On the bright side, Mei had found a boat and a way off the island. She hadn’t escaped the island on her own, but at least she’d tried. She’d fought back against the system that had unfairly trapped her here and that, at least, she could be proud of.
On the other hand, she had just been captured by indigenous Caribbean folk who had poisoned with curare and kidnapped her. Her breath came in very short jerks as the giant, wooden canoe she was in slowly moved up and down large ocean rollers. And there was nothing she could do about it.
She lay there, utterly helpless as the time between rapid breaths grew shorter and the breathes grew shallower. Her eyes, stuck open, painfully teared up constantly in an effort to keep the sore orbs hydrated. At some point, someone closed them for her, leaving her in darkness. Her only sensation was a faint notion of the canoe’s rocking movement. It was scary.
And then her breathing stopped altogether. Her chest tightened and a stab of pain grew within. And her fear magnified many times over.
She felt herself dying. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. But she could do nothing but stare at the darkness, scared out of her mind.
Then someone said something from the back of the canoe. Someone else shoved something into her mouth and pumped. Air forcefully pushed into her lungs. A rush of bliss! Then another. She was breathing! The movement jostled her eyes open again.
The device came into view. It was probably an animal bladder of some kind. Pieces of wood had been tied to either side of it and brown hands pumped the bladder open and closed. It was a bellows. Like the kind you use with a fireplace. The Caribs were trying to keep her alive by forcing her lungs to work after the curare had shut them down. Did that mean she would survive? Maybe, maybe not. This didn’t seem like it was the most medically sound procedure.
But it gave her hope and it kept her alive. For a moment. Her entire existence shrank down to that single breath being forced into her body and the glorious oxygen it gave her. She swung back and forth between burning pain and…less pain. Someone closed her eyes again. That was nice of them. She wondered why they bothered.
There was no way to tell how long the journey took, except that at some point someone else took a turn at keeping her barely alive. She knew that because her eyes opened during the switch, only to be closed shortly after. She thought she fell asleep for a time, though she wasn’t certain.
Every now and then, her sense of touch would start to return. Then someone would prick her with a wooden needle. It didn’t hurt much. But the numbness would rapidly spread again.
Eventually, they stopped giving her more curare. Her body very slowly began to regain function and she even started to breath on her own again. And that was painful too. She felt the canoe hit land and come to a halt, which triggered her eyes open once more. It also caused her to roll off the dead man under her and flop against the side of the canoe. The light was blinding, which only made her tear up again, but there was nothing for it but to endure.
The Caribs hauled their prisoners out, then Mei and the two corpses. She was dragged up the beach and into jungle, along a twisting path whose entrance wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone walking by, let alone sailing by, even with a telescope. They didn’t have to go far, only a dozen meters past a thick wall of trees and vines and leaves. Then they arrived in a small Carib village.
Wood and grass huts formed a circle up against the jungle. They were small buildings, poorly made and with dirt floors. A large fire pit sat in the center of the village, unlit, while a couple of smaller ones outside the huts burned low. All the warriors that had captured Mei and the others had been male. For the first time, she saw females. They squatted and sat in small groups in front of the huts, working on crafts or cooking and most were talking. They wore only skirts and feather or bead decorations, their breasts bare.
The returning warriors were very vocal. They entered the village full of loud boasts and triumphant gestures, big grins on their faces, dancing and shouting and waving weapons around. One did not have to understand their language to see that they were excessively prideful. Mei supposed that made sense considering these so-called primitives had just successfully raided a colony with far higher levels of technology. These David’s had casually swum over and stolen from Goliath with ease; of course they felt superior.
The women looked over and some rose. There were smiles and a few cheers and laughs. The females were, however, much more reserved than the exuberant males. Still, some of them came to see the prisoners and studied them. Some plucked at clothing and fingered buttons and laughed. When they saw Mei, a crowd of the females gathered, eyes wide as they chattered and pointed at her features before touching their own eyes and noses. Perhaps they’d never seen an Asian person before.
The prisoners were not hauled into the village. Next to the village entrance were a series of cages that were too short to stand in. Unlike the crude huts, these were made of slender logs and rope and sturdily built. Mei watched as the men and women taken from Barbados were stuffed into cages that barely held them all. Mei, however, perhaps due to all the attention she was getting, was pushed into a cage by herself.
She lay there, gradually coming back to all her senses, when another shout went up and more attention was drawn to a pair of warriors entering the village. Turning her head a little, she gasped.
