It was one of the most isolated places on earth, one of the least known, so isolated that the symbols of the modern and the primitive worlds in a practical sense merged in the sound of a single machine: an unreliable six-horse-power generator. It competed with the sound of cicadas, the crashing of monkeys and the whooping of gibbons, and for the majority of the people of this upland region the put-put of the one-cylinder engine implied civilization and falsely the existence of a medical doctor.
Only Europeans had generators, and most natives expected white people to have medicine. The years had changed nothing there, except at an out-station one would expect to find amenities that wouldn’t be found elsewhere, western comforts and luxuries, with the larger of these settlements boasting tennis courts and water systems designed to raise the level of hygiene. It may also in no way seem strange to find white women
Mr. Flint measured himself by how much influence he had and wasn’t afraid to be himself. Yet he knew his limitations, and what was acceptable depended on the situation. He had to know when to assert his authority and when to pass. He of course had to also always be on guard. It was also true that the Kelabit were genial, and he had learned to capitalize on it. In comparison to him, his wife had become querulous over having to live so far away from civilization, when she should’ve been accustomed to it.
There were no other white women, as far as she knew, in the district, and she wouldn’t allow Mr. Flint to forget it. She also hammered home the fact that she was an educated woman, who enjoyed music, dancing, and could speak two or three European languages, while he was not at all cultured. She liked to play on his sense of guilt by claiming that he tricked her into coming to Borneo. According to her, he lied about the conditions, which he couldn’t do and get away with it because she was highly intelligent. She surely knew what she was in for, yet nothing irritated her more than the heat and the clamminess she could only escape at night. There remained tropical fruits … only tropical fruits … mangoes, mangosteens, and a fruit called soursop … that she enjoyed and bragged about when she went home.
She would’ve preferred living in Aden, Ceylon, Penang, or Singapore, places where people didn’t bathe in the river or wouldn’t spy on her so much. Now she lived away from the world she knew and loved as a child (and also far from the royal gardens, peacocks, flowers and perfumes of her imagination) and was forced to live under primitive conditions. She found it hard to smile when she was expected to, and what she was expected to do wasn’t challenging enough for her. She would’ve changed places with her husband if she could have since he never complained. It infuriated her. She stood beside him, but she only did so reluctantly.
The Kelabit, however, weren’t totally primitive. Mrs. Flint had never expected to hear them sing and play with mandolins. When she heard them the first time she knew it was unique. There wasn’t another tribe on Borneo that loved Spanish music so much. Spanish? No, it wasn’t exactly Spanish, but it was certainly not primitive. The people there preferred to play and sing outside. And all the time, while they sang, they told stories, stories about themselves and their loves. But, in spite of the beauty of their music, Mrs. Flint wasn’t touched by it.
No one was given so much attention and disliked it as much as she did. No one could show so much disdain and at the same time have so many admirers. While appearing helpless, strangely enough she hated being helped. Born into the aristocracy, she got angry with her husband over not recognizing it.
How could she be faulted for missing her family in Moscow or friends in England where she met her husband? Or why she couldn’t reconcile living in Borneo when she gave up so much? Or why she missed Christmas and Easter, the Russian spring and painted eggshells? And she couldn’t forget the seaside dacha she lived in as a child. She yearned for London and wanted to return to Paris. So, after loving London and Paris, she made the biggest mistake of her life: she married Mr. Flint.
Obviously she didn’t consider it a mistake at the time. There was romance involved, but she had her reservations even then. Love isn’t something you can explain. Love may not be blind, but it’s intoxicating, and nothing is without its difficulties. Some mistakes seem right at the time, but with hindsight are obviously mistakes. She soon wished that she had never met Mr. Flint. With all of her heart she wished she had told him no, and especially after he mentioned the idea of going into government service.
As a government officer, Mr. Flint had to be a jack-of-all trades: a policeman, Chief of Public Works, Land Revenue Officer, magistrate, accountant, treasurer, and sometimes coroner; but the prestige of the job hardly matched the magnitude of the sacrifices that were called for. But this brave man thrived on change and loved adventure, so he jumped at the chance to join the Foreign Service.
Back in England, as a young man, he thrived on competition and excelled in sports such as cricket and polo. He seemed more interested in playing than having a career. But though he seemed to lack ambition, he obviously had qualities that would make him a good administrator. He was always sober, enthusiastic, and full of energy. Once he got started on something, nothing stopped him … the heat was less a factor than he expected, and he loved the uncertainty of the monsoons. He liked watching the clouds roll in, and the lightning excited him. Once he was assigned to Borneo … which he asked for …he could count on being shifted to almost every station except Brunei and Sandakan. Consequently he trekked through much of the jungle interior where the practice of head hunting had not been totally curtailed.
