My legs were shaking as I crouched beside the enormous kapok tree. I regretted not doing more squats. I’d been meaning to do them, but I hadn’t and now I was annoyed at myself for always being pre-occupied with work. I anchored my unsteady legs as best I could in the slippery mud and then edged the microphone boom closer to the giant Amazonian ants that were marching past the tree. The term giant ant wasn’t an exaggeration: on average their black bodies measured an inch and a half in length, and a serrated pair of teeth, which helped them to cut through leaves and fruit, protruded from their bullet shaped head like a barbarous medieval weapon. The giant ants weren’t picky; they’d eat anything that stayed still long enough. I read of various accounts of farmers finding their cows asphyxiated by ants that had swarmed through every orifice and killed the defenceless animal from within. The giant Amazonian ant was not like the kind you found in your garden back home, nothing here was like back home.
Yesterday Brian B found an enormous Titan beetle in his boot, which he kindly gave to me. I saved it for my professor in the States, she was nuts about beetles. Brain B was a herpetologist, so he always had a frog crawling over his hands, or walking across his lap like a cat. He said they were perfectly safe to handle, and to my surprise a frog that shared its skin tone with a red Sharpie didn’t cause me a horrible death; I always thought being killed by your own specimens would be a little embarrassing. Unlike Brian B, I still hadn’t managed to collect the samples I came to the Amazon for, but it was surely only a matter of time.
I gingerly attempted to lift my boots out of the shallow graves they’d dug themselves. Despite my cautious movements, the ants were on edge. I wasn’t exactly hard to spot hunched beside a big tree with a long pole in my hands, but I hoped the ants would have grown accustomed to my presence by now, so I could capture their fabled squeak. They were rumoured to only do this in very specific circumstances, but nobody knew precisely when, or how this happened, and that’s why I was here. Luckily the ants didn’t notice the squelch my left boot made as I slipped it from the mud; perhaps they were starting to ignore me after all.
I’d been crouched behind the massive buttresses of the kapok tree for most of the last week. I managed to capture snatches of rapid high-pitched squeaking here and there, but nothing substantial. Since then all the recorder picked up was the incessant buzz of cicadas and vigorous monkey sex in distant and unseen treetops.
The posh British voice trailed off into the treetops. A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead and ski-jumped off my nose. I’d kill for a glass of ice-cold coca cola right now, as the heat was crushing. I was still positive, but I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that I should try another tree further afield; however Gabrielle, our local Peruvian guide, warned us about the dangers of straying too far into the jungle. I could never tell if he was exaggerating, as his face bore a kind of perma-grin, even when he was telling stories of travellers who’d got lost in the jungle, and been savaged by ravenous monkeys. Brian J did a hilarious and surprisingly accurate monkey impression, that took our minds off the disturbing reality that human eating monkeys might be close by.
‘Jessica, I’ve been calling you for the last five minutes. Didn’t you hear me?’
I hadn’t heard her because I was suddenly thinking about the Wizard of Oz, and those creepy flying monkeys. I looked up as Antoinette lodged her machete into the ancient buttress, narrowly avoiding a stick insect that was disguised as a leaf. It hopped over the machete and continued on its way.
‘Still here then?’
Antoinette wiped her brow with the cuff of her long-sleeved shirt.
‘Why don’t you pack it in for today, eh? Come back to the camp. Dinner’s nearly ready.’
Antoinette made to move forward.
Antoinette’s left foot just missed the line of parading ants.
‘Oops, sorry! I left my glasses back at camp. Still not got that bloody squeak yet then?’
‘Nah.’ I said, as I stood upright and stretched out my achy back.
‘Oh well, I’m sure they’ll start hollering soon enough. Maybe they just take a while to get used to strangers.’
Antoinette stepped to one side, learned over the buttress and grabbed my backpack.
‘The light’s fading. Come on, let’s get back to camp.’
Antoinette grabbed her machete, turned on her heel and made for camp. I admired Antoinette’s ability to stay positive in the face of adversity.
‘By the way, you’ve got some mud on your face,’ said Antoinette, over her shoulder. ‘I’ll boil you up some hot water when we get back, so you can have a wash.’
A lack of money explained our rough living conditions. Most expeditions were much larger and funded by pharmaceutical companies, or governments, they had fancy equipment, and massive support teams that would go ahead a week before to construct sleeping huts and showers, but we were here on our own dime, or rather the begged dime of our colleges, and the miniscule research grants they’d provided, so we made do with sleeping in hammocks and washing in the river, but I think the conditions helped us to bond as a group more quickly. Every night around the campfire, Brian J continued my crash course in British slang, which I swiftly learned revolved around finding as many synonyms for genitalia as possible.
‘Seriously, I’m not making it up! Annie, tell her I’m not making it up.’
Antoinette looked up from the baked beans she was stirring over the campfire. ‘It’s true. Todger’s a real word.’
‘Bullshit! Todger cannot be a real word that a grown up man calls his penis.’
The guys laughed at my incredulity, but Antoinette left the beans and enveloped me in a hug.
‘Ah bless your adorable innocent face, Jessica,’ said Antoinette. She kissed me on the cheek. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you here. It would just be me and those smelly boys.’
