Katharine Coles | Essays

Loewock, in the Northwest Celebes, lay on a narrow shelf along the coast, its mountains soaring almost straight from the sea. The S.S. Jacob pulled out at 10 AM and with it went the last direct communication of what we call a civilized world. A packet of letters to Muckie, another to Mandy. He stood on the dock, Maugham’s tales tucked under his arm—the S.S. Jacob straight out of the stories, a junky ship, still used to fly around the islands for longer voyages—looking at thatched Malaysian huts on stilts, the small European fort. With this isolation begins a new adventure.

He walked up the dusty street to the Dutch controlleur’s house with its deep veranda. Even here, the depression had hit—Americans a world away skimping on coconut oil, keeping their worn rattan chairs another year. The controlleur promised forty coolies. This he is glad to do because in these times many of the natives can not pay their taxes. As close as Brutus would come to using indentured labor. In a few weeks, Agerbeck would join him, but for now he was on his own. I always feel like a little boy in a big strange mysterious place. He tended to details, moving toward the moment he would overcome his inertia and resistance, making the first start, and the real work, its violent physicality, began. It was the part of every expedition he liked least. The only thing to do is get it over with.

•     •     •

The first start. A vertical wilderness. A place where, so far, I’ve followed him only in words. Later, wanting to see what he saw, I remember him writing about his films, remember images flickering in the darkness of my grandfather’s study, Joan talking about all the times he subjected her and her brothers to the films and the lecture that accompanied them. What, I wonder, has become of them?

•     •     •

A tax bill was not as persuasive as the controlleur hoped. The bottom had fallen out of the copra market, but the village could eat coconuts and rice. Brutus finally set out with twenty men carrying the bare minimum of equipment and food to their first camp on the wild Kienton River.

In the morning, he took the two most agile men to scout the deepening, narrowing gorge, crossing and recrossing. By late afternoon, they had forded the river more times than he could count. Above sheer cliffs rising hundreds of feet on either side of the gorge, a strip of sky glowed hot blue, but below, deep in rock shade and mist, Brutus shivered. Then something changed in the air, under his feet—a vibration, more intuition than sound—and he paused, gazing upriver. Under the tumble of whitecaps, a shadow crept toward them, the line between clean water and silted so distinct he could have drawn it with a pen. Somewhere above them, it was raining hard. The line swept past; the water, now the color of chocolate, began to rise with a surge of panic he contained, reduced to the size of a bean behind his ribs. He turned the men around and told them to hurry.

In twenty minutes, the trail was under water. Hugging cliffs, they stepped from boulder to slick boulder. Water swirled around their knees, waists, then necks, sweeping with it branches and debris. Brutus stumbled through the brown tumult, the river pulling at his clothes, his feet in their heavy boots insensible as blocks of cement. His two men, all but naked, were quick and sure. They went places I could never even attempt to go, and when we crossed the river to the north side they stood on both sides of me in heavy swirling water and handed me across. Ten more minutes. Ten more. All they could do: keep going, driven by adrenalin, trying not to let it overtake them.

Almost an hour to travel a mile. Soon, the water would be over their heads, and they would have no choice but to try to ride it. Then, they rounded a bend to the place he remembered, a narrow opening in the rock wall. They stumbled up, the water still rising, dragging at his trouser legs, the river’s roar still urging them upward, a hundred feet, two. Finally, they heaved over the lip of the gorge and lay panting, looking in wonder down into a wild chute through which entire trees now tumbled. A wash of relief, pure pleasure, his body fully present to him. The rumbling magnified: the current surged, rolling a boulder the size of Muckie’s Ford as if it were nothing.

You can get used to anything. They started back along the edge of the gorge, over rocks and mud treacherously slick. Brutus’s feet, cold and clumsy, couldn’t feel the ground. He didn’t even know he had misstepped until his gravity shifted, one boot sliding from under him. Beside him, the cliff curved into air, three hundred feet down into a raging flood. He felt his body giving over to the giddiness of the fall. He tried to dig his other boot in, but the ground beneath it also dissolved—into mud slick as ice, into nothing—and momentum carried him out over the gorge.

Just as he gave over, a grip bruised his arm. He stopped sliding. He was suspended over the chasm. He didn’t dare move, even to see which man had him. Again, his body, present, all in all.

