The drizzly air was the opening act for the season’s first rainstorm.
In the dense shrub layer, the colossal fern fronds shivered as the rubber-tree leaves parted, revealing shadow so impenetrable, light was sucked into it. A pair of eyes opened suddenly like dramatic stage lights. They were golden, striated with honey and amber, and entirely malevolent. The black elliptical pupils narrowed to thin slits as the brow furrowed. It smelled white meat. There were two distinct scents, the pungent acidic male musk, and the sweeter, citrusy scent of the female. The creature with the felinish eyes followed the scents, they smelled roughly 2.8 miles away. They smelled delicious.
Angie peered up through the tall canopy of the jungle. The topmost branches- the emergent layer- swayed erratically. Jewel toned leaves fluttered wildly, as if in a shaken emerald snow globe. Black bottomed nimbus clouds sailed through the opening between the branches, as menacing as pirate ships. Even as she looked, they amassed alarmingly fast.
“Marcus, storm coming, we need to find shelter.” She did her best to not sound annoyed with him. That would only make things worse, even though she felt she was pointing out the obvious.
Marcus split-seconded a glance her way, only to acknowledge he had been listening. Being ignored was her biggest peeve and things were tense already. He said, “I just don’t understand. This is the newest, superior satellite GPS the world has…”
Angie ground her teeth; she’d heard this lamentation five times in the past two hours. “Oh, for Christ’s sake Marcus! Next it’ll say there’s a Starbucks ahead!” She was losing patience as much as she was starting to panic.
He said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was.”
She sighed, “I would seriously risk being eaten alive for a double White chocolate crème Frappuccino served by cannibals.”
Marcus was grateful she had lightened the mood a little. He felt foolish for depending on modern day gadgets, and guilty for getting them lost.
As if she could read his mind, she said, “I lost my compass on the bus. Stop beating yourself up, we’re in this mess together.”
Marcus nervously preened his dark soul patch and really looked at his wife now. Her eyes brought the jungle greens to shame, her sunlight yellow hair stuck out from under her camo safari hat around her ears to just under her chin. As she looked up again nervously, the nostrils of her proud nose flared like Sheena of the Jungle catching the telltale scent of ozone in the air. God, he loved this woman. So strong she was. He vowed to himself that when they were back to civilization, he’d take her somewhere with thick, soft towels, a spa, and five-star room service.
He tossed the useless BeiDou instrument into his pack. Angie was right, they needed to make shelter before the heavens opened. The first rains would be brutal.
That morning, in a small village a couple of miles north of Juba, the natives had adamantly warned them of the coming storm, even going so far as to insist they stay in the village. The leader, Makiio, understood English, it was a requirement to his position. He was dark as licorice, a head shorter than Angie, two shorter than Marcus, with thick, coarse hair woven with shell beads and long pink feathers. His only garment was a leather strap with a pouch in front. The pouch sported a large Southern American sterling and turquoise concho buckle.
Makiio had acted as tour guide for the couple who had become like momma ducks, a horde of giggling young children skipping along behind them, chattering in their high-pitched voices- a clicking, guttural language.
Makkiio had proudly showed off their community hall, where most meals were shared. The walls were wood logs and dried palm fronds, the interior walls had been painstakingly sanded to a smooth surface. Like the smaller individual huts, the structure was seated on pilons 40 feet from the ground.
Makkiio’s 12-year-old son had been busy at work on a detailed mural in red, white, and black pigments. When done the painting, it would be inlaid with polished stones and iridescent shells. The boy was a thin, dark, Alan M. Hunt. A concise, colorful menagerie of indigenous wildlife paraded around the large room. The hoofed animals were decorated with stiff animal hair that Makkiio insisted were from those beasts, their glossy cowry shell eyes so realistic they seemed to follow the observers. The large cats were adorned with claws and teeth. The birds were exceptionally colorful with a rainbow of bright feathers.
