The day is long, hot, tense. An extended ellipsis, trailing into the distance with nothing following.
They spend their day like that. Trance-like, drifting pointlessly, unseeing, circling the abyss. No-one wants to talk. They sit together in a tight huddle in the shade of a tree, the thick canopy sheltering them from the beating sun.
The atmosphere is stultifying. Books are balanced on knees and hands, headphones buzz like artificial insects. They all stare at the ground, or the sky, or the tree. Not at each other. No-one wants to look at one another, to face up to the reality of what’s happened.
Food is brought out to them, and drinks, all through the day. The manager comes over at one point. Starts waving his hands and apologising and explaining and reassuring, but the oppressive silence beats him down. He slouches away, looking back over his shoulder at the group of white girls who won’t even acknowledge that he’s there.
Some of them try to nap. They lie there, eyes closed, willing themselves to sleep and climbing further and further away from it. None of them leave the circle.
The trees rise around the clearing, tall and looming, the depth of untamed jungle mere metres away. No-one looks at it.
Regina stands up. The circle parts, leaving a space for her to walk through. She strides off across the grass towards the reception, disappears inside.
The silence becomes even more complete. It’s not just an absence of noise now, more active, more deliberate. The group waits for her, worries for her, hopes for her.
Regina bursts from the building, red-faced, hurrying back across the grass. One flip flop comes loose and she stops to snatch it up, gripping it tightly in one hand before hurrying back over.
Bullshit! Complete fucking bullshit!
Regina sits down, still clutching the flip flop so hard that Alice can see the tendons straining on the back of her hand.
He says there’s no way to get out of here other than the fucking bus. And that comes once a fucking week. So we’re stuck in this death trap.
There are murmurs from the rest of the group. No-one wants to look each other in the eye, but they all draw slightly closer together.
The manager’s saying he’ll comp us all the good shit, and we can stay like queens and stuff, but I kicked off at him anyway, I mean, what the fuck, there’s a fucking psycho running loose and he’s got staff making fucking salads, Jesus. Regina is breathing hard, like she’s been running.
Ok, so we take care of ourselves, Veerle says. Just like being in a shitty part of a city, right? I’ve lived in some pretty awful places, take precautions.
Yeah, says Regina. She looks around the circle. No-one looks back. Right, everyone has phones on them at all times, if you’ve still not got a native SIM you go buy one from reception. Nobody goes anywhere alone, at least two if not more stick together at all times. After dark, either here or in your cabins, and no open windows or unlocked doors.
Everyone always carries their head torch as well, Daisy says. Her voice is pitched higher than normal, strained.
Yeah, always have your torch. Probably the best way to do it is to stick in the groups you have for your cabins, Regina says.
There are a few nods. The circle breathes, releases its held tension.
We’ll be fine, just take care of yourselves and we can laugh about this later, Regina says.
The sun scuds across the sky, leaving a burning trail of orange on the inside of Alice’s eyelids. The jungle presses in around them now, the smell powerful, oppressive. The noises coming from it aren’t comforting any more, aren’t the idle mindless chatter of the night before. Now it chitters like an insect, a hive of scavengers waiting to strip them clean and hide their bones. There are clicks and squeaks and Alice can only think of bats, hunting for their prey.
She’s sleepy. Tired. The warmth of the day, the constant tension in her muscles finally catch up with her and she puts her book down and lies on her back, staring up at the sky. She still hasn’t read any more of it. She can’t after the night before.
She feels like she didn’t sleep last night. She feels her breathing becoming faster again, feels the tight knot of panic begin to wind itself intractably into her gut, feels her heart pound with manic arrhythmia. She focuses on her breathing, watches the clouds. Sees shapes in them, animals, dreams, conjures up fantasies and loses herself in the moment.
It’s a voice, sharp and insistent. She recognises it. Alice sits up and feels the blood drain from her head. Everything goes blurry for a moment as her head tries to float away.
Kid! I’m talking to you!
