This morning Lwin killed an owl with his slingshot and ate it.
He didn’t bother plucking or gutting the bird. He threw it on the coals with its beak, talons, feathers, and large golden eyes, whole, flipped it once with a stick, then consumed it. He offered to share it with me. I told him that I was full after eating my mildewed energy bar, which he didn’t understand. Lwin does not speak English. I don’t speak Burmese.
Alessia speaks a little Burmese and can communicate with Lwin, after a fashion, but she was in her tent shivering with malaria and missed the owl-over-easy meal.
Lucky for her.
Ethan took off two hours ago, at dawn, for the nearest village to find a doctor, which is a three-hour trek through the rainforest, the jungle, or as I call it, the tangle.
We trudged through the village yesterday. It wasn’t much of a village. Seven stilted bamboo huts. Beneath the huts were a couple emaciated dogs, a pig, and six bedraggled chickens, which Lwin eyed hungrily from atop his elephant, Nagathan, who has to be the nastiest elephant that ever walked the earth. The people inside the huts did not venture outside to greet us, or ask who we were, where we were going, or why we were going, like every other villager in every village we’ve walked through the past seven days, or maybe it’s been eight days. I’ve kind of lost track of time, with every day being as miserable as the previous day. My point is, there will not be a doctor at the village. There isn’t a doctor within two hundred miles of here.
I don’t think Ethan took the long trek back to the village to find a doctor. I think he went there because he is almost incapable of staying still. He’s like a shark. If he doesn’t move, he will drown.
Alessia will live. Her fever broke an hour after Ethan left to fetch the phantom doctor. I spent the night by her side listening to her wild hallucinations in a combination of French and English, which I won’t share here, or anywhere for as long as I live. I liked her a lot before the malaria attack. I like her even more after having listened to her unleashed ravings. Alessia has a wild side that I don’t think she is even aware of. I thought I was going to lose her for a while. Those were the worst moments of my life. I’m not sure that I’m in love, but when I’m with her, I feel anchored. When I’m away from her, I feel adrift. I guess I am in love with her. And I think that she feels the same way about me.
This is the first time I’ve had a chance to write in this journal since I arrived in Burma. The two Peas, Patrice and Paula, my twin half sisters, nine years old, gave this journal to me at the airport in New York. I didn’t tell them that I already had a journal in my backpack. The one I had picked had swollen to the size of a dictionary in the saturated air. The journal the Peas picked has waterproof pages, which is perfect for the humid jungle.
Mom’s last words when I got out of the car at the airport were “At least there are no alpine peaks in Burma.”
I didn’t think there were either. It turns out we were both wrong.
Lwin just said something to me, which I couldn’t understand, then disappeared into the green tangle to either relieve himself or kill a little animal with his deadly slingshot. We’ve been with him for over a week. In that time, I’ve never seen him miss. When the rubber goes back, something dies. He carries his projectiles (steel ball bearings, I think) in a little pouch strapped around his longyi, which is a brightly colored tube of cotton cloth. Lwin’s longyi is especially garish. Red with bright yellow snakelike squiggles on it. Most all Burmese wear these skirts, knotting the longyis around their waists. Longyis are practical attire in the jungle. They are light and cool and take up virtually no space in a bag or a pack. They can be washed in a stream and dried in the sun within a few minutes. Well, not totally dried. Nothing really dries out here.
Ethan started wearing a longyi as soon as we left Yangon on the train. Alessia donned a longyi three days out, and looks a lot better in one than Ethan does. I’m still wearing my nylon pants and T-shirts in the ridiculous belief that they will protect me from biting insects. My entire body is one big bite. Many of the bites are infected and have turned into weeping sores, which will no doubt leave lifelong scars. Both Ethan and Alessia have begged me to switch to a longyi. They have as many bug bites as I do, maybe more, but their logic is that they are cooler while being slowly eaten to death. “Peak, give yourself over to the little Asia skirt. You will be happier,” Alessia said in her sweet French accent. So far I have stuck to my T’s and pantalons. (I’ve been taking French at school for a year.) I would rather itch in pants than itch in a skirt.
A minute ago, a glob of stinking black ooze hit my chin and neck. Some of it got into my mouth. I spat it out, cursing Lwin’s elephant, Nagathan, who is always flipping crap at us with his gigantic and agile trunk. He’s as good with his trunk as Lwin is with his slingshot. I used to love elephants until I met the murderous Nagathan.
Elephants are Burma’s four-legged loggers. They are trained almost from birth to harvest trees from Burma’s vast teak forests. Teak is one of the country’s most valuable exports, along with rubies—?and opium. A timber elephant lives its long life deep in the forest with its human handler, or oozie. All of this was explained to me by Ethan, who seems to know everything there is to know about Burma, except for the language and where we are. I forgot to mention that we have been lost for several days.
Back to Nagathan . . .
He’s what’s known as an iron bell. A dangerous elephant.
When it becomes too hot to work in the timber camps, the oozies set their elephants free in the forest to forage for the night. The following morning, the oozies wake up at dawn, eat a simple breakfast of rice and green tea, then wander into the forest to find their elephants. The oozies find their elephants by listening for their elephants’ bells. The oozies make the bells out of teak. Each one has a different tone, and the oozie knows what his elephant’s bell sounds like.
