Erol Ozan's Blog - Posts Tagged "kalanoro"

Erol Ozan

First Three Chapters

Chapter 1

Rylan opened his eyes, met the Air Madagascar stewardess’s gaze.
“Redressez votre siège, s'il vous plaît.”
The young man brought his seat back to the upright position.
The turbo-prop aircraft was on final approach to Maroantsetra Airport. The young man’s hazel eyes surveyed the green pasture appearing behind a layer of puffy cumulus clouds. The airplane drew a semi circle in the air passing over a sleepy port located at the mouth of a river lined with palm trees.
Before long, the plane’s tires touched on the bumpy runway and taxied towards a tiny building. A soft tropical breeze brushed Rylan’s face as he stepped out of the plane. He spotted a couple of cows grazing near a field facing the airstrip.
He studied the terminal building that looked like a rundown shack. Behind a murky glass, he spotted a petite, red haired woman, waving at him. He gave his hair a quick comb with his fingers before he entered the waiting lounge.
“Rylan Walker?”
“Welcome to Madagascar. My name is Ursula—Ursula Deiss,” said the young woman as she extended a slender arm towards Rylan. “I am one of the anthropologists on the expedition team.” Her green eyes beamed. She had well defined chick-bones and a straight nose, sprinkled with faint freckles.
“How did you know I was on this flight?”
“This is the only flight scheduled for this week. I’ve figured you’d be on this one.”
Rylan tailed Ursula as she headed for the exit, parting the crowd with firm steps. His eyes caught the woman’s tailbone exposed between her chartreuse tank top and low-riding jeans. His gaze stayed on the tanned flesh for a full second. No tailbone tattoos! That was a rare sight in LA where he came from.
Outside, passengers were rushing towards an old minibus marked, Taxi Brousse, bush taxi. The driver was stacking the luggage on the vehicle’s roof.
Ursula stopped in front of a Jeep covered with red mud.
“This is our ride. It takes about two hours to get to the camp site,” Ursula said. “The road gets really bumpy. Make sure you hang on tight!”
The air was extremely hot and humid. After driving first on a narrow dirt road and then on rugged asphalt for about seven kilometers, they arrived at a shantytown filled with palm-roofed houses patched with rusty metal sheets, old automobile parts, plastic panels, and stained card boxes.
Ursula had to slow down as they approached a crowded outdoor marketplace.
Heads were turning towards them with smiling faces.
“Bonjour, Vazaha!” Everyone cheered as they passed.
“They are very friendly.” Rylan waved back.
The marketplace was packed with scores of stalls, displaying an endless variety of merchandise, including live chickens, raw meat covered with clouds of flies, straw hats, hand-woven baskets, exotic spices, piles and piles of rice, weird looking tropical fruits, and countless numbers of large sacks filled with colorful beans. Each item competed to dominate the air with its own fragrance, creating a concerto of exotic scents with varying levels of agreeability.
Women were carrying their groceries on top of their heads: fish, bottles, sacks, baskets, all looking surprisingly comfortable. Some wore colorful cover-ups wrapped around their bodies.
“They are called lamba,” Ursula explained, realizing the interested look in Rylan’s eyes. “Malagasy women’s national costume. They use it for all sorts of purposes; it can serve as a gown, a skirt, a pareo, a fashionable bonnet, or a sack to carry their groceries. See?” She pointed to a woman with a baby wrapped inside her lamba. “They even put their babies in it.”
Young women wore their lambas very tightly; it almost formed a second skin, accentuating their curves.
“For single women, lambas also serve as a flirtation tool. I was told that certain patterns and color combinations are meant to send special messages to the opposite sex,” Ursula added.
They left the marketplace behind and got on a red muddy road dotted with puddles. Jacaranda trees lined both sides.
“How long have you been here?” Rylan asked.
