Part 2 of 4
by Anne Azel
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
Thanks: I am delighted that so many of you seem to be enjoying this series. Your comments are very kind and much appreciated. Special thanks to Lisa my beta reader. As the stories in this series do interrelate, it is best to read them in the order they are posted.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction, please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Important Warning: This story is based on events that are true and reflect the environment and traditional culture of the highland tribes of P.N.G. A few of the descriptions in this story are graphic and violent. Some readers might find that the traditional scenes are disturbing in that they are not fiction but real event involving ritual killing and murder.
They climbed steadily higher up a narrow, eroded path of red clay. Jess moved at a steady pace seemingly unaware of the burden she carried on her back. Mary placed the side of her face against the firm shoulder and tried not to move. A feeling deep inside of leaning sleepily on the back of her warrior surfaced. This is a part of who we were Jess, she thought.
Jess curved around a rocky outcropping and lowered Mary onto the ground. They were on a high ridge well above the clinic compound. Above them a near vertical column of limestone rose in a ragged pinnacle, eroded into weird greyish shapes by the afternoon monsoon rains. Then Mary's heart jumped and her eyes widened in shock, not far above them and some twenty feet farther on, was a dark horizontal crack in the rock that formed a deep natural shelf. Sitting in neat rows, on this shelf, were hundreds of skulls bleached white and brittle by the sun. Amongst these guardians of the after world were stone bowls and club-heads.
Jess slipped the belem off Mary's shoulder and knelt down. Tearing open the leaves, she exposed two round bloody forms. Mary jumped back with a cry of alarm and almost toppled over needing to put out a hand to balance herself against the limestone cliff. With trembling hands, she lifted her cane and held it in attack position. It felt strangely familiar and gave her a strong sense of confidence. "Everyone was gone from the compound but you and me. My God! You sacrificed that poor boy and ripped his organs out! What is this place? Some sort of trophy room?!" she snapped in anger.
Jess face went from surprise to violent anger in an instant. She shot to her feet and grabbed at the cane. Much to her surprise her hand met thin air and the hard, wood stick cracked down on her forearm painfully. "Shit! What the hell are you doing Giovani?!" yelled Jess ducking as the weapon came arching over her head and cracked into the limestone.
Jess saw her opening and grabbed Mary slamming her up against the rock. Face to face, blue eyes of rage burned into green eyes of terror. "What...the...hell...are...you...doing?!" repeated Jess slowly, lifting Mary up by her bunched shirt and pinning her over her head to the rough rock. Mary choked and gasped for breath but said nothing. "Tell me!" roared Jess slamming the small, limp figure against the rock.
Mary's hand came up to grab at Jess's wrist. The hand felt small and the grasp weak, observed Jess through her blind rage. Mary's hand dropped and she made a gurgling sound. Jess's eyes focused on the small face again. It was turning blue. "Shit!" she exclaimed and let go. Mary drew in an uneven breath as she slipped down the rock wall.
The next thing she was aware of, was Jess wiping her face with a damp cloth. "You okay?" the warrior asked nervously. Mary nodded weakly her eyes weary. "You shouldn't have attacked me. I....I...I kind of lose it when I'm hurt physically. Why do you always think the worst of me?"
Mary swallowed painfully and rubbed her sore throat, "There was a time when I didn't but now I know better, Jess," she observed bitterly using the rock face to pull herself up onto her feet.
"That's ancient history!" growled Jess getting up too so that she maintained the height advantage.
Mary looked at the red organs nestled in the banana leaves, "So what is going on here? How are you involved in Kalla's murder?"
"What! What the hell gave you that idea?!" exclaimed the doctor trying hard to keep her anger in check.
"The body parts," grimaced Mary, her eyes going in horror to the two red, lumps still sitting on the ripped banana leaves.
Jess snorted in cold disgust. "It's two pieces of a stone age bowl. The people dig them up in their gardens and believe that the spirits left them there for the village to put offerings in. They're covered in pig's blood. I've got to put them back. Stay here. You're unclean," snarled Jess in explanation and left the exhausted journalist to watch. She picked up the two bloody pieces of stone and edged along the narrow ridge to place the sacred artifacts back in their stone house. Now they would call the ancestral spirits back to rest and the people would be safe once again.
Jess carefully edged back along the ledge then walked passed Mary without a backwards look as she wiped her hands clean with the damp rag and threw it carelessly into the net bag. "Hey! You can't leave me here!" Mary croaked out.
"Watch me," snarled Jess heading down the path.
Mary felt the anger explode in her gut. She scooped up her cane and sent it flying like a javelin. It embedded in the muddy bank between Jess's legs and tripped her mid stride. With a curse the tall woman went face first into the red clay. With as much dignity as Mary could muster, she limped over to where Jess lay wiping the clay from her face and said calmly, "I said you are not leaving me here, Visirakis. You brought me and you can damn well get me back!"
For a long moment there was a deathly silence. Mary reached out without taking her eyes off Jess and pulled her new weapon out of the soft clay bank. Jess's eyebrow went up and a corner of her mouth turned up. "So daddy's little kitten has claws," she quoted.
"You bet!" responded Mary with a cheerful nastiness.
Jess nodded thoughtfully. Then she bent her head to the side and gave Mary a weary grin. "So if I get up slowly and go and retrieve the belem. Are you going to beat me with your little stick?"
"That all depends. Are you giving me a lift home or are we both going to struggled down this mountainside as two cripples?" asked Mary her hands tightening on the hard wood of the cane.
Jess sighed and got to her feet. As she passed Mary on her way back to pick up the belem, she snatched the cane from the smaller woman's hands. "Don't push your luck," she remarked to the startled journalist and then slammed the stick back into the smaller woman's hands before she went back to get the belem.
Mary watched Jess clean out the leaves and shoulder the net bag. The doctor came back down the path with her eyes locked on Mary's. For a minute, they stood and looked at each other then Jess sighed and turned around, "Well come on, Giovani," she said gruffly stooping down, "I gotta see to a body." Mary wrapped her arms around Jess's neck and the powerful woman lifted her in place on her back. They headed down the path in a silent, cold truce.
