by Grant Watson
She had called him earlier that morning and left a message on his phone. Her voice always reminded him of insect wings tapping on a glass test tube. Her insistent way of pronouncing every ’t’—and the silences that folded themselves up into a case—tucking their silvery transparency away. Her message was brief and to the point—she was sick of his globetrotting explorations, his endless campaigning, his pointless crusades. No longer would she be a widow to all of his diversions—she had her own life to lead and she intended to lead it. Her case was indeed packed. And this time—it was packed for good.
So today, as he made his way through the trees, he knew that this might be his last opportunity in the field for some considerable time. He put his backpack on the ground and pulled out his nets and specimen jars, then looked up at the high canopy above him—at the fanning Xate leaves that would offer him a modicum of shade in the fierce tyranny of the Brazilian heat. He had collected several examples that were not usually seen at this latitude and now he hoped for something else—perhaps the larvae of the Red Dragonfly, perhaps a Goliath Spider crouched under a rock. There was nothing more exciting than finding a rare and precious creature whose time on Earth was rapidly coming to a close—he felt privileged to be a witness to it—to the creak and grind of the planet as it unraveled from its centre. She could never understand this. How could she? With her Wall Street Journal subscription and her weekend get togethers at La Boucherie’s. Her world was so different to his that they might as well have lived on opposite sides of the universe.
Her voice returned to him as he scraped the bark from one of the bulbous trunks. She would be at the airport by now, scanning the banks of screens, checking her phone for his call—knowing that her departure was the only thing left to her—the last remaining arrow in her frayed and threadbare quiver. This would be it, he was sure of it. No more second chances. No more start overs. So many times she had threatened to call it a day, sobbing in the hotel bathroom, refusing to unlock the door, or storming out of cafes as he outlined his next foreign adventure. But this time it was different. She had been patient. Extremely patient. She had waited long enough as he had criss-crossed the world in search of… He stopped for a moment, his dirty fingernails hovering in the air like a conductor. In search of what? Some discovery that would make his name? Some fantasy of himself as the great eco-warrior digging through the undergrowth for another grim harbinger that nobody would take any notice of? He was nearly forty now and all he had to show for it was a half page interview in the National Geographic and recurring bouts of Malaria.
And now she expected him to follow her. Of course it was inevitable that he would. He could feel the tide turning too—it was impossible not to—something had moved deep in the depths, some axis had tilted and gravity was doing the rest. For too long he had been the heroic explorer, seeking out new species to prove his theories on the coming ecological catastrophe. For too long he had been shouting into the wind, his voice ricocheting back at him, shattered into a million glistening pieces. She was right. It was time for him to settle down, time to take on some of that famed responsibility everybody was always talking about. She knew it—and now he had to face up to it—he simply didn’t have a choice anymore. But right now he wanted this last chance in the wilds, this last hurrah before the irresistible slide into the university job that he had been offered the month before. He knew it had to come—and it wouldn’t be so bad—an annual speech at the Natural History Museum, a book every two years, his name decorating the footers of a hundred earnest doctorates. He had prepared himself. He was ready. She would be happy. He imagined the sound of those wings tucking snugly into place, the sharp patina on the shiny case—like a brand new car sparkling on a show room floor—polished, waxed and diamond hard.
He resumed his work—his hands tooling the earth from beneath the roots—watching termites scurry along his thumbprint channels then bury themselves in the darker, softer layers. He pulled and yanked at a curtain of weeds sending centipedes scattering across the matted floor like shuttles over a giant loom. He smiled as he thought of her in her collection of expeditionary outfits, the tailored suits in breathable silks. She always hated this part of it, standing in the middle of some God forsaken jungle batting the flies from her Barbara Feinman hat. At first he had found her attempts to understand what he did endearing, at least she was always game, following him to the hot zones with her retinue of cases and travel pills. And she had liked the glamour of having an exotic boyfriend who travelled the seven seas intent on saving the planet with his magnifying glass and his rumpled notebooks. Hunting through the nooks and crannies for some sign of life, for God’s handwriting hidden in the filth and the scum. But recently he’d felt her presence was weighted down with bitterness and resentment—Banquo’s ghost at the feast, peering over his shoulder in disgust, flinching at the snapping of wood in the dark foliage beyond.
Then, as he continued to pull at the tree’s stumpy veins, something caught his eye—a maroon hem that flashed behind the fringes of the low hanging boughs. It could be something important, he thought. Maybe another invasive species blown in on the air—another refugee from a burning planet—an accidental saboteur in the food chain. He was well practiced in these sorts of manoeuvres and his hand darted round the trunk and grabbed the thing in the pink hull of his fist. This would normally be enough to make her jump out of her skin—shriek with horror at the rupturing of the clammy stillness—had he been bitten by a snake or a deadly tarantula? Would she have to administer the medication he kept in those tiny metal containers? He wished she’d been there to see this for herself. The scare would have been worth a thousand of her silent recriminations. But here he was, alone, holding this thing in his hand. And when he stood up in the light and opened up his fingers he simply could not believe what he saw. A black insect with a long, flat abdomen, flecked purple at the edges, a ridged head like a bottle cap, thick legs pumping in the air. A Pottage Beetle. A male. Unmistakable. Utterly unmistakable.
