You are reading Fiddleblack #1
Like pirates at the end of their age, we move inland from the sea, crossing coastal plains toward the first escarpments to the southwest. Over fields of sugarcane and dusty limestone roads, the forested hills stand in a ridge along the horizon. Wooden poles strung with barbed wire demarcate the road from adjacent yards and pastures: cinderblock houses, painted villas, old school buses parked in fields, a rusted swing-set beneath a broad mango tree, heavy with fruit. Smoke rises from an unseen flame: a brush fire, or garbage burning, or a cane field set on fire to drive the snakes away before harvest. Thunderheads, building through the heavy air, lit the pink of conch shells in the setting light. Rain falls in isolation along the escarpment, the veil smoke-blue against the seashell sky.
If I could imagine a more beautiful country, I feel I would know Eden.
Through open windows, air rushes through the rented land cruiser, bouncing over water-pitted roads. My brother sits beside me in the back seat. We pass a small concrete church and he tells me he doesn’t believe in religion anymore. He says, I have studied too many civilizations that invented their religion to control people. I say, I don’t believe in religion either. But I still believe, I say. I say, people invent rules to find a way to God, but God finds a way to us. He says, I still have things to figure out.
The road leads us southward, parallel to the hills now behind the clouds. Our heads are turned in unison, all our eyes on the veil; the shower is small, but appears to fall across our path.
We enter San Felipe in the rain. The road turns west in the town’s center at the Roman Catholic school, and we roll the windows up, sitting in the silent, humid heat.
At the age of eighteen, Jim Halloran enlisted in the United States military and spent the next decade as an Army medical officer. When introduced to us as the medic for our project, he said, I have a near-perfect record and plan to keep it that way. This was his way of assuring us that we were in good hands. He told us that if we’re falling, go down, take the fall, don’t grab onto something spiny or poisonous. Later, he tells me the only time he will lie to a patient is for a snakebite. Even if it is, he says, tell them it’s not poisonous, want to keep the heart-rate low. Another time I ask him about his record and what he means by near-perfect. I lost a man, he says, but he was dead before I could help him. I ask, What was your response time? I was standing right behind him, Halloran says, had his brains all over me before I heard the shot.
Halloran was wounded twice in Iraq. Now, three years after leaving the Army, he has come to the jungle. I ask him if he would call himself an adventure junky. He rubs at the new beard on his cheek, shakes his head. Refugees are driven out of civilization, he says, but I’m the opposite. When I’m in one place—in civilization—too long, he says, I grow restless.
The jungle in darkness. Moonless night. To describe the dark, people will say they can’t see their hand in front of their face, but here you wouldn’t try. In camp, the power generator goes off at nine, so carry a flashlight after dusk: the man who turns the switch doesn’t wear a watch.
In darkness, the rainforest is still a forest: the songs of a trillion nocturnal insects and frogs, bugs careening with a vibration of wings against the side of my tent. The scent remains, of earth and water, of new growth, of decay. After a soaking rain, the jungle—the soil, the fallen leaves, the rejuvenated respiration of the trees, perhaps—smells of wet, cooking potatoes. If you can see through a gap in the canopy, the stars appear like faces in a crowd.
Standing beneath a forty-meter canopy, it is hard to imagine that the Maya had clear-cut eighty-percent of the rainforest. Terraced pyramids ten, twenty stories high like stairways into the open sky, level plaster floors between them; fields of maize and cotton. It is all jungle now. Plaster floors buckled and broken by the spreading growth of root systems, walls toppled, stones weathered, cities overgrown; trees emerge now from the temple summits. Even these forests today are new, the old trees, the biggest trees—logwoods, mahoganies—fallen to loggers in the centuries between Europe’s arrival and the conservation of this forest twenty years ago. This forest is young, heir to the succession of forests that arose only after the Maya fell.
