By Zach Fitzner
The slow whump, whump, whump of the overhead fan echoed in Rob’s head with the sound of the day’s unfired shots—and further back in time, but no less close, with the thud of ordnances landing close by. Then and now the sound stretched, pulling out a sickening tension worse than the violent brevity of pain and death.
Hours earlier the morning had been almost cool, before the day’s labor of marching through the jungle towards the research station in the volcanic foothills. Rob and James drank coffee in the dim morning in deep shade under a kitchen tarp hung from the trees. Slowly, they prepared, neither wanting to be first. One tightened his bootlaces while the other shouldered his pack. James cleared his throat, and Rob said, “Yep.” Both began walking. It was too early for any real talk.
The trail started out relatively level, snaked with streams that in rainy season became thick swampy hells. Rob slipped on a rock and cursed as he bashed his knee on the muddy ground. Geckoes watched from their dark holes as the men passed, monkeys ignored them from tree tops, frogs paused their throaty calling as they neared. The mid-morning sounds gave way to the sweating, pregnant quiet of the hottest hours of the day.
Rob marched like a machine. Marching was all he did but he could never make a career in the military. Machines can kill but they can’t feel. Questioning and exploring this wild place with no good and no evil was better.
As the sounds around them changed, the men roused to the steady beat of their feet. They pointed out butterflies, the heat, asked if each other had seen the Black Mamba near the kitchen last night. “I haven’t sweated this much since fucking Iraq!” Rob said.
Eventually they slowed, looking for a likely lunch spot to qwell the dull pains in their stomachs. They stopped in a small clearing and squatted on a moss-covered log near the trail to open their packs.
James’s eyes flicked to Rob once, twice. “You…you fought in Iraq?”
“I joined the reserves right out of high school. You must know what it’s like being a boy in America, growing up playing with GI Joes and violent video games…” Rob chewed thoughtfully on handfuls of cheap, crumbling cookies but James didn’t look away. “My grandfather—both of my grandfathers— fought in World War II. From what I learned in school, I believed them to be real heroes, fighting true evil. The world seemed so black and white when I was young.”
A bird whooped overhead, and Rob stared into the thick green canopy, not seeing it, watching for a while, he started talking again, the corners of his mouth twitching almost like a smile.
“I always worshipped my grandfathers from afar as stories or memories from my childhood when our family had lived closer to them.” Rob told the story of a Iraqian girl, small for her age, probably 14. Rob remembered her hugging a dog and he remembered her crying, beaten, raped, her dog shot. How many times did his grandfathers turn a blind eye in Germany? How often was a blind eye turned towards them?
James nodded, opened his mouth, shut it again and merely scratched his cheek, nodding encouragingly.
Rob laughed sadly. “It was only after I’d signed the papers from the recruiter that both of my grandfather’s gave me the same advice: Don’t join.”
“I could’ve told you that.” Rob frowned at James and both stopped talking. James looked apologetic and sipped from his clear plastic water bottle.
“Right. Well, even then I just thought they were old; they’d lost their nerve and lost something vital of themselves with time. I never thought I was making a mistake. Even Vietnam hasn’t destroyed the western dream of glory from war.”
Rob pawed through his backpack for the one last granola bar smashed in the bottom of a pocket.
“This was…before September 11, though, right?” James asked.
“Yeah, it was, that was only to come when I was in college, when I’d just started studying biology. I was a reservist and I got called pretty quickly after that. At first I got all excited. I had visions of hunting down bad guys in Afghanistan. What could be wrong about taking out Sadaam Hussein?”
“I think every American was fooled for a little bit,” James said.
“Not every American went into that desert with a rifle in hand. The more I thought about what our purpose in Iraq was and watched what was going on, the more I realized…none of it made a fuck of difference as far as good and evil where concerned.”
James fidgeted for a bit and it almost looked like Rob was going to continue, but he merely said, “We should get walking.”
An hour later the track was steep and cut with rounded mud steps. Slipping and grabbing roots and branches, the men cursed their way to a rounded shoulder of a hill. In the trees ahead something was struggling at the edge of the path, a duiker. The Jack Russell sized antelope’s hind feet were tightly wrapped in a twine loop hanging from a shrub, its front hooves kicked ineffectively and its eyes were bulging and wild.
Rob paused, “A snare. Let’s just leave it.”
James’s hand was already searching his pocket for a knife though, “They’re endangered. We can’t just leave it to become another statistic.”
