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On A Quiet Night You Can Hear The Corn Grow

on a quiet night you can hear the corn grow


Estimated reading time — 17 minutes

Back in the 80s, life was hard and arduous for people who lived in the countryside. There were only a few job opportunities other than being a farmer or joining the military. My father had never aspired to do either, but just like his father, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather before him, he had no choice. It’s not that he didn’t have any dreams or ambitions, but the circumstances were different back then. Living in one of the most remote towns in North Sulawesi Indonesia had its own drawbacks, or perquisites, depending on how you see it. You had less job opportunities and were more likely to get married after finishing high school.

My father had had a dream of his own before all the settling down and starting a family talk with his parents had even started. He had always wanted to be in a band, like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. It might seem a bit conceited or even pompous for someone from a humble upbringing to even think of joining the military, let alone being in a band. But a dream is a dream. You either pursue and realize it, keep it tucked away inside your head while you navigate through the ups and downs of growing up, or let yourself be jolted back into the harsh reality of life where many people die everyday with their dreams still locked up inside them.

My father had no choice but to stay behind at their family farm after he finished high school and forget his dream of being a Paul McCartney wannabe. Life was strenuous back then, according to him. There were days when they ate nothing but corn for days on end that they all started to suffer from diarrhea.

“We were a bunch of wholesome cornfed northerners back then.” I remember him telling me, while taking a long drag on his Marlboro cigar pinched between two long tar-stained fingers, a distant look on his face. “You kids have it easy now. When I was your age I had no choice but to work at the farm after high school. Sometimes I still feel bitter about it. I was a handsome and talented young man back then. I played the guitar and sang really well. People told me I had a beautiful voice. But all I had in store was that farm!”

Contemplating my life and life in general, never has the saying ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ rung so truer. It was heartbreaking that he and so many young people back then had to give up their dreams because of their circumstances, while so many young people these days are wasting their time fooling around bent on getting hammered and whatnot.

The family farm lies on a river basin surrounded by elevated landforms and hundreds of acres of thick forest. During the rainy season, the farm gets very cold and damp with fog descending from the sloping hills and enfolding everything on its path. For decades, the rumbling of pick-up trucks and the steady clunking of bikes have been disturbing the peaceful atmosphere of the ancient land. It took my father a two-hour drive and an additional thirty-minutes-long bike ride from our little sleepy town to get to the edge of the forest encircling the farm. Then he went the rest of the way on foot because a deep ravine north of the farm made it practically impossible to get there by any other means of transportation. These days he is nearly 90 kilograms of thick bone and carved muscle, a stocky guy pushing seventy, courtesy of all that walking and hiking he had endured in his youth.

I remember being eighteen myself and not knowing what to do with my life. My father had always wanted me to go to college so I wouldn’t end up being a farmer just like him and his equally miserable brothers. And I agreed with him. I was going to move away from home in the summer of 1990, so I told my father that I would like to accompany him one last time at the farm, a decision which might have contributed to my fear of the wilderness. It might have started there. Not that I visited the farm pretty frequently, but I just felt like spending more time with him before I left.

Weeks before, my father had told me something which I had brushed off as nothing but a bunch of rural superstitions. You see, there were a bunch of rules we had to follow closely while we were out there in the outskirts of human settlement. Our lives depended on it, he always told me while I had a massive internal eye roll. Taboos and myths are always taken seriously by most people in my hometown. Their entrenched resistance to new and modern ways of thinking is encapsulated in what they choose to and not to believe. The town is swimming in what some may consider as backward and retrograde behaviours.

It was one of the usual fog-laden nights at the farm and the air was cold and fresh. We were chattering away in front of the humble wooden hut built in the middle of a small square-shaped clearing near the cornfield which stretched as far as the eye could see. It was almost harvest time. The corn tassels had already started to turn from green to brown. The wild animals could smell it. Somebody had to wait around there to scare these critters away back into the thick surrounding forest where they belonged. My father was the man for the job. No snorting boars or shrieking monkeys would dare show their ugly snouts on his watch. They had no business sniffing around where they shouldn’t.

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It was a few minutes before midnight, he was strumming his old guitar, sing-humming softly an old church folk song about being faithful to God he had learnt as a kid vaguely, only stopping occasionally to throw more twigs and branches into the campfire in front of us to keep it going, a very useful critter deterrent. It was a chilly foggy night. Rain had come down hard on us early in the afternoon. We had taken another trail down from one of the nearby villages which was a lot more convenient and safer but took us longer to get to the farm, instead of the usual trail, because we didn’t want to get caught in a flash flood should it get worse. I lay awake on a piece of old tattered tarpaulin and started to hum along to the song he was singing while soaking up the warmth of the fire. Then I began to whistle.