That afternoon, Jess and Mone, who had turned up back at camp as soon as they had returned without the stones, placed the murdered man's corpse in a body bag and carried it on a stretcher back to his village. Mary stood silently as they went by. She didn't know if the villager would want it, but she sent a little prayer to God anyway asking that his young soul be care for.
The next day, Mary saw Jess only from a distance. She was impressed by how hard Jess worked at the small medical outpost to help the sick. Gingerly, walking on her damage foot, Mary explored the small compound. Each day shy, laughing women from the nearby villages would take turns bringing food and preparing it for patients. Mone and Jess seemed to eat when ever they felt like it. Mary was told to help herself to anything she wanted.
When she had a free moment from helping Mone around the compound, Mary would stand and look out over the valley below where the Lia River roared between the dense jungle. Wild exotic birds called to each other high up in the trees and sometimes far off the distance drums and the rhythmic singing of tribal peoples could be heard. It was very different for the noise of heavy machinery and loud entertainment that had been part of the mining community that Mary had investigated. The near naked villagers, herding their pigs or attending their gardens with stone age tools, fascinated Mary.
She had quickly made friends with Mone whose job seemed to be to make sure that life ran smoothly both at the clinic and on the compound. When Mary offered to prepare the meals for the three of them, he beamed with delight and Mary knew she had made a fast friend. The larder was not overly exciting. Canned corn beef, fish and ham seemed to be the basic protein intake supported by the vegetables that Mary could barter from the local women. The main food staple was the sweet potato. Mary was determined that the propane cook stove and limited food choices were not going to prevent her from showing Jess that she was no hothouse flower. For dinner that night, she prepared a sweet potato pie that she felt was quite good. She set the table carefully picking wild orchids and setting them in an empty peanut butter jar on the table. At six, Mone arrived and eyed the pie suspiciously. He refused to eat until Dr. Jess arrived from doing rounds.
When Jess arrived and saw Mone's suspicious face and Mary's frown, she laughed. "What's so funny?!" demanded Mary, her hands-on her hips.
"He's afraid you're trying to kill him. You know, witchcraft. He can't tell what's in that thing!" laughed Jess, pointing to Mary's beautiful pie.
"Mone! How could you think such thing?" cried Mary in shock and distressed. Mone said nothing but smiled sheepishly and hung his head.
Jess answered for him, "Because why else would you disguise his food?" questioned Jess.
Mary turned to Mone, "Mone, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. Would it help if Jess and I ate first? I know you don't know me well enough to trust me yet."
"Mone hasn't time to eat. Eat without us and we'll make some sandwiches later. We've got a case of appendicitis that can't wait. Come on, Mone," order Jess.
"But Mone told me earlier that you were not going to operate tonight," argued Mary limping close behind Jess's retreating back. Suddenly, the doctor whirled and Mary, caught unawares, ran right into her. Jess grabbed her by the shoulders and leaned her face close. Mary could taste Jess's breath and see the soft texture of her skin tight over iron muscles. Jess's hands dug into her shoulders painfully and she gave a gasp of surprise.
"Understand this Ice Queen, my job comes first and I make the final decisions here. The highlands of P.N.G. are no place for a damn tea party." With that she whirled and was gone. Released from Jess's grip, Mary felt like her knees would buckle from the emotional stress. Mary was shaken by the power that had radiated from the tall doctor.
Banging pans about, Mary cleaned up and put the potato pie untouched into the propane fridge. Her foot had swollen and she was tired and near tears. The days were warm in the highlands but at night it went quite chilly. Mary shivered and headed for her hut. Yellow light streamed from the surgery building. She hoped that the little girl would be all right and that Jess's sudden change in plans had not been the result of some complication. Quickly, she changed into her sleep wear and got under the covers.
Much later, she woke to the sound of Mone and Jess's voices, then silence. Now unable to sleep, she pulled a sweater on and headed over to the ward to see if the child was all right. There in a chair, beside the bed of the peacefully sleeping child, was a very tired looking Jess.
"What are you doing here?"she asked in a startled whisper.
"I work here," Jess responded sarcastically raising an eyebrow, "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see if she was all right," responded Mary defensively.
"Do you think there is such a great danger in having me as a doctor?" Jess asked stretching out her long legs and folding her arms smugly.
Mary felt her temper rising. It was clear that Jess intended to make her life as difficult as possible. "Well, the pilot's dead isn't he," she snapped.
Jess was on her feet in a split second and towering over Mary, "Look, the pilot....he look..."stumbled Jess in rage. She reached out and grabbed Mary's arm and dragged her painfully into the next room and lifted her up onto the gurney .
"Don't! Don't!" cried Mary struggling free, fearing that Jess was going to try to make love to her again.
But Jess had already backed off. "Don't flatter yourself Ice Queen! What happened before in your hut was just a reaction to isolation. Any naked woman with her hands up my shirt could have got the same reaction from me.
Mary blushed red at Jess's cruel words but fought back with equal nastiness, "I'm sure you've never been fussy. You're an alley cat, love them and leave them."
"For Christ sake! Get over it Giovani! We were kids!"growled Jess in frustration throwing her arms up in the air and turning away.
"Where did you go?" asked Mary quietly.
"Military. I stuck it all through cadets because I knew that the only way I was going to get an education was to have the army pay. I finished my service a few years ago," revealed Jess awkwardly. She squatted down and rummaged through a box. Pulling out a piece of metal, she turned and walked back over to where Giovani sat.
You see this?" Jess said holding up the fragment, "I kept it for evidence. I pulled it out of the pilot's chest."
The blood drained from Mary's face and the room blurred. Mary heard Jess curse from far away. Then strong arms grabbed her. Mary clung to Jess sobbing sadly. Jess whispered soothing words into her ear until she calmed. They stayed that way for some time, Mary's head against Jess's shoulder and Jess's chin resting in Mary's soft fragrant hair. Then Jess pulled back with a start. "Listen Giovani, I don't want any complications. Okay, so we have a childhood history and maybe there is still some need there. But I'm not interested. I know your kind Giovani and I've fought too long and too hard to let you mess up my life now!"
