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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
The Journal of Tomas Wicker
November 3, 1910
There are a thousand ways to die in the Colombian rainforest.
I first gained this appreciation as a boy when, in a questionable bit of parental inspiration, father allowed me to accompany him to inspect our family’s South American holdings, in particular a coffee plantation located on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The expedition was considered almost routine, the chosen path well known to our guards and guides, yet even so we encountered no small number of difficulties in our travels.
In one case, the hardship was self-imposed. A famous spendthrift, father only secured enough Peruvian bark for the white members of our party. Plagued the entire way by incessant swarms of disease bearing mosquitoes, several of the native porters fell ill with the sweats, two fatally.
In another instance, we stopped along our route in a small village to rest for a day or two. One of father’s men, a Mr. Casper by name, went into the jungle with a local girl, his intentions only too clear. Our party received a shock when the girl returned a short time later, naked and covered in blood, babbling incessantly in her native tongue. One of our guides who spoke the language eventually got the tale from her. It seems that in the throes of their passion, Mr. Casper failed to notice the stealthy approach of one Panthera onca, that most deadly of Amazonian cats. The feline made short work of the man, powerful jaws latching mercilessly onto the back of his exposed neck while the girl, pinned beneath the victim, could only watch helplessly. We found him the next day hanging from the high branches of a tree, bloodless and stored like so much meat in an icebox for later consumption. Father, proclaiming Mr. Casper’s demise as the ripened fruit of the man’s own stupidity, would not deign to give him a burial. Rather, we continued on our way to the plantation, the body left to the beast who had claimed it through those ancient rights of the hunt.
All said, the trip was extremely educational, if in an utterly unconventional sort of way. Returning home to America after several long months of travel, my young mind was opened to the disparity that existed in the world, never more aware of the benefits offered me by the accrued wealth of my family. I am unsure the precise effect father had hoped my accompanying him on the journey would induce, but I do know that he must have viewed the reality as a most spectacular failure. I had tasted the life of the explorer, the excitement and the danger, and found it wanting. What was adventure to the modern comforts of a privileged life? I swore an oath to myself that never again would I be deprived of modern convenience, that the most daring I would undertake would be through new culinary experience, or perhaps seducing the exotic princess of a foreign land. I threw myself into this newly chosen lifestyle with gusto, and can accordingly mark with some significant accuracy when father’s eventual hatred of me took seed in our relationship.
It is thus with some surprise that I find myself now returning to that same plantation I visited in my youth. Since father’s death almost a decade ago, I’ve generally allowed proxies to take care of the day to day responsibilities of managing the family holdings. Father ensured he employed only the most educated lawyers, selected the hardest-willed and most obedient men as his overseers and foremen, and so the Wicker estate has continued to run itself as some kind of great machine whose engineer has long since abandoned the controls. This is fortunate as I have no particular interest in business myself, a fact that no doubt served as another blight on my character in father’s eyes. But current circumstances demand my attention.
I shall refrain from again recounting in these pages the strange events surrounding father’s murder. Just so, I have utterly failed to convince any others to the verity of such tales, and have subsequently ceased to make the attempt lest I’m thought more cracked than father in his final days. No matter. They were not there, they did not see what my eyes beheld then, or since. Indeed, much as my expedition with father first opened my mind to the nature of a privileged life, so too did his death widen my perspective to those ungodly, hidden things with which men share this world, like a jaguar silently stalking the Amazonian canopy. It is due to this enlightened viewpoint, one that allows the existence of the fantastic and occult alongside the otherwise commonplace and mundane, that I am responding personally to the devilry currently afflicting the operation of my Colombian plantation.
I received a letter just over a month ago from Mr. Giles, longtime overseer of the facility. Life near the Andes jungle is tenuous at best, with death always a hairsbreadth away, as illustrated by my own youthful journey. Yet Mr. Giles reported recent events were perpetuated by something far more than any such commonly suffered maladies. It was this past June that the first of the disappearances had occurred. Initially a small thing, a native man or two failing to show up to his picking shift, such absences were easily attributed to a too hard night of drinking or a simple decision to move on from the plantation. The work was hard and unforgiving, and turnover was regularly high among the laborers. But after a week of disappearances, and with none of a dozen or so men managing to return from their absences, it became clear that something more sinister was afoot.
Mr. Giles ordered the foremen to interview the laborers, forcefully enough to determine they were being truthful in their ignorance as to the nature of the disappearances. Indeed, all that was ascertained by the inquiry was that the victims had to this point all been young men between the age of sixteen and thirty, and all had vanished sometime during the hours past sundown. Confirming a further lack of knowledge among the general population, Mr. Giles proceeded along a logical line of reasoning. It was not unheard of for a local predator to gain a taste for man-flesh, much as in the case of Mr. Casper’s undignified demise. The foremen organized a rotating series of hunting parties to conduct forays into the jungle, searching for some sign of the murderous beast or its victims, to no avail.
Since an active confrontation with the culprit had proven unsatisfactory, a number of clever devices were rigged near the perimeter of the plantation as well as outside the small adjoining village in which the majority of the workers lived. Mr. Giles’ overseers were a hard, experienced lot and comprised a broad collective knowledge of fieldcraft and ingenuity, reflected in the nature of their improvised booby traps. Tiger pits from Burma, mancatchers from Malaysia, Punji stakes, dead falls, and a dozen other such deadly workings were employed, their construction taking on a competitive air as each man sought to outdo his compatriots. But despite these herculean efforts, the disappearances continued unabated until almost a tenth of Mr. Giles’ force had gone missing.
Men began abandoning the plantation in droves, unwilling to wager their lives even in defense of their livelihood, with ultimately only one in four men choosing to stay on. The November harvest ripe and unpicked, the beans in danger of rotting, it was with deepest regret Mr. Giles was at last forced to report the inevitability that the plantation’s production would fail to meet quota.
To be honest, news of the potential loss of revenue did not overly concern me. My family’s holdings are extravagantly vast and varied, possessing shares in everything from oil fields in Turkey to fisheries off the shores of Nova Scotia. The downturn of a single plantation would scarcely be a noticeable absence amidst the Wicker estate’s annual profits, never mind that the accrued wealth held in banks and markets across the world is already significant enough to persist for at least several lifetimes. And as I have previously stated thus, I am hardly a business wunderkind, possessing the acumen that would allow the plantation to turn calamity to glorious success. To the contrary, I am sure that the crop will fail. Indeed, since receiving Mr. Giles’ letter I’ve resolved to close the facility, as even the thought of the effort necessary to recover the plantation once this crisis has reached its resolution bores me to tears. I don’t need the money, God knows. Better to simply close the damned thing and be done with it. But, not yet. No, not yet.
You see, though I care little for coffee or the beans from whence it comes, since father’s death I have developed an obsession with the inexplicable. I have learned far more than I once could have ever imagined, for eight years scouring the world, defying my more natural inclinations to merely abide in an existence of simple luxury. I have seen things, many wonderful and strange. I have gradually begun to ever so gently peel back the thin veneer that separates our waking world from how things truly are. And gods, it is exhilarating. And terrifying.
It is in this pursuit that I find myself returning to Colombia. For in his report, Mr. Giles admitted that, while he did not know wherein the rumor began that the plantation was being haunted, shortly after the disappearances began a word was on the breath of every man, white and brown, still remaining at the facility:
The name previously a complete unknown to me, pointed research into the matter offered but little illumination. Described as a changeling who often takes the form of a loved one or beautiful woman to lure victims into its grasp, reports vary across the region with little support ranging from one account to the next. Indeed, my study could not even reach a consensus regarding the fate of the thing’s victims, whether their blood is drunk like fine wine or they are devoured whole. Most odd is that the creature’s shapeshifting ability is often reported as imperfect, with some aspect of the being’s true form remaining visible while the rest is disguised, oftentimes a deformed leg. I do not believe this last. In my experience with the fantastic such a chink in the predator’s armor, some telltale sign enabling the unwary prey to spot his otherwise indistinguishable hunter, is more like to be wishful thinking than actual reality, an illusion of hope. Though I had never heard of the tunda prior to Mr. Giles’ skeptical report, I have known its like. I do not anticipate its identification will be so conveniently forthcoming.
Now, having departed from New York to the port of Cartagena, I have nothing to do but wait until I make my landing. I wrote ahead to Mr. Giles requesting he provide an escort to meet my ship and guide me to the plantation. With luck I shall avoid the pitfalls of my previous excursion here, and ought to be arrived to the property within the month.
November 20, 1910
The situation at the plantation has degraded far worse than reported in Mr. Giles letter.
Since I last wrote, good weather favored my ship’s passage and I was pleasantly surprised to be met upon debarkation by Mr. Lyle McCready within Mr. Giles’ employ. A veteran of the Indian Wars, Mr. McCready is a strong, capable sort, if in possession of something of a sour disposition. Still, his demeanor improved markedly when I revealed the case of good Kentucky bourbon stowed within my luggage, and soon he and the two porters he had secured had me well on my way to the facility.
