Night had fallen. Overhead, the light of the many stars was held in check by a crescent moon. A bonfire burned bright and orange light flickered on the wall of trees circling the primitive Carib village. The vast ocean surrounding the island was dark and deadly and cold. But within the shelter of the jungle, there was a warm bubble of light and life. And a little death.
A wooden spit lay about a meter above the flames. The first soldier’s flesh had been sliced into strips of meat and seasoned, and it now hung in the heat, sizzling. Fat dripped and caused the flames to dart higher now and then.
The Carib villagers celebrated a successful hunt. They danced and drank around the fire with abandon and delight. Swift fingers reached in and snared strips of half-cooked human and popped it into their mouths, exclaiming at the burst of flavour and how hot it was on their tongues. Children and adults alike, old and young, male and female, they laughed and slapped each other on the back and excitedly exclaimed over the feast.
The other dead man had been carved into slender pieces. These hung over a very smoky blaze on the edge of the celebration, being turned into jerky. Apparently two human bodies would provide far more than the villagers could eat in one meal.
Mei could smell the men cooking. She was disgusted. She was also embarrassed and horrified at the way her starving stomach rumbled every time the wind carried to her the scent of barbecuing meat. She curled up against the back of her cage, trying to deny the reality before her, and within her.
The jaguar whined helplessly, tail curling once, then falling flat. But it could not move.
On the other side of Mei, the other prisoners were even more upset. Most of them, anyway. The cage next to her housed two women and a tall, thin man, all pressed up against each other in the tight confines. The women wore plain, cotton dresses, one brown and the other rust red.
The farthest cage held two very large men who filled the little space to the limits. One looked like the simple farmer he was and he stared bleakly at the antics of the cannibals. But the other man had a bald head and tattoos everywhere, some with demonic symbols and what Mei thought might be Cyrillic writing. The ink covered his neck, his forearms, even his hands. And he was the only one not afraid. He looked at the Caribs with disgust and contempt. That is, when he wasn’t busy picking away at the bindings on the cage in an effort to escape. Or pressing his back against one wall and his feet against the other, trying to bust out that way. But despite a heavy musculature that bespoke strength and an attitude that hinted at a life of violence, the cage could not easily be broken.
Both the tall man and the bald one wore loose, cobalt blue shirts and capri pants, wooden sandals on their feet. From their attire, they were obviously prisoners like her.
Mei had thought of escape too. But the bars were made of tree saplings as thick as her arm, and the bindings were made some kind of leather twine that had hardened like steel around all the cunningly interlocked joints. The doors were secured with manacles and chains with locks, items that had no doubt been taken from prisoners that they had abducted in the past. And a male guard routinely came around to check on them, sauntering by and rattling the doors and walls to check their integrity.
One of the women, a pale-skinned redhead, lay closest to Mei. She was in some kind of shock. She alternated long periods of silent staring at nothing and bursts of weeping.
The tall, thin man looked on with resigned hopelessness as he sat with his back against the rear of their cage, staring at the Caribs.
The other female prisoner, a brunette, also sat, torn between looking away and being drawn to the cannibals singing and eating only a dozen meters away. Her face was streaked with tears, though it seemed she’d run out of them for the moment. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she whimpered, not for the first time. They’d all spent a good hour or two freaking out and panicking as they recovered from the curare and woken to this nightmare. Now exhaustion was setting in and with it came pessimism and hopelessness.
The thin man looked over at Mei. His blue eyes were anxious yet there was a spark of hope in there. “You navy?” he asked quietly. “One of the guards?” It was the first thing anyone had really said to anyone else since they’d arrived.
Mei glanced at him. She could see the way he trembled. He didn’t look like the strong type, though that might only be a superficial judgement. Mei shook her head slightly. “No.”
The hope in his eyes died. And it was hard to watch. But he just looked down and nodded.
She understood. If she was a guard, perhaps they would come to rescue her. But she wasn’t, so they were destined to die.
Perhaps the silence was too much. He asked another question. “Prisoner?”
“How…?” he weakly gestured at her clothes.
She looked down at the bright blue jacket and mostly white clothes that were now somewhat stained with dirt and grass. Her eyes flicked up to his, then away. “Stole them.” She wasn’t entirely sure why she was being difficult. But she was unsure of how she should act. Should she be guarded or friendly? Should she draw attention to herself or try to stay in the background?
Of course, she knew that if her goal was to become a pirate and make enough money to leave this place, she was going to need to build relationships. And that was something she thought she was good at, as a journalist. She’d had to work with sources in all walks of life.
But right now, she was staring an ugly death in the face and she didn’t particularly feel like networking. Not when they’d soon be butchered and respawn in the navy’s possession. Then again, sitting here worrying over her impeding doom in silence wasn’t very pleasant. She might as well distract herself. And him. It would be a kindness to both of them.
She saw his curious eyes still on her and relented. “I took them. Off the captain of the ship I was on.”
He barked a small laugh in disbelief. “Uh huh.”
Mei shrugged. “He didn’t have much use for them. He was dead at the time.”
The man’s eyes widened a bit. “Seriously?”
