Latency Period: Animal Encounters

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, May 29th, 2017

"A hardening from head to toe, as if I’d armored myself..."

Daniel Elder Essay Nailed Magazine
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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Summer 2015

There was much I wished to see in Peru, sites I’d dreamed about for years and years. Ruins, mountains, cities. As the trip approached, though, I found myself staring at pictures of Andean condors all the time. I grew fascinated by their majestic bodies, their ugly wrinkled heads, and the distinguished white collars separating the two. I wanted, more than anything else, to witness one in flight.

Until that summer, I’d never felt too connected to birds. Most of my avian exposure came in the form of pigeons—rats with wings. Now as I prepared to leave New York, I had feathers and wings on my mind. I was the baby bird of my famly, yes, and I was finally leaving the nest. There was that. And then there was the most recent ayahuasca ceremony I’d sat in, during which I’d sprouted a pair of wings and flown high in the sky, spiraling. As I did, I heard a sweet sister’s voice in the room open up, singing about feathers, flight, freedom.

I landed in Cuzco, acclimated to the altitude, and left on a five-day trek through the Salkantay pass to Machu Picchu. I saw two condors immediately. They appeared day one of the trek, as we cooled beside a glacial lake, glistening every shade of blue and green beneath the snow capped mountains. The condors circled once, twice, then disappeared over a ridge. A thrill stitched through me, stayed with me all through the rest of the trek, like they still circled inside me. Two winged silhouettes.

I needed to get closer.

Three weeks later I arrived in Arequipa. They call it the White City, built as it is from volcanic stone hewn from the three latent volcanoes surrounding it. Mountains were behind me, though. I signed on to a three-day trek down into nearby Colca Canyon. My Lonely Planet told me the canyon was the condor-lover’s Mecca.

At five in the morning, before bringing us to the path we took into the canyon, the van brought my group to the vista known as Cruz del Condor. Here, the guides told us, we would see condors in all their majesty. The lookout point was famous; just below it lived a family of the regal birds. They came out early every morning to soar and hover and feed.

Our van was one of the first to arrive but within a half hour the entire outcropping was swarmed. I couldn’t take more than a few steps without bumping into someone or having to excuse myself while squeezing through. Languages from all over the world bandied back and forth, the Americans always the loudest. Everywhere I turned, there were selfie sticks.

A gasp erupted from the crowd. I jostled my way towards a good vantage point along the edge. There they were: one, two, three, and then a fourth condor. So close I could make out every ripple in every feather. Their beady vulture eyes, their wrinkled bald heads, their talons sharp enough to tear flesh from bone.

They hovered as if by magic. I remembered the book I’d leafed through at an Arequipa coffeeshop: The exceptionally aerodynamic Andean condor can drop off a ledge and soar for two hundred miles before flapping its wings even once. I watched the birds ride unseen currents, then dive towards prey in the canyon far below and out of sight.

I have pictures of these condors. In the pictures all you see is sky, mountains, birds. They are incredible photos, especially because they don’t capture the hundreds of camera clicks and running commentaries. They’ve been cropped so iPhones hoisted high on poles don’t appear in the frame. They don’t convey the sense that Cruz del Condor is some cross between discount admission day at the zoo and an Apple Store’s grand opening in a national park.

Peruvian vendors camped out just above the vista with all their wares spread out: tapestries, jewelry, art, selfie sticks.

Beside me, a tour guide for a different company spoke to one of his customers, who expressed amazement that the condors could be depended upon to come out every morning like this. The guide explained that the condors wouldn’t, really, if not for local members of the tourist bureau who traveled to the bottom of the ravine and threw freshly dead carrion to lure out the birds.

Two mornings later we were mid-way through Colca Canyon. Miguel, our guide, had attached a tinny Bluetooth speaker to his backpack’s shoulder strap. He blasted bachata as we ambled through the sparse, ruddy scenery. I was sour. I drifted farther and farther behind the group. At one of our rest stops, I excused myself to piss behind a hay-color bush.  When the group continued on I lagged behind on purpose, sitting on a sun-bleached log in the middle of the shrub-dotted arroyo, taking a breather. The group disappeared around the next big turn.

