By Donna Corns
You’re in the jungle. It’s day two of intermittent rain and the air in the rustic cabana clings to you, such that no part of your bodily surface wants contact with any other. The fresh air outside cannot come through the mosquito screens, though somehow the mosquitoes have found a way in. You readjust your position to find a clear space on the springy bed – somewhere between recently purchased items and articles in dire need of a wash. The novel you’re reading is not escapism enough. Consciousness is disturbed. A faint but very distinct odor, as of something in an advanced state of decay, hovers like a blurred shadow in the corner of your mind. It is most noticeable when you move.
Your traveling companion looks up from her journal, shooting an accusing glance, “Do you smell that?” The odor is now in the foreground of consciousness. You sniff your clothes on the bed, and do the same to those hanging above the window frame with hopes to dry. Your backpack is thoroughly inhaled. All are innocent of that particular flavor. You get up. There it is again – an odor most foul. It seems to be coming from under the bed.
The underbelly of the bed is inspected. The smell is rich, ripe and unmistakably that of rotting flesh. Something or (God forbid… someone) has long died. And is not under the bed. You slowly circle the room trying to be instinctual about this. As your bare foot touches the wooden bottom, a floorboard creaks and a sharp whiff hits you in the solar plexis. The source of the putrid stench is under the floor. Relieved you don’t have to deal with any corpse, you cover the offending area with the matted cabana issued blanket.
Your companion lights an insect repellent coil to further mask the unlovely aroma and as it is put out of mind, something else becomes apparent. A very faint scratching sound. You turn the page and go back, to continue where you had left off. (Must be rats feasting on whatever died). Another sound accompanies the scratching. It is a kind of muffled cry, like a tiny baby animal (Oh great, baby rats). The scratching noises intensify, and the whimpering becomes more desperate. You look over to your friend and see she is thinking the same. You really don’t want to say the words, but these sounds are connected to that smell. Something is trapped under the floorboards and has not yet died. And is possibly being eaten by rats.
Your friend lifts the blanket and shines her flashlight through the gap in the floor. Nothing can be seen. The smell takes on unholy dimensions. Fierce clawing noises and the suppressed cries. Something, not yet dead, is buried beneath you in your jungle cabin. It’s eleven forty five on a rainy Sunday night. There is no-one at reception. You don’t have an ax, and you’re just not sure you are ready to deal with whatever is suffering so.
You decide to place the blanket over the gap in the floorboard and hope that the suffering is short-lived. You are not inclined to turn a blind eye, but you are at a loss of how to react. You pace around some and then get back into novel-reading position. The noise resumes. Your friend too, is upset by this. Whatever is stuck down there is in obvious distress. You try to soothe her conscience a little, “Look, it’s sad, but there is nothing we can do. Besides, the smells suggests–” You stop. “ Let’s put on some music and try to get some sleep.” She relents and you reach for the light switch, flicking through your iPod in search of a song to accompany the creature’s soul out of their world of pain.
You settle on something placid by Cat Stevens. You lie on your back staring at the ceiling. The noise dies down. You sigh. It returns, this time more insistent. This lifeform wants to survive.
Your friend sits up. “I’m going outside.” She’s right. You may be able to see something from the side. She leads, flashlight in hand. You breathe, bracing yourself for what might be under there.
You crouch on your knees on the cold wet ground next to your friend and look. She shines the light at several angles. Nothing extraordinary: grass, stones, possibly an old shoe…. And there, slumped in a hollow – a shiny black mother dog breathing fast. And four, no five, black suckling pups. You catch the sparkle in your friend’s eye. “It wasn’t dying, it was being born!” Embracing on the jungle floor, you roll around laughing. You go back inside and flop down on your beds, finally drifting off into the rejoicing sounds of the jungle at night.
Donna was born in South Africa and has lived in Japan and South Korea as a teacher and in Thailand as a travel writer. She is now living in Huatulco and teaches at Universidad del Mar.