By David Vespasian
The Amazon Basin—how many lives have come and gone within it since man first wandered among its wilds?
Eric and Shelly McKinley were en route to the northern lowlands of Peru in a single-prop Cessna flown by Jack Kelly, their guide. The plane bounced through turbulence from winds cascading down over the edge of the Andes some fifty miles behind them. Eric appeared to be doing fine on the flight as he sat up front with Jack, staring off at the dense rainforest below. Shelly sat still in the rear of the plane and kept looking down at the floor through her knees, trying not to vomit.
They had run into Jack two months ago in Clarion, Pennsylvania, at a former college hideaway where they had shared many laughs over strong drinks both in the past and again on the night of that fateful encounter. Before the details began to blur between rounds, Jack mentioned an upcoming trip to the northern lowlands of Peru, a place inhabited by native tribes, some of them yet to be contacted by civilized explorers. Jack was an anthropologist studying one of these so-called “uncontacted” tribes as part of his post-doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University.
She didn’t even want to come on the venture, she was now thinking to herself, but Jack claimed he needed someone to join him who spoke Spanish. Besides, Eric was so excited about it. “One last adventure before we settle down and have a baby,” he had pleaded with her. There in the rickety plane, she regretted giving in to his begging that night and, worse yet, her sudden queasiness solidified her belief that she was already pregnant.
The plane pitched downward, and Shelly caught a glimpse of the river up ahead through the mist. Just beyond the water’s edge was the airstrip. Next to the runway was a hanger. At first glance the rooftop appeared to be terracotta, but as the plane neared, a more diligent look revealed that the burnt orange color was rust.
Shelly quickly returned her glance to the floor as vomit bubbled up her throat. She swallowed it down and concentrated on keeping herself together.
Shelly felt something knocking in the floor beneath her shoes.
“What’s happening under the plane?” she asked.
“There’s something hitting the plane beneath my feet.”
“No time to talk now,” Jack said, seconds before the wheels slammed to the earth with a thud.
Bumpy ground jostled the three riders in their seats while the plane rolled down the runway. Jack turned the plane rightward and taxied to a spot beside the hanger.
“Sorry about the landing,” Jack apologized as he powered down the engine, “but these third world airstrips aren’t that well maintained.”
“You okay, Shell?” Eric asked.
“Fine, thanks,” she answered as she looked out the window. There were no other aircraft outside the hanger. In fact, there weren’t any other people from what she could see.
Jack stooped and staggered to the rear of the plane. He slid past Shelly and opened the door. As it rose upward, the hot, humid air of the jungle filled the cabin.
The three exited and looked around at the desolate airstrip. Eric had an SLR camera hanging from his neck. He removed the lens cap and began taking photos.
“The flash is on,” Shelly said.
“I like keeping it on—just in case,” Eric said as he continued to click the shutter and send white light into the mist.
“But we’re outdoors.”
“Is there anybody else here?” Eric asked, ignoring Shelly.
“The owners should be here, Manuel and Fortunato. They’re identical twins, so when we find them don’t think you’re seeing double,” Jack quipped.
“What if they’re not here?” Shelly asked. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone around.”
“If they’re not, we’ll…” Jack trailed off as he peered underneath the plane.
“What is it?” Eric asked.
“I think I know what caused the noise you heard while we were landing, Shelly,” Jack said as he crouched down underneath the plane.
He plucked an arrow from the belly of the craft. Its shaft appeared hand cut, and the point was made of a thin sliver of shale, now broken from being pulled from its target.
“I thought you said these were peaceful people?” Eric asked as he examined the arrow.
“They are, unless provoked. They shouldn’t be this close to the airstrip—their village is miles away. Let’s go find Manuel and Fortunato,” Jack said before leading them to the hanger.
The space inside was dark, but sun shone through the many rust holes in the tin roof. There was only one plane in the middle of the hanger. It was an aging, twin turboprop passenger plane with an Aerolineas Argentinas logo on the side. The logo was partially scraped off and re-named “Maria Celeste,” hand-painted in black.
“That’s Miguel and Fortunato’s plane,” Jack said.
Jack climbed a portable staircase next to the door nearest the nose of the plane, yanked at the handle, and the door creaked open. He slowly stepped inside as Eric and Shelly waited below after exchanging uncertain glances.