By believing herself crazy, Dr. Walsh proved clinically that she was perfectly sane. Her belief was not neurotic hypochondria, it was her sense of humor. During one of our lunch breaks, she told us that as kids, she and her sister had wanted to be nuthatches as they watched them flit upside-down along the trunk of a tree. How’s that going? I asked. I’m about halfway there. The nut part? To a science.
But when it came to the Maya, archaeology, and the safety of her field school students, to birds, insects, and pollen, Dr. Walsh could focus as though bipolar and newly on lithium. She had directed the project at our site since its discovery more than a decade ago and has come to Belize every year since. Her pet projects on the side vary between years and have included insects, of which she has classified half a dozen new species, plant defense systems, and the forest’s natural history, which she investigated with pollen cores from a dry reservoir. This year it is hummingbirds.
The strangling fig is a bad parasite because it kills its host. The seed germinates as an epiphyte in the canopy and grows its vines down to the earth, wrapping itself around a hardwood as it grows until the host tree dies in its choking embrace, cut off from sunlight and water, and the fig replaces it in the canopy, strong enough to stand on its own without the tree’s stability, and it is thus—unlike most parasites—free to kill its host.
Sharon Rose sits on my other side in the land cruiser as we drive toward camp from the airport. She is from Boston, where she finished college last month in anthropology. She slept while we were on the Northern Highway, one of the few paved roads in this part of the country, but now past Orange Walk and heading to the southwest, the roads are crushed limestone, the ride too rough to sleep. She will tell me later that she was in a bar the night before watching a Red Sox game when Dr. Walsh called her cell phone to confirm her itinerary. As Walsh advised Sharon Rose to get a good night’s sleep and Sharon Rose promised she was getting into bed as they spoke, Schilling struck out the last batter to win the game and the crowded bar went wild. After a late night out and with an early flight this morning, she decided to stay up, and thus has not slept in over thirty hours. While sleeping along the Northern Highway, a speed-bump turned her head to rest against my shoulder; she half awoke, mumbled an apology, and shifted to lean again against the window. I wanted to tell her I didn’t mind, but she had already returned to sleep.
For the four-week duration of our project, Walsh hires Carlos, a native Belizean from Orange Walk, as our guide in the jungle, and camp manager. At the beginning of the field season, he and a few hired workers from San Felipe clear the trails at our site with machetes; he keeps the water tanks for the showers and sinks filled; every few days, he drives in fresh supplies: eggs, oranges, plantains, bags of rice, beans, mangoes. Over the years, he has built most of the camp—the latrines dug into the ground, the screened-in cabanas, the tin roofs that keep our tents dry—and fixes these whenever they fall into disrepair. He moves like a phantom through camp when he is here: if you look for him, he is almost impossible to find. You will catch glimpses of him when you least expect to. But when you need him, you’ll find him with ease.
Blood was sacred in the Maya religion, bloodletting a ritual act of piety. The gift was poured onto paper and burned as an offering to their gods. The kings and queens, priests, and other elites made a public show of sacrificing their own blood, often taken by piercing the genitalia or tongue.
When the Spanish missionaries arrived in the Yucatan, in Belize, and began preaching their doctrine of a god who came to earth in human form and sacrificed himself for his people by the offering of his blood, it made perfect sense to the Maya.
As their reign over the Caribbean waned, pirates began raiding logging ships transporting timber back to Europe. Outside of British influence along the Mosquito Coast and the Cayes, they took refuge in the lagoons, the mouths of rivers—easy access to the coastal logging settlements. But piracy was a dangerous, uncertain way of life, and sailors began looking for an alternative, a secondary occupation. Many pirates began joining logging camps as seasonal laborers, finding profit and security cutting their own timber.
A few years ago, Carlos’s friend and fellow Belizean visited America. While there, he sent a letter to a childhood friend, who lived in Quintana Roo in the Mexican Yucatan. When the letter was returned to him, undelivered, he fell into melancholy. His friends in America told him not to worry, that the man had probably moved and that he could certainly find him again. But he said, You do not understand. Maya do not move. It means my friend is dead.
The first time Halloran was wounded, he was shot at close-range in the center of his vest, the impact separating all of his ribs from his sternum and fracturing the sternum itself. The soldier behind him in formation stepped over Halloran and put a round through the militant’s forehead. Halloran spent six months in Army hospitals in Iraq, Germany, and back in the States, then returned to active duty.
When his unit was recalled two years later for a second tour, Halloran was wounded again. He and four other soldiers were riding in a Humvee through a Baghdad neighborhood when they hit a roadside bomb. The explosion threw Halloran from the vehicle and the fall tore all of the ligaments in his knee. He made another six month tour of hospitals for reconstructive surgery and physical therapy.
Rough luck, I say at this point in his story.
He pauses and looks at me, then continues. He says, Roadside bombs hurl a slug of molten copper along with shrapnel up into the car that triggers it. The one we hit detonated early and most of the shrapnel went into the engine; the copper slug put a hole in the door inches away from the driver’s head. In a war where many of our casualties have been from these bombs, all five of us walked away, though they supported me. Purple hearts aren’t given as symbols of bad luck, or reminders of what could have been.
In Maya culture, East was the direction of life, of rebirth. It was red. It was the rising sun. Their rain came from the east, across the Caribbean on trade winds, their rainy season the Atlantic season of hurricanes.
We expect desert cultures to develop a ritual awareness of rain—in Northern Mexico, in the American Southwest—but the Maya, too, made sacrifices to please the gods for the sake of rain. Even in a rainforest, droughts could devastate a year’s harvest, and in the tropics, food could not long be stored. Even in the rainforest, the ruins of Maya cities are characterized by structures for water management: reservoirs, agricultural terracing, carved basins for storage, drainage systems. Too much rain, on the other hand, brought floods that could drown or wash free a season’s crop. After a heavy, flooding rain, you may hear trees falling in the jungle, tearing gaps in the canopy as their roots lose their hold in the thin soil.
Like lacerated human skin, the rainforest can repair itself, replace itself, heal its wounds, knit together the gaps. Successional species are forest scar tissue, growing rapidly in a race for the canopy through the fleeting window of sunlight touching the forest floor. These first-responders—evolved for short-term, explosive growth—germinate, mature, flower, and pollinate before the slower, more permanent canopy species catch up and pass them by, out-competing them and shading them out. The scar fades away.
While taking a prism-rod down the hillside to shoot a survey point from the top, Sharon Rose and I observe a bizarre insect. Its body is three tiny spheres, the first two red, the third bright blue, where it’s legs join; its tail, black and thin, is at least four times longer than the body. It is crawling up the trunk of a tree. I’ll bet we’re the only people who’ve ever seen this, Sharon Rose says.
When I step out of my tent one evening after taking a shower, a six-inch scorpion scurries out from underneath and freezes there in the gravel. I freeze too, watching it, aware that my shoes aren’t on yet, aware that the tent flap is open behind me. My brother walks up then and crushes it beneath the heel of his boot. As his foot comes back up, I expect to see it writhing, trying to sting something as it dies, but it lies still. I’ve been coming here for six years, my brother says, and I’ve seen a couple of these things. You’ve been here a week and you’ve found three already. And I’ve killed ‘em all for you. You didn’t have to, I say. He laughs.
My brother’s a year older, but it’s not a difference we’re often aware of. Growing up people would ask if we were twins. But here, he will always have a four year head start on me. I’ve seen him kill spiders the size of half-dollars with a slap of his bare palm, which makes me shiver a little inside when I think of doing it myself. Maybe it’s something you grow into.
To the southeast of where we excavate, Carlos and his workers clear the undergrowth and rake the brush and leaves into piles, which they burn to clear from a new excavation unit, and to keep mosquitos away; thick smoke the color of limestone billows up into the canopy and drifts there where the sunlight filters through.
Today, the Maya are devout Catholics. On his upper arm, Carlos has a tattoo of a heart with a cross above it like an apple with a thick stem, and within the heart is written, Vivo para Christo.
Maya religious ceremony held sacred the ceiba tree as a representation of the central world tree, indicating the four cardinal directions, and connecting the underworld, earth, and heaven. The symbol shows the full tree, from its highest branches to lowest roots, with a horizontal bisection across the trunk to represent the forest floor. When drawn or carved simply, without ornamentation, it is the bisection of trunk and earth that remains.
Catholic priests came as missionaries early in Spain’s conquest, and when they found the Maya worshipping the symbol of a cross, they thought the natives had already converted.
The wind turns cold before the rain comes. A downdraft moving faster through the trees along the ridge, heralding the dark gray in the sky that encroaches from the east, gauged in shades of gray and brightness through the porous canopy. Working in the humid heat, sweating—as Halloran remarks, Like a whore in church—we welcome the breeze, the cooler air, even as we rush to tuck our equipment under tarps strung up in the trees, to pull black garbage bags over our backpacks, notebooks, machetes in their leather sheaths. Sometimes the sun returns; sometimes a few drops fall—we hear them breaking against the leaves above, but never feel them; most of the time the rain comes hard, heavy enough that the thick jungle canopy provides no shelter, lasting for five minutes, lasting an hour. Some in our group crawl inside ponchos, take out umbrellas, huddle under the tarps; others of us stay out in the rain, turn our faces to the sky, glad to be cooled, knowing we will dry, knowing we will be wet again. What is a rainforest, afterall, without rain?
When it rains, the limestone road feels like slush beneath the truck, the tires splashing the watery dust to the side, spinning through it, digging in. We ride in the bed of the pickup, seven of us sitting on the fuel tank and spare tire, shoulder to shoulder, legs intercrossed, leaning into each other with the motion of the truck, equipment stuffed into the gaps between. Next to me on the tire, I feel Sharon Rose’s back and shoulder pressed warm against mine. When she leans forward, away from me, the wind feels cold where she has been.
Yesterday morning broke with a low, thick fog clinging to the trees. Dr. Walsh said it was a good sign, that it meant the day would be hot and sunny; it was raining by ten.
In the evening, a rainstorm flooded parts of camp and we dug trenches to drain the water away from our tents, cutting through the dense roots with shovels.
In ceremony, the Maya burned incense made from the dried resin of the copal tree. Once in a while, we will find the bright red seeds on the ground.
On our first day of surveying from the hilltop—a plateau with a small stone temple built on it—Sharon Rose climbs up onto the mound of stones and kneels in the center. I join her. From a leather pouch, she has taken a thin stick of copal resin and set it in the ground. Carlos got it for me, she says. She tries to light it with Halloran’s lighter, but the wind has picked up, cooling, and blows out the flame. I kneel across from her and cup my hands around the incense, and she is able to keep a flame long enough to get it burning. I feel the heat against my palms. It’s gonna rain soon, I say. I begin to smell the spicy smoke, rising up through the trees, drifting on the wind. That’s okay, she says, it’s just a symbol, a sign of respect for the forest, for tradition, for our being here. If it doesn’t burn all the way, only you and I will know.
In 1972, when Carlos was a boy, he tells me, Guatemala wanted to invade Belize and claim it as their territory. The Belizeans refused to be slaves, the British to give up their colony, then called British Honduras. The Guatemalan army massed troops at the border and prepared to shell Belmopan; the British sent harriers, their own soldiers. In Orange Walk, where Carlos grew up, the people heard a war was starting and fled to the border with Mexico. But the Mexican army had come to their own border with Belize—in Campeche, and on the Rio Azul: Lao Juan, Santa Lena—and told the refugees to go home. They said the refugees could not enter because they were not Mexican; they said they would help if Guatemala invaded. The British soldiers stayed for almost a year, and Guatemala backed down. They were alone in their claim, while Belize had the support of Britain, the United States, and Mexico.
Guatemala threatened again a few years later in 1975, perhaps, or 1978, Carlos says, thinking. He was living on the border then, in San Ignacio. The British sent a carrier group to the Caribbean—the Ark Royal, I will read later—and Carlos watched helicopters drop soldiers into the forest, who then cleared a landing zone for the chopper. These soldiers would stay for three months, then move on. He would hear a harrier’s engines rumble to life where it had been hidden in the jungle, see it rise above the canopy on its vertical thrusters. Though Guatemala had gained an ally from Venezuela, they never invaded. I think about the wars that have started over the lines drawn on maps. I think about the bonds and duties of alliances, and the escalation when nations take sides. I wonder, what is a tiny country—a Caribbean coastline, logging rights, the scent of oil beneath the rainforest—worth?
In 1981, Belize was granted her independence.
The first time we get caught in the rain, Sharon Rose has left her rain gear in camp. It can happen to any of us, and does: we have no way of knowing when the first rains will come. Today it is heavy, without exaggeration as strong as the jets from a shower nozzle. After days of oppressive heat, the chill of the rain and wind is a surprise. I see her sitting on a stone at the base of the temple, curled over, beginning to shiver. I clip together two 9-volt batteries and wrap them in a dry bandana, then hand her the bundle and kneel facing her. I don’t explain, and by her smile I can tell when she feels them warming. I wouldn’t have thought to do that, she says. Before I moved to the desert, I say, I did some biology field work in college, up north, drilling through frozen lakes to collect water samples. We would stick these in our pockets, in our gloves, between layers of clothing. I put my hands around hers and hold them there. I know what it is to be cold—the discomfort, the pain, its resemblance to panic—and yet in a selfish way, I’m glad it’s her this time. If I were not already soaked through myself, I would put my arms around her.
For someone I have known all my life, at times I still have trouble reading my brother. Maybe I expect him to think the way I do, to be more like me than I should, than he is. When I offer theories about our field results—I don’t have the theoretical background he has—he often dismisses the ideas with a brusqueness that I see to mean, You’re stupid. It doesn’t. He simply has no interest in considering it further, because it bears no further merit; he is reacting to the idea, not to me. Sometimes I worry about being a writer in an archaeologist’s world, about letting him down, despite knowing that I am welcome, my contributions respected, and I worry sometimes now, still after being invited to return on future field seasons. We have our differences and, despite my occasional misinterpretations, we don’t hold these differences between us. Religion—faith—is one of these. The most extensive conversation we have had on this was on the drive to camp from Belize City. We each know where the other stands; what’s there to discuss? He isn’t me, and I can’t expect him to be. Here, he is the archaeologist, the expert, I am the writer, the other; he is the professional, I am the adventurer; he feels at home here among the ruins, the remnants of a civilization, I just feel at home.
In the evening of our second to last day in Belize, I step into our tent—leaving my sandals outside—and a moment after zipping the flap shut, feel a burning on my feet, like circulation returning to a sleeping limb: that burning, tingling feeling along the skin, but more focused, more intense. I look down in the dim light to see the tent floor and my feet in motion from the scurrying of tiny ants—one or two millimeters long at most, reddish brown in color—not covering the floor, but certainly in the hundreds. Instinctively, I begin brushing them off, in a frenzy: as soon as I clear one foot and set it down to lift the other, the clean one is bitten again, and they are biting my hands.
Every time my brother comes here, he is obsessive about keeping bugs out of his tent, and has never had a problem. I see him approaching and yell for him to bring me paper towels, that we have fire ants. When he returns a minute later, I am as close to a panic as I have come, my feet and hands still burning though the bites don’t linger, trying to believe this is happening, wondering if I am able to fix this, if it is possible. My prayer, at this moment, is whispered in desperation. He tucks a wad of paper towels through the tent flap and I begin killing the ants in a crouch, sweat running down my face, and in my frustration, I yell, God, they’re everywhere! My brother walks away.
