Tuesday, 7 August 2012


Sometimes strange things happen.

   It was afternoon, and the shadows already beginning to lengthen, when they came down into the valley. They scrambled down the steep slope between the trees, cautiously, feeling for footholds on the treacherous wet earth. The noise of the rushing water was so loud that Lin was afraid it would drown out the sounds of pursuit, though by rights they should, he knew, have thrown off any pursuers long ago. The fear was natural. This was not their country; the land was not familiar. In their way of life, the unfamiliar was always dangerous.
It was not so much a valley they were in as a cleft cut into the earth by the torrent roaring by below them, swollen high by a season of rain. The trees on the opposite slope looked close enough to touch.
   There were only three of them, and they had been running since the previous night. There had been two others, but somewhere in the darkness they had become separated and might be anywhere by now. They might be on their way back already, under guard of the soldiers, or they might be lying dead like all the others in the camp. Lin's mind flashed an image of the camp leader, as Lin had last seen him, his face half torn away by a bullet. Involuntarily, he shuddered.
   Up ahead, Bobby raised a hand, signalling a stop. He was the group leader. Lin shivered as a little stream of moisture trickled down his neck. Rainwater still dripped from trees though the sky was clear and it had not rained for several hours.
   Bobby turned to face them. His dark face was shiny with the same mixture of sweat and water that stained their uniforms a green so dark it was almost black. The fanatical look that Lin always mistrusted had not left his eyes. He hefted the M16, the only weapon they had between them, on his shoulder.
   "We’ll rest down there a bit," he said, pointing down to the river. "Then we’ll go on."
   It was not easy to reach the water. The river had gouged deep into the earth, and the high banks were choked with dense undergrowth. Finally they found a place where the water had eroded a shallow semicircular bite out of the bank on their side. Here it eddied, almost calmly, and there was even a little pebbled beach. Here they washed briefly, and then thoughts turned to food. None of them had eaten since the previous evening. Nor had they anything on them that was edible. Lin was so hungry that even the screaming of his exhausted leg muscles had ceased making an impression.
   "Maybe we could catch some fish," the third of the group, Mon, suggested. "There ought to be some here." He took off his boots and waded into the water with the red cotton towel he had been wearing around his neck like a scarf. Bobby joined him and they scooped the towel out of the water between them, and something wriggling and silvery was suddenly on the beach next to Lin’s hand. He stared at it with fascination.
   "Kill it," said Mon urgently. "Don’t let it get into the water."
   Lin’s hand moved involuntarily and he picked up a small rock and swung clumsily at the unfortunate fish. It took several blows before the creature stopped moving. By then another was already writhing on the shore.
This way they got several fish. They then moved under the cover of the trees and with great difficulty managed to construct a small fire. The fish they roasted inefficiently and insufficiently on the embers, but while waiting Lin’s stomach was already clenching with hunger. For the first time in hours, he said something to take his mind off his hunger pangs.
   "Where are we going?"
   "You’ll know when I tell you," said Bobby. He looked at Lin with undisguised contempt. "Why, are you thinking of staying here?"
   "The fish are as done as they’re going to get," said Mon quickly. He was short and wiry, with a thin sharp nose and a perpetually worried expression. "Let’s eat and then get going."
   They started off again immediately after the meal, lingering just long enough to stamp out the remains of the reluctant fire. Bobby set as fast a pace as possible, given the terrain and their exhaustion. They worked their way up slope and further down the valley. As they went, the valley broadened and flattened out a little, but the forest was as thick as ever and at first there was no sign of habitation.
   It was Mon who spotted the hut. "Look."
   "It’s in ruins," said Lin. And so it was, with the walls fallen in on themselves and the roof sagging from the wooden framework. Bobby went up to the door for a brief look inside.
   "There’s nothing there," he reported when he came back. "The floor’s fallen in. The odd thing is, it doesn’t really look all that old. It’s as if someone abandoned it and just let it go to hell one day."
   "Maybe whoever it was got eaten by a tiger," suggested Mon cheerfully. "I forgot," he added, "no tigers in these jungles, right?"
   Lin suppressed a brief shudder. "Let’s get on," he mumbled, and immediately regretted it. But Bobby did not respond with the usual blast of withering scorn.
   "I wonder if there are any more houses here," he said. "Nobody would be likely to build all alone up here, would they?" But they saw no more houses, ruined or otherwise.
   Overhead the clouds had gathered again and a fine drizzle began to fall. Lin cast a last look back at the house as they left. It looked somehow threatening, as if it were the spoor of a large and dangerous animal. But then trees and the gathering shadows hid the house from view.
