The best thing I can say about the cave was that it was a little cooler. The worst thing, neck and neck with my soul-crushing claustrophobia, was the spider that ran over my hand in the dark. It basically raped my fingers with the lightest, hairiest touch I’ve ever felt. I swung the light around just in time to see one of its legs. It was the size of a chicken thigh.
I didn’t scream. But I think Daw heard the panic in my breathing, because instead of driving ahead without looking back, he took my hand and helped me navigate the uneven passages. The bats swooping through the beams of the light beams didn’t bother me. Our attic always had a bat problem and I was the best at catching them with a lacrosse stick and Dustbuster.
What did bother me? The Casket. That’s what I called the super charming section where we had to take off our packs, shove them in front of us, and belly crawl through a damn tube the size of a coffin.
“I don’t like small spaces.”
“You said that.”
“Yes. I did”
He was waiting with his pack already in The Casket. I could feel the patience draining out of him. I made a decision.
“When I was four someone put me in a wooden box, so small my neck was bent between my knees. They hammered it shut and left me in it for the night.”
Daw’s eyes grew big in the dark.
“That is terrible.”
“I really don’t like small spaces.”
He nodded. Thought a moment. Took my pack and shoved it up with his. He went through pushing both packs, then came back so his face was peeking out at me.
“I will go through backwards. You come on, and only look at my eyes. Don’t look away. Pretend you are crawling across an open plain, looking at my eyes.”
“Why am I crawling across a plain? If it was wide open, I’d be walking.”
His mouth hardened a little.
“Ok sure. Here we go.”
It wasn’t so bad. His eyes were lighter brown than I thought. They seemed to glow in the darkness and I concentrated on counting the sparse dark lashes on his lower lids, each one standing alone without touching a neighbor. I pushed with my boots and knees and before I knew it he dropped out on the other side and I followed. There was light coming from around the next curve.
“That was easy!” I crowed.
He grunted and strapped my pack back on with more muscle than necessary.
Soooooo happy to be back in the open air. The heat and bugs died down as the sun started to dip behind the ridge.
“Where are we gonna sleep?” I wondered out loud. It literally had not occurred to me before. An image of waking up on the ground, snuggling a Malaysian pit viper flashed through my mind.
“There are many hill towns in this area. We are close to the one where we will stay tonight.”
It sprang out of the forest without any warning. We were deep in the green heart of the jungle, miles from any real road, and pop, there was a whole village. A cluster of huts on stilts surrounded a central fire pit, with longer huts spread out in a wider circle. Dogs and kids, both with a lot of ribs and not a lot of teeth, ran up to us on the path.
They all seemed to know Daw, and he scooped up a couple of both species in his arms, exchanging nuzzles. He was carried off with the pack and I didn’t know where to go. A skinny young boy in a monk’s orange robe stood by the gate to the village. He eyed me up and down and nodded like a king, allowing my presence.
Feeling like a lost puppy, I wandered around the compound, inspected by chickens and suspicious eyes from hut fronts. One side of the village was completely cleared of the jungle brush and I could see out across the valley, to the next set of mountains. The landscape looked like a crumpled velvet tablecloth someone dropped after a good meal. It was hard to believe the same sun that was setting behind those purple mountains would rise over the factories of Battle Creek, Michigan.
“It’s time for dinner,” Daw said.
I jumped. He was silent, that guy.
We went into a hut and my heart stopped. Honest to God, there was a mummy laying in the darkness. Her face was pale under a cross-hatch of deep wrinkles and the rest of her was bound in white muslin. Bats and spiders and mummies, fuck me, this was a House of Horror not a vacation.
“That is my grandmother. She has not been well lately. She is just getting older and needs more rest.”
I checked her pulse, pulling away the wrappings.
“Stop that, you have no business touching her!”
“I’m a nurse,” I snapped, “And your grandmother is dying.”
Daw left and brought in two village women, all of them talking in Thai at once. I ignored them and continued to check the woman. Stiff, cold appendages. Blood was collecting around the primary internal organs, trying to keep her alive. Viscous fluids in the mouth and nose. She stopped breathing and so did I. Ten seconds. Then she gasped without opening her eyes and started again.
“Ask them when’s the last time she ate or drank anything,” I said over my shoulder to the bickering sounds.
The dressing around her genitals was dark red. Not blood, distilled urine. Kidneys had stopped functioning.
“They say she has not taken food or drink for a day and a half,” Daw translated through the noise, “Before that, she was doing much better. They are making a broth for her now.”
“They can stop. She’s not going to eat it, her digestive system shut down.”
Daw said something to the women in rapid Thai. I knew it wasn’t a direct translation of what I said.
