Gorillas and Original Sin

8:30am, at the start of the gorilla tracking, we divided up into three groups. I was assigned to the M group. (M for what? Murder?) The day before there had been a fight between the silverback we were tracking and a solitary male. The solitary lost. For safety’s sake the silverback took his band deeper into the forest. We walked 13 miles to find them, seven miles into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and six out. The miles were not on level ground.

The climb to the crest of the first hill took two hours. We started down into the valley beyond. Joseph, our leader, heard over his walkie-talkie that the gorillas had swerved back toward the village. We climbed back up to the crest and followed a long ridge. Joseph held up his hand. We stopped. The gorillas were only 300 feet away. He motioned us off track, a short cut to the animals. Now everything was whispered. Our trackers hacked a passage through a thicket of stinging nettles, climbing vines and thorn bushes. Here the forest developed a mind of its own. Every step was impeded by a thorn, sometimes into socks, sometimes into sleeves, at least once into my forehead and leg. The climb’s level of difficulty ratcheted up. It teetered between hard and an ordeal. The heat was oppressive. We wore gloves against the nettle stings.

Finally, we came to a clearing.

“They are here,” whispered one of the trackers.

I looked around. I saw thickets, thorn bushes and small, low flying birds that turned out to be outlandishly large insects. I stared into a dark shape inside a bower. I couldn’t make it out. I looked up. Seven feet away a female, juvenile gorilla stood on all fours blinking at me as if I were an optometrist’s eye chart.

We stared at one another for a minute. She padded off out of sight into the thicket. As if on cue, a second female appeared to my left.

She rolled onto her back, raised her arms fetchingly over her head, and sent me a come-hither look fixing me the way the Ancient Mariner fixed his Wedding Guest. This unexpectedly intimate encounter with a creature whose DNA and mine overlapped by 98.7% transfixed me. She was telling me something. Before I could make out what it was, a larger female rolled into view clutching a tiny male to her bosom. The mother had presented herself for grooming and that was what my temptress proceeded to do, leaving me on the forest floor, rejected, like so much vegetable detritus.

 I watched her work her way through the mother's hair. The small motor control of her fingers—that is exactly what they were, fingers—was just like my own. She lifted the mother’s hair with an index finger. Lifted it again, inspected the patch of skin underneath, and, satisfied, moved on. If she found something, she delicately took it between her index finger and her thumb and ate it. She continued down the torso. Soon she was inspecting the mother's genitalia with the same equanimity that she displayed earlier on her belly. Embarrassed, I looked away. I looked back. The groomer made no fastidious distinction among the mother's body parts. I did. This is the legacy of original sin. I look at perfect innocence and judge it by my own morality. Shame on me. But that is the point of original sin, isn't it?

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