Rosa Lea is a translator living with her partner near Prague, Czech Republic, where she settled with her two daughters after growing up in South Africa. She has a BA in communication and sociology, enjoys nature, travelling, languages, learning about various cultures, and appreciates all things unconventional.
We’d been on the run in the African bush for two days, my daughter and I. She was barely breathing, her once sturdy legs now faltering. Her wound had dried, caked over with dust, but the flies still persisted. I’d been dragging and pushing her along since she witnessed it. That savagery. I had to get her far away from it all. But I too needed a rest by then, everything had become so hazy – my sight, even my instincts too. So we stopped to drink, down by the river. She wouldn’t take any water though. I tried to get her to eat, but she just lay there heaving, each exhale lifting red dust high into the air. I’d just stretched up to get the best fruit from a marula tree for her, when I heard it: a shuffle in the scrub behind me. I stumbled with fright... and... then that horror from two days before... it all suddenly came back to me again...
...our herd was drinking down by the big waterhole. The sun had just started warming the morning dew across the bushland, and my calf and I strolled over behind a lone swollen baobab to hide from the chilly winter breeze. As we began to fall asleep in the sun, dozens of loud shots ripped through the air around us. The humans! They rose up from everywhere – from behind the scrub, from ditches, even from the waterhole itself – firing rounds in all directions. Small babes blown away. Massive males falling instantly to ground, like puppets with strings cut! The blood plopped noisily as it hit our baobab. And it drizzled onto the waterhole like soft rain. My calf fell to the ground, but I pushed her along and we ran, hid just on time before a truck with more humans sped towards the waterhole. They pulled up at the nine bodies of my family - some still alive, I could hear. I could hear, and I could do nothing! More shots were fired, single shots. And then machines began screeching.
I turned to my calf to edge her on. A stream of bright red was trickling thick down her back leg. They must have hit her too. But we had to run. I tucked my trunk under her and pushed. For two days we struggled along like this. And only when we reached the river this morning did we stop for rest. And that’s when I heard that shuffle in the scrub behind me...
I thought it was the killers again. As I turned around to see, fear tore through my whole body - I heard that blood hit the trunk of the baobab again… But behind me was just a human tribeswoman. Alone, picking mopane worms from a tree. I couldn’t help it though...some instinct... I saw bright red again...
When I stepped back, all the green had returned. The woman was lying on the ground - still, awkward. Bird call and cicada shrill took to the air again. I walked circles around her. I went away, I came back. But she still just lay there. Then something moved. Yes, she’s alive, she’s alive! But only the brown leaves beside her lifted, to settle again in the cold breeze. And I knew she would never move again.
Then I saw it. She too had a little one! It must have slipped off with the blanket pouch on her back as she ran from me. It was still bundled up in the blanket, lying on the ground some distance away and it was crying – just like my calf cries! I raised the blanket gently with my trunk, it looked at me and stopped crying. It was a girl, I knew – she smelled just like my little one! Just a few tufts of hair on top, just like my calf’s. It gargled, saliva bubbling, just like my calf does when she’s frolicking about. And then the little bundle smiled. Smiled, in that chilled air. I lowered the blanket softly back over the little human, walked away and wondered what to do with her. Yes, I will leave her there - the tribespeople will hear her cries and come for her. I bundled up my little calf and shuffled her on, to the big acacia on the hill above the river.
But tribespeople, farmers, and poachers are everywhere now. I know they will come for me – the ‘killer’ elephant now. So if anything happens to me, please save my calf at least. Over there, by the acacia, under the blanket.
The body of the missing marathon runner was finally found, three days after the Panama Jungle Run was called off. A fisherman had bumped into it, swollen and lodged among river rocks near Panama City. While the caimans had taken a toll on the body’s composition, part of a marathon number was still tied – now too tight – around the bloated chest area, and identification came quick: it was the missing businessman from Vancouver. The coroner suspected a heart attack, but unexplained circumstances remained and the deceased’s family wanted answers. They hired Hecate White, an external consultant from Toronto, where she teaches paranormal psychology. Hecate has a special ability – she is able to see paths of recent activity, trails of light that no one else sees.
“... similar to photos of car lights at night,” she usually finds herself having to explain. “Only, I see them during the day too. I analyse these trails of light as movement, can tell a lot from them. But I have to be quick because they fade over time.”
