By Jennifer Jeanne McArdle
Deechae had received her adulthood scars, the shapes of twisted vines and blooming flowers carved into her arms and back, more than ten rainy seasons ago. But she still hadn’t chosen a husband. She hadn’t even, like her friend Tarlee, adopted men’s clothing and roles and taken a wife.
No one would ever disrespect Deechae, but she knew everyone was a little afraid of her. Every time she dreamed of snakes and mosquitoes, a storm might come, and lightning and fire might burn through the villages surrounding the great temple.
And everyone knew her story: when she was still a child, she entered the great cave, walked the length of the underground river, and then exited the cave on the other side. From there, she had made her way to one of the villages of the outside people. Her family thought she’d died after she disappeared one morning. Yet, she returned weeks later, thin and bruised up but carrying clear, oddly shaped rocks filled with sweet liquid and bright clothing not made from woven coconut fiber, grass, or feathers.
“Why did you leave?” everyone had asked her after she returned.
“I saw the way in a dream,” she told them. “I just felt I had to go.”
No one asked why she came back to Rinalu, which was well enough because she wasn’t sure why she came back at first. She often daydreamed of her time in the outside world while she cooked or weaved feathers together with her friends. But lately, she often dreamed of the golden temple rotting from the inside out and sinking into the earth. She didn’t tell the others of those nightmares but knew that she was meant to find meaning in them.
“Otto, we’ve finally got permission from the government, and we’re using your Advanced Ground Penetrating Radar to search for the golden temple that’s rumored to be in these jungles. We’d be happy for you to join us and vlog about the journey.”
Otto read to the end of an email from Dr. Whittaker, an archaeologist he’d met at a conference a few years ago. Otto had not invented Ground Penetrating Radar, a tool used by archaeologists to see underground without digging first, but he had engineered a better version of the tool as part of his Ph.D. thesis. So, he was often invited to conferences with archaeologists, although the field wasn’t his specialty. As he was a minor celebrity in the pop science world, someone was always inviting him on some expedition, archaeology or otherwise.
Last month, he had returned from a trip to Antarctica, where he had documented a research team collecting the cores of glaciers to study climate change. Normally, he took a few months’ break in between expeditions. However, Otto needed a new distraction. Cal, the scientist who had invited him to Antarctica, had dumped him unceremoniously through an email.
It was fun, Otto, but in the real world, I’d forever be Otto’s boyfriend, tagging along at parties and premieres. I love myself too much to live in your shadow.
Fine, he thought. I’ll go to some jungle and look for a golden temple — anything to clear his head and warm his bones.
Otto flew to a country historically distrustful of foreign social scientists. No one had fully mapped their remote tropical highlands with Otto’s Advanced GPR yet. The research team hoped using the new tool would help them find the entrance to an underground river system that would lead to a hidden part of the jungle.
It was said that a mostly uncontacted and isolated tribe lived deep in the jungle, in hard-to-reach valleys. Their villages were arranged around a temple painted in gold. Local people often found strange gold artifacts shaped like flowers or birds, which they claimed were made by the tribe with the golden temple. At the center of the temple were rumored to be red hot springs that could delay aging.
Once Otto announced he was joining the expedition, the media went into a frenzy, publishing article after article that brought attention to this formerly remote part of the world and its obscure legend. Otto was an ideal modern adventurer: young, strikingly handsome, an engineering genius. In a different timeline, he might have been a prince, as he was the direct descendent of the king of a now-extinct European kingdom.
The mission, of course, could go very badly for the isolated tribe. Otto and the others often wrestled with the morals of going at all.
“Why now?” He asked some of the local researchers. “Why shouldn’t we just leave them be?”
“They may not have a choice soon,” the local anthropologist, Dr. Chitterang, told him. “The conservative pro-capitalism party is predicted to sweep the elections, and they have a plan to start developing the land on the edges of the tribe’s rumored homeland for commercial use. We should preemptively meet them and warn them. If we do find them, maybe we can convince locals or internationals to advocate for their protection. Otherwise, the foreign logging companies will be that isolated group’s first large-scale contact with the outside world in hundreds of years. Lord knows we aren’t perfect, but we are the lesser of two evils here.”