Suddenly he stopped, grabbed my ankle and squeezed it so hard it hurt.

“Stop it!” he muttered under his breath, looking really tense and upset.

“What?” I got up hurriedly and started to look around frantically, expecting to see a rabid macaque approaching or something more sinister. A suffocating knot of dread lodged in my chest. These monkeys had no fear of people and would often be seen wandering into villages to steal food.

“Don’t whistle!” he hissed.

I turned to look at him in confusion. He shifted on the teak log he was sitting on uncomfortably, silently riveting his gaze up to the darkened hills beyond the treeline ahead.

“Dad?” I followed his gaze but saw nothing in the darkness surrounding the farm. After a few moments of silence, broken only by the sound of the fire crackling and popping, he finally let out a little sigh and looked me in the eye.

“You don’t whistle after the sun goes down around here,” he explained while gently strumming his old guitar again.

“Why not?”

“Something might hear you and whistle back. That’s not a good thing.”

“Forest gnomes?” I tried to humor him, then I met his gaze. He was eyeing me intensely as if he were about to slap me. “What?”

“There are things out there much older than the forest itself. They had been roaming the forest long before our ancestors set foot on this land,” he explained in a somber tone. “These … beings dwell deep in the wilderness, away from human settlements. In the most remote parts of the forest and the mountains surrounding it. But sometimes … only sometimes, they would wander into farmlands and encounter people. This mostly happens during the harvest season.”

“What will they do if they see people??” I asked, suddenly feeling interested and scared at the same time.

“You know Mr. Markus?” He threw a big log into the fire, ignoring my question.

“The crazy old guy from church? Yes,” I replied quickly. Mr. Markus was some sort of a legendary clown among the kids in our little town.

“He wasn’t always like that, you know. He lost his twin brother many years ago. That’s when his sanity started to spiral down.”

“What happened?”

“They were python-poaching along the northern bank of the river when they stumbled upon the mouth of a cave. Believing it to be a snake den, they proceeded to go in cautiously. As they went deeper, Mr. Markus couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were being watched by something or someone. Then his brother tripped over a rock and fell into a puddle. His torch, their only source of light, flickered and went out instantly. What happened next, Mr. Markus will never forget until the day he dies. He heard his brother let out a yelp of surprise which quickly broke into a thunderous scream reverberating against the cavern’s walls, then it faded into silence as the poor young man was being dragged into the deepest and darkest part of the subterranean world. Mr. Markus was lucky he managed to get out of the cave before whatever had taken his brother attacked him as well.”

I gulped down another remark of skepticism I was about to give voice to, my doubt as to whether my father was telling me the truth or not fast turning into fear.

“What attacked his brother?” I asked again hesitantly, now slightly unsure of my own stance on the paranormal. A sudden gust of wind washed over us, prompting me to pull my hood up as I watched the fire flicker dangerously. My father didn’t answer. Instead he put his guitar down and leaned it against the log.

“Who knows! Could have been a really huge python, or something worse,” he explained nonchalantly.

“Pythons are beautiful animals, though,” I remarked.

Then it hit me in the face just when I was about to gush over my admiration for the reptile.

“They could grow big enough to be able to swallow an adult man,” he continued matter-of-factly. “It is not unheard of. My grandfather swore he saw a python so big he had mistaken it for a fallen tree and almost leaned on it. It had grown too big for its own good that it was unable to move fast. Just lying around on the forest floor with moss, mildews, and weeds growing out of its skin, waiting for its prey to get near enough for it to pounce on.”

“So it was a python that attacked Mr. Markus’ brother?” I asked in a low voice.

He shrugged.

“Like I said, it was too dark in the cave. They could not even see their own hands. But I’d like to believe he knows more than he lets on. It must have been really traumatizing for him to watch his brother being attacked like that. My point is, there are things out there, son, that may or may not be a threat to us. Things that we do not fully understand. Things that may prey on people. So it’s best if you have some respect for nature.”

“I don’t get it …” I said, scratching my head in confusion. “Are there any beings far more dangerous than pythons in the forest? You just warned me not to whistle. I’m not sure if that could be mistaken for a mating call by any snakes out there.”

