Animal instinct (fiction)

¶ilcrow & Dagger Literary Journal, December 2015

Arugam bay 45694

The tuk-tuk bounced violently along the rutted dirt track like turbulence on a troubled flight. Leona stuck her head outside the vehicle but it was neither cool nor refreshing on her salt-encrusted skin; the hot air was infused with the smell of damp soil and sweat. Her eyes flickered back and forth as she tried to focus on one thing in the dense jungle, which flew by an arm’s length away, but it was just a melting green blur. In the afternoon’s last hazy shafts of light, it seemed to steam, to sizzle, like solidifying lava, releasing the day’s heat from its carpet of undergrowth. Even leaves lost their composure in the humidity, curling inwards like paper in a crackling fire.
Leona gasped and whipped her head inside the vehicle’s metal frame, just in time to save her sunburned face a beating from a rogue palm frond. She laughed, and turned to see if Marlon had noticed.
He sat sprawled next to her, staring ahead, bleary eyed and blissful from five hours in the warm sea. He looked as content as she felt. Beyond him, the fading pink and orange embers of their last Sri Lankan sunset were dying out, turning the trees into shadow puppets.
On the roof of the small three-wheeler, two surfboards bounced up and down making a dull thud, thud, thud that could just be heard over the high-pitched cicada drone of the engine. These things always sound like they’re one solid bump away from breaking down, Leona thought.
“Proud of you today, baby.” Marlon turned to her and patted her leg a few times with a clammy hand. His deep tan from two weeks on the island had brought out the boyish freckles on his normally office-pale skin.
“Thanks hunny. I’m pretty proud of myself. I did well right?” “Yeah… pretty well.” He grinned. “Except that one wave. Oh my god, I didn’t know if you were going to pop up.”
“You didn’t know?” her voice went up an octave. “I was under there for bloody years! I was waiting for you to swim down and save me.”
He snorted. “I was just thinking about that phone call to you parents. Is that a good enough reason to have to talk to your mum?”
She whacked him hard with the hand that wasn’t holding on. “Jerk,” she said, then smiled.
The tuk-tuk flew into the air and she threw the arm around her breasts before it thumped down hard.
It had been a fun day actually. Surfing wasn’t really her thing but he’d been bugging her to try it all trip. She hadn’t realized he was so into it. He planned to go on a lot of surf trips, he said, and she could either surf or sit on the beach. Or stay at home. Well, she thought, that wasn’t likely after those rumors about his buck’s party. Anyway, that was in the past.
Marlon leaned in closer. His market stall Dog Tag necklace swung towards her. “You definitely deserve a beer tonight. No sharing, you’re taking on a big one.”
“I can almost taste the curry,” she licked her bottom lip, imagining the exotic spices warming her tongue.
“I can almost taste something else.” He slid his hand up her leg.
“Ohhhh,’ Leona glanced into the rearview mirror and saw the driver’s dark eyes glistening in her direction. Marlon looked up too and he snorted loudly.
The evening’s darkness was creeping steadily closer. The thick jungle sped past, leaves flickered in front of a rising yellow moon like moth’s wings beating before a flame. The track was narrow, meant for one-way traffic only, but she didn’t think they were going to run into anyone around here. They were an hour from the village and all the other surfers had left the beach well before dark. Still, weren’t they going a little fast?
“What’s the rush Khan?” she yelled, leaning forward slightly to make sure he heard. Almost immediately, she wished she hadn’t asked.
At the sound of his name, Khan’s head and upper body swung around to face her; the tuk-tuk continued to rocket along the path, ignorant of its driver’s inattentiveness.
“Pardon me ma’am?” he asked. His face was wide and brown and bright with animation like an overgrown child: an obliging white grin caused his nose to flatten and his cheeks to become as round as big marbles; deep-set eyes bulged with the anticipation of being helpful.
She raised her voice a little louder. “I don’t really mind, but why do we have to go so fast?”
Khan’s head whipped back to the path momentarily to turn a corner, then it snapped around again. “Oh! Elephants, ma’am,” he said happily. “It is night time now. Soon, elephants everywhere! Many, many elephants.”
