An Incident In A Jungle Clearing

The world comes back into focus soon enough. Dan’s standing with his rifle in his hands, the thunderclap of it still echoing in the branches of the tallest trees. He looks over at me with a feverish, half-way grin.

“Well, you saw him. He had a weapon. He was coming right at us.”

This followed what had been one of the worst days of our trip so far. Dan and I had set out to catalogue the various types of lories and lorikeets native to the island but so far we had managed to amass precisely no data to show for the week and a half that we had been here. I had managed to take a couple of blurred photographs that showed the dazzling colours of the birds at wing, but we had been unable to get down to the serious work of sorting the Charmosyna palmarum from the Charmosyna margarethae. This was largely due to the reports of rebel insurgencies that filtered down to our hotel each morning.

“Oh no, sir, very dangerous to go out today.” It was the same story every morning. The hotel manager would bob over to us at breakfast and warn us that there was fighting near the area that the birds nested. He would smile broadly, showing off his strong yellow teeth, and recount to numbers of the dead for us. It never seemed to matter to him, and Dan guessed that it had been the manger’s secret ambition to be a news anchorman. I doubted that. There was no TV in the hotel, after all, and the radio was constantly tuned to cricket matches for places I had never heard of.

Dan and I spent our days staring out into the wet jungle from the hotel windows, and playing desultory games of checkers. There was also the hotel bar and an old upright piano, with two keys missing in the lowest octave. Dan would play drunken ragtime tunes after night had fallen, until the distant sound of gunfire panicked the hotel manager and he closed the bar for the night. This had been a fairly regular occurrence.

This morning, the bobbing manger came over us to deliver his normal fatality check, but he also brought us a letter from the university that was funding our small expedition. Dan read it, sweat appearing on his brow.

“They’re checking up on us,“ he told me. “They want us to fax them something to show we’re able to work.” A quick search of the hotel room showed that there really wasn’t much that we could have used. The data was incomplete, and without photographs there would be nothing to show that we weren’t just making up our figures. That was nothing more to say.

The manager, of course, had plenty to say, though it was all variations of things that we’d heard before. “Terrible danger,” he told us. “Many bodies – many dead.” It wasn’t the most reassuring way to begin our trip into the jungle. Eventually, on seeing our determination to leave his hotel, he reluctantly fetched an ancient looking rifle from behind the reception desk and handed it over to Dan. “If you see the rebel – shoot them between the eyes,” he told us, a look of seriousness crossing his face.

“How will we recognise the rebels?”

“You will recognise. They are monsters.” With that advice he returned to his duties, placing himself next to the radio and tuning it to his beloved cricket.

Dan and I had set out into the jungle, eyes open for the radiant flash of colour that would indicate the passage of one of the lories, but the morning didn’t treat us kindly. As we moved further and further into the jungle, Dan became more agitated. We argued about the length of time of our frequent rest stops, and his knuckles showed up white against the barrel of the gun that he clutched.

“We’ve not got much time,” he said. “If we don’t get a fucking shift on they’ll have no habitat left!” I didn’t think that five minutes would make much of a difference one way or another, but I could see that he was upset. We were both sweating, and the darting flies buzzed around our hair as we fought through the foliage. I trudged onward behind him. He was right, but what could we do? The trees were huge and old and towered over us, and weird calls echoed from the animals that lived there. Somewhere above us the precious bird flitted about, but from our vantage point, we could see nothing.

Eventually the trees thinned out and we came to a clearing. Dan stared at me like I was an idiot when I suggested we stop to take a drink of water. I looked upward, the sun was high and the foliage must have been hiding the roosting birds. I could here their frantic twittering, as though our voices carried new and clumsy in this landscape. I scanned the trees at the opposite side of the clearing, looking for any sigh of a colour that clashed with the oppressive green of the leaves. Reaching the lower branches and trunk of the tree, I was surprised to see a pair of eyes staring back at me.

It was a small boy, no more than four or five, barefoot and standing in the shadow of the trees. He was watching Dan and I with blank curiosity. His head tilted to one side as though he was trying to process our strange clothes and gear, so different to his own simple loose trousers and top. Over his shoulder a bow was slung, taller than him and obviously there for show, as though he was pretending to be a great hunter. His dark eyes flitted from Dan to me, as though he was deciding what he should do.

Then a thunderclap, and the sky was filled with the glorious colour of startled birds.

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Douglas Noble was born in Scotland and grew up all wrong. Don't blame his parents though, they tried their best.

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