Into the Darkness

 

The fear began to settle in around sundown. The cicadas, crickets and everything else in the deep forest came to life in the twilight with a slow groaning roar that grew louder with the setting of the sun. A dark green snake slithered through the murky waters, its slow side to side movements creating the only visible ripples on the mirror like lake. It came to a rest on an old blackened log just metres away from him and hissed its cimmerian forked tongue as it lay its pinpoint eyes upon him, looking into his soul as if to say “what the fuck are you doing here?” He begged to ask himself the same question; this isn’t what he had imagined in the books that he had read, telling the tales of the beauty of the wild, living from minute to minute on only your wits and your cunning, or was this what it really was and his own imagination had duped him, leading him astray and now reality was showing him the hard truth of how terrifying it can be to sleep in a jungle alone with his senses dulled by the screeching sounds around him and his only bit of company is the darkness that threatened at any moment to swallow him whole. He locked eyes with the snake as it lay staring into him, not tense but ready to move if it did and upon falling into a near hypnotic state the memories of the hours before began to pass.

The sun was still low in the sky as he had set out that morning and the fog that was still drifting through the valley sent cold shivers up his arms. Giant freight containers plastered in Chinese symbols would plough through the morning mist and past him without the slightest inclination of slowing down or even seeing him. The lake that he had been told about was supposed to be only 10 kilometres outside the city judging by the rough map that was drawn for him by the owner of the local hostel bar. A half an hour cycle, give or take a few minutes, but 45 minutes had already passed. After the turn off for the border on the left where all the trucks were either coming from or going to he took a right turn down a small country road where the tarmac had ended and the red dirt roads began. The dirt road was lined by red wood stilted houses and banana trees that cockerels loitered outside crowing at the ensuing opening of the day, the only thing that interrupted the tranquillity was the mad barking of mad dogs from behind garden gates. The houses petered out until he came to a large pond bordered by wooden Salas designed in the same Thai style as the houses with nagas and different mythological beings carved into the ruby coloured wood. He came to a stop at one of them to take some water and consult his map. Beside the Sala there was rubbish strewn on the bank and within the pond, remnants of an evening of revelry not long passed. One of the pieces of rubbish that lay in the waters was a salty seaweed snack that had been popular with kids at the time had a fish giving a thumbs-up gesture emblazoned on the front of the packet and gave off an air of somewhat irony. According to the map the lake that he was aiming for was right up ahead and when he looked up he could see two large wrought iron gates. On the far side of the gates there was a park warden going about his morning business, grey smoke drifting into the air from the lit cigarette he had hanging from his mouth. The Park warden jumped as this farang passed behind him and shouted “Arun Sawat” before passing again into the mist that still shrouded the path. The Thai people are incredibly superstitious of ghosts, especially when they are white. The path almost immediately became steep and narrow with large rocks and roots jutting up through the earth. The earth was sticky with muck from the night of dew falling in the mist, but luckily it wasn’t far before he came upon a bright blue chasm that opened up across the lake. Lake is the wrong word to use here for the word “lake” implies that it had naturally occurred however this wasn’t the case; this was a reservoir that had been backed up by a dam built with tonnes and tonnes of steel and concrete. On the foreshore of the lake a large before and after picture of the area stood. It looked dry and arid before the construction and since then it had blossomed into a wild anarchic jungle that was swollen to its edges with vegetation. The dam had a wide open track across the top of it, on one side the reservoir’s waters lapped at the edges and on the other side there was a thirty foot drop to where a small stream of water trickled out at the bottom. The sun was higher in the sky now and the fog had completely abated leaving the whole view of the lake wide open as he crossed the dam. It fluctuated in the middle leaving an unclear view of where exactly it finished but the pale green tips of the far mountains could be seen. In the middle of the lake not far from where he stood there were a small group of fishermen standing on their wooden boats and casting their nets into the lake. It had never occurred to him before that the lake might be inhabited, as to the far right of the fishermen, a little further down, he could see small hutments with rooves made of bamboo leaf but looked too small and too banjaxed to be permanent residences. Upon reaching the far side of the dam he found the small footpath he had been told about that led into the forest and after quite conspicuously hiding his bike beneath a bundle of banana leaves he took to foot down it.

