“Shit! Someone help me out, please.” My right foot feels like it is being sucked through a straw. Thick mud is gripping it tight and the small sapling I grabbed hold of broke off at its base. No help there then.
“Jo, what the hell happened?” Philip stopped laughing when the mud-ball I threw hit him in the chest. At least it made me feel better.
“What do you think happened, moron? I’m stuck. Now give me a pull.” The rest of the group are gathering, so now with eight faces peering down on me, no real help being offered, my mood is getting sour. Ten minutes later, I’m muddied but on hard ground again.
This trek was starting to feel like wasted effort. Since our early morning departure from the Volcanos National Park, we were engulfed in green, and before the day had a chance to warm our bodies, our group headed into the jungle shadows. Branches and leaves deposited their loads of morning dew, and yesterday’s leftover rain onto my clothing. Combined with sweat from hours of walking, my body is feeling the chill. At least it matches my temper.
As only our three guides had any idea where we were, I was stuck following the leader’s grey jacket. Wherever it went, I did too. Under the jungle’s canopy I was surrounded by a landscape of greens. Underneath, the deeper greens faded into almost black, moss-like and velvety, blending with the shadows around my feet. The next layer up was a mixture of lighter shades marbled by the meagre sunlight that made its way down to us. Those slight openings provided our only warmth.
The path we were following began disappearing under a layer of bushes. Almost immediately, Greyjacket as I had named him, held up his hand, and began making odd throaty sounds. Theses were low and deep, and rolled rhythmically from his mouth. He continued making these sounds as he pointed out a track to the left of us. The narrowness meant falling into a line behind each other. Being straight behind Greyjacket, I almost fell when he reached behind and grabbed my elbow.
Suddenly level with the guide, I looked around, and on my left I saw him. Nothing would have prepared me for that first sight of seven hundred pounds of absolute power. Facing sideways he is a dark mountain against the greenery, his head a weathered carved summit peak. Leaning forward on his arms, body sculpted and magnetic, his muscles ripple under his fur, an undulating mass of brawn. There’s no sound other than the crackling of the vegetation being squashed under him. In that moment no other creature exists in my world. His name is Mrithi; in Swahili it means successor.
The silver oval on his back is prominent as Mrithi moves to distance himself from our small group. The sight of his back haunches heading away seems like a statement of our worth in this place. ‘Kiss my arse,’ he seems to be saying. Nearby, a female gorilla is nursing a tiny helpless scrap of fur. GreyJacket continues to grunt, click and murmur in a regular rhythm as Mrithi sits close by the nursing female.
“Come, come,” the guides wave us on another path. These men’s ability to find firm ground to walk on is amazing. The whole area seems to have been converted into a large green trampoline for the gorillas to play on.
“Jesus, this is amazing,” my boyfriend of a few weeks says. His Dutch accent normally makes my fingers move automatically toward him. But now, God, I wish he’d be quiet. I need the silence, so I can frame this piece of time. Not just in my mind, but in my skin.
On each side there are groups of gorillas. Adolescents playing together, tumbling, and tackling each other, nearby, older, more sedate ones are lying under patches of sunlight. None seem bothered by our proximity. I’m beginning to understand the need for the repeated instruction we were given earlier to avoid challenging them with eye contact; it is difficult not to stare. Eventually we reach an area that ends in a small courtyard of leaves.
On a raised pedestal sit a mother gorilla and child, eyeing us as if we are the exhibit. One arm folded across her belly, the other bent to lean her head into her hand. An expression of patience emanates from her dusky brown eyes, as she inspects this bunch of unkempt humans before her. She makes me feel like I’m back in the neighbourhood Catholic Church; sunlight streaming through the large stained glass window making Mary’s eyes even more knowledgeable. Nine-years-old and believing that Mary’s eyes saw through to my heart, and knew the worth of it. As with Mary, here in this moment I know absolute acceptance, as her dark eyes find mine and hold me, gently but unwavering.
Huddled like a shy toddler, the young one’s hand twists and twirls the hair on his Mum’s belly. Innocent tawny eyes watch from under a mantle of thick dark hair as the little one appears to listen to the guide’s noises.
“S a boy…see, little boy. No, no, stay.” The young one’s inquisitive nature takes over and he begins playing to the rapt audience in front of him. He cheekily pokes at the guide, even running his finger inside the collar of the grey jacket. Tugging away, he pulls the guide closer till he is able to fondle every part of his head. One eye still on those of us further away, he begins to plant kisses on Greyjacket’s forehead.
“Oh. Oh wow.” In moments of awe, there’s nothing so good to utter as a cliché, or something you’d say in year six.
Time is limited, we are only allowed an hour amongst them. It had seemed enough time when it was all an abstract idea. Now I realise what the old saying, time is relative, means.
Taking my turn, I hand my camera off while I do the touristy thing, slowly moving into place in front of the platform, smiling the obligatory smile while one of the others snaps away. Wet and dishevelled, it takes awhile to realise what is happening. His small hand found its way into my hair, his palm coming to rest on the back of my head. Gentle fingertips feeling the contours, as if I am some fragile creature he is examining. Leaning back, I lay my head into his palm, like a lover seeking his caress, feeling the tiny ridges on his fingers.
The trek back to camp is quiet, each of us holding onto that hour as we walk away from the dappled clearing with all its shades of colour. Soft shades that emphasise the peace we found here. Peace however, is a transient thing in the jungles of Rwanda. No-one is safe, not even those with the eyes of a Madonna.
Mrithi died from a gunshot at the age of twenty-four in the hazy dawn hours. His body was left whole and untouched, except for the bullet holes where his life escaped from him. He could have lived to forty. Perhaps one day, I’ll trek back in search of another clearing. If I’m lucky, perhaps I’ll see Mrithi’s successor.