“Elephants!” Leona turned to face Marlon. “Elephants, Hun!” He grinned and squeezed her leg.
“We haven’t seen one yet,” she continued, leaning over Marlon’s lap to peer into a passing clearing. “I heard they come out at night. Oh, I’d love to see some!”
She turned back to Khan. “We’ve been looking out for them our entire trip but we haven’t seen one! Do you think we’ll see some Khan?”
“I am truly sorry to disappoint but I hope very much that we will not, ma’am,” Khan stepped on the accelerator to race over a sandy stretch of path and Leona was thrown back in her seat.
Leona learned forward again, close enough to Khan’s head this time so that he wouldn’t have to swing all the way around to answer her. His musk was an intoxicating blend of spices and sweet sweat. Leona had become very fond of Khan’s bubbly personality over the last few weeks. And if she was honest, it was a nice break to talk to someone other than Marlon. He works so much at home she’d never really spent this much time with him before.
“Why not?” she asked. “Are they dangerous?”
“Oh yes ma’am,” his head nodded and wobbled in every direction. “Elephants are very dangerous. When they are surprised.” “Well, we wouldn’t surprise them would we? They’ll be in the jungle.”
“Oh no ma’am,” Khan turned to look at her, the whites of his eyes extra bright against his skin. “At night, this is an elephant track.”
“They come on the track?” she asked. “I guess that makes sense. Much easier than stomping through those trees.”
Leona glanced out into the jungle, now an intensely dark green, and tried to imagine one of the grey, barrel-chested animals picking a pathway between the criss-crossing palms like a mouse in a maze. “So, what would they do if we surprised them?”
Khan didn’t hesitate. “They will charge. Then simply crush us, ma’am. Simply crush us flat like a rotti!” His musical voice rose and fell in notes that followed the rhythm of the jolting tuk-tuk. He grinned. “Their feet are big,” he added. “Very, very big.”
Leona sat back on her damp towel, the barrier between her legs and the sticky plastic seat. “God,” she said to Marlon with a nervous laugh. “I didn’t know they were so aggressive. Maybe I don’t want to see any.”
“Oh he’s just trying to scare you. Doing the tough tour guide thing,” he patted her leg again and winked. “Don’t worry baby. I’ll take care of you.”
Khan flicked the tuk-tuk’s headlight on. The beam bounced along the track in time with the front wheel, throwing the elongated shadows of braches along the uneven dirt like sinister spears. It was strange how the brightness of that light seemed to make the surrounding landscape even darker, Leona thought, like the beam is always pointing in the wrong direction.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! A succession of wayward fronds beat the vehicle’s frame, nature’s cat o nine tails. Leona closed her eyes against the sound and just missed the flash of wrinkled silvery pelt in the tuk-tuk’s headlight. A second later Khan slammed on the breaks. All three of them were hurled forwards as the vehicle skidded to an abrupt stop.
“Christ, Khan!” Marlon rubbed his knees. They had smashed into the back of the driver’s seat. “Learn how to drive, mate.”
“Shhh!” Khan silenced him with a smooth dark hand then pointed at the scene lit up like a stage play just a few meters before them: a fork in the road, the left path blocked.
The elephant was the colour of rusting chainmail, a reddish-grey armor of deeply-lined hide. It was more than twice their height. The hulking framed faced them head on but its great prehistoric skull was cocked slightly; amber eyes glaring down at the tuk-tuk from deep within folds of matte skin. The jungle stood unnaturally silent. Leona took a breath in and the animal’s ancient smell filled her lungs like the dust of a thousand-year-old rug. She let out a sudden hacking cough.
WOOSH! The jungle canopy erupted like treetops in a hurricane, the elephant’s ragged papery ears slapped against the leaves as it shook its head back and forth, eyes glinting wildly. Then one scaly knee bent to the height of the tuk-tuk and snapped straight again, sending a hefty foot thundering into the jungle floor before the landscape fell silent again.
Khan was staring staight ahead, his body rigid. “This is not very good,” he whispered. “We must be very quiet.”
He cut the engine and the headlight went out, plunging them into total darkness. Immediately, Leona’s other senses were heightened. She could almost taste the engine’s oily fumes as they mingled with the animal smell in the thick, humid air. The sounds of busy insects and hot elephant breath: in and out, in and out. A few trickles of sweat rolled down Leona’s back and collected at the base of her spine. She groped for Marlon’s hand in the dark.
