“What do you think, Spencer?”
“Doesn’t it belong to the people that live in this area? Inherited from their ancestors?”
“The ancestors of the people that made this lived far, far from here, my boy.”
Spencer frowned at the professor’s curious claim, and glanced at their two guides. Their guides were men of the jungle, courageous and calm, but among the youngest and least experienced of their people. They would be treated as heroes if they returned from the expedition. But they had not been expected to return. From several yards away, they eyed the golden-bronze idol with as much caution and suspicion as Professor Gadston did.
Spencer eyed it as he would have eyed one of the great herbivorous lizards of the Jurassic age, as something he believed did not intend him harm, but something capable of crushing him to death nonetheless, if it were to carelessly romp his way. Despite rumors of a curse and strange effects, the only unease Spencer had felt as the party drew closer to the idol was sluggishness and a blurring of his eye that likely had more to do with sleepless nights and his neglectful care of his spectacles.
The professor stepped toward the idol, stretching his hand out slowly, as if soothing a nervous animal. “It flickers in and out of existence, they say.”
Professor Gadston had been gathering information about the idol for many years, almost as long as he had studied the vastest and most formidable jungle of the southern continent. There were those who were entranced with the ancient creatures found preserved in swamps or deep caves. There were those who longed to learn the languages and ways of the many modern tribes that lived in the jungle. Then there were those, like Professor Gadston, who were interested in the artifacts of tribes and peoples long past. Of those artifacts, some worth immense fortunes, all gathered by him in the territories inhabited by jungle folk who were friendly with the professor, there was one that had captured his fancy in youth and driven him to obsession in old age.
Every nearby tribe knew of its existence, but the idol was believed to be cursed, and no one claimed it despite its rumored beauty and grandeur. For centuries it remained exposed, and yet it showed no signs of decay, and only a few bold vines had dared to grow over it.
The idol was a head or two taller than the tallest man in the company. Its bottom half appeared to be a figure, sitting on its haunches, its arms resting above its knees. Clawed hands were wrapped around a puffed out chest. The top half was curious. The general shape was that of a tall dome, rising from the “collar” of the bottom half. The dome bore a circlet of jagged upturned teeth. The front of the dome was inset and decorated with straight precise lines and shapes. Where one might have expected a head, on the very top, there was none. Instead, the head was pulled down the front of the dome, so that the face was set halfway from the collar to the top of the dome. That face too was curious. It appeared to be some hybrid animal, a cat with the beak of a raptor. The idol seemed to be assembled from separate plates of metal, shaped and attached together, though there were no signs of welding and no rivets.
The professor became aware of the idol in his youth. He had always been fit and strong enough to withstand the jungle; patient, brave, and wise enough to respect the people who lived upon the land where he explored; and, shrewd enough to bargain fairly for what he took from the jungle. He quickly established friendly relations with a few local tribes, one in particular, whose chief became a close friend. One day, they spoke of the idol and the professor proclaimed his desire to find it, perhaps even claim it.
“Take it into the house of your enemy,” the tribal chief said, chuckling. “And watch it destroy the house from within.”
But the chief did not realize that the professor was in earnest when he said he meant to find the idol and bring it back to the grand museum in the nearby city.
The chief offered him treasures then, in place of the idol, precious gems and metals, rare fruits and flowers never seen in the north, a lock of his own hair, which for that particular tribe was a treasure of immeasurable worth. The professor was taken aback, for he knew how invaluable the treasures were that he was being offered. Thereafter when he visited, all the men, women, and children of that tribe treated him with a cautious reverence. Breaths were held, eyes downcast, and faces once smiling were solemn. He always felt as if he were trespassing when he entered their presence and did so less and less often. For he had not earned the treasures their chief had offered up to dissuade him from finding that idol.
Nor had he been successfully dissuaded.
Even the terrible myths surrounding the idol failed to dissuade him. Those who had sought it before he did often vanished, and those who sought it and returned, often returned a lifetime later. It was difficult for the professor to separate history from rumor. The disappearances in the vicinity of the idol, which could not always be found where it was reported to lie, were real. But the reasons for those vanishings were many, and the professor could not tell if any of those reasons were real. The tribes, villages, and families of the jungle kept faithful records, but did not share those records among themselves, and this confounded the professor’s efforts to make clear the image on the strange puzzle he was piecing together, story by story.
