The Mystery of Klatenulco

The path they were following was narrow, barely marked by the footsteps that made their way through the dense rainforest of Klatenulco. Wide leaves, vibrant flowers, and the strange noises of animals that Narel had never seen, but for Irma, nothing seemed to be new. The jungle created a natural barrier that isolated the drainage basin from the rest of the world.

The heat was unbearable, in the heart of Klatenulco island, the poor airflow and wide trees created a dense air that Narel could barely breathe. Walking on wet soil, scaring mosquitoes and insects the size of his hand away, he barely had time to write down his observations on the way to the basin. And Irma was entering deeper and deeper into the jungle that was getting more and more dark, more humid, more hot. There were a few hours of daylight left, and the pain in his legs was already getting the better of him. But she seemed to be speeding up, as awake as she was when they started the journey.

Could something happen to them? Were they in danger? So alone, so lost in the middle of a labyrinth of toxins and heat where everything could go wrong. How much time would it take to find them, if they ever got lost? There so many questions had he hadn’t asked before until he went into the most secluded place of the island, accompanied by a person that seemed to know the forest as much as she knew herself, that always took the best path without even thinking about it, that was able to distinguish between the plants that they should avoid and the ones they had to eat so as not to die, and that knew which trenches they should cross then which streams guided them to their destination.

In a jungle with a very porous ground, filled with caverns and sinkholes that hid between the hills, it seemed so easy to fall and get lost forever. Narel took every step with more precaution than needed, scaring himself to death when she saw Irma jumping among slippery rocks and crossing creeks that carried the water of the eternal waterfalls as if it were a game. Her agility transformed the renowned Klatenulco rainforest into a childish playground.

“Aren’t you scared of jumping like that? What if you slip and hit your head? How would we be able to get out of here if something happens to you?”

“The real question is, How am I going to get you out of here if something happens to you?”

Irma stopped to wait for Narel to cross a stream, meanwhile, she filled her bottle with water filled with strange minerals.

“You know that this place has alarming levels of radioactivity, right? You shouldn’t drink water from these streams.”

Narel didn’t know what to say after scolding Irma, who couldn’t stop laughing.

“And where do you think our everyday food and water comes from? Do you think it comes by airplane from an island afar?”

A slight shudder almost made him lose balance after stepping on the last rock, he was on the other side of the stream, leaning on Irma to keep from falling.

“If I could barely sleep thinking about the radiation dose I’m getting exposed to, now I won’t be able to close my eyes.”

His radiation detector beeped once in a while, alarming him of unusually high levels. Once and again Narel checked the dose he was receiving. It wasn’t dangerous, it wasn’t deadly, but it wasn’t negligible, and that worried him. Every beep was a particle that had detached from who knows where, from a rock, a plant, or even from Irma; he couldn’t disprove it; and had hit the detector. Who knows how many more particles were hitting his head in that instance. He tried not to think about that and focus on his research but it was a sound that was hard to ignore.

Irma bent down to look for something on the ground, a small black rock that she dug up and placed on Narel’s hand.

“Measure this rock.”

He placed the rock in front of the detector, and then threw it as far as he could after hearing the insufferable beep that foretold horrible things.

Irma laughed after seeing that reaction.

“What’s wrong with you?!” Narel shouted. “You knew what that was, right?! Why is it so funny to you?!”

“Are you radiophobic? There are rocks like that everywhere.”

“I’m only being cautious. You have no idea how dangerous this area is”

“Dangerous? I don’t think so. I’ve lived in the jungle my whole life and I don’t understand how that rock can scare you so much.”

He couldn’t bear for her to talk about it with such disrespect, or for her to go around picking up things she hardly knew.

“You don’t know what you’re saying. Do you know what that rock is doing right now? It’s shooting atomic bullets that are piercing our bodies at this very moment, possibly causing cellular damage and terrible diseases in the long term if we don’t take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves.

“Do you think I don’t know what radiation is?!” Irma replied.

“It seems so from the way you act.”

“It’s very easy for you to say that. My family and I have been living with it for a long, long time. Since we settled in this place we’ve known about it. Since then we have been living with cancers and birth defects. Medicines and specialized treatments are a blessing, but even these ones are not enough when there’s no way of completely getting rid of it.”

It was a very different culture, Narel supposed. So familiar with the radiation and its effects as with the hundreds of colorful and poisonous frogs he saw on its way. After so much time, radiation had become part of the landscape. The animals are oblivious to it, rain keeps nurturing the trees, and people like Irma lived from the resources of the island. The radiation would remain there for thousands of years, because no biological process was capable of assimilating it. Thousands and thousands of years sickening plants and animals, and causing as much fear as fascination in persons like Narel, who yearned to know the planet’s past through soil samples and topographical charts. Below all those roots were the answers to one of the biggest mysteries of the tropical belt.