“It’s been a week,” said Ursula, pressing on the gas pedal to pass a slow-moving bush taxi loaded beyond its capacity.
“You look like you’ve been here for a long time.”
“I’ve been on too many expeditions all over the world. It doesn’t take long for me to acclimate to new places anymore.”
“Where do you live?”
“Technically, I live in Paris, but I don’t get to spend much time there. I feel like I’ve got to settle down somewhere at one point. I guess I’m still looking for that perfect place in the world where I can live forever. What about you?”
“I don’t travel that much but I don’t think I’ve settled down either.” He smiled as they passed a vanilla plantation worked by lamba-clad women. “This place makes you feel alive.”
Ursula chuckled as they passed an area filled with mango trees. “Trust me, it’s going to get better once we start hiking in the jungle. You’re going to feel extremely alive when ticks start crawling inside your flesh.”
When they stopped at a gas station, Ursula felt the urge to explain. “This is one of the rare gas stations selling clean fuel. If you choose the wrong gas station, you may very well end up getting strangled with a choked engine.”
Before long, they were on the road again, traveling through increasingly beautiful scenery.
“Dr. Kutsnetz is talking very highly of you.” Ursula produced a radiant smile as they passed a convoy of ox carts made out of half-cut automobiles.
“Is he the boss?”
“Yes… Kind of… Oh, you have no idea who you are going to work with. Do you?”
“Not really. Vittoli, the guy who offered me this job, wasn’t quite chatty when it came to answering my questions.”
“Yes. That Vittoli person doesn’t give you much information. Don’t worry. I was just like you a week ago. And to answer your question, yes, Kutsnetz leads the expedition, so that makes him our boss, kind of—I really don’t like the idea of having a boss, though.” Her voice was gallant. “I like my freedom. Anyway, he sounds very excited about the system you invented.”
“You mean my dissertation project? I’m not sure if it can be called an invention.” Rylan shrugged. “I wonder how he found out about my research project. It’s still a work in progress. He shouldn’t get his hopes up.”
“Oh, you are one of those modest guys.” Ursula smiled. “I thought they don’t make men like you anymore.”
“We sure are becoming obsolete.” He smiled back. “Thirty-six hours ago, I was sitting in a lab at UCLA. Out of blue, that guy—Vittoli—came and offered me this job.” He paused and then continued. “I’m a PhD student in electrical engineering. I have no idea why anybody would need me in a paleoanthropology expedition. Do you think any of this stuff makes any sense?”
“Yes, it does,” she said without hesitation and then shot him a cheerful look. “Hell, I’m happy with the money they pay. I’m in a stage in my life where I don’t care much about the sense thing anymore. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of starving for science, so getting a good paycheck for once feels refreshing.”
“I agree with you on that one.”
Rylan had been with UCLA’s doctoral program for three years. He had degrees in physics, computer science, and chemistry. It had taken only three years for him to get his bachelors and masters degrees; he had been characterized as a genius in the making by his professors back in the day. But somehow he had gotten stalled at the doctoral level. His dissertation was taking longer than everyone had anticipated. First, he had spent three years in a Ph.D. program in bioinformatics, which he quit in the blink of an eye, trashing all the work he had done. Next, he had signed up for a doctoral program in electrical engineering, starting from scratch.
He worked part-time as a research assistant at UCLA, a job he kept to maintain some degree of freedom in his life. He didn’t mind the gruesomely low figures on his paycheck because UCLA provided an enjoyable habitat where he could do what he wanted. An enjoyable habitat yet a temporary one, he often reminded himself. More like a stepping stone towards the next stage in his life, which he still needed to figure out.

