1932 – GRAN CHACO BOREAL, BRAZIL
Esubio slammed into a tree and crouched there, sucking in wet ragged breaths and hugging his prize. His head pounded and his skin itched, but still he grinned. Esubio Salamanca Urey had enlisted with the Bolivian army to fight against Paraguay in the war over their disputed border, but his real goals were vastly different. He needed transport to the most impenetrable and secretive jungle in the world. Legend had it there were riches there … and he had a map.
More missiles flew – the natives had found him, letting loose another flock of their four-foot long poison-tipped arrows. The only thing that blunted their aim was the tangled vines and creepers, so tightly woven in some areas that they formed a single knotted mass.
He clutched the idol to his chest and darted off again, zigzagging along an animal track that was little more than a parting of fern fronds, young trees and fungus. The ground squelched under his feet as he bullocked through the mad green hell. He stumbled again; the golden object was heavy, and slippery, but he would die before he released it.
Esubio sucked in more humid breaths, coughed wetly and spat. His head hammered, and his lips, ears and eyelids tingled strangely. He increased his pace, knowing that if he could make it to the river there was a good chance he could find his squad. Next time he’d come back with his own army of trusted friends … after all, he’d found enough gold to make a hundred men rich for a thousand lifetimes. Together, they’d clear these strange gorilla-people out. He’d bring dynamite to reopen the now-collapsed hole he had found in the mighty cliff walls, and then they could fill boxes with the stuff.
More arrows flew. He tripped as he tried to avoid the deadly projectiles, cursing at the natives’ aim, speed and ugliness. More like apes, he thought. Getting to his feet, Esubio wiped his face. His sleeve came away wet with blood. Had he cut himself? Probably. He staggered on, grimacing as a weird sensation came over him. The constant itch had changed to a mad crawling sensation, as if a million ants had taken up residence beneath his skin. He knew that in the Gran Chaco everything that could crawl, slither or fly wanted to suck your blood or feed on you – or in you – but this felt strange, like his entire skin was … shifting.
Esubio dove into the hollow of a tree and tried to calm his breathing, letting his gaze move over the thick jungle. He rested the golden idol on his leg. It was getting harder to hold as his hand became even more slippery – unnaturally so. He raised his arm to examine it.
“Madre de Dios.” His lips pulled back in horror. The skin seemed to sag like an oversized glove. He touched it with his other hand, and his fingers went through the skin as though it was nothing more than tissue. Esubio’s eyes widened in terror. As he watched, more of the skin sloughed off his arm. He leaned forward in horror and clumps of hair, some still with scalp attached, came away from his head and plopped wetly into the mud.
“Por favor Dios, por favor Dios.” He put a hand to his face and felt looseness. “No, no, no.” He got to his feet, letting the idol fall into the soaking earth, instantly forgotten. He looked again at his hands, praying the horrifying vision had just been a trick of the light, or a touch of jungle madness.
It hadn’t. Both hands were now were red and glistening. The outer layer of skin had entirely slid away, leaving muscle, tendon and bluish veins exposed to the air. Esubio wailed, and spun helplessly, just as a long arrow took him in the chest. He sank to his knees as the natives caught up and surrounded him. As his vision began to fade, he saw them halt suddenly, recoiling as if he was some sort of poisonous reptile.
Infectado, he thought, and could have laughed at fate’s mockery. He had hacked through miles of strength-sapping jungle, found the hidden place and crawled on his belly though a tiny rift in the cliff wall. He had seen things in that strange secret world that shouldn’t have existed and then found the mountains of lost gold. And now he was being brought down, not by the arrow, but by something so tiny as to be near invisible? Some ancient god’s joke, surely?
He wailed. This is not how it should end!
Another arrow pierced Esubio’s neck and he fell forward. The small golden idol sat upright in the mud, its leering face staring back at his disintegrating frame.
As his fading vision swam red and life left him, Esubio felt the gentle touch of the soft earth as the natives threw its dark dampness over his corrupted body.
Padre Celestial, por favor perdóname. With wet earth in his eyes and mouth, darkness and silence took him.
