We all fear death. It’s innate. As biological beings, the foundation of our entire existence is survival. Death is almost always the worst outcome, and we strive with all of our might to defy it.
Not all deaths are equal. If we must perish, most of us would probably like it to be in our sleep, at advanced old age after a lifetime of rich experiences, after enjoying great loves and frequent laughs, passing away in a dream after saying goodnight to those who cherish us.
If our lives must be cut short, surely most of us would prefer it to happen suddenly and painlessly. Perhaps a bullet to the head we never saw coming. A very fast-acting poison, preferably one without suffering.
From there, the manner of death grows ever scarier, as fear and pain become an inevitable part of demise. The terrifying moments before a car crash followed by the knowledge that we’re bleeding out and helpless to do anything about it. Would it be worse knowing that our death was someone else’s fault, some damned drunk at the wheel and that we were helpless, that our end was just a result of the random unfairness of the universe? Would we rage in our final moments at the injustice of it, at the one who killed us? Or would it be worse knowing that we were at fault, and to feel our own life slipping away while knowing that we could have prevented it if we had been wiser or more patient or had done the right thing instead of what was easy or selfish?
What about a slow illness, like cancer? Imagine spending a year or two of your life dying, slowly losing parts of yourself, your body failing despite everything the doctors do. Imagine staring into the faces of those you love and watching as they give you all their sympathy and support, for a while, until too much time passes and they just can’t handle coming to see you wasting away anymore and you find yourself ever more alone. And perhaps the most excruciating part of all? Hope. Hope that if you just hang on one more day, one more hour, someone will come along with a cure and give you decades more to live. All while knowing that instead of investing in cures, and despite having unlimited resources and advanced tech, most people are investing in TVs and smartphones, in silly new apps and alcohol and war and a thousand things we don’t need, knowing that we could have been saved if everyone had just had better priorities. Imagine spending a year of your life slowly dying because we’re betrayed by everyone’s consumerism and greed.
There are deaths which truly scare us. Some say drowning is an easy death. But is it? Your lungs burning for air, your arms and feet kicking for the surface and unable to get there, an overwhelming sense of panic and desperation? You can’t help but gasp for air and take in water and know that you are doomed.
How about being chased through your house by a serial killer or a spouse with a knife and stabbed a dozen times in the face and body, flashes of searing pain, until all the blood drains out of us while we stare into the face of our killer?
What about flying in a plane, high above the clouds, and watching the engines die, the plane turn downwards, and long minute after minute passing by as you plummet through the skies with no chance of stopping it, before you plow into the ground?
Fear. Helplessness. Pain. These elements serve to make some deaths more horrific than others. And some are so extreme that they are the stuff of nightmares. Like slowly burning to death.
Mei did not have the luxury of a quick death. She lay on the ground, trapped and helpless beneath her killer’s boot, staring up into gleeful eyes. Her hair caught and glowed and curled and smoked. Her clothing burned. And then her skin, her fat, her flesh, it all turned black and roasted and then turned to ash even as she lived through it, desperate and unable to stop it, her lungs able to breath while the back of her head and body felt agony beyond belief. She screamed through it all.
The fire was not big and it took many agonizing minutes to her to die. The kind of trauma that burns itself into the soul, or it would, if one could live through it.
Mei did. Both a blessing and a cruelty that was part of this prison that she was in.
Everything had gone dark, darker than the night above, and then a moment later, it was bright. Daylight.
She was standing, which lasted a moment before she fell to her hands and knees and continued to scream. The scent of her burning flesh was in her nostrils. The pain still pierced her entire upper body. In panic she drew in deep lungfuls of air and screamed and screamed and then she saw water in front of her and she instinctively threw herself forward, crawling, then plunging into the liquid.
The shock of the waves, the wet on her skin, calmed her. She blinked and her breathing slowed. A dim part of her brain recognized that she was no longer on fire. The pain was phantom, only in her memories. And slowly she drifted through her trauma, pushed past it, trying to recover reality.
