Jenny awoke to thunder. There was no light yet. She reached out in darkness and found a tin of wooden matches on the ammunition case beside her bed. She selected one and struck it on the case. The flame flared red then yellow and sulfurous smoke rose. Newborn shadows danced on the walls of the hut. She touched the match to the wick of a candle and a light grew up from it like a yellow flower tinged with blue. Smoke hung in the still wet air. The interior of the hut seemed at once bare and cluttered. The walls were unpainted board, the floor was buckled plywood. Against one wall was a crude desk made out of a door, a few photographs tacked to the wall above it: Her mother at home near Chicago. Snapshots of the bonobos. Her friend Donna with the bonobos at the zoo.
Jenny swung her feet to the floor and listened. She’d heard the hissing of the rain all night. But now another sound had crept in. She pulled on her boots and stood, tall and tan and rangy in the yellow light. She ran her hand through her sandy hair and secured it carelessly behind her head.
She heard the sound again: Thunder. But now she heard the metallic overtones as the report echoed up into the hills, then returned. As she grew more awake Jenny realized that she was hearing guns. Big guns. The Congolese insurgents were firing rocket-propelled grenades. It had been a calculated risk for her to be here. But she had found the beautiful great apes known as bonobos irresistible. Year after year she had returned despite the danger. The fighting had flared and died down and flared up again for more than a decade and a half. Now the civil war had begun in earnest and she had to leave immediately. Her old friend David Meece at the British embassy in Kinshasa had warned her in no uncertain terms: You have no value and so they will kill you. When the shooting starts, go to the river as quickly as you can.
A whistling overhead. Another charge of metallic thunder. The blast from the explosion shook the pots above the camp stove. There was answering fire from the other direction.
She had expected to have more warning, an hour, half an hour. But they were upon her. She grabbed a flashlight, the machete, and the backpack that she kept ready for travel. She picked up a bottle that was half full of water and drank it in one long bubbling draught. Gasping for air she picked up a full bottle and clipped it to her belt.
She stepped out the door and into the clearing. She knew that entering the forest at night was a risk, but staying would be worse. She looked back at her hut and felt a rush of sadness, even as her pulse pounded in her neck. Then she turned and ran toward the forest, feeling the water sway uncomfortably in her gut.
The rain had stopped. The jungle before her was black and glistening in the flashlight beam. She had promised herself that she would make an effort to reach the British researcher, Donald Stone, whose observation post was on the way to the river. He had been courteous enough the few times she’d seen him. But their camps were far enough away that it had made dropping in for a casual visit impractical. All she knew was that he was studying bonobos, too, but didn’t seem to want to collaborate. Nevertheless, Jenny had decided to do her best to help him if it ever came to that. She’d heard that he had a daughter and if so . . . Well, this was no place for a child.
As she loped through the forest along familiar paths, she heard the low thump of a mortar, the whistling of the shell, then the steely shock of another explosion to the east. She smelled smoke. Then came the sporadic firing of automatic weapons.
As she hurried on, the first light of day began to penetrate the forest canopy. She switched off her flashlight and let her eyes adjust. Another shell went off and she ran ahead. Think, think: What was next? Check on Donald Stone. Then get to the river. If she could find someone with a radio, David would help. If he was still there. If the embassy was still standing. If, if, if.
She ran on through the day, following the one broad path that she knew led in the direction of Stone’s camp. She was concerned for the bonobos. They were amazingly strong yet paradoxically delicate creatures. The shock of loud noises could kill them. On the other hand, they were smart. They’d be miles away by now in the tops of the trees. Sometimes it seemed to Jenny that they were almost human. In graduate school in 1987 she had gone to work with the largest population of bonobos in captivity at the Milwaukee Zoo. They were among the last of the great apes. The first time Jenny had locked eyes with the dominant female at the zoo, she knew that she was looking at a creature who was far more like her than unlike her. Whenever she wasn’t working, she’d spend hours watching the bonobos. But once she’d gone to Congo to see them in the wild she knew where she belonged.
