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Ujung Kulon - from the Palm Grove


The Palm Grove

Villiers sat up and stretched. His head was still pounding and movement only seemed to make it worse. But he was damned if he was going to sit in this god-forsaken hut all day. He stood up and walked to the door. It was pouring. In several places the rain dripped through the thatch onto the verandah. He hated this kind of weather; dull, cold, wet. He glanced out to sea. It was a murky grey, as if the journey across the great waters of the Indian Ocean had somehow drained it of its colour. To hell with it, he thought, putting on his raincloak and hat, it’s better to keep warm walking than stay cooped up in here all day.

This forlorn, rather lonely stretch of coast had become quite familiar over the last few days. Already he was starting to recognise each individual tree and the characteristics of the surrounding terrain. Clumps of giant pandanus grew everywhere; their long leg-like aerial roots and strange forked branches, topped with spiky growth, reminding him of some fanciful alien invasion. Occasionally he would come across one in fruit - the enormous orange seed-segments dangling in the wind. Others, from last season, had fallen to the sand, their powerful new shoots bursting from the scattered seeds.

He wandered somewhat aimlessly over the dunes, testing his eyesight as he went. Looking continually through just one eye was already starting to make him feel dizzy and several times he had to move quickly to avoid losing his balance.

He turned inland to avoid the full force of the wind, walking over the sand-hills until he came to the scrubby coastal pasture. The stunted brushwood offered little protection from the driving rain and he found himself meandering in and out of the forest margin, from time to time stopping to shelter under a palm. On one such occasion, a kanchil, a type of mouse deer, trotted nonchalantly along the track, oblivious of his presence, and began browsing on some windfall fruit. Very slowly, very quietly, he crouched down, camouflaged behind the foliage. Even from this height, he towered over the kanchil. No bigger than a hare, it moved from fruit to fruit, feeding hungrily. It was such a tiny creature, like an animal in miniature, that the entire rainforest seemed to have shrunk, reduced as he gazed to a world of wonder. The thin white stripes on its neck and front-quarters broke up the fawn outline, glancing across its body like the shafts of light through the forest canopy. Its large glassy eye caught his attention; soft, doe-like, fragile. Then suddenly it was gone, dashing off through the undergrowth.

To his left, a thicket of climbing rattans rustled and swayed, their hooked cirri waving mockingly in the wind. For the first time he found himself allowing what had happened, the full impact of yesterday’s events, to sprout into consciousness, growing under closer scrutiny like a field of time-lapse mushrooms.

He had lost an eye. He had nearly lost his life. Were it not for Jamad he probably would have. And Mitchell ... Mitchell had been there. He was now convinced that Mitchell had been photographing him while he’d struggled helpless, enmeshed in the thorn thicket, and again later, at the precise moment when the tendril had slashed his eye. He was sure he wasn’t imagining it. The more he thought about it the more certain he became. Like some voyeur calmly watching a death, detached, aloof, Mitchell had snapped him as he’d lain there, no more involved than as if he’d been observing one animal devour another. It seemed the cameraman’s obsessions had now reached a nadir, a new depth of scopophilic perversion, untainted by any hint of conscience, a moral and spiritual bankruptcy so complete that mere depravity seemed a positive virtue, beyond which lay only evil, absolute and irredeemable. Yet the overriding thought that dwelt in his mind was not Mitchell’s dark motives, not even the loss of his eye, but the persistent realisation that he was lucky to be alive, and accompanying that, as if in tandem, how precious life itself was. That thought alone, it seemed, was capable of miracles.

All around him the palms glowed in a new light, luxuriant and resurgent, dripping with vitality. He felt he was discovering a strange new land, some inner world which time forgot, lush and fertile, enriched by age, exploring its tropical landscape like an eccentric pioneer fumbling his way forward. Half-blind, he would stumble on. He realised that it was he who was now the true photographer, but one who was in the process of turning his lenses inward, testing his latest optical contraption, an experimental telescope, recently invented, whose images, like a mirror on the soul, could capture the intersections of time and fate.


Ujung Kulon, John Edmiston


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