Thus adapting to an illogical and tortuous landscape, to snakes, leeches, and parasites, to the jungle, the cliffs, and the crevasses, he felt at home where few white men rarely went. At home in the small and remote villages, he was always honored with the best floor space.
Mr. Flint couldn’t imagine living in England. Twice he gave it a try, and twice he gave it up. He loved the wilds, and life away from them seemed too tame. And everywhere he went in Borneo he was treated like royalty and talked of nothing else. Everyone was welcomed in his home, sometimes in the middle of the night they would bring him their problems. And you know what he did? He always helped them. He therefore signed on for the duration and would be buried on the island in a small cemetery set aside for British civil servants. Mr. Flint was a great gentleman, a dedicated public servant, a loyal subject of the Crown, and a credit to the human race. He was one of many Englishmen overseas … united by regulations and policy … who helped the Crown maintain its valued empire.
They found themselves in a world that defied description and included the never faltering spirit of the falcon, the otter, and the rhinoceros. For Westerners these spirits didn’t exist. They had no time for them, yet these spirits were everywhere on Borneo. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, Mr. Flint wasn’t a true believer, but he’d been around long enough that it didn’t seem improbable. To the Kelabit everything was a sign, such as the cry of the hornbill or the sound of a falling rock. Then was it necessary to understand it? “The wild waters tremble lest the river turn to stone.” Was it necessary to understand this? Was it necessary to know for sure? There had to be something to it because the Kelabit rarely worried about anything, or so it seemed. They gain strength from an unspecific number of spirits, and they believed that as long as they were generous the spirits wouldn’t disturb the peace.
Before the war the Kelabit considered Mr. Flint a generous man, and they were pleased with him, just as he was pleased with them. And he was able to keep the peace.
There wasn’t much trouble because he was a generous man. From a small monthly allowance he purchased salt, tobacco, beads, and so on that he gave to them. They also gave him gifts. That was how he managed. Anyway, he felt obligated to accept their gifts of chickens, rice, and eggs (and perhaps a sword, a battle headdress, a sun hat, or maybe a mat). To refuse anything would’ve insulted them. He had to anticipate what they’d like. A mistake would’ve been disastrous. Of course he didn’t get it always right, but close enough usually worked. Nothing in England prepared him for this, but he soon found out that even people who weren’t advanced liked hair-lotion and scented-soap.
Hoping that the men in the big planes didn’t really care about them, the Kelabit often waved at the Japanese, while the Flints considered it unsafe. From the air the jungle canopy gave only the faintest hint of human activity. The Japs believed that this green hell was the last place they’d find Europeans. Given this assumption they didn’t search the jungle very much, and the Japanese couldn’t afford to waste men and time subjugating a few backward tribes, when they needed to concentrate on a growing headache.
For the first time during the occupation, the Japanese faced American air attacks. Also, around this time, the tempo of life around the long houses quickened because a “Z” Special Unit, made up of Australians, dropped into the island’s interior. This would be rightfully noted, along with Japanese errors, as to what change the course of the war. The Japanese showed utter contempt toward people living in the interior, but were the first to appreciate this mistake.
Had she been in her native Russia and part of the great Soviet experiment, Natasha wouldn’t have run any risks because she would’ve had her baby in a clean maternity ward. Mr. Flint didn’t know how to treat women. If he had, he would’ve sent her to a hospital to have their child. He would’ve insisted on it, regardless what she said. Before he brought her all the way out there, he should’ve made a few contingency plans. He knew she wanted children, and he was foolish not to plan for it. It was obvious that he didn’t know much about her. And she wasn’t sure that he really loved her. He was gone from their bungalow too much and rarely touched her. She would’ve been trouble if they never had sex. His excuse was that he was just too busy. She couldn’t understand it. She thought that there was something wrong with her.
Regardless where she lived in the Soviet Union, she would’ve given her son a proper named by naming her son after one of her papa’s relatives. And for all of her effort, she would’ve won a Motherhood Glory medal.
Had she not left Moscow, she would’ve been, as part of the Great Patriotic War effort, working in a factory, and having a baby would’ve earned her a grant and a monthly bonus. She knew nothing about working in a factory but felt sure she would’ve been treated better back home. The Soviet Union had a great interest in woman having babies. It was in fact a matter of Soviet pride, so if she had been back in the Soviet Union everything would’ve been different. And she would’ve been happy to live there, had she been given the chance.
