Into the Jungle
Shadow and flickering light of the dying fire intertwine playfully on the black and orange fur, thick muscles rippling beneath the painted stripes. Round ears twitching on a head so massive, whiskers flared. Tail alive the way it swings and dances, like a separate entity, serpentine it sways. Out there in the jungle, among the trees, a cobra halts its cannibalistic quest momentarily to watch with curiosity this meeting between king and alien.
Tinged red, the mighty jowls of white fur on its cheeks spread just like that venom-king’s hood, long spike teeth colored like ancient bones still glistening. Pink tongue lolling out hungrily, eagerly. Eyes flash in her direction. Those eyes watching, divine prurience within. And oh, but those eyes! Resplendently savage, preeminence defined. Windows into a creature with no soul she can recognize, no mercy to offer, and still the majestic beauty of the feline transcends the moment despite it all. The way the shoulders rise and fall as it stalks, pacing tight on heavy paws that make no sound at all. Hunched just slightly, predatorily, as the man moans. Leaking lifeblood back into the Earth, the leaves and dirt, like a broken phantom.
So pale, so twisted are this man’s features that the boy, young Simon, scarcely recognizes his father. Watching impassively, detached, through the opening of their rough canvas tent on the opposite side of the clearing so close, oh so close, next to his mother. Victoria waves a feeble torch in futile desperation, shrill hollers turned to moans not too unlike the sounds coming from her husband become prey of the fearsome beast.
“Shoo, get away. Damn you, bastard, you sick thing..” and then she says no more, clutching to the boy who trembles unblinking.
The cat glances at the dwindling flame in her shaky grasp, absorption within each moment of which it knows only mastery. Every single outcome beholden to the tiger’s will. It riveted to impetus by the scent in the clearing. Regarding that torch, wondering if she will do more with it than flail at the air and squeal. All its focus is on the man claimed, but in such a way that encompasses every aspect of this world, this moment, including the invisible energies and spirits dwelling within — and this monster of the mangrove claims mastery of these as well. A true force of nature, an apex-elite predator still on the summit of its physical prime. Here stands the true king of the jungle.
In the tent they cringe and crumble, like defendants before a judge handing down a terrible sentence. Perhaps the lone silver lining for the youth is a lack of comprehension regarding this scene taking place before him, the full scope of this reality hard to grasp. Captivated by the power of the thing, the regal perfection of flesh and fur. Nature’s masterpiece, each bristling tuft of pelt. Along the sleek flank the fire shows wonder. Alabaster cream rimming those eyes, a specter from the night cloaked in meat-eater’s musk. The tiger holding all the strings, these puppets of flesh and bone hanging on its whim out here under the trees, outside the fence. She looks at the man she loves, hates him too for bringing them out here. Hates herself for asking him to. Misery from which there is no return, regardless of how the next few moments occur.
Simon has never seen death up close, recognizes the concept only vaguely like he vaguely recognizes his father. She has seen it before but never like this, never with her own fate hanging precipitously in the balance. She knows well enough what’s happening, pieces of her going dark as she watches the man try to tuck his insides back inside. Flashing twin spheres colored like caramel mustard, murderous globes with onyx crystals framed by fresh leather rings, come to life suddenly and in all the muscle and tooth and claw — those eyes are terror to teardrops. The man tries to speak, gone rigid and reaching out with slime-bathed hands to the dark void before his failing eyes.
“tt-aattkke-Beee” and the man’s voice startles the tiger, who has grown weary of this game anyway. Waiting to see about the one with the torch while waiting for the other to die. The child is of a kind the tiger has seen many times, wide-eyed and confused. All bone and jelly, no meal fit for a king such as it…
They had come to India from their home in London’s West End in search of glorious adventure. Theirs was a life of luxury and extravagance, tea parties and rigidly organized social gatherings. Powder-faced relics clinging to dispersing ideas of empire. Mini-emperors and would-be-empresses having the same three conversations over and over again in a portable aristocratic bubble. One that grew tedious after time, and then Nancy and Edward had gone to Morocco and come back with fabulous souvenirs and stories regaled by all within their circle for weeks after. The envy of any narcissistic socialite, to be the center of attention even when they weren’t in the room. And so those wheels and ideas started to turn and churn within the Osmond’s thoughts and conversations.
It would be good for Simon, they reasoned, to experience different things and see a different part of the world. Though young boys certainly should run and play the childish games with their mates Simon loved so much — his distaste for the finer aspects of life left much to be desired. Both hoped he would soon grow out of the ‘dirty-knees’ stage and adopt some civility. Nancy and Edward’s daughter quite a pianist, and the Crickshire’s son famed from Thames to Tummel for his acting and singing.
The more they spoke of it, the more they fed the flames of desire within the other to ‘shake things up’, to do something impulsive. See a different world than the same static public theatre that greets them daily.
And then, conversing with her mother over tea one glorious summer noon, Victoria learned her uncle is a wealthy landowner in India. Owns an estate to make any Londoner duke-green with envy.
“Is India dangerous?” she asked, and her mother laughed. Repeated her go-to phrase regarding this distant land she has never seen, tragically taken out of context from eavesdropping on her brother’s conversation long ago.
“My dear, the most dangerous thing about India is the water…”
Two weeks aboard a steamship and then another week aboard a train which bore a thousand scents and colors along with it through lush greenery and marvelous wilderness all around the hurtling iron steed.
“Where are all the roads?” Victoria had asked, looking out the window.
“This is India dear” her husband laughed with a hint of teasing braggadocio as if he a veteran of this trek, and she almost snapped at him for it but bit her tongue for the boy’s sake.