He looked down at his feet and sighed, then rose back to his full height.

“Come,” he said, pulling out a small flashlight from his pocket. “I want to show you something.”

I followed him down a small path eastward leading through the cornfield. We walked in silence for a few minutes on the increasingly overgrown track as it gently curved up over a hillock, then we stopped only a few feet from the treeline.

“Wait here!” he whispered. I nodded obediently. “Watch your distance.”

In the dimmed moonlight I watched him wobble up the rest of the way towards the edge of the forest adjacent to a small cliff northward before disappearing behind a thick curtain of grass surrounding a huge Durian tree. I pulled my jacket tighter and stood there listening to dead wood snapping under my father’s soles and the chitter and whistle of insects surrounding the farm. We were warned to always be careful and watchful when walking under a fruit-bearing durian tree as the fruits tended to fall off by themselves when ripened, which could crush your head into a pulp.

My father returned minutes later, carrying a huge durian with both hands. I looked at him quizzically as we walked back to our humble hut in the clearing.

“You see this durian?” he asked me as he settled down on the log by the fire.

“It’s huge,” I grinned greedily.

“I found it this afternoon while you were picking rose apples downriver,” he handed the durian to me. I took it with both hands and was surprised by how light it was. Then upon closer look I frowned as I saw a small hole on top of it where the stalk should have been.

My father stayed quiet for a few moments, just watching me examining the fruit suspiciously in my hands trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Then it dawned on me that the fruit was empty. The inside was no more, all the foamy flesh and seeds gone, hollowed out like a pumpkin on Halloween.

“What the …” My voice trailed off.

“When I was little, we used to venture into the forest to forage for wild berries and fallen durians after school. Whenever we found a durian with a hole cut into it like that one,” he pointed at the broken husk in front of me “we would call it a day and run back home immediately. What could have possibly eaten a durian like that? Surely not a human. So if you ever find one while wandering in the forest, you better hightail it home fast!”

I didn’t know whether to feel grossed out or scared. I dropped the durian off my hands. It landed on the ground and the husk broke apart with a crunch, revealing the clean empty locules where the flesh and seeds should have been attached to. I looked around in fear frantically as if expecting something to suddenly smash out of the forest and attack me.

“Are we … safe out here?” I huddled closer to my father as the despairing thought of us being exposed to danger struck me.

“We’re safe as long as we keep the fire burning.”

“What if it rains?”

“The chilli and lemongrass shrubs would keep them at bay. Ever wondered why we plant many of these plants around? They don’t like the smell. At least that’s what my father told me.”

“What are they, dad?” My lips trembled like a little child waking up from a horrible nightmare, stricken with fear and a desperation to comprehend what evil might be lurking out there waiting for a chance to catch us off guard in the enclosure of the farm. “The thing that ate the durian?”

I sat curled around my knees, just listening to the sound of my breath wheezing in and out.

He shrugged.

“In the South, they’re known as tae lapung. A friend told me. Those who dwell in the deepest darkest parts of the forest. They have been here long before us. Nobody really knows what they are or what they look like. They’re much feared by the people who live in the neighbouring villages surrounding Mount Buttu Makau. There are stories about these creatures coming into villages late at night when everyone was asleep to kidnap little children and take them away into the forest, never to be seen again.”

I shuddered as the thought of these faceless creatures attacking people flashed into my head.

“Please stop!” I rubbed my face vigorously, trying to shake off the horrible images swirling around in my head. “I don’t want to listen anymore. Now I’ll be having nightmares until I’m fifty!”

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“Don’t be afraid, son,” my father said as he patted my shoulder comfortingly, looking rather amused. “You’re safe here with me. Nothing can hurt you.” He reached out behind the log and pulled out a sickle, looking at it and admiring its sharpness in the flickering glow of the fire.

“Yeah that would surely help!” I grunted and rolled my eyes as he let out his trademark deep and guttural mocking laugh which always made us cringe in disgust. “What time is it now?”

He glanced at his watch, narrowing both eyes.

“Seven past one.”

“I guess I’ll just go to sleep then.” I got to my feet, yawned and stretched. “Good night!”

“Good night, son!

I began walking towards our hut, a small dilapidated wooden structure that slouched under a shady mangosteen tree. I lay down on the old mattress which was too small for me to stretch out on. I closed my eyes and listened to my father who remained outside, strumming his guitar gently by the fire.

