Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Moldering Jungle, Part One

The light rainfall misting down over Sarah’s head was almost a blessing considering how hot she was, but then again, what could she expect when traveling through the rainforests of Brazil? The entire region was awash in lush greenery and vibrant flora that ranged from seas of brilliant orange flowers to great bell curved bulbs of eye-stabbing yellow. Between the humidity and the rainfall, Sarah could see how the plant life could easily overtake anything sedentary that wasn’t maintained.

Which was exactly why she was here. While flying over this section of rainforest, a lucky few photos revealed signs of human activity in the region, which would be nearly unprecedented as the last known natives of this particular area had died out due to a smallpox outbreak in the early nineteenth century. As an Anthropologist, Sarah was of course intrigued. As a student of the natural sciences of South America, she was fascinated. And as a naturally curious individual, she was captivated with the idea of an unknown tribe of humans living in one of the most remote locals imaginable.
So she immediately set about putting an expedition together. Bribing the proper authorities and hiring local mercenaries and guides to take her and her entourage into the great unknown, and more importantly to bring them back!
So here she was, clad in khaki shorts and a sleeveless tank top, three cameras looped around her neck and a digital recorder in hand, traipsing through the underbrush of the Amazon with two other scientists, one plump Japanese botanist with far too thick glasses known as Michishige Kenta (called Ken for short) and a statuesque Spanish biologist and endless flirt Hector Montoya. Surrounding the three pale academics were five heavily armed mercenaries, most of them Caucasian men or women that had survived the terrors of the Gulf War and couldn’t hack it in normal society anymore; instead they’d relocated to the third world nations, the slums and the uncharted sections of the world to work as soldiers-for-hire. All relatively pleasant in disposition, they all had a slight edge about them, a twinkle in their eye, that made Sarah not want to cross them or question them when they gave an order.
To round out her team of mentalists and murderers, Sarah had gone to the trouble of hiring a local Rikbatsa man who simply wished to be called Siri to act as a guide for the expedition. While not a mountain of muscle like some of the mercenaries, the lean frame Siri boasted was taut with corded muscle, and the machete that he held in his left hand told enough about the man to earn instant respect from everyone present.
“Come, this way,” Siri called out from ahead, having taken the front of the group with one of the younger mercenaries, hacking away at any vegetation that caught his attention. “We must get out of the rain while we can, before the bao find us.”
Bao? What is a Bao?” Ken asked, looking up from the curled leaves of a flowering plant which, until Sarah saw it, held a camouflaged spider of brilliant red and gold. Pulling up on of her cameras, she paced around Ken until she had a good frame for the arachnid, then snapped a half dozen shots of the creature as it snacked on the nectar of the plant. This was the tenth day of the excursion, and nearly every ten minutes the troupe would stumble upon some species of plant or animal that nobody in the scientific community had ever heard of. So, in order to pad her own bank accounts, Sarah was documenting every creature and plant that Ken and Hector seemed amazed about, reciting their observations into her digital recorder while snapping photos of the subject from various angles.
Bao? I think they’re spirits of the jungle, or something.” A heavyset soldier said as he padded up from behind the group, hand resting on the automatic rifle dangling from his neck. “You hear the natives talk about ‘em all the time in the smaller villages, making sacrifices and praying to ‘em and shit.”
“So… Bao are in essence a primitive aspect of the native culture and their religion?” Sarah asked, flipping on her recorder as she spoke, holding it out to the soldier pointedly.
He looked at it with slight discomfort evident on his face before clearing his throat. “Um, yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say, y’know, that they’re primitive or nothin. Just something a lot of the locals buy into.”
“And what would you say is an aspect of this religious belief that is unique to the various tribes of the Amazon?” Sarah pressed, excited at the prospect of a new belief system to explore.
“I dunno, I’d have to say that they seem to be pretty important to the people around here. I know a lot of the men get tattoos of the animals the Bao are said to impersonate, and I know that they have festivals celebrating a good harvest, where they fill a plate and leave it at the edge of the village for the spirits.”
“So are their multiple kinds of Bao?”
The soldier gave Sarah a disgruntled glare. “Look lady, I was hired to guard ya, not talk to ya about the people I know around here. If you have questions about anything, ask Siri, okay?”
Huffing, Sarah flipped off her recorder and pulled back her blonde bangs behind her ear. Turning to Ken, who had been listening to the whole conversation with a mild sense of interest, she smiled. “Does this sound anything like the ancestor worship that your people had?”