“This might be more of an adventure than we bargained for,” Eric said.
“More than you bargained for and more than I agreed to,” Shelly shot back.
A few more seconds passed, and then Jack yelled, “Come quick!”
Shelly and Eric jogged up the staircase. Inside, they found Jack crouched down next to a thin Hispanic man lying in a passenger seat in the cabin. He was shaking and his skin was pale.
“It’s Manuel. Can you speak with him?” Jack asked Shelly.
“Me llamo Shelly,” she said as she sat down in the seat beside him.
“Hola,” he croaked.
“¿Cuanto tiempo usted ha estado aquí?”
“Dos o tres dias,” the man responded.
“He says he’s been here two or three days,” Shelly translated.
“¿Por qué está usted aquí?”
“Ocultar de la tribu,” he said. Jack and Eric looked intently at Shelly.
“He said he was hiding from a tribe.”
The conversation went on that way for several minutes, with Shelly interrogating the starving man.
Shelly determined that the last time Manuel saw Fortunato was several nights ago. Loggers were with Manuel and Fortunato at the airstrip the night a tribe raided the logging company. A radio message came from the logging company instructing them to evacuate, but the loggers wanted to return to the company dormitory to investigate what was going on. Fortunato left with the loggers while Manuel minded the airstrip. Manuel locked the office doors, but soon other loggers came to the airstrip in a hurry, gassed up their planes, and left. They pleaded with Manuel to go with them too, but he couldn’t leave without his brother. So, he hid in their plane, a place Fortunato would likely go when he got back.
After finishing his story and Shelly translating it, he looked at Jack and said in English, “Please help find my brother.”
“This isn’t what we came for,” Shelly said.
“We can’t just leave him like this,” Eric said.
Shelly turned to Jack for support, but his only response was, “See, I promised you an adventure.”
The four of them set out in search of Fortunato after a brief meal of granola and trail mix that Jack had brought along. They followed an overgrown path close to the Napo. Jack intermittently sliced through brush and low-hanging vines with a machete. Every once and a while Jack would point out a plant or animal, as if he was trying to make the journey worth all the risks they were now facing.
“That’s a poison dart frog over there,” Jack explained to Eric, who looked down at its shiny blue and yellow skin. “Don’t touch it,” he warned before taking another swat with the machete and moving on.
Eric lifted the camera and the flash sent the frog jumping into the brush. Shelly sighed.
Shelly and Eric were quite mismatched as a couple in several respects. She was an introvert, he an extrovert. She was Methodist, and he, Catholic. She was short and dark skinned due to her three-fourths Italian and one-fourth Cherokee heritage, and he was tall and pale—one hundred percent Irish descent. The first time Eric found out about her Italian and American Indian heritage he had made a bad joke about spaghetti westerns. Eric always spoke of having a large family, and Shelly…didn’t really know what she wanted yet.
Aside from the searing heat made worse by muggy air, the weight of Shelly’s backpack seemed to be increasing with every mile. Her shoulders would surely be bruised in the morning. At least there was shade up to this point.
About four miles into their hike, they came upon an open field in the middle of the jungle. The clearing was several hundred yards wide and extended off into the distance along the river. Inside the clearing were Samauma stumps, shredded vegetation and patches of burnt brush. At the edge of the field opposite the river was a team of yellow Caterpillar backhoes, bulldozers and trucks, all sitting idle. Like the airstrip, there were no signs of human life.
Here, as when they heard Manuel’s story, the same question crept into Shelly’s mind. Why did they leave?
The group walked across the clearing towards the equipment. The machines were in a line as if advancement had been stopped by some obstruction in the jungle. As they made their way closer, the ground grew softer beneath their feet. By the time they reached the other side it became apparent that progress on cutting the trees was blocked by a marsh area that couldn’t be crossed by the heavy machinery.
“Mire aquí,” Manuel said, pointing to one of the tires on a dump truck filled with timber. There was an arrow lodged in the rubber, reminiscent of the one found below the Cessna. Jack nodded, but no one spoke. Instead, Jack, Eric and Shelly continued on into the shade of the jungle towards the swamp. Manuel stayed back and walked around the vehicles.
