I received a package from Matt Barnes recently. Inside were two rounded tusks, yellowish and covered in gunk. How did he get them? I could only wonder …
A bead of sweat slipped down Matt Barnes’ forehead and puddled onto his glasses lens. He waited at the base of an ancient tree, worried about surviving this tribal ritual.
“Why am I, of all these people, doing the hunting?” Matt Barnes asked his young translator, Malal.
“This custom shows you as courageous man, hunter with much skill. You have strength over mighty enemies,” said Malal, repeating what his tribe’s proud chief had said.
“And if I die, do I lose the chief’s respect?” Matt Barnes huffed. “You know, I’d rather be known as a bad hunter and get out of this jungle. And I’m not sure how much I care what the chief thinks of me. I have bad reputations in many parts of the world. This would only be my first in Indonesia. Not bad for an entire continent.”
“You want to do this,” Malal said and shoved Matt Barnes in the back.
Matt Barnes stumbled forward from his hiding place. He tried to avoid the labyrinth of tree roots, but one of his tan combat boots jammed between two thick roots.
He leaned forward to pull out his foot.
“I can’t get it out, Malal,” he grumbled, yanking on his leg. “I guess I’m stuck with the bad hunter reputation. Oh well. So goes life. I’m ready to go.”
“No time to leave, no time to live in the women house. Your enemies come to you.” Malal darted into the jungle, gone in a moment among the trees.
A stampede of wild boars was obviously headed toward Matt Barnes. Their hoofs thudded on the hard forest floor and the lot’s guttural snorts and heavy grunts echoed among the trees.
Matt Barnes jerked harder at his knee, hoping to dislodge his foot. It wouldn’t budge. He leaned to the side to tug at his boot, even twisting and turning his ankle. His last option, besides cutting off his leg, was to cut the boot straps.
His hunting knife sliced the first few laced loops. However, surging from the dense foliage, Matt Barnes saw the herd of waist-high boars coming at him. Their tusks bared, small eyes narrowed, nostrils puffing in anger.
He steadied himself in a crouching defensive rugby stance. Knees bent, a fist clenched around the knife handle. The first hog was ten feet away, charging directly at him.
“I hate courage!” he growled aloud.
He wagged the knife, ready to slash the beast. But, out of nowhere, came a deep snarl. Meaner than any he had heard from the pack. The snarl transformed into a bark as spine-tingling and ferocious as a rabid dog.
That first hog changed course in a flash and the whole group followed. Matt Barnes had been saved from the pack of boars.
Then his savior appeared, a giant Barbiusa. The golden hairs along his spine bristled and it grunted to warn the intruder, Matt Barnes, that this was his territory and all were his females.
His only option was to fool the animal into believing he was bigger and meaner. That he too would do anything to defend the territory that he really cared nothing about.
“Ki ken tai ichi. For spirit, sword and body together!” he bellowed from the deepest part of his gut. He waved the shiny knife. The blade reflected a sliver of sunlight that had passed through the heavy canopy.
The Barbiusa stopped to study his rival and consider the flash of light.
Matt Barnes hopped, as best as he could, and flapped his arms. He grunted and made wacky noises that confused the wild animal. The boar well may have thought Matt Barnes, in fact, was the wild one.
The boar snarled again to counter the beast before it. It rutted the dirt, preparing for attack. It was not going to lose its rights to be the alpha male in the area. Matt Barnes, on the other hand, stood his ground because he had no other choice.
The Barbiusa charged and Matt Barnes slashed. The long, thick blade didn’t gouge the boar’s tough skin like he hoped it would. The beast rammed into Matt Barnes and upreared its head. The boar lifted Matt Barnes off his one foot. He fell to the ground, his snagged leg bent, but the heavy combat boot kept it from twisting too painfully.
The boar backed off to prepare for the second charge, but Matt Barnes’s knife sliced a deep groove into its snout. The pig squealed and arff‘ed.
A moment later though, the wounded animal shot forward. Matt Barnes aimed the knife for the underside of its chest, near the heart. But he missed and lost hold of the knife. Weaponless and grabbing for anything to protect himself, he happened to take hold of a curved tusk jutting from Barbiusa’s bottom jaw. He didn’t intend to grab the ivory tusk. It was just there. Instinctually, he grabbed the other tusk. He wrenched the boar’s head to the side. Its head twisted and he yanked. The boar flipped to its back after an odd crack.
The animal spasmed for a moment, stood again, and barked. Then it escaped quickly. He was no longer chief of his territory.
Matt Barnes took a few breaths to regain his composure. When calmed, he noticed a pair of yellowish, curved tusks in his hands, slippery with saliva and gunk. “I bet he never thought the tooth fairy looked like me. I prefer she have wings, a wand and a few dollars.”
He shoved them in his pocket. Seeing the knife just within arm’s reach, he leaned forward awkwardly and grabbed it. Soon he finally freed his foot from his boot by cutting the rest of the straps. He left his boot behind and limped away, the knife still unsheathed in his hand.
