Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Chapter Seven

“Father! Father!” The voice of Jane rings through the camp, an enclosed, cluttered abode of tents within the jungle of the Wildlands.

The Professor looks up from the plaster cast of a footprint that the Hunter had found earlier that morning. “Yes, Jane, what is it?”

“Look,” says his daughter, and she points a gloved finger at the intruder in the clearing.

It is a gorilla, a juvenile by the size of it, with an unusual tuft of hair atop its cranium. The old man gasps and oohs and quickly gets to his feet. He sets down the magnifying glass carefully, so as not to scare away the animal, and slowly picks up his camera.

“Hush now,” says the Professor in a soothing voice. “There’s a good fellow.” He forces himself to move slowly and not startle the creature. The opportunity to take a photograph of such a reclusive animal is too great, and in his excitement, he doesn’t notice the irregularities of this particular specimen.

“Father,” says Jane. “His stomach.”

The Professor looks through the viewfinder and snaps a photo. It’s too dark under the jungle canopy, and he musses about with a flashbulb.

Alerted by the movement, the gorilla turns toward the Professor just as he takes another photograph. The old man is surprised when the flash doesn’t scare off the creature. It pays no mind to the light. It doesn’t even blink, actually.

Then he notices its stomach.

Once he can find his voice, the Professor whispers, “Back away, Jane." He himself doesn’t move. Fascinated, he takes another photo, this one focused on the creature’s abdomen.

It is gaping, slashed apart by some animal. A leopard, by the look of it. The predator apparently took off with most of the entrails, leaving the rest to crust over and blacken with mud and blood. A nasty, fatal wound.

And yet, the gorilla staggers forward, very much alive, though it walks with difficulty. Most of its right thigh is gone, eaten away, and it leans heavily on its other limbs.

“Back away, Jane," says the Professor once more.

Without taking his eyes from the dreadful and fascinating beast, he shouts for the Hunter. “We need your rifle, man! Quickly!”

The svelte Englishman had been napping in his tent, but he is out and awake almost immediately. He looks around carefully, spots the gorilla, and raises his rifle.

“What the devil?” he asks himself, and empties a bullet into the creature’s heart. It shudders backwards with the impact, but still drags itself unceasingly toward the Professor.

The Hunter wastes no time. Before it can take another step, he cocks the rifle and fires again, still at its heart, still with no effect.

“Bloody thing won’t die!” he shouts, with a bewildered look at the Professor.

“It’s already dead, man!” the Professor shouts in return. He takes another photo. “Kill it!”

The Hunter analyzes the gorilla, focusing quickly on whatever weaknesses might be discernable. Perhaps it no longer needs its heart, since it would’ve lost most of its blood through its open, empty stomach.

But its leg… He takes aim at the gorilla’s unwounded leg, right where its knee should be, and with an echoing bang, the gorilla collapses.

And yet it still does not stop. It drags itself forward by its knuckles and silently exposes its yellow fangs.

“By Jove…” murmurs the Hunter. He takes a cautious step forward –
a normal animal would have fled at the first shot – but cannot bring himself to look into its dark, dull eyes.

The Professor takes a final photograph, and then the Hunter fires once more, this time at the gorilla’s head.

The mess spatters against the foliage, and the damned thing finally stops moving.

He puts his rifle over his shoulder and steps toward the Professor. “What manner of hoodoo is this, old man?” he asks, confused and angry.

“I don’t know,” admits the Professor. He reaches for his magnifying glass and carefully, cautiously, steps toward the gorilla’s corpse. “It’s scientifically implausible…”

Jane screams, and the two men look up. The camp has another intruder, a jaguar this time.

Earlier in their expedition, the Hunter would’ve only considered the animal’s hide, and how he could kill it with as little damage to the pelt as possible. Good money in jaguar skins, after all. But his priorities have suddenly changed.

The jaguar's rear legs have been practically flattened by something with blunt, broad teeth. And its neck is a ruin of open, ravaged flesh and dried blood. It snarls a bubbly, foul snarl, and tries to pounce at Jane, but its wounded legs prevents it from going too far.

Without thinking, the Hunter fires at its brainpan.

The jaguar crashes to the floor, its face destroyed.

“What the blazes is happening?” asks the Professor.

“The animals,” says Jane. “They’re… they’re dead.”

“Rabies?” asks the Hunter. He hates rabies.

“I’ve never heard of rabid animals behaving like this,” says the Professor. “Look at this wound!” He gestures toward the jaguar’s neck. “Nothing would get up from that. It’s impossible. Its throat was crushed.”

They hear the rustling of leaves and the loud cracking of trees as something – something large and stumbling – approaches the camp.

“There are more coming,” says Jane. “We have to get out of here!”

The Hunter is inside his tent before Jane can finish her sentence. He grabs some boxes of ammunition and stuffs his pack. “Let’s go,” he says, strapping a machete to his belt.

But then the Professor is screaming. A meerkat hangs from his throat. The Hunter hesitates with the rifle, as he cannot get a clear shot.

As the Professor clutches at the meerkat, four more emerge from the undergrowth and scuttle quickly toward his flailing body. They jump onto the Professor, clutching with their tiny, human-like hands, and bite at his legs, his arm, his groin. He rips the one from his throat and hurls it away. Pearl-like drops of blood splash onto the jungle floor.

“Father!” screams Jane. She rushes forward to help him, but the Hunter grabs her by the arm. If the animals are rabid, we have to be careful, he is about to say, but then a nearby tree collapses, and he forgets all words.

An elephant, gray, fat, one-eyed, stomps over the tree to the screaming Professor. It grabs him with its trunk and tosses him, along with the meerkats, into its gigantic, yawning mouth. The screaming abruptly stops.

“Elephants don’t eat people…” whispers the Hunter.

Jane looks at him with half-crazed eyes. She can’t block out the wet crunching sounds coming from the elephant’s mouth. “Do something!” she screams, and he does.

He turns and runs. As Jane screams after him, he does not look back.