By Jason Erik Lundberg
A cage, spacious, the size and shape of a fútbol end zone, open to the sky with a roof of thin netting. But at the same time it feels insular, filled with a stifling and oppressive heat. There's something of the tropics in this place, a location close to the equator, the heat and humidity a way of life. The walls of the cage are crosshatched mesh, the kind you've seen at zoos, or animal parks, the mesh providing some illusion of freedom, no bars here, the weave open enough to allow a breeze, like the one that caresses your naked skin, but too small for disease-carrying insects, or anything bigger. The jungle beyond the enclosure is open, limitless, free. And everywhere is the sound of birds.
On the floor of the cage are dozens of empty exoskeletons, the remains of crustaceans larger than the biggest crabs you've ever seen, pecked apart by a powerful beak, left shattered on the concrete floor.
There is someone you need to find. It is your purpose in this place, to look for this person. Only, you can't remember whom you're meant to locate. You can't remember much of anything. Your quarry might be female, though there's no way to be sure. When you plumb the depths of long-term memory, you find experience and identity gone, as if your existence has spontaneously generated itself. The space where those memories should be is now replaced with water, an overwhelming sense of water, flowing around you, within you, through you. It is an unsettling feeling, this profusion of water.
As you continue to lean against a thick and ancient banyan tree (so it's not just a matter of losing all knowledge, since you can recognize the tree by the feel of its bark against your back, and you do know the names of things, so it's more of a selective removal of identity, which is even more disturbing), as you sit against this tree, the patch of grass surrounding it coarse under your naked buttocks, you feel not so much like a person as an assemblage of sensations. Faculties of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind, all aggregated into . . . what? Not a soul, certainly, nor an identity.
From above, a cringe-inducing shriek: —Son of a bitch!
So lost in reverie you were that you didn't think to look upward, to the other denizen of this cage. A great fuliginous bird in the banyan tree, its plumage dark as the deepest shadow, tipped on the ends of its wings and the top of its head with a splash of red, the color of dried blood. Its rheumy eyes glare at you. The wings extend twenty feet from tip to tip, and flap twice, sharply, the produced wind cooling the sweat on your dark hairless skin.
—Son of a bitch! it cries again.
You stand on shaky legs, the posture of a newborn colt, or a giraffe. The concrete is cool under your feet, remarkable in such blistering heat. Above, in the tree, the bird seethes with intelligence. Standing before it in your nakedness, you ask:
—Who are you?
—I? it squawks. —I? It asks of I? There is no I, only us. We are the Great Tocsin, and it is an interloper!
It flaps its wings again, a gust that nearly blows you off your feet.
—I apologize, you say. —I didn't realize I was trespassing.
—Trespassing-trespassing-trespassing! it tics, Tourette-like. —It must pay the penalty!
The bird swoops down faster than human discerning, one swift movement that brings it right to you, a tackle, you now on your back, the bird above you, talons extended, its great long beak stabbing down at you. You struggle, but the bird outweighs you by at least fifty pounds, and it opens a gash on your shoulder, stabs deep into your thigh with its beak, scratches furrows into your chest and your face. You roar in pain and anger, and to your complete astonishment, a low green fire sprouts from your skin, licking from fingertips to feathers, igniting the bird like a bonfire. It pushes itself off of you, flaps wildly, trying to extinguish the preternatural flame, hobbling, hopping, lifting into the air several feet before crashing down again. A high unnatural screech fills the air, a cry of knowledge and impotence, against the unfairness of the world, and before you can question any of what is happening, you reach down to grab one of the many giant crab claws on the concrete floor, and plunge it into the heart of the bird. Purple blood spurts over your hands, a final death call from the beak stained with your blood, a rattle, a shudder, and the bird is still.
From behind you, a voice, authoritative and female, says, —You didn't have to do that, you know.
Stepping into view is a short Chinese teenager, her blue and black hair short-spiked in seventeen different directions. Dark makeup around her eyes and mouth. Clothed in silk brocade: a red jacket, embroidered with the dragon and the phoenix, and black form-fitting silk pants, embellished with the lotus and the crane. In her hands is a hand-carved walking stick, two different types of bamboo, combined, intertwined, one dark, almost obsidian, the other light, greenish. You did not see her enter the cage, and cannot think of how she has gotten inside.
—Can you understand me? she says.
—Why did you kill the Tocsin? It was the last of its kind in the Park.
—It attacked me.
—So? You can't die.