   Only minutes later it was much darker and the rain had begun to pour down. Automatically, without a word, they began looking around for shelter: a cave, an overhanging shelf of earth, anything at all. Earlier they had tolerated getting wet through, but then flight had been the only objective and they had not been quite so desperately tired.
   It was Lin who spotted the shape out of the corner of his eye. "There, look. Something…"
  It lay slightly higher up the slope and to their left. It bulged its cylindrical form between two thick tree trunks, its rounded nose lifted slightly above the earth. For a moment everyone froze, staring; then everyone turned towards it and began walking through the run-off up the slope.
   "What is it?" asked Mon, then answered himself. "Looks like a plane."
   "A very old plane," amended Bobby. They had by then reached the object and he was standing by the tip of the nose, staring down at it. The regular lines of the metal had corroded and bent, and there were rectangular places that had evidently once been filled with Perspex panels. Growing through the spaces were weeds and vines. The original colour was impossible to tell. It had all faded to a mix of rusty brown and the deep dead green of moss. The trees that must have been smashed down when it crashed had long since been replaced by new growth.
   "There’s a wing" Lin said. "It’s broken, but you can see it must have been the wing." He pointed to a sharp curve of metal, like a huge sword, sticking out of the earth. "And that must have been a propeller." It was visible only in silhouette.
   "Good Lord," said Bobby. "It must have been here right from the Second World War."
Fascinated, they squeezed past the trees and worked their way along the cigar shape of the fuselage. There was the hump of the cockpit, still with its windscreen intact, and a low hump like a glasshouse on the back. Much of the Perspex was still left on the framework of this. Both wings and most of the tail had broken away, but on the whole the fuselage was surprisingly intact.
   "Look at this," said Bobby, pointing to a reddish splotch on the metal. It was roughly circular. "Must have been Japanese. The Rising Sun."
   "Yes," agreed Lin, childhood memories of Commando comics stirring. "I remember seeing pictures of planes like this. It was some type of Japanese bomber."
   Mon had ducked under what remained of the tail and now his voice came from the other side. "Come here, there is something you should see." There was an odd tone in his voice.
   Bobby glanced briefly at Lin, then they both squeezed in turn to join Mon on the left side of the aircraft. "A door."
   Till this moment none of them had thought of the old wreck as a source of shelter. They were still all very young, and it had been a break in the danger the monotony, and the exhaustion. But now there was a way in. They stood staring at it for long moments.
   It lay open, the hatch itself long gone, a dark curving invitation to explore within. Although the rain was coming down harder than ever, it was an invitation Lin would have happily foregone, but Bobby was already climbing through. "Come on," he called. "It’s drier inside. Get in here before you both catch pneumonia."
Lin stooped through the hatch after Mon. Outside there had been some light, but inside it was almost pitch-dark, and he stumbled immediately. His hand struck the curve on the other side of the fuselage and it felt as if the whole cylinder trembled.
   "Watch it," said Bobby from his left. "It’s a narrow squeeze." A shaft of light sprang up from his hand, from the little torch he had refused to use the previous night. The beam flickered. "Batteries are screwed," Bobby muttered. He shook it and the beam brightened, and steadied. "There’s a sort of step through the middle of the thing. The wing must have gone through there. Be careful." Lin found the step and negotiated it. Bobby had swung the torch forward again, to explore the environment. "There’s a lot of leaves and stuff. And some cobwebs, but no garbage. I think we’re the first ones to have found it since it crashed."
   The sound of the rain crashing down on the metal seemed to redouble, but it was mostly dry inside. Lin shivered involuntarily. "What do you think happened to it?" he asked. "Was it shot down, or crashed by accident? And what happened to the crew?"
   "How should I know? I suppose they all escaped," said Bobby irritably. "But…you said this was a bomber? Have a look at this."
   The interior was so narrow that Lin and Mon could only with difficulty look over his shoulder. He was pointing the beam at the floor. The metal was broken here and a curve of yellow showed through. There was a black band painted around the blunt nose.
   "That’s a bomb!" gasped Lin. He struggled back. "We’ve to get out of here!"
   "Don’t be a nit," said Bobby, sharply. "If it hasn’t gone off in seventy years it’s not likely to go off just now. We could probably salvage the explosive for the organisation. That would be a sort of windfall. Then this whole fiasco wouldn’t have been a dead loss." He played his torch around and illuminated the firing handles of a machine gun. "I don’t suppose this beauty would still fire?" He squeezed it experimentally and the grip broke off in his hand. "No," he said regretfully. "Maybe it’s got some more guns, though."
