Better Run Through the Jungle
The beauty of the landscape...the vegetation, the skies, the songs of the jungle, that mixed smell of life and death that bit the olfactory with a pungent sweetness was nothing short of overwhelming. And he was standing above it all...amidst it all. He understood how a setting such as this had made ordinary men think of themselves as gods. It played on his senses like opium, only the dragon never looked so inviting or so refreshing. It was the same pure ecstasy of sensation that sweeps the entire being into a single, immutable presence. Beautiful.
In his mind he rightly surmised that this was the pinnacle of his life. And he was alone. How appropriate, he thought. And how perfect. He reveled in the delicious tickling that seemed to slowly surge forward from the depths of his soul and radiate through his body and out the tips of his fingers and his toes, gripping him like a violently wonderful orgasm. And the joy was his alone. He wasn't forced to share any of it with anyone.
He peered through his camera lens at the expansive valley below. He presented himself as a wandering, near penniless traveler, but the reality from which he came and upon which he depended was far different. The photography equipment he carried was exquisite and extremely expensive, allowing him to see in minute detail every square foot of the fertile basin.
He heard them before he saw them. A group of ten, maybe twelve elephants tearing into the valley along the sunken path that sliced through the walls of green. The great grey beasts were running erratically, in a panic. Their great trumpets blared a desperate and hurried retreat. They were terrified and running for their lives.
And then he knew why.
They were being hunted; hunted by a pack...a pride...a murder of tigers. He had never heard of tigers hunting together. They were supposed to be very solitary, territorial animals. Even mother cats chased off their young cubs by the time they were two or so. This was something quite unusual and spectacular. It constituted a very substantial shift in the ways in which these cats were portrayed by zoologists and biologists.
They worked methodically, in concert. They brought down three of the enormous pachyderms by working in pairs while the odd numbered predator continued the pursuit.
They attacked intelligently and ruthlessly. Although outnumbered and outsized, their coordinated attacks brought down beast after enormous beast until the entire fleeing herd had been destroyed. Carcasses, torn and bloodied, littered the rough cut track from one end of the valley to the other. He had a sinking suspicion that these dozen weren't the only casualties of this battle and that there were probably many more out of sight.
Battle. He couldn't think of a better way to describe it. The scene...hell, even the sounds resembled a battle. Had he been snapping pictures? Oh Christ, he couldn't have forgotten.... Then he heard the almost silent electronic camera shutter opening and closing its eye again and again as picture after picture were committed to the memory of film.
His heart was racing as he watched. He knew enough about history to know that he had just witnessed a tactical masterpiece that had been carried out by jungle beasts. He was horrified and amazed, and yet he continued to peer through the camera lens. He was spellbound.
His telescopic lens showed all: the valley floor turned a battleground with the destroyed elephant column, the great feline hunters admiring their work, and their leader, the eighth cat who did not participate in the chase but, instead, had directed the attack from a small rock promontory.
He manually adjusted his lens to see the inevitable feast on the fallen behemoths. It was only natural after all that the hunter would eat his prey. There was ample booty but there was no frenzy. It was calm assessment as the cats wandered between their kills as if looking for something specific.
One of the cats standing next to the largest of the elephants roared and growled until all of the other hunters had gathered round. They all inspected this particular body, circling it and growling to one another approvingly.
With that, the leader came down from his perch and joined the others. They formed a ring around him and then began to orbit him in quicker and quicker circles until they had worked themselves into a frenzy. They cried and growled and screamed. They were dancing. They were jungle cats and they were dancing. Celebrating really. Working themselves into a feverish victory frenzy. It didn't appear that this had been a normal hunt. This was something that could appear to have been personal.
He watched and then see he realized that he wasn't the only one looking. The leader was peering up at him; directly at him. There was no doubt about it. And through the lens their eyes locked as if suddenly noticed the other.
A moment of recognition. Of wisdom. Time, lost and weary, spun away from him as did the valley. He was suddenly surrounded by the rising noise of the dancing cats as they circled round and round him. And there was something unusual about it. More unusual than even the notion of dancing cats.
He was confused and disoriented. He couldn't tell if he was spinning or if the cats still circled him. And the darkness was gradually filling with the tigers' voices, primal chants filled with rage and fear and adrenaline. They howled and sand and he joined his voice with theirs until it seemed that the nothingness all around them was quaking with presence, until it seemed that the void all around them would burst with the energy of their passion.
