Excerpted from Tender Morsels: 13 Stories of Dread and Revenge
It was oppressively hot, and between the humidity and the cocktail of sunscreen and insecticide on me, I felt like I was swimming through the dense undergrowth. I shifted the straps of my pack to try and get comfortable, but I knew after the past two weeks of carrying a heavy pack in tropical heat, it would be only a momentary respite from the discomfort.
The Javari Valley sits nestled in the middle of an Amazonian jungle between Brazil and Peru. No matter which direction you try to enter from, it’s a grueling trek. Sadly, it used to be an even more difficult trip. With all of the illegal logging and the slash and burn, the trip now alternates between lush greenery and strips of truck tires, mud, and scorched earth.
Our seven-person expedition, however, had made it past most of the deforested areas. We were now in the thick of proper, healthy jungle, and although I had made trips like this before, it was still a miserable experience.
It didn’t help that I was already a bit torn about this trip in the first place. The first rule of working to save uncontacted native people is that you don’t make contact first – you let them make contact if they want to. However the recent reports of painted men who had massacred whole groups of loggers had made this trip necessary.
Initially most NGO workers had assumed it was the drug traffickers and the illegal loggers getting into some turf war, but after we had heard about the missing heads and strange symbols carved into the victims, we thought it might be a new group of natives fighting back against the destruction of their land. If we wanted any chance of protecting these people, we needed to find out who they were so we could petition the government on their behalf, protect their land, and thus stop the killing. They were probably just defending themselves and their land, and after the repeated enslavery and killing of natives by loggers for the past four decades, who could really blame them?
The locals had since started calling these painted people Os Fantasmas, the ghosts, for the way they seemed to swoop out of nowhere and kill people. The few survivors could only identify the killers as wearing strange body paint, which most known tribes in the area didn’t use. This expedition was obviously dangerous, but we hoped that by using our connections with other organizations’ past contacts with other natives, we would be at least a bit safer than randomly trying to make contact by ourselves. Talking with our guide, it seemed like he had heard about another group of foreigners that had also come to this area a few months ago, right about when the killings started. No one had seen them return, which definitely did not ease my anxiety about what we were going to attempt.
Dr. Roberts, who was walking in front of me, stopped in his tracks, his bobbing grey hair coming to an abrupt halt. I held my breath instinctively – we had either found the tribe we were looking for, or had inadvertently run into some sort of dangerous animal. Dr. Roberts quickly reached his hand back towards me, palm up, and shook it in my general direction.
Sensing that nothing was being placed in his outstretched hand, Dr. Roberts looked back at me, annoyed. I shrugged my shoulders. It was obvious from past scoldings of me and the rest of the expedition that we shouldn’t talk at all in moments like this as noise could startle, frighten, or antagonize whatever shouldn’t be startled, frightened, or antagonized.
Silence, however, is not conducive to clear communication. After a few more seconds of frantic hand signal exchanges, I just removed my backpack and let him dig through to get whatever he was asking for. He rummaged quickly through the pack, removing the video camera. He glared at me for a split second before removing the lens cover and powering it up.
Our expedition’s grand leader gently brushed aside some foliage. He looked around for a minute or two as we all stood there silent but sweating. Dr. Roberts grimaced and motioned for the rest of us to continue.
“Sarah,” he lectured, “next time I stop like that, I would appreciate it if you were quicker on the uptake with handing me the camcorder.
“Of course, sir.” I gritted my teeth and tried to smile. “But do you think we might be able to make some sort of, I don’t know, a hand signal of some sort so I know that you’re asking for the video camera and not some other piece of equipment?”
“Why would I be asking for anything else besides the video camera? Don’t be silly, Sarah.” He turned and started trekking through the brush. “Regardless of your sluggishness causing me to miss capturing him on video, I do believe the boy that just ran off indicates we are getting close to finding the Fantasmas.”
“Are you sure he was one of Os Fantasmas?” I quickly repacked my bag and started off after him. “Are you sure he wasn’t from the Matis tribe? We should be fairly close to their territory.” Steve and Martin, the other research assistants, and our native translators/porters began to follow behind us.
“I’m quite sure, Sarah. I know a Matis person when I see one.”
“He had the markings, then?”
Dr. Roberts didn’t acknowledge me with an answer. I let out a perhaps-too-audible sigh, and just continued on. I could hear Steve chuckle a bit behind me. I rolled my eyes and kept walking. I knew better than to try and actually get any sort of acknowledgement or consideration – I had spent a good four years under Dr. Roberts’ thumb.
Dr. Roberts had been researching uncontacted people for the past twenty years, and although I had heard terrible things from past research assistants, when a spot opened up on his team, I had to jump at the opportunity. There wasn’t much funding going around for this kind of work, and if I wanted to be able to pursue my interest and actually be able to sort of make a living, I had to put up with his aggrandizing nature.
By the time we found a suitable location to set up camp for the evening, Dr. Roberts seemed in an even worse mood. Obviously, he (as well as Steve and Martin) blamed me for losing sight of the boy earlier, and we hadn’t been able to pick up his tracks all day which meant we had blown the biggest lead we had gotten thus far.
Our rehydrated dinner Martin prepared went down quickly for me. The emotional toll of dealing with undeserved blame added to the physical toll of a second consecutive week of hiking through the jungle. I was exhausted, and knowing that we only had a few more days to find Os Fantasmas before we’d have to return to our basecamp was frustrating.
