When I was a child, I always loved the long summer breaks from school, where I'd finally leave the chaos of big São Paulo and go visit my uncle's ranch right in the middle of the Brazilian Pantanal. For those of you unfamiliar with the Pantanal, think of it as Brazil's own wild, wild west; a large, wild expanse of endless, seasonally flooded swampy plains, crossed in all sides by mighty rivers and dotted by lagoons and a few more heavily wooded areas. The abundance of naturally formed pastures in the region have made it a popular place for cattle ranchers ever since the region was first discovered and colonized many years ago, as domestic cattle seemed to fare well amongst the wild animals and plants of that untamed wilderness.
My uncle Rodrigo was one of such cattle ranchers, living the closest you could possibly get in the 21st century to the traditional cowboy lifestyle. He lived alone with his wife and kids on the middle of the floodplain, far from most signs of urban life and civilization, herding cattle and crossing the wild plain like a character from some old John Wayne movie. As the adventurous youngster that I was, I couldn't help but wait every year for the summer vacations to have a chance, if only temporary, to experience all the imposing might and beauty of this old, ancient and unconquered wilderness.
As a child, I was always interested in the field of the natural sciences; biology in particular, has sparked my interest from a very early age. I was fascinated by every wild animal, by every plant, and by every insect, and every single journey I made to my uncle's ranch was one of discovery and wonder. The Pantanal is one of the richest ecosystems in the entire world; it is home for over hundreds of thousand different animal and plant species. Every day waking up on it was a different spectacle, as flocks of herons, storks and geese shared the skies with exuberantly colored hyacinth and red macaws among others. In the late of summer, the Yellow Ipê trees would paint the field with dots of gold and attract another dozen colorful birds and other creatures. I enjoyed the feeling of being there, of being one with the surrounding nature and the mesmerizing sights that abounded within it.
Another thing I really enjoyed about my vacations at the ranch was spending time with my uncle and my cousins. Uncle Rodrigo was your typical gruff old uncle with a heart of gold. At first he might seem stern and even harsh, perhaps a consequence of a long life of hard labor and toiling amongst the odds on the untamed plain, but once you actually knew him, it was impossible not to like him. He was by all accounts a good and honest man who loved his family above all, and would go to hell and back for them. Besides his family, my uncle always loved the ranch, the quietness and peculiar beauty of the wild countryside, and could never understand how my father could possibly stand living in a place so noisy and stressful as São Paulo. He was a true man of the floodplain, a true pantaneiro, and he loved and respected these lands like no other lands on earth. He often said that there was where his soul really belonged and where he would like to spend the rest of his days. I couldn't help but agree with him. That place, that harsh and unforgiving but beautiful landscape, had a way of calling a man to his true self, and I dreamed of one day making those lands my home.
Now, as much as I loved almost everything about my uncle's house and farm, there were also things that terrified my 12-year-old self a great deal. As much as the flooded wilds were beautiful, they were also dangerous. The Pantanal, as rich as it was in terms of animal life, was also home to a few of the most terrifying predators of South America. Giant otters the size of wolves shared their rivers with massive green anacondas and hordes after hordes of caimans. The land wasn't at all safer as large predators such as the cougar prowled the land after equally dangerous prey, such as the Queixada, or the white lipped peccary, an animal that resembled the wild hog, but far more aggressive. Indeed, my uncle always said, "Kid, I fear the queixada far more than I fear the jaguar". And speaking of which, of course, let's not forget this was jaguar country after all.
Walking through the woods, I've never feared most of those dangerous animals. I knew most of them actually avoided people, and actual attacks on humans were rare and far in between, but I was always deathly scared of the jaguars. It wasn't their presence as much as it was their sound. You see, it's actually quite difficult to see the jaguar in its natural habitat, but you most certainly will hear it when you are walking their lands. Its overpowering roar, shaking the plain like the sound of falling thunder and lightning, scaring away the lazy birds from the canopies of their trees and resonating through every window and creak of the ranch, filled me with the most absolute dread. To know such a powerful and dangerous creature was prancing around our very backyards... God, just the thought of it made me shiver in fear.
My uncle, on the other hand respected the jaguar; Even though most ranchers disliked the cats for fear that they might prey on their prized cattle, and some even illegally shot the beasts, my uncle always said that he could never bring himself to hurt the creatures. He often said to me that the jaguar was the living spirit of the Pantanal, the wild and ferocious personification of that harsh and beautiful land, and would sometimes cite up some old, forgotten Indian legend about the jaguar being the protector of the seen world against unseen threats or other bullshit like that. He knew every single one of the jaguars who hunted in the nearby proximity, their territories, their favorite spot for ambushing the skittish marsh deer, and he even their names. You see, my uncle's ranch was a part of a conservation trust, being essentially a conservation park as well as a cattle ranch, which meant he also got a lot of researchers from the jaguar conservation fund working on his lands for most of the year. He always helped them to track and identify the individual animals that made his ranch their home, and they would always assign them a name. So far, they identified together about three individuals using the ranch's area as their territory, including a large male in the northern edges and a younger, smaller one by the west. However, the most intriguing of the jaguars who frequented the ranch was a mysterious, jet black female jaguar nicknamed "Dama da Noite", "The Lady of the Night".
Melanism is a genetic condition linked to the excessive production of the skin pigment melanin. It could be considered the exact opposite of albinism, and is responsible for 1 in every 100 jaguars donning a dark, nearly black coat rather than their typical rosette-covered yellow patterns, like it was the case with the lady.
Uncle Rodrigo knew exactly every one of their hunting grounds, and even, on occasion, encountered the black beast during his rounds taking care of the cattle. For us, all that we managed to hear were the petrifying roars of the big cats hiding somewhere in the thick bush. There was another reason why the roars unsettled me. You see, big cats roar as a way to signal their territories to possible intruders. They weren't just roaring because they liked being noisy bastards; no, they were sending a message. "Get out, this is my land! You're not welcome here! Go back from where you came from or face death!" was exactly what these beasts meant when they shattered the skies with their thundering sound. It made me uncomfortable, like I wasn't meant to be there, like I was but a trespasser in their realm, like the message was directed at me.
Nevertheless I've never let these thoughts prevent me from having fun during my days at the ranch. Indeed, it was always great to be there- to explore every creek and patch of hidden woods, to venture through every swamp and field together with my two older cousins, and to camp near the woods, telling silly ghost stories and tales of ancient secrets and forgotten places left by the Indians, was always an experience I looked forward to the entire year.
My cousins, Mateus and Ricardo, were legitimate children of the swamp. They had been born and raised in those wild and untamed lands, and they knew every rock, tree, animal and river of their father's ranch. They moved through the flooded swamps and wooded groves with amazing dexterity and always playfully mocked me, "the city boy", for always staying behind in our adventures. Regardless of that I always enjoyed our time together, and the many times we spent together in the ranch were sure to become some of the most treasured memories in my entire life. Except... for that year... that year when everything changed...
The year, I believe, was early 2004. I had just arrived at Campo Grande's International airport from São Paulo and was greeted by my two cousins, my aunt Maria and my uncle Rodrigo, whom all seemed eager to see me again. By the time I had barely just completed 14 years, and my uncle decided I was already old enough to take me on a cavalgada (a trip on horseback) through his ranch and the surrounding parks and estancias on the southwest reaches of the Pantanal. I was of course very excited with the prospect. To be honest I've been expecting to go on such a trip with my uncle and cousins ever since I was but a runt, and to finally see the true unhinged beauty of the Pantanal on this extended field trip was a dream come true.
On the way to my uncle's ranch, the sun had already started to set, and a mask of orange covered the swamp's skies. From the treetops, thousands of birds, rosy spoonbills, macaws, toucans and every sort of tropical bird you can imagine, were already flying back to their nests, covering the skies with their graceful forms. It was easy to get lost admiring the landscape when something quickly took me out of my trance. Far, far beyond the old dirt road, a pair of lights flickered constantly. I couldn't determine exactly what they were and where they'd come from; heck, I couldn't even determine what color they were. It was as if they were a shade of color that I've never ever seen before, a color that naturally couldn't exist. Intrigued, I called on to everyone in the car to see if anyone knew what those weird lights were, but it seemed like they were just as baffled as I was. Mateus, the oldest of my cousins, tried to scare us with some bullshit about aliens, but it became clear that both me and Ricardo were a bit too old to believe in scary stories. None the less, the flickering of lights seemed to come from somewhere near the river that crossed my uncle's property.
My uncle shrugged. "It must be the researchers," he said. "That point right there is smack in the middle of the lady's territory. The cat has probably activated some camera trap and broken it in a fit of confusion."
At the moment, that explanation seemed reasonable enough, especially because later that night you could hear the beast roaring in anger every time the lights flickered from the backwoods of the ranch. It was as if every flicker angered the lady more and more, and her roars became more furious with each flash of light. My uncle, aunt and cousins, well accustomed to the sounds of the wilds, didn't really pay much of a mind and slept soundly that night. I, on the other hand, was still terrified of those roars, which was, admittedly, embarrassing to talk about for my 14-year-old self, and I couldn't sleep a wink.