Angie nudged Marcus and pointed to a cat-like creature that stood heads taller than the jaguar. It was panther-black but at least twice as large, it resembled a thin bear with a cat’s face, though the face had the long snout of a wolf. The front claws were as long as its snout. She said, “The kid’s got quite an imagination.”
Makiio’s lips darkened into a thin dark line. He seemed displeased with Angie’s comment.Marcus said, “You said these were all actual creatures---”
Makkio made a raspberry sound through his tense lips, as if annoyed. After long seconds, he said, “Jaal see this beast.” He pointed at the monstrous beast with quick, short jabs. On the wall, it was the only illustration without natural adornments. “The Palaumii no lie. My son true. Pale katan-ii never believe.” He shook his shaggy head sadly, shrugged his bony shoulders, and muttered something accentuated with clicks that sounded like, ‘tsk, tsk, tsk.’
Angie, intrigued by native folklore, asked, “Does it have a name?”
Makkiio said, “We call it Moul- Managaki. ‘Death Creeping’.”
Marcus and Angie studied the picture closer. Angie shuddered.
Simultaneously, 2.1 miles away, Moul hunched his back and shook his thick black fur, as if Angie’s shudder had vibrated through the jungle like concentric waves on a lake after a stone toss. He resembled a rhino-sized Halloween cat. He rose on back legs to an impressive twelve feet. His wet, pointed nose wrinkled as he sniffed the clean precipitation scented air. His lips parted, and a ham-pink tongue swiped his drooling jowls.
They had declined to stay. Marcus had been eager to get them back on track, he insisted that as soon as they found the Kasai River, there would be a trail alongside of it that would lead them to the Lomam, which they could the follow to Kampala. Unfortunately, the GPS device had turned them around in a circle, directed them to a dead end, and insisted the trail they sought was directly in front of them. In front of them was a Sumaumeira tree with a diameter of ten feet at least.
Angie updated the weather report while Marcus consulted the old-fashioned paper map he’d picked up in Khartoum, at the start of the hiking segment of their adventure.
Angie had laughed, “What? No faith in that new gizmo?”
Marcus had blushed like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Better safe than sorry. I’m sure we won’t need it. You can cut it up for your scrapbook when we get home.”
She smiled her pearly whites at him, raised to her toes, and kissed his dark three-day stubbled cheek.
Now, six days later, he cursed and shook the paper in his hands.
Angie asked with dread, “What now?”
“The date. This map was printed in 1984.” He laughed then, insanity leaking out his ears.
Angie said, “C’mon. Let’s tent up there,” she pointed to the left side of the enormous kapok tree, “See those thick overlapping branches?”
He did. “Good call Ange, let’s do it.”
As they climbed the tree, the wind picked up. They were quite sheltered beneath the thick canopy, but the upper leaves flapped furiously, like shimmering green-winged insects clinging for life. They huddled together beneath an upper tarp; their packs made headboards for their waterproof sleeping bags. Darkness fell like heavy theatre drapery. The clean, rivery scent intensified and suddenly God rotated the knob of heaven’s shower, the dial set to ‘dump’. The couple tucked beneath the shower curtain shared beef jerky, crackers, and cheese as they watched the sky. They ate figs for desert and played ‘I Spy.’
Angie said, “Hey, we’re starring I our own Jumanji!”
Marcus said, “Yeah…that would be on my list of things I could have lived without.”
Two miles away, Moul inhaled in short frantic bursts. He snorted rainwater out his nose and ‘GA-ROWRED’ in frustration. He’s lost their scent in the rain. He slinked up a kapok tree and draped his enormous body along a sturdy branch. He didn’t mind rain, it felt good on his thick, dusty coat. He hated rivers.
Even with the tarps and waterproof coverings, it was inevitable the couple get wet. By the time the sky started lightening faintly, they were soaked. And not only had the rain not abated, but it also had intensified.
