Bogleech.com's 2018 Horror Write-off:
The Banyan Skulker
Submitted by Hisham Hasan
I live in a relatively well-off, suburban area. To be precise, I lived in that specific area at the outer city limits, where the towering buildings and apartments of the city transition smoothly into the walled villas and houses of suburbia.
The place consists mostly of houses, yards, and gardens. And in those gardens and yards, and along the roads and streets, you would find fig trees.
Now, I don’t mean the common or edible fig, Ficus carica. I mean the big, ornamental ficus trees, the ones that are usually sold as houseplants but are in fact huge trees. Here in the humid tropics, the various ficus trees flourished, and grew wild and vast.
The thing is, the bigger species of Ficus really aren't the most ideal trees for most situations. The really big trees have massive, aggressive root systems and are highly invasive, damaging pipes, ripping up pavement, destroying roads and paths and even undermining houses.
Despite that, you can still find them lining streets, and in center of malls and plazas (heavily trimmed and pruned of course). They were more ideally suited for open areas, like parks, gardens, golf courses and the like, where they're free to expand their root systems and canopies.
Most of the ficus trees in our neighborhood were huge banyans and stranglers. A strangler fig would start off as a tiny seed, deposited by a bird or bat perhaps, sprouting high up in the canopy of a host tree. As the young fig grows, it sends down roots until it makes contact with the ground. Fueled by this new connection to the earth, they send down more roots until the host is enveloped in a mesh of woody roots. These roots eventually fuse together into a trunk, restricting the growth of the host tree. Eventually, the host dies and rots away, and only the fig is left, with a hollow trunk of prop roots.
Many tropical figs that start off as stranglers later become banyans. Banyans would send down thin, wiry aerial roots from their branches, and once they reach the soil these would increase in girth until they resembled secondary trunks, propping up the tree. In this way a banyan expands and grows ever more massive. Trees planted too close to garden walls or even buildings eventually engulfed them.
A truly huge banyan, with its plethora of prop roots, resembles a forest in miniature. Such massive specimens truly have a certain grandeur about them, a sort of primordial grandiosity. No wonder then, that banyans feature prominently in several cultures.
In the Philippines, where banyans are known as balete, they are said to be the home of various spirits. When I was little, we had a Filipino housekeeper, who use to tell us stories of the strange entities that resided in a banyan, a whole plethora of supernatural beings just as varied as Japanese youkai or European fey.
Anyway, our climate was ideal for strangler figs, and you could find some growing not only on trees, but also eaves, drainpipes, walls, overpasses and even roofs. Any neglected corner of a suitable building could play host to a strangler fig or two. In fact, our own house had two; one in a corner of the roof, and another sprouting from the bottom of a balcony. Both small spindly shrubs for now, but they’re already sending out aerial roots, seeking the ground below. Eventually they'll have to go.
The massive Malayan banyans, or Jejawi Fig, Ficus microcarpa, were often used to line the streets and alleys. In other places, you might have seen these glossy-leaved trees as well-behaved ornamentals or even as tiny bonsai, but here, they flourished and grew massive, with huge swathes of wiry aerial roots hanging down from their branches like curtains, and massive columns of pillar-like prop roots supporting their lush canopies.
Their tiny figs are the size of blueberries and attracted all sorts of birds, but they fruited too profusely; the streets and yards would quickly be dotted with thousands of figs, and the roads and sidewalks would be paved with a crumbly, gummy crust of crushed fig pulp. The only good thing was that the little figs didn't give off any unpleasant odors as they fermented and rotted into dirt. If they did smell, it was a sort of inoffensive, earthy scent.
Now a Moreton Bay Fig, a Ficus macrophylla, is another kind of story. A banyan even more impressive than the Malayan Banyan, it has large, pointed glossy leaves that called to mind another relative, the Indian Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica; we had plenty of those as well), and capable of reaching truly gargantuan dimensions, with prop roots cascading down like massive woody tentacles.
Its figs matched its foliage; much bigger than the Chinese banyan's berry-like fruit, Moreton Bay figs were robust-looking figs a few of centimeters in size, dark purple or brown and finely speckled with pale spots. Not as fleshy or juicy as the common fig, a bit grittier (the seeds are bigger) and drier, a bit like a fleshy prune. Birds gorged on them nonetheless, but failed to make a dent in the massive bounty. Yards and streets would always become caked in a pulpy, gritty mess of fallen Moreton Bay figs, and parked vehicles were soon garnished with a profuse topping of overripe figs. And figs are mildly laxative too, so you can guess the effect a fruiting fig has on the local bird population.
They were plenty of other Ficus species, like Ficus sundaica, F. rubiginosa, F. subgelderi, and the one growing in our own garden, the large-leaved Ficus watkinsiana, the Watkin's fig, also known confusingly as the Green-leaved Moreton Bay (it's admittedly similar) and hilariously as the nipple fig.
