Crouch left early, chauffeur-driven to Tocumen in the dark. A half hour later, dawn blued up with tropic suddenness along the San Blas coast and a roof of mushroom trees matted by vines clarified beneath the Huey. Mangroves choked shallow inlets and saltwater marshes exhaled sweet rottenness and creepers hung like bell-ropes feeling for soft earth to bed their aerial roots. Soon, jungle was shore and clusters of coral islands dotted with thatch roof houses bordered by coconut trees and pineapple groves. Skiffs and ulus under sail by the reefs. Caledonia Bay, a peninsula lined with manchineels and sapadilloes that bent like a cradling arm to shelter it from the ocean. The chopper descended a deep drop shaft onto the concrete landing pad.

Crouch staggered in the rotor draught as the Huey rose like a giant black bug above the high canopy. The thud of wooden pods and susurration of leaves gave way to muffled shrieks and a clack of falling coconuts, an incessant ticking of insects. A parakeet screamed.

No one met him.


A green tunnel hung with trailing creepers and roofed with tangles of branches was slashed from the pad. Machete marks white on smaller trees. It became a raised walkway of marine plywood. He walked towards the sound of surf and a grouping of prefabricated buildings with corrugated zinc sheet roofs. Wires strung from diesel-powered generators to the banks of bulbs depending on the sides of the buildings. Nearby, a blackened circle fifty meters in diameter where the canvas of a large tent had stood. Only the charred skeleton of a domed aluminum frame remained. The air stunk of smoke and hairspray.

Recent rains had muddied the soil between the prefabs and wooden boards were lashed together for pedestrians. He sunk in muck already a graveyard for flip-flops and sandals and slurped his way to where thirty men made a circle. They looked like Morgan’s dissolute pirates and clutched fistfuls of dollar bills and screamed and waved like floor traders in a stock market crash. A small pit dug in the dirt. One side daubed red the other blue. The handlers held the birds a foot away from a line scored in the dirt, then thrust them bill-to-bill. When the feathers puffed, they dropped and backed off. One cock had a red leg band, the other a blue. Commenced then a feather-flapping, head-thrusting, peck-gashing, leg-kicking explosion of fury so absolute and beautiful in its way as to be an abstract representation of some Platonic concept of hate.

The blue bird toppled. The red bird set down to show it was firm. Its handler slugged a mouthful of beer and sprayed it on the feathers. The blue bird’s handler blew gently in its mouth and then put the bird’s head in his mouth, blowing still, lipsticked by its blood. The birds were held bill to bill until angry enough to finish.

“Twenty on blue,” yelled Jasper Lillee. The DP was unshaven and wore a soil-black muscle tee and a red bandana.

“Ready, pit!”

The birds exploded from their handlers’ grasps to collide a foot off the ground.

The blue-band bird speared a lung. Its opponent faded, hunkering and refusing to budge. Coughing up blood, its breaths sounded like scraping ice. Then it quit breathing.


“Jasper,” Crouch said, touching the DP’s arm.

“G’day mate. How’d you get here?”

“In a helicopter.”

Lillee looked up at the sky. “I didn’t see a helicopter.”

“Can we talk?”

“We are. That’s that noise your mouth is making.”

A man sat on the dirt with what looked like a bald chicken in the crook of his arm. The feathers and plumage around the chest were gone and, shorn of its red comb and wattle, the bird looked vulnerable, cradled like a colic child. It regarded its owner with one eye. The other hung out its socket on a pink string streaked red.

“Goddammit,” the man said. “What were you thinking?”


On the beach, electricians played mud football and naked young women showered by pouring gourds and squirting each other with tulip tree pods. Crouch smelled the petroleum reek of seaweed. In the bay, the sails of the Rising Sun and the other rigged boats luffed in the breeze.

“Is it just me, Jasper, or has this all gone all to hell?”

“Depends how you look at it.”

“The reason they sent…”
“Mac says you’re down for a snoop.” Lillee flicked ash at the water. “And, no offence, you stand out like a shag on a rock.”

“They’re going to pull the plug.”