There were tall bushes at the edge of the jungle, but a clearing could be seen just on the other side. Through holes in the foliage, flesh-colored objects could be seen, but Shelly couldn’t make out exactly what they were. Jack began to chop at the bushes with his machete and cleared a path for Eric and Shelly to follow.
They came into a space darkened by shade from tall trees with dense leaves looming above. Beams of sunlight intermittently stabbed through the thick air when the birds disturbed branches above their heads. The mud on the ground was rich and black as tar, and similarly sticky as they walked onto it.
Why did they leave? It was in the middle of this still space that Shelly got her answer.
There were some fifty naked persons standing ankle-deep in the muck, impaled by sharpened reeds from anus to mouth. They stared upward at the sky with frozen expressions; some merely had fleshy sockets if the birds had already made a meal of their eyes. They appeared to be local Hispanics, though decay in the Amazonian heat was rapidly erasing ethnic features.
“Holy shit,” Jack whispered while standing perfectly still. “Who could have done this?”
Eric clutched the camera and raised the viewfinder to his eye, but then quickly released it and hunched over to vomit onto the mud and ferns.
Shelly was stiff with fear, as though she too had rigor mortis. She took a hesitant step forward, much as a mannequin might if it suddenly came to life in a store window. Her curiosity compelled her to continue forward until she was close enough to one of them to see his white teeth clamped to the reed protruding out of his mouth. There were scrape marks around the reed and splinters poking up at his blackening gums. He and others with similar wide-eyed, clenched-jaw poses were apparently alive through the impalement experience. This revelation doubled Shelly’s pulse as she retreated back beside her sickened husband and paralyzed guide.
“Are these the tribesmen?” Eric asked.
Jack slowly approached the front line of corpses, looking at them one by one.
“No,” Jack said after a moment of pained inspection, “these appear to be loggers.”
“How can you tell?”
“Some have tattoos,” Shelly observed. She also noticed that some of them even appeared to have what was left of tan-lines, though their flesh was now mostly pale hues of purple and gray.
There in the middle was Fortunato, a decaying reflection of his brother.
“We shouldn’t let Manuel see him,” Shelly warned, but she was too engrossed in examining the loggers to hear him coming through the brush behind them until it was too late to shield his eyes.
“Que es esto?”
You could pinpoint the second his eyes discovered Fortunato by the scream he let out. It didn’t sound human—more like the shriek of a sheep being torn open by a wolf. He fell to the mud and sobbed into his hands.
Jack and Shelly pulled Manuel to his feet and the four of them staggered back out to the clearing.
“We have to get back to the plane,” Eric said.
“It will be dark in about an hour. We should continue to the mill and camp there,” Jack suggested. Shelly didn’t respond; she kept her focus on keeping Manuel calm by kneeling at his side with a hand on his shoulder, murmuring nurturing words to him in his native tongue.
“We couldn’t make it back to the plane before dark?” Eric asked.
“No, we’re closer to the mill than the airstrip, and even if we ran all the way we wouldn’t make it to the plane before nightfall. Besides, there might be guns at the mill that we could use to defend ourselves,” Jack explained.
“If that were true, guns didn’t defend the loggers who are now on those pikes over there,” Shelly retorted.
“I guess we have no choice but to go on,” Eric said.
“Not unless you want to camp right here,” Jack said. “But, I wouldn’t want to sleep so close to such a large supply of food for the local predators.”
“Ahora nos estamos yendo aqui,” Shelly conceded. Manuel nodded, wiped his eyes and rose to his feet, and the four continued on their journey.
The mill was more of a shelter without walls that resembled a massive carport, except with leaf shingles on the roof. Underneath the ceiling there were large saws with logs several feet in diameter waiting to be cut. A dozen dump trucks—apparently of the same fleet as the ones found earlier—were lined up alongside the mill.
“There aren’t even walls for protection,” Eric said as they looked at the site.
“No guns either,” Shelly said.
“I’ve never actually been here. I assumed it was a larger operation,” Jack said.
“So what do we do?” Shelly asked.
“We’re going to have to camp here tonight and head back to the airstrip in the morning,” Jack said.
Easy for the guy with the machete to say, Shelly thought.
