La Silampa

Things got serious when they found Fausto Durán on the Camino del Oleoducto. The only reason they knew it was Fausto was because of his gold teeth; two of ‘em, big glittering canines that he’d had done at the Gorgas Hospital in Panama City, which was a pretty big favor, considering Fausto was strictly silver roll. He’d earned it by macheting a Fer-de-Lance that almost got some visiting orchid fanatic; even so, they’d still made him use the backdoor. Generosity was one thing in the Zone, propriety another.

With those teeth, they identified the strangely piled heap of bones found on the pipeline road as his. He’d been coming back from a banana patch he worked beyond the docks, walking home to the Santa Cruz neighborhood on the far side of Gamboa as night fell. He was almost in sight of the Army Base when whatever got him, got him, leaving nothing but his skeleton, his machete, and his two gold teeth.

There’d been other disappearances too, Robert Saladino, Donato Aguilar, Maria Carballo, all native Panamanians or West Indians who lived in Gamboa, silver roll employees all of them, just like Fausto. The thing was, though, they’d simply vanished, no body, no witnesses, just gone. It was plenty mysterious, and there had been talk, especially among the workers, but only the barest rumor made its way up the hill to the gold roll Zonians at the Country Club. That was where I heard the news, drinking a gin and tonic and looking out over the Chagres River below.

“Natives are getting restless, Frank old boy,” said Jim Grady, dropping down into the wide wicker chair next to me and fanning himself with his hat. Grady was a big, blonde, broad-shouldered man, perpetually sunburned despite being born and bred in the Zone. He worked for United Fruit, buying up bananas, avocados, mangoes, whatever farmers grew on the little patches they carved out of the wide dark jungle surrounding the little canal town of Gamboa. Only time he’d been out of Panama was during the War, out in the Pacific somewhere I think, but he’d slid right back into his old job in the Zone afterwards and now, three years on, he was one of the best fruit buyers they had.

“Trouble in paradise, Jim?”

“Sure is,” he said, snapping his finger at the waiter. “Want another there, Frank? Dos mas, por favor.” He shook his head and looked up at the ceiling fan. “They’re all convinced there’s something in the jungle, some kind of killer, and this Fausto being found, well, now they’re afraid to go out to the harvest. Two hours up the river before I found fruit to buy the other day. Bad for business.”

“Can’t blame ‘em, really,” I said, reaching for the fresh drink the waiter set down in front of us. “I mean, from what I heard, it was pretty grisly! Imagine!”

“Jaguar, I reckon,” said Jim, thoughtfully.

“Just his bones were left,” I said, leaning forward. “That’s not jaguars, Jim.”

“Ants,” said Jim, waving his hand in dismissal. “They got what the Jaguar left is all.”

“I heard that his bones were piled up though,” I sat back in my chair. “Long bones crossed, skull sitting right on top.”

“You sound like esas viejas brujas down at the road market, amigo!” Jim threw his head back and laughed. “Ha! Imagine, an educated man like you, a goddamn engineer of all things, listening to the jungle spook stories of these Panamanians.” He laughed again, long and loud, and propped his feet up on the low table between us. Not wanting to be on the receiving end of any more of Jim Grady’s famous teasing, I complimented him on his new pair of boots.

“Nice huh?” he said, admiring them too. “Got ‘em in Ancon the other day. Cost a pretty penny, but they’re the real deal.”

We chatted about Ancon and Panama and other things, drinking more gin and tonics as the afternoon wore on. Black clouds built over the valley of Lake Gatun, and the ships coming and going on the canal switched on their running lights. Winter in the Zone meant rain, and a big storm was building; you could feel the humidity gathering.

“More rain,” I said, as our conversation ebbed. Jim, now a drink or two ahead of me, nodded.

“Rain means fog, after,” he said, more to himself than to me. “They say it comes out in the fog.”

“What’s that, Jim?” I asked.

“Nothing, nothing,” he said, shaking his head. He dug in his pocket for a pack of cigarettes. “Want a smoke?” he asked with a grin. I quickly declined. In addition to his sharp tongue, Jim was also famous for his practical jokes. Once before I’d accepted a cigarette from him – a dimestore exploding gag one. I’d learned my lesson. “For the best, that was my last one anyway.” He crumpled the box and tossed the empty pack on the table.

We watched the chachalacas coming in to noisily roost in the big palms by the veranda. They felt the rain coming too.

“You know, Frank,” said Jim. “I always wanted to hunt Jaguar.”

“Who doesn’t?” I answered. They were the rarest of the big game in Panama; one often heard stories of some rich swell outfitting weeks-long expeditions to hunt for the big cats, tens of thousands of dollars on guides and gear, only to come back emptyhanded.

