This gem of a short story was written in my creative writing class in 2009.
Elliot Salem lugged his oblong luggage down the steps of the charter plane. The black baggage, similar to a fisherman’s lure box, bumped the sides of the railing as he descended. Grasping the handles with slippery fingers, he over-corrected the luggage’s sway with each step. Thud, clunk, thud-thud, clunk.
As his safari boots crunched the sandy earth of Mauritius, Elliot plopped the case down and stretched his back. His glasses fogged from the humidity, and he wiped the dew away in tiny circles with the hem of his blue polo.
“Dr. Salem… the botanist?” asked a dark-skinned native holding a piece of paper with the scribbled letters “S-A-L-E-M.” The paper curved damply in the breeze.
“Dr. Elliot Salem, ethno-botanist, at your service, my good man,” Elliot announced, extending his hand. “Here to scout the legendary man-eating tree.”
“Welcome to Mauritius. I am Joshua, your tour guide.” He took Elliot’s clammy, white hand.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Joshua,” Elliot chortled. “Beautiful island—I can’t wait to explore it! I’ve waited five years for the department heads to approve this trip. You know, you, my boy, could very well go down in the record books next to my name: The scientist and safari guide who discovered and studied... well,” he giggled, “we’ll soon find out. Shall we be off?” He reached down for the luggage and hoisted it up. His back cracked with the weight. Joshua extended a hand to help him, but the doctor hugged the box tightly and passed by, taking in the scenery.
“What is in the bag, Doctor?” Joshua asked, skipping ahead and leading him to a rusty brown Jeep parked off the dirt runway.
“This is my botany bag,” Elliot said, stroking the plastic edges. He walked and waddled with it, struggling for a smooth gate. “Everything I need to study plants is within: my microscopes, my journals, some tweezers and baggies, my spy glass—oh, and my camera—a brand-new Polaroid!”
Joshua grinned, white teeth glowing. “I have never seen a real camera before.”
“Oh, my boy, you’re in for a real treat. With this instrument of genuine brilliance, I have documented a rare mimosa species of plant in Southeast Asia, the Lotusiapi, and also the aboriginal sunflower of Russia’s northeast tundra.” He hung the Polaroid around his neck, adjusting his collar. “Now, I hope to add a carnivorous plant to my list. Would you give me a hand?” With Joshua’s help, Elliot stuffed his botany bag into the back of the Jeep, and they were off.
The tropical forest zoomed past as the Jeep bounced and creaked over the rocky terrain. Monkeys swung on vines in the thick canopies overhead. Colorful birds of oranges, blues and greens swooped in and out of sight. Snakes slinked over rocks, and red beetles drunkenly flitted through the air. The island buzzed with energy from the monkey chatter and bird tweets; the thick moisture in the air seemed to amplify every miniscule sound.
As they drove into a gulley, Elliot wiggled for a better view. “My, my, the vegetation is thick,” he said, pointing to the rich, green shrubberies. “Beautiful bigeneric Tropiflora. I assume we’ll have to hike through some of it to get to the trees.”
Joshua nodded and tapped his thigh. A machete glistened in the sunlight. “Are you worried about snakes, Doctor?”
“No, no.” Elliot rubbed the back of his neck as a blue beetle fluttered by. “Something tells me I’m in for far worse.” His mouth curled into a smile. “Or at least I can hope, yeah?” Grasping onto the Jeep’s handle bars, he prepped for the crossing of stream. The blue water spurted on all sides as the jeep cut through. “Tell me, why do the inhabitants of this isle revere these trees so?”
“Our ancestors believed the trees are gods of the tropics,” Joshua said, motioning to the land with his left arm. “They sustain our people by providing food and shelter.”
“But supposedly they eat people?” Elliot stated, a little confused.
“Yes, if they are bothered. So we make sacrifices to appease their anger.”
“Right, right. I’ve heard of your ritualistic sacrificing. Do you think I will anger them by collecting a sample for study?” Elliot questioned.
“No samples, Doctor,” Joshua scolded, slowing the Jeep. His dark eyes pierced the botanist.
“No, no. No samples,” Elliot cajoled. “I remember the details of our arrangement. I’m just trying to understand the motivation for such anger, that’s all.”
“Who can fully comprehend the motivation of the gods?” Joshua punched the brake to the floor. The jeep skidded to a stop, and Joshua hopped out. “Are you really going to haul that bag with you, Doctor?”