Otto, along with ten other researchers, a mix of foreigners and locals, scoured the jungle floor with their AGPR machines. The machines resembled yellow lawnmowers with screens attached. The sound swam through the rocks, trees, and dirt, illuminating their insides and secrets.
After two months of searching, thanks to the data they collected with the AGPR, they found the entrance to an underground cave system in a dip near the side of a large hill. They chopped at bushes, scared away spiders and mice, disturbed tiny bats into the air, and then were able to enter the chasm. The researchers followed an underground river for several miles before they reached the surface again. Upon meeting the sunlight again, their eyes were immediately drawn to a pyramid adorned with sharp, pointed towers that were vaguely tree-shaped. The flat surface of the pyramid was covered with etches of human- and animal-shaped pictures. Each member of the team was already forming their own individual interpretation of the story on the temple, their minds already building theories about the culture and history of the hidden tribe of people.
Before Otto could examine the temple in detail, he was distracted by a woman with short, curly, golden-brown hair watching them with her arms crossed over her chest. Her smooth brown skin stretched over an exposed, muscular abdomen. Long, yellow feathers woven with scarlet red and iridescent green feathers made up her skirt and top.
She said something in her own language, loud enough for them all to hear, but what she said was mostly unintelligible, even for the local researchers. The researchers raised their open hands to signal they carried no weapons and meant no harm.
Otto’s eyes met the woman’s, which were as golden as her hair. Her confidence faltered for a couple of seconds as her cheeks reddened, and a grin betrayed her, but she quickly regained a neutral expression.
Deechae had known something was going to happen soon because, along with her dreams of the temple, she now had dreams of fire. For the past few nights, she dreamed of a large fire, the tips of the flame reaching up higher than twice the height of a man. This was the kind of fire people lit on festival days, but a bonfire might get out of control as the people got sillier and more tired.
She was not surprised that the visitors didn’t understand Rinaluans when they spoke. When she’d taken her journey into the outside people’s world as a child, the outside people hadn’t understood when she spoke, either. The outside people spoke different words but seemed to understand each other, reminding Deechae of chittering birds. The others in Rinalu were scared. Deechae told them their fear was understandable and natural, but she also told them about her dream.
“We can manage this if we are careful. We have known for many generations that outside people exist, haven’t we? Eventually, they were going to come.”
Deechae, as an adult with no family, was assigned to watch the newcomers. She made sure the outsiders didn’t touch anything they weren’t supposed to, but she let them use their objects that captured images. Deechae gave the outsiders old and broken pottery or worn-out tools and other things her people didn’t need anymore. They always wanted everything she gave them. The outsiders stared at each new object like hungry men who hadn’t eaten in days.
Deechae looked forward to when they would come. They came most days, usually late in the morning, but soon, some of them started to sleep in the village as the Rinaluans became more used to the outsiders and decided they weren’t there to kill or harm their villages. She started learning the outsider’s language, and some of them began to learn hers.
The tallest and palest man, Otto, was the fastest learner. When she’d first seen him, she thought he might have been sick because he was so pale, but she also quickly noticed the large muscles of his exposed arms and legs, as well as how easily his face flushed red with blood. She realized that he was very healthy. He was a rare specimen among men, Rinalu or Outsider, exceptionally intelligent and strong.
He asked her to teach him how to cook, make lotions, or weave clothing. He studied well and was able to enjoy the contemplative, silent moments with her. She took him to see her parents, who took care of the temple, and after that, her brother, who was a metalworker. Then he brought him to her aunt, who’d made the adult scars in her arms. She carved a small flower into the back of Otto’s hand.