He wiped his forehead and smeared the puddled sweat beads across his lenses with his thumb. “How do I get into these messes? Ancient tribal rites of passage. Other people telling me to prove I’m courageous.”
Matt Barnes called out. “Malal, where are you?”
Only the tree monkeys from high above screamed back and rattled the canopy. He pushed a vine out of his way. Matt Barnes was very frustrated with the young deserter.
“Malal, is ditching me a part of the ritual you forgot to mention?”
The monkeys above stopped their hoots and all went quiet enough for Matt Barnes to hear his feet crunch on the leafy jungle floor. Everything had become too silent—weirdly silent—for a rain forest full of creatures. He paused to listen. Nothing.
He knelt. He strained his ears, listening, to pick up any impending sign. He gripped the knife handle tighter, white knuckles. His eyes darted here and there. He nearly gave up on his reconnaissance and let come what may. Then nearby, there was a snort and a bark.
“Not again,” he mumbled, rolling eyes. The fight was not finished. The Barbiusa wanted his territory back.
The beast appeared suddenly from behind a wide tree trunk. Matt Barnes stepped forward but realized his shoeless foot made a quick get-away impossible. While his mind scrambled through scenarios on how to fight, a long spear dropped from above on his right side. He looked up to see where it had come from. Overhead, Malal sat in a tree, watching.
“Get down here and fight this thing! I’m not a hunter,” Matt Barnes shouted at the young man.
The Barbiusa grunted and charged, its short legs moving double time. Matt Barnes pulled the spear from the ground, lifted it over his shoulder and launched it. The boar squealed only once more.
The tribe cheered when Matt Barnes returned with Malal carrying the animal. The men nodded to a fellow hunter and the women smiled at Matt Barnes, the newly minted man.
The chief stood before the man with one shoe. “Matt Barnes, hunter.”
The chief spoke many more words in his own tongue. Matt Barnes didn’t understand and Malal was nowhere around to translate. The young man had left again, this time to get the prize cooked.
Once the chief had finished talking, Matt Barnes pulled out the two tusks from his pocket.
Seeing them, the chief’s eyes widened with fear. He spoke quickly in his language and then patted his trim belly.
Malal looked at Matt Barnes. “He says you have special powers as a hunter, deep down in your belly.” Malal imitated the chief’s belly slap.
Matt Barnes laughed at the absurdity. “Call me the tooth fairy.”
Malal translated the words, or tried to. None of the tribesmen understood. They actually disliked what was Malal had conveyed.
The chief stepped back and his language became a hiss. The men behind him gripped their spears, like Matt Barnes had tightly held his knife in the fight for his life an hour ago. They grunted among themselves.
“You said ‘tooth fairy,’ right, Malal?” Matt Barnes asked sternly, looking down at the young man.
“I tried. They may think you think you’re a demon, an evil spirit, a bad god. You ripped out the tusks and they fear you may do that to them.”
Matt Barnes grabbed Malal’s arm, worried. “Say joke, funny, ha-ha, humor, sarcasm, anything so they know I’m not evil spirit. I’m just a guy who’s not interested in anything they have, I don’t want power and I hate courage, you gave me the spear, you actually killed the Barbiusa, I only tossed the spear and it happened to hit it, I have no hunting skill, I couldn’t even shoot my own foot, these tusks were loose already, I don’t have strength, I’m a weakling.”
Malal calmed the heated chief, as best as he could.
“Tell him I will leave if he would give me a guide out of here. He’d never see me again. Tooth fairy—poof—gone.”
“He’s willing to give you a guide.”
“Great, who is it? I want out of here.”
A tribesman stepped forward with an old, oversized satellite telephone.
“This.” Malal handed Matt Barnes the huge thing. “The chief says the thing that speaks from above goes with the one from above.”
“How is this supposed to get me out of the jungle?”
Malal turned it on and dialed channel 9.
“Someone in Manokwari always listening to channel 9. You be fine.”
“Me? You’re coming with me.”
“The chief won’t let me.”
“Tell him, the tooth fairy has rubbed off on you and you will contaminate the whole tribe with evil, so you must come along.”
“They are not that superstitious.”
Matt Barnes took a second look at the translator.
“I don’t trust what you’ve told them, Malal. You’ve been mistranslating on purpose, trying to get me killed.”
Malal didn’t respond.
“I can get massive, loud spirits to fly over this jungle. I have demon connections.”
“We know what airplanes are. They drop off supplies for us.”
“I’ll get you for this, Malal. You’re my first enemy on this continent. We’ll meet again and it will be on my turf, not in your jungle.”
“Someday, Mr. Barnes, someday.” Malal bowed. “For now, use channel 9.”
Matt Barnes walked away from the tribe, with one enemy, an evil reputation and one shoe.
Matt Barnes took the small cup of steaming tea from the dark-skinned man’s crusty hands and nodded as a silent thank-you. In an hour or two the man who led this caravan through the Sahara Desert would not be so thoughtful.