At a bend in the trail, she stopped to listen. The shelling seemed to have moved off to the east. She swatted at the flies and mosquitoes around her face. Sweat had soaked her shirt and was dripping from her scalp into her eyes. She wrapped a bandanna around her head and pressed on. Then a brief but intense rainstorm drenched her and she resigned herself to being wet. At least it had knocked the insects down.
She desperately wanted to rest, but as night fell she took a headlamp from her pack and kept on going. All night long she heard the fighting fade, then move closer, then fade again. Twice in the night she smelled the smoke.
Morning came slowly. A mist began to rise. The path narrowed, and she knew that soon she would see Stone’s camp. She’d been there only twice before. On both occasions she’d suggested that they work together, but Stone had politely pointed out that he had a feeding station for the bonobos while Jenny did not. The two approaches to research were incompatible. She had let it go. She was too busy with her own work to worry about his.
Jenny stopped running so abruptly that she tottered back and forth like a weighted doll. At first she thought she was looking at a twisted branch. Only now—now that her body had stopped without her consent—did she realize that it was a dark brown forest cobra perhaps a meter in length. It was coiled loosely along a branch holding its head high. She remembered what the toxicologist at the university had told her the first time she came to Congo: If you encounter one of these in the wild, don’t breathe. They read your carbon dioxide signature. If you’re bitten by one a kilometer from home don’t bother running: You will die. And you’ll be conscious the whole time while the venom gradually paralyzes you until your diaphragm stops working.
Jenny began a Tai Chi move, shifting her weight as slowly as she could. She moved back by centimeters. A minute passed. Two minutes. She had moved back only a foot or so when a shell landed. The cobra seemed to startle at the noise. It dropped to the ground and shot off into the undergrowth like a stroke of dark lightning flowing to the earth.
Jenny let out her breath and took off again. Damn him, she thought. Damn Donald Stone for not having a radio. They’d been in radio contact for the first few years. Although she rarely saw him, he was cordial enough during their occasional chats, always ending by saying that yes, he would most definitely come for tea just as soon as he could. He never came. Then he had stopped answering the radio calls.
Another shell whistled and landed and this time she heard the fragments rattling through the leaves and branches overhead. Now she ran flat out.
Half an hour later she emerged, panting, into the clearing. She froze. There was no sound but the buzzing of the flies. The evidence was all around: The revolutionaries had been there. The fuel tank on its metal stilts had been shot up, rank kerosene spilled on the ground. Stone’s things were strewn around. Books splayed open. Shakespeare. Blake. Milton. Mary Shelley. Melville. College math and science texts. Jenny thought that odd. Then she remembered the girl. Was there a girl? That was just a rumor. She’d never seen a child.
She approached the cabin cautiously. The door was broken on its hinges. She pushed it back, scraping the earth, and peered into the darkness. She could smell the residue of smokeless powder and the sharp reek of a latrine. She reached her flashlight, switched it on, and moved the beam around.
They’d shot him in the doorway and he’d fallen back inside. She did not have to touch him to know that he was dead. The blood from his shattered head had pooled around him. The few supplies they hadn’t taken were scattered and trod on by sandals, boots, bare feet. Small orange notebooks pulled down from shelves. His desk, a folding table, overturned. A boot kicked through its top.
Now, she thought, run. Go now, go to the river. There’s nothing you can do for him. But she stood staring at the dead British researcher, thinking: It could as easily have been me.
As she stepped over the debris she saw a curtain that divided the room. She pushed it aside. There on the floor she saw two more bodies, that of a teenage girl, naked, and a dead bonobo. The girl’s head was resting on the bonobo’s chest as if she had died trying to protect the animal. It struck Jenny that the rebels must have raped the girl before killing her. They always did.
