Region Inconnue 4

Nha’s prejudices were, of course, unjustified. The Moi hut was spot¬less and contained no odours of any kind. It had been made in sections of plaited-bamboo, tied with lianas over a framework. Inside it felt very insecure. At every pace you felt as though your foot were going through the floor. The whole structure creaked and swayed. A large, circular, earthenware tray on the floor served as a hearth and Suery wanted to light a fire to keep off the mosquitoes. Nha asked him if he thought we should advertise our presence. Suery said it was either that or being eaten alive by the mosquitoes, and this was a bad area for malaria. They had a rare kind of mosquito up here that bred in running water, the anopheles minimus. There was none deadlier.
When we lit the fire we nearly choked ourselves with the smoke, but the Mois rearranged the logs and the smoke died down leaving a faint odour of incense in the room. I went out and stood by the door. It was not quite dark. There was a huge owl flapping backwards and forwards across the clearing and nearby, in the undergrowth, a bird sang with a powerful nightingale-like song. I pulled the door across the opening, tied it in position with a length of liana and went to lie down.
Suery had told Nha to have the Mois take turns at a watch; but once again comprehension lapsed. No sooner had we stretched ourselves out by the fire than they stole past us and went into a partitioned-off section of the hut, and we saw them no more. I was sure they were thoroughly miserable at our presence, which was probably most offensive to the tutelary spirit of the hut, whom they lacked the means to placate by sacrifice.
Lying as close as I could get to the fire I was hot down one side and chilly on the other. The cool, night air came up through the bamboo floor and, however I lay, projections in the bamboo stuck into my back. Finally I began to doze lightly but was continually awakened, sometimes by somebody getting up and setting the hut asway; sometimes I was not sure by what. But then as I lay trying to collect my wits I would hear animal sounds, not loud and menacing, but casual, confident and none the less sinister; a cough, a sigh, or a soft, restless whining.
I came to painfully, somewhere about dawn, realising that I had been listening through increasing degrees of consciousness to what I had dreamily accepted as the noise of a shipyard at work. There was a regular industrial crash, made, as I had supposed, by a piledriver or a riveting machine. With consciousness fully returned and with it the realisation of where I was, it seemed unreasonable that this clamour should not stop. Nha was already awake. It was a bird, he said. I thought of a hornbill with the habits of a woodpecker. But no, Nha said, this was the cry of a bird and not the concussion of a gigantic bill against a hollow tree. It was a mystery I was never able to solve, as, however the sound was caused, I never heard it again. Familiar, though, from that time on was another form of salutation of the dawn, a huge demoniacal, whistling howl that started in first one and then another corner of the jungle until the air resounded with the rising and falling scream of sirens. These were screaming monkeys. They kept up the lunatic chorus for half an hour each morning.

We washed in some greenish water from a nearby stream. There was nothing to eat or drink; no evidence, in fact, to suggest the Moi’s bothered about regular meals. Nha raised the question and one of the Moi’s offered to go and shoot a monkey with his crossbow. We thanked him and prepared to leave. Suery told Nha to stay with the car while he and I walked to Dak-Song. Owing to Nha’s perpetual grin, I could not see that he was not pleased with the prospect of being left behind, but Suery knew him well enough to be able to tell. He asked Nha if he was afraid to stay by himself and Nha said, no, not if he didn’t have to stay the night. If he had to stay the night, well then – Oh malheureux! Suery promised that whatever happened he would see to it that he was relieved by nightfall. Nha then asked Suery if he would like to take the rifle – ‘in case you see any boars’. Suery refused this very gallant offer and having presented the Moi’s with a few cigarettes to cut up for their pipes, we started out.
I was glad of this opportunity to walk to Dak-Song, having felt that I wanted to form a closer contact with this unspoiled and unexplored forest than was possible in a closed-in car. It was like a splendid May morning in England, a little cool at first in the shade of the trees, but I knew that once the sun was high enough to shine on the road it would be very different.
The forest was as full of tender greens as an English woodland in early spring. It was temperate in its forms, placid almost, with occasional exuberances that, unsated by excess, one was able to appreciate. The air resounded with the morning songs of birds which were quite unlike any I had heard before. In the gardens of Saigon one was haunted by a monot¬onous piping. Here the birds produced more complicated melodies than the warblers of the West, impressing me not so much as in the case of our blackbird or nightingale, by the quality of a limited repertoire of notes, as by the variety and range of the melody, which in some cases could have easily been fitted into a formal, musical composition. It was as though a collection of mockingbirds had been taught European music by a Viet¬namese artist on a bamboo flute. And besides these musical performers there were many more producing sheer noise; the rattling of a stick along iron railings, the escape of steam from a boiler, the squealing of brakes, a single, muted stroke on a gong. I never heard these bird sounds and songs again. Elsewhere in Indo-China great destruction is done to wildlife by indiscriminate burning of the forests by the tribes, and birds are, of course, hunted for food. It is possible that in this supposedly unpopulated area, marked on French maps as Region Inconnue, birds and animals exist which are not to be found elsewhere.

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