Some believed that the idol was a vessel and that there was a terrible creature contained within it, a creature that emerged every several years to stalk the jungle, searching for food or sport. In one tale, the creature’s emergence and its stalking were purposeful, for it searched for its enemy, the one who betrayed it and banished it to the earth. It never found this enemy, but was none too selective about killing or maiming any wayward earthly creatures who wandered its way, be it a jungle animal, or an unsuspecting tribesman.
Some of those dead creatures and humans were found, but according to the records, nothing about those deaths suggested a creature any more exotic than those known to roam the jungles, hungry jaguars or patient pythons.
Such tales of banished otherworldly beings were not without some roots in truth. The professor’s once-close friend, the tribal chief who had first told him of the idol, relayed a story of the idol’s origin, for which the professor found much proof in astronomical records.
The chief said that the father of his father’s father was still a small boy when the people in that part of the jungle saw a strange sight in the sky. It was night, and yet the sun blazed to life, and then seemed to plummet to the earth. The people feared, for they thought the world had come to an end. The brave among them sought the place where the sun had fallen, hoping to convince it, whatever its reason for falling, to return to the sky. The strongest warriors and leaders from the different tribes, villages, and families of the jungle went forth, including the fierce leader of a tribe of warrior women, and one of the tribal chief’s own kin. Sure enough, the “sun” still blazed so bright and hot that none could not come close without feeling the intense heat on their skin. Yet the jungle did not burn. All through the night, the leaders and warriors called out to the sun. It dimmed and it cooled. But it did not answer.
When morning came, the leaders and warriors were astounded to find that the sky brightened and the sun rose as it always did. And they saw what had truly fallen from the sky. It was the idol.
Gazing at the strange idol, Spencer recalled when and how he first learned of it.
He was a man who preferred spending time in libraries, and in the dusty back rooms of museums where shipments arrived, or in the clean and tidy environments of laboratories where artifacts were scrutinized by modern scientific methods. It was, in fact, in the library that he met his fiancé, who was equally enamored of books, and equally as scholarly. He had no interest in traipsing about jungles and adventuring, the way his mentor did, a man who struck him as both the most ethereal of dreamers and the most reliable of realists.
But a brief spark of adventure had flared in his soul when in their most recent correspondences, the professor summoned him to the distant southern continent. When he had first arrived, he believed he was to assist the professor in organizing and erecting a magnificent new display in the southern continent’s most prestigious museum. He was aghast when the professor professed that he meant to retire soon, and wanted Spencer to succeed him and continue his work in the jungle and the museum.
Spencer, though initially angry because he did not want to take over the professor’s post, became increasingly troubled when the professor spoke of going on one final expedition, from which he would likely not return. That was why he wanted to assure that Spencer was in place before he left. The professor sought to venture deeper than he had ever ventured before. He would only have two guides where typically he was granted several by his friends when he wandered to places unknown to him. He had tried to hire more men, but none would go where he wished to go.
At first, the professor would divulge no details to Spencer, but it took little goading for him to tell his intended successor everything he had learned about the idol, as morning wore on into midday, evening, night, and the next morning. As Spencer listened, his concern deepened.
“Others who had gone close to the idol disappeared for many years,” the professor had said, nearing the end of his improvised presentation. “A few returned, years later, looking the same, never aging.” He smiled. “Remind you of something, my boy? The fountain of youth, perhaps? Well, it doesn’t restore youth to the old. It keeps the young from aging. So it’s too late for me, though I wouldn’t wish to be young again. Well, perhaps by a decade, but not as young as you are. There are pieces missing still, or maybe just one piece. The idol itself. I aim to find it and find out its whole story.”
“But professor, what good is this ‘fountain’s’ effect if you’re trapped in the jungle the whole time you’re young? Your own research shows that most of the people who returned after vanishing had not realized how much time had passed. It’s as if the idol is trapping folks in the past while the rest of the world moves on.”
The professor sighed and nodded. “That is why I forbid you from coming with me.”
