It’s been stalking us since we stepped off the dirt road from Tichlican and onto the obscure path that will lead us to the ruins surrounding the cenote, the pit, containing the bones. I’ve rarely been swayed by superstition, there was that time in the Andes, the wind, the altitude and the stories told by the shaman—all blending to fuck with the hard line I drew between reality and the other, but this was not one of them. I told myself this every time the sense of presence slithered up my back and gripped the nape of my neck.
“Weird place, ya, Ribbon?” Ribbon was my friend and guide, not just for this expedition, but for every one since the Greenland Caves. At the Caves, I’d been on my own.
“Weird? ‘Dis not estrano, not yet, anyway.” Miguel ‘Ree-bon’, in his floppy canvas hat, wide leather belt and calf-high military boots had, if his tequila fueled stories were any indication, seen weird shit in his day.
I resettled my pack, speared my machete through the foliage and lifted a curtain of prickly vines and insect-covered leaves out of the way. To my left a shuffling and blur pulled my head around. The slither started again. This time I got a sense of the size of the thing, like a portion of the jungle shifted as it moved. I pinched my eyes shut and looked again. Where I’d seen behemoth proportions only the Mandlebrot array of browns and greens, shadows and streaks of sunlight showed. “Geezus, Miguel, can we get there already?”
“Andrew de Leon, whatz you problemo? You seenin’ spirits? Dat Inca bruja been giving you blowjobs in the nighttime again?”
“That would be your sister, cabron.”
Ribbon had no sister. We were both one-offs and ever since our first illegal excursion, into a pair of Irish King’s Mounds, we’d connected like brothers.
Miguel barked a false laugh, moved to step over a fallen tree and froze. “Silencio,” he whispered.
The presence had returned. It loomed before us—a darker, heavier patch of forest. The means of its camouflage were evident this close to the monster; leaves and sticks and dirt all ground into its hide, a mound of organic detritus, twice as tall as a man. I stared and tried to discover the outline of the thing. Each time I thought I’d found an edge, a movement, just outside, forced me to reimagine its breadth. The creature was huge. It breathed, in long, gradual exhalations that one could only witness now that it stood before us, a menace with unknown intent.
The sense of the thing, all during our hike, had heightened my anxiety such that now, standing within its circle of influence, I felt more at ease, as if evidence of its existence had given me conviction that I’d not wandered beyond some mental line in the sand. Such visions had haunted me before. Not all of them had resolved into physical manifestations.
We’d entered a standoff. A staring contest, if only we could identify its eyes. Miguel hadn’t shifted a muscle, but I was not so patient.
“Que deseas?” what do you want? I said.
I repeated the question. Ah, there are its eyes. They’d blinked when I’d spoken. They appeared buried in the canopy of its head. I imagined them to be of an evil shape, maligned and focused on our destruction. In prior encounters with vicious characters, animal and human, I would get a sense of the level of malice within their souls; was attack preordained or were there alternate strategies for escape? In this case, none of my empathic feelers tingled in the slightest. I was at a loss at how to proceed.
“VETE,” the brute rumbled, more earthly vibration than sound.
Shit. It want’s us to go.
Miguel, ever so slowly, backtracked his steps. As he reached me I risked a comment, “What is it?” He reached a hand back and urged me to retreat. When we’d extracted ourselves to what felt like a safe distance, and the outline of the giant had vanished in the foliage, my friend spoke.
“Tata Duende, the jungle spirit.” Miguel’s eyes remained fixed on where we thought the demon lingered. “Do not look away. Keep backing up.”
At the bar in Tichlican, after hours of retracing our steps, we toasted our third cervesa, ‘to surviving’.
I said after a long pull, “The ice has melted back even further from that valley in Greenland. Maybe we…”
“What? Hell no, cabron.” Ribbon swallowed and waved for a forth. “We passed the test. We’ve been chosen. We get blessed by a Mayan priest we head right back in. Bueno?”
I wiped the sweat from my brow and accepted the bedewed bottle from my friend. “Yeah, okay,” we clinked together, “bueno.”