It was one of those stormy nights during my summer trip in the tropics when I stumbled upon that old tunnel. It was the longest and scariest night of my life. I did not think I would ever get out of that forest alive. I was badly injured, weather-beaten and suffering immensely from the cold when I emerged from the treeline. But here I am now a year later, back in Wittenberge, still recovering from the trauma and trying to forget that spine-chilling night I spent in the bowels of the earth alone. My hand still tortures me from time to time. There are days when the pain makes me desire death. The doctor said I was lucky. If I had waited a little bit longer, they would have had to amputate it. But now I am not sure anymore. Amputation seems like the best option for me.
My buddy Mario, a friendly dude, had invited me over for a summer vacation in one of the most beautiful and picturesque islands in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The trip drained my budget but I needed to get away from my life for a while. His hometown was breathtaking. It perched on the slope of an inactive volcano near the mouth of a narrow bay that looked more like an oversized lake. The people were warm and nice. I was always greeted by dozens of enthusiastic locals who would ask me to take photos with them wherever I went around the city. I guess I am what you call an average guy but for some reason, people there treated me like I just popped out of a movie or something. I have some rough edges, mind you. Nobody’s perfect. There were days when I would politely say no to them and they would scoff and tell me off as if I had just insulted them in the harshest way possible.
Mario told me that it was my blonde hair, super pale complexion, and the constant confused look on my face that made me look like a big dumb troll.
“You always look like you’re either confused or drunk. As if parts of your brains were in different time zones, man,” he told me one time. Well that’s one way to put it. I bet those people wrote funny captions for the photos.
Mario took me to these amazing places I had only ever seen in National Geographic magazines. Lush picturesque tropical forests. Hidden sandy white beaches with pristine crystal-clear waters that gleamed in the sun. And on my fifth day, he took me camping near this mangrove forest where estuarine crocodiles dwelled.
“Is it safe here?” I asked him warily while taking inventory of our surroundings.
“Just keep the fire burning!” he giggled, looking amused by my discomfort.
When we returned to the city he told me about this beautiful off-the-beaten path that stretched across a massive formation of hills on the southwestern part of the island. The nearest village rested on its western slope with large patches of heavily forested land, a three-hour walk from the main road. There were rumours circulating about the people in that village that they’re unfriendly towards strangers and they practiced dark magic or something like that.
“You ever heard about the legend of Popo’?” asked Mario one night when we were hanging out in his backyard, enjoying some cigars and cold beer.
“What?” I chuckled. For some reason that strange word sounded funny to my ears and I thought I had misheard him.
“Popo’,” he repeated, grabbing another cigarette and lighting it up.
“No. What is Popo’?”
“Well, it’s not actually a ghost. More like a creature. A night creature.” He exhaled a puff of smoke in front of him.
“A vampire? Strigoi?”
He nodded a bit. “Something similar, yes. But Popo’ is a human being who practices dark magic.”
“That sounds terrifying. So what does a Popo’ do? They suck people’s blood?”
“They only attack the weak. Like old and sick people …”
“Well we’re neither old nor sick!” I yawned loudly. “For now …” I added then chuckled.
“Rumour has it that everyone who lives in that village is Popo’s by night. During the daylight, they’re just normal people like us. A bunch of farmers. Flesh and blood. But when the clock strikes midnight, they would go deep in the forest to transform. Especially on a cold moonless night. They love it that way. So they can hover over another village undetected, hiding in dark corners waiting for the perfect time to attack the first weak and defenseless person they stumble upon.” He shrugged. “At least that’s what my grandpa told me.”
“Sounds like vampires to me …”
“What makes them different?”
“Well … like I said, Popo’ is a normal human being who practices dark magic. When they’re about to transform they go deep in the forest to hide their body somewhere safe and only return when the first lights of day appear in the sky.”
“Hide their body? For what?“ I asked, confused.
He grinned at me mysteriously before continuing. “They detach their own head from their body and leave the body behind, safely hidden, and then the head would float around with its trailing organs dangling below it like tentacles, looking for a victim for the night.”
“Ewww …” I blurted out. The thought of a disembodied head floating in the air with its wet bloody and slimy organs hanging about disgusted me more than it terrified me. “That’s a very imaginative and horrifying story I’ve ever heard in my life. But also pretty gross.”
He burst out laughing. “That’s why people here never leave their windows open after the sun goes down. Popo’ always waits patiently and quietly for hours floating over the roof of their potential victim’s house.”
“Who would be stupid enough to leave their windows open at night?” I snorted. “By the way I heard something quite similar when I was in Thailand years ago.”
