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The spirit maiden of Wasai Kadir
By Christine Coburn

Jungle bathing had become one of the high points of our leisure time here in Brunei. One Saturday we decided to go to Wasai Kadir, a pretty picnic spot at the end of Labi road, one of the longest jungle roads winding deep into the interior.

I had wanted to go there for some time, but it was not solely for the purpose of indulging my passion for swimming. Some weeks earlier I had discussed my plan with my friend Jesse, and she had warned me against it.

Sprit Maiden

Why should such an innocent pastime require such trepidation? Why would I be tempting Providence to submit myself to the waters of Wasai Kadir? The answer was simple to Jesse a superstitious Iban - the jungle pool was haunted.

If it wasn't haunted then it certainly was dangerous. Jesse implored me not to go. Two months earlier the waterfall had been the scene of a terrible tragedy. A young boy had been swimming there with his friend and had drowned.

It had taken four hours for the rescuers to find his body. His friend had tried to pull him out, but he had been unable to save him from being drawn into the depths by some unseen force.

The incident had been reported in the newspapers. His death had been recorded as accidental drowning, attributed to the presence of submerged tree roots and driftwood, lodged in the narrow confines of the pool.

To the local Iban people the cause of the boy's death was not the subject of mere speculation, it was undeniably the work of the 'Water Spirit' and she had claimed another victim. During the past five years there had been three drownings at the Wasai Wong Kadir.

The water spirit had visited the local Iban headman in a dream. Two more people were required to appease the Spirit, two more victims awaited their watery fate, he had said.

A wise but solemn warning!

It was a long drive and it was late morning when together with Peter and Cherito, hiking friends of ours, we set off from the bottom of Labi road. Peter teased me. Was the swim a necessary part of my research into the supernatural world?

As we crossed the footbridge at the bottom of the jungle gorge, I was apprehensive and I thought of Jesse. As I did so a butterfly lighted on the brim of my hat and there it stayed. Jesse. Jesse I thought. What had she said only days before? The three of us, Steve was with us, were leaving the bungalow. A large butterfly similar to the one now sitting on my hat drifted into the patio and settled on the wall next to the front door.

"Friends!" Jesse had said. "Friends are here, or on their way. The butterfly means a friend is near."

I saw the iridescence on the insect's wings, the delicate tracery and bold delineation of black and white and I knew Jesse despite her rational fears would have been 'up for it' and I set off along the jungle pathway, feeling not so much a trespasser here, not so much a European voyeur flouting the superstitions and taboos of an ancient culture, but a "jungle wallah" looking forward to a swim in the company of friends, good friends. The beautiful butterfly had graciously sanctioned the expedition.

The path was dry and light and quick to follow. Fragrant tree roots interspersed with dry leaves and sandy, silvery patches followed the shallow streambed through delightful little pools. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the waters from high above the forest canopy. The beauty of the jungle never failed to take my breath away.

We arrived. The course led into a larger jungle clearing. There were little roofed open shelters for picnicking and there were people. A young couple sat by the shallows, their trousers rolled, dangling their feet in the crystal waters. Were they Ibans? I wondered.

Large canopy trees clung to each side of the rocky bank and directly in front of us amidst shafts of sunlight and ferns clinging to the rock face the waterfall plunged into deep green depths on the opposite bank. To the right of the pool were many submerged logs and debris and it did indeed look dangerous.

I looked at Cherito. "Are you going in?" I asked.

"I've not brought my bathing costume," she laughed.

Peter and Steve were already taking off their shirts, undeterred by the headman's gruesome prophecy and a certain melancholy surrounding this scene of recent tragedy.

Were the people at the pool perhaps relatives or maybe even parents of the dead boy?

"Don't worry," Peter called out to Cherito. "The spirit doesn't want Oran Puti." They laughed as they clambered up the waterfall.

"What did he say?" I asked Chet.

"He said the Spirit doesn't want white men."

"What about women?" I added.

Again that wonderful feeling, like chocolate, or a horse breaking into a gallop, or the taste of a cigarette as you shelter in a cave from a storm, that wonderful feeling as I plunged into the pool.

"Swim across to us!" shouted Peter. I felt a gentle current as I touched the bottom with my toe but I dared not swim to the lip of the shelf where the water plunged deeply. As I wallowed I was sobered at the thought of the boy and the tragedy that had made Wasai Kadir his watery tomb.

Well, the Spirit had not claimed another two lives today. We were unscathed, not even a casual encounter with the water maiden, unlike the uncanny tale told by one of her acquaintances of the previous year.

Jesse had recounted the sinister story earlier that week. One of her people had found himself in great difficulties, drawn into the depths of the pool by some unseen force. He had struggled as something grabbed his legs and he found himself in the embrace of a beautiful maiden.

She pleaded with him to stay with her in her watery palace beneath the fall, that they would be married and happily remain. She had tried to seduce him but to no avail. He had begged her to let him go.

He was already married and must return to the world of human kind where his wife and children waited. The water maiden gave him up. He swam towards the bright sunlight on the surface of the pool. He woke to find himself in the hospital. He had been dragged from the pool and had remained unconscious for two days.

Back on the bank we sat and talked and drank 7up. What a shame the local people hadn't taken more positive action. Why hadn't they removed all the debris? It would be a simple matter to dredge the pool, an afternoon's work to remove all the dangerous tree trunks and sunken rotten wood. And the litter too, a pity that a local beauty spot should be marred by such untidy reminders of man's encroachment in this forest domain.

The demon spirit here was no maiden. Only man's propensity to neglect his environment and his negligence had already claimed four human lives.

As we dried ourselves, a sudden clap of thunder rent the darkening sky and the heavens opened. Within seconds we were soaked again to the skin.

We scurried to the shelter of the nearest hut to await the end of the storm. Five minutes later we were off down the forest track to the Labi road. Off in search of "makkan". I would tell Jesse. Would she be cross with me or eager for more news of the Wasai Kadir? I wondered. Both, I would imagine. Or perhaps she already knew.

Source: Borneo Bulletin

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