Inspired by Surprised! by Henri Rousseau, on display in the National Gallery, room 45
Read by Miranda Harrison
I'm walking behind you - walking, stumbling - trying to fix my eyes on the triangle of sweat that clamps your t-shirt to your back. Now I'm cursing your khaki camouflage as you slip in and out of my vision, swallowed up by a tangle of lianas, palms and ferns.
"Hurry up!" you shout, without looking back, "it's getting dark already."
I'm going as fast as I can, hacking at the mass of vegetation that clings to my legs. You're doing the hard work - clearing the path ahead, slashing a way through the woody vines - but whatever your machete hits seems to spring back behind you with renewed vigour.
"We'll be okay," I say, "as long as we follow the river."
But you're too far ahead already, my words lost to the forest.
The glimpses of your back - and your sweat-matted hair - are fewer now. Then none.
I follow the trail of severed vines, but it's getting hard to see in the dimming light. I reach for my rucksack, praying that I packed my torch, though I never expected to need it. I find insect repellent, camera, snacks, water, notepad, maps. No torch.
When I crash into something big and solid, I think it's a tree. Then the tree moves.
"Shh," it whispers, "don't move."
"Can you see it?" Your voice is trembling, fear or excitement I can't tell.
I peer at the trees around us - I can only see a few feet in the greying light. Nothing.
You very slowly raise your finger.
Then I see it. It's there, standing wary among the trees. A dark shape. A pair of amber eyes lock with mine. Just for a moment - an instant - then it's gone.
You move fast, grabbing your torch from your rucksack. You swing it around. Shadows seem to move and slide in the torchlight. But it's gone - the creature. It's gone.
I grasp your arm: "Was that ... was that what I think it was?"
"Yes," you say, "Yes, yes, yes!" Suddenly you're gripping my arms, dancing me round in a circle.
"But it can't be," I say, "I mean it's … you know it’s..."
"It's been extinct for a hundred years! Yeah, yeah! Except it's not - and we found it. We found it! It's the discovery of the century."
You go quiet now, standing there in the gathering darkness. I think I can hear your heartbeat. Maybe you forgive me now for slowing us down, for keeping us out here in the dusk. I think you do, because we walk together now, your torch lighting each step; the swish of your machete slower, calmer now.
When we finally see the camp ahead, we walk much closer than usual, almost touching arms. We don’t speak. We’re both listening to the night, breathing it in, as though this is our last night on Earth.
We discovered it.
“What else is undiscovered?” you whisper into the darkness from your sleeping bag.
I almost say, “Every new moment is undiscovered.”
But I keep quiet. Let the mystery cling a little longer to the fabric of the tent.
When I close my eyes I see you. Not your whole face at once, but parts of it – your brown eyes, your slightly arched nose, your lips pursed in concentration, a trickle of sweat down the nape of your neck. As I slip into sleep, your face starts to shift and transform - your eyes become amber, your whiskers twitch, damp black nose sniffing the air. I reach out a hand to stroke your golden fur, but you melt away into the darkness.
When I wake your sleeping bag is empty. Outside, in the pink morning light, you are peering into the small silver suitcase that you lugged for days through the jungle. There are six camera traps in the suitcase. You are opening them, putting in new batteries.
"We need to put these up again," you say, without looking at me.
I touch your arm, "We can't. We've got to leave today. We've only got supplies for another..."
"Don't be such a wuss," you hiss, "We need proof. No-one will believe us without proof."
You persuade me, as always. We can eke out the supplies for an extra day or two. We'll eat less, rest more. You are elated when I agree. You even hug me, your tanned arms squeezing me tight against your ribs. My nose squashed against your chest, breathing in your sweat. I want to stay there forever, but you let go abruptly and turn back to the suitcase.
We work together, tying the camera traps to trees, angling the lasers, marking each route with red plastic ribbons so we can find them again. As we place the last camera, your fingers brush against mine. I look up to meet your eye, but you are looking away, through the trees, your brow furrowed in concentration.
On the walk back you are silent.
"We make a good team," I say, smiling. But you say nothing. Your eyes are scanning ahead, searching among the trees.
Back at camp you are restless. I think hunger is making you jumpy so I give you some of my crackers. You eat all three at once. I go to wash myself in the river - it's been a long sticky day - but when I come back you have gone. You don't return till nightfall, slipping into the tent without a word, lying down in the same sweaty t-shirt you've been wearing for days. I pretend to be sleeping.
You're up before dawn of course, yanking on your boots.
"Have some breakfast first!" I call out the tent door, but you're striding off with your rucksack slung over your shoulder. I scramble to get dressed.
I don't know which camera trap you'll go to first. I take a guess, but I'm wrong - the camera's there, but not you. When you find me untying it, you're angry.
