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Her Father's Head, A Bornean Nightmare by Alexander Montgomery


"PASA ANTU!" "A spirit hath passed!" and Malita's agate beads rattled to her trembling, as something swift and silent brushed past her little brass--burdened ear. Again it came, a wavering shadow in the moonlight, and now Malita laughed: it was only a big brown goatsucker, after all!

The laugh was low, a mere ripple on the smooth of midnight silence, but Tambat, awake and star-gazing, heard it. Neither poet nor philosopher was Tambat; he was an older institution than either--the quidnunc; and, peeping from the window in his nipa-thatch, he saw the dark form gliding from hut-shadow to hut-shadow.

A woman!--young, alone, and making stealthily for the pangarang. Tambat's portentous mouth expanded in a grin that halved his pock-pitted face. Here was the making of a pretty scandal! In the pangarang--the "head-house"--slept the bachelors of Surah: in part to guard that sacred citadel; in part to keep them out of amorous mischief. And here was mischief going to them!--slim young mischief in bedang and bracelets, with shining beads about its graceful neck, and long hair streaming to its slender waist.

Out of his eager way exultant Tambat kicked his slumbering wife, and soon across the moon-strips a second shadow glided after the first. At equal pace, with equal silence, went they, till close before the girl--a black triangle on the moonlit sky--the pangarang reared up its pointed roof.

Into the head-house loft, through many a lifted roof-trap, the moonlight and the night-breeze came together, and made between them a grotesquer horror than ever porksupped artist dreamed of. Around the circle of the roof, in close and curving rows, the grisly trophies hung; dim blots of greater darkness in the shadow, but starting out, in patches where the white light fell, into hideous caricature of humanity, with huge blank orbits where were one time eyes, and shark-mouths grinning to the moon in ghastly travesty of laughter. Among them heads not yet too stale to load the air with fulsome carrion smell; with others, dry and hollow, fantastically nodding to the breeze that frisked where once the brains had worked.

Into this monstrous death-scene came suddenly a warm young life. Malita dropped lightly from the roof, and looked around with staring eyes of fear. The smell was nothing to her jaunty little Dyak nose; the heads her long-lashed Dyak eye regarded no more than so many cocoanuts. Collectively, that is; for there was one particular brain-case she had come to seek--her father's, lopped a month before to "open the mourning" for a Surah chief. A score of miles, alone and quaking, had she paddled up the antu-haunted Dubur, and it was the head-house antu now she dreaded, as thus, in the second morning hour, she stood panting, with the grinning dead above her and the murderous enemies of her tribe asleep below.

Not all asleep! Boki's evening meal of rotten eggs and stinking blue-fish had been over-ample. He floundered, snorted, and awoke--awoke to hear upon the floor above a sound too slight for any but a savage ear. Again it came--a faint concussion on the hard bamboo, and up rose Boki, spear in hand, and noiseless as a cat. It might be an antu, he thought, or, worse still, a buau! But then, again, it might be the Sibis, or the Batsas--stolen in upon them to requite a hundred cruel slaughters of the past. Not as an old woman was Boki going to be jeered at! For himself would he see who was above--or what! So Boki laid down spear, took parang in teeth, and had climbed a dozen notches of the ladder-post, when--clump!--came something on his ugly skull, and down went Boki like a stone!

Malita, climbing like a monkey from cross-piece to cross-piece, had found, ere long, her father's head. In one of the moonlit patches she came on it--half baked, half putrid--but recognizable still; and breathless Malita, incautious in her gladness, dropped hardly feather-like enough upon the floor again with her prize. Into the darkest corner, with the noiseless swiftness of the savage, she sprang, and, cowering, listened. Had they heard? No sound came from below, but that proved nothing, and intently from her corner she watched the black ladder-opening upon the moonlit floor.

Ay, there it came!--a head! "The body must never follow!" thought Malita, as up she sprang, and, with a wild swing of the cord rove through the paternal temples, brought down the dead skull on the living one with a crash that scared the flying-foxes squeaking from the eaves and brought to their feet in an instant the sharp-eared slumberers below. Wondering much, they poked and pushed the flaccid and oblivious Boki, and, wondering more, they heard descend upon the floor above a pounding shower of heads. "The antu!" whispered they, and, trembling, turned their eyes away from the trap, down which a couple of the ghastly things had rolled. But then the voice of Tambat, shrieking wildly from above, dissolved the spell.

"Come up!--come up hither, ye men of Surah! Ye are robbed!--robbed, I tell ye!--and by a woman!--sleepy-headed sons of bats that ye are! Come up!--come up!"

They went up, and Tambat told them how he had followed to the head--house a woman of the Sibis, and how he had climbed in at a roof-window after her; how, missing his hold, he had caught at and broken one of the head-lines; and how, as he picked himself up from amongst the fallen heads, he saw the woman vanish through the roof again.

"A head had she in her hand," he said, in conclusion. "Therefore, say I, ye are robbed, and heavily will ye have to answer it to the Orang!"

Whereat the playful Tambat chuckled--but not for long. Boki, with many a grunt and growl, had picked up his wits again, and no sooner had he grasped the situation than, with a single word, he brought the injudicious Tambat's mirth to an abrupt conclusion. "Darkness!" was the word--a Dyak equivalent, as Boki used it, for "Dead men tell no tales!" The rest agreed. What skull-and-woman story was this with which to insult the intelligence of the bachelors of Surah? And if, as Tambat said, there was a head missing, his own would just suit its place. It would be nicely baked by the time of next official counting, and no one would be the wiser!

Tambat implored, the head-watchers laughed; he cursed them, they knocked him down with a kris-hilt; he shrieked, they gagged him with a chawat, lugged him out into the jungle, and waited for the sun to rise. With the first red rays they took the chawat off, gave him a valedictory chew of betel, calmly docked him of his head, buried it for the time in a cane-patch, and pitched the carcass to the ever-ready crocodiles.

Came round, in time, the "counting of the heads," and Molat, the Orang--Kaya, found the tally right. Quoth he:--

"Not for any other three would I lose this head of Dipuk's. He was a great man of the Sibis--on whose tribe be curses! Fresh is it, also, to a wonder. Hardly seemeth it the head of more than a moon and a half!" Which observation--seeing the head in question had been exactly six weeks parted from the unlucky Tambat's shoulders--betokened upon Molat's part a thorough acquaintance with the subject. But Dipuk's head, with Argus feathers decked, hung high in Malita's house until she took a husband. He threw it to the pigs!


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