“Now that a body’s been found,” continued Jim, eyes half-closed in the gloom. “There’ll be newspaper stories. Newspaper stories mean some big wig’ll hear there’s a Cat running around down here, and then he’ll swoop in to get it.”

“Probably.”

“What if it was us, though?” asked Jim, his voice suddenly hungry and urgent. “What if we went out and killed this man-eater? Why, we’d be famous! Probably get an invite to the Governor’s House! Think of it!” He leaned back in his chair. I heard thunder in the distance. “Think how that head’d look over the bar there,” he said, nodding over his shoulder to the long mahogany and brass bar of the Country Club. “Imagine in. ‘Man-eating Jaguar, killed by Jim Grady and Frank Carter, 1949’ on a little metal plate under it. That’d be something, wouldn’t! Goddamn that’d be something. We’d never have to buy a drink here again, Frank!” He leaned over and slapped me on the shoulder. “What do you say? You’re a hell of a shot, Frank, I know. Let’s do it!”

“We’d never get a guide now,” I said. “Everyone in town is scared to death!”

“Ah, to hell with guides!” laughed Jim. “Fausto was killed right there on the pipeline trail. We’ll just stake it out up there!” The thunder rumbled up the valley again, closer this time.

Maybe it was the gin and tonics, but he made a good point. And, besides, I hadn’t been hunting in a while, and the chance to bag a jaguar, and a man-killer to boot…

“Alright Jim,” I said, setting my glass down a little too hard. “What’s the plan?”

We hammered out a plan of attack over another round of gin and tonics, loud and boisterous and flushed with heat, alcohol, and the electric madness of the storm building overhead. We’d meet tomorrow, Saturday, around noon, at old Nemesia’s store on the edge of town for cartridges and supplies, and then drive Jim’s beat-up old Plymouth to the trailhead before striking out on foot. Starting the hike in the early afternoon would put deep in the jungle well before nightfall, when the jaguar would come out to hunt. It was a good plan, and we were both grinning like idiots when we’d finished making it.

“Well then,” said Jim, draining the last of his gin. “Guess we oughta call it a night if we’re to be rested and ready for the hunt tomorrow.” He poured himself a glass of water from the sweating pitcher in the middle of the table, sipped some, then set it down. He took the empty cigarette box he’d tossed down earlier and tore a square of cardboard from it, set it on top of the glass, and flipped it quickly upside onto the table. The water gurgled, but stayed inside the glass. Then, with an evil smile, Jim slid the cardboard out from under the upside-down glass, leaving the water trapped only by the table itself. He stood up, admired his malicious handiwork, and then saluted. “See ya at noon, sharp, Frank!” he said, and then walked out.

I didn’t realize he’d stuck me with the bill until after he’d gone. I finished my drink, tossed the money down on the table, and got away before the waiter saw the trick Jim had left. I think I heard swearing and the sound of spilled water as I crossed the threshold into the night outside. The rain broke just as I started down the hill towards my house in Gamboa, and I was soaked through by the time I got in. I showered, and then over a cigarette I watched the lighting flash over Gatun.

 

There were blue patches in the ragged cloak of clouds over Gamboa as I walked West through town, passing the huge fig tree in the traffic circle in front of the Gamboa Union Church and making my way down Goethals Boulevard, past the commissary and the post office and the Canal Company paymaster’s house. The commissary was busy at both ends, the entrance for the gold roll employees clean and airy and cheerful, while the smaller silver roll entrance at the back of the building was noticeably more run-down. The gold roll employees came down the hill from Gamboa, Americans or of American extraction mostly, while those on the silver roll came up the road from the more ramshackle Santa Cruz neighborhood, where I was heading.

Iguanas clambered in the mango trees to my right while basilisk lizards, proudly crested, basked on the rocks on the edge of the Canal. A weary dredge boat was making its way towards the dock, it’s crew eagerly assembled at the prow, ready to hop off and make their way home to Santa Cruz for a meal and rest after their next long shift. Usually I would have found such sights immensely cheering, the efficient administration of so integral a part of the Canal Zone’s operations a testament to hard work and perseverance, but there was a subtle pall over the scenes in town, a gloomy atmosphere that seemed especially pronounced among the silver roll employees, all of whom were native Panamanians or immigrant West Indie Islanders. The deaths of their compatriots, and especially the remains of Fausto Durán, weighed heavily on them.

