THE story of the SWAMP APE

“The moment of arrival, and that of departing, are two of the greatest epochs of life, so sayeth the ancient book.”

The musky scent of decaying vegetation permeated the humid air.  The dragonflies settled, bullfrogs croaked, crickets chirped, owls stirred, other night creatures awoke, and another vibrant sunset receded.   The atmosphere brought with it the eerie feeling of being watched.  Alligator, panther, all sort of elusive swamp life lurked in the approaching darkness.

Swampy Jack’s boots sank into the mushy turf as he high-stepped through the marsh, his machete in his grip and his dog, Takeo, by his side.  “What do you think of the Everglades Takeo,” he said to his Jack Russell Terrier.  “You enjoying yourself?”

Takeo responded with a narrowing of his eyes as he stared up at Jack, shook mud from his paw and panted his contentment.  Jack chuckled.  “I thought you’d enjoy it here.”

“You speak to that dog as if he understands you.”  The voice came over Jack’s shoulder, the words laced with amusement.

Jack glanced back.  Miles Teg was the reason Jack found himself here in the heart of these vast wetlands.  They had met only a few weeks earlier in Cuba, Miles having chartered a flight on Jack’s Air Wongo charter service.  The Army veteran, with a full head of grey hair and thick-rimmed glasses, hurried his step to reach Jack’s side.

“You know, Takeo’s been my travel companion for so long we just understand each other,” Jack replied.  He watched with pride and amusement as Takeo jumped over a log, then huffed as his paws sank deep into the mire.

“I see.  Well, we haven’t really discussed it since starting out, so what do you think of our mission these six days in?” Miles queried.

“Well, we have been very productive, but that productivity may simply be evidence of just how invasive this species has become.  This may be a Sisyphean task.  Maybe the numbers can be stabilized, but without a natural predator I don’t think eradication is possible.”  Jack continued, “And without a Herculean effort I don’t see the numbers being reduced until, unfortunately, their food sources are depleted, and that probably means near extinction for many native animals.

“I tend to agree with you.” Miles replied.  You may know, there has been discussion of the importing a potential predator, but that only opens another Pandora’s Box.”  Miles smiled, “You’re not the only one fluent in Greek mythology, Jack.”
Jack chuckled, enjoying Miles’ quick wit.

Jack had been caught up in several adventures, through all sorts of terrain, where he’d had to contend with dangerous predators; so, a search and destroy operation of the Burmese Python plaguing the Everglades was an opportunity Jack quickly agreed to.  He’d been invited by Miles, to join a team of men sanctioned by the state to eradicate, or at least attempt to control, the invasive python population.  These invasive snakes grew so large there were no natural predator in the Everglades to control their numbers.  When hungry the python could consume any animal it was large enough to wrap around and suffocate.  This was having a devastating effect on the native wildlife population.

They’d been in this sector of the Everglades for almost a week and had managed to destroy numerous pythons of all sizes.  The work was becoming somewhat routine, and Jack’s mind was beginning to wander.

Jack’s thoughts turned inward to the restless, unsettled feelings he was experiencing ever since setting foot in the States a little over a week earlier.  He was back in his home country for the first time after decades of roaming the world.  Why was he so agitated?  The restlessness reminded him of his confusion decades earlier when he was first struggling with his decision to leave home and visit Mexico for what was originally planned to be a couple of months—he never returned home.  Jack now understood that youthful restlessness was simply his desire to fill a blank slate with his own personal adventures.

Now he was home, or near enough, only a day’s drive and he could be there, a place he’d never returned since leaving on his first adventures in Mexico all those years earlier.  But what was bothering him?  What was this nagging confusion?  Why was he so agitated?  He was always comfortable in his own skin, except when a big change was coming.

Miles broke the silence which was becoming slightly uncomfortable, “Jack, you’ve grown quiet these last couple of days. Are we Swamp Apes not entertaining enough for you?

Broken from his internal gaze, Jack grinned at the mention of the Swamp Apes.  Miles’ team called themselves the Swamp Apes, playfully named after the mythical Swamp Ape of the Everglades.  They were a gregarious bunch with their loud rock music, playful zeal, and dedication to a pristine Everglades.

The Swamp Apes typically broke up into smaller teams of two or three, these smaller teams maintaining a sort of skirmish line on foot, and in skiffs when necessary.  This way they could cover more ground and cross paths with more python.  Jack’s team, consisting of Miles, Takeo and himself, usually worked the left flank where they could wander a little wide if they saw something of interest.