Mary slipped off the gurney and stood tall, her body quivering with rage. "My kind?! My kind?!
Just what is my kind, Jess; rich, Italian, immigrant, Catholic, gay, female, journalist? Just what is it about me that offends you?! Maybe it's just that you know you couldn't live up to the Hosts and their love. I remember Jess, it was hot, real hot," tormented Mary spitefully.
The metal went slamming against the wall and clattered to the floor. "Don't you fuck with my mind, you damn bitch!" she roared.
Mary gave Jess the finger and limped to the door. "I hate you!" she yelled as she slammed out into the night.
Back in her hut, she was able to see that she had antagonized Jess but she was still shaken by the violence of the woman's response. She was going to have to be careful. She washed her hands and face and changed her crumbled clothes. Peeking out across the compound, she could see Jess's silhouette pacing back and forth in the hospital ward. She could in her mind hear her mother's voice from the past, 'My dear, what do you expect. The poor girl grew up in our barn!' and her father's practical response, 'So do all thoroughbreds!' Was Jess a thoroughbred, or was she just plain rude and violent? Mary found her emotions to be a swirling mass of contradictions.
Mary crawled into bed and was soon asleep from exhaustion. She was unaware of the strong, gentle hands that put an extra blanket on her that night and softly kissed her tear stained cheek.
Three days after the murder at the compound, Mary found Jess still over her coffee in the kitchen.
"Morning," Mary said stiffly and went about preparing her breakfast.
"Morning started three hours ago," responded Jess dryly.
"Get fucked Visirakis," replied Mary cheerfully as she spread peanut butter on wheat crackers and then peeled a banana.
Jess shrugged. "I got to go to the boy's funeral today. It is in the village just over the next ridge."
Mary looked up, "I want to go too."
"I'm not carrying you," stated Jess tossing the last of her morning coffee break out onto the grass.
"I can walk that distance, if I go slowly. You just tell me the way," Mary said between mouthfuls of her breakfast. She sat at one of the small tables her back deliberately to Jess.
"You are not to walk around the highlands by yourself," ordered Jess, "If it is so important to you, I'll walk slow."
Mary kept her back to Jess although a smile did sparkle in her eye. It was an apology! A strange one perhaps, but Jess in her own way was trying to make up for their fight. She could meet her half way. "Thank you, that would be fine. When do you wish to leave?" she responded formally still not turning around.
Jess walked over to the basin on the cook stove and dropped her mug in the hot water. Now Mary had to look at her back! "One hour," said Jess turning to look at Mary. This was the first time they had been in the same room together since their fight at the hospital.
"Okay," responded Mary meeting Jess's blue eyes with unflinching greens. "I have a question about my foot, doctor," Mary continued.
"Yes," responded Jess her body language changing unconsciously from stiff formality to concerned, intense professional.
"I want to know what exercises I could do to strengthen the foot so I can stop limping," stated Mary starting to clean up her breakfast dishes and moving deliberately over to where Jess stood by the stove. She dropped her dishes in the pan and then realized that Jess had not answered her. She looked sideways and made contact with a pair of worried blue eyes. "Okay," she said calmly even though she could feel her guts twisting into a knot, "what haven't you told me." She turned and faced Jess and waited.
The muscles in Jess's throat moved as she swallowed. "You use your toes to propel yourself forward. Without toes you can't do this. That means having to switch the weight to your other leg and swinging the damaged leg forward. You will always walk with a heavy limp," explained Jess honestly. For a moment, the two women looked at each other. Mary trying to come to terms with the news without showing Jess any emotion and Jess waiting for the explosion.
"I see," stated Mary quietly, "I'll meet you here in one hour then, doctor," responded Mary at last. She brushed by Jess and limped back to her hut. Once inside she hurled her cane against the wall her jaw white with rage. That God damn bitch from hell was always hurting her!
They headed out an hour later at a snail's pace following the ridge of the mountain to the east. Mary's face was unusually controlled and expressionless as she walked along with her uneven gait. Usually talkative and curious, today she was silent.
Jess cleared her throat and made an effort. "There is a lot going on in this area at the moment. It is a very unstable and dangerous time because the people are in the process of capturing the Timp. Timp is the spirit world, the united force of all the ghosts of the dead. The villagers are terrified of them. The Timp cults go in about twenty year cycles and we are coming to the end of one now. There is also a serious land dispute going on at Mendara. The villagers are trying to end it by having a Cassoway Race."
"They race Cassowary!? You mean those big birds that look like an ostrich?!" interrupted Mary getting caught up in what Jess was telling her and forgetting the awkwardness of her gait that she was going to have to deal with for the rest of her life.
"Yeah, those birds but its not a race of the birds. It's a race to see which side can gather the most cargo before the day they will show their cassowarys, pigs and other wealth off and butcher them. It's a type of potlatch. The side that gains the most power by the killings and exchange wins the argument," clarified Jess.
Mary's brow wrinkled in thought, "This Race should end the dispute then?"
For a minute Jess was quiet, "Maybe, but there is going to be payback now because of the murder at the compound. That could lead to a tribal war."
"Payback," I've heard of that. It's revenge killing isn't it?" prompted Mary.
Jess turned and offered Mary her hand to help her down a steep and eroded embankment of slippy, red clay. Mary moved cautiously, side stepping like a crab. The pressure hurt her foot but she gritted her teeth and said nothing. Once at the bottom, Jess let go of Mary's hand as soon as she was balanced. "Yeah, it is revenge killing," Jess continued their interrupted conversation as she walked on slowly. "It is necessary to save face. If Kalla is not revenged then his relatives will seem to be weak. Weakness is a sign of a 'rubbishman,' a useless individual. There is no worse label," Jess explained with feeling. "Also, Kalla's Timp will not be at rest until he is buried properly and his murder is revenged. All ghosts are dangerous. They can bring sickness to a village or drought to the area. Kalla's angry Timp could make them lose the Cassowary Race or release all the Timp that the villagers have been carefully imprisoning for the last twenty years. Then there would be chaos."
