Great-aunt Hilda was the sort of woman who had trouble negotiating carpets without tripping over in flurry of cashmere scarves, high heels, and a scream that no deranged wolfhound could hope to aspire.
I had gone to live with her as an orphan, after my parents had died tragically in one of those page nine accidents of the New York Times, of a collision with a revolving door and the family Dalmatian. The dog was rescued by the ASPCA, but as the Waldorf-Astoria could not afford to have them as a permanent fixture in their lobby, my parents were put down. Therefore, it was decided by powers more incomprehensible than astrophysics, I was to lodge with my great-aunt Hilda.
When I first met her, I noticed she was a large woman, in that antarctic mammal sense of lying about rocky beaches and barking at the waves.
She took one look at me.
“You’ll have to go.”
“But I just got here?” I protested.
“Accidents happen in even the best-regulated families, but it is preferred that nephews not happen at all, so I see no reason for your existing in the first place. I am a respectable woman, whereas you are a formative child, which are the worst kind. Therefore I am sending you to your Uncle Tobias in India who is also in the formative state. Well, I think he is in India, or was it Africa? One of the two, and regardless of the continent, you have to go.”
“But grand-aunt,” I attempted futilely.
“Don’t grand-aunt me,” she wagged a finger that was more bone than flesh, “I haven’t seen such unreasonable behaviour since the time young Teddy Roosevelt tried to wash a bear skin in my bath.”
“Please,” I begged.
She looked at me as if I was some vague antediluvian creature that forgotten how to swim. “Never fight fair with a great-aunt, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way.”
So it was, that without even unpacking my Boys Own Adventures, I was whisked off to my own adventure with an uncle I had never heard of, to a land responsible for curried chicken, and an art’s scene more uncertain than the Hoboken amateur drama hour.
Uncle Tobias was one of those fabulous relics of the English Raj that refused to accept the end of Empire, and constantly referred to those times as if they were yesterday. If it weren’t for the fact he was fabulously wealthy, and had taken the art of bribery to such a high level of sophistication that it made modern economics seem positively quaint, he would have been thrown out of sub-continent long ago.
He met me at the train station, for I had arrived on one of those slow lumbering steam engines, that just like Uncle Tobias could remember be driven by Lady Edwina Mountbatten. The steam escaped with the dying shriek of an elephant and the engine simply fell apart on the track. Through the fog strode a tall man carrying, appropriately enough, a gun with a barrel so wide you could have fit a plate down it. He had the martial bearing of someone who knew how to give orders but not know how to take them, in much the same way the Charge of the Light Brigade is still famous.
“We are going hunting,” he said emphatically.
“But I just got here?” I whined.
“None of that, here is your gun.”
I fell over.
“Ah,” he said, “I imagined you would be taller.”
“I am only seven.”
“That’s no excuse for not being able to shoot a gazelle at one hundred yards.”
“The gun weighs more than I do.”
“It’s not size that matters,” he fixed with me with eyes so blue I thought they were sapphires, “it’s the speed of the bullet.”
Knowing less of ballistics than I did of steam locomotion, I was inclined to believe him.
“Old man,” he lifted me up, “we are going on safari.”
Instantly I cheered up. It was one thing to lose your parents in a bizarre accident at the Waldorf-Astoria and be thrown to the other side of the world, but it is a completely different thing to go hunting with an insane uncle in the middle of an Indian jungle.
“What are we shooting? Tigers? Elephants? Water Buffalo?” letting my imagination run away with me.
“Rats,” he said simply and I thought he was swearing.
Because of bans on the international trafficking in endangered animals, Uncle Tobias had been forced to shoot progressively smaller and smaller game, and was ultimately reduced to firing off the odd shot at cane rats. These rats however were large, so large, that at first I thought they were small dogs, admittedly dogs that could run up trees, leap through the air and viscously try to bite your lips and nose, but nevertheless they looked to me like very angry Pomeranians.
“Shoot between the eyes, old man!” Uncle Tobias encouraged me, as I flew back through the air from the recoil of the shotgun. “It’s all to do with slowly following the beast with the sight and squeezing the trigger, like so.”
I fired off another shot and almost did a backwards somersault.
