A Distant Drumming
by Peter Ninnes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
I was satisfied with the trip until, on the third night, a hole appeared in the fabric of sanity. At first it was just a tiny tear, hardly big enough for the spectre of irrationality to poke its nose through.
I awoke a little after two in the morning. Japanese river otters are thought to have a range of about one or two kilometres, so I’d tired myself out tramping all around the forest within that distance of the river, and for about five kilometres downstream. I should have been sleeping soundly, but a truck rumbling up the valley woke me. Its lights swept past the campsite and threw spooky shadows on the tent wall. The truck seemed to pause for several minutes, the engine idling, as if the driver had pulled over. Then the gears had a brief altercation, and the vehicle went on its way.
Of course, a truck driving along a darkened country road is nothing out of the ordinary. But no sooner had the complaining engine faded into the night than another curious noise seeped into the tent from far up the valley. It could have been some kind of bird. I didn’t know much about the birds of Japan, and I certainly knew of no species that made this odd poka-poka-poka sound, over and over.
The more I listened, the more it seemed like a distant drumming, low in pitch, as if the drum’s skin was a little slack. After a quarter of an hour or so, with me no closer to identifying its source, the beating ceased, and sleep overwhelmed me once more.
In the morning, I’d forgotten about the truck and the eerie drumming. My two companions did not mention it, and sanity’s fabric appeared to have mended itself. The next night, however, the odd noise occurred again. This time, I imagined I could hear two or three drums. I couldn’t gauge the exact number since they were not in unison. The drumming sounded closer.
The drummers — I assumed a sounding drum needed a drummer — had advanced down the valley toward us. They pounded for an hour, and then suddenly stopped. I lay awake for another hour, disturbed by the odd phenomenon and ensuing silence. The cooing of a bird or the scratching of an insect broke the stillness from time to time.
Yet the air had an unusual quality or texture, a grainy instability, as if a clandestine vortex was drifting around the campsite, bumping off the trees or skimming over our tents. Maybe a bat or an owl was swooping about, seeking a late-night snack. The hairs on my arms stood up, defying the humidity. A tremor rattled my teeth. I clenched my jaw, murmuring “Sleep, sleep” over and over to myself. I tossed and turned until the mosquitoes arrived with the dawn and hummed impatiently at the tent door. At that point I gave up, dressed, and wriggled out to face another day of my quest for the otter.
Chie ate her breakfast in silence. She only spoke after Ito toddled off to the toilet. Above dark-ringed eyes, her hair bun lacked its usual severity.
“Did you sleep well, Professor Starc?” she asked in a low voice. I was surprised, because she hadn’t shown much concern for her team members’ welfare to date, except for polite inquiries about the progress of our work.
“I lay awake for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, as a matter of fact.”
“You heard the drumming, too, Professor?”
“I did. Was it a bird?”
Chie’s eyes met mine, then she looked away, and her lips pursed, as if she was considering her response.
“I’m not superstitious, but in the old days, such drumming was a bad sign.”
“Of something not quite right in the environment. A disturbance. Some kind of unnatural perturbation.” Her black eyes glanced at me, and a line of sweat inched down her pale face.
“Well, the environment has been disturbed a lot, of course. Look at that big concrete dam, for example. It’s disrupted the water flow. Even the road we came up and this clearing for the campground have both disrupted the natural environment.”
Chie gazed out across the river, then turned to me. “No, Professor, that’s not what I mean. That kind of noise is a signal about a contemporary problem in our vicinity. It’s not just about ecology. Such drumming signifies unrest in the moral order, too. In the old stories, it’s a warning to humans, and the three of us are the only humans around here.”
The skin on the back of my neck tingled, but I didn’t believe there was any substance to Chie’s concerns. She fell silent as Ito came out of the toilet. He broke wind and headed towards us.
I couldn’t imagine there was an immoral element to our work. Did catching beetles create any great ethical concern? Chie’s species was not threatened by extinction. Ito was taking blood samples from racoon-dogs, tagging them, and releasing them. I was wandering around in the forest and along the river bank looking for otters. If I caught one, I’d take a sample for DNA testing, photograph and tag the animal, and send it back to its family. Our university ethics committees agreed we were doing no harm, and they would not be concerned about the nocturnal drumming for which, no doubt, a logical explanation existed.
The phenomenon was almost unbearable the next two nights. Each time the quantity of drummers doubled or tripled, and the drumming lasted longer, and sounded closer. Ito seemed oblivious. He never mentioned it, and he was refreshed enough each morning to voice his usual grumbles.
On the fifth night of drumming, I had no more than two hours sleep. It took me three attempts to crack open my breakfast egg. Chie’s eyelids drooped like the lichen hanging off trees on the edge of the clearing. She sipped her tea as if it was a personal cup of suffering without respite.
