The following is excerpt from The Resolutions by Brady Hammes, copyright © 2020 by Brady Hammes. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
So far to go and so little light to guide him. The sun was almost down, the trail fading quickly. He was returning from town, slightly drunk, enjoying the high of human contact, his first in almost a week. He’d left camp early that morning to recharge the equipments’ batteries at a restaurant owned by his colleague, Laurent, but the drinking had interfered with the mission and he’d forgotten to grab the batteries before returning to camp. This just meant he’d have to go back tomorrow, which would be Thursday. Or would it be Friday? No idea. What are days anymore? he wondered. Long stretches of loneliness, he answered. He then counted the letters in loneliness: 10. One zero. One is the loneliest number, he sang to himself, then laughed because its loneliness was nothing compared to his. “What’s lonelier than a man living alone in the forest?” he asked aloud, but there was no one around to answer. Precisely, he thought.
Jonah had come to Gabon four months earlier to assist Marcus, his thesis advisor at Vanderbilt—a quiet man with tenure and no family, his lifestyle the kind that afforded six-week sojourns into the forests of West Africa. Marcus had spent the past decade studying the vocalization of forest elephants, planting ARUs—Autonomous Recording Units—in the trees to capture the elephants’ communication. As his research took shape, he convinced some of his behavioral ecology students—Jonah being one of the more eager—to help analyze the hours of recordings. Jonah spent countless days staring at spectrograms in the lab, extrapolating some very interesting things and relaying those things back to Marcus in the field. They linked the sounds they recorded with the behavior they witnessed, shedding light on the relatively unknown complexities of elephant communication. Jonah and his colleagues drafted what they referred to as The Elephant Dictionary, a compendium of their findings, a sonic key to the elephant dialogue. Their work began garnering attention—articles in scholarly journals, followed by an increase in funding—and Marcus offered Jonah a position as a field assistant, a welcome relief from the grinding tedium of lab work. But shortly after Jonah arrived in Gabon, Marcus contracted malaria and returned to the States, leaving Jonah to spearhead the research. There was talk of sending someone to assist him, but it was difficult to find anyone willing to abandon university life for one spent in the forests of Gabon.
He looked to the sky. Maybe rain? Rain might be nice once he was back at camp, settled in for the evening, drinking what was left of the duty-free scotch he’d picked up at the airport in Paris. He watched a wire-tailed swallow swoop past his head and land on a tree branch. He nodded at the bird, bid it good day. The bird chirped something that sounded like his name. “How can I help you?” Jonah asked, but the bird didn’t respond. He wondered if he misheard the bird. Or perhaps the bird misspoke. Better to pin it on the bird, he thought. Or maybe there was a third option. Maybe the bird just said Jaja, which would make more sense because Jaja wasn’t a word, just a bird sound. “Am I losing my mind?” he wondered aloud. “No,” he answered. “You’re just lonely.”
It was nearly dark when he finally returned to camp, which was nothing more than a two-person tent pitched in a small clearing. He had no electricity, no running water. What he had was a whole arsenal of electronics—laptop, DSLR camera, ARUs—all of which, without batteries, were essentially useless. He powered up the camera to find that he had three bars left, enough for an hour’s worth of shooting at most. He decided he’d get up early tomorrow, make the trip back to town, retrieve the batteries, email his sister. He’d arranged his flight home so that his layover in Paris might coincide with Sam’s, who had planned to fly from Moscow on the same day. They had discussed trying to arrive at Charles de Gaulle around the same time so they could wander around the city together, try to see as much as possible before the final leg back to Chicago.
He wasn’t particularly close with his sister, but he had hoped this impromptu rendezvous might change that. He attributed their distance to the five-year age difference, but the truth was that they didn’t have that much in common.
But still, he thought, the idea of home stirring his heart. It’ll be nice to see them, my family.