By 1944, the Greater Co-prosperity regime of the Japanese had clearly gone back on its word. Perhaps they simply didn’t have the resources to fulfill their promises. They certainly didn’t in the interior of Borneo. But it wasn’t a bad thing for the Flints (or the “Z” Special Unit). It allowed them to go unnoticed for three years, and after the Flints gave birth to their only son, they hoped it would continue for the duration of the war.
But when they heard and saw a wave of Zeros overhead, they knew they’d have to flee their hiding place and leave behind the few comforts they had. Thus a bathroom, a study, and a sitting room were stolen from them. At the time she was suckling a child and became extremely depressed. She tried to abort the pregnancy, even though she wanted children, but not under these circumstances. At this point she blamed her husband for the war, blamed him for everything that went wrong, and most of all for the pregnancy. Of course the Kalabit knew what to do and would’ve helped her had she trusted them. She said to herself, “I will not be the victim of ignorance and superstition.” So she let nature take its course and her vanity gave way under stress. On the other hand, courage, pluck, and a Scottish sense of resourcefulness sustained her husband.
Besides the few things she could carry, she took with her a desire to somehow get back to civilization. If her husband wouldn’t save her life, she would find someone who would. She had tried once or twice to leave him, but never found the right opportunity to do it. To simply take off was far too risky. The jungle seemed too hostile. Even when they lived in Sandakan … even with the distraction of cards, dancing, and reading … she never liked living on Borneo. She felt the isolation more than her husband did. Few Western women of rank and fashion stayed on the island. Those with an adventurous heart sided with her husband. He enjoyed hearing the Kelabit sing “we have his head! We are so happy,” while Mrs. Flint hated it.
This Russian lady took special delight in her anger. She survived by becoming as combative and loudmouth as she could. She didn’t try to control herself. She might’ve tried had she been some place else. Why couldn’t she appreciate the wild splendor of the Tamabo range and overridden all of the hardships with a heroic notion? What happened to her adventurous side? If she had married adventure, maybe she wouldn’t have felt so betrayed. She hadn’t signed on for it. Maybe with the right attitude, though stuck in the middle of a jungle, she wouldn’t have complained so much.
Her original ideas about Borneo came from old pictures of the old days when English officials dressed in white uniforms and spiked helmets. From diaries of the period she read about music and dancing and bungalows the English built with true shingles, true gables, and true blinds. With the rustle of silk and silken draperies, bright rooms were highlighted by some of the colors of the flowers of the gardens. In that world, white women, except for servants, only associated with datus’ wives, other whites, and hosted garden parties.
She saw herself retaining a butler, dressed in a white jacket and a yellow and black sarong. If they could afford a butler, they could surely afford a maid to do the cleaning, the washing, and the ironing. A maid would give her company, and with the idea of having a maid came the idea of throwing parties, and it would’ve all been possible had her husband been assigned to a place like Hong Kong or Singapore. The parties she envisioned would’ve been large and given in a proper manner, with meals and table arrangements that would be much prettier than those in England. Where the right remark given at the right moment lightened the heart or thawed the ice. “Makan! la….Minum! la….Janga malu! (Eat … Drink … Don’t be ashamed!) ” Never mind the incorrect pronunciation. Etiquette was required. Knowing when to leave the room and husbands to their claret and cigars was essential. No wonder she felt betrayed.
But what she found on Borneo, even when she had her own home with a cookhouse and a boy to do the cooking, was nothing like she imagined. Irritations, such as the lack of privacy (since natives saw nothing wrong with peeping into their windows) got to her. This meant that they had to keep their shutters shut all the time, which made her seem unfriendly. As for friends, she had to leave all of them behind and was slow to make new ones, and when they ended up in a jungle village it became impossible for her. She had no one she could relate to. She was lonely and homesick, and her loneliness intensified as time went by. If only there were other white women around. Of course there were white women in the towns along the coast but socializing with them meant quite a journey (mostly by riverboat) and became impossible after the Japanese invasion. (Of course after the Japanese came she never heard from the white women in the coastal towns again. They were taken away to prison camps, and those who survived weren’t rescued until near the end of the war. She seemed to forget all this.) So she and her husband had very little in common. She didn’t like hunting or hiking and never joined her husband on hunting trips. Now she enjoyed looking at photographs of birds, which meant she became upset when husband shot green pigeons and snipe.