So many different species from different regions meant that you could always find a species or two fruiting at any time of the year. And under ideal conditions these tropical figs produce multiple crops, sometimes one right after another. Most had figs that ripened from green to dark purplish black, some to yellow, orange or even red. And they all became part of the fig litter.
Yet despite the inconvenience the residents put up with the trees, and any talk of felling them never went beyond idle banter. It was just another environmental aspect you had to adapt to, akin to an unpleasant weather phenomenon. Other people had snow and frost, we had the fig bounty to deal with. Besides, the fig litter wasn’t that bad, and fortunately it wasn’t a falling hazard; just soft enough to be crushed underfoot without tripping or slipping on them, yet gritty enough to provide sufficient traction to avoid sliding all over the place.
I don't know when it started, exactly, but gradually we realized that the fig litter was becoming heavier and messier, specifically in the area where we lived. Other places nearby were seemingly unaffected; it was just our neighborhood. At first, we thought maybe climate change, but when we realized the effect was localized, we thought maybe too much fertilizer, perhaps in the form of leaking sewage pipes. But as time went on it became apparent it was because more and more figs were going uneaten.
The birds were no longer eating the figs.
The birds didn't disappear completely from the suburbs or anything. They still flew overhead, they could still be seen in the parks and all the other neighborhoods, but for some strange, unexplained reason, they had now started avoiding our specific area in the suburbs. Birds no longer perched or roosted in our neighborhood.
We probably wouldn't have come to that realization if it weren't for an old couple that happened to be casual birdwatchers, who were the first to noticed and pointed it out to the rest of us.
It was certainly strange, but not that worrying to most of us. Some thought maybe it was some sort of pollution or radiation, or maybe electromagnetic interference in our area, but personally I always thought that maybe some hawk or other aggressive bird had set up a new territory and was driving the other birds away.
It took us much, much longer to realize that the stray cats had started to avoid our area as well.
Life went on as usual. I had school and other matters to attend to. Months passed; I graduated high school and got admitted to a local university, both of my sisters got married, and my parents finally got around to building that fish pond they always wanted in our garden.
It was a bit of a busy time, and I didn't have much time to dwell on the local ecology.
Until one day I came home to find my usually mild-tempered parents with decidedly grim attitudes. I thought maybe someone had died, but it turned out the source of their discontent was disappearing fish.
Our climate was pretty hot, so we couldn't have goldfish and koi. On the bright side, we could keep real tropical fish. We actually caught most of the fish ourselves; the nearby waterways teemed with introduced exotic fish. One of the more common species were Midas cichlids or "red devils" (feral hybrids of Amphilophus citrinellus and A. labiatum); big, blocky hump-headed fish brilliantly colored in varying shades of bright orange; from orange-gold, like the flesh of a perfectly ripe mango, to the fiery fluorescent orange of flying-fish roe, and every vivid shade in between. Some had black speckles and spots, or were piebald. We caught them on hook and line, keeping only the most intensely colored fish and throwing back the dull ones. We also got a fair number of huge, dull-colored sailfin plecos (Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps, probably a hybrid as well) with faint blotching and huge fins, and several massive specimens of an absolutely hideous lumpy-headed fish called the giant gourami (Osphronemus goramy).
We were all out that day, and as it was a busy day we had neglected to check on the pond in the morning. In the afternoon my parents came home to the unpleasant discovery that most of our fish had disappeared.
One or two fish going missing every once in a while isn't too unusual; after all, fish are mortal and do eventually die, and the plecos are effective and ravenous scavengers that dispose swiftly of any remains. But a large number of fishes had simply vanished without a trace; leaving no fishy corpses floating belly-up in the pond. Plecos are formidable eating-machines, but even they couldn't deal with that much carrion in such a short amount of time.
I thought maybe some water birds, like a whole flock of pelicans or cormorants or something, came along when no one was around and feasted on the inhabitants. But I was still amazed by how voracious they must have been; even our biggest plecos were gone. Plecos are an unappetizing-looking fish; with their robust, armored heads, rows of spiky plates down their bodies and the stout spines in their fins, they would be a tough morsel for any predator to swallow whole. Some birds even end up choking on them.
Surprisingly, the only surviving fish were the smaller individuals, presumably those that were able to hide away in the various nooks and crannies of the pond that the larger fish couldn’t squeeze into.
But my parents suspected foul play; some human thief sneaking into our yard and scooping up all the fish. They decided to go around and ask the neighbors if they noticed anything different, like things going missing.
And they came across some rather...peculiar stories.
One family told us that their cats, originally outdoor free-roaming types, had stopped going out at night. Instead, they spent their evenings strictly indoors, pacing around the house and constantly checking the doors and looking out the windows. Another family said that, starting one morning, their pet chickens had to be coaxed out of their coop every day, and seemed unusually agitated and on-edge, panicking and fleeing for the coop at the slightest disturbance.