They moved quickly about their business, subdued and watchful. I noticed several of them glancing nervously towards the deep, tree-clad hills overlooking Gamboa. The sight of a gringo walking down the road with a pack and a .45-70 rifle slung over his shoulder raised a few laughs, but when they saw that I was heading for those same hills, they crossed themselves and hurried on their way.

Nemesia’s store was on the very edge of Gamboa’s Santa Cruz neighborhood, attached to the brightly painted shack she and her husband kept. It was a general store, canned goods, eggs from Nemesia’s jealously protected chickens, household goods, and, speaking more to our needs, rifles cartridges in a wide variety of calibers. Jim’s Plymouth was parked outside.

“Frank!” he bellowed, beaming, as I stepped inside the store. He was talking to Irving, Nemesia’s husband, a short, wiry man who had spent many years in the forest around Gamboa. If it had been any other time, he’d have been the one to lead us into the jungle; now, though, he looked shaken and worried, doubt haunting his eyes. Frank was loading three boxes of cartridges into his bag while Irving counted out his change.

“Buenas tardes!” I said, greeting them both.

“I was trying to convince ol’ Irving here to come with us!” said Jim, grinning. “How about it, Irving? Vendrás con nosotros, verdad?”

“No, señor!” said Irving, nervously. “Por nada del mundo!”

“They seemed worried in town, too,” I said.

“The weather’s going to be bad again today,” said Jim. “Worse than yesterday, worse than when Fausto died.” Irving, hearing Fausto’s name, crossed himself. “Rain later, and then, fog, right Irving? Mucha niebla despues.” Irving paled, and only nodded.

“What’s fog got to do with jaguars?” I asked.

“With jaguars? Nothing at all.” Jim smiled. “No es un jaguar, though, is it Irving? What did you call it…?”

“La silampa,” said Nemesia, stepping out from behind the curtain in the back, carrying a case of Balboa beer in her arms. Irving was an old man, but Nemesia was ancient, at least eighty, although I’d heard people, workers, who said she was older than that by a considerable margin. She’d buried three husbands, and would probably outlast Irving too in the end. She was also rumored to be a santero of considerable power. Regardless, her eyes and her mind were, like the knife she wore on her belt, sharp and bright. She’d worked, so she’d said, as a maid to an American family in Panama City during her youth, and her English was excellent. “And it comes with the mists.”

“That’s it, ‘silampa’ of the mists,” said Jim, rolling the unfamiliar word around his mouth.

“I’ve never heard of ‘la silampa,’ what is it?” I asked, helping Nemesia with the beer.

“Spooks,” said Jim, simply.

“An old thing, very old, very dangerous,” said Nemesia, nodding. “It lives in the jungle, but it only comes in the mists during the winter, during the rainy season, hungry and hateful. It is hunger, it is hate, born in the wilderness! Something from before the Whites, before the Canal, before los indios, before any people anywhere.” She sighed, and glanced at our guns. “It would be better left alone. When it is finished here, it will move on.”

“See?” laughed Jim. “Spooks!”

“What does it look like?” I asked, impressed with the depth of Nemesia’s superstition.

“Like nothing else in the jungle. My grandmother said she saw one, once, long ago, when she was young. She had gone into the jungle to meet a lover and been caught in the rain on her way back home. The mists had risen, and la silampa came, floating between the trees, riding the fog. It was white and shapeless, like the mist, though she said that when it rose up out of the mists it was like a burial shroud blowing in the wind. I have heard others say that it sometimes looks like a woman, all in white, though that is but a trick it plays to lure the unwary. It is a terrible thing!”

“Sheeted ghosts,” said Jim, shaking his head. “What was it Scrooge said? Undigested beef, a bit of mustard! Too much seco and moonlight, more likely!”

“Why do you think la silampa is to blame for these deaths, Nemesia?” I asked, ignoring Jim’s guffawing.

“The bones,” she said. “La silampa wraps itself around its victims and sucks them dry, blood, flesh, everything, and it leaves only the bones behind, having no use for them. A jaguar, Mister Grady,” she turned to face Jim, “would carry the body away to crack and gnaw the bones; only la silampa leaves them, as a sign, and a warning.” Despite the heat, I shivered. Jim only laughed.

I helped Nemesia load the supplies into the back of the car while Jim went with Irving to draw water for the radiator. As I was closing the trunk, Nemesia pressed something into my hand – a thin necklace of brightly colored beads.

“Wear this, if you are going into the jungle,” she said, her voice low. “It will not protect you from la silampa, there is nothing save God that can, but perhaps it will keep you in sight of friendly powers, at least.” I thanked her and put it on beneath my shirt.

