“It’s eat or be eaten out here.”
The jungle decides when to give life, and when to take it away.
In Juan’s hand, the machete glistened whenever the few rays of direct sunlight that managed to penetrate the jungle touched it. He made his way expertly through the plants, cutting as little as possible, disturbing the peace only in the measure he needed to get by. Diego struggled to keep up, his long and lanky body having to contort itself to fit through the holes his shorter friend had made in the vegetation.
This was the farthest Diego had ventured from the village so far. And as a Rolo, a city boy from Bogotá, he preferred to be out there with someone who not only wielded a machete but could also explain what they were doing there if they ran into someone else on the way. Although, in this deep of a jungle, they’d more likely get attacked by animals than humans. A jaguar or a cougar, maybe a snake. It was better to go out with both a shotgun and a machete.
Diego took in a deep breath of dense, humid forest air. It was the first time he’d felt this free in weeks.
The first month or two out there everything had been just fine, but the atmosphere in the village was getting thicker with expectation. This was the kind of thing even a kid from the city could notice.
Right across the river, the paramilitary troops, sitting tight, waiting for one false move to give them the pretext for attack. In town, the narcos. They worked for the Gringo who owned the mine, who someone had told him was former CIA. Those were the kinds of contacts you needed to operate a business around here.
The balance of power between the two sides had so far remained unaltered, but lately the air had been getting charged.
All waiting with bated breaths for that one spark that would blow up the peace. One of the sides would win, but never the people of the village, caught in the middle. There was nothing they could do about it. Only hunker down, hide and hope for it to go away.
His position as a stranger was no better. If something happened to him, the pueblo would shut down on itself, an impenetrable wall covering any chance for his family to figure out his destiny.
Juan stopped walking, and Diego just barely avoided bumping into his back.
“Hey, wha…” He shut his mouth when he saw Juan’s serious expression. His friend made a gesture toward the trees.
“We’re close,” he formulated the words without sound.
Diego reached for the shotgun he was carrying on his back, preparing himself while keeping his eye on the treetops.
In the military, he’d been one of the best shooters of his regiment, that was why Juan had asked him to join the excursion today. He'd always been good with his hands, his body, graceful in his movements for a boy with such spider limbs. And it had been days since they’d eaten anything else but stale bread, corn and some fruit, so he hadn’t hesitated.
Last week, they’d managed to get their hands on some sausages, and he’d had to fight a cat to keep them for human consumption.
“You’re here to eat the rats, not my food,” he’d said to their feline companion while carrying it outside from the neck, cursing all the way. He'd carefully cut out the parts with bite marks, eating the rest.
The mine will drag out the best and worst in a human.
What had driven him out of Bogotá and to work in an emerald mine was something nobody could understand. Diego could barely explain it to himself, let alone his family, but it had something to do with breathing.
He had needed space, to get out of the city, away from structure. After doing his time in mandatory military service, he had wanted to be anywhere but dealing with people in close quarters. And here, in the jungle, was as far away from organized society as he ever could be.
Of course, he’d wanted to be as far away from Yolanda as possible, too. To give her the space she’d asked for when she’d broken up with him, to let her be with the new guy.
There was a lot you could say about the mine, not all of it good. The guys who stayed there too long got all kinds of problems, their bodies failing out from under them, the humidity wrecking their lungs and the work eating up their joints, damaging their backs. But he was still young and athletic, had his whole life ahead of him. This was just for a little while.
And the air here in the jungle, it was different. Pure, nourishing. It flowed through the leaves of trees, the flowers, through the ferns and the rich soil. Giving life, taking it away only when necessary.
“Last time I was here, the birds were right around this area. I can hear them, too.”
Diego followed Juan’s example and kept his eyes focused on the trees, trying to listen. They were out there, he knew, but couldn’t see them. He didn’t have his buddy’s expertise in the workings of the forest yet.
Juan poked him with his elbow. He was so much shorter it hit Diego closer to the hips than the ribs. He looked in the direction Juan was pointing with his finger and squinted to see better.
It was an owl. Looked like a common barn owl, but a big one.
“I’ve never eaten owl meat, but it’ll have to do,” Juan whispered.