They were approaching a forest. The road became darker as they were surrounded by a tangled web of tropical vegetation. Rylan was amazed by the height of the trees.
“They go as high as thirty-five meters,” Ursula explained. “Isn’t it amazing how tall they are? They cover the whole sky. Ninety-eight percent of the light is absorbed by those trees and the forest canopy grown on them. It’s always dark inside the rainforest. You wouldn’t notice, even if it was stormy up there.” Ursula pointed to the sky hidden behind the dense foliage. “The other day, I didn’t notice it was raining until I got into a clearing in the forest… didn’t get a drop when I was inside the jungle! Trees absorb all the rain!”
“Not a drop gets wasted, huh?” said Rylan.
The forest floor looked dry, and there was little vegetation covering the soil. Most of the foliage had grown high, forming the forest canopy.
The ride became bumpier as the potholes on the road got deeper. Ursula carefully assessed the depth of the water before driving slowly through a rushing stream.
They finally stopped at a camp site with two large tents and five smaller ones spread over about an acre of clearing inside the jungle.
Ursula gave a quick tour. “Those are the tents where we get together as a group to work and dine. There’s also a lab bench in one of them.” She turned towards the area with the smaller tents. “Everybody has a tent to sleep in. You can set up yours there.” She checked her watch. “Hey, it’s lunch time already.”
They stepped into one of the large tents where two middle-aged men named George Linden and Michael Johansson, anthropologists from MIT and Princeton, were having lunch. When Ursula introduced Rylan to the professors, her cheerful attitude painted a stark contrast with the stillness of the two men.
“So… Rylan, tell us about that outstanding software you developed,” said Linden. “Kutsnetz is very impressed by your work. I’m not a computer person so I have no idea.”
“Well. It’s not one hundred percent complete, so I hope it doesn’t disappoint you all.” Seeing other people paying attention to his research was something new for Rylan. Even his thesis advisor didn’t take an interest in the system he developed.
“Kutsnetz is very confident that you got a working system. I’ve read your article, and I think it looks robust enough for the purposes of our project,” said Linden.
“You computer geeks are magicians. If I understood correctly from your paper, your software can identify and categorize objects in a random picture without requiring detailed descriptions for every item. Like an ultra powerful image recognition tool…” Johansson chimed in.
“You read my article?” Rylan was surprised. He kept publishing papers in journals and conferences, but so did thousands of other scientists. There was an excess of scientific literature with more writers than readers. Most scientific articles, especially conference articles, never got read by anybody except their writers. And in many cases, even the co-authors hadn’t read the whole paper, focusing only on the sections they wrote.
“We all read it,” said Ursula. “Kutsnetz gave everyone a copy.”
“So where is Dr. Kutsnetz?” Rylan felt a little shy and wanted to divert attention somewhere else.
“He wandered into the jungle,” murmured Johansson.
Ursula went to the refrigerator and returned with a white bag. She lined up several syringes and small vaccine bottles on the table and then grabbed Rylan’s arm, rubbing it with a cotton ball. Before he had a chance to react, she was done giving him the first injection.
“What was that?” Rylan asked. “It hurt.”
“Some vaccine. Pretty standard stuff.” Ursula readied the second injection.
“Just like that? You’re not going to ask me about my vaccination history, allergies? My medical history? Anything?”
“Nope.” Ursula shrugged and then added, “You’re not in America, Rylan. You’re in Madagascar. There’s no one to sue for medical malpractice.”
Rylan rubbed his arm. “I should warn you, I’ve got some family members who are big and hairy. They‘ll come after you if something happens to me.”
“Well, I’ll just have to vaccinate them as well. Won’t I?” Ursula grinned.
Linden and Johansson tried to look amused but they could only produce fake smiles. Ursula glanced at the two scientists and then turned to Rylan with a look as if to say, Those two are hopeless. Don’t mind them. They’re like robots.
Rylan was feeling dizzy. The combination of free airplane drinks, thirty hours of flight time, and the vaccination is finally kicking in, he inferred.
“Here’s your tent. You must be dying to sleep.” Ursula threw a large cylindrical bag to him.
When Rylan didn’t react quickly enough to catch it, the bag landed on his head.
He built the tent with the last crumbles of energy left in him.

