After the rain eases in the humid dawn, Ezrin lies on his bed and listens to the jungle wake to the hill-myna’s song. The bird’s shrill whistle echoes across the valley where the village of thatched bamboo bungalows stands. The myna, a pet named Beo, is caged on his balcony. It spends the daylight hours singing and chattering in its nasal little voice. Ezrin inherited Beo from the previous tenant. He does not mind, for the bird is good company. Rumour has it the bird’s former owner disappeared one day without trace.
Inside his bungalow is stifling, no fan, no air-conditioning. Overnight he bastes in his own perspiration, stirring from dreams he never remembers, his sarong damp, his hair clinging to his forehead. Even the flimsy mosquito net seems to smother his bed.
He flings the net aside, takes a plastic pail and walks barefoot down the jungle path to the river. Swaying trees cast sliding shadows across the path and caramel-coloured mud oozes up between his toes. Monkeys call from high in the canopy. The air is fetid—all dank clay and rotten vegetation, not unlike the odour of durian. Clearing of the virgin jungle has left an irritating smoke haze that makes everyone cough.
Down by the water, he meets some of the plantation workers performing their morning ablutions. Iwan is a charismatic ringleader and Din, his crony. Together they are like master and servant.
‘Assalamu alaikum.’ Iwan greets Ezrin and winks.
‘Wa’alaikum salam.’ Ezrin touches his chest. He fills his pail from the river and pours it over himself. The water is fresh despite its opaque appearance, the first douse, as usual, an invigorating shock. His colleagues watch him, tittering like teenage girls.
Iwan nudges Din and motions with his chin towards Ezrin. ‘So, who’s the girl?’
Ezrin doesn’t immediately realise the comment is directed at him. There are no girls out here in the jungle.
Iwan chuckles. ‘You’re a sly dog, keeping a secret mistress.’
Ezrin shakes his head. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Iwan and Din snigger.
Ezrin tips pail after pail of river water over himself, washing away the sourness of the night. He gathers his belongings and returns to his bungalow, all the way pondering the exchange.
After his morning prayers and breakfast of rice, fried egg and sambal, he emerges to the balcony. The shimmering blue-black bird bobs up and down in greeting. ‘Hello Boss, hello Boss.’
Ezrin approaches the cage. ‘Apa kabar? How are you, Beo?’
Beo rubs its yellow wattles against the bars. ‘Baik, baik, fine, fine.’ Its whistle pierces the dense morning air with a well-known tune.
Ezrin gives it some fruit and water and sets out for his day’s work.
Most of the year Ezrin lives at the rubber plantation, one of many eating into what is left of the Sumatran jungle. If not rubber, he would just as likely be working in palm oil or fast-growing eucalypts. His position is dependable, but distant from his home in Medan. Being the eldest son, when his father died he inherited responsibility for his family. Most of his earnings go home to them. It is lonely here, but he cannot inflict the isolation on his fiancée, Yuni. He has promised that when he accrues some savings he will return to Medan so they can marry.
He longs to see her and stroke her silken black hair. Lying awake, when the rain hammers his roof and leaking droplets rhythmically tap his floor, he can almost conjure her here—her sweet sandalwood fragrance, her singsong laugh. But out here, he has to be content with the company of the hill-myna, Beo.
Ezrin’s job is to oversee the gang of plantation workers. They incise each tree with a machete and collect the oozing latex sap into small cups. The men then carry the milk-white sap in buckets hanging from either end of bamboo poles. Back and forth, from tree to tree, it is heavy work.
The rain resumes by midday, slowing their work and their spirits. They take a break and sit in thatched shelters to eat steamed rice dumplings. Ezrin drinks from a young coconut and listens to his colleagues converse about monsoonal rain, insects and the threat of tigers and malaria.
Din is whispering to Iwan, who laughs and releases a chain of clove-scented smoke-rings. Iwan smiles mockingly at Ezrin. ‘We are all dying to know … who’s the girl you’re hiding?’
A few of the workers chuckle.
Ezrin shakes his head, this ridiculous subject again. ‘You’re spying on the wrong house. There’s no girl within miles of mine.’
The men murmur, offering him sideways glances.
‘Come on, we’ve all seen her,’ says Din. ‘She’s pretty, such beautiful long hair.’
‘You mustn’t be keeping her happy though,’ Iwan says. ‘She always looks so sad.’
All the men in the gang wait for Ezrin’s response.
‘Is this some kind of a joke?’ he asks.
The men guffaw, heads shake and feet stamp as if it is some terrific comedy.
‘There is no girl.’
The foreman, Hasan, calls out from the next shelter. ‘Okay, okay, you lot. Time to get back to work.’
Iwan whispers in Ezrin’s ear. ‘Keep denying it, friend, but maybe you should be sharing her.’ He slaps Ezrin’s back and saunters off into the rows of rubber trees. The other men follow like a pack of subservient dogs.
Ezrin wipes the sweat from his face. Why would they concoct such a story? Perhaps they had heard the myna talking and mistaken it for a woman.
Hasan approaches, a black look on his face. ‘Time to quit daydreaming.’