Natasha left her home in a land of neatness and order and exchanged it for a land without proper seasons. There, there were only two seasons, wet and dry, for Natasha wet meant that she could never get dry. And she never felt secure in houses with nipa roofs and that swayed in the wind. She never felt secure anywhere she went in the interior. She complained a lot to receive attention and complained a lot to receive sympathy, but the Kelabit never understood why she complained. And what did she have to complain about? From the way she walked down the gangplank you could tell that she felt superior. From when she first stepped off the ship, years ago in Sandakan, carrying a parasol and wearing sunglasses, she looked too fair for the tropics where the temptation was to avoid the sun completely. There were too many things that she’d have to get use to. Bathing in a river made her feel violated. The lack of privacy made her angry.
Who was she? Who was she really? She didn’t want to be defined by her husband. She never walked contently beside him. She didn’t like them. She thought they didn’t like her, though they mobbed her. Yes, it could’ve been that, but there were other things that bothered her more, nor could she remember all of the stupid little things that often got in her way..
Because of the monsoon, the rivers were flooding and the trails were impassable. Without sympathy from her mate, she endured sticky skin and water that made her sick. They both were tortured by bitters and were greeted by mangy dogs, but it didn’t seem to bother her husband because he seemed to be always in motion, whereas getting from place to place seemed futile to Natasha. But what discouraged her the most was the isolation, which overshadowed the beauty of the place. She spent much of her time staring off into space. You could see by looking at her that she was unhappy. She wondered if she’d ever loved her husband.
The natives thought Natasha came from a mouse deer, a very stupid animal; and the silly things she did amused them. Mimicry was a favorite pastime, and it drove her crazy. The men would laugh and cry, while the women often laughed so hard that they fell to the floor. Then, lying on their backs, they would kick the floor, while Natasha was expected to mask her revulsion. The famous female mouse deer had badly infected feet and had to ask for help.
“And at last the male mouse deer came carrying his wife on his back,
A sad man with a heavy burden, a burden which he wished he’d thrown off.”
Crockett’s old man masked his own feelings. He always gave a measured response or retired behind a curtain of silence. Rather than fight, he fled. And as Natasha’s discontentment grew, she became more certain that she didn’t love him. For a while she pretended that she did. It annoyed her, and she felt sad and grew accustomed to the sadness. The one thing she could rely on was sadness. Yes, the stupid mouse deer felt sad.
It all came from his coldness. He wouldn’t touch her. He seemed indifferent. She hated his correctness. He never said he was sorry, and when she asked him what the problem was he wouldn’t answer her. But she still tried. Inexplicably, he wouldn’t answer her. Then, too, his correctness in how he dealt with other people irritated her. Though his duties as related to her were clearly spelled out by the church, it always came down to which creed they would follow: the Church of England or Russian Orthodox. What? Maybe they should’ve concentrated on their similarities rather than their differences.
Sitting in a Kelabit long house with no privacy on her due date, her depression grew more acute. All around her were people who thought they lived in paradise. And her poor husband had hardly slept and because of the constant chatter never heard her say she wanted to kill herself. Wouldn’t it have baffled him had he heard it? He had no idea what she was going through. Tired, nervous, and in an angry mood, he couldn’t have taken much more. He could never stand hysterical women, and now his wife was having a baby, their baby, and she was in pain and was hysterical. In any event, out of necessity he didn’t show his true feelings.
Though she regretted having married Mr. Flint, Natasha wouldn’t have wanted to return the Soviet Union. One ought never wish for something unless they have some idea of what they really want. With the absence of phonograph records, she yearned to hear old Russians folksongs. She remembered in the winter she could jump in the snow and in the summer dip in the pond without fear of slime, but Natasha would’ve been surprised to learn that the Russia that she dreamed of no longer existed. She forgot that the friends she left behind were in prisons or in graves, after she fled the purges of Stalin and married an Englishman.
On Sunday, June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked Russia and Timur and His Gang inspired them to hold on. From the pages of a little book meant for children, for the sake of those fighting at the front, they learned to “live honestly, modestly, to study well, and work stubbornly” and, even during the fiercest battle, to stay “happy, proud, and calm.” Therefore, due to the effort of her children, Russia rose from the ashes. The boys and girls described in the book arrived with their tools and rushed off to work. They cheerfully worked gardens, minded babies, and gathered scrap. Not that Crockett ever knew about the industriousness of his forgotten cousins; but the connection was there. He inherited many of those traits from his mother.