He always asked before he took images of some object or person, which Deechae appreciated. So, when some of the people in Rinalu started to get sick, she trusted him when he told her to give them medicines in the form of different pills and injections. Months passed. He told her he had to leave for a short time, but then he returned, bringing new researchers with him.
“There are some outsiders that might come and try to take your things and your land or force you to leave this place or change your ways. You must know that. We will try to protect you, to help you keep what is rightfully yours, but we may not be able to help you. We cannot control the other outside people or force them not to come if they don’t listen to us. Tell your people they can’t trust everyone. Even us; we could unintentionally harm you. Tell your people, they must stay watchful and follow their instincts.” Otto told Deechae.
“I am glad you are the first group of outsiders to come here. I would not want my heart to be filled with fear and hate. But I am smart enough to know that our lives have been forever changed. I don’t know if your arrival will be good or bad for us. But I was thinking yesterday: a pond that sits too long, unmoving, grows stagnant and suffocated, only fit for algae, yes? Our children already grow weaker with each generation. Every other Rinaluan can tie their lineage to mine. Eventually, our sameness might suffocate us, too.”
She thought of her recurrent dreams about the temple and how the outsiders asking questions about their past caused the elders’ eyes to light up with excitement. Most young Rinaluans had already heard the stories too many times before.
Deechae went with Otto to the nearby outsider village. Otto told her that he would bring her to see the coast but warned her that she might be overwhelmed by the massive body of water.
“I’m not afraid,” she told him and followed as he led the way to the sea.
As they came upon the beach, he realized that he’d walked far ahead of her in his excitement, and he turned back to make sure she wasn’t getting scared. She smiled at him, and then her eyes widened. Something about her amazement at the sight of the ocean moved him; Otto realized then that he never wanted to stop bringing her joy, and his heartbreak over Cal was finally forgotten.
Otto told Deechae that his own village lay far across the ocean. She had to use his word for the ocean because her language had none; perhaps she would have described it as an upside-down sky or like their red lake, but impossibly big.
Otto told Deechae story after story about his travels to all the corners of the world. He showed her pictures of himself climbing glaciers, tracking lions, eating at restaurants with his family, or attending fancy parties. He even started teaching her to read, something she wasn’t totally unfamiliar with because her own people used symbols for counting and keeping records of how many things they stored or how many people lived in each village.
A few monsoon seasons passed and researchers came and went. They realized that the red hot springs were not magical, even if bathing in their mineral-rich water was good for one’s health. Papers and articles about the unique tribe circulated around the globe to an audience desperate for more information, enchanted by the legend.
They were able to put enough local and international pressure on the conservative government to halt commercial development near the Rinalu homeland and strictly limited the number of visitors to Rinalu to just a few thousand people per year. Otto and the others figured this was just a temporary win, but at least it might give Rinaluans some time to adjust.
Then Otto did something surprising. He took Deechae’s hands, got down on one knee, and presented her with a shiny silver ring with a sparkling stone.
“Would you marry me, Deechae?” he asked her.
Deechae never imagined herself getting married to someone in Rinalu. While Otto and the researchers were humans like her — that much she understood now — the thought of marrying one had never occurred to her. He stared up at her, the blue veins of his head slightly visible on his temples, his see-through eyes big and sparkling in the sunlight. But what else might keep him in her life forever?
“Okay,” she told him. “Yes.”
A couple of moons later, all of the people from each village in Rinalu, some members of Otto’s family, Dr. Chitterang, Dr. Whittaker, and outside people from other countries and from the nearby villages gathered. She wore a white dress, and he wore a white suit, as he told her white was the bridal color where he was from, but she painted their faces and hands and her arms in red mud from the hot springs in the Golden Temple.
They each wore a crown of bright blue and white feathers they’d prepared together. Her father walked her down the aisle. They blessed each other by rubbing sweet-smelling flowers on their cheeks. An outsider with a heavy book told her to repeat some lines in Otto’s language. They gave each other gold rings, and then the holder of the book announced they were married. They embraced each other, staining their white clothes with red handprints.