"Don't touch it!" you scream, "You might break it."
I stand back, let you untie it, though your hands are trembling more than mine.
Back at camp we stare at the laptop - image after image slides into view. You whizz through them quickly - a family of peccaries, a little blue bird, an agouti nibbling nuts, even an ocelot, but none of this excites you. You curse each one for wasting the shots. You start again at the beginning, scrutinizing each image, examining every background tree, every leaf, every shadow. Nothing. Our creature is not there.
"We need another night," you say.
"No. Absolutely no."
"Just give me two more days. Please. Just two more days to find him."
I've never heard you plead like this before.
"You can go back, take all the food," you say, "take the tent too. I'll follow you in two days, I promise."
I shake my head, "No. We both go back. We apply for visa extensions, we get fresh supplies, and we come back again."
You laugh, throwing your head back. At that moment I know there is no hope.
"That could take months - and by then he might have moved on, found a new territory. Our only hope is now, to strike while the iron's hot."
If I could drag you back through the forest I would, but you're much, much bigger than me. I pack my bags, leaving you the tent and most of the food. I might not make it on my own, alone in the jungle, but now I'm the only hope for both of us. If I wait any longer I will be too weak.
I walk for hours without stopping. As dusk descends I see shapes flitting among the trees - dark shadows darting at the corner of my eye. Eventually I curl up in a hollowed-out tree trunk, my sleeping bag wrapped tight around me. I close my eyes, but all I see is your face, the crease of your brow as you peer through the trees. I try to hold on to your features, but they start to melt - your eyes turning to amber, your golden hair thickening over your face.
I must have slept, eventually. In the morning the forest seems peaceful. Birds are singing, little tamarin monkeys chattering. The path becomes easier and after eight hours I reach the wide dirt track that leads to the nearest village.
It's five more days before I've made it to the city and got a search party together - two ex-army paramedics and a local hunter who can clear a path through the forest quicker than a bulldozer. I'd hoped for more but the government won't prioritise it. He's not lost, they say, he's chosen to stay there.
We take enough supplies to last two weeks. The paramedics try to calm me down – there’s water in the jungle, and humans can live for weeks without food, they say. But as we approach the camp, they start to warn me - your friend will be alive, but starvation can make people delusional, paranoid, aggressive. They tell me they have brought a roll-up stretcher and tranquilizers - just in case.
When we reach camp there's no sign of you. I search among your clothes in the tent - you must still be wearing the same khaki t-shirt, same socks, same combat trousers. The laptop is in the tent. I lift the lid and it whirrs into life. An image flashes onto the screen.
And there it is - unmistakable. Its amber eyes gazing straight into mine. I gaze back for a moment then snap the laptop shut. You did it. You actually did it. Here is all the proof we need. We can go home now.
But where are you?
Each day we go out in pairs, scouring the areas around the camera traps and further afield. A week passes and still there's no sign of you. At night we huddle around the campfire, flinching at shadows. I try to imagine what you would do if I had disappeared. That's when I remember the camera traps - of course, why didn't we think of that? We must re-set the camera traps.
For four days we find nothing. Then suddenly, on the fifth day you are there. The others say it's a trick of the light - just shadows and leaves - but I can see you right there, peering out from behind a tree. You're in shadow, but the shape of your head, the curve of your shoulder - I'd recognise that silhouette anywhere.
The paramedics are telling me we have to go tomorrow - that we only have enough supplies for the journey back.
"Just give me two more days," I say. "Please. Just two more days to find him."
I sneak out of the tent just before dawn. I will hide until they're gone, so they cannot force me. I'm tiptoeing to the forest path, but there's a crunch behind me. A hand grips my arm.
"Don't worry, this won't hurt. We just need to get you out of here."
I try to run, but they're holding me back. The stretcher is unrolled and the paramedic plunges a needle in my arm. Before I black out, I catch a movement in the forest - a shadow. I look up, and I swear it's you, looking back at me. Just for the briefest moment - an instant - then gone.
(c) Jenny Ramsay, 2016
Jenny Ramsay is from Glasgow & now lives in mid-Wales. She has recently started writing short stories and poems while her toddler is napping. This is her first published story. She worked on a nature reserve for eight years but now looks after her young son full time.
Miranda Harrison: (right) New writing credits include More Than This (Bread & Roses); Women Redressed (Arcola); The Mesmer (Dirty Dick Vaults). Classics include Nurse, Romeo and Juliet (Leicester Square Theatre); Mother, Blood Wedding (Barons Court Theatre). Voiceover work includes BBC Children in Need; charity and corporate narrations; educational audio. Miranda also runs new writing event Page to Stage.