The birdwatching couple had a compost heap in their garden, and a couple of weeks ago they were greeted one morning by the alarming site of their orderly compost heap all torn and dug up, its contents strewn all over the yard. Other neighbors had similar stories of ripped garbage bags and overturned trash cans, or trash being left in strange places, like eaves and balconies and even up in trees.
One guy said his beans kept going missing from his vegetable patch. Not the peppers, not the eggplants, just the beans. Snake beans, winged beans, the speckled butterbeans, all the bean plants were stripped of their ripening pods whenever he wasn’t around.
But the most perturbing tale of all was relayed to us by the mother of a five-year-old girl, who said her terrified daughter kept insisting that, at night, some long, spindly thing, with long, flat drooping fingers with round, swollen tips, would silently caress the window, seemingly searching for an entrance, which withdrew as soon as the lights were turned on. The mother herself wasn’t too alarmed by the whole situation and assumed it was just a vivid nightmare or the product of an overactive imagination, since there was a tree just right outside the window. After a few sleepless nights she moved her daughter into another room on the other side of the house, and since then the nightmares had all but disappeared.
There wasn't a specific pattern to the incidents. All the affected houses were in the same general vicinity, but some virtually identical houses in the area were unscathed. For whatever reason, certain properties were either skipped or ignored, for whatever reason.
The culprit seemed to be pretty good at evading attention. Security systems and surveillance cameras may be a thing in more affluent places, but here, they were a rare and usually unnecessary extravagance.
I was intrigued, and decided to investigate. I did a bit of detective work, and got a map of the surrounding properties and marked off the sites of the incidents. It became clear the incidents all occurred within a certain radius. The sites centered around one isolated property, one owned by some middle-aged bald guy who purchased a year or two ago.
We hadn’t realized before then, but all these strange events, which began with the birds avoiding our neighborhood, had all started after he moved in by around six months. The property consisted of an old house, not very big, but with a relatively large, walled-off garden, with six magnificent banyans behind the house and one on each side.
The guy didn't actually reside there, but would come and stay a few days every now and then. According to the few people that spoke with him, this property was apparently his vacation home, and he hoped it would eventually be his retirement home. Once a week, another, younger guy would arrive, an assistant or friend of some sort, and presumably tidy up the place. As a result, we didn't know them very well, but they were polite, and seemed the inoffensive and quiet type, and mostly kept to themselves.
I didn’t share any of my findings with my parents, as I didn’t want to make any false accusations, and the last thing I needed was to have both of them go marching down to the place to confront the guy. Fortunately, they didn’t, but they went ahead and took another course of action.
Armed with the anecdotal information supplied by our neighbors, my parents filed an official report at our local police station, although I doubted the police would consider the case of missing fish a matter of high priority. My parents, however, are masters of theatrics, and using the combined collective of strange stories they managed to construct a much more dramatic narrative, and gave the impression that the situation was much more urgent and serious than it actually was.
Of course, if I could easily figure which house was at the center of the incidents, so could the police. News quickly went around that the police were seen driving up to the place, and the assistant guy had let them enter. The officers mucked around for the whole day before finally leaving. Later, the rumors swirled that one or even both of them had been arrested, but that was soon disproved when they both showed up a week later, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
As for me, I was pleased that the police shared my suspicions, and I discovered I had developed a taste for detective-work. I went around and, with the permission of the occupants, took a look at each affected house. Each one was more or less similar to our own; a house surrounded by a walled garden. I took a few photos of each one to help me visualize the scene later.
Our neighbors didn’t take the matter as seriously as we did. We initially thought it might have been some sort of animal, maybe even a whole group of them. Monkeys escaped from the zoo? Or some other exotic animal? Could monkeys even catch fish? Our pond wasn’t that deep, but it was large, almost half the size of our yard.
However, someone soon pointed out that, at least as far as we knew, seemingly no fruit or vegetables (other than beans) had been taken. Garbage, fish, beans, yes, but nothing else.
I probably should have come to that realization first. We had a couple of small but prolific langsat trees in the backyard. Every day, the ground beneath them would be littered with freshly fallen ripe fruit, yet when our fish disappeared the fruit had remained untouched.
What kind of scavenger would go to great lengths to shred garbage bags, raid trash bins, root through a compost heap and catch fish, yet ignore succulent, easily accessible fruit?
Feral cats would ignore fruit, but would they eat raw beans? I've read that domestic felines sometimes eat cooked beans, but raw beans are actually poisonous to cats.
Or maybe the creature had a deficiency or craving for a certain nutrient? It did seem to focus mostly on protein, which would explain it took only the beans. Perhaps a pregnant or lactating animal?