“Too bad.” Lillee scratched his bandanna. “We’re still looking for the film.”

“Shouldn’t you have found it by now?”

“In Hollywood, there’s this idea you structure a film in advance. If it’s real art, the film comes out of us. It’s taking a while to find this one. Which is to say that whingeing bastard MacPherson is big-noting on the set. It’s like pushing a rope.”

“Nothing is getting done.”

Lillee pitched his smoke. “If we’re not seen to be busy as a cat burying shit, you guys don’t get it. This film will be apples, trust me.”

“Sir Terry has been wiring complaints.”

“Not the full quid, is he? Strutting around coming the raw prawn. Gone native.”


A group of copper-skinned Kuna came along the beach. The women wore necklaces of shells and beads and circular rings in their noses. The gold asuolos framed the mouth and touched the chin. They had daubed red-seed paint on their cheeks and witch marks on the bridge of the nose. One carried a baby on her hip, its body blackened head to toe with saptur. Over the penises of the men curving gold funnels like candle extinguishers rigged with a string cord. Their hair was black and long and straight with extensions and they carried feathered lances. Their leader was Sir Terry MacPherson, bare-chested and carrying a ceremonial cane topped by a circular disc upon which sat the icon of a small bird.

“Ah,” MacPherson shouted. “A suit has arrived at last.”

“Where’s the director?”

“I would not know,” MacPherson declaimed. “Have you checked the local mental hospitals? Son, I have a substantial list of complaints. Most concern the director. His methods are unsound and so is he. The man does ten setups where a normal person does two. I came to this project in good faith, but have been eight weeks in this howling wilderness and am not impressed.”

Crouch stared at MacPherson’s chest, dyed red with makeup. “You seem to be settling in,” he offered.

“I am,” said MacPherson, gesturing at the Kuna. “He thinks he’s sensitive to indigenous people, paying them a pittance, treating them as background color. Doesn’t make him any less the colonialist, not in my eye.” MacPherson pointed at his eye.

“Was that a tent burned down back there?”

“Not all of it,” said MacPherson, gravely. “There was a minor conflagration.”

“What happened?”

“Cooking soup,” said Lillee. “Everything got completely out of hand.”

“Chicken noodle it was,” added MacPherson. “You’re in the jungle now, sonny,” he bellowed, smacking his stick on the shingle. “Dangers lurk. There are rules you should know. If you get snake-bitten, lie still and don’t panic. Also, catch the snake with a stick so others will know which one it was.”

“How can you catch a snake if you’re lying down?”

“You catch it first and then you lie down,” MacPherson clarified. “Then, if you get lost, which you should take pains not to do, this being the jungle, avoid dying by locating a valley cut by a stream. Follow the stream to the coast and safety with the natives, who are friendly.”

Crouch realized MacPherson had gone mad.

“Anything else?”

“Yes. If pursued by a white-lipped peccary, climb a tree to escape.”

“That’s what he did that last time,” noted Lillee.

“Stay there ‘til it goes away,” said MacPherson. “In the tree.”

“O.K.,” said Crouch.

“And if you see two strange red eyes gleaming at you in the dark, you should freeze. Don’t move at all costs. For you know what that might be?”

“You, Sir Terry?” suggested Lillee, malevolently.

“No, you Australasian fuck. It’d be a big jungle cat.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Crouch.

“You better. Otherwise something might eat you all up.” MacPherson sighed. “So, what’s this shite about you not letting us shoot the ending we want?”

“I don’t care what ending you shoot,” said Crouch, exasperated. “I’m here to make sure something gets shot. Anything.”

“In which case you should commence by shooting the director,” said MacPherson. “I’m just joshing with you,” he added, unsmiling.

“Could someone take me to him?”

“Got to get and set up a tracking shot,” Lillee said. “Using these bastard rails in the jungle is a nightmare. Either sink in the swamp or stand out like a greyhound’s balls.”

“I will lead you there, suit,” said MacPherson, seizing Crouch’s arm. “I was heading over the cantina for a small libation anyway.”