“She would never forgive me if I let you go that far into the jungle alone.”
“I won’t be alone.”
“Oh? How well do you know the men who are going with you?”
The professor narrowed his eyes and changed the subject. “Who would never forgive you?”
Spencer sighed. “I didn’t want to tell you by letter, especially since I was coming.” He beamed. “Sonora and I are engaged.”
Spencer had expected a guffaw and a slap on the back, or perhaps a puzzled expression, as of one who could not fathom why anyone would want to get married. Professor Gadston’s bristly white mustache twitched and his eyes twinkled.
“Congratulations, my boy,” he said, and offered a hearty shake of his warm solid hand. He then claimed he was a romantic and a great admirer of ladies in his younger days.
Spencer could not help but to be amused at the thought. “Were you ever married, Professor?”
“Alas, no. For all my admiration of that fair and mysterious entity known as woman, I never bound my life to one of them. There was one whom I adored enough to ask, but I never did. I was never as courageous as you, Doctor Spencer.”
Spencer was taken aback by the professor’s use of his proper title and more so by his description of his bookish student as “courageous.” He recovered himself and smiled. “I know that Sonora would be amused and even flattered at being called a ‘fair and mysterious entity,’ but I daresay there may be some ladies who might prickle.”
The professor chuckled and he placed his hand over the breast of his coat above his heart. “She sounds charming, my boy. All the more reason for you to stay behind. Explore the museum while I’m gone. It is what you love best.”
At this, Spencer felt a pang of guilt.
Through the awe that Spencer felt at the sight of the idol, he felt a sinking fear on remembering the myths that surrounded it. Would he and his party walk out of that jungle to find that everyone else—his family, his betrothed—had grown old watching the jungle for their return? The professor had warned him not to come on this particular excursion, but Spencer, worried about the intensifying obsession the professor seemed to have for this idol, had insisted, and the professor had at last relented.
All four men approached the idol with caution.
“What does that look like to you?” the professor asked, pointing his walking stick to a spot just past the idol.
As he moved closer, Spencer glimpsed what was hidden behind a patch of tall grass. “Paw prints, clearly. A big cat. Jaguar?”
“A fair guess. But the toes are too small for a jaguar. Leopard, perhaps? But not exactly.”
The professor consulted with the guides and from their expressions and gestures, they seemed to agree with his assessment.
The professor set his cane down and reached into his breast pocket. He pulled out a rolled up piece of roughly crafted paper and breathed in a hearty breath. He gazed at the idol.
“Some of our more imaginative authors write stories about men from the moon, or even other worlds that circle faraway stars,” he said. “But what if the first time we receive visitors from another world, they are not men at all?”
Spencer’s eyes widened. He wanted to urge the professor to step away from the idol that he was slowly approaching. Instead he watched, mesmerized.
The professor stretched out the roll of paper, something he had not shown to Spencer before that moment. He studied it. Then he touched the panel that comprised the left side of the idol’s “neck.” His fingers moved in some purposeful sequence. Suddenly, a pulse of energy passed through Spencer. The strange listlessness that had overcome him when they first neared the idol began to fade. He gasped.
“I think you’ve broken the spell, Professor.”
The professor turned to his student. “I’ve broken a machine.”
Spencer stepped toward the professor. He craned his neck to peer at the tracks in the dirt, the fresh tracks. He shuddered. “You think these were made by something that came out of the idol?”
As in some of the legends, perhaps something had emerged and was even now lumbering about the jungle, something that was not quite a cat, not quite a bird. Something that the professor had just suggested was not even of the earth.
The four men followed the tracks and seemed to find what might have been blood, or perhaps something else, machine fluid, for it was of an unnatural iridescent hue.
Suddenly, the two guides leapt before Spencer and the professor and pointed their weapons forward.
From the behind thorny trunks and tubers as tall as men, sweeping aside giant fronds of leaves and tall rubbery grass, a figure emerged.
Spencer held his breath.
Of all the creatures he imagined and feared he might face in that moment, the one that came into view was the most unexpected.
It was a woman.
