Day 312 – Banaue Rice Terraces, Philippines
Deep in the mountains of Ifugao, I look upon what Filipinos call the 8th wonder of the world. These man made rice terraces are said to be more than 2000 years old, and I feel just terrible about spilling my Dr. Pepper all over the place. Nevertheless, I am awestruck at the surrounding beauty. I keep my distance from the diligent farmers, harvesting the rice as they have done for generations, more than 1500 metres above sea level.
“Those people down there look like ants,” I observe, sagely. Though in point of fact, I am watching ants bustling around my soda stain.
“Is that T.R. Diamond?” I hear through the thicket, and my ears identify the source of this greeting before I even cast my eyes toward him.
“Custard Vermillion,” I return, through gritted teeth, as the poor sap disentangles himself sloppily from the undergrowth. He shambles toward me, hand outstretched. As I reach for his hand, he retracts it, and smooths his hair back, flashing impossibly white teeth.
Vermillion fancies himself an adventurer, but can’t seem to avoid mishap. He gives single men with no fixed address a bad name. We met panning for gold some years ago and now can’t let a year pass without crashing into each other like doomed blimps. Now, as it has always been, we waste no time on pleasantries.
“Have times turned tough, Diamond?” he asks now. “I know you’ve no assets or income. But what has reduced you to labour in the fields?” He brays at me, his laugh a goat being attacked by an accordion.
“I’m not here to work,” I respond coolly. “And I believe the weight loss treatment centre is in the foothills, Vermillion,” nodding towards the mound at his midsection. “I thought one couldn’t travel in his third trimester.”
He sneers at me. “I may have appetites,” he says, removing his hat to wipe his brow. “But at least I have friends willing to break bread with me.”
I feel my face redden with embarrassment. He knows my one flaw to pinpoint: my many faults. I roll up my sleeves, casually, and he lets his hat drop the ground. He knows, as I do, that we are about to come to blows. I advance slowly, menacingly, but in my periphery, I see hooded, scaly head rise slightly in the tall grass. It could only be a king cobra. I freeze, and Vermillion notices.
“We’ve got company,” I hiss, tilting my head in the direction of our reptilian intruder. I see him spot the beast, and the malevolent glint in his eye is replaced with abject terror.
“Do you remember your trip to the Maldive Islands?” Vermillion murmurs to me quietly. I scan the recesses of my memory, trying to recall any inter species encounter that could serve me here.
“What’s that to do with this?” I whisper, as the cobra neither comes further toward us nor retreats.
“Perhaps you could recount your trip to the snake, as you did to me,” he suggests. “That way, you could bore it to death.”
Emboldened, I take a step towards the creature. “There’s nothing so venomous as your words, Custard,” I whimper. Then, quickly as I can, I bring both fists into his head, hoping to feel the satisfying crunch of snake brains. The beast is too fast for me and his bite sears into my sun-callused fingers. I cry in pain as he strikes my other hand. I rear back, and Vermillion steadies me.
“Nasty business, old sport,” he whispers to me, nodding at my wounds. He breathes shakily, and I know he suspects, as I do, that we could meet our end on this mountain. We slowly take steps backward, knowing we have nowhere to run. Then, I remember what I’ve carried with me on this trip.
“Reach into my waistband,” I gasp, my injuries radiating pain through my body now.
“Oh now, honestly!” Vermillion regards me askance, but does not let me drop to the ground. I shake my head.
“I have a blade,” I pant. “In the pocket of my underwear.”
Understanding dawns. My enemy slips his hand down the front of my dungarees. “So soft,” he murmurs. Then, I feel his fingers graze the zipper of Flight’s patented pocket. Slowly, so as not to arouse any cobras, he pulls the zipper to one side. “One…” he whispers, withdrawing my switchblade. “Two….”
“Three!” I shout, as he strikes, slicing the cobra’s head clean off. I pounce on the remains, stomping my boot into what remains of the reptile, ensuring that the snake body cannot regenerate a new head, like I saw in a movie once.
Breathing heavily, Vermillion and I lock eyes with one another. My equipment and his actions saved our hides together. We are, grudgingly, grateful. I extend my hand to him.
“I won’t fall for that,” he says, refusing to grab the punctured appendage. “Even if we’re on the same side today, I’m not about to shake your hand.”
I chuckle, my own laugh like melted chocolate cascading from a dolphin. “You’ll do more than that, Friend,” I say. “Today, you’ll suck the poison out.”
For a moment, I can see indecision pass through him. But I know, scoundrel though he is, Custard Vermillion won’t leave me here to die. Slowly, resignedly, he brings my fingers to his lips. Then, without ceremony, he begins to suckle…