“By George!” Uncle Tobias shrieked, “You bagged one.”
I got up with some surprise as I had been merely attempting to lift the barrel; actually shooting a rat was positively amazing. This, however, was not the case, as I found one of the beaters was holding his behind, shrieking in pain, and I soon discovered I had shot the poor fellow in the posterior.
“Ah, sorry about that,” I struggled lamely, as the poor man gave me a look of utmost disgust.
“None of that, my boy,” Uncle Tobias explained as he tapped his nose and grinned, “they get paid for this, danger money, hush-hush, you know.”
Several hours later with a bagful of splattered rats and half a dozen weeping beaters, we arrived back at the hotel. This hotel turned out to be one half of a deserted temple where Uncle Tobias was living as a supplicant.
“The thing you have to watch out for here, my boy, are the monkeys,” he smoked a pipe, “and these aren’t just are any monkeys. No, these chaps are your temple-shrieking monkeys. Whatever you do, don’t show any fear, or they’ll be on your in a flash.”
Almost instantly, monkeys covered me and began picking through my hair, looking for flecks of salt or whatever the little beasts look for in foreign hairstyles. I froze and stared face to face with a wild eye monkey who, if he so disposed to it, was large enough to tear me to pieces.
“Do not show fear,” Uncle Tobias repeated. “Remember, the little blighters live by the Law of the Jungle.”
“What’s the Law of the Jungle?” I whispered.
“Bite or be bitten,” he said.
At that moment, the Law of the Jungle expressed itself in no uncertain terms, as the lord of the temple bit me on the nose and raced up one of the columns.
“Oh dear,” Uncle Tobias tutted, as he held the finest Thomas Ferguson’s Irish linen handkerchief to the small gusher on my nose. “Lucky he didn’t go for the eyes, you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get a used retina out here.”
I was inconsolable, as my nose was the only thing left I had of my parents, and to lose that was to forgo my birthright. The Monro clan is blessed with a particularly large species of Scottish proboscis, the sort that gave a fellow a sense of nobility or first place in a foot race. It was not, if one cared, the sort of thing one lost to a belligerent temple ape.
“Tomorrow, we go hunting,” said Uncle Tobias as he promptly forgot about the nose, “this time – big game.”
“Much, much bigger,” he fixed me once more with those glittering sapphires he had for eyes.
I thought of all the geography lessons I had been forced to sit through.
“Indian Wolf, Bengal Fox, Macaques, Nilgai, Gaur, or the Dhole?” I rattled off with an alacrity that surprised me.
“Spiders!” he grinned as his picked up the temple leavings.
“How big can they be?”
It was too late, as my Uncle had turned his attention to bowl of cinnamon rice he had been given by the local villagers. It was not that the villagers looked upon him with any reverence; rather it was a bribe to make sure he never went hunting near their huts out of Monsoon season.
The spiders turned out to be huge. As the Idiops bombayensis was a trapdoor spider so large it could comfortably compete with a corgi when it came to playing fetch. Its normal prey was, not surprisingly, the very same rats we had been hunting the day before. It achieved this by laying grains of rice outside its webbed trap door, leaping out and driving two inch fangs into the pelts before dragging them squealing back into its den. How evolution had conspired to create such an evil and twisted malarthropodism was yet another reason for me to believe in intelligent design.
“You’ll need one of these,” Uncle Tobias gave me a trident spear with forks so sharp they sliced the air.
“No guns?” I looked worriedly at my new toy.
“Guns?” Uncle Tobias grinned, “Great Scott no, there would be no trophies if we used guns. No, tridents are the way to go my boy, we pin the beasts to the ground and pull out their fangs.”
“Are they poisonous?”
“Only in the sense they carry a neurotoxin, but not to worry, I’ve brought along a bottle of gin. Juniper does wonders for spider bite, assuming of course the bite isn’t too deep.”
“Of course,” I nodded my head vigorously and wondered how thin the skin at my age was meant to be. “What are we looking for?”
“They live in underground burrows with many exits,” Uncle Tobias poked about the bamboo forest excitedly, “you never know where they are going leap at you from.”
