• The Jungles of Thailand

    by Lauren Dykman

    “Whatcha reading?”
    “A book about bugs,” Caesar replied from his cot.
    The honey-colored light of an oil lamp illuminated his well sculpted face and the pages of the book, Encyclopedia of Entomology, propped on his chest.
    “Yeah, I see that, but what is it about bugs that engrossed you for hours?” Angelo pestered. “They have sex a lot. No, just kidding. Check this out, Cordyceps fungus that possesses insects’ brains, then grows out of their bodies, killing them. Each species has a specialized fungus.” “Great.” Angelo didn’t really pay attention to the illustration Caesar stretched forward. He had only initiated a conversation because he felt increasingly antsy sit- ting in his cot. He wanted a smoke, but wondered if the result was worth the effort of getting up and walking into the humid midnight forest. “I want a cigarette,” he offered, trying his luck.
    “Take a hike then,” retorted Caesar, “I don’t want to be coughing up your smoke all night.”
    Angelo groaned and slipped through the canvas door into a buzzing cloud of mosquitoes. The forest was pitch black around the glowing tent, but still crawled and sang with activity. As he flicked on his torch their native guide, Tarrin, emerged phantom-like from the night.
    Tarrin was a local villager who Caesar paid to guide him and Angelo to an unexplored cave in the foothills. Upon sighting Angelo, Tarrin began to speak emphatically in his tribal dialect while gesticulating precisely with his hands. Caesar, who had spent years on this anthropological mission, could speak fluently with Tarrin, whereas Angelo the newcomer merely feigned comprehension and nodded. “Yes…okay…Look, I’m going out,” he pointed to the dark forest, “for a smoke. Cigarettes. Smoke. See?” he pulled his pack of Marlboros from his pocket and showed Tarrin.
    “I’ll be right back.” Tarrin responded in his own language equally slowly, as if equally doubtful of his companion’s competence. Angelo nodded, but his face registered no comprehension. Tarrin shrugged and tapped the pack of cigarettes.
    “Oh, sure take one. Not like they’re hard to come by out here.” Angelo handed Tarrin a cigarette and lit the tip. Tarrin nodded in thanks.
    From inside the tent, Caesar’s voice interjected, “Tarrin said to be careful of poisonous snakes. He saw a Pit Viper just now.” “Thanks for the translation Caesar!”
    “And thank you for giving Tarrin a cigarette,” Caesar’s voice spat, “now I’ll have to tell him to take a hike too!”
    Angelo chuckled and took off into the forest. In a matter of minutes, night enveloped him. He continued to navigate the labyrinth of ghostly foliage, his torchlight seeming to cut through air thick with moisture and noise. Angelo walked much farther from camp than necessary. He loved finding solitude in the nighttime jungle, a land of mangled trees, choking vegetation, layered darkness rustling with watchful creatures. He felt the struggle of life and death heavy in the air.
    In a small open space, Angelo lit his cigarette and flicked off his torch. The cigarette’s amber tip and the spectral flicker of fireflies now provided the only light in the jungle. Angelo heard distant chortling dampened by the rotting earth, felt beads of sweat tickling down his neck, and sensed a strange energy lingering in the air. For some reason new and unknown to him, he shuddered in fear. Angelo chuck- led in surprise. He had never feared any wild environment in his life…but wasn’t the forest feeling suddenly cold? No, the air was still moist and hot like inside a giant mouth. Then why did he feel chilly? He listened. The jungle still sang with life. He continued dragging on his cigarette, and crossed his arms against his foolish discom- fort. Suddenly, he sensed a presence behind him, and a very discernible breath on the back of his neck. Angelo levitated and fumbled for his torch in the darkness, but dropped it in his panic. Angelo found himself suddenly unable to move. Crouching in the abyss, he meekly felt along the ground and groaned when he failed to locate his light anywhere around him. His heart racing, he stretched farther, feeling over leaves and twigs on the wet forest floor. The whole time the presence persisted in sending chills down his spine. Then Angelo’s fingers closed around the torch and with a click, light blazed through layers of foliage. Shadows danced madly as Angelo spun around and the torch reflected off two white eyes. When he passed the light back over them Angelo saw the dark face of a native, more animal than man, painted with blood and suffering, and snarling at him with yellowed teeth and wide eyes. Angelo jumped and lost sight of the face and could not find it again. He played the light over every branch, around every shadow, but the wild man had ceased to exist. Hoping to God he had imagined it, Angelo ran back to camp, forgetting to look out for poisonous snakes. He forced his pace to a walk once he saw the glow of the tent, and slunk inside with laboriously steady breathing.
    “Hope you had a good smoke,” commented Caesar from around his bug book. Angelo responded with a nervous laugh. The next morning Angelo recounted his experience to Caesar. Caesar’s only reply was,
    “Good thing Tarrin can’t understand you. We had a hard time finding anyone to take us to the cave.”
    “Why?”
