Love Stories from the Jungle
Note: Not suitable for younger children.
Love Stories from the Jungle
1. The Greatest Hunter
Valara had tied his own darts from the leaves of the pataua tree. He had dipped their points in the sap he had squeezed from the iha vine. The steel knife at his belt he had bought from Captain Pasteur’s trading ship for a dozen barrels of palm oil.
Some would say he had drunk too much rum last night, but Valara was a warrior and a hunter, and he would not let an old man out-drink him. So he had matched Paiini the patarahu, the village chief, cup for cup.
Sometime in the night the chief had begun to tell his tales of how he had hunted great beasts in his youth. Valara had listened to Paiini tell his drunken stories since he had been a boy, and had marvelled at the feats of the chief. But recently he had looked down at the wizened old man and sneered. This man had wrestled a boa constrictor and a tapir? This man had killed a black cayman from his canoe with a blow dart to the eye? This man could scarcely walk without a stick! As the rum flowed freely he spoke his doubts more and more loudly. The chief replied with even more outrageous claims. Eventually Valara lost all patience, and, staggering to his feet, proclaimed that he was a better hunter than the chief. “I am…” he said. “I am the greatest hunter in the jungle.”
Vichu Haru, the mad old dancing woman cackled at that.
“The greatest hunter, I say!”
“Prove it,” the chief had replied.
So now Valara was hunting Mama Tapir. For a dozen years, Mama Tapir had snuffled her way through the undergrowth around the edge of the village and in the trees nearby, and although dozens of men had tried to catch her, the wily beast had evaded them all. With his blowpipe and fold of darts in one hand and his knife at his hip, Valara jogged through the hot, damp forest, following Mama Tapir’s trail. As he ran he breathed the same phrase over and over again: “I am the greatest hunter in the jungle, the greatest hunter, the greatest hunter.”
Twenty minutes out from the village, Valara stopped abruptly. The trail had ended. He cast around. Nothing. Not a single footprint. No droppings. The leaf litter was soft and left easy indentations. How could Mama Tapir have left no trace? Surely she had not climbed a tree. Valara shivered suddenly. Did Mama Tapir have magic?
He spat in disgust. He was a warrior. He was not afraid of the magic of animals. “I am the greatest hunter in the jungle!” he shouted and heard frightened birds bustling away through the canopy above.
He made his way back down Mama Tapir’s trail, looking more carefully now. She was clever, cleverer than the other hunters. He must remember that.
There, to the left! A hoof had slipped on flat rocks, leaving a mark on the thin film of moss that covered them. She had doubled back on her trail to escape him. He clambered over the rocks. Now he could see the spoor clearly.
He began to run.
“Oh, Mama Tapir, you are a sly one, but I am the greatest hunter in the jungle.”
From far ahead, Valara heard crashing, and snapping wood. He sprinted after.
As he ran, his muscles seemed to him to grow stronger, and he felt a strange pushing inside his skin, as though a million tiny needles were struggling out. An easy power flowed into his stride.
Sweat had soaked his T-shirt and his pants. He fumbled at them with his left hand, pulling them off, and cast them to the forest floor. He no longer needed them to keep his body warm; his fur was thick enough for that. The new fur did not seem odd. A great hunter should have fur.
He lengthened his strides, feeling his long muscles bunch and stretch. Somewhere ahead, Mama Tapir squealed.
Once, hours into the chase, when he became thirsty, he stopped to drink by the edge of a wide pool, where electric-blue butterflies spun above the surface, and he lapped the water from its edge. Then he loped in pursuit again.
Branches whipped his face, but he no longer cared. Soon he would catch her, and then no one could say he was not the greatest hunter in the jungle. He had never run so fast nor felt so good. The blowpipe slipped from his paws, forgotten.
Mama Tapir appeared on top of a rocky ridge, looking down. With his sharp, slit eyes Valara saw her flanks heaving and her head drooping. She hoisted her short proboscis as though in anger and gave a high-pitched bellow, then turned and fled into the twisting trees.
Valara dropped to all fours; it was easier to run that way. With a single leap he reached the first boulder of the slope, then launched himself for the second. His claws scrabbled on the wet rocks, and he threw his body forward, stretching for the next boulder. His front paws caught on it and he pulled himself up.
He raced after Mama Tapir.