The girl steps over you. She cradles the body of the charred and bloody bird, and sings a low song in a language you've never before heard, full of melodious words and tones. The grayish smoke from the bird's singed feathers thickens, opaques, becoming a solid thing which detaches itself, pulsing in time to the girl's song, and it lifts into the sky, past the netting at the top of the cage, rising higher and higher, sprouting wings, it's only a speck now, rising, and then it disappears from sight. The bird's physical body exhales loudly, then crumbles to ash.
She stands up, dusts herself off, looks you over.
—You're a mess, she says.
The subterranean cave you now inhabit is built into a large hill, not far from the cage in which you awakened. Cooler than outside, but cozy, decorated with generic landscape paintings and overstuffed furniture decades old. You lie on a dusty leather couch, but no leather you're familiar with, and your wounds throb. The girl dressed the one in your leg, the most serious one, because, according to her, even if you can't die, you can still lose the ability to walk if the damage is too severe. A tourniquet, a dressing, a pungent salve applied to your other scratches and gashes, stinging and numbing, the ointment made from distilled tiger saliva. At least you are no longer bleeding, and the girl even found some clothes and hiking boots for you, helping you into them without comment. You get the impression that a naked man is no big deal for her.
—My name is Ming Liu, she says. —I am the guardian of this place.
—And what exactly is this place?
—Jurong. It used to be a Singaporean bird park. Now it's more.
—Listen, I know you have a lot of questions, but I'm not the right one to answer them. Even if I knew the answers, I would not be allowed to tell you.
—Allowed by whom?
—That's one of the answers I'm not allowed to give. There's only one person who can help you: the Undine. I can take you as soon as you're up for the trip.
Every six hours or so, she brings a jellied fruit paste for you to eat, and a tureen of cool, clear water. In between those times, she's out, patrolling the Park, doing her rounds. You sleep fitfully, jerking awake after only a few minutes, the irrational and unconscious fear gnawing at your tired brain, the fear that when you wake again, you'll have lost your memory once more. But eventually, you sink into slumber, dreamless in oblivion.
Ming Liu carried you here on her shoulders, fireman-style, her slight frame surprisingly strong. You passed through the mesh of the cage as if it were vapor, non-existent. A compound illusion. When you asked her why the birds did not just fly away, she exhaled, as if this were a question a five-year-old might ask, and said:
—There's no reason for them to test their reality, is there? The mesh was actually there at one point, but they can't tell the difference. As long as they're fed and kept healthy, they don't try to escape. Now, be quiet. You're heavy enough without all this talking.
After three days, your scrapes and gashes have healed, and your leg is sturdy enough for you to walk on it. You still experience a dull pain, and occasional twinges of something sharper, but Ming Liu assures you that it'll go away in time. You are surprised at the rapidity of your recovery, unsure whether you naturally heal this quickly, or whether it is being in this place, in Jurong.
Ming Liu offers her walking stick, and you lean heavily on it as you both exit the cave, from the shadows into the reality of sunshine and humidity. What was once a zoological park, with clear pathways, maintained carefully by gardeners and horticulturalists, is now an overgrown jungle, crowded with hundreds of species of bamboo and palm and banyan and heliconia, a profusion of greens and pinks and yellows, a twenty-foot high canopy saving you from direct sunlight. The intensity of the light is no less diminished, though its harshness is muted from its passage through the leaves. Walking paths have been taken over by indigo mosses and Bird of Paradise and Voodoo Lily, a natural floral labyrinth, impossible to navigate without Ming Liu's help, an invitation to losing yourself forever.
The going is slow, your reliance on the walking stick a hindrance in the heavy undergrowth. Every so often you pass another cage, more and more colorful birds, mutated, five times bigger than what you think they should be, their size ominous, and they stare at you as you hobble by, the intelligence clear in their eyes, no longer stupid animals, more dangerous for their cognizance. Any noise they normally make is silenced with your passing. Under their intense scrutiny, your skin crawls.
Spaced out along the path are several swampy pools, dark brown water infested with algae and clumps of starfish and rotted logs. The smell of decay is strong. You see the outlines of things swimming in the murky water, creatures with an impossible number of eyes and fins. A bevy of dragonflies hovers above one such pool, a silent communion, as if in prayer, and the serenity is destroyed by an amphibious monster, a water-born weasel which hisses as it leaps into the air and snatches three of the dragonflies in its mouth, then drops back beneath the surface with hardly a splash.
Knots of gnats pervade the air, buzzing in your eyes, your ears, your nose. You get the impression they are trying to find a way into your skull. Mosquitos nip at your skin, and you soon wear patterns of red weals over your arms and neck. Beside the giant birds in the cages, other smaller free-ranging birds populate the countless number of trees and plants. However, you are surprised at the absence of other animals, tigers, monkeys, rodents, and you tell this to Ming Liu.
