by Tomas Marcantonio
There were three who came to the outpost to hunt. The first was a young woman of eighteen. She was timid and bird-like, with a pale skin and eyes that betrayed a lack of sleep. The second was a man of twenty-eight. He was thin and had a rather morose countenance, but his large liquid eyes had some melancholy beauty about them. The third was a forthright woman of forty-two, and I was relieved that she, at least, had some steel and conversation about her.
I had been at the outstation for almost twelve years, and it was not unusual for groups to come hunting Anxieties. The jungle surrounding my bungalow was crawling with the creatures, or so I was told.
‘You’re lucky not to have seen one,’ the older woman, whose name was Lori Braddock, explained.
She was short and stout, her expression perennially suspicious, and when she looked at you square on you became aware of a tired, haunted aspect behind her eyes.
‘I’m in no doubt that you’re right,’ I replied.
We were sitting on rocking chairs on my veranda, smoking cheroots and drinking gin pahits as we looked towards the river. A chorus of cicadas sang nearby, quietly at first, before reaching a glorious crescendo that seemed to awaken the entire jungle.
‘You’re a writer, aren’t you?’ I asked, already knowing the answer. Braddock had met with mild success a decade earlier with a collection of essays about the post-war experience. I had read and enjoyed her essays, though I had heard mixed reviews about her subsequent works.
‘A miserable writer, if the critics are to be believed,’ she answered. ‘You have no idea how it cripples one to read disparaging remarks about the written incarnation of your soul.’
‘What have the critics ever written?’ I said consolingly. ‘I am sure flamingos lose no sleep when the pigeons write their critiques of pink.’
Braddock said nothing to this, but I saw the beginnings of a smile as her lips closed around the cheroot. A tendril of smoke spiraled from the tip.
‘And you,’ she said. ‘I gather you’ve been here a long time.’
I took a draw on the cheroot, enjoying the thick aromas of cedar and spices. ‘The surroundings soothe me.’
‘It seems to me a rather dark place, a realm of shadows and the unknown. But I suppose to a naturalist it must be quite fitting.’
‘And not entirely unknown,’ I replied with a grin. ‘I find that if people do not run from darkness their eyes soon adjust to it. Now that the colonists have gone-’
‘With their tails rightly between their legs,’ Braddock interjected. ‘I hear one of the plantation managers stayed on here for a time afterwards. You were close, weren’t you?’
I sipped my drink before answering. ‘Langley, yes, he was a capable man. I first made his acquaintance on my travels here. He was quite helpful in assisting me with my research, and for a time we maintained a close friendship. In the end, I believe, he missed the comforts of home.’
‘And are you not lonely? You were once quite a fixture of London society, from what I gather.’
‘Oh, I have guests often enough, and there are some small towns upriver. I find that I get on quite well with the native population, and I’m afraid the idea of London society does not thrill me as it once did. It doesn’t do for a man my age to concern himself with such things.’
I felt Braddock’s eyes on mine as I puffed on my cheroot, though she did not push the topic further, for which I was grateful. A chik chak gecko sang somewhere nearby, and in the glow of the lanterns we watched a meandering trail of flying insects pass before us.
‘Does the idea of the hunt tomorrow excite you?’ I asked at length.
Braddock then pierced me with a look of such contempt I immediately regretted the question. We sat in silence for some time after, and when the gin pahits and cheroots were finished, Braddock excused herself and bade me goodnight. I was left alone, looking into the darkness, hearing the gentle flow of the river without seeing it.
The following morning, at the break of dawn, the hunters breakfasted with me. We ate eggs followed by plantains and papaya, and we drank fresh coffee. I did not venture much conversation for I could see the trepidation in the faces of my guests, and it was clear from their behaviours that they were best left to their own thoughts.
It was unusual for me to accompany the guests on a hunt – in fact this would be my first time to do so – and the sight of the guns was unnerving. I did not bring my own, of course, for I was coming merely as a spectator, and I believed there was no reason to fear what I could not see. We set out shortly after breakfast, taking the path into the jungle that led from my back door.