She was waiting at the base of a cliff, finally trapped and exhausted, and with nowhere to run. Valara stared into her black eyes and saw no fear. He stalked towards her, keeping his body low. He unsheathed his claws and growled quietly in the back of his throat. She raised her head and screamed defiance. He leapt.
She met him head on, but he was faster and stronger. His teeth clamped around her throat and his weight threw her to the ground, twisting her neck and tearing flesh. He heard vertebrae pop, then snap. Mama Tapir’s legs spasmed and one hoof scraped his belly. Then she collapsed, paralysed. Their eyes met.
“I am the greatest hunter in the jungle,” he roared, and felt the whole jungle tremble. Then he tore out her throat with his teeth and began to feed.
2. The Butterfly Pool
Branca was sweating. She had spent all her life in the forest and was used to its heat, but still the sweat ran freely over her face and between her breasts and down her arms. She ran her hands over her skin, to wipe the sweat away, and felt the skin go tight and a quiver travel through her body. She gulped the humid air.
The forest was quiet, except for the whisper of the breeze in the treetops. Moisture and heat hung in the air. In the shelter of the buttressed roots of vast trees, orange, white, and red bracket fungi fed on the steaming leaf mould.
Sometimes, when men walked by, Branca’s skin flushed hot, and her hairs stood on end, and she shivered. At times like this, her breath came fast and shallow, and she found it hard to hold her hands by her sides instead of reaching out towards the young men.
Yesterday, Valara had stopped and stared at her, and she had thought she might die if he didn’t look away. She had burned with embarrassment and something stronger that she did not quite understand. Last year she had not even glanced at men; now she could scarcely stop staring.
She needed something to cool her down.
There was no track to the butterfly pool; as far as Branca knew, no one but her ever visited it, and she hadn’t been there for years. The rotting leaves were cool and slimy beneath her feet, and they slipped as she walked. She pushed past a rock outcrop, through wide, smooth leaves, and let the scarlet bromeliads that arched into a patch of sunlight brush over her arms and shoulders. Over the hill to the east of the village she went, and turned onto a trail that paralleled a small red-water creek. Then she turned east again into the forest, leaving the trail behind.
She stopped at the kissing tree, and looked up through its great branches. The feel of its bark against her skin made her lips dry. Then she turned away. The kissing tree could not satisfy her now. She needed more than that. She continued on.
Finally, near the bottom of a hill, she reached the pool.
She stepped through the ferns and overhanging trees. An electric-blue butterfly fluttered past, as large as her hand. The pool was deep and earth-dark. It was fed from a higher pool, through a narrow channel between boulders, which in turn was filled by a low waterfall. She saw the impressions of a jaguar’s paws in the mud beside the pool.
Dozens of the electric-blue butterflies swirled over the surface, or spiralled up into the air. Branca kneeled at the edge of the pool and plunged her hands into the water. She splashed cool drops over her face, then over her arms and legs, and imagined them steaming from her heat. She dashed drops over her chest. They sparked like miniature diamonds against her soft brown skin. She smelled a faint scent of rotting leaves mingled with fresh sweat. Her breath came shorter. Her heart seemed larger in her chest.
If I can’t stop this, I will surely die, she thought.
She looked around, and, seeing no one, pulled her dress over her head. Her skin tingled.
She could scarcely breathe. Her mother would be appalled if she could see Branca now, naked in the light and in view of anyone who passed; granny Vichu would laugh at her.
She slipped into the water. Coolness engulfed her, draining the painful heat from her skin. Every hair on her body stood upright, and she floated on her back in the water, face just above the surface.
A butterfly hovered for a moment an inch above her face. She felt tiny eddies of air from its wings. She raised her head and kissed the insect’s dangling legs. It rose above her, its wings shimmering with refracted light.
More butterflies appeared from the trees, flashing in the sun, spinning above the pool, until the whole sky was filled with blue. Then they began to descend.
Cool air washed Branca’s exposed skin, and she arched her body towards them.
Butterflies landed on her skin until she was covered in fluttering wings. Every leg of each insect clutched one of her erect hairs, and she felt thousands of tiny tugs like minute electric currents, each one almost painful. The wings beat, and slowly she felt her body lift out of the water. She gasped. Silver specks shot across her vision.
And the butterflies flapped on, carrying Branca higher and higher into the blue sky.
3. The Kissing Tree
As Kubari climbed, he sang a few lines of the children’s song:
“Who will you see,
“Who will you see,
“Who will you see in the kissing tree?”