—I've wondered about that myself, she says. —There don't seem to be any non-avian mammals in the Park, beside the two-legged kind. Just the insects, fish and birds.
An explosion from the greenery in front of you, a burst of feathers and small bodies, of green and red and yellow and black and blue, and you scream and fall to the ground, hands over your face, the sound and fury of countless beating wings streaking by you, a hundred thousand winged projectiles, and then they're gone, a massive flock lifted up into the sky, an amorphous colorful blot headed where it will. Ming Liu helps you up, a smile wriggling its way onto her lips.
—Australian lories, she says. —Come on, we've still a ways to go.
Limping slowly, slowly, trying not to trip over roots or the occasional mallard. Farther down the footpath, late afternoon now, is the biggest tree you're ever likely to see, as if Yggdrasil, the Norse world-tree, has taken root in Jurong. The apotheosis of banyan trees, its massive trunk the size of a city block, sprouting hundreds of roots as thick as your body, and an infinite number of massive branches stretching up into the clouds, and beyond. Hanging from almost every available surface of the tree is a reddish moss that pulses in the breeze, as if it is breathing. Clinging to the areas of bark not occupied by moss are gnarled shelf mushrooms the size of your head, occupied by dozens of different kinds of insects, all crawling over the surface of the fungus, teeming with life.
Suspended from one of the lower branches, thirty feet from the ground, is a spindly middle-aged man with a blunt rifle, being attacked by dozens of small, laughing, white-bodied birds. Their high-pitched taunts fill the air.
—Piss off, meatbag!
—Your mother was a cuckoo!
Surrounding the man seems to be a buffer of wind that the swarm of birds is unable to penetrate. At your approach, the man lowers himself to the ground on his harness, and the cyclone of air dissipates. His features are South Asian, possibly Indian, and he wears a tired smile. The birds rise as a group, disappearing into the branches.
—Hey, Kadek, Ming Liu says. —Bali mynahs again?
—Yes, they have infested the lower levels of the tree. I have been battling with them all morning. Silly creatures. If I could just get a clear shot, I could take care of nearly all of them. Can you help?
—I can try, she says.
She turns to you.
—Hang on to something.
You grab the trunk of a nearby bamboo tree as Kadek ascends via the harness again. The mynahs flock down from the branches for another assault, buffeted by the protective cyclone that has again sprung up. Ming Liu takes the walking stick from your hand, drives it deep into the ground, closes her eyes. She opens her mouth and emits a deep thruuuuuuuummmmmmmm, barely perceived by the human ear, a vibration felt in the marrow of your bones, in the air itself. The ground shakes and rumbles, leaves fall from a dozen trees, the mynahs freeze in place, equilibriums unbalanced. Kadek aims his weapon at the cluster of birds, swinging and shaking in his harness, unable to squeeze off a shot, and he's yelling to Ming Liu, but her eyes are closed and she can't hear anything for the deep bass rumble, the earthquake of her voice, and the branch Kadek is suspended from cracks, sending him straight down, a collision course with the ground, but before he hits, the weapon misfires, right in your direction, and the next thing you know is abominable pain, the low bass replaced with high-frequency shriek, the sound blinding you, an obliteration of pain, a white noise of pain, and you feel the heat rising within you, activated by the sound, by the pain, a rapid buildup of green fire, and the pressure is abruptly too much to bear, so you release the heat, the fire, and you hear screams, a multitude of screams, and slowly, slowly, the feeling dissipates and the high-frequency shriek fades and your sight returns.
Crumpled up on the ground, Ming Liu shivers, her clothes charred, her skin pink and burned underneath. Littering the ground under the tree are the smoking corpses of mynah birds, motionless. Kadek rushes over, unharmed, and gently turns Ming Liu onto her back. Her breathing is ragged, shallow. Most of her hair is gone.
Kadek's eyes accusatory, —Must you destroy every living being you meet?
—I . . . I didn't mean . . . it was . . .
—Help me. We need to bury her.
—But she's still alive. She's breathing.
—Do what I say! It is the only thing that can help her.
Scattered on the ground near the trunk of the banyan tree are groundskeeping tools, including a pair of shovels. The two of you dig into the ground, far enough away from the roots that the going is rough but consistent, and after the hole is deep enough, about three feet, you and Kadek lift Ming Liu and place her into it. You are still unsure about this, but the look on Kadek's face is stern, such a difference from before. You throw the dirt over her, creating a small mound to cover Ming Liu's still living form. Kadek tamps the dirt tight with his shovel.