They walked on after that in silence. Mary having to concentrate on the uneven ground so that she would not loss her balance and Jess in moody thought. Now they could heard the mourning wail of the women. It was a ghostly sound that seemed to haunt the grassy hills they walked across. As they got closer still, they could hear angry male voices above the wail.
They came on the village quickly as they came round a spur in the hillside and entered a wooded area of tall, evergreens called Yar. The village was typical of the highlands. There was a large open rectangular field that was the village singsing ground. This was where all their major social and political gatherings would take place. Around the edge there were a few grass huts and a man's house. Jess explained that traditionally, the men did not live with their women. Women were seen as unclean because of their menstrual cycle. If a man spent too much time with women then he became weak and his skin dried out. His knees became wobbly and he could no longer shoot his arrows straight. The two women exchanged a knowing look and broke out laughing. Some of the undercurrents of hostility that had made their conversation so stiff dissolved.
"Where do the women live?" asked Mary realizing that she had learned more in the past hour about the traditional ways of the people than she had in all the time she had been at the mining camp.
Jess changed direction and lead Mary to the side of the village. She pointed down a slope to where a field was arranged in neat mounds. In the center of the field, stood a grass hut surrounded by banana trees. "Each man has his own house in his fields. His wife, children and pigs all live together. When a boy has gone through his initiation rites at around twelve then he will move to the man's house," explained Jess.
"What do they grow in the mounds?" asked Mary pointing to the fields.
"Sweet potato, it is the main food stable in the highlands," the taller woman answered looking out over the fields, "Mounding stops root rot from setting in. The water from the afternoon monsoon rains runs off."
"If the women, children and pigs all share the same space and the men all share one house, ahh, I mean where do they.....you know?!" asked Mary as red crept up her neck.
Jess turned and looked down at Mary a ghost of a grin on her face, "Usually out in the tall grass somewhere. But they do have a custom that is kind of cute. When a man is courting a girl, he goes to visit her and they 'turn-em-head,'" explained Jess.
"What?!" asked Mary laughing and turning to look up at Jess.
"Turn-em-head. They rub their heads, necks and faces together slowly. Kissing is not part of their traditional culture. Turn-em-head can be very intimate on a psychological level. You are very aware of the other person, you talk, you try to express your love, you don't get caught up in your own physical pleasure like we do when we neck. Turn-em-head is a giving experience not a taking," Jess explained looking softly into Mary's deep green eyes.
Mary licked her lips and looked away to lessen the tension, "It sounds like you've had lots of experience at love making," laughed Mary lightly although she was aware of an unreasonable jealousy deep inside.
"We'd better go to the funeral," replied Jess abruptly and headed off at a quick pace towards the far end of the village where the plaintive sound of wailing could be heard rising and lowering behind the yells of angry male voices.
Mary followed Jess's retreating figure. The air now had an unpleasant stench of rot. At the end of the singsing ground the land once again sloped down. From the top, Mary could now see the funeral proceedings. At one end of a small clearing, the women stood around two posts between which the decaying body of the murdered young man hung from a horizontal pole. The body was wrapped in dried fronds and only the feet and the top of the head could be seen. Body fluids dripped out and the women would move forward and capture the liquid in their hands and rub their hands together as they wailed in anguish. Some raised their arms above their head as they moaned. The women were covered in grey clay and around their neck was a thick and heavy layer of grey bead necklaces. Some of the women had hundreds of them on while others had less. At the other end of the clearing, the men sat on the ground listening to one man as he stood and talked. In a row, on the ground lay the half-moon shells called 'kina' that was part of the traditional money system of the highland people along with pigs.
Jess loped back up the path to Mary. To Mary's surprise Jess now wore several grey necklaces and had grey clay smeared on her cheeks. "Women show mourning by wearing these necklaces made from the seeds of the Job's Tears plant. They also wear the grey clay just as we would wear black. Normally, I wouldn't wear this stuff but Kalla died at our compound so it is politically wise that we indicate that we are upset by that." She stepped close as she explained and spread mud on Mary's cheeks and then dropped a few necklaces around her neck.
"When in Rome..." Mary shrugged and Jess smiled her thanks.
Jess offered Mary a hand and helped her down the slope as she explained, "Only men are mourned and only by the women. If the woman was close to the man, she will stay in mourning dress for sometimes over a year." Jess carefully lead Mary to stand upwind of the corpse as they watched the women wail.
After a few minutes, the older woman touched Mary's arm and they moved off to where the men sat arguing. "It is important that Kalla's debts be paid off. Other wise his timp will play evil tricks on the village. The men are arguing about who owes what," explained Jess.
"These are kina shells aren't they?" asked Mary pointing to the long row of half-moon shells that sat on leaves on the ground.
Jess nodded. "They used to be traded up from the coast and by the time they got here, they were only little pieces. The men would make wood shells and place the precious bits in the centre. Those antique kina are called 'chop'. Now the kina is easier to get. These are not good ones. They don't have much "light". That's the pearl colours. Each of these shells is worth about twenty Australian dollars so Kalla's worth is about $400.00 to these people. You never look at the backside of the shell because the people believe that will draw the colour away from the surface. The woven straps are so they can be worn on special occasions."
Mary nodded her understanding appreciating Jess's knowledge and respect for the traditional ways of the tribe. As they stood there a villager got up and came over to Jess shaking her hand solemnly. Like all the others, the man wore only the bark belt and basic coverings. He did however wear a necklace that was a string from which hung small, wood tubes in a vertical row down his chest. On his arms above the elbow he wore woven arm bands. He talked to Jess in pidgin while Jess listened in respectful silence. In the end, she nodded and they shook hands again.
"Time to go," she said to Mary taking her arm and leading her off.
"What did that man want?" asked Mary looking over her shoulder. The men were back arguing again ignoring their retreating forms.