The two warriors had the jaguar strung upside down on a pole carried between them. The animal had a crude wooden device over its head and neck to prevent it from moving its head and biting anyone. The villagers, old and young alike, danced about in awe and a few even dared to approach and gingerly reach up to stroke the great cat’s exposed, furry belly. They’d run their hand over the white fur and then hastily pull it back and giggle to each other. The warriors carried the cat to a smaller cage next to Mei and put it inside.
She could see from the groggy look in the jaguar’s eyes that it was still under the affects of the curare and likewise scared. It tried to snarl and bite but could hardly move, its breathing shallow and ragged. Despite the fact that the creature had perhaps tried to kill her at one point and was quite dangerous, she watched it suffer horribly and her heart went out to it. Surely it had no idea what was happening to it or why.
Mei had always hated seeing animals abused. It had long been a problem in her home country and she’d gone out of her way to report stories on the illegal pet trade, cruel farms, and animal testing. But nothing pissed her off more than trophy hunters who turned beautiful animals into rugs, and the infuriating idiots who still believed in the superstitious nonsense of ‘traditional medicine’. As if grinding up some rare animal’s testicles into your tea was going to give you a boner or cure your cough. She hated that way of thinking.
The warriors left the captive animal laying on its side and untied it from the pole, then they tied its feet to the bars of the cage. The device over the jaguar’s head, too, was tied to the cage. Even after it recovered from the drug, there would be no way that it would be able to do anything.
Mei wondered what they planned to do with it. If they were going to skin it or eat it, why go to all the trouble of keeping it alive like this? Or were they going to torture it or sacrifice it to some strange god?
Her ability to blink regularly came back. And her breaths became more measured. A sense of relief came over her as she felt immediate death recede. And then she saw the corpses being brought in from the canoes.
Warriors dumped the two dead marines next to the large, central fire pit. Women clapped their hands and excitedly pointed at the bodies and poked them and nodded to each other, everyone smiling and looking quite happy. And then they got to work.
First, they pulled out crude stone knives and cut away the soldiers’ jackets and clothing while two teen girls started a fire in the main pit. Buttons, especially the gold coloured ones, were cut out of the clothing and there was much excitement over the distribution of them as everyone, male and female, seemed to want them to add to their decorative accessories. And if things had stopped there, Mei might have understood that they were just stripping the two of finery before burying them. But the Caribs didn’t stop there. And what they did after that made Mei’s stomach heave.
An old woman grabbed a knife and, all business, jabbed it into one soldier’s stomach. She sawed back and forth, gutting him with all the practice and nonchalance of someone used to doing the same with fish and deer. Once she’d opened his belly up, she reached in and pulled out all his innards, dumping them into a wide, clay bowl. The heart and liver went into a separate, smaller bowl. The eyeballs followed.
Two others joined her and they began hacking the body apart. Blood splattered and dripped as they stripped flesh off the arm and leg bones. Buttocks were carved off like large roasts. The head was detached. One woman took it to a stone slab and cracked it open with hammer and chisel. Then she scooped the brains out into a small bowl.
The cooks never stopped chatting with each other as they worked. If one hadn’t seen the animal they were preparing, it would have looked no different than any other people preparing a feast with a pig or cow. Except this wasn’t one of those typical food species.
These people were cannibals.
The watching English captives wailed and cried and screamed in horror as they watched from their cages. Everyone knew now why the Caribs had taken so much pain to keep them all alive and store them in cages. It was so they could keep their livestock alive and fresh for later.
Mei struggled to comprehend the grotesqueness of the scene in front of her. She turned and retched, bringing up nothing but water and bile. She hadn’t eaten in a while. Then she turned away and tried to do anything but watch the celebratory dinner being made out of the men who had been hunting her.
A pair of little girls came by, neither more than six or seven years old. They had watched her furtively the whole time they’d approached. Now, courage gathered, they stood outside her cell, studying her and whispering to each other.
Mei had no idea what the two who saying in their own language, but from the way the little girls excited pointed at her face and skin, and then seemed to compare her with the white and black people in the other cages, she was fairly certain that they were discussing what flavour she was. Like someone comparing chicken and pork, or who was about to sample a meat they’d never had before. It was sickening. But then again, this was probably what cattle felt like before being turned into hamburgers.
One of the two girls, the younger one, looked at her and licked her lips.
Mei backed away from the girls, stomach heaving, pressing herself against the back of the cage. So being shot and stabbed and chained up and raped and tortured, all that wasn’t enough? She could also experience being eaten? And not in the good, sexual way. Actually eaten, like food. Would they carve her into steaks? Grind her into human hotdogs? Spit her alive over the flames and enjoy the sound of her screaming as she roasted?