Chapter 2

Rylan woke up in the dark. He had no idea what time it was. He looked at his watch but couldn’t remember in which time zone he adjusted it the last time. His brain felt like a soft Swiss cheese with a bunch of holes in it.
One of the tents had lights on so he wandered in. It was an upbeat dinner atmosphere inside.
“You look a mess! Come, join us,” Ursula said.
She had a wine glass in her hand. Rylan sat next to her.
“My name is Zbigniew Kutsnetz. It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Mr. Walker.” The voice was coming from a man in his late sixties.
“Pleasure is all mine. Please, call me Rylan.”
“And you can call me Kutsnetz,” he said with a slurry voice. He took a deep gulp of wine and pointed at a Malagasy man sitting quietly next to him. “Let me introduce Dr. Eloi Rakotomalala. He is the doctor of a nearby village. He grew up in this area and knows the jungles around here inside and out.”
“Eloi has probably seen species that have not been discovered yet. Haven’t you, Eloi?” Johansson said.
“I am fifty-nine years old and spent all my life here. But there are still a lot of creatures on this land that I don’t even know of. I am still learning.” His voice was soft and almost hypnotizing. “God blessed our country with his most beautiful creatures.”
“This country’s deforestation problem is sad. Soon, there will be no rainforest left,” Ursula sighed.
“That’s why we’re here. Right?” said Kutsnetz with a triumphant voice. “To discover and record the richness of this place before it disappears.”
“The other day, I heard on the news that a South Korean company is purchasing a gigantic piece of land for farming. They’ll produce the food here and ship it back to South Korea. As a result, our people probably will not be able to afford the rice grown in their own country. That corporation will own twenty percent of the agricultural land in this country. Can you believe it? Twenty percent!”
“Well, at least they’ll create some employment.” Johansson tried not to sound too condescending. “Considering the high unemployment rate in Madagascar, it might be a good thing.”
“I’m not so sure about that. We, Malagasy people, believe in the magic of the land we live in. I’m afraid that foreigners will take it away from us and turn us into a corn field.” Eloi looked down at his plate.
Kutsnetz’s voice echoed in the tent. “Tiana!” He called the young Malagasy woman who was busy stirring a casserole in the makeshift kitchen behind a cardboard panel.
“Please bring some food to this young Americano,” Kutsnetz pointed at Rylan, “he must be starving.”
Tiana handed a full plate to Rylan.
“Smells good.” Rylan smiled at Tiana. “Thanks.”
“May I offer a toast?” Kutsnetz poured a generous amount of red wine into Rylan’s glass and turned to Eloi. “Let’s drink to Madagascar!”
Rylan looked at his plate, filled with a casserole of meat and vegetables. He took a bite.
“How’s the food?” Kutsnetz grinned.
“Delicious,” replied Rylan.
“It’s made of kalanoro meat—very nutritious.”
“What’s a kalanoro?” Rylan looked at his plate quizzically.
“You must be ashamed of yourself, Dr. Kutsnetz,” Tiana protested with an angry voice. She turned to Rylan, “It’s not kalanoro meat. It’s zebu meat.”
“Relax. Zebu means beef,” explained Ursula. “Eat up.”
“If you don’t respect kalanoro, you’ll face dire consequences one day.” Tiana continued murmuring in half French and half Malagasy.
Kutsnetz was jubilant and looked extremely amused by her frustration.
“It’s all right, Tiana,” Eloi assured the young woman. “Kalanoro know that we are friends of all the creatures on this land.”
“Kalanoro are legendary manlike creatures. They are believed to be less than three feet tall. Like a dwarf version of a bigfoot,” Ursula explained.
“Most Malagasy people believe in their existence. It’s almost a religious thing for them,” Linden said.
“Who knows? Maybe they do exist.” Kutsnetz glanced at Tiana who was headed to the kitchen.
“Let me tell you a story about kalanoro,” Eloi cleared his throat. “I myself haven’t ever seen a kalanoro. But most of my friends and family have. At least, that’s what they say. But, then again, I think most of them cannot be trusted in such claims. There is this spiritual aura surrounding kalanoro and a lot of emotions going along with it. And when people are driven by strong emotions, they often see what they want to see.
“However, there is one person whose account I can truly trust: my grandmother’s. She was an atheist who never believed in anything spiritual in her life. She was also a very honest person. She never lied and didn’t care about the troubles she got herself into for telling the truth all the time. As I said, she didn’t care about religion. I don’t know how someone like her came to life in a place like this where spirituality so dominates every aspect of life. She was sharp and had an excellent memory. I have never witnessed her forgetting anything… even in her late age when she was ninety five… always sharp… And she saw kalanoro… many times.”
Eloi paused for a second, his eyes locked on an invisible horizon. “My grandmother’s first experience with those creatures affected her the most. It was a sunny spring day. She was working in a small rice paddy behind her village, digging the soil or doing something of that nature. She was a hard worker. There she is, minding her own business, focusing on the work at hand. Suddenly, she notices something unusual in her peripheral vision. She turns and sees a kalanoro standing in front of her. The creature looks like a miniaturized human covered with thick gray fur. The kalanoro keeps looking into her eyes and my grandmother just stays still. God knows she was a brave person, never scared of anything.”
