This story by Nancy Adair is the Nonfiction First Place winner of the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Nancy Adair left the United States with her diplomat husband, two babies, and an electric typewriter. The diplomatic life agreed with her. Not the tea parties, mind you, but the political intrigue and opportunities for adventure. Now back home in Washington State, she weaves her experiences into fiction, memoir, and travel blogs on her website.
We are not women of the forest.
We do not speak Swahili, carry machetes, or dream of monkey stew. We do not love this crude wooden longhouse, which lacks essentials like heat and running water. So when the local rooster cocks us awake before daylight, we ignore him. We spool ourselves tighter in the bedding and close our eyes to the dark.
Outside, women of the village cook fried eggs and Nescafe over a campfire. The scent of food wafts through our open windows and lures us out the door to a soggy breakfast in the Virungas Mountains of Eastern Congo.
Our guide arrives. In the pocket of his camouflage pants is our permit, allowing six women to visit the mountain gorillas. For me, it’s an urgent trip to an alarming situation. I only teach what I know, so I have come here to know, to experience these amazing creatures in the wild before they are gone. They are so close to us humans in DNA, yet we kill them just the same. Through poaching, loss of habitat, and civil war, their days on this earth seem numbered.
In my jeans is the photocopy of our permit that came in the mail. I have rehearsed the instructions for months: “1. Never run from a wild animal. 2. Never look a gorilla in the eye.” These phrases have become my daily mantra, memorized just in case . . .
Ready to roll, we are six intrepid women covered in blue plastic.
Under low clouds, our bushwhacker guide leads us into the forest while the rain pelts our blue ponchos. To the rhythmic thwack, thwack of his machete, we trudge uphill on a path he chops into the bush. Our hands are covered by sweat socks, our fingers mittened against the thorns. A second man holds rear guard with a shotgun to protect us from forest elephants, which are smaller and meaner than your average pachyderm.
Just in front of the gunman is my colleague, Barb, the tallest among us all and the self-appointed videographer. She mumbles about the weather and the branches in her face preventing her from getting any footage. The ground doesn’t cooperate either. Our clumsy feet slip in the muck. We are hardly a match for the agile African guides, who scoop us up before we slide downhill. Still, we trek onward and upward in the rain and dark. Will the sun never rise on these Virungas?
After forty-five muddy minutes, we reach a clearing, surrounded more by grasses than woody plants. The rain dissipates, the sun peeks through, and the mist arrives on cue. Now all we need are gorillas.
Abruptly, our guide stops. He raises his hand for silence. He hears something. Then I hear it, too. Crunching off to the left. The guide mimes giant teeth chomping on bamboo.
We are close. Suddenly this is no longer a walk in the woods. It’s an encounter. My heart races, and my poncho cloaks me in a sauna of sweat.
The crunching stops. Then the top of the tall bush separates. Something ominous is plowing our way. My senses switch to high alert. “Never run from a wild animal. Never run . . .”
And there he is. The silverback.
The top of his top of his head pokes through first. A huge, black fur ball set upon wide, sturdy shoulders. Long furry arms propel him my way. He looks up, his head the size of a boulder, his protruding gray brow tough as steel. His amber eyes stare right at me. He presses his lips together in a frown, and their disapproval opens the floodgates of my adrenalin. Blood rushes to my muscles and prepares them for flight. I’m going to die.
Involuntarily, my heels dig into the ground to back pedal out of harm’s way. I don’t want to run exactly. Just give up some ground to the giant barreling at me. But my so-called friends jam their hands into my back and push me forward. Our opposing forces keep my body in the danger zone. Am I bait?
The gorilla stops before me and cranks his head toward my face.
“Look down! Look down!” everyone whispers.
Five petrified women duck behind me. I’m rigid as a board with my heels in the mud, my toes pointed skyward. And I’m going nowhere.
I defer to the silverback’s power and stare at the ground, where his giant knuckles support long sinewy arms. His wing span is expansive enough to squeeze all six of us together and hurl our deflated bodies back to base camp. He doesn’t. He stands at attention and dares us to challenge his authority. We don’t. The guide kneels by my feet and calms him with soft, kind words. Thank God he understands Swahili. I wait, a quivering human shield. He waits, the victor, snorting warm breath over my bowed head.
I sense Barb lifting her camera, which is currently filming the ground. She wants to sneak some footage of him over my shoulder. Are you kidding me?
“No!” Jean whisper-shouts. “If he sees his eyes in the lens, he’ll take it as disrespect.” And Nancy will be lunch, she forgets to add.
He gives us a minute or so to just shut up. We take it. When we are totally subservient, his test ends. Just like that. His black, furry head rolls forward, and he lumbers on. The silver-white fur down his back disappears into the thicket. Crunching begins anew.
Our gentle guide has prevailed. We adore him. And now we are a band of eight brothers and sisters, released from probation.
We follow the silverback’s path. No longer troubled by us, the king of the forest wanders to another clearing and falls asleep, fully entrusting us with his troop of thirteen mothers and babies, who have just settled down about twenty feet away. Distant enough not to disturb Papa’s nap.
A juvenile with Ace Ventura hair approaches us and is soon mesmerized by his funny reflection in Sue’s belt buckle. Other juveniles grab at our cameras, snatch our hats, or swing from branches for our amusement. What is it about we teachers that brings out the class clown? Littler ones stay on their mother’s laps and stare at the odd interlopers. They are too shy to return our goofy expressions and silly monkey business.
Some of these young ones come so close to us that I understand how last year two of them caught the measles from an eight-year-old visitor and died. “The mothers cried,” we were told.
In the midst of sheer wonder, I think of the poachers. Not the killer poachers. But the ones who did business with American novelty shops, seeking gorilla-hand ashtrays. It’s a concept so gruesome, I have to force-quit my brain. Staying mindful of this moment is a gift too precious to waste on poachers.
After an hour, the napping silverback arises, turns his back on us, and gambols away. His troop follows, heading for the next bamboo buffet. And, no, I will never be on the menu. It’s vegetarian.
I retrieve my hat from the ground. As we head back down the mountain, our hearts are full. We have braved a new world, entering scared to death and staying long enough to fall in love.
For one splendid hour, we have co-existed as twenty-two children of Mother Nature at one with the forest.