The seatbelt caught on Elliot’s pant's pocket, and he stumbled from the jeep, catching himself on a nearby tree. “Uh, well, I suppose my camera alone will suffice… for now.” He spoke the last two words under his breath, wiping his hands of tree bark.
Joshua waited while Elliot checked the film in the Polaroid and pocketed a notepad and pencil. “All right. Ready.”
The trek through the jungle by foot was longer than Elliot imagined. His new safari boots rubbed against his heels, and he had to stop periodically to stuff leaves in the boot for cushioning. The blue polo stuck to his chest as if glued by the humidity. Halfway through the hike, Joshua removed his shirt altogether and wrapped it around his head. Elliot didn’t feel that dauntless.
Soon Joshua stopped and turned around with a toothy grin. “We’re here. Are you ready, Doctor?” he whispered.
Elliot eagerly stepped forward, his shoes squishy from sweat. “Yes. Show me.”
Joshua put a finger to his lips and pulled back the branches in front of them. Elliot quietly stepped through. A clearing of dried grass swayed in front of three enormous trees, trunks at least ten feet thick, Elliot noted. Very subtly, the branches—vine-like arms—wriggled as leaves blow in the wind.
“My word,” Elliot said, fiddling for his pencil and notepad. He quickly jotted down his estimated dimensions and a few key descriptions, talking as he scribbled. “At the very least, 30 feet tall, ten feet thick. Leaves—no leaves. Long, tentacle-like branches… wriggling? Would you call that wriggling, Joshua? But only slightly. Fluidly. And the bark—I have to get closer to see the bark.”
“No, Doctor!” Joshua warned, grabbing his arm. “Look.” He pointed to the earth. The trees’ branches extended to the ground, covered—as if hiding—in dead leaves and other plant remains. “You must not get too close. It’s a trap.”
Delighted, Elliot inscribed this information as well: “Hunters, trappers. Branches wait for an unsuspecting creature to wander too close. Fascinating. Must be a hybrid of another predatory species…,” Nevertheless, he took a calculated step closer. “Are the vines sticky? What’s that glabrous skin there?”
“Doctor, please, no closer,” Joshua said sternly.
“Can we feed it something? I want to see it eat.” He reached for his camera. The bulky Polaroid opened with a buzzing noise, gears moving into place. “It’s just so tremendous.” He snapped a photo, the flash penetrated the surrounding shadows and the picture materialized from the slot. Elliot mindlessly took the photo out and shook it, then put it in his pocket. Then he took one step closer and snapped another. Another bright flash! Another loud, obnoxious grinding of the machine’s gears.
“Doctor! Look out!” Joshua’s hands flailed.
But Elliot’s face was plastered to the camera, eyes working through the viewfinder. “Did it move? Did you see that?!”
“Doctor!” Joshua yelled in the background.
A prickly, slimy substance wrapped around Elliot’s boot and slithered up his leg. Startled, he dropped the camera. It landed on the tentacle, and immediately the branch retracted, squirming to the base of the trunk. The tree grew another few feet, and its tendrils thrashed through the air.
“Get away from it!” Joshua shouted, lunging toward the doctor. Machete in hand, he wacked at the restless plant.
Elliot stumbled backward and fell on his rump. “Oh my!” he bellowed, horrified. Thick tendrils lunged and whipped through the air toward Joshua, who boldly fought back. Within seconds, however, a tendril knocked the machete from the tour guide’s hands and another wrapped around his torso, squeezing. With a savage tenacity unlike anything Elliot had witnessed, the tree flayed about, smashing Joshua into the earth over and over again until he stopped moving. The tree devoured the man whole, trunk opening at the apex. As if watching a snake feast on a fat mouse, Elliot watched as the tree trunk slowly swallowed and digested Joshua.
Then the prickly tentacles resumed their entrapment of the doctor, and his eyes grew wide as dozens of arms flailed his way. Kicking up dirt, he scooted backwards, hands grasping for anything to defend himself. Miraculously, his fingers found the machete, and he clutched the handle and swung below his feet just as one tentacle wrapped around his knee. Twisting in pain, the root retracted. Elliot scrambled to his feet, knees wobbly, and raced from the scene.
He scampered through the jungles as if he were Mowgli, adrenaline pumping, mind in a boggle. What had before been a strenuous trudge was now a mindless sprint. Upon returning to the Jeep, he bounded inside and turned the keys that Joshua had left in the ignition. The tires churned up globs of dirt, and he fled. Arms trembling, he gasped for the oxygen he knew existed in the vapor around the island.
