Deep in uncharted Guyana jungle, the small boat Nora and her guides Pepper and Koral are traveling in has crashed in treacherous river rapids. Her fourteen-year-old daughter, Jasmine, her father Lonnie and his friend Victor are trying to catch up with Nora before she gets too far. They are about a day behind her. The story is told in the voices of Jasmine and Nora.
We were on the river early. It felt creepy and my skin was itchy. The boat’s motor purred as we slowly and reverently skimmed across the shiny, black water. We moved through a thick, silver fog, and it parted like a gauzy curtain. Dew had formed into crystal droplets and hung from the bushes. As we passed them, they fell like beads.
Victor spoke and his voice, swallowed up by the fog, seemed unreal, “Let’s wait for this to lift. It’s too hard to see where we’re going.”
I was anxious and agitated. Something felt very wrong and I wanted to keep moving. Victor and Dad were on the same page about waiting out the fog, so I didn’t argue.
Dad headed toward the bank to tie up the boat. I saw some debris hung up on some tree roots. “What’s that? It looks like part of a boat,” I shrieked.
We moved toward the wreckage and before we got much closer, we could see what it was. The splinters were fresh and it was Koral’s boat! I started to shake.
Dad pulled our boat up next to it and Victor struggled to pull it out of the water. It was the back section of the boat. It looked like some frenzied monster had ripped it apart.
Then Dad started to scream, “Nora!” His voice sounded like it didn’t come from him. I heard it quiver as he struggled to catch his full volume. “Pepper! Koral!”
Victor and I joined him. We yelled. It was frustrating that the sound didn’t carry in the fog and went out like an unwelcome beggar.
We waited desperately in the silence for a response. The jungle simply spoke the language of a regular day. I knew none of us would ever be the same again. Ever.
We found a rhythm. We called. We waited. I went from daunting awareness to desperate denial to shock to panic as if I was clicking quickly through a bunch of TV channels with a remote.
Victor got out the radio and tried in vain to get it to make contact with Georgetown. I was looking hard, trying to see through the fog and fighting terror. Then, it was like someone had taken a paintbrush and smeared over everything with a lighter, brighter shade of grey that put everything back in focus. The eerie fog lifted and we could finally see an expanse of river. It was deadly quiet and there was no sign of anyone.
We slowly made our way up the river, checking both banks. We called and strained to hear or see something. Thunder boomed and just as Victor got the radio put away, the sky opened up and torrents of rain pounded on us. If the rain hadn’t silenced all the other sounds, we might have heard the rapids not far ahead.
Victor turned to Dad and yelled, “Lonnie, let’s find a place to set up the tents so I have a dry place to try the radio.” I could see it took a lot for Dad to turn around.
We found a sandy stretch of beach. Victor and I struggled to set up our tents as the rain poured in glassy sheets that felt like broken glass. Dad searched. He was a lone figure hunched in a small boat being drenched.
By the time we got the tent up, we were soaked and everything was thoroughly wet and muddy. Victor brought the radio into the tent, opened its box and tried to call. He got nothing but static. He tried again and again.
We sat inside Victor’s muggy tent for a while. Silent. I shivered in the warm humidity. Then we both got up and went outside. Even though the rain was louder by far than our voices, we kept calling their names. We screamed like maniacs.
The rain poured the rest of the day. We didn’t make radio contact with Georgetown. Even if we did, how would anybody be able to find us? We were in the middle of nowhere. And Mom was out there too…in the nowhere.
Some time after the boat crashed, I woke up on dry, sandy ground. When my eyes finally opened, I didn’t know if I was dead or alive, awake or dreaming. Inches in front of my face in bright Technicolor was a trail of red leafcutter ants. They were ferrying geometrically shaped pieces of brilliant, green leaves. Each individual piece was standing straight up on their backs like ship’s sails. As I watched them, I became one of them. I could feel their path and the sharp weight of their burden.
They marched. Time moved. I was paralyzed in a spaciousness outside the reality of the events I’d just experienced. I could see the ants moving with the jerkiness of an old-time movie, yet I was empty behind my eyes. I was open space, a blank canvas surrounded by my vacant past and future.
Then I became aware of my aching body. My cheek itched and I touched it. My fingers came away smeared with caked blood and I forgot the ants. I tried to get up. Whirling dizziness and a pounding headache stopped me.
For a few minutes, absolutely nothing made sense. Then horrifying snapshots of the river ride jolted me out of the false comfort of my oblivion. I slowed down, made it to a sitting position and looked around. On three sides there was thick, jungle foliage. The river was about five feet to my left.
The blood on my hands made me try harder to get me to my feet. My muddled mind, my heavy waterlogged clothes and life jacket made me feel like I was fighting quicksand. I panicked. My heart raced and my hands were shaking as I struggled to loosen the jacket’s straps. When I broke free of its weight, my mind cleared a little.
My voice cracked as I tried to yell. “Pepper! Koral!” I listened. The only sound that came back to me was the rushing river water. I yelled again and again! My weak voice was swallowed by the powerful pulsing life force of the jungle. It pulled and sucked on me. I felt like a little mouse in a concert hall full of cats. Panic overwhelmed me and drained my energy as clearly as if pints of my blood were leaking out of my body.
I stopped, stood still, took a deep breath and with enormous resolve, I breathed the forest’s oxygen into the leaking places, expanding and closing them. I was calmed somehow with the absolute truth of where I was. There was only me and the jungle. I needed to find Koral and Pepper. I started a fresh round of calling. Nobody called back.
I looked around and my eye caught a water bottle and the piece of rope we had used to tie it to the boat. I picked it up and looked further. A crumpled blue tarp was caught up on some bushes on the edge of the river. I was already soaked so I waded in until I reached it. With puffy hands that seemed a hundred years old, I clumsily untangled and folded it. Somehow I had the sense to tie it and the empty water jug together and hooked them through the loop of my jeans.
Next, I checked my pockets. I found a box of wet matches, my Swiss Army knife, a safety pin, some wet, mushy and useless toilet paper and two small Band-Aides.
Trying to make sense of the things in my hand was a struggle. I put the matches on a boulder to dry and stuffed the other things back in my pockets. I saw Koral’s jacket and started a fresh round of calling. Nobody answered. In a daze, I carefully laid it out to dry next to the matches.
The effort of yelling hurt my head and I went to the water and carefully washed my cheek. The cut was actually higher up and I painfully felt its jagged line tracking across my scalp. I thought it probably needed stitches.
A stark, run-amuck, alarm hit me then. There would be no stitches. It would probably get infected. I had no food. I had no way to get back. I was alone...totally and completely abandoned in my own private and excruciating, lonely nightmare.
I called again for Pepper and Koral. This time I was angry and enraged. I remembered that Koral had fallen out of the boat. Her loss was too brutal to feel. Where was Pepper? What had happened to him? Who would ever find me? No one knew where I was.
My mind was a roller coaster. I slid down into the abyss of fear and struggled up again into resolve and purpose. Then the futility of the circumstances took me over the edge and into the heart-stopping freefall of terror again.
Every strand of dependency was cut, gone and replaced by monumental fear. What would Jasmine do without me? What would I do without her?
When I thought of Jasmine, I remembered the boat. I had to find it. I could float it back down the river by myself if I had to. I walked the river’s edge, struggling over boulders and rough, treacherous shrubbery and tree roots until I was exhausted. I saw absolutely no sign of the boat.
I wept, I wailed. I begged for time to reverse. I cursed myself for the stupidity of the trip.