This story is by P. S. Headrick and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When Sara arrived in Brazil, she met her fellow travelers: two engineers; two archaeologists with four archaeology students; two historians; and a reporter. Everyone had the opportunity to get acquainted as they traveled upriver on a small run-down passenger boat.
“Hello. I’m Polly. My husband, George and I are engineers. We came to study ancient architectural methods in this new discovery. What brings you the this piece of paradise?” Polly asked, slapping a mosquito from her cheek.
“I’m Sara. My boss likes to torture me by sending me to far away places to research the unbelievable. This year I’ve been to England looking for ghosts; China for dragons; and Ireland for leprechauns. Here, I’m looking for a pristine ancient city that sometimes disappears. Then he will take my research and turn it into a best selling novel for which he will take credit. I need a new life,” Sara lamented as she headed for her cabin.
* * * *
Four days later, they disembarked onto a dilapidated wooden pier, met their native guide, and began a three day hike to a small village. The two women talked as they slogged toward the final destination.
Their guide led them to a village with around 100 straw huts, which encircled a community area. Large trees with dense foliage surrounded the village. Entering the village, Sara had noticed guards near the trailhead. Her senses went on alert. “Something is not right,” she thought. She shook it off.
Sara watched as young natives escorted the visitors to their quarters. The archaeologists’ hut was north, the historians and reporter west, the engineers south.
Sara stood alone by the community fire, waiting. An older man approached. He seems oddly familiar. “Come, Sara, I will take you to your hut.” He took her hand, smiled and led her toward the eastern quadrant; and stopped between two huts. “This is my shelter,” he pointed to the unique dwelling on his left. “This is yours,” pointing to the right. “We will talk later. I must go.”
Sara entered her hut which had a heavy cloth covered door. Inside she found a hammock intricately woven with black and gold threads, an unusual white cougar rug, a small chair, and a terrifying mask on one wall. “What is all of this? These items do not belong. Why are they here?” She shivered. Baffled, Sara left her hut, walked to the community fire, and watched.
Polly joined her. “I’m too excited to rest. You too?”
“What is your hut like?” Sara asked.
“Modest. It’s comfortable. Yours?”
“It’s okay,” answered Sara.
“Oh, Sara, I meant to ask. On the boat, what did you mean ‘not in ruins and sometimes disappears’?”
“Nothing really. Something I read doing research for this trip. What do you know about this Ancient City?”
Polly replied, “It was discovered six months ago. Our escort told me it’s considered sacred.
“Sacred? I thought it was old ruins like Machu Picchu in Peru,” Sara said. “Polly,” Sara pointed. “Have you met the old man headed to your hut?”
“Yes, he’s the Shaman. This afternoon, he blessed George and me, along with the others. Where were you? You have to be blessed before going to the city. Oh, there’s George. I have to go.”
“Why wasn’t I invited to the blessing ceremony?” Sara thought. “He said he would talk to me later. But, something doesn’t fell right. I’m not going to sleep in my hut tonight.”
Sara went to her hut to prepare for the night and clear her troubled mind. She was deep in thought when the Shaman called out, “May I enter?”
“Yes, I have been expecting you.”
The shaman did not show his surprise. “You have been blessed with a special gift, Sara. Use it well, and it will guide you as you seek a better life and find your destiny.” Suddenly, he turned and left.
“Was that a blessing? Or, something else? He seems to know me and he has been in my dreams lately.” Sara always listens to her premonitions and this time they were screaming. “I am definitely not sleeping in this hut. I’m going to find a comfortable tree, climb high, hide and observe.”
* * * *
A bird of prey screeched and took flight. The bird’s cry jerked Sara from her sleep and she almost fell off her perch. She silently crawled to where she could see into the village. The plaza was dark. The full moon and bright stars provided very little light. There were no night torches. The community fire was only embers, and apparently no guards were walking the perimeter. “Oh, not good,” she thought.
She sat motionless moving only her eyes to surveil the settlement. An animal entered the village from the North, but all she could see was a dark shadow moving toward the Shaman’s hut. When it passed near the community fire, Sara recognized it as a black panther. The panther stopped in front of the Shaman’s hut, sniffed the air, and looked around, then entered. She heard a woman’s scream. Seconds later the panther exited the hut carrying a gold handle knife. The panther moved to Sara’s hut; he hesitated then entered. A few minutes later the panther exited without the knife; walked to Sara’s tree, sniffed, and looked up. Sara stifled a gasped, as the panther disappeared into the jungle.
Sara descended from the tree and walked into the village. She grabbed a torch, lit it and headed for the Shaman’s hut. She stopped at the door, slowly calmed herself and entered. She glanced around. What she saw was a large black panther rug, an elaborate golden headpiece, and a golden thread hammock. On the walls were weapons, numerous medicine pouches and a mask identical to the one in her hut. “Who screamed? Where is the woman?” She asked herself. Her danger barometer just went up a notch.
She left the Shaman’s quarters, and went to her hut. Panic washed over her when she saw the bloody knife lying on her white rug. She bent down to retrieve the knife, but it disappeared. She recoiled and ran. Drums began to beat. “What just happened is beyond belief,” she thought. “Where is everyone else? Did she really see a panther? Was there knife? Why and where are the beating drums? What should I do? The panther went south towards the drums.” She followed the drums.
Sara carefully followed the path. After 20 minutes, the hard packed earth turned to smooth stones and a glimmer of light played among the trees and man made structures. She doused her torch and slipped between ancient buildings.
The drums grew louder as she approached the center of the city. She climbed to the roof of the tallest building and searched for a hiding place overlooking the plaza. Shocked at what she saw, her anxiety increased. The natives and visitors were in a trance, drinking and dancing to the drums’ rhythm. Warriors carried their weapons of war.
The Shaman, dressed in regalia, including the golden headpiece and a panther skin cape, appeared on the top step of temple. He lifted his hands. Everyone turned toward the temple. He chanted as he descended. When his feet reached the plaza, he pointed towards Sara’s hiding place. Sara knew no one could see her; however, she felt exposed. She could feel the Shaman’s presence near her. The chant was compelling. Sara resisted, as fear began to grow.
The Shaman continued to chant as he approached a raised rectangular stone in the center of the plaza. Sara saw herself lying on the sacrificial altar. She stifled a low gasp. The Shaman removed the gold handled knife from its sheath and lifted it above the young woman’s body. The chanting increased. The drums beat faster.
Sara was terrified. Fear had frozen her abilities to think or move, so she closed her eyes and prayed. Sara felt the knife pierce her heart as her blood flowed. Unexpectedly she felt a warm body brush against her arm. She opened her eyes and weakly recoiled. Shock, fear, panic, instinct told her to run. Her heart, mind and body said, “No.” The Black Panther lay peacefully beside her and tenderly placed a front paw on her shoulder. She was amazed. She placed her arm around the animal’s neck and felt at peace—until the drums stopped.
The panther stood close to Sara as she rose; and she turned back to the scene below. She lay on the altar soaked in her own blood. Dread overcame her. Sara looked for the panther. He was waiting for her near the stairs. When she joined him, her mind eased as her body transformed into a beautiful, graceful white panther. As they left, Sara turned to see the city fade away and heard the Shaman’s last blessing, “Be at peace Sara, you have found your destiny.”