"He is the headman of this village. You could tell that by his chest plate and arm bands. He told me that the village wants payback and that I'm to do it," explained Jess as she stooped and lifted the stunned Mary into her arms and carried her up the steep embankment placing her back down at the edge of the singsing ground.
"Thanks, Jess." mumbled Mary quietly. "What does that entail, getting payback?" she asked in a worried tone.
Jess shrugged and headed off with Mary close behind her. "It means I've got to kill the murderer," she revealed casually as she walked.
A second later, she was brought to a halt by a firm grip around her elbow. "You are not going to kill anyone!" Mary told her looking up into Jess's startled eyes with determination.
"Yes, I am as a matter of fact. I need to be able to trust you with this ," stated Jess sending Mary a challenging look.
Mary scowled and pulled her hand away. "Jess, you can't do this!" she pleaded.
Jess placed a strong hand on Mary's shoulder and looked at her with searching eyes, " It's a matter of face, Mary. It happened in our compound. If I don't do this we'll be rubbish to the people and that means no end of trouble for us. I have to send a message that I am a warrior not to be messed with. Do you understand that?" she asked gentle.
Mary nodded miserably, "Yes, But murder Jess! Isn't there another way?"
"I need you to trust me on this one okay, Mary. I can handle this," said the older woman rubbing Mary's shoulder unconsciously.
Mary looked into those incredible blue eyes, "Okay," she agreed reluctantly. Jess smiled and they walked slowly back to the compound together. Along the way Jess explained that once Kalla's debts were paid today, his body would be taken to the cliffs and buried under bamboo stalks on a limestone ledge.
Mary was happy knowing the young man was finally going to rest in peace but then Jess went on to explain that after the flesh had decomposed, the skull would be removed and placed in little roofed stands in the family garden. That way his spirit would chase away anyone who tried to steal from their garden. Jess pointed out one of the small skull houses as they passed a village garden. Jess seemed to feel that this was a very practical use for the dead but Mary was saddened to think that this was going to be Kalla's fate.
For the next few days, Mary worked around the compound. Her relationship with Jess although not friendly was at least not as antagonistic as it had been. The afternoon, after they had returned from the funeral, Mary had made tea for Mone and they had sat and talked at the table as the rain beat down. Mone seemed to enjoy his afternoon tea break with Mary. It had quickly become a routine. It was one that Jess had not shared in. Mone delivered her tea to her office where she worked on her reports. It was from Mone that Mary learned the next day that Jess had been sleeping in a chair in the hospital ward or on the operating table since Mary had arrived!
After the afternoon rains, Mary sloshed over to Jess's office and knocked on the doorframe. Jess was bent over a report. When she looked up, her eyes looked tired and sore. "We need to talk," Mary said gently, "Can I come in."
Jess stood up and nodded pulling over a chair for Mary to sit in. Mary sat and then a nervous looking doctor sat down too. "Are we talking as patient and doctor here?" Jess asked.
"No. We're talking .....as friends. You can't sleep in a chair for eight weeks Jess," Mary said and Jess rolled her eyes looking annoyed.
"I've got a camp cot I sometimes set up," argued Jess looking embarrassed and intently watching her own finger drawing patterns on the desk top.
"Yes, I know," stated Mary, "And I've asked Mone to put it in your hut." Mary met the blue eyes that flashed up, with a strong even stare. "There is no reason why we can't share the accommodations. I think we have come to a good understanding about what the limits are in our.....friendship," continued Mary in a business like manner.
For a few minutes blue met green in an internal struggle. Then Jess nodded, "Okay. Do you still snore?" she asked tilting her head to one side as she looked at Mary.
"I do not snore!!!" denied Mary hotly. Jess raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Mary did not see Jess again except at a distance until after she had retired to her hut. There was Jess's bed only a foot away from hers in the small hut. She could hear Jess saying good night to Mone and she quickly kicked off her shoes and jumped into the bed turning her back to the room.
She heard Jess come in and move about the room. Then the candle that was her only source of light at night was blown out.
"Do you usually sleep with your clothes on," asked Jess lazily as she stripped down in the dark and got into her cot next to Mary's. Every fiber of Mary's being was acutely aware of Jess beside her. She didn't dare answer her and kept her face firmly facing the pitpit grass wall. This was going to be much harder than she had realized. She could smell the spicy scent that was uniquely Jess and hear the rustle of the sheets against Jess's naked body. Sleep came very late for Mary and her sleep were filled with the strange dreams of the two ancient lovers.
When she woke the next morning, Jess had already left for her morning rounds. Mary got up with effort and groggily went about her morning rituals then she headed over to the kitchen to have the coffee that was the final process in her waking and facing a new day. Jess was there waiting.
"Good morning, what do you need to see me about?" asked Mary sleepily heading for the metal coffee pot that was a permanent fixture on top of the cook stove.
Jess looked surprised, "What made you think I need to talk to you?" she asked turning and leaning against one of the log supports that held up the thatched room.
Mary smiled and poured herself a coffee and came over and sat at the table. "You never have your morning coffee in here unless you are waiting for me. What's up?"
Jess frowned and turned to look out over the compound. "I've arranged things. The killing's going to be today," she said quietly.
Mary put down her mug and got up and came over to Jess, placing her hand on the taller woman's arm, "Jess, I don't want you to kill anyone," she pleaded.
She smiled sadly down at her. "Mary, I was in the army forces for a dozen years. I was with special services. If you are trying to save my soul it's too late," she sighed.
Mary moved closer and before either of them knew it, her head was tucked under Jess's chin and they had their arms around each other. "You've got to trust me, Mary. Please." Mary nodded her head but she knew in her heart that she couldn't let Jess attack and kill anyone.
They left sometime later, moving along ridges that lead them farther into the isolated district. At last, they came to a narrow trail that lead them through high pitpit grass that towered over their heads. In a few places, Jess widened the path using her machete knife. Mary struggled along finding it hard not to entangle her lame foot in the roots and bent stalks. At last, they came out into a low meadow. There they found a man standing by a tall Yar tree.