They sang and sang, their voices reverberating like thunderclaps through the jungle canopy. Their hearts began to race and throb as one beat. He could feel a collective pulse thumping like a crazed drum leading the chant and guiding the dance. Until....
He woke just as the last rays of sunlight crawled back beyond the distant mountains leaving a beautiful golden and orange brush stroke sky.
A dream. It had all just been a dream. The noises around him had changed to match the darkening skies of the approaching twilight. As far as he could tell, the tigers had gone and the elephants had been buried beneath the shadows.
A gripping panic swept him. His isolation, not long ago delectable, quickly became a distracting burden. He was suddenly seven years old again and alone at the Chicago Aquarium. He was a child surrounded by a sea of confused, unfamiliar sounds and voices. His desperate mind could conjure only images of the horrible things his mother had told him that strangers did to missing children.
And deep in the dark jungle, all the scared child's mind could think to do was run. And run he did. He ran until his chest hurt and his breaths came only in gasps.
The worn foot path leading back to the village and the relative safety of others seemed unfamiliar to him. He needed the comfort of others all at once. He wanted nothing more than to curl up next to a fire and under the warm veil of the never ending banter of the village elders sleep until the first comforting rays of the sun chased away all the darkness and the threatening shadows that lurked menacingly about.
He made it to the clearing still feeling like he was in a dream"that dream when the groping hands of your pursuer were just out of reach of your shoulder and if you stopped you'd be caught. But the village was quiet and calm. The typical voices and activity of the village was silent. The fires in front of each dwelling were raging and that seemed comfort enough for him.
He stepped from the dark shadows of night and into the pulsating glow of man. There were people, mostly old, sitting just outside the numerous huts. They neither spoke nor moved. Their faces were barely visible from behind the veil of darkness. None acknowledged his passing, but their eyes silently measured him. The mirth and warmth of the past several days and even the nights was gone. There wasn't the typical group of elders telling stories and singing ancient songs around the communal fire.
There was something different about the elders that he did see. He had already been accepted into the community as were his predecessors. He had been preceded by three men who were Cambridge Zoological Biologists. They had come to the area to observe and record some unusual phenomenon and habits of the valley's predators.
The three Englishmen disappeared shortly after getting established in the community. They had wandered out into the jungle and been lost, like three ships set to sail into a raging and unchartered sea. No one said much about them. But their vinyl, plastic, and aluminum "hut" was left untouched as were many of their tools and supplies. He had happened upon a most agreeable if a little eery situation, and he just dismissed the circumstances of his good fortune. No one spoke about them and, except for an occasional bewildered thought about their fate, he rarely thought about them. He excused his callousness on sheer pragmatism. If he dwelled on them for too long he was afraid that he'd soon be mourning the loss of his sanity.
To his mild but pleasant surprise, Obeirika, a not-unpleasant fellow who held the distinction of a Shaman, was sitting at a fire that had been prepared outside the "visitors' hut."
The old man did not smile; that is, it was not in his nature to smile. His stony visage was carved and sculpted into perpetual meditative consideration, as he was even then in front of the fire. His face was darker than the night but glowed as the softening balms on his skin reflected the light of the blaze. He was absolutely ageless...an eternal spirit ranging free on this planet pausing for but a moment as a man...as that man, Obeirika.
The Shaman had learned English from the three preceding visitors, but he had had to learn it quickly making his speech choppy and broken and colored with his own language when the proper English word just wouldn't present itself to him during conversation. It was a pigeon English that was as difficult to understand as any foreign language. He was the only one in the entire village who was able to speak any English at all though, so the wandering photographer was drawn to him. And to hear his broken attempts at speech that night would most likely sound like gorgeous melodies, such was his need for companionship.
And this ancient man with the dark shiny face motioned for the white man to join him by the fire. "Come Mis-tah Thomas. Join me. Sit. You tired. Need rest. Come."
And Mr. Thomas, David, the photographer from the wealthy and exclusive area of Joliet, Illinois just south of Chicago, realized that other than his own thoughts, the old man's was the only human voice he'd heard all day.
Obeirika cut a kola nut and offered half to David. The two ate the ceremonial nut rather unceremoniously in silence once again. Just the same though, David Thomas of Joliet welcomed his quite companion and respected the stillness that the other man enjoyed. The old man's presence, quiet and contemplative, was enough to help chase away the last of the lingering fear.
