by Gert Nygårdshaug
Published by Cappelen Damm AS, 2011
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Karl Iver Lyngvin lifted the rifle to his shoulder, set his cheek calmly against the stock and took aim at a tree trunk. Then he set down the heavy weapon, wiped the sweat from his brow, and sat down on the stone beside Shomo.
‘We’ll have him soon,’ he said. ‘I’m fairly sure he’ll be up here, just below the crest of the ridge where his favourite places obviously are. He probably doesn’t have the sense to hide himself especially well.’
Shomo Nuggee nodded, and straightened the colourful headband that kept his long, blue-black hair in place.
‘The terrain is hellish up there.’ He pointed. ‘But if we keep to the right of the cliffs, we might avoid the worst of the dense underbrush.’
Both men were wearing light field outfits: pale brown trousers and shirts made from a special khaki fabric designed for the tropics, and which wicked away the sweat before the garments began to cling to the skin. The clothing featured numerous pockets, which could hold much of the equipment necessary for a day’s march through dense and hostile jungle. On their feet, they wore tightly laced solid leather boots that came halfway up their calves; each also carried a small backpack and binoculars. Karl Iver wore a Panama hat, which was tattered and yellowed with sweat; he also carried the weapon he was reluctant to let others to carry for him.
‘Nelson is done for, we’ll have him today.’ The Norwegian gave a firm nod. ‘I’d wager we’ll be back at the station well before dark. We’ll probably even make it in time for dinner.’
‘You think about food too much, Karli,’ Shomo grinned. ‘After the boss appointed that new French cook, there’s been far too much talk of food at the station.’
‘But you can’t deny that it’s significantly increased the general level of satisfaction.’ Karl Iver got up.
Shomo Nuggee’s face bore a grimace that could mean anything. He waved the beautifully carved stick he always carried with him.
They had followed a faint trail from the station, and passed the rarely trafficked gravel road, which – since the military activity between the rebel groups MLC, Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo, and FD, Forces Democratiques, had luckily ceased several years ago – was used to transport supplies to the small, isolated tribal communities scattered here on the western side of the mighty Mitumba mountain range. As the crow flies, it was less than three kilometres back to the station. But now they no longer had any path to follow.
‘I could have done without this assignment.’ Shomo straightened his headband once again.
They aimed for what they believed might be a traversable route up towards the ridge and the cliffs; Shomo in the lead, with Karl Iver following close behind him. Even though the place where they thought they might get close to Nelson was hardly a kilometre away, the inhospitable terrain with its dense vegetation meant that it would take them at least a couple of hours to reach it.
But they had plenty of time – it was only just after eleven o’clock in the morning.
Karl Iver Lyngvin was breathing heavily. With his weapon, and standing six feet tall in his stockinged feet, it was significantly harder for him to force his way through the thorny scrub, ferns and vegetation than it was for his companion, his teammate Shomo Nuggee, who stood an entire head shorter and was far slimmer – he had also grown up in the marshes surrounding the Everglades in Florida, and, as he had told Karl Iver, was a direct descendant of the legendary Seminole chieftain Thoclo Tustennuggee, who had inflicted great losses upon the white invaders when they had attempted to colonise Florida. He now crept forward ahead of Karl Iver, continuously striking the ground, tree trunks and bushes around him with his stick in order to scare off any spiders, sly mambas or aggressive puff adders that might be hiding in the vegetation.
‘Shit.’ Karl Iver stopped and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead in order to remove the worst of the sweat that continued to run, making his eyes sore below the brim of his hat. ‘We need to find an opening that gives us a view up there.’
‘We have to get up to the cliffs first, Karli.’
‘Look to your right, Shomo.’
Shomo turned and gazed into the jungle. Then he nodded.
‘Yes – there seems to be clearing there.’
They crept towards what seemed to be a small glade, an opening free of tall trees, but all at once Shomo stopped, turned towards his teammate and put a hand over his mouth. Karl Iver took a few careful steps forward, and then he saw it: right in front of them, in midst of some metre-high bushes full of yellow fruits, stood three forest buffalo, gulping down the abundant treats.