Later that evening, after they’d feasted and most people had gone to sleep, Otto was approached by one of the foreign journalists they’d allowed to cover his wedding to Deechae. He’d gone into one of the tents they’d set up to get some fresh water.
Deechae was napping just outside the tent — on clear nights, her people preferred to sleep on soft mats out in the open. Because of the feast, they slept on the ground, but most of their houses were actually up high in the trees. Her people liked to sleep on their balconies. There were no natural predators in Rinalu, and Rinaluans had developed a special perfume that dissuaded biting insects to a remarkable degree.
“Don’t you feel bad about marrying her?” the journalist asked.
“What do you mean? Why should I feel bad about marrying my wife? We love each other and make each other happy.”
The journalist shook her head and swallowed more wine.
“What do you think she’ll do when you bring her back home?”
“Whatever she wants?” he shrugged. “So many of my past lovers grew tired of being with me because of my fame. But Deechae, she is a star. I could never outshine her.”
“Haven’t you thought about how hard it will be for her?”
“I mean, adjusting to a new culture is never easy. But millions of humans have done it before. Deechae is clever and kind.”
“But how many of them were from a group of people so isolated from the rest of the world! She’ll always be known as this woman from some secret tribe in the middle of nowhere. She’ll attract unwanted attention for the rest of her life. And how will she live with you back in Europe? You think she’ll be able to adjust to a life so drastically different from her life here?”
The journalist stood up and went to the entrance of the tent. “What, you think you did her a favor, coming in and saving her from this ‘savage’ life? Look only to history, to the Pocahontases forced to change themselves and then dying young of some foreign disease in an alien land.”
“I know I have many flaws.” Otto stood now. “But I think I’m a bit more thoughtful and sensitive to cultural differences than an Englishman in the seventeenth century. Society has certainly advanced since then, too.”
“No, no. I’ve only been here a few days and I can see that Rinalu is paradise. How could you take this from her?” The journalist jumped and then moved backward. Otto saw Deechae standing in the entranceway to the tent.
“I forgive you for speaking badly to my husband,” Deechae told the woman. “Maybe you worry about me. I know that life with him will be hard …”
“You have no idea how hard it will be! That’s part of the problem. They won’t treat you like a person! They’ll think of you as an object, maybe a child at best …”
“No person knows all of the future hardships their choices might bring them. But you must understand. Since I was a child, I felt I would leave this place. It doesn’t matter how wonderful my village might seem to you or how difficult life might be if I leave Rinalu. Either I would leave with Otto or leave some other way, eventually.”
Deechae motioned to the woman’s camera, sitting on the table. “From what I understand, many Rinaluans might not have a choice. The world will not let us stay forever, locked away and untouched. I see that now. Just because I am from Rinalu doesn’t mean I can’t explore the world like you and Otto. If you are afraid of others treating me like a child, then do not make the same mistake. Accept that it was my choice to marry Otto and to leave Rinalu.”
The journalist sighed. “I’m sorry — maybe it’s unfair or patronizing of me, but I can’t shake the feeling that you both are making a mistake.”
Otto took Deechae’s hand. They turned and met each other’s eyes.
“Now that I’ve met Otto and learned so much about the outside world, I can’t stay here without him any more than he can leave without me. We’re already married. How does a warning help us now?”
“I know I cannot protect Deechae from everything,” Otto sighed. “But I’ve promised to love her forever. What would it mean for us to give up, to say the love between us is impossible, and not try? Isn’t that a worse story, to say we all don’t have a hand in building the future of humanity, together?”
Deechae felt his warm hand in hers, her heart skipping in her chest. She thought of the bonfire from her dreams, big and dangerous but warm and exciting. She shuddered, but sometimes fire had to escape and burn up the forest floor to keep the ecosystem healthy. Could Rinualans grow back enough in the aftermath? She’d probably never know the answer to that question. But did what ifs matter? The fire had already been ignited.