Up and through the dense, green jungle the couple ran leaving the village far behind them. The path narrowed and the tall trees grew tighter together so that the light from the strong afternoon sun struggled to shine through. The young man gripped her hand and pulled her on. He wore nothing but a long string of reed around his waist and the muscles in his back showed powerful. When he looked back at her, she felt her heart jump.
She had always felt this way about him. Always and every time she saw him. She felt it if she chanced upon him outside the man’s house or paddling his canoe on the river or chatting with the other boys-soon-to-be-men or dancing around the fire. Now, she was running behind him, far from the village and up to the edge of their lands where the old men said never to go.
They were going to be alone.
The path narrowed still further as the way got steeper and steeper, he fought his way through the hanging vines and into the tangle of roots and plants. She pulled back on his arm as she noticed something big in front of them. It was a very large round stone ball covered with vines and plants that towered up into the top of the jungle canopy.
“We should go back,” she said, worried, “the radio stone, it means we should not pass, it’s the edge of our lands.” He smiled back at her, his teeth were brilliantly white and perfect with his brown eyes narrowing and playful.
“They’re just stories to frighten children, I’ve been up here a thousand times. You’ll be safe with me.” She felt her heart pumping as he pulled her upwards into the darkness of the jungle past the huge stone ball. Into the undergrowth they went, with the young man struggling through the vines and hanging plants once more. In a few more strides they were through, and into a wide, open clearing in the jungle where the sun streamed through the trees. He stood and looked back at her breathlessly, his mouth in a wide smile. Suddenly, she was on him, kissing his lips and feeling his strong arms around her as they fell against the rough bark of a tree. She caught sight of something behind him out of the corner of her eye and froze.
There was something else there.
Through the jungle it moved, slippery and shiny, like water flowing with sunshine glittering from its body. A lizard like she had never seen before, twice as tall as a man and many times longer, and so fast. She did not have time to warn him and the young man did not even have time to know. Dirty, silver jaws ripped into them.
A scream rang out into the mountains.
Lies and truth
“It is murder,” said Tepke. His face was covered with sweat and his eyes wide and shining in the firelight with his bare chest strong under a wide frizzy afro, “but it is not the work of a bad husband or an angry brother or the Dewel people from down the river…. it is a shining giant, I tell you…”
Ol Man Wali sat cross-legged on the raised floor of the man’s house. He wore a tatty string shawl across his boney shoulders and a dog’s teeth necklace around his wizened neck. He was nearly toothless and frail with age, but his heart and spirit were as fierce as any red-blooded river man. He surveyed the faces sat around him in the flickering firelight. Outside, the river people hid in the darkness of their long huts with the stars above, frightened.
“I told many times of this. I told all of you many times. Do not pass the radio line. Never pass the stone. Now, these foolish children pass the stone and they die and everyone in the village shouts murder. It is not murder. The rule is clear. Do not go pass the stone.” Opposite him, Tepke, with his bald head and dark beard spoke loudly.
“When two of our own are killed, then it is murder. I do not care about these stones. Tomorrow, we will take all of our finest men and kill that which takes our own.” There was agreement in the faces of the others around the fire.
“Then you will die,” said Ol Man Wali, “All of you. Our ancestors, the tumbuna, who we look to for our lives and who live on in the stars above us, they gave us the land and the earth and they laid those stones there to protect us from the shining giants. If we choose to go outside of our lands, then we risk facing them. A hundred men could not defeat one, not even a hundred hundred.”
“Then what do you say we do, old man? Sit here and let whatever it was behind that stone, let it go free for killing two of our own?” Snarled Tepke.
“If need be… yes,” answered Ol Man Wali, “they broke the rules. This is the price.”
“I say no,” yapped Tepke, “I will not take this. I will not let the best of us die because you did not have the backbone to fight. A beast like that could just walk into this village and kill any one of us.”
“But it would not. It would never pass the radio stone. It could not.”
“What if it had,” said Tepke “what if we move the bodies?”
“What are you saying Tepke? That we break the laws of our ancestors? Those stones are there to protect us, to protect us from whatever is on the other side.”
“And I say we have to use the brains that our ancestors gave us. By the cool wind, Wali, you are the oldest of all of us and you have never seen one of these beasts or even heard of anyone else seeing them… how do we even know what they look like? How do we even know that they won’t pass the stone? What will stop them? Nothing stops us from crossing?”
“We have to follow the laws of the tumbuna, no one crosses the stones, not even to look at the bodies. They are gone and we must rub away their memory from our brains, they broke our laws.”
