The afternoon started in perfection on the rainforest-island. Trees waved lazily, birds cawed in each limb, monkeys chattered greetings as they swung from vine to vine, and waves landed on the shore. A few feet off of the island, however, the watery perfection was silent. Other than the gentle lapping of the waves, not a sound was heard.
Around four o’clock the soft hum of a luxury yacht split the calm. The white front of the boat divided the crystal blue neatly in two and left a trail of bubbling water behind. On its deck stood a young man in long trousers and a T-shirt, and through the wide observatory windows a tough-looking young woman stood at the wheel. The motor’s hum softened as the yacht drew near the island, and the young man on deck turned to go inside the spacious wheelhouse. A moment later he reappeared with a backpack. He pressed a button, and a wide dock began to unfold itself luxuriously from the depths of the boat.
The young woman opened the door of the wheelhouse and walked down the bleached-white dock after the young man. They both stood shin-deep in water for a moment, looking at the island, and then they walked toward the shore.
Both started. Their ears exploded with the sounds of a rainforest that had been absent only feet away.
Martha paled until her face resembled computer paper. “I’m getting out of here,” she whispered. She hugged her passenger roughly, kissed him briefly on the cheek, shook sand out of her army boots, and walked back on board. As the dock refolded itself and tucked back into the depths of the boat, she gave a sad smile to her friend back onshore.
The man trudged back into the silent world of water. “Are you sure you can’t wait for me, Martha?” he yelled. Martha shook her head, looking uncharacteristically frightened.
“No! As it is I’m getting out of here as soon as I can. This place gives me the jivvers. I might have said yes before now, but it’s too unnatural. Whoever heard of a… a… whatever that is, a wall of sound? And besides, no one’s ever explored this place, unless you count the poor souls who didn’t come back.” She crossed herself. “No, it is you who should come back to the mainland with me.” Her voice turned brisk, and it was clear that she was trying to put her fear behind her. “But as you won’t change your mind, I’ll be back to pick you up tomorrow at noon. I’ll wait for an hour, and then I leave at one. Remember, if you get yourself killed, I will have to be the one who brings the news to your parents, so I will expect you alive and relatively unmutilated.” She walked back into the wheelhouse, folded the dock, gave a last sad wave, and sped away.
Dave stared after her until the yacht was just a speck on the horizon, and then he turned to look at the island. It looked just like a rainforest was supposed to look, bursting with exotic animals and towering trees. It could be a perfect vacationing island resort, with sandy white beaches and hot-tub-temperature water.
Something, though, did not make this island fit for a resort, but no one knew what. When a sixteenth-century explorer had first landed on the island in hopes of conquering it for Spain, he had vanished without a trace. His last communications consisted of a letter and a map, marking the island. Ferdinand and Isabella sent a division of the Navy to find him three years later, but those men had not come back either. The first people to come were certainly not the last, however. Over the centuries, a long line of adventurers had sailed out to the island, hoping to explore for varying periods of time, but none had ever returned. As far as anyone knew, Dave was the first to get to the island. Now, each country had banned its people from going there, keeping lookouts from afar to enforce the law. When Dave had expressed a wish to go there, Martha had promised that she could get around the lookouts and get Dave to the island. He had gotten here without getting caught, safe and sound, but the question remained: Would he be safe and sound when Martha came to pick him up in the morning? Dave shook the questions out of his head and went off to explore.
By late evening, Dave was wondering why people had ever called the island dangerous. He had never seen any place more charming, and he had been studying rainforests for seven years. Had all of the fateful explorers simply been unlucky? A small, sensible part of Dave knew that the answer was no, but he couldn’t help feeling hopeful anyway.
When night fell, Dave trudged out of the rainforest and back onto the beach, feeling confident. Already, in the few hours he had explored the island, Dave had found several new species, relatives of known animals, but new nonetheless. He had already filled pages of his journal with notes and drawings. Plus, he had found the sound wall, defying many of the basic scientific laws. Based on all of this, Dave knew that if he stayed the night he would be hailed as a hero. He just had to wake up alive.
Dave found a nice sandy hill and set up his tent and stove. After a hasty dinner, he got inside the tent and debated whether or not to say prayers. Finally, he decided on it, for though he had never been the religious type he thought that he could use a little extra help.
“Dear God…” he began, stumbling a little on the words, “I… I hope that you protect Mother and Father and Martha back on the mainland and that you keep me safe, too. Help me to find something great and benefit the international community with my discoveries. Amen.” Once he finished the prayer, he crossed himself thrice as he had seen Martha do, because it seemed impressive, and drifted off to sleep.
Around fifteen minutes later, he awoke abruptly, a faint roaring noise in his ears. He peered out of the tent flap and saw a dark mass on the watery horizon. He could barely make out its streaks of red. Somehow, Dave’s body was telling him that the mass was not a good sign. Nerves jangling their alarm, he dressed, clambered out of his tent, and grabbed his backpack. Looking up after his frenzy, he felt alarmed to see that the mass was now spitting thunder and lightning and that it had moved about a hundred miles in the past few minutes. In a panic, he scrambled down the small embankment and sprinted the half mile to the rainforest, noticing that the waves had become distressingly large, slamming farther and farther up the beach. Right before he disappeared into the outer reaches of the trees, he saw that his old campsite was completely flooded, ravaged by ferocious waves. Shuddering, he realized that he had left just in time.