‘Sorry, Pak,’ says Ezrin. ‘They’re giving me a hard time.’
‘You’re their boss. Start acting like it.’ Hasan stamps a cigarette butt into the wet ground and stalks off.
That evening, the rain sets in like a heavy blanket. Ezrin sits on a squeaky rattan armchair and watches silver rivulets of water trickle over the eaves. He eats rice and fried fish alone on his balcony. Laughter from the other men’s poker game drifts across the valley. He lights a kretek cigarette and a mosquito coil and talks to the myna. ‘Selamat malam, good evening, Beo.’ He draws deeply on his kretek; the coarse tobacco crackles and sparks and the residual sweetness of cloves lingers on his lips.
Beo, quietly warbling in the dim light, cocks its head to listen.
‘They say there’s a girl in my house, but I sure haven’t seen her.’
Beo whistles. ‘Cantik, sangat cantik, pretty, very pretty.’
‘Yes, I know you are pretty,’ says Ezrin.
‘She is pretty, very pretty,’ says Beo.
Ezrin stares at it. ‘What?’
Its eyes, like beads of jet, fix on his. ‘Hello Boss.’
A moment of silence passes. Ezrin shakes his head, stubs out his kretek in the terracotta ashtray and goes inside.
Ezrin cannot sleep for the rain drumming on the roof. He dozes between his vigorous twitches, and finds himself vigilant for the long-haired girl. How could they think there’s a girl living here? The men are spreading rumours—rumours that now fuel his longing for Yuni. He tries to sleep, tries to shelve his desires, but by morning he feels like a wreck.
Again he meets Iwan and Din at the river. Din makes lewd gestures at him that he tries to ignore. He confronts Iwan on the walk back up.
‘Come to my house tonight. See for yourself, there is no girl.’
‘You want to share her with me?’ Iwan smiles. ‘I thought you’d never ask.’
‘I said, there is no girl.’
Iwan stops and presses his hand on Ezrin’s shoulder. The weight of his hand pushes Ezrin’s feet deeper in the mud. ‘I’m not deaf, I’ve heard her.’
‘I think you’ve heard Beo talking.’
‘The bird? Come on … I’m not a fool.’
Ezrin scoffs. ‘Come over after your poker game. You’ll see.’
‘We’ll swap bungalows,’ says Iwan. ‘I am you, you are me. She won’t know the difference and I will have your mistress to myself.’
Late in the evening Iwan arrives with some overripe papaya for Beo. The myna spouts a string of grateful utterances and starts to pick out the black seeds one by one.
‘So, where is she?’ Iwan paces the floor and peers around. ‘You got anything to drink? Bintang?’
Ezrin rolls his eyes. ‘Water or tea, that’s it.’
Iwan invades Ezrin’s bedroom, opening his wardrobe and drawers, rifling through his paltry clothing collection. ‘Where’s she hiding?’
‘I keep telling you, there is no girl.’
‘I know what I saw. So do the others.’
Ezrin shrugs. ‘Think what you like. Sleep here and see, there is no girl.’
‘I’ll be very happy when she arrives.’
‘Give me your key.’ Ezrin throws his own key at Iwan.
Iwan fumbles in his pocket and hands his over.
Ezrin marches out and heads to Iwan’s bungalow. Beo screeches and flaps in the cage. ‘Boss! Hello Boss! She is pretty, very pretty!’
In the dark of Iwan’s sitting room, Ezrin sips tea and keeps watch over his own bungalow. He stares at the faint golden glow emanating from the window. He will stay up all night if he must. He scans the small congregation of buildings through binoculars. Most of the workers have turned in for the night. The lights have dimmed and he can only hear the calls of frogs and geckos.
Perhaps one hour passes, perhaps four, when he notices a shadow slip past the window of his bungalow. He sits up straight, his mind sharpens and his organs press up into his throat. He feels like an owl waiting on unknowing prey.
Iwan must be restless, waiting for the non-existent girl. Ezrin grabs his binoculars, but the lenses immediately fog in the muggy air. He tears them off and scrunches a piece of newspaper to dry them.
He looks again and notices Beo bobbing up and down at the front of the cage. Why is the myna awake? He scans across to the window and adjusts the focus to see what is happening inside the room. Nothing. He lowers the binoculars to his lap.
‘Tock-eh … tock-eh … tock-eh…’ A gecko’s loud call startles him and he drops the binoculars with a clatter on the wooden floor. He leans down to retrieve them and glimpses a silhouette on his balcony. His ears begin to throb and he tries to focus his tired eyes through the binoculars. He can’t see anything, then realises he is looking through the wrong end. He turns them around, slippery in his sweaty hands, and peers through again.
In the shadows of his balcony he sees a woman. In traditional style, she wears a long batik sarong and tight lace kebaya. Her black hair hangs to the small of her back. She carries a bowl and, with her head bowed, she walks to Beo’s cage.
Ezrin, stunned, watches the woman on his balcony. She lifts the latch and opens the cage door. Beo climbs aboard her hand without hesitation and she lifts the bird to her face. It nuzzles her cheek, ear and neck.
