Exhaustion had finally overcome discomfort, and the rattling of the truck as it trundled through the dark not-so-gently rocked me to sleep. I was on the latter part of a five-hour long return journey to deliver supplies into the forest, including a live chicken stuffed into a box that tried desperately to escape its fate until the knife came down; its cries bothered me more than the rangers, who had run out of meat a week before. I had made the trip crammed sweating alongside boxes of vegetables and bags of rice, clinging to the door frame as the truck heaved over narrow dirt roads and careened carelessly around blind corners, evading death by collision with logging trucks on one side and by tumbling over a cliff on the other. Robi, the driver, had proclaimed himself the NASCAR champion of Borneo.
I had merely wanted to escape the dusty heat of the village, where I worked on the less glamorous side of conservation, developing management skills, teaching English, and attending planning meetings. A trip to the forest, however brief, with its cool temperatures, fresh air, and natural beauty offered evidence as to exactly why it needed to be preserved.
Now, images of the forest filled my dozing mind as we approached a town near the village, until the sudden impact of my head into the front sent me rocketing from my dreams.
The whirlwind of sensation that followed blurred the lines of reality. Bright light. Pain. Shouting. Something tossed into the back of the truck. Movement. It was not until I turned around to investigate what had been thrown into the truck bed that my confusion gave way to fear.
It was a man, lying on his back. He was limp, his body bouncing helplessly along with the truck like a rag doll. In the dark, he appeared a bird after an oil spill, covered in a shiny black substance oozing from his head. Blood.
There were three men in the back with him. They shouted instructions to the driver as he sped along. I watched the man’s head slamming into the metal bed with every bump, tried to motion to them to support it, offering them a rag to squelch the bleeding. They looked straight through me.
A mob of motorbikes surrounded us as we sped along, creating more traffic for us to weave through. People running on foot were not far behind; shirtless men in cut off shorts, women in hijabs, children in soccer jerseys. By the time we pulled into the lot of the small clinic, not more than a small rectangular building that looked all but abandoned, it seemed the whole town was there with us.
The body was lowered from the truck into waiting arms. Someone ran into the clinic and came back with a stretcher. The single light at the entrance as they took him inside bathed his body in crimson.
Through the commotion, shrill screaming pierced the night air, sending a violent chill through my body. A woman stood wailing, he palms upturned, the convulsions as she bent her body forward and back propelling her grief up to her god in a desperate plea. The noise sickened me; she spoke in an unknown language but her words did not matter. This was pain, condensed into sound waves.
The screeching of tires and smell of burned rubber signaled our hasty departure from the clinic, minutes after we arrived. My shock turned to anger, and I demanded an explanation for running away, while lambasting Robi for driving too fast and too recklessly. Unlike me, he seemed totally unaffected by the experience; and it was this seeming lack of concern or regret that had me boiling over with rage.
I found out later that Robi’s actions were out of protection, not callousness. It was a common occurrence when accidents happened for the town members to turn violently on whoever caused it, beating and sometimes killing them. In our case, Robi’s speeding mixed with waning concentration from the long trip meant he didn’t see the man crossing the street in front of him, and had plowed him over in front of dozens of witnesses. He didn’t feel like taking any chances. He was surprised I didn’t understand this, not knowing things to be done any differently.
Still, I felt pangs of guilt; I never found out what happened to the man.
The accident was never discussed again. The bruises on my head and knee and the images of the blood-soaked body faded quickly. The only reminder I had were the screams of that woman, some overcome with grief, that haunted me as I’d drift off to sleep, keeping me awake for nights to come.