The veterinarian has three bottles of ketamine hydrochloride and a crinkling pack of syringes. I have a bank-fresh stack of American bills. You used this before, he says. Yes. So you know how to dose. No. Look, I tell him, I’ve been on prescription and off, but I’ll take whatever I can get down here. He taps his clean-rimmed nails against a bottle. There are scraggly gray hairs growing on his earlobes. The radio tech lets him touch her, even with ears like that. What’s your problem, he says. Panic attacks, I tell him, heart palpitations. Blackouts. This isn’t going to help you, he says. Taps the glass. I tell him, just take my money.
Parked out by the south fork of Rio Paine, the sky more star than darkness, constellations on the Jeep hood, the tussock grass, the river’s greased thread, the needle. I fill the syringe. Bare my shoulder for the flick of pain. Dawn crawls toward the horizon, but slow, some two hours off. What I really want to do is shoot straight up and see where the dart falls. Maybe it will pierce a deer, a puma. Maybe it will hit a hiker and he will sleep, wake, wander naked into one of the glacial lakes. My heart rate spikes. The stars blur. I roll down the window and crushed green of calafate leaves (breathe) mineral sludge of the mudbanks (faster) old dung sour grass foxglove cups full of sugared pollen (gasping) pour into the Jeep. Yeah. Yeah. Right into the blue water, so cold it glows.
Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
26-12-97, 05:09, 50°55’S, 72°50’W
Brief sighting of untagged F. c. patagonica near south shore of Rio Paine.
Fifty meters away, a pale shadow moves north along the ridge, ghosts through the lenga and its lichen drapings, through the fat-leaved ñirre. I fumble for binoculars. When I find it again it is in pieces: a thick shoulder (no collar), a tufted ear (no tag), broad haunch rippling in the purple light. A midsize animal. Maybe 45 kg. Female, or a juvenile male. It swerves deeper into the trees. I lift the glasses to follow and the massif flames into view over the ridge, white and gray clouds boiling in the cauldron of the mountaintops, brilliant at 2,800 meters where it is already full day.
Back down into dimness. The knotted roots are empty. I stare until my eyes hurt but there is only grass, birdwing flicker, drip of dew from weighted leaves. If there’s a new cat here I’ll find it. Throw a bone to the head ranger. I’ve got plenty rattling around in the trunk.
Not tonight, I tell the boy, tonight I’m working. Mónica, he says, you promised. Thick eyebrows bunched under the bunched wool of his hat, one of those flimsy chullos tourists pick up by the handful as souvenirs. I want him to take it off, take his fleece hiking jacket off, be just a warm body in the backseat, bucking, but I am in my uniform and we are in the main lodge and the sunset through the picture windows stains his face feverish. Wet meat stink slopping over us as cafeteria doors slap open and shut. He steps toward me. The tufted ball atop his hat wobbles. Not here, I say, not in front of everyone. Tomorrow, he says. Maybe. Maybe.
All around birdsong, a buzzard eagle’s squawk, the sky raucous with flamingo-pink clouds. I walk away from the river, uphill. Chill grasses slash at my shins while my calf muscles burn. Coffee churns in a thermos, its tin cold against my lips. Another morning of sub-zero temperatures, though on Christmas it was balmy by noon, and the next evening it snowed. Only then did it feel like a holiday, ice chips tinging against the ranger station windows, the building’s wood-polish tang, the veterinarian playing his tape of waltzes with “O Tannenbaum” tacked to the B-side’s end. His wife is the radio equipment tech and she decorated her monitors with a garland of gold tinsel. I told her it was pretty but I was looking at her when I said it, looking at the freckled tops of her breasts. She is blonde and athletic, always slightly flushed, like she just climbed out of a magazine spread of high-altitude beauties. I like to ask her questions about the tracking software. She starts in on diel cycles and home-range boundaries and minimum population density estimates, German accent running through her husky voice like a caramel ribbon, and my eyes go unfocused on the monitors’ gray screens. Listening to a voice like than I can forget, a little. I can blur. Computer hum. Snow on the glass.
Uphill, lungs pumping, face numbed with wind. When I reach the treeline I follow it north. To one side a steep slope down to the river, scrubland humped with yellow-flowering paramela; to the other, tangled forest. Wild fuchsia. Fallen logs. An oblong skull with a tawny rind of fuzz.