   "Who cares about guns?" said Lin nervously. He could no longer see the bomb, but kept well back from where he thought it was. "I say we step very carefully unless we want it all to blow."
   "It didn’t burst in the crash, Lin" said Mon. Lin realised despairingly it was two against one. "You won’t set it off if you touch it, you know."
   "Anyway," said Bobby as thunder crashed overhead, "we aren’t going anywhere yet."
   For a moment, he switched off the torch. The bulge of the glasshouse overhead had let in a little light, but now everything was totally dark. Then he switched it on again. "Let’s see what we can see," Lin heard him mutter. He made his way cautiously further forward, but the others made no attempt to follow. Not, that is, until he called back to them.
   "I was wrong about the crew escaping," he said. "Well, at least not all did. You’ve got to see this."
   The panels of Perspex had largely blown out towards the front of the aircraft, and it was much wetter there. Bobby was crouched on the floor. He had taken his M16 off his shoulder, and leaned it on the fuselage side. "Look at this," he said. "I very nearly didn’t notice it at first."
   Bobby was squatting in front of a little niche formed by the curve of the fuselage and an oblong projection from the roof that might once have been a fuel tank. Just in front, there was an opening above and faint reflections of torchlight shone off the windshield and thick joysticks. They were just below the cockpit.
   The object on which his light was focussed lay in the niche, legs drawn up in a foetal position, looking so much like a wooden statue that Lin did not realise what it was until he saw the white glimmer of teeth. The skin was blackened and shrunk over the skull, the eyes collapsed, sunken into empty sockets, the lips long gone.
   "Gorgeous, isn’t he?" asked Bobby, laughing.
   Lin did not feel like laughing. "What is it?" he asked. "A mummy?"
   "I don’t think so," said Bobby slowly. "I don’t think it would be hot or dry enough to make a mummy here. But he’s of the crew, sure enough. He’s even still wearing his flying helmet. Or what’s left of it."
Lin took another look at the body and shuddered. It looked more and more like some creation of cloth, sticks and wire, and more difficult to think of it as once a human being. "You mean we have to stay in here with it all night?" he asked.
   Bobby ignored his question. He scrabbled on the floor at his feet, picked up something that might have been a twig and prodded the corpse. The thin white object slipped off the skin without leaving a mark. "Dry and hard," Bobby commented. "What is this thing?" he continued, looking at the object in his hand.
   "A bone," said Mon, speaking after a long time. Bobby turned the object over in his hand. "Yeah," he said. "A bone from some small animal, looks like. Must have crawled in here to die." He threw it away and wiped his hand on his wet uniform. "There’s something else there, up against the wall, back behind this body, but I can’t reach it…looks like a sword. A Samurai sword? What do they call it? Kata-something. I can’t get to it, anyway." He seemed reluctant to leave the body, but unwilling to touch it.
   "Are we going to stay here tonight with it in here?" Lin asked again. Bobby turned his head to look at him, his face instantly masked in shadows. "He won’t hurt you," he said. "He’s dead." Clumsily, he got to his feet, leaned forward into the cockpit and shone his torch around. "There’s no one there," he said. "This one must have died alone. Or maybe animals got the other bodies." He turned round, with difficulty in the restricted space, and picked up the rifle one-handed. "Let’s get back where it’s drier," he said. "We’ll check things better in the morning." When they moved back beyond the bomb, he sat on the wing carry-through with the gun across his knees and shut off the torch. "Better conserve the batteries," he said. The interior was instantly in complete darkness. Outside the rain crashed down. The forest floor seemed to shake.
   "I suppose we had better stand watches," Bobby continued after some time. "I’ll take the first watch, and then I’ll wake you, Mon. After that you wake Lin."
   Without saying anything, Lin went back towards the tail, past the open door through which a fine spray of rain was still coming in. The tail section formed a narrow but reasonably snug, tunnel-like enclosure and he could just about fit himself in there. It was not very comfortable because of the metal framework and wires running along the walls, and he shivered in his wet uniform. It seemed to be taking his body very long to warm the clothing up. But once he fitted himself in there, it was not too long before his exhausted body drifted off to sleep.
   He woke with a start, aware that someone was shaking his knee. He immediately noticed the absence of sound. The rain had stopped.
   The shaking came again. "Lin!"
