It was the smell that scattered them. That stink of strange, new bodies—so thick you could hardly remember what the air before had smelled like. They ran for the trees, climbed up and hung close to the branches. Once they were up there, they couldn’t sit still. Silence would kill them. Stillness signaled the end. They hopped, they swung, they screeched.
In the clamor, Mar could make out each voice. She heard her two sisters babble in the tree next to hers. She heard the newcomer howl from a branch above. The lower females made their sounds too, but she couldn’t recognize them individually; she had never needed to before. The noise was terrible. For an instant, she wished they were all dead.
Of course, a baboon does not wish, so we will say what she saw. Mar saw the leopards teach themselves to climb. She saw them claw up the body of the acacia tree and bleed the colony from the branches. She saw herself and everyone hold still. How could she explain (but a baboon doesn’t explain) how lovely the vision was? How peaceful?
Then she stopped her seeing. The leopards couldn’t climb. They’d never learn. So everyone moved and everyone cried and everyone was still alive.
Yes, she could hear them all, but she couldn’t hear Yen. Yen’s call was the nasally sort. When he was close, it tickled inside your ear and somewhere on the back of your neck. Or was it only the back of her neck? A wind blew, and Mar perked up. It was light and wet, came from the south where it was still raining. Mar thought she smelled him, but the breeze is a tricky thing. It carries scents and sounds to fool you, to cloud what you know.
Days passed, and the colony settled back into its routines. Sex went on as usual. The males were quick, the females loud. On the ground, they had slapped each other’s bodies, legs and backs. The hair had dulled the sounds. But now in the trees their arms were required for other things, and the creatures adjusted accordingly. They clung to each other now, or held onto the tree itself. Sometimes they grasped at the branches and missed, snatched handfuls of shriveled leaves and let them fall to the ground.
Grooming, too, was about the same. They still formed trains, just like they had on the ground, starting from the highest mother to the lowest. The difference now was that they sat stiff along the branches, like heavy, black birds. They groomed with one hand, using the other hand to grip the branch beneath. Each scanned the other’s body for ticks and reassured the one in front with pets and strokes.
They carried on—is what we could call it—while the leopards waited below. They were tails, legs, and wretched, pink mouths. They moved from one tree trunk to the next, rubbed their bodies against the coarse bark and pissed on the roots. They played dead in the grass, and the colony watched them from above.
Mar spent the tree days in silence. She did not groom anyone, and she did not let anyone groom her. At night, she fit herself in the highest crook of the tallest tree. There, she imagined Yen plucking ticks from the roots of her hair.
But, of course, a baboon does not imagine, so we will say what she saw. She saw him search through her hairs for hard, round bugs, little husks filled with her blood. He crushed them between his teeth. The more he searched, the less he found, and this made him search more urgently. She fell asleep this way, dreaming (but a baboon doesn’t dream) of her blood on his breath.
The next morning, the leopards were not at their posts. They were nowhere to be seen. But they couldn’t have just gone away. The leopards were patient, lazy beasts. They could wait for weeks, licking their thick paws and lapping water from the trickle of brown river water. Were those their tails waving in the grass? Was that a bright, black eye winking from a distance? The colony grew tense. Even the babies were alert. Their necks were stiff and straight. They scanned the horizon, though they didn’t know what they were looking for.
A small one jumped to the ground. He made a run for the river’s end, its shallow mouth. The elders knew not to go, but the young ones got so thirsty. His small brown body flew across the plain. His sisters tugged at the leaves, at the fur by their ears. Mar screamed too, worried her tail. It wasn’t safe; you could smell it.
The jumper turned to bare his dull teeth at them. When had it ever been safe?
Maybe Yen was safe. He was young too, but not like that small, brash one. Yes, Yen hollered and fought and bit like the rest, but he also watched the world with great care. On the river, he could tell the difference between the ripples of a predator and those made by some small, restless thing. At night, he sometimes awoke at the slightest sound and then nudged Mar to a different, safer place. Yen was cautious, a survivor. Shouldn’t this give her hope?
No, because an animal does not hope.
At night, an older one approached. He had thick, blackened teeth, and an unusually short tail. He waited calmly for Mar to present herself to him, but she sat and didn’t move. He seated himself beside her, but she picked up and shifted away. The elder didn’t press her. He was tired, too. Instead, he contented himself with looking in the same direction she was looking. He turned his head when she turned, looked at the sky when she looked. When she turned to look directly at him, he turned to look at what was behind him, as if his neck was rigged to hers with string.
He lunged at her while she slept, but Mar was quick and she swung left. He bit her, and she screamed. He gripped her by the leg, so Mar let herself fall, grabbed loosely at the passing branches to soften the impact. That separated them. He would not go that far for her. He wiped his hands along a branch to get rid of the puffs of Mar’s fur that were caught between his fingers.
On the ground, Mar didn’t smell any predators, but still she sprinted. Past the trees, past the river (despite the dryness in her throat), straight to the body she had smelled on the breeze. The skull was crushed, but she could still make out where the eyes had been before some creature had dug them out. There were bits of fur and puckered skin stuck to the grass. She was thankful (though it’s not possible that she experienced thankfulness): this wasn’t Yen. It was the young, thirsty one who had jumped.
The leopards moved on. The colony descended from the trees. First, they drank from the river, brought handfuls of it to their mouths. They patted each other’s bodies and pulled each other’s tails. The males moved closer to the carcass, and sniffed at its bones. They touched it and then they touched themselves. They yelped and tumbled and cuffed each other.
One of Mar’s sisters sat behind Mar and thumbed through her coarse hairs. She found a scrap of acacia bark, put it in her mouth and spit it aside. A stocky one with a scar across her ribs edged in behind them. They sat this way for hours, one grooming the other grooming the other.
Eventually, they were alone. The others had moved off, closer to the river basin. The third one whined as she groomed. It wasn’t safe to stay so close to the carcass. Who knows what other creatures follow the dead?
Mar ignored or did not hear the whining. Instead, she looked at her hands. At the front of the grooming line, there was not much for her to do. First, she held her knees, then she tapped her knuckles on the tops of her feet. The grass nearby rippled back and forth. Was it Yen? She had seen him, hadn’t she? She had felt him nearby? She squinted into the grass, hoping to catch a glimpse of his bright, black eye. But, really, she did not hope for this, because there are very many things a baboon cannot do.