Then finally, with queasy stomachs and throbbing heads, they arrive by a jolting ass-pulled cart at the tall, very tall gates of the estate on the outskirts of Kolkata. Through these they traveled on a dirt road beneath parallel rows of giant trees reaching to join overhead, cotton-like tendrils hanging from this mesh ceiling swaying as if dancing lazily to the cacophonic splendor of what seemed like a thousand insects and a million birds. As the forest-mansion came into view they smiled at each other and hugged young Simon lovingly. Finally, it seems, they had arrived at a destination to suit their standing. Then came a shrill peculiar chattering, very strange and altogether chilling, followed by deep hoots like a human-owl hybrid.
“What kind of bird is that?” Victoria asked the driver of their cart, an elderly Indian gentleman with a pleasant smile beneath a great white moustache.
“No bird, miss, Bandara.” He laughed a giddy, childish laugh and spoke to the ass in a very strange language indeed. “Yes many bandara here, many many.” The driver motioned with long crooked fingers at the trees. “Very tricky, very tricky” He laughed again, and made strange motions with his arms speaking again to the ass who does not answer. The couple smirked at each other, accustomed to ineptitude among the servile class.
Their cart rolled along the well-worn path through the joined-arch tunnel to a wide clearing, many buildings and a central three-story thatched roof of magnificent architecture. The most remarkable building either of them had ever seen, so different from the mechanized urban sprawl of their own world. A cathedral of a cottage, the central hub of a flourishing island abode in this ocean of jungle.
The uncle whom she had never met received them with a polite cordiality at the front door of the main house, not quite the gracious reception befitting them of stature descending to grace such a place with their presence, in Victoria’s view. They brought no gift, offered little in the way of appreciation, and even raised a bit of a tizzy when told beef was forbidden to eat. Her husband grumbling about the savagery of a place where a man could not enjoy a fine steak for dinner. The transplanted cityfolk who ate like goats with equal gratitude and ordered the attending staff around like supervisors at a factory. And this staff offered no contention because they loved the uncle, who would never treat them such a way. Who treated them like extended family, and could only say they were his sister’s family from a different place. That they did not understand this world. Of course, such was plain to see.
With their departure looming, the uncle gone three days on a ‘supply run’, (a trip he did not typically take), and the Londoners are feeling restless, unappreciated. Poor company without external stimuli and distractions for each other, he has taken to drinking toddy early and she quietly complains to the boy about this and everything else.
“We have come to India to experience the wilderness, to bring back tales of adventure and glory”
“Is that why we came?” she responds accusingly, knowing well that is exactly the reason and he knows it too.
Thus sparked his grand idea, a piece of India that they could bring back to London and brag about to their acquaintances at dinner parties and luncheons. She loved the idea, though she wasn’t sure about bringing Simon.
“Surely the boy does not frighten from dark any longer?”
“Simon is plenty brave, he gets it from me” she teases back, and he glares above the edge of the tall clay jar bearing intricate blue and green designs full of palm wine.
“We came to India to get a taste of the wild, and that is what I intend to do.” Him so resolutely confident, slurring just slightly, rising like a man with a plan he intends to execute immediately no matter the opposition.
The uncle returned late at night and most of those who lived and worked and raised their families inside these walls were up, clutching hemp blankets about them and looking at him in worry.
“What’s wrong?” he asked them, and they told him.
“Fools” he spits the words like poison after hearing of the Osmond’s escapade. “They’re outside the walls?”
“Yes, yes, we told them William sir, we told them.” Sharduk-Srif shook his head, offering his hands. “So sorry, we tried to..”
“Not your fault Chacha, not your fault at all. Do not trouble yourself. Get the torches and the rifles, we will go get them and send them home at daybreak.” Comforting the old mother beside who tried so hard to tell them as the others ran about. Preparing to go out there among the Banyans and the Neems, the teak wild orchards, with the moon so full and bright and the jungle so alive…did they not notice the thick woven-vine wall surrounding the entire estate that seemed unnecessarily tall? The way the palisade of spikes lining its peak curled away? Did they believe it was for decoration? (In fact, the Osmonds believed it was to keep the workers in!)
And so, with Simon fast asleep in the tent and the flickering fire lending a primitive intensity to the moment, Tom had taken Victoria lovingly in the glow of that blaze and the toddy and basked in the success of the trip. What stories they would have to tell when they got home!
“I can’t imagine how things could be any better” Victoria cooed.
“I can think of something…” Tom whispered in her ear.
“Oh Tom, you behave with Simon right there”
“He is sleeping my dear, and I don’t think his slumber will be disturbed if we sneak off into the bushes for a kiss or two”
“Oh just a kiss, my dear?”
“Well-” he nuzzled her with a sheepish grin on his face. “Now that you mention it…”
He stood and took her hands in his, electricity buzzing between them of a kind not flowed in years. “Let me just check on Simon, dear” she whispered seductively, pulling free of his grasp. He let her go at first, then pulled her back towards him and kissed her deeply, finally she got away and they looked at each other lustfully before she turned her attention to the sleeping boy in the tent.
Snug and cozy, the dreamy look in the child’s innocence affirmation of all that is good and supposed to be. That the melancholy of the last few days was but a symptom of homesickness and the impact of local cuisine.
Then she heard a gasp and gurgle behind, a sort of brisk whoosh like clothes on a line catching a gust. Turning to a scene so strange, almost comical at first, she thinks he is joking in some eerie fashion. Then she sees it. Tail bouncing, pacing on the edge of the fire’s light, 500 pounds of muscle, bone and menace. The Bachelor as he is known in this realm, ten feet from nose to tail and a jagged scar along his left flank. This one has killed rhinos and buffalo, bear and leopard, and a young elephant too. And when her uncle arrives with the rifles and torches only a thick but already drying crimson puddle on the ground near the smoldering charcoal remains as the many, many tricky Bandara come to life, hooting and howling at the moon. Out there in the jungle, in the trees.