The old woman who’d started the butchering cackled and held up the dead man’s detached penis. There was a scuffle as several of the tribeswomen exclaimed and reached for it. But the old woman only snatched it back and and chomped down on it, tearing at the penis with her bad teeth. Half of it came away in her mouth before someone else clawed it out of her hand. In seconds, several together had consumed the entire thing, raw. The old woman smacked her wrinkled lips and blood trickled down her chin.
One woman who’d scarfed a bite of the penis patted her belly in satisfaction, then her loins, giving the other women a knowing look. A man, seeing her, hastened over and she happily let him drag her into the nearest hut. Faint sounds of rutting lasted only a minute or two before the warrior came out, crowing loudly and strutting like a rooster. The woman came out shortly thereafter, looking proud of herself. She hefted her bare tits in her hands and shouted something in a challenging voice at the other warriors standing about, before giving them a sly look.
The warriors joked and slapped each other, before another one broke from the group and chased the woman back into the hut.
Another warrior paraded in front of the cages with his chest puffed, spear before him. He pretended to ignore the captives as he marched by in a mockery of an English soldier. Then suddenly turned on them, lunging with his spear, piercing between the bars of the cage.
The captives screamed and tried to evade the thrust, though there was no room to do so in the cramped enclosure.
The warrior threw his head back and howled. He pumped his spear in the air to prove what a great, fearless warrior he was, then suddenly lunged at them again, causing more screams.
The other warriors and some of the women laughed at his antics.
Mei was disgusted. She turned away. And saw the jaguar. Locked in place, it could do nothing but stare at her in helpless fear. Her heart sank. A few minutes ago she’d so casually thought about the Caribs eating the beautiful creature, and yet now she knew that the same would be done to her. Was there really any difference?
There was intelligence and emotion in the jaguar’s eyes. Whether or not a non-human animal could use a calculator or fire a gun, it shared with humans the foundation of what it was to be a living, breathing part of nature. It was just as scared and in just as much pain as she was and that felt so wrong.
She thought back to when it had attacked the marine hunting her in the jungle. Why had it done that? Had it been defending its territory? Had it been angry about the guns? It did seem to hate weapons. Or…and this seemed impossible…had it been protecting her?
Mei wanted to deny the idea out of hand. It was a wild animal, a predator that likely saw humans as prey. And yet, it had had the chance to kill her on the beach after they’d swum together and hadn’t. It had sat with her all that night as well. Though, cynically, it might have just been guarding its breakfast and trying to keep it contained until the next day. But, it knew she was armed, didn’t it? Sleeping overhead the whole night long when she could have shot or stabbed it? Was that some kind of show of trust?
She shook her head. She was overthinking this. Painting an animal with human emotions and thoughts. That was foolish and dangerous.
The jaguar looked at her with its golden eyes. A soft whine came from its throat.
“I know. I’m scared, too,” she told it. Whether it was a mothering part of her or just general human compassion, she wanted to comfort the cat. She reached through the bars of the cage, though she did so well away from the cat’s mouth. Very slowly, she reached around from a safe angle.
The jaguar’s eyes flickered in the direction of her arm.
She held her arm in place for a while, giving the animal time to smell her, to understand that she wasn’t trying to hurt it. She was not a threat. Then, with infinite gentleness, she reached down and laid her hand on the top of its head, ready to snatch it back the instant the cat moved.
The cat did nothing. It didn’t move, didn’t twist away. It just looked at her with sad eyes.
She felt her tears well up. “It’s because you’re using to someone doing bad things to you, isn’t it?” Often, abused animals become aggressive and violent. Others become broken and submissive. This great cat seemed to have some spark of pride in him; she’d seen that in the jungle and on the beach. And yet there was something incredibly sad about the way it just lay there without reacting to her hand.
She felt a spark of anger form amidst her helplessness and despair. “I don’t know who hurt you before. But I’m going to try to get you out of here, I promise. So no one ever hurts you again.”
The jaguar blinked and looked down and away, as if it didn’t believe her words.
Slowly, slowly, she ran her hand over the jaguar’s fur, petting it. She saw water in the cat’s eyes. Did cat’s cry? Of course they did. What a stupid question. “I’ll get us both out of here. I will. If I can break myself out of a jail on a ship at sea and blow the whole thing to hell, then I can get us out of this.”