“You should tell them the truth. Tell them to get the family together and do…whatever they do for a final goodbye here,” I felt her pulse again, “She’ll probably been gone by morning.”
Daw grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of the hut.
“Who do you think you are?” he hissed. His face was inches away and I could feel the angry heat coming off him. His blunt fingers dug into my upper arm, cords standing out on his forearm. “This is our family’s business, not yours. I am a doctor! I was educated in Australia! I know dying when I see it. And the aunties think she will be better soon.”
I was alone. No one knew where I was. This was his village, and I was the intruder. I should definitely not say, “Hey Doctor Dummy, your grandmother’s not a fucking wallaby.” The smart thing to do was back down and let them lie to themselves.
“Listen to me Daw,” I said in my Nurse Tone, “I am very sorry to tell you that your grandmother’s time is near. Her systems have shut down and all we can do at this point is be there for her during this transition. Did you know she can still hear us, even though she can’t respond? Let’s get all the people who love her to say goodbye, huh?”
My Nurse Tone is sweet as sugar. And the grip I used to take his hand off me was iron.
The fight went out of him. Tears sprang up and caught in the web of stubby eyelashes I had stared at earlier. He nodded and left me rubbing my sore arm.
Nearly everyone in the village piled into Auntie Anong’s hut. I stayed at the edge of the crowd as they sang to her, stroked her cheeks and took turns wailing over her body. Turns out death and the goodbyes look the same whether you’re in a sterile hospital room or a smoky hut.
Daw was missing for hours. I was getting spooked that he had abandoned me. Shit maybe I’d die in this village too, trapped by my inability to go back through the cave by myself.
He finally came back right before dawn. A younger version of him followed like a Daw Echo into the hut.
The man collapsed on the grandmother’s feet, sobbing. I took the opportunity to slip through the crowd and check her pulse again. Shuddery. It was close.
“Go easy and I hope your next life is beautiful,” I said in my head as I patted her shoulder. I’d probably said that little prayer to 500 people right before they died. I meant it every time.
The stars were fading and I could barely make out a line of mountain against the sky. Someone was singing now in Auntie Anong’s hut. Daw came out and sat next to me by the fire they had kept burning all night. He smelled like gas.
“That your little brother?”
“Yes. He is working across the valley. He would not have gotten to say goodbye if…Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Tell me your favorite memory of her.”
He took a swig of something cloudy in a jar and the gas smell intensified.
He chuckled. “It is our finest mountain moonshine. Special occasions only. Try it.”
OMG it seriously tasted like gas and rotten meat. I choked. He laughed. We watched the fire for a while before he spoke.
“When I was a little boy I liked to chase her favorite rooster. It stressed the animal, to where it’s feathers were falling out. She kept swatting me for it, and I kept doing it. I don’t know why. Maybe it felt good to be more powerful than him. To exert my dominance. She called me over one day. The rooster was letting her pet him in her lap. Animals love her…she’s the one who taught me how to earn their trust.
She handed me a knife and told me to cut his throat. ‘You want to cause him harm? You want to be the big man and bully him? Don’t pick at him piece by piece. Have the courage to kill him all at once.’ I remember how his eye twitched, following my hand with the knife. He didn’t try to run. He was safe in her hands. There was so much blood it soaked us both. And she made me eat two plates of rooster at dinner.”
“That is a badass parenting move.”
“Yes. It was quite badass.”
He hiccuped and started crying. He tried to hide it, pressing his face into his crossed arms. His shoulders were jumping though.
Shit. Ethically, you are supposed to “support the grieving individual with a minimal amount of physical contact.”
I scooted closer and gently rubbed his shoulder. He took some deep breaths and wiped his face on his sleeve.
I usually spot things coming, so it shocked me when Daw’s mouth landed on mine, urgent and hot. He tasted like that gross gas liquor and his lips were velvet soft. His face was wet from tears and maybe a little snot.
I shouldn’t let this happen. I still had days in the jungle solo with this guy, and he was hurting. Lots of people don’t know that horniness is a common reaction to death. Some people need to feel something other than grief, others want to connect with the source of life. Either way, witnessing death can give you a hell of a boner.
Case in point, Daw took my hand and rubbed it on the flagpole under his khakis. Despite myself I moaned a little into his mouth. He was a good kisser, even in his selfish agitation. And he grew even more under my hand.
He lifted me to straddle his lap, so I was pressed against it and wrapped his arms around me tightly, never stopping the breathless kissing. I couldn’t help wiggling against him a little bit and he groaned, biting my lower lip. I ran my hand over his back and it was all ropy muscle. One hand released me to reach under my filthy shirt and circle my breast. Right then I realized the singing had stopped.