Jack refocused to the here and now as his small team continued maneuvering forward, now through a dense tunnel of vines and thick brush, flashlight and eyes directed forward, ears open, all senses on alert.  The team emerged from the tangle into a small clearing.

The now hidden sun reflected off a huge rising moon.  The moonbeams diffused through the moss-covered branches to give everything a dreamy reddish glow.  Suddenly the silence was interrupted by Takeo’s low, agitated growl.  Jack looked ahead to see his dog crouched, hackles raised, staring into a thicket ahead.  “What is it Takeo?” he asked as he covered the distance.  He reached Takeo’s side and peered into the dense brush.

He saw Miles ready his double snake hoop and queried, “Python?”

“I don’t think so,” he replied skeptically as a putrid smell, like musky animal and swamp gas, assaulted Jack’s nostrils.  Jack quickly realized; it definitely wasn’t a python.  Carefully, he searched the brush, his excitement rising.  At that moment, Jack heard heavy breathing.  Quickly swinging his flashlight towards the sound, Jack’s eyes lit on a pair of fluorescent emerald orbs.  An animal, startled by the light, straightened from its crouched position to tower over Jack; it then turned swiftly and took off, the musky smell hanging in the stagnant air.

“Aren’t they also known as Skunk Ape?” Jack mumbled to himself.  “That sure smells skunky.”

Miles, interpreting Jack’s mumble, shone his light towards him and said, “No way.  I’m sure it was a bear.  Perhaps a panther.”

Jack replied, “Panther run on four legs, and they aren’t covered head to toe in thick dark fur.  And bears’ eyes reflect blue, not green.  And that smell!”  Had he spotted the cryptid of the Everglades, the Swamp Ape?  Only one way to find out.

“Takeo, get it!”  Jack snapped his fingers and pointed in the direction of the creature’s flight.

Takeo barked and shot out in front of Jack.  Jack over his shoulder to Miles, “Come on, come on, come on, come on.”

The animal’s path was obvious by the huge footprints left in the mud.  “How many toes?” Jack thought to himself, the mud sloughing back into the footprint too quickly to be sure.

Several hundred yards later they reached an expanse of ankle-deep water populated with large cypress trees.  They had lost the trail of the creature.

Suddenly, an eruption of shouts from their right assailed their ears.  They immediately headed through the water in that direction.  Had the team to their right spotted their namesake, the elusive Swamp Ape?  They took off to find out.

Takeo splashed to a stop ahead of him, and Jack stepped onto a fallen tree nearby.  The men weren’t struggling with an ape.  Jack was half disappointed and half relieved.  Bent over, Miles wheezed beside him after he caught up.  They gaped at the site, two members of the team struggling with a massive tan spotted python.

“That’s the biggest I’ve ever seen.  It must be over twenty feet long” gasped Miles.

The python made a sudden and unexpected surge, freeing itself.  Jack lunged towards the giant python, wielding his machete, which had, through practiced repetition, appeared in his hand as if by magic.  Sensing the threat, the python turned and hissed, sharp gripping fangs ready as it launched itself at Jack.  Jack dodged and his trusty canine partner snarled and sprang into the fray, leaping on the snake’s tail and sinking his teeth deep into the constrictor’s flesh.  The python hissed again and turned its attention to the dog.

The hypnotic eyes seemed to gleam with malice as they focused on Takeo, who, jaws locked, held fast to his end of the serpent.  The diversion gave Jack a chance to jump astride the python’s muscular body and grab it just below the head.  Jack, wrestling to keep a grip on the thrashing head, shoved his machete into the sheath on his thigh so he could use both hands to stretch the python forward so it couldn’t coil.

“Grab the tail!” he shouted to the man close to that end, who was immediately galvanized into action.

Other team members also reacting to the shouts soon reached the scene.  “Let’s see if we can take this one alive,” belatedly suggested one of the men.  “That’s a big one,” another yelled as he arrived with a cage from one of the nearby skiffs.

The others joined what became a wrestling match.  In much the same way gator handlers wrestle their animals into confinement, they finally got the snake into the cage and latched the door in place.  The men laughed at each other as they took turns, two at a time, carrying the cage the short distance to the skiff.  The snake occasionally striking at the carriers causing them to dodge and twist even though the python was secure within the cage.  It took five men to hoist the wobbling cage and striking python into the boat.  Complaints of “Whoo, take it easy.  Take it easy,” were issued.

