On a grassy bank beside the river, Bayou lifted his head and sniffed the air. It was almost a reflex action as he grazed, for a predator’s scent was often the first thing that signalled its presence, and a prey learned early in life to always be on guard.
But on this late evening, the air was sweet and clean. He looked around. A pair of Muscovy ducks paddled in the quiet water close to the bank, and a white heron stood ankle-deep in the water, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim by. Not far away, a well-camouflaged caiman lay on a fallen tree in the water.
Here, far up in the headwaters of the Great River, there were only the large jungle cats to be on the lookout for. The greatest and most feared was the jaguar, Makepa. Eight feet long from nose to tail and with jaws like a steel trap, he was the undisputed Lord of the Jungle.
There was no smell of jaguar in the air, but the young brocket deer scented a distant rain on the wind and knew the sunny weather was coming to an end. Soon, he would be forced to higher ground deeper in the jungle as the rising river flooded its banks. He turned his attention back to grazing, enjoying the best of the season while it lasted.
On a cold rainy morning, thirsty after a long night of slim foraging, Bayou came down to the edge of a flooded swamp. Between sips of water, he noticed what looked like a large frog in the water a few feet away but barely glanced at it, for frogs were a common sight, laying their eggs in the water. He had seen the floating foam-like masses and the long transparent ropes studded with eggs just below the water’s surface many times before.
Raindrops splattering made it difficult to see what was below the surface, but Bayou thought nothing of it when the frog started swimming slowly in his direction. Then a sharp whistle coming from an outcropping a short distance away sounded, and a new voice said, “Hiya! Step back, friend, quickly!” Bayou leapt back and saw a large young tapir standing on the outcropping.
“What’s the fuss?” he asked.
“Come take a look for ya’self,” said the tapir with a grin that showed his tusk-like teeth. Bayou scrambled up beside him and looked down. The long, dark shape of a massive anaconda was visible in the murky shallows.
“Tattler,” said the anaconda, lifting her head out of the water to glare balefully at the tapir before swimming off between the flooded trees.
“My apologies, sis,” said the tapir then, turning to Bayou, “She’ll get over it. Hi, I’m Teddy.”
“My name’s Bayou,” said the deer. “Thank you for that timely warning.”
“My pleasure,” returned the tapir. “I was heading yonder to see what the ité palms had to offer for breakfast this morning. Would ya like to come?”
That eventful meeting marked the beginning of an inseparable friendship.
Teddy, Bayou soon discovered, was not inclined to remain long in one place. “Keeps the enemy on their toes!” he often said. Bayou thought it a strange statement the first time he said it. Teddy seemed to know everyone but did not appear to have any enemies. Until he discovered that the enemy in question was none other than the Lord of the Jungle himself.
“He’s been after me for a while now,” Teddy confessed one day as they forded the river at its shallowest part. Teddy swam as if born to water and could have crossed anywhere, but Bayou preferred to cross where his feet touched the river bed. “Ya see, he doesn’t take kindly to being outwitted by his prey.”
“And you did that?”
“Oh, many times,” Teddy laughed. “But the one that burns him the most was when he hunted me right down to the river’s edge. He really thought he had me then. I thought so too, to be honest.”
“What happened?” Bayou stopped mid-stream to stare at his friend.
“I jumped in, of course. I love the water. He plunged right in, too. Jaguars can swim, ya know, extremely well. But he’s not a great diver, unlike me.”
“You got away by diving?” A giant caiman had surfaced nearby, but Bayou didn’t notice.
“There was no other way. Down to the very bottom, then I doubled back, walking on the riverbed to the side we’d just left. I came up under an overhanging bush and climbed quietly up the bank. I’ve no idea how long Makepa stayed there, circling midstream, before he caught on.”
“What a blow that must have been,” Bayou said, trying, and utterly failing, to imagine himself that close to Makepa.
“He was mad,” said Teddy mildly. “In fact, he still is and swears that he’ll get me one of these days. Not without my consent, though. But we best get cracking. This caiman’s looking a little too interested for my liking.”
“I still cannot imagine anyone getting the better of Makepa,” Bayou said as they climbed up the bank on the other side. “He’s the most terrifying thing alive.”
