They wake at dusk, appearing when the light disappears, uncoiling from rotted hollows in the trunks of elder trees. The forest goes quiet: insects and birds cease their songs. Then there is a sudden rustle of leaves, and a low-pitched buzzing that makes mosquitoes suddenly vanish from the thick air.
All these are signs of the basilisk.
Basilisks slither through the undergrowth, they dangle hungrily from branches like pythons or creeper vines. They pull their prey screaming and struggling across the forest floor; or snatch them up into the branches of tall trees, too quick for screams. Then the forest goes quiet again: the basilisk feeds in silence.
Basilisks are drawn to rot and decay. They build fetid warrens inside fallen trunks; they roost in trees that have been struck dead by lightning. If you ever see a festering mass inside the broken chest cavity of a dead-standing tree, keep your distance. It’s probably the sleeping body of a basilisk, curled in on itself to avoid the light.
(But sometimes, when the leafy canopy is thick enough to block the hated sun, the basilisk lounges on branches in shadow-dappled daylight, careless as a lion on the savannah.)
Legend and myth tell us the basilisk is a reptile: kin to dragons, king of serpents, emperor of lizards, lord of wyrms, so on and so forth. This is a misinterpretation. Yes, the basilisk is basilieus vermis, king of wyrms, but not in any kind of serpentine or reptilian sense. The basilisk is a worm, an annelid; cousin to nematodes and tapeworms. And like other parasites, the basilisk grows to fit its host. The bigger the tree, the bigger the basilisk.
The biggest basilisks live on the Northwestern coast of the United States, in forests of fallen giants. Trees one hundred feet long, crashed out on the forest floor, sustaining entire ecosystems with their slow decomposition. The basilisks inside these arboreal carcasses are equally massive. Hidden in caves of bark, they stretch and slither, hollowing out ancient trunks with their pale, segmented bulk.
In South and Southeast Asia, the basilisk makes its home inside another parasite: ficus benghalensis, the banyan tree. These strangler figs choke other trees to death, growing large enough to encircle whole city blocks. As the banyan grows, so does the basilisk at its gnarled and darkened heart. The basilisk hangs among thick, tentacular branches, perfectly camouflaged, ready to snatch away any fool who dares wander inside the banyan grove.
Some cultures pray to the basilisk, deifying it as lord of the forest. And it is—even tigers and elephants fear the basilisk, for its scent is not of this epoch. That ancient, pungent musk is a reminder that you can never truly adapt to the jungle. Like the heart of a decaying tree, the jungle is a portal, a doorway back to an earlier, hungrier time. Back to basilisk country. A place where we’re not welcome, except as prey.
Humans didn’t evolve in forests. The jungle overwhelms brains built for plain and grassland, overloads cognitive systems designed to look for signs of threat. The jungle is full of signs: in the shadows of leaves and branches, in the droning choir of insect voices.
The basilisk’s threat-pattern is everywhere, but you will never see it before it’s too late.
You may well encounter a basilisk, while hiking through the redwood and sequoia forests of the Pacific Northwest, or among the spruce and fir of Europe, or in the primary jungles of Malaya, where they fattened for a century and a half on the despair and exploitation of the rubber trade.
Basilisks, you see, hunt mammals primarily by neural activity and adrenal scent. Fear, anguish and adrenaline make you easy prey. Empty your mind as best you can, dispel your fear of the darkened woods. And never, under any circumstances, enter the jungle under the influence of any kind of psychedelic or psychotropic drugs.
(In Goa, the basilisk has thrived in places frequented by foreign hippies and ravers. Addled and stumbling, prone to wander towards the gnarled mandala of banyan groves, minds reduced by hallucinogenic drugs to potent psychic ferment of fear and ecstatic confusion, they make perfect prey for the basilisk. A delicious, easy meal.)
Alcohol, depending on your neural makeup, may help.
If you should happen to encounter a basilisk (and if you are not immediately killed), you should not run. After all, you are probably in a forest after nightfall: trip on a root and your adrenal scent will bring the basilisk right to your fallen form.
Breathe deeply, and move calmly and quickly away from the tree. Do not look directly at the basilisk. Try to keep it in the periphery of your vision. There is some truth to the European legend of the basilisk’s stare. It may not turn you to stone, but it will freeze you: the antediluvian horror of the basilisk’s form is enough to paralyze most mammals’ flight-or-fight response.
Do not give into fear. Fear is sweet nectar to the basilisk, and so it is better to die shouting, brave and angry. Pick up a rock or branch, and try to hit the basilisk as it comes. They are not used to their prey fighting back: this can stay them long enough for you to make your escape.
Unfortunately, the odds are that you will not escape. Take some comfort in knowing that you have been killed by a true apex predator—the king of wyrms. After all, this is an animal that fed on tyrannosaurus rex in the Cretaceous jungles, 65 million years ago. Humans may be more intelligent, but we were always going to be easy prey. In fact, our sophisticated brains make us the basilisk’s perfect prey. The only thing we can do, then, is issue a warning: stay away.
This is basilisk country.