No sign of the body, but this is a long-ago kill, the bone picked clean of fat, emptied of brain matter. Gloves, measuring tape, plastic. Eye sockets 34mm (left) and 36mm (right). Unused molars like lumps of butter (8mm each). A little milk-fed chulengo. Maybe one month old. And in the dirt pocket where the head nestled, pierced through the leathery scrap of an ear, a green plastic circle stamped ADMA 209. We’re going to tag every last animal in this park, clip every bird’s wing, weigh every newborn cub, then write about it—fund me again so I can work up a report on the average mass of deer shit in Doñana, the effects of avian predation on the common snail in Yasuní, I’d love to put my name on more documents in the university library that no one’s ever going to fucking read.
I think this used to be better. I think I used to feel something other than tired when penciling entries into a field log or following tracks or peeling open ziplocs to collect samples. Now I’m on my knees. Skull half-bagged. Solid dirt around me but I am shaking. The wall of trees before me rises, kaleidoscopes. Green and brown and red and ochre mistletoe, beetles snapping viridian wings. Low-flung rainberry’s luminous blooms. A toppling spray of orchids, petals yellow as lemons.
There is pressure in my ears. Salt in my mouth.
Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
29-12-97, 09:13, 50°9’S, 72°87’W (observation site)
Two V. gryphus circling near SE shore of Laguna Azul, possible fresh carcass.
A vacant eye. Flies. I am not in the frame of mind to stand over a punctured animal. Smell its veined entrails. If there is blood on the rocks it will stay on the rocks until rain sloughs it away. If a cat made the kill it will hide it and come back in the evening to feed. For now I am ketamine-drowsy, letting the condors trace dark circles through my vision, dark circles swirling over the splintered windshield, the boy on the backseat stirring in his sleep sack. One of us is humming a Christmas song. The condors wheel. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. Air tinged silver with rain. Silver rainshadows chasing over the grass, my shadow cat chasing deer over the grass, a solid plug of motion on the green plain, hungry under the gray sky. Monitors framed with gold tinsel. Photographs glossing into a Santiago trash bin, citrus and spit raining after to erase faces. We’re all so goddamn lonely. Now pull the trigger: a gut-thump of sound, and the dart whirrs away on the wind like a red-feathered bird.
Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
02-01-98, 06:12, 50°55’S, 72°51’W
Repeat sighting of untagged F. c. patagonica.
Tracked animal to rocky gulch. Lost trail.
Sustained minor bruises.
Driving over the rock fields at the south end of Laguna Azul and it’s BANG BANG JUMP all the way, a personal earthquake, vision going crossed, heart dropping in and out of place (everything is not okay everything is okay everything is not okay everything is), hairline crack at the windshield’s edge pulsing longer. The Jeep has no shocks to speak of. It was a piece of shit when I picked it up in Puerto Natales, and I’ll return it a piece of shit. But a well-used piece of shit, infused with some new life, some young sweat. All the tourists I’ve been taking for rides. Make the Forest Service people wonder at its extra-creaky seats, its faintly sour polyester.
Last week in the dining hall I met a Swiss boy, tawny, solid. It was Christmas and he smelled of Christmas. After him was an Irish girl, nose ring, blue-streaked hair, long sinewy limbs draped in khaki and printed scarves. Eyes like lustreglass—green and peaty in the evening fluorescents, and later, in the Jeep, I looked up from between her thighs and they were brown, gold, wild in the low-hung sun.
The backpackers carry all sorts of things on their far-flung bodies: playing cards, cocaine, neon-orange hard candies purchased at airports in Singapore, Bangkok, Manila. Snapshots of mournful dogs lying on mournful sofas. Notebooks. Lucky stones. They want to show me these trinkets, take me to their rooms in the lodge or their duct-taped tents in the meadow, but I just want them in the Jeep. Once they’re in they want to see things of mine. They want to ask how long I’ve been researching in the park. They want to finger the spare tags and radio collars. They want to see the tranq rifle, they want to see inside the hard plastic case filled with the veterinarian’s drugs. Sometimes I let them (if they are playful about it, if it will please them and make them pliable later, Plasticine themselves, bend this way, bend here) and sometimes I don’t (the ones who might be lungers, who might rip the cap off a dart or want to eat the ketamine like candy, how amateur, I keep the needles locked in the glove compartment until they’re sleeping because I’m not going to share).
Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
05-01-98, 06:21, 50°55’S, 72°50’W
Large herd of L. guanicoe, eleven adults, six chulengos, grazing at edge of
N. pumilio thicket.
Red-blonde and improbable, those long necks and boxy torsos held up by rawboned legs. I twist around to count them, jeans squeaking on the seat, and the sleeping boy shifts, mumbles, how he’s bundled all his limbs onto the back bench I can’t tell. He is wrapped in orange rayon. His eyes flutter. Go back to sleep, I say, and hope he does. The tourists get so worked up about guanacos, and if he points and shouts they’ll scatter when I want them to stay. I want them to lure back my cat, the shy pale shadow I’ve been chasing for days.
