A Businessman in Kilimantuk
Michael Robinson Morris
Sarah and I escaped to an island southeast of Madagascar, a dot missing from most world maps. Upon this remote island was an isolated village that the locals called Kilimantuk. It took thirteen months to find a place where we didn’t want to escape again in under a week. And though the villagers were unapproachable at first, for it wasn’t the first time they had been intruded upon by Westerners, a growing trust among them began to settle.
Without the deceptive crutch of a common tongue, our friendship with the villagers began to emerge out of the universal language of survival. If Sarah and I began to look brown but gaunt due to living on berries and the few crabs we were able to corner, then that was the dialect they understood. Within a few weeks, they had us spearing fish in their sea cove and deriving puddings made from sour, stringy plants. It was hard to trace how they concocted an alcoholic mixture that served as an emollient for our growing friendship. Many a festive night was spent sharing a mangled gibberish across the community hut fire as we passed the drinking gourd around in circles. I caught a gleam in Sarah’s eyes across the room that said: We found it, didn’t we?
The term ‘civilized’ had become a farce throughout the course of our restless lives, like an expensively aged wine that fermented into bitter syrup for having been kept from the open air for too long. What were we left with now? Insurance, real estate, stocks and bonds, taxable interest, equity loans— Where does the trickling stream lead us? Who knows the secrets that lie behind the waterfall? While mankind wandered through the forest distracted by daydreams, his boot stepped into the bear trap he’d set the day before.
Sarah was always the dark-haired and pale beauty long before I’d met her several years before, a no-frills woman who showed little grief when the promises of corporate life in Los Angeles fell apart before her eyes. In a world of stimulation seekers who lived with the safety belt on, we found each other in a miracle of mutual commiseration. We struck off from the sinking ship together. I wouldn’t have had the strength to do it alone.
It was after each of those festive nights in the Boyanda Gindu (community hut) that, with countless gestures, Sarah and I giddily agreed each woozy morning that we might have actually found our home away from home. I suppose we were too much in an inebriated haze to notice that the supporting beams of the Boyanda Gindu were designed, unlike the rest of the family huts, with an architectural skill not in character with these fish and berry hunters.
The second warning would be more obvious.
One morning, when I was trying to wash my tattered and sun-faded clothes in a trickling stream, a man appeared from the bushes wearing boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and a mess of tattered khaki.
“Oya, Chief. Up to a bit a’ recreation, are ya?” he said to me.
It was the first white man I’d seen in nearly six weeks. He didn’t look surprised to see me at all, however. From the irreverent twang of his accent, I immediately surmised he was an Aussie. Damned Aussies always have a way of beating you to every far-off corner of the Earth. Expatriation was in their blood.
I chose to remain mute in honor of the peaceful quiet he had trod upon, squeezing a paltry smile from between my teeth.
“Don’t want to spoil ya party a’nothin’. Just thawt I’d give ya a little heyds up. Beeznessman’s comin’. Best you settle up with ‘im. Know what I myne?”
My mouth had opened to express some kind of tangled vexation, but the Aussie was gone before I could sort it out.
By the time I got back to our self-made hut, I just then connected the uncharacteristic hush that had fallen over the Mantuk village that morning with the Aussie’s visit. After talking in circles with the only other person who knew as little as I did, I dragged Sarah toward the Mantuk chief, who merely shrugged a smile that bespoke the fathomless inevitable.
We noticed the other Mantuks preparing themselves for some mysterious ceremony in an unusually hurried fashion, either clearing the Boyanda Gindu area from dried palm leaf debris or rushing to finish up a carving or weaving they had been calmly puttering over the day before. Nobody else shared the look of disconcerted hesitation Sarah and I now betrayed.
As the sun began to turn crimson at the end of the day, torches were lit in a configuration I hadn’t seen before, as if to clear a path through the dewy night air from the Gindu hut toward the beach. Villagers began to line up as if waiting to pay their respects to a sea god that was about to emerge from the surf. More unsettling was the appearance of the Aussie taking his place amongst the others, carrying a rugged tote bag over his shoulder. What sea god was charismatic enough to charm an Aussie? So, not having lost all sense of our conformist instinct, Sarah and I settled in the sand at the fringes of the greeting party. We couldn’t quite discern why we were getting uneasy looks from everyone else. Only in retrospect might I have known why. We were empty-handed. All the villagers, including the Mantuk Chief and the Aussie, had something to present to their honored visitor.