With two mounts per man, we made good time, far better than on my previous expedition, and within ten days had traveled the almost three hundred miles to the plantation, near the Venezualan border at Cucuta. The mood of our little party took a discernible downturn this morning as we neared our destination, and soon all traces of goodwill had retreated from Mr. McCready’s stony countenance. His eyes shifting continuously from one side of the trail to the other, his hand never strayed far from the large revolver already loosened in the holster worn upon his hip, all the while the looming trees seeming to close in around our little band.
We were perhaps three miles from the plantation when the smell ambushed us, the customary bitterness of the coffee beans mixed with a sick sweetness as they turned sour. There was something unsettling about that final leg of the journey that took me several uncomfortable minutes to identify: the sounds of the jungle, or rather their absence. Other than the gentle hoof beats of our mules along the worn dirt track, the foul air was silent, empty of birdcall and insect alike. The land was already dead, the presence of the plantation merely artificially extending the semblance of life.
Passing between the fields of rotted plants, we at last reached the facility proper. It appeared much as I remembered from my youth, a high wire fence surrounding the large drying shacks, shucking annex, and mills adjoining a modest administrative building which served as both office and living area for Mr. Giles and the overseers. A bit farther down the road I could just spy the small outcrop of buildings comprising the workers’ village. I recalled from my last trip an omnipresent haze of smoke hanging over the huts from cooking fires and stoves, a constant state of bustling motion as the pickers came and went from their barracks, joking and laughing in their shared camaraderie. But now the air was clear, the lack of movement as haunting as the silent jungle.
We were greeted at the gate of the compound by Mr. Giles himself. Always a bear of a man, he seemed much unchanged from when I first met him but for a great deal more gray in his beard. He ushered us into the relative safety of the wire fence where we offloaded the mules and sent the porters on their way before proceeding to the office, Mr. Giles hobbling ahead on a makeshift crutch. While reiterating the profuse apologies of his original correspondence, he explained that since his letter the tunda had become emboldened as the population of the camp dwindled. At night its chilling cries, a strange amalgam of animal howl and maniacal cackle, could be heard echoing throughout the surrounding jungle. Mr. Giles had temporarily reintegrated armed patrols into the daily routine hoping to catch the creature unaware, but the diminished manpower had forced him to participate in the hunt himself. On one such excursion about a week past, he’d witnessed the man on his flank jerked violently into the brush. Mr. Giles charged after the victim, his yell startling the rest of the stalking party. In the ensuing conflagration, one of the workers discharged his rifle into the jungle where Mr. Giles had disappeared, inadvertently striking him through the thigh. The wound, while painful, had fortunately avoided major blood vessels and was not life threatening. In the days since, Mr. Giles had suspended the patrols, deciding that the likelihood of success did not outweigh the associated hazards. More so, his injury served as a catalyst to drive out those few workers heretofore still remaining at the camp, effectively making such regular hunts impossible. The only souls still manning the plantation were Mr. Giles himself and the half dozen white overseers with whom he shared the administrative living space, nine men all told with the addition of myself and Mr. McCready.
As Mr. Giles provided us with this update, I could not help the niggling suspicion that gradually began to worm its way into my mind. My thoughts turned to that one unlikely detail of my research, in which the tunda is able to transmogrify all but one of its lower limbs. Though I continue to doubt this limitation, if true would a seemingly wounded leg, well wrapped in blood soaked bandages, not serve as a capable disguise? But no. Surely others saw the occurrence of the injury, helped him treat it. And what’s more, the man remembers details of our first meeting from all those years past. I have decided I will not besmirch his dignity to require a more detailed examination of his leg, at least not until circumstances demand it.
Night has fallen as I am ending this entry, but I have not yet heard the strange echoing cries Mr. Giles described. Perhaps some predatory instinct has warned the beast what my arrival portends and sent it scurrying back to its lair. I am not some native, crippled by fear and superstition, nor am I a typical westerner, handicapped by willful ignorance and denial. I almost pity the poor thing. Tonight I will rest, for the long journey has left me utterly sapped. But tomorrow the hunt begins in earnest.
November 21, 1910- Morning
Gods damn me for a fool! In the night, Mr. Giles went missing along with three of the remaining overseers. We are now but five left: myself, Mr. McCready, and Misters Gerard, Buckwald, and Foster. The beast did not make its presence known, none of us heard or observed any sign of their departure, and thus I cannot determine whether Mr. Giles was in fact the creature in disguise or merely another of its victims. I have drastically underestimated my foe. I have ordered Mr. McCready to outfit the men with supplies and an abundance of firearms. It is my intent to make our way into the jungle and track the hellspawn to where it must now be resting, drowsy from gorging itself, and make an end to it.