Hecate is twenty-seven and lives alone, again – the new tattoo on the side of her neck the cause of her most recent breakup four months ago. Instead of getting rid of her ‘ugly’ tattoo though, as her boyfriend then suggested, she now wears her black hair in a short bob, revealing it for all to see – people's reactions telling her all she needs to know about them. She has a slender build, today especially lost under the oversized outdoor wear she bought in a hurry when she heard of her first assignment in Central America.
Hecate met Captain Felipe ‘Picador’ Perez at Hermosa Playa parking lot and on their way inland, past the mangroves and through the jungle to the river where the body was found, he’d explained the case to her.
“... and if we had enough time, we’d solve it ourselves. Don’t know why they sent for help. Just because he’s – was – some rich guy ...,” the captain was saying as they struggled along a muddy patch on the path.
Their path was a narrow animal passage just a few days ago, but had now turned into a wide macheted and trodden footpath, abuzz with human activity. The captain stopped talking when a line of indigenous trackers and investigators in white coats passed by silently on the way back from the river. They were looking down, but as the trackers passed by Hecate, each looked her in the eye and gave a slight nod. They know! They understand me. These folk live here, in these magical jungles, they understand! Thank God... she thought, and as she rounded a large banyan she stumbled when a howler monkey bellowed a haunting howl from the tree above her.
The captain smiled, offering a hand. “You know, the first Spaniards here reacted the same way when they heard that – ran for their lives, back to their ships. You’ll have to get used to our jungle if you want to help us. It’s full of dangerous creatures, you know, and voodoo stuff, you know... hoooo...," he teased with hands casting an imaginary spell above her.
“Uhm, I’ll be fine," Hecate snapped, and ignored his help.
And you'd better keep an eye on yourself, Mr. Captain of the Universe. Whatever left that bright trail of light on the back of your shirt a minute ago… well, should be up your sleeve by now...
As the captain yelled out and was hitting hard at his waist, shouting “Mierda!” Hecate shuddered and tried to make sense of the endless trails of light traversing the vast green. And she hoped none belonged to snakes too close by. Just stay away from me, wherever you are!
As they neared the river, a group of wrens suddenly took flight and screeched a warning call. The jungle chatter fell silent. Birds and monkeys froze high in the trees, and all eyes stared at the two human dots far below.
“So, that there's the marathon route, and there's the river. Now it’s time to show us what you’re made of. See his tracks anywhere?” asked the captain. “Our top tracker didn’t find anything here, the rains have washed away pretty much everything by now.”
Hecate sighed. “Yes, here, I see his trail. He diverted from the marathon route about here, towards the river. This way, follow me...”
Hecate did not notice the sunlight dancing on the river’s clear waters, she was now following the human-sized trail of light hanging faintly in the air along the open river bank. Then she stopped and looked up at a sandy embankment above her. It was lined with a wall of wild banana plants, with the tip of a large tree sticking out from behind them. The trail of light led directly through the bananas towards the tree.
“I don’t understand… The light’s been meandering more or less to that tree up there behind the bananas, but there’s a later trail of thinner light straight from the tree into the river…,” Hecate muttered softly, “… he ran, straight from up there into the river. Why would he do that? Over these rough rocks?”
“Well, let’s go up there and see,” said the captain.
The human light hung low ahead of them. But so did many trails of smaller creatures…
Hecate gulped, but decided to face her fears alone. “No, I’ll go there myself,” she said.
Hecate took a breath and as she moved up the embankment, she noticed a smudged shoe print, now dry, in the sand. She remembered the captain said it had been raining lightly on the day of the marathon. Seems like he slipped here, but was adamant on going up there. Why? As Hecate made her way up, she winced at the small slitherings of light before her. She took a deep breath and moved loudly into the wall of bananas.
“Yes, clapping loudly helps keep the creatures away,” shouted the captain, smiling. When no reply came, he offered: “You ok?… wait… I’ll go up there with you,” and he began to clamber up after her.
“I’ll do this piece myself!” she snapped, and the captain decided it might just be better to stay right there and keep an eye on the river, should any further evidence come floating by.
As Hecate was about to step into the open behind the wall of green, she saw it, still with bright light in tow – a small snake coiled up in a sunny patch on her path. She froze in mid-gait. And began to panic: Wonder how long I can stay up on one leg…
But then the gush of adrenalin spoke: “Shoo!” she waved the snake away, “Buzz off!”