I was already on the cusp of passing out when I heard it, a distant growl reverberating throughout the basin. It was coming from deep within the forest due east, somewhere near the treeline on the hillock where the durian tree stood up from the tall grass. I rose to my feet instantly and wobbled towards the open door. Fear outweighed any traces of exhaustion I felt. I saw my father standing near the fire, staring up at the dark forest out there. He heaved his guitar onto his shoulder defensively and waited, straining both ears. Was it a macaque? But it sounded off. Hoarser and guttural.

“Dad?” I said in a low whisper.

He didn’t answer. He leaned down slowly to put his guitar on the ground, both eyes still locked on the hillock, and quickly grabbed his sickle. Then I almost jumped out of my skin when I heard something which sounded like twigs and dried leaves breaking under the weight of something as, whatever it was, moved slowly amongst the trees in the dark.

There was an old farmer’s saying: On a quiet night you can hear the corn grow. When it’s so quiet in the dead of night, you can hear the stalks crackling and popping. At first, I tried to brush it off as just that, plus me being so listless after another long boring day might have contributed to my paranoia. But the saying might have been meant to be a warning. There were nights at the farm when it was eerily quiet that I could almost hear my own heartbeat and blood rushing through my veins. As if the whole land was holding its breath in anticipation, or in fear of an oncoming danger.

“Dad?” I called out again, slightly louder. He snapped out of his trance and turned to look at me.

“My gun!” he whispered.

I looked around and spotted a long hunting rifle leaning against the wall in the corner next to me. I grabbed it hastily and walked out the door to hand it to him.

“What is it?” I said under my breath.

“A wild boar!”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Don’t use God’s name in vain, son!”

“Dinner! Hallelujah!” My fear evaporated as I chuckled to myself.

“You stay here!” He said and began running towards the small path leading up to the hillock, muzzle trained on the treeline far ahead, wet dirt flying up in his wake.

“Dad, be careful!” I yelled hesitantly as I watched the outline of his grey army jacket dissolving into the darkness before me. Then I settled down on the log uncertainly and began drawing a circle on the ground with the sickle he had left behind. Ten minutes had passed, I threw more dry twigs into the fire as I looked up towards the darkened hillock and strained my ears, listening for any sound in the silence of the night. I could no longer hear the chirping and buzzing of insects. It was too quiet. I could feel the hair on the back of my arms standing up.

Suddenly the report of a gun echoed off the cliff face and reverberated throughout the basin, followed by a squeal that elongated into a blood-curdling screech that tore through the night. I stood there staring out into the darkness ahead of me, squinting my eyes tightly and lacking the energy to get to safety as the squealing went on and on more aggressively. As I started to make out the dark outline of a massive boar rushing down the hill towards me, I felt a chill running down my spine. I froze, trembling with fear where I sat as it got closer, its long dark mane billowing majestically in the wind.

But then something horrifying happened. As the beast scurried across the clearing near the edge of the cornfield, just beyond the reach of our flickering campfire, a long and gaunt-looking hand suddenly shot out from behind the tall cornstalks. It spread out in the air towards the approaching boar, each digit ending in a horribly long curved claw. It slashed nimbly at its prey, claws sinking viciously through skin and muscle, then dragged the poor animal hard across the ground into the darkness. The boar’s squeal was cut off abruptly.

I scrambled backward immediately and curled up against the log in terror, still holding the sickle in one hand, eyes locked on the edge of the cornfield. My whole body ached with tension. But I found myself unable to move. Fear froze me in my place. It dissolved the last bit of my weariness and made me suddenly hyperaware of everything around me. Deep in the darkened enclosure among rows of cornstalks, a pair of big yellow eyes had caught the glow of the campfire as the thing peered at me in silence. It just sat there and stared. After a while, it crawled away slowly and then it was gone.

I almost jumped out of my skin and screamed when I saw another blurry silhouette rushed down the hillock towards me. But it was only my father. He sprinted across the clearing, a tuft of lemongrass in his hand, carefully keeping his distance from the edge of the cornfield.

“Son, you okay?” He approached me, looking really frightened, and squeezed my shoulder tight. I opened my mouth to answer him but then a loud screech rang through the cornfield.

“Get inside!” he whispered dismissively under his breath as he quickly threw the lemongrass blades into the fire. I nodded and shuffled quickly towards the hut. “Close the door!”