He then tends to the dead mynah birds, planting each one in the ground surrounding Ming Liu, digging with his fingers, an oval perimeter of dead guards, dead sentries.
—What are you doing?
—You deserve no explanation, Kadek says. —Sit over there and do not talk to me.
You hobble to the base of the great tree, sit on a massive root. From your position, you hear Kadek sing in a low voice, in the same strange language you heard earlier from Ming Liu. But this song sounds different, not a goodbye, not a release, but more of a plea. The song, soothing, seeps into your brain, and you lean against the tree, the exhaustion of hiking and the most recent events taking over your body, and you are asleep in minutes.
The next morning, you awaken to fog, and voices. Kadek and Ming Liu stand just out of earshot, arguing intensely in hushed tones. It crosses your mind that they are discussing what to do with you.
Ming Liu catches your eye and cuts off a sentence mid-word. She gingerly makes her way over, aided by the bamboo walking stick, her steps delicate. Her hair has already started growing back, blue already streaking through the black, as if it is her natural. Her skin is smooth and unburned. To your surprise, her expression is not fury, nor reproach, but concern.
—Are you all right? she says.
—I think so. Are you all right?
—It appears I am. The rebirth was successful.
—Are you immortal too?
She laughs, a boisterous sound that doesn't fit with her small frame.
—No, I'm not immortal. You are, and the Undine is, but not me.
—I told you. Rebirth.
And as you look closer, there are subtle differences, the eyes tilted just a bit more, the cheekbones higher, the lips fuller, the face less round. She radiates a glow, possibly the glow of rebirth, but it seems more than that, a happiness that wasn't there before. A definite improvement.
—But it was so fast, you say.
—I had help.
She pads over to the freshly disturbed grave, and digs with her toes in the surrounding dirt. A miniscule bird skeleton pushes to the surface, its hollow bones stripped completely. Dozens of its brothers and sisters poke out of the ground, the group of annoying Bali mynahs silenced forever. Even the ones in the tree are mute today.
—What is it with you and endangered species? she says with a bit of a smirk.
—It was an accident, that gun Kadek had . . .
—I know, I know. You probably would have gotten a similar response from me. But listen, you've got to learn to control your abilities better. I've seen you do it, so I know it's possible.
—You've seen me?
—Yes. From before.
—Please, Ming Liu, tell me what's going on. If you knew me before I lost my memory, you've got to help me.
She opens her mouth, her eyes showing an eagerness to reveal the truth. But then she shakes her head. —I'm sorry. It's not my place.
The fury wells up within you, the helplessness, the frustration. Why won't anyone just level with you? Why all the secrecy and mystery?
—Why not? Why isn't your place?
—It just isn't. The Undine . . .
She closes her mouth again, as if this is a bit of information she wasn't supposed to reveal. The Undine seems to be pulling all the strings in this place.
—Fine, you say. —I'll have to find out from her directly. I get it.
Kadek steps into view, a look of shame and embarrassment in his eyes.
—I must apologize for my behavior yesterday, he says to you. —It wasn't completely your fault, what happened, and I was angry with myself as well.
He gathers all his tools together in a bag, shoulders everything, and shakes your hand.
—You're not coming?
—No. I have duties within the Park, but I will see you when you return.
He turns and disappears into the jungle, humming a tune loudly to himself. After several moments, the humming fades away, and Ming Liu turns to you.
She leads you halfway around the base of the giant banyan tree, carefully navigating the network of roots and frequently putting out a hand to balance herself, coming after several minutes to a split in the trunk on the other side, a dark gash. A cold breeze drifts out of the opening, bringing with it dampness, leafmold and decay, the smells of a forest in much cooler climes.
She taps the gash with the head of her walking stick, and it widens, opens, the wind from inside rippling your clothes and chilling your bald head. A motion from Ming Liu, an indication to enter the tree. The thought of so much coldness makes you nervous, but you squeeze through the gash, pushing through into total darkness, instantly chilled to the bone. She follows, and the gash closes again with a wet sucking sound.
—What happens now? you yell to be heard over the gale.
She takes your hand and squeezes tight. The wind changes direction and increases, pulling you upward, and your feet gently leave the ground. You float for a moment, then you are jerked upward, pushed from below and pulled from above, and you're unable to tell how fast because of the darkness but your stomach lurches, and your internal organs feel as though they want to escape through your feet. You fall upward, twisting now, and turning, and the nausea pushes bile into your throat but you clamp your teeth. Ming Liu's hand grips yours, so tight that you'll have bruises later. Falling forever and always, as if this will never stop, as if you will fall upwards into the blackness of space, and beyond, falling past the limits of the solar system, the galaxy, the universe itself, never to return.