As I sat trying to figure out our coordinates on the map using my headlamp, Dr. Roberts sat on a giant root passing around a small flask with Steve and Martin. Apparently the boys had decided to bring a bit of whisky along to share. Neither our local guides, porters, or myself were invited to partake, of course.
I went to talk to Joao, the lead porter and main translator and he confirmed our general location. After figuring out a game plan for tomorrow, I headed up into my mosquito-netted hammock to get some rest. As I fell asleep, I could hear Dr. Roberts laugh.
I woke up in the middle of the night. My stomach ached pretty badly, and I then knew it was a terrible idea to let Martin prepare the meal. With his lack of attention to detail, Martin probably didn’t treat the water properly. I knew it was dangerous to head into the jungle to shit by myself, but I definitely wasn’t about to wake anyone up to buddy with. I tried to sneak out as quietly as I could, shovel in hand, but with the snoring coming from the other hammocks, I realized the liquor had probably knocked them all out.
After I had finished burying the diarrhea and dirty leaves, I felt drained. I was dehydrated, and tired. I stopped to sit on a large exposed tree root to let the pounding in my head subside a bit.
A yelp from the direction of the camp cut through the soft chirps of insects and frogs. I raised my head, and in the dappled moonlight I could see motion in the camp clearing. I clutched the shovel and slowly moved forward. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but as my eyes adjusted, I saw Dr. Roberts, Steven, and Martin being carried away, bound in ropes and thrown over the shoulders of some huge men. I looked over toward my own hammock, and could see figures looking around for me. There were men poking around at our porter’s hammocks as well, but I assume they were quick and sober enough to have escaped.
I realized my best option was to slink away. I’m not a fighter, and there were a lot of people in our camp. I slowly retreated back into the dense foliage.
I waited in hiding for a few hours, falling asleep crouched among giant fronds. I woke to the sun rising, and slowly moved forward towards the camp, taking one slow step at a time. I didn’t hear any movement, so I figured that whomever had kidnapped the rest of my research team had already long moved on.
The clearing was surprisingly in good shape. The people responsible for abducting my travelling companions hadn’t bothered to cut up or steal any of our gear, so I quickly collected as much as I could. Their backpacks hadn’t been taken, so I stuffed the others’ gear into their packs and suspended them in the canopy to hopefully retrieve later. I stuffed my own pack with what I would need to survive by myself.
I found a trail cut through the jungle, and I debated for a second whether or not I should follow the tracks. Despite the chance to finally be done with Dr. Robert’s abuse, I also couldn’t just let him be killed out in the jungle. I had to at least figure out what happened to them and I set off in pursuit.
Especially after last night, I was not in good shape. My head was still pounding, and my stomach was growling in pain. Regardless, I stumbled along for hours. I realized I was slowly headed downhill. I wasn’t aware of any steep elevation changes, and it wasn’t on our topographic map, but here I was, headed slowly downwards. Towards what, I couldn’t say.
As the sun began to set, I stopped to pump some water from a small stream with my water filter. I refilled my canteen and stood. I had no idea how far ahead Dr. Roberts and Martin and Steve had been taken, and I didn’t even know if they were alive. I was debating on turning back, when I could hear the faint beating of drums in the distance ahead of me. I had initially mistaken it as my own throbbing head, but as I strained to listen, it was definitely drums.
I kept trudging forward, and as the drums grew louder, I decided it might be a better idea to veer off the trail the kidnappers had left me. I forged ahead, pushing through the dense leaves and hanging vines, trying to keep the direction of the pounding drums in mind. I could now hear the sound of running water competing with the drums, and I slowed my approach, not wanting to accidentally stumble right into the kidnappers.
I started making my way directly towards the drums, and I found that the sound of running water grew louder. I was at the edge of a circular lagoon at the base of a twenty-foot tall waterfall. In the middle of the swirling pool was a large, flat rock. Around the rock stood a group of topless men, their chests and back painted with red markings that swirled around their bodies. The sun was rapidly setting, but even in the fading daylight, it was clear that these were not natives – their pale skin was a stark contrast to the blood red paint and the dark, churning water.
I realized then that I recognized at least one of the symbols. It was a spoked wheel with an eye in the middle of the spokes, and a triangle overlayed on top of it. No doubt about it, these murderers were not natives protecting themselves – they were from the Order of the Dark Wheel. I had thought they were completely stamped out in the early 1900’s, but I guess this secret society was still alive and well.
The Dark Wheel cultists were ankle deep in the water, while others sat around the edge of the lagoon with drums between their knees. They were all chanting something – I wasn’t sure what language it was as the ruckus of the drums made it hard to hear any distinct words.
In a pile, next to the waterfall, were a bunch of rotting human heads. Now I knew what had happened to the missing heads of those loggers. I closed my eyes and focused on not vomiting.
After the nausea passed, I opened my eyes and I saw that Dr. Roberts, Martin, and Steve were tied up and laying on the rocks. I looked around for a way down to the lagoon. It seemed that the main path would lead me directly to the drummers. I looked around to see if there was any other way down, but besides climbing down some of the exposed roots and creeper vines, there wasn’t any other way to descend.
The drumming stopped. I watched in horror as one of the painted men raised a knife, shouted something, and slashed Martin’s neck. As the blood spurted out, I covered my mouth to keep myself from screaming. I felt the bile raise in my throat as my vision got blurry.
I wiped my eyes and saw the blood run down into the water. Instead of mixing with the churning pool, it floated on top, and formed a seven-pointed star.
To find out what happens next, pick up a copy of Tender Morsels on Amazon.