By Sid Hoskins
Tobuk awoke, punched his wife in the side and dropped his legs over the edge of the ironwood bed. His bare fee hit the scrubbed wooden floor and he smiled. Today he would hunt. He'd take along his best friend among the Iban clan, go into the forest, find a deer and shoot it with his rifle. Meat for dinner, that's what he'd have.
Friday, that's what today was. Tobuk scratched his curly black hair with a tattooed hand, then reached to his crotch, stuck his hand inside his loincloth and pulled on his testicles to separate them and free them from their sleep. His thoughts wandered as he performed this every morning ritual of waking. Those pale faced tourists would arrive today from Kuching in late morning, their heavy bags and cameras dragging them down as they climbed the ironwood steps from the stream to their whiteman's longhouse, a longhouse he'd helped build. How he'd love to have just a part of what those tourists carried. Maybe one day he'd talk to his fellow ex-headhunters and just maybe a few of those gawking white people would go home minus their heads and cameras. It they had no head, it would be hard for them to take pictures anyway and they wouldn't need the cameras.
Tobuk chuckled to himself. Little did those rich tourists know what he thought about when he saw them sitting on the log railing next to the longhouse, staring at his near naked brown-skinned loving wife taking her afternoon bath at the clan's only outdoor water faucet.
But for now, Tobuk busied himself at the sink. A bowl of last night's rice intrigued him and he stuck a finger in, pulled out a gob and tasted it. Rice always tasted better in the morning after resting in the bowl overnight. How many times had he made exactly the same movement with his finger? How many times had he washed it down with cold tea? He was 63 this year and he'd always lived here in the Borneo jungle far up this gentle stream that fed into the fast flowing Skrang River that emptied into the South China Sea.
His wife, Sabri, was stirring. Without turning, he heard the familiar sound of the bed groaning and creaking under the weight of his adorable wife, his woman who had given him sons and who made his life bearable. He cast a side-ways glance at her. She stood now, the early morning light filtering in from the small window cut into the metal of the corrugatedf siding of the stilted longhouse. Her naked body, breasts sagging a bit, always aroused him in the morning and he could feel a steady bulging in his loincloth. Something would have to be done about that.
Tobuk turned full body toward Sabri now. With skillful hands he undid his only piece of clothing and let it drop to the floor. He followed the angle of his wife's eyes as she looked at his erect penis.
"Early morning best time," she said.
That's all she said as she dropped back down on the bed, her head finally resting flat on the pandanus woven mat that served as mattress for their bed. She spread her legs apart to receive her husband. Tobuk moved quickly toward the bed, his ardor building with each step, his mind filled with the pleasure he was about to encounter in one of life's oldest and most pleasurable activities.
Tobuk held the ancient Springfield rifle in his hands. The light from the early morning sun reflected from the steel blue barrel and Tobuk breathed deeply. How good it was to feel this weapon, to stroke it with a cleaning cloth, to oil its trigger, and finally to heft it to his shoulder in anticipation of the hunt.
Where was Banjar? Always he waited for him. But Banjar must be with him when he hunted. His friend must see how brave and skillful he was when he faces the brown buck deer. Banjar must watch while he sent the streaking bullet into the animal's heart. And there would be help to carry the heavy carcass back to the longhouse platform where it would be carved into piles of meat, one pile for each family who lived in the longhouse
Tobuk looked toward the longhouse and saw Banjar backing down the single pole ladder that led from the outside platform of the longhouse to the muddy ground beneath. Tobuk saw how deftly the man used his arms and legs to descend, one motion, body in control, brown muscles on his upper back rippling in unison as he came down the ladder. A surge of warmth filled Tobuk's spirit and he was glad he lived here in the clan, the clan that gave him everything and asked for very little in return, no more than a bit of shared meat from time to time.
His friend approached him now and Tobuk greeted him.
"Banjar, finally you leave the warmth of your bed to help your old friend in the hunt. Good light this morning. You brought your blowgun. We will find a fat buck for me, maybe a bird for you to shoot. I need feathers for my new costume. My wife needs a beak of the hornbill for her craft. Come, let's go. The sign of the early setting moon is with us."
The well worn dirt trail zigzagged down the edge of the yellow stream that divided the longhouse compound from the feral jungle on the other side. The men hastily climbed the freestanding ironwood steps to the rope bridge they would have to cross to reach the forest.
Tobuk's eyes searched the root-matted trail ahead of him. He was in the lead now, but he could hear Banjar's soft footsteps behind him. A tall kapok tree just ahead was his landmark. The trail forked here, but Tobuk's feet knew the way as the side trail narrowed abruptly. Fast growing jungle trumpet creepers clogged the way ahead and Tobuk reached for his broad machete to clear the path.
Each time his fingers formed around the handle of his weapon, Tobuk's thoughts automatically returned to the days of his youth and his eighteenth birthday. Sabri was not his wife then. A vision of her flashed in his mind, a Sabri with firm young breasts that did not sag, a Sabri who loved him even then and who wanted him to show his everlasting love for her by returning from battle with the head of an enemy.