For the next hour, I stay in the tent and kill every one of them, at times thinking they’re almost gone, then finding more. Some are beneath the foam pads we sleep on and under our suitcases, but none crawl up into our sheets or clothes or equipment. As I finish, Sharon Rose and Carlos come to see how I’m doing. She says she told my brother to sit and cool off, that he was pissed. Carlos hands me a can of neurotoxin insecticide, which I spray around and under the tent, then across the floor and under the foam pads, but we won’t find any dead ants after.
When it is over, my brother has calmed down. The only explanation at the time was that I had transported them in on my feet, and when I said they were everywhere, in frustration, he assumed the worst. When I apologize, he just says, Well, you took care of it. It is not until the next day as we begin packing that we discover and patch a small hole near the bottom of the tent, and our neighbor tells us that he had ants the other day because he had left a bag of trail mix outside.
This is the beginning of the jungle’s goodbye.
Dr. Walsh pays the workers she hires from San Felipe thirty dollars a day. This year, she tried to raise it to thirty-five because she feels their help is worth it, and it caused riots in town over who would get the jobs. Even thirty a day is a premium wage.
When I first came to Belize a year ago, I was surprised at how underdeveloped much of the country appeared to my eyes: the unpaved roads, single-room homes of naked cinderblock, the sugarcane harvest cut by hand with machetes. I have learned that the people work hard to make their living. But I have seen that they are friendly, faithful people and are content.
Only a year later, I can see development, especially in Belize City. Tourism is expanding along the coast and in the Cayes—beaches, resorts, SCUBA diving, tours of the Maya ruins—and both the influx of money and the demand for accommodation has spurred this growth. I am happy for the young nation, only as old as I am, happy to see wealth, recognition for many of the things I love about it, that it is able to survive on its own. But there is another Belize, away from the coast, one that tourists rarely see, one that is whispered about in souvenir shops wallpapered with red diving flags. The rainforest is the Belize I know, and this Belize progresses in its own way.
On a Thursday evening, Dr. Walsh gives a lecture about the Maya in the dining hall. She chronicles Maya history and describes how archaeologists characterize the periods along the timeline according to the ceramic and lithic artifacts we excavate. The end of the timeline—the collapse of Maya civilization—is strange. It was not the sacking of Rome or the burning of Troy; it was not the Norman conquest of ten-six-six. It was not the Spanish conquest of the Americas: Europe would not arrive for more than five-hundred years. The Maya walked away. From their cities, their temples, their homes, all they had built they left behind and dispersed into the jungle. We don’t know why. Perhaps the cities became overpopulated, perhaps drought ruined the harvests or made water too scarce to support the large population; perhaps disease spread among the people; perhaps their environment could no longer sustain them, from clearcutting or lack of food or water. Or perhaps the people lost faith in the blood offerings of their kings, in the illusion of their religion, of the favor of the gods. I imagine a Maya king ordering his people to build a new monument as they put down their tools and walk away; people do not build massive structures for their own gratification. Perhaps for all of these reasons. But whatever the cause, these ruins are in a virgin forest: no one has lived here in over a thousand years.
The Maya that inhabit northern Belize today are descended from refugees of the Yucatan Caste War, a conflict between the Maya of southern Mexico and the European settlers that lasted for more than the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The rainy season brings frogs, some the size of a kitchen plate, some as small as your thumbnail. Some are poisonous—though earth-colored, lacking the bright warning colorations of the Amazon dart frogs—and are only dangerous if you lick their skin. We have no lonely princesses in camp, so we don’t worry about the frogs. I tease Sharon Rose about this, tell her not to look for her prince out here; she sticks out her tongue and flips me her middle finger.
And yet we are cautious when we see frogs in camp, because where there are frogs, there may be snakes hunting them.