* * *
Jonah fired up the butane camp stove and set water to boil. He emptied a package of noodles into the pot and watched the last bit of color drain from the sky. He had expected this extended bout of solitary living to result in some kind of enlightenment, but most of his thoughts were occupied by images of nude women doing dirty things. He’d kept a journal for the first month, but abandoned the idea when he finally got around to reading what he’d written. It was mostly a lot of uninspired musings about how distant everything seemed, how disconnected he felt. He was certainly no writer and looking back at those old entries made him cringe at the teenage drama and hyperbole. No shit, he thought, of course you feel disconnected, of course everything seems distant. You live alone in the forest.
His camp was six kilometers from Franceville, the closest thing to a proper town. The train ride from Franceville to Libreville, the capital and location of the only international airport, was somewhere between ten and sixteen hours, depending on the condition of the track and the mood of the conductor. To say that he lived in a remote part of Gabon was inaccurate. It was more like camping on the moon.
He removed the noodles from the heat and strained them into a small plastic bowl, then added soy sauce and settled in for the only dinner he knew. His diet had been reduced to that which didn’t perish: lots of pasta and oatmeal and dried fruit. On trips to town he’d sometimes treat himself to meat—smoked fish or Laurent’s famous poulet nyembwe—but the longer he lived without it, the harder it became to stomach. He’d grown up backpacking with his father and was used to living for days in the wild, subsisting on trail mix and protein bars, but life here was a prolonged version of that, without the daily change in scenery and the calming assurance that a warm shower was only a few days away. Now he bathed in the stream if he bathed at all. He worked alone, ate alone, slept alone. He’d always assumed he was built for a life of solitary scientific inquiry, but now he wasn’t so sure.
At thirty-one years old, Jonah had spent the past twelve years in academia, rarely venturing outside the confines of campus. His time in Gabon was the longest he’d spent away from libraries and lecture halls, and though he was loathe to admit it, he was beginning to suspect this expedition was an effort to shirk the responsibilities of graduation. His dissertation — “The Grieving Patterns of West African Forest Elephants” — was due in two months and he had very little besides a title and fourteen hundred hours of raw data. For the past few months, he’d been observing an elephant calf named Kibo, whose mother, Jonah worried, had been killed by poachers, and he planned to compare the sounds Kibo made when alone to those he’d produced when accompanied by his mother. He suspected the elephant was mourning.
During his time in the forest, Jonah had become interested in the phenomenon known as emotional contagion, where a calf mimics the emotional state of a fellow distressed elephant. He’d witnessed instances of an elephant placing a trunk in another’s mouth, a soothing gesture that suggested they were capable of radical empathy. Demonstrations such as these were rare among animals — the behavior, until now, witnessed only in apes — and Jonah hoped to prove that elephants possessed similarly complex cognitive abilities. It was good, important work he was doing, but it was also lonely work, the kind that drove a man to drink more than he should and talk to birds and forget the batteries for his electronic devices. He’d arrived in Gabon with a clarity of purpose and, although he’d lost some of that focus in the past few weeks, his commitment to the elephants was steadfast. He resolved to do better in the new year.
After dinner, he grabbed his water purifier and walked to the stream to pump drinking water. The trail was well worn and even with only a splinter of moon, he made his way easily, as if walking half-asleep to the bathroom of his childhood home. With the sun down, the jungle orchestra began firing up: the hooting owls and burping frogs and the guttural, orgasmic moan of the tree hyraxes. It was a place where life was heard more than seen, a chorus of disembodied sounds raining down from the forest canopy. For all the discomfort of his lifestyle, he’d become rather attached to this small part of the forest and would miss it once he was gone. His plan was to return to Chicago for Christmas, treat himself to a couple weeks of easy American living, then return refreshed and ready for work. But with Marcus no longer in the ﬁeld, the grant money was in question and there was the very real possibility that his departure would be permanent.