Hey, Alice, you OK?
Um, what? Yeah, I just sat up too fast, you know? Alice says, waving a hand. Where the hell is that voice coming from?
What d’you say? I didn’t catch it.
Oh, nothing, Alice mutters. Just talking to myself.
Ah, no worries. I’m surprised more people aren’t what with everything that’s been going on.
Mm-hm, Alice agrees. Her head settles, and the only people she can see around her are the other girls.
Up here, you blind idiot!
It’s loud, petulant. Nobody reacts. None of the others look up from their books or their phones or their feet.
Alice feels herself slipping back into panic again. She’s on the edge, looking down onto gibbering dysfunction.
She leans back, pretending as if she’s trying to scratch the back of her neck, and looks up as slowly as she can. Grinning back at her from the canopy of the tree they’re sheltering under is a monkey. The monkey, the one she’s talked to before.
No, that’s ridiculous. Monkeys don’t talk.
Finally! it says, rolling its eyes with exaggerated sarcasm. You know, for the big fancy empathetic chosen one, you’re not very observant.
Alice stares at it. Its fur is sticking out in tufts at odd directions and it looks somehow dishevelled. Its eyes glow between the leaves, even in the brightness of the day.
Oh yeah, you’re with your friends. Don’t worry, they can’t see or hear me, the monkey says, waving an arm with an astonishingly human gesture. They don’t have the connection you do.
Alice still stares, and says nothing.
Ah, says the monkey, frowning, I forgot. It clicks its fingers, and a strange feeling falls over Alice. It’s as if she’s wearing thick earmuffs, or she’s under water. Sound is blurred, muffled. The harsh, ragged squawking of birds coming from the jungle becomes an amorphous yawn.
Now they can’t hear you either. You’ll be fine, I’ll be quick. You’ve done better than I expected, to be fair, so I already owe a few people some favours.
What? What’s going on? Alice says, still staring at the monkey.
What’s going on? I’ve just used one of my trees to put a bit of a damper on your friends, is all, says the monkey, its glowing eyes fixed on Alice’s face.
No, everything! Alice shouts, feeling the knot in her stomach bubble up and explode out of her. Everything that’s happened since I got here! The animals, the dreams, last night! What the fuck did I do last night! What happened!
The monkey shies back into the branches overhead until only its eyes can be seen, peeping out from among the leaves.
Whoa, whoa, calm down kid, I’m just the messenger, it says. The bossman just wanted me to tell you that you’ve done well, and there’s only one more thing left to do, then we’ll leave you alone.
We? Who the hell’s we? Alice screams.
Spirits, of course, says the monkey. What, you think normal monkeys can tell you to go fuck yourself?
I don’t know what I thought.
No, you didn’t, says the monkey. Look kid, the big guy’ll explain more to you and the rest when you get to him. It’s the only place you can be sure you’re safe at the moment. Take your friends and go hide, we’ll protect you like we did before.
Like you did before? You mean, Alice tails off again.
Yeah, boss has had an eye on you since you got here. Since you can see us and all that shit, feel what’s happening.
I see. So it’s safe with you and the rest? asks Alice.
Yeah, says the monkey. You’re good at this, you’ll be fine.
I don’t know what to do, where to go, pleads Alice. Help me.
We’re trying, says the monkey. It tries to smile and contorts its face into a terrible rictus grin that looks more like a leer.
Don’t worry, you’ll know when it’s time. You’ll know the way, it says, still leering at her.
It inches out of the tree and looks into her with those glowing eyes. Alice wants to reach out a hand, smooth its rumpled, patchy fur down.
Its head snaps back into the canopy. It is gone.
The pressure on her eardrums goes with it. The bubble bursts, and noises break against her. Chatter and nervous laughter, rustling leaves, cries and squawks and distant, far off roars.
Alice looks around, her arm still raised behind her head. She tries to look like she’s stretching. No-one is looking at her. It doesn’t seem like they’ve noticed anything.