"Apinun," Jess greeted the ferret faced man. The eyes of the man slipped over to Mary. The look was cold and filled with hate. "Dispela misses, wontok bilong mi" Jess explained.
Mary understood enough Pidgin to know that Jess had said 'afternoon' and had explained that Mary was a wontok or tribal relative of hers. The man nodded.
Jess turned to Mary, "This is Touy. He comes to the clinic for treatment. He is not too happy about that. Touy is a very powerful medicine man. He will help us identify the killer and then murder him with witchcraft."
Mary's eyes widened in surprise but she managed with a great deal of effort not to say anything. Jess noted her struggle and smiled knowingly. After much loud bartering a price was reached to both Jess's and Touy's satisfaction. Jess reached into her pocket and pulled out some dirty looking bills. The government paper money in Papua New Guinea was also called Kina, Mary knew.
Touy pulled the stone axe from his belt and handed it to Jess. Jess took it and commented politely on its quality. Then she walked over and used it to deeply notch the Yar tree. Mary was surprised at how well the primitive stone axe sent the chips of wood flying. Of course, it was Jess on the end of it. Mary could see her muscles ripping under her cotton shirt. Jess walked around to the other side, checked that everybody was clear and then with a series of powerful strokes she felled the tree.
Turning, she walked back to where Touy and Mary stood and handed him back his axe. She wasn't even breathing hard! Touy grunted and moved over to the trunk. Carefully, he slit the bark and pulled off a section a foot wide and about twenty feet long. This freshly cut bark he laid out on the ground with the inner surface up. It was wet and slippery with tree sap.
Touy came back over to where the two women stood. From a leather bag around his neck, he tipped out a dozen shiny, black stones. Jess nodded and Touy closed his hand and walked back to where the bark lay on the ground. "They are 'hotam' only certain men have the power to hold such magical stones. The people believe they have great power," Jess explained in a whisper.
The two women watched as Touy placed the killing stones at one end of the bark. He walked to the other end and then very carefully walked along the slippery bark and picked up a stone then he turned and carefully walked back again. He repeated this process until all the stones were collected. Touy's voice rose and fell in a primitive chant as he worked. "When he doesn't slip on the bark that stone will be very powerful, Mary. It could kill maybe four or five people. The ones he picks up when he slips are less powerful. He is being very careful. This batch of stones will contain a very deadly magic," Jess explained.
When Touy once again had all the small stones in his hand, he moved over to where the tree lay on the ground. He sat on the ground some distance away and closed his eyes. Then he threw a stone towards the scar that ran the length of the trunk. As he did so, he called out a name. The stone missed. "What is he doing?" asked Mary fascinated by this performance.
"He's trying to establish the murderer. He is calling out names and when the stone hits the tree that will be the guilty person," muttered Jess.
Mary looked up in shook, "Jess! You can't find someone guilty of so serious a crime like this!"
"Shhhh!" warned Jess giving Mary a dark look.
Mary fell silent but she was not the least bit happy about the situation.
The fifth stone hit, the name was Rimrapasi. Touy turned and looked at Jess a grin on his face. Jess nodded back and Touy collected the stones and disappeared down a trail. He came back a few minutes later leading a pig on a rope. "You might not want to look," Jess cautioned just before Touy pulled out a bamboo knife as sharp as a razor blade and slit the throat of the pig.
"Oh God," whispered Mary swallowing in revolution but she held her ground. Touy had turned the heavy carcass onto its back and was cutting the chest open. He reached into the warm guts and pulled out the liver. He took the bloody organ over to the far side of the clearing. Jess took Mary by the arm and lead her over to where Touy now stood chanting the magical words. As he did, he rubbed the killing stones over the sacrificial flesh. On the ground in front of Touy was a small model of a men's house. A pole was stuck into the ground beside this model looking like a huge flag pole.
Touy stepped forward and stuck the liver on the pole. Then he placed the bloodied killing stones inside the small, men's house. The medicine man reached back into the house and pulled out a bow and arrow and held them out to Jess. Jess shook her head. Touy smiled cruelly and shrugged. He stepped back and placed the arrow against the bow string raising the bow and taking aim at the dripping liver. Mary noted that Jess stepped in front of her, instinctively protecting her if the arrow should go astray.
The arrow however, found its mark piercing the liver and disappearing into the bush. Touy turned and looked at Jess. She nodded, "tenkyu," she said and took Mary's arm and lead her off.
"Okay, what happened?" asked Mary once they were far enough away not to be heard pushing their way back through the tall grass.
"The arrow released the blood of the sacrifice to the spirit world. In thanks, they placed the power of the killing stones on the arrow and made it disappear. The arrow will now fly to the coastal house of the murderer Rimrapasi. It will hover unseen outside until she falls asleep. Then it will fly down her mouth and the killing stones will spread their poison," explained Jess.
"You don't believe that do you?" she asked turning to face Jess.
Jess looked down at her with serious, sad eyes, "I believe that if Rimrapasi is the murderer, she will die of witchcraft," she stated but that is not why we did it," she stated heading off again.
"Well, why did we?" asked Mary in frustration limping along behind.
"Because we wanted a list of names of suspects and now we've got it," explained Jess.
Mary stopped in surprise and Jess turned to see what the problem was, "Warrior, you are one smart lady," Mary stated with a happy smile hobbling to catch up to Jess.
"I always liked it when you called me that," commented the older woman walking off again at a slow, easy pace.
When they got back to the compound they found a harassed looking Mone trying to keep an older woman from beating one of their leprosy patients who had come to the clinic to pick up his meds. The scene was comical to say the least and Jess and Mary stood at the edge of the compound and laughed. There was Mone is his habitual white shorts and T-shirt trying to herd a tiny woman half his size away from their angry patient. The patient was yelling insults at the woman over Mone's shoulder. The little village woman was old but feisty. Her brown breasts hung down almost to her waist and they swung as she used her fighting stick to try and poke at the Eravey that stood behind Mone. Her hair was grey, tight curls and her body sagged with age but she was still putting up a hell of a fight. She would swing with her paddle shaped fighting stick every chance she got and was yelling insults back at the man in a continuous barrage!