    “The villagers have superstitions. None of them go anywhere near here. Tarrin is the bravest man in his tribe and we still had to pay him exorbitantly. I’m sure one word about your “supernatural encounter” will cost us our guide.”
    The three men packed up and left camp at dawn, walking single-file through narrow footpaths. In the daylight, the forest lost its sinister energy and resounded with light and song. Angelo wondered how he could have ever believed such an illusion as the one he had seen the previous night.
    The anthropological mission reached the cave at noon. It was an impressive cave, gaping out of a vine-mangled cliff, expelling stale earthy air from its throat. The world grew cold in its shadow. As their footsteps in the ashy dirt reverberated down the cave mouth, Angelo noticed Tarrin stop in his tracks and listen. Caesar looked back too, and called to the native some word that Angelo assumed meant “what’s wrong?” Tarrin’s brow furrowed and he loudly shouted an explanation and backed away. Caesar ran back up toward the light and held Tarrin’s forearm, talking soothingly. Then the two got in a heated debate, after which Tarrin, casting one last panicked glance into the depths of the cavern, ran away. Caesar descended back to Angelo, shaking his head.
    “Tarrin will wait for us away from the cave.”
    “Why won’t he come down?” Angelo implored, disguising his fear as annoyance.
    Caesar gave Angelo a knowing look. “There are evil spirits here.” Then he punched Angelo’s shoulder playfully, “Not like either of us believe in those right?”
    Deeper in the cave, a winding passageway turned away from the light and led them deeper into the intestines of the earth. With torches flaring, the two anthropologists navigated the eerie pools, dusty floors, and fang-like stalactites.
    “This is really beautiful,” breathed Caesar.
    Beyond a tight squeeze, Angelo could tell the tunnel widened into a larger room. They slid through the squeeze one at a time and pulled their backpacks through after them. And then Caesar’s light played over the white mound of a skull. With a gasp he illuminated the cavern…and discovered the floor strewn with hundreds of skeletons. Bones jutted from the ashen sand like bleached driftwood on a beach, skulls dotted the earth like smooth pebbles in a creek.
    “My God, My God!” celebrated Caesar. “It’s beautiful! Gorgeous! What a discovery! Do you know what this means for us?” Caesar held Angelo’s shoulders and shook him. Angelo’s gaze lingered on the remains. He identified children with cracked skulls, some adults curled in fetal position, alongside numerous species of monkeys. “An ancient mass-human-sacrifice.” whispered Angelo.
    “Oh man, we’re gonna have to call in back-up!” yelled Caesar. His voice rebounded off the cavern walls. “Here, start exploring,” he shoved his backpack at Angelo, “I’ll grab the rest of our equipment. We need to pull out the big-guns, so to speak,” and he sprinted from the burial ground to cart down the necessary excavation tools. Angelo waited for the foot steps and their echos to die away, then sat down cross-legged on his small ledge. Myriad eye sockets watched him imploringly, disturbed from their centuries of slumber. With a deep breath Angelo gave his torch a tight squeeze, then turned it off. The darkness was more complete than it ever was in the nighttime forest. Angelo stilled his breathing and heart beat and listened. He could hear whispers in strange tongues, subtle, rasping voices and quiet rustling in the far reaches of the cavern. The air was cold with whispers of haunted breaths on his skin and permeated with suffering and denial. He felt all around him a failed struggle for life, not yet given up.
    “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and his echos joined the whispers of the spirits.
    He walked out of the cave, through the labyrinths of tunnels and ran into an elated Caesar.
    Caesar noticed Angelo’s solemn face and asked if he felt alright.
    “Anthropological sites have never bothered me before,” Angelo answered, “but this one does. I’m going to wait outside for a while.”
    “You’ll come back and help me later though, right?”
    “Yes, I will return.”

    Months later, the excavation site lay empty. Hordes of experts had traipsed into the jungle to the cave of spirits, and carted off its jealous remains.
    As the last bones caught their flight to England for analysis, Angelo, the most celebrated anthropologist of the year, took his last walk alone in the forests of Thailand. The very next day he would catch his own flight back to England, leaving what had been his home for the last nine months . His footsteps softly plodded in the rich soil while the birds and mosquitos sang him a farewell lullaby. A small leap caught his eye, and he watched a tree frog make its way from plant to plant. One jump brought him to a leaf on which Angelo saw the small body of a dead insect. From its dried exoskeleton sprouted pure white minuscule mushrooms, curving from the victim like the necks of swans. As Angelo observed this Cordyceps fungus and the corpse that nourished it, he wondered at the mysterious dance between birth and rot, and the nebulous line between life and death in these haunted forests.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 10, 2011

    Topics: Young Writers' Corner

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