The Cinnamon Bride
An eerie story of primitive love in the Borneo jungle
JAMES FRANCIS DWYER
A SECTION of the tropical dusk, soft, glowing, palpitating, consolidated suddenly and she was there. Part of the swiftly-approaching night that had taken human form. For an instant she stood erect, then sank gently into a crouching position before the verandah of the bungalow.
Jan Kromhout, the big Dutch naturalist, turned a flashlight on her. A vignette of startling beauty. A Dusun girl of some sixteen years of age, upon whom was that flowering charm so fleeting with native women. A child one day, a woman the next, then a hag.
She wore a single garment. A tightly-wound sarong of scarlet cloth that covered her from the waist to the knees. The upper part of her body was bare except for the rings of brass that circled her rounded throat. As the light played on her skin it shone like luminous umber; Titian might have mixed sucha color on a happy day.
'i'lie large eyes were those of a startled animal. The mouth, half-open, showed teeth that had not been filed or blackened like the teeth of the women of her race. They were regular and beautifully white.
Jan Kromhout switched off the light and put a question in the Dusun language. She commenced to speak. Softly, very softly. 11er voice had the quality of summer rain on the palm fronds. The words, that were not intelligible to me, ran on a verbal undercarriage of sadness, of primitive grief, of longing.
They came out of the darkness that now hid her. They were fat with sorrow. Not knowing her troubles, I suffered from the plaintive note in which she told of them. I had an insane desire to tell Kromhout to give her anything she wished, whether it was food, money, or the brassy jewellery that native women craved. Anything at all to halt the pleading words that made me uneasy, that made me feel out of place in that far jungle outpost to which I had come to make a call on my big Dutch friend.
The velvety voice died down to a whisper. It ceased. Kromhout spoke sharply, harshly. His chair creaked as he swung forward to add emphasis to his words. I heard his fist strike the arm-rest, heard the clink of his glass. He was angry.
Once again he pressed the button of the flashlight. She rose and stood in the luminous circle. A cloud of brilliant moths, as large as humming birds, flew around her bare bosom as if they would comfort her.
For an instant she stood motionless. A cinnamon-tinted Aphrodite in the ever-increasing host of fluttering moths. The gentle, puzzled face, the proud carriage of her body, the scarlet sarong, the brass rings. She made a curtsy, palms turned toward us.
Kromhout lifted his big thumb from the button of the flash and the soft, consoling hands of the Malayan night took her. She faded into it.
rT'HE NATURALIST remained silent for a long time. -*■ From within the bungalow came the complaining sounds of his captives. Reproachful, protesting, angry. The whimpering of small monkeys, the dry rustling noises of serpents that crawled unceasingly up and down their prisons, the bleat of the plandok, or mouse-deer, that is only the size of a hare, and which at the moment was Kromhout’s special quarry.
His silence became unbearable. “What—what is her trouble?” I stammered.
The creaking of the chair told me that Kromhout had reached for his glass of schnapps. The night was full dark now, pressing in upon the bungalow, touching us with mysterious fingers, listening to the whimpers of pain.
“She wants to get rid of her husband,” said Kromhout. “Divorce him?”
“No, kill him.”
“Great Scott!” I cried. “Why—why she looks so sweet and innocent!”
“And she is sweet and innocent,” snapped the naturalist. “But,confound it! you say she wants to kill her husband?”
“Ja. She wishes to kill him. She came tonight to ask me if I thought she would be punished if she put him away. I told her that she had a big chance of following him.” “And is the lady going to note your warning?” I asked. “I do not know,” said Kromhout quietly. “I think she is looking for advice to someone who is closer to her than I am. I mean closer to her in that primitive knowledge of right and wrong. The knowledge that was man’s before laws were made. Before we cultivated pity and charity and
all the sweet virtues that have weakened us.” “And who is this person that has clung to all the fine primitive instincts?” I demanded.
“It is not a person,” said Kromhout irritably. “It is a female mias, a
female orangutan that lives in the swamp at the foot of the hills.”
Slowly I digested the statement. It would have sounded strange in any other part of the world, but in the Malay
belief flourishes. It fattens on the things unknown, unexplainable, incomprehensible.
“Somewhere in that swamp,” said Kromhout, “is a big male mias that got into trouble. Ja, great trouble. He was curious about one of those native traps in the jungle and he paid high for being inquisitive. He paid very high. While he was trying to find out how it worked, the big crossbeam of the trap fell on his back.