Inside the weather changed, pearls of sweat began to immediately drip down his face in the humidity of the forest and his boots squelched into the mucky path. At the beginning the canopy of the forest was high with fingers of the sun shooting through the gaps but gradually it became darker, tighter and more ominous. At one point after he had to creep on his hands and knees beneath a bundle of bamboo, he tried to stand up and grabbed at an autonomous strand to stabilize himself. As his fingers wrapped around the bamboo pole the strange feeling of something soft met his fingers. To his astonishment when he looked around to see what it was he saw a large green lizard with a horned nose wriggling to get free from his grasp. He fell back in disgust, falling back into the bundle of bamboo he had just crawled from and voraciously flapping his fingers against his chest trying to get the feel of the lizard from his hands.  As he gathered himself and brushed himself off he decided that from then on he would keep his wits about him, move slower and watch where he was putting his hands or feet. It was lucky he did for ahead, every now and again, he would come across a wide, silvery web that draped across the pathway. On some part of each web there sat a large black spider, it had a long yellow line down its narrow body and large pincers that were the colour of blood pointing out from his face, it was so big he could almost see his reflection in all eight of its eyes. The first time he encountered one of these spiders it took him a good 15 terrifying minutes of working out how to proceed before he finally unpacked his fishing pole and slashed his way through, much to the disgust of the spider that began to scuttle away to the nearest tree. After the fourth or fifth destruction of a web he began to wonder whether these spiders were extremely fast builders or had it been a long time since anybody had been down this trail.

Eventually he stumbled out of the darkness and back on to the lake shore. The dam where he had begun was still visible far in the distance to the right with the brightness of the sun turning it a pastel grey and the mirage in the air making it look like a hallucination. On the left the end of the lake was much more visible now and big green mountains just like the ones that surrounded him bordered it. He was practically adjacent now with the small settlement he had seen from the dam and on closer inspection he saw that it was bigger than he had thought. There were at least 5 or 6 hutments huddled together with some billowing smoke outside it and some limp feet hanging at the doorway that must’ve belonged to the fishermen that he had seen earlier. The shore he had come to consisted mostly of dark sand with patches of wild grass and before him stood a large dark tree with its branches nearly dipping into the water with only the great twisted roots that dug into the ground holding it stable. It was a perfect place to camp giving him a nearly full view of the lake and the only thing to his back was a large bundle of dry bamboo which would make for great tinder.

He erected his tent beneath the great withered tree with its head nearly dipping in the water, it was the only piece of shade the clearing offered. The tent was erected facing the water and its back to the jungle so that it would be camouflaged as much as possible should someone or something come looking for it. To the left of the tent he began to clear the area of the dry bamboo and build the makings of a camp fire which he was sure would give him comfort in the coming night. Just as he was finishing up building his encampment the fishermen that had been dozing in their hutments re-appeared and were coming across the water towards him. They stopped a couple of metres from where he stood, staring at him, looking back on it now it must have been strange to see this white, half-naked, tattooed foreigner out there in the jungle, in their jungle, so far from the convenience of the bars in the nearby town. He waved to them but they just gave each other wide gaping-eyed looks and rowed to the far end of the lake towards the dam. He noticed as he watched them row by that their boats were full of fish that must have been their catch for the day. That was the last he had seen of them. The sight of the fish reminded him that he had brought his fishing rod with him and that he had better get fishing before the sun got any lower in the sky. The water was dark and gloomy as he cast out for the first time. He was using spinner tackle that the locals in the local fishing shop had assured him would work in the lake and the sight of the fishermen’s catch gave him hope and confidence.

After a half an hour of casting out and reeling the tackle in he remembered from the dam how he saw the fishermen use NETS!! They weren’t using fishing rods at all. He got a sinking feeling in his stomach that the locals in the local fishing store had swindled him for the over-priced fishing rod and tackle. The more and more he cast out and reeled in the tackle the more and more he was sure that he’d been swindled by the locals. What a fucking grandiose idea it had been to think he could come out into the jungle all on his own and fend for himself anyway. That morning he had had fantasies of catching some snakefish in the lake and cooking them beautifully on a barbecue made of fresh bamboo until the meat had begun to flake away from the bone. What a farce. He began to loathe himself and realize how useless city living had made him, how comfortable and dependent he’d become living off the mass-production of food. What kind of a man was he at all? what kind of a human was he at all, he was no animal, no hunter-gatherer, just a drunk that was coming looking for something else, something more, running away from problems in the city, too afraid to face them there, it scared him, how reliant the whole world had become on corporations and the labour of other people. What happened in the morning if the whole world shut down? What happened if there were no more supermarkets? What happened if there was no more running water, no more electricity, people would be lost, like sheep without shepherds, aha sheep without shepherds, is that what humanity has become? Is that the future? Comfortable fat sheep ready to be lead to the slaughter, it terrified him, angered him. It occurred to him as he looked around, how alien he was to this environment, how uninhabitable it was for his soft body and his slow wits that were more accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city. How much he had changed since he was a kid who used to spend days down by the river catching fish and bringing them home. He was just about to throw his rod to the floor and give up when a huge eruption of water whooshed into the air not half a metre from where he stood. Something big had moved, and fast. A fish rose to the top of the water except it wasn’t a full fish at all, half of its body had been bitten from it, and its whole tail end was missing. He picked up a long bamboo pole and pulled the still wriggling fish out of the water. Its mouth was still opening and closing, gasping for breath as he bent down to take a look. The remnants of the fish was about half of the length of his forearm but much thicker, whatever had taken a bite from it must have been huge; he couldn’t even begin to comprehend what it was. Without a second thought he hooked the fish on to the end of his line and cast it out as far as he could into the dark waters in the hope that whatever had taken its first bite from the fish hadn’t had its fill and would come back for more. The original false feelings of confidence began to swell once again in his chest, the feelings of unworthiness flipped and illusions of opulence were replaced, thoughts of catching whatever monster lay beneath the water, going back to the town a champion and a revered hunter/fisherman, conquering the lake on his first day out there, what many had tried to conquer before, the epitome of man, they would praise him on the streets and women’s knees would weaken at the sight of him. He could imagine the villagers carrying him on their shoulders as they strung up the monster in the local square for all to see. There would be a festival named after him for catching this vile creature that plagued fishermen and terrorized visitors to the park.  Soon enough he realized the stupidity of his thoughts as the sun dipped low and his stomach loudly grumbled for food, which he hadn’t eaten all day.