While Ito was attending to his ablutions, I asked, “Are you OK? Should we pack up and go?”
She rubbed her temples. “Thank you for your concern, Professor Starc. My head is a little sore. I should have all the samples I need by this evening. Let’s check with Professor Ito then.”
When I returned from dropping off Ito, I found Chie at the table in the shelter, holding her head in her hands. At this time on previous days, she had already left to check her light traps. I approached her, more worried than before.
“Professor,” she said, before I could speak. Small beads of sweat accumulated on her top lip, like lemmings on a cliff. “The section of forest I’m surveying first thing this morning is rather steep. I had trouble hanging the traps yesterday. I wonder if you could come with me for a couple of hours. I’m sorry to have to ask a favour, but if I fell and hurt myself and couldn’t walk, it would be hard to find me.”
I agreed. As leader of the expedition, I had a responsibility for my team members. The days were long at this time of year. If I went with Chie first, I would still have time to check my cameras, sensors and traps.
A hundred metres from the camp site, we both jumped when a branch crashed to the ground behind us. About five hundred metres from the camp, Chie had hoisted a trap high into a tree, the crown of which abutted a rocky escarpment.
“How did you get that up there?” I asked, amazed at her skills.
“Come this way, and I’ll show you.”
She led me to a narrow track that edged up the cliff. At one point, we had to face the rock, clinging to tiny outcrops, as we inched crab-like along the path. About half way up, we reached a wider ledge.
“Take a look at this, Professor Starc.”
The ledge fronted a small cave. Inside stood a statue of a very angry looking fellow sitting cross-legged on a rock. One hand grasped a sword, and the other, a loop of rope. A fresh quarter of an orange, three roses, and a packet of crackers lay on a slab at the base of the statue. Two incense sticks in a dusty glass jar drifted aromatic smoke towards the cave mouth.
“Who...?” I asked, then fell silent, trying to find a sensible question to ask.
“It’s Fudo-Myou-ou, the immovable wisdom king, and protector of all that is good.”
“But who put those things there? They look fresh.” As Chie had said, only the three of us occupied this remote corner of Shikoku.
Chie spoke in a voice barely above a murmur. “All I know is someone is trying to appease him. There were different offerings there yester—”
Wild drumming obliterated her last syllable, bursting upon our ears like a thunderclap. The sky remained iris-blossom blue. Rays of sunlight sauntered through the tree tops. The racket exceeded the clamour of the earlier, nocturnal beatings. Legions of drummers seemed gathered just beyond our campsite.
The fear in Chie’s eyes reflected the terror in my own heart. She grabbed my arm as the drums abruptly ceased. I held my breath for what seemed like half a minute, then a long, blood-boiling scream cut the air, as if separating the living from the dead.
“Professor Ito!” Chie breathed.
We scrambled down the cliff and dashed back to the campsite. The only sounds for miles around were the slap of branches and lichen against our faces and the thud of tree roots hammering our boots.
We burst into the campground. There was an odd smell in the air, pungent, throat-constricting, like a durian squashed in the road, or a fetid drain behind a Bangkok street market.
“Let’s take the Cruiser,” I said.
We roared up the entrance track and onto the road. I stomped on the accelerator and flung the vehicle around the bends. Within a minute, we jerked to a halt in the clearing at the end of the overgrown track where I dropped Ito each morning. The air smelled of dead animals. There was no sign of Ito, but only his equipment, forsaken in the grass.
“Look at these, Professor Starc!”
Apart from the trunk, there were three bulging canvas bags on the ground, which I hadn’t noticed previously.
“Open one,” I said, standing next to her, smelling her fear.
“Do you think we should, Professor Starc? It’s his private property.”
“It might provide a clue to his location, or what’s happened to him. He didn’t scream for no reason.”
She undid the zip, then staggered back.
“What are they?”
Chie used a stick to gingerly remove one of the objects. “Raccoon dog skins. Three bags’ full.”
The stench rushed up my nose. I turned away, bent down and vomited. My stomach muscles burned. Acid scorched my throat.
I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. An intense rustling reached our ears, coming from the bushes at the clearing’s edge. Chie grabbed my arm, and I felt her fingernails carving small arcs in my flesh. The noise swelled to a roar, as if a thousand small animals were shaking the branches and running on dead leaves.
Shivers ran up and down my spine, and the cropped hair on my head stood up, ready to flee. I covered my ears, but still the orgy of noise continued, only to be overwhelmed by the sudden howling of a thousand angry throats.
Chie grabbed my shirt sleeve and pulled me to the ground. I expected a vast army of racoon dogs would rush from the bushes and devour us. The howling reached a climax, and then began to fade, as if the beasts were retreating up the valley. Within a minute, a morbid silence enveloped the clearing, sucking any remaining blood from our faces.
Copyright © 2018 by Peter Ninnes