When he reached the stream, he pumped two bottles full of clean water and began hiking back to camp. As he approached his tent, he heard what sounded like footsteps. He stopped, set the water down, turned off his headlamp, and crouched in the leafy growth of a maidenhair fern. It was quiet for a moment, then he heard it again, unmistakably footsteps. He grabbed a stick and approached camp, unsure what kind of damage he could inﬂict but certain he would ﬁnd a way if that’s what it came to. As he got closer, he heard the sound again, but the footsteps were quicker now, fading into the forest. He scanned the tent with his light and noticed that his camera was gone. “Motherfucker,” he muttered.
He circled the perimeter of the camp, but the thief had vanished. Poachers, he guessed. After discovering a battleﬁeld’s worth of massacred elephants last year, the president of Gabon dispatched a military unit to make periodic sweeps through the parks, hoping their presence might slow what had recently become an epidemic. Jonah was skeptical. While the poaching in the forests around his camp did subside, he suspected they’d just been chased to other corners of the country. The ivory trade had been raging for years, and Jonah held no illusions about the government’s ability to eradicate it, so his goal was to protect, by whatever means necessary, his own small jurisdiction. Marcus had given him a Beretta 9mm before he’d left, but Jonah, thinking the danger had subsided, traded it for beer and groceries with a man in town, an exceptionally shortsighted decision he now regretted.
He crawled inside his tent, slid into his sleeping bag, and tried not to think about the possibility of the poachers returning to cut his throat. He tried not to think about what that would feel like, all that blood pouring forth, the days and weeks his corpse would lie undiscovered while jackals snacked on his decomposing body. He tried to think of more pleasant things, like single malt scotch and breakfast burritos, but his mind kept circling back to the image of his lifeless corpse seen from above, by a helicopter or a bird of prey or the eye of God. Realizing this was an unhealthy kind of thinking, he grabbed his notebook and headlamp and began drafting a letter that he hoped would shepherd his thoughts into sunnier pastures.
He awoke the next morning grateful to be alive. He stepped outside and breathed in the new day, which, even at this early hour, was already choked with a suffocating heat. He ate a breakfast of oatmeal and bananas, then washed it down with a cup of instant coffee. Life here was lived in the singular. He had one bowl, one cup, one spoon. He had a three-foot length of rope that doubled as a clothesline and a belt. He had a dishrag that he sometimes used on his face. He owned twenty-three items, twenty-two now that his camera had been stolen.
He shouldered his backpack and set off for the bai, the forest clearing where the elephants gathered each day. A nest of clouds shielded him from the sun and the hiking was easy, almost enjoyable. When he arrived at the bai, he saw a few dozen elephants slurping water from puddles that had sprouted from last night’s rain. There were several familiar faces: Goldie and her youngest calf, an ornery, bowlegged runt Jonah had nicknamed Scooch; Rango and her two babies, neither more than a few weeks old; and Silver Ears, whose semi-translucent ears gave her an extraterrestrial appearance. Jonah climbed the stairs to the observation deck, a wooden treehouse perched thirty feet above the forest floor. Without his electronics, his work would be limited to what he could record with his eyes. He did a quick head count, twenty- three, and noted the attendance in his journal. The numbers had been slowly declining over the past few weeks— fifty- eight on November 27, forty- four on December 4— and he hoped this was a statistical anomaly rather than a fundamental change in visitation rates. Either way, it was an alarming trend and he would have to come up with a way to explain it to Marcus when he got back to the States.
When Jonah was eight, he attended Zoo Camp at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. He and three other second graders were assigned to a “creature-teacher” named Eric. Most of the creatures Eric taught them about were the kind Jonah had seen on his grandparents’ farm— goats, box turtles, barn owls. They were fine— all animals were special in their own way, Eric told them— but it wasn’t until they visited the elephant enclosure that Jonah felt he’d encountered something truly magnificent. It wasn’t just their size, which he’d learned about in books, but the grace with which they moved, the elegance of something so large.
