A consignment of wood was waiting for James Carson in the mountains of Barisan; he had hired a herd of elephants and a guide. The rendezvous was in the port of Pedang.
A young woman approached him. The elephants that had been dozing amongst the bales of straw continued their steps gazing fixedly. When the young woman finally stood in front of him, everything paused: the noise and bustle of the mixed raced market, the yelling of the merchants behind their stalls, the reflections from the nacres and the bronze; everything except his eyes.
“My name is Neha, I’ll be taking you to the mountains.”
“Just you? Aren’t you afraid?”
She shook her head. Just for a moment, she seemed as though she was giving him a wry smile of disapproval, then with a gesture of her hand, a huge elephant came between them. There he stood firm, defiant and very assured. He was called Dwipa, the leader of the herd. Carson understood there and then that Neha had nothing to worry about.
For the next few days, guided by Neha, Carson and his crew trekked to the mountains. One night, as the sun was going down, they stopped at a bamboo forest. For centuries it was an essential duty for all those who made that expedition to inscribe their name, using a knife, on one of the bamboo stems.
“Aren’t you going to record your name?” Neha asked.
“Why leave memories,” he replied. “Are you going to do it?”
“I did it a long time ago.”
Carson was silent. He didn’t know what to put…James Carson, The Irishman, Plata de Palo? None were completely him and altogether they were too copious. When they arrived to the mountains they loaded the wood and then returned to Pedang. At the port, as they said goodbye to each other, Neha gave him a talisman of elephant ivory.
“Have this; it’ll be something to remember me by”.
Carson took the small circular object and looked at the engravings. There was an uneven line running through it; maybe it was a wave, an outline of a mountain range, a square, a cross, the point of an arrow, or was it a mark that went from the polished surface deep into the centre…; he only recognised his tattoo.
He was a man surrounded by symbols he couldn’t comprehend, a strange country and a young woman who didn’t say much, either because she knew too much or too much too soon. Neha’s expression was also an enigma.
“Will we see each other again?” he asked.
“Come back when you’ve discovered its significance,” she replied.
Later, while on deck, he examined the talisman and began to think the permanent, incisive and disturbing mark he saw that day was almost identical to the look in Neha’s eyes; that from the deepest darkest parts of its centre, similar to that young woman’s eyes, lay the questions that he had to ask himself sooner or later.