"There a story told me by a old old man. He told of Mr. Egg...sad and confused. Mr. Egg did not know who he was or what he was to do. So he only sat. One day, a wise man came to Mr. Egg and asked what wrong. Mr. Egg said that he was sad because he did not know who he was. The man thought a bit and said, 'You only lost and weary. You not really egg at all, but something better.' Mr. Egg not think that, so he hear man's words and listen to wisdom. And he tried and tried so hard to know who he was that he broke his shell and flew away as graceful bird in heavens.
"Maybe old man told me was man in story. Don't know. But truth there is in story. Sometimes thing not as they seem. No? Sometimes there more to what is seen."
Obeirika's words suddenly became eloquent and sagely, but David was confused by the story. He nodded anyway, trying to be polite and not chase off his only company.
Obeirika, never looking away from the fluxuating flames, continued. "Do not fear what is. Not all men were meant to be men, some were meant for far greater. There is more to all this," he motioned to the fire, the hut, and the sky and moon, "that what is seen. Perhaps this life is just a shell that needs to be broken."
David was at a loss for words or thoughts. This was, without a doubt, the most that he had ever heard the village Shaman speak about anything. And yet he spun a web of puzzles that was tangling David's thoughts.
"Drink this. It will unlock the secrets, open the door, break the shell. Do not fear. This is your path."
Obeirika lifted an earthen mug from next to the fire and handed it to David.
Looking at the Shaman, he asked, "My path? Whaddyou mean, my path?"
"I do not know your path. Only you and jungle know for sure. And the jungle has told me that it is time."
He looked into the steaming mug. It was an herbal tea of some sort, with an salty odor that could wake the dead. The liquid was dark with little bits of root, leaves, and seeds floating in it.
It wasn't as if David had not experimented with various substances on his travels. He figured this drink would be similar to the magic mushroom or peyote teas that he had tried in the past. It wasn't the worst idea in the world to do a little experimenting that night. He held the mug between both of his hands, held his breath, and then drank greedily.
The ensuing nausea was almost immediate. His stomach tightened into a twist of cramps and pain, while his feet and hands began to tingle. He could feel his temples begin to throb as his pulse quickened and started to pound, becoming almost audible to his ears. He fell to all fours trying to empty the wretchedness from his insides, but his throat only choked out dry heaves that hurt his chest. It was a gripping pain, but on its periphery were hints of inviting warmth and revelation. If he could just get past the pain, he knew that it was out there. There was something just beyond...
He closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands trying to shake the pain from his head and stomach. Behind his closed eyes he saw brilliant colors and flashes of streaking lights that did nothing to alleviate the pain or nausea. He kept his eyes closed until he couldn't stand it any longer. When he looked back up the tiny campfire had grown to immense proportions. It seemed to him that first the village, then the forest, and then the entire world was a single conflagration of flame. What even more amazing was that Obeirika still sat next to him in calm meditation.
David wanted to cry out; wanted to scream, but his voice was choked off in his throat.
Through the blackness of pain, when the world seemed to fade and all that existed in this perpetual presence is pure and exquisite anguish, he could hear a voice...a melody...a chant rising slowly. It came on as a whisper barely cutting through his torment but gradually it dulled even the pain. The chant was familiar. It was reminiscent of things forgotten...cast away...lost, but always drifting there on the edge of recognition.
He had heard it recently. Had heard it...? The cats. Those tigers. They had sung the same chant...the same syllables...the same melody. And yet the voice...it was...Obeirika. He sang the song of the cats. His tones resonated somewhere between human and beast. And his was joined by others. There was a chorus of deep, strong voices that chanted in harmony.
The voices, steady and low and flavored mysticism, lulled him willingly into a trance. The nausea all at once conceded to awareness and calm. His vision came back into focus with an explosion of light.
The fire was immense and the village was now gone. They had moved. They were in a clearing in a very low valley with towering walls of rock and vegetation rising up all around them. The moon was full and bright and a light breeze carried a faint hint of salt and the sea.
They had moved him near the coast? When? He'd been largely coherent all along, he'd thought. Still the chanting continued.