   He twisted around until he could make out the silhouette. It was Mon. "Is it my turn already?" he tried to ask, but the words came out slurred.
   "Lin!" Mon’s tone was urgent. "Something’s wrong. Bobby’s missing!"
   Lin came awake then, immediately and totally. He scrambled out of his temporary bed. "Missing?" he asked. "What do you mean?"
   Mon was on his knees, their faces so close together Lin could smell the other’s breath. "I woke up some time back," he said. "I was waiting for Bobby to call me, but I felt it was already late." Lin could feel it too, that indescribable feeling that the time was already into the small hours of the morning. "But when he didn’t, I thought I’d better check. So I got up, but I can’t find him anywhere."
   "You think he went out?"
   "At this time of night, without telling us?" It did seem stupid. "Where would he go? If it was just to pee, he would hardly have been such a long time. Besides, he’s taken his gun. All I found was the torch."
   "You found the torch." That meant Bobby hadn’t just walked out on them. Not that he would, he was a fanatic who wanted to take the old Japanese bomber apart for whatever weaponry it might provide. Lin took the torch from Mon and turned it on. The beam was dim, fitful. "Let’s have a look outside."
   "All right." In other circumstances, it might have been gratifying that Mon had so readily ceded leadership to him, but right now it was not something Lin was thinking about. Mon got stiffly to his feet and pushed out through the door. Lin was about to follow, but on a sudden impulse went forward and shone his torch around the forward fuselage. He then left the plane too.
   Mon was waiting for him outside. "I told you he wasn’t there," he said.
   "It’s not that," said Lin tightly. He swallowed. "He’s gone too."
   "The thing. The Japanese! The place was totally empty."
   "Bobby’s taken him to bury him?"
   "Don’t be mad. Why would he…let’s go and look for him. You take the left and I’ll be on the right. Keep calling."
   Without waiting for a reply Lin turned and walked off. He had the torch with him. He had no intention of giving up the torch; if Mon had tried to take it from him, he would have fought him for it. He came around the end of the plane, stumbling slightly on a root. The darkness was almost absolute. Distant lightning flashed suddenly, half-illuminating things before darkness came down again.
   From the other side of the fuselage, he heard Mon’s voice calling. "Bobby!" It sounded weak, quavering, and inadequate in that vast stillness where the only other sound was the dripping of water from trees. Lin called out himself. "Bobby! Where are you?" It sounded no better.
   Lin walked further from the wreck, calling out once in a while. Lightning still flashed sporadically, but silently. He found nothing, and began to work his way back in a circle. The torch beam was very weak now and barely reached the ground in front of him. He shook it once, hard, and it brightened momentarily, then dimmed almost to nothing. He cursed the batteries silently.
   It was only after some time that he realised that he had not heard Mon calling in several minutes. Lin stopped for an instant, listening. No, there was no sound from Mon. Had he made a run for it? No, where would he go in the darkness, alone, without torch or weapon? Had he fallen down a precipice or something, and was lying there, too badly hurt to cry out for help? Lin turned back in the general direction of the aircraft, going as fast as he could. He was so intent on getting to it that he stumbled over Mon before he could stop himself. He looked down, grunting with the shock.
   Mon lay on his back, spread-eagled, his head thrown back. His dark green clothes were soaked black with blood, and he was obviously beyond help, but that was not the worst of it. Lin had seen violent death before this. What was shocking, what made Lin want to scream, was something else.
   From his chest to his groin, Mon had been split open. Pale coils of viscera bulged out of his body cavity.
   Lin had a sudden mental vision of the niche below the tank in the aircraft. The niche that now seemed such a natural place for someone to curl up and go to sleep. The niche that lay empty now, but which had also held what might have been a Samurai sword.
   And that ruined house earlier…
   The bone Bobby had found in the plane…
   The torch gave a final flicker and went out.
Lin turned and ran, ran as he never had before, having lost all sense of direction, not knowing where he was going and unable to see anything in the darkness; ran until he collided violently with a tree trunk and fell, rolling over and over until he came up against something large and solid. He felt behind him with his hands and felt the smooth curve of metal.
   He had somehow or other run in a circle, back to the plane.
   Badly winded by his fall, Lin struggled to get upright. He was still on his knees when something loomed in the darkness before him. He looked up.
   Distant lightning flashed for an instant, flashed up far beyond the trees, and illuminated for a moment the ancient flying goggles, the tattered leather helmet with its bulging ear shells, illuminated gleaming teeth. It glittered on the edge of the Samurai sword as it began its arc of descent.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2006/12

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