When he reached the village, he shot out of the Jeep like one of the crazed marsupials he’d researched in Bangladesh a few years prior. He hobbled toward the charter plane’s pilot, who munched on Doritos while waiting for his plane to be refueled.
“Sir! Captain! We have to leave right away!” Elliot exclaimed. He had so much to do, so much to document. He was terrified of this discovery, but enthused beyond words.
“What on God’s green earth is that on your ankle?” the pilot said, pointing. Orange chips fell from his mouth. “You found the tree?”
Elliot looked down and screamed, hopping up and down. “Get it off! Get it off!”
The pilot jumped up and kicked at the tentacle with his shiny Doc Martens.
Then, on second thought: “No! Wait!” Elliot cried out. He warbled back to the jeep and retrieved his bag. Popping it open, he fished for a pair of gloves, a set of tweezers and a plastic baggy. Careful not to damage the section of tendril wrapped around his boot, he pried the specimen loose and slipped it in the baggy, sealing it quickly. It pulsated once and then went limp.
The pilot wiped his mouth and gulped.
“It ate Joshua,” Elliot murmured. “The man-eating tree really exists.” A stupid smile etched across his face. “Ha, ha! I found the man-eating tree of Mauritius! I have proof!”
[18 hours later]
Botanist Dr. Claude Shoemaker frowned, bushy eyebrows meeting. Across the table, Dr. Elliot Salem glowed, holding up a plastic baggy with a dead, greenish-brown vine: a hybrid of a sundew plant and mimosa species. His eyes slowly wandered from Dr. Salem’s smug face, to his muddied clothing, and down to the table where a Polaroid photo rested. The picture clearly showed a tree exactly as the botanist described. Claude was disappointed he couldn’t share the man’s joys, because it was truly an amazing discovery.
“I did it, Claude,” Elliot rejoiced. “My name will be documented in science manuals for all eternity as the man—the clever botanist from Baltimore—who discovered, hmm… Oh! I must come up with a name! I can’t believe I did it!”
What, was that the fifth time he’d said “I did it” in the last minute? Claude’s eyes returned to his colleague. “Elliot. You took a sample from the island. You violated the details of the expedition.”
“Well, technically, it came with me,” Elliot argued. Claude frowned, raised a finger, but Elliot cut him off. “OK, taking it from the island violated the rules. Yes, I know, but look! Just look at it! Do you realize how much we can learn from this?” Elliot held out the specimen. “Look at it. Take it! This is only a five inch piece of, potentially, a 20-foot arm!”
Claude sighed, rubbing his temples. “Elliot, you don’t get it. The board is going to strip you of your credentials and flat out fire you. What you’ve done is bad PR for the entire department.”
Elliot hesitated. “But, no, look! Once they see this—they’ll understand. It wasn’t my fault! I didn’t intentionally take this! But then, of course, how could I have left it…?”
“An innocent man was killed because of your little venture,” Claude exclaimed. “You directly disobeyed protocol. You violated a nation’s laws and slandered their beliefs. They are going to fire you. Your name will never be associated with this discovery. Are you hearing me?”
Elliot lowered the baggy. His smile had faded. “They can’t do that.”
Claude pursed his lips. “I’m sorry, Elliot. Dr. Jamison informed the laboratory this morning before you arrived.”
“But… but I discovered the killer trees.” He shook his head in disbelief. “I have to get credit for—”
“Elliot!” Claude slammed his hand on the table. “The only credit you’ll get for this was jump-starting the elimination of an entire race.”
Elliot blinked and his breathing stopped. “What? What do you mean?”
Claude moved across the office to the television and switched it on. As the images and words on CNN flashed across the screen, Elliot sank into a chair, mouth agape.
“The trees are killing every living thing on the island, and because the natives believe the trees to be gods, they refuse to leave and refuse outside help.”
Claude muted the TV. The images were powerful enough. “They are all going to die, Elliot. They say it’s punishment for bringing a scientist to scourge their land.”
Elliot’s lips quivered. “But, but I….”
Claude swiped the baggy from his former colleague. “But hey, now I get to analyze this little guy. Thanks, Elliot. Maybe some day you’ll get credit—maybe a tabloid magazine will be the first to break the story—but not today. Today, you’re just a murderer, not a scientist.”
Originally written in 2009.