A human culprit, on the other hand, would be smart enough to take just a few fruits from each yard, so that the theft would go unnoticed. But then why steal all the beans so blatantly, and ignore the rest of the vegetables?
The animal theory became even more unlikely after the police informed us that no trace of any creature had been found at any of the sites. You’d expect hair, urine, feces, half-eaten scraps or something. No animal cleans up after itself.
Eventually, the neighborhood arrived at another conclusion. The general consensus among our community became that these events were the work of some poor, starving vagrant, desperately seeking some sort of sustenance in our gardens and trash. The general public opinion was sympathetic; even my parents felt pity for the newly-humanized intruder, although were still somewhat resentful of having so many fish taken.
Still, it didn’t explain everything. The culprit ignored certain properties, even those that were adjacent; wouldn’t a desperate and hungry person be thorough and methodical? Clear out each yard before moving on to the next?
Why raid some yards, and leave virtually identical ones unscathed?
Some of these untouched houses had fruit trees in their gardens, like mangoes and litchis, with branches weighed down with fruit, and trash bins overflowing with garbage. The family right next to us had a colossal sapodilla tree with a massive crop of ripe fruit, yet the tree’s bounty remained untouched. I find it hard to believe that any sort of hungry person would ignore a feast like that. Something particularly puzzling was the fact another family had a pond too, one much smaller than ours, and all their fish were accounted for.
Why some houses, and not others?
The police made a big show of sweeping the neighborhood and did a few all-night patrols and vigils, and basically shrugged and gave up.
Meanwhile, people were keeping their doors and windows securely fastened, but otherwise they didn't seem too concerned. My parents would discuss that maybe we stock our pond with something less palatable, or at least harder to catch.
I myself toyed with the idea of setting up a camera or two in the yard, but after looking it up, I realized I lacked both the technical knowledge and manual dexterity required, and calling in an expert to do it for me seemed a bit much. I could have eventually learned how to do it myself, of course, but that seemed like too much effort at the time.
I did try staying up one night and keeping watch at the window, but saw nothing. I assumed the perpetrator must have noticed me.
Later still I tried a different tact, and kept watch while in the yard, concealed inside a bush, hoping to catch the thief in the act. I had left out a bowl of leftover fried catfish as bait. But after a long and uncomfortable night I didn’t see or hear anything, and I realized it was an exercise in futility. The perpetrator could have come at any time throughout the day; I couldn’t possibly keep watch for 24 hours a day, let alone for several days.
Anyway, I soon gave up on such extreme measures. The allure of being a detective faded. For me, solving the mystery wasn’t something high-priority. It simply became a conundrum I puzzled over in my free time, just a side-project, something to keep me occupied (and a welcome distraction from working on my essays).
Days passed. One lazy afternoon, while I was alone in the house (and feeling particularly disinclined to do academic work), I took out all my notes and spread them over my bed. Just idly reading through the notes, letting my thoughts wander.
I pictured our houses, our yards and gardens.
Planted with flowers, shrubs, and trees.
Looming, practically ubiquitous in our neighborhoods.
Tall, immensely vast trees, with massive spreading canopies.
Trees in adjacent yards with their crowns touching.
Rows of trees in the streets and parks.
An interconnected network.
I sat up. I took out the photos I had taken.
I looked at the houses, the sites of the incidents.
Each with at least one massive ficus tree in the garden.
A ficus tree that happened to be touching another ficus. And so on.
I looked out the window, out across our own yard. Our own Ficus watkinsia, a massive banyan, was right up against the garden wall, and beyond it was another ficus in the neighbor's yard. The pond was built under its shade, to give the fish some relief from the hot sun.
I remembered the scared girl, her story of the thing at her window. Her mother said there was a tree right outside her window.
I took out a little map of our neighborhood that had the site of each incident clearly marked. I went to my laptop, brought up satellite images of my area, and zoomed in, compared it with the map.
I saw how the trees linked all the sites, their canopies interconnected in one continuous web.
A network connecting all our houses.
No incidents in sites lacking trees, or houses that had single trees isolated in the middle of a lawn or yard.
I remember the neighbors’ untouched fishpond. I checked my photos.
No trees around the periphery of their yard, either in the street or in the garden itself.
I checked the photos of another house that had been spared. No trees in the periphery either.
I check all of the untouched properties.
All were just beyond the reach of the communal canopy network.
Cut off. Inaccessible.
It was all starting to make sense.
A human intruder wouldn’t be hindered by the lack of trees.
This was definitely a creature, a being that used the trees to get from place to place.
And whatever it was, it was strictly arboreal. It avoided the ground, its movement constrained by the reach of the branches.
I was getting excited.
Some sort of escaped pet primate? A strictly tree-dwelling species, like an orangutan? Or a gibbon?
I dismissed the idea. Somehow, I couldn't envision such a creature nabbing all our fish.