An hour later, the four of them sat around a small fire passing around the last rations of granola and trail mix. Manuel didn’t eat. Instead, he was using Jack’s machete to sharpen tree limbs into short spears. Three of them sat in a pile beside him. He stared expressionlessly at the tip as shavings of a fourth fell to the ground between his knees. Shelly had to look closely through the flames to discern his lips moving, but Manuel was murmuring so softly that nothing could be heard over the crackle of the bonfire.
Eric leaned in close to Shelly and whispered, “Is he okay?”
“Would you be?”
“Guess not,” Eric said, “but what should we do for him?”
“Give him his space,” Shelly said.
Jack jammed another handful of dry tree limbs into the fire. Manuel continued to whittle and murmur. Shelly looked around at the sunset behind her. It was the first beautiful thing she had seen since they landed.
“Whatcha going to do with those sticks, Manuel?” Eric asked, breaking the silence.
Manuel looked up at Eric and stopped murmuring, though he continued to slice into the wood.
“You’re an idiot,” Shelly huffed.
Eric shrugged his shoulders and mouthed, “What?”
“Let him grieve in peace. Besides, do you really think he knows what you asked him?”
Manuel returned his gaze on the carved spear tip. His murmurs were now audible and rhythmic, more like a chant or a prayer.
Eric didn’t respond. Instead, he lifted his camera and aimed it across the fire at Manuel.
Before Shelly could stop him, Eric clicked the shutter and fired light onto Manuel’s form. But he didn’t stop murmuring or cutting. The light did throw him off his aim on the wood, however, and blood flowed from his slit finger to the ground as he sliced into the side of his thumb.
The murmurs persisted and the cutting continued. Blood flowed from Manuel’s hand to the ground like wax from an upset red candle.
“Manuel!” Shelly shrieked. She rushed over and pulled the machete back before it made a third pass into his flesh.
“Why did you do that?” Shelly yelled.
Shelly grabbed the machete and used it to tear the seam of her undershirt. She ripped off the bottom three inches and wrapped Manuel’s hand with it. Her midriff was exposed, and she wondered who would be more aroused—Jack or Eric.
Even in the midst of the disturbing scene, she asked herself whom she’d rather arouse. Thoughts of divorcing Eric had occurred on more than one occasion through the years.
“No hay dolor,” Manuel said to Shelly as she finished tying the cloth around his hand, saying that he felt no pain.
“How deep are the cuts?” Jack asked.
“Very deep. He needs to apply pressure to slow the bleeding, and I think he might need stitches,” Shelly answered Jack, then looked at Manuel and instructed “Usted necesita aplicar la presión.”
Manuel firmly held his wounded hand as he was told and lay back to the ground. His lips resumed their chants.
“Are you happy?” Shelly asked Eric as she sat back down by the fire.
Eric paused and looked her square in the eyes.
“Are you happy? I’ve been meaning to find the right time to ask you that.”
Now it was Shelly’s turn to pause and realize—no, admit—that she wasn’t happy, and neither this hell of a trip nor the baby growing inside her would change that.
I’m pregnant,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I’ve been meaning to find the right time to tell you that.”
The three of them sat in silence for only a few more awkward minutes before unrolling their sleeping bags and joining Manuel in attempting to sleep by the fire—not out of exhaustion, but as a means of escape.
Shelly fell asleep minutes after lying down and began to dream that she was alone walking through a field of tall reeds within the jungle. The scene reminded her of a cornfield where she used to play hide-and-go-seek after Girl Scout meetings, except instead of yellow cornstalks, she was walking among stiff, green shoots of bamboo. Instead of firm Pennsylvanian soil, she was stepping on soft Amazon bog sludge.
She looked down and realized the size of her belly—apparently months into pregnancy. Further forward she crept, not knowing where she was going or why, but the light from a full moon above lit her way.
“Koru-bo,” a deep voice whispered, but she couldn’t tell where it came from or whose voice it was. It might have not been audible at all and just a figment of her imagination.
She pressed forward, but couldn’t resist the urge to look over her shoulders. Left. Right. Left again.