Our piqued curiosity wasn’t allowed to suffer for long, for soon came a warbled buzzing sound from the darkness beyond the lapping foam, followed by the ghostly specter of a white motorboat. When the sputtering craft finally nudged the sand, five men got out of the boat and made their way up through the walkway of standing torches, carrying a large satchel. As they came closer, I could now see that one of them was a more distinguished man, garbed in a rumpled safari outfit, while the other four merely surrounded him in cloaks of a disquieting grayish-green. These four brooding courtiers with their bony, sun-leathered, rodent-like faces couldn’t help but show glinting teeth, though they were far from smiling. Their captain was a man of some combination of Asian and Nordic descent. The flickering baldness of his head was tarnished by some wild gray strands blown askew by the night wind. He reminded me of a textile merchant I had met once in Jakarta. After sharing a few gestures and utterances with the Mantuk Chief, he commenced with his pending affair.
We watched each of the villagers stand one at a time before his grim countenance with an offer of something to which he would bid nothing in return but an appraising glance just short of disapproval. What they were giving him was hard to see at first until it became apparent. In some cases, there were works of craft that each of the villagers had been toiling over for weeks—a wooden carving or a necklace of dainty seashells. In other cases, the gifts were preparations of food wrapped in a handmade basket or drink bottled in an intricately painted gourd. The man impatiently accepted the fruits of their labor. Despite the slowly curdling sense of alarm creeping over me, it was the why that held my anticipation on tenterhooks.
After a countless number of inequitable exchanges made, it was my turn at the front of the line. The man looked me up and down as if I were no different from the others. Then he asked me in his strange Indo-Nordic accent where I'd been, where I was going, where I was from, what I did. When done asking me questions and I had answered them hesitantly and vaguely—his evident disinterest increasing the feeling that my answers were meaningless to him—he turned toward his entourage of lackeys behind him and spoke in an unrecognizable tongue. The sniveling, half-native, half-urban rodents offered nothing more than hushed primal chattering in return.
After he had decided on something already made up in his own mind, he turned back to me and held out his hand:
“Thirty-two thousand dollars,” he said in perfect English.
The unspoken implication was that this is what we already owed for our time spent at the village, a debt owed to him for having already used something of his. This parody of calculating a figure in his head was probably meant to mock the international stamp of the American dollar value on pleasures we had already usurped. And by his very implication, it was something irreversible. No room to go back and dispute, our time in this far-off and untainted village had already been imposed, and there was no recourse but to hand him thirty-two thousand dollars in cash right on the spot. I’ve been subjected to situations where a desperate porter will grab your bag, walk it over to a bus stop, and then expect a tip for a service you didn’t ask for nor could refute, but this was gross exploitation of such a cagey rule.
What an incredible businessman. This ‘civilized’ outsider had this whole village of simple-hearted people under his thumb with his numbers and taxes and securities foisted upon them, such that they seemed grateful for his visits. Was it safety from foreign invaders he offered in return? Appeasement of some angry god he held monthly conferences with? An incredible businessman indeed!
Standing there in front of him with empty hands, I had no choice but to laugh. It was not a hearty laugh, but one of piqued exasperation. It was as if he just asked me to bring him the fishbowl that I smashed when I was eleven years old. He must have thought I was one of those escaped trust-fund refugees he could soak dry because he had me trapped in his village far away from Mom and Dad. Ridiculous! $32,000 was more than a month’s stay at the Four Seasons in Tokyo. What choice did I have but to laugh?!
No one else found this funny, least of all the businessman. So sure of his rightful dominion, he refused to explain, and once again turned to his lackeys behind him. One of them handed him a can of bug spray from the satchel, with which he began spraying me in spurts here and there around my body as if I had the occasional insect buzzing around my shoulders, waist, and neck. Now it was their turn to laugh uproariously. And soon, the whole village broke out in nervous laughter with the rest of them. Looking back at Sarah’s mortified pallor, I realized the joke. He was spraying me like a bug! A pesky nuisance that stood in his way, no more than a mosquito on his elbow.
My blood boiled over so quickly that I was as much a spectator of my actions as I was responsible for them. Furiously stabbing a finger toward him, I yelled at the top of my lungs: “No! You're the laughing stock!”
A chill shot throughout the assembly that instantly suppressed all laughter. The businessman returned to his natural state of severity. He casually pulled out a revolver, shoving a staying hand toward his courtiers. Then he escorted me to a spot near the Gindu hut away from the crowd. His face looked like an angry child’s, the neighborhood bully who was momentarily thwarted in the moments before he violently lashed out.
“Is she yours?” he asked me, indicating Sarah with his cocked brow. Without waiting to read the worry on my face, he called her over.
