If it wasn’t for the days when the road crews from the 45th and the 823rd came into town,
I’d have gone crazy and hung myself with one of those light bulb lines from the thatched roof to get some amusement. Sure, I’m entertained by Charles’s radio stories about espionage on the European front and Bernie’s disparaging sidebars as he reads letters from back home ‘If my family didn’t argue, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about,” he’d say,’ but Reginald, Earl and Lester are the natural storytellers. One time, Reginald brought back a shrunken head from a Naga tribesman.
“I went to pee and get a little bit of an unscheduled R&R, you know what I mean?” he asked in his storyteller’s voice. “But when I looked up, this butt-naked man—well, except for a cloth wrapped around his cock—was staring at me. He had a string of what I thought were beads around his neck, bracelets on his arms, and a bone tied in his hair. But believe me, that man’s masculinity was not in question. Did I mention his legs and arms were tattooed, he had boar tusks in his ears, and he held one of those crescent blades long enough to slice me into bacon?
He looked like a sumo wrestler with muscles; woulda made Superman think twice.”
Reginald made eye contact with everyone to check that we were all listening. Then his voice geared up for more of the story.
“Now, I wasn’t in the most negotiating of positions, so I decided to be polite and demonstrate my good manners. Still, I had this feeling talking to him in English wouldn’t buy me my way back to my dump truck. I was secretly hoping the crew chief would be pissing mad and come looking for me—I’d’ve rather dealt with him. As my luck would have it, there was a mud slide, and they had to stop work. So no one even knew I was gone.” Reginald threw his arms in the air as though he was begging for the sweet Lord’s intervention.
“I opened my hands for the naked wrestler to see I didn’t have a knife or one of their— daos, you know, those hatchet machete things. But he just kept staring at me. So I checked my pockets, thinking maybe I got a rupee or two to buy me my freedom, but all I found were chili peppers. Every time I go to Ledo, I stock up on peppers. The food here ain’t fit to feed a pig, but at least the peppers make it not taste like crap.”
Earl twirled his finger for Reginald to speed up the story.
“You should have seen that tribesman’s eyes light up, so I gave him a couple of peppers. Like I said, the food here is Godawful, and I was not ready to deprive myself of my only luxury. Then he grabbed me by the arm like he was marching me to the firing squad. He dragged me to his village, bobbing along in a dog trot.” Reginald mimicked a loping canine and giggled at his imitation, while flashing a smile as wide as his face.
“Get to the point,” Earl pestered.
“Let me paint you a picture of this Naga village,” he waved his arm as though, by magic, an invisible movie screen would appear. “We stumbled through that jungle, tripping over knee- high roots and splashing into puddles swarming with insects, me praying there’s got to be somebody on my heels ready to save me. But oh no, it was just me and this ugly midget—a mighty muscular one, all painted up like he was going to some fancy Halloween party. You can not,” he said, “You can not imagine how a man will react when he’s dragged into a Naga village.”
Earl became very serious. His eyes lit up with questions, especially since we knew the Naga were headhunters.
“This one was fenced with sharp bamboo sticks topped with decorations. It wasn’t no Christmas tree lights sprucing up that fence, but heads: shriveled ones, new ones still a little bloody, young and old faces of both men and women. Hell, I messed in my pants right then and there and prayed my fastest prayer, not knowing how much time I had left.
Women with black teeth and naked children snuck out of their huts, blinking at the sunlight like vampires, wondering whether to cook me medium or well-done. But instead of killing me, the decorated wrestler offered to trade me one of his shrunken heads stuck on the bamboo fence for my peppers. They were going to let me live.” Reginald got down on his knees and kissed the ground in front of him.
“They think the heads protect them against their enemies, the Sing Pho.” He got up off his knees to regain his storytelling pose, “The Sing Pho are the tribe letting us build the road on their land. I’d say the heads scare the shit out of ’em. And there just ain’t anybody else out there to fight, except the Nips.” Then he slapped his thigh. “Ooh wee, do they hate the Japs!”
Now, this Naga wrestler wanted all my peppers. I thought long and hard, until he pulled out his dao. So I decided I’d take a couple of heads for my peppers, and we’d call it even.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish