Night of the Jaguar

He began his tale:

There is a park in Costa Rica, in the Nicoya peninsula, up in the Northwest part of the country, called Monte Alto. It is near the town of Hojancha, and is made up of a dry tropical forest, not quite like the drenched, deluged, and cloud-permeated jungles in other parts of Costa Rica. Well, back in 2005, I stayed in Monte Alto with my field study seminar class on Tropical Agriculture and Forestry. We met up with another group of students from my university, who were up there for an entire month tracking jaguars with little cameras that had infrared sensors; whenever a jaguar walked past the camera aperture, the sensor tripped the camera. They had so far had zero success in taking photos of jaguars.

The jungle in Monte Alto was green, hot, and full of life. As we walked into the remote campsite, families of howler monkeys moved along with us in the trees…carving a whole different path 20 feet above our heads, never having to come to the ground. Birds with fantastic beaks and feathers swooped, chirped, and blinked in that curious avian apathy. Earth-colored lizards darted between our feet. It was paradise, and also extremely remote.

That evening, three of us (Shane, Tristan, and Walter) decided to go on a night hike. We gathered out flashlights, laced up our boots, and set off on one of the hiking trails. We climbed to the top of a hill, stared at the white smear of the Milky Way on the sky, discovered that we were surrounded by enormous spiders with eyes that glittered like jewels in the periphery light of our flashlights. On our way back down, walking down a narrow path with a wall of jungle on each side, we suddenly found ourselves being stalked by something about 15 feet off the path, in the jungle. Our lights couldn’t penetrate far enough in the jungle to see what it was, but it cast a huge shadow and made quite a bit of noise. Jaguar, we whispered, and hurried on, but the large shadow just hurried along with us. It eventually stopped making noise, blending back into the auditory orchestra of the jungle. We arrived at the big sleeping pavilion, climbed into our mosquito-net cots, and fell asleep.

That night, I awoke, and I was a jaguar. I was standing by my bed, on four paws, my shining coat covered in amorphous black spots that kissed both sunshine and shadow. I had whiskers on my face, a huge set of teeth in my jaws, eyes like bright blue lightning. I could see in the utter dark, I could hear millipedes whispering on the floor, I could smell the trails of every single mammal that had walked through the forest in the past few weeks. It was a jolting blast of new information, like I had opened my eyes for the first time, like I had touched a woman for the first time…a whole new world to explore, to understand, to feel beneath the fingertips of my memory. In one leap, I bounded out of the camp, racing down the trails, my thick tail keeping my balance as I went up escarpments and down tree trunks. I felt the power in my neck, enough to drag a tapir up a tree, I could feel every tendon in my legs respond to the terrain, my shoulders and haunches propelling me forward into the night. I could feel the high thump-thump-thump of the jungle’s rhythm, something I never would have been able to experience as a human, not native to this soil, not able to drink in the song of the night. I smelled it, so sweet, so intoxicating, I let it grip me and carry me on. I stopped to drink at a pool, the reflection of the heavenly bodies dancing in the turbid water, the stars and satellites wobbling and giving my fur a dim sheen from the moonless sky. I could hear/smell the tayra, the monkey, the sloth, the white bat, the coatimundi, the tamandua, the harvest mouse, the margay, the red brocket, the peccary, and the tapir. I wanted to follow each trail of scent forever, I wanted to leave my human form behind, I wanted to stalk these mountain paths until one day, toothless and weak, I would follow my ancestors and become one with the forest, wisps of my spirit in every leaf and shoot. I was lithe, I was agile, I was powerful.

However, soon, I could feel the blue-black indigo dawn arriving, and I knew I had to return. I ran up the paths, and past a woman up early, taking her morning washing to the stream. As I passed by her, she looked at me, one long, black braid falling past her shoulder. Our eyes connected, and I felt fear at the serenity I saw in her eyes. I quickly turned away back into the jungle, back up the familiar path, and finally arrived at the camp. I dropped soundlessly on the wooden floor of the open building where we slept, then felt the weakness return to my limbs, my fur fell from my skin, my teeth shrank, and my eyes became clouded and sightless once again. Then, I awoke.

That morning, at breakfast, the team of tracking students announced that one of their sensors had been tripped the previous evening, and they got their coveted photos of a jaguar loping through the night. To this day, I wonder if that jaguar was me, or if it was one of my brothers or sisters in the night. I never looked at those photos; I don’t think I could ever bear to.

And, ending his tale, he stared sadly into the last glowing embers.

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