After summoning his best courtier to follow her close behind, he forced us both into the Boyanda Gindu hut, where the many festive days and nights spent within now seemed a thousand years away. As he forcefully pushed Sarah into a corner beneath the low beams that only now suggested an insidious by-product of their construction, I saw that a thick rope coiled on a peg in the upper rafters ended in a noose. And the businessman was only just beginning to concoct the temper of his retaliation: he was succumbing to the intoxication of a woman’s scent. With his gun lowered toward her hips, he closed in on her. The rat-face locked my arms behind me, intending for me to watch.
When he yanked her body close to his, I saw the only split-second of salvation I would ever see. With a strength I’d never known, I shoved the rat-face back into the wall behind him. There was a sickening crack as I sandwiched him to the bamboo pillar. When I stepped away from him, he hung on the wall with a puzzled expression. I had tried to show the Mantuks how to hang their garments, but I hadn't installed a blunt peg with the intention of impaling a man's skull there.
The businessman was too preoccupied with Sarah’s belt buckle to hear the dying man’s groan behind him. I leaped toward him, grabbed his scanty hair, and yanked his head back with everything I had—all $32,000 worth—until I heard his neck crack. His body shuddered and went limp, the gun dropping to the sand. I was sure this killed him, but my boiling adrenaline refused to comprehend that it was over so quickly. Pulling his lumbering body away from Sarah with my left hand, I grabbed his gun with my right and shot him three times in his already lifeless head. And still that was not enough!
The thought of all the fearful people outside, afraid of this man who took them for everything they had and gave them nothing in return, continued to fuel my rage. Seizing a nearby machete, I sliced through the strained fibers of his neck! Half of it by now severed, I pulled the rest of his head free from his body, dangling tendons quivering. Sarah did not comprehend what was happening, still trembling with shock.
Holding the businessman’s head by the crowning scruff of his hair, I emerged from the hut and thrust it into the air for everyone to see.
Instant panic and pandemonium broke out. Everyone scattered in aimless directions, scampering from an invisible horror as if to escape a swarm of angry bees.
As I stood like a stone statue holding Medusa’s head after having glimpsed her accursed gaze for an irreversible second, I watched as the villagers and the three remaining courtiers evacuated through the trees and over the nearby mountainside.
At the dawn of the following day, I was alone in what was left of the empty village and its abandoned huts. I had buried the severed businessman's head in a ditch in front of the Gindu Hut. Two bodies, one minus its head, still lay festering inside. I continued to mutter to myself that it was only because of my ‘net worth’ that the businessman forced me to defend my life and Sarah's, forced me to kill him and end this peaceful way of life for everyone in the village, which was now forever tainted.
I thought Sarah would have recovered from her state of shock after so many hours had passed, but instead, she continued to stare at me with a hollowness I’d never witnessed in her before. It was as if she had turned into a different person.
Leaving her in our hut by herself, I walked up the steps carved into the cliff leading out of the village. When I reached the top and looked back down to the huts, I saw a few villagers returning to sift through their scattered offerings with solemn dignity, seemingly unaware of my looming presence above them.
Was I a hero, or was I a terror? Sarah’s piercing orbs had burned darkly into my soul. I dropped to my knees in overwhelming anguish.
Down below, I saw a young boy of about nine sifting through the debris half-buried in the sand. His tired but sinewy grandfather watched over him, taking little concern in what he found. The boy now tugged at the hem of his shirt, showing him something I couldn't see.
Drifting into a strange trance, I touched a set of cold beads in my pocket. I couldn't remember having received metal beads from anyone in the tribe. Uneasy, I let them be. The object the boy had found was the businessman's gun.
The old man took the gun from the boy, pulled him toward the shore, and handed it back to him. With fervent gestures, he compelled the boy to cast the weapon into the sea. The boy took the gun and stood uncertainly, poised to hurl it, until two other boys rushed up and tugged at the gun, shouting and taunting. The skinny old man could only watch helplessly as one boy ran off with the gun, leaving the two other two to chase after him in a spirit of tormenting fun.
When Sarah and I left this godforsaken place, another businessman would come. He would take advantage of them the way the last one had, taking everything, all for the promise of safety. Didn't they need at least one trustworthy person to protect them? For all I knew, I had just killed the most generous tyrant possible.
As I descended the carved steps toward the sand, I took two of the metal beads out of my pocket. They were not beads at all. They were the bullets I had taken from the gun, fingers still trembling. In a flash, I saw it all happening again some other day. I knew that I would return to this island. Did I not already recognize the temptation of my own destiny? I would come back as the businessman himself.
About the Author
Award-winning writer/filmmaker Michael Robinson Morris, a graduate from NYU, won the Grand Prize at the Eyelands Book Awards, was a shortlist nominee at the Adelaide Literary Awards, and has been published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Pure Slush, Down in the Dirt, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Lowestoft Chronicle, and other journals.