CRACK! The sound of a branch breaking behind them as loud as a hunter’s gun shot. Heavy footsteps fell all around them like a slow, pounding heartbeat then a boisterous trumpet blast.
A second. A third! Closer.
Then a mechanical clicking noise and the tuk-tuk shuddered and whined.
“Hold tight!” Khan’s voice came through the blackness.
The headlight flicked back on, illuminating another elephant on the path right in front of them, and two behind. Gargantuan feet rose and fell in an irregular beat — BOOM, BOOM, BOOM — sending plumes of dry earth like mini volcano eruptions into the headlight’s beam.
Khan twisted the wheel all the way to the right, stepped on the accelerator, and the trio took off with a jolt. They just scraped through a narrow corridor of leather hide and tree bark and skidded onto the right-hand path of the fork.
The tuk-tuk careened down its new route, lurching over rises and troughs, headlight swinging, picking out glittering eyes in the impenetrable jungle. Leona ducked to save her skull from the metal roof then spun around to peer into the snaking gloom behind them. “I don’t think they’re following us!”
Marlon whirled around next to her, squinting through the dark. “They’re not charging! They’re staying put.”
Khan kept the engine at full throttle, soaring over bumps, until they emerged into a flat open expanse that stretched for miles, rice fields sewn together with more ruddy ditches, and they slowed down. Shifting clouds exposed the gold medallion of a moon, which set the landscape aglow.
Marlon turned to Leona with a blank expression. Then his face broke into a wide grin. “Oh my god!” he began to laugh, high-pitched and uneasy like a hyena’s cackle. “They were amazing! That was insane!”
“That was insane,” Leona repeated. She couldn’t help but start laughing too, with sheer relief more than anything. As terrifying as that was, they really were amazing creatures to see up close. But once was enough.
Marlon and Leona both leaned forward and Marlon slapped Khan on the back. “You, my friend, are lucky I’m not the type to sue. Jesus, I thought we were goners back there for a second.” He turned to Leona. “Babe, I’m going to need a massage tonight.”
Leona sighed. “Thanks Khan. You were amazing.”
Khan hesitated a moment, then twisted and smiled at the couple. But his grin, Leona noticed, had lost some of its usual luster. “This is no problem ma’am,” he turned back. “That is my job.”
Leona glanced at Marlon, who shrugged. She leaned further forwards. “Are you okay Kahn?”
“Pardon me? Oh, yes. Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
Khan’s head moved back and forth and Leona imagined his eyes flickering across the moonlit landscape. She noticed a number of puddles scattered around field despite the dry soil; they echoed the night’s cloudy sky. Water left over from the growing rice, perhaps. Some of them looked deep enough to drown in.
“Soooo, did you get us lost Khan?” Marlon said. Leona threw him a look. “I mean,” he continued. “You can get us back to the village, right? I’m bloody starving.”
Khan bumped up and down in his chair, the sweat stains on the back of his blood red Nike t-shirt rising in and out of view. “Yes sir.”
“Great.” Marlon sat back on the seat. “Thank god.”
“And, ah,” Leona tried to keep her voice carefree, “will there be anymore elephants this way Khan?”
“No ma’am.” But his voiced sounded off. It had none of its usual melody.
He must be in shock, Leona thought. Imagine getting two tourists killed by rampaging elephants. Perhaps it’s happened before. He’d probably lose his business. She remembered how he’d spoken about him family — two girls and a boy — and how they’d survived the tsunami here 10 years ago. They’d spent days clearing the bodies. His wife has never been the same. Marlon had laughed at her when she’d recounted Khan’s tale. ‘I think Mr bobble head is just after a bigger tip ma’am,’ he’d said in his most offensive Sri Lankan accent.
“It’s just…” Khan continued.
Marlon leaned forward again. “Just what?”
“It’s just…” Khan’s hands gripped the steering wheel like cat’s claws, loosening, tightening, loosening, tightening. The wheels of the tuk-tuk tracked through some shallow water and over another bump — thump! “It’s just… I did not want to come this way,” he finished in a rush of breath. “This is… not a good way to come tonight.”
