Early morning in the rainforest. There’s never true silence out here. The undergrowth teems with life, each individual competing for their time to eat, breed, fight and die. This is nature undiluted, at its apex.
Its five in the morning and I’m sweating as I walk. I’m always sweating out here, even now, when the heavy tropical air is a little cooler. My glasses cloud and slip, unable to maintain their customary perch. There’s no respite for my pale European skin in this oppressive heat. The exhausted feeling it brings as you move makes everything a struggle.
Ahead, the flashing machete of my guide, Laura rises and falls. There’s just the two of us out here. She’s a local and I’m the adventurous tourist keen to see something ‘off the track’. We’ve been away from our camp, just off the Piura river, for about three hours. She says there are old things out here, idols and artefacts left behind by a forgotten civilisation from thousands of years ago.
“Matthew, hurry up!”
I think she likes me. She’s attractive, unmarried and speaks good English. A strong independent woman who’s made a life for herself and her family. Am I the handsome foreigner, who comes to town and sweeps her away? Hardly. Twenty-five years ago perhaps, but then she would hardly have been alive back then.
She’s out of sight. I struggle into a run to catch her up. She’s cut a path, but you still have to pick your way through. My backpack jostles me and I stumble, nearly falling face first into the living earth, cursing myself as I do.
I push through the brush and find her, standing on a rock, pointing.
In front of us, covered and claimed by the jungle, a huge arch, carved from a single slab of stone. Its three times my height, covered in creepers and carvings. I move closer and I can see pictures and words in a language I will never know how to read. This is old, very very old.
“Look up there,” Laura says.
I gaze where she is pointing. There’s a carving decorating the lintel – the image of a woman holding a staff in each hand. There’s something strange about the shape of her body. The proportions aren’t—
“You got here just in time,” Laura says. She beckons me over and I climb up and onto the stone to join her. The top of the slab is perfectly flat, as if it’s been placed here. It has been placed here.
I look at the arch. The sun bathes the interior as dawn’s fingers creep through the jungle. The stone carvings on the inside are made gold by the power of morning. I see depictions of men, women and children, all facing away from us towards the light. I realise the construction has been perfectly aligned by its maker for this, to let long forgotten idols renew themselves in the glow of our eternal life giver.
“That’s amazing,” I say.
“It happens once a year,” Laura explains. “In this moment we are one with the ancient people who stood here and witnessed the same beauty.”
“What happened to them?”
“Like all things, they had their time. Only the forest remembers them now.”
After a few minutes the moment is over. I walk down to the arch, examining the workmanship. Long forgotten faces stare at out of the stone. I see flecks of paint, all that remains of their outer skin. Every person looks toward the same spot, the moment of light. It must have taken incredible skill to align every gaze perfectly like this.
There’s one figure that’s different. A twisted body dressed in robes, turning away from the sun towards the others. Its larger, perhaps twice the size, its hands and arms outstretched. To embrace the crowd or give warning?
The robed carving’s face is obscured by bright green suckered tendrils that grow out of the wall. I reach into my pocket for my penknife, dig it out and flip open the blade.
A hand closes over my wrist. It’s Laura. “Do not,” she says.
“Why not?” I ask. “No-one’s going to notice.”
“The forest has claimed that one. We do not interfere with what the forest wants.”
I laugh and look at her. “I’ll just remove the growth around his face. I just want to see what he looks like. A tiny cut. It’ll grow back in a day or two.”
She stares and me for several moments, then turns away. “It is your doom,” she says.
I focus on the carving and the bright green plant. The latter is unusual. I can’t see anything like it anywhere else. I trace the shoots back to a carved hole. They are twisted up amongst others, like the cables behind a television set.
I put my knife to the growth around the figure. There’s resistance at first, but then the life beneath my blade gives way and the creeper is gone, revealing the face beneath.
There is no face. There are no eyes, no nose, no mouth. Instead a mass of tendrils erupt from beneath the folds of that hood, all sculpted in horrible detail.
This is no human being.
There is a loud wailing cry somewhere in the distance. I’m suddenly cold and shivering. I look around. “Laura?” I call.
There is no reply.
I walk out from the arch, back from the shadow into the sun’s balm, but it fails to warm me. “Laura!” I shout again.
In response, the ground erupts. Vines, thicker that my legs vomit from the earth, screaming into the light. They swirl, as if tasting the air, then they reach for me.
Now I scream and back away, running for my pack and the stone slab. I make it, but I’m pursued. I feel the touch of a finger against the skin of my bare leg and I scream again, turning, slashing wildly with my knife, but three inches of sharp metal will do nothing against these ancient roots. Suckers clamp onto my legs, needle-like feeders within them tear through flesh and feast greedily on the blood beneath. I feel my life and freedom drain way, taken by a power older than I can comprehend.
Sometime later, the remains of what I was, is dragged into the earth as punishment for my crime.