And how she had danced when he did return, his feather-decorated game bag hanging heavily from his shoulder. Sabri knew. Only the weight of a head could make the bag sag as it did. Tobuk could see the excitement in her eyes as he opened the sack, grabbed the blood-matted hair of his enemy and with the practiced deftness of a magician, pulled the head from his bag. He still remembered the screech that Sabri had made, the hand clapping as she circled him, her eyes riveted on the object in his hands, her shoulders wavering back and forth in rhythm to the beat of her hands. At that moment, Tobuk knew a great love between them was born, a love that would last nearly 50 years, even to this very morning at the longhouse.
Banjar was whispering in his ear. Tobuk stopped. The two men stood motionless as they stared at the object in the trail ahead. There was no mistaking the marking on the hood, a cobra, not a big one, but big enough to inject its massive dose of venom or spit at the unsuspecting foot traveler. How he hated the silent killers, the poisonous ones, the murderers of small children.
Tobuk watched as Banjar slowly brought his blow pipe to his lips. No sudden movements. Stealthily, Banjar placed a wadded piece of clay at the mouthpiece and blew. The projectile found its mark. The snake's once proud and menacing erect stance became a writhing dance of survival, a dance that both Tobuk and Banjar had witnessed often in the jungle. For minutes, the wounded serpent quivered, jerked and rippled, its post-death contractions carrying on long after its brain had ceased to send signals.
Now the reptile lay still, its coils stiffening, its color deepening, the black and yellow markings beginning to diffuse as death closed in on its body. Tobuk stepped forward, the butt end of his rifle at the ready. Slipping the wooden stock under the center portion of the snake, he balanced the 5 foot body on his rifle and with a burst of energy, flung it into the brush far from the trail. He muttered to himself, "Let the ants find this naja and chew it into small bits. No longer will I walk the jungle path in fear of this one. He has joined his ancestors.
The light from the sun now came at a higher angle and Tobuk knew they must hurry if they were to find a deer to shoot. Far up ahead was the water hole and Tobuk wanted to reach there before the grazing animals ceased their morning eating in the meadow to seek the coolness of the spring water.
"You are coming, Banjar?"
The panting hunter shifted his blow gun from his left hand to his right.
"I'm coming, Tobuk. But give me pause. I see a flash of color in that tree. Let me take aim.,"
Tobuk stopped and turned his head toward where Banjar now pointed.
"Yes, you are right. It is a hornbill and an old one. At last I will have some new feathers. Shoot straight my friend as you did with the snake.,"
Tobuk watched as Banjar raised the five foot hollowed-out bamboo weapon to his mouth. He saw Banjar place a piece of clay at the blowing end. There was the whooshing sound as the molded pellet left the tube.
The soft noise of the blow gun caused Tobuk to turn. He followed the trajectory of the missile, saw it hit its mark and in a flash his mind grabbed at the picture of a long past encounter in this very jungle. On that day, it wasn't a piece of clay, but a poisoned dart that found its way to the target.
Far into the jungle of Sarawak near the Skrang River, Tobuk and three other Iban men neared the encampment of the Kayana, the hated enemies of the Ibans, whose chief had caused the death of Tobuk's father the preceding year. Tobuk had revenge on his mind and nothing would stop him this time in his quest of a trophy head, the head of the mighty Kayan chieftain.
.Among the men on this march was the most skilled of the Iban blow gun archers, Murut, whose devil darts could drop a human being in his tracks at 50 paces. Tobuk with his killing blade and Murut with his poison missiles could accomplish all things and with the two others to keep guard, Tobuk knew he would return to his camp with his trophy.
The night was clear and a silver half moon guided their footsteps on the path that led up the hill to a place that overlooked the Kayan compound. Silently they moved, quieter than the breeze, their feet touching the ground as lightly as a hornbill feather fluttering to the earth.
A hand signal from Tobuk stopped the men. Each stood in place, a statue in the forest; just another tree trunk to the unobserving eye and in the limited light, camouflage was no problem. Tobuk motioned to the men to flatten against the ground and with another movement of his hand, he told them to move forward. The men were a team, each supporting the other, each keeping within sight and hearing distance, yet each one crawling toward the prey, the hated Kayan chief who sat next to a fire in the center of the camp. As Tobuk parted the tall sprouts of the esparto grass in front of him, his eyes settled on the man. Coolly, he raised his hand and held one finger in the air. The signal was for Murut.
Tobuk watched as his friend aimed his blow gun. A near silent whoosh sent a fatal dart on its way toward the man seated near the fire. Tobuk was on his feet now and charging toward the falling figure. Murut's poisoned dart had found its mark. The man was dying. Tobuk uttered no sound, but his machete spoke for him. His trophy was soon in his decorated bag and he and his friends were back on the trail toward their longhouse home before anyone in the Kayan camp had stirred.
Tobuk blinked. Banjar was before him now, a limp hornbill in his hands and he watched as his friend carefully placed the bird in his game bag. There would be time later to pluck the yellow, red and blue tail feathers and sew them to the headband of his dance costume. The white tourists would be impressed and maybe in gratitude, they would spend more of their Malaysian money on Sabri's crafts.
