(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
walked down the jungle trail, looking frequently over his shoulder, although by
now he was virtually certain that he had shaken off the pursuit. The bundle in
his hand swung heavily by the sling he had made to carry it by. It was
unwieldy, even so; and now that he had been carrying it for almost the entire
day, both hands had grown weary and the palms were red and creased where the
sling had pressed into the soft flesh.
He was young, only just past his mid-teens, but his limbs were ridged with
muscle and his face and chest daubed with red and yellow paint. All he wore was
a cloth round his waist, and cinched by a rope made from twisted vines, from
which dangled a long machete with a heavy wooden handle. A small leather pouch
bounced over his shoulder as he trotted down the trail. His name was Idur.
At last, he was certain he was safe. He could hear the roar of the waterfall,
and soon he glimpsed the river to his right through the trees. He turned off
the trail and worked his way down the slope until he came down to the bank of
the stream. From here he could see the huge black rock that stood like a
sentinel at the point where the lands of his people began, and he waded through
the shallows until he came to the little pebbled beach.
Here, he began gathering dry branches and twigs and built them up into a heap
ready for burning. As he worked, he stopped frequently and listened, cocking
his head. At last, far in the distance, he heard a thin, warbling whistle, and
smiling, whistled back. Then he sat down on a rock and waited.
A little later, the bushes opposite him were pushed aside and four more warriors
stepped down to the beach. Like him, they were all in war-paint and carrying
bundles in their hands. One had a musket slung over his shoulder, but all the
others carried were machetes at their waists.
"So," the leader said, setting down his bundle and unslinging his musket, "you
got here before us, Idur."
"We thought they’d got you." This was Gondar, the biggest man in the band. "Why
didn’t you wait for us?"
"I thought you’d gone on ahead," Idur replied. "I couldn’t wait because they
The leader, Pukur, nodded. "You’ve done well," he said. "You got one on your
first raid. We’ve each got one, and the Goddess should be pleased."
They ate first, from the food they carried in the pouches at their backs, and
drank some of the water from the river, clear as air and cold as the ice of the
high mountains on the western horizon. Then they sat in a circle and removed
the leaves they had wrapped round the five bundles.
They were human heads, severed by quick machete blows, and now, hours after
death, pale because the blood had long ago drained out through the great
vessels of the neck. The heavy-lidded eyes, dull and turning slowly milky,
stared vacuously into eternity. Pukur, who was examining the heads one by one,
started suddenly and pointed at the one Idur had been carrying.
"You got him!" he said.
"Who?" Idur turned the head and looked into the face. He had been in far too
much of a hurry to do this before. It was that of a man much older than the
others, with a lined face and a square jaw. The hair was long, grey and matted.
"Who is this?"
"You mean you don’t know? It’s Ukun, the shaman of their tribe." They all felt
silent, and looked at the head with awe. Everyone had heard of Ukun and of the
great power he wielded.
"How did you get him?" Pukur demanded at last. "How could you – you, Idur, on
your first raid – get someone like him? How did it happen?"
"I..." Idur tried to think, to throw his mind back to the attack. "It happened
They had crept close to the fringes of the enemy village, making their way
silently through the forest in the first light of the dawn. There, at the edge
of the nearest thicket of trees, they had spread out, flattened themselves to
the earth, and waited.
The first of the enemy they had seen was a woman, naked and pregnant, pendulous
breasts swaying over the distended globe of her belly, who had emerged from one
of the long huts. She had waddled so close by Idur that he had been almost
certain that she would see him. But, as instructed, he had stayed completely
still, and she had passed him by.
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