The wobbly newborns have peach fuzz for fur, unsure gaits, though of all animals they are walking prodigies, on their feet minutes after birth. The females step between them carefully. What is this impulse to look out for the small ones, the ones with no teeth to feed, no strength to fight. Is it why we declaw our cats and muzzle our dogs. Is it why we stop strangers’ mouths when they start to talk about histories, futures, the barbed lengths of time that flay them tender and exposed, more than a slide of skin on vinyl, more than a hot throb in the pink light of dusk. Don’t be delicate.
The guanacos settle into a ring, knees in the grass, necks swiveling. I drink my dirt-smelling coffee. Lift my legs onto the passenger seat, heels nudging the rifle stock, so I can watch them through the rear window’s spattered glass. Finches trill in the lenga boughs, wind glosses the grass, and somehow (my body’s stillness) (the thought of a stone dropping through the ocean, clear to blue to gray to black to void) the moment warps. I don’t need to be here for any of it to happen: there are the echoes in my skull, the engine’s clicks, the boy breathing even like the sea, but otherwise a field, an ungulate herd, ants, rocks, the green workings of photosynthesis, atmospheric shifts, pressures, solar flares.
Death is closer at the edge of the crumbling landmass. There is a tear in the ozone layer, a pack of needles in the glovebox, dark spots eclipsing the long calendar of days.
Field Journal: Mónica Martínez
08-01-98, 13:25, 50°9’S, 72°75’W
Juvenile L. guanicoe backbone found near Laguna Amarga access road.
F. c. patagonica scat nearby contained traces of F. pallescens grass, orange synthetic fiber, red fur of L. guanicoe origin, black fur possibly of L. capensis origin.
Bagged sample of scat for transport to ranger station.
The station’s coffeepot is cracked, a bead or two of liquid always dripping down to hiss on the hotplate. What do I care, the veterinarian says, I don’t drink that crap. He is pissed off because he caught me staring at his wife’s tits, but I can’t more than glance at his blood-mottled face, I can barely fill my cup without spilling. It has been a bad morning. I thought I took a boy out overnight (didn’t he talk about his time on the ocean, a mechanic in training, greased bolts, outboard engines, his little sister at university in Auckland, pearl diving in Pape’ete) but the backseat was empty when I came to. The backseat was empty and even before I saw that there was not enough air in the Jeep, not enough air in the world, my lungs felt like flattened paper bags and my hands were twitching. I only used 100 mg.
Come sit, the radio tech says, you look a little sick. She leads me away from her husband, over to her tinsel-draped monitors. Seventeen was out by Laguna Amarga this morning, she says, I wonder what lured her so far east. She leans over my shoulder, tapping a dot on the screen, full freckled breasts three inches from my face. The jerky display gives me a headache. It’s just a bunch of fucking numbers, I want to tell her, nothing like tracking the animals on foot, in the grass. Come out in my Jeep and we can do things the old-fashioned way, I want to say, you know.
The old-fashioned way: Find a person. Find a way inside that person. Find lots of ways to keep that person outside of you. Sleep every night beside that person and discover their presence doesn’t do anything to chase away the dread, they are breathing but at any time they might stop, you are breathing you are sweating you are gape-mouthed and staring, at any time there might be a sharp pain in the abdomen, a clench in the chest, or something quieter, meaner, a twinge in some deep bone place, a corruption of a single cell, twists, mutations, runaway DNA chains. So you leave that person because they couldn’t make you brave, you leave that person and you leave your child—pink, crushable, weeping saline, he is ten weeks old and wrenchingly fragile—you leave the backyard lemon tree that always bears fruit, you panic all the way down the elongated continent, you fuck a bunch of twenty-somethings who are silken and careless, you stand at the edge of a lake that’s Gatorade-blue with glacial flour, sand flinty and chilled, where across the water hard horns of the mountains hold up long blocks of cloud, raw rock, untumbled sunlight, and everything seems broken off the cordillera: the ice-chip sky, the shards of sand, the trees so keeled and leafless they appeared more root than tree, torn from a cleft of stone in some dizzy airless place. You imagine your body as a soft thing hurled against those rocks, a red thing that would spatter like a fat tick, smear, be swept away.