Na Bolom: House of the Jaguar

Peter Campbell stared with vacant eyes at the giant fossil skull, not seeing its oblique lines or cavernous openings. Instead, he searched within for the answers he could not find outside himself. Setting down the tungsten-tipped air scribe used to clear away the hard mineral deposits, he leaned against the large oak table and refocused on the skull—a newly discovered predator from the Jurassic age.

As he studied the fossil, his mind wandered back to the jungles of Chiapas, and to Jazmin. He had heard nothing from her in four weeks. Shutting out the sounds of the other paleontologists and archaeologists working throughout the large basement lab, he wondered why. Something was wrong; he could feel it deep in the pit of his stomach. Had she been hurt? Was she sweating through a malaria-induced delirium? Had she been abducted by some South American slave trader? After all, she was a beautiful young woman living deep in a remote jungle. Anything could happen.

Worse yet, the uprising in Chiapas last year still hadn’t played itself out, and the Clinton administration had done nothing to intervene. What if she was lying dead on the jungle floor? How would he know?

His thoughts sickened him. They had agreed he would wait a month to hear from her before taking action, and today was the day. But what exactly should he do? They hadn’t developed a plan. He could call the U.S. Embassy in México. But relying on the government for help meant more waiting. He cringed at the thought.

Snail mail in the backcountry of México lived up to its name, so he’d kept himself absorbed in his work while waiting to hear from Jazmin. The first few weeks had been bad enough. Now he needed sleeping pills at night, and an excess of black coffee during the day.

He knew that getting a letter out from a remote area could be difficult, even though the village was only a few hours’ drive from the nearest post office. “The men and women of the village go into town to trade in the square,” she had said. “Do not worry, mi amor. I am sure the sweet villagers will deliver my letters to San Cristóbal for me.”

Apparently, that wasn’t the case.

Peter grabbed a couple of antacid tablets from a countertop as he walked the few steps to his desk, wiping dusty hands on his even dustier pants. He sat in his swivel chair, absentmindedly stroking the edge of a mahogany picture frame, studying a photo of the two of them. His gaze followed the silky, reddish-brown hair that fell lavishly over her slender shoulders, and tried to remember its scent. Instead, he heard her last words before boarding the plane: “My heart is with the jungle, and with you. You will come to be with me there, no? Then my heart will not be torn.”

He had stood in the terminal not knowing what to say when she turned and ran to board the plane. Her words hung in the air like a darkened cloud. Something had changed. They always spoke of making Colorado their home. She seemed happy to start a new life in Colorado…

“Wow. Now there’s a beauty.”

Peter jolted as someone snatched the photo out of his hand. Standing beside him was Nate Greenburg, in his mid-twenties and already pot-bellied, eyes glued on Jazmin.

“Nice legs.”

Peter responded with a deep, impatient sigh. “Yeah.”

“Not yours. Hers.”

“I caught that, Nate.” He grabbed the photo back. “What are you doing down here?”

“I’m driving your staff to the Dinosaur National Monument to look at the new sauropod discovery everyone’s talking about.” Nate nudged him with the tip of his toe. “You’re the head of the department. I assumed you scheduled the trip.”

Peter shook his head. “Yeah, maybe.”

Nate continued to study the photo over Peter’s shoulder. “She’s quite a catch. What’s her name?”

Peter leaned back in his chair in resignation. “Jazmin. . .Jazmin Rivera.”

“A Latin beauty, huh? I haven’t seen her around.”

“I haven’t seen much of her either.”

“You make a nice-looking couple.”

Peter looked around the room, hoping for an escape, and caught sight of Shelly heading toward him. She pulled long locks of her tightly curled red hair away from her eyes, and bent down in front of him, blocking Nate’s view.

“Are you coming along with us? The field trip’s going to be fun.”

Peter fumbled with the photo, then placed it back on his desk. “Thanks, Shell, but I really have to finish this skull. You know if it’s not mounted and standing in the main entrance of this museum scaring the hell out of women and children by this time next week, John will have my head!”

Shelly cast her all-knowing look. “Peter, just mount the damn thing. It looks fine. No one will know the difference. Since Jazmin left, all you’ve done is work on this project. You’re obsessing.”

“It’s not just the project. Jazmin—”

“Listen, Jazmin grew up in the jungle. She can take care of herself.”

Shelly punched his arm. “The skull’s fine and Jazmin’s fine. Take a
break, big guy. It’ll be good for you to get out and breathe a little fresh air. You need to exercise that rugged body of yours. If I’m not mistaken, I’m seeing a bulge where your belly button used to be.”

Shelly was right. It would be good to get out. He felt like hell, hadn’t exercised in weeks. He guessed Shelly was looking forward to sitting next to him on the bus. But he was obsessed with thoughts of Jazmin, and now something had to be done. He hadn’t told anyone they had agreed to take action today. Not Shelly, not John, no one. He’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this.