“How’d he die?”
“I drove his sword through his stomach.”
A rude snort of disbelief came from the far cage, and a look from the tattooed goon followed. “Is bullshit.” His voice sounded East European.
Even the thin man smiled thinly. “Well, congratulations.”
She frowned. “That’s what happened.”
But he obviously didn’t believe her any more than the other convict did. He held his hands up in defence. “Uh huh. Ok. If you say so.”
She rolled her eyes. But she supposed it wasn’t the most believable thing to hear without evidence to back it up. “You are?” she asked him.
“Car thief. Six months to go from a nine month sentence. Was working the fields in the village when the natives showed up.”
She absently nodded. But she didn’t give him her own background. Instead, she watched the woman laying on the ground, facing her.
Mei wasn’t known for being the most mothering or caring person to her coworkers and friends. It’s not that she was cold or that she didn’t care when people she knew when through bad days or got shouted at by their boss or something. She just wasn’t sure how to reach out, wasn’t sure what to say in situations like that. Which was weird, because she made a living talking to people, in interviews and with articles, and that usually required building trust and getting people to open up.
She could sit down with a terrorist and get his life history. But when it came to those she had a personal connection to, she always had a hard time sitting down with a girl friend who needed someone to talk to about their cheating husband and impending divorce, or finding something to say when someone’s parent died.
Part of it was probably due to all those awkward years of growing up without much of a social circle due to her height. As a kid she’d been bullied and left out of games and activities. Kids are cruel and she’d had more than one nasty nickname that had left her in tears. Just because she was a little taller than everyone else, even a lot of the boys. And that had left her shy and lacking in confidence, not to mention she hadn’t had a lot of experience being close to other people.
Even when she’d begun to open up and grow as a person, things hadn’t entirely changed. At the gym or even as a model, she’d more often hung out with men than women and hadn’t had a lot of girl time. And she had little experience with children or the elderly. So while she wanted to comfort the two distraught women in the other cage, wanted to do something to ease the pain they were going through, she hesitated and doubted her ability to do so.
It was almost enough to hold her back entirely, to make her give up. But her compassion won out and she reached forward and laid a hand on the red-haired woman’s shoulder. “Hey,” she said.
The woman didn’t respond. She just continued to stare.
Now what? She cast about for something else to say, something meaningful that might actually drag the woman into the light again, feeling stupid and bad at this. She opened her mouth to speak without knowing the words. Then she stopped. Maybe there was nothing comforting you could say right at that moment. What hope could she offer? So she just sat back against the rear of her cage. But she left her hand on the woman’s shoulder in solidarity, letting her know that she wasn’t alone.
The tattooed man kicked hard at one of the bars a few times. He glanced over his shoulder, but none of the Caribs seemed to have noticed or cared.
The brunette glanced at the man, then back at the celebration. “We’re all going to die. Just like them. And they’re going to eat us.” Her voice trembled with a touch of hysteria. “Eat us!”
No one had anything to say. Tattoos kept working at his cell, but he didn’t seem to be making any progress. The thief didn’t even bother to try, he’d completely given up already. Though, to be fair, after their first hours in here, they’ll all kind of given up.
Mei watched the faces of the others, seeing resignation and despair and frustration. She knew she was giving in to it as well. And that it was wrong. She couldn’t give up. She had to keep fighting. But she was just so tired. She rested the back of her head against the cage in silence.
A Carib woman and a man fought over a piece of meat from the fire. They argued. Then he drew back one arm and cuffed her across the face.
She let go and dropped to her knees.
He screamed at her and threatened to hit her again, but she only cowered. So he tore a bite off of the meat and stalked off.
Nobody seemed to even notice the incident, as if it was normal. The others ate and drank, sang and danced. The woman brushed herself off and returned to the fire for a different piece.
Mei watched a teen girl take a metal pan from the fire and dump something cooked into wooden bowls. She picked her way across the village and handed one bowl to an old woman. The old woman, sitting with a younger version of herself, seemed startled, then at a word from the woman next to her, was awkwardly thankful. She ate with hesitation and with the other woman’s assistance.
Then the teen took the second bowl to an old man. He raised his head at her approached, perhaps hearing her footsteps coming up behind him. She knelt, smiling and talking to him and offered the bowl into his hands. He chuckled and thanked her, then felt about for the food with his fingers. He pulled out an eyeball and popped it into his mouth, nodding happily as it no doubt exploded with lots of flavour on his tongue.
The Caribs seemed to have some sort of alcohol and they’d filled gourds with it. Whether it was something they’d made or if it was stolen rum, she had no idea. But they drank copious amounts. The warriors especially got roaring drunk. This led to even more energetic dancing, spear waving, a couple of wrestling matches. And lots of sex. Most of the time, people paired off in the huts, but one time, it happened in public.
It featured the same Carib warrior who had earlier strutted around in front of their cages. He seemed to like making a spectacle of himself. He was eating and drinking with four other warriors and from the way he shouted and gestured, it seemed like he thrived on attention. There was joking and boasting and storytelling, along with much laughter from the others, some shoulder slapping, some toasting.