‘A little family,’ whispered Shomo. ‘Beautiful. A male, a female and a two-year-old calf.’
‘Well I’ll be damned. Can you take notes? But be careful not to startle them.’
Shomo nodded, then took a notebook and pencil from one of the front pockets on his trousers; he stood there writing for a long time, casting the occasional glance towards the animals, wanting to note down their special characteristics – scars on the skin, the shape and length of the horns – and other information that might help them to identify the individuals again were they to be observed at a later date. Karl Iver had taken a small camera from one of his pockets and took a dozen or so photographs. When they were done, they carefully withdrew the same way they had come and stopped behind the trunk of something that looked like a baobab tree.
‘What do we do now? If only we could have made use of that clearing.’
‘We can’t wait,’ Shomo answered. ‘The buffalo might be there all day – those sour, bitter jeffi fruits are their favourite food.’
‘And if we startle them, we may as well just pack up and go home.’ Karl Iver shook his head. ‘They’ll make one hell of a spectacle and alert Nelson – he’s more than likely on the lookout, and knows how to interpret the buffaloes behaviour.’
They stood there in silence for a while before they continued, keeping their distance from the clearing; after half an hour’s gruelling drudgery against the wizened, half-rotten underbrush and all the insects, hot-tempered ants and spider’s webs, the terrain began to slope upwards and became more open. Larger boulders came into view, until finally they were standing beside a cliff – one that it would be possible to climb.
‘Can you sneak up to the top, get the lie of the land?’ Karl Iver had shrugged off his rucksack and was sitting in the shade beneath the cliff, wiping the sweat from his brow and sore eyes with a cloth.
‘With the greatest of ease,’ Shomo grinned, and began to climb.
Karl Iver Lyngvin was panting.
Compared to the Femundsmarka National Park in his native Norway, this was something else entirely. Still, he felt at that moment some of the same excitement: a trembling, almost tickling feeling that crept slowly along each nerve of his body. How often had he felt this way when he had been ordered to snare a wolf or a wolverine? Or when a limping fox, sick with rabies, had to be put to death? This excitement, the quivering – he knew it always vanished in the solidified, ice-cold moment, the tiny eternity in which he had the animal in his sights and slowly reached the point at which the trigger would release the bullet.
Would that happen now?
His nerves, he whispered to himself – this time, in the critical moment, would they prove blocked, disconnected entirely from the musculature that travelled from his shoulder, via his arm to his finger in the trigger guard? Because this time, it would not be a wolf or some other Norwegian predator that would be in the crosshairs of his telescopic sight, but something altogether different.
He tried to relax – the tension, the murmuring that coursed through his body as a result of this assignment, had been there all along. Over the past few hours it had been pushed into the background by the struggle to move through dense jungle free of trails, but now it returned with full force. He felt his pulse rise significantly as his hand gently slid across the butt of his rifle.
This region was certainly not unknown to him – for over three years he had trawled this terrain – but he had almost always followed the trails that criss-crossed the area, created either by animals or humans. He knew that just five-hundred metres further south a trail led all the way up to the top of the ridge and the cliffs they were now approaching, but they couldn’t have taken it.
Because then Nelson would have seen them coming.
They had to approach him from the opposite side, the direction from which he would not expect an attack. They were close now, and soon he may well be within range.
Shomo Nuggee grinned broadly.
‘We have him, Karli. I glimpsed him for a moment as he stood there, gazing south on the edge of a rocky ledge. He seemed uneasy, pacing back and forth, as if he was expecting something.’
‘He might suspect that we’re coming for him.’ After emptying a bottle of lukewarm water down his throat, Karl Iver got up. ‘How far away?’
‘There’s another cliff fifty or sixty metres to the right of here, and I think that would be an excellent place to set up the gun. If he remains in the same location, the shooting distance will be three or four-hundred metres at most.’ Shomo had pulled a sticky packet of biscuits from his pocket, and he gobbled down its contents.