But then, your movement slows, and a dim light creeps into your vision, getting brighter, expanding from a point into a fuzzy halo. A hole, a passage to daylight, and you're through it, once again emerging into daylight, brighter than supernova. You hover above a wooden platform, you're held up by the wind within the tree, you float there amid the upper branches. Ming Liu performs a series of deft maneuvers, twisting and contorting her body, wriggling out of the column of air and landing easily on the platform. You clumsily follow her example and manage to tumble out, landing on your injured leg, and the pain from your thigh shoots up your spine and into the base of your skull.
—Fine, you grunt.
The sunlight is so bright here, unfiltered by the branches and leaves closer to the ground. It is almost too much, being surrounded, pushed down by the illumination, by the fiery ball close enough for you to reach up a hand and caress it. But gradually, your eyes begin to adjust.
She helps you up and hands you the walking stick.
—Here. You still need this more than me.
A walkway, wooden, cherry or mahogany, stretches out before you from the platform, disappearing into the upper branches, a latticework of struts and trusses. Once again, she takes you by the hand, and over the side of the walkway you see an infinity of branches. You stay to the center of the boards. From far below you can hear the sounds of birdcall, but it is muted. This high up, you expect the air to be cold and thin, a constant assault of wind currents, but it feels almost exactly the same as when you were on the ground, hot and sticky, the barest hint of a breeze.
From nowhere, a giant thing passes overhead, like a pterodactyl with a two-hundred-foot wingspan, a leviathan of the air, and it screeches, filling the sky with its cry, and Ming Liu pushes you to hug the branches, to stay out of sight.
You whisper, —Does it attack?
—Not me. It won't hurt me. But it's still angry about what you did to its babies.
—What did I do?
The mammoth bird screeches again, then veers off, away. You press against the branches until she tells you it's okay. A few moments later, from far away, the bird cries again, a mother raging over her lost children.
Around and over and through, a dizzying number of turns and doubling-backs, and then you are there. A clearing in the branches, a wide circular landing, above which hovers a small zeppelin, no more than thirty feet long, tethered to the landing with steel cables. Hanging from the sides of the balloon is a pair of flesh-colored flaps, lobes, like the ears of an elephant, thin material but sturdy-looking, blending into the fabric of the balloon, seamless. The deck underneath is enclosed, but surrounded by open windscreens. Through the windows at the bow of the airship, a middle-aged thin man is visible, working several controls in a brisk manner. As you and Ming Liu board the airship via the flexible gangplank that stretches from the landing up to the deck, the man looks familiar, and when he turns around, you see why. It is Kadek.
—I thought he wasn't coming with us, you say, confused at how he could have beaten you two up here.
Ming Liu smiles. Kadek approaches, but . . . he appears different, filled out, not so spindly, an easy smile that reaches up into his eyes, and his clothes are different, a sleeveless shirt and cargo pants, and he is clearly not the man you met before.
—I am Wayan, he says slowly, as if talking to an infant, or someone hard of hearing, or a foreigner. —I am the pilot of this ship.
—Amazing, you say. —You and Kadek, you're twins?
—Septuplets, actually. Seven of us to keep the grounds. You think the Park's a jungle now, you should see it when we're not working on it.
Wayan laughs, a joyous boisterous sound that seems to come all the way up from his toes, as if he has just told the funniest joke in the world. It is infectious, and you grin involuntarily. He wipes a tear away.
—My job is reconnaissance, the eyes in the skies. I report anything unusual back to my brothers. And I've been known to take passengers where they need to go.
—We're headed for the Undine's Waterfall, Ming Liu says.
Wayan nods. —I figured as much. She would definitely want to see him.
It is unnerving, everyone you meet knowing who you are, but unwilling, or unable, to tell you anything, who you are, why you have no memory, what exactly you are doing in Jurong, how you came to be here. You take a deep breath, trying not to burst into an exasperated diatribe, or something worse, go with the flow, breathe, breathe, breathe.
Wayan smacks you on the arm. —Shall we make way?
Ming Liu sinks into a bean bag chair on the deck, made from the same leathery material as the couch in her cave, closes her eyes, and promptly falls asleep. Wayan chuckles.
—It amazes me the way she can do that. But I know how uncomfortable she is traveling by air, being so far up from the ground, from her earth. No worries, we will wake her when we reach the waterfall. Come, stand up at the front with me.
