The Open Hand

Fiction

Image by Alexander Andrews

     Rain falls on the corrugated tin porch roof producing pinging sounds like that of pellets hitting metal targets. It has rained continuously for three days with only intermittent and brief reprieves from the constant downpour. Pond-size puddles have formed in the dirt of the compound. Runoff from the roofs of the structures in

the compound have created small streams that carry mud and assorted vegetation into the under- brush. Beyond the compound the jungle that encircles it is eerily quiet. Even the birds are silent. From this place on the porch, seated in a wobbly wicker chair, I can see the entrance to the path that leads to where Akibu and his troop have been settled in for longer than they usually stay in one place. My brother Tom predicted they would move on within days after he departed. That was two weeks ago.

     Tom is a writer and photographer for a well-known international wildlife magazine. He had been assigned to do a photojournalism story about the mountain gorillas within the boundaries of the Ugandan Mahinga Gorilla National Park before he was called away. He was to live here for two months during which time I had intended to stay here with him, putting together the pieces of my life following my wife’s death after an unexpected cancer diagnosis and a very brief illness. When Tom was abruptly called away on another assignment, I remained here, keeping this bun- galow from being usurped by other newly arriving conservationsts, primatologists or journalists. There are six bungalows and one shared thatched-roof kitchen and dining area that is outfitted with an open stone grill and several picnic tables and benches. The compound is the end-point for a path that winds up the mountain from the bulldozed farmland and ramshackle village at the base of the mountain. I’ve spent very little time away from this bungalow, watching the others staying in the compound and the jungle itself from a distance. The only friend I’ve made is with one of the park rangers, Natukunda, who stops by to alert everyone in the compound when poachers are known to be in the area and on the hunt for the gorillas.

     The cup of hot tea I hold in my hands warms them against the chill of the rain. The hours and the days pass by slowly.

     Akibu is sitting in the foliage at the edge of the compound. He was there when I awoke, suddenly aware that the rain had stopped, and walked out onto the porch to breath air not saturated with rain. Akibu is a large silver-backed gorilla, the leader of a small troop of gorillas that includes ten females, a few infants and juveniles, and two other males, both Akibu’s brothers. Akibu and his troop have remained near the compound since their arrival a few weeks before. Although con- stantly monitored by the park rangers they are skittish and treat anyone who comes near them as intruders and react with a mixture of fear and aggression. Akibu is openly hostile to strangers, and as Tom tells it, makes King Kong’s chest thumping look like child’s play, although Akibu has allowed Tom to get nearer to the troop than anyone else. I’ve seen Akibu several times as he scouts the perimeter of the compound, but never sitting as still as he is now, unflinchingly staring at this bungalow while chewing on fistfuls of leaves. Even from a distance his eyes resemble black marbles that gaze out from beneath his thick brow with piercing intensity.

     I slowly walk to the porch railing and stand there for several moments before he turns and goes into the brush and out of sight. It only occurs to me afterward that I should have taken a picture of him with one of the cameras Tom left behind for me to use if I wanted to do something to pass the time other than wallow in my grief and self pity. He and my wife, Iris, got along well, and he flew home and brought me back with him after her funeral so that he could help me mourn her loss, but he had his work to return to. I had given up the apartment in the city, and my job as an attorney, unable to focus on anything but my loss of Iris.

     The remainder of the day as I putter around the bungalow, spend time reading while sitting on the porch, and go to and from the compound kitchen, I keep an eye on the spot where I had seen Akibu, hoping that he returns. I loaded a camera with film and keep it by the chair, just in case. By late afternoon the scores of golden monkeys that live in the nearby trees have found their voices following the cessation of the rain and have noisily returned to their rambunctious and raucous ways. It’s nightfall before they become quiet and I retire to the inside of the bungalow, fix a kettle of tea heated on the top of an old wood burning stove, and drink several cups before climbing into bed. From within the confines of the mosquito netting, with the damp air blowing in through the open slats of the window shutters, I hear gun shots coming from a far distance.

     Akibu sits in the same spot he was sitting in the day before when I come out of the bungalow just a little after sunrise. He’s surrounded by the mist that hangs a few feet above the ground. War- blers, finch and mouse birds fill the air with a cacophony of morning birdsong. Golden monkeys chase one another about the branches in the trees. I slowly retrieve the camera from beside the chair and raise it to my eye and as the lens magnifies Akibu, I watch as he scans the compound, as if in search of something or someone. He then returns his attention back to me, gazes at me, at the camera, for several moments before he grunts loudly several times and lightly thumps his chest. I think it must be my imagination that he’s looking for Tom. I lower the camera and softly call out, “Hello Akibu.”