“Let’s get going,” said Marcus, “Clouds came in from the Indian, east to west, so we know west is that way.” He pointed towards the flagging trees on the horizon. “We hike west until we find a waterway, from there we’re bound to find civilization eventually.”
Angie said, “Sounds like a plan, Stan.” She, too, was eager to get going.
Their wet packs were extra heavy. The clay content in the dirt made the ground slow to absorb the rain, thin rivulets quickly widened into streams. They found that wading through shallow streams was easier than sludging through mud.
As the day darkened to dusk, the rain lightened a few degrees. Again, they sheltered off the ground, tucked into the thick arms of a large jungle tree.
Angie said, “I feel like I’m getting moldy in all my crevasses.” She rubbed her bare feet which were covered in small red sores. It was impossible to keep anything dry, she wished she’d brought more socks.
Marcus said, “Yup. Me too. I feel like I’m turning into a slimy mold monster in a Stephen King story.”
“I never thought I’d despise rain so much!” Angie cried.
Marcus said, “We’re going to have to move.”
Angie said, “You’re right! Arizona?”
Two years previously, they had moved to Seattle.
“I think Nevada is drier.
On the third day, they came across a tiny village, just six huts really, with no English-speaking natives. But they were friendly enough and offered the couple a warm, dry shelter in their communal hut which doubled as a guesthouse.
The rain on the roof, once a comforting, lulling melody, had morphed into a foul, nerve-wracking assault.
Angie and Marcus had dry clothing again. The villagers communicated by pointing to the map and hand signals- it seemed the river that supplied this village with fresh water was indeed the Kasai. So, though the couple dreaded heading back out into the relentless downpour, they were desperate to get back to civilization. It was just water after all.
Moul plodded through the jungle, instinctively heading east, the direction the white meat had been heading before the rain obscured their scent. He was as relentless as the rain.
The streams under the raised-up huts flowed with fast running water, rivers now. The kind, trusting natives gave the couple a roughly carved canoe with the condition they leave it tied to the bridge support of the crossing they insisted was only half a day south-east. Marcus and Angie gave the indigenous people a red Yeti flask, a faded teal Seahawks t-shirt, and the useless GPS that the youngsters were enthralled with.
Within five minutes the were soaked. The onslaught had softened to an annoying drizzle and Angie screamed at the sky, “Just STOP already!”
Marcus, grim-faced, paddled his oar at the front of the canoe, keeping an eye out for rocks, and fast-racing logs. He said, “Look!” and pointed to the right of them. What he’d first taken for a log was in fact, a huge alligator!
Angie said, “Ohmygod!”
It swam alongside them and then submerged like a scaley black submarine.
Marcus said, “We’re safe in the canoe…I think.”
At least six more dark, log-like shapes lackadaisically lumbered into the river from the bank and swam towards them. They were visible for two hundred feet or so, then submerged out of sight.
The largest gator was at least thirteen feet long! Its awesome body flowed past Angie’s huge round eyes, then sank below the water. The canoe jerked violently, just once, like a derailed train, as the prehistoric predator nudged the canoe.
In their terror, they had not realized that the rain had stopped.
Angie raised her face to the rapidly clearing sky and rejoiced, “Yahoo! Whoo-hoo-eeee!”
Marcus joined her with a joyous howl of his own, “Ow0ow-oooooooowwwww!”
The pleasing sounds of the jungle came out with the sun. Birds sang, insects buzzed, and jungle creatures shook their pelts and called to their neighbors.
A mile behind them, Moul raised his massive black head the same instant that Angie had and sniffed the air. Moul’s lips curled up at the corners as he caught their scent. He quickened his pace to an earth-pounding gallop. To the bridge!
