The Unappeasable Host
by Jeff Somers
IT WAS hot, was all he knew. Hotter than he’d ever imagined it possible, dozing on a couch in his apartment, sullenly sweaty when the city temperature hit eighty. Eighty! He prayed for eighty degrees, now. He thought it must be at least 125 degrees. He thought he must be melting, slowly, some horrible former man, running away like candle wax. He supposed he was knee-deep in culture and ought to be absorbing something meaningful, but all he knew was that he was hotter than he’d ever been in his life. He didn’t think there were numbers to describe the amount of kinetic energy in the air.
He swabbed his forehead with a rag and stared around at the rest of the group. He was on an elephant. The whole tour group was riding the huge beasts. They smelled, he thought, like rotten beef jerky.
“Where are we going again?”
Pong, their guide, turned his small, tan head slightly, and said something in his language of marble-mouthed vowels. Then he turned away again. “We go to visit the Hill Tribes.” he said. “These people still live by ancient tradition.”
These people still live by begging from tourists, he thought icily.
In the tour literature, this part of the trip had seemed admirably fascinating. Over beers and burgers with his friends, that part had seemed the best part. On elephants! In the jungle! Visiting tribes that clung to thousand-year-old ways and rules!
He looked around sourly. He was melting onto an elephant and would have the pungent scent of sweated-on rotten beef jerky following him into the afterworld. He swatted at flies and took a drink from his water bottle, wishing he’d stayed in the hotel today, played sick, and just laid on his bed with the ceiling fan on high, misering his strength.
The other members of the tour seemed to be enjoying themselves, as far as he could tell. He didn’t see how it was possible, but they were chatting and laughing, awkwardly perched on their own elephant couriers. An elderly woman noticed him looking at them all and waved.
“Having fun, Harry?” she called out.
He managed a small smile and waved back. “Can’t wait to meet the Hill People!” he sang back, thinking She’s fucking eighty years old and she’s bouncing along on an elephant in 1000-degree heat. She’s senile. When he was eighty, he planned to spend most of his energy devising new ways to get things from the fridge without getting up from his bed. Still, he had to admit, privately, that she was amazing. She looked fifty, and had more energy than most of the others, who were all easily forty years younger. Her enthusiasm, though, annoyed him. He just wanted to go home, and it felt like she was single-handedly pushing them all forward, into the Hills, carrying ridiculous gifts for the beggar children who would swarm them.
“Christ,” he whispered to himself. “I’ll bet a game’s on channel five back home, right now.”
Pong turned to grin at him. “You want to go home, Mr. Harris?”
Mistah Harrie, he pronounced it. Harry still couldn’t tell if their guide was making fun of him or was just having trouble with consonants. He gave him a neutral look and shook his head. Pong was smart, so Harry suspected he was being made fun of. He knew he had a reputation as the dead weight of the group, the sourpuss. It embarrassed him, because the trip had cost so much, and so much effort had gone into its planning - to come and be so thoroughly unhappy made him feel like a whiner, especially since he was alone in his unhappiness. That had made him grit his teeth and stick with it -though he could have simply kept his hotel and plane reservations and left the tour. That would have meant more money after what he’d spent on the tour, though.
“I’m just as happy here.” he asserted to Pong, who nodded amiably and turned around.
Harry sagged in the saddle behind their guide. Elephants! He hadn’t expected elephants, though everyone said it was right there in the brochure. He supposed it had been. It didn’t mean he’d expected it.
Harry was awakened from an almost-pleasant doze by the cessation of the gentle rocking that marked the elephant’s movement. He blinked around the hazy humidity, pulling himself from a daydream wherein he’d simply been sitting in an air-conditioned room, drinking cold beer. Smacking his lips to stop the line of drool that had formed, he looked around and tried to get his bearings. They were deep in the woods, and a short distance away he could see crude wooden huts and smoke, and the dim figures of people wearing bright colors.
Everyone was dismounting, so Harry climbed stiffly down and joined the group, who were gathered around Pong.
“Please, the children will first sing for us, as guests of their village. In return, it is customary to present the children with gifts, which you have all brought with you, yes?”
Harry nodded along with everyone else, thinking of the bags of pens, pads, and other basic school supplies they had all paid for as part of the tour. Harry’d been skeptical.
“I’ve never known a kid who wanted to get pens and pads as gifts.”
Pong had shaken his head forcefully, his ever-present grin in place. “You are used to American children, Mister Harry. Here there are no toys, no Nintendo. Please, these small gifts will mean very much to them.”
Harry had shrugged, and still felt silly about it, but if Pong wanted to give these kids some pens and paper, Harry didn’t think it was his place to fight with him about it. He dug through his pack and found the package, holding it at his side, thinking I hope these kids don’t sing too long.
“Come! Come!” Pong shouted, sounding almost joyous. “Come!”
He led the group a short way up the rise towards the village, exhorting them the whole way. Harry found himself huffing and sweating by the time they reached the top, where he stopped short, acutely aware of how loud his breathing was.
