Her Father's Head, A Bornean Nightmare by Alexander
"PASA ANTU!" "A spirit hath passed!" and Malita's agate beads
rattled to her trembling, as something swift and silent brushed past
her little brass--burdened ear. Again it came, a wavering shadow in the
moonlight, and now Malita laughed: it was only a big brown goatsucker,
The laugh was low, a mere ripple on the smooth of midnight silence,
but Tambat, awake and star-gazing, heard it. Neither poet nor
philosopher was Tambat; he was an older institution than either--the
quidnunc; and, peeping from the window in his nipa-thatch, he saw the
dark form gliding from hut-shadow to hut-shadow.
A woman!--young, alone, and making stealthily for the pangarang.
Tambat's portentous mouth expanded in a grin that halved his
pock-pitted face. Here was the making of a pretty scandal! In the
pangarang--the "head-house"--slept the bachelors of Surah: in part to
guard that sacred citadel; in part to keep them out of amorous
mischief. And here was mischief going to them!--slim young mischief in
bedang and bracelets, with shining beads about its graceful neck, and
long hair streaming to its slender waist.
Out of his eager way exultant Tambat kicked his slumbering wife, and
soon across the moon-strips a second shadow glided after the first. At
equal pace, with equal silence, went they, till close before the
girl--a black triangle on the moonlit sky--the pangarang reared up its
Into the head-house loft, through many a lifted roof-trap, the
moonlight and the night-breeze came together, and made between them a
grotesquer horror than ever porksupped artist dreamed of. Around the
circle of the roof, in close and curving rows, the grisly trophies
hung; dim blots of greater darkness in the shadow, but starting out, in
patches where the white light fell, into hideous caricature of
humanity, with huge blank orbits where were one time eyes, and
shark-mouths grinning to the moon in ghastly travesty of laughter.
Among them heads not yet too stale to load the air with fulsome carrion
smell; with others, dry and hollow, fantastically nodding to the breeze
that frisked where once the brains had worked.
Into this monstrous death-scene came suddenly a warm young life.
Malita dropped lightly from the roof, and looked around with staring
eyes of fear. The smell was nothing to her jaunty little Dyak nose; the
heads her long-lashed Dyak eye regarded no more than so many cocoanuts.
Collectively, that is; for there was one particular brain-case she had
come to seek--her father's, lopped a month before to "open the
mourning" for a Surah chief. A score of miles, alone and quaking, had
she paddled up the antu-haunted Dubur, and it was the head-house antu
now she dreaded, as thus, in the second morning hour, she stood
panting, with the grinning dead above her and the murderous enemies of
her tribe asleep below.
Not all asleep! Boki's evening meal of rotten eggs and stinking
blue-fish had been over-ample. He floundered, snorted, and awoke--awoke
to hear upon the floor above a sound too slight for any but a savage
ear. Again it came--a faint concussion on the hard bamboo, and up rose
Boki, spear in hand, and noiseless as a cat. It might be an antu, he
thought, or, worse still, a buau! But then, again, it might be the
Sibis, or the Batsas--stolen in upon them to requite a hundred cruel
slaughters of the past. Not as an old woman was Boki going to be jeered
at! For himself would he see who was above--or what! So Boki laid down
spear, took parang in teeth, and had climbed a dozen notches of the
ladder-post, when--clump!--came something on his ugly skull, and down
went Boki like a stone!
Malita, climbing like a monkey from cross-piece to cross-piece, had
found, ere long, her father's head. In one of the moonlit patches she
came on it--half baked, half putrid--but recognizable still; and
breathless Malita, incautious in her gladness, dropped hardly
feather-like enough upon the floor again with her prize. Into the
darkest corner, with the noiseless swiftness of the savage, she sprang,
and, cowering, listened. Had they heard? No sound came from below, but
that proved nothing, and intently from her corner she watched the black
ladder-opening upon the moonlit floor.
Ay, there it came!--a head! "The body must never follow!" thought
Malita, as up she sprang, and, with a wild swing of the cord rove
through the paternal temples, brought down the dead skull on the living
one with a crash that scared the flying-foxes squeaking from the eaves
and brought to their feet in an instant the sharp-eared slumberers
below. Wondering much, they poked and pushed the flaccid and oblivious
Boki, and, wondering more, they heard descend upon the floor above a
pounding shower of heads. "The antu!" whispered they, and, trembling,
turned their eyes away from the trap, down which a couple of the
ghastly things had rolled. But then the voice of Tambat, shrieking
wildly from above, dissolved the spell.
"Come up!--come up hither, ye men of Surah! Ye are robbed!--robbed,
I tell ye!--and by a woman!--sleepy-headed sons of bats that ye are!
Come up!--come up!"
They went up, and Tambat told them how he had followed to the
head--house a woman of the Sibis, and how he had climbed in at a
roof-window after her; how, missing his hold, he had caught at and
broken one of the head-lines; and how, as he picked himself up from
amongst the fallen heads, he saw the woman vanish through the roof
"A head had she in her hand," he said, in conclusion. "Therefore,
say I, ye are robbed, and heavily will ye have to answer it to the
Whereat the playful Tambat chuckled--but not for long. Boki, with
many a grunt and growl, had picked up his wits again, and no sooner had
he grasped the situation than, with a single word, he brought the
injudicious Tambat's mirth to an abrupt conclusion. "Darkness!" was the
word--a Dyak equivalent, as Boki used it, for "Dead men tell no tales!"
The rest agreed. What skull-and-woman story was this with which to
insult the intelligence of the bachelors of Surah? And if, as Tambat
said, there was a head missing, his own would just suit its place. It
would be nicely baked by the time of next official counting, and no one
would be the wiser!
Tambat implored, the head-watchers laughed; he cursed them, they
knocked him down with a kris-hilt; he shrieked, they gagged him with a
chawat, lugged him out into the jungle, and waited for the sun to rise.
With the first red rays they took the chawat off, gave him a
valedictory chew of betel, calmly docked him of his head, buried it for
the time in a cane-patch, and pitched the carcass to the ever-ready
Came round, in time, the "counting of the heads," and Molat, the
Orang--Kaya, found the tally right. Quoth he:--
"Not for any other three would I lose this head of Dipuk's. He was a
great man of the Sibis--on whose tribe be curses! Fresh is it, also, to
a wonder. Hardly seemeth it the head of more than a moon and a half!"
Which observation--seeing the head in question had been exactly six
weeks parted from the unlucky Tambat's shoulders--betokened upon
Molat's part a thorough acquaintance with the subject. But Dipuk's
head, with Argus feathers decked, hung high in Malita's house until she
took a husband. He threw it to the pigs!