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A Distant Drumming

by Peter Ninnes

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

“Take care, Paul,” Professor Saito said. He shook my hand. “Remember, if you can prove the existence of even one of those otters, we’ll win research grants for the next decade.”

“I’ll do my best. See you in two weeks.” I hauled myself into the driver’s seat and turned to the woman next to me. “Please set the navigation system for the campground.”

“Certainly, Professor Starc.” Diminutive, middle-aged Chie Otani pushed a few icons on the screen. She’d flown in from Nagano’s Sanada University two days ago and seemed incapable of calling me “Paul” despite my repeated requests.

“It’s because she’s only an associate professor,” Saito had explained earlier, in an aside.

One year as a visiting professor in Shikoku University’s Environmental Studies Department had resurrected enough of my high school Japanese that I didn’t need Chie to translate the nav system’s announcement. Our trip to the campground would take four hours and thirty-three minutes, covering one hundred and fifty-six kilometres.

“Nearly five hours, did it say?” The grumpy voice belonged to Masahiro Ito, professor of systematics at Okayama’s Seto Naikai University. He’d done nothing but complain since his ill-fitting suit waddled into the airport terminal, hairy hands lighting a cigarette in defiance of the prominent, prohibitive signage. The flight had been too rough, the snacks too salty, the seats too small. His trunk had arrived with a minor dent, a result of mishandling by the airline, he insisted. We waited forty minutes while he argued with the ground staff and completed a claim form.

The city petered out with a line of fishermen’s homes perched between the highway and the sea. The Landcruiser, jammed with our field work equipment, rollicked through the bends like a brick on wheels.

Ito’s head tilted back, the interior of his nasal passages dominating the rear-view mirror. Rhythmic rattling emerged from his twin exhaust portals. The Landcruiser’s engine growled, unhappy with the competition.

Saito was right about the research grants. Irrefutable proof of the survival of the Japanese river otter would mark the pinnacle of my career. Since graduating from Santa Cruz, I’d studied various otter species around the world. The sea otter along the California coast. The European otter in barren Scottish rivers. The small-clawed otter in Borneo. I’d never faced a challenge like the one before me now. Me and the university both. Students were abandoning its setting on remote Shikoku for the bright lights of Osaka and Tokyo. Fame, fanfare and burgeoning enrolments would follow the rediscovery of the Japanese river otter, unsighted for twenty years and presumed extinct.

“Or existing only in the spirit world,” Saito had laughed, before regaling me with a couple of Japanese ghost stories.

The university lacked funds for the hours of remote field work needed to find the otter. I’d advertised a jointly funded expedition on a Japanese zoology forum. Chie and Ito were the sole takers. They coughed up their share of the expenses, and that was good enough for me.

Not that they knew anything about otters. Chie’s field was longhorn beetles in Shikoku and Nagano. She’d brought four different microscopes with her.

“A high resolution one for studying the wing venation, a low resolution one for the genitalia, and one with an oil-emersion lens for studying sperm structure,” she’d said.

I was too polite to inquire about the sperm extraction method. “And the fourth one?”

“That’s a multi-functional spare, Professor Starc. There are no reputable scientific apparatus suppliers on Shikoku.”

Chie’s sobriety was no match for Ito’s haughtiness. His project involved collecting racoon dog blood samples for an evolutionary study.

“The Japanese racoon dog must be recognised as a separate species,” Ito had intoned over a jug of beer at the club the night before our departure. “Japan is a unique country, you know, Starc, and we Japanese are a unique people. Our culture is the most refined in Asia, if not the world. I’m not being arrogant, Starc. Our singularity is a result of being an island nation. We rarely share endemic land vertebrate species with the rest of Asia. Speciation due to long-term isolation, you know.” Cigarette smoke loitered around his head, a carcinogenic cloud making wispy incursions into my patch of air.

After an hour and fifty kilometres, we turned up a sinewy valley between hills that tumbled to the rocky coast. Chie was reading me bits and pieces from a paper on the lesser longhorn beetles of central Guatemala. Ito signalled his return from the land of nod with a request to smoke a cigarette.

“I’m sorry to say that smoking is not permitted in university vehicles.” I gave the sticker on the dashboard a chirpy, remorseless tap.

“These wretched curves in the road are going to make me vomit unless I get some nicotine into me.”

“Open your window and get some fresh air.”

“It’s raining.”

“Only a drizzle.”

Ito withdrew into silence. The road followed the Minami River. We planned to camp on the upper reaches, half an hour beyond the Denkimoto Dam. We reached Takatani Village, the last settlement before the dam. I tried to ignore the large ceramic racoon dog statue that welcomed us to the settlement’s only eatery. He wore a wide-brimmed hat and held a bottle of sake, and I didn’t know what to make of the enormous pair of testicles hanging between his legs.

The worn wooden door of the noodle joint issued an indignant screech in response to Chie’s push. The ancient, stooped proprietor, hovering over pots and pans of similar vintage, squawked a greeting. We perched at the counter, occupying the establishment’s full complement of stools.

The steam from our bowls drifted over the chopstick holders, jars of shichimi seasoning, sauce bottles, a water jug and tray of drinking glasses, and the tissue boxes crammed on the counter. The vapour drifted past the glass eyes of another racoon dog, or rather half a dead one, stuffed and staring from above the curtained window. It was surprised, I imagined, by the sudden full house.

Chie chatted with the old lady. Their mouths moved, but their voices were obliterated as Ito slurped his noodles with gastronomic violence. The racket persisted until the last noodle disappeared through his reptilian lips.