He stopped to take a sip of water and then continued, his voice turning into a mystical, almost touchable cloud, filling the whole tent. “The creature speaks to her. But his voice doesn’t sound like anything my grandmother had heard in her life and she hadn’t heard a kalanoro’s voice before. The creature speaks a language that’s foreign, outer-worldly. But she clearly understands what he is saying. She can’t move, and the kalanoro keeps on talking. She understands him perfectly, but the understanding doesn’t come with words. She starts to see shapes, which appear in front of her eyes. She realizes she is dreaming while she is perfectly awake at the same time. Her dream is juxtaposed with reality.
“She is completely alert; all her faculties are functioning perfectly, but she can’t erase the dream out of her sight. She can’t escape from it. In her dream, she sees me. I am a little baby back then. She sees me inside the hut, our home. I am sleeping peacefully, so defenseless in my crib. She starts to cry without knowing why. She feels so sad, a sadness that reminds her of the day she lost her husband. She looks around my bed in the dream. Something feels wrong. She knows there is not much time. Her body shaking like a leaf, suddenly, she feels something, moving in the room. And she sees it, a big spider climbing on my crib. A black ugly spider... She recognizes it as the deadliest kind. Its poison is so strong, it can collapse a zebu to the ground in seconds. Realizing what’s about to happen, she runs to the house and storms into the room where I sleep. She smashes the spider in pieces.”
The whole tent stayed silent for a while as if it had been swallowed by an invisible vortex. Eloi sat back and exhaled. His eyes were staring at the floor. “My grandmother always said that the little kalanoro saved my life that day. She kept telling me, ‘You owe it to those little people, Eloi, you owe them, don’t ever dare forget that,’ until the day she died.”
“Your grandmother was a respectable lady. Everybody loved her. It’s a shame that we don’t have people like her anymore,” said Tiana as she brought another bottle of wine and a carafe of water to the table.
“So… You believe they exist?” Rylan asked.
“I believe what my grandmother said,” Eloi replied.
Johansson poured water into his glass. “Well, I am not a big fan of cryptozoology; however, theoretically, we cannot rule out the possibility of the kalanoro’s existence. I mean, it is scientifically possible. It may be highly unlikely, but still, a possibility indeed.”
“Even the famous anthropologist Jane Goodall said she was convinced that Yeti and Bigfoot existed,” Ursula commented. “So, why not the kalanoro?”
“Ah… cryptozoology,” Kutsnetz chanted cheerfully. “The old, dusty box in the closet… You can’t get rid of it, but you never want to open it either.”
“For a long time, zoologists didn’t believe the existence of aye-ayes either. They thought it was a mythical creature before they found it in 1962 here in Madagascar,” Eloi said. “So who knows, maybe someday a kalanoro population will be discovered somewhere in the jungle.”
“What is an aye-aye?” Rylan asked.
“Aye-ayes are weird-looking primates. They have large ears that look almost like satellite dishes, which can turn in all directions. Their middle finger is roughly three times longer than the other fingers. They use their elongated fingers to pull food from holes. And their teeth grow constantly, like fingernails,” Linden explained.
“Sounds like an alien,” Ursula chuckled.
“I think if you spend enough time in a Malagasy jungle, chances are you end up bumping into unknown species.” Kutsnetz made a full circle with his glass and then stopped as if it had hit an invisible obstacle.
Rylan turned to Kutsnetz. “Everything sounds very exciting. But I still don’t really know why I’m here. I’d really like to hear a little bit about that.”
“Isn’t that wonderful? That feeling of not knowing too much about something… Incomplete information… Endless possibilities… Feel it, Rylan. When you don’t know much about something, it’s the most exciting sensation. Let me give you an example; when I see a beautiful woman for the first time, at that precise moment—the moment of first sight—and maybe a short period of time following that precious moment is the happiest. Everything declines afterward. You get to know the woman and you discover all the imperfections. Shit starts to emerge, and the beauty begins to fade. Excitement dies. Vibration is gone. So, don’t rush… Just enjoy the moment.” Kutsnetz paused and then continued, “My vision for this expedition is to conduct an open-minded exploration. I want this expedition to be monumental and beautiful, a masterpiece. Something Eloi’s grandmother would approve of. We’re here to learn. We’re students of this jungle, and I can promise one thing: the possibilities will be endless. Beauty will be immense. Salut!” He raised his glass. “To Eloi’s grandmother! May we all have at least a fraction of her wisdom in our lowly lives!”
Kutsnetz stood up. “I am retiring to my tent now! Wake-up time is 6 AM sharp. Sleep tight, fellas.”
As the old scientist stepped out, Ursula whispered in Rylan’s ear, “What a character, huh?”
“Why do I feel like this guy’s hiding something?”
“Because he’s what you’d get if you mixed a used car salesman with a clown. He’s constantly trying to impose his point of view while desperately trying to be funny.”
“And yet he’ll be making decisions on this expedition.”
“Yep. He’s going to lead us through an uncharted jungle.”
“Is that dangerous?”
“Hiking in an uncharted jungle…”
“I would say so. By definition, it’s unexplored; completely unknown.” Ursula took a sip of wine and then dried her lips with a napkin. “And in a jungle, unknown is the thing that usually gets you in trouble.

