Instructions for the use of this short story: 1. Read Indonesia: Getting Answers and Indonesia: Getting Closer 2. Turn off the lights. 3. Play music. 4. Read, enjoy, comment, repeat.
It was all downhill from here. No need to press against the pedals with burning calves; no need to work up a sweat under the heavy tropical sun. All I had to do was sit back and let the mountain pull me in.
I had no poet Virgil to guide me safely through the descending levels of madness. It was just me, a 5-speed Huffy and the shadow of a dinosaur beckoning us on. The gears had been stripped off the bike and the front brake line hung loose off the handlebars, feeding into nothing.
Speed is not something I usually lust after. I ride the brakes and I ski in the shape of a slice of pizza. The thinning brake pad on the rear tire needed to be preserved-for emergencies-so I let the acceleration take me.
Ever-increasing speed has an almost animal sexuality. I might die soon so I’d better breed now, my womb whispered.
Hush, I told it back.
The path swerved along through thickening jungle, blotting out the rest of the sun. There were whole worlds up there in the canopy that I would never know. There could be a dog party going on, just twenty meters away, invisible beyond the leaves. Do you like my hat?
This is the part of the movie where the heroine stupidly rides off on some frivolous quest, away from the protection of men, who know how to squeeze their hands into fists. No, no don’t go off alone, you think, safe in the darkness of the theatre, but there she goes, all wheels and hope, seeing life through the lens of a happy childhood. But there is a danger here on the fringe, as there is in all borderlands. The places of transition are home to the most monsters.
I ignored all that. I was looking for monsters and trying my hardest to bring myself face to face with the impossible. My descent into my childhood subconscious was purposeful and systematic. Red riding hood to the wind.
Eventually, the sky vanished completely and the world was made of me and trees. The road diminished until it was no more than a hazy line pressed down by a thousand years of infrequent feet.
Unruly branches stretched down to scratch at my face and pull on my hair. Roots and stones jumped into my spokes. I did not slow for the jungle. I kept my mind on the sharp sword bill and the featherless paper wings I was after.
My long coast came to an abrupt end when the path wound its way into the heart of the mountain. The one brake was not enough to stop the bike and so I bailed, leaping from the doomed device just in the nick of time. I landed in a springy pile of undergrowth which slithered and hopped away in a poisonous procession.
Momentum pulled the bike along until it crashed against one wall of the cave, disturbing a swarm of sleeping bats just as I had disturbed the gaboon viper beside me.
“Mind the bats,” the boy had said to me, but I didn’t mind the bats. I minded the cave.
Rising from the jungle floor, I took a few shaky steps towards the cave and placed my toes up against the exact invisible line where the outside ended and it began. I stood like that on the edge of the choice for what seemed like hours. Inside the hole in the world, the back wheel of the bicycle spun around. It wanted to get going again. Through the darkness, the rest of the bike could not be seen. I hoped this wasn’t the reason I had packed a flashlight in my emergency kit, but damn it, I had.
I wanted to spit at always be prepared. Would have been a great excuse to turn around right now. It was all just a dream. I had a lovely bike ride through the forest. I fought a monkey and the monkey won. I’ll have the nasi goreng and the gado gado. Extra peanut sauce, please.
But I dug the stupid flashlight out of my day pack, swearing pretty much non-stop. LEDs do not do enough damage on darkness, but it really wasn’t the darkness of caves that bothered me, either.
Eyes on the bike, I took one shaky step into the cave. And another. And one more.
I used the same trick I do when I’m swimming by myself in deep water. I pick a point: a buoy, a kayak, a piece of coral breaking the surface or a tourist bobbing along on a pretty pink pool noodle in front of the Body Glove. If I can just swim to that point, then I’ll be fine. Nothing will eat me between here and there. I can’t consider the real size of the monster. I have to watch him only one scale at a time.
Before I realized what was happening, I had the bike by the handlebars and was rolling it deeper into the earth.
Just to that shiny bit there, the one sparkling like a frosted cake.
Just to that collection of stalactites.
Just to that pile of guano over there. (The bats were a welcome distraction. I stopped and watched them for a moment but then felt the dizziness all the way into my knees and I had to press on, tilting dangerously far head-over-heels.)
Just to that terrifying giant cave spider.
Just to the light. Just to the forest on the other side with the upside-down bowl of sky above me.
And like that, I was on the other side of the mountain.
A few hundred meters away, the wise old man sat on the edge of the temple, tea already poured for two.
Photos by Connie Freeland, Ryan Marsh, Donna Newton and Crystal Beran.
Read the next part of the story: Indonesia: Getting Wasted