I didn’t think I’d ever find my way out.
The two children spoke a language I had never heard before. I tried Portuguese, and then used my hands in a clumsy version of charades. I even attempted to imitate a car on a road but their raised eyebrows hinted that they might have never seen either. They stared, curious gazes darting along my muddy pants, stopping at my rifle.
She wore a dress that was once red, nearly in shreds to match her matted seven-year old hair. He, maybe ten, wore only shorts. Both were barefoot and had the kind of hardened feet you get when you don’t wear shoes.
They seemed young to be on their own but not afraid, confident perhaps, despite the strange vision that had emerged before them.
They signalled me to follow into their hut, a single room of straw and thatch held together by slim reeds. A bamboo ladder led up to the front opening (it wasn’t really a door) well above the ground, to avoid night wildlife perhaps.
I sat on a tree trunk, my anxiety growing.
What if I was never found? Would I be stuck deep in the Amazon with a family who had never even seen a car? Was there a family? Did these children have parents?
Unperturbed by my thoughts the two children went about their chores. The girl swept the floor, pushing a few specks out the door and off the terrace. The boy resumed skinning something with a machete. I preferred to look away.
I had been in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil for two weeks on a mission to write about rubber tappers and indigenous faiths.
For days, I, an unnatural athlete, had trudged behind a slim line of local men who hacked and whacked their way through the forest, the only foreigner, the only woman, and clearly the one person out of her depth.
And now my guides had left me behind. Perhaps they had tired of my lethargy in the heat, my frequent stops, my questions.
They had thrust a rifle into my hands and waved goodbye, trotting on ahead. I tried to keep up but, out of shape and overweight, I quickly lost sight of them. Soon the echo of their voices thinned, then disappeared.
I stared at the weapon, not quite sure how to hold it. My best bet if attacked would be to swing it at someone.
I lit a cigarette – I hadn’t quit smoking yet – and took stock. A city girl, unprepared, abandoned who knows where. Another part of my mind was racing. What if I build a fire? What if I use my rifle to shoot into the air? What if, what if… What if they never come back for me?
All of a sudden I was a seven-year-old, alone in a cavernous hotel room, watching my nearly-newborn brother asleep in his crib. My parents had gone out to eat; they knew they’d be back soon; I didn’t. I waited in vain, called the front desk, and started making plans for what I’d do if they never returned. I remember lifting my brother out of his crib to make sure he wasn’t too heavy. He wasn’t. In my child’s mind, as long as I could carry him out of the room we would survive. My parents did eventually return and couldn’t understand the hysteria with which I met them.
Here I was, in the rainforest, reliving that childhood terror in which I’d been left behind.
In the distant sky something rumbled and a faint white plume traced a finger across the sky. A flight path crossed above but here, 30,000 feet below, we were invisible.
The panic crept through my stomach, the bile of a seven-year-old spreading across my mouth.
The children seemed unconcerned, going about their tasks. What were they thinking? Had they ever seen a redhead before? A mad redhead who kept making strange “vroom vroom” noises while steering an imaginary car? Were they wondering why I had a petrified look on my face?
That fear refused to leave and coursed through my body, thumping and drumming up the blood until the pressure made breathing difficult. I could only think in extremes as what appeared to be the enormity of my predicament slowly made its way through my arteries and muscles, contracting everything along the way.
I let the tears fall down my face, wondering if after years of travel and love and joy, this would finally be the end – a dessicated European laid gently beneath a shady tree, surrounded by the buzz of mosquitoes. Slightly dramatic, in hindsight, but terrifying at the time.
Yet there was no imminent danger. The children were aloof but friendly, they seemed to know what they were doing, and adults would eventually materialize. The foreboding and threat that made my heart feel heavy and sluggish came from another place, from the memory of a small child in a Brussels hotel room whose parents had forgotten to take her along.
Tall and bare, the trees captured the shrieks of parrots and the slither of snakes, none of which I could see. The invisible world interacted well above my head; closer to the ground, sounds faded and dulled, backed by an empty whine of wind whistling among the giant trunks not yet felled by lumberjacks and bulldozers.
The air was musty, putrid, almost wet with humidity. My clothes were stuck to my body and a ridiculous thought crossed my mind: when I was eventually found, at least I wouldn’t be naked.
I didn’t get to find out.
The unnatural sound of human laughter broke through the leaves, a cackling of men imbued with the joy of a day spent out of doors, doing whatever it is that boys do when they are rid of cumbersome female company.
Their rust-colored skin shone from sweat, from sun, their stringy hair swaying across their foreheads. Clothing stuck to their bodies as well, from simple cloth coverings to shorts and T-shirts, contouring every muscle.
“Hello. We are back!” All smiles, all innocence. For them, nothing had happened, nothing had changed. The forest and its inhabitants were immutable, permanently cast in their roles.
The children’s parents would come home shortly: they were tapping for rubber in the forest.
The men waved to me, indicating we should move on. They pried away the rifle I had held so tightly, motioning me away. The children waved shyly, as though my arrival and departure were something they saw every day. Perhaps they did, and I had not understood.
Everyone was making haste and were getting smaller in the distance.
I ran and this time I kept up the pace.