It all started off innocently enough.
I arrived at Morobo hot springs in the afternoon, and I was fading like the day. The road from Suai had tested me; picking up the bike had stripped the strength from my muscles and the glucose from my veins.
At the foot of a long steep hill, steam rose from a perfect square of aquamarine water. The scent of sulfur was faint, the water almost boiling at the edge.
There were a couple of locals around building some rough lean-tos, which looked like they might become food stalls. There was a boardwalk and a tiny, glass-doored building, new but already dilapidated. Clinging to gentlest part of the hillside was a small market garden, filled with corn and leafy greens.
I stripped off my jacket and my armour and eased into the hot, hot water, still wearing my full length underlayers. This is Timor, where you cover your knees and swim in your clothes, and it was fine by me: my underlayers needed washing and I was too tired to take them off anyway.
The water was so hot, up to my neck; I thought I might expire. I stayed in a bit longer.
But eventually, I could no longer put off the urgency of dusk: I had to find somewhere I could sleep. Reluctantly I dragged myself out of the water’s soft embrace.
In the otherwise empty carpark I found some young women looking at my bike, so I asked them if there was a guesthouse nearby. No, they told me; the nearest guesthouse was in Maliana. I knew Maliana was only about 30km away, but I didn’t know what the road was like; if it was anything like what I’d experienced today, 30km could mean two hours or more.
One of the girls said that perhaps I could stay in her aunty’s house, in the village at the top of the hill, and she gave me directions in Tetum which I was utterly incapable of comprehending. I hesitated, uncertain.
Just then, a man emerged from the market garden where he’d been working; he had a broad smile and his name was Mario. You can camp here if you like, he told me, and showed me a key. It opened the glass doors to the little room attached to the boardwalk.
Perhaps it was intended to be an office, one day; but right now, it contained some old mattresses and was obviously being used as a tool shed. It was perfect.
Mario told me that he would come back in the morning to pick up the key, and helped me tuck Beastie up against the building. Then he and all the other locals vanished with the fading light, up the hill to the villages high above me. Nobody lived down here by the springs; there were too many spirits, they told me later.
I took a deep breath of the solitude. The hot springs were mine alone. I cooked spaghetti and tuna for dinner; the eyes of stray dogs reflected my torchlight brightly. They could smell my food, but I wasn’t sharing.
Inside the little building, I lay a groundsheet over the old mattresses and set out my sleeping bag. I closed the glass door to keep the mosquitos away, and turned the lock to make sure it didn’t swing open in the night.
I started drifting off to sleep.
* * *
Shafts of bright light, shining in the windows, moving erratically. Someone was coming.
I sat up fast.
Coming closer, the light swinging in the darkness; I could see the wild dogs gathering around and in front of it. The light came closer and closer until I could see the outline of the man behind it; he wore shorts and a t-shirt and was carrying a machete. He came up the door and shone the light into my little room, into my eyes; I turned my head away. I couldn’t hide; the glass doors took up the whole front wall.
He reached out and tried to open the door, but it was locked. He gesticulated for me to come out. I frowned, shook my head.
He wasn’t happy to see me there. He gesticulated again for me to come out, this time with the hand holding the machete. I shook my head again.
‘Mario said I could sleep here,’ I yelled through the door. ‘Mario said it was okay! He gave me the key! See, I have the key!’ I held up the key and showed it to him: I wasn’t trespassing, I’d been invited, and I wasn’t coming out.
He shook his head angrily. I tried again in broken Indonesian. This time he replied.
‘Where is Mario now?’ he demanded.
I shrugged, shook my head. At his house, presumably. How was I supposed to know where Mario’s house was? I gestured in the direction of the hill, where all the villages were. ‘Di atas,’ I said, open palmed.
The man had a key in his hand. He had a key to the door too. I quickly shoved my key back into the lock, so that he couldn’t insert the key and unlock it from the other side. Now I was sweating.
He looked pissed off. He shook his head at me angrily, and then laughed and sat down the doorstep. It was not a good laugh.
He turned off his light. I saw the flare of a lighter and the moving glow of a cigarette. He was barely two feet away from me, on the other side of the glass. He was staking me out.
Inside the little building, in the pile of dusty tools, there was a machete. I’d seen it earlier. I reached for it now, in the dark; I curled my fingers around the handle and rested the blade against on the floor, knuckles touching the dirty linoleum. I sat like that on the edge of the matress in the dark, still and barely breathing as I watched the patch of darkness where I’d last seen the glow of the cigarette.
If he broke through the door, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. This was beyond a joke.
He smoked a second cigarette, and then the glow disappeared and the smell of smoke faded. I couldn’t see anything in the patch of blackness where he’d been. Perhaps he’d gone.
There was nothing for a long time; it might have been ten minutes or it might have been half an hour, but it felt like an eternity.
Then the light flashing through the windows again. I could hear him laughing and calling out to the dogs. He was still here.
I gripped the machete tighter. It felt well-balanced in my hand; a good weight, heavy enough for chopping.
There was nothing for a long, long time.
I was exhausted. Bathed in sweat. I lay down on the mattress with the machete resting across my chest; it was heavy but not sharp. Eventually, I slept like that.
In the morning, I was still alive.