The birth of a son gave Natasha something to live for. It gave her hope, and she felt it at the moment of conception. She and Mr. Flint made love so infrequently, she knew exactly when it happened. The natives believed pregnancy came from the discharge of hot blood during orgasms: they were partially right of course for the father in this case was hot and sweaty after he did the deed. Then look at it from Natasha’s perspective: she almost died and for a while wished he had. Her husband’s lack of participation … he left the house … didn’t help. It caused her additional pain, as the Kelabit celebrated.
Everyone except the mother drank rice wine and celebrated that the womb had been right and the blessed couple’s blood had properly mixed. Adam Flint felt very proud. And while drinking as much wine as he could as all the men did, he expressed his happiness. The Kelabit followed his example and got drunk. They also teased him about sex, about unsticking the womb, which distinguished it from being stuck to the backbone. They chanted “the bloods getting hotter and hotter until it all boils and turns to steam.” And he felt really, really embarrassed.
Natasha didn’t know why they were laughing. It would’ve disgusted her. You need to remember that many of the things they did disgusted her. How they went to the bathroom in the river was one example. Why her husband hadn’t done anything about this, she never knew. Now they were laughing. And she just had a baby, and she heard them laughing, and if she knew why she would’ve been disgusted. She would never know.
There hadn’t been time enough to send for a doctor, while during the dry season there would’ve been plenty of time. It was a silly mistake, since she knew her due date. It was easy for Natasha to blame her husband and accuse him of not caring enough, and blame him for the impassible trail. There were no telephones, and it was highly unlikely that they would have any service soon. He had a short wave radio. Why hadn’t he used the radio?
To assure future prosperity, Adam bought a buffalo, which they slaughtered and ate. It was a special meal, but it didn’t involve Natasha. In Russia, she wouldn’t have been ignored. Her family would’ve fussed over her. They would’ve waited on her and brought her caviar, an omelet, black bread, and tea. If she’d tried to get up, they would’ve stopped her. Now any acknowledgement would’ve meant the world to her.
The first sounds Crockett heard were the soft songs sung by a midwife. The songs calmed the baby and got him accustomed to his new home. The midwife took dried leaves, which had dropped from the jungle trees and applied them to Crockett’s forehead. She threatened the evil spirits. When they didn’t withdraw from the house, the child was subjected to another ritual and on it went. The midwife began to speak to him as if he were an adult. “He will be tempered like this iron in my hand! He’ll grow strong because the posts of his body will be made of iron!” The sacred rituals also involved chasing away spirits that could kill him. This amused Natasha. Yes, something amused her. While she didn’t believe in “such nonsense,” Christianity didn’t help her either.
Meanwhile, while celebrating, Adam had no patience for superstition. After the celebration, he’d be faced with the same realities that he faced before the birth of his son. To Natasha, he seemed more concerned about his position as a representative of the Crown than concerned about her. Something else…the couple felt that most of the time they lived in what they described as a fish bowl.
From the beginning, Crockett was treated like a little Rajah. The whole tribe adopted him. A little Rajah… the speaker listed many attributes to support this idea. There was no denying that it was because of his fair skin and length. He was the longest baby they ever saw. The midwife predicted that he’d be a powerful man and cited the length of his cord as a reason for it. She cut it long to make sure, and there was every reason to believe that he’d be healthy and strong. He not only grew strong but also was always treated differently because of his extreme height. Publicly honored, privately scorned, and always spoiled, he couldn’t have gone unnoticed. The slightest sneeze brought a tidal wave of attention.
As Natasha’s resentment grew, she retreated and paid less attention to her son. Of course, the boy didn’t understand. He missed his mother, but he had his friends and was cared for by the tribe.
As the war continued, the Aussies came. One day out of the blue they dropped out of the sky. Perhaps if they hadn’t come the war wouldn’t have come to the interior. And the Aussies, who wore khaki shorts and ran around with their shirts off, won it for the allies. Accordingly, as a British official, Adam helped out as much as he could, but still the Australians snubbed him. What else could he do then but wait for them to come to him? He knew the local dialect while most of them didn’t, and that proved useful when it came to negotiating. Natasha, then however, succeeded with them when her husband couldn’t.
Her existence delighted them. They hadn’t expected to find in the jungle a pretty white woman, who they could communicate with. What a delightful surprise! They felt lucky, but she was married, and they didn’t like that. But sometimes temptation is too great. It however wasn’t something that was easy nor was it something that would happened overnight because most of the Australians were also married.
Here was the attention she sought. Lonely people and lonely hearts were closely allied. To Natasha, British civil servants were so ridiculously stuffy while Aussies seemed so much more alive. Since she sometimes wondered why she stuck with her husband, she was tempted now in a way she wasn’t tempted before. Perhaps she only hesitated because there was no place for her to escape to. The jungle certainly didn’t offer her a sanctuary.