She stands up. The world whirls around her in a kaleidoscope of green and orange and blue, grass and sky and sun.
She sways in place, a tree caught by the wind.
She settles into place.
Hey, I’m going in to reception, I need some water, she says. Heads snap round to see who’s talking, who broke the silence.
Anyone else want any? she asks, looking round the upturned faces.
A couple of people murmur their assent. Alice nods and turns to walk over the lawn.
Hey, Alice! Wait, take someone with you! It’s Regina. She’s only just noticed Alice walking away, and suddenly Alice can feel Regina’s gaze on her.
I’ll be fine, it’s right over there, she answers, trying to sound as calm as she can. I’m just getting some water for everyone.
Regina says nothing, just purses her lips and forces her eyes back down to her book.
Alice swings her bag up onto her shoulder and sets off, stepping lightly, barefoot, through the grass. The stubbly stalks jab at the soles of her feet and she giggles involuntarily at the sensation. She can feel the tangle of nervousness and panic sitting in her belly, loose but tightening.
The reception building is cool and shady. Fans chop the air, droning in an incessant monotone, drowning out the varied chorus of the outside. Curtains are drawn against the glare of the sun. The smell of oil and spices wafts from the kitchen. A small plant wilts in a pot in the corner.
There is a man behind the desk, staring at her. Alice fixes a smile on her face, walks towards him. She sees his eyes widen, sees his muscles tense. He flinches as she approaches, trying to shy away and trying to hide it.
Can I have four bottles of water, please? she asks, sweet politeness.
The man nods and ducks out of the room without speaking. There is a massive painting on the wall behind the counter, a scene of animals and savannah that looks nothing like anything Alice has seen here. It seems content, safe, untouched. Humans are nowhere to be seen.
The man rushes back in, clutching four bottles of water glistening with condensation. He thrusts them into Alice’s hands, and she notices that he takes care to drop them there rather than touch her. When he’s finished, he scurries back behind the safety of his desk.
Thanks, Alice smiles at him.
She gets a blank, wide-eyed stare in return.
She steps out of the stale air of the office into the fresh vibrancy of the outdoors. The wind has picked up while she’s been inside, and she can see the jungle canopy rippling. It’s disturbed.
A scream shatters the air.
It comes from the other side of the building. Behind Alice. She spins in place, holding the water bottles tight to her chest. The wetness of the condensation soaks through her thin t-shirt, and she can feel the cold against her skin. She can see nothing.
The treetops ripple and wave.
A few people burst from the low huts, the kitchen and the restaurant and the reception. Alice can see the whites of their eyes, the droplets of sweat running down their faces. They look at the jungle, look for the source of the scream. Come to a stop.
There is another, agonised, drawn-out scream.
Then a low, murmuring roar, rumbling through the ground. Alice can feel the vibrations on her bare feet.
The loose group of waiters and attendants jolt like they’ve been shocked. They look around wildly, all searching for something. Then they see Alice.
A couple of them are shouting at her. Alice can see them staring, see their wide, scared eyes.
You must be leaving this place! Now!
Alice holds the bottles to her chest. A drop of water dribbles down her stomach, and she shivers.
The group are slowly advancing towards her.
You are making him angry! You must leave, now!
Why? Am I not safe here? Alice asks.
No, you are not safe, one of the group growls.
Alice turns and runs.
The grass jabs at her feet again as she runs back to her friends. It is painful now, tiny needles stabbing at her as she tries to skip over them.
When she reaches her friends, she lets the bottles of water fall. They lie forgotten in the grass, slowly warming in the sun, the clear plastic glinting with reflected light. The grass where they lie greedily soaks up the moisture.
Alice? What’s going on? Regina asks. Alice can feel the panic bubbling up inside her, and sees the same thing rimming Regina’s eyes.
She stops for a moment. Hesitates. Regina, scared? Uncertain?
Then the flicker is gone. Regina is back in control again. And the moment of transition, the moment of exorcism, is the most beautiful thing Alice has ever seen.