Marcus turned around on his plank seat to take in the joy on his wife’s lovely face. Angie’s face hurt from grinning wide at the sight of the tall wooden bridge that loomed in the distance. She’d taken off her hat just before rounding the last bend and shook her head to dry her pixie-bob. The pale yellow-ash hair stuck up like baby chicken feathers. Marcus laughed, he followed her lead and removed his own safari cap, scratching his itchy scalp, he imagined his short dark hair looked just as goofy. He pulled out his iphone, Scooted to Angie and snapped a selfie. The device had only been good for pictures since the beginning of their journey.
The bridge was the most modern structure they’d seen in two weeks. As they drew closet, they saw heavy silver-colored u-joints and rusted but solid, red colored I-beams.
At the side they had promised to leave the canoe, a blackness slunk through the shrub layer, like a dense swarm of millions of killer bees, they formed an enormous cat-like shape.
“Did you see that?!” Angie cried.
“What?” he replied. He’d been busy looking for a place to tie the boat.
“I dunno. Big and black---”
“No- taller, bigger…in the bushes over there.”
“No. I’m going to tie the boat there.” He pointed to an iron bracket about two feet above the water level.
“Okay.” Angie said shakily, still scanning the bushes.
Marcus moored the canoe securely. A tumble of boulders offered practical steppingstones up the bank. Their knobbly rubber soles would make quick work of the climb.
Marcus was halfway up the embankment, confident his wife, with her muscular, compact body would be following his steps, rock to rock. He turned at the halfway point and was surprised to see her twenty feet behind and below. She was lagging because she still carried the heavy wooden oar.
He laughed and said, “Baby, you’re still carrying the oar.” In the past, she regularly forgot to replace the flag into the cup when golfing. He assumed she was pulling a ‘Golf-Angie.’
She caught up to him and started to explain, “I-I---” then she screamed!
The giant-sized, bear-cat-monster named Death Creeping only hesitated a second before plunging down the embankment rocks, paws outstretched, the claws so sharp the sun glinted from the tips. It hooked Marcus through his collarbone, blood exploded out his back, spattered on the boulders, and flowed like a waterfall to Angie’s feet. The scythe-like claws pulled him to its drool-stringy maw. Marcus flailed ineffectively for only three seconds and fell still as the reaper claimed him. Moul started to turn, departing with his prize.
Angie didn’t hesitate, while the beast was off-centered and on its back legs only, she swung the oar at its head. Years of throwing medicine balls up walls gave her mighty strength. She was the pure fury of the mom who lifts a car off her trapped child.
The oar struck true and Moul’s front paws flailed in midair. Angie didn’t hesitate, she aimed the backswing like a tennis racket and emulated one of the fabulous Williams sisters. The beast fell forward too far to regain its feet. It held fast to the floppy-doll corpse in its jaws, like a Pitbull terrier can’t let go an intruder.
Angie turned back to the muddy brown river and witnessed large black shapes surfacing. Finally, the death-cat let go of the corpse in an attempt to save itself.
The muddy waters roiled into a water-tornado as the thirteen-foot alligator kill-rolled with its prize. Marcus’s body was by shared by two smaller gators, half the size of her savior. She would mourn later. She had a mission to complete before she could go home without her soul mate.
She scaled back down the blood drenched rocks, oar in hand. She untied the canoe and drifted downstream, scanning the shallows, and following the thirteen-foot shape in the water.
A month later, Angie had not yet returned to Seattle.
She hiked to Makkiio’s village with a guide. They were laden with sacks packed with medicines, simple toys, and a special gift for Jaal.
The dinner all the tribe attended was joyous though Angie’s eyes leaked every few minutes. The people felt her pain and their leader held his tongue. After Angie told the story of her and her late husband’s adventures, she produced a sack of thick canvas- her old backpack.
The young artist’s eyes grew large as ping pong balls as he accepted the gift.
Jaal unwrapped the package inside the pack and cried his joy in a universal tongue! When he revealed the contents to all the tribe, the torchlight showed two six-inch-long teeth, as well as a dozen ebony claws, hooked, and sharp as steak knives.