My dreams are haunted by laughter.
Not happy sounds, either, but perverse, pained laughter that sounds more animal than human. It comes in spasms and bursts, and is guttural and without mirth. It is always the same, and I wake up trembling; covered in sweat. These last few weeks, the trembling has gotten worse, and as I write this now, I realize that I am a dead man.
It started, as it would all eventually end, with laughter.
We had been sleeping at the base of the mountain, when Jenkins woke with a cry. Jenkins died a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t help but remember that it was him that had cried out; him that had drawn their attention to us. Not that it mattered. Had he not, we would have just died there in the jungle instead of back home in England.
We woke, startled, and the laughter echoed through the trees, a sound that chills me to this day. When our plane was shot down, I thought that I knew fear. But there in the jungle of New Guinea, in the darkness, with that laughter ringing in my ears, I had terror redefined for me on a minute to minute basis.
I was the first to get sick, I remember that. Jenkins was carrying me near the end, until he finally succumbed. Both of us were shitting water, and finally blood, and then we could go no further. We had been moving toward the sound of the laughter, the horrible laughter, despite the nagging protests in the back of our minds. I think I remember seeing the dim light of a flame before I finally collapsed, and everything was darkness. I don’t know. It may have just been my imagination.
I woke up in darkness, thinking I was dead. Strange faces with strange markings stared at me. They spoke a language I didn’t recognize, and held a cup of rank-smelling liquid for me to drink. I drank it greedily, despite its foulness, and let sleep reclaim me.
When I woke again, there were more people sitting around me in circle, chanting or singing or something. A woman wearing little more than a grass skirt leaned over me with more of the broth. I looked out the small door in the primitive hut they’d laid me in, and saw a thin man wearing a strange head covering and dancing around the fire. He had black paint on his face over his eyes and a bone through his nose, tusk-like. On the ground, at his feet, lie a young woman, twitching and convulsing and laughing maniacally. A circle of people surrounded the fire, watching her writhe and wail. “Kuria,” I heard one of my attendants mutter. I saw him touch his head gently and make a strange gesture to the sky when he said this. Only later did I learn the significance of this word.
I spent the next few days feverish, and in and out of consciousness. After several days of the foul smelling broth, the woman I’d begun to think of as Florence brought me the most exquisite tasting meat I’ve ever had in my life. I was famished, and had not eaten meat for weeks. The smell of it cooking brought my appetite back with a vengeance, and I ate my fill. I have never had better since.
In the weeks to come, we lived among these people, recovering and hoping for rescue. We tried to pick up bits of their language and culture. We asked them about the girl we’d seen writhing by the fire, and again, we heard that word: Kuria. From what I could understand, Kuria is a curse. These people were primitive and superstitious. To them, Kuria — what was affecting the girl — was an affliction caused by demons. It seemed to me to be a mental disorder characterized by tremors and spasms, and by that horrible laughter.
That night, we also learned that Kuria, whatever it was — was fatal. One of the men had been convulsing for days, laughing that horrible laughter. Finally, he grew still, and expired. A few hours later, we gathered around the fire for the funeral feast. The sweet, smoky smell of roast pork filled the air, and we forgot for a moment the horror of Kuria, the grotesque writhing and convulsing, and above all, the demonic laughter. We ate the meat and danced around the fire like we were savages ourselves, dancing and singing to keep the monsters at bay. I felt like the old pagans, thanking invisible gods for sparing our lives — or maybe we were trying to appease demons. Either way, in the end, it didn’t matter. Jenkins is still dead, and soon, so will I be.
A few weeks later a missionary couple from Australia walked right into our village, bold as Billy-be-damned and found us there. It wasn’t until months later that Jenkins called me to tell me that he was ill — in fact, that he was terribly ill. There was a silence between us. There was something that we both, without ever saying a word to each other, had agreed to never talk about. That silence remained unbroken in that moment. Jenkins merely said “Kuria,” and uttered a sick little laugh, and hung up the phone. I never heard from him again.
What I know now, and what we must have all known, but never spoke of, was that there was something about that meat they gave us. This disease I have now is, no doubt, the result of something eating something foul and unclean. It was not a curse or a demon, but a disease. It’s funny; they were just trying to help. They brought me back to life just to poison me with their Kuria. Every time my heart beats, I hear that word in my head. Kuria. Kuria. Kuria. It haunts me with mocking laughter.
This morning I woke up with a joke stuck in my head. It goes like this: two cannibals are eating dinner, and the one cannibal looks at the other and says “I really hate my mother-in-law.” The other cannibal shrugs and says “So try the potatoes.”
I know, I know, it’s not that funny. But I just can’t stop laughing.