I’d been on the beach for almost an hour, and hadn’t seen another soul. Finally. I closed my eyes and sat back in my beach chair, soaking in the sound of the gentle breeze in the palm trees.
I was rudely awakened by a dog pulling on my sleeve, not in anger, but like it wanted me to follow it. I had no idea where the dog came from, and didn’t know who else might be around, but the dog was so insistent and seemed very sincere, in a dog sort of way.
I got out of my chair, and the dog broke for the tree line about halfway down the beach. I hadn’t noticed the opening there, but the dog ran straight for it and stopped, looking back at me impatiently. Still a little hesitant, I walked toward the opening.
When I reached the dog, he started slowly walking down the path, obviously wanting me to follow him. About 100 yards down the path, he got excited and ran around in little circles as if he was telling me to hurry up, and then suddenly he stopped and started barking, looking straight up into the trees.
As I pulled even with him, I looked up to see what he was barking at, and there was a woman hanging upside down by one foot, as if she had been caught in a cartoon snare. I called up to her and there was no response, so I looked around and saw that the rope was tied off about ten yards away.
I went over and managed to get the rope loose, and slowly lowered the woman to the ground. The dog, who had been sitting patiently ran over to her and started nuzzling her. I pulled her hair away from her face, and she was stunning, movie star good looking. I stared at her for a second and all of a sudden, her hand was around my throat and she said, “Who are you, and what did you do to me?” So much for a quiet day at the beach.
“I … didn’t … do … anything.” I choked out, “I saved you.”
“What do you mean you saved me?” There was a hardness in her stare that took the edge off her looks, almost like they were a mask she wore to cover up her real nature.
“You were hanging upside down in that tree.” I pointed up to where she had been hanging. “Your dog led me here and pointed you out.”
“What dog, I don’t have a dog.” She sounded confused, and angry.
I looked around, but the dog was gone. His footprints led off down a different path into the jungle. “I thought it was your dog, but it seems to have run off.”
“What are you doing here?” The question was very direct, like she had switched to police mode and was interrogating me.
“Vacationing. Or trying. I was relaxing on the beach when this dog started pulling on my sleeve and led me here. I saw you hanging by your feet and let you down.” I should have left you, I thought.
Her whole demeanor changed, and she smiled at me. “I’m sorry. Thank you.”
Her smile melted my anxiety and I breathed out a long sigh, just realizing how tense I had been. “Why were you hanging in that tree?”
“Zanfia.” She glanced around as if she expected someone to be standing nearby.
“What is Zanfia?” I was not sure I wanted to know the answer. I didn’t want to be hanging from a tree.
“Zanfia is the queen of the Xtlpa clan, the ruling tribe on the island.”
“And why would she have you strung up by your feet?” I felt like I was in the middle of a bad movie, and I wasn’t doing much to add to the quality of the writing.
“I’m not at liberty to say.” Apparently, the subject was closed.
As pretty as she was, with her tanned skin, deep brown eyes and wild hair framing her face, there was a toughness that left me not wanting to challenge her. I changed the subject. “Are you hungry? You look like you’ve been through a lot. Let me buy you lunch.”
“It’s an all-inclusive resort.”
“It’s a figure of speech.” I wondered why I bothered, until she smiled again. “I brought a picnic basket with me and I thought you might want something.”
“I’m not hungry, do you have any alcohol with you?” There was a weariness in her voice that said whatever she had been dealing with wasn’t done, and she needed a boost.
After we got back to my chair on the beach, which I graciously offered to her, I opened up a couple of Tiki beers from the cooler the restaurant had given me.
She took a long swig of her beer, that said she was an experienced drinker. “Tell me about the dog.”
“Not much to tell. One minute I was alone and the next, he was pulling at the sleeve of my shirt. He led me to you, running ahead and waiting for me to catch up. When we reached the tree, he started jumping up and down and barking. Then once I let you down, he disappeared.”
“Did he have a collar, or tags? She was back in interrogation mode.
“He didn’t have a collar, but he had a very colorful bandana tied around his neck. It looked Mexican, or Incan.”
“The pattern. Very geometric and old-looking. It reminded me of the temples I saw yesterday.” I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but the dog’s bandana looked out of character with him being a beach dog, who usually wear surf or island themed stuff.
“We need to go … now.” She got up and headed back to the jungle.
“Aren’t we going back to the resort? I was looking forward to getting back to somewhere that felt safe.
