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Excerpt: 'Kingdom Under Glass'

Kingdom Under Glass



He felt heartsick when he saw the gorilla start its death tumble. It was coming right for him. Three or four hundred pounds of silver-backed ape slumping down the bright green jumble of vegetation in joyless somersaults. Rolling like a rain barrel, long arms flopping, ass over applecart, a furry black hogshead headed straight for the chasm below. Nothing was going to stop it now from hurtling into the void. Even if it ran him over first. Even if it took him with it. A skinny sapling was the only thing between him -- between Carl Akeley, the world's greatest taxidermist -- and the three-hundred-foot plummet. He leaned into it, rifle still pressed to his shoulder. The recoil alone would have knocked him off the mountain without the little tree wedged into his spine.

Technically, it wasn't a straight three-hundred-foot drop. Directly behind Akeley, crumbling just under the heel of his Silver & Edgington hobnail boot, was a sheer twenty-foot drop, and below that a sharp fifty-foot slide -- and then the big straight two-hundred-foot plummet. Chances were if the gorilla kept its momentum and made it over the first drop, it was going all the way, leaving Akeley with nothing to show for the thousands of miles he'd traveled to collect it for his greatest work-in-progress.

That is, if the gorilla didn't collect him first.

His Watusi guides and gun bearer were still clinging to the steep bank, where they had frozen at varying angles after spotting the black shaggy head thirty feet or so above them. They'd first seen it from across the canyon, a black speck minding its own business, and they had spent the better part of the morning getting from the one ridge, down the canyon, and back up the other side to the crest of this one just to see if it was indeed what they'd hoped. For hours, nothing but the sound of machete. The climb alternated between strictly vertical and almost vertical, and he had to repeatedly beg the guides to stop so he could catch his breath. It was grilling work, and quite honestly he wondered if he would survive it at all. To look at him was to wonder the same thing. Here was a white man clearly done in. He was gaunt and rattle-eyed. Feverish shadows cast by the brim of his pith helmet burrowed into the crags of a face that looked as if it were literally aging by the hour. He had felt the onset of the fever before he'd even penetrated gorilla country. Despite the cool moist climate he was a man on fire. By the time they'd got to the other side of the canyon, hauling themselves up by the mutinous nettles and thistle stalk -- and then out along the crest of this narrow ridge, the terrible drop just beneath -- he had had almost no strength left at all. Barely enough to stop for a smoke.

Leaning against the solitary sapling, he had got an upward bead on the gorilla rustling about in the vivid welter of greenery. His gun bearer clung to the slope with his right hand, like a whaler hanging off the mizzen shrouds, holding out the second rifle if Carl needed backup. The guide who'd spotted the ape had then lain down on the ground before him, naked but for his goatskin, and waited patiently for bwana to take the shot. The explosion was only a residue now. All dead quiet except the crumpling whoosh of vegetation as it parted in the wake of the gorilla's fall.

Carl Akeley nearly sank with relief when the gorilla passed cleanly between him and the terrified guide. But then dread immediately filled in the relief when the gorilla catapulted over the first ledge.

Before his mood had given way to dread that he would lose this most rare and dear prize, the taxidermist had been filled with an almost childlike sense of awe and glee. That he was actually seeing a gorilla in the first place! That this most unknown and mythical creature was actually just up there, looking down at him, with an expression of passive curiosity. Its face was ugly and mild. It looked as if it were rethinking through some small but persistent self-doubt. Part of Akeley's sense of disbelief, certainly, was caused by the great heat boiling his flesh, the fever that cauterized everything passing before his eyes. He should have started taking the quinine earlier. Now, along with an evil headache, everything was distorted with an aura of unreality. It was an eerie beauty of volcanoes and misty ravines, of crooked trees dripping with moss and silvery lichen. He half expected to see fairies springing out of the lacy chest-high ferns.

Really, like a boy, he had had to pinch himself when he had seen the first knuckle print in the mud. He'd held his hand over the four impressions, curling the back of his trembling fingers above the larger mold. Then, after scrambling farther along on all fours in the ruck and jumble of vine and bamboo, they'd come to several footprints in a slick of mud. They were enormous. All but human. It was then he felt his faith slipping, and he switched from the Springfield to the double-barreled elephant gun.

Theoretically, he told himself, he did not fear the gorillas. He had even composed a sort of creed against this fear: how he had spent too much time around wild animals to believe in monsters. He knew they weren't looking for trouble. But now he felt almost excited to a painful degree. That was how the first white man to encounter a gorilla, Paul du Chaillu, had put it right before he'd blown the "hellish" creature straight to kingdom come. Akeley had gorged himself on these early sensational narratives before coming here. Du Chaillu believed the gorillas were so powerful they had driven out the lions and elephants from this region where they lived. Excited to a painful degree, though, was exactly how Akeley felt, even if he had tried to convince himself ahead of time that the brutes could not possibly be half as ferocious as their popular image: that of a demonic beast capable of snapping a rifle in its teeth, or ripping the head off a man with one hand, and with a penchant for abducting human females for purposes of unchaste cavorting. But when he saw the print in the mud, he'd been all too eager to hold the rifle. Then when he had finally come upon this one sunning itself on the upper slope of the canyon, it seemed a benign and gentle beast. Crouched on a mezzanine of dense vegetation, doing nothing more than regarding the day. Akeley had waited for it to charge, or to beat on its chest, as he had read in accounts, but it did nothing of the sort. It merely barked at him, like a seal. And on the fourth bark Akeley had pulled the trigger.

The truth would still bring people to the museum in droves. If only it didn't vanish into the chasm first.

Excerpted from Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals by Jay Kirk Copyright 2010 by Jay Kirk. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.

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Jay Kirk