Authors: Ezekiel Boone
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For Sara and Sandy
he guide wanted to tell the group of Americans to shut up. Of course they weren’t seeing any animals: their constant complaining was driving them away. Only the birds remained, and even they seemed skittish. He was just a guide, however, so he said nothing.
There were five Americans. Three women and two men. The guide was interested in how they were paired off. It seemed unlikely that the fat man, Henderson, had all three women for himself. No matter how rich he was, shouldn’t two women at one time be enough? Perhaps the tall man had one? Perhaps not. As far as the guide could tell, the tall man was there to act as Henderson’s bodyguard and servant only. He and Henderson did not act like friends. The tall man carried the fat man’s water and snacks and did not let his eyes linger on any of the women. There was no question that he was in Henderson’s employ. As was the guide.
The guide sighed. He’d see how the women were portioned off at camp, he thought. In the meantime, he would do what he was paid for, which was lead them through the jungle and point out things
that were supposed to impress them. Of course, they’d already done Machu Picchu, which always left tourists feeling as if they had seen everything Peru had to offer, and now there were no animals to show them. He glanced back at Henderson and decided it was time for another break. They’d had to stop every twenty minutes so that the rich man could run into the brush and move his bowels, and now the guide was worried Henderson might be overexerting himself.
It wasn’t that Henderson was grossly fat, but he was definitely large and clearly struggling to keep pace with the rest of the group. The tall man and the three women, though, were all in good shape. The women, in particular, all looked embarrassingly athletic and young, twenty or thirty years younger than Henderson. It was obvious the heat was getting to him. His face was red and he kept mopping at his forehead with a damp handkerchief. Henderson was older than the women, but looked too young for a heart attack. Still, the guide thought, it wouldn’t hurt to keep him well hydrated. After all, it had been made abundantly clear to the guide that if things went well, Henderson might be persuaded to make a sizable donation to the park and the scientists working there.
The day wasn’t any hotter than normal, but even though the group had come directly from Machu Picchu, they didn’t seem to understand that they were still at elevation. They weren’t actually inside Manú National Park, which they didn’t seem to understand either. The guide could have explained that they were technically allowed only in the larger biosphere area, and that the park itself was reserved for researchers, staff, and the indigenous Machiguenga, but all it would have done was disappoint them even more than they already were.
“Any chance we’ll see a lion, Miggie?” one of the women asked him.
The woman next to her, who looked as if she had come from
one of the magazines that the guide had kept under his bed when he was a teenager, before he’d had access to the Internet, swung off her backpack and dropped it on the ground. “For God’s sake, Tina,” the woman said, shaking her head so that her hair swung around her face and her shoulders. The guide had trouble not staring down her scoop-neck shirt as she leaned over to unzip her bag and pull out a bottle of water. “We’re in Peru, not Africa. You’re going to make Miggie think that Americans are idiots. There aren’t any lions in Peru. We could see a jaguar, though.”
The guide had introduced himself as Miguel, but they had immediately taken to calling him Miggie, as if Miguel were just a suggestion. While he did not think all Americans were idiots—when he wasn’t leading expeditions of tourists on “eco treks,” he often worked with the scientists inside the park, most of them from American universities—he was beginning to think that, despite the presence of Henderson, who was by all accounts a genius, this particular group seemed to have more idiots than normal. They were not going to see a lion, and no matter what the woman said, they weren’t going to see a jaguar, either. Miguel had been working here for the tour company for nearly three years, and even he’d never seen a jaguar. Not that he was truly an expert. He had been born and raised in Lima, and the only reason he was there, instead of back in the city of more than eight million, was a girl. They’d gone to university together, and when she landed a plum job as a research assistant, he managed to squirm his way into helping out inside the park occasionally. Recently, though, things hadn’t been going so well; his girlfriend had seemed distracted when they’d been together, and Miguel had begun to suspect that she’d started sleeping with one of her coworkers.
He watched the Americans take water or little bars wrapped in plastic out of their backpacks, and then he walked a few paces
farther down the path. He glanced back and saw the lion woman, Tina, smiling at him in such a way that he wondered if maybe that night, when Henderson went into his tent, she might be available for him. He’d had chances with tourists before, though the opportunity presented itself less often than he would have expected, and he’d always turned them down. But maybe tonight, if Tina offered, he wouldn’t say no. If his girlfriend was cheating on him, the least he could do was return the favor. Tina kept smiling at him, and it made him nervous.