At any rate, I was now convinced our mystery culprit was not a person, but a beast. And I realized that the perfect hiding place for a shy creature was most likely in a tree in the most isolated, least occupied house, the one at the epicenter of the incidents; the property owned by the bald man.
I decided to check out the house. It was around noon, so most people around here are at work or at school. Anyway, it's so hot no one would be out and about. Perfect for a bit of snooping. I went up to the door and rang the bell, but no one answered. I expected as much, so I decided to check out the perimeter. Like most of the houses here the property is surrounded by a high wall, but this one was taller than most, being perhaps eight or nine, maybe even ten feet tall.
I walked around to the back. The six banyans in the back garden, with their thick, leafy, interlocking canopies forming an almost jungle-like mound of foliage, would make an ideal home for a bashful tree dweller.
If it was nocturnal, I might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it while it's asleep.
Was the animal a pet of the bald man? Or was he unaware that his garden harbored a mysterious tree-dwelling creature?
I walked right up to the wall, and took note of how the leafy crowns spilled over the wall. In fact, quite a few prop roots had already taken root on this side of the wall. Left unchecked, the trees would probably eventually engulf the wall itself.
Outside the wall there are trees in the street whose branches intermingle with the banyans.
I looked up into the leaves. You could be walking or driving along the street, and the creature might be right above you, watching, and you’d be none the wiser.
I turned my attention back to the yard. After a moment of hesitation, I jumped up and grabbed the edge of the wall, and pulled myself up to take a look over the edge.
The yard is a bit unkempt, but otherwise looks ordinary. No lawn, a patchy blanket of bark mulch, piles of fallen ficus leaves all over the place, a few shrubs here and there. The massive buttress roots of the banyan trees snake across the yard, forming a woody intermeshed network of winding ridges and canyons.
There's a pond as well, perhaps a third the size of our own fishpond, but with some sort of netting covering it. To keep predators away? It's actually a good idea; I make a mental note to suggest this to my parents.
I don't want to trespass onto private property, but soon I convince myself it's fine as long as I don't actually go over the wall (please don’t actually do this, it is definitely a bad idea but it seemed like a brilliant loophole at the time). I figured no one would mind, I just wanted to take a closer look and peer into the trees.
I hoisted the rest of my body onto the wall, grabbing the branches to help pull me up. I stood on the wall in a half-crouch; the tangle of branches made it hard for me to stand up straight. I slowly and carefully made my way along the wall, grabbing at the branches to steady myself. As I did so, I peered into the leafy tangle, trying to catch a glimpse of the creature, or at least its nest or something.
After that, well, things get a little hazy. I’ll try to reconstruct it the best I can from the bits I remember.
The next thing I know, I’m coming to. I'm in deep shade.
I'm dazed, disoriented. Gradually, I get my bearings.
I'm on my back, sprawled painfully over several massive, meandering buttress roots of a ficus tree.
One particularly gnarled root serves as a very uncomfortable headrest.
The memories start coming back. Me, on the wall, squatting down and getting ready to lower myself off.
A branch slips out of my hand. I'm left clutching a handful of leaves.
I teeter off balance. I panic and jerk back, over-correcting. I topple backwards into the yard.
And here I am.
I try to get up, and cry out in pain.
My left arm's shattered. More importantly, I can't move my legs, and my back screams with excruciating pain.
I'm paralyzed, I think hysterically.
I spend the next few seconds screaming my head off and yelling for help.
I finally stop due to fatigue. I try to calm myself, look around, take note of my surroundings.
It's hot. The occupants are away, likely the neighbors are as well.
I feel very alone.
I yell for help again. I give up after a few minutes. No point in losing my voice, I need to conserve it for later.
Are any of the neighbors around to hear me? The nearby houses are all separated by large yards; even if anybody's home, it's likely no one's heard my screams.
How long has it been? Judging by the shadows, it was well past noon.
I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I was a college student; they wouldn’t miss me until next morning.
A sudden thought occurs to me, a flicker of hope.
I steel myself against the pain, and, twisting slightly, I gingerly extract my phone from my pants.
The front is smashed, the screen frozen and glitched.
I desperately poke the screen, mash the buttons.
The phone is unresponsive.
I fight the rising panic. I try to calm myself by reassessing the situation.
Left arm's useless. Right arm bruised but functional.
I can breathe just fine, although there is a pain in my side when I do so.
I nearly weep in joy when I realize I still feel pain in my legs. I can still wiggle the toes a bit, move the left leg a little. It means my spinal cord isn't severed; there is still a possibility I can eventually walk again.
Assuming I get saved.
I push away that terrifying thought. I prop myself up on my good arm. Lying on the gnarled tree roots is absolute agony.
I look up at the wall.
The drop didn't seem that high; it was landing on these hard, protruding roots that caused the damage and knocked me out.
