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Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
10-01-98, 22:08, 50°55’S, 72°50’W
Repeat sighting of untagged F. c. patagonica near south shore of Rio Paine.
Tracked animal into forest.
Poor visibility. Lost trail.
A day of rain. Now the Milky Way is splashed east to west across the midnight sky. The boy is naked but I’ve put my jeans and jacket back on, it’s too cold for bare sprawling on a tarp in the grass. I can see your sweat freezing, I tell him. He laughs. Rolls to one side to take a long draw from the wine bottle. He has two open, a white and a red, draining fast. This will keep me warm enough, he says, this and you. But I’m getting into the Jeep. He wanted to fuck in the grass, too. I would not. That’s what the back seat is for, I said, and if you don’t like it I’ll drive you to the lodge. I toss him a blanket. Slam the door.
Curled up in the driver’s seat, I watch the beam of his flashlight skitter over the trees. It trips into hollows, over flicking tails. Green eyes in the mata negra. Flares against the rear window. He’s supposed to be sleeping. He’s supposed to be quiet, so I can unlock the glovebox and draw myself a shot. But the flashlight waggles. Hops. Swoops and there is rustling on the tarp, a grunt, he is up and staggering toward the forest. Urine arcs into the leaves.
It is against my rules, it is what I’ve promised myself I won’t do, but I’m cold and sore, I have a bitter hint this sailor boy is drinking so much because I bored him, a strange thought as I watch him piss into the shrubs but there it is. So even though he’s still awake I flip through my keys in the pearly starlight. Nudge down the door locks. Quick stick of the needle through the bottle’s rubber seal, a jab of pain in my left deltoid, pack it all away sloppily into the glove compartment. Less than a minute and I’m tucked back into the seat, blanket at my ear, fever creep starting its familiar pulse, chest, throat, tongue, vision doubling, pounding at the window but it’s just the stars shouting how they can’t wait to be home, they stream south in a flood tide, goodbye, goodbye, the planets, goodbye, the light.
The radio tech says, did you hear about the missing hiker? I don’t drop my mug of coffee but I imagine it falling, tilt, tip, smash, dark in the fluorescents, dark on my boots. What hiker, I say. He was doing the full circuit, she says, but he didn’t come back to his tent in Campamento Dickson. Oh, I say. That’s on the other side of the park. So it wasn’t because of me. It wasn’t me.
The sun hovers, breathing heat. My neck is stiff from craning toward the tree line, but the puma is not likely to appear so late. She is a half-light animal, walking the dawn, the dusk.
Guanacos loll on the hillside. Two chulengos knock heads, nip, toss playful kicks. The boy in the backseat is yawning and sending off hot wafts of sweat and dirty socks. Don’t scare the guanacos, I tell him. His eyes flare. Donde, he says, reminding me to switch to Spanish. I’d forgotten. His green sleeping bag screeches over vinyl as he sits up. Lo siento, he says, stage whisper brushed velvet at the edges with his Madrileño accent but still enough that the guanacos twitch, stiffen, their high mobile ears angling toward the Jeep.
He opens a bag of Oreos, long fingers delicate so the plastic does not make a sound, and offers it to me. I take three. Facing the rear window, he puts a whole cookie into his mouth but does not chew. A cowlick sticks up from one side of his head, another from the side of his beard. I was planning on taking him back to the lodge after he woke (with a little time to show him some birds) (with a little time to pull his mouth against my skin, here, here, yes, now softer), but he is asking about the guanacos, the chulengos’ ages, their relation to vicuñas he saw in the Atacama. I like his voice, his rapid-fire Spanish. As we whisper the sky melts from pale blue to gray, hazed and clotting, cloud bank spilling over the mountains’ jagged outlines on the eastern horizon. He leans between the seats to kiss me, teeth sweet. The inside of the Jeep grows warmer. Qué mono, qué mono, he says, smiling at the guanacos, and the way he draws out that penultimate vowel reminds me of the way you used to say my—
The ranger took a message for you, the veterinarian says. I part the blue fold of paper, see “Estados Unidos” and then nothing, just gray lines of fuzz, my eyes so unfocused I bump an elbow into the wall to stay upright. Long night, he asks, buttering a bread roll. Three gold-foil packets line the edge of his desk, scraped open, shiny with fat. Sure, I say. I knead the paper into a sweaty pulp, knuckles popping. Blood thin. I lean down to his hairy ear. Tell him, quiet, I need to buy more. Find a puma or two, first, he says, you’re starting to look suspicious. A surge of current prickles under my skin: anger, or fear. I want to say, you think I give a shit about that. I want to say, you’re not my fucking boss. But I don’t want to say I’ve been chasing the shadow cat for days, and days, and days, and it is slipping away.
Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
14-01-98, 08:27, 50°51’S, 72°52’W
Juvenile L. guanicoe carcass in the road.
Estimated age: 10 weeks.
Cause of death: vehicle.
An untagged female, twenty meters from the Jeep and creeping closer through the undergrowth. Pelt the color of raw honey. Grass stains and a glinting loop of drool on her muzzle. Blue eyes on the shifting guanaco herd, the uneasy adults, four on their feet, the capering chulengos. Oh fuck, the boy in the backseat says. Shut up, I say, seeing only her rolling shoulders, the furred droop of her belly. She’s just had cubs. They are hungry, somewhere, in their stick-and-dirt burrow, mewling, blind, not yet feeding on red meat (as she does), not yet expert at evisceration (as she is).
I lean forward, slow, until the plastic case on the floor nubs against my fingers. Sightless trace of hinge to latch. One muted tock, two, and inside are the vials with their feathered butts, their capped needles, long tubes of glass still cold with nightchill. The boy is shifting around. At least the windows are closed to half-muffle his noises, belt buckle ticking shut, the squeak of sleep sack on seat, a click. A camera shutter. Click, click. Here is my shadow cat at last come out of the forest and the boy is ruining it, taking photos like he’s on some kind of safari.
The guanacos are bleating, their garbled calls one tone below frantic, the chulengos on their feet all except one, which blinks its long black lashes and stares in the wrong direction, away from where the puma is slinking. I ease down the passenger window, gentling the handle like it’s made of glass. Slide the rifle barrel into the corner of the frame. In its sight the cat is ten meters away. The first guanaco bolts, kicking up sod. When the grass smell hits the Jeep a few seconds later it is tangy with fresh dung, and the whole herd is stirring, females corralling chulengos, harsher bleats, spitting, rolling eyes outlined with white.
Click. A draft of air on the back of my neck and goddamn it. The boy is out of the Jeep, camera stuck to his face, mouth slack, feeling his way along the back of the trunk to a spot that will put him in the puma’s path when it breaks out of the trees.
Get back in the car, I shout, but the guanacos are screaming, loud, tumbling into motion, loud, their flock stampede shaking the cab so my rifle barrel smacks against the window casing.
Five meters and she bursts out of the root mass, eyes narrowed against the light. Click, click. My forearms ache with gripping the rifle. Two meters. My hands are shaking. Now pull the trigger. Thump. The boy yelps the puma falters he topples she coughs, growls, teeth out as she cuts a sharp arc around the Jeep to lope after the fleeing herd.
I throw the passenger door open. Skid over the seat. If I shot the boy he’ll be all right but maybe he won’t, the xylazine is meant for cats and Cervidae not idiot kids who have never left the city. He is moaning in the grass. I grab him by the shoulder. Ride a nausea heave when his shirtfront shows red, his forearm red, his hand. Fuck. The puma, I say, but he is shaking his head, no, no, dark eyes pinched with pain. He picks at his wrist, and now I see the glass in there, the glittering vein, his red fingers thrumming like plucked strings. I leave him to weep. Wade through the tussocks.
Here is where he landed. A shattered bottle of wine (the boy saying, drink this, yeah, it will loosen you up). Four feet away is where he tripped. Another bottle, a rim of dark liquid at its bottom edge (the boy saying, let’s drive to the lake and swim, you can’t get in trouble if you work here).
Was that the boy who disappeared? Who should have been there in the morning, but wasn’t. His tarp, my blanket, his clothes, gone. His body. Or was that another stray from the tent camp, orange sleep sack, necklace of shell. The one who wanted to be pierced by a dart, the one who kicked the windshield (what did his voice sound like), who crashed away into the trees.
I help the crying boy stand. There is dirt on his camera, in the silver band of his Rolex. (Only three hours walk to the nearest road.) Propped against the Jeep, he holds out his forearm for me to sluice bottled water over the wound. Most of it splashes onto his feet. (Or five hours upriver to the Lago Paine trail.) The bleeding is slow, the skin emptied of glass. (He’ll be fine.) He’ll be fine.
Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
15-01-98, 21:45, 50°55’S, 72°51’W
Repeat sighting of untagged F. c. patagonica. Tracked animal.
The sky a cracked-open geode veined with stars. The feel of creeping through roots, shins lashed by grass, to a patch of lemon-yellow orchids, their red throats thimbles of blood.