Chapter 3

“Good morning!” Rylan entered the tent.
“Good morning.” Ursula smiled.
Kutsnetz and Johansson nodded silently as Rylan took a seat next to the young woman.
Tiana filled a cup filled with dark brown tea and handed it to him. It smelled of vanilla. A plate full of lychee, pineapple, and mango followed.
Linden appeared at the entrance seated himself quietly. The tent stayed silent for a few minutes. Kutsnetz asked for another cup of tea, sounding more polite than he was last night.
“All right everybody, let’s get started.” He announced. His hands were still locked behind his head. “The main objective of this project is to uncover fossils of extinct lemurs. Our secondary goal is to search for new lemur species and capture live specimens if possible.”
Kutsnetz paused for a brief moment to scan his audience with his small zigzagging eyes. “As we all know, there are numerous lemur sub-species yet to be discovered in Malagasy jungles. We have extremely limited information about the ancestors of modern lemurs that now populate the island so this expedition will answer a lot of questions.”
He stopped when he saw Eloi step in the tent.
“Good morning, Eloi, my dear friend!” Kutsnetz greeted.
Eloi smiled and quietly took a seat.
Kutsnetz continued. “Eloi helped us identify a number of locations with potential for finding lemur fossils. As you all know, lemurs live in trees. When they die, their bodies decompose quickly, making it virtually impossible to find anything in the forest soil. So we are going to focus on caves where we have a better chance of discovering preserved fossils. The areas that we will explore are extremely hard to reach, which means the expedition is going to be quite strenuous.”
“In fact, nobody has ever gone to the parts of the Masaola Forest you’re going to cover,” Eloi confirmed. “So we don’t really know what’s out there. There is no road. You’ll have to hike in the wilderness and practically cut your way through the jungle. The forest vegetation here varies a lot. Some areas can get really wet and slippery, while others are dry. You will also have to cross riverbanks and lakes. By the way, you have to watch for crocodiles in the water.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Rylan asked.
“No, unfortunately not. As the only doctor in the area, I am very much needed in the village. But Tiana is coming with you. She will help you stay away from the dangers of the forest.”
“Why not use helicopters if the hike is so difficult?” Rylan turned to Kutsnetz.
“A number of reasons… First, there is no place inside the jungle that a copter could land safely. We would need to jump or climb down a rope from the helicopter commando style, which may be OK for you two…” He pointed at Ursula and Rylan with his head. “But not so much for the rest of us who are not as athletic.” He then added. “And choppers are not cheap. So it’s also a money management problem. It would eat up our budget and we’d get a pay cut.”
Kutsnetz opened a map on the table. “Anyway, back to our agenda for today… First, we’ll drive north,” he announced. “It should take us about three or four hours depending on the road conditions. And then we’ll have to hike to the north camp and meet the second team.”
“There is a second team up there?” Rylan tilted his head towards Kutsnetz.
“Yes. They started hiking from the opposite side, covering different areas. They’ve done some initial surveying and cave excavation. We’ll see what they’ve uncovered when we get there. We’ll refine our plans according to their findings. Now, you have thirty minutes to pack your stuff and get ready for the road.”

