“Group 54…very far.” Pierre mentions to me as we crawl uphill at an 80-degree angle.
“No problem, Pierre.”
Two hours later, and I want to retract this statement. The hike has continued only uphill and with my rain pants, jacket, layers of fleece and heavy pack full of gear, I am beginning to feel weighed down. My sweat is turning into cold pellets against my skin, and the rain soaking the ground makes it slick, my feet giving way every few steps. Along the way, Pierre teaches me how to call to the rubriventers. An acoustic grunt that takes me a while to even begin to mimic, we use it every so often to prompt a response. Finally, as we make one of our usual calls, we receive a reply.
We look up into the hazy canopy and see several dark figures huddled on a branch. I raise my binoculars to my eyes and see two males- one adult and one juvenile to the left. They have white patches under their eyes, the light fur going slightly up the sides of their nose to their eyebrows. The females, also one adult and one juvenile, have white chests and are cuddled together to the right of the males. I find another small female, most likely born the previous year, sitting alone on the branch above. All have a reddish-brown fur coat and a long bushy tail. Their faces were soft and curious, somewhat scared. The pouring rain limited a superior view. We settle in to watch them, ready for them to wake up and start scurrying towards food. Two hours later and they’re still asleep. I know the cold and rainy conditions are forcing the family into a higher amount of sleep and rest, so I expect it to be like this most of the day. Sitting in the cold, wet mud, I acknowledge and approve of their strategy.
By 2pm, my clothes and socks are thoroughly soaked, and I can no longer feel my toes. The wet ground I am sitting on is a constant source that lowers my body temperature. I try to keep from shivering and shaking, and my jaw is starting to become sore from pressing my teeth against each other to stop them from chattering. To distract myself, I open my Tupperware of green leaves and rice, which smells a bit like mold at this point. I eat most of it anyway.
Another hour of waiting and I have become a core of ice, not able to think or feel anything but the freezing rain falling down on me. I look at my hands and wrists in a slight fog, wondering where all of that blood came from until I realize that the leeches have long since come and gone, leaving trails of blood behind. I had been too numb to notice them. Soon, I am covered in them, and I begin to pick them off of my pants and jackets in a haze. When I am able to grip one between my fingers, it seems as if five more have crawled onto my hands. I take my other hand and start to pull them off, but now that hand is covered too. I begin to feel them underneath my shirt and on my bare legs, and I think that’s them tickling my neck. My heart rate starts to quicken, and instead of panicking, I resign and just let them be.
A few hours later, and the lemurs are still huddled together, most likely asleep. The rain has become too thick for me to be able to see what they are doing, let alone collect any samples, so I gather my equipment and head back to camp. Instead of my normal routine of considering how to get a better view the next day as well as more efficient observations, all I can think about on the way back is dry clothes and sitting by the fire.
Once at camp and in my tent, I’m able to see the damage done from the leeches that day. Although I left all of my clothes outside on the line, I can already tell I’ve brought numerous worms back in my tent with me. Naked, I look down and see a thin layer of blood covering most of my body. There are small punctures everywhere, some still trickling fresh blood mixed with my sweat. Looking into my small camp mirror, I see there are several on my face that I patiently remove. I think about the leeches that may still be on my back, and have to make an effort to ignore them. I wipe the blood off with antibacterial wipes that I’ve brought, put on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and go out and sit by the fire.
The men are playing dominos. After watching them for a while, Dominique asks me if I can count. Weak from the day, I make the sarcastic remark that in fact I don’t know how to count, so don’t tell the other scientists. They stare at me blankly, and feeling guilty, I go over to the table and settle in as my role of scorekeeper. Once, when Valo goes to the bathroom, I take his place for a round. It is exhilarating, and I think I am finally making a cultural breakthrough.
By 7pm, everyone heads off to bed, and I walk to my house on a hill. Passing my thoroughly drenched hammock, I feel a tinge of sadness. After the rain started that day, it would never be dry again. I try to go on a little walk before bed, trying to exhaust myself even more so that I wouldn’t lay awake, delving too deep into my thoughts. I was missing someone badly, and I welcomed any distractions, even physical discomfort. Using my headlamp, I scan my surroundings, following crooked trees up from the base to the very top, reminding me of shots of lightening. Eventually, I can no longer withstand the cold, and I retreat to my tent. Before I fall asleep, I am brought back to a day during my last field season that reminds me of my wet, twisted hammock ...
The arm itself was dried and rotten, and the wound had darkened, only showing slight signs of swollen red tissue. Jess was beginning to feel the effect of the anesthesia that Dieter had just previously administered. My eye pressed up against the viewfinder, I watched her cloudy eyes gradually close and then quickly force open in an attempt to stay alert. Thick tsetse flies swarmed the lone window on the opposite wall. Once the drug took its full effect and her body lay listless on the table, Dr. Steklis moved forward, as did the rest of the staff that were gathered around. I stayed seated directly in front of the table, camera never leaving my hand. Picking up a disposable razor that wouldn’t be able to slice through the hairs on my leg, Dieter’s assistant given for the surgery, Matubazi, began shearing the wiry fur off of the entire forearm. When done, he laid the razor back on the table, residual blood and fur left on the blades. The doctor grabbed the bottle of betadine and squeezed a large dollop of the antiseptic onto a clean surgical sponge. A medicinal odor was released into the small, crowded room, and no longer was the smell of unwashed bodies and dirty hair. The clean chemical scent seemed out of place to me in the filthy surgical room, and I imagined the bacteria struggling to multiply in this ideal environment.
Dieter began wiping the watery liquid onto the monkey’s bare arm in a brisk motion. As quickly as he brushed it on, the residue was swabbed off with a few tissues handed to him by his assistant. Beads of sweat danced across his forehead and he pulled his surgical mask away from his face and breathed deeply a few times before letting it smack back into place. Next to Jess lay a small bone cutter, a scalpel, and surgical scissors- all gleaming silver through my lens. After lifting her arm and inspecting the laceration, Dieter picked up the pair of scissors. My grip around my camera tightened, and I aimed it at Jess. Her eyes closed, her face seemed full of child-like innocence.
“Jess?” Whether she had recognized her name, or was just reacting to a sudden voice, she turned and opened her eyes. Staring up at me was not just a primate, not a pet, not a wild animal. It was a consciousness, and looking up at me, I knew she had been asking for comfort. I held her face with my hands and bent down close to her. Our faces centimeters apart, I breathed against her cheek and whispered to her. I knew that she had not understood what I was saying, but she understood that someone was there.
Back in the operating room, my camera was hanging loose around my neck. Grabbing it up, I refocused on the activity occurring on the table. Dieter and Matubazi seemed to be in a disagreement on the tool selected to perform the amputation. Speaking in French, I could not grasp the details of their discussion, but it became clear when the doctor spoke a few low, stern words and Matubazi dejectedly stepped back, crossing his arms. Dieter picked up the pair of scissors and placed the two blades on either side of the arm, right below the elbow. My eyes flashing between the doctor’s steady face and the blades closing into each other became a haze of images all at once. My finger never stopped pressing the shutter release button.