Durian – extract from “Out There”

Henry is sweating. His hanky is becoming soaked from wiping down his face. “Well, I must say that a steady forty degree heat does become oppressive. May I suggest we now adjourn to our air-conditioned limo?”

Outside, they gratefully climb back into their cool limo.

Gaging Henry’s possible reaction to an unplanned diversion, Charon makes a suggestion. “Henry, Jimmy, would you mind if we went on a further excursion? I haven’t been here in about fifteen years and I thought I’d never be able to return.” A slight quaver in his voice causes George to glance over.

“We have all afternoon, my friend.” George is wondering when and why Charon would have been in this part of the world? He ponders, That would have been near the start of the L5 Project

Charon leans forward to see the car’s map on the centre console. “Ah, Messenhoef, would you mind taking that highway, please? It should go northeast, into the jungle.”

Messenhoef looks to Henry for approval. The cool air is blowing directly at Henry’s face. “Yes yes. Whatever he wishes.” Henry goes back to absorbing the car’s cool air.

After a drive through Selangor’s outskirts, the e-limo emerges on a long stretch of causeway about three metres above the surrounding shrub vegetation. A hundred metres on either side, the deep green jungle bursts forth. The intermediate area next to the causeway is cleared several times a year for security purposes.

They drive at high-speed along the well-maintained road, with hardly another vehicle to pass. Then they see, a kilometre beyond at the far side of a slow curve in the road, something that Charon did not believe would still be there.

“That mound of shells! Way ahead. Stop there!” His excitement is infectious. They all sit up to stare at the distant mound of shells as the e-limo slows down well before it. Messenhoef and Henry are now in high alert, scanning the area intently. There have been numerous reports of gangs of young, armed men in the area.

With pleasure in his voice, Charon announces, “So, I will indoctrinate you, my friends, into the ancient ritual of the Durian, shall I?”

George is willing to play along. “Fine by me, Charon. What the heck is it?”

As if reciting in a trance, Charon remembers the words told to him many years ago. “Durian is the King of Fruit. It has tastes so sublime they cannot be described by any simple comparison. It is not like this taste or that taste. It is more akin to the flavour descriptions of fine wines.”

“It tastes like wine?”

“No no. By that I mean the way one discusses wines of this region or that, and aged in certain ways, and having a spectrum of certain flavours. Durian is quite simply unique in the world of fruit. Fine cheeses may receive such culinary description. And, while some seafood may be regaled in like manner, only Durian in all the world may be rightly placed beside wines and cheeses as deserving of legendary status.” He smiles. “But only if eaten on the day it is picked from the jungle.”

Henry looks at Charon to see if he is pulling his leg. The vehicle has slowed to a crawl as Messenhoef continues scanning.

“Durian is that impressive?” Provoked by Charon’s introduction, Henry is grateful for a diversion.

“My friend, you cannot understand this until you have witnessed it with your own tongue. So I will tell you a few things about Durian and then, when you taste it, you will begin to understand.” Charon licks his lips.

“Ok. Now, Durian is a bigger fruit than coconut. It has a similar light green leathery shell as fresh coconut but with dull spikes over it. That’s the Malaysian variety. There are some differences in other regions.” He looks at George to see if  there are any questions.

Seeing none, “Inside, there are either four or five sections full of a white pulp, except for the centre of each section, which cradles the actual fruit. These are about the size and appearance of lightly boiled eggs, without the shell. Are you with me?”

The e-limo is creeping forward slowly as Messenhoef peers around for trouble.

George shrugs. “So far so good.”

“And the whole fruit, prior to opening it, smells horribly of sewer stench.”

George does a double take. But Charon is not smiling.

“Charon, you’re not providing me with that element of tantalizing possibilities that would necessarily induce me to partake of the King of Fruit.”

“Ha ha! Wait for it. You see, Durian is the prized fruit, not only of man, but also of the Men-of-the-Jungle.”

“You mean orangutans?”

“Precisely. Now, because orangutans are spread so thinly throughout the jungle, Durian must broadcast their availability, at the proper time, in a manner that may be best distributed over such a vast and difficult-to-traverse area.”

“So they stink like a sewer? Couldn’t they have chosen something nicer, like mint or or…”

“My friend. They did not choose. The nature that is within them is their only tool-chest.”

“Ok, whatever. So how do you get all those lovely flavours to your tongue when all you can smell is a sewer?”