After high school, he studied conservation biology at Boston University. The summer after his junior year, he took his first trip to Africa, volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Kenya. The organization’s mission was to rehabilitate orphaned elephant calves to the point where they could be reintegrated back into the wild. Jonah was initially tasked with menial jobs like shoveling manure, but in time he learned the basics of animal husbandry and was eventually assigned to the nursery, where the youngest, most fragile calves were nursed back to health. Most of the elephants that arrived had been orphaned after their mothers were killed by poachers. They were usually found half-starved and wandering alone through the savannah, and it was the job of people like Jonah to help them through this intense period of mourning. Toward the end of his time in Kenya, he was assigned to a three- month-old female calf named Laki. She’d been found standing next to the decomposing body of her mother, dehydrated and on the verge of death. Jonah spent that first night lying alongside Laki, rubbing his hand along her back, waking every few hours to feed her from a bottle, trying to impress upon her the understanding that she was safe now, that she was loved. It was the closest he’d ever felt to any kind of paternal instinct, and during the long dark hours that he watched the animal sleep, he imagined finding the man responsible for Laki’s grief and smashing a rock against his head.
The sun was nearly gone when Jonah heard the trumpet call and saw a family of elephants emerging from the forest. He spotted the matriarch first, but something about her slow, halting movements seemed strange. She stopped every few feet as if she’d smelled some-thing offensive, then continued carefully, like a soldier navigating a minefield. It seemed like she was trying to camouflage herself in the forest growth, but when Jonah grabbed his binoculars and looked closer, he noticed that it wasn’t her massive body she was trying to conceal but her tusks. It was both shocking and heartbreaking. Not only did she associate the human scent with poaching, but she seemed to be cognizant of the reason someone would want to kill her. He’d never witnessed such behavior, and it was a stark reminder of the intelligence of his subjects, as well as how dispiriting their situation had become.
The matriarch led the others to a shallow pool, where they slurped mineral water percolating from the ground. He grabbed his notebook and jotted down some observations, the names and faces that were familiar to him, as well as those that were not. He was relieved to discover Kibo standing beneath his mother, whom Jonah had assumed was dead. A dozen more soon filtered in, and now there were close to forty, an encouraging increase from the morning’s count. A few of the younger ones locked tusks, roughhousing, while the adults congregated in little subsets, drinking and socializing in the manner of good-natured suburbanites. It was a festive scene, full of bonhomie and goodwill, one that reminded Jonah of a spirited forest block party. As he unfurled his sleeping bag and settled into bed, he paused to savor the moment, how fortunate he was to spend an evening with such noble and sentient creatures.
* * *
Jonah awoke with a butterfly on his face, which he interpreted as a good start to the day, though a moment later he saw it swallowed by a toad and was forced to reexamine the omen. He put together a quick breakfast, then collected the ARUs from the trees, which required some elementary ropework he’d learned during an introduction to rock climbing class back at Vanderbilt. He had two hundred hours of new media to decipher during his time in Chicago, and he hoped there might be something in there that would jumpstart his thesis.
He packed up his equipment and started back to camp. His flight left in a little over a week, and his plan was to spend the intervening days collecting data before heading back to town, where he would catch the train to Libreville. It was a lot of traveling, but he knew it would be worth it once he was back in Chicago, surrounded by deep-dish pizza, cold beer, and the familiar faces of his family.
He found her in a dry riverbed, bathing in a pool of her own blood, surrounded by Kibo and four other grief-stricken elephants. They paced circles around her, laying their trunks on her collapsed body in the style of a funeral procession. Though he was a good twenty yards away, there was no question it was Kibo’s mother. Once the elephants had disappeared into the forest, Jonah approached the corpse. Her face had been removed by crude machete work and the rest of her body lay rotting in the sun, sizzling with flies, emitting an odor that made Jonah’s stomach buck. He considered trying to conceal the corpse with palm fronds, but the vultures were hovering overhead, and he knew it was only a matter of time before there would be nothing left but clean, white bones. He snapped a few photos for evidence and then, fighting back tears, continued back to camp.
Brady Hammes is a writer and documentary film editor. The Resolutions is his first book. His short stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Guernica, The Rattling Wall, andBeecher’s. He lives in Los Angeles by way of Colorado and Iowa.
Music by Catlofe