Irma stopped, and took a few seconds to catch her breath and sigh. She was tired, there was no doubt about it, but her zest was still there, as enthusiastic as she was when she offered to accompany him on his journey from the village to the basin. “You can’t do it by yourself”, she had told him, which Narel didn’t believe at the start, but through the journey he realized that Irma knew more things than it was apparent. Skills and dexterity of past generations distilled on her arms, legs and mind.

“Well, here it is. The Klatenulco Rainforest Basin” she sat down to let Narel take in the view.

Starlight barely allowed him to understand what was in front of him. A large depression on the terrain overflowing with vegetation, and ponds reflecting the faint light of the cosmos. There wasn’t enough light to judge the size of the imposing geological feature, and the shadows seemed to hide mysteries as old as the planet itself.

The only thing he was able to hear was his heavy breathing, and the deafening chant of millions of insects. Irma, a few steps away from the cliff, smiled, proud to have taken him to one of the most remote parts of the jungle in so little time.

“I told you that you couldn’t get here by yourself”.

“You don’t really know that,” Narel replied.

“Well, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t arrive in less time.”

Narel remembered why he had come to such a remote place, and looked away from the cliff. Inspecting the ground with his lantern, he confirmed what other researchers already had found. The presence of heavy metals in that zone couldn’t be explained solely by geological processes. Something else should have intervened to create a landscape as mysterious as it was beautiful.

He couldn’t ignore the constant beeping of his radiation detector. The dose they were receiving had increased significantly since they departed from the village. Unfortunately, detailed observations could only be done during the day. They would have to speed the night in the basin before continuing with his work.

“Do you visit this place often?” Asked Narel.

“Not much, I rarely come here.”

“Thank goodness. This place is dangerous.”

“Although, my friends and I love to dive in the sinkholes that are around here. We don’t always do it, but if you come all the way here, it’s worth doing it.”

“You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t receive more radiation than you and your friends already do. Radiation inside the sinkholes is probably more intense.”

“I know, I know. But this place is so beautiful that we can’t leave it alone.”

And beautiful it was. Even in darkness, the beauty of the landscape was unquestionable. A well preserved vestige of when the planet was young and humanity new in that world, protected by miles and miles of rainforest. Unreachable except by the sharp sight and memory of Irma. Satellite photographs couldn’t compare with being on the edge of the basin. Photographs weren’t enough to comprehend its size and depth

“Ready to descend? We’re yet to reach the best part.”

Narel turned off his detector to delve into silence and ignore whatever lied below. It wasn’t the time to worry about radiation.

They descended through the steep slope guided by a rope that Irma prepared and tied with grace. While he hesitated and analyzed every step he took, imagining all the ways in which he could fall and die, Irma had already descended, and was waiting for him on the other extreme of the rope, encouraging him to stop clinging so much to it. But Narel couldn’t understand how Irma, wearing light clothing and carrying much more weight than him, was able to slide down the wet rocky slope with so much confidence.

“Loosen up a bit, otherwise you will never arrive.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do!”

Every attempt to match her speed failed. He had the strength and agility, but not the confidence. He decided to descend keeping his own rhythm, even if Irma had to wait more time down there.

“You don’t fear getting lost in the jungle, or of heights or radiation. What are you afraid of?” Narel asked, trying to understand her once he descended.

“I’m afraid of leaving this place forever.”

Around the world, inspired and driven by the ideas of Julia Eerith, the possibility of declaring the Klatenulco basin as a protected area was being discussed, to stop its further alteration, facilitate its study, and preserve the state in which it was discovered. Narel knew, and Irma too, that the results of his research would form part of the arguments for classifying the basin as an area of no human intervention, thus displacing people like Irma, who called that strange place home.

Seen from below, it seemed that they were swallowed by the jungle itself. The chirps, screams and weeping of night creatures surrounded them, singing a hymn to the isolation and mystery that surrounded the basin, that didn’t seem to have a beginning nor end until Irma lit the campfire.

Narel showed her the maps and drawings he was carrying, made thanks to previous expeditions. There were still so many unknowns.

“What do you think happened to this place? Why is it so different?” she asked.

“The evidence says that something big, I don’t know what, crashed in this zone. That would explain the shape of the basin”.

“A meteorite?”

“It’s possible. What I still cannot understand is the radiation. Normally, an asteroid doesn’t have levels of radioactive material this high?”

“How high?”

