The Tree of Death

The Tree of Death

Pedro Oliveira circled a spot on the map that lay unfolded on the table before him. A thin film of sweat shined upon his forehead. Dust motes floated in the light that beamed through the hut’s wooden shutters.

He tapped his pen in the circle as he looked at Isabella Silva and said, “Here’s the place, Professor Silva. The last known location of the Apuelito tribe. It’s a month’s journey from here through the jungle on foot, but you shouldn’t go there. No one should. It’s too dangerous.”

Isabella said, “Thank you, Mr. Oliveira. I appreciate your concern, but I’ve been searching for this lost rainforest tribe for many years. I’m too close now to give up. Besides, I’ve been on a half-dozen expeditions through the jungle, the last two of them by myself. I think I’ll be fine.”

“Why’s it so important for you to find them?”

“My anthropological research focuses on unlocking the secrets of lost civilizations. I’ve often heard about this tribe in my studies, but the modern world knows little about their culture. I intend to change that.”

“But professor, I’m a direct descendant of the Apuelitos. No one knows more about this tribe than I do. Why don’t you just interview me for your research instead of risking your life?”

Isabella smiled and shook her head.

“Mr. Oliveira, there’s no doubt that you do indeed possess a great deal of knowledge about the Apuelitos. But I require primary sources that are more… direct.”

Pedro furrowed his brow in irritation. He said, “They disappeared into the jungle more than 300 years ago. They were trying to escape the conquistadors who wanted to enslave them and no one has seen them since. What makes you think they’d appreciate you coming to knock on their door?”

“You let me worry about the ethics of the situation, Mr. Oliveira. In the meantime, you’ve been very helpful.”

Isabella took a stack of Brazilian Reals out of her khaki jungle jacket’s breast pocket. Then she slid it across the table.

Pedro picked it up. He said, “There’s one thing I must insist on telling you about the Apuelitos, professor, whether you want to hear it or not.”


“The Portuguese referred to them as the Death Tree People. This is because of the manchineel trees they lived amongst in the jungle. Every single part of this particular tree is toxic. If even a drop of its sap touches your skin, it will burn a hole all the way through to the other side of your body. One taste of its fruit will cause your throat to close in an instant, suffocating you. But not before its juices burn away the skin of your mouth.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with the tribe’s association with the manchineel tree. If memory serves, they revered it as having spiritual significance. They also developed an immunity to its toxicity.”

“You’re correct. Legend has it that the tribe once captured some unfortunate conquistadors. Then they left them tied up naked under their manchineel trees. A rainstorm came, and the water mixed with the sap from the trees, gushing down onto their bodies. When the weather passed, there was nothing left of them except puddles of red slime.”

“What’s your point?”

“The point is that you should be careful when you go looking for that which does not wish to be found.”

Before Isabella could reply, Pedro held a leather pouch out to her.

“What’s this?” she said as she took it.

“It’s an arrowroot poultice. It’s a paste that will counteract the effects of manchineel sap should any touch your skin.”

“Thank you.”

Isabella stood up from the table and leaned over to pick her backpack up from the floor. When she did, her hair fell away from her neck and revealed a birthmark there in the shape of a flame.

Seeing this, Pedro’s eyes went wide. “Filha de puta!” he said, knocking his chair over as he leapt out of it. He pulled a knife from a sheath clipped to his belt, then slashed at Isabella, nicking her face. She grunted in pain and surprise, then grabbed her map and backpack and ran out of the hut.

Isabella dropped her backpack onto the jungle floor. Then she slumped down against the nearest tree trunk, taking heavy breaths.

Dirt stains covered her clothes and sweat dripped down her neck. She wiped her brow, then cursed as she ran her finger along the new scar on her face.

“What the hell was that all about?” she said to herself.

Emerald leaves hung from the bushes and trees all around her. A tiny waterfall fed a stream a few meters from where she sat. Insects buzzed, birds chirped, and monkeys howled in the distance.

She opened her backpack to pull out her map, then held it up in front of her. A thin line of blood spatter ran down the side.

A drop of water fell from the tree behind her and landed on the back of her hand, but she didn’t notice. Then the spot started to burn. Isabella looked at it with concern as a blister began to rise. The pain intensified, and the wound started to smoke. She grabbed her backpack and began tearing through it.

The smell of burning flesh made her gag as she stood up and dumped the backpack’s contents on the ground. She sifted through camping equipment, rations, and other survival gear. Then she found the leather pouch Pedro gave her. She undid the knot and pulled it open, then scooped out a dollop of the white paste inside. She rubbed it on the wound and the pain ceased in an instant.

Sighing with relief, she closed the pouch and put it in her pocket. Then she looked up at the tree she’d been sitting against and saw that its bark was dark red. It stood out from the other tree trunks that were shades of brown. The tree had yellow-green, apple-sized fruits growing from its branches. There were several more laying on the ground near its base.

“It looks like I’ve found my first manchineel tree,” she said. “I should mark it with the tree marking paint I brought. If I mark all the manchineel trees I find like this, then they’ll serve as guideposts for my return trip to the village. It’ll also help me avoid getting too close to them on my way back.”

Sifting through her things once more, she found a can of red spray paint. She used it to make a circle all the way around the trunk. Then she repacked her supplies into her backpack.

She continued on for several hundred meters until she spotted another manchineel tree. As she approached it, she heard a rustling sound from behind her. She turned around and saw a manchineel tree with a red circle around its trunk a few dozen meters away.

“That’s weird,” she thought. “I should be a lot further away from that one by now. The jungle must be playing tricks with my mind.”

Isabella hacked through the undergrowth until she arrived at the edge of a clearing. There, she saw the decimated ruins of several wooden buildings. One in the center was larger than the others, and manchineel trees filled the spaces between them. The remnants of clay pots, stone tools, and crude wooden furniture littered the ground.