“Nah, he isn’t,” Teddy said, snuffling at half-rotted fruit that had fallen from a tree high above their heads. “Have ya met humans?”
“Humans? What are those?”
“Ah, ya haven’t,” Teddy found a piece that was still good and ate it, “You’ll know them when ya see them. But I hope ya never do.”
Bayou had just emerged from the tree line and was about to step down the bank to the river’s edge when he noticed a strange object moving on the water. Quickly retreating into the trees, he observed the object curiously as it came closer. It was a small wooden boat drifting easily on the current. An unusual creature, a lone man, sat upright in the stern, steering the moving craft with what looked like a short tree branch flattened at one end. Bayou thought the strange visitor resembled a huge monkey in form, yet it was like no monkey he had ever seen. Was this the human creature Teddy had warned him about? The figure continued to paddle softly, eyes scanning intently along the riverbank as it passed by, and disappeared around a bend of the river as quietly as it had appeared. Bayou stood still, ears twitching and eyes fixed on the river, long after the boat had disappeared. Later, when he met Teddy, he told him what he had seen.
“Human, alright, that’s your first sighting,” said Teddy. “I saw lotsa them when I used to go down the river but never been able to figure out exactly what kinda animal they are, and they sure ain’t birds. They live in colonies a long way down the river. Lately, though, I’ve been hearing of sightings up here, like the one you saw today, with increasing frequency. They hunt and fish and cut down trees. They use funny-looking sticks that shoots something terrible out of one end and kill at a distance. They are the most dangerous creatures you will ever meet.”
“Fascinating,” said Bayou, “I’d like to see one close up.”
“No, you don’t. I try to keep a healthy distance from them now, and so should ya,” Teddy replied. “But they weren’t always this scarce around here, ya know. This old parrot I knew, Joey, told me many stories about them. There used to be lots of them in these parts when he was young. They came to cut down the trees, he said.”
“What did they do with the trees?” Bayou asked.
“No one knows for sure,” Teddy replied. “They hauled them out and took them away down the river. Ya know those big trails we often use while walking? Those were made by them to get the trees out.”
“Trees are much better alive and standing,” Bayou said. “They give us food and shade.”
“They give us more than that,” Teddy said, “but humans seem to prefer them dead.”
“Another relic of their occupation,” Teddy was saying as he and Bayou walked along an old timber trail. The trail crossed a small, steep banked creek, bridged by a trio of gigantic, moss-covered logs, still solid to walk on. The two friends had just crossed the bridge, going towards the river, when Teddy stopped with a startled look. “Human alert!” he whispered. “Quick, hide!”
He plunged behind a tangled curtain of vines and tall, broad-leaved plants that grew beside the trail, with Bayou close behind. “Don’t move or make a sound,” Teddy said in the same urgent whisper, “they hear surprisingly well.” He crouched down and went quiet.
Bayou, trembling with excitement, peered through the curtain of leaves as a man, walking slowly, came into view on the trail. His heart was beating so loudly that he wondered if the human might hear it. Terrified as he was, Bayou was fascinated by his first close look at the fabled creature. The man was dressed in muted colours and casually cradled a long shotgun in the crook of his arm. He passed within a few yards of Bayou and Teddy, and although his sharp eyes searched every side of the trail with hawk-like intensity, he did not see them.
“Close call!” Teddy exclaimed as they watched the man disappear up the trail, and both started breathing again. “That was a hunter, with a killing stick!”
They stood for a few more minutes, making sure the man was gone before continuing their way down the trail, looking behind every few seconds until they had left the hunter far behind.
“So that’s what the killing stick looks like,” Bayou said after a while, “somehow, I was expecting something more frightening.”
Teddy didn’t respond for so long that Bayou wondered if he’d heard. Then he said, “That’s because you’ve never seen what it can do, my youth. A stick like that killed my ma a long time ago. I was a baby, but I still remember it like yesterday. It was late at night, and we were in the ité grove near the river––you know the one. The hunters came in real quiet-like. Was only when a bright light flashed on us that we saw them. My ma stood in front of me, and they shot her right there. I watched as they dragged her down the bank. They saw me, flashed their light on me several times but didn’t come after me. I guess they thought I was too small and that I’d die anyway.”