“It pinned him to the ground, and he stayed there till his mate found him. She was nearly as strong as he. She lifted that big log from the back of her old man and tossed it aside like you would toss a walking cane. It was quite a lift. Six men could not lift it, but she was angry when she saw her mate under it.
“That log had crippled the male mias. It had hurt his loins so that he could not walk. It is a bad business, those native traps. I am scared of them. Much scared. I think that some day one of those traps will get me and I will die there like a wild pig. It will be a nice story for someone to write to my sister, who lives in Niewe Kerk Straat at Amsterdam. It will malee her wonder why I was acting like a wild pig.
“A Dyak boy saw something the day that log fell on that big simia satyrus. Something that was mighty near unbelievable. He saw the female mias carrying her old man on her back. Ja. Carrying him back to their home in the swamp.
“She had him on her back just like you would give a ride to a little child. He must have been heavy. He stood over five feet in height, with a big barrel of a chest with bunches of red hair hanging from it. I had caught a glimpse of him before he got hurt. He must have weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds. But the boy said she was running with him. Running toward the swamp.
“That was five months ago. He is still there with her, and he is still crippled. You know that the mias builds a nest in a tree with branches? It is just a platform to sleep on, because he does not like the big snakes that crawl about on the ground at night. But this chap cannot climb any more. I have seen him once with the glasses. His mate has built a bed for him on the ground, and she has put a fence around it so that the snakes will not worry him. I saw him lying in the sun. She was feeding him. Feeding him with jack-fruit and mangosteens. Looking after him as if he was a baby.
“The natives are scared to go near that swamp. That female mias is mighty angry about the matter of the trap. She is very mad about it. Only one native dares to go near. Do you know who it is? It is the girl who was here a little while ago. The girl who wants to kill her husband. She goes every day to the edge of the swamp and she takes food for the mias. Durians and rice and plantains and taro. She leaves them at a certain spot and that female orangutan comes and gets them.”
JAN KROMHOUT paused. Again the protest of the imprisoned things crept into the silence. The darkness bulged and billowed. It was threaded with strange odors. The heavy fragrance of the
alang-alang and glaga, the smell of decaying vegetation, of camphor and cinnamon. And there came from timid, night-flowering plants, perfumes that were heady and disturbing.
Again I tried to choke back the curiosity that filled me. In fancy I saw the girl-wife as the light showed her with the white moths flying around her. Suddenly, to my own astonishment, I cried out an angry, “Why?”
“Because there is a great bond between them,” answered Kromhout. “A strange bond. That girl you have just seen was married two months ago. He was a nice fellow. He was young and strong, but he was what you call a show-off. Three weeks after their marriage he wanted to prove what a great climber he was. It was foolish. He fell from the top of a sago-palm and hurt his spine. I have looked at him. All the medicine men have looked at him. The paieangs have worked all their charms. It is no good. He will never walk again. Neen.”
Again the Dutchman paused. A ivah-wah barked in the bungalow, and from a tapan tree near by came a series of explosive barks from one of his tribe. The free monkey was evidently demanding why and how the other was detained.
“And—and,” I stuttered, “this girl is waiting to—”
“To see what the female mias will do,” interrupted Kromhout. “Ja, you have guessed it. The mias is nearer to her than I am. Much nearer. The brain of the simia satyrus is the nearest to the brain of civilized man, and it has not got the fool developments that civilized man has put on his. It is the primitive brain without gadgets.”
“Is the lady desired by someone else?” I asked.
“You have seen her,” said Kromhout shortly. “She is something to be desired, is she not? And I think—ja, I think that she desires someone instead of this crippled husband who is finished. That is also primitive. There is a fine egoism in the primitive brain. It does not believe in sacrifice. Not much. It was civilized man who invented sacrifice. He wanted a thrill. He was run down. Things did not give him the kick that he wanted so he said, ‘Ha ! I will do something big ! I will suffer for others ! It will give me a jolt.’
“Listen. I will tell you something. This business of sacrifice will kill us in the end. It is nice and fine for a little
while, but it is not natural. It is a foolish opiate.”
“But it would be terrible if we were filled with frightful selfishness and didn’t think of others!” I cried.
“You are a Canadian,” retorted Kromhout. “You have those fine ideas of service and sacrifice. Ja! But do all the others have them? I think not. I could name some peoples that do not have them. Peoples that are not far from here. Now I am tired. I am going to bed. Tomorrow we will talk again.”