“Yes. Countries throughout South East Asia have their own version of this creature. But the characteristics are always the same. A disembodied head floating in the dark night sky looking for its victim. Some say that when Popo’ is near, you can hear this dripping sound when it is so quiet late at night. Like … drip … drip … drip …” he lowered his voice dramatically “It’s the sound of blood and bodily fluids dripping from its organs and hitting the roof or the ground. Then you know they’ve come for you.”
“There’s this story my grandpa told me about a guy who woke up in the middle of the night because he had heard this mysterious dripping sound somewhere nearby. He got out of bed leaving his heavily pregnant wife asleep in their bedroom and went into the kitchen to check if he had left the water running. He went over to the sink but the tap wasn’t dripping. So he went into the bathroom and found that the tap there wasn’t dripping either. He scratched his head in confusion thinking he had probably dreamed of hearing it when he realized that he had forgotten to lock his bedroom window. He quickly ran to the bedroom only to find the most nightmarish sight he had ever laid his eyes on. A severed head of a woman with long black hair was resting between his wife’s legs which were soaked in dark red blood. It was sucking greedily as it fed on their unborn baby.” He made a loud and long slurping noise between his clenched teeth.
“Okay now thank God I’ve already had dinner,” I cringed in disgust while he burst out laughing. “Thanks for the nightmare materials.”
“But whether it’s true or not, the trail is perfectly safe to explore. As long as you don’t stay behind after the sun sets. The forest is really thick there and you can easily get lost in the dark. I’ve camped there many times before and guess what? No popo’s!” He grabbed the ashtray and stubbed out his cigarette.
“Well if Popo’ were indeed real …” I said, flicking my cigarette into the air, ignoring the look of protest on his face “I think I would love to know how to do it. You know, the dark magic they’re practicing. There are some people back in my country whom I would have a lot of fun scaring to death. Including my snotty cousin who thinks he’s a lot better than me because his father is super rich. I would love to slap him hard before suffocating him with my intestine.”
The following day, again I was left alone with Mario’s mother who was nice and friendly but spoke no word of English apart from ‘hungry’, ‘thank you’, and ‘wait’, while he went to work. It was my birthday but I had decided not to tell him because I did not want them to go the length to have a little celebration for me after welcoming me into their house with open arms. After talking on the phone with my mother back in Wittenberge, I decided to go out and explored the traditional market along the coast and then went shopping at this small mall near the port afterwards, the only one there. I bought myself Mario some new T-Shirts and two pairs of jeans which were a bit pricey, but it’s my birthday so it’s okay to splash out. And then, I have no idea what got into me that day, I decided to grab a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the main road from which the trail Mario had mentioned earlier branched out. I knew he had asked me to wait until he was off work so we could go there exploring together. But again, it was my birthday and I wanted to do something fun. Besides, I only wanted to explore the forest a little and take some pictures. I would return before it got dark.
I should have listened to him.
The taxi driver looked at me with a quizzical look on his face when I told him my destination.
“You are sure, mister?” he asked with his broken English. Not that mine is better.
“Oh yes. What’s wrong?”
“But that road is … eh what the English word for it … uhm almost deserted?”
“Oh yes I’m aware of that.”
“What you do there?”
“Hiking,” I answered shortly, ignoring his being nosy “… taking pictures.” Then it suddenly dawned on me that I should never tell a stranger where I am going all by myself. “I won’t be alone though. My friends are already there.” I lied.
He nodded but still looked rather confused.
When we arrived, he asked politely to take some pictures with me before he left. I said yes and asked him to come pick me up at around 3 pm and he nodded his head, still busy going through the photos of us that he had taken on his phone with a wide grin on his face.
As soon as I reached the top of the hill a few hours later, I realized that what Mario had told me earlier was true. It was really cool and picturesque up there with massive green hills rolling in the distance surrounding the valley. I could even see the bay in the distance from up there. I took some pictures and began making my way down the other side of the hill, towards the treeline where according to Mario, I would find a small creek hidden among the thick vegetation. It was only 10 am in the morning but I was already sweating like a pig.
I strolled down carefully trying not to trip on sharp rocky protrusions that jutted out of the ground on the steep hillside. I weaved my way in and out of the thick undergrowth and I could already hear the gentle trickling sound right ahead. The forest was rather quiet and the deeper I went in, the thicker the vegetation was. I kept walking for about ten minutes and the canopies hanging low over my head made my surroundings look even darker.
My feet were making this gentle squelch as I wobbled along the muddy bank, going deeper and deeper the closer I got to the river. I held on tight to a woody root covered with slimy moss above me and then I hoisted myself up with all my might. I lay down for a bit next to a huge tree to catch my breath and suddenly it dawned on me that I could have drowned in the mud just a few seconds ago. How stupid!
