For weeks, Nana was convinced someone was stealing yams and bananas from the lanai. How she knew anything was missing from the tremendous piles of produce; Denys wasn’t sure. All he knew was that Nana blamed him first, then Tata.
“Delores, what you think I’m goin’ do with raw yams?” Tata said. “Likely a mongoose. Yep, always da mongoose!”
Tata blamed most misdeeds on the wily creatures who ventured from the jungle to chew through cables, eat the roof, and dig holes in the yard. Their pointy mouths with sharp teeth sneered over their mischief.
“Yeah, Nana, probably a mongoose,” Denys agreed.
“No talk to your madda in dat tone,” said Tata. “You know the Taotaomonas goin’ get you.”
Any mishap or poor fortune that couldn’t be blamed on a mongoose was credited to the Taotaomonas, the spirits of deceased ancestors who possessed power nearly equal that of the gods. And the Taotaomonas were punitive. Tata once lost a job after disrespecting them by peeing in the jungle.
Denys shuddered. Tata was serious when he put the fear of the Chamorro ancestors into him. It was worse than any threat of punishment by his parents.
Denys lay under the mango tree to escape the afternoon heat. A gecko scampered over him and up the trunk. Birds chattered across the yard and large cumulus clouds billowed above. A sudden rustling at the edge of the jungle drew his attention. Denys bounded to his feet and stared into the dense foliage. He caught a glimpse of something that scuttled and vanished into the shadows. A mongoose? It bent the grasses more than he imagined a small mongoose could. It happened so quickly he wondered if he saw anything at all.
But the brief image refused to leave his mind. The next time Nana complained of missing food, Denys was determined to catch the culprit. It was a fine chance for the kind of adventure every eleven-year-old boy dreamed of.
How do you catch a mongoose? Seems it would require bait. Ha! Denys would need to steal some bait to catch the thief.
One morning on a rare moment Nana wasn’t in her kitchen, he slipped into the pantry, grabbed the half-empty jar, and raced away.
He had no delusions he’d catch the mongoose without a trap. Tata had taken Nana and him to a seaside restaurant a week before, where the chef prepared dinner on a hibachi in front of the table. Nana had complained the meat tasted off. Once she did, the rest of them tasted it too.
“Perhaps the meat is old,” Nana had said.
“Maybe it’s mongoose meat,” suggested Denys.
Nana and Tata laughed at that one. Tata said restaurant workers weren’t smart enough to catch a mongoose, not many people were.
At the edge of the jungle, Denys smeared peanut butter smooth across a flat stone and hid the jar behind an oil palm tree. He’d know if the mongoose scuttled into the area because it would leave paw prints in the peanut butter. That, he figured, was a first step to catching it.
Denys didn’t have a chance to check the peanut butter before school the next morning, so that afternoon, as soon as the bus deposited him and its clanking metal doors closed, he raced to the edge of the jungle.
The smear of peanut butter remained undisturbed.
The jar, however, was missing.
It wasn’t a mongoose, to be sure. For all its clever antics, the animal couldn’t possibly carry a half-filled jar of peanut butter.
Should he go after whatever it was? Denys didn’t know what he’d find, or what he’d do with it if he found it, but his inquisitiveness got the best of him. He simply must find what lurked in the jungle and emerge to steal Nana’s vegetables. Denys bowed to the Taotaomonas, whispered his desire to enter the jungle, and then strode into the dim canopy, ignoring Tata’s warnings to never enter alone.
Geckos darted and insects buzzed.
The land rapidly ascended in a severe incline. He dragged himself through the brush by grabbing tree roots and hanging vines, venturing deeper than he’d ever gone before, even with Tata. With each step, his anticipation heightened.
Sweat beaded his arms, and still, he climbed.
Over the din of insects and birds, a tree branch snapped ahead of him. Denys crouched and held still on a patch of sleeping grass. Listening. Waiting. He strained to hear what surrounded him. A rustle of branches. Quiet. A cool breeze blew over him. Cool. From where? Breezes didn’t penetrate the jungle. Denys shivered. When a chill passed through him as if it were a ghost, Denys froze.