Shelly looked over her shoulder and pointed at the skull. “Besides, being around that ugly thing all day would depress anyone.”

Peter smirked, grateful for her concern. “You’d know ugly after staring at dino dung all week. But how, exactly, do you figure following Nate’s big butt around all day will improve my mood?”

Nate wheeled around from where he stood studying at the giant skull. “I heard that. Okay, everyone,” he said, turning to face the large open space of the lab, “grab your things. The magical mystery tour is about to begin.”

Peter looked up at Shelly. “Thanks for the pep talk, Shell, but I’ve got to stick around in case Jazmin calls. She’s supposed to call today.”

“Really?” She shrugged, a disappointed look clouding her face as she squeezed his hand. “Okay.”

He stood and kissed her cheek to soften the rejection.

“All right, you lizard-lovin’ cave dwellers!” Nate hollered. “Time to make your way upstairs and out to the bus.” He gave Peter a mischievous smile. “Good day, Dr. Campbell.”

Peter rolled his eyes and waved as the staff filed through the double doors of the lab. The room went quiet. Microscopes and magnifying lenses mounted on giant swing-arms stood motionless atop overcrowded desks. Countless fossils sat in hollow silence, as if awaiting their caretaker’s return. Now only the screensaver images of dinosaurs leaping and flying across the desktop monitors brought any life into the large space. Peter felt lonely and uncomfortable in the silence. Strange, since he normally felt right at home in a room full of fossils. But not today. Not now. His gaze returned to the photo on his desk.

He sat and rubbed his temples in an attempt to clear his mind. He needed to focus on work. Besides, why should he worry? As Shelly said, Jazmin’s a capable woman. She can take care of herself.

He reluctantly turned from the picture of Jazmin’s smiling face and looked across to the other side of his office at the skull, his constant companion these days. It belonged to a powerful bipedal predator, a newly discovered species of tyrannosaurid, in the same family as the giant Tyrannosaurus rex. Although small for a tyrannosaurid, the skull was massive, nearly three feet long.

Peter stood up, grabbed his coffee and walked the ten steps over to the skull. Leaning against the table, he placed his hand on the rough fossil, trying to regain some enthusiasm for the project. He studied the massive jaw, the window-like openings behind each eye, the extensive line of serrated teeth. (What was it Jazmin had called them? Stilettos in a vise.)

The rest of the body stood nearby. Twice the size of a grizzly, this predator could have shredded the backside of an elephant. But there were no elephants when this creature roamed the earth.

“Lucky elephants,” he mused.

Yes, those teeth were the things of nightmares. He brushed a hand over the fine, serrated edges and winced as a small bead of blood formed on the tip of his finger. They were still sharp after tens of millions of years in the ground. He felt a familiar fear run through his body as he licked his finger.

It had the legs of a giant: eight feet high at the hip, with the tibias measuring twenty percent longer than the femurs—a sure sign of a sprinter. This one combined the ferocity of a carnivore with the speed of a thoroughbred. Dino could run…and kill.

As a scientist, he couldn’t help but admire the way Mother Nature had equipped this monster. It was an evolutionary tour de force, a marvel of Darwinian eat-or-be-eaten engineering. But there was something else about it, something less…objective. Less scientific. Something he hadn’t spoken aloud, not to his peers, not even to Jazmin.

The thing gave him the creeps.

It made him uneasy. He wasn’t sure why, but it had started shortly after the skull arrived at the museum and it persisted. Every time he worked with the skull, a cold fluttering started deep in the pit his stomach, making it difficult to think. His mind often drifted. Then he began to hear things. Animal calls. Footsteps. Once he thought he smelled the pungent aroma of the jungle.

More disturbing still, he felt watched. Or stalked. Like some hidden predator was hunting him.

He never mentioned it to anyone because he knew how it would sound. Hell, it sounded weird to him. Once he heard a deep sonorous growl and jerked to a standstill only to find Shelly standing nearby looking frightened.

Shaking off the interruption, he tried to relax into his work. Checking some of his measurements, he picked up the air scribe and ground away the last of the hard mineral deposits surrounding the teeth.

Finished, he leaned down and looked at it man-to-beast. “Okay, Slasher,” he murmured, “what else can you tell me?”

He looked through the empty sockets of the huge skull and could see the wall beyond. What might the creature’s eyes have looked like? The eyes always intrigued him. What type of vision did possess? Did they see color? Did they see in two dimensions or three? Did they see through the darkness? No one knew. No eyes had survived the test of time. “I’ll bet those big eyes of yours were cold and unsympathetic,” he said. What color were the eyes? Were they green or brown? Jet black? And what might the pupils look like? Horizontal like a gator? Vertical like a cat? Round like a human?

No, he thought. Not human-like.

Then something flickered inside the darkened cavity, a movement, a flash of color.