She was dressed in green garb patterned like the trees and grasses of the jungle. Under her long tunic were trousers and boots that were in far better condition than Spencer’s now-rotted soles. Her bobbed unbound hair was as dark as that of Spencer and the warrior guides, and opposite to the white cloud that sat atop the professor’s pate. Her dark eyes twinkled, and when she spoke, Spencer was startled to hear his own language.
“Gone, but you may see.”
She turned and began walking back the way she had come. The professor moved to follow. The guides tried to stop him, but he patted their shoulders, pointed to Spencer, and bid them stay.
Spencer surged forward, past the guides and past the professor, who was keeping more secrets, it seemed. But Spencer would watch over him nonetheless. Or at least share his fate.
The woman led them to a clearing where at least two dozen other women and girls were gathered in a circle. Spencer and the professor followed the woman into the circle, though their two guides remained outside, watchful of their wards, but respectful of whatever ceremony they had come upon that belonged to another tribe.
In the center of the circle, there lay on a pallet of finely twined branches and leaves, the creature from the idol.
Spencer marveled. Its skin was pale and striped, like the bark of a birch tree. It was a few heads taller than Spencer, who was of average height. Its limbs were much like those of a man’s, two arms and two legs. Two hands, not clawed but smooth, and two feet that did not look they could have made those tracks near the idol (which made Spencer wonder what had). Its face was smooth and almost featureless. There was the slightest rise to suggest a nose and what looked to be a crown of eyes circling a smooth and hairless head. The eyes had been shut as if in sleep. But according to the woman, the creature was not asleep. It was dead.
“The pattern changes, tendrils, spirals, spheres,” the woman said. “One cannot approach from inside. I tried, but could not find it. But I thought someone might succeed from outside, if I could get a message out. I thought you might, if you were still alive by the time you received it.” She glanced at the professor, who held up the roll of paper and gazed at her with a twinkle in his eyes. “And so you did,” she said. “No longer are we trapped in the net of now.”
Spencer regarded the figure on the pallet. In his mind, he pictured the idol that slouched not far from where he stood.
“It fell from the sky,” the woman said, “many years ago, and many years from now.”
“It will take a while to explain,” the woman said. She smiled at Spencer. “But we have the time.”
She turned to the professor. “How much time has passed?”
The professor’s eyes twinkled. “A lifetime, my darling.”
There was a tale to tell between the professor and the young woman who had, it seemed, called upon his aid. After yet another deception, Spencer judged that the professor owed him at least part of that tale and the greater tale of what had transpired in the jungle. He didn’t quite trust that the creature he’d seen on the pallet was dead. He didn’t quite trust the young woman and her tribe, who seemed to hold the creature in reverence. He didn’t quite trust his own judgement, for perhaps the creature, the woman, and the idol were all benign. Perhaps he merely suspected them because the professor had led him to them, and the professor had proved himself unworthy of being trusted.
Spencer, the professor, and their two guides were made to wait by the idol. The woman assured them that she would return to answer their questions, and to guide them back, for the way they had come had now changed.
The guides were in high spirits. They spoke of broken curses and glories to be gained upon returning to their village. Spencer felt a fond pity for the professor, who gazed at his aged hands, and no doubt thought of the dark-haired woman who had not aged along with him. But that pity did not overcome his anger quite enough to break the silence. So it was well that the professor broke it.
“I have plunged into this jungle my whole life searching for the past…but I never thought I would find my own past.”
Spencer did not speak for a long moment. But he could not leave the professor in such confusion and loss.
“Professor, the past is a great teacher. But we mustn’t gaze too long or too longingly at it. Or we might forget that we don’t live there. We live here. Now.”
“But is it now, my boy?”
“I hope so. I need to emerge from this jungle in the present time. I don’t want Sonora to be as cross with me as I am with you.”
The professor started. He gazed with wide eyes at Spencer. But then he looked down again. “Of course, my boy. I don’t blame you.”
Spencer sighed. “Nor I you. You didn’t make me come along, after all.”
“There is a great discovery here.”
“Indeed, maybe too great.”
“What do you think, Spencer?”
“I think the idol alone would have been a great discovery. But everything we just witnessed…the world craves earthly treasures. It may not be ready for unearthly ones.”
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Jungle Idol” by Sanjay Patel.