Friday, November 13, 2009

Chapter 4 Crossing the Kra

One dawn soon after I was aroused by the shouts of Petch’s men come to take me to the boat landing where the first leg of my journey was to begin. After many days of inactivity I was eager to be off, my clothes and few books stored in a wooden chest and White’s letter sewed in the lining of my blue serge coat. At the wharf I found six barges loaded to the gunwales, each with a cabin at mid-section for the passengers. Petch’s two barges were already overcrowded, so he put me on another barge with half a dozen European women. The rest of the barges were occupied by the Moorish traders and their slaves.

The flotilla set off up the river, each barge propelled by four punters with bamboo poles, while a fifth manned the tiller. We began by traversing a stretch of tidal marches and mangrove swamps which were, had I but known, replete with traps for the unwary: drifting sandbanks, the submerged hulks of overturned barges, rocks lurking beneath the river’s turbid waters, and uprooted trees looming as many- armed devas dashing madly to conflate with the sea.

We soon entered the main channel of the Tenassery River, which, fed by the monsoon rains, was now in flood, glided past flimsy huts built on piles, and encountered scores of silent boats and canoes crisscrossing the watery world. As we progressed, the thatched huts of the farmer folk petered out, to reveal the entangled banks overgrown with vegetation. Exotic birds shattered the silence of the jungle with their calls and trills, and I caught sight of blue-billed gapers, white-breasted waterhens, kingfishers and doves. Herons wading in the shallows flapped gracefully away to rest on the dark treetops. Monkeys and gibbons swung from the branches, emitting loud, raucous shrieks. We often heard the bark of deer and sometimes the roar of a big cat.

“I would love to see a tiger or an elephant or some wonderful creature in these jungles,” Ann Taylor, one of the young women, said.

“I’m sure you will,” Mrs. Tuttie said. She was an older woman who was their chaperone. “In fact, you may wish never to see another before too long.”

“Talking about wonderful creatures,” Hanna, a Dutch woman, said, “did you see a white woman on one of the Moors’ barges?”

“Yes,” Ann Taylor said, “she’s very pretty.”

“I wonder what she’s doing with the Moors?” Mrs. Tuttie asked.

“What do you think, Mr. Davenport?” Ann Taylor said, turning her cornflower blue eyes on me.

“She’s probably one of their wives, or slaves,” I said. The two young Portuguese women looked up in amazement.

“Can she be their slave?” Maria Osaki said.

“It’s not impossible,” I said. I looked at Ann Taylor, who was pretty in her blue dress, and reminded me of Betsy Eden.

We glided on for hours, propelled by the indefatigable punters, until time became a silent stillness as in a dream. At a bend in the river some idolaters had erected a white pagoda atop a huge boulder, in front of which a stone idol stood surveying the passing river scene with incomprehension. A flock of ravens crossed overhead, intersecting the line of barges, setting the punters to shouting and gesturing, for they considered it a fatidic sign.

As twilight approached the bargemen found a safe place to set up camp, chaining the barges to some trees. They hacked away a wide clearing in the undergrowth and we alighted to break journey for the night. Each group lit its own cooking fire, and the ladies bustled about preparing the supper.

I sat on the bow of our barge and became aware of the stirring of the insects’ gleeful chirring, which isn’t heard in the daytime, everything blending into a ceaseless song of the night, a backdrop for remembrance and introspection. It still amazed me to be where I was, in the jungle in the middle of nowhere, traveling to some heathen kingdom.

A group of bargemen were startled by the cry of an owl, and then another bird emitted its plaintive call, which spooked them further, for they believed the jungle to be full of malevolent spirits. But when the moon rose, the night became pale and luminous. It was as if the twilight had never been. I alighted from the barge and walked about the jungle clearing and encountered the young mandarin, Petch, who was about to take a swim in the river. He beckoned to me to join him, but right away pulled off his clothes, ran down the steep bank, and plopped into the water. He came up for air and lay on his back and laughed with pleasure.

It had been a long day, and I was uncomfortable from the travel. The splashing of water and Petch’s was inviting. I was always surprised by the affinity the people of the Indies had for water. I looked at Petch, decided that it would be pleasant to feel the water on my body, quickly shucked off my clothes and plunged into the water. And the quiet, modest river resounded with snorting, splashing, and shouting. I coughed, laughed, and shouted as if someone was trying to drown me. I treaded water and splashed about until I was entirely refreshed.

When I got back to the women’s camp they were still preparing the supper. Ann Taylor stood amidst the smoke and stirred a pot with a long wooden spoon. A little to one side, their eyes red from smoke, Mrs. Tuttie and Hanna were chopping off the heads of live fish and gutting them. Before them lay a weed-covered net, in which were more fish and crayfish taken from the fecund river.

Petch, having gone to his barge to change, came to sup with us. This was my first opportunity to converse with him, and found the Siamese youth, a few years my junior, pleasant fellow.
After the meal we built up our campfires to ward off wild beasts and the women retired to the safety of the barges, where oil lamps and wax candles provided a weak but comforting light. Everyone slept on the barges because for fear of wild tigers, the women in the cabins under the protection of mosquito nets, the men on the deck, lulled by the murmuring waters and rocked gently to sleep.

I went to find Petch on his boat. He was dismantling his musket, spreading the pieces out on a cloth.

“The Moors’ woman was spying on us,” he said, taking out a small jar and smearing parts of the musket with grease.

“Yes, I noticed her,” I said.

“What do you make of her?” he asked, wiping off the excess grease with a rag. Then he began to reassemble the musket.

“I think she’s a slave.”

“Did you notice her hair? It was yellow.”

“Yes. She wears a scarf to cover it in the daytime.”

“I wonder what she wanted?”

“She was spying on us; we were stark naked.”

“So what’s her story? How would she have become the Moors’ slave, then?”

He began loading the musket with powder from a powder horn, took aim at a tree on the other side of the river and pulled the trigger. There was a loud clap, which awoke some of the men, who snorted and then went back to sleep.

“That should keep the tigers at bay,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but Moorish pirates in the Mediterranean prey on ships carrying white people and sell them as slaves. Anyway, she’s no concern of ours.”

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