Saturday, April 23, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Eight

We left the boat and crossed the beach, and then the grassy field in front of us. I glanced to the left where there was a stone cliff that seemed to climb into the very heavens and I could see no top to it. The cliff rose steadily, straight up until it was wrapped in a mist not at all unlike the one we had spent the morning in. I say morning because the sun looked as if it had just reached its zenith, indicating that it was noon or maybe a few minutes after.

We stopped at the edge of the jungle, some five or six hundred yards from the bank of the river. Looking down the pathway in front of us was nearly impossible. In only a few feet, a blackness wrapped the trail, making it seem like the bewitching hour of the darkest midnight. The sunlight was cut off completely by the dense, thick foliage. There were a few sounds from the dense vegetation. Animal noises like a giant snake slithering along the trail, or the rapid patter of tiny feet, as if an animal was fleeing the snake. There weren’t the calls of wild birds or the screams of monkeys that jungles on the surface would have rocked with.

Eric stood there, staring down the trail, as if he could actually see something, and then turned toward me. "What do you think?"

I scratched my head in thought and then wiped the sweat from my face. I turned, studied the cliff behind us and then looked at the perimeter of the jungle.

"We could either enter here, or work our way farther to the south," I said. I don’t know how I had determined that the direction to the cliff was north and the opposite way was to the south, but it seemed to make sense to me.

"I like the second choice. I don’t want to enter the jungle until we have to."

"The third option," I said, "is to return to the boat and let it take us farther downstream. That would be the easiest way for us to travel."

"Granted," said Eric. "But we wouldn’t have a feeling for the land then. It seems to me that the best idea is to search the land here until later afternoon, penetrate the jungle at some point, and return to the beach toward nightfall, if we haven’t found anything interesting by then."

"Good," I said, not relishing the idea of searching the foliage. I had read too many of the jungle adventure books and was concerned about what might lie in that direction.

We skirted the jungle, stopping occasionally to stare into the depths of the vegetation. Nothing was visible to us that we hadn’t seen before and if we wanted a clue about what was ahead, we would have to enter. We finally found another path that broke the nearly solid wall of green in front of us. We stopped to examine it. A dirt path that was well used. It ran straight for nearly fifty feet before we lost it in the gloom of the jungle.

"What do you think?"

"If we’re ever going to learn anything, we’re going to have to use a path. This one is as good as any."

"Right," said Eric. He unslung the rifle that he had over his shoulder and checked the safety. "Let’s go."

I followed him, holding my own rifle in my hands, my eyes leaping from side to side.

The path looked as if it had been graded through the jungle. The forest around us came together about ten feet over our heads making it look as if we were walking down a long, green tunnel. The dirt under our feet had been compressed by the pressure from a thousand others until it was as hard and as smooth as concrete. Very little light filtered through and that which did had a distinct, green cast to it.

In only a few minutes we were out of sight of the entrance to the jungle path. I turned once, glancing back, but could see nothing except the gloom around us.

And I could smell the jungle. First it stunk of mildew and rotting vegetation. It also was rank with the odor of wet dirt. I say wet dirt instead of mud. And finally there was the taste of humidity around us. Damp air that hung around us, soaking us like wet blankets in a sauna.

Eric’s pace slowed as the heat began to get to him. We had come up from the late winter or early spring of the Midwest, through the colder areas of Canada, to a point far above the arctic circle, and suddenly, we found ourselves in a tropical environment. The heat bothered us greatly.

But we continued on. The path widened in spots, the ground on either side bare, as if these were some kind of rest areas at the side of a long road. No shelters had been erected and there was no evidence of any fires, but then who would build a fire in this sweatbox of a jungle?

Finally we came to a much wider area where the canopy over us broke and the light from the sun filtered through. The grass had grown tall in the clearing. The path wound through the center of it, and there was a portal in the green that looked just like the entrance we had used to enter the jungle several hours earlier. To one side, it seemed that the trees had been draped with gauze that hung from the highest branches and brushed the ground.

Off to the right, there was a rustle in the grass, and I could see the blades rippling as if something was trying to sneak through it. I moved in that direction, wondering what was there. I spotted a large mass, maybe two or three feet across, brightly colored, as it slipped forward. I stopped, fascinated. Then the head poked out, onto the bare, brown earth of the path.

It was a scale covered, triangular head nearly four feet long. A thin tongue flickered from the reptilian lips as the hooded eyes blinked in the bright sun. As I stood transfixed, the massive head turned toward me. The beast stopped moving as the tongue probed the air and the eyes blinked rapidly.

I wondered if the rifle I carried had sufficient power to kill the snake. I had yet to see the whole thing, but it had to be sixty or seventy feet long and the pattern on its scaley back seem to be diamonds. I was afraid that I had found the largest rattlesnake that had ever lived.

Eric, who had frozen as the first sound, began to retreat very slowly, his eyes locked on the snake. He was mumbling, over and over, "Oh God. Oh God."