I realize that, in a way, I am lucky; had I fallen in a slightly different way and at a slightly different angle, I might have broken my neck.
I shudder at the thought.
Should I stay still? Stay where I was? Or should I try to move? Will it aggravate my back injury? I remember reading an article about a guy with a spinal injury who crawled through a field to get help, but he had the use of both of his hands.
The house is pretty far away. Even if I did manage to drag myself to it on one arm, could I gain access in my current state? What if the doors were locked?
Maybe the best strategy would be to continue to call for help, with breaks every now and then to let my voice rest. Surely sooner or later someone would hear.
I look around, checking for anything I could utilize.
The pond is a few meters away. If my throat becomes parched because of too much yelling, I could try crawling there for a drink. At least I won’t die of dehydration.
The broken phone is still in my clutch. Maybe I can throw it over the wall? Catch the attention of a passerby? Although nonfunctional, I’m reluctant to relinquish the only tool I have.
Maybe I can take it apart, use the battery to start a fire somehow? The smoke might catch someone’s attention, there’s plenty of leaves and bark around…
A soft sound from above interrupts my thoughts.
I look up. The foliage is still. There is no breeze.
Yet there is a slight rustling. Very slight.
I strain to listen.
A soft scraping noise accompanies the rustle. The leaves are still motionless.
Something is moving in the canopy.
A bird? No bird has been seen in months.
Should I yell and scream to scare it away? It might get provoked. Or was it attracted by my yelling earlier?
More rustling and scraping. From a different location in the canopy.
Was there more than one?
There’s definitely more than one; there are multiple rustles and scrapes. Converging from throughout the canopy towards my location.
I stare into the foliage, trying to make out what they are.
I see leaves twitching and moving as something passes them by...
I see leaves push other leaves.
Leaves pushing other leaves?
The leaves are moving.
The leaves are actually moving on their own.
I can’t believe my eyes.
I see a woody liana slithering along the branches. Scraping softly.
I see the leaves attached to the vine, leaves that move like the legs of an insect, pulling the vine along like a centipede.
I lay there, dumbfounded, as several vines start making their way down the prop roots.
The leaves are glossy and oval and taper into a point; they superficially resemble the large leaves of their ficus home. The woody liana, too, could easily be mistaken for one of the myriad aerial roots of their banyan host. Almost perfect camouflage.
Each vine has multiple branches and offshoots. They approach ever closer, slowly and with purpose.
I see that each leaf is drawn out into a curly tendril or tentacle, coiled up behind the body of the leaf, and used to provide traction.
And as the vines descend, the leaves unfurl and extend their tendrils to their full length, exposing the tips which had been concealed from view.
And on the tip of each tendril is a swelling that inflates and extends into a hollow cylinder, unfurling like a sock being turned inside-out. It opens up into a gourd or jug-shaped urn, with an open mouth and hinged cap acting as a lid, and a fleshy rim like a pair of round, open lips.
Some pitchers, the ones carried by the leaves nearer the tip of the vine, the newly-opened ones, were bright shades of reddish orange and orange gold, the colors all fresh and candy-like. As you went along the vine, they turned a purplish-red or reddish purple, the newer color replacing the old one in spots and patches. The oldest pitchers were mostly various shades of brown, with blotches and specks of their former colors.
As the approach closer, I see that the colors actually shift and change, complex patterns rippling and moving in fluid animation, like the skin of a cuttlefish, or an electronic display. The young pitchers had thick bands of purplish-magenta pulsing and flowing down their lengths, while the mature pitchers made their spots and blotches move along their surface, contracting then expanding, then radiating outwards in concentric circles. The oldest pitchers, the brownish ones, shifted from dark chocolate to rich caramel to pale tan and every shade of brown in between, and had the spots pulsate, fade then reappear in changing patterns, then merge into thin broken lines of color moving in waves down their length.
Despite my situation, I still found it in me to marvel at this unprecedented natural wonder. My eyes are transfixed by the mesmerizing patterns moving over the pitchers.
The moving patterns alternately speed up, then slow down, my heart-rate seemingly in sync.
A dense, musky scent, like a freshly cut, perfectly ripe guava, wafts through the air.
As the vines approach, they extend the pitchers towards me. The biggest traps are as nearly as long as my forearm. Their openings gently mouth my arm, smearing me with some sort of clear, viscous liquid, like sanitizer gel.
I'm looking at all this while in some sort of daze. Like I'm entranced, or stoned, or both.
Is it the strange, intoxicating scent? Is it the hypnotic shifting patterns that tickle my eyes like optical illusions? I don't really care at this point. I no longer feel any pain.
Yet there's a tiny bubble of panic in the back of my mind, as I continue to marvel at these pitchers as they gently mouth and caress my arms, my torso, my chest, my legs...
My legs are covered in clear slime, multiple pitchers moving smoothly over them, dribbling the clear sticky liquid from the mouths.