The monkeys whooped in the trees and the crickets rubbed their legs together in their mating call as he watched the snake slither away from the old charred log in search of another resting place for the night, probably being just as scared of him as he was of it. It was a cloudless dark night when the sun finally vanished behind the mountains to light up somebody else’s day. The moon was nothing but a crescent of light in the sky, it looked like an orb with a torch lit up underneath it, almost like the smile of the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. When he looked up at it he could see the whole earth moving slowly on its axis as the stars made their way across the sky, watching this show with wonderment. He had never seen the stars so sparkling and readable all moving together in the same direction, but it was not the stars that were moving he realized, it was the giant rock, flying through space that he was perched upon that was moving, spinning purposelessly through the vast expanses of the void, on a course unknown to him, out of the reach of his knowledge. He picked the time as about 7:30 when he snapped out of his trance to light the fire, the sound around him was terrifying, he could see nothing but he could hear everything, in the pitch black dark of the night, his senses were useless, anything could’ve been watching him, waiting for him, in the opaque night. Lighting the fire was a soothing thought but as soon as he had it roaring the sooner he realized he was wrong. In its flickering yellow light it cast shadows everywhere and dumbed his night vision, it wreaked havoc on his imagination. The darkness, noise and shadow were like nothing he had experienced before, hopeless and helpless he sat darting his eyes in all directions, questioning everything, getting up and checking the vicinity of the area for bodies and faces that weren’t there. He couldn’t handle it and after a half an hour of this anxious dance that he was doing he crawled into the safety of his tent. With him he had a coal miner style head light and a copy of “The Teaching of the Buddha” which he was hoping would calm his blinding nerves. He lay on his chest reading, hoping to fall asleep but the beating of the heart within his chest kept him awake, kept his senses strained until he finally got his wish.

