They set sail toward Bali to buy local craft. Marcus Stanley’s sharp eye had noticed the growing passion of Europeans for exotic objects. And he knew various artisans of the Ubud region, who dedicated themselves to the sculpturing of traditional statuettes of angels and cherubs, of flowers and fruits, of mythological and real animals; to the embellishment of magnificent painted structures and the amazing Wayang Puppets.
“Objects from other lands represent the possibility of change, of other ways and new perspectives. James, we all need to dream that we can be different,”, said Marcus.
“Do I stand here before a philosopher?” quipped Carson.
“Over there walk various groups of professional bandits who take advantage of the natives’ innocence, removing from the islands valuable pieces in exchange for little or nothing. The people are now able to sell what they make; more if necessary and we will pay well. Does that not tempt you to ruin the business of those thugs?” said Marcus, cuttingly.
Behind the almost bureaucratic and conventional appearance of Marcus lay an avenging personality, Carson thought, nodding to himself. On more than one occasion, he had run into their kind; their contempt and greed toward the islanders disgusted him and Bali had long been a pleasant place to be.
Neha accompanied them. She had relatives in Ubud and would therefore be a good mediator; an honest girl familiar to the trade was the best way in. When Neha boarded the Made’s, she noticed that around Carson’s neck hung the lucky talisman she had given him all that time ago. She made no mention of it. Her silence was as dense as mercury.
It requires great composure to reserve oneself in such silence, navigating the awkward moments, gracefully completing each task while remaining quiet until the suitable moment to speak, whether it be for small talk or perhaps a question of a practical nature made it indispensable to resort to words. In any case, she seldom seemed to need them; at least not in a wasteful way.
The trip was tranquil. They disembarked at Denpasar, bought supplies and with what was left of a few hours of sun, set off on a road which took them inland.
The next day, flocks of birds of unknown origin, flew silently and without stopping over the rice paddies; travelling in an eastern direction. Carson had been watching them the whole morning. Nevertheless, later on that day he wouldn’t remember anything else but the echo of paper being torn in the wind. He had the impression however that the sound he had heard only ever existed in his own head.
After arriving at the top of a hill, Neha pointed to a small village in the middle of the green landscape. The tender rice buds gave the valley an enamel-like appearance. The men stopped to eat and to rest. Carson left Neha to find a comfortable spot to relax before sitting down behind her; this is how it had been during the whole trip.
He doubted whether he was doing it just to look at her slender figure, which seemed to almost caress the floor while she walked, or whether he was avoiding the piercing black eyes of that girl, which to him was more devastating; both were convincing and both doubtlessly true. Rather embarrassed by his reasoning, he slumped forlorn to the grass. Who in their right mind would want to confess that those eyes, even to this day, could still invoke such terror? Neha’s jet black hair shone in the sun and Carson longed to stroke it, to bury his face in it; maybe she would talk to him with her eyes closed so he might stop feeling, even for a second, the barrier that look had created.
He must have dozed off as did the rest of the crew. The snake slithered between the long grass; Carson was first in its path. As he jolted up, seized by a cutting pain in his thigh, he managed to see it disappear. Neha, startled by his loud scream, turned her head, saw it and knew she had to act quickly. It was a King Cobra; its bite being potentially fatal within a few minutes; or at the very least, a slow agony which was still dreadful. To the astonishment of the men, she ripped off his pants and swiftly tore away a sash of fabric from her Sarong so as to apply a gentle pressure to his leg just above the wound, which was becoming inflamed. She pleaded for a knife. Merlone handed her his. She then placed one hand over the bite wound and the other on his forehead. She performed two incisions next to where the Cobra had pierced its fangs and prepared to suck the venom out; which was causing his pulse to get out of control, threatening to kill him.
Carson’s breathing became difficult and was soon plunged into a state of convulsing semi-consciousness from which he fought to come back. The pain, the sensation of suffocating and the compassionate attention of Neha distressed him. But even more so, he thought to himself, was the premonition that there might never be another occasion when he could at least say “what” to her again, or that he was lost in her silence and that he yearned very much to touch her long silky hair. He wasn’t even able to express himself with any sort of clarity; if he could he would have.
Neha straddled his injured leg, held his thigh in both hands and placed her lips over the bite wound. She sucked and spat out, again and again, showing unease with each inhalation, but softness each time her lips brushed the Irishman’s skin. As Carson leaned on the chest of Juan de Mengíbar, he fleetingly had moments where he could see both her black mane on his body and, at the same time, what seemed like her silhouette violently ridding him of the venomous blood. On only one occasion did they look at one another and Carson believed he understood the glazed look in Neha’s welled up eyes. She lowered her eyes shyly.
“Trust in me,” she said, and continued.
But Carson was loosing consciousness. A deep drowsiness had seized him and a worrying look cast a shadow over the faces of the men. He couldn’t even hear what Neha was saying to the crew:
“Everything happens for a reason; only time will tell.”
After a few minutes passed, Neha got up.
“We can do no more; we must take him to the village.”
A makeshift stretcher was quickly put together and they took him down the hill. Carson’s uneven breaths were affecting the men causing them to walk with a nervous rhythm. He was burning up and convulsing. During the descent, Neha never let go of his trembling hand. She prayed inwardly that he would fully recover. She wanted to hear him tell her what the marks signified on the talisman she had given him. She wanted to tell him who she was.
Carson remained unconscious for several days. Neha refused to abandon his bedside and only on rare occasions did the men manage to relieve her. In order to keep the crew active, Juan de Mengíbar decided to visit the local settlements in order to purchase some sculptures. The sick man remained in the care of Neha. One night, as the sun was going down, weary and exhausted, she fell onto his chest. Two trembling hands caressed her hair. Carson, gathering all the strength he could muster, raised her head and cupped the curves of her face in his hands. He slowly kissed her eyes for what seemed an eternity until she finally opened them.
“If you look at me, I may not be able to continue,” he said.
“You’re going to have to try. I don’t want to take my eyes off you, nor do I want you to stop kissing me,” she said affectionately.
With time, Carson discovered that the echo he kept hearing of paper being torn in the wind was actually the ripping of Neha’s Sarong; a sound that was a mystery to his heart; a heart which, for such a long time had been holding back, was now extraordinarily moved.
The snake was an uncomfortable but necessary inhabitant of paradise.