Nagathan wears an iron bell around his thick neck, which sets him apart from the other timber elephants. The sound of the iron bell is a warning that a potentially aggressive elephant is in the area. According to Lwin, via Alessia, Nagathan has killed three people; two of them were oozies. The third victim was a young woman who had wandered out of the elephant camp into the forest early one morning and ran across the foraging Nagathan.
Lwin claims that the military was going to execute Nagathan, which Alessia did not believe. She didn’t challenge him on his story, but she told me later that she knew of timber elephants who had killed a half dozen people and were still working in the forest. “Timber elephants are worth much more than the drivers on their backs,” she said. The government owns most of the timber elephants. Lwin said he talked the military into giving Nagathan to him under the condition he take Nagathan upcountry where he could no longer harm the teak workers. Ethan thinks that Lwin got sick of working hard in the forest for ten dollars a month and decided to go into business for himself by turning his logging truck into a transport truck.
Nagathan threw a second trunkful of rot at me just now—?it missed. The stinking glob hit the tree to my right. He might be thirsty. Or maybe he’s bored. Lwin has him cross tied between two giant trees. There’s a stout rope around his right front ankle and another around his left rear ankle. At first I thought Lwin did this because he didn’t want to take the time to find him every morning when we broke camp. But Ethan thinks Lwin ties him up so he doesn’t kill us in our tents while we’re sleeping.
Nagathan appears to have fallen head over heels, or trunk over tail, for Alessia. Can’t say I blame him. Everyone does. Nagathan never throws muck at her. Aside from Lwin, Alessia is the only person Nagathan allows on his back. Ethan and I have to walk, and keep our distance so he doesn’t try to whack us. I think Lwin has a huge crush on Alessia as well. Before she came down with her fever, he stayed within whispering distance of her every step we took through the jungle. We keep a close eye on him, making sure he’s never alone with her. We’d like to ditch him, but then we’d be stuck with three hundred pounds of gear and no way to haul it. For now we’re stuck with his leering at Alessia and his mumbling to himself when he thinks we can’t hear him.
The past couple of days, Alessia has been on elephant back, but yesterday she became too weak to even ride, which is why we had to stop in this little patch of paradise. After we got her into her tent, Lwin wanted to crawl inside to take care of her. Fat chance of that happening. When we told him, he threw a hissy fit about it. We don’t know what he said, but as a precaution, I put my tent two inches from hers just in case he tried to slither in at night.
Great. Nagathan tossed yet another clot of stink at me. It missed, but not by much. I think he’s trying to get me to move just for the fun of it. I’m not giving in. I’m sitting in the coolest spot in camp. I’m sweating. My clothes look like I took a shower in them. If I move I might melt.
Lwin walked back into camp with a bucket of water in his right hand and a large dead snake draped over his left shoulder. Lwin was smiling. He dumped the snake on the smoking fire, which was too small to accommodate it. I’d say about one fifth of the snake was cooking. Lwin nudged a little more of the body onto the hot embers with his sandaled foot, then walked over to Nagathan and held the bucket up for him to drink from.
This is how he always waters Nagathan. I’m not sure if he does this because he’s afraid Nagathan will smash his only bucket, or if he’s reminding Nagathan of who’s in charge.
The cooking snake started to squirm and sizzle on the coals as if it was still alive. Lwin walked over to the fire and prodded it with his panga—?a short knife he carries on the rope around his longyi opposite his slingshot and elephant hook. He gave me a big orange-toothed grin. It seems everyone in the tangle chews betel nut—?men, women, even children. Betel nuts come from the areca palm. The nut is wrapped in a leaf smeared with lime to cause salivation. Ethan, Alessia, and I tried it. It made us dizzy and a little sick to our stomachs. Another downside to the mild narcotic? It turns your teeth permanently orange after long-term use.
Lwin pointed at the snake and made an eating motion with his hand. He was either still hungry after eating the owl, or he had killed the snake and grilled it for me, thinking that I preferred snake flesh over owl flesh.
I did not want to eat a snake for breakfast. Or at any other meal. Ethan would have eaten the snake. He probably would have taken a bite of the owl too. Ethan’s two best skills are adaptability and optimism. Alessia would not have eaten the owl or the snake, but she would have refused in such a charming way that Lwin would remember later that she had consumed both animals whole.
Lwin pointed at my pocket. I glanced down, and to my disappointment, saw that I’d left my spoon there from last night’s dinner. I wondered if this was why he had slaughtered the owl and the snake. If you have a spoon in your shirt pocket, you must be hungry. Right? Ethan carries a special spoon in his pocket too.
The scaly skin burst when I touched it with my spoon. I hoped the steamy white meat under the skin would taste like chicken. It did not. I wasn’t sure what it tasted like, but I wish I hadn’t put it in my mouth.
A couple of nights ago, Ethan needed medical assistance. He’d gotten an insect bite on his calf that had gone septic and was very painful. He asked me to lance it to relieve the pressure. I sterilized my knife and put the tip of the blade to the sore. It burst open, just like the snake, and a white grub came wiggling out. I should not have put the white snake flesh in my mouth. I should not have thought about Ethan’s grub while I was trying to choke down the bite of snake. It was launched out of my mouth by the energy bar I had swallowed earlier instead of the owl.
After I finished retching, I looked up at Lwin and Nagathan. They were both staring at me like they had never seen a human puke before.
Alessia called out from her tent.
“Hkakabo Razi! Hkakabo Razi!”