He had supposed they were tall tales, like the German fairy tales he studied in English class, meant to scare children into good behavior. But Tata believed in them. Swore he’d seen one as a young man. Said he’d go to his grave swearing they were real. Denys wasn’t sure exactly how the Taotaomonas got you and he didn’t want to wait to find out.
He rose to leave.
A voice stopped him mid-step.
It wasn’t words exactly, more of a grunt, but it was human. Denys raised his eyes to see the form of a man mere feet away. Dead or alive, he couldn’t tell. His skin was darkened from exposure and was lined with the deepest crevices he’d ever seen. His bones protruded from an emaciated torso. Black, wiry hair sprang in all directions from his head.
Tattered clothing hung from the man’s limbs. His feet were also black and bare. The musky scent of dirty flesh emanated in the brooding air.
Denys shrank against a tangantangan tree. His voice caught in his throat. Inside he screamed. Indeed, it was a Taotaomona. And surely it was after him.
The two of them exchanged stares. Neither moved.
After a moment, the apparition, now he was sure that’s what it was, spoke again.
Denys glanced behind him. There wasn’t anyone else; the man, for now, he was sure it was a man, was speaking to him. The words were neither English nor Chamorro. Guttural. But insistent. Pleading? The man gestured to his mouth. Then his stomach. Like he wanted something from Denys.
The exchange took mere seconds, long enough for Denys’s legs to catch up with his fear. He took off running, down the steep incline towards home. His heart pounded deep thuds inside his chest. He bounded over brush and rocks, flinging vines and tangles out of his way. At times he stumbled. Elbows bloodied; knees skinned.
Denys didn’t look back until he reached the clearing of his own backyard and the shade of the mango tree. After catching his breath and stilling his shaky legs, he checked to make sure he was alone, then crept into the house. Tata had left small coconut cakes to cool on the windowsill. Their sweetness hung in the air. Denys walked past them and into his room, where he threw himself on his bed.
What had been in the jungle? Taotaomona or man? If Taotaomona, why did it not speak his language? If man, who was he? Why was he so unkempt, so wild? Perhaps Denys should have stayed in the jungle to find out. He hadn’t a choice in the matter; a primal instinct carried his legs of their own accord. He slumped. Disappointment overcame him. He had given up too easily. Run away too soon. For all his thinking he was grown up and brave, he had wasted his adventure.
Denys didn’t tell anyone what he had seen, but over the next few days, his mind could think of little else. He tried to recall details of the encounter in the jungle. The man had worn clothing of some sort, but tattered and dirty. His hands were like leather gloves, and his haggard eyes were black as soot, his body so thin. And he hadn’t looked, Chamorro. Denys couldn’t shake the feeling the man wanted something from him. Only he’d been too frightened in the moment to consider anything but himself.
The next few evenings, Denys retreated to his room. He mumbled excuses to his parents about extra homework.
Nana never mentioned the stolen peanut butter.
“Damn!” Tata shouted in front of the television one night. “Delores, Denys, you gotta see this! Unbelievable. Come quickly!”
Nana and Denys dashed in.
In front of a tumultuous scene, a newscaster stood.
“Reporting from station KUAM.”
“A man, identifying himself as a sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War, walked out of the jungle today near Yigo, almost twenty-eight years after U.S. forces regained control of the island in 1944. Shoichi Yokoi told authorities he subsisted on toads, river eels, and rats, and sheltered in an underground bunker he had dug with his hands.”
The three of them sat glued to the images.
“Wow,” said Nana. “Can you imagine living all those years alone and undetected? It’s a wonder no one ever saw him.”
The television image cut to a close-up of the soldier’s face.
Denys let out a gasp.
Shoichi Yokoi hid in the jungles of Guam for twenty-eight years before he surrendered in 1972. Guam, a 200-square-mile island in the western Pacific, became a U.S. possession in 1898. It was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and occupied for three years before U.S. forces retook the island in 1944, Yokoi went into hiding rather than surrender to the Americans. He survived in the jungle, undetected, all those years, waiting for the return of Japanese soldiers. After finally surrendering, he was sent home to Japan where he became a national hero.
Kathy Whipple is a musician, artist, and writer living in Boise, Idaho. Her writing is inspired by her travels and time living in Southeast Asia. She has previously published in CafeLit, Spillwords, Madswirl, and Friday Flash Fiction.