Rob froze. The knife was lost somewhere, so James lifed the lid from a can of tuna from lunch out of the pocket on his pack. The duiker pulled and kicked; the rope around it dancing from James’s hand. Finally James lunged and grabbed the rope. The can lid was rough and tore at the rope, like teeth more than a knife. The Duiker made a strange cry and was quiet. Rob watched, counting the seconds it was taking to free the animal, finally stepping forward, he grabbed the snare, holding it steady and cutting through it with his own razor sharp pocket knife.
James sighed as the animal kicked free and limped into the forest. The animal moved painfully but was quickly enveloped in the dense green of foliage. The men heard the soft sounds of the duiker’s feet and then an uncanny quiet, suddenly broken by a weird cry of an unknown beast.
Rob grunted, his jaw muscle twitched. He turned to the path, walking up the hill quickly, not looking back. James panted after him and for a long time both men focused on their sweating bodies the rasp of their breaths, and the dull monotony of their thoughts.
Then man on the trail was tall, broad in shoulder. In his right hand a machete twitched right and left, cutting through the butter of small trees and shrubs extending into the path. On his back he wore a rough rice bag fitted with rough straps hung over his shoulders. The yellowing whites of his eyes were hard in his dark face, his mouth unsmiling. The Americans called their hellos but the man only nodded curtly and shouldered his way past them and down the hill, towards the snare Rob and James began to jog through the forest, a pace both only hoped they could keep long enough.
Finally the men walked slower than usual, gently swayed in the heat down the street, forgetting the man with the snare. Small old women passed on the street with baskets on their heads on the way as the men made their way to the research station.
The old stucco house had in colonial times been a plantation mansion. James began rummaging in the kitchen for food. Rob crossed to an empty room near the courtyard and lay down on the small bed beneath the ceiling fan, sweating. Rob closed his eyes but did not sleep.
Rob slowly became conscious of shouts from outside. He sat up and palmed the wall switch for the fan, the whump slowed into silence, and he could hear a voice coming from outside. The voice was angry and alien.
Opening the door and stepping into the courtyard, Rob instantly recognized the man he and James had passed in the forest. The man’s neck was wrapped in tight sinew and bulging veins like twine and he was screaming. Rob turned to his left and there James sat in a rough chair in the shade of the building, smiling.
“Boy, boy, boy,” James intoned in the local dialect, “It’s illegal to trap in that forest.”
The man twitched with fury. Rob spied a shotgun in one hand at his side. James held a half empty bottle. James half turned to Rob. “Fucking locals. They just don’t understand anything they can’t eat.”
The man howled in furious blocks of broken English, “I NOT BOY. THIS,” He motioned wildly at everything around him with his shotgun, “THIS MY FUCKING LIFE! THIS NO AMERICA! AMERICA NO GOD. I GOD NOW!”
The shotgun jerked upwards, then lurched left and right through the air, as if lazily swatting for mosquitoes. Rob clenched his teeth at the barrel pointed straight toward his chest, then pointed away, and pointed at him again.
Rob spoke, pulling the few words of dialect he knew together in his racing mind. As the man in front of him raised his gun and the man beside him raised his bottle, he heard another voice. The research station’s night guardsman stood to the man’s left, at the edge of the gravel driveway, his voice cool and hard as steel. The two men seemed to know each other. The gun had jerked up a little but now under the steady patter of the guard’s voice it lowered again, slowly. The guard stepped slowly, closer and closer, almost embracing the other man, leaning in, as if whispering a lover’s secret in his ear. The man looked down, his eyes flashing away, and the guard took his gun.
Rob stared at James. “Fucking asshole,” he said.
James swallowed his reply with a shot from the bottle. Turning, Rob went inside to his room, shut the door, and palmed the fan switch. Lying under the spinning blades, Rob eventually thought nothing, felt nothing, and there was only a steady whump, whump, whump.
About Zach Fitzner
Zach Fitzner was born in Wyoming but lived a little over half his life in the high deserts of Western Colorado. He grew up camping, hiking, and exploring the natural world in Boy Scouts and on his own. Travelling the world and interning in field biology, he’s spent a lot of time living out of a tent in remote locations from Alaska to Africa. His main interests are biology, natural history, wilderness, and the intersection of those things with the human experience. Besides fiction, Zach has also written non-fiction articles for mongabay.com and has an article pending publication at herpnation.com.