Read the Prologue

Prologue

The rain that day had been particularly heavy. Olsen slogged behind him through the forest and across gushing streams, muttering all the time that it was all wrong, and what were they doing anyway when they could have gone to Bili Bili and asked for asylum. But Maclay ignored him, listening only for the voice of the forest. When he stopped to take breath before a fallen tree a flash of colour caught his eye and a butterfly with a wingspan as wide as his hand dropped softly onto a nearby branch. He noticed the details, how the wings gently fanned the air, how the antennae quivered slightly. The forewings were deepest blue patterned with gold and the underwings completely gold, wide and silky as a woman’s petticoat. The butterfly was a symbol of freedom, of the soul, of regeneration after death. Was it a sign? In parts of Europe it was believed that butterflies first grew from the tears of the Virgin. But here where other gods ruled, what meaning could be found in the visitation?

This is not the time or place for nature study, Olsen said, a sneer in his voice. Gorendu was still a few hours away along paths twisting and turning through the forest. Maclay climbed over the log and continued on, Olsen once more cursing and lamenting his fate.

The path veered back towards the coast again and he heard the sound of waves thudding against high cliffs. He was confused now, not sure which way to go next. Olsen was perhaps relieved. The Swede would do anything to get out of this but there was no turning back. The course he had decided on would settle all their problems one way or another. And if the outcome was not as he had planned he could not take responsibility for Olsen’s life. He had done everything possible to keep them both alive.

It was then that Tui chose to make his presence known. All along he’d had the definite suspicion they were being followed. Olsen was completely unaware of it and he had said nothing, not wanting to send him into a panic or a deep depression which was worse. Then he would be forced to cajole him into continuing, to reason with him. The situation was beyond reason.

“I will lead you to Gorendu,” Tui said, but his betel stained smile did not reach his eyes and when they finally arrived at the gardens on the edge of the compound he and his son lagged behind until they were swallowed by the jungle’s dark maw.

 “We’re alone,” Olsen said.

“Just watch me, and for God’s sake try to look confident.” But he could see Olsen sliding into one of his fever fits, the sweat rolling down his face, his lips trembling. Maclay ignored him. If he was to do this properly as he had planned he must be tuned to his own resolve, unmoved by fear or self-doubt. Olsen must not distract him.

 Now they were inside the compound. The warriors rushed forward with spears and shields but then seemed to stop at an invisible barrier. The surprise tactics had worked. An enemy who did not play by the rules would not die by the rules. One young blood launched a spear at him but the missile went deliberately wide of its mark. Now he was supposed to retaliate, show his anger and contempt.

“Maclay needs food,” he said, uncertain whether his words matched the local dialect. The tone he used was imperious, assured, with no edge of fear or anxiety to feed the already strong suspicion that he was not what he chose to be in their eyes. He sat down in the village square and laid out his utensils. A tin kettle, a knife and fork, a mug. He focussed all his attention on that operation, as though petitioning some higher power than himself to bring forth the fruits of the earth, but at the same time he sensed the fear and anger around him and the violence waiting to be unleashed. Now he needed every nerve to be steady. One false move would break the spell. Olsen stood by, his face impassive. The Swede had found the courage to play along with him.

Food was brought and he ate slowly, careful not to show too much hunger. A god would have no great appetite for taro and sago. A god would relish only human flesh, ripping it from the bones with fiendish claws.

Tui was there now demanding a place for Maclay to sleep. It was common courtesy, they could not refuse, and when night came suddenly and completely as it always did, he and Olsen were shown a corner of the long hut to stow their bundles and to rest. But the crowd followed them inside and he knew there was to be no peace, that the confrontation would come soon. He had no time to make plans and perhaps it was better that way. Olsen was steady as a rock now but he stank of fear. The men watching every reaction knew only too well the smell of a cornered animal, but it was not Olsen they were after.

How long was it that they sat watching each other? He and Olsen, the two pale ghosts from the sea—aloof and impenetrable—staring across eternity at the men of Gorendu, perhaps thirty or forty warriors and old men. And Tui, faithful friend or clever foe, changing camps whenever the mood seemed to go against him. Now there was a murmur and then angry words from the back of the crowd. He could not follow the dialect but something had been decided. A warrior came forward. His name was Saul, he said. Now was the time.

When the question was asked he pretended not to understand. Time was what he needed most, then, time to gauge the mood and the expectation. Did they want him alive or dead? That he could not tell, but he had to make it easy for them, let them decide. Tui was in it now up to his neck. Let him ask the question in his own dialect and then live with the consequences.

“Can Maclay die?”

Then he knew his best chance. He stood up. “Give me the spear,” he said to Saul, and when Saul slowly passed the weapon to him he took it, weighed it for a moment in his hand, letting the tension build inside the hut until it was nearly unbearable.

He turned slowly and offered the spear to Tui.

“Let’s see if Maclay can die,” he said.

About Nikolai Miklouho Maclay

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