“The old lady said there are many racoon dogs further up the valley,” Chie reported as we continued our journey.

“How far up?” Ito asked.

“Beyond the dam, Professor Ito. But she hasn’t seen an otter in the river for forty years. Her father made a lot of money hunting them during the Showa Era.”

“That’s how they became extinct, or almost so,” I said.

“You’ll be lucky to find even a fossil,” declared Ito.

“Did you see the racoon dog above the window?” Chie asked. “That’s why she had so few customers.”

Ito snorted. “You don’t believe that nonsense?”

“What nonsense?” I asked.

“It’s bad luck to kill a racoon dog.”

More snorting from the back seat. “I suppose you believe in bake-danuki, the supernatural racoon dogs?”

Chie shivered and stared out her window.

Ito snorted. “You’re meant to be a scientist.”

I felt unhappy with his tone, so I asked Chie, “Did the old lady mention beetles?”

“No, but I picked one up off the floor.” Chie unzipped a pocket on the thigh of her field work trousers. She held up an armoured creature. Six solid legs wiggled. A pale, yellow body, as long as my thumb, sprouted antennae twice the size.

Ghih-ghih, ghih-ghih,” it rasped.

“Was that in the noodle joint?” I asked. “Is it one of your species?”

“Yes, it’s Batocera lineolata. Five thousand yen each in Tokyo pet shops.”

“Let’s collect a few to fund our field trip,” I suggested.

Chie didn’t realise I was the funniest guy in the world. “I’m afraid that’s illegal, Professor Starc.” A frown creased her brow, and she held the chirping beetle close to her chest, like a Madonna and child portrait.

“Put that thing in a jar,” Ito snapped. “I’m not riding in any car with one of those on the loose. And that noise it’s making is dreadful.”

Chie returned the beast to her pocket and the rasping stopped.

A high concrete wall appeared, a disruptive barrier across the greenery. The road climbed steeply to a lookout above the dam. We stopped to admire the view. I scanned the surface of the lake and its surrounding vegetation. The leaves hung like bats on the trees, caught in the humidity’s soggy grip. We drove for another half an hour, and then a dilapidated sign, draped with blue-grey lichen, announced our destination: Upper Minami Campground.

In the clear air, I sensed an almost inaudible buzz, as if a squadron of mosquitoes was lurking nearby. The official camping season was a month away, and only tufts of weeds occupied the sites, obscuring the pegged ropes demarcating each plot. The trees were so still they might have ceased their transpiration. The river seemed suspended in time, like a sculpture in glass. Rounded stones peered up from the river bed at the overhanging mountain azaleas, the last of their violet blossoms perfectly reflected in the water.

We erected our tents in a line facing the river, and then split up to identify sites for our work and prepare our equipment. Chie decided to head downstream to find a place to set up her light traps. She disappeared into the bushes with a large pack on her back.

As soon as she was out of sight, Ito complained that he would have liked that area for his racoon dog traps. He agreed with my suggestion that he start further up the valley but continued to mutter under his breath as I drove him and his equipment to a clearing we found near the main road, a kilometre beyond the campground. He planned to catch racoon dogs each night and tag them and take blood samples each morning. I helped him unload, then left him to it.

By the time the cicadas were screaming for their dinner, I’d set up my cameras, movement sensors and traps in three possible den sites along the river. In the morning, I planned to check the cameras and traps and download the photos to my laptop. Then I’d search around the entire area for otter spraints, or faeces. They were easy to find. As one of my grad students once remarked, their smell puts the “stink” back into “distinctive.”

A roofed shelter dominated the centre of the campground. We’d decided to each cater for ourselves. Chie and I had single-burner gas cookers. We set them up on a table in the shelter to prepare our evening meal. The department’s generator rumbled away at the edge of the clearing, powering the light I’d hung in the shelter.

Ito sat at the adjacent table. He spooned canned tuna onto thick slices of white bread, bit off chunks, and failed to close his mouth while he chewed. I tried a couple of times to initiate a conversation with him. Monosyllables and tuna flakes came back. He was more interested in swatting at the cornucopia of flying insects attracted to the light. He washed the remains of the sandwiches down with two cans of Asahi beer. After three vile cigarettes, he retired to his tent. Half an hour later, I switched off the generator. A rumbling from Ito’s tent provided a fair impersonation of a passing freight train.

We spent two uneventful days and nights undertaking field work. I found some animal droppings which smelled like spraints, but I couldn’t be certain without fully analysing them in the lab. They showed signs of the kind of diet I’d expect from a riverine animal. I felt hopeful that sooner or later my cameras would snap an otter.

Chie, meanwhile, collected beetles and examined their public and private parts with her microscopes.

“Are you happy with your samples, Chie-san?” I asked on the third evening.

“It’s not a question of being happy or sad, Professor Starc. I’m fulfilling the aims of my research grant as per the funding application and contributing to the achievement of my department’s key performance indicators. That’s all that matters.”

As for Ito, I’d pick him up from the roadside above the clearing as the afternoon sun touched the tree tops. He was always ready and waiting, so I had no need to drive down the side track. On our return to the campground, he’d put his raccoon dog blood samples in the 12-volt fridge running off the Landcruiser’s second battery. He’d say little except to complain about the mosquitoes, the cicadas and the green-eyed horse flies that fired their proboscises into human flesh like a nail gun shooting nails into timber.

Slobby Ito and straight-as-a-pool-cue Chie did their work, and I did mine. I’d recruited them for their cash, not their witty repartee or social graces.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2018 by Peter Ninnes

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