I heard a quiet click as he snapped off the safety and then the metallic rattle as he chambered a round.

At the sound, the snake drew itself up, as if coiling to strike. I knew the smaller American rattlers could lunge out to nearly one third of their length with ease. That meant we were well within the striking distance of this beast.

"Freeze," I hissed.

Eric followed my command.

The snake watched us, as if waiting for movement, or maybe wondering if we were prey. When neither of us made a threatening move, it began to crawl away, toward the gauze hanging from the trees.

We watched its progress through the grass, amazed at the size of the creature. I knew that the bite of a normal rattlesnake often was not fatal, but the danger here was not from the venom but the fangs. They could have pieced the body.

And I didn’t think about it then, but what kind of creature would a snake of that size attack? What was its prey? It could have swallowed an elephant had one been available for it to eat. It certainly could have swallowed a human.

The snake stopped when it reach the gauze curtain, seemed to inspect it and then turned away from it, and us, entering the jungle to what I thought of as the west. That was the direction we had been heading, but we now had no desire to travel that way or to find that snake again.

Eric slung his rifle after putting on the safety, but left the round chambered. He stepped from the path, into the thigh high grass, walking toward the gauze curtain.

As he approached it, I saw small, black creatures the size of dinner plates suddenly spring from the trees, catching themselves in the gauze. Some of them fled upward, as if escaping an enemy. Others seemed to slide downward, spreading out in a lopsided formation.

I followed Eric, stopping short of him. He was staring upward and then said, amazed, "They’re spiders. Big, ugly spiders."

I moved closer and at the bottom of the web, I could see the bones of the animals that had been caught and eaten. There weren’t just small animals either. Some of the bones were large and I was sure that I could see a human rib cage in the web.

Then Eric pointed and said, "That’s a skull. A human skull."

Almost as if the sound of his voice irritated them, the spiders began to swarm. One of them leaped clear of the web, sailing through the air, trailing a thin strand of silk.

Eric dropped to one knee and grabbed at the butt of his rifle, slipping it from his shoulder.

I aimed at the spider like it was a clay pigeon on a skeet range. I pulled the trigger and felt my weapon kick as it fired. The round caught the spider in the abdomen and it exploded into a red mist and fragments of dark meat.

Eric got to his feet and began to back up, his eyes on the spiders. They were all in motion now and there was a strange warbling sound coming from them. A trilling that rose and fell like the siren on a fire truck. Eric aimed his weapons at one of them still in the web and fired. The creature vanished in a flash of red that stained the gauze crimson.

One of them dropped to the ground near me and reared up on its hind legs, showing me its long fangs. It was waving the front legs in the air, as if to frighten me. I knew that if I turned, the spider would leap onto my back. Instead, I pointed my rifle at its head and fired. The creature flipped over, onto its back.

With that, they fell silent and stopped moving. Eric fired again and again, working the bolt of his rifle and ejecting the spent cartridges. He killed seven of the spiders and then glanced over at me.

"Let’s get out of here."

I didn’t need any encouragement. As soon as he passed me and back into the jungle, I spun and followed, expecting to feel one of those spiders leap at me. The skin on my neck crawled with the tension. Shivers ran up and down my spine. But the spiders didn’t attack. Maybe it was the deaths of their fellows that stopped them. Watching their brothers turned into splashes of blood and meat stayed them, although I couldn’t believe that spiders had any real intelligence. I knew there weren’t that many varieties behind us that worked in harmony, there were a few. Instinct rather than intelligence drove them.

Or maybe it was just that we stayed out of the web and because of that, they let us retreat.

When we were clear of the area, Eric stopped and turned. "My God," he said. "You don’t even have to get entangled in the web. They come out after you."

We’ll just have to be that much more careful," I said, surprised at how calm I sounded. The encounter with the snake and the spiders left me shaking. Spiders and snakes were two of the creatures that inspired the most ridiculous of responses. Nearly everyone feared them instinctively, but because we were so much larger, we could overcome that fear. Except here. Spiders that were over a yard across and seemed to attack their prey and a snake that dwarfed telephone poles.

Eric looked at me, a strange smile on his face. "I just had a thought. What if the spiders that attacked us were scouts and the big ones have yet to show themselves?"

I suddenly felt eyes on my back and I jumped. I spun, leveling my rifle but there was nothing there. Not even a bit of wind.

To Eric I said, "Let’s use the boat until we clear the jungle area. Drift on down the river."

"Well," he said, "I’m not convinced that it’s the best idea because the water could hide things worse than either the giant spiders or snakes."

"Thanks," I said. "Thank you for bringing that up."

"Any way," he said, "I think you’re right about one thing. We should get out of here. We can beat it back to the boat, gather some fire wood and set up camp for the night."

I wasn’t sure that I was keen on that plan either. It seemed that we would be safer in the boat, even if it was anchored only a few feet off shore.

