Tuesday, January 20, 2009

9. Hairbreadth Escape

Photo Source: www.travelblog.org

It is the last night on the river. Tomorrow I'll be back in the railroad. I have to be careful tonight, for it's a full moon. There's a small hill not far from where I usually move about in no man's land, and I have been planning to climb up to the top and come down again, just for the heck of it. Besides, it will be the last time.

As always the crossing of the river is made without incident. I make my way through the dense thicket of lantana covering the slope of the hill. The pungent, wild smell of the shrub is everywhere, as it was in the old days on the sugar plantation in Java. The climb becomes increasingly difficult through the closely knit twigs and branches. Sweat pricks irritatingly in numerous nicks and scratches on my legs and arms. I'm thinking of abandoning the whole idea when I reach a spot where the thicket unexpectedly gives way to a narrow gully, the entire length of which consists of a sandy bottom sparsely interspersed with clumps of tight-plaited weeds. The gully's lack of vegetation, in contrast with the dense growth of the lantana, makes its course easily traceable, running like a scar from the foot of the hill to the crest.

The going will not be difficult if I follow that gully, so I decide to go on. When I get to the top I find a small pit filled with water, strangely opaque and still as glass beneath the vine partly covering its surface. Dampness has made a spider's web on the leaves look like a filigree of silver bubbles. The bamboo stick I carry shows the pit's depth to be at least six feet. Continuing on my way, I come to the end of the gully just below the top of the hill, where the vegetation is as tall as a man. After some effort I reach the summit. Light shimmers through the lower branches of the woods. The air is very quiet here but for a light breeze. The leaves on the upper boughs tremble feebly against the deep-blue sky. Pushing the branches aside, I step forward, only to stop short and to gaze at...

A small clearing. A cabbage patch fenced in with bamboo sticks. A little platform on posts, with a canopy of palm leaves, from which strings of empty tins run across the cabbage plants. The tins rattle softly in the wind. During the daytime children sit on the platform to pull at the strings, chasing the birds away from the crop. I've seen it so often back in the East Indies. But there is another thing which makes me step, in a burst of recklessness, out of the protective darkness of the thicket into the full moonlight: a young, well-built Thai girl standing beside the platform, clad only in a cotton bodice and a loosely tied sarong, tying her hair in a roll behind her neck. Her face is turned away but all of her is revealed in the bright moonlight with almost photographic clarity: upheld arms, pointed elbows, small breasts clearly defined under the material, low hanging sarong exposing bare midriff and navel.

The girl, bathed in moonlight. The still of the night, broken only by softly clinking tins. It is overwhelming. All I can do is just stand there and gape, until suddenly and unaccountably I am struck by a keen awareness of being watched by someone else. Almost immediately my keenly alert ears pick up the snap of dry wood breaking under a foot. Instinct tells that it is the cautiously moving foot of a stalker - who is after me!

The jolt of fear rushes the blood from my jaws as I swiftly step backwards into the brushwood, my eyes fastened in the direction of the sound. Presently I catch the glint of moonlight reflected on spectacle lenses, in the dull greyness of a cluster of dwarf trees about fifty yards away. My heart seems to miss several beats before racing violently, while my brain signals frantically to suppress the threatening wave of cold panic. Calling on every ounce of willpower, I manage to remain calm, knowing that only a cool head can bring safety. Running away at this moment would be suicidal. The moving leaves would clearly mark the direction of flight, offering an easy target for his gun. If only that water pit could be reached unobserved, to hide myself in the water beneath the vine covering! I crouch on all fours, with every muscle tense and drawn for the backward leap, my eyes glued to the danger spot. I...there! That glint again, on the edge of the grove now, moving in my direction! Slowly a dark shape emerges from the shadows, edging forward but keeping out of the light, wishing to remain undetected until dead certain of his target.