She blinked and looked around. There was a beach. It was a little after dawn. The deep ocean was a dark blue, the sand behind her a gray cream. The sky was growing brighter.
Mei was not in chains and no guards stood around her. She was still free.
Some small measure of relief at that did help to steady her. But the horror of what she’d just been through had left her deeply shaken. She couldn’t seem to shake the smell. The feel of it. She twisted as her stomach heaved into her throat. She gagged and vomited. Yet her stomach was empty and little came out. Swaying on her hands and knees, she dry heaved for a while before turning away and collapsing into the surf.
Mei lay there for some time as the waves broke against her body. She was soaked, but that was fine. The water was good. She couldn’t burn here.
After much time had passed, she came to herself again. It took a great deal of mental fortitude, but she told herself that it hadn’t been real. It had only been a dream, no matter how shaken it had left her.
She couldn’t let this beat her. She needed to survive, no matter how awful the experience. That was where strength came from and she wanted to be strong. So she chose to be.
She clumsily forced herself to her feet. Consciously, she checked over her body, feeling her hair, her face, her back, all of it. It was restored, as if nothing had happened. She proved to herself that she was fine. She was alive. She was whole.
Further standing around would only waste time and lead to self pity. She had no desire to dwell on her trauma lest it take root. Time to get back to living. She would not define herself by her failure, but by her ability to pick herself up and keep going. Even if it was hard. It was a lesson that she would remind herself of over and over again, as many times as was needed.
The beach was unfamiliar, the nearby jungle the same. But she saw smoke waft above the trees a few hundred meters away. No need to guess what that came from.
Free of the cannibal tribe, she could easily take off in another direction now and find her way to freedom. Or at least she could explore this island and find a place to hide. But then she thought of the boy and his mother. She stepped forward, headed towards the village. She hoped they’d escaped. If there was anything she could do to help, she would.
They heard her coming. There were shouts and bodies scampered into the jungle before she’d even entered the village. Or what was left of it.
Three huts were untouched by fire, the rest had been partially or completed burned. Gray smoke coiled up from black walls and collapsed roofs. Bodies of the tribal inhabitants still lay where they had been struck down. The sound of wailing heartbreak came from inside the trees.
Walking forwards, she could see each brown corpse marked by red gashes or holes. The killer, Tattoos had spared none, seeking to slay everyone he’d come into contact with. And he’d been very good at what he did. But she did not linger on the others. Her head turned this way and that, searching while her feet carried her to the place of her own death: the fire pit. And the hut beyond.
The mother lay on her side. The boy was in her arms. They were riddled with stab wounds. Even though he’d already killed Mei, he’d been brutal towards them anyways, as if to spite her. Had he known that she would return? Had he done this knowing that she would see it?
The little flower boy just lay there. Still. Staring at nothing. She’d never get to play with him again. He would never laugh again. He would never have the chance to grow up and become anyone.
Hot tears welled in her eyes and her chest tightened. Two tears fell down her cheeks.
The sound of someone approaching caused her to look up with watery vision. She brushed her eyes and blinked.
An old woman approached. Her eyes were red and her cheeks stained with tears of her own. She was ancient, wrinkled, her arms and legs bony and thin. But her gaze was sharp. She stopped a couple of paces away and stared at Mei. There was judgement there. A hint of hostility? Anger, yes, certainly. And grief.
The two looked at each other in silence. Two more tears trickled down Mei’s face.
The old woman finally broke contact. She looked down at the bodies at Mei’s feet. She sobbed hard, but only once, before she caught herself. She seemed unsteady, for a moment, before she reasserted control. Then she looked up at Mei again. This time there was only grief in her eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Mei wished she could have said it in their language. “I’m so sorry.” She felt stupid and helpless and guilty. As if this were all her fault. As if she’d killed them. It wasn’t, she logically knew that. But she never should have let that monster out of his cage.
