“Tell me, Carter. How did you survive being lost in the rainforest?” the reporter asked. He pressed Record on his phone.
I spun on my barstool and raised my arms out like a California condor. Or maybe a trumpeter swan would be more appropriate. They have the largest body mass of any North American bird.
“Did you talk with Anna?” I asked.
“I’ll be meeting with her tomorrow.” The reporter rolled up his sleeves and then produced a notepad and pen from his shirt pocket. “I want your version of what happened in Costa Rica,” he continued. “This interview is for the Survivor Diaries I’m writing. About kids like you making it out of life-threatening situations. You’re younger than Anna, only eleven years old, right?”
“Yeah—” I jumped at the squeal behind me, but it was just one of the little kids that Mom babysits.
Mom scooped her up. “Time for a nap, I think. I’ll be right back.” She headed for the stairs. I hoped she noticed I had only jumped a tiny bit.
Thinking back to my time in the jungle, I dried my palms across my red sweatpants. Red like the breast feathers of the resplendent quetzal. The bird that started it all. Adding that endangered bird to my life list—?all the different bird species I’ve seen—?nearly ended my life.
“All right.” The reporter rubbed his hairless head and then looked at me expectantly. “Tell me what happened.”
“The monkeys,” I began. “Their calls were so terrifying. Howler monkeys make such an eerie noise because of a bone they have in their throat. You can hear them three miles away. Did you know they’re the loudest of all the New World monkeys? That’s what freaked out Anna. They were leaping overhead. The branches of the trees shook all around us. We could hear the roaring, coming closer—”
“What monkeys?” The reporter’s long forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Carter, start at the beginning.”
I sighed. “It all started with licking an ancient statue.”
Six weeks earlier. Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica.
Dad had suggested I hang out with Anna. Her family was also staying at Cabinas el Corcovado for March break. He thought it would be good for me to hang around someone my own age. Except Anna was in seventh grade, and I was as tall as her armpit, even wearing hiking boots. She’d never talk to someone like me if we were at school.
“Hey, this looks interesting.” Anna pointed to a trail marked by a fading sign with the word CASCADA. It had a photo of a waterfall with a carved stone statue of a monster next to it. “What is this thing?”
“La Mona.” I read the words on the fence with a big arrow.
“Oh, I know that one!” she said. “That’s the monkey-witch legend. She roams the forests in search of her missing kids and kills victims with bloodcurdling screams from the treetops.”
Anna’s family had been there a few days before we arrived, so she felt the need to educate me with all sorts of local legends she’d heard. They weren’t even birders; they just came to relax.
My parents and I were there to see the resplendent quetzal. The Osa Peninsula had four hundred species of birds. Since we’d arrived in Costa Rica, we’d added the summer tanager, social flycatcher, bare-throated tiger-heron, and cinnamon hummingbird to our life lists. And there at the resort we’d seen a chestnut-mandibled toucan, and lots of scarlet macaws. Still no quetzals.
“The parental units are still busy with happy hour,” Anna said. “We’ve got time before dinner. You want to do some exploring? Let’s go see the waterfall! Legend has it, if you lick the statue there, you’re blessed with strength. Don’t you need some of that, Carter?”
“Lick the statue?” I asked. “Do you think you should be licking anything? They’ve got poison dart frogs here. They’re one of the Earth’s most toxic species. They have enough poison to kill twenty thousand mice!”
She stared at me.
“What?” I said, defensively.
“So weird,” Anna muttered as she started down the trail. “Hey!” She ducked behind the fence post and came up brandishing a machete with a black handle. “Look what I found!” She gave it a few practice swings. “This thing is deadly. Someone must’ve left it here for protection against La Mona. Come on! Let’s go before it gets too dark to find the statue.”
I knew the part about licking the statue wasn’t true. I’d never heard of that, not in any of the guidebooks I read before our trip. Anna had to be making it up.
But what if she wasn’t? What if it did give you strength?
I clutched the binoculars around my neck and glanced toward the resort. A burst of laughter came from the pool. My parents never worried about me. I worried enough for everyone.
“Carter, you coming?”
I peered into the branches and imagined all the horrible things that could go wrong by following a marked trail into the jungle. I was shaking my head to refuse, when I saw it. I froze.
“What?” Anna asked, looking in the direction I was facing. But she didn’t see the male resplendent quetzal until I raised a shaking hand and pointed.
“Three hundred and eight,” I whispered.
“That’s how many different bird species I have on my life list,” I said.
The quetzal was perched not far off the trail. Through my binoculars, he was even more brilliant than in pictures. His bright red belly was set off by the intense green glitter of his head and neck. I could pick out the sheen of blue and violet in his long tail.
“The quetzal was the spiritual protector of Mayan chiefs, helping them in battle,” I said, eager to share the only legend I knew. “They say the quetzal sat on the chest of the dying warrior Uman and dipped its feathers in his blood. That’s how it got the red.” I wiped at the sweat running into my eyes. “Now it’s endangered because of losing its habitat.”
Anna didn’t seem impressed. “Monkey statue that makes you strong is way more interesting.”
“How could that be more interesting than finding an endangered bird?” And I didn’t know why...