Braddock led the way, with the younger woman behind her and the man in third. I took up the rear, being conscious to keep quiet in case it interfered with their objective in any way. For a long while not a word passed between us.
The day was warm, and I confess that I was soon sweating through my shirt. Sunlight beat down upon us through the emerald filter of the canopy, and warmth seemed to rise from the earth like an intoxicating perfume. It was not an unpleasant morning, however, for that part of the jungle was well known to me, and as we walked I was reminded of the bygone days. I remembered my first visit as a young man, when I spent weeks documenting the birds and beetles and snakes with the help of a group of local boys; then later after the colonists left, going for daily walks, Langley and I, alone.
I noticed that now and then there passed between the hunters certain looks that spoke of a shared experience – a sixth sense, perhaps – that I was not privy to, and it soon became obvious that something was afoot. Then, all of a sudden, Braddock took off at a run between the trees. The others simultaneously shot off in opposite directions, and I was at a loss as to whom, if any, I should follow.
Before I could decide, I heard the ominous report of a gun, and I took off after Braddock. I ran as best I could through the undergrowth, and some minutes later I came upon the writer crouched behind a fallen log. Though she did not turn to see my approach, she must have heard my heavy lumbering through the jungle for she raised a hand to command silence. I fell in beside her, catching my breath as I dropped to my knees.
‘There,’ Braddock breathed. ‘Twenty metres ahead, in the shadow of the tree.’
For several seconds I saw nothing, but then a slight movement caught my attention. There it was, the Anxiety, crouching next to the bole of a tree. It was a small thing, perhaps four feet tall, a wiry creature with long limbs. It was entirely black, lacking any discernible features, and its movements were jerky and undefined, like the characters in a cine film. Though it had no distinguishable face, I had the distinct impression that it was watching us.
It’s difficult to describe the sensation that overcame me in that moment, for it was entirely unfamiliar to me. All at once my whole being seemed to shrink, as though something had reached inside my chest and grabbed my very soul, and with bony fingers was attempting to wrestle it out of existence. My breaths became shallow, my head light, and I could focus on nothing around me. The world no longer belonged to the realms I knew – those of the past and the present – but to a stark and terrifying future that appeared as a mountainous black hole before me.
I was only vaguely aware of Braddock’s movements beside me, for I was unable to tear my gaze away from the horrid creature. I felt the jungle around me dissolve into nothing – all achievements, memories, and pleasures shrank into insignificance, and at the end there was nothing left but an all-encompassing emptiness.
It is with shame that I admit that in that moment, had Braddock turned the gun on me I would have considered it a welcome relief.
Suddenly the creature advanced towards us, crawling through the undergrowth on all fours, and only then did I have the sense to glance at Braddock. Her face was sickly pale and glazed with sweat, her whole body shook, and I thought for a moment that she might faint. It came as a surprise, then, when she took aim at the oncoming terror and pulled the trigger.
I shuddered at the sound, cowering at Braddock’s side. The creature fell backwards and lay still for a moment, but then to my dismay it returned to its feet and looked in our direction once more. Terror consumed me. I do not recall what happened next, for everything turned to darkness.
Presently I found that I was lying on a bed of ferns and Braddock’s hand was on my shoulder. It was as though I were waking from a dream. Braddock looked shaken but relieved, wearing the expression of one who has just completed a long-dreaded assignment. Dragging myself into a sitting position, I glanced instinctively to the spot where the creature had been.
‘It’s gone,’ Braddock said.
Indeed there appeared no trace of it. The jungle was still, silent but for the throaty squawk of a distant hornbill.
‘That’s not to say it won’t come back,’ Braddock said, eyeing me with concern. ‘Are you quite all right?’
‘That thing,’ I spluttered. My tongue seemed like a foreign body in my mouth. ‘What- what was it?’