Ken, mildly surprised at the question, laughed. “Good gods, I don’t know. I know we had a belief that all things in nature had a spirit, but then again so did half of Asia. I’m a Catholic myself, so I can’t really speak with any authority on my culture’s spiritual past. All I really know are plants.”
Sarah’s line of questioning came to a halt as the rain began to grow in strength, forcing her and the others to seek the shelter Siri had called to them from, a large cave set into the side of a hill. As the three researchers run into the dim cavern with the last of the mercenaries, Siri sparks a small fire to life, composed mainly of twisted tubers and roots. Reaching into a small leather pouch at his hip, he pulls a pinch of green powder which he throws into the growing flames, spreading the scent of mint throughout the cave. When he catches sight of Sarah staring, he smiles.
“To ward away the Bao in this region of the jungle.” He says as a means of explanation, before settling back onto his haunches on the damp stone. “We will be here for a while, as the rain will not relent for several hours.”
“And we don’t just walk in the rain because…?” Sarah asks, waving her hand for an answer.
“The Bao like to hunt in the rain, and shortly thereafter.” Siri simply says, shrugging. “And I have no desire to test my steel against their mystical abilities, thank you.”
“What are these Bao you speak of Siri?” Sarah asks, sitting down next to him and clicking her recorder on. “Tell me about them.”
He stares at her for a few moments before turning to the fire. “Bao have always been, and always will be. They live in the jungle and keep mostly to themselves, though they occasionally like to come play with humans. Their sense of humor… it leaves much to be desired.”
“How so?” Sarah asks, pressing in on the topic.
“They find joy in how our bodies work, and relish our misery. They strike us with dizzying hallucinations, making us see our worst fears or our greatest loves. They lure us away from our villages, back to their own, for slave labor.”
“What do the Bao need slaves for?” Ken asks, settling in across from Siri, the smokeless fire resting comfortably between them. “I mean, if they’re spirits, what could they need slaves for? Slaves have historically been used to cultivate or construct. So which is it the Bao need them for?”
“Nobody knows… we just know to leave offerings of lichen wine in small bowls at the edge of our villages whenever there is a heavy rainstorm. This distracts the Bao, who drink the wine and grow sleepy.”
“So in order to appease these malevolent nature spirits, your people leave bowls of a special wine out whenever it rains to keep them at bay?” Sarah said, trying to sum up what Siri’s story.
“In essence. Though I would hardly call them malevolent, as they are simply doing what they have always done.” Siri adds, looking over between Sarah and Ken. “Is the Jaguar evil for eating its prey? The Bao are just the same, only with a different group to prey upon. Us.”
   “How very… philosophical.” Sarah said, slightly at a loss for words. While she was well versed in a variety of religions that performed taboo rituals, she rarely encountered one that took to an evil spirit with such a blasé attitude. “So, what do the Bao do? Besides get drunk off of offerings and hunt during the rain?”
“They tend to the jungle,” Siri said, staring into the small fire. “Just as they have for thousands of years.”
“So they’re gardeners?” Hector asked, standing at Siri’s shoulder. Siri turned to look up and regard the Spaniard with a smile.
“In a way, yes. But they also keep the natural order of things, and protect the jungle from harm.” Siri replied before turning back to stare at Sarah. “That is why there are so many disappearances in this section of the jungle.”
“Disappearences?” Sarah repeated, worry creeping into her voice.
“Oh yes, the Bao  hate intruders on their sacred land, which we are fast approaching. Many of the villagers take those suspected of crimes or witchcraft and leave them at the boundary, tied to a tree. Within hours, the person is gone, swallowed by the jungle mists.”
“Jungle mists?” Hector said, looking between Sarah and Ken for an explanation.
“The heavy rainfall and high humidity, combined with the hours of dawn and dusk, create dense mists in the jungles of the Amazon,” Ken explained, pushing his glasses up his nose. “A lot of flowering plants open up during these hours to capture more moisture.”
“That is when the Bao travel… they hunt during the rains, but they travel within their territory when the jungle mists are high and heavy.” Siri said, scooting closer to the fire.
Sarah pulled out her map of the Amazon, one purchased from a local cartographer, as well as a satellite photo of the ruins that had been spotted. Holding them out to Siri, she looked at him curiously. “Are these ruins… in the sacred grounds of the Bao?”
Siri took both pieces of parchment, studying them carefully. Looking up with a smile, he nods. “Yes, this looks like it is within their territory. We’ll have to be very careful if we are to enter.”
“Siri… these creatures don’t exist, you know that right? I mean we’ve never seen one, or photographed one… hell, we’ve never even found a dead one.” Hector said, shaking his head. “These are just ghost stories, myths that you’re people have created to keep the children in line and explain the unusual.”

Siri looks up at Hector with a gap toothed smile. “We shall see my friend. We shall see…”

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