The machete swung forward and down with the speed of an eye blink. It sliced through skin and flesh, a rush of blood splattering over stems and leaves. Crimson specks flew and covered bare twigs, soil and dirt.
Satin scaled and devoid of its head, the serpent’s body slid off a low hanging branch.
Just moments before it had been poised there, its head reared, ready to strike. Falling to the ground, the thick coil twitched for seconds after, till it finally went still, all life in it finished.
The two men stared down at the snake’s remains in an instant of disbelieving silence. The monstrous thing had appeared out of nowhere, and worse, neither one of them had seen it when it had been about to attack. Had it done that, one of them would most likely be dead.
Almost simultaneously their heads lifted. Gratitude, and a glimmer of embarrassment touched their eyes. They were natives and literally part of the forests they’d spent almost all of their lives in or around. From sun up to when it sank into the great river which flowed into the nearby ocean, they worked within cloisters of trees teeming with wildlife. It’s where they earned their living. Both were also experienced and skilled hunters, one since he’d been no more than eight years old. Yet, they’d missed spotting the venomous reptile about to strike one of them just seconds earlier.
But, it hadn’t been so for the man they were looking at just then.
Not that he seemed to notice their awkwardness, or acknowledge their gratitude. They watched as without a word he cleaned the machete’s blade with a bunch of leaves he’d torn off a bush. Sheathing the deadly weapon into a rough leather case secured to his belt, he offered no more than an indifferent shrug in the general direction of the snake, barely nodded at them both, and carried on his way.
The two men exchanged a look.
Like the snake, the third man had also appeared at the point they now stood, without warning. He’d been a few yards off to their right on the trek they were all taking further into the woods. And, then he’d turned suddenly, striding towards them, the deadly weapon already drawn. The movement and sight had frozen them in their tracks, before the blade had sliced through the air past their faces in one killing swoop.
Their surprise soon left them. It wasn’t the first time they’d witnessed the man demonstrating such an action, nor his unnerving skill and precision with a weapon. In the nearly two years he’d worked beside them, they’d observed him plenty, and usually from a distance. There was something about the man which kept even the most courageous of them from venturing too close. Perhaps it was the fierceness of his looks, the clear, almost empty depths in his eyes. Or the sheer size of him which was so different from the usual average stature of native men such as themselves.
He wasn’t one of them, or of the land. But somehow he seemed more a part of the wilderness around than even they felt they were. He was the one who had appeared in their midst one day, and had never left. How or why, no one had ever come to understand.
They didn’t know him well. Some didn’t know him at all. He was a stranger to them, alien in every way. Yet, oddly, and like many of the deep mysterious legends of their land, the ones they had heard narrated from their fathers before them, and their mothers, and which in turn they told their children of, the man was a part of them and their lives. There, but not.
They called him El Desconocido – The Unknown.
Walking down a worn and beaten path, leaving behind the other two, the man pushed further through bushes and low hanging branches, and into where the forest grew more dense. The air became cooler within the shade. The ground turned soft. Rich earth squelched with moisture beneath the tread of his boots.
The respite from the heat didn’t last more than several minutes, the time it took him to reach a clearing absent of tree branches and leaves which provided shade. He glanced up at the sun already high in the sky, and still climbing. It would be an hour more till they broke for lunch.
Stripping off his shirt, he joined a group moving amongst thick tree logs stacked twelve feet high in gaps all around the clearing. He got busy assisting with hauling the massive cuts of lumber to the ground. Soon they would be rolled down a short incline and to the waiting barge on the riverbank.
The workers talked, and he engaged with them in casual conversation during the hauling. But they all kept their words to a minimum, most of their efforts focused on the job. The strain on muscle and bone from each lift slowly depleting their energy with streams of sweat. It was back breaking work.
When an hour passed and the workers stopped to eat, he went down the short hill towards the river. The men gathered on the shore were still loading the barge. It would be another hour till this loading group lunched, and the lumber was shipped off for delivery.
He worked with them till every log was aligned and firmly secured, balanced out and roped to the craft. After he joined the group for a quick bite, the man left them to walk off the meal. The remaining workmen either settling down for a brief nap, or they milled around talking. Some prepared to sail and got back to work on untying the anchoring ropes looped around boulders at the river’s edge.
The temperature began to soar, the afternoon sun scorching everything its merciless rays touched.
He moved down to a rocky enclave and stretched out on the flattest boulder, closing his eyes against the light.
The heat didn’t affect him, the burning surface of the rock under his bare back no more than a mild irritation. He was used to harsher elements.
His eyes remained closed, the somewhat unfamiliar thought passing easily through his mind. It wasn’t the first time he’d been aware of his tolerance for the current weather. More than just tolerance.
While the natives accepted the unbearable summer heat as naturally as it arrived each year, he on the other hand, for the last two years almost hadn’t noticed it. He knew he wasn’t meant to become too aware of climate, or concern himself with its effects. And why he wasn’t meant to, he didn’t know.
But, he was aware of other things, and more clearly than the people around him. Like earlier, with the snake which had been about to bite, kill, and devour one of the men. In that order.
The two men had been surprised at his precise reaction. The question he’d seen many times before flashing in their eyes.
But, he had sensed the predator’s presence before it had appeared on the branch, had waited till he’d had it in his sights. And, then he’d killed it.
That was the answer to their question.
Although, how he came to know and do what he sometimes found himself doing as with the snake, he didn’t have the faintest idea.
That fact however, seemed to cause his fellow workers more concern than it caused him. Than it ever had since he’d found himself stranded deep within the wilds of Peru two years ago.