C^N THE following morning Kromhout, returning from a visit to his traps, led me past the hut of the woman who had visited us on the previous evening. She greeted us as we came up the beaten path to her nipa-palm shelter. She was more lovely than I had imagined.
The sun bathed her smooth and cinnamon-tinted skin so that it glowed with a strange and disturbing lambency. She was aquiver with life. With a life springing from this fierce moment of physical perfection. She had reached the zenith of savage completeness. One saw in her the super-animal in which full co-ordination of the senses made rhythm, made music, made a pulsation so that every living thing in close proximity to her was affected. It was a flowering that was a little frightening.
She led us to the man. He was stretched upon his back in the sunshine. He was dispirited, weary; his eyes of black jade showed flashes of anger as he answered Kromhout’s questions. A sick and sulky fellow.
The woman moved around him with quick, graceful steps. He watched her furtively. I felt uneasy, a trifle qualmish; I was glad when Kromhout turned to leave the place. The woman walked a little way with us. No, she didn’t walk. She swam through the hot, sensuous sunshine.
The Dutchman made one remark as we covered the distance from the hut to his bungalow. “We Dutch say, ‘Geen huis of 't heeft zijn kruis.’ No house but has its cross,” he growled. “Well, it is a big one there. Ja, a very big one.”
“Do you think,” I began, “do you think that she—”
“I do not wish to think!” he interrupted. “What do I know of her mind? Nothing ! She is a mystery to me. She is the raw material that we once were. She is as far from us as the latex from the rubber tree is from an automobile tire. We have been put through the processes of civilization and all the impurities taken out of us. Ja. It makes me laugh.”
Continued on page 32
Continued from page 17—Starts on page 16 -
rT'HE MATTER of the girl-wife clutched
A me. I could not push it from my mind. It teased me during the long lazy hours when I sat with the big Dutchman and listened to his stories. It clung to me during the hot breathless nights.
Once in the days that followed my first glimpse of the cinnamon bride, Kromhout and I circled the swamp in which the orangutan and his mate lived. A rather frightening neighborhood. Great lianas, resembling green-tinted pythons, crawled up the trunks of the trees in a wild effort to strangle them. Their flowers of violent hues were like glaring eyes that watched us. Masses of decomposing lichen glowed in the dark places, while here and there mounds of emerald moss marked quagmires that would swallow man or beast that tried to move across the swamp. An evil place indeed.
We saw the spot where the girl-wife placed the food for the female mias. The contribution of the day was already there upon a flat stone on the edge of the morass. Durians and mangosteens and cooked rice. In the heavy silence we stood and stared at it.
“The mias might be watching us now,” said Kromhout. “She’s somewhere in the undergrowth waiting for us to move on.”
With a creepy feeling at my spine, I followed the naturalist from the place of mystery. I wondered if the mias knew who brought the food? Did she watch from the shadows the arrival of the distressed young woman? Did she have any inkling of the motive that prompted the action?
Jan Kromhout had stated that the woman watched the brute, seeking instruction. Instruction in what? Patience in the matter of nursing a crippled mate, or cunning in the business of getting rid of one?
The naturalist grew angry under my questioning. He answered gruffly with Dutch proverbs. What would the mias do? He didn’t know. What would the girl-wife do? He couldn’t guess. He thought necessity would bring a solution.
“Nood breekt ijzer,” he snapped, when I continued to question. “Necessity breaks iron.”
The days rolled by. On several occasions the girl-wife visited the bungalow of the naturalist. She brought fruit, wild honey, and on one occasion a baby tarsius, that marvellous little animal of the lemur family with such delicate hands. The presentation of these was the supposed reason for the call, but the moment the gift was accepted I knew, by listening to her change of voice, that she was talking of the crippled husband. The plaintive note crept into her voice, the rather frightening pleading note that distressed me although I couldn’t understand her speech.
Kromhout was upset by these visits. In Dutch he damned the country and its inhabitants. Her calls made him drink deeper of his beloved schnapps.
“I do not know whether she is right or wrong.” he cried when I asked his opinion. “How can I judge? A girl in Amsterdam would not act like she does, but Amsterdam is not Borneo ! The girl in Amsterdam would be controlled by that big stick that we call Civilization. It would be held up before her nose every morning, and she would be afraid. That big stick makes a lot of hypocrites. Ja, it makes many liars.”
THERE CAME a morning when a young native raced up the path to the bungalow in a state of great excitement. He
screamed his message, waving his hands in the direction of the swamp.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“It is about the mias,” answered the naturalist. “This woman that feeds her believes that she is dead. She has set the village crazy with her story.”