“Great Scott yes, the little beasties are known to leap twenty feet.”
I coughed compulsively. “I may have a chill.” I said.
“Nonsense,” said my Uncle hefting his spear, “the monsoon doesn’t start for two weeks, too early to get tuberculosis. Now the trick is to remember the second Law of the Jungle.”
“The second?” I asked with no little trepidation. “There’s a second?”
“Always be sure where you place your feet,” he threw the spear just for effect.
At that moment, my tiny seven-year-old foot disappeared into the ground, as it discovered the main entrance of an Idiops bombayensis trapdoor.
“Well done,” Uncle Tobias cried retrieving his spear, “You’ve discovered the main door, now look for the other exits, they will be popping up any moment now.”
“They?” I looked around in terror.
“Colony spiders, most unusual.”
I looked down at my foot and wondered about the thickness of the sole, I could have sworn something was scratching at it, when my Uncle yelled at me.
I fell to the dirt, as a trident flashed past my face and connected with what can only be described as eight hairy legs surmounted by two enormous fangs and a bulbous body that was quite possibly the size of my head.
“Excellent!” Uncle Tobias leapt over me and pinned the beast to the ground. It thrashed about with a vigor that would have done justice to a Bengal tiger. Then he pulled its fangs with a pair of pliers. “Duck!”
Again the trident sliced the atoms away from my face and impaled an even bigger spider into the side of a fig tree. I felt a dull jab under my knee and looked down to discover what was for all the world a Chihuahua with eight legs grinding its fangs into my leg.
“Uncle?” I queried as the world began to go black.
“Blast! Man down!” Uncle Tobias leapt over with a flask. With this he drank half a quart of gin and poured a capful over my knee as I sank to the ground. “Well done my boy, you’ve bagged your first head!”
I woke up the next day with the vision of a dozen giant dead spiders hanging from the ceiling and my uncle grinning like a Macaque.
“You’re alive! Well done, today we hunt for Bascanichthys deraniyagalai, the deadly snake eels of the sub-continent, and you thought the spiders were poisonous, wait till you get bitten by one of these beauties.”
I realized I had to escape and any attempt at civility was guaranteed a trip to the morgue. “Uncle,” I wiped the very real sweat from my brow, “I think I may sit this one out for a couple of weeks.”
“Nonsense, old man, once the monsoon arrives we won’t have a chance of bagging the little blighters,” he pointed up at the ceiling of the temple, where I suddenly noticed row after row of stuffed insects, tiny marsupials and most paradoxically of all a life raft from the Titanic. “Behold the work of a lifetime, every species of mammal and road side kill you can imagine. Think old man, one day you too can have a trophy room just like this.”
“I think I may be dying,” I attempted and held up a gangrenous knee. “Honestly.”
Nothing worked, as Uncle Tobias pulled down the mounted head of a sparrow. “Nonsense, that the smallest case of gangrene I seen, since back in 43’ when the Japs tried to cut my leg off in Burma. You want to have a head mounted as splendidly as this, don’t you?”
“Could I perhaps, go hunting next week?” I whimpered and offered a bribe of marshmallows. “After all, this way there will be more for you.”
“You’re learning fast,” he winked as he took the bribe, “very well, we will go hunting after lunch. You may clean the weapons while I’m down at the village arranging a suttee.”
He handed me an oily rag, a copy of Guns and Extinction then exited with all the poise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt running away after Eleanor discovered him with the scullery maid. Seizing the opportunity, I also exited via the second door, caught the last train to Bombay and the next plane to JFK. On the second day I surprised great-aunt Hilda with a kiss and a bunch of limp blue lotuses.
She took one look at me, squinted her eyes and said: “You’ll have to go.”
“But I just got back?” I protested.
You are forgetting the Third Law of the Jungle,” raising an eyebrow that could slice infinitives.
“Survival of the Fittest,” she explained sternly and pointed at the door, “Nephews fit into the jungle, aunts fit into drawing-rooms, that is the way it has always been and that is the way it shall remain.”
“Nephews fit more easily into the jungle because they fit more easily into carnivores. As I see it, that’s a win-win situation, now be off with you.”
Copyright reserved by Jim O’Brien ©