We worked our way through the jungle and burst onto the open plain an hour or so later. I dropped to the ground, the breath rasping in my throat. Sweat was pouring from me and my clothes were drenched. I had already drunk all the water in my canteen and cotton had formed in my mouth. Relief, however, was only a few feet away, on the bank of the river.

I glanced up, at the sun, and saw that it hadn’t moved. I pointed and said, "Eric, the sun is stationary."

He glanced at me, raised a hand to shade his eyes and then looked up at the sun. It seemed as if it was only a few minutes afternoon, just as it had for the last several hours.

"Yeah," he said. "Just as my father described it. He said that on entering, he discovered that the sun didn’t move. The land of perpetual light.

I laughed. It actually took a load off my mind. I hadn’t wanted to spend the night ashore, not knowing what other creatures might be roaming freely. I envisioned giant leeches and giant tigers and massive lions. Now, they wouldn’t be able to sneak up on us in the dark because there would be no dark.

Eric took his watch from his pocket and looked at the time. "We’ve been traveling for several hours since we came ashore. Now we don’t know how long we were in the fog, but we were awake for several hours. I suggest we assume that it is six in the evening and plan from there."

"All right," I agreed. "Then it’s time for supper."

"You get that ready," he said, "and I’ll draw water from the river."


We set up our makeshift camp on the edge of the grassy plain, close to the river and away from the jungle. The nearest trees were fifty or sixty feet away and the main jungle a good half mile away. Nothing could get to us easily, without us spotting it. Any creature would either have to cross the meadow or the mud of the beach.

We ate in silence. I had wanted to fish to add something fresh to our supper, but Eric had said that we could do that in the morning. Now, it was important to get the camp established and that a meal of jerky and coffee wouldn’t be all that bad. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been eating that for some time now.

The fire was a smokey one because the wood was damp. I didn’t like that because I felt it was advertizing our presence, but I didn’t know to whom. I couldn’t explain the feeling. It had seemed that someone had been watching us from the moment we had come ashore, and yet, I had seen no evidence of that. I finally could stand it no longer and kicked the fire out, pouring water from the river on it to extinguish the last of the embers.

We talked for a while, our eyes drawn to the stationary sun waiting for it to dip to the horizon but it never moved. A few light, wispy clouds drifted toward it. The sky over us had a natural blue tint to it but it didn’t have the depth that the sky outside had. Rather than stretching toward infinity, it seemed that someone in a plane could actually reach the top of it where they wouldn’t be able to travel any higher. I didn’t know if the impression was because I knew that I was inside of the Earth or if it was because I could see something that wasn’t visible on the outside .

Eric finally suggested that we try to get some sleep. He didn’t think it was necessary to stand watch. Other than the beasts we had seen deep in the jungle, the animal and plant life seemed relatively harmless.

I agreed with him and watched as he spread his sleeping bag at the edge of the meadow, using the grass for a mattress. Because of the tropical heat, he laid on top of it. For a moment he was still and then he sat up to unbutton his shirt. He pulled his backpack close to use it as a pillow and then settled down again.

"Relax, Dave," he said, his eyes still closed. "We’re perfectly safe here. Nothing’s going to get at us."

"Sure," I said, and then spread my sleeping bag out near his. But I didn’t like the idea of both of us sleeping at the same time. Maybe it was my military training or maybe it was the strangeness of the land we’d found or maybe it was the few glimpses we’d had of some of the local fauna, but I was uncomfortable. I could still feel those unseen eyes on my. I knew there were dangers out there, even if Eric refused to acknowledge them.

It wasn’t long before I heard a single, ragged snore and knew that Eric had fallen asleep. He had one arm over his eyes to block that ever present sun. I sat there quietly, listening to the sound of the water in the river and the rustling of leaves as a light breeze blew. The last thing I wanted to do was go to sleep now, with Eric out of it.

It was just as Eric said, however. I sat quietly watching, but nothing left the jungle or the water. No beasts tried to creep up on us to devour us. Overhead I saw a bird or two and from the jungle came the occasional cries of animals, but nothing that was frightening.

Slowly, I relaxed, thinking of all the explorers who had set up camps all over the world and who had not bothered with guards or sentries. It wasn’t as if we had unlimited manpower. With five or six people we could have mounted a guard rosters and no one would have been taxed by it, but here, it was impossible. There were only the two of us.

Finally I laid back, my head resting on my pack. I placed my hat over my eyes and found that I didn’t like that. I put my hat on the ground beside me, telling myself that the slightest sound would awaken me, just as they had when I had been fighting they war in Europe. I could sleep through artillery barrages, but the scrape of a foot outside my bunker would bring instantly awake, a weapon in my hand.

For a long time I laid awake, listening to the sounds of this strange new world around me. Quiet, relaxing sounds that dulled the senses and helped bring on the sleep. Then, just like Eric, I was out of it.

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