He didn’t know how long later it was when he came back to his senses. He wasn’t sure if he had been dozing or if he had been fully asleep but the battery of the torch had gone dead and now he was in complete darkness. What had made him rise to his senses? He knew there must have been something or he would’ve slept or dozed on until the morning. All of a sudden there was a quick snap and then a thud and a cry. That must have been his fishing rod which he had left down earlier; there was something outside the tent. Visions of the monster he was trying to catch earlier immediately flooded his mind. Had the hunter become the hunted and was this monster now crawling out of the deep dark waters to eat him while he slept? He slowly reached down into his pocket and clenched his hand around the switch knife he had brought with him. He opened his eyes and readied himself for what was about to happen next but to his astonishment he saw a flickering yellow light bounce against his tent as though his fire had been re-lit but in a different position, quickly he realized this wasn’t some creature from the deep but maybe an even more dangerous creature, man. From the whispering of voices he could tell that there were two of them outside, he couldn’t make out what they were saying but they were excited about something. As he lay in the tent he brought out his switch knife and flicked it open, readying himself for this all new kind of predator to make its move. His heart beat against his rib cage like that of a heavy bass drum as he waited for the two men to come closer, to put their hand on his tent and for the violence to commence. He would strike as soon as they tried to open his tent, straight for the jugular of the first one and he would deal with the second one as he came, he was probably doomed if there was a third he hadn’t accounted for. What he readied himself for never came, the men must’ve decided to wander off in another direction once they saw somebody camping there, and as their lights and voices grew further, he tried to relax, slow his heart rate before it exploded out of his chest. He couldn’t sleep and minutes felt like hours as he lay paralyzed within the tent, he hadn’t dared move a muscle since the men had wandered off, just in case they were still watching him and wanted to capture him as soon as he felt safe, playing games with him in their forest. He wasn’t sure if he began dozing again or what had happened but a new sound began to gently vibrate, shaking him into his senses. It was different from the chaotic sound his senses had dulled themselves to, it was different because it was rhythmic it was a quick, deep, thump, thump, thump, repeated over and over again in procession, he didn’t move, just listened, trying to figure out what animal would make such a sound, but once again he had made the mistake of confusing animal with man. It was amazing how the distinct lines between the two became so blurred out there. Bravely he moved and zipped open the front flap of the tent to see if he could see what was happening, if he could see what was making the noise. To his astonishment, at the far end of the lake there lay a bright burning fire. Shadows danced across the fire like people moving temporarily blocking out its light. They were drums that were beating and it must have been some hill tribe people that were passing on the way to the celebration that had happened by chance to fall upon his encampment. A shiver ran down his spine at the thought of them knowing that he was there during their celebration. He was idiot for coming out here all on his own, what preconceptions or misconceptions had driven him to such an action, what movie had he watched or book had he read was it that urged him to do something like this, it was ridiculous to have even contemplated it and now he was at the mercy of these people who were dancing around a fire on the edge of the reservoir. He cursed himself realizing that he wouldn’t even be able to find his way out of the jungle in the darkness if he tried, his torch was dead and it would’ve only obscured his night vision anyway. He resigned himself to the jungle for the night, wrapping himself up in his sleeping bag and listening to the rhythmic beats of the tribal drums. He dozed, trying to sleep but every now and again he would have fits of panic as, in his half asleep half-awake state he saw barbaric cannibals creeping through the jungle with their iron-tipped spears and face paint, searching for prey, the illusive white man that they could roast over the fire for their feast, coming in droves to taste his sizzled pink flesh. It’s amazing the way your imagination plays games on you when you are deprived of your senses and left to make up the story for yourself. He felt the night never ending, timeless and exasperating, the lack of sleep only weakening his senses even more.

He was sure this time he had had some sleep when his senses brought him back into reality once more but it wasn’t the noise that had awoken him this time but it was the silence. There was a deep resounding silence everywhere, a silence compared to nothing he had ever heard the likes of before, even the insects that had let out their deafening screech were silenced and the drums of the dancing people had finished. It was as though he had fallen down a deep pit far, far from the world and was buried there; even as he woke up he dared not to move. He opened his eyes and saw the thousands of bright stars still shining in the sky through the opened flap in the tent and then that was when he heard it, why the jungle had become so silent. It started out as a low rumbling noise at first and then, as it came closer turn into a loud, reverberating, nasal like growl. Animal was not to be confused with man this time because no human could have made this noise and once again there was something outside the tent. he dared not move, the knife still lay open in his shaking hand should something try to invade his safety zone. It seemed like hours were passing as he lay belly flat and heart pumping in that tent, adrenaline pulsing, waiting for whatever animal that was outside to pass, the tent had become an extension of himself, knowing that if there was any added pressure to its exterior, he would have been able to react accordingly. Dreams began to invade his mind of the animal outside, orange fur with black stripes, white covering his under belly, sharp teeth bared as it snarled, growled, and stalked the vicinity of his encampment, hot air belching from its nostrils, searching for the prey that it smelled. He begged for the attack to come anything as nothing was worse than the waiting and waiting for whatever was outside to make the first move.

With a short gasp he woke, light protruded through the flap of the tent and let him know morning had finally come, the morning that he had almost been praying for. A thick mist covered the lake, so thick that the far side of the lake was invisible but the sky was a beautiful  bright blue once again, he figured it as about 7:30 in the morning a full 12 hours since he had panic-strickenly crawled into his tent. He squatted by the lake and smoked a cigarette, mulling over the past nights events, trying to convince himself everything he had envisioned about the night before outside his tent was just a dream, something his mind had concocted as a kind of consequence of the situation, like a sequence of the jungle book playing out in his mind and he was Mogli and the beast outside was Sheer Khan looking for the human who had invaded his domain. As he went to go for his morning piss he saw his broken fishing rod which he gathered up and put beside his tent, no monstrous animal had taken the bait, it must rather live bait. On his way back he saw something that he hadn’t noticed the day before, it stopped him dead in his tracks and his heart beat at a higher tempo. He leaned in closer to examine something he couldn’t believe, there in the wet dirt were massive paw prints that led to the lakes edge and disappeared.

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