I opened my waterproof bag to check my phone and camera and was relieved to see everything was still dry and not damaged. I got on my knees and watched the still and dark brown surface of the water below me running smoothly almost without a sound apart from the occasional trickling sounds here and there.
Then I noticed something along the bank to my right. A long and thick rolled-up piece of palm fibres woven together and fastened by two bamboo sticks which I reckoned was used by people to trap fish traditionally. I walked closer to investigate. It was wet and looked as if it had been left there for years. Pieces of torn palm fibres were jutting out through unevenly like locks of stiff hair. I kicked it hard and it rolled off into the creek with a loud splash that disturbed the still water before disappearing beneath the surface. I looked around and saw more of those roll-ups here and there on either side of the creek.
The creek itself was only a few metres wide in this part of the forest. But the tall trees and heavy vegetation on the other side concealed what lay beyond. It ran like an elongated chocolate river in Charlie And the Chocolate Factory through the forest between lines of trees on either side. It looked so inviting. Not to mention it was really hot that day. So without hesitation, I just jumped in and gasped in surprise because I had not expected the water to be so cold. I opened my eyes but I could not see through the murky water. It was almost like swimming in the dark. Not to mention it was actually deep enough that when I reached the bottom the world above me completely disappeared from view. I could no longer tell the difference between up and down. I felt like I was floating in outer space. I dove to my side and almost hit my head on the steep wall of the bank. I dodged quickly and pushed myself up back to the surface. The fish trap that I found earlier was already floating slowly on the surface towards me. I grabbed it and held on, using it like a raft, before letting go and diving back under the surface.
A gush of cold wind greeted me when I resurfaced and as I bobbed up and down I realized my stupidity. The riverbank on this side was rather steep and stood almost vertically which would make it difficult if not impossible for me to climb back up, while on the other side it sloped gently towards the water. I tried to hoist myself up, grabbing a tuft of grass and pulling really hard. But I let go instantly and recoiled back in the water with throbbing stings across my palm as I realized another stupid mistake I had just made.
“Fuck!” I cursed. “Fuck fuck fuck!”
In hindsight, I should have been more cautious. Apparently, the plant was one of those nightmarish plants found in the tropics that have microscopic needle-like hairs which cover the whole plant as an act of natural defence mechanism. Not to mention that the hairs are itchy and venomous. This fucker was one of them.
Whether it was the effect of the venom or maybe the pain was too much, my bladder finally let go and I could feel the wet warmth between my legs spreading wider and wider before I passed out.
When I came to, there were several things that I realized instantly. It was already dark and it was raining with lightning flashing fiercely across the sky and thunder grumbling in the distance. My palm was still burning from the pain but it had lessened. I didn’t know how long I had been lying there unconscious. I tried to get up but my whole body felt weak and drained. My wet T-Shirt stuck tight to my skin.
I got on my knees and felt something hard in my pocket. I gasped in excitement as I pulled out a small water-proof flashlight which I had slipped into my pocket this morning just in case I got lost and could not find my way back after dark. But then beneath the steady and soft patter of the rain, I heard a faint yet familiar catchy tune. At first, I thought I had to be imagining it. There was no way. I was in the middle of nowhere and the nearest village was approximately a few kilometres from where I was. It took me a while before I found out where it was coming from. My phone. I suddenly felt relieved but it only lasted for a few seconds when I realized that I had left my bag on the other side of the creek. What an idiot. Mario. He had to be worried sick about me now.
I turned the flashlight on and pointed it towards the other side of the creek. There was no way I could swim back there and climb up onto the edge. I held out my injured hand in front of me and under the flickering light of the flashlight I could see that it had swollen twice its normal size and the skin had already started to turn blue.
There was only one way to get out of this forest. But I wasn’t planning to leave without my bag. I had to find a shallow section of the creek where the bank wasn’t too steep so I could make my way back to the other side. I turned around and started walking up the gently sloping bank behind me, weaving my way in and out the thick bushes very carefully trying to watch out for more of those fucking killer plants. My joints felt stiff and dry as if I had not used them for years. As I walked among huge trees that lined along the edge of the bank, I spotted something in the dark. I pointed my flashlight towards it and saw a weather-worn and ageing wooden board sign nailed carelessly into the trunk of one of the trees. There was sloppy writing written in all capital on it. I walked closer and narrowed my eyes to read it. It was written in Indonesian of course.
It read: DILARANG BERENANG DISINI. TEMPAT KHUSUS MEMANDIKAN JENAZAH. TERTANDA KEPALA DESA GUNUNG SEJUK.