“It’s not safe there, we need to head into the jungle. We need to find that dog.” She didn’t seem like she wanted to debate, and I didn’t think I had a chance of winning if she did.
“Well, good luck, then.” I started to gather up my stuff.
“What are you doing?” She stopped and glared at me.
“Going back to the resort, where I can have several beers and forget about all of this.” I folded up my chair and piled in on the cart from the resort.
“You can’t go back there.” She looked around as if to check that no one was watching us. “You are involved now, so you won’t be safe.”
“What do you mean, involved? All I did was let you down from a tree.”
“You don’t understand.” She took a step back toward me. “The dog chose you.”
I stared at her to see if she was serious. She looked very intent, and I laughed. “you’ve got to be kidding. The beach dog chose me? What does that even mean?”
“He’s not a beach dog. He’s the Jungle Dog, the spirit guide of the Xtlpa people. He brought you to rescue me.”
I took a step back and started piling things on the cart. I needed to get away from this crazy woman. “Well, you’re rescued, so have a good day. I have to be going.”
“STOP!” She stood tall and looked very menacing. I stopped.
Everything was silent for a moment and then I heard a hissing and an arrow hit the sand about twenty feet from me with a quiet thud. I stopped breathing.
There were three more thuds and she reached out to me. “Come, now!”
We ran for the jungle, away from the arrows, leaving everything behind. When we got to the tree line, we took an immediate left and paralleled the beach for a while, until we came to a path that appeared to lead up the mountain.
“We can stop here for a minute.” She was barely breathing hard while I was bent over and panting. I wasn’t used to running.
“What’s going on?” I thought it was a reasonable question. “And who was shooting arrows at us?”
“The indigenous tribe of the island.”
“Why were they trying to kill us?”
“They weren’t trying to kill us, they were warning us.”
“Warning us about what?” I wasn’t sure if I was more concerned or confused, but I thought scared had a slight edge.
“They were telling us that we were in danger.”
“They have a strange way of showing it. I haven’t been that scared in years”. I thought back to Tommy Hansen threatening to break my face of I talked with his girlfriend again. This was worse.
She stopped suddenly and looked at me and stuck her hand out.” My name is Celia. I work for the National Museum, recovering lost cultural artifacts.”
I shook her hand and looked more closely to see how she might fit with a museum. She didn’t. “Edgar. Vacationer.”
“Edgar, like Degas?” she seemed intrigued. I didn’t usually get that response from my name.
“Yes, my mother was a big fan. He painted dancers and naked women taking baths. My middle name is Degas, which got me beat up a few times when I was growing up.” Probably too much information, but I was kind of proud of my name, and never got to tell anyone who could appreciate it.
“Well, Edgar Degas, we are in search of a rare cave painting done by the original inhabitants of the island. The jungle dog is our guide, if we can find him.”
“I assume you realize none of this makes sense?”
“The islands were inhabited when the Xtlpa tribe arrived. The Xtlpa claim that they discovered and settled the island, but the painting in the cave supposedly shows them as invaders.”
Okay. “And the Xtlpa tribe does not want you to find the cave?” I suppose that made sense. “Who does want you to find it.?”
“A wealthy donor gave us a significant amount of money to find the cave and bring back proof, on behalf of the descendants of the original inhabitants, who plan to claim the island belongs to them.” She sounded so matter-of-fact, like she was reading off a grocery list.
“Okay, but the island is not that big. Why hasn’t anyone found it already?”
“The cave is guarded by the Jungle Dog, who keeps it hidden from anyone who has negative intentions.”
“And you don’t”
She gave me a piercing glare. “I am here in search of the truth, and I am a distant relative of the original inhabitants, on my mother’s side.”
“Well, it all sounds like a bunch of crap to me, and I would like to go back to my vacation.”
Thwack. An arrow struck the tree about five feet above Celia’s head.
“Or, we could keep moving. I started up the trail after Celia, who had already begun to climb up away from the coast.
We climbed for what seemed like an hour before we stopped at a clearing that looked out over the beach. It was beautiful, but something down there was after us.
“Now what?” There was an edge to my voice from the strain of climbing and the fear that the next arrow was not going to be a warning.
“The cave is supposed to be in this area. We need to look for some sign, something that stands out.” She started inspecting the rocks and shrubs on her side of the clearing, and, although I had no idea what she was looking for, I joined in.
I heard a rustling in the bushes off to my left. My heart started beating wildly and I tried to stop breathing, as if that would make me invisible. I pictured all manner of hostile animals, native, and even some nasty dinosaurs. I didn’t want to call out to Celia and give away my position, so I stood, frozen in place.