Now I was alone. Just me, the desert, and the brutal sun overhead. I closed my eyes, breathed, meditated. I tried to slow down. I’d been moving forward at breakneck speed for weeks. Now the trip was over. I’d return home soon—to an entirely new home. I had no clue what I’d find there, aside from a crash back into reality after the dream of this trip.

I opened my eyes a few minutes later. Panned my vision left and right. Not a soul in sight. I felt a little woozy from sitting with my eyes closed and then opening them to let in so much bright summer sun. I knew I should get back to the group before they got too far ahead.

Something flickered in my upper peripheral vision. I craned my neck, shielding my eyes to see what was overhead.

A lone bird circled above the canyon, hovering as casually as a yawn. Even from this distance, each feather was distinct, like fingers spread evenly apart. In her movement, there was a potent stillness. She was a condor, calm in her power and patient in her hunger. A scavenger omen circling the canyon, circling me. A harbinger of some kind of death. I let go of time and watched her instead, watched her long flight until she disappeared beyond one of the canyon walls. Alone again.

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Summer, 1989

I’m six or seven years old. I’m sitting up in bed. All is dark except for the thin, persistent crack of light crawling underneath the bedroom door; the dining room light falls down across the hallway that connects the apartment’s three bedrooms, and lands where it can taunt me. I hear the din of the TV, and occasionally see the shadows of my sisters’ legs as they pass by my door. I hear my mother’s voice.

Sisters’ legs. Mother’s voice. My family.

It’s past my bedtime, but I’ve been sitting up like this ever since Mommy kissed me on the forehead and wished me good night. The many faces of my nightly stuffed animal soap opera sit arrayed at my feet: tigers and walruses, birds and bears, a seal named Sheala, and a white puppy with a red collar who is my favorite. He gets to star as the villain in most of my epic after-dark sagas.

I don’t have it in me to write an animal story tonight. No tales of derring-do, no rescuing the seal from the pup, no underground (under-the-comforter) lairs and plans to take over the world (bed). I’m too shaken. I sit up against the headboard, drawing my knees up to my chest, staring at the yellow bar of light under the door, focusing on the sounds beyond: mother, sister, cathode-ray.

Anything to forget the chimpanzee’s face.

Earlier, we all watched a movie together. In the movie, two scientists work at a military testing facility that experiments on chimpanzees, putting them in flight simulators. It’s all a sinister front; the chimps are exposed to fatal doses of radiation, such as nuclear bombing pilots might encounter. Cold War cinema.

During a daring escape in the end, a chimp named Goliath sacrifices himself for the freedom of his fellow monkeys, becoming trapped in the testing chamber. There, he is bombarded by lethal doses of radiation. Goliath reaches out, his face twisted in agony. His fingers slide down the thick leaded glass window of the lab as he dies.

Goliath. I can’t get his face out of my mind. And with it comes the rough smell of hay.

Earlier this summer, my father took my sisters and me on a vacation through Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. In Wyoming, we stayed at a dude ranch for a week. We were each assigned a horse. Mine was named Shorty. He was the runt of the bunch. The other horses liked to bully Shorty. As the ranchers pointed out, he had the bite marks on his ass to prove it.

I was skinny and brainy and the locker room at school was weird.

I loved Shorty.

Even when I lost my focus and allowed my legs to bounce too freely against his sides and kicked him into a gallop that tore us ahead of the rest of the group, and I was barely saved from slipping off the saddle and dashing my head on the rocks under his hooves, I loved him.

I was a city boy. We lived in an apartment six flights up in the sky. Wildlife for me consisted of neurotic squirrels, shabby pigeons, and our wise Red Abyssinian cat, Swissie.

Shorty was a real animal.

Sitting up in bed in the dark, the pained face of Goliath gives way to Shorty’s long wise muzzle. His wide eyes. His smell. The scars on his rump. All of him comes flooding back to me.

