I take a step back as he reaches his full height, my flashlight still aimed at his face. “What do you want with me? Where—where are you from?”
“You’re the one who crashed into me.” He is taller than me, and though he is thin, he is very muscular. I can tell because he’s half-naked. He’s wearing khaki shorts and a cord around his neck from which hangs a tiny jaguar carved into jade, but nothing else, not even shoes. His skin is the color of a shelled Brazil nut, light, warm brown, the brown of days spent in the dappled sun of the rainforest. His hair is as black as the night around us and thick with tangles. There is something vaguely familiar about his face, but I can’t think of what it is. That’s very disconcerting for me, since I forget nothing. If I had seen this boy before, I would remember it. And not just because my memory is perfect. I’d remember those eyes . . . that sculpted chest . . . the definition of his abdomen. . . .
I snap my eyes up to his face, whipping my thoughts back into line. My initial fear gives way to anger. “What are you doing out here, anyway? It’s the middle of the night. Where are your clothes?”
He replies, remarkably calmly, “You’ve wandered far from your cage, Pia bird.”
“What?” I ask blankly.
“The dress,” he says, nodding at it. “It makes you look like a bird. The kind we Ai’oa like to keep on our shoulders. But that’s not a good thing to be running around the jungle in.”
I look down at my torn dress. “It’s my birthday.” Furious, I glare at him, refusing to let him distract me. Again. “Ai’oa? What is that?”
He presses a hand to his bare chest. “We are a who, not a what.”
“Are you a native?” “I’m Ai’oan. Only the scientists call us natives.” He cocks his head curiously. “Are you a scientist? I think you must be, because you are of the Little Cam village.”
“No. Yes. I mean, I will be soon. How did you know where I’m from? Have you been to Little Cam?” Fear had turned to anger, but my anger now transforms into fascination. I’ve never spoken with anyone from outside Little Cam. Harriet Fields doesn’t count because now she’s from Little Cam too.
“I’ve seen it,” he says, “but only from the trees. It is no place for the Ai’oa. Kapukiri says there is evil in the village of the scientists.”
“Little Cam isn’t evil,” I reply, bristling. “What do you know about it?”
“Only what Kapukiri says.” He kneels and stares curiously at Alai. “He obeys your command and follows where you go. Incredible. Truly, you are blessed to have such a companion.”
His words soften me, and I warm a little. “Is your village close?” Eio’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “Why? What do you want with Ai’oa?”
“I want to see it,” I say on a whim. “Show it to me.” “I don’t know. . . .” He frowns. “That smoke I smell, is it from Ai’oa?” I close my eyes and breathe deeply. “It’s coming from . . . that direction.” I open my eyes and start to follow the scent. When I look back, Eio is staring at me with wide eyes.
“You . . .” He runs to catch up with me. “You can smell it from here?”
“Ah . . .” I swallow and backpedal a bit. “Well, can’t you?”
Uncertainty plays openly across his face. “I guess . . . if you promise not to wake everyone . . .”
“Well . . . okay.” He still seems uneasy. I take it that visitors aren’t often invited to Ai’oa.
I follow him over fallen logs made soft with mosses and under low-hanging vines and limbs. I wonder how he’ll see where he’s going, but he seems to feel his way rather than see it. I thought I moved silently through the jungle, but Eio seems to float over the ground rather than walk on it. He moves as sinuously as a snake and as lightly as a butterfly. Alai stays between us at all times, showing his mistrust in his hackles and rigid tail.
Before long I smell smoke, then I see the fires from which it comes. They burn low, more embers than flames, several dozen of them. Around the fires are huts made of four poles and thatched with palm leaves. They have no walls. When we reach the edge of the village, Eio stops me. “They are sleeping. It is never good to wake what is sleeping. Stay here and look, but don’t wake them.”
“You’re awake,” I point out.
“I couldn’t sleep. I heard a jaguar and went looking for it.” He looks down at Alai. I remember Alai’s roars as we escaped through the fence. “Is it a good idea to hunt jaguars? Seems to me they’d end up hunting you.”
Eio sits on a mossy rock, arms crossed over his bare chest. “Not to catch one! To see it. It is a powerful sign, the glimpse of the jaguar.”
“I see a jaguar every day,” I say, reaching down to rub Alai’s ears.
“It is a thing unheard of.” He shakes his head. “In the jungle, the jaguar is king. He follows no one but himself, and we Ai’oa fear and respect him and call him guardian.”
“Alai’s just a big baby, really.”
Eio gives a short laugh. “Of course. That’s why he tried to bite the nose off my face!”
“How do you know English? Uncle Paolo told me you natives were ignorant about everything outside your own villages.”
“I’m not ignorant,” Eio objects. “It is you who are ignorant, Pia bird. My father taught me English.”
“He is a scientist like you, in Little Cam.”
“Really!” I blink and stare at him with astonishment. Well, well, someone’s been hiding a really big secret. . . . “Who is it? What’s his name?” I think of all the scientists, wondering who it could be.
“I don’t know his name. To me, he is only Papi. He comes and teaches me English and math and writing.”
“What does he look like?”
Eio shrugs. “Ugly, like all scientists.”
I frown. “You think I’m ugly?” “Of course,” he says, staring toward his village.
I feel my face flush with anger. “That’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me! I’m not ugly! I’m . . .” I look down at my muddy, bedraggled dress, and my voice falls to an embarrassed whisper. “I’m perfect.”
“Perfect? Is that why you’re running around in the jungle, making noise like a tapir running from the spear, in a dress?”
“I—it’s my birthday. . . . I wanted to see the jungle. I’ve never been outside Little Cam before. I wanted to feel what it was like to be outside, in the wild.” “Are you a prisoner, Pia bird?”
“No,” I say, startled.
“Why have you never left, then?”
“I—they say it’s dangerous. Anacondas.”
“Anacondas! I have killed an anaconda.”
“Yes. It was as long as I am tall, and I am the tallest Ai’oan in the village. I made its skin into a belt for Papi.”
“I’ve only seen an anaconda once. It was dead too. Uncle Timothy shot it.”
“With a gun?”
“Of course with a gun!”
“I don’t like guns. I hunt with dart and spear and arrow. These are silent and will not scare away your prey like a stupid gun.”
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the night is growing even darker. “I should go back now.” It’s been much, much longer than an hour. My delirious rush of adrenaline leaves me weary and nervous. I want to get back, to change and shower before my absence is noticed. If it hasn’t been noticed already.