The girl must have seen him, for she lets out a thin cry while gathering up her sarong. The Jap, casting all caution aside, leaps into the light, angrily ordering her into silence. Then, turning his face in a slightly different direction from where I am cowering in the lantana, he inches forward. His face beneath the peaked khaki cap is clearly visible in the bright light. Good God, it's the vicar, the friendly sadist, the former barber from Bandung! The chap who addressed us in Ban Pong on the eve of the long march. There won't be any mercy from him. I've got to run for it, but how? In the meantime, I must be absolutely still, not making the slightest sound. From the way he acts, he might not know where precisely I am hiding in the brush. He has his back towards me now.

The girl, in sudden fright, bawls loudly and hysterically. Turning quickly about, the Jap runs to her, his hand raised to smack her face. My mind is races. It's now or never. I throw the bamboo stick high and far to the right, to deflect his attention. It lands with incredible noise in the scrub. Halting his run midway and whirling on the spot where the stick crashed into the lantana, he throws himself madly forward to the brush line, hand reaching for his sword.

I've seen enough. Swiftly slipping back the gully, I dash in a wild, zigzag run down the hill as fast as possible. God, help me! If only he will keep going in the wrong direction, long enough for me to reach the treeline of the forest where I can hide. I run and run, making as little sound as possible. I reach the trees, my face and arms burning, flayed by sharp thorns, my heart nearly bursting through my chest. An instinct drives me on again. Stumbling and rising, I finally make it to the forest fringe by the river. Here I drop on my stomach, on the verge of blacking out, with white spots dancing before my eyes. A few moments rest is a must. Panting and groaning, I scan the opposite river bank for the marking point, the double crowned tree....It is not there, it is nowhere! It must be further upstream, but where, in God's name? Jumping up, I drop back into the grass, for somewhere in the woods behind me the air is rent by a whistle - once, twice. A few seconds later a powerful light flashes on, the shaft probing, touching at shrubs and tree trunks, tendrils of mist swirling through the milky white beam. That's the guardhouse, fifty yards downstream. I press myself down to the ground.

Orders crackle from the guard, the sudden commotion silencing the droning and chirping in the woods. All is quiet around me now but for the loud pounding in my ears. Get into that water, quickly! Wriggling forward on my stomach through the tall grass, I slip quietly into the dark river between the reeds, but not before I take off my boots and stick them deep into the slush. As suddenly as they have ceased their chirping the crickets and cicadas resume their monotonous song. A little cloud of gnats circles my head, humming as if nothing out of order has happened, as if all of this were just a bad dream and nothing more. The fern leaves, growing in a thick clump over the shore edge where I am hiding, hang lifeless and waxen in the cold light.

Treading water, making no sound, I take time to recover my breath, for it will be quite a stretch upstream and I'll have to swim mostly underwater. Not a light task, but what else can I do with my life at stake? Also, I must keep to this side of the river for a better view of the opposite treeline, to pick out the double crown. The whistle screams again, but this time from a farther difference. Invisible in the darkness, birds fly up with clapping of wings. A repeated shouting from the guardhouse. An outboard motor sputters, then roars to life. Seconds later, silhouetted against the stationary light beam, a sampan full of soldiers crosses the river, straight for a spot about a hundred yards from where I am. Thank heaven for the break! It is clear they've decided to go where the whistle blew before searching the river. This is good fortune and I'll grasp it while it lasts. Now dive, and swim, swim!

I break the surface of the water at measured intervals, for air and a quick look around for the tree. At the start the frightening thought that I'd be a sitting duck if discovered spurred me on to go as fast as possible, but common sense has quickly checked it. Fate only knows how long I'll have to swim, how long my muscles will be able to put up with it. A steady pace will be my best chance to reach the right spot to cross over. But find that tree, find it before I am reported missing, or I'll never see her again! Crazily, I remember a swim contest years ago, swimming for the school colours while the boys on the sideline were egging me on. Go! Go! Go! Now the prize is life, and only a single voice is whispering: Swim! Swim for me!