EPISODE 1: A WONDROUS DISCOVERY
TODAY – GRAN CHACO BOREAL, BRAZIL
Pieter Jorghanson nodded and smiled, nodded and smiled. The small group of indigenous people he sat amongst were in the “lost tribe” category, found either by satellite photography or accidentally, during mining surveys.
This part of the jungle was unique and mysterious. Its informal moniker amongst academia was “the green boneyard”. For every ten scientists or enthusiastic professors who entered, only five returned, and of those who did, few had penetrated its dark heart.
The Gran Chaco Boreal, on the border of Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, is one of the last truly unexplored places on earth. Modern man knows more about the moon and the fathomless dark ocean trenches than they do about the deep green lands in this jungle. Two hundred and fifty thousand square miles of cover, so thick that from the sky the tops of trees looked like lumpy green hills.
To add to its impenetrability, armies of poisonous reptiles, insects and sickness-bearing parasites, as well as thorn forests with spikes long and sharp enough to penetrate the toughest leather or canvas, surrounded its core. Hacking through this dense biological barrier was slow; it could take a day to progress little more than twenty feet. Luck, a local guide, or a helicopter drop were the only ways in.
Pieter nodded and smiled again. A small woman smiled broadly in return. Gho-ka had taken a shine to him, and seemed to assume responsibility for teaching him their ways. Her first husband had been killed in the jungle, and now, as was her right, she was free to choose another mate. Pieter wondered exactly what she had in mind for him.
He looked at her closely – receding chin, thick brow ridge, squat torso and heavily muscled arms and legs. Very primitive-looking, he thought, as she touched his arm lightly and then pulled back, giggling and covering her mouth full of shovel-like teeth.
Overall, the tribe was friendly but extremely secretive. Pieter found that his rudimentary inquiries about the jungle were mostly met with patience or good humor. Very few questions elicited a more vigorous or aggressive response.
The Ndege Watu, as they referred to themselves, were like brightly colored birds, with their orange ochre body paint and red and yellow feathers hanging from their hair and groins. It had taken him months to find them, and then several more weeks to get close enough to share a smile and avoid being pierced by one of their poison-tipped arrows. Eventually, after weeks of swapping food and gifts, he had finally been invited to join them.
As a scientist specializing in social anthropology, Jorghanson was a barely competent linguist, so although he had first thought the Ndege Watu’s dialect might be associated with the Panobo group of languages, he had soon found it more song-like, punctuated with glottal stops, before moving back to a high-pitched whistling. Jorghanson had only managed to pick up the odd word and inference here and there.
What excited him most was the strange and amazing script the Ndege used. It far surpassed the simple nature of their language. Raised glyphs, more like artwork than anything he had ever come across, adorned totems and the walls of their largest huts. He needed an expert appraisal, but already he was thinking the language was a root dialect merged with some sort of Amerindian influence. But the writing … he looked at his notes and penciled some sketches of their character sets – Incan influence with a hint of Oceania, and more – definitely logographic and certainly unique.
He shaded in the characters for what might have been the Incan images for valley, or walled place. Most of the early tribes that encountered the Incans or Mayans were absorbed, used as slaves, or exterminated. Somehow, these little guys had managed to survive as a distinct and unique tribal group. Either some quirk of fate had caused them to be left alone, or the major races had wanted it that way. The Ndege had been lucky … and now so was he, he thought, smiling and nodding to his new friends.
He felt he had more than enough information to have the tribe given do-not-approach status under the Funei collective of South American lost tribes. That alone would gain him scientific kudos.
Jorghanson nudged Gho-ka, eliciting significant mirth from the other squat brown women, little bigger than children, but with brightly painted sagging breasts on their barrel chests. She covered her mouth again, hiding the long canines, but he could see her smile. I guess flirting is universal, he thought as he watched her join in the cooking of meats and tubers.
