We had Saturday free, both of us. That’s how we got here. I picked her up at eight in the morning, and we just went for a drive. Except, in the Amazon, you don’t just go for a drive.
I was on a collecting trip while working on my Ph.D. when we met, and I was now here for my third and longest visit — three months.
Her dad was an American businessman who moved to Ecuador to manage a chocolate-harvesting location owned by his company. She had lived her whole life in Ecuador, and her mother was Ecuadorian. Her blue eyes were in stark contrast to her dark hair and dusky complexion.
We were both twenty-four, and knew better; but we were both twenty-four, and knew nothing could hurt us. Nothing at all. Not the sinkhole, not the panther, not the heatstroke, or any of that. We were going to have an exciting afternoon. Boy, was that true! We had more excitement in those few hours than we had ever had in our entire lives.
First, after an hour, the radiator overheated. Of course, Estrella was completely unreasonable. It took, I believe, more time to get her off my case than it took to fix the “real” problem. I had thought ahead enough to bring several gallons of water, so I was not worried. Jug of water at the ready, I flipped up the hood, and expertly burnt my hand on the engine block. I still cannot see why she thought it was so funny. I didn’t scream, or even moan, much less make the kind of commotion she claims. I know better than to do that in the middle of the jungle. It attracts unwanted friends.
That hazard cleared, we pressed on. The road got sparser and narrower, and the vegetation closed in around us. For some, it might be claustrophobic; but for us, it was romantic. I could not think of a better way to spend the day than in that exact situation, with all those mysterious eyes watching us disinterestedly from the verdance. It took some convincing before Essie would believe that none of those animals were dangerous, much less would even show themselves.
Suddenly, a jet-black panther leapt out in front of us. I kept moving, though, so he leapt back out of the way, and ran off into the jungle. What a beautiful animal! It really was one of the highlights of the day. We both thought so, once Essie was back to herself. My ears did ring for a little while after that, but she insists that she never let out a murmur, much less make the kind of commotion I claim.
You think this is the panther I mentioned. No, she comes later. Now would have been a good time for her to come also, since we were in our locked, air-conditioned offroader. We would have had an enjoyable time taunting her from our stronghold, if she had deigned remain. But no, females with cubs usually stay close to their dens. We were nowhere near her den. We stumbled across that a little while after the sinkhole.
That was next. We were driving along the trail when the nose of the jeep pitched down. I guess it wasn’t supposed to do that, because we immediately fell to a sickening halt. When we got our injuries inventoried and taken care of after climbing out by the tailgate, an amazing realization hit me. With the vehicle nose first, halfway down in a sinkhole, we would have to work our way back on foot. Oh well, it would be good exercise. We straightway fell to it, but after coming to several clearings which were not in the least familiar, we gave that up.
Then Essie really started making a big deal out of being lost — how like a woman! What was I supposed to do, ask a lizard for directions? But anyway, we started walking faster, even though I told her that since we didn’t know where we were going, it didn’t matter when we got there. The jungle heat was oppressive, and the humidity raised the thermometer on its own to nearly 451° F. I was getting hot, and she was getting hotter, and we still couldn’t go fast enough for her. I warned her we should find water, and she said we should find home first. But what can you do?
After a bit of a jaunt through the forest, we eventually got so hot we started to feel dizzy. I recognized the signs, and told Essie to sit down. She wouldn’t. She got herself so worked up (I think it was fright, so I didn’t take it personally) that she started yelling. The jungle listens when you yell. It means you are a potential lunch, so I tried to settle her down. Well, she got too excited, and just fainted dead away. I caught her before she hit the loam, but her ninety-eight pounds pushed me over the edge, and there I went, too.
Everything went black. I could feel nothing, hear nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing, and see nothing. Then I could hear, taste, smell, and see nothing. After what may have been a moment, I realized that I could however now feel something. Something crawling on me. I decided it would be better to remain unconscious, than to find out what it was, so I stayed out.
When we both finally came to, it was dark out, and there were a few denizens of the forest with a few too many legs a little too close for her comfort, so she screamed as I brushed the centipedes and beetles from her clothing. After the heatstroke, I decided we should take a rest to recover, and not try to get out any more tonight. But there was the problem. The only way to take our rest in leisure and safety was to be out, and the only way to be out was to not rest just yet. We were too tired for all that, though.
I then decided to find a nice, warm cave in which to spend the night, as it was darkening fast. “Nice,” “warm,” and “cave,” really should not be together in the same sentence, or even in the same paragraph. We did manage to find a cave which, though neither nice nor warm, suited our needs adequately. Essie put up a little fuss, since it didn’t suit her wishes, but such is life in the big city.
Unfortunately, our cave was being unreasonably occupied by the aforementioned panther — and three of the most helpless, and hence defense-worthy, cubs you have ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. It must have been in defense of those cubs that she attacked, and so we both excused ourselves with only a few minor gashes and concussions we had not possessed before our slightly unwelcome visit. Maybe we should have called . . .
Since we obviously then had to be above ground for the night, we climbed several trees looking for a suitable location — one not inhabited by the saca pantalones ants, which can deliver quite painful stings. They also have a nasty habit of touring one’s legs, extensively and painfully, hence the native name, “Take off your pants.”
We were unsuccessful in our attempts to avoid these little annoyances, but managed to get situated so they left us mostly alone. When we were finally settled down for the night, a strangely welcome calm swept over us. Well, it swept over me. Essie just had to notice the branch beginning to creak. I told her it was nothing to worry about. Women! They always worry about such little things. Then the branch broke, which must have killed us, because I don’t remember this place at all.
It’s not Heaven, but it’s not exactly Hell. Wait. Before you say it, it’s not really Purgatory either. It’s somewhere between all three. I can’t tell you how it can be between all three, but trust me, it is. There is less pain here than you would expect Hell to have, more action than Purgatory, and less of the eternal joy and bliss than I would wish for in Heaven.
Oh, and there’s power here, too. I think it will be fun. Maybe I’m a Fate now. That seems to be everyone else’s job — ordering the lives of mere mortals and all that. One nice old gentleman was explaining to me in great detail, and with obvious pride in his workmanship, how he took Estrella and me on as a special project. He did everything to us. It was, he told us, even his idea to use the saca pantalones to chase us to an old dead limb, so he could fate it to fall off. Of course, we being on the limb, it was hardly probable that that little bit of fate not affect us. He was getting ready to drown us, he said, in case the fall didn’t end up killing us. There was a nice little sinkhole not too far off from the site of our demise that we could have fallen into. It would only have been a matter of a few minutes for us to succumb to hypothermia and slip below the accumulated water in the bottom.
I asked him why.
“You’ll be good,” he said. “Real good. Better than me, even.”
That is really quite flattering to hear from such an obvious expert as I was dealing with. Apparently he is the Artist in Residence up (or is it down?) here. I wonder what he saw in me that smacked of a talent like this. Oh, I’m not arguing, of course. I think it’s amazing someone as universally skilled and talented as I didn’t get discovered before this. I’m not conceited, you understand. Far from it, I am merely being honest.
I can see, though, that I’m the new kid on the block this time. It’s going to take me a while to get the hang of things around this place. Just wait, though. I have a feeling you should watch your step once I’m through learning the ropes, because you could be good. Real good . . .
"real_good" | Notes