by Gill McEvoy
The forest smells sappy and moist and fungal. And it is dark, so dark. I am dazzled by the darkness. The jungle looms up abruptly, a great dense black-green wall of leaf, branch, trunk and choking creepers. It offers no easy way in. The way I am following is the path of a watercourse. Above the water the tree canopy thins a little, letting in a mottled green light that slides over these deep pools and thundering jets that hurtle down the slippery rocks.
If I hug the waterfall there is less risk of leeches. I have seen these horrible creatures on the dead leaves of the forest floor, small sinuous tubes weaving and swaying like sea anemones on a rock; once they sense body heat they converge unerringly on the victim, looping over and over in a series of rapid cartwheels. You do not hear them, you do not feel them, but later you find them, swollen, white and puffy, dug deep into your skin.
I have slipped, clung and scrabbled my way up this water shoot, forcing my body through muscular spouts of water plummeting downwards, squeezing between narrow clefts in the great rocks. I’m wet, my boots are swimming with water, my shirt is torn, and my elbow is grazed. But I am where I want to be, high up in Malaysian jungle, sitting very still and waiting, eager for a sighting of wild pig, macaque monkeys, tapir, mouse deer, snake: something to take my breath away. I have seen pretty brown and white bracket fungus, thorny shrubs densely berried with deep blue fruit, pale damselflies ashen in the thin jungle light, shadowy spiders, small butterflies one in colour with the earth. And an endless, dizzyingly tall density of pale trunks vanishing upward, their bases flared out wide like propellor blades.
Long minutes pass. I’m actually cold now and moulded to the rock by the cramp in my legs. Beyond the clamorous roar of the waterfall I can hear the introspective silence of the daytime jungle. Nothing moves, nothing is going about its business. I am an intruder, watched, smelled and avoided. Prickles creep down my spine. What is out there watching me? I am quite alone up here. I hear my heart like drum beats above the water’s rush, loud in the hushed quiet. What is listening to it?
I stare round, searching the dark canopy for movement. Anything will satisfy me now for I have an increasing, panicky feeling of wanting to be gone, safely out of here. My mind goes over a news story I came across: a huge python, said to be almost twelve feet in length, crushed and killed a man. Every newspaper, magazine, radio and T.V station in Malaysia was obsessed with the story. There were gruesome pictures of the man’s body being crushed, half swallowed by the massive creature. They said it took three days for him to die. Such a thing is rare, very rare. The man lived on the edge of the jungle and he had stepped behind his house, as he did every day, to start up his generator and Crack!: his ribs were encircled and fractured by this monster. The phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” has a terrifying reality up here. The Malays believe the jungle to be full of “hantu” – ghosts. Is there some coiled, malevolent reptilian power out there in the jungle blackness biding its time, studying me…? The silence is so solid now, it’s choking me, pressing on me. I am losing my nerve, think about bolting blindly back to safety down the waterfall.
So at first it doesn’t register, then slowly I notice it: high up on a grey-flecked trunk there is a little tremor. But I ignore it, still straining my eyes for bigger creatures. The tremor shifts, there is a sudden scurry.. I focus hard on the spot now and discern a long stick-like thing, wedded hard to the trunk, almost indistinguishable from it. It darts upwards briefly, a lizard of some sort. Then all at once the stick explodes, there is a stunning flash of orange and green and in a swift second my lizard metamorphoses from stick to fabulous prehistoric butterfly, and is gorgeous as it spreads its membranous wings of bright green and orange and lifts and sails down the air from one tree to another. It lands and folds away into a stick again, melting into the trunk it has settled on. I follow its fretting runs upwards and see where it stops and is absorbed again into the tree with absolute concealment. I am enthralled.
When I sit later picking the leeches off my ankles, for they did find me, I think only of that glorious flying lizard, its wings vibrant and glowing in that brown, silent jungle air as it sailed brilliant into the filtering patches of light.
Gill McEvoy: has two poetry collections The Plucking Shed (2010), and Rise (2013) from Cinnamon Press. She runs regular poetry events in Chester and was formerly Artistic Director for the spoken word section of Chester Literature Festival. She is a Hawthornden Fellow, and the winner of the 2015 Michael Marks Awards for her poetry pamphlet The First Telling (Happenstance Press 2014). She was Highly Commended several times in the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s essay writing competition.