Wayan gives you a leather strap, shows you how to hook it around your waist, hook it to a support loop on the control panel. He dons a similar strap, and does the same. On the panel are dozens of buttons, gauges, levers, a complicated array of controls, illustrated by simple pictograms. One button and the gangplank retracts, another and the cables unmoor themselves from the landing, slither up and disappear underneath the deck. The zeppelin rises slowly, clearing the last of the Mother Tree's upper branches, your view now unhindered, the vast swath of Jurong extending in all directions, stopped only by the seas on either side.
—Here we go, Wayan says and pulls a lever. The elephant ears on either side of the airship raise, then lower, up down up down up down, faster and faster, building speed, producing an amazing amount of wind, faster, now up to the speed of a hummingbird, or a dragonfly, the sound a roar at tornado-strength, and Wayan grins and pulls another lever and the dirigible launches forward.
Windscreens slide up on all sides of the deck. Your ears pop. You can't tell how fast you are traveling, but the clouds streak overhead. After a moment, Wayan tells you that it is safe to walk around. You unhook yourself from the control panel and step to a starboard windscreen. Below, far below, the ground passes quickly beneath the ship, out of the Park proper and into miles and miles of city buildings, all overgrown by lichen, ivy, fungi, luminescent violet kudzu. Streets are barely discernible as thoroughfares, so choked they are by hundreds of species of greenery. And above the dimmed roar of the passing wind is the combined sound of thousands upon thousands of cries and squawks and trills, the noise of the bird park writ large.
—Where are all the people? you ask.
—I do not know. In all the time I have been here, I cannot remember encountering anyone other than my brothers, the Undine and Ming Liu. And you.
—Was it always like this?
—It does not appear so, Wayan says. —At one point this whole area must have been a great metropolis, a thriving region of commerce. You see how tall the buildings are. Now, Jurong encompasses everything, all of Singapore, stretching up into Malaysia and Thailand, and down into Indonesia, where I am from.
—So how did you come to work in this place?
—I . . . you know, I no longer remember. I have been here a very long time, but I cannot actually recall when or how I first came here. Isn't that strange?
—Do you think the Undine knows?
—It is possible. She knows many things. I suppose I never really considered the question before now, content to do my work. Perhaps I shall ask her.
You pass the next minutes in silence, staring out at the verdant landscape, Wayan stolidly operating the controls. The flight brings you parallel to a wide river that runs the entire length of what used to be Singapore, a vast blue bifurcation in an otherwise field of green. In the distance, at the river's source, rises a gigantic waterfall at least a thousand feet tall. The spray is visible even at this distance, powerful in its magnitude. And the déjà vu hits you, and you know you've been here before.
Something about this place, it gnaws at your guts, at your cullions, an importance. Ming Liu says the Undine has all the answers, but it's more than that, more than just the promise of knowledge. It is the feeling of inevitability, as if you were meant to come here, that this is somehow right.
Wayan maneuvers the zeppelin to a landing platform at the waterfall's cliff, discharges the mooring cables, extends the flexible gangplank. The hummingbird flaps slow and slow and slow and stop. He presses more buttons and the airship sighs, as if the trip has exhausted it. You look back to Ming Liu, yawning and stretching in the bean bag.
The three of you disembark, the warm mist making the air heavy, hard to breathe. Underneath the cross-hatched metal platform: a spiral stairway, stretching down, all the way down, the bottom obscured, disappearing into mist and distance. Ming Liu takes the lead, and the three of you start down, the steps slippery from condensed vapor, every inch of handrail and stair and support covered with rust. You briefly wonder about the stability of the structure, whether it will hold your combined weight, but as you progress you hear no groans, no straining metal, and it's entirely possible the rust is the only thing holding the stairway together.
You walk for nearly an hour before stopping to rest. Your clothes are saturated and Ming Liu's short spiky hair is plastered to her skull. From several hip pockets, Wayan produces bean paste balls, seven-treasure dumplings wrapped in banana leaves, and bars of tamarind candy: sweet, salty and chewy. Munching without words, the roar of the falls preventing conversation, and after finishing, the descent begins again, down and down and down. You lose all sense of time, as if you have been walking these stairs your entire life, the step-step-step a hypnosis, a trance, down the spiral forever, the aching in your calves and quadriceps always there. Haven't you reached the center of the earth already?
A few close calls, wetness on the steps or handrail, a brief vertigo, a momentary slip but a quick recovery. No one loses his or her balance, grabbing for the handrail, the bolts coming free, eaten away by rust and time, as he or she plummets end over end, a wordless shriek, disappearing into the mist, swallowed up by the natural world. You almost prefer something like that to this endless walking.