“How did you survive?” Bayou asked after a pause as he thought of the baby tapir standing alone and terrified in the darkness after the hunters had left.
“Almost didn’t,” said Teddy, “but a lot of animals looked out for me when they learned that my ma had been killed. Deer, other tapirs, agoutis and wild hogs showed me where to find food on the ground. The birds and monkeys would also throw down some of whatever they were eating, but I was always so hungry that when the great river otter offered to share part of her catch with me, I ate it all. She was good to me though, and taught me to swim with her little ones. I spent a lot of time in the water with them. Ate lots of fish, too.’
“You were lucky you didn’t run into Makepa,” Bayou mused.
“Would’ve been easy pickings for him back then,” Teddy agreed. Just then, they heard a muffled explosion from somewhere far up the trail. “The sound of death,” said Teddy, his short mane bristling on his thick neck. “Some poor critter just got what we missed, I think.” He sniffed, his trunk-like snout twisting about as he scented the air, and Bayou, at that moment, detected a strange odour wafting on the faint breeze. “The smell of death,” said Teddy, “let’s beat out, Bay.”
“The enemy is near,” Teddy announced. He and Bayou stood at the edge of a small clearing, overlooking one of the many lakes that branched off the river.
Bayou followed Teddy’s gaze to the mouth of the lake. In the distance, the tiny figure of a man in a boat was visible on the water. “Another fisher,” he said as they watched the man painstakingly setting a seine near the lakeshore. “That’s the third one we’ve seen recently.”
“Nah, it’s the same one,” Teddy said gloomily. “He belongs to a small family group that lives down the river. We met him on the trail a while ago, remember?”
“You didn’t say you knew him then,” said Bayou, somewhat surprised.
“We’ve had a couple of run-ins,” Teddy said casually.
“Is there anyone you don’t know?” Bayou remarked. “I used to think humans were rare creatures, but now I’m beginning to feel that I need to keep looking over my shoulder all the time.”
“Welcome to the real world, my son,” Teddy murmured, still staring across the water. “It’s crawling with them.”
Bayou felt a slight chill as they watched the man meticulously go about his job, utterly unaware that he was being watched. He heard a troop of monkeys chattering in the cookrit trees behind them and turned away. “Doesn’t look like he is coming any closer, Teddy. Let’s go get some of that delicious cookrit the monkeys are throwing down.”
But it was a little while before Teddy roused himself from his uncharacteristic melancholy and joined them.
Bayou lay in a sandy patch, catching the day’s last warm rays. The December rains had begun, but the onset was gradual, and there were days of mellow sunshine mixed with intermittent showers.
Teddy had been missing for several days, but Bayou was not worried. His friend was prone to disappearing now and again, sometimes for days.
A movement in the trees above drew his eyes. A large spider monkey appeared, breathlessly swinging down the twisting vines that hung from the trees to the ground.
“Quick, Bayou!” he shouted, “down in the hollow, Teddy’s been shot!” Then he swung himself back into the trees and continued on his hurried way, the crashing of branches marking his passage into the distance.
Bayou had not waited to see the spider monkey leave; he knew where the hollow was, and it was a long way away. He leapt to his feet and raced away through the trees. A dark brown streak, he fled through the undergrowth, dodging trunks and branches. He sprang over fallen trees and small creeks in his path. He arrived at the edge of a little hollow, panting for breath. At the bottom, from within a lush tangle of ferns, gurgled a small, clear spring of water.
Lying on the ground near the spring was the dark grey form of the fallen tapir, legs curled under his body, his chin resting on the ground. As Bayou scrambled down, Teddy opened dull, pain-filled eyes, and a spark of joy glimmered there when he saw who it was.
“Teddy!” shouted Bayou, “I am here.”
“And I’m real glad to see ya, my friend,” Teddy said. “But I almost wish ya hadn’t come, Bay. Never wanted to have you see this.” As he shifted, Bayou saw a tiny, ragged hole in his side from which drops of dark red blood oozed. He stared at it.