“Why does she think she is dead?” “Because the mias has not taken any of the food that she has brought to the swamp for the last three days.”
Kromhout frowned. The youth continued to chatter. The cinnamon bride and a score of the villagers were at the swamp. They were trying to find out why the brute had not come for the durians that it had taken regularly.
“Have you any idea why she doesn’t appear?” I asked the Dutchman.
“I think she has cleared out,” he said. “The old man might have died or—” He paused, his eyes on the youth who had brought the message.
“Or what?” I asked.
“She might have put him out of his misery and bolted with a friend,” he said. “Let’s go and see what all the uproar is about.”
There was a crowd of natives around the flat stone on which the girl-wife placed the daily offerings. There were the three small piles of prickly durians, the plantains, and the taro. Big yellow wasps, vespa magnifica, were feasting on the fruit; pepper-ants had attacked the rice. An air of mystery was upon the place.
The swamp was evil. It was a huge, unclean thing sprawling there in the hot sunshine. An ulcer from which oozed black stenchful mud that bubbled around the plaited roots of the mangroves.
The girl-bride was excited, wide-eyed, a little beside herself. When Kromhout and I arrived she was pleading with a tall muscular youngster who stood beside her. She was begging him to venture across the swamp in an effort to find out why the mias hadn’t taken the food.
Kromhout informed me that the young man might succeed the injured husband of the lady if the latter slipped into the unknown. He had been a runner-up for the hand of the beautiful one before her marriage. A good-looking native. Naked except for a sparse loincloth, he stood listening to the woman’s pleadings.
The young man showed no liking for the proposed visit to the home of the orangutans. He protested, pointing out the dangers of a trip across the swamp, but the woman became more insistent. She stroked his splendid arms, she looked up into his eyes, she whispered softly to him, and his fear of the swamp was whittled down by her soft allure. Suddenly he left her side and rushed toward the stunted trees that hung above the morass. He sprang at the matted leaves, then using arms and legs in the manner of a great ape he disappeared in the thick foliage.
The crowd became silent. Like brown statues, they stood and stared at the spot where their eyes had caught the last glimpse of the bare flank of the muscular youth who had been enticed to search.
Jan Kromhout answered my whispered questions with monosyllables. Did he think the young man was a fool? Ja, he did. Was there danger of an attack by the mias? Ja, there was. What would the brute do if she caught the native? The Dutchman made a gesture with his big hands. It was reminiscent of a boy pulling the head off a fly.
I looked at the cinnamon-tinted lady. She was poised in a patch of sunshine. Her lips were parted, her delicate little hands were clasped, her eyes were fixed upon the swamp. She stood upon her toes— very pretty toes. The supple body was tense, she was a dark Diana alive with fierce and primitive longings. Now and then the other women pulled their eyes from the swamp and glanced at her. She was the pivot around which the jungle tragedy was moving. I thought that those others, like Kromhout, knew that she was awaiting, for her own guidance, the news of what had happened to the orangutan menage.
Continued on page 34
Continued from page 32
There was hardly a .sound outside the buzzing of the great wasps and the occasional cry of an ape in the tree masses above the swamp. The midday tropic heat had the quality of a transparent glue, a fixative that fought against sound and movement. Stupidly I wondered why Kromhout had made no protest against the departure of the young man. Why hadn’t he combatted the cinnamon-tinted Circe who had sent the youth to jxissible death?
nPIIIÎ LADY was the first to hear the -*• slight snapping of branches that told of the return of the searcher. A little cry of expectancy came from her lips. She ran toward the edge of the swamp.
A frightened boy screamed the word, “Mias!” and fled with half a dozen women at his heels. The crashing sound grew louder, the thick foliage hid the body of the young man. Then, suddenly, he shot into view. Hand over hand he moved along a limb beneath which the black mud gurgled and groaned, then he sprang forward and landed close to the woman who had sent him on the mission.
His hands clawed hurriedly at his loincloth. They found two objects which he thrust at her. Kromhout and I pressed in to look.
The woman held the offerings on her tinted palms. I caught a fleeting glimpse of them before I was elbowed aside by screaming natives. I had seen flesh, bleeding flesh.
“What the devil are they?” I cried to Kromhout.
“The ears of an orangutan,” answered the Dutchman quietly.
The young man was shouting to the crowd in a high-pitched voice. Telling them of his adventure. Jan Kromhout translated scraps, omitting the embellishments which the excited teller hurled at the crowd.