After the Aussies came, she had to deal with something inside her that she didn’t particularly like. She had to compromise when she didn’t like compromising. She however couldn’t remember the last time she had so much fun. “They like what they see,” she said and didn’t want to be put back on a shelf. Then for some reason she gained confidence, and one thing led to another.
She didn’t care anymore … didn’t care if she upset her husband when she picked out one of the men. The shortest one, with a protruding chin. His name was Roger.
Roger. It was Roger. And he was married for one thing. And she wasn’t sure why she picked him except he was the shortest one. And she considered herself lucky because he was a fine person. Her husband didn’t think so. They were both married, but neither one of them considered marriage irrevocable.
The Aussies were much more forward than the British. She enjoyed their flippancy. She believed Roger when he told her that he loved her. In what ways were the British restrained? Was it simply in their manner and appearance? Yes, they still talked about keeping a stiff upper lip, but as for Natasha, Roger, with his bare chest and perturbing chin, had them beat. It was simple though: he was also handsome.
Adam, of course, couldn’t control her. He never tried. And never talked about it. Of course, Natasha talked and needled him as much as she could. She also took great risks and laughed and sang with the men from Down Under. You could say that she was just no good. The Aussies would’ve said just opposite. Her tastes were indeed the opposite of Adam’s. His strictness sapped her energy. All buttoned up, he gained his authority by being trim and proper. He kept a stiff upper lip while his rivals boasted and ran around with their shirts off. The tuffs of hair on their chests delighted Natasha, and she’d say up until she died “Those Australians were a wild bunch. They were certainly appreciative of me and, when I needed salvation the most, they saved my life.” Such was the situation when Natasha felt trapped the most.
Natasha neglected her son Crockett. Without thinking about it, she gave his care over to her neighbors. Carried in a sling, he was cared for by three-to-six-year-old nurses, who lived and played in a three-to-six-year-old world. While carrying him in a sling, his nurses jumped up and down to the time of rice sifting, or threw stones by pushing them forward with a shot put like motion. Play kept the nurses occupied, while they babysat the white infant with a full head of hair.
It was May of 1945 now. The jungle had grown over the charred ruins of Sandakan, and you could see where American ships shelled and torpedoed the harbor and the town. Nor was it hard to forget the May Day massacre and the jungles were now dangerous because of fleeing Japanese. Now came the task of staying alive until the enemy finally capitulated.
Natasha waited with resignation. By then she had decided to leave her husband and join Roger in Australia. The uncertainty that came from hiding from a brutal enemy and being a white woman trapped in an unmapped, untamed jungle had taken its toll. She was giddy about hooking up with Roger again and hadn’t thought about the complications involved. It would give her, as she put it, her freedom. She didn’t intend to take Crockett with her. Crockett? She rightly associated him with savages, who until recently had been headhunters. Crockett? She did however recognize him as her son. Crockett? Sometimes her son frightened her. Sometimes she didn’t recognize him. So Natasha … a strong woman who appeared fragile … was persuaded to let go of her son, which she almost immediately regretted.
By this time Adam carried his son on his shoulders. It was always a tribute to him that he cared so much for the boy and that they were bonded. Together they went exploring. That was how the boy was exposed to the jungle, where people dripped with sweat and the trees dripped with rain. And it was always to his father that he attributed his love for Borneo. During his boyhood it was his father who influenced him the most, though there was a wild side to him that was never tamed. Then, too, when he thought of his mother and missed her, of course, he never thought of her failings. Yes, he missed her and planned to someday go see her. All right, all right, he hated his stepfather, the Aussie who didn’t like to wear a shirt. Who loved him more, a mother who sometimes protected him, or a father who exposed him to innumerable risks?
Under both the Chartered Borneo Company and the later Administering Government, Adam was a loyal civil servant, and a very good one. Only once was he derelict in his duties. But he could’ve been more influential. He stayed out in the jungle too long. He became an old man too early and in later years seemed to have lost his vision.
Growing up in the interior of Borneo, usually naked to the waist, Crockett learned to love the jungle his father loved. From an early age, the boy explored it on his own. He carried a spear. The jungle had become his home, and he was never afraid because he felt sure he could meet any emergency.
The Little Rajah never backed down. His father said “Crockett will someday carve an important niche for himself” and indeed he had many of his father’s traits. Thus there was a difference between him and the other boys that gave him an edge, and his skin color also gave him an advantage. The Little White Rajah … some said that he could be the next heir of James Brooke of Sarawak, though there were already heirs in line. Crockett retained his title not so much because he was a deserving boy but because of the valor he showed in mock combat.