We bumped down the road and rattled up the two-track path, following the oil pipeline up and up until we were high above Gamboa. At the last turnout, left for pipeline maintenance, we parked and had lunch, beer and sandwiches, watching Blue Morphos flit dazzlingly through the light of the clearing. Lunch over, we packed up some more food and beer and began the long hike, single file, up the trail running alongside the oil pipeline.

The heat grew more oppressive the deeper into the forest we went, despite the steady climb in elevation. The huge trees pressed close, their trunks like the ancient pillars of some prehistoric ruin, built on a scale too large for humanity. They blocked any breath of air that might blow through the underbrush. But the jungle was noisy with the happy sounds of invisible birds, small shapes that vanished like smoke when we came upon them, their calls warning one another of our blundering approach. A small family of agoutis hurried across the path in front of us, and once we were challenged by a troop of capuchins, the males rattling trees, shaking branches, and screaming defiance at us while the females and their babies crept stealthily away overhead.

There was nothing unusual or sinister about the jungle, no more than usual, I mean – that it was not our natural home was made clearer with every step and every biting insect. But the usual sounds of the jungle were all there, the smells and sights what one would expect.

Except.

I always felt keenly the timelessness of a jungle, the way it seems to stand still, as a whole, while the rest of the world keeps on turning. Not that a jungle in changeless, far from it; the jungle is always in flux. Rather, the “jungleness” of the jungle just seems steady, permanent, more resilient to me than even mountains or the sea. Trees and soil and water and light, and everything else moving through them merely visitors, scurrying and short-lived and transient against the more solid, the more real, backdrop of the forest. But here, now, that age, that immensity, was tinged with something hostile, something alien, and it set my teeth on edge.

A branch would fall and I would jump. The silence of the birds would ripple through the canopy, and I would turn and peer into the monotonous jungle, all green and brown and grey and black shadows, formless as creation, stretching away forever. I felt eyes on me. I was waiting for the blow to fall on my neck.

Even Jim, as garrulous a materialist as could be asked for, seemed to feel it. I noticed him, ahead of me, glancing sharply to the left and right, or pausing to listen to some strange change in the rhythm of the junglesong.

It grew worse the deeper we went. The canopy pressed down on us, the air seemed stifling, and we were stopping more and more frequently to try and catch our breath.

“Damn hot,” Jim said, shaking the sweat from his head. “Damn hot!”

“And still,” I added, lamely.

“Usually, this time of day, we’d run into people coming back from their fruit plots. You can get a good orchard growing in here, if you clear a patch for sun. Good banana country in these parts. But now, with Fausto and the others,” he shook his head. “Well, I suppose that’s why we’re here! Heroes, eh?”

We trooped on for another hour, the jungle growing darker as clouds gathered overhead. Soon, even though it wasn’t much past four in the afternoon, it was twilight in the forest, dim and shadowy. The bird sounds changed as they settled in, and far away the booming screams of howler monkeys echoed through the forest. Night was coming early to the jungle.

“Where do you think we should set up?” I asked, gripping the stock of my rifle.

“I’d hoped to get a little farther in…” said Jim, looking around uncertainly. “But I’ll be damned if I feel like walking around in this murk. C’mon, there’s a wide patch in the trail up ahead, we’ll have an early supper and then get dug in. I think we can cover a fair bit of trail if we set up on either end of this curve here.

Sandwiches and canned peaches and more beer made us feel a little better. We smoked a cigarette and watched the bats come out. There was rain in the air, though, and we heard thunder in the east.

“Nice thing about hunting a man-killer,” said Jim, “is that we don’t have to worry about sneaking around and scaring him off by just being here.”

“We’re our own bait,” I nodded. “Efficient.” Jim laughed, and we each retreated to our spots to wait.

I had strung a tarp between a wild cashew and some other tree I couldn’t identify, sloping it so the rain, when it fell, would run off and away. From the center of my makeshift shelter I hung some mosquito netting and, crouched on my little camp stool and with my rifle at the ready, I settled in to wait.

There were long hours as we crossed from the false twilight of the storm to the real dark of night, and the rain started long before then, a steady heavy drumming that turned into torrents that poured off the high leaves of the canopy to splash down on us. About twenty yards ahead of me I could just see Jim under his own tarp through the curtain of rain. I turned and looked down the trail, in the direction we had come, watched the leaves nodding under the rainfall. Night oozed in between the trees, and then all I could see was the occasional glow of Jim’s cigarette.

We waited.

The rain slackened after a while, and the mist rose. It must’ve been close to ten or so, and the steady beat of rain gave way to the bored tap of dripping water, falling from saturated leaftips overhead. Fog rolled up out of the ground, like the exhalations of some subterranean god. Soon my vision fell to near nothing, a bleary few feet at most. Only the smell of rain and the sound of the forest remained.