I don’t know, she says. There was a scream, and a roar, and then some of the staff started telling me I had to leave, and I wasn’t safe here, and I don’t know, so I ran, and came back here because you guys were already here and I wanted to stay with the group and I think someone else’s been attacked and the staff were talking about making him angry and there was a painting and it had animals on it, but they were nothing like the animals I’ve seen, they didn’t look real or dangerous or-
Alice, calm down. Daisy comes over and puts an arm around her. We’re in danger?
Yeah, I think so, she says, finally. At least that’s what the staff were saying.
OK, Daisy continues. Her voice is level, flat, but Alice can hear the strain. Did they say what we should do? What the lodge is doing? Or the police?
I, Alice falters.
A movement in the corner of her eye. A furry paw, grey tufts of unkempt, matted fur, on long, dextrous black fingers, reaching out from the canopy at the edge of the treeline. A pair of glowing eyes burn from the leaves.
The monkey waves at her, points. There is a path, hardly visible, a small opening in the wall of vegetation.
Over there, Alice points. See that path leading into the jungle? We’ve to follow that to an emergency assembly point, everyone’s got to go there so we can be evacuated.
OK, good, Regina says.
Can we go get our stuff? someone asks.
No, no time, Alice stammers. The paw is waving insistently at her. She can feel the heat of the eyes on her skin.
We’ve got to go, now.
Cool, let’s go then, says Regina. Do they have water and food and stuff at this assembly point? Or say how far it is?
No, I don’t know, I guess, Alice says. They just told me to go there, as fast as possible, so I ran back here and-
Good, well done, Regina reassures her.
Alice breathes hard. She shivers.
The monkey waves again, its eyes glowing.
Hey, wait for us!
Coming, straggling behind her, the others. Daisy carries a bag in her arm, Alice’s bag.
Hey, you forgot this! she says, thrusting it out towards Alice.
Alice takes it. It weighs nothing in her arms. The bottles of water, the book, the sun cream, the tangled headphones, the flotsam and jetsam of the drifter. None of it has weight. She swings the bag over her shoulder and forgets about it.
Her breathing is slow, now, calm, measured. She sees the monkey grinning at her, a wide smile filled with square, yellow teeth. It winks.
It’s gone. There’s a rustle of leaves and it is as if it was never there.
There is another scream in the distance. The cry of something in sheer, blind, animalistic terror.
Just down here, you said? Regina peers down the shaded path. The leaves sheltering it billow and whip in the wind. The light has a green tinge as the sun filters through the canopy.
Yeah, follow that path, says Alice, stepping forward onto the worn track.
Thousands upon thousands of footprints have worn a smooth, bare line into the dirt. Nothing grows on either side of the path, in a perfect, ruler-straight line. Nothing dares to encroach on the sanctified space.
Right, come on then, Regina says, and jogs off. Her jaw is set, firm. Alice looks at the others as they follow, sheep-like. Their faces tremble, or tears pool in the corner of their eyes, or their hands clasp a strap or a handle so tightly that the tendons on the back of their hands are sticking out with the strain.
Alice stands there and watches them file down the path as a herd, corralled by Regina at the front and Alice snapping at their heels. No-one looks at her as they walk past.
Another rumbling roar makes the trees shake. A few leaves fall loose, drift, spinning, to the ground.
Alice watches one. It spirals reluctantly through the air. Delays, fights against gravity with all the drag it can muster. It floats, delicate, fragile. It comes to rest on the brown dirt of the path. Someone treads on it in their haste and it is ground into the dust. When they lift their foot, it is crushed, broken, the living, vivid green smeared with mud and dirt.
Alice draws a long, slow breath. She can smell the jungle. Smell the life. The dampness on the inside of her nostrils. The wet earth clinging to the roots of tress. The dung, the decaying corpses, the heavy scent of rotting leaves. The living things, growing and changing, straining, thriving. The air is thick with smells, real smells, of life.
