by Robert H. Prestridge
part 1 of 2
for Sergej Stanojkovski
The jungle never seemed to end. Neither did its heat nor its mosquitoes.
And neither did the path upon which she, Sheila Jobbe, and her mentor, a Senegalese named François Charrière, trudged.
Sheila stopped to wipe her sweaty brow with the back of her arm. François drank from a canteen and handed it to her. Chilled water numbed her mouth and throat, and she felt dizzy. The air stank of a steamy, fetid odor that permeated everything within its reach. No matter how much or how hard or how often she washed her clothes or showered, the jungle always stayed with her.
François motioned with his head, indicating he was going farther up the trail. Sheila nodded, took another drink, and followed.
She found François staring at a clearing. Troop Lejeune had seemingly moved on. Sheila sighed, feeling disappointed.
François turned, obviously intending to head back up the path. Sheila walked into the clearing, then stopped.
“Just a moment, François.” She motioned with a hand for him to come over.
“What is it?”
Through a tangle of vines and downed trees she saw — what?
“I don’t know.” Anywhere else, she would have said poachers had done it. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“They look like crude weapons.” She felt his hot breath on the side of her face. He walked in front of her. “The editors at the journal won’t believe this.”
Sheila circled the clubs, spears, and sharpened sticks that looked like machetes. “I’m not sure I will either.”
Nearby sat a pyramid of rocks. How and why had Troop Lejeune done this?
The sound of howling chimpanzees came from the distance.
Sheila turned her head. She sensed something staring at her, like the time a creepy man on a New York City subway had given her the eye.
François touched her arm and she gasped, startled.
“I think we’d better get back to camp, Sheila.”
* * *
Sheila sat at a table inside her plywood hut. A rotating fan blew, circulating moist air. Mosquito netting hung at the entrance of the hut and over her bed, floating lazily up and down with each pass of the fan. The light hanging from the ceiling flickered and, outside, the generator made a grinding noise. Sheila heard François curse in French.
She wiped her forehead with a cloth soaked in alcohol. The anthropologist had a headache. A cold shower after the excursion hadn’t helped it. Perhaps the headache wasn’t heat-induced after all.
Sheila opened an iced bottle of Le Tigre, a Senegalese cola, and drank. Its carbonation tickled her nose. The generator made another noise — what sounded like a muffled firecracker — and François shouted in French, sounding happy.
Sheila finished her soft drink and wiped her forehead with the cloth. François poked his head into the hut and knocked.
He did and joined her at the table.
“I know what we saw,” she said.
“We can’t be sure,” he said. “We have to go back.”
Circulating air teased her face.
“I’m not sure we can.”
François opened an iced Le Tigre. “Why not?”
Good question. Why not? Had rebels prevented them from going into the jungle to study chimpanzee troops? Had government soldiers? Or poachers? Absolutely not.
But this was different. She had never encountered anything like this before.
“Jack looked at me in a way I’ve never seen.”
“You saw Jack?”
Actually, his name was Maurice but, before he had become the alpha male, he had been playful and loveable, and when he had mugged, he had reminded Sheila of the actor Jack Nicholson.
“Not actually. I had the feeling that he was watching us, though.”
François sipped his cola.
“He trusts you, doesn’t he?”
“He used to.” She bit her corner of her lip. “I’m not sure now. I’m not sure if I trust him or them.”
François finished his drink and set the bottle next to the Sheila’s. Air blew across the table, and from the jungle came the sounds of birds and other nocturnal creatures.
Sheila wrinkled her nose. At night the smell of the jungle became stronger and tonight she wasn’t in the mood for it or the jungle’s heat. She wanted to be in an air-conditioned hotel room in Dakar, or lying at the edge of a chlorinated pool with a lime-twisted Corona in hand or perhaps back in Madison, Wisconsin, sleeping in a bed covered with crisp, lemon-scented sheets, existing in what most would call normal circumstances.
But she wasn’t a “normal” person, just as her father, Heinrich Jobbe, hadn’t been a “normal” person, just as François wasn’t a “normal” person. François and she were scientists, specifically anthropologists, and their life work would never allow them to be “normal.” Sheila knew that after three days anywhere else, she would be climbing the walls to get back to the Senegalese jungle and her chimpanzee troops.
“But these things, whatever they are,” François said. “Perhaps they’re just for hunting.”
She sighed. She knew what they were for.
“Something else is bothering you,” he said.
She looked at François. Though she hated his hoarse laugh, she loved his eyes: the deep-set, kind eyes of an intelligent man.
“You know what it is.”
And she knew that he knew. After all, François had studied several years with her father, who had published several papers on systemic evolution.
“I know how much you admired your father, Sheila. He was a great man. But you can’t let feelings cloud scientific judgment.” He cleared his throat. “We’re observers, remember?”
She shook her head in response.
François threw up his hands. “Mon dieu, Sheila. They couldn’t have made those weapons.”
“I don’t agree.”
“Until we have conclusive evidence —”
“It looks conclusive,” she said.
François swatted a mosquito. “What if it was rebels?”
“We know the troop created those weapons.”
François went to a window. Sometimes she felt tempted to go into the jungle at night, but she knew better. She sensed that François was feeling something similar.
A bird screeched. Sweat dripped into her eyes and she winced, then wiped the sweat away with a clean, dry cloth.
“So they’re making weapons,” he said. “You think they’re going to attack us?”
He was attempting to be funny but she didn’t appreciate it. “Good night, François,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”
* * *
“They’re gone,” François said. “Sacrebleu, how?”
It was next morning. A Wolof park ranger gave him a questioning glance and looked at the jungle, finger on the trigger of her automatic rifle. She and another park ranger had come along, at François’s request, to supply protection.
Sheila set down the camcorder, which had caused her shoulder to ache. She adjusted the strap of her Nike top.
Indentations in the jungle floor clearly indicated that the weapons had recently been there. To the untrained eye, the jungle would have appeared normal, virginal.
The other park ranger, a Lebou, fished a cigarette from its pack and offered the pack to her. She shook her head.
“They’re gone, all right.” She pushed aside a vine. “I think Jack knew we were coming.”
François spoke with the Wolof in their native language. The Lebou’s eyes darted in several directions, and Sheila knew he was afraid because she was, too. Once, while tracking Troop Badeau, she had come across an abandoned rebel camp and had almost pissed her shorts.
But this was far scarier.
She walked up to François. He stared at her with his intelligent eyes.
“I want to do this, François.”
“I was thinking the same thing, too,” he said. “Let’s go farther into the jungle.”
She nodded. “All right, let’s go.”
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Robert H. Prestridge