Reeds shuffled a few yards beside her, and then went still—probably just an animal. She stood completely motionless, listening. Only the songs of insects could be heard aside from the dull thud in her ears from her heart heavily pumping blood through her veins. And then—
Were those footsteps behind her? How far back? She continued forward, pushing the reeds and vines to the side as she went. Looked over her shoulders again. Left. Right. Left. Right.
Faster she pressed through the field. It was harder to run with the extra weight in her belly. Tears welled up in her eyes and clouded her vision.
The mud beneath her feet seemed to be getting more viscous. Her legs felt like jelly and time seemed to slow down. Looking left-right-left-right—
Shelly tripped over a fallen tree branch, lost her balance, and collapsed into the muck.
Slosh-slosh-slosh-slosh-slosh. Slosh. Slosh.
Her attacker appeared through the reeds as she turned on her back to face him. Even the insects momentarily ceased their songs as he stepped closer with a spear in hand. It was one of the ones that Manuel carved, pointed down at her throat.
The assailant was a tribesman, naked save for a loincloth and red body paint from face to feet.
Instinctively, Shelly put one hand in the air to show peace. The native looked at her eyes, then down at her stomach. He bent his wrist to change the trajectory of the spear downward towards her gut.
“No,” Shelly whispered as she pulled her hand down to cover her womb.
Then, without removing his gaze he whispered, “Koru-bo”.
Shelly did not know his language, but nevertheless sensed what the word meant—sacrifice. The tribesman pulled the spear back over his shoulder and shifted his weight in the sludge (slosh), ready to release the spear into her bulging abdomen.
“Koru-bo!” he yelled as he whipped his arm forward, hurling the spear.
“No!” Shelly exclaimed as she sat up from the ground. The bonfire was now reduced to orange coals. Jack and Eric scrambled from their sleeping bags.
“What’s wrong?” Eric asked.
“I—” Shelly paused, trying to catch her breath, “I had a bad dream.”
The men relaxed. Eric slumped back on his elbows.
“Try to get some rest. We have a long hike back tomorrow,” Jack said before laying back down on the ground to follow his own advice.
“Where is Manuel?” Shelly asked.
Eric got up and walked to the other side of the fire and looked out into the darkness. Jack and Shelly rose to join him.
“Manuel!” Jack called against the thick air and dense flora.
“Where could he have gone?” Eric asked.
“Maybe back to the airstrip. But, why would he go?” Jack asked. “We were heading back tomorrow when it’s safer.”
“His spears are gone,” Shelly observed.
“I knew he was nuts,” Eric said, but neither Jack nor Shelly acknowledged the comment. The three fell silent, staring out at the vast darkness for a moment.
“I guess we have three options,” Jack said. “We can go back to sleep, hope Manuel returns by morning, and head back to the plane tomorrow as we planned. Or, we could try to find Manuel tonight. Or, we could just head back to the plane now and hope to find him along the way.”
“My vote is for option number one,” Eric said, and Shelly was disappointed in him. But she was getting used to it.
“Let’s just get the hell out of here, even if it means walking back to the plane in the dark,” Shelly said.
“I agree, and option number two is out because we don’t have any idea which direction he went,” Jack said. “Maybe he headed back where we found Fortunato, which is on the way to the plane anyway.”
The three rolled up their sleeping bags and put out the coals.
When they were finally ready for their journey under nightfall, Shelly was rummaging through her backpack for her flashlight.
“Eric, did you pack the flashlights?”
“I thought I did,” he said as he opened his pack and dove his hand in among his supplies. After a minute of hopeless groping, all he had to do was look at Shelly to confirm that he forgot them.
“We go to a jungle, and you forget flashlights,” Shelly said. “I set them out for you with the bug spray.”
“At least I remembered the bug spray.”
“No matter, we’re better off just to use the moonlight to guide us. One thing I forgot to tell you,” Jack said as he flung his backpack over his shoulders, “the tribesmen seem to be terrified by artificial light.”
Two miles into their trek, Eric stopped to take another photo of the moon over the treetops. They were nearly at the site where they found Fortunato and his fellow loggers. As Eric was bringing the shot into focus, a deep, horrific scream erupted from somewhere in the distance. It was hard to discern the direction from which it came over the sounds of the insects, birds, and frogs. At first Shelly thought it was just her imagination, but then it came again, held a few seconds longer this time.