He rose onto his haunches, surprisingly comfortable, considering he could not recall having ever sat like that before. Obeirika sat nearest to him on his left. There were several new faces. There were three men...white men. They appeared, in their faces and hair, somewhere in middle to late middle-age, but their physique left their actual ages in some question. Their shoulders were meaty and strong and their chests were broad and solid. Their frames were solid and powerful.
And then he realized that they were undressed, shrouded only in shadows and the grime of the jungle. There were others as well: an African man of unknown but clearly advanced age but whose skin and muscles appeared healthy and strong, an olive skinned man of Mediterranean descent who was still very much a boy at least in face and features if not in body, a woman who accompanied him and sat very near in a very maternal and protective manner, and finally, directly across from David was her.
Even through the rarified haze of the fire that separated David Thomas from her, she was beautiful...a masterpiece. She rivaled the grandest of sculptures from antiquity. As if she had been cut to perfection from the finest bronze and cast to perfection...her skin, her legs, her torso and breasts, her arms, shoulders, and neck all beamed with a welcoming glow that begged, enticed, and teased. If it were not for the fire, he would have been compelled to touch her. She was radiant; a vision of desire.
He could feel his temperature rise and cheeks begin to glow. He breathed in slowly and deeply, filling his lungs with the smell of the fire, the valley and her. He could smell her despite all else that was around them. It was that smell that gripped him and flooded his mind with animal lust.
As she moved around the fire, her hair, long and black, spilled down her back and over her shoulders onto her full breasts. She moved like a predator, deliberately. He thought he heard her emit a low growl...almost a purr.
Obeirika's chanting deepened, standing out now from the other's voices. He was slowly raising another chalice carefully above his head. This container was longer than the earthen mug and pure white. It was vaguely familiar, but...?
It was a bleached femur...a thigh bone, hollowed and carved with ornate characters. She took the bone mug from the Shaman and drank a long and greedy mouthful, some of the reddish, thick liquid spilling onto her cheeks and running down her neck.
And then she was in front of him. She did not appear the least bit menacing. He looked into her eyes and peered into oblivion. He wasn't sure what he was to do which was beside the point really. All he needed to do was greet her aggressive kiss with sweet surrender and find himself willingly locked in her embrace. He swallowed the harsh, hot fluid as it poured forth from her mouth and into his. He wasn't able to do anything but pull her closer to himself and press his own kiss deeper into her.
And then all that existed was the kiss. A simple and sacred and impassioned kiss that he felt weaken his ankles and knees until he felt he would surely collapse. When he did, she followed him down, landing on and straddling him in one move. His hands searched her back, tangled in her hair, and caressed her shoulders as the kiss continued on and on and on. They breathed into one another...from one another.
And still Obeirika chanted.
He moved his kiss to her cheek and down her neck as she continued to grind her pelvis against his almost violently. His tongue moved across her warm, inviting flesh pausing several times to bite at the tender exposed tissue of her neck, shoulders, and breasts.
She rolled him on top of her, wrapping her legs around his waist and pulling him closer and deeper. Her claws ran down the length of his back, cutting shallow, narrow grooves along his spine. He growled himself this time and increased his rhythmic thrusts. Her nails dug deeper into his back. The pain was delicious and enticing.
Still Obeirika chanted.
They pulled and scratched and bit at one another. They rolled about, almost wrestling. First she was on top of him and then he shifted his weight and forced her off. And as they squared off with one another, Obeirika stopped.
David Thomas felt invigorated and alive. He at last tasted the freedom for which he had waited a lifetime. His fears and doubts were gone and he felt somehow stronger, healthier. There was something different in all things, but all things suddenly made sense.
He sat down promptly and faced back toward the others. They were all seated on their haunches; all except Obeirika who stood, staring at him with such satisfaction in his eyes.
And then David Thomas knew. He looked down at his new body, over at his new mate, and then to Obeirika who had helped the transformation happen. Obeirika had helped peel back the shell and show him how to break through. He was filled with profound gratitude and nodded to the Shaman. He tried to speak but all that came were guttural grunts.
The old man nodded his blessing and pointed to the forest that opened up before them. David stood on his four strong legs and reveled in his new, agile, seemingly invincible body. He trotted off with his mate at his side and his new family following closely behind.
And as Obeirika watched the last of the spectacular predatory cats disappear into the night, he could feel a subtle shift in the balance of things.