The bark was rough beneath his hands, but the branches were close and the climb was easy. He whistled gently as he pulled himself higher in the foliage.
If the other young men saw him climbing the kissing tree they would laugh at him and call him a boy. That would make no difference; they often laughed at him.
A cool breeze blew over his shoulders and back, evaporating the thin layer of sweat. He hauled himself over a jutting branch and sat. From this height he could look out over the forest canopy and see it slide away to the horizon, green and yellow and rumpled. The sky was deep blue and cloudless, and the sun warm. Kubari closed his eyes.
The branch dipped, as a new weight joined him, and the tree shivered. For a moment, he kept his eyes closed, not daring to look. When he did look, the girl next to him was smiling. Asiva! Of course, Asiva. Who else? Since the first time he had climbed the kissing tree as a boy, it had always been Asiva. She leaned forward and kissed him fully on the lips. He trembled until she released him.
He gazed into her eyes, unable to look away. She had laughing eyes, but he knew she wasn’t mocking him, unlike the other young men and women. She had never mocked him.
“I don’t think I’m a brave man, Asiva,” Kubari said. “The young men want to hunt a jaguar today. I would prefer to stay in the village.”
“Hunting a jaguar is not bravery. It is posturing. You are brave.”
“Not brave enough to tell Asiva I love her.”
She smiled. “Not yet, perhaps, but one day.”
A plane passed high overhead, tracing a white line of vapour across the sky.
“Do you ever think about flying away in one of those planes?” Kubari asked.
“Nor do I.”
“Why not?” she said.
“Because I don’t think they could take me any place where I would be happier. And because you are here.”
He looked at her smooth skin and shiny black hair. He longed to reach out and touch her, but he knew it was not allowed. The kissing tree had its rules.
“You want to touch Asiva,” she said, and it was not a question.
Kubari kicked his legs beneath the branch, not speaking.
“You know what you must do to touch her and hold her.”
He let his head fall. He felt the inside of his chest tightening. “I am not a brave man, Asiva. If I tell her I love her, she might laugh at me. I couldn’t bear it.”
“She will not laugh at you.”
He looked at her imploringly. “So you say. But what if you are wrong?”
“Why would I be wrong?” Asiva asked.
Staring out over the treetops, Kubari said, “I sometimes see her looking at me, when I turn my head. Sometimes I tell myself she is looking at me because she likes me. Other times I tell myself that she is looking at me with contempt.”
Asiva did not reply.
“The elders say the road will come through here,” Kubari said.
“I think so too,” Asiva replied.
“I am scared.”
“So am I.”
They looked in silence at the forest below, both lost in thought.
“Kiss me, Asiva,” Kubari said suddenly.
“You know that if I kiss you again, I must go. Don’t you want to talk longer?”
“I do, but I want you to kiss me more than that.”
“As you wish,” she said. She leaned forward and touched her slightly open lips to his. Her lips were soft and dry, and her breath sent shivers straight through him. He closed his eyes and she pressed closer to him. He reached for her, touching the skin of her arm for a second, and she drew back. He opened his eyes and saw her smiling sadly. His heart almost broke. He struggled to breathe through his clenched throat.
She leaned back against the bark of the tree, and as he watched she faded, her skin becoming rough, her outline becoming shadows and creases in the bark, her body sinking into the wood. In seconds, only her face was left and this was just lines etched on the tree.
“I’ll come back, Asiva.”
“I know,” she whispered, and was gone.
He began to climb down the tree. Perhaps when he got back to the village he would find Asiva and tell her he loved her.
4. The Passion of Vichu Haru
Some days, Paiini found it hard even to rise. His joints ached all of the time, and when the pain was particularly bad any movement was enough to bring tears to his old eyes.
Once I could have danced, he thought. Now look at me. But he had never danced. I was a proud young man. Too proud to have fun. Too proud to risk someone laughing at me. Stupid old man. Stupid young man. Now he was dying. He coughed, and spat a brown lump into the dust in front of his hut. And if I had danced, then maybe I could have danced with her. But this was old time longing, he told himself, so old that it was as much habit as hope. That longing had carved him from brittle wood.
On the far side of the village, a radio crackled out old tunes.
He tried to straighten his back. Soon she would come and he would watch her as he had watched her for sixty years, since she was a girl and he was an almost-man. At least his eyes were still good.