“Remember, first, that one does not taste a wine with one’s tongue. Wines are tasted, primarily, with the nose.”

“That makes it worse, doesn’t it?”

Waving that off, “Durian is a mystical fruit, as you will see. Its lovely spectrum of tastes do not need the nose.” Charon gets animated. “Once opened by an expert, you will notice no smell! Then, with the fruit in your mouth – don’t bite it just yet! – you will wonder at the delicate flavours and textures, one after the other, that chase themselves about your tongue. And besides, have you ever seen what the grapes look like for that delightful Canadian beverage, Ice Wine, prior to pressing? They are an ugly mess of molding, half-shriveled, cobwebbed, frozen globs of wrinkled fruit!”

Scrunching his nose, George shakes his head. “Ok, so, first it stinks to high heaven, and then things chase each other around my tongue. Maybe we should just go back to that veggie restaurant in Selangor.”

Charon turns to face George, about to say something less polite. George puts a hand up, “Hey, you know me! I’m open to new ideas. It’s just that the Durian marketing department needs a good wordsmith.”

Nodding, Charon goes back to staring intently at the jungle beyond the approaching pile of shells. “You must understand what will occur, in an intellectual sense. Otherwise, you will be inclined to lump things into categories. Without this brief description you would have smelled the broadcast signal of the fruit and thought, this thing has gone royally BAD!”

“Yeah. Whatever.” George shakes his head but flashes a smile at Charon.

The wiry grass leading to the jungle contains wild mixes of broad-leafed plants and, to Henry, a surprising number of small-leafed shrubs – not unlike the deciduous meadows of his home. He takes in the scenery, wondering why there are no dwellings.

The e-limo has slowed to a stop. Charon suddenly reaches forward to tap the horn lightly. As Charon sits back, looking for movement from the jungle, Messenhoef reaches for something in the centre compartment. George has the impulsive thought that he is going to pull out a gun. Instead, Messenhoef pulls out a bottle of insect repellent and hands it to Henry, who silently lathers the stuff on, then hands the bottle over to George and Charon. George scrutinizes the ingredients list with care, then dabs some on.

While Charon rubs on the repellent, he scans the jungle carefully. Now seeing someone quickly hurrying toward them, Charon opens his door and is slammed by the oppressive heat and humidity of the jungle. As they all exit the e-limo, except for Messenhoef, they begin to sweat, developing growing patterns of dark wetness on their shirts. Biting flies and mosquitoes find them, then hover in high-pitched anger a short distance from the protection of the repellent. George is particularly attacked. He grabs the repellent from Charon and lathers more on.

The person approaching from the jungle is not who Charon is anticipating. The young, short Malay woman has a vicious-looking machete slung at her belt. Her clothes are as colourful as constant aggressive washing without machines can keep them. Charon is surprised. He was expecting a man. His daughter?

Charon waves at the young woman as she approaches the pile of husks. At the causeway she climbs narrow steps that have been left huskless up the embankment. Showing no fear of the strangers she turns to Charon. “Want durian?”

Trying to remember from a generation ago, he exchanges greetings in Malay. She smiles at his attempt. In English, “How many?”

Not sure if her smile is for his attempt or for what he may have inadvertently said, Charon carries on, holding up his four fingers and a thumb. “Five.”

“Eat here?”

At Charon’s nod she disappears back across the clearing to an almost invisible hut inside the jungle’s fringe. It is little more than what is called a hide. Out of necessity, living so close to the causeway they must not be visible. That strategy had been burned into her memory by what happened to her parents.

At her yelled instruction on the way, large green fruits are placed in a red mesh bag by a younger girl. Then, at a jog, the two bring their bag and a small folding table back up to the road.

Charon remembers not to breathe too hard, but the odour isn’t as strongly overpowering as he remembered.

Henry sniffs the air. “That is not so bad. In fact… you know, it is the same smell that plagued us when my wife and I drove down to Cape Canaveral to see the launches. Whatever it was, that sewer smell was up and down the Florida coast that year.”

Charon smiles at Henry, noting the facts he just dropped. He’s older than I thought.  “So, you see – it is not to be feared, eh?”

