The painter, Renee, caught the Jaguar Shaman by surprise and in a private jungle moment. Quiet and intense, she had been working out the details of a composition involving butterflies, blue, and orchids of a speaking pink. She had been startled when her increasingly detailed vision added a hidden snake, green, then another, blue.

Then the eyes appeared and the hair on her sunburned arms flushed all goosebumps, for the cat’s eyes had clearly seen her long before she picked his jaguar shape out of the wilderness mass. Then with another jolt, the shaman herself resolved as a figure out of the ground. Her brown face was tattooed with gold cat stripes, her eyes and lips pale as an albino’s, yet vivid with soul life. She had not seen Renee, for she was hunting spirits in another world.

Renee captured the introspective face of the working shaman and her animal familiar even as they faded like green mist back into the jungle. The cat had seen her; the shaman had not. Her hands shook as she put her painting kit away and found her way back to the thin thread of a jungle pathway.

The artist continued walking until she came to a swirling green river with a mind of its own. Many people were gathered on the shore crying. Men were building a small byre, and as she approached, they lit a fire under it. The flames ate at the small figure of a child in angry orange gulps. A woman with a scarlet shawl thrown over her head knelt on the ground and keened.
A teenaged boy left the group of mourners as the smell of roasting flesh rose into the air. He politely greeted the strange woman and offered ferry service over the river. “But you must wait with us an hour,” he said, “For a jaguar has taken the life of my cousin.”

Renee sat under the shade of an enormous, twisting fig tree and unpacked her painting kit, which the boy studied with great interest. She opened her sketch book, and the boy yelled when he saw the Jaguar Shaman. He snatched the book out of her hands, held the image high and ran toward his relations, who in turn stared and shouted. One older man stuck his hand into the fire and bloodied his fingers on the child’s burning body. While the teenager held still, extending the sketchbook, the old man crouched down and like a cat stalked the painting. The young man moved cagily away, and they played predator and prey in an intricate dance in the dust. Then with a feline roar and rising scream, the old shaman put all ten fingers directly on the image of the Jaguar Woman, leaving bloody dots.

Renee jumped up and held both hands to her cheeks, for she felt the man’s red fingers on her own skin. Not far away in the bush, she heard another cry that repeated the man’s scream. A long, low wind sprang up and blew through the forest with a moan that ended in a shower of hot sparks. The byre collapsed with what remained of its tender burden, and the men pushed it with long poles into the river. The mother in the scarlet shawl fell silent and watched the burning brands consumed in the green rush of the river with a mind of its own.

The young man closed the sketch book and returned it with a little bow Renee remembered from another, more courtly world. She was almost afraid to receive it, but she took it from him as he said in her language, “We can cross now.” She clutched the sketchbook to her chest as she climbed into the sturdy dugout.

The young man accepted the two coins she pressed into his hand. He took great care to point out to her which path she must take to get to her destination before dark. Renee faced the jungle alone as the wind breathed its last and the leaves settled into a waiting calm.

2 thoughts on “Witness”

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