November 21, 1910- Evening
We entered the jungle as planned, and soon had the thing’s trail. Though Mr. McCready and the others are experienced woodsmen, they did not have the requisite knowledge to track a thing only vestigially of our world, as I do. As we went I attempted to educate them in the means of identifying such trail sign, with but minor success. Near midday we emerged into an unnatural clearing perhaps twenty feet in diameter. Its perimeter was marked by four large standing stones about eight feet in height and covered in symbols unknown to any of us but appearing to be of exotic origin, my nearest available analogy some early proto-Arabic writings I once studied at the British Museum of London.
The north facing stone was knocked asunder by some unknown means, effectively breaking the circle. As the others rested, I made an examination of the clearing wherefore I came upon a small artifact, the likeness of a woman carved from a white compound, perhaps bone, and oddly warm to the touch. Placing the idol in my pocket I moved to rouse the men and continue our pursuit when I discovered that Mr. Buckwald had vanished.
Upon this realization, Misters Gerard and Foster were driven to rage, their anger misguidedly directed against me. Apparently they believed they would have been otherwise long departed from the plantation had I not insisted on making my visitation and blamed me for what they now perceived as all but certain doom. As they moved against me, throwing me to the ground while removing large knives from their belts in a wholly threatening manner, my defense came from a most unexpected quarter as Mr. McCready drew his great pistol and in short order splattered the contents of both men’s skulls over the jungle floor.
Helping me find my feet, Mr. McCready suggested we retire to the plantation, load up the mules with the remaining supplies and move to return to Cartagena. Though a part of me cried achingly to continue our pursuit of the tunda, I was forced to agree with his assessment of our unfavorable situation and acquiesced to this proposed course of action.
I refuse to take full blame for getting lost on the way back to the compound for, as I have said, my woodcraft is highly specialized in tracking those beings of the supernatural. In truth, Mr. McCready should have insisted on leading far sooner than he did. By the time he took command of our route and got us back on the proper heading, twilight had fully set it. I am unsure whether it was my superior perception or divine intervention that allowed me to step past the hidden pit unharmed, but in either case Mr. McCready was not as fortunate. The hole, one of the traps previously set to catch the creature, had been dug about eight feet deep, the bottom arranged with sharp stakes coated with a foul smelling substance. Even in the waning light, I could make out the pool of blood rapidly forming beneath Mr. McCready from where he lay impaled, one hand raised toward me in a pleading gesture, desperation emanating from his pain-stricken face.
I briefly debated making an attempt to remove him from the pit, but an ominous stirring of the nearby undergrowth made me reconsider. I am not proud that I left him there, but there was nothing to be done, his imminent death agonizingly obvious. His pleading sobs will surely haunt my dreams.
I have successfully returned to the administrative building and made a makeshift barricade to bar the door. Tomorrow I shall load the mules and begin my long journey to the coast.
November 22, 1910
The morning sun awoke me from an uneasy sleep. Moving to the paddock to saddle the mules I found the poor beasts slaughtered, black tongues already swelling where they lay amidst a bed of their own innards. Contemplating my options as I moved back towards the office, I was startled by a low series of moans emanating from near the entrance gate. Drawing my pistol and wary of a trick, I cautiously made my way to locate the source.
I was shocked to find two bodies sprawled in the dirt outside the locked gate. The first was Mr. McCready, pale and still leaking from the puncture wound in his thigh, his belt and scraps of cloth tied to stem the worst of the flow. Next to him lay Mr. Giles, naked, his bullet-wounded leg swollen an angry red. Each man in turn begged for my help, imploring me to let him into the gate and shoot the other who was clearly the monster in disguise. As I stood silent and unsure, contemplating these two men and their similarly wounded legs, their entreaties became first more desperate, then violent. In a sudden flash of inspiration, I knew the only choice to make.
I shot both men in the head.
To my disappointment, neither reverted to the tunda’s true form, but then none of my research indicated such a revealing would occur. Even if both were in fact who they claimed, I cannot feel much regret as neither would have survived the journey ahead in such a state without the mules.
I have rigged one of the saddlebags to allow me to carry as many supplies as I am comfortably able, pistol and ammunition ready at my belt. I have now traveled my intended route three times in my life and am confident I can find my way. Perhaps once I reach the village in which Mr. Casper met his untimely demise I will be able to acquire a mule or even a porter. Three hundred miles over stinking, inhospitable land, stalked by an otherworldly being is nothing to a man of my experience. A trifle. Yes, nothing at all.
I once wrote there are a thousand ways to die in the Colombian rainforest. As I finish this entry, a low keening wail rising from the surrounding jungle amends me: a thousand and one.