Memory Scraped onto Landscape with Smell
By James McGirk.
So horrid and bright to open his eyes. So much better to stay enshrouded in ruddy dark. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. He cradled this liquid inch; it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. Sweet artificial scents of partially digested alcohol rose from its glistening surface. How much like an offering this was, with its bobbing rice grains and bilious yellow tint (he was bent on his knees in the sand). The smell intensified. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung his slop into the fire pit.
Please don’t do that – we eat there.
A female and Western voice said that, one of the other rafters, a voice he recognized, the bossy freckled one who paid for her own holiday. He looked at her. She looked at him. She scorched a bit of wood in the dying fire and turned it. Sparks twisted loose and soared above the canyon; elsewhere, downstream, hundreds of funeral pyres burned, but this section of the river was reserved for whitewater rafting. The blue sky above was otherwise untainted. Mica glinted in the clean river-sand.
The goo still glued to his fingertips itched. He plunged his hands in the damp grains before him and yanked them out. Red and grey filled crannies, nooks and wrinkles, and fell in tiny streams. Shining particles tumbled in the threads and winked in the light. Most stayed stuck. Sand gloves. Even as he rubbed. A hollow remained in the sand without crumbling.
His freckled interlocutor, with her wide fleshy cheeks, dark eyes, prim little frown and dismayed expression pointed to his hands:
Disgusting. Why wouldn’t you rinse them in the river?
He considered this, considered the grit on his hands, and the hoofed balloon of meat swirling down the rapids. (A carcass) Their guide lifted his head. He was grinding silt against a pan to clean and cook their breakfasts:
Dip your hands! He said. Don’t be afraid… here is the point, sahib: you may wash the sins of generations away. I can walk you to this bank?
No, no, I can manage. Thank you.
He lifted himself from the sand. Grey poured from his smoke-steeped clothes and tumbled from his poisoned flesh. His insides sloshed and gurgled. He surveyed his domain. Where he lay was a mark. Where he thrashed and rolled there were flat scuffs in the wind-blown undulations, and a long smear leading from where he crawled to the pit. How easily comforting and easy it was to his mark. And yet on the periphery were signs he could not decipher. An alien intrusion. As fresh as his they were – maybe fresher and certainly crisper – a wobbling trail that circled him twice then led back up the tall slope and disappeared into the woodsy tangle of trees and spiny brush.
He dropped to his knees to look. Ebb tides of sludge sluiced through him and collided. Her voice followed him down:
You gonna barf again? Do it away from the communal area – please.
He did not respond. The marks consisted of a series of prints, each containing an interior pad about the size and shape of his balled fist – but the ground was punched in far deeper than a boot-print. Radiating out on one side were four nubs as long but much more substantial than a thumb. They were tracks, animal tracks from an animal at least as large as he. He felt someone walk up beside him. The guide crouched beside him and studied the tracks too. Then beckoned a closer look with one hand:
These are small for tiger. He pressed his other palm beside the print to steady himself and measure. But perfect for leopard.
The circuit around the sleeping American was not so far off the leopard’s usual route. Each evening’s prowl had its tripartite purpose: to find food and squirt urine jets – that is to re-inscribe the boundaries of his domain where they abutted against the other leopards’ (and tigers’, and feral cats’ – though he thought of these more as nuisances than peers, and indeed the dank smell of their urine and mere thought of their scat piles made him want to crumple his whiskers and scurry away) – and, if he felt like risking internecine conflict, he might to nudge his boundaries forward and theirs backwards with his jets.
His final task he took the most pleasure in. On his midnight prowls, before he left his own mark, he took a moment to sniff deeply and consider the boundary scents of others; to steep in the pheromone tags of his brethren and sift through them hunting for signals, for must, for weakness, for the continued survival of his peppery brood – three cubs, two males, one female, each marking their own little worlds now – whom he knew only from a fierce rut from a splendid ruddy bitch who padded into his domain one lonely afternoon. She was long gone.
(Some would have say there was a fourth purpose too – to patrol his area for danger – but leopards are afraid of nothing.)
He came away with his domain freshly mapped each night. And as he slept through the day, and his body twitched and his whiskers wiggled with dreams, he roamed his lands again and again, mapping them.
Some contours were always the same and always would remain the same, unless the river shifted, which it not yet had; a shape corresponding to the hollow hemisphere of his paw as he spread it swipe, he knew so intuitively it became a part of him. The spines of rock, the tributaries feeding the great river below, the general shape of the gorge and slope down to the riverbank would never change.