The old woman seemed to see that. She spoke in her own tongue.
Mei shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
Gnarled fingers pointed at Mei, then the cages and then beyond. Then they gestured to the ruins of the village. Weeping openly, the old woman patted her chest, gestured to the dead and then patted her chest again. As if to say, my fault too. If we hadn’t kidnapped you, this would never have happened.
Perhaps Mei was inferring the wrong thing. Perhaps it was just Mei wishing that they understood each other, that they both saw responsibility in the tragedy. She didn’t know. There was no way for them to really understand each other.
Or maybe there was. The old woman brushed her eyes clear of tears and motioned for Mei to follow.
They came to the furthest hut, the one closest to the cages. It stood unharmed. The old woman entered and pointed to a back corner. She said something.
A bit wary, Mei came to the entrance. She looked around. No angry warriors came out of the jungle to spear her. And a quick look into the shadows revealed no one in wait either.
The old woman pointed to the corner again. Then she made a digging motion with her hands.
Stepping inside, still cautious, Mei saw that this was more of a storage hut rather than one lived in. Spears and fishing gear were stacked up against one wall, and blankets and leather stood on a bench or low table. Black, iron manacles were piled into a corner, along with metal tools and other looted items. She pointed at the corner indicated and the old woman nodded. So Mei dragged the pile of manacles out of the way.
On her knees, she dug into the sandy dirt. Only a few centimetres down, she hit wood. Sweeping the light soil away, she uncovered a crude wooden plank made of rough branches, much like the other native architecture. Pulling the plank up, she realized that it was a cover and that there was a space below.
Inside lay her sword and pistols, along with many other weapons, and a few leather pouches, which she guessed were full of money.
She looked up.
The old woman bowed her head and gestured. Take.
Choked up, but also greatly relieved, she reached in and retrieved her weapons. There were soldier rifles and other blades, but hers were easily the finest and she had no use for more, so she left the rest. But, at a thought, she reached into the hole and grabbed a heavy bag of what were, yes, coins. She held it up, questioningly.
The old woman nodded and impatiently waved again.
Mei covered the hole back up and swept the dirt back into place. Stepping outside of the hut, she saw some of the villagers were now standing uneasily just inside the trees all around. Almost all were grieving. Some weren’t looking at her at all. Some faces were stony as they watched her, others were twisted with hate. But even the few remaining warriors seemed to have the fight taken out of them and none moved towards her.
Guilt and defiance mixed within her. Guilt because she had been educated about foreign invaders and all the harm that had happened throughout history when one civilization encountered another, especially with a huge technological difference. And defiance because they might hate her, but they’d also kidnapped her, eaten one person, and been prepared to force at least one woman into being members of their tribe. She hoped Winny had made it to safety somehow.
There were things that were understandable about the situation, about the Europeans coming here and the natives already here, understandable and forgivable. But both sides were also at fault for things as well and guilty of some form of villainy. She could easily recall the way the cannibals had drugged her and happily danced about with their spears, boasting in triumph, praising themselves and each other for being great warriors, while she and the others sat in cages.
So Mei was infinitely sorry for what had happened here, and for the way that little boy, especially, had died. But she refused to take all the blame for it.
The old woman was motioning her, waving her to follow. Not to the beach though, to the jungle.
Mei frowned. “I should… A canoe?” She made a paddling motion with the sword and pointed towards the beach. “Can I take a canoe?”
The old woman shook her head and impatiently motioned harder, stepping towards the forest.
Well, Mei had no real plan. The canoes really were too big for one person anyway. So she followed.
At the edge of the jungle, the old woman pointed and pushed Mei in a certain direction.
“Go that way?” Mei asked, pointing.
The old woman nodded, pointed and pushed some more.
With one last look at the dead, Mei bowed in thanks to the old woman. Then she turned and walked into the jungle.