I shoot between breaths. Prone on the jungle floor, the long barrel lifted up, those eyes watched me as I waited and aimed my camera, my left hand rotating the lens into focus before my right finger pressed the button, taking the picture just as the jaguar crushed the skull of the half-dead man. The victim’s hand, once outstretched, dropped. Was it a plea for help or a warning? There was nothing we could have done for the man. I paused, as the cat’s large, round pupils dilated. The animal considered me; evaluated the quiet men behind me. I listened to the wet sounds as it ate its meal. I reverse-crawled my way back to the group behind me after the predator dragged the rest of its prize away.
“Yaguareté,” the guide said.
I listened to his rapid Spanish, watched his unshaven and damp face explain to Fowler why his men would not proceed further. They had had enough. It wasn’t that they had witnessed the muscular feline kill a man; it wasn’t the other bodies there, or the days trekking through stifling heat; it was the jaguar itself, an ill omen to them. While Fowler and the man argued, one of the guides handed me his sheathed machete. Another man stepped forward, unslung his canteen and put it around my neck next to my camera. He stepped around me. He took his hat off out of respect for the dead. “El crimen del otro,” or ‘the crime of the other,’ he said and crossed himself. He touched my arm. “Adiós, amigo.” We shook hands. I’ll miss him and his rotten smile of bad teeth.
Only the boss man remained.
We had paid them well; my brother, Fowler, though, was beyond indignant, thinking this sudden announcement was nothing more than some abrupt tactic to milk us for more money. Fowler pulled some damp bills out of his pant’s pocket and thrust them into the man’s chest. More frustrated than offended, the man would have none of it. Fowler tried to insult him. He said that as a businessman he had no honor. He pointed the way ahead and reminded us that we had water, some food in our backpacks. We had machetes. Fowler tried again.
“No más,” the guide said. He turned away and never looked back.
“Can you believe this? They quit on us,” Fowler said to me, with the expectation that I would offer him pity. I snapped more pictures of the dead in the last of the good light. I brushed past Fowler. We had to move, I told him. I wanted to set up camp before sunset. I was not right in the head from the day’s heat and the incessant insects feasting on me.
I swung the machete to clear a path. The sound of its metallic whoosh, that pinging sound as the blade hacked at stalks and vines, filled the humid air. The foliage was thick, resistant, like wading through water. I looked forward to nightfall, to the music of unseen crickets. We needed rest, food; we also needed to discuss the rest of the itinerary, now that we had no guides. Fowler would want to review the digital pictures that I had taken.
We were scientists; anthropologists, to be exact. The two of us had been born here, but missionaries had whisked us away when political unrest had destabilized the region. We knew little else about our past. We wanted to find out what we could about it.
My photographs would testify that this part of the jungle had become a killing field. At the cost of several cases of Bravah beer, backroom intelligence in the city blamed the military, although it was vague as to whose military and for which country. “You know, the usual banana republic politics,” a man had told me. He joked that ‘los desaparecidos’ are a seasonal phenomenon, like summer rain. The victims ranged in age from mere children to the fragile elderly. A physician on television reported another unexpected finding: none of the females had been raped.
Creeping tendrils scraped my face while I worked the machete. Fowler, behind me, scribbled some notes; other times he spoke into a recorder about the bodies, how they had been butchered, always with machetes. The sun dropped behind a mountainous cloud. Soon, darkness would sweep in and eyes everywhere would open. All kinds of creatures would be emerging to satisfy their primal needs of food and sex. I decided on the spot where we would pitch our tent.“Wait a second,” Fowler said. He asked to see the jaguar picture. “Something bothers me about this picture.” We looked at it together. “Notice that he’s wounded, but not from a machete. There are no defensive wounds on his hands. Nada. He was bleeding out, but from what we’ll never know because that damn cat dragged the body off.” I shut off the display. The camera still had plenty of battery life.