My blood froze as I was trying to make sense of it. My Indonesian is terrible, that’s for sure. I had only been learning the language a bit prior to my arrival. But from the four or five words written there that I understood, it’s enough for me to guess what the writing could actually mean. It’s a warning for anyone who happens to stumble upon the creek.
No swimming here. This land is used for bathing corpses only.
The rest of it was incomprehensible to me. But I knew enough. My stomach churned again as it dawned on me that several hours ago I was bathing myself in that doomed creek. Those roll-ups on the banks weren’t fish traps. They’re warps for corpses.
Not feeling like lingering behind any longer, I quickened my pace and started to jog as fast as my trembling and weak feet could carry me. I had only been walking along the edge of the creek for a few minutes when a flash of lightning struck, followed by a loud rumbling sound in the distance that shook the ground like an earthquake. I paused hesitantly for a bit. Maybe I should find a place to stay for the night. I proceeded to keep walking forward, slowing down now and then to navigate through the uneven terrain and thick bushes and finally I arrived in a clearing at the foot of one of the hills that towered over the forest like a dark massive creature. As I made my way around it, I noticed the mouth of a dark cave half-hidden behind a thick group of bushes when the lightning struck again. I got closer and realized that it was a dilapidated square-shaped entrance of an old abandoned tunnel. It looked like a minor landslide had occurred years ago and almost completely concealed it out of view. Several pieces of old decaying logs were dangling from the top and strewn about on the ground before it.
I was about to start walking again and making my way around the hills when suddenly a strong gust of wind struck the whole forest, followed by heavy drops of rain. I had no choice but to take cover in that tunnel. I carefully made my way through the decaying debris and snuck inside quickly. I took a look around with my flashlight and found a rusty and long-abandoned car wreck resting on its side against the wall only a few metres from the entrance. And as I went deeper into the bowels of the hill, I started to smell some horribly unpleasant odour hanging heavily in the musty air. It was getting stronger and stronger as I kept walking further. I could feel my stomach churning wildly from disgust. I pointed my flashlight forwards, further deeper into the subterranean darkness but the beam hit the wall as the tunnel curved to one side and I had to stop moving, not feeling like following the bend any further.
I walked back towards the old car and peered inside. The seats were still intact, and there were dirty piles of old tattered rugs strewn about on them. Well at least I have something to keep myself warm, I thought to myself rather gloomily. I clambered inside and tried to make myself as warm as possible among the piles of dusty rags in the backseat. The old thing creaked and groaned in protest as I tried to find the most comfortable position to sleep in. I could hear the muffled roar of the storm as thunder rumbled on outside, reverberating through the walls. I silently prayed that this old tunnel was strong enough to endure the storm and wouldn’t collapse and trap me in the dark forever. It’s gonna be a long night and I did not even know what time it was. I had no choice but to wait out the storm for now.
Lightning flashed and for a split second it illuminated the entrance of the tunnel ahead, allowing me to see the trees and bushes swaying wildly in the storm outside. I leaned back facing the entrance of the tunnel, closed my eyes and waited patiently until sleep took me.
Only a few hours had passed when I was suddenly yanked back into wakefulness by a faint and muffled tapping sound coming from my right. At first, I thought I was only imagining it. I inched away from the wall and listened closely. For a few moments, I did not hear anything. But then it came back.
What the hell, I thought, as I realized it was coming from inside the wall. What could possibly be making that sound? I leaned hard against the cold dented frame of the car and narrowed my eyes in confusion. I stared hard at the earthy surface of the wall for a few more minutes and realized that maybe it was just the whole hill enduring the storm, settling in under the great pressure of its own massive weight. I sighed, feeling extremely exhausted and sleepy. I pulled more rags from the front seat to cover my feet and then I leaned back to relax my body and closed my eyes.
I was about to fall asleep when I heard something that made every hair on my body stand on end. It came from the darkness behind me, deep in the bowels of the tunnel. A muffled scratching noise running along the surface of the wall deep within the tunnel. I turned my flashlight on and pointed it into the darkness behind me immediately. The scratching went on in the darkness beyond the bend, like something clawing its way along the surface of the old wall. The thought put an unpleasant tingle in my own fingertips.
“Who’s there?” I shouted. And the scratching stopped immediately. My voice bounced off the walls, creating a distorted echo that reverberated through the air and deeper it went before the tunnel swallowed it. I could feel the darkness shifting and twisting around me as if whatever it was that was making that scratching noise had not expected my presence at all.
“Hello?” I shouted in a quavering voice.