I climbed back inside the hut for protection and to wait for sleep to overcome my mind. It had been a night too cold and horrifying for the sleep-deprived like myself to stay awake. I needed to fall into a deep slumber in anticipation of another long tedious day ahead awaiting me. As I closed my eyes and drifted off, my heart still pounding in my chest, breath wheezing in and out heavily, another sound yanked me back into wakefulness, the same guttural squeal of pain coming from somewhere deep in the forest, like the howl of a dying animal. It echoed down the basin and floated through the cornfield upon a gust of wind. The cornstalks started to pop and crack in unison, an eerie choir of discordance which was harassing the stillness of the night.

I was awakened a few hours later by the warmth of sunlight pouring in from the small rectangle window. I yawned and rolled onto my backside languorously. I glanced at my watch. It was thirteen past eight. I crawled out of the hut to find my father asleep leaning against the log, still holding his hunting rifle on his lap with both hands. The fire had burnt out, emitting only a thin wisp of smoke.

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As soon as I woke him up, he told me to get ready to go back home. A long and tiresome trip which would take up most of the morning. I just nodded my head and went back in to collect my things. I didn’t feel like spending another night there anymore after what had happened. It was the dreadful forest surrounding the farm and what might be lurking in it at night; the thing with horribly elongated limbs reminiscence of an orangutan or a macaque. But surely there are no orangutans in Sulawesi. They’re only found in Borneo and Sumatra. Besides, that creature I saw was much much more massive than anything else I had ever seen. Also macaques are neither predators nor meat-eaters. Whatever that thing was, if it could easily kill an adult boar like that, it would have no problem dealing with us should it return.

My father didn’t speak much as we made our way back to the nearest village up North, smashing through heavy vegetation and weaving through tall trees. He looked pale and kept looking nervously behind his shoulders occasionally, rifle in hand, as if afraid that we were being followed. He refused to answer my questions about what I had witnessed the previous night. In fact, he gave me a look that told me he didn’t want to talk about it. By the time we emerged from the forest, the sun was directly overhead, piercing through the canopy of trees to the floor of the forest.

I kept pressing him until he finally snapped and we got into an argument, him not wanting me to be scared even more than I already had been, and me still burning with curiosity.

“Fine!” he retorted.

“Fine what?” I snapped back.

“Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.” He let out a sigh as we kept walking and the village finally came into view in the distance. I gulped down another remark to his reluctance to tell me what he knew. We walked in silence for a few minutes as he clenched his jaw, unsure as to how he was going to break it to me.

“I found the boar this morning while you were still asleep,” he muttered. “On the river bank.”

“Was it d—”

“Dead. Yes.”

Suddenly I found myself torn between fear and even more curiosity.

“How …” My voice trailed off. I had a feeling I already knew the answer.

“There’s a very good reason why these creatures are much feared. Remember what I told you about the durian I found last night?”

My eyes went round with fear instantly as he glanced at me with a knowing look.

“The creature you saw attacking the boar … that’s how it eats the fruit. It digs a hole through it and scoops the flesh out with a long finger and sucks it dry until there’s nothing left,” he explained.

My mouth fell open, horror-struck.

“Oh yeah. The poor piggy could be just basking in the sun, right?” he let out a mirthless laugh. “No. The creature had drunk the poor boar’s head dry. Its skull was completely empty when I found it. Clean. Brain and stuff … gone!”

“Fuck! That … that is … horrifying,” I stuttered, now finding it hard to breathe.

“Now don’t you start cursing around me, son. That’s not how we raised you,” he told me off as we trotted shoulder to shoulder on the narrow path leading down to the village. The air reeked of a mixture of a goaty smell and wet earth as we got closer.

“Sorry, dad!” I let out a nervous cough.

“Oh I’m not done yet.” He batted away a buzzing insect flying around his head. “You asked for it.”

“What, there’s more?”

“Oh yes, there is.”

My eyes went wide.

“There were only a handful of people including my father and some others who knew about this. And he told me before he died. I wish he hadn’t. Such an unusual man with a weird sense of humor, your grandfather was. He had reckoned it would be funny to scare me like that. It was not!”

“Told you what?” I asked expectantly and reluctantly.

He turned his head to look at me again and then he leaned in closer as he whispered.

“The villagers found his body in the cave.” His face was merely inches from mine. “Mr. Markus’ twin brother … the creature did the same thing to his head.”

Credit: Eoghan Ferguson

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