At the sound of Jenny’s voice the girl lifted her head and looked up. Jenny startled so badly that she screamed, clutching her chest and gulping air. The girl was small, with long dark hair standing out in a wild profusion of curls. Her smooth tan skin was slick with blood and covered with scratches. Her fine-featured face was smeared with mud. She was odd-looking, Jenny thought, exotic in some way that she couldn’t put her finger on. She looked out at Jenny with haunting dark green eyes.
At last Jenny said, “Are you hurt? Did they hurt you?”
The girl put her head back down on the chest of the dead bonobo and began wailing in high keening notes.
“Are you Dr. Stone’s daughter? Where’s your mother?”
The girl continued to cry, both hands covering her open mouth. Jenny crossed to her and knelt and put her arm around the girl.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. We have to go. It’s not safe.” Jenny stood and made another examination of the hut to see if the mother’s body was concealed somehow. But there was no one else there. She began gathering the orange notebooks and stuffing them into Stone’s backpack. It was all that was left of the man. “Get your clothes. Take what you need. Hurry. We won’t be coming back.” She found two passports among the debris and took them. “Come on. Please. I can’t leave you.”
The girl stood reluctantly and pulled on jeans and a shirt, still sobbing in ragged gulps, her chin trembling. Jenny picked up a framed photograph, its glass cracked, and put it in her own pack. Another shell whistled and burst nearby. The girl went back to the dead bonobo and fell on it, weeping.
Jenny took the girl’s limp hand. She pulled the girl away and helped her to her feet. “I’m sorry. We have to go to the river and find help.” She put her arm around the girl and drew her toward the door. “Can you speak?” The girl said nothing.
They went out of the hut and across the clearing. Then they were hurrying through the rain forest, which was interrupted here and there by great fields of flowers, bird of paradise, orchids, lobelias. They fled along worn paths beneath tunnels of red cedar, mahogany, and oak. The mist hung in the air like strips torn from bolts of cloth. As the fighting grew louder they broke into a run. Jenny could hear gunfire, explosions, and now screams. She caught occasional glimpses of a clearing sky, and as the sun drew high, the whole forest exhaled its steamy breath. When the noises of war grew faint once more they slowed to a walk. They walked all day, until the sun began to sink. They emerged into a grassy clearing, yellow in the late light. There they ate a cold meal of fruit and nuts. Though she could no longer hear the fighting Jenny dared not make a fire. They squatted on the ground, eating.
“I’m Jenny. Jenny Lowe. What’s your name?”
The girl just looked at her with those sad otherworldly eyes. Then Jenny felt her heart ache as tears ran down the girl’s cheeks. She put her arm around her and the girl leaned against her and wept.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to talk now. Let’s get some sleep.”
Jenny waited until the girl’s sobs subsided and her breathing became regular. Then she gently lay her head down in the grass and covered her with a shirt and mosquito netting from her pack. She sat back against a tree and watched the girl sleep. She’s probably in shock, Jenny thought. She can’t even talk. She wondered if the girl had grown up in the forest and what life was going to be like for her now.
She thought back to her longest visit with Donald Stone. It must have been fifteen years ago now. He had served her tea and tinned biscuits with marmalade that had been sent from England. He had a generator and a record player on which he played old vinyl albums of opera. They had gotten into a spirited discussion about which of the ancient ancestors of humans had had language. “Erectus,” he had said, “surely Homo erectus had language. I mean, look at the evidence of those elephant hunts in Spain. It might have been just sign language, but I doubt it. After all, the forest is alive with language. Listen to it now.” And he had paused dramatically, sweeping his arm all around the camp, which was walled in by the impenetrable gloom of the forest. Jenny had listened to all the jungle sounds echoing back and forth through the trees. “You see,” Stone said. “A positive flood of information, an eternal stream. It’s The Stream. The Stream, don’t you see? Everything speaks, even the trees.” She had liked him, liked his sharp mind and quick wit. But she was still mystified by how little he had wished to interact with her, the only other scientist for a thousand kilometers.
As Jenny lay musing in the darkness, she fell asleep. When she woke, the girl was gone.
From the Hardcover edition.