He heard her first, her cracked, thin voice trailing into the space between the huts as she returned from the stream, then saw her emerge from around the church. She was dancing, of course, her skirt spinning in the dust, her hunched, wizened body swaying, her deep wrinkles set in a laughing smile. Vichu Haru always danced. That was her only love. She danced as she walked. She danced as she washed clothes in the stream, the thump of her paddle on the clothes beating time to the shift of her shoulders. She danced when cooking or cleaning or just talking to her friends. Music and laughter and joy followed her.
In his time, Paiini had seen her dance with almost every man and woman and child in the tribe, spinning the littlest children around her, and twirling the adults. She had danced with everyone except him, except proud Paiini. He would have given anything to dance with her, but a chief could not dance. It was undignified. No one would respect him.
He coughed again, bent double as his weak lungs laboured to bring up a wad of phlegm and blood. When he straightened, Vichu Haru was dancing towards him, smiling as she always smiled.
“Dance with me, Paiini,” she called.
He shook his head. “I am too old, Vichu.”
She laughed. “No one can be too old to dance.”
“I am dying, Vichu. It is too late for me to dance.” Yet he wanted to spring to his feet and take her in his arms. I would do it too, if my knees and my hips were not so painful. Then he grimaced. Stupid old man. You wouldn’t do it. You never had the courage. There was the truth. It was nothing to do with pride or dignity, it was courage. And perhaps by now he had become too attached to his longing. Brittle wood did not bend.
Vichu Haru plumped herself down in the dust beside his bench.
“We are all dying, Paiini, from the day we are born, but some don’t finish dying before they are dead. Are you dead?”
“I am old, and that is as good as dead. You could never understand. You’ll never be old.”
She cackled, showing toothless gums. “Then dance.”
He reached out and touched her shoulder. “You have entranced me since I was a boy. You were the village and the forest and the sky. You were life. I was never alive enough to dance with you, even though I loved you as I watched you with other men. They were not good enough for you either.”
“Why did you not tell me, Paiini?” Vichu Haru asked. Amazingly, there were tears in her eyes. Paiini felt his own eyes stinging. “I could have loved you.”
“Like you loved all the others? That would not have been enough for me.”
“I would have danced with you.” Even now, as she sat close by him, her shoulders and head were swaying, dancing.
“Like all the others.”
“I would have danced only with you, foolish man.”
“It is too late now, Vichu. I have no regrets.” I regret every day.
“It is never too late. We will dance in your hut. Come.”
He would be dead soon, he knew that. Did it matter if they laughed at him now? Had it ever mattered? Perhaps they wouldn’t respect him, but the young people did not respect him now. They sneered and laughed at him.
She stood easily, and reached down a hand for him. Reluctantly, he took it and stood. His knees and hips flamed, but he tried not to show it in his face. For sixty years he had wanted to dance with her. Even for him, perhaps that was too long.
Vichu Haru danced to the door of his hut.
She danced through the doorway, into the dark. Paiini followed, feeling ashamed that she would see the unswept floor and unmade bed, and his spare clothes cast dirty in the dust.
She danced in the centre of the hut, not seeming to notice the mess. She reached out a hand for him, beckoning. Sixty years he had wasted. No more. Painfully, he joined her.
She danced to her unheard song
danced with him in her arms
danced with him in her heart.
Then they lay, and continued to dance.
5. The Road
I have a business, yes?
I have a wife and children. The men who work for me, they have families. There are thousands of people in the cities who need land and food. Perhaps you want them to starve?
You, you who are fat, you who are rich, do you ever say no to any of the food that comes from my country? Do you never eat the beef or the soya or the rice or the sugar? Do you never wear the diamonds and gold that we dig from our rivers? Do you have no wood in your rich, rich house? No furniture, no tables, no chairs, no desks, no doors? Did you ever stop to ask where they came from? They came from here, from my country, from under these trees, from these trees. Maybe you don’t think wood grows on trees?
Our country needs wealth. You who have wealth, who are you to tell us that we cannot use our wealth? The jungle is our wealth. Should we suffer because of the problems you have created? This is my country and I love my country. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made, for the good of the country.
There are many types of love.
And this is only a road.
The bulldozer’s tracks tear through the leaf mould, spinning and slipping, kicking up wads of rotting matter. Branches crack and fall to the ground with sighing, rustling thumps. The engine roars and the tracks catch again. The great beast jerks forward. In the shaking canopy, birds scream and hurl themselves into flight. Underbrush tears.