“What, you mean kill that one?” Diego looked at the brown feathers, the large, black eyes that seemed to know everything. Owls carried some sort of ancestral wisdom. All birds did, descendants of dinosaurs as they were. But owls, they were the ones who ruled over others.
“It’s eat or be eaten out here.”
Diego's stomach grumbled in response. It had been a long time since he’d had a hearty meal, and he craved protein. But money was tight, and they were trying to save some for the end of the month. Besides, there wasn’t much fresh and appetizing meat to buy in the village, either.
He lifted the shotgun at the owl, but a sudden gust of wind threw his balance off and he couldn’t stabilize his aim.
“Shoot,” Juan commanded. He was feeling it, too. Something strange in the air.
Diego aimed at the owl again, but his finger was too sweaty on the trigger. He lowered the shotgun and wiped his hand on his shirt, then supported the butt of the gun against his shoulder again, focusing his sight.
The owl was looking straight at him now, the brown and white feathers accentuating its wide eyes. Diego placed his finger on the trigger, preparing for the shot. Another strong wind shook the trees, howling through the tops that all leaned towards them.
It was as if the wind was coming from all sides now, coming for him and his gun.
Diego kept his eyes on the owl without pulling the trigger. His breath was getting faster, his palms too sweaty to maintain the right grip.
They were disturbing the peace. The jungle wanted them out.
The owl was still looking directly at them as it spread its wings to fly over their heads. Diego watched, without shooting.
It wasn’t flying to safety. It was giving them a warning. They were the ones who weren’t safe here.
“Now you missed it,” Juan cursed. “There’s got to be plenty more birds around here, keep an eye out.”
He had barely finished speaking when a low rumble, like that of traffic or thunder, shook the trees. As it got louder, the wind picked up again, whistling as it ripped through the vegetation.
“It’s just a storm,” Juan mumbled. “There’s always a storm coming here.”
“I’ve never felt wind like this in a jungle.”
It was the forest, or Pachamama, or something. Get out, it was saying. It wasn’t their place to be, their life to take.
One of them needed to be the bigger man. “Let’s go,” Diego said. “Night’s falling soon, anyway.” Juan didn’t contradict him.
It was already pitch dark when they stumbled into the village. Normally, they would have gone straight back to the mine, headed for bed to be ready for the workday tomorrow. But there was still something on their minds they couldn’t shake. Something that needed to be cleared, although neither one of them knew how to, or wanted to talk about it.
They walked right to the small store at the end of the main street.
“Hi, Yoli,” Diego said.
A cruel twist of fate that the owner of the store, a stocky woman in her late forties, carried the same name as his ex-girlfriend. He had taken the liberty of shortening it to just Yoli, to make the memory a little easier on himself.
You just can‘t get away from your problems, not even in the mine.
“You boys been hunting?” She pointed at the shotgun hanging from Diego’s shoulder. “Didn’t catch anything?”
“No, this one’s too slow," Juan said. "Talks a big game about being a good shot, then misses the mark.”
Diego gave Yoli a smile, without trying to defend himself. She’d been acquainted with Juan long enough to know his big mouth. It was part joke, part him trying to prove his worth.
Juan paid for their beers and they stepped out of the store and took a seat, right there on the dirt-covered street, with their backs against the wooden wall. They sipped in silence, watching the life of the town.
This place had its rules, just like the jungle.
Something he was reminded of in a couple of minutes when the next customers showed up for Yoli’s shop, nodding them a hi before entering. Diego and Juan nodded, and kept gulping down their beers. A little faster now.
If there’s one thing a kid learns quickly on the streets of a city like Bogotá, it’s who you should avoid. And that was exactly these guys. He’d met them before, the first time he’d been down at the village. Two Paisas from Medellín, the people whose job it was to protect the Gringo’s investments.
The Paisas came out of the store, laughing, carrying an armful of beers. They sat down next to Diego and began drinking. He corrected his posture, prompting an angry glance from Juan. Don’t make a false move, it seemed to say. It was unnecessary. He knew.
They kept on drinking until a couple of girls walked past them. One of the Paisas whistled, his friend laughed. The girls blushed and sped up, and the men shouted something vulgar after them.
Juan laughed, and Diego followed his example out of duty. They finished their beers in silence.