One evening we find a snake in the middle of camp, in the grass off the gravel path that leads to the showers and latrines. It is small, about three feet long, and has coiled itself and reared up, hissing at the people that have gathered. It’s a bite reflex, someone says, it’s poisonous! Halloran grabs a fallen tree branch and brings it crashing down onto the snake as though chopping wood. The snake thrashes and contorts itself under the blow and tries to hold its threatening posture, but can only lift its head so high, still hissing, mouth open.
Carlos appears with his machete. Not poisonous, he says, a boa, harmless. Halloran points out that it’s trying to bite, and Carlos says, All snakes do that. He swings the machete once and cuts off its head. Then why did you kill it? You already broke its spine, it will die anyway, Carlos says, then lifts the body on his machete blade and takes it away.
Driving along the road I see, high above us on warm updrafts, vultures circling against the thunderheads in stratified levels as though flying along a spiral staircase.
One night I find Halloran sitting alone in the dining hall, no notebook, no beer in front of him, just sitting. I join him. I ask if he’s all right. My girlfriend sent me a fax today, he says, broke up with me. He starts laughing. I don’t care! he says. I will when I go home, but now … He shakes his head. When I’m here, he says, I don’t want to be anywhere else. Until I started coming here, I missed the war, kept hoping they’d call my unit up for a third tour. I think you’re better off here, I say; he smiles his agreement.
Whether the forest is chasing me away or punishing me for leaving or ensuring I remember it, I don’t know. The jungle’s goodbye is bittersweet. The morning after the fire ants is our last day in the field. Hiking in from the road—through the southern part of the site, past a ballcourt, then up the cliff-face to the hilltop—we know the trail by heart. Along the cliff, the trail is steep and we have strung guide-ropes between the trees along the way. I am a good climber, and know this, and sometimes hike up without using the ropes.
Ahead of me, walking single-file, the wind sweeps Sharon Rose’s bandana from her head. It drifts past me and I want to catch it for her, but miss, so I take two steps downhill—confident on the slope—and retrieve it. I am facing the cliff when I stand, and the weight of my backpack pulls me off balance, and I fall backwards.
There is a tree in the jungle called escoba, broom in Spanish, that has evolved a complex method of defending itself. It is a small palm tree, most standing between two and five meters, and all along its trunk are long woody spines, angled downward like a loosely closed umbrella. The spines themselves have a fungus growing on their tips, and are notched like some arrowheads, so when they push into something, they resist removal. At the base of the tree, these spines form a cluster for support that looks like a broom, hence its name.
This is what breaks my fall.
I don’t reach out, accepting the fall as instructed, and back into the escoba, taking it down with me; I feel it break. There is another, which we had cut and left on the side of the trail, on which I land. My jeans and backpack protect me from the first tree, but I find two spines from the second, one in my palm at the fleshy base of the thumb, the other below it in my wrist. I examine them as a deep, aching pain blossoms through my arm; the spine in my wrist is in the tendons a centimeter from where you can take your pulse. Halloran, walking up toward me laughs, then tells me to go ahead and take them out. I pull the one in my wrist first; the other spine, in my palm, doesn’t come out. I take a breath and pull harder, the skin tentpoling, but it’s stuck. I look up at Halloran and he nods. I grit my teeth and tear it out, and blood wells up. Halloran grabs my left hand and pulls me to my feet, and we walk the rest of the way to the top of the hill.
Halloran sets his pack down and digs out his med kit, then, looking at the blood pooling in the center of my palm, says, Come here Jesus. As he cleans and bandages the puncture wounds, Carlos arrives and Sharon Rose tells him it’s escoba. He takes his machete and walks into the jungle and cuts down another escoba. He bends down over it and a moment later returns with a whitish pulp in his hand, which he rubs into my wounds. The pressure of his fingers hurts, but I keep still. The heart of the escoba, he says, is the antidote for the fungus. When Halloran has finished cleaning and bandaging the puncture wounds, he suggests we burn the bloodied gauze. I shrug, shake my head, not because I don’t want to, I just don’t care enough to bother.