Dave began sprinting into the rainforest as fast as he could. Finally, he stopped, took out a compass and a GPS, and oriented himself. He had indeed succeeded in getting into the very middle of the island, so Dave started looking for shelter.
He soon found a clearing. Now that he felt some semblance of safety, he began to notice his surroundings. It was then that he noticed that something was missing. Where were the animals? Surely their instincts, like his, had told them to find shelter as far inland as possible? And yet he saw neither hide nor hair.
Suddenly, he heard something nearby. Water. Roaring. The waves had moved inland. Dave began looking for a shelter with panic. He could hear the waves coming closer and began to run around the clearing, looking for hollows in the trees, lower limbs that would take him high up, any-thing. After a minute and a half of frenzied running around the clearing, Dave heard a new roar added to that of the water. Suddenly, a high wind began to whistle through the clearing. First rain, then hail began to fall, enormous heavy hail that pounded Dave on the head and shoulders. And then he spotted a place to hide. It was a hole in the ground, outlined by the roots between two huge trees. If he could get in and cover the hole with his backpack, he might be safe from the oncoming storm and tide. Dave thought about his chances of survival. He could jump into the hole or find a nonexistent limb to climb.
It took him far longer to reach the ground than he anticipated, and for a split second the sensation reminded him of Alice in Wonderland. Then he hit the ground with a thud. Dave stood up, pushing himself up on a smooth dirt floor. Then, Dave looked around, and he almost fell over with shock.
Thousands of lamps burned around him, yellow orbs at different heights and spacing, hanging in midair. Dave felt for his flashlight and turned it on.
The orbs were not orbs at all. They were eyes. Thousands of animals stood around him, every specimen that lived in the forest, no doubt. They all stood around him, from the tallest gorilla to a family of tarantulas.
The words came out of his mouth before he could think about them. “Don’t hurt me.”
“They will not hurt you.”
This time, Dave did fall over in shock. A woman, with skin as black as coal, came over to him and offered her arm. Dave took it in wonder.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The woman smiled. “There will be enough time for that later,” she said. “You have been through enough tonight already, while we have been waiting for you. You may call me Mathilda for now.”
Dave just stood and stared. The woman’s beauty was astounding, from her brown probing eyes to her flawless bare feet.
Mathilda’s voice broke the silence. “I must seal the passageway before the water covers the hole,” she said. She climbed an earthen ladder that Dave had not noticed before and stuck her head outside. When she came back down again, she was still smiling.
“You have questions,” she said. “Come, sit, and I will answer them.”
Dave sat, realizing that he was more comfortable than he had ever been in his life. But before he could open his mouth, Mathilda said, “The storm outside is called the Red Storm, though others call it the Eye of the Monster. It was first known to the humans who lived on a nearby island, which has long since disappeared. When they moved away, the legend survived, although it has been diminishing in popularity,” she added. Dave was about to open his mouth to ask how Mathilda knew so much when she started talking again.
“With the creation of the universe, the storm has ravaged the island every evening, but it does not affect the places around it. Over time, the island’s animals evolved with the instinct to take shelter in this hole. I… I suppose one could say that I evolved with the island. I am the caretaker, of sorts. Of you, of the animals, of everyone, really.” She gave a tinkling laugh that sounded like the most beautiful bells Dave had ever heard. “I constructed a sound wall around the shores to keep the island’s secrets.
“So far, you are the first human to have found our hole, though others have come on our shores. The others perished. I was sorry to watch them go. But they did not find the hole and the storm killed them. I still hold them in my heart.” She stopped, her head bowed.
“I will get you something to drink now,” she announced. She got to her feet and walked away down a long tunnel filled with animals. Dave was about to call after her that he did not like many drinks when she added, “I happen to know that you do not enjoy most beverages, so I will give you what I drink. I think you will enjoy it.”
She disappeared as the animals blocked her from view. A moment later she returned with two mugs of something hot and a plate of his grandmother’s special recipe for biscuits, with his favorite sliced peaches and strawberries, cooked to perfection. He no longer pondered the woman’s strange knowing but instead helped himself to the biscuits. After a moment, he drank a mouthful of the hot liquid and gasped with delight. Its sweetness trickled down his throat and bubbled in his stomach, filling him with a fiery energy. No longer tired, he felt perfect, ready for anything.
The woman smiled at his delight. “When Martha comes to pick you up in the morning, you may choose whether or not you want to tell her, or anyone, about the hole and the storm. But some will not believe you if you choose to tell the world. Do not try to take people back to this hole because others must find it for themselves. You would not find it again if you bring anyone with you. You, however, will always find me here at night and will always be welcome, as will anyone else who finds it alone, as you did.
“But now, it is time to go out and see the new day. You may have the honor of being the first outside.” She cleared the tray as Dave shouldered his backpack and started toward the earthen ladder.
Dave looked back. “Will you leave now? Don’t, please!”
Mathilda smiled once again. “I must leave. You and I will meet again in person. I am, in fact, with you all the time. I am both in you and around you. Goodbye.” She began walking away down the long tunnel, the sea of animals again parting to let her through.
“Wait!” Dave shouted. “Who are you, who knows and cares so much about me?”
Mathlida had been swallowed by the sea of animals, but Dave felt her in the wind that brushed gently across his face.
With wonder, Dave hoisted himself out of the hole, and as the clearing filled with animals around him, he looked toward the rising sun, ready to greet the new dawn.