“That was incredible, I’m wide awake now,” Miles said, “but I think that’s enough for the day.  I’m beat.  Besides, we need to get back to camp, and maneuvering a skiff with two men and a snake of that size will be demanding.”

Jack had watched the cage transport from the periphery, all the while keeping a constant scan on the surroundings, certain the creature he had seen was nearby and watching them.  “Let’s stay here a bit longer, maybe we can get another look at that ape” Jack stated.

Miles laughed, “Swamp apes aren’t real, Jack—unless you mean these cahoots with us.  What you saw was likely some large mammal.  The glimpse I got looked like a bear.  The swamps were once full of them before the python invasion.”

Jack countered, “Bears’ eyes reflect as blue, not green.  And that smell!” He knew what he had seen, and he was not one to make many mistakes of observation or react emotionally.

Mention of the ape had enlivened the mood as the band of Swamp Apes joked about such a creature.  In a jovial mood they distractedly began to load the skiffs, one of them cranking up the ever-present rock music.

Jack was still on guard.  His instincts were rarely wrong, and his instincts told him they were being watched by something.  His eyes strained into the darkness as the other men chatted about the way he had wrestled and constrained the python.  Jack remembered to give credit to Takeo.  “I couldn’t have gotten to its head if Takeo hadn’t taken the tail.”

The men, having recently learned of Jack’s reputation and having now witnessed his prowess, fired questions about his world travels in rapid succession.  Jack answered each question with brevity, but to the satisfaction of the questioner.  Miles asked “Your charter service name, Air Wongo, what’s Wongo?”  Jack, hesitated to explain, and instead diverted to a story of another large snake he had come across in the upper Amazon Basin and elaborated it was at that time that the machete became his constant companion and tool of choice.

But through all this Jack’s eyes were glancing into the emptiness surrounding them, straining to see what the darkness and the swamp growth were hiding.  The atmosphere became hazy as a light fog drifted in.  Miles again suggested getting back to the camp.  The other men murmured their agreement.  One of the men cranked up the rock music on his portable speaker, and a flurry of activity indicated their preparation to leave.  Jack’s attention shifted from the darkness around them to the captured python.  It had begun writhing frantically and hissing, its head raised.  He noted Takeo’s ears twitching and saw him sniffing the air repeatedly, his head tilted as if listening intently to something.  Jack eased his machete from its sheath as the hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention.

“There’s that skunky smell.”

Years of working and living in dangerous conditions had sharpened Jack’s senses to anticipate approaching danger.  The other men, good hunters all, remained oblivious to a potential threat until the python began to slam its body against the cage.  Startled gazes snapped to the serpent, but Jack’s eyes stayed on their perimeter.

The cypress grove surrounding them distorted all lights and sounds.  Something moved in the dark, so swiftly Jack wondered if it were simply a trick of his eyes.  A loud splash.  Something huge was moving rapidly through the water. Then a bang against one of the skiffs, a bang that rocked the occupants.  Beams from several flashlights were directed out of the skiffs and bounced off the water’s surface.

“What was that?” several men asked.

Another said, “Where is it?”

“An alligator, probably.”

“Man, it must be a big one!”

One man, in his excitement, accidentally switched his flashlight to strobe, then dropped it in the skiff.  Another shot off a flare.  In another man’s effort to turn off the music, the controller was fumbled to full volume, then fell into the water.

A deafening roar—and another skiff was hit, almost tipping it.  Flashlights clattered to the boat’s bottom or splashed into the water.  They were plunged into semi-darkness.  The moon, hidden behind clouds, didn’t provide enough light for any clear vision.

Jack blocked out the rocking of the boat, the rattling of the python’s cage, Takeo’s guttural growling, even the musky stench, and focused still and completely on his surroundings.  He caught a glimpse of a man-like shadow and reflecting green eyes as it sinuated through the fog and shallow waters around the skiff.

“It’s the ape,” he stated out loud.   “It’s after something.”

“Impossible!” Miles’s round eyes jerked to Jack’s.

Another violent bang and a much louder splash—as horrified gazes latched onto the empty cage.

“Oh no,” said Miles.