We woke up early next morning and prepared the horses for the week long trip. The fact that I hadn't nearly slept at all was immediately caught on by my uncle.
"Heh, jaguars didn't let you sleep again, son? Haha..." he said and then proceeded to tap my shoulder. "Don't worry, kid, the cats are just as afraid of you as we are of them, so provided that we make a fire we should be absolutely fine."
I nodded. In every conceivable sense, my uncle was right, but you know, phobias are irrational. Some people have an incomprehensible fear of moths, regardless of how they're probably the most harmless insects in the world; other people are afraid of things as stupid as the rain or clowns. My stupid phobia was that of loud and scary big cats it seemed.
So we all kissed aunt Maria goodbye and headed through the trail. The trail started at an enclosed patch of woods and later opened at a large field surrounded by rolling creeks and ponds filled to the brim with aquatic birds and waterfowl of all types, as well as many, many groups of mighty caimans. I curiously was never scared of the huge reptiles even if they were as capable of reducing me to chum as the jaguar was, mainly because they mostly stayed in or near the water, and I, as the pretty shit swimmer that I am, never really entered the rivers and ponds. The sights were astounding, and the blazing sun shining through the azure skies nearly made me forget about my sleep deprivation.
After a long day of walking, we finally camped near a large patch of woods adjacent to a river. At the moment I didn't recognize at all where we were as honestly I was way too tired from the journey and proceeded to help my uncle and cousins with the tents, hoping to get at least some sleep as quickly as possible. As soon as I finished my tent and my uncle lit up the campfire where we'd cook our dinner for the night, I quickly made my way into the sleeping bag. I proceeded to try and take a nap when I was suddenly and unceremoniously bolted awake by a very familiar sound.
The roar, the cursed goddamn roar! It sounded so much louder and more menacing than before that I nearly had a heart attack as I jumped awake from my sleeping bag. It was then that I realized that the river we were near was the same one we saw the lights flicker from last night, the same one smack in the middle of that accursed black jaguar's territory! I was so scared that I nearly pissed myself in fear, and around the campfire, I could already hear my uncle and cousins laughing their asses off of my reaction. I mean, who the hell could blame them? I probably did look like an absolute fool. After minutes of uncontained laughter my uncle tried to calm me down.
"Hey, relax, kid! It's okay; we have the fire going on- she won't come close to us. Don't worry, you are in no danger here."
I nodded and pretended to be calmed down, but in the end I was sure the sounds of the black beast would most probably haunt my nightmares that night, again, provided that I did actually get any sleep. I felt the same uneasiness I felt in the ranch only now ten times stronger. It was like I heard the message that terrifying animal was trying to convey again, and again in my head with each following roar. "Get out, this is my land! You are not welcome here! Go back from wherever the hell you came from or face death!" was everything I could think about as the massive cat demarcated her territory hidden from somewhere in the tall bushes.
As the night fell, the smell of the cooking food and the sky covered by a trillion different stars were enough to make me glad I'd come to this trip. Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that the Lady of The Night was watching us from somewhere in her dark and mysterious home. We were but visitors, in the middle of her territory... No, not visitors, trespassers, and the feeling of dread from being an intruder on the lands of something else you could barely understand was nearly unbearable. The night kept going when suddenly, we saw again the flickering lights. This time Mateus got curious to investigate it and decided to go there to see if it was really a broken camera trap. He asked us to come with him; my uncle said yes, as long as we marked our way back and always stuck together. I tried to disagree, to say we probably shouldn't go there, that it was dangerous, but of course they laughed it off. My uncle then said, "Son, if you don't want to come we won't force you; you can stay here and wait for us to return. We won't really take long; it's just some dumb camera after all."
I thought about his words and really considered staying, but then again I thought, Jesus I'd be standing here alone, with no one to help me in case the goddamn cat shows up... "You know what, screw it," I thought to myself. "I'm coming with them". A hard decision to make, but probably for the best, I thought at the time. The deep and dark woods scared me, but the thought of being alone on big cat territory and ending up as a glorified bowl of Whiskas was definitely not the most pleasant in my mind.