He focuses the binoculars on her face—her flawless skin, high cheekbones, smiling eyes. He can see how gently she speaks to Beo, offering it food from the bowl. All the while her doting gaze does not waver.
Who is she and where has she come from? He is compelled to meet her. Down the steps and along the path he races, through puddles, over frogs, barefoot back to his bungalow.
Beo spies him and calls, ‘Hello Boss.’
The woman turns and her eyes meet Ezrin’s for an instant. He halts on the path. The smile in her eyes turns to fear and her gaze seems to spear him. She drops the bowl and cubes of multicoloured fruit scatter across the balcony. Beo flies backwards off her hand and up into the rafters, squawking disapproval. The woman runs down the stairs and out into the night, her hair swirling behind like the air is liquid.
‘No, wait,’ he yells after the slender figure, which dissolves into the blackness of the jungle path. He starts after her, but the rain teems down as if on cue. All he sees is a wisp of movement through sheets of water—her closing curtain.
He feels his skin crawling and realises leeches are ascending his bare legs. It takes some effort to free his feet from the suction of the mud and he traipses back up to his bungalow. He drops heavily into the rattan armchair and smothers the leeches in shredded tobacco. One by one they drop leaving trails of blood down his shins.
‘Hello Boss,’ Beo croaks from the rafters.
Remembering the myna is not in its cage, Ezrin jumps up, mad with unanswered questions. ‘Who is she?’
‘She is pretty, very pretty.’
‘Tell me, stupid bird … who is she? Tell me before I wring your yellow neck.’
The door swings open and Iwan appears, rubbing his eyes of sleep. ‘What’s going on?’
Beo is startled and alights in a flurry of glossy feathers. ‘Nyonya saya, my mistress,’ it calls and swoops over Ezrin’s head.
‘Mistress? What mistress?’ says Iwan. ‘Where is she?’
‘Get out of here!’ Ezrin storms at Iwan, pushing him hard in the chest so he falls onto his behind. Iwan springs up, his arm drawn back ready to punch. Ezrin ducks just in time, reappears behind Iwan, and thrusts his arm up his back, holding him in a headlock. ‘You are a fool. Now get out!’ He pushes Iwan toward the steps and watches him skulk down.
Beo is perched on the balustrade. Its feathers are hoisted like a dog’s hackles. Water cascades off the eaves and droplets bounce off its back. Ezrin calms down and offers Beo his hand, imitating the woman’s actions. Beo climbs aboard, shakes its wet feathers and stares up at him. ‘Let’s get you back in your cage.’ He moves towards the cage, but Beo flutters away, over the railing and, like the long-haired woman, disappears within seconds into the moonless night.
‘Beo … come back!’ He hears Iwan laugh below him on the path. He curses himself; he has no hope of finding a black bird in the dead of a monsoonal night. Compelled to retreat inside, he can only hope Beo will return in the daylight.
Morning arrives sooner than expected. At first light he rises and, hoping the events have been a nightmare, rushes out to the myna’s cage. The cage is indeed empty and cubes of fruit on the balcony swarm with insects. Beo is nowhere to be seen.
Ezrin has to find Beo, has to find the long-haired woman. He hurries down the jungle path where they both disappeared. The rain has paused, though water still saturates the air and dribbles from the tree tops. The river has swelled into a mighty brown torrent. He paces the bank, his feet sink as if in quicksand, and he scours the area for any sign.
It does not take him long to find the myna, it’s shimmering black plumage stands out against the pasty clay. Beo’s small carcass has washed up on the bank. Ezrin kneels and picks it up. It must have followed the woman here but drowned. He fights back tears for his only friend. Gently he folds Beo’s wings and cradles the bird in his hands. He searches for footprints but the high water has erased any human presence.
Maybe she lives on the other side, perhaps forced into an arranged marriage in a distant village. He remembers a place where the rocks make a crossing and knows then what to do. All the while Beo’s voice chirps in his head. ‘Hello Boss, she’s pretty, very pretty, my mistress.’ He makes his way to the crossing, stands and stares at the submerged rocks. The water foams over them, churning in temper. Though he fears the river, a strong mix of desire, disbelief and despair have maddened him. He reassures himself, he simply must find that woman, must return Beo to her.
Tucking Beo into the waist of his sarong, he wades gingerly into the water. It should not be too difficult to cross. One step, two, the rocks are slippery with algae and clay silt. Beo’s voice continues to sing to him, talk him through the challenge. The water rises above his knees. It is becoming difficult to balance against the forceful current. He thinks of the woman and steels his resolve. His sarong swirls and threatens to pull him under.
He hears a shout, looks up and sees some of the workers arrive at the riverbank. His foothold is precarious, now he is waist-deep. His body flexes forwards and backwards, trying to stay upright. A couple of men drop their belongings and run towards the crossing, yelling at him to turn back.
Ezrin recognises their alarm and his own panic button is triggered. His hands reflexively try to grasp at anything, but there is only water. He grabs at the gushing void, flails and slips forwards. Second thoughts come too late. He seizes Beo’s body from his waist, immediately comforted that he is not alone. Caught by a surging wave, his sarong billows like a spinnaker and the river’s unrepentant hands drag him below.