‘Good,’ Karl Iver replied. Nothing else was said as they crept over towards the cliff Shomo had selected; they startled a flock of paradise flycatchers from a mambur bush, but the birds only flew soundlessly up into the treetops above them.
‘There,’ Shomo whispered, and pointed.
Karl Iver saw the place at once, a small projection on the cliff face with a clear line of sight up towards where Nelson was, and a perfect site for the weapon. Shomo walked all the way across to the wall of rock, and using his stick elegantly flicked away three lemon-yellow mambas that lay dozing on little overhangs. He bowed theatrically towards Karl Iver, who didn’t smile in the slightest. Instead, he gritted his teeth.
Karl Iver knew his teammate well enough to understand that beneath the merry gestures and frequent smiles was a heart that pounded just as nervously as his own. Because this was more than catching cottonmouths with one’s bare hands in the Everglades – as Shomo often bragged he had done in his youth.
Karl Iver took off his rucksack and set it against the wall of the cliff. Then he prepared the weapon, checking it thoroughly. From the bag, he took a box lined with polystyrene. Packed in velvet lay the sight, a Redfield telescopic with cross hairs, 340 grams, the most advanced telescopic sight available. The sight was adjusted with such precision that any recoil would jolt the ocular back to sit just a millimetre from Karl Iver’s eyebrow, but without touching a single hair.
Shomo sat in grave silence, watching as his friend made the necessary preparations.
Karl Iver attached the sight to the rifle, a Garand 40 that weighed 3.9 kilos. The weapon had a measured, effective range of 900 metres, but he had managed to kill an injured reindeer from 1,100 metres away. The distance to the cliff where Nelson paced back and forth was less than half this.
For a moment he let the rifle sit calmly in his hands, inhaling the scent of machine oil from the bolt action and that of the leather of weapon’s sling, which was soft and supple. Then he filled the rifle with five cartridges – he knew one would be enough, but this had become a habit of his in Femundsmarka, always five rounds in the chamber. They were of a type specified as being of M-118 quality, from the renowned Cox Leefield factory. The bullets were 173 grain with a conical rear, and from a distance of five-hundred metres would hit their target at a speed of 800 metres a second.
It seemed as if the jungle around them fell silent, too, as Karl Iver crept up onto the rocky ledge and brushed away the ants before he lay down in position. He glanced diagonally up towards where Nelson would more than likely soon appear, on the lookout for intruders. He took out his range finder. 410 metres, a perfect kill zone.
He wrapped the leather strap twice around his left bicep and firmly planted his elbow against the flat of the rock, his forearm creating a perfect right angle. He set his cheek against the stock and placed his index finger against the trigger, whose required force was usually between 1.4 and 2.1 kilos, but Karl Iver had adjusted this to make it slightly lower – he knew that requiring too much pressure to pull the trigger could cause the tiniest movement in the muscles of his arm.
Silence. He couldn’t hear Shomo’s breathing two metres behind him – he didn’t even notice the sound of his own heart pounding or the blood rushing in his ears. His concentration was total, his gaze locked on the place where Nelson might appear at any moment.
Five minutes passed.
He felt his elbow turn numb and made a miniscule adjustment to his position.
Another five minutes.
Then a figure suddenly came into view on the plateau – as if conjured from thin air there stood Nelson with his arms hanging by his sides, looking out across the jungle canopy. What happened next happened automatically, just as it had been drilled into him, without thought, without hesitation – Karl Iver saw a face, a pair of deep brown eyes that glowed yellow; he saw the forehead through the telescopic sight, the centre of the cross hairs stock still at two centimetres above the bridge of Nelson’s nose. His index finger gradually tightened around the trigger until it reached its point.
The silence was whipped to pieces – the semi-jacketed projectile snarled through the air at supersonic speed for those first few hundred metres, and hit its target with such force that it sent a hydrostatic shock through the standing body. Flocks of birds fluttered up from the treetops. The echo thundered between the cliffs for a time until silence fell once more.