“Was that a scream?” Eric asked softly, dropping the camera back to his chest. The three stopped and listened.
“Good—I’m glad I’m not the only one who heard it,” Shelly whispered.
“Maybe Manuel found the tribe and had his revenge,” Eric suggested.
“More likely, it was they who found him and had theirs,” Jack said with a disappointed shake of his head. “Come on. It’s no safer to go back than to press on.”
Shelly concentrated on her peripheral vision as they went. Through the bush and vines she’d glance as before—left, right, left—listening for the sound of foreign footsteps.
Soon they came to the clearing. Jack sheathed his machete and picked up the pace. They were no longer hidden among the dense forest and there was no way to be subtle with their bulky backpacks preventing them from crawling below the knee-high grass. Shelly held her canteen to keep it from clanking as they strode.
When they came to the center, Jack halted, and Shelly and Eric nearly collided into him before stopping.
“What is it?” Shelly whispered. Jack put up his hand and bent over slightly, but hesitated to respond. He looked about slowly, and then his eyes fixed on something at the tree line to their right.
A dark figure appeared against the rainforest backdrop, stepping towards them. The person was hard to discern at first, but as he came closer his features came into focus. There were more of them, all around. They came out of the darkness in sync.
Shelly grabbed Jack’s shirt by the back and asked, “What do we do?”
“If we run,” Jack warned, “we’re dead.”
Twelve figures encircled them and stopped a few yards away. They were all young males—hunters of the tribe—and were covered in red body paint and wore loincloths, just like in Shelly’s dream. Some had spears; others had bows with arrows drawn.
Two tribesmen stepped forward towards Jack. One carried three hand-carved spears—Manuel’s spears. The other tribesman clutched something else that was hidden behind his back.
“Koru-bo!” he said as he brought his arm forward. He held a decapitated human head on top of another of Manuel’s spears. Blood oozed down from it over the tribesman’s hand, like a candy apple melting in warm summer air. The neck appeared to have been ripped from the body by hand.
Shelly felt faint. She heard Eric breathing hard behind her.
“I don’t know that word,” Jack said.
But Shelly knew it.
“Sant-re-ma,” Jack said. His voice was calm though his hands were quivering. He looked back at Eric and Shelly and explained, “That means ‘friend’.”
“Ni sant-re-ma. Suma koru-bo!” the lead tribesman said before hurling Manuel’s head at Jack’s feet.
Then their only way out occurred to Shelly.
“Eric,” she commanded, “take their picture and make sure the flash is on.”
“Take their picture!” Jack said.
Eric clutched the camera. He aimed it at the lead tribesman and clicked the shutter release.
But no flash came, and no picture was taken.
“What the hell?” he muttered as he picked up the camera and fiddled with the buttons.
“Hurry, Eric,” Shelly pleaded. The tribesmen stepped closer. The ones with bows aimed their arrows.
“The battery is dead!”
Dead batteries. Their lives were about to be wasted for photos of frogs, birds, and Peruvian mountains that—like their bodies—might never be discovered.
As Eric continued to fumble with the camera, Shelly heard a watery splatter behind her. She turned to look but immediately wished she hadn’t. The lead tribesmen had rammed one of Manuel’s spears through Jack’s throat from the side. He fell to the ground as another tribesman stabbed a second spear into his ribs.
The other tribesmen encircled Eric and Shelly. They were now only a few steps away. Eric was so focused on the camera that he didn’t seem to notice Jack dying. He kept clicking away at the shutter release button, but the camera wouldn’t return to life.
“Eric,” Shelly said softly, “I’m not really pregnant.” It wasn’t the first lie she ever told him, but she was certain it would be the most important.
Tears welled up in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” Eric said. Then, he gritted his teeth, turned, and charged at the nearest tribesman. He was rewarded for his valor with a clean death by two arrows in the center of his chest—thump, thump!
Shelly yelped as he collapsed into the grass. The twelve tribesmen encircled her and began to chant.
She dropped to her knees and began to cry. There was a quick, sharp pain in her back, immediately followed by intense warmth as the moonlight faded above her.
And there she perished with child. Four more lives come and gone among the Amazon wilds.