“Where’s the Rolo going now,” one of the Paisas said as Diego got up. “Drink a couple more with us.”
“No, man, we’re heading home to sleep for the night. We have a long day in the mine tomorrow,” Juan explained for him. "We'll catch up with you on the weekend." Diego was grateful. Juan might be annoying, but he’d been there longer. They knew his face, didn't view him with as much suspicion.
“Fine, fine. We’ll have to find entertainment on our own.”
Diego and Juan made their way up the hill to the mine in silence. The beers had not made either one of them feel better after their encounter with nature.
“What are you trying to prove?” Yolanda’s last message still hung over his mind as he listened to the sounds of the forest around him in bed. She’d heard of him leaving for the mine in the barrio and texted. He hadn’t answered. What was she trying to prove when she went off with that guy?
It was none of his business. Yolanda had made her decision, he’d made his. And he was proud of it, of jumping into the void, disappearing for a while.
The owl came into his dreams that night. He was back in the jungle, in the middle of the trees and the howling wind, but he was alone this time. The bird, perched up on the branch, staring straight at him with its wide eyes. Knowing everything he’d thought out there, but not judging him. It was a hunter, too, after all.
He was alone this time, but he wasn’t scared. The menacing wind was gone, and the entire jungle was staring at them, waiting to see what they’d do.
Diego glanced down and saw he was up on a tree, too.
The owl screeched and took flight, rising high above the treetops. Diego closed his eyes and leaned forward, falling through the branches. In his sleep, he was half conscious that he was dreaming, and expected to wake up before hitting the ground.
Then the owl shrieked again.
He opened his eyes and spread his arms wide. To his surprise, he stopped falling and changed direction, soaring to the sky.
In a couple of seconds, he’d risen over the trees and was gliding over the jungle, the owl right next to him. Diego saw the village, the hills and the mine, but they kept going toward the sea.
They flew over turquoise Caribbean waters, gliding over small islands, giant yachts and deserted beaches. Then they turned around and flew inland, over the mountains and to Bogotá. Through the familiar clouds into the perennially cool air of the city, doing circles around the streets of his neighborhood, where Yolanda was with her new guy.
He didn’t care now. He kept his arms spread wide, rising over it all.
Diego woke up to commotion around him. It was still dark, the middle of the night. He didn’t get up. It was never good to get up when something was happening, that was something he’d learned in the military. It was always better to fake sleep, to stay alert to gather information, but not let others know. He stayed in his bed, listening to Juan and the others talk in hushed voices.
There had been some gunshots down in the village, and one of the local guys in the mine said it was the paramilitary. Something was brewing, and it wasn’t chicha.
By the morning, the news had reached the mine. Diego sat in quiet, eating his breakfast and listening to the guys talk. A group of men had appeared out of nowhere, shot a round at the two Paisas they’d been drinking with, hitting one of them.
It had been a warning shot, aimed at their legs. A safe one, only meant to keep them under control, send a message to the Gringo. It was about money, as these things always are.
No such thing as a safe bullet.
It had hit his femoral artery, and he’d bled to death out there on the dirt road, with nobody to help him. Just as well, they wouldn’t have been able to stop that kind of bleeding out here, anyway.
“It’s starting, now,” Juan said to him when they were left alone. “We were smart to get away.”
“You mean I was smart,” Diego gave him a smirk, and Juan didn’t answer. They both knew he was right.
Someone had lit the spark, and it was only a matter of time until the flame would eat anybody in its way.
“Let’s go, we’re going to be late,” Juan said, getting up.
“I’ll be right there.”
Diego stood up and stepped out of the shack he'd been living in for the past months. He stayed in the doorway, taking his time to stretch his long limbs. Dawn had only just broken, and there was still mist hanging over the valley.
He looked over to the sky and saw the familiar flight of the owl that had been imprinted on his brain the previous day. The bird flew toward him, until it sat on a branch right next to the house. Diego stood there, his eyes locked with the bird’s, for a good while, until it let out a screech and spread its wings again, flying away, soaring over the treetops.
He had more than two options.
It was eat or be eaten, or fly away.
Diego went inside and packed his bag. He was ready to go.
Dedicated to Diego with the long legs.