In a Sarawak longhouse a stranger makes her appearance. She carries a painful secret. A true story.
A long time ago our Long San village wasn’t as clean and pretty as today. It was a simple longhouse, surrounded by jungle, perched above the banks of the mighty Baram River. We lived on the wooden-planked first floor and raised pigs on the ground floor, literally below our bare feet. I was only some five years old, then. Life was very primitive. I washed myself in the river, and we often got sick from the pigs.
Then, one day, Jenny appeared. She was a six-foot tall girl of some twenty-five, long brown curly hair, radiant blue eyes and a winning smile. She asked our village chief if she could stay with us, and we gave her shelter in our longhouse.
Jenny was my best friend. She got a pleasant voice, and a very pure heart. I loved her so much. She couldn’t speak our language, and I didn’t understand hers. Every morning, she picked me up on her shoulders, walked with me to the yard, and taught me how to play basketball. I listened to the melodious sound of her voice. During the day she also joined us to collect vegetables in the forest and to throw fishing nets in the Baram. Sometimes we went swimming together in our gator-infested river. Somehow the gators never bothered us, and we left them in peace, too.
These were quiet days, but something was odd with Jenny.
Her presence was shrouded in mystery. I heard her cries every night. Some terrible memoirs seemed to torment her – disturbing things she could not reconcile herself with. Then one day, my auntie, who knew to speak English, told me Jenny’s story. I finally learnt the reason of her sadness. In fact, it had to do with the war in Vietnam, that raged beyond the sea opposite from our Sarawak.
Jenny’s life took a different course when she got caught up witnessing a raid on a suspected Viet Cong ('Charlie') village. I guess she must have been a nurse. In the smoldering ruins, the commanding officer ordered the soldiers to shoot any survivors. When the slaughter was over Jenny heard the cries of an abandoned baby. The parents had been shot already. She took the baby in her arms, and attempted to save it from the soldiers. She implored the officer to let her save the baby, but the man refused. 'I'm just following my orders,' he shouted. Then he tore the baby from her, and shot it, in front of Jenny’s eyes. She was shocked, traumatized and heart-broken. From that very day she hated the war, and the American Army.
Little later, she deserted and fled to Sarawak.
Jenny stayed in our longhouse for some eighteen months. She became a part of our village, and never left the immediate area of the village. Then, one day, the District Officer arrived in his rumbling old dusty jeep. He came to see her, and handed her a new passport, and other accompanying papers. Now Jenny could start a new life with a new identity. She grabbed her few belongings, boarded the jeep, and disappeared with the D.O. in a cloud of dust. Many of us in the village cried the day Jenny left, because we loved her so much.
A while later, we heard rumors that she was living in Australia, but we never saw her again. I even don’t know if she is still alive right now. Maybe she was not allowed to see us, or write us. It may have been part of a deal to obtain a new life in freedom, and dignity.
After a narrative by Maureen Obong Jau
©2005 by Franz L Kessler