Her face was averted beneath the reed hat but he could already tell that she did not like him any more than he liked her. They were standing under the narrow verandah of the forest station, and a knot of autocatalytic despair was tightening in his gut. His despair was mostly brought on by the rain, which had been falling nonstop for three days. There was dark mud everywhere, as on the shores of the Congo River, and he could smell it deep in his lungs.
The station's warden was huddled inside the dank stone building, a walking marionette in threadbare fatigues. "Martin . . . Dr. Martin Honge," he now jabbered. "You're the man from BIOTA Africa, aren't you?"
Be gracious, Martin, he told himself. Gracious. So he took a step back inside and said: "Yes. If you should recall, sir, I had asked for someone—"
"Who has, preferably, worked with olive baboons before," the forest warden said before he could finish, his glazed cataracts impatient. "What is this? You think she has not?"
Bugger the warden, he thought, back on the verandah. The girl, woman—he really could not tell which—would have to do. He wondered where she had found the small yellow dress; it clung to her skeletal body like old crepe, in thin web-like patterns. She needed, he thought, a new yellow dress.
"I want us to begin by identifying a suitable baboon troop to observe," he said.
"Suitable?" she asked.
"One with the most females," he elaborated. "I'm collecting data on mating behavior."
She stepped out into the rain, as if glad to escape the little confining verandah, and headed for a tapering path leading into a dense shrub of wet Dracaena fragrans. She walked with surefooted steps, treading the running mud proudly. She held her head high, as fearless as a jungle queen, while her Gabon Viper fang earrings dangled from each side like twin charms.
He had worried that she might be afraid of the forest, but she obviously was not. He saw that now—it was evident in her walk, a trait he had learnt to recognize in guides. How easy it was to lose one's mind and body to this natural phenomenon when there was nothing to cast one's eyes upon all day but rows upon rows of tree trunks lined with a wet, moquette-like surface of lichen and moss. But for a good guide, nothing could help if you really got lost, not your over-anxious mind, not your soul, not civilization—least of all civilization, with its basic first aid kit and emergency rations, anti-venom shots, tubes of the most potent antihistamines, a tranquilizer gun, a flare gun, a pistol . . . Well, a pistol perhaps would, but only if you were willing to pull the trigger as Kop Bachunn, his fellow researcher, had three weeks ago. [End Page 527]
It was an angst which came upon you, Martin had concluded, experienced in its pure wholesome state in this wet bizarre foliage and scampering shadows. Some men, like Kop Bachunn, could not endure that. He had brought Kop, delirious with fever, from the middle of the forest, to a Red Cross hospital along the Congo River. When he had visited the following day he had found an empty bed, a bloody mess on the white sheets, and a hole in the mattress. You could have easily mistaken it all for the avant-garde. The doctor had brought him Kop's pistol on a silver hospital tray, a livid look on his black face, a note of contempt in his voice—like that of a man who had been thwarted in his task. He had refused to be bothered with a diagnosis of Kop's illness. "What's the use?" he had asked. "He is dead."
They came upon the baboons suddenly: wet hairy bodies swaying from one tree to another. They barked and leaped and gathered their young closer to themselves. Even as a boy he had felt an instinctive response to that primate pandemonium at an animal orphanage in Nairobi, an understanding only possible in the first ages. Is it...