“Like a huge nuclear reactor crashed here?”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“I know! But we can’t yet reject anything. We still need more evidence. What I’m sure of is that this zone, and especially the underground, can tell us a lot about the history of this planet.”

Irma looked at the fire, thinking about what she had just heard.

“If they turn this place into a reserve, are we going to be able to come down here?”

“Only if we want to go to the basin for research and academic purposes. Otherwise, access will be forbidden.”

Everything seemed to indicate that the basin would become part of the hundreds of natural reserves scattered through the tropical belt. Places teeming with life and beauty that for one reason or another became so special, so unique, so fragile that it was necessary to protect them at all costs. Narel hadn’t been the first, nor would be the last to explore the Klatenulco basin. The fascination for that place kept growing more and more in schools and laboratories around the world, and Irma knew it.

“Why did you decide to go with me? " Narel asked.

A few seconds passed before Irma could put his thoughts in order.

“Because I want, we want” she said while rekindling the fire, “to know what really is this place that we have known our entire lives. Because despite having been here for many years, it is still a place full of mystery. The radiation, the metals, the basin. We want to know what makes this place so special as much as you and your colleagues do. We want to protect it, but we also want to stay. The village is talking with other islands to make an exception for our case. We think that doctor Eerith, while having good intentions, is taking hasty actions.

Klatenulco was a vast island, so large that not even Irma’s village who had been there for so long knew it completely, so full of wonder that even the largest research institutions still had more questions than answers. It was more than understandable that Irma didn’t want to leave without knowing what had happened in the basin.

“What’s your opinion Narel? Do you think only the eye of science is worthy of seeing this place?”

Irma seemed to have raised that question from the depths of her soul, her eyes flashing like the fire that held them together in the vastness of the jungle. She asked as if her survival relied on the answer Narel was going to give her. She didn’t take her eyes off him, waiting for his response before saying or doing anything else.

“I guess I don’t know the basin enough to give you an answer.”

“Alright, if tomorrow is a good day, I’ll take you to my favorite place, and I hope you can give me an answer there.”

In the morning, Narel set out to put the work equipment that he had carried on his back to good use. With his research tools he started to read the chaotic history of the planet through the rocky strata. Erosion, volcanism, rains and droughts, all that could be seen in the layers of rock exposed by the slow but steady flow of the waters. And in the center of Klatenulco, where all that rainwater ended up, the complex system of underground caverns was added to the list of the island’s enigmas.

He took notes and measures to later upgrade the topographical charts of the zone, in a more comfortable, drier, and better equipped environment. He also took the opportunity to take some photographs of the jungle, of the leafy plants and vines that climbed the walls, of the birds that nested between the cracks and fissures, and of the waterfalls that kept the basin wet, hot, and alive.

He took soil samples along with observations and drawings, while Irma listened to what Narel had to say, fascinated by the things they were learning together. He also had to make a radiation map of the zone, so, expecting the worst, turned on the detector. It was higher than before their descent, but not by much.

“If we don’t stay here for too long we wouldn’t have to worry. I wouldn’t stay for more than a few days here”

“I wouldn’t know the basin so well if I stayed so little time in it.”

Still impressed by how little she cared, he warned her again and again about the dangers of exposing for so long to an environment like that. Irma then replied with something that surprised him even more.

“These trees and birds, the water we drink, the wood we burn every night, the clothes that we wear, everything is impregnated with those isotopes. They’re on the soil, in the planets, in the bones and even in my blood. You’re not used to that, however not much can be done for me.

Maybe we should stay away from here, Narel thought. Not for the sake of that place, but for their own health. He was going to ask her if she would like to go to the city, to an environment free from radiation, and invite her to collaborate on the basin research, where her first hand knowledge would be invaluable; but he knew the answer to all those requests. She had grown with the basin and with the radiation, and despite all the risks, they were inseparable.

Once Irma got bored of registering the readings of the radiation detector and got tired of helping Narel on the fieldwork, she invited him to tour the places with the best view of the basin.

“Your camera doesn’t capture people?” Irma asked.

“Why wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t know, I’m asking because you haven’t taken a picture of yourself.”

“I don’t need pictures of me to make the report.”

“I know you don’t! Aren’t you taking a memory of this place with you?”

She asked him to pose in front of the tallest waterfalls she knew, where the water splashed the rocks with such force that it became a dense and loud mist that kept huge ferns alive. They took pictures together in front of the lagoons clouded by their high mineral content, where all sorts of exotic plants grew, fed by all those radioactive nutrients. She was taking him more and more to the bottom of the basin, where the streams became wider, and the vegetation lusher. Irma didn’t mind getting further and further away from the zone Narel was studying, and he couldn’t resist, not without taking away all that enthusiasm and emotion she felt for the place she loved so much.