The team regrouped in front of the two jeeps. Ursula was spraying herself with insect repellent.
“This stinks,” she wrinkled her nose. “Here, use this. You don’t want to get malaria in the jungle. Believe me. I had it once. It’s not fun at all.”
“Everybody, listen up!” Kutsnetz commanded. “Rylan, Ursula, and I will be driving the first jeep. Johansson, Linden, and Tiana, you guys will follow us. We all have walkie-talkies, so we’ll be in constant contact. Be careful: there are deep potholes in the road. It gets really tricky out there. Pay extra attention to soft spots. You don’t want to get our vehicles mired in the jungle. Tiana will be driving your vehicle. Ursula is the most experienced off-road driver on our team, so she will be driving the leading vehicle. Everybody, watch your surroundings. Don’t forget you’re in a rain forest. Anything can happen. OK, let’s go!”
Ursula climbed into the driver’s seat as Kutsnetz sat next to her. He opened a map. “All right, let the fun begin, huh?” He grinned.
The next two hours were torturous. Rylan kept hitting his head on the vehicle’s ceiling as they drove through a muddy trail.
Ursula was carefully navigating a narrow path covered by dense foliage under Kutsnetz’s constant interference.
“Be careful, a soft spot coming.
“Watch that big pothole.
After they crossed a small stream, Rylan saw two lemurs looking at him with yellow eyes on their heart-shaped heads. The trail looked like a narrow tunnel carved inside the jungle.
Ursula wiped the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand.
“Hey, do you want me to drive a little bit?” Rylan suggested.
“Are you crazy? Have you ever driven in a rain forest?” Kutsnetz mumbled. “It’s not easy. It requires experience. I can’t let you get us mired.”
“I’m doing OK, Rylan. Thanks,” Ursula replied with a faint smile, her eyes locked on the road.
They reached an opening in the forest.
“The road ends here, fellow explorers,” announced Kutsnetz. “From here on, we must use our legs.”
They took out the bags and shared the load. Before the hike, they filled their stomachs with Tiana’s sandwiches. Kutsnetz passed around a bottle of fresh strawberry juice they had bought from the villagers.

Holding a GPS device, Kutsnetz often consulted with Tiana as he led the group in the jungle. Ursula and Rylan were hiking together following about ten steps behind them. Johansson and Linden turned out to be slow walkers; the team often had to stop and wait for them to catch up.
The forest floor was covered with brown leaves and kily pods fallen from the trees.
“Ring-tailed lemurs love kily fruit. They eat both the fruit and its leaves,” explained Tiana. “We call them hira,” She pointed at a group of ten ring-tailed lemurs with long black and white tails.
“That’s a big one right there!” Ursula pointed at a group of lemurs, all huddled together forming a ball of fur. Rylan counted twenty of them.
As the group climbed a steep hill, they needed to take more frequent breaks to wait for Johansson and Linden.
“We’re losing so much time.” Kutsnetz’s impatience started to show. He glanced at his watch with despair. “At this pace, we’ll never make it to the site before sunset.”
“Why don’t we camp out here tonight?” Rylan asked.
“Well, it can get a little bit eerie out here. I don’t like it. Besides, that’s not the way I planned it.” Kutsnetz frowned.

“Look!” Ursula pointed up. They all turned their heads and saw scores of bats hanging from the trees. With their red-gold fur and large-eyed faces, they looked like foxes.
“Heeeeooooooooooooooowwww!!!” Tiana shouted out.
In a blink of an eye, the creatures became airborne with a loud whoosh created by thousands of flapping wings. They quickly stormed out of sight.
“We call them flying foxes.” Tiana smiled. “They have delicious meat, very tender!”
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” Ursula whispered into Rylan’s ear as she pointed to Tiana who was now climbing a hill ahead.
“She sure is.”
“I find Malagasy people very elegant. Their ancestors came to Madagascar about two thousand years ago from Africa and Asia.”
“They definitely have a unique look. Very agreeable, I must say.”
“Look at this beautiful forest!” Ursula said. “Ninety percent of the plants and animals we see right now at this moment do not live anywhere else in the whole world. Can you believe it?”
“It’s incredible,” Rylan responded. “I just can’t believe I’m here. Two days ago, I was thinking about what I was going to do this summer. Now I’m here and everything that bothers me is so far away. I even forgot about my dissertation.”
“So… Is there a special someone waiting for you back home?”
“No, not really. How about you?”
“Nobody. It’s hard to find someone who can tolerate my non-stop traveling.”
“Let’s take a break,” Kutsnetz announced. Standing on a rock, he was eyeing the group carefully. Johansson and Linden had fallen behind again
When the two professors arrived with red sweaty faces, looking exhausted, Johansson looked at Linden who had collapsed to the ground and then turned to Kutsnetz hopelessly, “I don’t think we can walk any longer, Kutsnetz. Better Linden and I camp out here tonight. You guys can keep going. We’ll catch you tomorrow at the North Camp. We have a GPS device. If you give me the coordinates, we’ll meet you there.”
“I can’t leave you alone in the jungle. We’re all staying here tonight.” Kutsnetz, displeased with the idea, wrinkled his forehead and then glanced at the device in Johansson’s hand, “I didn’t know you had one of those,” he said as he raised an eyebrow.