The beach dog broke through the underbrush and sauntered over to me and licked my hand.
“Celia” I was relieved, but a different kind of fear overcame me. Was the dog supernatural? What did that even mean?
Celia turned and saw the dog and gave a small cry of joy. She came over and kneeled down in front of the dog. Who was now sitting protectively at my side.
“O, great Torzella, Guardian of the Sacred Cave of Zanthus. Thank you for honoring us with your presence.”
Really, Who names a dog Torzella?
“We pray that you give us access to the sacred cave that we may prove the island is the rightful property of the people of Zanthus.”
The dog howled, which almost caused me to wet myself, and then headed back toward the jungle, stopping at the edge and looking back at me to see if I was coming.
“You first.” Celia pointed toward the dog. “He seems to like you.”
I followed the dog through the bushes and into the jungle where we weaved between trees and climbed over fallen logs and boulders, hoping the dog knew where he was going, and that he wasn’t working for the Xtlpa.
I could hear Celia behind me and wondered how much of what she had told me was true.
Finally, we broke free of the jungle and stood before a huge wall of stone, with no visible opening. No cave here. Now what do we do?
Celia said something that sounded like “tlak klatl mox zandi,” and the dog morphed into a native warrior who was wearing the scarf around his neck and looked fierce enough to make me wish he were still a dog.
The warrior motioned to the rock and said, “Enter the cave of Zanthus,” and the rocks began to roll away so that an opening appeared.
I was too amazed to be completely freaked out. I stepped into the opening which led into a large cave, lit by some unidentifiable source. The walls of the cave were covered with primitive paintings of saucer-like crafts landing and people coming out and fighting with the natives.
The people of the island all had clothes with the pattern on the scarf worn by the dog. The invaders had shields that carried a symbol that is common on the island.
Celia was busy scrawling notes onto a small pad and making quick sketches.
Slowly, it hit me what I was seeing. The invaders were coming from outer space. They were space aliens.
“Celia, am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?”
“If you mean a record of an alien invasion, yes.”
She stopped taking notes and turned to talk to me. “Many tribes settled this planet. Most came in peace and found new places to settle. A few, like the Xtlpa chose to let others do the work for them and just moved in.”
“So, you are related to creatures from outer space?” She didn’t look like an alien creature, but still …
“We all are. You didn’t believe the story that we all came from the same two parents, did you?”
“I never really thought about it. I didn’t go to church much.” It doesn’t make sense that Africans and the Chinese both came from the same source. “But, what does it all mean?”
“It means that everything is what it always was. People have made up their own stories over time to explain what they want it to mean.”
“But, what about God?”
“Your God is what you want him to be, as is mine. We each have our own gods to explain what we don’t understand.”
Now, I was really lost. “There are aliens. I am one, and God is whomever I want him to be. I hope I wake up soon.”
“You are not dreaming. You are just seeing something that you haven’t seen before.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You knew you were an alien when you were still hanging from the tree.” Now I wasn’t even making sense to myself anymore.
“Edgar.” Celia touched my arm and spoke very calmly, “Look around you. What do you see?”
I looked at the sketches and the murals and realized that they looked familiar.
“Degas … Me …”
“There is a reason you were selected by the Jungle Dog. Why your mother named you after a Frenchman who painted dancers and women taking baths.”
The images were everywhere on the walls – the positions, the groupings, the movement, the primitive style.
I am one of them. This is my island, our island. Damn! “So now what do we do?”
I go back to the museum. You finish your vacation and go back to your life. And one day, there will be a knock on your door and a man will hand you an invitation to return to our island. He will have a dog with him that is wearing a very distinctive bandana.
“But, what of Zanfia and the Xtlpa?”
“They will not bother you. Their time is over.” Celia closed her notebook and stuck it in her pocket. “Yours is just beginning.”
As we left the cave, the rocks rolled back into place, and the warrior became a dog again. I looked at the dog, and the rock wall, and wondered if what I had just seen was real.
We didn’t talk much on the way down the hill, and we said a quick goodbye when we got to the resort, but I had a feeling I would see her again.
I stayed in the resort for the next two days, enjoying the pool and the free drinks.
On the last day, as I was loading my bags into the shuttle to the airport, I saw a movement in the bushes, and glimpsed over to see the distinct pattern of the jungle dog’s bandana disappear into the greenery.