What was there not to understand? I should have been killed or at least fairly well busted up with broken bones if those fellows had not rescued me. A little Malay between them, flesh and blood, gravity. The men could have let go, brushed off their hands, gone back to their villages. Instead, they hauled him away from that sheer edge, and he lived.

Back at camp, still vibrating, he almost didn’t know what to do with himself. Alive. He pulled out a piece of paper. He wrote Mandy about coming in from the field wanting only Muckie and music, full of pure physical need. I don’t think I ever willingly forced myself on her—I hope not. He drew a map of the Celebes, with an X to indicate where he might be—an interior place, unnamed, as yet uncharted. He couldn’t help himself. I am gone ¾ of the time, and the only thing I have to go on is love and trust and my trust was so strong that I never asked a question though I sometimes wanted to. Here he was again in the jungle, deeper than ever and more alive, farther from her than ever, wondering. To suspect a friend is worse than to be betrayed by him.

•     •     •

The films are in my uncle Andy’s garage—grimy, falling to dust. I want to see this world through his lens, black and white, but the films are far too fragile to play. I arrange for them to be shipped to Western Cinema in Colorado, where the restorer says my grandfather had an eye, a sense of narrative, a sense of humor. It was rare for an amateur to edit film or cut in titles. I might sell or rent footage to “the industry” to underwrite their restoration, but I feel protective. What would my grandfather want? If one can not get pictures of them the native method of doing things is lost. His, hers. Something gone—a brutal innocence. I Google the Smithsonian, call the number listed under Donations. I know, I explain to the man on the other end, that Donations means money. But we have these films. Can he put me in touch with someone who might want them?

So Brutus moved through that extravagant gash up toward the river’s source, which he felt under his feet before he heard it, a trembling he first attributed to quinine drunkenness, a nasty feeling that makes one’s ears ring. A huge series of waterfalls gushed straight from the mountain’s face, grand, terrifying, its scale unreproducible in a 16 mm frame, where the fall becomes a lovely billow of water framed by foliage, the viewer’s awe suggested only by the length of time the camera lingers.

They spent two days getting out of the gorge, climbing freehand under heavy packs, huddling to rest on bare ledges trembling with ferns and slick with moss. It is a quiet, weird country, and has a cold, hostile atmosphere. They emerged at last into a shallow valley ringed by still higher mountains, where streams and rivulets came together in a massive confluence before plunging underground. The spectacular fall they’d just scaled wasn’t the source but just the release of that subterranean aquifer. The sudden rise of the main rivers is not such a mystery. The water created as many problems of geology as of travel, falling over the exposures he needed to see, depositing silt. The rock was there, but illegible.

As was his other life, in which Muckie played cards, dined, drank splits. Where was she now? The thing is over with, and I am sure completely over with. He tried to free his mind of any images but one: her head bent to a book under the lamplight. God knows trust is necessary in the life we lead. The problem was, he’d never been able to imagine her fully—what she might want or do. Better to think about floods, snakes, dangers he could measure and was equipped to face.

In the evenings, he turned to music, to books. His tent, a circle of light. First Maugham, whose tropical betrayals only depressed him. Then Maupassant, A Woman’s Life. Jeanne, innocent on the night of her marriage; Julien, unfaithful even in courtship. “Was he really the husband promised by a thousand whispering voices, thrown her way by a divinely beneficent providence?  Was he really the man made for her, to whom her life would be devoted?”  At first, he imagined Julien as Bert. “He had one of those smiling faces that women dream of but all men dislike.”   But if Julien was Bert, who was Muckie? Who was he? Exhausted, he read into the night. Late, he picked up his pencil. “And now!  And now!  Her whole life was shattered, all joy was dead, all her expectations blasted; the ghastly future with all its tortures, his betrayal, her despair, rose up before her eyes.”  He drew a firm underline, his heart to Jeanne’s words. “It would be better to die; then everything would be over and done with.”   

Characters he could believe in. At night, he entered Maupassant’s world entirely. There, he was the poor innocent. He was the virgin offered, taken, betrayed.

•     •     •

Over the Christmas break, I go to Washington. Every morning, I take the Metro to Suitland, Maryland, an anonymous building with echoing concrete corridors and visible ductwork. Smithsonian archivist Pam Wintle has warned me to bring my lunch—there’s nothing out here but derelict houses and sidewalks, wide, busy streets, this building set behind a high fence. Pam and Mark Matienzo seat me at a light table, where I put on white gloves and slowly crank my way by hand through the reels, peering at individual frames through a loupe, trying not to break anything. Mark especially is nervous to have an amateur handling the films, and I try to repay his kindness and patience by making notes based on what I’ve read in the journals—this, shot in Sumatra in 1929, this in the Celebes, 1932. A vanished world—and it’s unusual, Pam tells me: his awareness that he is shooting what can’t survive, and that he is what will kill it.