“I’ve found it,” she said. “The last known location of the Apuelito tribe.”

She approached the large structure. When she got close, she saw that it had hand-carved exterior molding. Intricate designs adorned its outer walls. But, something had destroyed one its walls, and splinters covered the ground nearby. When she entered, she saw that inscriptions in some foreign text covered its interior.

She took her journal out of her backpack and wrote, “I’ve arrived at the ruins of the Apuelito tribe’s village. There’s a temple in the center of the it with writing inscribed upon its inner walls. I recognize it as the ancient Arawakan language which I can read with some proficiency. I will attempt to translate it.”

She studied the writing for several minutes. Then she wrote, “It appears that the Apuelito tribe revered an unnamed tree deity. Their lives revolved around worshipping it through elaborate rituals and sacrifice. In return for their devotion, the deity offered them a bounty of wood, fruit, and medicines. These blessings were beneficial to them but toxic to anyone who wasn’t a member of their tribe. It’s obvious that they’re referring to products of the manchineel trees.

“They lived here in peace for generations until an evil entity began to plague them. This entity appeared in various forms to kill them and burn their trees down with magical fire. Once, it appeared as a jaguar. The next time as a snake. The next, a crocodile.

Every time they managed to kill the creature, it would reappear in a new form to attack the villagers once again. They finally decided to abandon the village and flee deeper into the jungle to escape it. They went south, and planted manchineel trees along the way to guard against the evil.

“This legend contradicts the narrative that the tribe fled to escape enslavement. In fact, there’s no mention of any foreign invaders besides the evil entity. But an entire section of the temple wall is missing which I presume had more writing etched onto it. Thus, a large part of their story is unfortunately lost to time.

“I will continue southward and see if I can discover where they went. I’ll use any manchineel trees I encounter to guide my way.”

Isabella opened her eyes inside her tent.

“Did something wake me up?” she said, whispering to herself.

An object thudded against the side of the tent and she sat up in surprise. Her hand fumbled around next to her sleeping bag until she found her flashlight. Gripping it tight, she lay motionless for several minutes until she decided to see what it was.

She unzipped the entrance flap with trepidation and peered out into the darkness. As she crawled out of the tent, she put her hand down on the jungle floor. It brushed up against something hard and round.

When she picked the object up, the skin on her hand started to burn and she dropped it. Then she clicked the flashlight on and pointed it at the object. It was a manchineel fruit. Scanning the ground with the light beam, she saw another one sitting against the side of her tent.

“How could these have gotten here?” she thought. “I know I didn’t build my camp anywhere near those damned trees. I made sure of it.”

She then shined her flashlight at the tree trunks that surrounded her camp. One of them was a dull red color unlike the others which were all grey and brown. Moving the light beam up its trunk, she gasped when she saw a bright red line spray-painted around it. The paint glistened in the light as if it was fresh. Drops ran down the trunk, reminding her of blood. She crawled backwards into her tent and struggled to close the flap with trembling hands. Then she sat there holding the flashlight under her chin and taking short, rapid breaths.

She stayed awake the rest of the night. When the morning sunlight came, she unzipped the tent flap an inch and peaked out. The manchineel tree was gone, as were the two fruits.

Isabella stepped into the clearing and stared with amazement. Unlike the last one, there were no ruins or artifacts within. Instead, there were only manchineel trees planted in a circular pattern. The trees surrounded a wooden column. It was about 30 meters tall. Glancing around with apprehension, she inched forward.

As she came closer, she saw that writing covered it like inside the temple in the Apuelitos’ village. She took off her backpack and retrieved her journal. Then wrote in it as she translated the inscription.

“I’ve found another clearing the Apuelito tribe seems to have once occupied. But, instead of the ruins of a village, it contains a single totem surrounded by manchineel trees.

“The writings on this totem reiterate an evil entity harassed the tribe. It expands upon the story to stay that the entity pursued them from their old village, this time in the form of …a woman.”

A twig snapped somewhere behind her. She looked around but saw nothing, then continued writing.

“They prayed to their deity for the power to destroy the evil once and for all. It granted their wish by turning them all into manchineel trees. This way they could melt it down into nothing with their toxic sap. The name of this entity is…”

Isabella stopped and stared. The symbol on the column that represented the evil entity was the exact same shape as the birthmark on her neck.

“What the…?” she said.

A manchineel fruit whizzed past her head and smashed against the column. Some of its juice splashed into her face. Another one hit her lower back and she doubled over, yelping in pain. She tried to see where her attacker was, but the juice burned her eyes and blinded her. A third one hit her in the side of the head, knocking her unconscious.

Isabella awoke on the ground in total darkness. Her eyes stung and her head and back ached.

Standing up, she held her arms out and took a couple steps forward. She stumbled over her backpack that lay nearby. Her hand touched something cold and hard that had the texture of smooth wood. She realized it was the column she’d been studying in the clearing.

“Why can’t I see anything around me?” she thought. “There’s no jungle canopy over the clearing. I should be able to see the clearing in the moonlight even if it’s cloudy.”

Stepping away from the column, she held her hands out and felt the bark of a tree trunk. Her hands stung when she touched it. She moved sideways and continued to feel stinging bark all around her. She went all the way around until she realized the trees formed a cage, trapping her.

She pounded against the tree trunks and burst into tears. Her hands became bruised and stung even more. Then, she heard the sound of thunder, and rain started to fall from the sky. The water poured down from the tree branches upon her, drenching her. Her skin burned all over, and she screamed.

Panicking, she felt along the ground until she found her backpack. Then she opened it and rifled through its contents until she found her axe. With wild, desperate swings, she hacked away at one of the tree trunks, trying to escape before it was too late.