Winter Holidays - Story 7 - Dr. Lindley's Jungle Vision by Jessica Federle

Dr. Charles Lindley left the jungle atop a bamboo stick stretcher. It took four grown men to carry him out, and seven to wrestle him onto the stretcher in the first place. He writhed the whole way, wrenching against the rough rope restraints and screaming protests into the squawking canopy.

Three weeks ago, Dr. Lindley had fled London to spend his winter holiday doing a field study deep in the South American jungle. While staying with an isolated tribe, he would analyze fresh samples from several varieties of indigenous tubers. As he’d trekked out to the tribe’s location, however, the disjointed babel had unnerved him: frogs? Birds? Insects? The whistles and croaks bled into each other, creating an intricate cacophony of life.

Sweating from the steamy mist swirling through the rare cracks in the jungle leaves, Dr. Lindley hastily mimicked the tribe leader’s greeting before retreating to his hut. The first few nights, he barely slept, certain that jungle cats were pacing just outside the flap separating his tiny haven from the chaos of the natural world.

Dr. Lindley was a pharmacological scientist, not an anthropologist. He held very little patience for human nonsense, which he regarded as a wide category that encompassed—at the very least—every tradition scheduled for December. He quickly realized that fieldwork was not as romantic as his younger colleagues had made it sound. But he supposed he preferred having to check his shoes for tarantulas to navigating holiday traffic.

As he fiddled intensely with his field microscope, which he found rather flimsy, Dr. Lindley tried to ignore the hubbub outside. But after shooing children away from his hut twice, he finally poked his head out. Propped up in the center of the village via a tight stack of black river stones was a large tree. The women and children were still wreathing it in strings of berries and feathers, and an impossible variety of fruits hung from its branches. Upon closer inspection, Dr. Lindley realized the fruits had been plucked from elsewhere and tied onto the tree’s sturdier limbs. The small herd of children he’d chased off was busily piling more black river stones around the entryways of each hut.

“Must be some kind of ritual,” Dr. Lindley muttered. “Looks damned inconvenient.” He kicked aside the few stones that the children had managed to place near his makeshift home. “Tripping hazard, all of them.” He returned to his microscope’s loose knob, assuming the event wouldn’t concern him.

However, Dr. Lindley’s guide and translator, a native who had learned a bit of broken English from an anthropologist, soon visited the professor with a clay pot full of black rocks in his arms.

“This night, you stay. You stay inside.” The young man was quite insistent.

“Well, I can’t imagine where I’d be going!” Dr. Lindley exclaimed.

“These for door!” Frustrated, the lad shook the urn of dark rocks in his face. “For one night, big night. You be good. Stay inside!” He refused to leave until Dr. Lindley took the instruction seriously and allowed him to line the entryway with stones.

Late that night, Dr. Lindley awoke with a start. For several moments, he stared up at the thatched roof of his hut, wondering why he had such a creeping sense of unease. As he extricated his little digital clock from under his sleeping mat, he suddenly realized. It was deathly quiet. For a week and a half, he hadn’t been able to cope with the ruckus at all. Now, it seemed he couldn’t sleep without it.

The warning from that evening drifted into his mind, and Dr. Lindley felt a chill slither through his gut. He immediately chastised himself.

“Utter nonsense, Charles,” he hissed into the silent space, “Don’t be a child.” As if to reaffirm his own confidence, Dr. Lindley rolled off his mat, swatting his way out of the mosquito net. He climbed into his shoes and ventured over to the leather flap in his hut’s entryway, lifting it enough to look out at the ridiculous tree that still stood in the community area’s center.

The natives had taken the time to arrange a series of low burning fires around the tree, each of which sent a smoky amber glow up into the night. Dr. Lindley squinted out at the scene. Emboldened, and having forgotten about the stones lining his own entryway, he made to take a step out of his hut. His foot came down on a jagged rock stacked vertically between two flatter specimens.

“Bloody things!” He cursed at the stones, jerking back. “Oh! December be damned!” With that, he gave the offender a firm scoot with his sore foot. It tumbled over, clacking against its neighbors before landing with a satisfying thud. He huffed in satisfaction at the gap in the line of stones, more than ready to turn back to bed for the night. But as he shifted to drop the flap closed, he glanced up a final time, only to freeze where he stood.

The tree had shuddered. He was sure of it.

And as he stood there, frozen in place, the jungle deathly silent, even the crickets withholding their song, something immense began to climb down out of it.

The body seemed almost humanoid, but the proportions were all wrong: As the tree shimmied and groaned with the creature’s weight, the embers of the dying fires illuminated a slender elbow and a spray of graceful fingers, each one the length of Dr. Lindley’s forearm.

A hinged, dog-like foot with strangely elongated toes touched the ground near the trunk. And Dr. Lindley quite suddenly realized that the creature was coming to investigate the sound.

It was headed for him.

He immediately fell back into his hut, stumbling backwards only to scramble on his hands and knees back through the bug net, under the thin blanket over his sleeping mat. Huddling, breath held, he strained his ears against the silence. Nothing. After an eternity of blistering panic, Dr. Lindley finally found the courage to open one eye, peeking through a crinkled corner of the blanket. The only light in the hut was a small slow-burn candle still lit from the evening’s reading.

Realizing a one-eyed peek wouldn’t achieve much, he slipped the blanket down to the bridge of his nose and opened both eyes. The flap remained undisturbed. Nothing lurked in the hut with him; indeed, if anything had come through the flap, he would’ve heard it. The whole vision, he began to comfort himself, must have been a trick of the light. A monkey, attracted by the fruit, could have easily cast strange shadows due to the dull glows of the fires.

As Dr. Lindley let his pulse calm again, a little flicker of a shadow in the far corner caught his eye. Gnats and mosquitos often interrupted his candlelight. But as he traced the source of the light’s interruption, his hands white-knuckled the blanket’s hem. Stretched their full length under the flap of the hut were four immense, black fingers, almost branch-like, the tips gently patting the dirt floor, groping quietly in his dying candle’s flame.

In the morning, the tribe members found the professor wide awake, crouching at the back of his hut under his sleeping mat. The mat had been hoisted into a makeshift fort of sorts. The man’s blank, bloodshot eyes darted about wildly. When the professor couldn’t be coaxed out, they dragged him out, and after a brief debate, several volunteers strapped him down for a trip out to the rendezvous point. The tribe’s leader hoped the researchers working there would be able to summon more help.

As the volunteers carried their frazzled patient through the jungle, the translator managed to make out a few slivers of Dr. Lindley’s frantic, hysterical mumblings. Apparently, something he referred to as the “San-tah” creature was following them in the trees, whispering strange things amidst the forest song.


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Copyright Jessica Federle 2018

Jessica Federle has Kentucky in her blood. Folktale and forests are important elements in her stories, which also enjoy the fresh citrusy twist of inspiration from her nomadic lifestyle. She studied storytelling in Ireland, a country which uses humor to present its darkest tales. In France, where stories have often decided who lost their head, she studied the violent history of Notre Dame. In England, she earned her MA in Romantic poetry. She currently lives in Lima, Peru, where the rich storytelling history has enticing veins of mysticism. In June 2018, one of her flash fiction pieces was in Splickety’s Heirs and Spares issue.

Jessica is a repeat author with Tell-Tale Press. Her work is also available in the Fantasy Library and the Horror Library.

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