Arranged in neat rows, the children of the village were waiting for us. They were arranged with the shortest of them in the front rows, so that we had before us a cultivated field of children, tan-skinned and dark-haired, with teeth that were white and bright. They giggled softly as we approached, and were harshly reprimanded by the two women who were standing to either side. The women, by contrast, were stooped as if by heavy burdens and had dark brown teeth. Both the children and the women were wearing bright colors -red and blue and yellow. They were like tall, human flowers in the woods.
Pong gathered us up close and signaled the women, who nodded curtly and snapped commands at the children. In sweet, girlish voices, they sang a short song. Harry struggled to discern a melody and quickly fell into a hypnotized doze, staring slit-eyed at the children. Although obviously well-rehearsed, he didn’t think it was really a song so much as a chant, droning and pointless. After a few moments he began to shift from foot to foot in impatient desire to get on with whatever else they were supposed to do here with the ‘Hill Tribes’.
When they stopped, Harry opened his eyes and blinked blearily. The children remained stock still under the watchful gazes of the two women and Pong. Harry saw Pong in a whole new way; up til then he’d been the amiable, friendly guide who answered their questions and poked cheerful fun. Suddenly he’d become a taskmaster, sternly watching the children, pacing back and forth like a prison guard. Harry didn’t like the women, either.
Pong said something and the children relaxed visibly. He turned back to the group and he became once again the cheerful guide, smiling and urging the group to applaud. Then he gestured as they approached, and a giggling ripple once again swept through the children, this time unchecked by the adults. Pong nodded in approval as the tourists walked towards the children, gifts in hand, and then turned to speak one sharp word to the kids. With a cheer, they broke their careful formation and ran towards the tour group.
Harry was unprepared for the sheer number of grasping hands and laughing, white-toothed faces. He raised his arms up, at first, and was surrounded by more than a dozen children who clearly had no concept of personal space. They pushed into him from all sides, shouting joyfully. After a moment, he realized that he was holding the promised gifts high above his head, and forced himself to bring his arms down. The children cheered and eagerly took the pads and pens, jumping excitedly. Harry didn’t know what to do then, and was relieved when a sharp word from one of the women sent the children slinking away. They were quickly replaced by a new wave, and Harry dipped back into his bag of gifts to satisfy them as well.
Nice racket, he thought. A five minute song and I’m Santa Claus.
Harry noticed with mild alarm that the rest of the group was moving away with Pong and the women. He started to follow along, but another huge group of children came running, crying out joyfully, and he had to start handing out the cheap pens and pads furiously as little hands pulled at his belt, his pockets, his shirts. The small, tan faces smiled up at him, and they were all shouting the same words, he thought, although he couldn’t understand them. He became sure that there hadn’t been that many children lined up to sing, and began to suspect strongly that they were taking extra turns and getting doubles and triples on the gifts - he didn’t know if that was okay or not. Thinking of the sharp way the women and Pong had kept berating them, he thought it best to confirm their behavior, and twisted around in his sea of children to find Pong.
The guide was standing a ways off, and Harry realized he couldn’t see the rest of the tour group. Panic began to well up from his stomach, a mass of sourness. He raised a hand and called out to the small oriental gentleman. Pong was smiling, and waved back. Harry had seen plenty of Pong’s smiles over the past few days, and he suddenly thought that there was no friendliness in it.
He looked down at the children. They were pulling at his clothing hard. He started handing out the pads and pens again. When they were all gone, he looked around again. Pong - or anyone else - was nowhere to be seen.
The children began tugging at his clothing again, shouting the same words over and over, their teeth white and striking in the context of their dark tan faces. He handed them the small, cheap nylon bag the pads and pens had been in. It disappeared into their many-mawed cloud. Immediately the children pushed in closer, and he felt dozens of small hands on his clothing, tugging, beginning to tear.
“Uh...” he managed, looking around. “Hello? Pong?”
He wracked his brain for the names of the other people in his tour group...he had assigned amusing nicknames to them all, feeling very clever, and now he wondered if any of them would turn around if he shouted out –if they could even hear him.
“Hey!” he bellowed, feeling panic creeping up along his spine. “HEY!”
A ripple of soft laughter rippled through the children. He looked around. The clearing was filled with them, tan skin, white teeth, the soft giggling. Tiny hands invading him, pulling at him. He stumbled and caught himself, hearing fabric tear. He tried to push his way through them.
“Goddammit I gave you the goddamn pens and pads!”
They were like a wall. A wall made up of individual fifty-pound bricks, pushing at him, pulling at him.
His shirt came apart, tearing sharply, a sleeve disappearing into the mass of small limbs and white teeth, tan skin. His upper arm looked startlingly pale and white against the sudden swell of tan skin around him. Thrusting his hand into one pocket, he held the other out.
The children seemed to breath outward, relaxing just a tiny bit as he felt around his pockets. There was nothing there. He pushed into his pants desperately, feeling the phantoms of his life at home: coins, stubs, tokens, matches, keys. All left behind. He was on vacation. He didn’t look up, but could feel them beat back towards him, a silent sigh of directed energy. His pockets were torn from his pants, quick, sudden strokes. He stumbled and barely managed to remain upright.
He opened his mouth to scream, and small hands were thrust into it.
This story originally appeared in Bare Bone #5.