•     •     •

Brutus had promised to meet Agerbeck in Pangimanan and bring him back to high country. The world was flooded, every trail impassible, but he left the coolies in camp and hiked the river out of the mountains to the coast. At Loewock, he dropped his shambled boots with the local army captain and caught a ride over the pass in the old rattletrap mail truck. From his shifting vantage above the high plateau, he could see drainages arranging themselves in fissures east and west and sketched quick maps to guide him when he was back down in them, imagining how to get out.

In Poh, the postman transferred him with a few sacks of letters, including his own, to a thatch-roofed boat with four paddlers. He lay on its wooden bottom and drifted in and out of sleep while the men paddled to a fast tempo. When they slid into harbor at 1:30 a.m., Agerbeck was smoking on the pier as if he’d expected his boss to pull in at the darkest hour, horizontal cargo in the bottom of an overgrown canoe. They started back just after midday, beds of coral beneath them bright little worlds through which fish flickered, electric blue and yellow, just below the surface. In Loewock, Brutus had a surprise: the army captain had not only gotten his boots fixed but found two pairs of light canvas sneakers, good for wading, that would fit his size 44 feet. I almost kissed him.

•     •     •

Men poling a boat.

The portable Victrola with its lid propped to show a record on the turntable, the heavy needle with its little horn. A title cut in: The Victrola is a rank luxury.

Cows and pigs being loaded by hoist onto a ship. The pigs make charming fellow passengers.

My back and shoulders are cramping, but I keep cranking through the frames, caught by his eye, those tiny ghosts, a stilled world with his voice running through it, a voice I can almost hear.

•     •     •

The ferocious Batoei stopped them cold. The natives feared the river as they would a ghost or monster; its rage, the pythons sheltering under its banks. Before they even started, Brutus had to send thirteen men out sick. He brought in a dozen fresh, but four ran away before they pulled out. The coolies muttered when he walked by, their fingers flashing against the evil eye. He could hardly blame them.

No trails. They kept to the riverbank, hacking at foliage until they could crawl through. In mid morning, Brutus pushed through an opening and emerged head first to see in front of him a confusion of loops, shimmering, so big he didn’t at once know it—a mess of snake, a coiled python surveying the country. A head bigger than his own, jaw built to unhinge. Eye to eye, ground level. He eased back through the gap in the brush, called for Agerbeck, who was carrying a rifle. The huge head turned again. The snake licked the air, heavy with man-scent. Agerbeck took aim; then the body writhed, still shining where sun penetrated the leaves. The head was gone. The soft-nose bullet did its work.

None of the coolies would get close enough to touch it. The two white men looped a piece of rattan over what remained of its head and, sweating and heaving, pulled the beast out to full length—over twenty feet, a good foot across. There was nothing in the snake, so it is quite evident the creature was waiting for something to come along. One step farther would have put me in the coils of the brute. Nearby was a nest littered with hatched eggs. Brutus looked at his feet—the tangled roots seemed, for a moment, to twist beneath his boots—and saw it, a hand-hammered gold medallion, lost who knows when? Uncovered by rain, its glint catching his eye. In the middle of the jungle, he could find gifts to bring her. The skin of a python, a small fossil. Moving pictures.

Before supper, he wrote Muckie about cataracts, snakes, how he wanted to wrap himself around her. Business is picking up—I am having adventures this time. They had to make nine kilometers a day to finish before the food ran out.