The two Malay sisters set up the table so their guests will stand upwind as the fruits are placed in a circle. Nodding, the older sister, Noor, takes a knobby durian in her hand, pulls out the machete and, with blinding speed, goes whack-whack-whack, splitting it open in exactly in the right place to reveal, as Charon correctly remembered, a fibrous white pulp gently cradling what looks, to George, for all the world like a poached egg in each section.

With furrowed brows, George says, “It doesn’t smell anymore!”

Noor produces the ubiquitous tablespoon – a utensil used to eat any of the larger fruits throughout rural Malaysia.

Charon is given the first taste. He pops the spoonful, whole, into his mouth. Savouring the flavours before biting down on it, Charon’s face melts into a contented smile. Still playing with the fruit with his tongue, he nods for George to try one.

The soft fruit gently surprises every nerve in his mouth. George hesitates biting into it, thinking that the texture, too, is like a poached egg. Slowly moving his tongue over the yielding surface he notices distinct but delicate flavours. He slowly bites down on it. The flow of flavours keep coming, subtly and with a remarkable variety of… of colour, is the only word he can think of.

He swallows, then instantly regrets it. The delicious flavours linger for a short time.

“Ohh. I loved that!… Shouldn’t have gulped it.”

Another one is ready for Charon on the spoon.

“Yes, thank you.” He tries to remember Malay for thank you. “Terima kasih.”

A broad smile appears across the Noor’s face, displaying a missing tooth.

They both take their next offering much more slowly.

Henry is anxious to try it. Noor’s young sister steps away as Henry pushes past George with a grunt. Keeping his tastebuds focused on the delicious second helping of fruit, Charon mumbles, “It’s ok.” He indicates with closed mouth and hand signals that Henry should be given a spoonful. Noor obliges, reluctantly.

Charon thinks, It doesn’t take much analysis for strangers to distrust Henry. Their constant glances to the car show a learned fear… I wonder if she can write English?

As Henry’s tastebuds are tickled by his delightful mouthful, Charon pulls out his Pad to tap a note on it so Noor can see:

Write English?

She nods, politely taking the proffered Pad. With quick trial-and-error, Noor figures out the keyboard. She taps out:

yes thank you so much  i remember you com to my father many yeer past

Charon almost breaks into tears. He makes sure Henry does not see his eyes. Noor stares deeply into Charon’s eyes then types more:

was veri yong  father mother kild after you com  terorst frum north

Hesitating for an instant to remember if he should touch Noor, he gently takes her hands as she holds the Pad. They nod silently to each other.

The three work their way through another durian. George has noticed the exchange between Noor and Charon but Henry is fully engrossed in tasting the King of Fruit. He does not see that Charon slips Noor a business card with a large sum of local currency.

Charon thinks, Nothing else I can do to help them at this time.

Henry finishes his first taste with, “Thank you so very much. You were absolutely right. Durian is the king of fruit.” He half-bows to Charon.

George distracts Henry away from Charon. “So, what do you think of the flavours?”

Henry has taken another fruit and shakes his head, indicating with his hand that he just wants to savour the taste. It does not take long for the fruit in the five durians to be consumed.

As the two tablespoons are handed back, Noor whispers to her sister to pack up. They toss the empty shells onto the pile by the road and fold up their table. Having received much more than they’d been expecting, Noor bows deeply several times to Charon then quickly to George, touching her forehead toward them both.

On the way back to the car, the three swat at ever more aggressive mosquitoes and pile quickly into the cool limo.

The frigid air hits them hard. They almost shiver as they settle into the seats.

Henry is delighted. “That was absolutely worth the trip, Charon.” He slaps at a buzzing insect that got in with them.

George wraps his arms across his chest, buttoning up his coat. “Whew! I was just getting used to the heat outside.”

As Messenhoef drops the air conditioning’s fan speed to a dull roar, the three look back to the jungle but cannot locate the sisters or their hut. Henry slaps at another wayward bug.

Smiling, Charon turns to George, “So what did you think?”

George pauses in thought. “At first, I was looking for some strong tingling on the tongue, like pineapple. You know, pineapple was there along with pears and a hundred other flavours, but they were so delightfully subtle! Like you said, they chased each other around my tongue… I don’t think I can describe it in a simple way – except to say a very sincere thank you for the experience. I most certainly am a convert to the King of Fruit!”

Henry nods in agreement. A satisfied smile and a brief acknowledgement from Charon, as they drive back out of the jungle.

An idea hits Charon. L5 is like Durian. Never thought of that before

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