“I will not do as you ask, old man,” said Tepke, “and I believe the men of this village will follow me. We will go up into the mountains and drag the bodies past the line. We will swear an oath to our ancestors that we found them there and something crossed over and killed them. We will swear it and then it will be true.”
“You will pay for lies, Tepke. Then what will you do?”
“I will do what the ancestors told us to do if anything should cross past the stones… I will send word down the river, all the way to the sea. I will ask for a hunter and he will come… and we will have vengeance.”
“I hope I am dead before that day comes.”
“I hope so too,” answered Tepke.
In the early morning, as the sun broke over the huge banana leaves and the jungle lay quiet with mist clinging to the side of the mountain, warriors from the village made their way to the stone. They left their thin hunting dogs and their spears at home and picked through slippery mud upwards. They crossed fast flowing streams on makeshift bamboo bridges and climbed upwards till the air got thinner and a little colder.
At the great round radio stone, Tepke felt his heart beating in his chest. He nodded to the others and then, disappeared behind it into the undergrowth. It did not take him too long to find their bodies, they already stank in the growing heat. He dragged the dead girl through the undergrowth and past the round rock, she had slashes and cuts across her arms and legs and puncture wounds in her chest. It was difficult for the warriors to see. The young man was much worse. Sick to his stomach, Tepke cast around the clearing that he knew he should not be in, he ran his eyes over the leaves and undergrowth but he could not find the boy’s head. They carried the corpses to the other side of the stone and laid them together.
It was beginning to get hot and Tepke felt sick. He stood looking at the dead bodies on the floor and they were already beginning to swell in the heat. He tried to see the young man moving as he had done so many times when he had been alive, the three-lined tattoo running up his forearm, his brown eyes and cheeky smile.
They washed the blood off in the stream and some of the weaker ones threw up. Tepke was glassy eyed and cold as he scooped the water over his face and into his mouth so that it ran down his long beard. His stomach growled.
It was done.
Down in the village, a dug-out canoe set off, paddling down-stream to the east. The hunters would travel for three days or more till they came to the next village, they would leave a message about what had happened and then, they would make the longer journey back upstream. Another long canoe would set out from that village, downstream to the next village or hut or whatever else was downriver. They would give the message that something had crossed the radio line. From village to village all the way along the river the message would travel and word would reach someone who could help.
A hunter. Our hunter. The Painted Dog.
Weeks passed and there was no more talk of the stone and the radio line and of the creature that lived beyond it. There was no more talk of the murders either. Village life went back to how it had been. The old women went off into the jungle to collect fruit from their gardens and the men went down the river to fish or into the dark undergrowth to hunt. Children played in trees, the men in the man’s house argued and the women in the blood house nattered. All was the same, and in the evenings, the rains came and washed the earth and the jungle clean.
In the morning of a dull day, a single canoe made its way up the wide, muddy river to the village. Word had travelled quickly down the villages of the Fly River, quickly, all the way to the city and sure enough, like a fish catching a piece of bait on a string line, the hunter had come.
A long time before the canoe reached the village there was already news that he was on his way. Little children had paddled out in their own battered boats to see him and who he was with, to find out how strong he was and if he had sharp teeth and claws. The hunter sat at the front end of a long canoe. He was covered, over his head, by a reed blanket to protect him from the sun. He did not move at all and the children could not see his face. A lone tribesman from the next village paddled the canoe at the back. He looked worried. The little ones did not get too close to this hunter. He scared them already though they had not even seen his eyes.
At the muddy bank by the village, the canoe stopped and the villager jumped out and splashed into the mud so he could pull the long dug-out up on the slippery shore of the river. He looked grey and afraid. Who in the world knew who he was carrying? He looked back over his shoulder at the stranger he had travelled with in his canoe for nearly four days.
Painted Dog wore the blanket over his head and it covered his body. He got up from the canoe and stepped into the water carefully. A mottled coloured dog with big pointed ears clambered after him and stopped at the water. The young man said something to it and it did not move. He stood there for a moment as if talking to it before he picked it up and carried the thin beast onto the mud. They both walked up the small hill to the village where Ol Man Wali, Tepke and other warriors were standing. They watched him trudge up the bank with the dog beside him. When he got close enough, he pulled his blanket off his head and smiled.
“I am Painted Dog,” he said, “and this is UkanDooAh.”