Midnight. By now, the Maupassant was dog-eared and worn. “There was nothing left in the world except misery, sorrow, disillusion, and death. Everything was deception and lying, everything was fraught with suffering and tears.”  He remembered riding in the back seat, Muckie and Bert in front, their heads together so he couldn’t hear them over the engine and the wind through the open side curtains. “The pair in front often spoke in low voices, but sometimes burst into loud laughter, suddenly looking at each other as if their eyes had things to convey which their lips did not utter.”  There it was. “Everyone in the world was a traitor, a liar, a deceiver.”  He lay in bed tossing and scratching—where did those bites come from?  Python, elephant, wild boar with its razor tusks—all worthy foes. But something too small to see was eating him alive—

—too small to film, though here’s a leech on a white thigh, here a foot (his?) sprouting mold or mushrooms like a bad hunk of bread: Fungal infections from stream water

—a plague of ticks—red, winged, tiny enough to come in through the mosquito netting. The rains kept coming; the river rose and fell, always impassible, wide and terrible. Brutus lay awake in his tent, scratching and thinking. If they could build a raft—something simple, bamboo lashed with rope—and get it once to the far shore, they could run a line and ferry men and goods in shifts.

Brutus, Agerbeck, the Mandoer, the natives would survive or not together. They felled and stripped trees, lashed them together. They lowered the raft to the riverbank then rappelled the cliff and passed down their gear. Brutus christened the raft with a bottle of beer, secured it with rope so it wouldn’t pull free. He lined the men up on the riverbank, all of them tiny now in black and white. Crossing the Delaware was a snap compared to this. Note the coolie taking off with a line.

The first coolie stood in the bow holding the line’s free end while the others pushed the raft out into the current, hanging on as long as they could before giving it a mighty heave toward the other side. But the current carried it back into midstream before the man could leap for the far shore. Man after man took his turn on the raft, resumed his place in the water. They labored through early afternoon, wet and exhausted from battling the river. A few more tries; Brutus might have to think of something else.

Finally, it was the Mandoer’s turn. He was short and scrawny, used to command more than hard labor, and Brutus had left him almost for last. Again, the men pushed the raft out. Again, the current began to take it. If Brutus hadn’t been filming he would already have turned away in disgust when the Mandoer surprised him. He plunged off the bow. For a moment, Brutus thought the furious river had swallowed the man; his head surfaced, disappeared, after a breathless second reappeared. At last his shoulders emerged and he pushed the last few feet up the steep bank. I got a movie of it all. His triumph, proof that here, against the forces of nature, he was competent. He knew what to do.

(I, my heart picking up, make my note—On the Batoei River, 1932, crossing in a flood.)  Once the raft was secured on both banks, they needed six men on a rope and three poling to move it back and forth. (Bend your knees and bow your head, and pull that rope until you’re dead.)  By noon, gear and men were sodden. But all were on the other bank.

•     •     •

I guess it was raining all over the world at the same time. By five, the water had breached its banks. A little later it was swishing merrily under our tents and we had to pull out. By six, it was four feet deep where their camp had been; by sunset, the river, normally fifty meters wide, had spread to five hundred. Waves piled up 6 to 7 feet in the middle, with huge trees floating on the crest of the waves just like a small chip of wood. Occasionally Brutus turned his head to see another enormous root system tumble by. At last, he’d found what he was looking for—a section along a tributary with continuous outcrops, H2S seepages and an oil seep, on a monocline. Oil, finally, and he was flooded out.

They didn’t have food enough even for the next day, but he wouldn’t abandon the expedition now. In the morning, he left the surveyor and a few men behind with the gear and continued with the rest downriver, where he’d heard there was a small native store. But where the toko had been he found an abandoned hut settling back into jungle—nothing to buy, not even rice for that night, only two fresh doves he shot on the way, so everyone had a morsel of meat, barely enough to whet their appetites. At last, they straggled into Loewoek, where he paid off the men who had finished their contracts. The new men also wanted to be released, but he needed to get food to the surveyor, and now he’d found oil he was determined to finish. Any coolie who ran away would get hard labor and forfeit his pay. They put on a demonstration of weeping, pain, hysteria like I never saw before—it did them no good.

Brutus ordered twenty-five more coolies like so many cans of potatoes at the controlleur’s office in Loewoek, but by now the locals knew their pay would go to taxes before they ever saw it, and rumors swirled about the expedition’s hard luck: flash floods, invisible biting insects, snakes as big and monstrous as legend. Finally, Brutus left with twenty new men and promises of more to follow. He did not have a good feeling. Somehow this gang gives me the creeps. That night, an earthquake rolled through the jungle and under the flimsy town. For five full minutes, the houses danced on their stilts.