The bulldozer lowers its blade and aims for a tall tree. The smells of rust and half-burned oil mix with the scents of crushed flowers and split seeds. The driver whoops, and his machine smashes into the hard wood. The trunk shivers, bends, then breaks. For a moment the canopy is reluctant to release its hold on the tree, but gravity and momentum take over and the tree comes whistling through the air.
The butterfly pool is still, save for a perfect layer of electric-blue butterflies that hover above it, shimmering in the sunlight, a second, quickened surface. The tree crashes into the pool. The butterflies burst apart and scatter like a shattered mirror.
Valara stalks through the jungle, his paws as silent as a whisper on the soft leaves. Today something has changed. There is little prey in the jungle, and when he comes across animals they are fleeing from something they fear more than they fear him. Perhaps, he thinks for a brief moment, he too should run away. But Valara is the greatest hunter in the jungle, and he will not flee. Instead he stalks towards the bitter smell and sound of ripping wood. No one sees his spotted body slip along close to the ground.
The jaguar comes springing from a ridge of rock. It hits the windscreen of the bulldozer in a storm of claws. Its teeth clash, and spittle sprays the windscreen. Claws shriek over glass. The windscreen stars. The jaguar roars and the jungle quakes.
The bulldozer’s engine jumps and stalls. The driver throws his arm over his face and screams. A paw cracks the glass.
A shot sounds and Valara feels a lead punch in his ribs. He slips, then his scrabbling back paws find purchase and he throws himself at the driver cowering behind the sagging glass. His claws scratch paint and scar metal.
Another shot. The bullet punches Valara to the ground. He tries to leap again, but one of his back legs will not move. There are greater hunters in the jungle now.
The bulldozer’s engine growls into life.
Valara pulls himself into the bushes. What is the point of being the greatest hunter in the jungle when the jungle is dying? The thick hair that covers his body falls away; his claws and teeth shorten, become blunt. His paws change to hands and feet. The jaguar is a man again. He pushes himself upright and limps away, bleeding.
Chainsaws shriek as they cut into the kissing tree. It is too old and strong for the bulldozers, so the men are forced to slow. The kissing tree pleads and begs and groans in a thousand different voices, voices of young lovers and lonely adults, but the men hear none of them. The chainsaws cut deeper.
In the village, Vichu Haru is dancing.
“We must leave now. Come with me,” Paiini pleads. His knees and hips are fire.
Where could we go? Vichu’s dance seems to say.
“You are killing my heart.”
Then stay, the dance says.
After sixty years of need and longing, he is finally with her. He doesn’t want it to end; he realises that he doesn’t want to die.
“It is better to live than to die, Vichu. Even in the city.”
The look on her face hits him like an arrow from a hunter’s bow. Brittle wood shatters.
He turns and hobbles from the village. He will love her from afar, as he has for sixty years.
Where the trees stop and the village begins, the young men have gathered behind barricades made of piled logs and branches and fallen trees. They clutch bows and arrows and blowpipes. In the middle of the line, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other young men, stands Kubari. He has never been so afraid. He can hear branches pop and trees come crushing down, and can see the canopy shake scarcely a mile away. He will not flee, no matter what. For once, the other young men are not mocking him.
From among the trees, figures emerge.
Kubari feels a hand on his shoulder and turns to see Asiva standing behind him. She squeezes his shoulder, and he places his hand on hers. She smiles.
A hunter climbs to the top of the barricade and raises his bow. Guns begin to fire. Kubari raises his blowpipe to his lips and the young men of the village return fire, their arrows and darts falling short.
A bullet cuts through Asiva, through the muscle above her collarbone. She staggers.
Kubari looks around. Men are falling. Asiva will die if she stays her, but he knows that she will not leave while he is here.
“I am no coward,” he says.
She is bleeding, over her arm and her chest and the hand she presses to the wound.
He bends, picks her up in his arms, and carries her away from the barricade. They will think he is a coward. He does not care, he tells himself. Asiva is more important. But he cannot stop crying.
The men with guns climb over the clumsy barricades, over the bodies, still firing.
In the village, Vichu Haru is dancing alone.
She dances to the song of the guns
dances with bullets in her arms
dances with bullets in her heart.
Then she falls.
– End –