All day, my hand is useless. We are moving rocks and soil to backfill the excavation pit, but I can hold neither stone nor shovel. In the days to come, I will realize the fortune of this happening on the last day: my palm will heal fine, but the wrist, where the tendons are punctured and swelling, will take weeks to heal. Throughout the day, Sharon Rose asks me how my hand is and my answer is usually, Not good. I begin to worry that she feels guilty because I fell reaching for her bandana, but I only blame myself. I want to tell her this, but I cannot be sure if this is how she feels, so I say nothing.
Over the course of our field project, we find conflicting results. There is evidence of water management, terracing, and residential foundations; there are no large temples or pyramids or monuments. Yet we found a ballcourt. We found an altar. We found a small temple on the point of highest elevation. The only explanation we have now at the end of the season for finding these things together is that it was built in imitation, and that it was residential; that these were elites from another city coming here—rapidly building a semblance of their former home—as refugees.
Dr. Walsh believes she is crazy because it’s funny, because it’s a release from the stresses of academia and directing a field project, but perhaps there’s some truth to the jests. It takes a semblance of insanity to devote a life to the jungle. But it is also a passion, a way of life. Dr. Walsh is not young. In addition to the anti-malarials and vaccinations many of us take to come here, she takes medication every morning for blood pressure, cholesterol, anemia, arthritis; with each year, my brother tells me, having worked with her for six, she rests more often, gets winded more easily. She hides her discomforts from us. Dr. Walsh will die still returning every year. She would have it no other way.
It is like a disease—a wonderful, beautiful and yet brutal disease. By coming here once, I was exposed; coming twice makes it stronger. Perhaps there is an incubation period, but already I can feel that I carry it within me, and very soon, it will overtake me too.
On our last night in Belize, I walk out to the logging road with Sharon Rose. There is no moon—it is either new or behind the clouds building to a distant storm or not yet risen—and it is dark with only starlight. I carry a flashlight in my left hand to light our way, my right newly rebandaged. We walk down the dusty limestone road until the lights in camp are no longer visible through the jungle, the voices of our friends drowned beneath the sounds of tree frogs and cicadas. We stop at a place where the canopy opens beyond the narrow road and look up at the stars, tracing constellations, the Milky Way thick and bright. I turn the flashlight off. After a few minutes, my eyes adjust to the starlight: I can discern the boundaries of the road, the serriform line of the canopy against the sky. I look at Sharon Rose beside me, the profile of her jawline and throat, her hair, her shoulder; the starlight is pale against her cheekbone, a dim sparkle in her eye, a dusting on her lips.
She slides her fingers across the bandages on my hand with a touch lighter than the dimness of the stars, then onto the skin of my palm until her hand is within mine. How is it? she asks. It feels better, I say, as long as I don’t move it. I sense that she smiles. If you hadn’t …, she begins; No, I say. She rests her head against my shoulder. Along the horizon of treetops, we watch the storm, the thunderheads a stain of darkness against the stars. Lightning flashes blue, lighting the clouds from within like the explosions of artillery; we are too far away to hear the thunder.
I’m not ready to leave, Sharon Rose says. I know, I say, I’m not either.
There are things you learn in the jungle that never leave you—a sense of place in the forest, bonds of fellowship with those you live and work with, the courage to face situations you might have feared—but most things fade. In time, I will be clean and dry again. I will take my last quinine pill. I will no longer slap at myself when something brushes my skin, thinking it is a mosquito or doctor fly landing to bite. I will no longer wake up with the sun. My friends and I will go our separate ways, promising to keep in touch, and down the road—paved and lined and heavy with traffic—I will realize it has been months since I’ve spoken with them. There remains the hope that some of us will return on a future season, but now, the project is over.
Matthew Brennan is a freelance writer and editor based on the Pacific Northwest. Having earned his MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, he remains on staff with ASU’s Hayden’s Ferry Review. Brennan has received several awards for his work, which has appeared most recently in The Copperfield Review, Ginger Piglet, and The Molotov Cocktail.