And then lightning struck near the entrance, startling me. Its bright radiance illuminated the whole tunnel for a split second. I looked over my shoulder towards the entrance and for a moment I was relieved that I was safe from the storm. But the reassurance evaporated as quick as the lightning itself when again the darkness surrounded me. I turned around and as the flickering beam from my flashlight hit the part of the wall at the bend, I saw something dark and elongated moving fast across the earthy floor of the tunnel. I could make out the faintest glimmer of its movement within the dim halo of the beam before it disappeared beyond the bend.
A snake! A fucking big snake, I realized and to my horror I started wondering if I was trapped in a snake-infested tunnel. The answer came to me as from the corner of my eyes, I saw something slithering fast along the ceiling only a few metres in front of me. I pointed my flashlight towards it quickly as another black snake slipped into a crack in the ceiling and fled out of sight as if fearing the light.
I did not feel like staying here in this snake’s den any longer but I also knew I would not survive in the storm trying to find my way helplessly without proper clothing. I pointed my flashlight around frantically for a few minutes hoping to drive those critters away and to my surprise I saw more of them retreating back into holes and crevices along the walls and ceilings of the tunnel.
“What the fuck …” I muttered under my breath.
And then from deep within the darkness beyond the bend before me, I heard another noise that made my blood freeze.
Followed by a long guttural hiss that made my heart skip a beat. I stared intensely at the bend, as if expecting some nightmarish creature to reveal itself soon. Nothing appeared, and yet the sound went on.
Drip… drip… drip…
The conversation I had with Mario the night before suddenly flashed into my mind.
…you can hear this dripping sound when it is so quiet late at night…
Drip… Drip… Drip…
It got louder and louder as it moved closer and then it stopped abruptly right at the bend, leaving me trapped in the most horrifying silence I had ever experienced in my whole life.
“Hello?” I croaked, trying to sound brave and authoritative. “Who’s there?”
My heart was pounding in my chest as I frantically pointed my flashlight across the wall at the bend, sweeping the beam along the wall, right and left, up and down. The flashlight flickered dangerously and in my frantic attempt to keep it on, I hit it with my injured hand.
“OUCH!” I yelled in pain so great that the flashlight slipped out of my grasp. As soon as darkness surrounded the tunnel once again, the hiss returned.
Still groaning and panting heavily, I grabbed the flashlight from between my legs and pointed it back up towards the bend, right when something dark and wet slithered back into view. And then two things happened at the same time. First, I felt cold drops of water falling onto the top of my head, which instantly made me freeze with unimaginable terror. And then my flashlight flickered again for the last time and died, plunging me into complete darkness.
I felt something shifting above me as the hiss resumed at a lower octave, more aggressively. I screamed at the top of my lungs and leapt aside out of the car and landed hard on my stomach. But I quickly stood up and started to run as fast as possible towards the entrance beyond which my safety might lie in the storm. I ran and ran among the trees, not even stopping to catch my breath. I no longer cared about the storm that was still lashing out its wrath unmercifully. All I knew was I did not want to be in that tunnel any longer.
Thunder rumbled on as the storm rattled everything on its path, swaying the trees back and forth violently. I do not know where the strength that led me out of the forest that night had come from. But it was there. I ran for hours until I finally made it back to the main road. I did not slow down. I kept running and running until my chest heaved painfully. Finally I fell hard onto the muddy shoulder of the road and passed out from exhaustion.
When I came to, I was already at the hospital with Mario at my side, looking pale and shaken. According to him, I got lost in the woods and became disoriented trying to find my way out when the storm hit. The creek overflowed a few hours after that, resulting in a massive flash flood that swept away one-third of the local forest and caused devastating damage on its path, including some farmlands nearby. No casualties were reported. I was lucky. If I had stayed a bit longer, I would have died and probably would never be found, lost forever, swept deeper into the tunnel by the flood.
I called my mom and she insisted I fly back home as soon as I was allowed to leave the hospital. I only stayed for two days and still had a week until my flight back to Germany but I listened to her. I just wanted to go home. I did not return to the forest to retrieve my bag.
I said goodbye to Mario and he promised me he would take a few weeks off work and visit me next year. I told him he is welcome to stay at my place and my family and I would love to have him as our guest. But I never told him what had really happened in the tunnel that night. What I had seen. There is no way I will ever come back to visit his country ever again. Because that night in the tunnel, only a few seconds before my flashlight went out, I saw and realized something that will traumatize me for the rest of my life. I realized that it wasn’t snakes that I had seen slithering around in the darkness.
It was human hair. Long locks of black human hair.
Credit: Eoghan Ferguson
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