“But that’s just a small hole, Teddy,” he said.
“Small on the outside, but lotsa damage on the inside, my friend.” Teddy coughed, and a trickle of blood-speckled froth bubbled from his nose.
“No,” Bayou whispered despairingly, seeing for the first time that the ground and leaves upon which Teddy lay were dark with dry, crusted blood. “Teddy, how could this be? You know the ways of the hunters better than anyone else!”
“These things happen,” Teddy took a shuddering breath, “I’ve already gone over all the shoulds and should-not-haves until none are left. But there’s no point in spending my last remaining moments wallowing in regret, Bay. I’ve concluded that I’ve had a magnificent run of this thing called Life, and I’ve been lucky enough to have made the best friend a soul could ever ask for.”
Bayou wasn’t ready to give up. “I’ll take care of you,” he said, “stay right here.”
But Teddy cut him off. “It’s no use, Bay. I’ve already been here long enough. Long enough to feel my life dripping, drop by slow drop, into the ground, see the world become duller by the hour, and know that every next breath will be a little harder to draw than the last.”
Bayou said nothing, and Teddy continued, “Ya better split now, bro. I’ve sent for Makepa, and ya don’t wanna be here when he comes.”
“You sent for––Makepa?” Bayou wondered if he’d heard right.
“Shocking, I know. Been avoiding him all my life, right? But he’s the only one who can help me now. I could be like this for a while longer, and I’d rather not, ya know? Leave now before––
But it was already too late to leave. A sudden faint snarl coming from the edge of the hollow froze them. Bayou felt his heart leapfrog into his throat and then fall like a stone into the pit of his stomach. For the wind had subtly shifted toward him at that moment, bringing with it a musky, pungent odour that was unmistakable. Two fierce eyes gleamed over the rim of the hollow in the gathering dimness. Then, a massive head came into view. In the gloom, Makepa seemed to flow, like a tongue of gold and black fire, down the side of the hollow, muscles and sinews rippling under his gleaming coat, his cold yellow eyes taking in the scene without flickering.
“So,” he said, “here we are at last. Imagine that. After everything that’s happened, it’s me you turn to for mercy now.”
“But still on my terms,” said Teddy stubbornly, “I’ve made my peace, Makepa. You’ll finally get what you want. All I ask is to make it quick, please.”
Bayou took a small step back, trying as quietly as possible to put some distance between himself and the jaguar. But Makepa swung his head around, pinning him down with his eyes. “You have nothing to fear from me now,” he sneered. “I know what you all think of me, and you are right! But it’s my job. This is what I do, and I do it well. I keep this jungle healthy, Bayou. I ensure that only the strongest survive here. And yes, I do enjoy what I do. Now go, my timid little friend, before I change my mind.”
Bayou knew the jaguar meant what he said, but he stood his ground this time. Ignoring Makepa, he leaned forward, touching his face to Teddy’s. “You have been the best friend I ever had, Teddy, and I am grateful for the season of friendship that we shared,” he said quietly. “May your spirit cross the river safely to the other side.”
“It was good knowing ya, my brother,” Teddy said, “and I’m ready. Take good care of ya’self, Bay.”
“The night is coming,’ growled Makepa. Bayou looked up, and for a moment, they stared at each other. “Go. Now.” said the jaguar, turning away.
Bayou turned and fled out of the hollow.
Early the next morning–as the first golden light broke over the jungle canopy–a dark shape curled on the topmost branch of the tallest tree slowly unfolded itself, climbing even higher into the sun’s rays. It was a large red howler monkey. As the warmth touched him, he gave a few deep coughs and low rumbles before launching into a full-throated, bellowing roar. This was picked up by other howlers stationed in treetops for miles around until their deep, thunderous calls echoed throughout the jungle. When the last echo died away, a deep and absolute silence fell over the jungle in tribute to Teddy. Many who observed the moment of silence had helped to raise him.
One of the few who did not pay tribute was Makepa. He had gorged himself into a semi-comatose state. Even when the noise of heavy wings in the trees signalled the arrival of flocks of vultures, he only opened the slit of one torpid yellow eye before sinking back into a deep sleep.
