by Robert H. Prestridge
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
They continued through the humid jungle.
Sheila pondered how Troop Lejeune had acquired its new technologies. Studies had proven that technological innovations in chimpanzee society occurred through the female and the young because of their need to compete effectively and efficiently against males for often-scarce resources. Eventually the males used these technologies to maintain dominance in the troop. The innovation cycle continued as females and young found new ways to compete.
That knowledge was nothing new. The question was: Why had the females and young in Troop Lejeune learned to make such weapons? After all, their most recent technological innovations were in the making of sophisticated spears to hunt their favored protein source, the red colobus monkey.
Sheila glanced at François, who walked parallel to her. He was staring at the jungle floor, and she knew that he was deep in thought about the same questions and the implications they had.
Ahead of them marched the Lebou, who held up a hand, motioning for them to stop.
François whispered in French with the Lebou. Except for the sounds of birds and small animals, the jungle was quiet.
Sheila wiped her face with a handkerchief. She sniffed the air, then frowned. She sniffed again. Instead of the ubiquitous jungle odor, she smelled copper.
Then Sheila saw a broken tree limb. She nudged François.
François and the two park rangers looked. Sheila stepped towards the broken limb, moving vines aside. She saw torn foliage and hurried forward.
When she rounded a wide tree, she stopped. It took a moment for her to understand what she was experiencing. She had seen many things in Senegal — dead rebels and government soldiers, bombed villages, wounded refugees — but this surpassed all of that.
She knelt by the wide tree and felt her stomach heave. That morning’s breakfast spewed onto foliage dripping with blood.
“Merde,” she heard François say.
Sheila stood and wiped her mouth. The heads of Jean-Luc, the alpha male of Troop Marceau, and other males hung impaled on poles jutting at odd angles. Once-pregnant females lay disemboweled. Young chimpanzees had suffered having their feet and hands torn off and stacked in piles. Iridescent flies buzzed around the heads, bodies, and parts.
Sheila shook her head slowly, not wanting to believe what she was seeing. Yes, chimpanzees fought ceaselessly, but this went beyond mere war. This was sadistic through and through, done not as a means to get resources but from some other motive.
Still, this was no time for moral judgment calls. She had a job to do, so she pushed RECORD on the camcorder.
François and the Wolof were kneeling beside a female corpse and the Lebou had lit a cigarette and was taking a drag when Sheila saw the projectile, a rock, strike him dead-center in the chest. The cigarette flipped in the air. He yelled and fired a burst from his automatic weapon. A rock struck the side of his head and he grunted, falling to the jungle floor.
The Wolof fired her automatic weapon into the jungle. Chimpanzees screeched. A chimpanzee ran from behind a tree, spear in hand, and impaled the Wolof in the back. She gasped and dropped to her knees. The chimpanzee shrieked and drove the spear through her.
Sheila screamed. A rock grazed her cheek. Male chimpanzees stormed the clearing. François fired the Lebou’s automatic rifle.
Jack appeared, baring his teeth, brandishing what looked like a wooden machete.
“Jack, no!” Sheila screamed.
Jack struck the screaming Lebou with the weapon.
She ran towards the fallen man. François grabbed her wrist. Jack screeched and blustered.
“Sheila, Non !”
François kept hold of her wrist, forcing her to run with him through the jungle, camcorder slung over her shoulder, down the path leading farther into the jungle.
* * *
Over two hours had passed.
She and François sat down near a stream shaded by the jungle’s canopy. Her hands had stopped trembling by that time. François turned off the camcorder, set it aside, and shook his head.
“I don’t know what you were thinking,” he said.
“He was my favorite.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I thought I could stop him. I thought I could communicate with him.”
“How? Communicate what?”
She remembered how she had chased Jack around and up trees when he was young, how he had shaken his head when she had offered him a banana or orange because he had wanted to eat the sandwiches she had prepared for herself, how he had leaped into her arms whenever she had approached Troop Lejeune to conduct her studies and had spent the entire day at her side.
“I don’t know.” She wrung her hands. “I do know. Get him to see there’s another way.”
François tossed pebbles into the stream. He sighed.
“These aren’t bonobos, Sheila. Chimpanzees are not peaceful. They never were and I’m not convinced they ever will be.”
“But if they can evolve this way, if their tool development has led them to this —”
“It means that other troops will do the same. Eventually one troop will reign supreme. Because of its current technological advancement, I wager it will be Troop Lejeune.”
“But what if we can change this?”