In my trance, I had allowed the pitchers to completely ensnare me in a slimy coat.
The spell is broken. I snap out of my stupor.
My panic response floods back in full force.
The built-up panic is overwhelming and bursts out of me explosively. I screech as I suddenly spasm in terror, then scream again as my body vehemently protests in excruciating pain.
The pitchers, perhaps sensing I was no longer under their influence, no longer gently caress. Instead, each fastens its mouth to me like a suction cup, and wraps its tendril around whatever it can.
They start pulling back into the tree.
Dragging me along in a slimy cocoon.
The pain and the realization of my plight brings my thoughts back into focus, the panic now receding into background as a buzzing undercurrent.
Despite the agony, and at the risk of permanently paralyzing myself, I decide I must try to escape the plant’s slimy grasp at any cost.
I try to twist and thrash about, to the best of my ability. I struggle to free my good arm
It's no use.
The more I move, the thicker and stickier the goo becomes, and the tighter it clings. It's like struggling through molasses or drying glue at this point. And wherever the slime contacts my flesh, it tingles and burns like a corrosive chemical.
They drag me over the roots to the trunk, every jerk and bump igniting an unbelievable agony in my arm and back.
I scream, curse and yell all the way.
When I reach the base of the trunk, they start hoisting me into the canopy feet-first.
My mind is in a daze from the pain. My throat's raw from the screaming.
One last desperate thought occurs to me.
I have one final weapon at my disposal; my mouth.
I try to bite at the tendrils and the slime, but to no avail. The goo is wrapped tightly around my neck like a collar made of resin. I can’t twist my head far enough.
Despair grips me. There's no escape.
I resentfully resign myself to a painful and horrible death. I would have liked to die with dignity, if I had any left, I think bitterly to myself. Instead, my poor family will find my bones in some slime-lined pit.
If they ever do find me.
It pulls me into a more horizontal position, onto a large branch. The vines wrap around me, the leaves enveloping me almost tenderly, like sepals protecting a flower.
Will it start feeding on me here and now, bathe me in acidic juices and enzymes?
Slurp up my liquefying tissues while I’m being digested alive?
Will I be denied even the mercy of a swift demise?
Suddenly, they all pause, then shudder.
Several pitchers lift into the air, waving around.
I hear a loud, aggressive rustling. Something is moving with arrogant and deliberate oafishness through the canopy of the adjacent banyan.
Another group of vines emerges from the neighboring tree, spilling onto the branches.
These vines have even bigger leaves and traps, and its pitchers are even more brightly-colored, exploding in a dazzling display of vivid bands and spots as their mouths flare and undulate threateningly.
The vines clutch me even tighter as the smaller plant's traps answer with their own display, stripes rippling angrily and menacingly.
The scent of guava is now replaced by something harsher, more pungent and acrid, like a mix of vinegar and hospital disinfectant.
The two plants display and posture for a while, pitchers gaping and writhing.
Then, the larger pitchers surge forward and latch onto me with their mouths like botanical lampreys.
They try to push and pry the smaller pitchers off of me, but the latter continue to try and maintain their hold on me.
Branches and leaves shake vigorously around me. Pitchers slither and grapple with each other, each plant trying to twist off the traps of the other.
The larger plant starts to pull me away, but the smaller plant doesn't give up so easily and clings even more tenaciously to me, wrapping its vines and tendrils around the surrounding branches.
The larger plant is stronger, and gradually, through sheer brute force, starts dragging me to the outer branches, attempting to get me back into its own tree.
The branches here on the periphery are thinner, spindlier. Brittle.
This is ludicrous. I’m stiff with terror as I sway and bounce precariously in the grasp of the two sparring plants, each trying to weaken the grip of the other.
Suddenly, the branches beneath me break under my weight and give way.
In the midst of their struggle, neither plant has a proper grip on me.
For the second time that day, I plummet towards the earth.
The next thing I remember is seeing a bright light and then gasping awake, scaring the living daylights of the intern shining a light into my eye. I was in the emergency room of our local hospital.
The next events all pass in a blur. I remember an overexcited resident who kept reassuring me and patting my shoulder and being poked with needles. My clothes are covered with a sticky residue and I have dead ficus leaves stuck on all over. My exposed flesh is covered in what appear to be chemical burns.
Eventually, though, I became awake to enough to mostly comprehend my surroundings and ask how I got here. While testing my reflexes and the sensation in my legs, the doctor told me that it was the assistant guy who found me and called an ambulance. No mention of any ambulatory plant monsters.
Later on, when I'm finished with imaging studies and comfortably admitted to the ward, the doctor comes to me with some good news; images of my head show no bleeding, fractures, or any other sort of injury, though they'll have to repeat them in a few days to be sure (some brain injuries take time to show up). While my back is pretty messed up, there's no major displacement. I’m later scheduled for surgery on my fractured arm and on my back to stabilize the vertebrae.