He half-jerked his hand away. What was that? The hair on the back of his neck raised like an animal’s hackles when his scientific instincts flooded in. He didn’t know whether to move away from it or look at it closer. He waited a second before he leaned in.
There was nothing in the socket. It looked dark again. But he’d seen something, he knew it.

It happened again.

This time, Peter kept his heart in his chest, took two deep breaths, and leaned in as close as he dared.

I’m a scientist. And this is a scientific phenomenon. Something has crawled into the skull and that’s all. Keep your head on, Peter.
Something was there. An image. Had Nate pasted a picture to the inside back of the skull? He’d kill him for that.

He shifted his weight and raised himself to peer into the eye socket on the opposite side of the skull. Another image, blurred and reddish, changed into distinct colors and patterns. It felt as if he were looking through a camera and trying to bring the lens into focus.

“What has that idiot done?”

But even as he said it, the image started to solidify, the shapes and colors became more defined, and he realized this wasn’t a trick. He couldn’t see through the skull anymore.

Peter instinctively pulled back. What was this?

And then he was looking into huge reptilian eyes the size of his fists, staring out from the skull. A fierce reddish color, with black vertical slits running through the middle, like lightning bolts in black. Peter slid off the table and steadied himself.

The eyes remained like giant marbles reflecting the lab’s artificial light, and then, with the alert ease of a predator, they began to shift from side to side. He felt the blood drain from his head.

“What the hell’s going on?”

The eyes shifted back and forth, silently scanning the room from the depths of time. The lab suddenly felt cold and unfamiliar. He tried to distance himself from the skull by stepping back, but it felt as if he was pressed against a wall and he stopped short. Catching his movement, the giant eyes turned in his direction.

Peter froze, but his mind raced through all possible explanations: the drugs he’d taken in the eighties; the homeopathic remedy he recently started; the full-spectrum lights they just installed; the black coffee.

There has to be an explanation.

Unable to pull his eyes from the predator, he felt an ancient terror grip his heart, override his logic, pull him relentlessly into its timeless void. Visions of frightened creatures flooded his mind, familiar visions. Running. . .panting. . .high-pitched desperate cries, a stampede. . .

Suddenly, a voice that seemed to issue from the heavens blurred the scene—a human voice. Distant at first, then recognizable as the intercom’s crackle.

“Dr. Campbell? Are you there?”

Jean, the department secretary. Peter willed himself to take a deep breath.

“Dr. Campbell? You have a call.”

He kept the skull within the edge of his vision.

“Dr. Campbell?”

He reached for the phone and pushed the blinking light. “Yes... Jean, thank you.”

“Thank you? Thank you for what?”

“Nothing. . .sorry.”

“You sound like you just finished running a four-minute mile. Those dinosaurs chasing you around down there?”

He took a deep breath and shook his head. “Something like that.”

“There’s a gentleman on line one. He’s apparently asking for you.”

“Apparently?”

“Well, I think he’s speaking Spanish, but Spanish is all Greek to me. The only thing I understood him say was your name.”

“Okay. Thanks.” He punched the blinking line, avoiding eye contact with the skull. “Paleontology.”

“¿Señor Campbell?”

“¿Sí?”

“Mensaje…de…Yasmin.” The timid voice spoke in broken Spanish.
Peter shot out of his seat and lunged for the handset of the phone, spilling his coffee across his desk. “Damn,” he said in English, then switched to Spanish. “¿Un mensaje de Jazmin Rivera?”

He glanced again at her face in the photo, keeping the savage eyes of the dinosaur skull pushed from his mind for the moment.

“Where is she? Is she okay?”

“La señorita dice de venir pronto.”

“Come quickly? Where?. . .¿Adonde?”

“Villa Lacandón. Pronto."

“Quickly? Why? What’s wrong? Is she all right?”

There was a pause. The man breathed heavily and seemed on the verge of saying something. Had the man heard him? Had he understood?

“¡Hola!. . .Are you still there?”

“Ven pronto,” the man said again.

Peter searched for the right words. “Sí, comprendo.”

More silence.

Peter shouted, “Wait! Who is this? Have you seen her? Is she—”

A click. Then dead silence.

“Damn it!” Peter slammed the phone handset down. With a defeated sigh, he picked it back up and dialed the operator, daring a glance at the giant skull.

Its hollow recesses revealed only shadows.

Synopsis
Peter Campbell stared with vacant eyes at the giant fossil skull, not seeing its oblique lines or cavernous openings. Instead, he searched within for the answers he could not find outside himself. Setting down the tungsten-tipped air scribe used to clear away the hard mineral deposits, he leaned against the large oak table and refocused on the skull—a newly discovered predator from the Jurassic age.
A stranger and occasional customer handed me a library book one day in 1983 while I was selling burritos in the streets of Juneau, Alaska. He said I could read Quest for the Lost City (1951), a narrative written by a couple from California who had searched for a lost Maya city in the jungles of México in the 1940s.

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