The trail now flattened and Tobuk knew the watering place was not far off. Banjar was on his heels and he could feel the excitement of the hunt build within him. It was always this way when the kill was soon to be made.
Tobuk motioned to Banjar with his hand.
Finally the men were on their stomachs, Tobuk parting the grass at his front, his rifle ready. It was just as he had pictured it in his mind. They were in time. The animals had not yet arrived and he and his friend were downwind.
A slight bit of motion in the brush off to the right caught Tobuk's eyes and as his attention shifted, he saw the approaching deer. A does, heavy with unborn fawn, was first to break covert. Its head shifted from side to side. She was sampling the wind. She stopped, listened, then with confidence stepped toward the edge of the spring, her head now lowering, her mouth opening to gather in the water. Soon, other females joined her and Tobuk searched for the guarding stags. He knew they would be there. His eyes scanned the high ground just beyond the nearest row of trees. Yes, there was one standing proudly beneath the overhanging limbs of a kapok tree. There must be other males. They would be the last ones to drink.
Noiselessly, Tobuk shifted his weight and sighted his weapon onto the largest of the drinking deer. Not much breeze was blowing so his shot would travel straight and true. Tobuk estimated the range at 100 paces and instinctively, elevated his rifle slightly to compensate for the trajectory of his bullet. The sun was nearing its highest and still the females stood spread-legged at the pond, their mouths agape as they continued to drink. Soon they would be off to their lay-up hideaways where they could digest their morning food. When would they drink their fill and move away?
The screeching of a blue-rumped parrot cut through the silence of the forest and for a moment the animals jerked their heads skyward, their noses sampling the wind, their long ears erect. But soon they returned to their drinking.
One by one now they were leaving. Only one was left and then she turned her body toward the narrow game trail and disappeared into the forest. Tobuk could feel his pulse increase.
His rifle was ready. He had loaded it back on the trail and all it took now was to kick off the safety and slip his index finger onto the well-worn trigger. But where were the stags? His mind told him they would come, but there was always the chance that he had waited patiently for nothing. Maybe the screeching bird had frightened them and they would find another place to drink.
Tobuk glanced at Banjar. His friend was in position to help him should the sharp antlered stag charge. But Tobuk know he would need no help. His one shot would fell the beast.
A rustle of leaves caused Tobuk to jerk his head. He watched as the marvelous head of an eight point buck broke through the creeper vines. Not this one, he thought. This is the master, the father of the herd, the strongest of the males. Not him. Wait. Others will soon be here.
Tobuk saw the buck sample the wind as he edged toward the water. Then he lowered his head as if satisfied that no enemy was near. He drank deeply, his massive head dropping down, and then rising up. Tobuk could see the muscles of his throat ripple in rhythm to his swallowing. But where were the others?
His question was soon answered. A single-pointed stag made his way down the game trail and Tobuk knew that this was the one. He carefully moved his rifle to follow the movement of the animal and aimed his weapon where the heart would be. The buck was unsuspecting. He would never know what hit him.
Tobuk increased the pressure of his finger on the trigger and the rifle fired, sending a puff of smoke out of the barrel, the sound of the explosion echoing in the forest, the acrid smell of gunpowder reaching Tobuk's nostrils.
The stag's front legs buckled and he went down. But then he was up again and running.
Tobuk broke cover and dashed toward the stag. Never before had this happened to him. Always, the animal had dropped in its tracks.
Banjar ran beside him now and the two hunters knew the dangers of confronting a wounded animal in the thick underbrush.
The trail of blood grew stronger now and Tobuk stopped, listened for just a moment, and then followed the spoor again. The buck had to be down and not far ahead.
Tobuk pulled back the jungle vine in front of him and looked down at the ground. There lay his kill. The stag had made a run of it, but now he lay in a pool of his own blood, dead.
The buck still weighed a good hundred pounds after skinning out. Carrying it through the forest sapp-ed the strength of both men, but Tobuk smiled to himself now as they approached the rope bridge that led over the yellow stream and back to the longhouse. How straight he walked as he climbed the muddy trail to his home. Tobuk looked up now. Sabri stood on the platform of the longhouse. Her voice was clear.
"Proud hunter returns. My provider. My gatherer of food. Respected one. Honored one."
Sabri's voice echoed strongly on the wind. Tobuk's eyes met those of Sabri's and there was a connection, a silent love exchanged.
Then Tobuk glanced to his left and saw the white skinned visitors, their bags on the log benches in the middle of the compound, their cameras clicking, some at him and the skinned animal he carried with Banjar's help.
Tobuk led the way and he and Banjar reached the single-pole ladder. Without pausing, they carried the gutted deer up the steps and reached the outdoor platform where Sabri stood. They placed the animal on a pandanus mat and Tobuk began butchering the meat.
A gentle hand on Tobuk's shoulder made him look up. It was Sabri. The look on her face made Tobuk aware that there would be more to the evening than just filling his stomach with meat.