"Doctor Jess!" yelled Mone in frustration and Jess sauntered forward to finally come to Mone's aid. At the sight of Jess the argument stopped. A silence fell over the compound as Jess, radiating authority stood looking at the trouble makers. With a few shape words, she dismissed the old woman who walked off glaring occasionally over her shoulder. Then she instructed Mone to take their out-patient to the clinic and keep him there until the old woman was well on her way back to her village.
"What was that about?" questioned Mary hobbling forward to stand at Jess's side.
"You just met one of the suspects. The old woman was Heorn. The man is an Eravey and uncle to the boy who was murdered. She doesn't seem to like him," explained Jess with a white flash of a smile.
Mary snorted, "Well, she's number one on my list! Talk about your small stick of dynamite!" Jess had a beautiful smile, Mary thought, smiling back. She wished she would smile more.
"Perhaps. But she couldn't have murder Kalla without help," observed Jess with a frown. Well, I'd better get to the clinic. I'll see you later," said Jess giving Mary's shoulder a brief squeeze and walking off. Mary stood and watched Jess go, appreciating the long legs and tight, round bottom. Then she sighed and turned to her own growing responsibilities around the compound.
Late that night Jess woke to the tossing and mumbles of Mary as she experienced some terrible nightmare. Jess slipped out of bed and stroked Mary's hair, whispering to her softly until she settled again. Then she crawled gratefully back into her cot. The night air was cold and damp. A few minutes later, Mary was again moaning in her sleep. Jess sighed and got up, slipping a T-shirt over her long, lean form. She slipped in beside Mary and took her in her arms. Immediately, the nightmare subsided and Mary wrapped herself contentedly around Warrior's body and slept.
Jess nestled her head into Mary's hair and let the sensation of Mary's warmth seep into her being. By the Gods, she loved this little woman so much! But she knew it couldn't be. Their love was doomed by a pattern set thousands of years ago. She didn't understand why or how but it had something to do with that tomb. It was actively calling the 'Others'. It called Jess all the time. But Jess had already lived up to the prophesy, she had removed the one she loved from her life, before the smaller woman betrayed her. Tonight however, for just a brief time, she could allow herself a moment of loving, of being whole again.
The next day Mary busied herself in establishing a new coding system for the stock room. Removing all the old identification labels and carefully glueing on new ones. Then she went over and made lunch for the three of them. Now that Mary had established herself at the compound, Jess and Mone had taken to showing up like vultures around meal times instead of eating just when they felt like it. Meals had become a companionable time. Mary was careful after the sweet potato pie incident to keep the food plain and recognizable. She soon discovered that Jess had very conservative tastes in food too. She was your basic meat and potatoes sort of girl.
Mone had even taken to showing up at the kitchen for brunch when he saw Mary arrive in the kitchen in the mornings. By then, although still early, Jess and Mone had been up for hours. It was Jess's way to get up well before dawn and run. Then she and Mone would start rounds in the dawn light. At eight, Mone would come over to the kitchen area and make coffee taking a cup to Jess while she worked in the lab. Then he would come back and enjoy a late breakfast with Mary. He seemed to delight in stories about Jess's childhood and Mary did her best to recall any incident that highlighted the doctor's many talents while growing up.
One day, as the three of them ate lunch, a village man showed up and stood outside the kitchen waiting. "That's Samalli," Jess explained getting up and going to greet the villager. They shook hands formally and Jess stood legs apart, arms folded across her chest listening seriously to Samalli's talk. She nodded when he was finished and responded in Pidgin. Talking quickly and with confidence. The worried man seemed to relax a bit. He smiled and nodded and then walked off. Jess turned and came back to join the others.
"What you going to do, Doctor Jess?" asked Mone who had been able to understand the rapid exchange of Pidgin where Mary hadn't.
"I'll go over there and sort them out after lunch," observed Jess. "They don't really want to fight or they would have started already. Their probably afraid to get into a battle before the Timp is caught. It is too risky a time."
"Would some one tell me what is going on!" exclaimed Mary in frustration.
Mone and Jess looked at Mary in surprise. "Oh, sorry Mary. We forgot that your Pidgin is still basic," apologized Jess. "That was Samalli. The Eravey have put up a fence around the land they are claiming from him. He told them to take it down and they refused. Samalli is a Mendari so they are backing him. Now the Mendari and Eravey are eyeing each other from opposite ends of the singsing ground and getting ready for war."
"Oh no Jess! What are you going to do?!" asked an alarmed Mary reaching over and placing her hand over Jess's. Jess looked down at the small, white fingers resting on her large, tanned hand. Mary's touch sent shivers down her back and for a second she forgot her train of thought.
"Jess?" questioned Mary patting the hand and then pulling her own back.
"What? Oh! I'll go over there and knock the fence down. Then neither side will have lost face," explained Jess getting up.
"You be careful!" ordered Mary and was pleased to see Jess smile.
"It's okay. They are looking for a way out of this without losing face or they wouldn't have sent for me. There wont be any tribal wars until after the Timp ceremony," explained Jess. "I'll see you two later," she finished heading off at an easy stride.
"Does she often solve the village problems?" asked Mary watching the retreating figure of the doctor.
"Doctor Jess, big warrior. Plenty big magic too! Doctor Jess will solve the problem. The people, listen to her. You see," explained Mone getting up and helping to clear the dishes before he went back to the clinic. "When first she came here, some warriors tried to raid the compound. This had happened many times before. But Doctor Jess say no. When they attacked, she grab an axe and beat them all! One woman against many warriors! Em i-no save pret!"
"She is brave," Mone translated.
Mary smiled, "Yes, she is," she agreed.
So that was Samalli, thought Mary after Mone left. He looked really upset and frustrated with the Eravey. Kalla had been an Eravey, Mone had said. Could Samalli have killed Kalla to get revenge for the Eravey stealing his land? Mary wondered as she added detergent to the basin of hot water on the cook stove? He seemed angry enough.