In a funny way, Antoinette reminded me of my grandmother, though obviously less old and bristly, but she shared my grandma’s breathy tone and warmth of spirit. Antoinette embraced everyone and everything around her. She found everything endlessly fascinating, even my ants, so it was no surprise to learn that her field of study was anthrozoology. Everyday she collected some incredible new variety of animal; in fact, everyone in the group seemed to be making progress but me. When I spoke to my professor back in the States over the satellite phone, she told me to keep faith, and that not every expedition was like a Jules Verne novel. ‘Real research is just getting your head down, collecting samples, cataloguing and moving on to the next thing,’ she said. She also told me not to get too wrapped in the squeaking thing, but that was easier said than done when I sensed I was so close.
Next morning I decided to go a little further into the jungle. Not too far, just a little way along the track. I’d still be within earshot of the camp if anything went wrong. Gabrielle was uneasy about the idea. He warned me to be careful as the jungle could turn the mildest of accidents into life threatening situations, but I assured him I’d stay close, and keep the radio with me at all times. I wasn’t an idiot; I was a scientist. I think I could handle a little foliage. Antoinette gave me a cheery thumbs up, as I tramped out of camp, but Gabrielle’s perma-grin looked a little less fixed than normal. He wanted to come with me, but he was due to make a provisions run to the nearest town some three hundred miles away, and so he pulled me to one side, out of earshot of the others, and told me that if I heard any kind of grumbling noises I was to head back to camp immediately. He wouldn’t elaborate, but the look in his eyes disturbed me. I didn’t think there were any tigers in this part of the jungle, but what else could he possibly be referring to? I put the thought to the back of my mind and followed the beaten track into the jungle.
Within fifteen minutes of walking I was drenched in sweat and struggling to breath. The ground was perpetually soft and slippery; it was like wading through runny chocolate. I sat down on a fallen tree to catch my breath. I longed for a soothing breeze to give me some relief, but the canopy was thick, only the occasional beam of sunlight penetrated the treetops and illuminated the ground like a spotlight on a stage.
For the first time since I arrived in the jungle, I was completely alone. The reassuring clang of pots and pans being washed in the river was overcome by a high-pitched squeaking.
I leapt up from the tree, stood completely still and strained my ears to listen. And then I heard it again: the squeak of the giant Amazonian ant, only I hopped it was, all I actually knew of the squeak was from dusty accounts in textbooks.
‘Oh my God!’
It sounded like the wail of a burglar alarm, only much more rapid and urgent. I quickly and quietly peeled my pack off my back, grabbed the recorder and headphones from it and stepped off of the track in the direction of the squeak. I clambered over fallen branches and through tangles of vines as quietly as I could. The squeak was getting louder. Giant Amazonian ants usually made their nests at the bases of trees, but they were not easy to spot as they, like everything else in the jungle, were covered with the fallen foliage of the trees above. The ants were massing around a nest wedged inbetween the roots of a kapok tree. The nearby leaves were pulsating as the males stood up on their back legs and rubbed their front legs together to produce the squeak. I edged the microphone boom as close as I dare. It was obvious this was a mating ritual. I had to get my camera, which was wedged underneath all the extra water bottles Gabrielle had insisted I take, but I took a chance that the ants would be too pre-occupied with their ritual to notice my rummaging. The squeaking intensified when the bigger and beefier female appeared. As I crept closer with the camera, the female picked her mate and dragged him into the nest, and then it was all over. The ants quickly dispersed and the squeaking stopped. A cooling wave of relief washed over me; finally my dissertation was saved. I was doing a mini dance of celebration when my boot snagged on the microphone boom I’d left leant up against the tree root. I reached out for something to break my fall, but nothing did until my head hit the buttress of the tree.
I was being pinched. I clumsily raised my hand and swatted the ants on my arm. My head was throbbing with pain, but I had to get up. I tried to raise my head off the ground, but my eyeballs felt as if they were being squeezed. And then I heard a grumble. I didn’t know how long it had been there, but I couldn’t run like Gabrielle told me to do. I couldn’t even keep my eyes open. The world was narrowing as the grumble neared.
I opened my eyes. A blurry shape moved across my vision.
‘She’s awake!’ said Antoinette’s voice, as her features slowly came into focus.
I tried to sit up, but my head pulsated. ‘What happened?’
‘You nearly became ant food. You’re lucky they were tracking you,’ said Gabrielle, as he stood beside my hammock.
‘The Murato tribe.’
‘But I didn’t see-’
‘Of course you didn’t see them. Did you hear the grumble? They imitate animal calls while hunting, only they do them more now to keep people away.’
Gabrielle cocked his head towards the sky and let out a low groan, just like the one I heard in the jungle.
‘I told them to keep an eye on you.’
‘But how do you know them?’
‘Know them? I’m one of them!’
Gabrielle let out a belly laugh as he strolled over to the fire where a dozen figures whom shared his same perma-grin sat.
‘The squeak!’ I said, as the memory hit me.
‘Don’t worry, it’s fine.’
Antoinette pulled the recorder from my pack and pushed the play button. The shrill squeak of the giant Amazonian ant pierced my ears and made my heart pound quicker.