From the Series: Decameron Relived
They always came for him in packs. Small groups, maybe three or four at a time, never just one. This time, though, there must be at least ten of them. Maybe more. And they were spreading out, dispersing through the trees. Probably trying to surround him. He could hear them calling to each other in the distance, in that strange, snarling, guttural tongue that reminded him of an old, decrepit boat engine that wouldn’t start, a loud, stubborn, staccato spluttering noise that shattered the air, only to fade away almost as quickly again into silence. Impossible to make out. They moved slowly but seemed animated, determined. He didn’t know how they managed to find him. Perhaps they could smell him, as he smelled them. His pace quickened, taking care to minimize the noise as his bare feet pressed down onto the sodden forest floor. He veered toward the low-lying, marshy aguajal, where he knew his tracks would disappear in the peaty bog. Before long he could see the distinctive reddish-brown, scaly fruits of the moriche palms rotting on the ground all around him, some floating in pools of stagnant water. He felt the mud oozing through his toes as he waded deeper into the swamp.
What did they want from him? He found their obsession with him disconcerting and was puzzled by the elaborate markings on their thin, angular bodies, which seemed ill-suited to moving efficiently through the forest. On the other hand, something about them was strangely familiar, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He felt grateful, at least, that it was so easy to make out the stomping noises they made with those enormous, heavy, glistening black feet, alerting him to their presence—not to mention the stench, which carried far on a still day. Once he’d managed to pass through to the other side of the swamp, he knew, he could double back past the big diesel tree and follow Snake Creek all the way home, where they would not reach him. They’d chased him to the creek once before, but he’d managed to lose them and felt confident he would do so again.
The ground grew drier and firmer under his feet. The warm, soft leaf litter was comforting, but he struggled to recognize this part of the forest. Something was off, he was not where he expected. Suddenly the trees thinned out almost entirely, and he was surrounded instead by tall, spindly plants growing well over his head, bearing fruit in the form of long, elongated green cocoons, drooping down toward the ground. He couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten. He grabbed one and took a small bite. It had a distinctive aroma, sweet and floral but earthy too, like the inner heart of a hardwood tree. His mind wandered.
The next fruit hung just out of reach, so he jumped into the air and knocked it to the ground. As he bent down to retrieve it, he felt a firm weight on his shoulder. He flinched and turned. One of them was standing right over him, its disgusting mouth moving as its gaze bore down into him. He felt ill from the stench of its breath, like rancid meat, but he was unafraid. Looking around, he realized with dismay that he was surrounded: one pair of beady eyes after another was fixated upon him. There was no point trying to run, and so he sat down on the ground, tired and confused.
They pulled him to his feet and gestured to him to follow. They walked single file along a narrow path through the trees. Eventually light spilled through the open canopy ahead: their village, he thought to himself. Emerging from the cover of the trees, he was led past a sea of gaping faces to a small, ramshackle house with a thatched roof at the very end of the village, where his captors gestured for him to sit. They were strangely gentle with him, concerned even. A squat female with a strange look in her eye handed him a bowl containing a cloudy, foul-smelling liquid. It repulsed him, but he didn’t want to offend his hosts, who were gesturing animatedly, eager for him to drink. The beer was thin and bitter, but not wholly disagreeable. He finished it off, and soon felt drowsy. He lay on a cloth mat they set out for him and fell into a deep sleep.
When he finally awoke, the same portly female was sitting patiently by his side, and she looked at him expectantly. She had a flat face, and was awkward looking. He said nothing. Finally, she stood and walked over to the fireplace. She held one hand to her hip as she walked and her belly protruded slightly from beneath her. He wondered who the father was. There was no one else around and she seemed to have slept alone. She spoke a few words, but he had no idea what she was saying. Eventually she handed him a plate of food with a concerned look in her eye. He looked down, and felt slightly nauseated: the unfamiliar shapes, colors, and textures in the bowl were confusing and unsettling. He took a bite and instantly felt the contents of his stomach churn, surging violently through his mouth, projecting out over the hard bamboo floor and beyond. She looked aghast as she called others over to examine the contents of his vomit, trying to make out what he’d been eating over the past day or two, talking animatedly among themselves.
Up until now, he had to admit, these people had treated him with nothing but courtesy. But he felt ashamed even to see what he had been eating; it looked to him now like ants. For the first time, his mind wandered to thoughts of escape, of how he could return home. He missed his family there, the laughter and chatter, the cool of their little spot by the creek in the evening.
As if reading his mind, the woman came and sat with him, calming him down. The next time he was offered food, he managed to keep it down. The tastes and textures started to grow more familiar. He secretly liked the way she would hand him the larger cuts of meat from the soups she cooked, making sure his belly never felt empty. At night, she lay down next to him. Were they offering her to him? Had her husband abandoned her? She no longer seemed unattractive, as she used to. As if sensing what he was thinking, she reached out and touched his face, with a soft look in her eye, but he flinched and recoiled.
In many ways, his new life was not easy. It always seemed so hot, and so quiet in the still afternoons, when time slowed down and the loneliness settled in. But his hosts treated him with unfailing kindness, and it wasn’t long before he started forgetting small details about his life before. He found his memories growing distant and uncertain, as though they weren’t even really his, somehow. On the other hand, he was quick to pick up their tongue, which had until just recently sounded so foreign and intimidating. Just a few words here and there at first, and then in no time he was able to make out most of what was said. He found he could mimic their sounds quite accurately, too, and make himself understood without too much trouble.
One day, when he was getting ready to go to the forest to look for peach palm fruits, his companion took him aside and pulled him in close to her. She seemed anguished. “What really happened to you out there in the forest, lanaa? They tell me you were stolen. But you were only gone a few days!” He found her words alarming. Who was she mistaking him for? He grabbed his machete and left in a hurry, taking along for company one of the older boys from the household. They set out along one of the small, spidery trails fanning out from the village, and before long passed through a tall corn field. He recognized the long, elongated fruits that had confused him the day he was apprehended. Were they really just corn all along? Why did they seem so unfamiliar?
Passing beyond the gardens, they entered the swampy aguajal where he’d earlier lost his way, so long ago now it seemed. His feet again slid deep into the peaty bog. He figured that his old home was not far from here, and he couldn’t resist going to take a peak. He led his companion to the site of his old village. When he arrived, he was crestfallen: all that remained was a huge termite mound and gaping hold in the trunk of a giant red cumala, covered by a dense curtain of strangler figs. The burrow smelled of resin, warm and sweet. He peered inside, but it was dark, and he couldn’t make out much. Resisting a curious urge to climb inside, he left feeling confused and uncertain.
The boy shook him from his reverie. “Hey, uncle!” There was a look of concern on his face, too. “It’s over this way. There’s no palms here, let’s go back.” Trudging back to the village, he felt hollow, lost, like half a being. The air darkened, and the skies opened. The sound of the rain emptied his mind still further, as though washing away the last remaining vestiges of his former life, back down into the mud. He felt a sudden pang of hunger and found himself thinking about plantain soup. He wondered if the woman would have some for him when he got back.
In February 2020—just a couple of weeks before the first case of Covid-19 in Peru was confirmed—my friend Juan Macusi Taricuarima told me how his nephew had recently gone missing for several days in the forest near his village. Their search party eventually found him wandering through one of the villagers’ maize gardens, semi-naked and confused, with no memory of what had happened to him.
Stories of abductions by nonhuman beings are ubiquitous through the Amazon rainforest—as are understandings of the consequences, marked by bodily transformation, of living and eating with others.