The door to the python’s cage was dented and swinging unlatched.  The men watched, fascinated yet frozen, some horrified, as they discovered the snake winding its body around the figure in the water.  Sharp hisses and guttural grunts shook the air, ripples thrummed across the water, splashes rocked the skiffs.  The clouds parted, unleashing the light of the rising full moon.

The creature stood erect stretching the snake over its head.  Suddenly, the ape began swinging the snake around and above its head as if to slam the snake’s head against a tree.  A collision with an angry snake was not something any of these men wanted to experience.  They ducked low to avoid the impact.  Jack and Takeo held their ground.   Jack stood as the python passed overhead, readied his machete, waited patiently for the next pass, then swung.  With a wet plop, the snake’s head and several feet of its body fell into the water.  The ape then let fly the large lower length of the snake, which flew over and landed beyond the skiffs.

Stunned silence was followed by shuffling splashes.  Jack’s head snapped up to witness the mysterious creature disappearing into the darkness of the swamp.

Questions raced through Jack’s mind: “Why did the ape track and attack the python?  Were they natural enemies?  Was the ape on its own search-and-destroy mission—a friend and defender of his fellow swamp creatures?”  Was the Swamp Ape the predator they sought against the invasive Burmese Python?

Finally, Jack let out a long breath, disappointed he’d not definitively identified the enigmatic, musky creature.  Yet Jack felt he had met the Swamp Ape.

Miles found his voice.  “All of you saw that python struggling with a bear—right?”  He panted as he looked from one man to another, receiving nods all around.

Jack lifted his brow at him.  He knew it had been no bear.  Miles knew as well, as did the other men.  But the others, to a man, would deny seeing anything that might be called a Swamp Ape. Maybe they didn’t want to be seen by others as either fools or phonies.  Or maybe, as Jack was beginning to realize, there existed a natural predator to the Burmese Python, but whose existence was being hidden and protected.  Maybe this is why these men took such great pride in their team name The Swamp Apes, and why they maintained such a low, almost secretive, profile.

As all the members of Team Swamp Ape stared at Jack, he considered, “Maybe that was a bear after all.”

“Glad you see it our way Jack,” replied Miles.  “We’ve seen a few of those bears, but we don’t ever talk about them.”

They would retrieve the body of the snake for its bounty, which would be hefty given that the larger the snake the greater the bounty.  But that didn’t matter to Jack.  He knew he had again experienced something most people could only imagine.  And he couldn’t help but chuckle when the line, ‘Everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my monkey,’ popped into mind.

While riding the skiff back to camp, recollections of his many adventures flashed before his mind’s eye and began replaying almost like a personal highlight reel.  And later that night while staring trance-like into the campfire, those adventures intertwined with the recent nagging confusion he’d experienced upon returning to the States for the first time in over two decades.  It wasn’t that Jack was avoiding a return home, it was just he was comfortable with home being wherever he was, his was a life of action.  Now that he was this close, something was different.

Jack had learned, when he was struggling with a difficult problem, to give his mind plenty of time to work through it.  More often than not, the best solution would eventually reveal itself.  However, at this point Jack was concerned that he had not even correctly define the problem.  His unease had already been simmering for a week, thinking back, maybe months…maybe years.

The next morning Jack was enjoying his morning ritual—drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book.  This was his favorite time of the day, it was when his mind was most alert, flexible, and open.  As a dragonfly settled on the rim of his half empty coffee mug, Jack had a flash of insight.

“When I was young I was trying to fill my blank slate with adventures…I’m much older, and full of experiences…I’m home again…travel has become a little tedious, adjusting course at nearly every crossroad …settling in one spot for a good long while may be what I want…what I need…it sure seems appealing…I have to keep busy though…all these years of adventures…I need to give these memories an outlet…record them, write them down, maybe even share them somehow…how do I even begin to share what I’ve experienced…maybe a few months back on Dog Island…reading, reflecting, writing, and thinking will give me an idea what’s next…”

The dragonfly launched and Jack enjoyed a final sip of coffee.  He turned to Takeo, “What do you say, boy?  You ready to settle down a bit?”

Takeo huffed.  Jack laughed and scratched Takeo between the ears.

As Jack finished his coffee he reached into his pocket and gripped the arcane Gedi Stone and concluded his decision, “…and we’ll be safe on Dog Island, they won’t find us there.”

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T S Elliot


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