And then, abruptly, you stop. You've reached a wide landing, cross-hatched with moss and clover and bird droppings, though you've seen no birds in the vicinity, with a plank that leads behind the waterfall, perhaps to a cave in the rock. Ming Liu smiles at you, squeezes your hand, says something you can't hear.
You don't want to go inside. This place curls up in your stomach and scrabbles like a bag of rats. Happily, you'll stay on the landing, getting wetter and wetter from mist and spray, skin wrinkling and puckering, a meat statue for all time, ossifying, calcifying, an everlasting reminder of cowardice, but then Ming Liu and Wayan nudge you gently from behind, propelling you onto the plank and beyond the waterfall and into the cave.
Only, it's not a cave. The roar of the waterfall is gone, and your ears ring in the sudden silence. You stand in a vast ornate chamber, lit by candles in sconces along the walls and in holders on tables, decorated with paintings and complex tapestries. Upon turning around you see no evidence of the entrance through which you passed, no waterfall, no walkway, just solid wall, wooden, or something like it. It is a chamber of royalty, intimidating. The floor is constructed of black and white tiles, constantly moving, forming new patterns, shifting, moving, fluid art. At the far end of the room is an intricate fountain, three layers of marble animals spouting water from mouths and cisterns and other orifices, and on the top sits the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, made entirely of water.
—Welcome back, Dane, she says. —It is good to see you again.
She hurts your heart, her beauty a palpable thing in the chamber, a gravitational well, drawing your attention and fixing it. The dim light from the candles bends to flatter her every curve, while simultaneously reflecting off of her liquid form, throwing wavery patterns onto the walls and the floor. You feel an intense urge to kneel before her, to pledge your undying loyalty, but you remain standing.
—You know who I am, she says.
—You are the Undine.
—That's correct. Partially. I am the water goddess and the ruler of this place. I was there when the world cooled and the elements formed, springing to life from the natural magic of this new existence. As were you.
—Yes, Dane. You are my brother, and I am your sister.
The Undine stands, and an arc of water trickles from her position down to the floor at your feet. She steps into the arc as if it is an escalator, and travels the short distance to directly in front of you, her water conveyance disappearing into her form, reassimilating into her body. The barest touch of her fingers on your cheek and you are sobbing, though you can't think of why. Her smile is beatific. You cannot imagine being a sibling to this goddess.
—I know, she whispers, a susurration that reverberates throughout your body, and all at once you feel exhausted, and the only thing you want to do is sleep in the presence of this beautiful woman, this creature who fills you with longing and shame. You sink to your knees and close your eyes, feeling her hand on your bald head as the world slips away and you sink into the darkness of dream.
You awaken in a large bed of silk sheets, surrounded by pillows, in a room decorated with Chinese characters and delicate watercolor artwork. It feels as if you have slept for days, your mouth gummy, your eyes crusted at the corners. Yawn and stretch, and there is a tureen of water on a table next to the bed which you drink from, greedily. You stop for a moment, suddenly struck with the notion that you are drinking the Undine, that this is her sleeping place, and you find that you don't care, that you would drink her down completely if you could, in order to feel closer to her.
You roll out of bed, the tiled floor cool on your bare feet. The clothes you were wearing are stacked neatly next to the bed. You dress quickly, not bothering with the hiking boots, happy to feel the cool floor with your toes, and then step out of the bedroom and back into the main chamber. The Undine is nowhere to be seen.
Next to the fountain is a dining table for one, adorned with a shiny red tablecloth and laid out with an unusual meal of cooked fish, a lychee bunch stuffed in its mouth, and next to it a glass of pale wine. As you get closer, you identify the fish as one of the amphibious weasels swimming around in the swamps of Jurong. A slice has been cut and displayed on a bone china plate, the food still steaming, and the smell makes your stomach clench with hunger. Saliva springs into your mouth as you sit down to the table.
You alternate between pieces of the weasel and the golf ball-sized lychee, a mixture of fishy and sweet tastes that dissolve on your tongue. The wine is in actuality a type of mead, a powerful concoction with all the flavors of springtime, honeysuckle and jasmine and flowers in bloom, and you stop at half a glass, wary of becoming drunk on the ambrosia. After finishing the weasel and the fruit, leaving nothing but the head and bones, you sit back in the chair, pleasantly full, content. Happy.
Movement from behind you, delicate footsteps, and the Undine appears at the side of your table.
—Yes. Thank you.
—I suppose you have many questions. Let me start by saying that I wish your amnesia had not been necessary. Hurting you is the last thing I wanted to do.
—You did this to me?
—You had become obsessed with the nature of this place.