Tonight, Leona thought, why tonight? She opened her mouth to ask but Marlon spoke up. “Okay, okay, it’s a little off road but you’ll be right,” he put his hand on Khan’s shoulder. “Don’t get all scared on us now.”
Kahn turned his head. “No sir.” He licked his lips. Not a trace of a smile. Was it possible for a dark man’s face to be turning white? “Kahn,” Leona started. “What do you mean by —” Then she saw it.
The temple was a few miles away, to the left and on top of a large mound that rose from the landscape like the crown of a skull. It was shaped like a pyramid with enormous terraces hacked into its form. For a second, Leona thought it lit up by the yellow moon but she realized it was emitting its own unnatural light, one that spilled from its many doorways and windows like liquid flame.
“What is that?” Leona’s eyes were wide. Marlon followed her gaze.
“It is a Hindu temple, ma’am.”
“I think I can see some light,” she said. “Are there… are there people in there now?” Khan cleared his throat. “Yes, people. And… other things.”
Leona thought she could make out life-sized statues surrounding the outside of the temple. The stood on the terraces like guards: men with blue skin and twisted faces and elephant trunks. They seemed to stir in the trembling shadows, swarming like insects on a haunted hive. Fear began to wind its way around her, like the tendrils of some carnivorous plant.
“Khan,” Leona said. “What’s going on?”
“Yeah, what’s the problem?” Marlon added.
Khan sighed, resigned. “They’re having a celebration,” he said. “A big celebration at this temple tonight. It happens once a year.”
“Like Christmas?” Marlon asked. Leona rolled her eyes. God, he was stupid. She grasped her breasts as they flew over a particularly large rut.
“No, sir,” Khan continued politely. “It is… it is to do with evil spirits.”
“Sooo, like Halloween?” Marlon said.
“Well, maybe sir. It might be a little bit like that.”
“We have Halloween in America,” Marlon snorted. “It’s just for kids. Like ghosts and ghouls and witches. That sort of thing doesn’t scare us. Anyway, it’s made up by the candy companies.”
“I see, sir.” Khan let a moment pass; he seemed to be deciding whether to go. Then, “but I will ask you, do you sacrifice animals at your Halloween?”
Leona drew in a sharp breath.
“No!” Marlon said. “God, no! You mean they’re doing that up there right now? Tonight?”
“Yes sir. Right now. Lots and lots of animals. A ritual with paint and fire. Blades swinging. Shrieking and squawking. Blood and guts, sir, all over the walls, sir, and probably the ceiling —”
“Okay, okay,” Marlon said. Kahn’s enthusiasm for story telling seemed to be returning.
“Im sorry, sir,” he said. “It’s not for fun, sir. It’s to keep the evil spirits away.”
Leona groaned. “Oh, that’s so sad. Those poor animals.” She’d heard about this before, hundreds of goats and who knows what else slaughtered. She sat back in silence, not wanting to talk about it, then, “But hang on… what’s it got to do with us?”
“Well,” Khan started, his eyes back to scanning the land. “They say that sometimes the animals… they get away.”
“They escape?” she said. “Well, that’s good!”
“No ma’am. It’s not good. Not at all.” His voice was grave. “They escape, yes. But a little too late.”
Leona’s jaw clenched. Did that mean what she thought it meant?
Khan continued, “Half dead but not dead, if you understand me. You see their necks are nearly severed, their faces very bloody, but they are still alive. They are possessed by evil spirits. Animal spirits. And they are not… very… happy.”
Marlon let out another snort. “Do you... do you really believe that?” But his face was growing white now too, like scaly the underbelly of a snake. The tires squelched through mud.
“Oh yes, sir,” Khan said. “In fact, a man was killed in this very clearing last year. We do not know who, he was in too many parts. You see sir, they come here to drink.”
An image forced its way into Leona’s mind: the shredded jowls of a wild boar’s hacked face hanging in ribbons of flesh, tusks dripping with red-tinged liquid as it gulped up mouthfuls of murky water. Her skin prickled in the humid air.
“Once we get to the jungle again,” Khan said, “we will be okay.”