     The gorilla rises up slightly on its legs, as if about to spring up from the ground, raises his arms in the air, turns slightly to the right and then to the left, as if displaying his large, muscular physique. He settles back on his haunches, grabs a fistful of leaves from a bush, and begins chewing on them. His eyes are fixed on me, watching my every movement as I slowly cross to the top of the small set of stairs that lead to the ground and sit down, dangling the camera between my legs by its strap.

     As I say my name aloud and point at my chest, I feel slightly ridiculous, but what could it hurt?

Akibu leans forward, places his knuckles on the ground, holding his upper body up by his im- mense, powerful hands. He takes several steps toward me just as the bell is rung from the kitchen, announcing breakfast. Akibu whirls about and dashes into the brush, pausing momentarily to look back at me before disappearing among the trees.

     Natukunda is only about five-six in height but he stands with his boots planted firmly on the ground and waves his arms about in an authoritative manner, as if he’s directing traffic when explaining even the simplest things. His park ranger uniform is a light khaki color and he wears a matching ballcap that sits back on his head with its bill pointing skyward. He carries a pistol that rests in a leather holster secured to his chest

and a rifle slung onto his back. A sheathed knife hangs from his belt. Standing at the base of the porch stairs his eyes dart about the compound and into the jungle as he speaks. “Poachers killed an adult female gorilla last night,” he says.

     “I thought I heard shots,” I say. “Was she a member of Akibu’s troop?”

     “Yes, it was Dembe, one of Akibu’s favorite fe-
males who he has fathered several infants with.” He removes his ballcap and then places it back on his head. “We think she must have wandered from the troop for some unknown reason. It’s not unheard of, only unusual.” He takes a red handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes dribble from the corners of his mouth. “They hacked her hands off.”

     I’m aware that the poachers did that – Tom made it graphically clear – but the horrific nature of it stuns me into silence.

     “It’s the hands of the silver backs that are really prized,” he says and then jams the handkerchief back into his pocket.

     I’m leaning on the porch railing and frequently glance at the path where I last saw Akibu. I’m hoping the gorilla appears so that someone else sees him come so close to the compound also. He follows my eyes, but says nothing.

     “I’ve seen Akibu. He came to the edge of the brush over there,” I say, pointing to the spot, “and stood there for some time.”

     “That isn’t like Akibu at all,” he replies.

     “I’d only seen him once before when I was with my brother.” I say. “He’s a magnificent looking ape.”

     He turns and glances at the spot where I saw Akibu and as if seeing the gorilla standing there, he says, “His hands would bring a very high price in the marketplace.” He then turns and asks,

hesitantly, “If you would like to take a trip down to the village and have a look around, I’m going there tomorrow morning and would enjoy the company.”

     Near dusk, bands of purple and red streak the cloudy sky. There’s an abstract quality to it, like
one of Iris’s paintings. On her deathbed she told me to sell or get rid of her paintings, that I didn’t need the memory of them, or her, haunting me after she was dead. I put the paintings in a storage unit, those being one of the few things I held onto.

     I’m near the entrance to the path that leads the way to where Akibu and his troop have set aside their nomadic living for the time being to stay put in a small clearing carpeted with moss, vines, shrubs and bamboo. I hear Akibu before I see him emerge from the foliage a few yards away at the side of the path. He seems less surprised to see me than I am to see him. He stops and stares at me for several moments before sitting on his haunches, immediately forming a pad under his butt with the brush that he has flattened with his immense weight. He grabs a handful of leaves and begins to chew on them while warily watching me.

     Tom hadn’t told me what to do if this happened, since neither he or I expected it to, but follow- ing my instincts I squat down, grab some leaves, and pretended to chew on them, mimicking his behavior. When he grunts, I grunt, only more softly. After several minutes he abruptly rises up and rushes at me, stopping just a few inches away from me. His hot breath bathes my face. It’s fear that keeps me from looking directly into his eyes, and with my head turned, peripherally I see him sit down. A moment later he places his open hand on the ground in front of me.

     It’s an invitation, like a handshake, I believe. I put my hand on his.

     His reaction is swift and aggressive. He knocks my hand away, stands fully upright, and lets out a loud, guttural grunt.