Goliath’s face and Shorty’s, flickering back and forth.

Shorty beneath my body, between my legs.

Goliath’s fingertips sliding down the glass.

Leaving Wyoming, I thought my four-legged friend and I would be reunited someday. I thought about him all summer long.

Paralyzed, a dim awareness blooms throughout my torso, my arms, my knees hugged so tightly to my chest. Awareness of what, though? It’s something impenetrable, unknowable, vast, stretching out all around me and yet unable to be touched. I know, somehow, that it will always be there. Waiting. Until one day like Shorty and Goliath…

My body tightening, I trace my thoughts like constellations. From one to the next, and then the line draws itself straight into me.

I’ve been alone in my room long enough now that my eyes have adjusted to the darkness. They seize now upon any glint of light they find, grateful for the blessing of the dining room glow writhing under the crack in the door.

A shortness of breath. Trembling hands. And over again, an insistence in the beat of my heart: No, no, no. I don’t want that. I don’t want that.

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Winter, 2017

Bicycling home from writing class, I hung a left onto Skidmore St. and headed west. The street was dark, silent, and rainy. My jeans clung to my legs. Rain dripped down through the slits of my helmet to wet my hair. I was soaked and smiling. I felt relief. I’d been so constricted lately, so serious, so morose. I’d caught my body folding inwards often, and whenever I sat down to write I could feel a clench in my mind to go along with my body’s rigidity. Thanks to class and to companions, tonight felt different.

The street ahead was dead empty. I leaned back off my handlebars and stretched my arms overhead, expanding, then settled them out at my sides with my palms upturned. Raindrops pooled in my hands as I cycled slowly down the middle of the road. I was in no rush.

A shape materialized under a streetlight, loping down the sidewalk towards me.

There’s a dog, I thought.

The distance between us closed some.

That’s not a dog. That’s a coyote.

She looked shaggy but lithe, and she seemed to pad and float all at once. Her body and head moved at different rhythms; her body undulated, wavelike, while her head bobbed left and right, her eyes taking in the street ahead of her until they met mine and locked. Some unseen wire drew taut between us.

I stopped pedaling, coasting forward on momentum, sitting straight up, hands still out in a Jesus Christ pose. Time stretched like an accordion. Even as the distance between us shrunk, I felt as if some greater camera zoomed out on our frame. The coyote stopped padding down the sidewalk and stood still as stone, her body angled towards the street. She watched me, frozen. Not like a deer in headlights or any other anxious, fretful animal. There was strength in her shoulders, sureness in her head and her jaw. Her mouth hung slightly open. Mine did, too.

I felt pierced.

Rain fell, time slowed, and we drew perpendicular, never breaking eye contact. As I pulled up level with her, a shiver ran through me. There should be some ceremony in our breaking eye contact, I thought, but in the end it just came down to physics. I passed her, looked forward, leaned forward, gripped my handlebars and pedaled once again. I didn’t look back. But I could feel eyes on me.

The feeling persisted, and followed me home. Followed me inside. Into the kitchen, into the shower. I carried it with me as I brushed my teeth. I felt it beside me as I crawled into bed. My cat curled up in a ball on top of the quilt, right up against my chest. I looked around my bedroom. We were certainly alone, but there was no shaking it: we were not two, but three. My head sank into the pillow and I buried my fingers in the cat’s soft fur, wondering. I felt stiff.

There was tension in my body. A hardening from head to toe, as if I’d armored myself against something, instinctively. But I didn’t need protection. I understood that. I didn’t feel haunted. It was more a visitation. A lingering kiss. I willed myself to relax, to welcome whatever it was that lay with us in the bed. After all, it clearly wasn’t going anywhere. When I closed my eyes to sleep and to dream, I felt two eyes lining up with mine. The distance between us diminished. Looseness and levity spiraled through my muscles and my mind. Would it still be here in the morning? I couldn’t know. I slept. I dreamed. I unfurled.

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Header image courtesy of Pierre Schmidt. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.