In the Palm of Darkness

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-02-08
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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The quest for an elusive amphibian in the mountains of violence-torn Haiti brings together an unlikely pair of hunters--American herpetologist Victor Grigg and his Haitian guide, Thierry Adrien--whose individual stories unfold and intertwine in a mesmerizing tale of love, sex, and fraternal rivalry; of the propagation and extinction of species in the natural world; and of the mysterious forces of nature that govern the fate of all living creatures.In the Palm of Darkness is a compelling tale that reads like a murder mystery but also reveals a highly sophisticated and refined literary voice.


In the Palm of Darkness
A Novel

Chapter One

Blue Sheep

A Tibetan astrologer told Martha I would die by fire.

I thought of it as soon as Thierry began talking about the feasts of his childhood. It was a gratuitous association, since he was really trying to tell me the name of a fruit he had tasted only once in his life, when he was still a little boy and had suffered an attack of what I think was malaria, and to comfort him his father brought this rare treat to his bed. From the description, I assumed it was a pear. Thierry chuckled quietly: That fruit reminded him of a young girl's flesh, and he had never again held anything like it between his lips.

We were lying in the underbrush and I let him talk a while. It's impossible to keep a man like Thierry quiet for long. We had just recorded the voice of a superb specimen, a tiny frog with a blue abdomen that lets itself be seen only one week during the year, and I was thinking that the joy of having captured the sound helped me to be tolerant. Perhaps it was joy and not the story about the pear that forced me to think of death, my death, and what Martha had been told in Dharmsala. "He said my husband would be burned to death"--I could hear her voice, furious because I had suggested there must have been some misunderstanding--"and as far as I know, you're the only husband I have."

Thierry was still waxing nostalgic about how well you could eat in Jeremie thirty or forty years ago, and I concluded it was pretty ironic for anyone to prophesy that kind of death for me considering how much time I spent submerged in ponds and lagoons, drenched by downpours in swamps, crawling along riverbanks, my mouth full of mud and my eyelids rimmed with mosquitoes. I said as much to Martha.

"That's no guarantee," she replied, happy to contradict me. "A person can burn to death in an airplane, a hotel room, even on a boat, you know, when you're right on the water ..."

Martha brought a coat home from Dharmsala. It was a gift from Barbara, the friend who made the trip with her. It was too coarse for my taste, but she claimed it was made from the wool of the blue sheep, and had I ever heard of that sheep? It was the favorite meal of the snow leopard. I stared at her and she returned my gaze: The coat was the best proof that Martha herself had become Barbara's favorite meal.

When you're in a profession like mine, it's very easy to catch certain signals, identify certain odors, recognize the movements that announce imminent amplexus (the term used for sexual congress between frogs). Martha refused to have me go with her on that trip--years before, when we were first married, we often talked about traveling to India some day--but she didn't say it like that, she calculated first and said it with even greater cruelty, if that's possible: Since I had to fly to Nashville for my conference--she said "your conference"--she'd take off a couple of weeks and travel with her best friend. She avoided mentioning the place they'd be visiting, and I went along with it, swearing to myself I wouldn't ask a single question, and gradually my suspicions were confirmed: by the brochures that suddenly appeared in the house, by a couple of books on the Hindustanic Plate--Barbara is a geologist--and finally by the plane tickets. Martha kept them in her briefcase, then one night decided to take them out and leave them on the big table in the study; she obviously intended me to find them there, look at them without saying a word, and understand. One needs a lot of understanding.

Shortly before Martha left, she told me she had put a list of the hotels where she'd be staying, and the approximate dates, on the computer. She laughed and said she had used the file name "Hindu Voyage," and I pretended I hadn't heard. At the last minute she wouldn't let me go to the airport with her; a friend of Barbara's had offered to take them both, and so we said good-bye at home--that same night I was flying to Nashville--with no insinuations or reproaches. I assumed that any attempt to ask for an explanation would only be humiliating for me.

Thierry often says that the bad thing isn't if a man feels afraid to die, the really bad thing is if a man never thinks about death at all. He doesn't say it in those words, he uses other words, probably better ones. Thierry's eloquence is solemn, profound, almost biblical. When Martha returned, much later than planned, she brought back the blue sheep coat as if it were a trophy, along with a smoldering certainty about the kind of death awaiting me in my present life--she emphasized the phrase "your present life." Then I realized that during the whole time we had been separated, the possibility that she was somehow leaving me had never entered my mind. Just to be polite, she asked about the response to my paper, but I didn't have a chance to answer, there was an interruption, a telephone call for her. She talked briefly and came back, even felt obliged to try a second time: How did it go in Nashville?

The idea for this expedition had, in fact, surfaced in Nashville, but I didn't tell her so. A few hours before I was due to leave for home, I had received a dinner invitation, a white card with an engraved drawing of a small gray frog: Professor Vaughan Patterson, the eminent Australian herpetologist, would expect me at eight at the Mere Bulles restaurant, and would I please be punctual.

I was so flattered that I did something extraordinary: I rummaged through my suitcase to see if I had a clean shirt and jacket. At seven sharp I walked out of the hotel and started down Commerce Street, which leads directly to Second Avenue, right across from the restaurant. It was a short distance, it wouldn't take me more than fifteen or twenty minutes, but I wanted to be there before Patterson arrived. He was known as an impatient man with a short temper and sheer contempt for colleagues who talked to him about anything but amphibians. Yet all of them would have fought for the privilege of sitting at his table. Patterson was the greatest living authority on everything having to do with the African anurans; his work with the Tasmanian axolotl was legendary, and he boasted of keeping alive, when the species was already considered extinct, the last specimen of Taudactylus diurnus, sole survivor of the colony that he himself had bred in his laboratory in Adelaide.

When I walked into the restaurant, forty minutes early, Patterson was already there. He smiled timidly, you might almost say sadly, congratulated me on my paper, and offered me a seat beside him. I noticed that he had skin like cellophane, and frail, small, rather stiff hands. With one of them he began to draw on his napkin. I watched him become engrossed in sketching a frog, he didn't even look up when the waiter brought his drink. Eleutherodactylus sanguineus he wrote in small letters when he was finished, framing the name between the animal's paws. He handed me the drawing.

In the Palm of Darkness
A Novel
. Copyright © by Mayra Montero. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from In the Palm of Darkness: A Novel by Mayra Montero
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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