He was made more nervous by the jungle, however. The first few months after he’d left Lima to come here he’d hated it, but mostly he was used to the closeness of it by now. The constant buzz of insects, the movement, the heat, and the life that seemed everywhere. It had all become background noise eventually, and until today, it had been a long time since he’d been scared to be in the jungle. Today was different, though. The background noise was gone. It was unsettling how quiet it was aside from the nattering of the group behind him. They had been complaining about the lack of animals, and if he had been honest with them—and he hadn’t, because that was not what a guide was paid to be—he would have told the group that he was bothered by it as well. Usually they would have seen more animals than they could have asked for: sloths, capybara, brocket, monkeys. God, they loved the monkeys. The tourists could never get enough monkeys. And insects, of course. They were usually everywhere, and when all else failed to keep the tourists entertained, Miguel, who had never been scared of spiders, would often pick one up on the end of a branch and surprise one of the women in the group with it. He loved the way they shrieked when he brought it close for them to see, and the way the men tried to pretend as though the spider didn’t bother them.
Behind Tina, he saw Henderson bending over and grabbing at his gut. The man may have been very rich—Miguel had not recognized Henderson the man, though he had certainly heard of Henderson’s company; the researchers all did their work on Henderson Tech’s small silver computers—but he did not seem particularly special. He’d been complaining the entire morning. He complained about the roads, about the lack of access to the Internet at the lodge, about the food. Ah, the food. He complained and complained about the food, and as Miguel saw Henderson bent over and making a face, it appeared that at least as far as the food was concerned, Henderson might have had a point.
“You okay, boss?” The bodyguard was ignoring the three women, who were still arguing with one another about where it was exactly that lions lived.
“My gut is killing me,” Henderson said. “That meat from last night. I’ve got to take a shit. Again.” He looked up at Miguel, and the guide motioned with his thumb for Henderson to head off the path.
Miguel watched him disappear into the trees and then turned to look ahead again. The tour company kept the path well enough maintained that it was easy to move tourists along when there wasn’t somebody like Henderson who needed to keep stopping. They’d bulldozed a strip and then tasked the guides with staying on the path so that nobody would get lost. As with any other human encroachment in the rain forest, the jungle was trying to reclaim the trail, so the company ran the machine out every few weeks. For the most part, the path made Miguel’s work much easier. He could look ahead and see clear to where they would be going for close to a hundred meters. It also meant there was a break in the canopy, and when he looked up he could see the blue sky. There wasn’t a cloud anywhere, and for a moment Miguel
wished he were on a beach instead of leading this group of Americans.
A bird flew over the breach in the canopy. The guide watched it for a second and was about to turn back to the group to see if Henderson had made it back from his bathroom break when he realized something was wrong with the bird. It was flapping its wings frantically, moving erratically. The bird was struggling to stay in the air. But there was something more. The guide wished he had a pair of binoculars, because the bird’s feathers looked wrong. They looked like they were rippling, like there was—
The bird fell from the sky. It stopped struggling and simply plummeted.
Miguel shivered. The women were still chattering behind him, but there were no other animal sounds in the jungle. Even the birds were quiet. He listened more closely, and then he heard something. A rhythmic pounding. Leaves crunching. He’d just about figured out what it was when a man burst around the bend in the path. Even from a hundred meters away, it was clear something was wrong. The man saw Miguel and screamed at him, but Miguel couldn’t make out the words. Then the man glanced at the path behind him, and as he did so, he tripped, falling heavily.
It looked to Miguel like a black river rushed up behind him. The man had only managed to get to his knees before the dark mass rolled over and around him.
Miguel took a few steps backward, but he found that he didn’t want to turn away. The black river stayed on top of the man, roiling and building, as if it were dammed by something. There was a lumpy movement, the man underneath still struggling. And then the lump collapsed. The black water splashed out to cover the path. From where Miguel was standing, it looked like the man had simply disappeared.
And then the blackness started streaming toward him, covering the path and moving quickly, almost as fast as a man could run. Miguel knew he should be running, but there was something hypnotic in the quietness of the water. It didn’t roar like a river. If anything, it seemed to absorb sound. All he could hear was a whisper, a skittering, like a small patter of rain. The way the river moved was beautiful in its own way, pulsing and, at certain points, splitting and braiding into separate streams before rejoining a few paces later. As it got closer, Miguel took another step back, but by the time he realized it wasn’t actually a river, that it wasn’t water of any kind, it was too late.