Braddock shouldered her gun and extended a pudgy hand.
‘It is a soul shadow,’ she replied, pulling me to my feet. ‘The Anxieties prey upon a person’s spirit. I see that this one has taken a nibble of yours, too. A nibble can actually do one good; the trick is to not let it engulf you.’
I watched her now not with curiosity but with admiration.
‘And it didn’t engulf you?’ I asked.
‘It has come close a number of times. But I have not let it defeat me.’ She gestured to the empty jungle. ‘As you can see. Come, I’m quite ready for a cheroot and perhaps a gin and bitters.’
My two other guests had evidently enjoyed similar successes. They arrived back at the bungalow shortly after we did, and both were in high spirits. The girl, who had barely spoken a word from the moment I met her, seemed like a different person entirely, while the young man, who I had previously thought sullen and dull, was suddenly animated and cheerful.
After taking lunch I induced my guests to bathe in the river, and I fancy that they were quite taken with the novelty. The afternoon heat was just short of oppressive, and the cool water with its mossy aroma was just the ticket. A troop of macaques paid us a brief visit as we sat drying on the rocks, and the smiles on the faces of my guests were quite contagious.
We spent the evening trading tales. It was pleasant for me to hear stories of London society, for I had not been home in some years, and I believe my guests were entertained by my account of how I came to live in that secluded place. It transpired that the young man was a student of natural history, and I was flattered to discover that he counted my published works among his great inspirations.
‘But do you not miss civilization?’ he asked me, puffing contentedly on his cheroot.
‘Occasionally,’ I admitted, ‘though I am quite at home here.’
‘And you don’t mind what people say?’ asked the young woman.
‘And what do they say, dear?’ I replied.
The young woman glanced at Braddock, and then all three guests averted their eyes in unison.
‘Please be frank,’ I said. ‘I am not troubled easily by the opinions of others; you will find that I have rather a thick skin.’
‘Many have suggested that you are hiding,’ the young woman said, a trifle bashfully.
‘Hiding?’ I replied. ‘Nonsense. What would I be hiding from?’
There followed a silence that was quite uncomfortable. I came to the conclusion, of course, that certain details about my private life had become common knowledge in London society. I had no need to ask what those details were.
Though Braddock made attempts to salvage the conversation, it was plain that the jovial air of earlier could not be recovered. Presently the two younger guests retired to their beds and mosquito nets, and Braddock and I sat quietly on the veranda with our drinks.
Night had by now veiled the jungle, and we were serenaded by the usual evening orchestra of birds, insects, and mammals, underscored by the rhythmic flow of the river.
As I looked through the darkness I wondered if I had indeed been living in ignorance all those years. Maybe they were right; perhaps I was hiding. Perhaps this place was simply my refuge from the stark judgement of others, from the future, and just as the jungle represented the heart of darkness for my guests, perhaps London represented the very same for me.
Presently I saw a movement in the trees ahead, and I was disconcerted to find that my blood ran cold and beads of sweat gathered on my brow.
‘You see one, don’t you?’ Braddock said, seeing me frozen in my seat.
I did not blink or dare to tear my gaze from the shadowy movements close to the river. ‘Will I ever be at peace again?’ I breathed.
Braddock disappeared inside and returned moments later with her gun.
‘Peace is an illusion and a folly,’ she said, handing it to me. ‘Don’t dwell on what people say. Remember, the flamingo doesn’t lose sleep over the pigeon’s critique of pink.’
She winked, and had I not been so flustered I might have been amused by our reversal of roles.
‘Breathe,’ she said. ‘No one should be ashamed of pink feathers.’
I nodded and shouldered the gun as I set off towards the river. As I moved through the trees, deeper and deeper into the jungle, it occurred to me that I was journeying simultaneously into my past and into my unknown. The creatures had been there all along, living alongside me, just out of sight.
It was time to look them in the eye and show them my true colour.