Later still, my parents came to visit. They were equal parts reproachful, angry and relieved. After I reassured them, they finally calmed down enough to tell me to be thankful that the owner of the property, a Mr. Burton, was kind enough to not press any charges against trespassing.
Stunned, I sat there speechless as they told me the police now think I'm the prime suspect behind the incidents. I tell them what really happened, but judging by my mother's stony visage (and my father's increasingly bewildered one), they didn't believe a single word I said. My mother scolded me when I finished, and instructed me not to say anything without the presence of a lawyer. When visiting hours were over and they reluctantly left, I get the distinct feeling that they think I'm the perpetrator too.
It's been a few months now. I've been discharged home. My surgeries were successful, and the doctors think that, with plenty of physical therapy, I should be able to walk again. I get around in a wheelchair, but I can stand for a few seconds and move my feet a little. Our house now has a little ramp at the front door and gate. My left arm no longer carries a cast, but still pains me and is a little stiff.
I've started attending classes again. Normalcy is reassuring; having a daily schedule keeps me occupied and brings some well-needed order into my life.
The police never came to interview me. Nobody in our neighborhood wanted to press any charges, so the case was closed, and very little of it has appeared in the media. Apparently, my parents had gone around and done some damage control and made reparations, so it was all settled. No mention of me or my family's name. My parents never bring up "the incident" again, and quickly suppress all of my attempts to discuss it. They do, however, still keep gently asking me if I had taken any "herbal supplements" or "medications" prior to all this.
My sisters are somewhat more sympathetic and decided to humor me, just once, by listening to my story, but I can tell they really don't believe it. I overhear them later discussing what I did with all the fish; one thinks I sold them for some quick cash, and the other thinks I cooked and ate them all, for whatever reason.
At least selling the fish seems like a plausible idea. Anyway, how would anyone go about eating a spiny-finned, armor plated catfish? Boil it for soup?
At any rate, things are more or less back to normal, although now everyone in the neighborhood thinks I am (or rather, formerly was) a tree-climbing pervert and miscreant. There is an uncomfortable distance, a certain frigidness in how they interact with me and my family now, although I'm hopeful one day relations will eventually thaw.
The incidents have all stopped. Although I'm glad for the community, I am a bit upset that the timing makes me look all the more guilty. Burton must have found a way to restrain those plants so they don't wander off the property.
I remember the house was surrounded by eight ficus trees. Did he have one in each tree?
I would have thought the whole thing was just a dream, if it weren't for one, or rather two, little things.
The hospital gave me back my things, including for some reason the clothes that they had to cut off of me. They were still covered all over with a dried, sticky, gummy residue, with bits of fallen figs and bark chips and fallen leaves stuck to them.
And among them there is one special leaf, withered into brown leather and oval-shaped, like a big ficus leaf. Except the tip extends into a tendril that ends with a shriveled pitcher. I use it as a bookmark now. I keep it, just in case.
The other thing stuck to my pants was a little, white plastic rectangle with a dirt-covered spike at one end that must have been a plant marker. It had something scrawled on it:
Nepenthes dendrophila susbsp. macrostoma
I looked it up; that name doesn’t exist. It must be a newly discovered species.
I see no point in pursuing the matter further. I've thought of contacting or confronting Burton, but unless he goes public with his plants, I see no point in doing so now. We've all moved on with our lives, and I think I’ve been nosy enough.
Our pond's restocked now with freshly caught feral Midas cichlids, a couple of plecos, and a new batch of juveniles of the giant gourami, who've yet to develop their humped heads. Plus, two huge rice eels (a species of Monopterus, I think) we found in a ditch after a storm. One has the regular coloration of muddy brown, while the other must be an albino of some sort; it's the exact same color as cheddar cheese.
They're all thriving on a diet of fish pellets, vegetable scraps and peels, and the occasional treat of ground-up chicken hearts and shrimp heads. Not a single one has gone missing so far.
I myself made a little personal contribution to the fish collection. One day at the mall, I passed by the local pet shop, which was closing down and having a clearance sale. The very last fish they had was all by itself in a half-filled tank with a barely functioning filter. It was a brownish, tilapia-like fish the size of my hand, with spiky fins and bronze-colored eyes, and was labeled as a “walking gourami”. I was intrigued by its grumpy visage and grouchy demeanor, and sympathized with its plight, so I bought it at a generous discount, and after a short spell in a quarantine tank it was introduced to our pond. It seemed to fit in just fine.
I later identified as a climbing perch (Anabas sp.). And while I was researching it, I came across an interesting little story or legend about it. I guess I managed to solve a long-standing mystery of natural history.
I think I’ve figured out why and how the climbing perch sometimes ends up in trees.