To her surprise the snake buzzed off. When Hecate got to the tree, she began to notice too its fine details - the bright yellowy-green tint of the tree’s minute petals. The deep natural scars of its reddish bark. She could have sworn she heard mice squeak too, and that beetle over there – did she just hear it rubbing its back legs together? She felt strangely courageous, fears forgotten.
A sickening smell then found its way up her nose. What the ...? Ammonia? A dead animal? Then she saw it. And it began to make sense...
Hecate walked back to the captain, immersed in thought. “Got it. I know why he left the route. Poor fella just needed to relieve himself! Behind the tree up there, that’s all.”
The captain stared at her.
“But still,” she murmured to herself, “something happened after that. Why that beeline for the river…?” If something chased him, I'd see traces of its light. If he just wanted to take a dip in the river he’d simply go back down the same path – much easier than beelining down over that rock and shrubbery. Thinking hard, she was just about to take a bite of a small apple she picked off the tree.
“What you doin…what’s that? ... don’t!” shouted the captain, and he knocked it from her mouth. “Don’t you know the basic rule of the jungle? Don’t eat anything you don’t know! You know how many poisonous things we have growing here!”
Hecate watched the apple tumbling down and plop into the river. Seemed normal to me...
“Now, what were you saying…,” the captain continued on anxiously, “…why would he run to the river, hmm....”
But Hecate was no longer listening, her tongue was beginning to burn. She took a swig of water from her bottle and, when the captain wasn’t looking, she swirled it around roughly in her mouth and spat it out. After three rinses, the burning finally began to subside. Okay, won’t be doing that again…
“So… any ‘bright’ ideas?” the captain teased.
“Need to get back to the hotel now, need to think...,” Hecate trailed off, and began to take down some notes.
She didn’t tell the captain that the runner’s trail of light was now beginning to fade fast. Got to figure this out soon. Then this captain can finally shut up too. It was a race against time, and against her patience too.
Hecate woke up from a nightmare the next morning, shouting “Run! Run!” She sat up in her hotel bed, trying to calm her thoughts. She realised from her dream of a body rising from the river, turning into a snake and chasing her that things would not move on if she didn’t face her own fears. Nightmares, snakes, that jerk. Must get over it, have a job to do... And then Hecate realised her tongue was still slightly swollen. What kind of apple was that anyway…? She opened up her laptop and did a quick search.
Hecate came running to the breakfast terrace downstairs, where the captain was having coffee while waiting for her. “Got it! All makes sense now! It’s a Manchineel! A Man-chi-neel!”
“Wha…?” the captain choked on his coffee.
“That would explain it all!” she said.
“What? Calm down, what are you talking about?” the captain said.
“It’s a tree, you know? The most poisonous tree...”
“I know what a Manchineel is,” he said, “...the little apple of death. So?”
Hecate continued: “So he went behind the tree to do his business. And it was raining that day, right? And you just don’t sit under a Manchineel when it’s raining! Its poisonous sap comes down with the rain and burns the skin …”
“And if he also took a few bites of the fruit ...” continued the captain, “he’d run off in pain, like a maniac, straight into the river to try get rid of it – skin burning, throat on fire, constricting... Most people survive nowadays if they get help quick, but if there’s no help and you go into major shock, you can even get a... a heart attack!”
Captain Felipe called his office: “Tell the coroner to check for Manchineel poisoning.”
“So it was an apple of death you were just about to eat…” muttered the captain, sort of to himself, shaking his head. She could’ve died too, am such an idiot...
Hecate and the captain then sat in silence on the terrace, looking out at the ocean below.
“Well done. You did a good job... And I’m sorry for teasing you like that, Hecate,” the captain addressed her by her name for the first time.
“It’s okay, Captain. We all have our fears. I have my snakes, you the unknown... But once we face them, it’s not so bad, actually. Sometimes the most difficult path is the right path to take.”
The captain nodded.
“Nice tattoo,” he then said.
“You like it?”
“I do. It's strange, magical, but I like it.”
“It's Hecate, the goddess of magic. My Greek grandmother named me after her. As if she somehow knew...”
“About your powers?”
“Not only. Hecate is also the goddess of crossroads. And if you think about it, everything depends on the paths we decide to take. We’re always at some crossroad or another. Look at the crossroads faced by the runner, literally. The paths criss-crossing across the jungle. Mine, yours...”
They sat quietly, nodding.
“And she's goddess of the underworld too...” added Hecate slyly.
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