“Land ahead!”
The guide’s thickly accented voice pierced the heavy, humid air, signaling to his small crew to prepare for a collision with the shore. The sun was starting to peer over the horizon. The motor puttered faithfully and began to slow as we neared the bank of the river.
“Professor Canaghan!” I raised my voice above the humming of the insects. “Professor! Come see! We’re here!”
Thuds on the stairs signaled the arrival of my colleague, and he stumbled on the last step, catching himself on the rusted railing.
“Good to see you’re up and at ‘em!” I chuckled, as he grimaced and rubbed sleep out of his eyes.
“Nobody put the coffee on this morning!” he chortled regretfully, in his pleasant manner. His straight, white teeth complemented his olive skin beautifully and his rich brown hair, tainted with the slightest bit of gray, framed his face and speckled his jaw. “Cut me some slack.” He shook himself out and watched the rapidly approaching trees with me, smiling happily and breathing in the fresh air.
“It never fails to amaze me,” he commented.
The setting sun reflected off the gently rolling water and into my eyes, and I adjusted my sun hat to deter the glare.
“Are you ready to see the forest?” Canaghan asked tauntingly, leaning slightly over the railing and grinning. “I just know you’re going to love it!” I laughed, a little halfheartedly and averted my gaze.
My name is Taylor Riverbanks, and I’m not a typical biology journalist. I’m actually employed at H!T Magazine, headquartered in Manhattan, and I enjoy my job of blogging, editing, and writing articles focused on the ins and outs of award ceremonies, blogging, and fashion. I’ve been faithfully working at H!T for about two years, and was shocked when my boss asked me to take a trip to the Amazon. The company wanted to go in “a new direction” publishing an unusual column each month as some kind of marketing scheme, and mine was going to be the first.
So, here I was, sitting on a dirty dinghy on my way to hike through a forest and take notes about plants. Though it was beautiful from the sidelines, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic to get going.
“Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think you do,” I speculated.
Our conversation was cut off as the skiff scraped against the mud and the boat came to a stop. The guides continued to direct each other, probably in Portuguese, and jumped out of the boat onto the land.
I collected my backpack and sunglasses and stepped off the deck onto the ramp near the edge of the boat. The ground below was soft and muddy in places, and I feared for the safety of my expensive sneakers. For a moment I struggled with my inner fashionista, but I couldn’t stay on the boat.
The day passed relatively uneventfully; we followed Canaghan and his co-workers into the trees. I encountered some large mosquitoes and, at lunchtime, a frog who’d attached himself to my thermos. As the day went on, the unseen sky grew darker. The weeks I’d been spending at the gym weren’t helping me here as much as I thought they would. As the forest clearly grew dimmer, I thought it unwise to be hiking through the jungle in the middle of the night. There were actual, real-life animals out here that could potentially eat us in our sleep, but I was not the expert, and Canaghan had not spoken to me since the incident earlier. Not wanting to be bothersome, I had elected not to bring it up. I doused myself in bug spray again, wallowing in my depressing thoughts, and tried to focus on the canopy waving at us from above.
“We’re coming close to our campsite!” Canaghan called from the front. “Let’s break for fifteen minutes. We’ve only got half an hour ahead of us.”
Again the last in the group, I panted heavily and seized my water bottle, draining it in about thirty seconds and then desperate for more. My shirt clung to my body, soaked from my sweat and the humidity in the air. Having removed my backpack, I leaned up against the nearest boulder and took a glance around the clearing. Everybody was talking quietly and eating snacks. Some of the plants waved gently and the shrubs behind me rustled softly. The insects buzzed. One might have almost thought they were being watched in a jungle so full of life. I noticed a peculiar, hushed sound of thudding... paws almost, as if there was something behind me I hadn’t quite-
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Silence slowly fell amongst the travelers as all of us acknowledged a new presence in the clearing, the one which had appeared directly behind me. I glanced with panic at Canaghan, hoping against hope it wasn’t what I thought it might be, but his gaze said otherwise.
“Miss Riverbanks,” he asserted, maybe thirty feet away. His eyes were as big as the unseen moon. “Do not move a muscle.”
Everyone - there were about fifteen to twenty of us - had their eyes opened wide with horror. We waited with bated breath. I knew not to turn around. I didn’t need to see what was behind me to know what it was. It was right behind me, probably standing on the huge boulder and wondering what I tasted like.
Its massive tail flicked the air, disturbing the ferns behind it with a faint whoosh. Its hot breath was on my neck, its whiskers tickled my ears. I closed my eyes, full of terror but unable to speak or even to function.
The cat snarled softly behind me and I shivered, snapping out of my delusion and making me wonder if I was swaying on the spot.
Abruptly, and so sudden it made me jump, the cat sprang over my shoulder, knocking me to the side and out of his way. The group moved accordingly, letting him forge his own path through the undergrowth. My eyes were captivated by him. He turned and looked at me.
The animal was imposing, to say the least, thick and meaty, but lean at the same time. His supple muscles moved with a kind of hypnotic and rhythmic motion underneath the coat, which in itself was silky but coarse, and darker than the night around us. He was agile, muscular, and stealthy. His tail was drawn out, used to keep his balance, and would twist and turn as he stood leisurely, watching us watch him. His throat rumbled with a continuous, guttural purr, and his eyes hid something: knowledge, perhaps? They invited us to know, to watch, but to keep our distance. He was powerful, he was the color of a raven, he was cunning...
He was beautiful.
His tail swished goodbye and he blinked solemnly before he slunk away.
The clearing sighed, and the atmosphere softened. It was as though we all knew the reason for us to have been there.
“Taylor?” Canaghan approached me as though I might explode and gripped my arms tightly, holding me upright as my legs slowly weakened. “You all right?”
I laughed a little and shook off some of the stress. “Yeah, I think I’m going to be okay!”
He laughed too and offered me a hug, which I gladly accepted, a little surprised. We packed up the rest of our stuff and I was the center of attention for the remaining half hour of our trip. I loved that.
That night, tucked safely into my sleeping bag and by the light of a renewable lantern, I wrote in my journal.
...It was as though the jungle was greeting me. I was terrified, scared to death, but somehow, once he left, I knew that panther had been sent for me. He was there to welcome me, to warn me, to prepare me. I feel as though I have been accepted now, and that now, finally, I can start to call the jungle a place of beauty rather than a place of fear.