOTES: I wrote this story after I returned to California from London in 1979. I was newly married. The marriage quickly failed. I felt baffled, and very alone. I could not write. The muse had deserted me. I wandered the streets of the town in which I'd grown up, hands stuffed in my pockets, brooding about the road I had taken in my life. I recalled Borneo, and the excitement—and despair—of exploration. The story began appearing, in bits and pieces, over a period of several months. It seemed a stew composed of many things, my past, my lost love, the muse, the purpose of one's life. I returned to the story, off and on, for a couple of years, I believe, reordering it, modifying a piece here and there, until it made a kind of esthetic sense. I like the slipperiness of the reality it describes, and the sense—very real to me—of being lost between worlds, indeed in a kind of anteroom...