Jungles at night are cacophonous things, and the rain hadn’t dampened the spirits of the frogs or the insects they preyed upon at all. Their calls were a dull nocturnal roar, steady and reassuring, a pleasant background rumble that you could almost forget was there, so integral to the fabric of the forest it was.

Which was why their silence jolted me like a slap in the face. One minute they’re screaming or croaking or buzzing all together, then, terrible, complete silence. Quiet in the jungle meant death, something stalking through the forest that made everything pause and wait, tense. My hair stood on end. The canopy overhead stirred in a breeze only felt a hundred feet off the ground. Below, only the mist moved to unseen currents.

I swallowed and strained my ears. In the dark, in the fog, there would be no warning, and a three hundred-pound hunting cat could cover the few yards of visibility I did have with terrifying speed. I pressed my back against the trunk of the wild cashew and waited. Somewhere, ahead of me, purposely sheltered from my line of fire, was Jim, also waiting, also listening.

A minute passed, then another. It was still quiet, except for a sighing overhead. The fog roiled and shifted, and I got the impression that I was the one moving while the fog stood still. I blinked several times to get the illusion out of my eyes, and looked up, trying to focus on something stable and solid. “The storm must be breaking,” I thought, because looking up at the canopy I thought I saw a singular long line of bright stars, although they seemed to ripple and vanish as, I thought, clouds scudded overhead.

The quiet was broken by the sound of a crash somewhere ahead of me, then a muffled groan, followed by a long, drawn-out mumbling or whispering sound. The titter of some night bird filled the air, high pitched and bouncing among the trees so I couldn’t tell where it came from.

“Jim?” I hissed, then, when I didn’t get a response, I called again, louder. “Jim!” There was no answer. Just more of the murmuring, bubbling sound, and the strange tittering. I stumbled out from under my shelter and back onto the trail. “Jim! I’m coming towards you, don’t shoot!” The only answer I got was the titter again, loud and mocking. I crept forward in a crouch, scanning the trail ahead for snakes, moving slowly. Occasionally I called, but never got an answer.

I seemed to take a very long time to get where I was going. Once or twice I thought that I’d perhaps gotten turned around and had gone back down the trail and that, probably, was why Jim wouldn’t answer. Then, just as I’d almost convinced myself, I saw a Jim’s tarp ahead, and I felt a sudden convulsion of fear at what was under it.

A figure stood there, a person, but it wasn’t Jim. Instead, it was a figure swaddled all around in something like a white sheet. The figure swayed in place, and the sheet around it rippled and flowed. The movement was uncanny, horrible, something out of a nightmare…

Then I saw the figure’s feet, and felt only anger and, I’ll admit, shame.

The white figure stood there not five yards ahead of me, and poking out from under the rumpled bottom of its wrappings were Jim’s fancy, brand new boots.

All this, for a practical joke!

He must’ve had Nemesia in on the deal, probably paid her to tell me that horror story about “la silampa.” I’d thought his pack had looked bigger than mine – he must’ve hauled in that sheet. Goddamn, to hike all the way out here, sit in the heat and damp and bugs for hours on end, then wait until it got dark. All to get me in just the right frame of mind to run screaming down the trail, so he could laugh at me in the bar at the Country Club!

“All right, Jim,” I said, trying to sound amused. “I’ll admit, a pretty funny gag in principle.” I strolled towards him, slinging my gun over my shoulder. “You’re lucky I didn’t fall asleep – how long would you have waited if I had, huh?” I shook my head and chuckled. “Points for originality, though!” He still stood there, swaying. “C’mon Jim, the game’s up!” I was a couple yards from him now, and still he stood there, swaying. “You owe me a drink for this one, pal.” I reached into my pocket and turned my flashlight on Jim.

The white sheet shuddered and peeled back. There was a clattering sound as something dropped out of the sheet, several somethings, long and thin and pale in the dim light, then, finally, a heavy round object fell and rolled towards me, and I stared down into the empty orbits of a clean, freshly picked skull.

The tittering grew louder as the thing floated up into the mist. I watched it slowly ascend then turn, billow up and around so I could see the sides of the thin, sheet-like thing. Along the narrow end facing me there was a row of rolling, glimmering orbs, hundreds of them, all on stout little stalks protruding out of dimpled sockets that studded the thing’s side, like the eyes of a crab, cold and utterly inhuman. I felt their stare, and I still felt it as the fog closed in and hid the thing, hid la silampa of the mists.

END

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