Leona looked ahead and saw they still had about a mile to go until the end of the field. The way was pockmarked with puddles.
“Do not worry sir and ma’am,” Khan turned around to show them his effort at a smile. “We will be fine. We are almost — ”
SPLASH!
The tuk-tuk zigzagged to a squelching stop. Its engine let out a guttural gurgle like the last moments of a drowning man then cut out, along with the headlight. No one spoke as their eyes adjusted to the almost total darkness. The moon and the temple’s otherworldly glow threw the tuk-tuk frame’s skeletal shadow on the muddy ground around them in a faded tangle, a whisper of a spider’s web. A mechanical click as Khan tried to start the engine. It gasped for air. Then silence.
No, not quite.
Thump tha thump tha boom ba da boom...
Leona thought she could hear the elephants’ footsteps again. Or was it her own bombarding heartbeat?
Thump tha thump tha boom ba da boom...
The rhythm marched across the field.
“What the hell do we do now, Kahn?” Marlon cried.
“Shut up Marlon!” Leona said.
“Did you just tell me to — “
“Shut up,” she hissed. “Can you hear those dru -”
A shrill squeal echoed across the fields, ringing all around them as if a pig had just been slaughtered at every degree of the compass. Then closer, almost from inside the tuk-tuk, a throaty howl, thick and wet, like something choking on its own blood.
Khan spun around, his face a dark shadow swimming in the dim light. “Leona,” he said. “You will drive. When I say you will turn on the engine and put down your foot. Marlon, we will push.”
Kahn flew out of the tuk-tuk.
“No,” Marlon growled. “I’m not going out there. You push. That’s what we pay you for. We’ll give you a tip. Tippy tippy.” He rubbed thumb and fingers together. “A big one, you understand.” “Marlon!” Leona said.
“SHUT UP Leona!”
“I do not care about your money, sir.” Khan’s eyes flashed yellow. “I need your help.”
“God damn it!” But Marlon stepped out of the tuk-tuk. Leona slid out the other side. She came down in silty water up past her ankles. It was as warm as the tropical air. She waded two steps forward and dragged herself into the driver’s seat while Marlon and Khan moved around the back.
“Push!” Kahn’s voice echoed across the field. She wished they could be quieter. She felt the tuk-tuk lurch forward and she clasped her shaking hands around the wheel, trying to ignore the temple’s flickering light on the horizon.
“Push,” Khan yelled again.
“I can’t get a god damn grip,” Marlon snarled. “My hands are too sweaty They’re slipping!” Leona thought she heard heavy panting from somewhere nearby.
It’s not real.
Ravenous lapping of muddy water from right beside her.
It can’t be.
The smell of hot pelt like old upholstery filling her nostrils.
No. “PUSH!” Khan screamed.
The tuk-tuk rolled slowing forward through the sludge with a gurgle and began to climb a small embankment. Leona fumbled for the key, her breath a shallow rasping as she listened intently.
“Come on,” she urged them. “Keep going!”
Inch by inch. “COME ON!”
“Why don’t you come back here and help then Leona?” Marlon screamed. His voice was strained and she pictured blood red veins and blotches. Then she pictured a tusk sinking into his soft belly.
The tuk-tuk began rolling faster, faster, up the embankment and onto dry land.
“Now!” Leona heard Khan’s cry and she turned the key but the engine only gurgled. She tried again. Click. This time the engine awoke from its sodden slumber with a roar. The headlight flicked on and the narrow yellow beam fell upon — what was that? Blood-matted fur? A dripping tusk? Leona put her foot on the accelerator and the vehicle started moving faster. She could feel they’d stopped pushing. It was moving on its own, thank god! Then she heard a huge splash and a cry out. Someone had fallen. Been taken down? A thrashing and gurgling sound. The tuk-tuk sped up. Bump, bump, bump.
Khan appeared by the side of the tuk-tuk, panting, running with the grace of a big cat, and threw himself on the back seat. He straightened up just before Leona swerved to miss another puddle. She could see the edge of the jungle and the path leading in to it. Not far now. A scream from behind.
“Ma’am! Your husband! He needs our hel-” Leona held up a smooth white hand to silence him and kept on driving.

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