He was not even a fully-grown man, more like seventeen and thin. His smile was wide and fresh but his skin did not look right. Painted Dog slowly took off his blanket to show himself to the villagers. He was a man, the same as any of them, this was for sure, but he had horrible scars. Three broken lines dragged across his chest and one long, healed up groove across his face and over his nose, his skin was blotchy, like someone had literally splattered him with paint that had burned away his brown skin to make it pale and pink. UkanDooAh sat down next to him and looked up at the warriors in front. The dog was almost as ugly as the young boy with huge ears that stuck out the side of his head, a ragged mangy, ginger and black coat and thin legs.
“You must be tired after your journey,” said Ol Man Wali, “our home is yours…Painted Dog, will you drink palm wine in the man’s house with us?”
“It would please me,” said Painted Dog. The whole village was around, all of them, looking at this strange young man who they knew must be a hunter. They wanted to touch him, to know what he had seen and the hear him talk, to know of any great deeds he had done or hear him tell how he came about the horrible scars and burns all over his body. A young, naked boy with a snotty nose silently stared up at him and the chattering old men were silent. As much as they wanted to see him and know him, they also wanted him to stay away and to not look their way.
The warriors led the two to the man’s house and the whole village followed, awkward and silent. Little children pressed flat to their mother’s legs. Old women leered at this strange young man and his animal.
At the wooden ladder to the Man’s house, Wali stopped. The smaller and younger warriors entered first. Tepke next and then Wali. Painted Dog looked down at his animal and motioned to the ladder, it looked up at him sadly with brown eyes,
“I will not carry you, UkanDooAh,” he said, “it is shameful, I have already carried you once today.” The animal blinked its big brown eyes at him and yawned.
“Dogs are not to come in the man’s house, if you please, nor any animals of the jungle unless they are dead.” said Ol Man Wali from above, “this is the way of our tumbuna, our ancestors.”
Painted Dog nodded in complete agreement.
“UkanDooAh is not a dog,” he said. He bent down and picked up the animal and they struggled up the ladder. Once inside Painted Dog sat down and UkanDooAh next to him. Around the walls woven with reed and mud, brightly coloured pictures of faces and patterns looked out from their tree bark canvasses at Painted Dog. There were the yellow and brown eyes of spirits and ghosts and patterns from the time of the tumbuna. Here in the man’s house, these pictures would frighten away the evil and keep all of them safe. In the silence, a coconut shell with palm wine was passed around and each took a sip. Painted Dog took a slurp too and then held it out so that UkanDooAh could lap some of it up. Tepke wrinkled his nose in disgust. The animal went at it a little too long so that some of the liquid splashed on the bamboo branches that made up the floor. When Painted Dog tried to pass it on, the tribesman next to him set the coconut shell down in very slight disgust. Painted Dog smiled at the men around him.
Ol Man Wali passed around the buai. Each man took one of the round green nuts and cracked the soft shell with his teeth. The flesh inside was bitter and sharp. As they chewed, they felt their mouths fill with extra saliva and the tendrils of whatever it is in buai that makes a person feel at ease. Tepke was the first man to spit through a gap in one of the bamboo poles that made up the floor. Everyone else spat too. Painted Dog worked his fingers through his toes as he felt the buai starting on him. It felt good and he looked up and smiled again. The men of the tribe smiled back now. Wali was the first to break the silence. He spoke in a loud voice that marked him as the leader and Painted Dog noticed that the old man wore a long necklace of dog’s teeth around neck.
“We welcome you to our village Painted Dog and thank you for coming.” The young man nodded at the faces around him. UkanDooAh looked up and down at the men too. “We asked you here to help us, as our ancestors may have asked also. The borders of our lands are far up the mountain above us and there is a great radio stone laid there that we must not pass, just as the shining giants that are beyond it must not cross into our land.” At mention of the giants, Painted Dog’s face became serious and the animal next to him set its shoulders back. “Some weeks ago, two of our people were up there and, whatever is beyond, crossed over. We found their bodies. Something killed them in a terrible way. Something crossed into our lands and did this. That is why we called for help.” Ol Man Wali’s face was as grave as it was wrinkled.
“Who saw the giant?” asked Painted Dog. The faces around the man’s house looked at each other in mild confusion.
“No-one,” said Tepke, “we found their bodies.”
“How do you know it was a shining giant?”
“What else would do that to a man? They were sliced to pieces.”
“Another man?” answered Painted Dog. Tepke looked through his deep-set eyes at this young boy sitting in his man’s house. He looked at his ugly dog with its stupid ears but he let his anger simmer.
“There is no-one in this village who would do that,” he answered.
“It could have been sorcery,” came a voice from the young warriors. The mention of magic caused some of the men to speak out and Tepke had to raise his voice to restore calm.
