Lost in Tikal

By MFC Feeley

This essay is set in Tikal National Park, in Guatemala.

I spent forty dollars to stay in a cabin edging the rainforest.  Armed with water and a spray bottle of Skin So Soft, I crept out an hour before dawn and flashlighted my way thorough screaming monkeys to the top of a pyramid.  It was an easy climb. I sat alone atop an ancient structure eating oranges and watching toucans fly from horizon to horizon as the sun rose. I watched a family of monkeys clean each other. When other people began to arrive, I climbed down and headed into the tangle of green where ants carried leaves several times their size.  Everywhere was wonder.  

Image by  Garin Fons.

Image by Garin Fons.

I found a tree with roots a sundialed octopus skirt of wiggling fingers reaching ten feet in the dirt. Its irresistible trunk was thick and polished smoothed by years of slapping hands. Over my head the branches wove and spread as if they too were roots holding up a second world which, having just been high and gazing down at the canopy, I recognized as truth disguised as illusion.

Something blue scurried above me and I followed it. There were so many things to see and watch and follow that it is only now, decades later as I write, that I realize I lost that first messenger.  It didn’t feel like losing, it felt like a chain reaction, a Virginia Reel, an endless square dance with enchanting creature after flower after vista after bug. Garden plants I’d known since childhood dwarfed me. Alice would feel at home. And, of course, it kept raining. A put your face in it, open your mouth and dance around in it rain that was warm and pleasant and refreshing and magic.

And then miraculously, like in a dream, I was dry and the mud rose in dust.

I was in a dense part of the forest. An equatorial thicket protecting sleeping beauty.  Impossible to press through. I turned around several times before I realized I was lost.

A familiar state.

I got lost in Boston with a pal who grew up there; I followed the thread of conversation and she followed me. Curtis and I smacked into a wall along the Hudson before we realized we’d left the park. The tide closed in on my love and I; we scaled cliffs and wading through the brambles of midnight Montauk. I always swam too far in the ocean so I knew that sometimes you must accept that the whole of your foreseeable future will be spent swimming. Zen gets you to shore. But this was different.

Tikal is 222 square miles and the dappled light of the forest floor gives no sense of East or West. Not that that would have helped me. I sprayed on more Skin So Soft and looked for the path. Nothing. I made a conscious choice not to panic. Wearing no watch (and before cellphones) I figured it couldn’t have been that long since I’d seen “the” tree.

I wove vines, sticks and other loose debris around the trunk of the largest tree where I was and then fashioned an arrow from its base and headed off in its pointed direction for twenty songs - some of my own creation, some by Cole Porter. At the twentieth song I turned and headed back to the tree. I made a second arrow pointing a few degrees off and did it again.  I know the complete score of several musicals and have a nice fantasy life as a jazz singer so this was no problem.  By the time I had arrows circling three quarters of my guide tree, I was well into Christmas Carols and Led Zeppelin. And then it happened. “The” tree! I slapped its shiny trunk and danced around. From this wonderful trunk, I repeated my arrow process and found “the” path. This happened quickly because the pressure was off, I knew where I had come from, and “the” tree was close to “the” path.  It grew dark. Screaming monkeys filled the trees once more.  It was amazing and I was invincible. Uh, no.

The guys running my hotel told me about big cats, lost tourists, and the danger (although my singing probably scared predators) I’d been in. I was glad I hadn’t known. After that, I never got lost again! (And, I sell bridges....)

I get lost all the time. Just yesterday in fact. The woods were just starting to turn and there was moss and rocks and the strangest birdsong -- wrens chirping in unison against an owl -- and quite suddenly no path. So. If you are out there and you hear singing, it’s just me finding focus and confidence and the memory of something remarkable to point me home.   

MFC Feeley lives in Tuxedo, NY and attended UC Berkeley and NYU. She has published in The Tishman Review, Mainstreet Rag, WicWas, Plate In The Mirror, The Bees Are Dead, Monkey Star Press and Dialogal. She was a 2016 fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and received a scholarship to the 2015 Wesleyan Writers Conference. She has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016 and was a 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist. She has been a volunteer judge for Mash Stories and Scholastic. More at MFC Feeley/Facebook.