The director’s compound was a scattering of Kuna-style huts with palmetto roofs draped in mosquito netting. Outside was a seven-foot tall carved and painted devil-exorcizing idol. The idol held a flag of elaborate design, a Saint Andrew’s saltire on a blue field, and a towered elephant, its trunk raised. The crest was a rising sun upon a tilted human face upon which was an expression of peering incredulity. At the center of the compound two log houses—three stories, ladders from floor to floor—with large front porches for hanging hammocks, and windows that opened. These had showers and flush toilets. Between the houses, a path made of cross-sections of logs.

The director was in a hut built on the same principles, palm fronds thatching the roofs and canes knitted to form the sides. The floor was of clean fresh sand. A young native woman sat at the foot of the directorial hammock, an intricate beadwork of wini on her arms and legs. Also on the floor, two calabashes of chica made from fermented sugar cane juice. McKay lay in a state of relaxed stupefaction. His left leg was bandaged. A metal crutch leaned in the corner.

“God,” said McKay. “Look whit the cat dragged in. Gabi,” he said to the girl. “Big pot fresh Gabi.”

The girl returned with a tin pot of coffee.

“You’re injured?” asked Crouch.

“Ah pitched intae this massive thorn bush and the spines embedded in mah leg.”

“He was intoxicated at the time,” noted MacPherson.


“He uses chica like mouthwash,” said MacPherson. “The thorn bush poison near put him into anaphylactic shock.”

“Ah wis jist fine.”

“He was raving and drooling and calling for his mother at one juncture,” said MacPherson. “I shall speak to you again once you have disciplined this cretin.”

Upon MacPherson’s leaving, McKay rolled his eyes. “Gits here and first thing he wants is a hut wi’ running water. Ah says, ‘Running water? Why? Whit ur you? A fuckin trout?’ That wis afore he got bored and had the natives up and worshipping him like a God. That keeps him occupied.”

Crouch stared at McKay.

“They’ve seen his secret agent movies frae the 60’s. They call him Gungidule. It means “man of gold.” They think his Oscar is a powerful nuchu.”

“Mac, why is your crew cockfighting first thing in the morning? Or at all?”

McKay shrugged. “Because the pit bulls ur deid? The football burst, ah mind that. Did you bring a bodhran?


“Ah sent word back ah needed a bodhran.”


Outside, a howler monkey screamed.

“What is a bodhran even?” asked Crouch.


The executive spent the rest of his day surveying the set. In retrospect, he realized the error was not green-lighting the visionary Scottish director’s film of the Darien Expedition. The error was letting him go to Panama to make it. He sent a text:

Darien disaster officially a Darien disaster.

Thinking that too cryptic, he sent another.

Director alcoholic, DP drug-addled, star mad. Project salvageable. Send help ASAP.


Dinner was served in the mess tent. The Kuna changed into regular clothing. The men wore fedora-style brimmed hats of felt and straw and formed a smoking circle on the floor. They put the lighted end of tobacco ropes in the mouth. As in Hollywood, it was polite to blow smoke in people’s faces. The women wore red head-cloths and smaller nose rings, mola blouses tucked into skirts that hung below the knee. The meal was Tule Masi—fish and plantains—with a side dish of corn ground into a soft floury meal and fried in hot oil to make a pancake. There were boiled pifas that looked like miniature coconuts but tasted like chestnuts, and a thick root soup of dasheen and yucca. There were cashews and mameys and saspodillas and a Kuna girl showed Crouch how to crack cacoa and suck the seeds for a sweet-tart dessert.

The moon was yellow-orange and the night breeze, cool on his sunburned skin, carried with it a tang of decay. A bat sliced the air above his head as he made his way back to his hut, a frame of poles lashed with vines, behuco stronger than any nail. Someone was either having wild sex in a nearby hut or being mauled by a jaguar.


Crouch woke early and strolled to the beach. A flame-pink rose above the trees, crimson speckling where clouds wouldn’t let the sun push through.

“Rising sun on fire,” said a Kuna, pointing.

What a marvelous way to put it! Crouch was struck by the primitive poetry of the Indian, consequence no doubt of his proximity to so many natural phenomena.