He made some more notes and smacked his lips; the smell from the fires was making his mouth water. He craved more food but was too polite to ask for it, nor did he know how. Besides, he didn’t feel he deserved it as he had never attended a hunt. He would probably scare the game, anyway. The only time he had tried to indicate his desire to come with them, he had been forcefully rebuffed. It seemed some parts of the jungle were strictly off-limits.
Jorghanson was financing this trip with his own money. He could have sought funding from his university, but doing so would have meant that any discoveries would be jointly credited. Though not mercenary, he knew that a solid discovery meant recognition, significant future funding, publication, and perhaps even approaches for nature documentaries – hello, David Attenborough. That’d be more like it, he thought.
He looked again at the picture writing – would it be enough? He needed an angle, a hook … he needed there to be a link to the great Incans or Mayans, or at least a perceived link. Hmm. Keepers of the Incan secrets – nah. Last of the Mayans? No, too much like Last of the Mohicans. Hmm, ancient Incans found – wait: ancient Incans found by intrepid explorer! Not bad. He’d need to think on it, but it was definitely coming together.
Jorghanson coughed and slapped at his neck in a vain attempt to catch an annoying insect. Too late; he felt the lumpy itch of multiple bites already at his collar. He didn’t care, it was a small price to pay. This was going to pay off a lot quicker than sitting at a desk, or delivering yet another lecture to bored students who’d rather be doing something, anything, else.
His stomach rumbled again. Through much excited gesticulating and a great deal of guesswork on his part, he’d deduced that the evening’s dinner was to include an animal that was a delicacy of the tribe. He watched hungrily as a layer of clay was cut away, followed by the steaming leaves, and the creature was broken up into smaller pieces. Everything would be eaten, and nothing wasted.
The animal looked to be the size of a good turkey. Handfuls of meat, skin and bone were piled onto pieces of bark and handed along the lines, firstly to the tribal elders, then to the warriors. Eventually Gho-ka brought him a mound of blackened flesh and bone, and he tried to make the difficult glottal-guttural sounds for “thank you”.
The small woman just smiled and nodded, grabbing a piece of meat and pushing it into his mouth. Delicious! It could have been rat for all he cared. High-protein food was hard to come by. Besides, the food wasn’t always cooked, and some things in the jungle, when eaten raw, were hard for a middle-aged westerner to keep down, no matter how adventurous he thought he was.
He coughed again as he savored another small piece of warm meat. Strange, he’d assumed it was a bird, but it didn’t really taste like one at all. He’d tried alligator, snake and even goanna in Australia. Like this, they were a solid type of meat, more like white beef than soft poultry. He’d love to know what he was eating.
He turned to the male next to him, pointed to his food, and made the sound for “good”, following it with the opening hand gesture that indicated a question. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, hopefully indicating curiosity about what he was eating.
Jorghanson concentrated as a torrent of impenetrable words and sounds tumbled toward him. The small man pointed to the jungle and made flapping motions with his arms. Okay, a bird from the jungle. Jorghanson nodded and raised his eyebrows. The man snapped his jaws together, pointing at his own teeth. Yes, we’re eating it, got that too.
The man shrugged and went back to his food, and the scientist frowned, none the wiser. It had been months, and he still only understood a fraction of their language. He was a better karaoke singer than he was a linguist.
He picked up a chunk of meat attached to a flat piece of bone about three inches long, nibbled the clinging flesh off and then examined the shard. Odd. It was solid, not the lighter, hollow bone he expected from a bird. He picked up another piece, also flat, and fitted them together – it was the side of a skull, containing some upper jaw, and … teeth. Teeth? He held the fragment close to his face, then rummaged for his glasses to examine it more closely.
I’ll be damned, he thought – acrodont teeth on a bird. He swung to Gho-ka next to him and uttered a string of glottal stops and short vocalic sets, hoping upon hope that for once in his life he had got the translation right. Where?
The woman at first shook her head, her eyes going wide, but after some stroking and smiling, she smiled shyly in return. Pieter knew she’d tell him. He also knew he had just found his angle.
Excerpted from The First Bird by Greig Beck. Copyright © 2013 by Greig Beck.
First published 2013 in Momentum. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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