He’d pick up a stick and hit his enemies with great delight. To earn respect, a Rajah had to be willing to die and defend himself with all of his might. He pulled his friends hair knots. He ran up behind his victim’s jackfruit head, and before he got caught he’d pull really hard. He always fought to win.
In their birthday suits, the boys would slide down hills on bamboo sleds. Then as the biggest, he’d start it. Insults and jibes then flew and teasing produced the desired effect. This always amused the adults. And Crockett always stood out, but his most salient quality was his empathy for the victims.
He looked up to his father. He saw his father at work, and his values, as prescribed by duty, came from his dad. Sometimes he wondered how his mother was managing. He knew his father missed her, or suspected he did. He watched his father assert his authority, enforce British laws, and do all he could to prevent head hunting.
For years the British government tried to abolish headhunting. It had been a full-time job, and even as late as 1951, the ritual survived in scattered pockets of Borneo; however as far as Adam knew, the killing had stopped in his area. Then while they had put a stop to human sacrifices, the ceremonial part with the dancing and the drinking lived on. But had any British official suspected that participants still sometimes coated their spear tips with poison, there would’ve been hell to pay. But far worse for Mr. Flint and more threatening was what happened with his son.
On occasion Crockett participated in these martial rites. He wanted to be a warrior. He dressed the part in a loin strap, a war-coat, and a helmet. Then as darkness fell he and a small war party left the village and spent the night beside the river. They stayed up all night getting ready for a mock battle. There was a ritual they followed. Everyone knew it, and normally it wouldn’t have amounted to much, and except for one reckless moment that was how it would’ve been … and if he’d been his father, Crockett thought, he would’ve been able to stop it.
The evidence was all in tact. Fresh blood, a severed head, a grim collection. And added to this a bloody knife and the rest of the corpse with puncture wounds to the heart. It had been a brutal murder.
Bloody and brutal and the whole war party participated. It was forbidden and against the law, and yet they didn’t try to cover it up. Instead they celebrated. Pretty terrible, and Crockett participated. He got his hands bloody. He joined in as they shouted and stomped their feet and jumped an unarmed neighbor from a village with which they were feuding. He hated things that were messy, yet he participated, and he couldn’t explain why he did. He wasn’t intoxicated. He knew what he was doing, yet couldn’t explain it. He became violent when the other boys had, and he took his turn with the knife. He couldn’t explain it and wanted to forget it, and it became a refrain he’d repeat the rest of his life. He saw another boy pick up the head. He was thinking, you see, it would’ve been better if it had been his head. He knew the position this put his father in … he was the police officer, and then he was the jailer, and the judge. He knew at once that he’d have to face his father, the police officer, the jailer, and the judge.
Crockett knew his father would kill him. Not that he would literally kill him because that would require more from his father than his father had. Murder was murder and required justice even if the murderers were boys. Murder was murder and required justice even if one of the murderers was your son. What unfolded in a matter of minutes hurt Crockett forever. Horrified, Crockett stood there. The whole party saw his face. Then he panicked. It went without saying that he would, didn’t it?
The refrain he was beginning to live with went like this: “I have killed a man. I am murderer. So then I should be sent to prison and perhaps even hanged. Justice requires it.” He had become voluble just as he became violent. He’d confess and pay the price, but it wasn’t up to him. And while the quickest and most honorable way out was a bullet. If he had had access to a gun he knew what he would do.
We have here a collision of cultures, of the old and the new. Oh, he understood what the consequences should’ve been, but he couldn’t understand why his father did what he did. He was disappointed. Could he believe he wouldn’t do anything? Of course, you know he’d have to make a report.
Murder is murder, and murder was a capital crime. Was that the refrain? Yes, of course, it was. Grizzly. Grizzly. Crazily, yes. It would be a long time before any of them would forget it.
While Crocket was alone with his feelings of guilt the other boys were engrossed in the business at hand. For a quarter of an hour the war party whooped and danced and paid little attention to Crockett. They made an offering to the Brahming kite and Spider Hunter and looked for religious meaning in what they had done. But the head as a trophy held no significance for Crockett. Instead he felt sick while his friends felt the reverse. As Crockett later recalled, “they sprung into the air, shouted, clapped, and laughed, as I was trying to let it out.” He was not crying for himself but for the person they had killed.
In times past the whole tribe would’ve celebrated the arrival of omen birds. Attended then were kites instead of a bastard form: instead of chicken flesh or goat meat: this time human flesh! Even small children participated.