“I’ll never get used to how quickly the dawn comes up in the tropics.”

“Not dawn.”

“Yes. In English, this is called ‘dawn.’”

“Not dawn,” the Kuna repeated. “Rising Sun on fire.”

“The fucking ship?”

The Kuna held a finger to his lips. From far away came the soft concussion of explosions.


“If those eegits wur barbecuing oan that boat again…”

McKay sprinted alongside Crouch, which wasn’t easy on crutches. The director moved along the beach in the manner of a demented spider.

“Remind me,” said Crouch, gasping, “what you all were storing on it?”

The yellowing sky quivered blue with flashes of light.

“Couple a hundred pounds of blackpowder, electronic fuses obviously, sugar and flour stuffed in canisters, plus the petrol. We needed a ton of petrol.”

Crouch moaned.

“Gerbs, magnesium, flashpowder for the fireballs for when yir Spanish start up shelling the fort…“

“My God.”

“Also napalm simulators, the pyro-burn fluid, carbon dioxide blast jet streams, yir usual smoke machines and accelerators, cryogenics boosters, that mechanical thing makes low-lying fog. We didnae use that.” McKay frowned. “Nuthin but fuckin fog in this hellhole.”

A praying mantis scuttled along a leaf, pursued by a manically circling butterfly with a nine-inch wingspan. The insects were fleeing the scene of the movie. Two white-faced monkeys ran chattering on the bank, tails erect.

McKay resumed. “Dry ice machines…propane flame guns…”

“Didn’t you have someone looking after all this stuff?”

“Aye, Special Technical Advisor. Right afore ah fired him, he telt me it wis an accident waiting tae happen. His exact words: ‘This is an accident waiting to happen.’ Don’t do this, don’t do that. Always whining bigtime, that yin.”

The blasts grew louder.

“Damn it,” McKay growled. “Ah knew we should have jist went wi’ CGI.”


Out in Caledonia Bay, the Rising Sun and the Hope of Bo’ness were both ablaze.  Their sails shredded. From the decks rose fountains of hissing sparks, flaring silver and gold. A lovely pyrotechnic display, except that occasionally something resembling an artillery shell lobbed skyward and descended flamingly into the set of the wooden fort.

“Them must be the napalm simulators,” McKay noted. “Somebody had better…”  He pointed at a clump of orange-flaming manchineels. “…put the jungle oot here.”

Two of the prefabs behind the fort were burning, flames licking the roofs, metal buckling. The fort itself, a wooden firetrap, was abandoned. Bare-torsoed tattooed men scampered with buckets hoisted on their shoulders, while others ran hoses from the stream. The Kuna extras looked on, bemused.

MacPherson was carrying what looked like a child’s seaside pail half full of water. He was naked, which wasn’t a good look for him. “There’s been an incident,” he announced. “It involves fire.”

“So ah see.”

“I have to organize my tribesmen,” MacPherson explained. He strolled to the fringe and emptied his pail petulantly against a smoking tree.

“Now that there is whit is known as a futile gesture,” observed McKay. He turned to Crouch. “This wisnae the best day for you to be visiting, obviously.”

“Now that you’re burning down Panama, you mean?”

McKay nodded. “We may now require a slightly larger budget, it is true.”

A wan figure emerged from out of the thick-clotted smoke and hobbled, chagrined, towards them. He wore one boot and his pants were burned up to the knees. His face was soot-black and his hair bedecked with cinders. He had no eyebrows, also.

“I knew I had put down that ciggy somewhere.”

“Jasper,” said McKay, shaking his head. “Ah cannae take you nowhere.”

“What a disaster,” said Crouch. He sat in the sand with his head in his hands.

“Aye, look on the bright side, but. You’ve got tae love the smell of nae palms in the morning, eh?” McKay punched Crouch’s arm. “Git it? Nae palms. That wid be a pun and as well a movie reference.”

Crouch didn’t get the reference. He rocked back and forth making a small trench in the sand. Truth be told, he’d always hated the movies.