Very few people move to Belize with the intention of living in the rainforest.Like forests everywhere—those that still remain in regions of this country, the “forest primeval” of Europe, the Australian outback, and the ancient woods of Scandinavian countries—most people find them frightening.
And with good reason. North American forests and woodlands harbor several species of poisonous snakes—rattlesnakes on the West Coast, copperheads on the East Coast, cottonmouth water moccasins and coral snakes in the South, and more rattlers and copperheads in the North. You can stumble across black widow spiders that pack enough venom to kill a horse almost anywhere in the country, usually in places where you least expect them. When I lived in the small town of Duarte in southern California, I grew a few tomato plants outside, and found a black widow huddled in a crack on the bottom of a ripe tomato as I reached down to pick it. When my husband and I lived in Pasadena, I dreaded driving into the garage at night (I taught night school at the college). More accurately, I dreaded stepping out of the car and making my way outside, because there were spider webs everywhere, some with the tell-tale crackle of a black widow’s web. During the day I swept them away with a broom, but during the night they came back. And then there are disease-bearing mosquitoes, ticks, and various biting flies. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” the forest is where the Indians live (and since the forest was evil, so were the Indians, by definition) and where witchcraft, debauchery, and the devil himself lives. The town, on the other hand, represents all that’s good and civilized. Or so Goodman Brown believes.
I’ve never been to Scandinavia or Germany, although my ancestors came from that area, so I have no firsthand knowledge about the great dark forests there. What I do know comes from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, where the forest is home for large, dangerous animals, both real (wolves) and legendary (trolls, goblins, and sundry other “little people”). In the 2003 English translation of Johanna Sinisalo’s novel Troll: A Love Story, the setting is a city in modern-day Finland. But there’s still forest there, and here’s how Sinisalo describes it. “We’re deep in the forest, in the midst of the kind of untouched treeland you can’t even imagine if, all your life, you’ve been confined to the fake woods adjoining cities,” thinks Angel, the novel’s human protagonist. “It’s gloomy and tangled,” he continues, and he’s smart enough to see that the basic dynamic at work in this strange, unsettling countryside is conflict. “Species fights against species, a creeper’s suffocating a tree, a twig’s thrusting moss aside, for everything’s in short supply: light, air, food.”
This land of struggle and hardship is where the trolls live. Something else lives in the forest too. According to another character, a veterinarian who suspects where Angel has gone, observes, “I think about a story of forest maidens, vivid, whispering shadows who lure young men into the deep forest and snare them with their spells, so the men never return.”
According to Maya folklore, the rainforest has women like that too. In Kekchi Maya they’re called ix tabi. They only appear to travelers, single men walking through the bush from one village to another, or in pursuit of game. (The Kekchi seldom walk though the jungle alone. They seldom go anywhere alone.) The ix tabi present themselves as beautiful women, “vivid, whispering shadows,” whose very presence suggests sex, and who lure the man off the trail and deep into the jungle. Once she has succeeded, the woman allows the man to take her in his arms. Only then does he realize that instead of embracing a vibrant, living woman, he’s fondling the bark of a tree. He’s hopelessly lost—and the woman never existed. A similar story, apparently Mexican in origin, calls her la llorona, or the weeping woman.
In reality the rainforest harbors plenty of fearsome, dangerous creatures—everything from jaguars, snakes, and scorpions to killer ants. Many Maya and Kriol folk beliefs about the “others” who live in the jungle seem to be cautionary tales about going into the rainforest alone. If a fer-de-lance doesn’t frighten you, how about a woman with murder on her mind?