So we followed the dark trail; with each step we took the roars became louder and louder, and the flickering stronger. I still couldn't identify what color was the light we were seeing. It's not that I am colorblind or anything, mind you, but the lights shone in a color that I'm pretty sure doesn't exist on the natural spectrum of colors. Somehow, it made me even more uneasy than the huge roaring cat hiding somewhere a few meters from us. My uncle and Mateus both speculated that the glare was caused by the Jaguar hitting the camera, annoyed with its constant flashes- an explanation that for all reasons made sense, considering the roars were getting louder and more frequent as the flicker became more constant. However, I just couldn't shake that their hypothesis about the light was wrong and it further increased my uneasiness. There was something... odd about that light. I don't really know any other way to describe it but "wrong", "out of place", like it seriously didn't belong on those woods; heck, like it seriously didn't belong on this earth. How shocked would I be when my suspicions actually turned out to be right.
As the four of us reached the clearing we couldn't really believe what we saw. God damn it, I still have trouble describing it as of today! It was, on short, the most heinous, abominable and otherworldly scary scene I've ever seen and will ever see in my life. The glare, that fucking glare, was coming right through what seemed to be a rift. No, not a rift on the earth, neither a rift on the woods, but a rift on the very fabric of the universe- an ominous crack which opened up on the very mantle that holds our reality together. Oh, but that wasn't all, oh no. Alongside the crack were... things... terrible things... That's really the only way I could ever hope to describe them. They had no shape, nothing we could possibly understand as form other than a wriggling, pulsating mass of tendrils covered with what seemed like eyes, or at least, something like eyes; good god I really don't know. From the ends of their many tentacles were a series of little pincers, similar to those you'd find on the crayfish and the crab, but these looked slimy and soft, as well as full of smaller needle like bristles alongside their edges.
These... things... they were carrying an unconscious woman, no, a young girl, no older than her early twenties. We knew that girl; she was the daughter of a fellow rancher from a farm a few kilometers from where we were right now. She was a good, sweet girl, and certainly didn't do anything to deserve... whatever this was... Jesus... "What were those things going to do with her," I thought to myself.
My uncle produced his pocket pistol and fired two shots at the otherworldly creatures, with no success. The bullets blew up into dust in the air as they came close to the entities, as if the creatures had their own force field around them. Most of them kept doing their gruesome ritual or whatever and paid no mind to us, but two others suddenly looked at us with all of their countless little beady eyes. In a split second they were behind us, restraining our movements. I felt every single wriggling tentacle wrap around my body as the abominations held me, my uncle, and my two cousins immobilized against our will.
Some of the other beings were doing what I can only describe as dancing, although it certainly isn't the better word. They weren't doing soft rhythmic movements in tune to some song. Rather, they savagely wriggled their tendrils around in motions so disgusting that I had to harshly contain myself not to throw up. Absolutely everything about those creatures was disgusting. It was as if every part of their being and the way they moved was revoltingly... wrong. That's the only way I can describe them; everything about them felt like they didn't belong in any way in our world. Their clutch on us was unbreakable, which was surprising considering how slimy they were. No, in fact their sliminess helped it, holding our limbs in place with thick coats of some vile, thick, stinking mucus.
The dancing monstrosities circled a larger one, which held the girl on his tendrils against some kind of black marble altar that felt just as out of place in our world as the beings themselves. The girl woke up in the middle of the ceremony and screamed a deafening scream from the top of her lungs. God I'll forever remember that scream. The being then pinched her stomach with its disgusting bristle covered pincers, splitting her gut open while she was still alive, but restrained by the mucus and countless little tentacles. The beast started pulling off her intestines like they were a large ribbon all the while she was still alive and screaming, making no attempts to ease her pain. We tried to break out and stop this unholy madness but every single muscle in our body was held tight by the abominations, who wriggled their many appendages around us with almost obscene pleasure.
After the girl finally either died or collapsed from blood loss, the being at the center, the apparent priest of this infernal mass, started spitting a revolting liquid the same indescribable color as itself and the rift it had apparently come from and produced an unholy sound as the other creatures kept doing their macabre pirouettes around it. It was then that I realized that the beings were also in pain. Their bodies were indeed too wrong for our world and every minute they spent on it they spent on absolute agony.
The beast's painful yell seemed to further their ritual as the rift seemed to widen and God, what peeked from the other side was even more unholy than the beasts who were already prancing outside. An enormous, eyeless head, unlike any head of any creature we think of on our world, peered of from the veil. It's one thousand proboscises poked from the gaping hole that was probably its mouth into our world, quickly grabbed the remains of the girl and threw them into its mouth. The beast's one thousand gigantic appendages started gently caressing the other abominations and coating them with another type of ooze, again of indescribable color, but definitely different from the colors of the rift and the monster. It was then that I saw- the tentacles of the beasts were slowly falling off, and a vaguely humanoid shape was forming underneath its formless body. It looked somewhat like a person, but entirely moss colored, without any hints of hair and claws where fingernails should be. Its face looked even more inhuman, no ears or nose, and with a large tentacle covered mass where the mouth should be and a dozen little beady eyes over the face. It was then that I realized the things wanted to be able to survive in our world; they were using human remains as a way to rearrange their bodies so that they wouldn't collapse under our foreign environment. They wanted to enter our world, to invade us and do whatever grotesque thing it is that they do, and worse, I most absolutely couldn't do anything about it.