Nature couldn’t frighten him, if only the humans would cooperate. But the next day, seven men set off after breakfast without a word or coin in hand. The next, all twelve new men asked to be paid off. If they quit, only a third of his team would remain. The whole enterprise would fail. He refused. The next day, he awakened to find only ten men remained. He needed thirty to carry the essential gear and food. They stole away like thieves. I am sitting in the soup. I hope they all die. He was content to be tired and wet, to do backbreaking labor just like an ordinary coolie, as long as he was moving forward, his life in his own hands. He never thought about their lives, their hands, though their hands had saved him time and again. He wouldn’t have known how to value them; to him, their whole world looked like a wasteland. When he was confined helplessly to camp, waiting for however few men the Mandoer might muster to come and rescue them from mortal peril, peering every few minutes into the jungle or down the river, the old black snake reared its head and drew his eyes into its dark gaze. It seems such a waste of one’s precious young life to sit out here in a tent to stare at a wild muddy river on one side and a blanket of jungle on the other side. One day, two. He dreamed he was wrestling a huge python, jaw unhinged and mouth gaping. There will be at least three more days of this, if the mandoer can get more men, otherwise the Lord only knows. Maybe every day he had. If the Mandoer came back with no coolies and he decided to cut out, the Victrola would stay behind. His camera, his films, lost to the jungle. He imagined someone years from now, stumbling across the camp and his traces, signs things had not gone well. Another day passed.

Here, he is not much different than the man I remember reciting Robert Service forty years later, though he is unshaven, dark rather than hoary, and haggard. His narrow head is bowed, his long hands tented, eyes gazing into the jungle’s green shade while dance music pours out of the Victrola’s speaker. As the record turns, does he in his mind turn Muckie on a dance floor, light as air in his arms? Does he imagine another man moving her body before him, white satin pouring over her hips like fast water?

Four days. No Mandoer, no men. No sugar, no potatoes. That night, there was a second earthquake. Three or four minutes. You could see the tremendous trees move and sway. Brutus rode it out in his cot. The whole earth felt in motion with a sort of billowy wave feeling. The earth turning to nothing beneath his feet. And he—is he real? After it stopped, he lit his lantern and smoked his pipe, looking into the dense darkness. Eventually, he reached for pen and paper and wrote to Mandy. Earthquake, coolies, dwindling food. And news from his last trip to town: one of his own wells had come in, the first for any company geologist since he’d arrived in the Indes.

On the fifth day, Agerbrek shot a dove, a mouthful of meat for him and Brutus, each. On the eighth evening, just as Brutus decided the Mandoer had abandoned them, he materialized like a shade out of the dense jungle. One man at his shoulder. Another. That was all. The runaways had plied the country with stories. Famine, flood, earthquake, tiny red demons with wings.

I’m all blown up. Not enough strong backs to carry the gear. If they continued, they would starve. (A pan of the clearing, tent frames bereft of their canvas. Deserted camps always carry the sadness of a past glory, even if occupied for only a day.) They built four rafts and floated to Loewoek, to the world, where Brutus found letters from Muckie and news that another of his wells had come in. He and Agerbeck went to the club for their first iced drinks in two months, toasting failure, toasting success.

He was sitting a few days later in his rented house on a veranda overlooking the bay when the village chief arrived. He’d come to ask for wages for the men who had slipped off into the jungle. Now I ask you. Until that moment, Brutus had planned to do nothing about the runaways. But as soon as the man left, Brutus walked to the Government Office, filled out paperwork for filing charges, and handed it to the controlleur with the money he’d withheld for taxes. There would have been more, he pointed out, if the men had finished their work.

In a few days, the government had rounded up half the men. These birds were rather surprised when we walked into the court room.

They had left, the men said, because their loads were heavy. (Huge round baskets, as big around as the men and almost as tall, shoulder straps of twine.)

They’d never complained about the loads.

The interpreter said, “Did you not realize that your running away would probably cause these gentlemen an undue amount of danger that in cases might be fatal?” 

Yes, the men answered, all of them had known it. Their faces were very still.

The controlleur insisted on punishment. They could have paid their taxes. Two months hard labor, no pay. Not so different from what they’d fled. I am glad they got socked in the neck for the trick they pulled on us.

Were the two who had saved him from going over the cliff among them? I have no way of knowing.

In a high meadow, he remembered, he had one afternoon come upon the men unexpectedly. They are always complaining about their loads, but there they were merrily playing soccer football at a terrific pace with a hand-made rattan ball.

A dozen men, having laid down their loads, running and playing. (I would like to see a movie of that.)  Proof, to him, of something he already knew.

Now I ask you.