She can hear them, too. Hear them chattering or clicking or grunting or snuffling. Hear the thick heartbeat of the forest, pounding in her ears and in her chest, thumping inside her, drawing her inwards.
She is calm. She is certain. She is decided.
The path meanders. Alice walks at the back of the group. Follows the wind, the twist. The group walks, and walks. The heat is sapping.
They go on. The jungle chatters around them, skitters to the edge of the treeline and eyes them. The screams, the roars are fainter, and fainter. Blanketed out by the enveloping canopy. Then the noises are gone, and the air is still. The leaves fall silent.
The jungle takes a breath.
Some of the girls start to droop in the heat. The sun is sliding down the sky, orange dusk setting the edges of the leaves aflame. Regina looks back towards Alice. Her head is framed with fire, a martyr to her cause. She stands and waits for Alice to catch up.
Alice walks towards her, feeling the earth mould itself to the shape of her bare feet. Her flip-flops fell off a couple of hours ago, somewhere on the path. She doesn’t care. She wiggles her toes in the dirt, giggles to herself, squeezing piles of dirt into funny shapes.
Hey, Alice? You got any idea how long this is going to be? Regina asks. Her eyes are set, firm, but Alice can see the whites on the edge. Regina is barely holding herself together, just like the rest of them.
Yeah, it shouldn’t be long now, Alice says breezily, and starts walking again.
Regina grabs her arm, pulls her around. Looks at her face, into her eyes.
You sure you’re OK?
Alice nods. Yeah, this is the right way. She pulls her arm free and pads away down the path.
The others trudge after her. The light gets deeper, darker. The smells are stronger, the noises closer and louder. Alice sees everything through an eerie green filter, the fading sunlight bleeding through the thick leaves.
The path takes a sharp turn and begins to climb. Up into the mountainside. The ground underfoot becomes rocky. Loose stones jab at Alice’s soles.
She can hear the others puffing behind her. Pushing themselves up the path. The trees don’t thin as they climb.
The summit is sudden. Alice takes a step and her foot falls away, down into empty air. The path plunges downwards again, straight down a steep slope.
They stand on the lip of a tree lined bowl. There’s a clearing in the centre. The path dives straight into the heart of it.
Alice takes a step.
The descent grabs her and she stumbles forward, running to stay upright.
She trips and falls, rolls. Raises her head.
They are there.
She is there.
She has finally arrived.
There is a loose circle. They sit, or stand, or prowl restlessly, in and out of the trees. Eyes, teeth, claws flash in the setting sun. They are white and dark, monochrome stripes and patterns flitting in shadows.
There is a rhythm to it. A conscious unveiling. They swirl away from a point. Her eyes are there.
He is standing, alone, robed in darkness. His silhouette is enough to know him. She knew he was there before she saw him. She felt, feels his presence.
Vast, encompassing, ancient. Power. The sun shines down on him and he absorbs it, draws it into himself. His shadow swells, tendrils creeping out of his figure, snaking their way across the clearing towards her.
Footfalls behind. The others.
Alice, what’s going on?
You’ve been called here, she says. Her voice is calm. Flat. She is the river stone, settled, stable, letting the raging currents flow over her. She is the roots of the tree, embedded, unyielding, secure while the storm thrashes above her.
She has her place. She has her purpose.
She knows, now. He looks at her with his blank face and she knows. She feels.
She steps forward.
The creatures around her come closer, walk at her heel and her side, rub themselves up against her. They playfully snap or grab at one another. Form a channel. Guide her towards him.
Alice, seriously, what’s going on? This doesn’t look like it leads anywhere.
You can’t see? Alice asks. She is looking at the other side of the clearing, at him, stretching his feelers out to touch her. To stroke her. To comfort her, to hold her.
She takes another step.
See what? What are you doing, Alice, this is super creepy.
As she gets closer, he removes his cloak. Pulls away his mask. Sheds his skin of forms and disguises.