Tiana began setting up the tents.
Kutsnetz turned to Ursula, “Why don’t you collect some brushwood with Rylan? We need to build a fire. Here, use these.” He tossed two empty sacks. “Don’t get lost. Don’t go too far.”
While they were picking up sticks, Ursula sat on a rock and took a sip of water from her flask. Rylan saw her swallowing two pills from a box. He read the label, Efexor.
“Do you have anxiety problems?” When Ursula looked surprised, he explained, “I knew someone who took the same medicine.”
“Your ex-girlfriend?” Ursula raised an eyebrow.
“No, just a close friend.”
“So what was her condition about?” asked Ursula.
“Well, she used to work as a baker in a cake factory where she made specialty cakes... and she used to make a lot of cakes, she told me. During holidays, the factory got so busy that she had to work like crazy, baking cakes non-stop. She kept working out of responsibility while all the other bakers went home at the end of their shifts. I guess she was burnt out and got really depressed. She said she made tens of thousands of cakes a year.”
“Tens of thousands? Are you kidding me?”
“It’s true, I swear. At least, that’s what she told me. I don’t remember the exact number, though. It was like eighty-thousand or something like that.”
“Eighty-thousand fucking cakes! That should do it,” Ursula chuckled.
“She had nightmares, watching herself frantically making cakes,” Rylan said and then paused. “What about you? What caused your anxiety?”
“It was an accident that happened about a year ago in New Guinea. A cave collapsed on me and my father. I barely survived.” She exhaled sharply. “But my father was killed…”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Afterwards, my wounds healed, but the depression didn’t go away. I started having nightmares. And then those led to unbearable panic attacks. When I had an episode, it made me feel like I was choking. It gave me a high fever. I could literally hear my heart beating in my ears. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. So now I take two of these every day. I can’t function without them.”
“But you’re supposed to climb down into the caves on this expedition. How are you going to do it?”
“I’ve got to do it! It’s a passion for me as well as a job. Despite everything, I still have cave fever.”
“Cave fever?”
“Cavers constantly crave the underground. We miss the thrill.”
“Have you been to a cave after that incident?”
“No, but I feel ready. It’s time to test myself, and this is a good place to do it.”
Ursula undid her ponytail and ran her fingers through her hair.
“Come on. It’s getting dark.” She pointed at the brushwood in the sacks. “We need to collect more of these.”
When they returned to camp, Johansson and Linden looked invigorated. Kutsnetz was reading a book and drinking strawberry vodka from a tin cup.
“I need alcohol, Kutsnetz. What do you have?” asked Ursula.
“We have vodka, rum, and wine. Which one would you like, dear?”
“I’ll take rum and Coke.”
“Cuba libre, huh? What about you, Rylan?”
“I’ll have the same.”
“I’m making vary amin anana, steamed vegetables. We also have varenga, roasted shredded beef,” Tiana announced. “Who wants some ranomapango?”
“What’s that?” Linden asked.
“It’s a drink made of burned rice,” answered Tiana.
Ursula took a sip. “Refreshing.”
Kutsnetz uncorked a bottle of red wine and poured some into his tin cup.
“Tiana, you are a terrific cook!” Ursula harrumphed. “We need some music to go with this feast,” she said as she produced an iPod and two speakers. Before long, the jungle was filled with the music.
“You got any salsa tunes in that thing?” asked Kutsnetz.
“Sure. I got everything. You fancy Latin music?”
“I’m in the mood for some dancing, honey… Salsa is the only dance I know.”
Ursula played with the dials of her iPod to find the right tune. “Here you go.”
Kutsnetz grabbed Tiana’s hand and dragged her near the fire. They started dancing. Ursula and Rylan joined them as Johansson and Linden clapped their hands with the rhythm of the music.
The loud music masked the jungle’s cacophony played by millions of animals.
At that moment, a voice echoed in a remote corner of the forest, the voice of a mysterious creature, one whose path should not cross man’s. Muffled by the thick jungle vegetation, the voice didn’t reach the camp site…
Not yet…

Talus is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and in many other booksellers.

For paperback edition click here

For Kindle Edition click here

Copyright(C) 2010 Erol Ozan
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Published on May 22, 2010 06:38 • 322 views • Tags: anthropology, bigfoot, cryptozoology, expedition, fiction, hominid, kalanoro, madagascar, masaola, neanderthal, paleontology, rain-forest, thriller