“There are no glassmen here, if there were, then we’d remove their heads. This was not sorcery I tell you, it was something that we can fight. That’s why we asked you here, we asked for a hunter to help us, someone to go up there and kill that thing in revenge for what it did to us. Can you do that for us?”
“Yes,” answered Painted Dog, “but I need to find out what happened first. I can’t just go off and kill a shining giant without having a reason. Sadly.”
“We’ve just told you the reason,” said Tepke, “it crossed the radio line and killed two of our people.”
“How can you be so sure if nobody saw it?”
“We have explained this to you…” snapped Tepke, “can you not understand? Or perhaps you need to ask your dog?” Painted Dog looked back at this man with a beard and spoke thick and calm.
“He’s not a dog.”
“It looks like a dog to me.”
“Then you do not know how to look,” answered Painted Dog. The young man felt the air change in the man’s house. He had known that they did not approve of UkanDooAh but this was his game, now, there was a real feeling of hostility. Painted Dog adjusted the reed band around his upper left arm where a shining knife was strapped to his muscle. It was a way to tell them that it was there and he was not afraid.
“Why would they send a boy to do a man’s job?” spat Tepke.
“You are the ones who asked me to come. I can leave if you wish. The only profit for UkanDooAh and I is to see another giant die. It is very rare that they cross the stone fences, if they do, then they have gone quite mad.”
“How so?” asked Wali
“It might mean they are broken or dying. Any giant knows full well that if they cross the lines laid out on the borders and they get caught, they will die.”
“Who will kill them?”
“We will. UkanDooAh and I.”
“Ha!” spat Tepke. This was his house. These were his brothers and his tribe. Who was this boy?
“I do not want to fight with you, friend,” said Painted Dog, “but if you wish me to prove myself then I am happy to do so.” Tepke grinned and showed his rotten teeth.
“What did you have in mind?”
“A contest between you and I.”
“If we have to, but first, a test...of speed and strength.”
“You’re tiny,” said Tepke, “even a sago palm branch would crush you.”
“Then you agree?”
“Yes,” he snarled, “you’re no hunter. What sort of man calls himself a dog?”
“Not here then, outside, I think the whole village should watch.”
There was no need at all to assemble the great and good of the village for everyone was already outside the man’s house waiting to see what they had discussed. The crowd of a hundred or so people parted as Tepke clambered down the ladder to the ground. He strode out into the centre of the village with his beard long and black and his chest proud. He wore nothing but a flap of tree kangaroo skin over his groin and his chest was strong with wiry black hairs. Painted Dog clambered down the steps behind him with UkanDooAh under his right arm.
“You see what they have sent,” called Tepke to the gathered audience, “a child to do a man’s job.” Painted Dog set UkanDooAh on the dusty ground and approached his opponent. He felt the men from the village pour from the house above him and circle them, so that the whole village was watching and jostling for position to get a better view. Ol Man Wali gave a throated command in a loud voice. The village settled and gently, sat down, cross-legged onto the dusty floor. Now seated, Painted Dog could see the faces much more clearly, the toothless old woman smiling at him, the toddler with snot from his nose, the brown eyed girl with square and smooth shoulders.
The show began. Painted Dog reached to the reed strap on the muscle of his right arm and drew the knife from its sheath. He heard gasps from some of the villages as he turned the blade in the sun and the light caught the polished steel. Tepke swallowed in fear.
“This is a knife,” said Painted Dog, “do not be afraid of it, rather the person who uses it. It is as keen as a sharpened bone and never dulls too much, it can cut through your skin like your hand through water and is as light as bamboo. The shining giants are made from this.” Painted Dog slowly walked over to Tepke and handed him the weapon, handle first. The bearded man looked at it in the sun light and drew his finger very gently across the blade. It made him grin his rotten toothed smile as he gave it back to Painted Dog. Tepke had a glint of jealousy in his brown eyes.
“I could use that knife, friend,” he added.
“Good,” nodded Painted Dog, “it is part of our contest. I will place the knife on the floor here and we will each sit the same distance away. When Ol Man Wali claps his hands, we will both run for the knife. The one who takes the weapon first, can keep it.” Painted Dog sat down on the floor with the knife on the ground between himself and Tepke. A nasty smile crept across Tepke’s face as he heard the young man explain the rules. He nodded.
“They can keep the knife forever, it is theirs?” asked Tepke.
“Yes,” said Painted Dog as he sat, cross-legged. “UkanDooAh,” he called to the animal, “you shall not be involved in this. Whatever happens between us you shall stay there and watch.” The dog blinked its brown eyes and yawned in the heat of the afternoon. Around the men, the village watched enthralled. Ol Man Wali placed himself in the middle of them, in front of the knife, as Tepke sat down also and got himself ready.