Karl Iver Lyngvin turned towards Shomo Nuggee and nodded as he glanced at his watch. Nelson had died at 13.03.
Neither of them seemed to take the slightest pleasure in this.
Around fifty metres from where they believed Nelson’s body must be lying, both men stopped and took off their rucksacks. Karl Iver set down the rifle on a half-rotten tree trunk. On a flat stone ledge they began to set out various pieces of equipment from their bags: large and small knives, scalpels, forceps, boxes and self-sealing plastic bags.
‘We may as well do as prescribed. Although whatever nasties Nelson has been harbouring will hardly be able to take up residence in us.’ Shomo smiled, uncertain.
‘You never know, buddy.’ Karl Iver was serious.
They pulled milky grey plastic packages from their rucksacks, which they slowly began to open. For the next few minutes, both men were occupied with donning full plastic suits that sealed hermetically over their heads, feet and hands with self-sealing closures. Beneath the head covering, which had a transparent front, was an oxygen mask that contained enough oxygen for well over half an hour’s use.
They thoroughly checked each other’s suits before they carefully moved towards the place where Nelson must be, like two astronauts gone astray; with them they had the equipment they thought they would need. Inside the suits it was unbearably hot, the view obstructed by condensation that settled on the inside of their face coverings.
They found him lying on his back in a depression in the terrain, in the middle of what had clearly comprised his meals over the past day: half-rotten fruit and torn, wizened shoots mixed with meat fibres and remnants of the bones of small animals. No blood, but in his forehead was a circular, blowfly-blue hole, and when Shomo carefully lifted his head they could see the exit wound, big as a tennis ball and with brain matter oozing from it.
The two stood there for a long time, unable to do anything at all.
Nelson, the mighty gorilla, was dead.
The once so mild and caring patriarch, the alpha male, the silverback, would never again roar out his welcome when the zoologists sought out his troop. For more than six years, he had maintained an intimate and respected long-distance relationship with the humans who took the trouble to observe the development of his troop, his familial society, and its struggle to survive under ever more challenging conditions. He had been named after Nelson Mandela for his pride, his reconciliation skills, and his great wisdom when compared with his peers.
But then the tragedy had happened. An incomprehensible change in Nelson’s behaviour.
Reports of what had occurred in Nelson’s troop over the past few weeks were just as ominous as they were incomprehensible: the patriarch had suddenly attacked a two-year-old youngster, probably his own, and killed it, before dragging it into the jungle and eating it. This triggered panic in the rest of the troop, which in addition to Nelson consisted of four males and seven females, as well as fourteen infants. The situation worsened when Nelson, all 250 kilos of him seething with aggression, made several more attacks on his own troop and killed another two infants.
Soon, two of the other males who believed themselves entitled to take on the leadership role after Nelson began to argue, and after much fighting and turmoil the male known as Rasputin emerged victorious. Rasputin had been given his name because his observers had noticed the artful methods he employed to achieve erotic contact with the females in the troop, without Nelson ever finding out. Peace finally returned to the troop, and Rasputin exhibited his organisational skill and strength by defending the troop against further attacks from Nelson.
The former alpha male was now an outcast, and he knew it – he didn’t dare approach the troop’s hunting grounds or territory, because he knew he would be met with a coordinated attack from all four of the other males. His roars disappeared into the jungle and ended up in the mountains, where he settled down. For three days he had been up on the mountain ridge where he now lay dead from Karl Iver Lyngvin’s well-placed shot.
It was estimated that roughly five-hundred mountain gorillas remained in the world, and this number was being slowly decimated. Half the individuals were found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda further north, the other half here in the south, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga and Mitumba mountains, in an established area that had long been considered the crowning jewel of all Africa’s national parks. The region’s biological diversity, along with its unique geology, was incomparable: the 8,000 square kilometre area contained a greater number of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects than any other nature reserve on the African continent.