Other elements were fluid. He charted the monkey blinds, those foul tempered, foul tasting things who posted lines of sentinels that screamed alerts as they saw him, and pelted him with shit if he came to close. The sand lining the river. Colonies of rats. Mud puddles filled with biting fleas, scorches left by lightning strikes. Trails to and from the water sources that were romped by every creature – those shifted too, at the whim of the mass of them, often because his own scents had saturated too deeply into the earth that his prey had trouble detecting him. There were caches of food, kills he hoisted in trees and hid, the better to let them linger in their juices before he sank his fangs inside; the longer it hung the more risk writhing mouthful of maggots there was, but that thrilled him too.
His maps were not just functional. They had their flourishes. Memories inscribed onto landscape with smell. Flat patches of dirt he rolled around in as a freshly whelped cub. The shaded copse his mate first prowled into and howled for his seed. The scent marks of ancient leopards he kept alive with his own squirted palimpsests. And finally the strange encroachments of Man: the strip of black they lay that smelled faintly of sun-baked bowel. He sniffed the peculiar gullies running alongside it and pawed at the flotsam and jetsam. The swift screaming things traversing the strip were somehow associated with Man.
Their most recent arrival was less dramatic yet more beguilingly sinister.
As the great river receded and the grey sands were revealed beneath, a single smoke belching beast lumbered down the gentlest part of the slope one day. He watched it from a tree blind. Like an elephant, the beast was averse to steepness. (This message was encoded for posterity.) Four men clambered from its gullet, built flimsy nests and dug a great burrow they filled with flames. That night as he made his rounds he chanced upon a mark he never sampled before. A faint trace left on unusual oblong dome that felt as if it had been ground down by man many years before. The scent was barely alive. He placed a nostril close. Some scents weren’t worth preserving for posterity. But this one was a rarity. It addressed man. In a whisper of soft reeks it spoke of a wounded ancestor stranded on a sandbank during a monsoon flood. All he had to eat were corpses that washed ashore. And the only corpses that washed ashore were men. The meat was astringent, sour metallic, and rank all at once. Yet he eventually developed a taste for them. And when the waters receded he slaughtered hundreds. Then disappeared, leaving his dominion empty.
After pondering the scent, the Leopard slunk down across the cool, dense, sand. The gulley fire was low, nearly dead and the shadows were long and provided excellent cover. The air was moist and vivid, stirred by the churning of the waters, chilly, but it concealed his scent. The nests billowed in the breeze. How easily he could rip one apart. He approached the perimeter of one and his paw snagged on a thin line. Like a massive cobweb. He tensed up, coiling preparing to spring from danger or rend an attacker, thinking a sentinel would screech or the line would stick to his fur, but it only made a numb twang. Still shrunk back and gave the nests a wide berth. There were other curiosities. He approached a strange oblong that wasn’t made of stone. He dragged his muzzle against it, taking in a whiff dried river minerals and then a choking sent that made his fur bristle. It felt hollow as if it were the bloated carcass of spoiled kill. He was about to leave and return to his route when he found a lone sleeper by the dying fire.
Water dried and left crusts of minerals on his skin. His fingers tasted of salt. The sun stung his goose-puckered flesh. The last of the rapids. The river spread out before them and became languorous and slow. Ahead of him in the raft the freckled one took off her helmet. And she turned to him and as she did a beam of light fortuitously ignited her hair, which roared a more crimson shade of copper and as she leaned forward, her blocky lifejacket pulled away from her, revealing a plunging chasm of cleavage, sunburned pink and freckle dusted flesh that disintegrated into shadowed scoops of pure white. She held her helmet in her hands. The straps hung off. Frayed and grayed with sweat. She leaned off the boat and dragged her helmet in the river. She pulled it out again and held it before him. An inch of water drained through the circles of polystyrene – masses made up of millions of bubbles – that pulled and twisted the curled copper hairs she had left behind.
Hold this, will you?
She scooped a long cord of damp red hair over her shoulder revealing a long length of speckled neck. He caught her smell as she took it from him again. Milk and salt and musk, it drew him closer. His muscles ached from rowing but bathed him in a dopey soup of soothing relief. But for the rush of current against the rubber sidewalls the raft was silent.
A squat stone marker sailed past. The Interlocutor pointed: now what is that?
That is one commemoration to the Great White Hunter. The guide said. He pulled his mouth back and shuddered with laughter, revealing blazing enamel and bubblegum pink gum that charred to well-done burger on its periphery. For this man! Panar leopard – he ate 400 men. Very cunning cats! Monsters! They lift the roof, drop in, scoop up baby and snatch her in his jaws!
Why do you say something so horrible?
He was very nearly eaten.
Were you very really nearly eaten?
He nodded. Circled and sniffed, he said.
She placed a freckled finger on his wrist. It pleased him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James McGirk has a BA and an MFA from Columbia University. He writes a monthly column for 3QuarksDaily and his bylines have appeared in TIME, Foreign Policy, More Intelligent Life, and other publications. One of his short stories has been published by Fence and The Drum. His creative non-fiction will appear in The Believer.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 4th, 2012.