“The two mias are dead,” said Kromhout in an undertone. “Ja, he found them together. He says ...” The big Dutchman paused, swore softly, then thrust aside the natives that were between him and the girl-wife who held the trophies. I pushed in after him, curiosity driving me. “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” of astonishment came from the crowd. The fellow was a good storyteller. He created an atmosphere of horror that was helped a lot by the nearness of the evil swamp.
Kromhout looked at the two ears. “It is a strange tale,” he growled. “He found them dead. That must be true. Ja. He has an ear from each. A male ear and a female ear.”
“But—but what killed them?” I cried. “Does he know?”
“Ja, lie knows! At least he thinks he knows. 'Ehe female mias tried to batter in the head of her mate with a stone, but she got t(x) close to him. His big arms were longer than she thought. He got her and choked her to death, but she had busted his skull. It is what might have happened. She thought to put him out of his misery before she ran away. In her excitement she forgot the length of his arms. Ja, she was foolish to forget . . .”
The Dutchman paused and_ wheeled swiftly on the storyteller. The tale of the swamp was not finished. From the faces of the mob and also from the look of astonishment on Kromhout’s tanned features, I gathered that what had been told was only an introduction. The real climax was coming. The fine blood-curdling morsel was being thrust into the ears of the listeners.
A shriek of horror came from an old woman on the outskirts of the mob. Two boys broke from the group and started at
a run toward the village. The girl-wife dropped the trophies. Her big eyes were wide, her lips parted.
I tugged at the sleeve of Kromhout. He t(X)k no notice. He was listening, listening to the gasped-out words of the young man. Words that whipped the heated brains of the crowd, words that terrified them, words that brought yelps of fear from their lips. As he shrieked out the final sentence, they broke and ran wildly in the direction of their homes.
"And that?” I cried. “What the devil did he say?”
Jan Kromhout stared at the young man and the girl-wife. They alone remained. They appeared stuhned.
Again I begged a translation. The words, of whose meaning I was ignorant, had multiplied the evil of the place. They had brought a deviltry into the surroundings.
“It is this,” said Kromhout. “He has told them something. He is clever. I thought him a fool, but he is not. I thought—”
“But what did he tell them?” I cried.
“He told them this,” snapped the naturalist. “He said that when he had cut off the ear of the male mias he thought —he thought it wasn’t a mias! Suddenly, while he was looking at it, it changed. It changed into the body of Mau !”
“Who is Mau?” I shouted.
“Mau is the husband oí the pretty one,” said Kromhout. “He thought the male mias was Mau! His desire made him think so. Ja, it did !”
“But why have the others run?” I asked.
“They have run to look at Mau,” answered Kromhout. “They think that what this young fellow thought he saw might really have happened. They think the pawang or the devils of the swamp might have fixed it.”
“But it was just a delusion,” I protested. “He saw what he wished to see.”
“Ja, and he has made those others see it so hard that they have rushed off to look at Mau ! That poor devil will have to fight for his life against the belief of the village. The belief that be is dead !”
VITE PASSED the hut of Mau on our * * return to the bungalow. Every man, woman and child of the village was there. There was a frightful clamor. The visitors were screaming the story at him.
“It is bad,” said Kromhout. He looked back along the path we had come. The cinnamon bride and the young man were not in sight.
A gibbering old woman shouted a morsel of news to the mob outside the hut. The pawang had found a small cut on the ear of the crippled husband. The unfortunate man said he had scratched it with a splinter of bamboo, but the pawang thought that it supported the story told by the young man. He, the pawang, was busy exorcising the demons that he felt sure were in Mau’s body.
Jan Kromhout spat with disgust as he turned toward his bungalow. “Vroeg rijp, vroeg rot!” he growled. “Soon ripe, soon rotton.
Early the following morning a young lx>y brought the news. Mau had died.
Kromhout asked questions. No, his wife had not been near him when he died. She had stayed in the hut of her mother. She had been afraid after hearing the story told by the young man who had visited the home of the mias. Yes, there had been others with Mau. Friends who had amused him all through the night by repeating the story of the swamp !
Jan Kromhout went down to look at the dead man. When he returned to the bungalow he drank a big glass of schnapps and delivered himself. “He died from fright.” he said. “Ja, from fright.”
“And what particular bit of wisdom did the lady learn from the female mías?” I asked.
“To keep away from the hands of a mate that you are trying to kill.” snapped Kromhout. “I will have another drink. This countrv make? me sick.”