The village fell into silence and all that could be heard was the cha-cha of the insects in the tall grass and the jungle behind them. Ol Man Wali felt his heart beating. He raised his hands as if to clap.
Painted Dog broke the silence.
“Let us be clear of the rules,” he said loudly, “Let us be clear of the rules so that everyone here knows them.”
“Go on,” said Tepke sat some way away, opposite him.
“The first one to grab the knife becomes its owner forever, and they can do whatever they wish with it.”
“Yes,” said Tepke, “we said that already.”
Painted Dog nodded. His eyes twinkled. Again, the village fell into painful silence. Children held their breath and the cha-cha of the insects seemed to grow louder as Ol Man Wali held up his hands to clap again. The tension throbbed.
Painted Dog broke the silence.
“Should we practice first?” he asked.
“No,” boomed Tepke’s voice across the dusty centre of the village, “we will start now! Whatever happens,” commanded the bearded man, “when Ol Man Wali claps his hands, we both run for the knife. The one who gets it first keeps it. No more interruptions!”
Painted Dog nodded and allowed himself a smile. UkanDooAh had set himself down and rested his ugly head on his paws with his big ears up, watching and listening as he always did.
Once again, the village drew breath and the silence fell upon the faces and eyes of the villagers like a carpet of mist on then canopy of the mountains. Ol Man Wali raised his wrinkled hands. He paused for effect and then.
Before Tepke could move his legs, Painted Dog had already sprung forward onto his feet. He moved as gently and as a swiftly as the evening breeze that escaped from the mountains, fluid and fast, he made the few steps to the knife on the floor and stooped to pick it up by the handle. In another few steps, he was at the bearded man and the blade of the knife rested gently on his opponent’s throat. Tepke had not even had time get up from the floor. He looked up at Painted Dog’s wide face smiling down on him. The village behind did not still draw breath. Painted Dog stepped back,
“I think I was a little bit closer to the knife than you, friend,” he said, “should we try again?”
Tepke swallowed. He felt the line on his throat where the blade had been and anger bubbled in his chest.
“You were too close,” he snapped, “it was not fair.”
“Yes,” nodded Painted Dog, “I should make sure that I am further away this time.” Now, the young man set the knife back in position and stepped further away, this time he sat down at the end of the crowd. He smiled. “I’m ready.”
The village drew down in silence once more and Ol Man Wali lifted his wrinkled arms.
With his chest pounding and his heart banging, Tepke struggled to his feet, he did not have chance to see, but Painted Dog opposite, had already jumped forward, got to his thin feet, run, this time more steps to the blade, and deftly picked it up. Tepke had barely got to his knees when he felt the knife on his throat once more, the keen steel left a line of blood along his neck when Painted Dog took it away.
“I’m sorry, friend,” said the young man, “I was moving so fast that I was nearly not able to stop. I nearly slit your soft throat right open. This knife would have spilled your blood out onto the dusty ground here.” Painted Dog looked wide eyed as he spoke. “UkanDooAh would have lapped it up.” Tepke put his hand to his throat as Painted Dog spoke the words. He swallowed and felt fear crawl up his chest. This man was indeed a hunter and a bigger beast than he had seen before. He was being made to look a fool.
“I think, again, that I was closer to the knife than you, friend,” said Painted Dog, “I think we should try again, don’t you? This time, I will make sure that I sit the same distance away.” Painted Dog set the knife down and began to make his way much further away, he moved into the crowd and, at once, the villagers moved out of his way. “UkanDooAh,” he shouted to his animal, “I tell you again that any blood spilled is not for you. This is a game only.” The young man sat down, much further away from the knife than Tepke. It was a fine show.
“Are you ready friend,” he called, “I hope I can stop in time!”
Silence fell on the village once more. The children drew in their breath and their heartbeats slowed. Even the insects from the jungle behind them began their cha-cha with a more sinister and darker rhythm. Ol Man Wali lifted his shivering hands above his lap, and time all but stood still, hung there between what might happened and what would not.
Tepke broke the silence.
“I do not like this game,” he said, standing up and brushing the dust off his legs, “and I do not want a knife such as that, what do I care for a thing that is made from a shining giants skin? I hate them. I have a bone knife made from a cassowary leg.” He turned to face Painted Dog with his hands open, “the knife belongs to you, friend.”
Painted Dog nodded.
“UkanDooAh will be upset,” he sighed.