Then whatever they were discussing became sexual in nature. This became obvious to anyone watching from the universal gestures that they used to indicate this. And from the way the men started calling back and forth with some of the nearby women. They were trading barbs perhaps or teasing.
One of the women seemed bolder than the rest. Actually, it was the one who had enticed men into her hut for sex after eating guard penis. With a wide grin, she said something harsh at the boaster and it got all the other males howling with laughter.
That apparently didn’t sit too well with the target of her mockery. The showoff’s smile fell away. Then it returned, but in a more malicious version. With a dangerous glint in his eye, he called something to her.
She said something cutting back and this time even more people laughed, including other women. A couple of the warriors double over and rolled on the ground in stitches.
His cruel smile only widened. Bold as brass, he strutted across the center of the village to where she sat. He grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the ground.
She frowned and tried say something but he just pushed her face away. Roughly. She protested again, getting up.
He pushed her down to her knees, then pushed her face down over the log she’d been sitting against.
She tried to resist somewhat, but just kept having her face pushed down every time she lifted it up. The warrior was easily twice her size and much stronger. There wasn’t a scrap of fat on his body, just toned muscle. There was nothing she could do and she seemed to know it.
He flipped her skirt over her back, shifted his loincloth, and went at her.
Mei could see the look of surprise on the woman’s face, and the way she winced in pain from the unexpected activity. Yet Mei didn’t see anyone move to stop the man or help the poor woman. Astonished, Mei studied the faces of the other villagers.
Some of the women looked away with no expression, as if they could ignore the rape, and continued to talk or drink or do whatever they were doing, though a couple looked distinctly uncomfortable. Others awkwardly or enthusiastically laughed, one girl even cheered with real enthusiasm. Mei wanted to believe that the girl had only seen what was going on too late and believed the event was consensual.
Similar reactions could be seen in the men, though there was less sympathy in that group. A few abruptly turned away with blank faces that showed nothing. Most just stood around watching, either silent or making ribald jokes. But a few were loud and supportive. None came to the woman’s rescue.
The rapist didn’t last long. He pumped away as fast as he could, finished, and then jumped to his feet, crowing at the top of his lungs. Leaving the woman to herself, he jumped into the firelight with arms raised. He flashed everyone with his organ, and then rejoined the other males, strutting again, the cock of the walk, literally. And just like that, everyone forgot about the woman who’d just been used. The villagers returned to their celebration, although the tone was dampened somewhat.
Mei watched as the woman slowly pushed herself up and awkwardly stood. She flinched from soreness, and there was an awkward and sad smile on her lips, perhaps confusion in her eyes and the way she couldn’t seem to decide what to do next. It looked like she was trying to just laugh it off and treat the act as if it weren’t rape. But there were tears in her eyes. She said something, but didn’t go and rejoin any of the other women. Instead, she grabbed a gourd of booze and walked off with too much casualness, the performance spoiled from the way she hunched over a bit and had to wipe something from her eyes before she disappeared into her hut.
Mei’s teeth hurt from clenching her jaw for too long. A cold fury burned in her chest. Whatever horror and disgust had possessed her over the fact that these people were cannibals, it was subsumed with new fury.
It wasn’t just for the males either. Of course she despised the rapist for what he’d done and those who’d egged him on. Absolutely. If she’d still had her sword, she’d cut all their throats and feel damn good about it.
But just as bad, it was the enablers, the men and women both who’d just sat or stood around, doing absolutely nothing to intervene while one of their own was abused.
Where was their sense of tribe, of community, of loyalty? Where were her friends, her family, her champions? Why was the woman so alone?
“You fucking cowards!” she cried out at the top of her lungs.
Some of the Caribs glanced her way. One threw some food at her. Then they all ignored her.
Mei was incensed at the tribe. It almost didn’t matter that she’d seen the woman party to killing and eating human flesh. That was that and this was this. Mei felt a piercing sadness for the woman. First for the way that she’d lain there and been forced to endure. But even more so for the cruel callousness of all those who should have loved and supported and protected her. More than the cannibalism, this — this — made these people monsters.
Several minutes later, a young mother stood, leaving her child behind, and casually wandered about as if she had n real destination, before finding her way into the hut with the victim and slipping inside. It was a few more minutes before a couple of elder women also went to her.
Mei wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about that. She wanted to be angry at them, to tell them it was too little and too late. But at least the victim wouldn’t have to spend the entire night alone. Support had come, but only after they had all abandoned her and failed their social obligation, their duty to one of their own.
A woman spoke. “I wish I could kill them. All of them.”
Mei turned her head and saw her own feelings mirrored on the brunette’s face. Her eyes glowed with hate, made all the worse by the flames of the bonfire reflected there too.
“They’re not human,” the brunette stated and spat.
Some of the anger left Mei, replaced by an unfortunate realization. As much as she, too, was enraged, after years of reporting all the ugly things that humanity does to each other for so many years, she knew a truth. What they’d witnessed was all too human indeed. We betrayed each other all the time.
And there was more of that to come.
When the prisoners woke up the next morning, the farmer was dead.