Jess returned about an hour later and reported the fence was down and that the two warring fractions had calmed down without any fighting taking place. Then she headed off to work in her office again.
While Mary was writing in her journal in the kitchen that afternoon, she was distracted by a flash of brilliant blue and orange as a bird swooped passed. A Bird of Paradise! Mary realized and putting down her pen, she limped outside to see if she could spot the elusive bird. There it was! It had flown to the far end of the compound and was sitting high in the branches of a tree near the landslide area. Carefully, Mary moved forward. She was pretty close when the crow sized, orange bird with the long graceful blue tail flew in a low arch from the tree down to the bushes on the other side of the slide.
I bet it has a nest over there, reasoned Mary and very carefully, she started to pick her way across the open scar of the slide. She moved slowly, being careful not to fall as she traversed the steep, loose soil. Half way across the trickle of loose dirt that had rolled and bounced down the hillside with each step increased into a stream. The ground under Mary's feet moved down hill taking her with it. She fell to her side and tobogganed forward on a river of red dirt. Pain shot up her leg and she gasped as she suddenly found herself rolling now head over heels in an avalanche of red death.
Mary fought to keep her head clear of the mud but each time she forced her way clear, she would be hit by another wave of debris and buried. Finally, her forward movement stopped and she found herself buried beneath the earth. Her world was dark and damp. Her arms pinned by the weight of the mud. Miraculously, her shoulders and head had wedged in a small hollow formed by tree roots and she had, for the time being, some sore, musty air to breath. Water dripped through the layers of mud and ran down her face and into the pocket of air below her. If help didn't come soon she was going to either suffocate or drowned.
Jess, looked at the chemical breakdown of the drug again and sighed. She was missing something, she knew but couldn't figure out what it could be. Not long after Jess had arrived in the highlands, a drought had ended with a few weeks of heavy rain. Papua New Guinea sat in the path of two monsoon belts and it rained everyday for a few hours except for about a two week span when the monsoon winds changed directions. But once every ten years or so the winds shifted farther south and there was a drought. Jess had hiked high into the hills and had camped in the protection of a small copse. During the night, she had woke to an amazing fairyland. Huge toadstools had sprouted up in the moist, forest decay and they glowed in the dark in pastel shades of pink, green and blue. Jess sat in wonder and stared at the remarkable beauty around her. She had seen flourescent seaweed dredged up from the depths of the sea by a storm and she had witnessed the phenomena in lichen deep in caves but this, under the rising moonlight was just breathtaking!
The next day, she had gathered some samples and taken them back to camp. From the local people, she learned that the toadstools only appeared after a drought and that dried and ground, they put people in a painless, half awake state that the shaman used to contact the spirit world. When Jess had run out of pain killers, Mone had told her to try the mushrooms. They had worked very well. But she was having trouble isolating the chemical structure of the compounds. Part of the problem was that she just didn't have the equipment for this sort of research but she was beginning to suspect that the strange glowing mushroom was just an oddity in mother nature's world.
Jess had been experimenting with doses and found that the drug seemed to have very little side effects. It was this drug that she had given Mary to keep her pain free and calm until her mutilated foot could start to heal. Mary had seemed to have trouble focusing her eyes and thoughts while under the drugs influence but she had recovered very quickly when Jess had stopped the injections. Jess felt that the strange plant had real possibilities for medicine.
"Doctor Jess?" interrupted Mone into Jess's thoughts. " That hillside gave a little more I think. I hear the rumble."
Jess sat back and looked at her colleague, "We'd better find some way of stabilizing the hillside then before we lose any more of the compound," she commented and Mone nodded his agreement.
"We could terrace the hillside with logs," suggested Mone, "If we can afford to get the local men to work for a few days."
It was Jess's turn to nod, "That sounds like a plan. You want to talk to some of the locals?"
Mone smiled, "I see to it, Doctor Jess! You no worry." The small Papuan laughed and left.
Jess smiled, if she knew Mone, the work crews were probably already organized. Mone ran the compound and Jess was simply the figurehead and she knew it! Behind Mone's calm exterior was a rather large ego! The request had just been a gesture of politeness. Jess turned back to her research but found it hard to settle back to work. It was one of those nice, late afternoons, when the sky was a fresh blue and the air lacked the heavy humidity. She wondered if Mary would like to go fishing. Maybe they could catch something for dinner. As kids, they used to often go down to the river and catch fish. Well, Jess would catch them, by wading out and grabbing a fish as it swam by. Mary could never get the hang of it.
She got up and looked out the window. Mary was not in sight. I wonder if she still likes to fish or if she is too much of a lady to get wet now. Jess made a decision and headed to the door. Loping across the compound, she entered their hut. Mary wasn't there. Jess did a circle of the compound and could not find Mary. She frowned, surely Mary wouldn't wander off without telling Jess. She was stubborn but not stupid. Then a dread exploded in her heart and she ran over to the slide and anxiously searched the tumbled earth for any sign of the little woman. Near the base of a leaning tree, she made out the muddy strands of blond hair. "Mone!!" Jess screamed as she dived down the bank in three jumps and started to dig frantically with her hands.
Mary's neck ached as she tried to keep her head above the rising muddy water. Panic was her worst enemy and she did her best to stay calm and not use up too much oxygen. Her head felt wooly and her eyes heavy and she knew she did not have much longer. She reached out with her feelings in one last effort and called out with her soul, Jess, I need you! Then her head slumped forward.
Mone arrived shortly after and helped Jess dig. He had never seen the warrior in a panic before but she clearly was in one now. Right from the beginning it had seemed that Mary had a hold on the doctor's Timp. Mone thought this was a good thing. He liked to talk to Mary. He hoped she had not died.
Jess reached into the pocket of muddy water and supported Mary's head. She held the woman tenderly in her arms and with shaky hands checked her vitals. Mary was breathing shallowly and her pulse was steady but weak. Jess wiped some of the mud from Mary's face and green eyes trembled and opened. "Knew you'd come if I called," the journalist mumbled and Jess held her close as tears slowly ran down her face.
PNG Encounter - Part 3
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