They sprinkled themselves with blood to increase their strength as fighters. But now instead of blood of a chicken or a goat the blood of an enemy! And the martial rites and the offerings continued with the clanging of gongs.
The circling birds attracted unwanted attention. Adam, poor chap, went to the scene of the crime with some reluctance. It wasn’t that he dreaded what he’d find. It was that he knew that it wouldn’t be pretty, but he never expected to find that his son was involved. In his official report he wouldn’t mention Crockett, though when he arrived on the scene he saw that his only son was not only there but had blood on his hands. From this moment on, the civil servant only thought of one thing. He abandoned his principals and covered up the crime in order to save his son.
Water removed the blood, and he soon sent Crockett to Darwin to be with his mom. And he wouldn’t have gotten away with elsewhere. Had he lived in a major town, the crime would’ve required a more thorough investigation. Instead he had to think up something and put together something that satisfied almost everyone. No one wanted to admit that headhunting hadn’t been totally eradicated and because of it people were reluctant to talk. They were ashamed, and shame was a powerful thing. Ever see a grown man cry? This was one time Adam Flint cried.
As a direct result of the incident, the cat fight between two villages intensified. More blood flowed. Once the killing began, it was hard to stop. It spoke well of the British that they were able to stop the violence before it spread to other villages. The Chartered Company regained control by executing the leaders of the feud in Jesselton. With regard to head hunting, a connection between it and the feuding villages was never officially made. Then after a hearing, Adam gratefully accepted reassignment. Such gifts bunglers received when they were members of the same club. Though in this case, the motives of Adam’s superiors were unknown.
Meanwhile, in Darwin, Crockett attended a Catholic school, and it was only a matter of time before he screwed up. He was bullied as he walked through the halls, and it was only a matter of time before he exploded. That was when the redhead English boy learned what it meant to be a foreigner. Crockett discovered that his English, British English, wasn’t good enough. No longer a rajah, he paid a price for being different. Not only did his peers pick on him, but also sadly his teachers allowed it.
It was difficult and damn well shitty. And his mother couldn’t control him, so it was only a matter of time before he ran away. Perhaps he was listening to the refrain in his head. Or perhaps he simply wanted to be with his father. If he’d stayed in Darwin it would’ve been only a matter of time before he shot someone.
After the war, having to totally rebuild a mutilated land, people’s attitudes changed. There was a widespread distaste for traditional, old fashion Asian ideas, while the Colonial Administration didn’t radically alter the Chartered Company’s legacy. Then as the rebuilding continued into the 1950′s, Crocket moved into exporting (now illegally) everything from breakfast grains to trucks…shoes, refrigerators, furniture, tractors, cars, bicycles, etc. As far as he was concerned, he owned the territory and it came with the arrangements he made. In fact, he was a gentleman among smugglers and a lifeline to the whole Sulu archipelago, with some of his goods attracting customers in Manila.
By the late 50’s Crockett had slipped back into Malaysia but hadn’t bothered to look up his dad. No. But remember the trouble he’d been in. He changed his name. And hoped people wouldn’t remember him. And somehow he managed to curry favor with the politicians in charge and who were determined to make a new nation work.
The Tausug, and not the Gypsies, still lived in bamboo houses reached by a maze of shaky walkways built over the sea. Crockett descended on these people with his small army of boats. He was determined to raise their standard of living and make a profit from it. With pox Americana, the Tausug, by and large, had accepted American rule, but with Philippine independence that was about to change?
America introduced paper money proving how ready people of Sulu were for Crockett and his bargains. With a variety of goods to sale he always departed a richer man than when he came, and his ability to move around safely proved that he had the right connections. He started with one boat filled with chintz, chinaware, tea, drugs, and many other things; next a bigger boat and then many boats; and finally he established a monopoly. The poor chap made a lot of money from selling petrol, blue jeans and t-shirts, Guinness Stout and cheap parangs and upped ante when he added Cornflakes, Tide, and Coca-Cola and before long was living the life of a white Rajah. From the money he made he constructed a house made of white coral, and with hardwood floors and imported furniture, the house would’ve impressed the real White Rajah.
And as for his father, poor Mr. Flint, he was still on Borneo somewhere, but God knows where. It was a difficult situation for him because he lost his job when Malaysia gained its independence. If there had been some definite news from him … Crockett would’ve felt responsible … and would’ve surely taken him in. You could be sure of it. It was the least he could do. Though a bit improbable, or impossible for them both. Perhaps. You were saying? If he were still alive ….