     Terrified he is going to pummel me with his ham-sized fists, I fall on the ground and curl into a fetal position.

     He turns and rushes into the brush. I look up in time to see the silver hair on his back as he disap- pears into the forest.

     In the middle of the night I awaken to the sounds of gunshots. I look over to the side of the right side of the bed, where Iris would have slept, and then remember. I get out of bed and go to the porch and listen to the patter of the light rain falling on the tin roof. The leaves in the trees are being stirred by the light breeze that carries the same aromas as Akibu’s breath: earthy, moist and decayed vegetation.

     Natukunda’s knock on the front door just past sunrise is louder than I think necessary and more frantic. I open the door and see him standing there, an uncharacteristically worried expression on his face. “Several poachers attacked Akibu’s troop during the night,” he says. “Several of the gorilla were killed and Akibu is missing. They may have taken him, or what parts of his they wanted, and returned to the village.”

I go inside, grab my nylon jacket, Tom’s camera, and go out the door, following behind Natukun- da who is walking at a fast clip to the path by the time I reach the bottom of the stairs. The mist is thick and there is a chill in the air. Paths made by the gorillas and other animals wind through the trees and nettles like tributaries, made damp and in some places muddy by the constant dripping of rainwater that falls from the tree canopies. The first snare set by the poachers that Natukunda points out has the broken body of a small bushbuck caught in its tangle of rope and tree branches.

     Cutting the dead animal from the snare, Natukunda shakes his head. “It’s a never-ending battle against the poachers,” he says. “They’d drive all the animals in the park to extinction if we let them.”

     The remainder of the trail down the mountain is slick and muddy, making the climb down slow and difficult. In some spots there are boot prints that Natukunda studies carefully, pointing out those made by other rangers from ones he can’t identify, most likely the poachers. At the base of the mountain an expanse of deforested land turned to poorly cultivated farmland lies for about a quarter mile between the mountain and the village. The trail leads to a wide dirt road that sepa- rates the fields of corn. Walking briskly we enter the village in twenty minutes. The odors of cook- ing food, garbage and sewage assaults my senses. The houses and streets are in a state of neglect. What little money that was directed to go toward the villages in the area is believed to have gone into the pockets of the local politicians.

     Within minutes we reach the market where stalls have been set up and everything imaginable – from medicine to old toasters – is laid out on tables to be pawed over by passersby. Natukunda seems to know what he’s looking for, and as I walk behind him I’m aware of the curious stares I’m getting from the merchants and villagers. When Natukunda stops abruptly, I collide into him, and then see what he’s now staring at: a pair of gorilla hands laid out on a piece of bloody cloth.

     “They’re too small to be Akibu’s,” he says. “But they may be Dembe’s.”

     In disbelief and to show Tom when he returns I take several pictures of them. My thoughts wan- der to Akibu. These are hands he touched. I then remember Iris’s dainty hands and it is all I can do to keep from sobbing.

     Natukunda wraps the hands in the cloth and while the merchant protests, we walk away, search- ing the other tables and stalls for signs of Akibu. An hour later and finding nothing, we start back for the mountain. A light drizzle has begun to fall. By the time we reach the jungle at the top of the trail, I’m soaked. I have no idea what Natukunda’s intention is in regards to the gorilla’s hands, but he doesn’t resist when I gently take them from him, kneel down, and bury them in a mound of moist earth alongside the path.

     Sunset and the skies have finally cleared. The blackness of space is speckled with white stars. Natukunda joined a few other rangers soon after we returned to the compound to go out in search of Akibu. From the porch, the gorilla’s sudden appearance on the path doesn’t seem real – as if I’ve wished his showing up to be real, when it’s not. But he thumps his chest resoundingly a few times, like beating drums that echo through the jungle, and then sits, staring my direction.

     I leave the porch and cross the dirt of the compound, sitting aside any caution about approaching him too quickly. But he doesn’t move. He emits a slow guttural grunt as I squat down within a foot of him. He unfurls his clenched fist and places his hand on the ground, palm up.

     I wait. I think. I lay mine down the same way, only inches from his.

     Slowly, he places his cupped hand in the palm of my hand. We sit there together, hand on hand, for some time before he rises up, turns and ambles away, and disappears in the brush.

     Tom’s wire says he will be back in three days.

     Akibu and his troop have moved on. It’s time to return to my life back in the city. It’s what Iris would have wanted.

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 420 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.