She nods. —You could not handle the reality of the situation, that Jurong is a prison, a fictive imagining. After an eternity of folly and trickery, it is my punishment, and yours as well. We were sent here by a man you and I both wronged, one I had seen die with my own eyes. But he was just the agent of retribution for a hundred thousand acts of pain and ruin.
—This is a prison? Is there any way out?
—No, and this is what drove your rage. I still see this rage within you, still burning, ready to leap out and consume us all.
You breathe slowly, but she is right, you can feel the frustration and humiliation rising again, like a living thing.
—And I take most of the blame for our being here. You always followed my lead, obeyed my commands, like a trusted lieutenant. But I was the one behind all our schemes, our reign of amoral terror, done for my amusement. If I had not ordered you to kill the one who sent us here, we never would have been enslaved in the first place.
You smell smoke, burning cloth, and realize you are scorching your own clothing. It is her fault that you are here, trapped in this jungle setting. Who is she to take your memory, to rob you of your identity?
Between gritted teeth, you say, —How long have we been here?
— It is impossible to tell. Time moves strangely in this place. Many years, if not centuries.
The Undine throws up a protective shield of water, but it evaporates in seconds. She screams, a multi-harmonic shriek that would shatter glass, the sound ringing in your ears as her form is completely transformed into steam. The walls of the Undine's chamber burst outward, and you see the waterfall in front of you, and it boils and evaporates with the power of your rage. Your feet lift from the ground and you pass through the hole in the chamber back into the outside air, your heat melting the spiral stairway on which you traveled, turning the rust and metal into slag, the anger unending now, expanding outward in all directions. You are a supernova, a hundred nuclear bombs, the Big Bang. The energy of your wrath sears the landscape, turns to ash any living thing in the Park, the trees, the plants, the birds, the insects, the fish.
Before you, the scenery becomes a wasteland, a charred and scorched destruction. You drift down and down, to the bottom of what used to be the waterfall, now nothing but blackened rocks and ash. You scream yourself hoarse, you sob uncontrollably, the tears misting as soon as they leave your eyes. Your muscles contract to the point of pain. It isn't fair. The screams of protest carry to the skies, but there is no answer.
You sit, alone in your misery, emptied out, the ash of a million million trees drifting around you. You are immortal, and the only thing you want right now is to die.
Out of the smoke, nine figures emerge. The Undine, Ming Liu, Wayan, Kadek, and the five other Indonesian brothers.
—Well, says Ming Liu, —that was certainly unproductive.
You shiver, suddenly, uncontrollably.
The Undine puts a hand to your shoulder. —It is fortunate that I have some command over this place. Jurong will regenerate, and I can bring back all the plant and animal life, though it may take some doing.
—What will you do to me? you ask. —Will you erase my memory again?
—No. This clearly did not work last time. And punishment seems to be out of the question. Instead, we will help you.
—We will teach you to accept, to see beyond the reasoning of events, beyond the fairness of the universe. To understand that things happen, such as our imprisonment, and that it is not for us to obsess over why, or to dwell on it, but to move on. We will teach you to live.
—Like this, Kadek says. —In through the nose, filling up your lungs, and out through the mouth. Good. Better.
You sit on the ground at the base of the newly grown Mother Tree, learning to breathe, to meditate. More and more mynahs populate the Mother Tree every day, mocking Kadek with their taunts. But he shows a vast amount of patience, not accepting their provocation, treating them with respect even as he stuns them with his sonic weapon, stores them in a canvas sack, and relocates them to other sections of the Park.
You have noticed a change in yourself as well, a feeling of increasing peace. Your mind relaxes and the memories slowly return, not stolen but buried, hidden away until you were prepared to deal with them. The actions of your past shame you, the lies, the pain you caused, the countless lives affected by the actions of you and your sister. With this gradual recollection, you can appreciate more fully the person you were, and the person you wish to become.
The meditation over, Wayan slaps you on the back and smiles. He hands you the bag of groundskeeping tools, and you follow him to a northeastern area of the Park, the home of tens of thousands of flamingos. The Park becomes more familiar every day as you reacquaint yourself, the paths no longer quite so labyrinthine, the heat no longer so intolerable.
At Flamingo Lake, you trim away dead foliage, you plant new strains of lily, you dig a new pool for the specialized nursery, where the flamingos can raise their young away from the other birds in the park. You dig, the shovel solid in your hands, each thunk a verification of existence, the moistened soil and plants filling your nostrils with life, you dig and your thoughts of how to escape such a place vanish, and your worries about the nature of your imprisonment evaporate, you dig for the feel of the tool in your hands, for the productivity of it, you dig, you dig, you dig, and you are alive.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009