In the months following Teddy’s death, Bayou missed his friend terribly. Life along the river had changed, too, and no longer felt safe or peaceful. A large-scale logging company arrived, commencing operations with the bulldozing of a broad, new timber trail. The raw, red dirt road sliced its way like a fresh wound through the forest as the stumps of felled trees bled their sap into the ground. This new logging outfit was cutting its way into the heart of the jungle.
Now, too, the hunter became a familiar sight to the deer. Setting his seines and hunting along the river. Bayou no longer found him fascinating and tried to stay as far away as possible.
But forces beyond their control were setting their paths on a collision course.
The night was clear and still under a waxing moon. Stars jewelled the cloudless sky as Bayou descended to the river’s edge. That dry season was the worst in years, making it difficult to find food, but beds of lush grasses growing in the shallows provided good grazing, and soon, he was eating steadily and paying little mind to anything else.
Miles away, in a quiet, dimly lit house beside the river, the hunter was preparing for the night. He was a man of the bush, lean in body and gaunt of face. Weathered by a lifetime of exposure to the elements, there was no softness in any of his lines. His dark eyes were sharp and piercing, gazing out from his face like a hawk.
He made his living off the land, dependent on the harsh and often unpredictable nature of the environment in which he lived, where the laws of the jungle applied to all and survival of the fittest did not exclude humans.
He was as much a farmer as he was a hunter, but the dry season had made farming difficult this year. He relied heavily on hunting income to provide for his family. Rations were running low, as he’d seen from the dinner his wife had prepared earlier that evening.
As he passed the open doorway of his children’s room, he paused for a moment to look in on them as they slept. The warm light from an oil lamp on the wall glowed on two peaceful, sleeping faces. The hard lines of the father’s face softened a little in the lamplight before he turned away.
The last few nights had not been productive, but staying at home was not an option. This night was much brighter than he preferred. He also knew that deer sometimes walked with the moon.
He carefully checked his twelve-gauge shotgun and ran an oil rag through the barrel to remove residue. He counted and graded the cartridges in the belt around his waist, filling up some empty spaces from a box of Remington shells he took from a shelf high above the door. Earlier, he had fetched a twelve-volt battery and spotlight into his boat and fuelled his six-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor. He checked that his paddle, sharp hunting knife, cutlass and a flask of hot, black coffee were stored away. Dressing warmly for the night, he tucked a torchlight into his jacket pocket, got into his boat, started the engine and puttered away up the river, the beam of his hunting light leaping from one side of the river to the other as he passed.
From the bank of the river, two large fiery sparks flashed back at him in the beam of the spotlight. In one fluid motion, he killed the engine and picked up his gun, bracing it with the ease of long practice to his shoulder. A deafening explosion ripped through the night, and the deer fell where it stood.
The hunter grounded his boat ashore and stepped out on the bank. He stood for a moment looking down at the deer, and a smile of gratitude briefly lit his rugged face. He looked up at the moon and listened to the stillness of the river and forest about him.
It was just after midnight, and wisps of a mist that would be a dense fog by morning were beginning to rise from the surface of the water. It may have been a trick of the moonlight or a faint gust of wind, but as he looked at it briefly, the hunter fancied that the mists had taken on the shape of a deer gliding across the river.
Cosmata Lindie is an indigenous Guyanese artist and writer from the Berbice River, currently residing in New Amsterdam in Berbice, Guyana. In 2022, as a member of the Guyana Women Artists’ Association (GWAA), she began participating in exhibitions at a national level in Guyana, including the POSH and Heritage Month exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art–Castellani House. In March 2023, she exhibited her work in Paramaribo, Suriname, as part of the joint Guyana/Suriname Art Splash exhibition to mark the launch of the third edition of the bi-national magazine Inside Guianame.
Cosmata was longlisted in 2022 for the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival’s Elizabeth Nunez Award for writers residing in the Caribbean and shortlisted for the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her shortlisted story ‘Where the Winds Blow’ was published in the Commonwealth Foundation’s online literary magazine, adda, in July 2023.