Sending people off to this treacherous island had been the royal family’s hobby for eons now. The smirk slowly spread across their smooth faces as we left begrudgingly, knowing that most of us won’t make it back. It used to be a joyous game for them. Bets were placed on whether we’d bring back enough venom to murder the enemy’s barbarous armies. I know we weren’t the most innocent. I know I’m lying through my teeth as I say I don’t deserve this. Yet, somewhere deep I knew I won’t let this body turn to dust so soon.
I was kicked out of the cart. The guards wouldn’t even risk a few seconds out here. One of them would stay at the safe perimeters preventing any escape. I’d have to walk miles to get where they’d ordered me to be. The outlines of hell could be seen on the horizon. You knew you were bearing witness to death and utter melancholy. I knew I had to grab a bark of the Upas and get back home breathing, as soon as I can. That’s all I had to do. Poison myself slowly in order to buy my freedom. Why freedom, you may ask. The royal family didn’t just send common citizens to gather poison for their infamous arrowheads. No, they sent criminals, men with pasts unmentionable. In exchange for bringing Death home, we were free to embrace Life.
The bare tree in the barren earth that bore witness to the folly of men was much more visible now. It was a lone pole, standing defiant throughout all these centuries. A flash of lightning and I mistook it for a scythe. Surrounding it were ivory coloured skeletons adorning the dark infertile land. Nothing grew here, except the Upas. This was where life ended. The bodies of my fellow men laid out to display. The inert bodies do not tell you about their criminal pasts nor do the masks of horror on their decaying faces. Their bones clutched at their chests, grabbed at their necks. As strips of flesh peeled away, the poison slowly corroding into their marrows, you couldn’t help but falter and flinch. The cold stony crags have been accumulating Death for an eternity now. The sky slowly turned a deep Prussian blue and the sun went down on my hopes.
My steps started to falter. The key to my free life was in death. I had been holding my breath in for a while now. It was taking longer than I thought. The effluent was finding its way into me through my pores. It was slowly strangling my struggling lungs and trying to smother out the last few breaths of air keeping me alive. I wanted to gather the poison and go back to the palace and shove the vials down the King’s throat. I wanted to see how he’d like the taste of his own medicine. All that seemed like a mere fantasy as pain bit into my innards sharply. I kept saying to myself that I wasn’t weak. I could survive this. I could always run back and rot in the prison cell alone. That way I knew I’d live a few more years. Then again, imprisoned within four walls wasn’t exactly what you’d call life.
Making up your mind as death appears near is an easy feat. Arming up was necessary for this. There wasn’t any time to be squeamish or respect the dead. I grabbed the nearest bones I could find and sharpened up the end of a femur. I was leaving this place alive. I had always found it much more easier to retreat than to step forward. It had always been my tactic after every crime I committed. Shameless, you may say. To survive in this world, I had given up my pride ages ago. Clinging on to the rocks I edged towards the perimeter. I had an advantage. The guard never expects anyone to return from the Upas, especially not so soon. Not even he would’ve known what to do to a deranged man running with his arms flailing. I was transformed into something inhumane. As I struck the femur through his fleshy neck, I heard the spine crack faintly. The look on his face mirrored the horror I saw on my decaying comrades.
At this moment, I was the deadly Upas with venom trickling down my veins. I stood there alone in that barren land reeking of poison. Just enough poison to be drained into my specially made vials. No, I had no intention to get to the tree in the first place. I wasn’t your usual pea brained, head first think later thug. I’d walked just far enough, far enough to poison myself; close enough to hold onto my life. Leeches. I was putting all my trust on leeches. They were just like the greedy tax collectors who came knocking on our doors asking for more. They never had enough. Never enough, until someone decides to put a dagger through them and the piece of fat resonates a soft boom as they hit the dusty ground. That was the first crime I committed. With each one I did, it became easier.
Now as they drank my blood, that part of me, that poisonous part of me slowly disappeared; or so I hoped. Coming face to face with death changes some men around. As I sped away in the cart, I was a man, an important man, a man who’ll be needed. Hung around my neck were vials of poison, safely contained in dead leeches. There were men out there who would kill for these. Then, there were men out there who would kill with these.
I belonged to the latter.
Note: The painting of The Upas, or the Posion Tree in Java by Francis Danby. My latest discovery at the V&A Museum.