In the afternoon, with the sun right above their heads, the heat forced them to take a break. Narel was checking one by one the tens of pictures they took together. Most of them were useless for his research, that was no longer a priority. While he was recovering from the intense hike, he saw Irma undressing to go swimming in one of the sinkholes.

“If my memory doesn’t fail me, we can enter from here to one of the caves. Do you want to go?”

And before Narel could answer, she was already in the water. Without saying a word he accepted and followed her.

All sensation of heat was gone, as the water engulfed him completely. The porous, damp, seeping walls and the echo of the splashing were a sign of the many things that were hiding under his feet. A labyrinth of tunnels, holes and waterfalls, created and destroyed by the flow of water through millions of years, where plants, birds, algae and fungi created heir home: a beautiful underground system that overwhelmed all of Narel’s senses, while he pushed his tiredness aside to keep up with Irma’s unstoppable rhythm.

For a few instants the mystery of Klatenulco, a mystery that had made him spend the last two years of his life studying the area’s geography through maps on the other side of the world, until finally, after all that time, he had the chance to visit the island for a few months, meet Irma, and explore the place from which so many hypotheses and fantasies emanated. And now, swimming next to her, none of that mattered.

They spent the rest of the evening swimming and cooling off, exploring the system of chasms and caverns until their bodies and souls converged in a pond where the water reflected the few sunbeams that filtered through the trees.

“This is my favorite place,” Irma whispered.

And now he understood why.

The cave maze and the mysterious geology of the place no longer mattered with Irma together with him. The zone’s radioactivity was nothing compared to her body.

And submerged in the darkness of Klatenulco they fell in love and loved each other, ignoring the radioactive minerals they were absorbing through the skin, ignoring the danger of getting lost and drowning in the underground lakes, ignoring that they would be the last personas to enter the core of the basin with total freedom.

Now used to the fireflies that swarmed in the basin and the flapping of the bats, Narel felt the calm rainforest. The chant of night creatures complemented the campfire that more than keeping them warm, allowed them to see each other. There was still so much work to do before leaving, but that couldn’t matter less. What he now wanted to understand was what had happened that evening.

“Do you still think this place can only be observed through the lens of science? Do you believe there are things so great that they can’t be represented in paper and numbers?”

Narel laughed. The Klatenulco basin was a mystery so big that couldn’t be solved by only taking dirt and water samples, nor by making topographical charts. No matter how many instruments and tools he had, he wasn’t going to be able to comprehend what it has taken Irma a lifetime to learn.

“Despite all the danger, I can’t think of a place more beautiful than this one. I guess everything has a price” he replied.

“Radiation should be the least of your concerns. But yes, there’s no place on the island better than this one, nor in the entire world.”

They both wished for a longer night, but were incapable of overcoming the fatigue of an entire day of walking and swimming. They lay down and slept, for the first time together since they started the expedition.

In the middle of the night, wrapped in the heat of the forest and bathed in sweat, the shivering was consuming him.

So much radiation in the water he had swallowed, the minerals he had absorbed, all that time swimming with Irma had turned into pain, agony and nausea. He had exceeded, and now all that radiation, all those metales were poisoning him. There was no escape, there wasn’t a cure. Only suffering.

Inside his head that was about to explode he tried to free himself from the entanglement that was the mystery of Klatenulco, the radioactive rocks, trying to demystify the origin of the metals scattered through the porous limestone. Plants and creatures of all colors, fluorescent under the starlight, and in the middle of that dilemma, Irma swimming in the labyrinth of water and rock. It was more powerful than the radiation, a dilemma that cooked him from the inside. Inside that place, so isolated, so deep, so dark, there was no way to get rid of the nuclear poison.

The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was Irma saying words he couldn’t understand, while she poured fresh water over her body.

The raindrops above the tent was the first thing he heard that morning. Animals rested in silence, waiting under the plants for the sun’s arrival. Irma, on the other hand, had returned to the tent with water and food, indifferent to the storm that was unleashed over a place that didn’t need any more humidity.

“Better? I thought you were gonna die last night.”

Narel didn’t know what to say after that fever that had taught him more about the basin than all the work he had done the day before.

“It’s normal that that happened to you.”

“And why didn’t you tell me anything? The radiation almost killed me.”

“It wasn’t the radiation. Here in the heart of the forest there are so many bugs and bacteria that your body has probably never encountered in the city. Your body didn’t know what to do with them.”

It was true. Klatenulco, the jungle, its people, it was all the same thing. An ecosystem so complex, vast and unique, that a single person was not capable of fully understanding.