“So what if we could, Sheila? That’s not for us to do, and you know it. We’re here to observe, not alter.”
Now she sighed. “All right, so we have duties as scientists,” she said, throwing up her hands. “We also have other duties.”
François threw a pebble across the stream. “As what?”
“How about as their cousins?”
He snorted, “As if we’ve done better than they have.”
“We have to start somewhere, François.”
“Oui, but what we do in our world isn’t necessarily applicable to theirs.”
She turned to face him. “You know what will happen to them.”
“I know, Sheila. I know.” He smiled, but she knew it wasn’t a happy smile. It was a smile of frustration. “Your father taught me well. Inevitably they will manage to make themselves extinct —”
“Unless someone steps in and does something.” She coughed, placing a fist to her mouth.
François stood and put his hands in his back pockets. He studied the path from which they had fled.
“We can’t do anything, Sheila.”
She stood, placing an arm around him.
“Perhaps,” she said. “The future’s never certain. Nothing is. But if we don’t try something, anything, how will we know?”
François looked at her.
“So what do you propose?” he said.
Sheila looked at the jungle and wondered the same.
* * *
“Be careful,” François said next morning.
He didn’t have to say that, of course, because she had every intention of being careful. Nonetheless, she appreciated the gesture and hugged him before leaving camp and entering the jungle.
François had surmised that the males in Troup Lejeune had attacked because the park rangers had carried weapons. Sheila wasn’t so sure.
But that wasn’t the point.
The point was, she had communicated with chimpanzees. She had communicated with members of Troop Lejeune. She had communicated with Jack. Perhaps she needed to believe that no matter how vicious Jack and the troop had seemingly become, she could still reach them and perhaps, if possible, discovery why they had become that way.
And perhaps stop another escalation of violence.
An hour after entering the jungle, she stopped to drink cool water from her canteen. Normally François would have been there on the path with her. She had asked him to stay behind because she believed the males were less likely to attack if he wasn’t with her.
She forded a stream, then another, and pushed aside vines to enter a clearing where the troop had once lived.
Her breath stopped.
Now she saw.
Now she understood.
She laughed, not because what was there had anything funny about it, but because it was so insane, so goddamn senseless. Sheila sank to the jungle floor and wept. She wept as she had never wept before.
Of course, Troop Lejeune had had no other alternative. It had had to follow the cycle that its cousins had set for it.
Had poachers done it? Or rebels? Or government troops?
Did it matter?
She looked at skulls affixed to the poles, adipocered bones jutting from the jungle floor, the remains of paws and feet in haphazard stacks. She didn’t have to be told that they were remains of the females and young of Troop Lejeune.
And she knew that whoever had done this had not done it simply for food, but had done it in wanton cruelty.
And she knew that the surviving females and young of Troop Lejeune had developed new technologies to compete against males, all right, but not those of their own species, Pan troglodytes.
They had had to learn to compete against their cousins, Homo sapiens. In addition, the females and young of Troop Lejeune had had to learn to hate.
The males of Troop Lejeune had taken these new technologies, and the hate, and had made them their own.
She heard something behind her and whirled.
Chimpanzee faces had appeared in the dense jungle foliage. Sheila stepped back.
Jack appeared, blood-stained weapon in hand. He stopped at a carcass, and Sheila knew that it had been Marie-Claire, his mother. He grunted, sounding angry, and poked the carcass with the machete-like weapon, then glowered at Sheila.
“I don’t know who did this, Jack, and I’m not sure I want to know.” She stepped towards him. The chimpanzees in the dense foliage screeched. “And no, I can’t excuse this. I won’t make an excuse for this.”
She approached him as she had done when he had been young and playful. His eyes showed intense hatred, but she knew he remembered, knew that he would never forget.
“If you want to kill me for this, go ahead,” she said. “I won’t run.”
Jack swung the weapon. Sheila knelt and held out her hand, palm up, in a way she had taught Jack years before.
He leaned his head back and howled. Sheila felt sweat dripping from her armpits and down the sides of her body. Her muscles ached, but she was determined to stay kneeling for as long as it took.
Minutes passed, and Jack stepped forward, looking puzzled. He stopped, then held up his paw.
Sheila moved her hand slowly until her palm and fingers touched his, an almost perfect match.
Jack dropped the weapon and placed his arms around her, as he had done years before. He whimpered and nestled his head against her neck. She embraced him and patted his back.
Except for the sounds of his grief and the soft whistling of birds, the jungle was now silent.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert H. Prestridge