He suddenly imagined the university with its tall gates and its Grecian columns built some time in the eighties with money donated from the city. Funny how these cut-throat firms had such an affinity with the quiet halls of academia. Bankers and butterflies didn’t seem a combination made in heaven, but still, needs must he supposed and beggars can’t be choosers. They held any number of events throughout the year, charity balls, book launches, fundraisers. She was right, it was an exciting place to be—teeming with possibility and potential—no more trudging through slapping branches, no more pot holed roads and armed militias. Just imagine, she’d said to him, all those respectful students listening in rapt awe to his tales from the deserts and the rainforests, long summers to write his books on the insects of the high sierras and the sub tropics. He could set up foundations to investigate the wide-ranging deaths of species, he could make a difference with that kind of money behind him—it’s what he had always wanted. And of course the university would be overjoyed by this. He would be coming offering them gifts. And what a gift this was! What a gift!
The last Pottage Beetle described in the literature was fifty-seven years ago. Long thought extinct and consigned to glass jars in the British Museum, this find was truly extraordinary. He remembered that this was the very valley in which the last known survivor had been documented and here he was holding one of them in his palm—watching it try to flip itself back on its feet, its long horns thrashing from side to side like a clockwork toy—its dim brain assessing the scent of his hand lotion and sweat. He wondered if it could smell the cologne she had bought him the Christmas before in Stockholm, its heavy sweetness like a spell from another world, a transmission from outer space. She was always trying to entice him with these cool northern fragrances that spoke of city streets and quiet restaurants, and here it was piercing the thick air of the Amazonian basin. He thought of the insect panicking as it struggled on its back, its synapses signalling terror and escape. If only it knew the truth of its situation—the precariousness of it all—its entire species under threat, or even lost. For all he knew this little chap could be the very last of his kind, drowning in a salty sea of two hundred dollar eau de toilette and melting Nivea Cream.
He gazed at it in his hand. For so long he had wanted to make a discovery such as this. He had indeed been a passionate campaigner against the loss of habitat and the vast extinction of species. It had been his raison d’etre, his solemn credo. And here he had found something significant, something meaningful. Somehow this creature had survived. Perhaps there was hope to stop the tide of destruction, perhaps this could be a talisman of some sort. He could see the beginnings of a new crusade, the preservation of protected areas, a call for new enforcements. Here was proof that they had worked, living, breathing proof. She had suggested he go into environmental campaigning full time, perhaps even political lobbying. It had appealed to him—those prestigious slots on inter-governmental panels, those endless, boozy lunches with newspaper editors and Secretaries of State. And now, with this find, the university would offer him a professorship within a year, vice chancellorship within ten. He’d be a star, made for life. A legend among his peers. He thought of her beside him at some prestigious prize giving ceremony, pinching his arm and chuckling as the speaker listed his numerous achievements. He heard those wings curl and close again, retract into their toughened, gleaming case, her eyes smiling back at his—I knew you could do it darling, I just knew it.
He stood and felt the sunlight drain through the canopy and fall onto his face, became aware of a halo of mosquitos buzzing directly over his head, a snake hooping its way through the knotted leaves and twigs. The whole of the forest seemed to thrum around him, the clutter of the ground seethed with insects, reptiles, amphibians—an orchestra of strange and brilliant life singing beneath his feet. It was incredible, electrifying, unlike anything he had ever experienced before—as if the entire world had suddenly and almost imperceptibly increased in volume. He had done it! He had uncovered the impossible! Brought back life where there was nothing but destruction! Then he stopped and stared into the air, long seconds passing in the drowsy heat. And in a moment he closed his hands together and smeared the body of the beetle to a fine paste, it’s hardened shell cracking like splintering wood, its soft undersides bubbling to a milky pulp. He shook his wrists and rubbed what was left from his skin, dragging his fingers along the length of his thigh—then wiping the residue in long, sticky trails across the pockets of his cotton jacket.
He sat down and looked up at the blue sky through the canopy’s spreading leaves, listening carefully to the jungle’s constant and tremulous whirr. He imagined her in the airport glancing at her phone and at the sliding doors. He could see her getting into the plane and gazing out of the cabin window, her expression fixed, her mind made up. Once again he found himself grinning at the thought of her waiting behind him on the jungle floor, her hair tangling in the vines, her brand new boots covered in mud. He watched a battalion of ants patrol the ridges of his backpack, their pincers carrying an emerald mosaic of shoots and weeds. He listened to the sound of birds gathering in the high branches and the distant call of frogs shuffling like bright marbles in the moss. Then he drew his wrist to his mouth and inhaled what was left of his cologne. It filled his head with an image of her at the perfume counter. She was smiling that little smile of hers, pulling out her credit card as if she was slipping off her favourite dress, those silvery, silent wings sliding effortlessly into place. He sat and he stared at the jungle as it seemed to recede from him fraction by fraction, as it drifted back to its familiar, droning routine, its low, continuous pulse. He’ll talk her round, he thought quietly to himself, after all, he always does.
Grant Watson is a playwright and screenwriter whose last play Perfect Blue was awarded three international awards. He has written extensively for UK television including Holby City, Family Affairs and Doctors. Grant is also a singer-songwriter whose EP Figure in a Dark Landscape is due for release later this year.