The swimming seems to last for an eternity. There is the singing pressure in my ears again. More and more often I have to come up for air. They must have seen me by now. God, please help! I feel a searing pain stabbing in my back and thighs. Cramps will come soon. They say that drowning is the best way to die, but I won't, I won't! I shall see her again! With my face skin hot and taut by the immense effort, my throat and nostrils smarting, I come up again. My eyes, burning in their sockets, wildly search the shoreline. No, no...Oh, yes! Yes, that is the tree! The silly crown with the two silly, lovely plumes beckoning to come, to come quickly.

I have no strength left in me to cross the river underwater. With only my head above the surface I paddle slowly across the water, breathing in hissing gasps. Fortunately the moon has almost gone down behind the ridge, and then visibility will be very poor. Suddenly a shot rings out from the woods on the hill. Good, that means they are still looking for me in the wrong direction.

I get to the dysentery compound's shore and stop to rest again. I am very weak. The sound of another shot from the same direction. Panting heavily, I reach out into the dense bamboo brush bordering the river and find a root to hang on to while I vomit with my mouth in the water to muffle the sound of my retching. A few moments pass. Then pulling forward with my hands on the vegetation, I finally make it to the tree. I push my briefs as deeply as possible into the mud and dry myself carefully before putting my shorts on. I had better get inside a tent. It could raise suspicion if they were to find me under the tree, so close to the river. Wrapping my blanket and towel in the groundsheet, I wait until the fading moonlight has fully gone. The sweat on my forehead feels cold while I stand here motionless, for this will be the moment of truth. I must reach the tent undetected, otherwise... A chill crawls up my spine. In a flash I see wood splinters flying from the post to which they had tied him.

Now! Quick! Stepping carefully so as not to make a revealing sound, I steal into the tent and select a spot between two sleeping men. Pulling the blanket high over my head, I wait with hammering heart for the footfalls to come rushing on, for the disaster, the end. Lisa, Lisa, forgive me.

But the compound remains still and quiet. So far, I have been very fortunate. So far, I have been bestowed with providential luck. Thank you, Lord.

Roused by the voices of men talking, I slowly open my eyes, groping my way out of sleepiness. Then memory leaps back, and doubt. Would anyone have seen, would anyone know? Quietly, as casually as possible, I rise to my feet, watching them out of the corner of my eye. But nobody in the tent seems to take a special interest in me. In a corner lies a shape covered with a blanket, black with flies. In another corner two men play a game of cribbage. A skeleton arm and hand rise slowly from a bed to scratch feebly the stubble on a cheekbone.

Outside I join a group of men talking agitatedly and ask what the fuss is about. Fuss? They ask me if I have been dead or something. Boy, I must have been sleeping, all right, or perhaps unconscious is a better word! It's about the one who supposedly had slipped out and in again. Nobody knows if it's true. Even the Nips are not sure anymore. But last night every section of the camp had been checked thoroughly. Even this otherwise shunned section had a visit by one of them, his nose and mouth covered with a cloth, clearly not too pleased with his task. Accompanied by Doc, he had, with a hurricane lamp, checked if everyone was present, dead or alive. At last the enemy had concluded that it had all been a false alarm. A certain Jap officer who started the general alert had been summoned to headquarters, taking with him a seriously hill Jap soldier to the Nip hospital. The soldier, belonging to the party searching for the alleged fugitive, had chanced upon a water pit. Thinking that their quarry might be hiding in the water, he had thrust his hand through the plants covering the pit. Another soldier, who had shot the snake, told Doc all about it.

I stand frozen, grasping the full extent of the stupid irresponsibility of my nightly excursions. Turning my face away lest they might read my thoughts, I walk as casually as possible back to the tent, my head in turmoil. What beastly luck! Or was God helping me? When I sign off, Doc says, without a flicker crossing the good man's face, "Wasn't it a good thing for you to get inside the tent before the storm broke? A pretty bad wind last night, was it not? Haven't you got boots? See the orderly, tell him I sent you. Boots are becoming available every day here."

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