It is the shinganga. The witch doctor The one who has drawn her here. The one who has been in her dreams, talking to her, telling her, whispering secrets and promises in her mind.
She sees his eyes. They glitter, emerald green.
He no longer bothers to conceal himself behind a disguise. He is no crocodile here. Now that he has shed his skin, she sees that he is a man. Tall, lithe, thin. She sees his body. The cracked lines of his face.
His eyes fix on hers. She is caught.
Everyone in the circle speaks with him.
Alice. Welcome, at last.
You know your purpose, now. You feel it.
Alice breaks his gaze. Looks down at her bare feet. Feels the dirt between her toes.
What? The outrage, the scorn, whip through her like a forest fire. She is blushing, ashamed to look at them.
I could guess, but I don’t know what to do, she says. She speaks to the dirt caught under her toenails.
Do not worry.
The voices are calm again, soothing. They come from all around her, bathe her in their presence. In their comfort and love and belonging.
You will defend us, he says. Defend me. The old ways.
By doing what? She is pitifully small. He looms over her, cradles her.
You have already done so.
Yes. Your sleeping mind knew what to do. Knew the rightness of it.
To make them fear again. To make them remember that the old ways are not cheap tricks to be performed for idle foreigners.
To make them realise this land is not to be bought and sold, shaped and destroyed.
To defend us.
So many of our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our parents, our children.
The voices are all around her. Animals press up against her, nuzzle at her, lick her hand. She feels the rough sandpaper tongue of a gazelle on her palm. She looks down at it.
It gazes up at her. Trusting. Adoring. She sees how green its eyes are.
Yes, she says.
I know now.
He has a knife. It is old, cracked. Fashioned of some shiny blackness, volcanic glass. It is the essence of the night. Of the forest.
She takes it into her hand. There are grooves worn down the blade.
Alice touches the blade to her palm. The skin parts, without pain. Blood wells. Shocking redness. Stains her pale skin.
The blood flows down the grooves on the knife and drips to the earth. A tiny lizard scurries from the undergrowth and laps at the drip. Its pink tongue darts out, once, twice.
Alice turns around. She balances the knife in her hand. It weighs nothing. Feels like smoke and anger. She feels the memories it has. The atrocities it has seen. The anger welling within it.
They push at her legs. Urge her forward.
Alice, what the fuck is going on? Seriously, what are you doing, first you tell us we need to leave, then you lead us out into the middle of nowhere and then you wander off talking to yourself. Are you OK?
It’s Regina. She’s elbowed her way to the front of the group and stands, staring.
You shouldn’t be here, Alice says to her. Her voice is monotone.
Shouldn’t? What are you talking about? Seriously, are you feeling OK? Are the anti-malarials giving you trouble again or something?
You should never have come here.
She starts to walk towards them.
Alice, what the fuck’s going on? Regina is breathing heavier now. Her voice has slipped up in pitch.
She walks with purposeful strides, feet skipping over the grass. She can feel it on her soles. Feel the springing, vibrant life tickling her skin.
The animals come with her. They pace around the back of the others, close in on them. They have tightened now. Formed a pack.
A huge hyena grins at Alice. It nods.
Alice, what are you holding? Is that-
She keeps walking. The knife is cool in her hand. Light. Easy. She isn’t sweating. Her pulse is slow. She breathes easily.
My God, Alice, is that a knife? What the fuck are you-
The blade slides into Regina’s ribs with a whisper. Her speech is cut off mid-sentence.
Regina gasps slightly, then the spark in her eyes dims as the knife finds her heart. Alice looks at her face. She can’t remember what she found so intriguing about it, now that has gone slack. She pulls the knife out and Regina’s body slumps to the ground.
The others are staring at her. Their mouths are open. They are frozen. No-one has thought to scream yet.
It won’t do anything.
At her feet, Regina’s corpse settles into the grass. Blood, dark and sticky in the fading sun, flows out of the wound in her chest. It gushes down her body and puddles beneath her. It vanishes, drunk up by the thirsty earth.