But things were changing. They were changing dramatically.
And it was without pleasure that Karl Iver Lyngvin and Shomo Nuggee now bent over the enormous animal with their knives, scalpels and forceps.
They opened the gorilla’s chest, abdomen and jaw. Parts of the brain, lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys were cut out and placed into sealed, sterile plastic bags, along with glands from the throat and nose.
Under Karl Iver and Shomo’s professional hands, the work was over and done with in just a quarter of an hour.
On opposite sides of the globe they had both been educated and trained as veterinarians, and the pair were now in possession of expertise and experience which, despite their relative youth – Karl Iver was 36 and Shomo 34 – was on a par with the very best in veterinary medicine. Shomo Nuggee had obtained his doctoral degree from Princeton, and all-round experience from his home region of Florida and the animal life in and around the Everglades, while Karl Iver Lyngvin had studied at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science in Oslo, graduating with top grades in his specialism – Scandinavian predators. He had also acted as the supervisor of the Femundsmarka National Park for nine years, and thought he must have crossed every inch of it on foot during his time there. He had also been deemed Norway’s best marksman for two years in a row – a somewhat extraordinary achievement – and had become quite the national celebrity, feared and hated by a phalanx of unsuspecting farmers who considered the illegal shooting of protected wolves to be their life’s purpose and calling.
Still wearing their protective suits they returned to the stone slab where they had left the rest of their equipment; they now carried out a lengthy procedure involving spray bottles containing a powerful disinfectant and anti-bacterial agent, AVirabact, used by hospital infection control departments and for decontamination in laboratories. The bags containing parts of Nelson’s vital organs were thoroughly sprayed on the outside, before being placed into plastic boxes, which – just to be on the safe side – were also sprayed down. They then sprayed each other’s plastic suits – every square millimetre that might have come into contact with the gorilla. Finally, they were able to pull off the uncomfortable and overheated outfits.
‘Fuck this shit!’ Karl Iver wrestled off his oxygen mask and threw it onto the ground with the rest of the plastic suit.
‘I think we’ve earned ourselves a cold beer when we get back to the station.’ Shomo splashed the contents of a bottle over the plastic suits, took out a lighter and set them alight; they burned quickly, almost without smoke.
‘We should probably notify Curdin and Aina that the mission has been completed – they’re probably in the vicinity of Nelson’s old troop.’
‘True enough,’ replied Shomo, taking the handy little walkie-talkie from his right breast pocket. He checked that the green light was illuminated before he made the call. The device had a range of over seven kilometres.
‘Zoo Team One to Zoo Team Two – over!’
Crackling and static. Shomo repeated the call a few times before the answer came.
‘Zoo Team Two here. Go ahead.’ It was Aina’s voice.
‘Mission accomplished. Nelson is dead.’
A long silence.
‘Oh, perkele, satana!’ Aina Leptonen’s voice hissed angrily from the speaker.
‘What did you expect? That we’d lead him back to the station by the hand? So you could pick lice from your honeybun’s back?’
‘Shut up, Shomo. You know what I mean and how hard things are for me right now.’
‘Okay, relax, we can lie prostrate in our grief and offer our condolences later. See you at the station. Over and out.’ Shomo turned off the walkie-talkie.
They packed up the equipment. Before they set out on the two-hour-long hike back to the station they stood still for a moment, considering the endless jungle below them and the jagged, reddish-brown volcanic mountains behind them, to the north. The view was formidable.
‘You can see so much rotten, shrivelled and wizened forest from up here, at this height. So damn much of it.’ Karl Iver shielded his eyes with a hand.
The two of them had acquired extensive knowledge of what a well-functioning rainforest should look like, and they could clearly see what was happening.
The local indigenous people, who had lived here for centuries, saw it, too.
As did the Congolese and Ugandan forest ranger patrols.
But any random tourist visiting the area wouldn’t have noticed anything at all.
‘That’s what happens when the rains stop coming.’ Shomo angrily rapped his stick against the ground.
[End of chapter]