The most terrifying realization, however, was that we were next. The giant creature on the rift had just turned the "dancers" and the "priest" into humanoids, but not the wardens that held us on our place. I realized that they were slowly edging closer to the rift and soon we'd have the same treatment as that poor girl who had their life ended by... whatever were those things!
"Fuck", I thought to myself and looked at my uncle, but he was in too deep a state of shock to even notice me or anything other than the grotesque events that were unfolding right in front of us. I thought to myself how stupid I was for fearing jaguars when things like these were on the prowl.
Just when I thought of this was when I finally heard it again, this time louder than ever, like a thunderbolt had just hit the floor right besides us. I'd been so horrified by the circus of horrors unfolding in front of me at that moment that I absolutely forgot about Lady and the roars. And there I saw her, leaping from her cover in the bushes, black as the darkest night and with yellow eyes that shone like two bright embers in the moonlight amidst that preternatural glow. She looked magnificent, her dark skin glistening on the moonlight, showing off her even darker rosettes and her sharp, ivory white teeth showing as she roared at the abominations, sending them a message that was all too familiar to me.
The beings screeched on an ungodly tone as she lunged at them, throwing all her nearly 80 kilos of strength at the heinous abominations, tearing off their flesh and tissue and breaking down their nearly formed necks. The creatures tried to defend themselves, but they became paralyzed every time she roared, like the sound of the big cat was the only thing in the world capable of deterring them. She tore them to pieces as they vainly tried to throw themselves at her only to be shredded by claw, teeth and muscle. After finishing off the "priest" and "dancers" she set her eyes on the chasm itself. She roared at the gigantic monstrosity who peeked from it, throwing it at a fit of insurmountable pain until it withdrew into the rift, oozing from the sides of its head a liquid I could only imagine was blood, closing the portal completely as it receded. As the portal closed, the creatures that held us simply blew up in a mass of bloody mucus and body pieces which slowly evaporated in contact with the thin air.
It all happened so fast that we didn't realize we were free at first. We stood there, in shock, looking at the big cat, who glanced at us for a minute, our eyes making contact with her bright yellow garnets. She suddenly looked back, and from the woods came two small, playful black jaguar cubs. She issued the cubs a call and kept moving, as if undisturbed by our presence, disappearing again into the woods. It was then that I realized she didn't roar at me; she didn't send me her dreadful message. Her roars on the earlier nights were all but directed at those... things. It was there, right in that moment, that I lost my fear of the Jaguar. It was then that the old Indian legend that spoke of the jaguar as the protector of our realm from otherworldly entities seemed right. But my uncle and I both knew the truth. Lady of The Night, the black jaguar we'd just encountered, was a mother, and like any good parent of this world, would throw herself at any danger in order to protect her children. In that way, she was much like my uncle, who himself tried to shoot the beasts in order to save me and my cousins.
As different as humans and jaguars are, we are also very similar. We are both mammals, we are both denizens of this realm, and we both would risk our lives to save our loved ones. Jaguars have been living on the Pantanal long before us, heck, long before even the Indians or any other sort of human occupation. This is their land more than anybody's, and they know that, which is why they roar. They roar to warn and keep out any potential invader that might threaten them or those they care about. They, we realize, are just like us, and on occasion, like what had just happened, much braver.
We didn't have any stomach to finish the journey; we returned to the ranch and stayed there for at the very least a few weeks, trying to make sense of what had just happened. We tried to tell the rancher what had happened with his missing daughter, but of course he didn't believe us, accusing us of using his personal tragedy for attention. Putting myself in his place, who would've even believed us anyway? Good god, don't you see how insane everything sounded...
I returned to São Paulo earlier that summer. I had to find a psychiatrist to help me cope with the incessant nightmares that I had regarding that night, and it took at least a few years until I fully recuperated from those events. However, on a positive note, I did get better and I did return to my uncle's ranch many times later, except I never feared the jaguar and its roar anymore. I, like my uncle, started to respect and grow fond of the cat and its noise, for its thundering sound sent a message, not to me, but to whatever that decided to threaten our world and those we love:
This is my land!
You are not welcome here!
Go back from wherever the hell you came from!
Written by Leonardo F. Oliveira